From Silos to Collaboration: Following up with Sonia
As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a strange and new ally — our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.”
-Margaret Wheatley; Turning to One Another
Margaret Wheatley’s words are often easier said than done. How do we create spaces to be disturbed? Where can they happen safely in our schools for our leaders and educators? How can letting go of our certainty create a culture of learning?
During our December webinar, we embraced these questions by lifting up and inviting you all to engage in our key practice of Public Learning alongside Oakland Unified School District Computer Science teacher Sonia Spindt.
Public Learning is a practice that shifts the way educators learn together by centering the conversation not on “what I have done” but “what I am uncertain about.” The practice is about making meaning together about what is best for students by acknowledging the complexity of teaching and learning by cultivating curiosity between colleagues about students.
On December 15th, Sonia let go of her certainty and brought some student data to the table from her Computer Science class along with her curiosity to understand the experience of her students. There were so many amazing wonderings and observations posed that we ran out of time for Sonia to address them all so we circled back with Sonia to hear what she had to say and more importantly, what she is thinking now.
Lead by Learning: Thanks for letting us ask you a few more questions as we know teachers are very busy, especially at the start of a new semester, so let’s get to it. A lot of our audience members loved your data, the video of your student talking through a computer science problem in real time as a way to understand their thinking. And many of our listeners were also curious about other ways students can show their thinking and other tools you have used or have thought about using that might help make the thinking visible to the student themselves.
Sonia: This is a great question that I have only just begun thinking about. In previous interviews with students, I did not provide them with anything beyond the question prompt. I wanted to make sure that students were engaging in a style of thinking and problem solving that felt authentic and natural. I was hoping that students would be able to make their thinking obvious in whatever way felt good to them, but I learned that this (unsurprisingly) fell short for many students. This makes me wonder about the scaffolds that I can create for these interviews that gives all students a way to make their thinking visible without forcing them to do something that conflicts with their thought process. I thought a very bare-bones table might be this resource, but as you can see in the student interview, it was not used. I think this further highlights how students with different skills may engage with these tools; the student seen in the video is advanced, and does not feel like she needs the table provided. I don’t know what this looks like for students who have a less concrete knowledge of program execution — it may really help them! I think I also need to really think about how I prompt and guide students throughout their interviews. It’s possible that my line of questioning could also be really important when it comes to accessing the insights that students have along the way.
Lead by Learning: Well it seems like there are lots of possible next steps you are thinking about and we are excited to hear what you find out, which brings us to another question. It seems that even though you were interviewing your student you were also hoping that they would record their thinking through writing. Do you think your student shares your sense of purpose around the written aspect of “showing their work?”
Sonia: If I have learned anything through my years in Lead by Learning, students rarely share the same sense of purpose as their instructors. So my guess to this question is no. Before each interview begins, I let my interviewee know why I need their help but I’m not sure that it translates into them being more motivated to complete the written response section of the interview. It’s very possible that I should rework the script I follow when talking to students in these interviews so that they understand this purpose a bit more deeply. Off the top of my head, I feel like I should include more directions on how students should think aloud and describe the ways in which it is easiest for me to make sense of the data later on. I have to be really intentional about this change though because I want to make sure that I don’t override a system that feels more appropriate to my student.
Lead by Learning: We love those insights Sonia. Another listener zoomed in even more on your student in the video and wanted to know what role you feel nervousness might play in the data or in what ways it may affect the data you are receiving?
Sonia: I hadn’t thought about this at all! It does feel like something that could be really important to consider though. I think that mindset can really color how students engage in computer science coursework. One component of that mindset that constantly stands out to me in the classroom is something I call “perceived success”, which is really enhanced or harmed when peer attitudes and opinions are made obvious to said student (i.e. a student will feel more capable if they hear their peers’ praise their work, etc.). This sensation might be especially heightened when one’s peer is an instructor because a student may conflate our assumptions about their abilities with outcomes in class; I still feel this way when I’m talking to engineers who are more advanced than me! How does one curb this nervousness though? My mind immediately thinks to remove myself from the equation by providing students with an asynchronous way of completing these interviews but that means I have to be really thoughtful in how I construct the resources that they fill out along the way because I won’t be there to jump in with guided questions.
Lead by Learning: It wouldn’t be a Lead by Learning conversation without this last question so we had to add it in. What are you thinking now? And how are you hoping to find out more in the new semester?
Sonia: So much! I want to focus my efforts on developing a new script I can follow when interviewing students that reinforces my desire for students to continually expose what they are thinking (whether it’s writing or speaking). I also wonder if it is possible to include a new section in this script that asks students to reflect on how they are feeling prior to them answering the question. Are they nervous? Excited? Nonchalant? With this information, I might be able to quell some of their fears while also cementing some of the purpose I need to guide the think-aloud itself. It also feels like a great way to gather some information regarding CS identity and its impact on computational ability.
I’m hoping to find out more this semester by continuing my student interviews and continuing my meetings with colleagues! I think the latter is especially important to maintain in the new semester because this is one of the few times where my assumptions can be challenged and my blindspots highlighted. Without questions like the ones asked above, I would not have been able to see all of these wonderful next steps. This is snowballing into such a juicy project! I can’t wait to learn more.
If you missed our webinar, a free recording is found here on our website.