Back in 2011, I read the book A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. In it, they used the phrase “whitewater learning” to describe how technology is changing how our children play, access information, communicate with each other, and learn therefore leading to a new kind of learning environment. They define this whitewater learning as the ability to acquire useful knowledge and skills while at the same time practicing them in an environment that is constantly changing and presenting new challenges. Back in 2011, this concept was hard for me to picture. Now, living through a global pandemic with the challenge of educating students face-to-face and virtually simultaneously, caring not only for academic needs remotely but social, emotional, and physical needs as well, I can more clearly see why they argued that our learning environments need to match the speed and degree of change happening in the world around us. I am proud of how resilient WC has been to navigate these whitewaters by keeping students at the center of our decision-making and response despite our current skill sets, infrastructure, financial reality, fears, and resources. I know that we are not just on a “pause” in our school system and everything is going to go back to the way it was pre-COVID. Learning to navigate this whitewater and explore possibilities is helping to lay more groundwork for defining what our future will be.
In A New Culture of Learning, a key component of the “whitewater learning” was the concept of Learning Networks, another concept I didn’t fully understand back in 2011. They described learning taking place beyond the traditional school building in “networks.” They envisioned these networks as a “web of environments” that included libraries, afterschool programs, homes, museums, community centers, online resources such as podcasts, blogs, social networks, open educational resources, broadband connections, etc…while using a wide range of devices like smartphones, laptops, and wearable devices. Often when technology gets mentioned in this type of educational conversation, some jump to the conclusion that people are less important in these kinds of environments. Thomas and Brown emphasize that people play critical roles in this learning network – inspiring, guiding, and protecting students’ learning. Teachers, parents, and caregivers have vital roles that they play together to provide quality education. Never have we understood the significance of what this means as we do now living through a pandemic. All students need families, educators, and communities closely linked together all doing their part. It has forced us to expand and integrate learning beyond the walls of our schools and beyond traditional school hours. As a district, we know we must look forward and cannot hold onto the past. Navigating this whitewater over the last several months has led our district leadership team to ask questions about the learning environments that we will be exploring for next year and beyond.
- Our kindergarten enrollment is down for the 2020-21 school year. What will be the impact of those students starting school next year? Will there be classroom student-to-teacher ratio challenges? Space issues? Or is it just an outlier year?
- Throughout the year about 2,000 WC K-12 students attended the West Clermont Online Academy (WCOA) for a period of time. Will this trend continue and will this option still be important for families in the post-COVID era? What will learning beyond the walls of the school look like in the future?
- How will new neighborhoods and developments be built throughout the district impact enrollment in each elementary school? Will it be balanced or will there be outliers?
- Since 2017, our enrollment was increasing by about 150 students each year. This year’s overall enrollment is down. Will it rebound next year?
- How will WC continue to raise the bar and close the learning gap for all students with our current level of time in the day for teacher planning/collaboration, and professional learning and resources?
- What types of roles and skills will we need to have in the future to be more responsive to the diverse learning and social/emotional needs of our students who have had gaps in their experience?
- What type of additional programming can we provide to help support learning loss?
- How will we continue to support the 1:Wolf (device for every student K-12) technology initiative expansion?
We will be working with the Board of Education and our staff to answer these questions as we plan for this year and beyond. There are many unknowns, but if we have learned anything from leading through this pandemic, we can overcome unknowns when students are at the center, the staff is supported and family and community are full-fledged partners in the educational process. Together as one community, We Learn. Lead. Succeed.