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Learning When Leading PD: Concept-Based Learning

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Wrapping up Wisdom in Education Summit 2018
Julia Briggs, Ben Reeves, Angeline Aow, J. Raphael Angel, Julie Stern and thecuriouscoach

I’m on a flight back home to South Africa after joining a group of great presenters in Melbourne, Australia for a Summit based around Concept-Based Learning. One of the issues of being a #coach and leading #PD sessions is that you often feel like you don’t get to learn alongside your colleagues, so I’m making sure I reflect on those thoughts I had during the summit when not thinking about what I was going to share.

That said, I am a nerd: I love myself a weekend of learning with bright, passionate teachers. It’s soul food for my brain. And being at a conference like this one where the presenters are all bringing a bunch of practical, start-tomorrow stuff is my kind of buffet. Each of them are [Lynn Erickson] #CBL -trained and had me thinking about my journey with learning through concepts, and how I support teachers to take it on. Here’s the thing: I’m not a purist, and I’m good with that. But this last venture with some real enthusiasts have given me more food for thought and some enhancements I’d like to make to the model I’m driving right now.

Some things I’m doing that I feel good about:

  • Bringing teachers together across disciplines and grade levels through concepts is a smart move. If we can shift conversations that our teachers have to the work they do through the lens of macro-concepts we can cast a wider, more efficient net over our precious meeting time. We can talk student work, assessment, planning and alignment – all at once, and all together. It’s not quite world peace, but it is a step closer to meeting time that is meaningful and centred around student learning.

  • I am honouring our teachers and our curricular responsibilities. I do this by mining the concepts from standards, benchmarks and criteria. It takes practice, and the role I play in supporting that process allows teachers to talk out their passions around their units of work and see meaning in the curriculum through the concepts that surface.

  • Being an advocate for, and strategically promoting the work around concepts that teachers are doing is leading to connections that teachers would struggle to make on their own because of time. How many teachers can afford to trawl around in ATLAS or Managbac looking for links to other work in the school? Being a coach means I can use that knowledge I have of how and what is being taught and grab at opportunities to invite others on board. Teachers are starting to get excited about what others are planning and teaching, and wanting to get in on the action.

  • Being the lone nut and knowing those who join me are actually the leaders. These teachers stand with me and make it their own. In his TED talk How to start a movement, Derek Sivers explains that the early adopters (he calls them first followers) are an underappreciated form of leadership that "transform the lone nut into a leader". They have the courage to take an idea and make it come to life, and that is just what coaching is about. I work with some inspiring people who have allowed me to share their journey into concept-based learning and showcasing those relationships and the moves they are making really motivates me. It is these people who give me the opportunity to grow as a coach.

  • I’m meeting people where they are. The result of this is a wide range of applications that evidence how shifting the focus to concepts enhances planning, pedagogy, teacher-teacher, teacher-student and student-student relationships, and learning for everyone.

  • Being transparent in my work. Acknowledging challenges and barriers are an important step to change that feels safe, supportive and respectful. Being open to the devils’ advocate (and even allocating that role when working with teams) is a doorway to new thinking and unearths new ways to reach our shared goals.

Some things I’m going to enhance:

  • Naming those micro concepts more often. I work up in the macro concepts, which is justifiable in my role, but I think I can do better at digging deep as well as reaching wide. This is another place I can shine a light on teachers’ expertise, so I need to be more purposeful at drawing out these micro concepts during coaching sessions.

  • Connecting with specialists in CBL. I sometimes feel like because I am not a purist I will offend the ‘ideal’ by reshaping it for my context. I have also felt like I know what I need in order support the work I do now, in my current context. I’m writing the following statement realising I said it to a colleague only a few months ago about a different PD opportunity: deciding not to learn about something because it doesn’t fully align with our context sounds a lot like nurturing ignorance. The more I know and understand, the more I fortify my own values and beliefs, and can make plans that align to these with my eyes wide open. I need to practice what I preach on this one. (Look out fellow presenters, I’ll be in contact soon!)

A final enhancement I’ll be making is born of a serendipitous moment I had on Friday. I am going to tack it to my monitor when I get back to the office.

I was chatting to my best friend on the phone before the Summit started; she lives in Australia and it was a rare chance to talk in the same time zone. We were talking about the relationship between opportunity and fear, and she said, “You know what, Fi? Everyone goes on about learning to say ‘No’. I think we should say ‘Yes’. Say it to everything. What growth ever comes of saying ‘No?’”. Two hours later I was chewing the fat with Jeff Robin of High Tech High and Project-based Learning fame and he said the exact same thing – no lie. You’ll forgive me I’m sure for dipping my toe into superstition, but I’m thinking this is a sign I can’t ignore, and one that can only help me grow for the better.

Am I going to do it?


Considering I came to share my expertise this weekend, I look back on this blog and realise just how much learning was in it for me. As a coach it reminds me that I need to embrace moments where I am leading as moments of learning, too.

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