“Welcome to the Cognitosphere!”

No, that’s not the Pink Floyd LP you just discovered at the bottom of your uncle’s dusty LP collection, but rather the conceptual framework that education change-maker Grant Lichtman uses to describe the world of interconnected information in which all of us, and especially our students, live. Lichtman energized the 2015 North American Jewish Day School Conference with his systems approach to understanding what we do, coupled with a liberal dose of classic progressive educational philosophy à la John Dewey. In a dynamic keynote address he shared his observations of numerous schools, some of which are transforming pedagogy to empower their students to learn and participate meaningfully in the Cognitosphere, while others fear innovation and plod along with teacher-centered, conventional schooling, alienating their students along the way.

In addition to the many interesting one-on-one conversations I had while chatting informally with school leaders from across the country, I learned a lot at the conference sessions I attended. Three quick highlights:

Vivian, who literally wrote the book on instructional rounds in teaching, pointed out that “Teaching is the only profession that still operates in isolation,” and suggested that rounds are a way for teachers to develop relationships with each other built around student learning. This is in contrast to the ‘culture of nice’ where teachers are superficially polite but don’t trust each other enough to give meaningful feedback. Marc complimented her sharing of the goals and vision of teaching rounds with a systems thinking exercise. Defining the problem as “we don’t seem to be able to consistently and continually improve teaching quality at the rate we want to,” session participants identified assumptions and beliefs behind different interpretations of what was happening and then dug deeply to uncover new ways to understand the problem. My group focused on school hiring processes, and how the articulation of a school’s vision of teaching excellence at every stage of hiring can impact teacher development over time.

The Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in downtown Philadelphia, was founded a decade ago by Chris Lehmann in partnership with The Franklin Institute. Despite the name, the school’s inquiry-driven approach is much broader than science content knowledge. Students take four core core courses in their freshman year: engineering, art, drama, and technology. These courses teach the students the foundational skills they need to participate fully in their project-based learning and contribute meaningfully to their community and the world. Touring the school was fascinating. Most significantly, I was struck by the pedagogical consistency throughout the school. It is clear that the school is driven by a powerful vision, and much thoughtful work has gone into aligning the implementation of the school mission. Hallways are plastered with documents explaining the five core values – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection, and every student I spoke to reflected these values when they explained not just what they were learning, but why they were doing so.

This session was one of the featured ‘Uncommon Conversation’ sessions taking place throughout the conference, but this conversation on challenging the dominant paradigms in day school education was particularly unique because it inspired honest exploration of taboo topics in Jewish day schools – such as our field-wide failures to really teach American Jews to speak Hebrew or to accommodate all learners who want a day school education. The significance of this conversation was made clear by the standing-room only crowd that piled into the conference room, even after Cannon’s warning that anyone stuck on defending the status quo was not welcome. More significant than any particular topic discussed, the real impact of this session was the networking that occurred and the conversations that will continue amongst passionate educators.

One final note – I am deeply appreciative that I was able to participate in this conference thanks to sponsorship from the DeLeT Alumni Network. Experiencing this conference alongside fellow DeLeT alum, DeLeT faculty and the many FoD’s (friends of DeLeT) created a space for teacher-leaders at this conference. I think we have much to contribute to the national conversation in our field, even if ‘teacher’ was not option to click when registering for this conference.

 

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