Sharing the responsibility for learning

Sharing the Responsibility for Learning.

I had the privilege to present at the On the Rise K-12 Digital Learning Conference two weeks ago. It was a privilege for me to meet so many educators whose focus and commitment are to provide rich learning environments and opportunities for all of our students. Though we discussed technology and digital resources, we focused on how learning is changing and how we leverage technology and digital resources to support this change.

My presentation focused on the following five areas:

A vision of our students
The culture in classrooms schools and Boards
Understanding learning differently
Grappling with 21st century skills and implementation issues
Innovation, Improvement and creativity

I wish to offer a few key reflections here on the first two areas of focus, and my next post will focus on the remaining three areas of focus.


I have been influenced by the work of Thomas and Brown (2011) “A New Culture of Learning”. In fact my executive council in Hamilton-Wentworth is using this book to deepen our own understanding and practice. Thomas and Brown state in this book “students learn best when they are able to follow their passion and operate within the constraints of a bounded environment”. This quote is meaningful to me as we think about our students because sometimes people believe that innovation and creativity in learning somehow means that there are no parameters to this process. I would argue like Thomas and Brown do, that we need to provide focus and expectations for student learning but not so much focus that they are forced to follow the teacher’s prescribed course of action. Our vision for educating our students needs to include knowing our students, engaging our students, serving our students and learning from our students. This vision changes a traditional model of teaching and learning, but the change demands intentional planning and decision-making on the part of the teacher, assisting students to follow their passion and increase their learning in a context that is “bounded enough” but still responsive to each student. Our vision for students changes how we think about learning.


The culture of our classrooms, schools and Boards is significant as we think about how we help our students achieve. Is the culture where you are learning and teaching one that supports risk-taking? Is there evidence that change is welcomed? Is there less power, authority and control in this culture and more collaboration, cooperation and shared leadership? An effective learning environment needs these qualities. Professionals need to be supported in the same type of learning environment.

In Hamilton-Wentworth, we talk about creating an Intelligent-Responsive system. This type of system provides clear direction that guides our work , but this guidance supports rather than hinders creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. In other words we are supporting an effective learning culture, by providing the “bounded environment” that Thomas and Brown speak about. An intelligent-responsive system provides clarity to those matters that really should not distract us, so that we can focus on helping our students achieve. For example, an intelligent- responsive system gives clear direction about operational matters so that educators can engage in a process of collaborative inquiry to serve our students better. This collaborative inquiry stems from what teachers determine students need, not what the system may direct.

As a system we expect that all staff will engage in learning teams focusing on a significant challenge or question related to student learning. We expect them to make effective instructional decisions and reflect collaboratively on how students achieved. We expect staff to determine the evidence they will use to show that their students are improving. This is the key to an intelligent -responsive system. There is a clear direction that all staff will engage in this process. It is the responsibility of the grade team, department or staff to determine the focus and the evidence. All central office resources support this focus and offer their support in the context of what the schools determine they need. School leaders are trained to facilitate this process so that all staff are engaged in an authentic learning experience based upon their students’ needs.

The result of this process is shared ownership at school level for student learning and staff capacity building as opposed to prescription coming from the centre.

Michael Fullan states in his recent book “Stratosphere” (2013), “If theories of action do not include the harder questions-Under what conditions will continuous improvement happen and How do we change cultures?- they are bound to fail. ” I would argue that in order to insure continuous improvement for our students, then the cultures where teaching and learning happen, have to continuously change! For those who like things to remain the same, education may not be the appropriate field.

My two closing thoughts:

Our focus must be on each student. Educators learn from their students as much as they learn from us.

The culture in classrooms schools and Boards must promote risk-taking, a willingness to make mistakes and authentic collaboration in order for learning to occur.

Though change may be challenging, educators are being invited to share the responsibility for learning with their students as opposed to believing they need to do everything themselves. Though it may be hard at first to share this responsibility, it is the only way for our students to succeed.

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2 Responses to Sharing the responsibility for learning

  1. Sue Dunlop says:

    Thanks for your post, John. I think fear of being wrong and fear of failure can curtail many efforts to integrate new learning. We must absolutely promote risk taking and also truly believe that it is OK to fail, and sometimes fail spectacularly. We need to support staff as they work through these challenges. One way is for staff to see their leaders doing the same work and being OK with failure as a way to learn.


    • John Malloy says:

      I agree……I wonder why we have this belief that “learning from what does not work” is a negative thing? I bet there are systemic messages we send without even knowing it that promote this idea that we cannot “fail” in the context of our learning….


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