When you think of the word “network,” what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Maybe you’re thinking of the television network that you turn to for the news every night, or a telephone network that charges you too much for monthly data usage. Perhaps you’re even thinking about “network” as a verb, such as the act of exchanging business cards with somebody to stay in touch with them.
Following the American Youth Policy Forum’s (AYPF) recent webinar, “How States Use Professional Networks to Spread Deeper Learning,” the definition of network mirrors the latter, with professionals in the deeper learning space sharing knowledge on how to improve the field. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) created the spark for this discussion by having “state leaders collaborate in learning communities to implement policies and improve practices to support historically underserved students,” specifically through deeper learning, an initiative promoted and funded by the Hewlett Foundation. The states who led this work through the CCSSO recognized the power of collaboration by sharing innovative ideas and policies with each other.
AYPF’s webinar consisted of presenters from three states, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Idaho, and their recent efforts to utilize their professional networks to spread deeper learning to their own communities, districts, and across state lines. All three states are taking steps to advance their networks, with differing levels of policy support and funding.
Kristina Catanese, a program consultant in the Division of Innovation with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), detailed how the Kentucky Innovation Lab Network (KY ILN) is using an “Areas of Interest Directory” to bolster their districts’ network. Within this directory, school districts identify elements of education or personalized learning that they are interested in. They can then see and contact other districts that are interested in similar topics. Districts in the KY ILN participate in a variety of activities during the school year that connect them with other schools. These include monthly Skype meetings and in-person convenings to share best practices for advancing and scaling deeper learning.
However, the KDE doesn’t require schools to adopt a specific strategy. “I consider the network to be by and for the districts,” Catanese said. The KDE simply provides assistance through organizing these meetings. Additionally, the KDE provides travel grants that schools can use to visit other schools that have been successful in developing personalized learning to continue to expand their network.
“I consider the network to be by and for the districts.”
Arkansas, similar to Kentucky in that they have limited funding to support the spread of deeper learning, has taken different steps to develop their network. Denise Airola and Crystal Beshears from the Office of Innovation for Education (OIE) at the University of Arkansas discussed how the OIE and the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) are using schools of innovation (SOIs) that “transform teaching and learning,” to share opportunities for student-focused learning with other schools and districts in Arkansas.
ADE and OIE use a grassroots approach to spread innovation, harnessing the local wisdom of Arkansas schools and the power of a national network of innovators. One approach is an annual Innovation Summit for educators interested in spreading student-focused learning. The summit encourages attendees to connect and learn from one another around shared problems of practice and allows OIE to highlight innovative practices, from across the state and nation. A second part of the grassroots movement, modeled after AYPF study tours, has involved the implementation of study tours at SOIs where school leaders are able to see what innovative schools are doing successfully. Through reallocating funds within schools, teachers can use professional learning credits to learn more about deeper learning and how to implement it in their classrooms.
Idaho has developed several policies, including funding, that support a mastery education network. Kelly Brady, the Director of Instructional Support for Student-Centered Learning from the Idaho State Department of Education (ISDE), discussed that through House Bill #110 (2015), House Bill #458 (2016), and the Idaho Administrative Procedures Act awarding credit waiver, Idaho is firmly set to scale deeper learning for the foreseeable future. Through these policies, Idaho created a mastery education network (IMEN) that is open to all schools/districts. The IMEN, which includes a variety of schools, allows for biannual meetings among members and the opportunity for professional development through a needs-based system.
Through the ISDE, there are four levels of support that IMEN schools must go through to scale deeper learning. These steps involve exploration, planning and design, implementation, and sustainability and scaling. The last step is a crucial part of Idaho policy where the plan that is developed must be sustainable and scalable.
Regardless of the level of funding or policy support, there are steps state education agencies (SEAs) can consider taking to support professional networks that can scale deeper learning. Catanese, Airola, Beshears, and Brady recommended several steps to improve professional networks:
- Try to have a facilitator, either someone from higher education or the state level, who can oversee all of the school districts. Every state’s department of education should have a person to encourage participation and communication between districts, especially to spread deeper learning.
- Capitalize on local interests and efforts to spread deeper learning and networks. By nurturing and supporting engaged individuals, that spark spreads to others. “It really does generate its own little interest network right there in place within a particular area within the state,” Airola said. Encouraging informal connections made between interested individuals creates a sustainable local community.
- Listen to students. They know how they learn best, and to ignore them or view their concerns as lesser than state policies or funding would be nonsensical. Instead, listen to their stories and experiences that they’ve encountered so far and try to improve what is working well for students via deeper learning.
- Maintain a clear communication plan across the state. Keeping a consistent message is more likely to result in consistent outcomes for all involved.
- “Support all stakeholders. From the boards to the parents, to the leaders to the students, and then finally the teachers,” Brady said. By hearing their concerns and needs, help can be provided to remedy any problems that might arise.
No matter what you initially chose to define a network as, spreading and developing any network improves communication, collaboration, and messaging. If your news provider expands their coverage of topics, more stories are presented and a wider audience is reached. If that overpriced telephone network improves their 4G internet coverage to rural areas, equal opportunity and access now reaches almost all Americans. And if state departments of education and districts improve their professional networks, deeper learning can be provided to a greater number of children. Kentucky, Arkansas, and Idaho have taken tremendous steps to do so, but there remains an uphill climb to provide deeper learning for all. Will you join the movement and help take the deeper learning network to the next level?