Learning for all

I’m a firm believer in learning equity, the idea that everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from and what they bring to the learning table, should have an equal opportunity to learn.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we all learn the same thing (nor should it), and it also doesn’t necessarily mean that all learning situations will be home runs or slam dunks (or touchdowns or goals) for each of us.

But, the potential should be there for us to take tremendous learning out of every situation we experience.

As an educator who spends most of his time serving adult learners, I’m constantly considering how to design professional learning that emphasizes learning equity. Surprisingly (or maybe not so), much of what we can do to level the playing field for adults, also applies to our youngest learners. While the list of potential steps we can take is long, here are four equity emphasizers we can employ when designing professional learning.

Value time. Everyone arrives at a professional learning session with baggage. Some of it is light; some of it is heavy. And for some, the amount of baggage they are carrying is visible to those others attending, and to the facilitator as well. In the time we have to learn with each other, we have to provide an environment that helps people forget their baggage. And to do that, we have to value time, because we can only forget what is happening outside of our learning, when we know that we can get back to it at a mutually agreed upon time. Never underestimate the value of an agenda; starting and ending on time shows people that not only does their learning matter, but their lives do as well.

Consider cost. In designing professional learning, I always have cost in the back of my mind. Clearly our agency need to cover the cost of those who will be facilitating the learning and handle all the internal fees that we encounter (food, room space, IT support, etc.). Those costs must be balanced with the potential cost of districts with fewer resources not being able to afford an enrollment charge. The goal of all the professional learning that our agency holds is to make it accessible to every educator, in every district. Sometimes this means making hard choices and not building a certain workshop if the numbers will be too challenging for some to afford. And at other times, it involves difficult conversations with experts around their requested costs, and potential negotiations to make accessing their expertise easier for all. Whether designing professional learning regionally or in a school or district, cost can be either the great equalizer or the great divider.

Mold meaning. While the research on learning styles seems to trend towards their lack of true existence, no one can argue with learning style leanings. The idea here is that while the research might say that we don’t learn best using any one modality or frame, internally, we still often feel drawn to one method, which makes us feel more comfortable, and sometimes makes us more likely to take risks. With that in mind, learning sessions can never have just one structure or form, and our facilitators of learning must be comfortable “style shifting” over the course of the session to allow those they are working with to experience both the styles they love and those they don’t. Equity of learning also means equity of styles, regardless of what the research might say. The key? We should incorporate as many lenses to engage in learning as we can, so that everyone in attendance has the opportunity to work in a manner that they enjoy.

Turn up the volume. All learners have a voice, and in designing professional learning, we have to turn up the volume so all voices are heard. Whether via surveys, direct conversations, group meetings, or other opportunities, those who will be engaged in the learning need to be able to share what worked (or what will work) for them. While we often think of equity for the present, we also have to consider it into the future. Hearing from those who have already participated, or will be participating in learning can also help us come to understand what is needed to balance the learning needs of those we serve.

Whether we’re designing a workshop for a roomful of first grade teachers or designing a lesson for a room full of first graders, we always want to make sure we can reach everybody. Equity isn’t about an equal end result, but rather an even starting line. If all are to be able to succeed, then everyone has to be able to learn.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book,Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.

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