Free Range Learning. Action Dialogue with Dawn Isaacs, Head of School.

Dawn Isaacs is Head of Beginning and Lower Schools at the progressive K-12 Catlin Gabel school.  Dawn is well-versed in emerging research and knowledgeable about a wide variety of innovative educational practices. We talk about her support of teachers throughout the school in action research.

Hilary: I know you’re leading your school with regards to a deeper dive into experiential education and action research. I find this thrilling. The more younger children are exposed to action research the better, right. Opps, I may be a bit biased. What do you find is particularly holding your attention these days?

Dawn:  I’m working to get a fly wheel going with generative energy to deepen our practice around experiential learning and action research. We convened a new Ed Lab team of teachers to work on the action research side of things.

Hilary: How is that going?

Dawn: They are the early adopters and their engagement helps us see what the roadblocks are. Our focus is on  opening up our work as teachers; giving more fluidity to our work. I like your term liberating knowledge creation. That’s what we are up to.

Hilary I sometimes feel that schoolteachers have a model of Action Research that can be overly rigid. Also too teacher centric.

Dawn: A lot of our conversation has been around how to increase the fluidity of the process and have teachers feel more relaxed and in their own skin and at the same time holding to a high quality process.

Hilary: A quick question, as I don’t know how to gauge it.  How innovative is it for your school to take on deepening experiential learning and connecting it to action research?

Dawn: I think experiential learning is often thought about in certain particular domains, that are by their nature more experiential, like outdoor education or robotics but less in domains that are thought of as just being more cerebral like mathematics or history. So it’s innovative to bring it to the more abstract domains of say a math program or science. In our first action research projects we had teachers from the math and science departments engaging their students in the question of what is generative assessment in these courses.

Hilary: I’m happy to hear this.  I was just talking with somebody coming out of a very reputable school of education, degree in hand and has never heard of action research. Pity. Which makes me curious about your own experience of learning and being an educator.

Dawn:  I had a very traditional US public school education. That system worked well for me. I was a good student. As in I was a good girl. I followed the rules. I always loved going to school. I did well. As an adult I began to see how narrow and limiting this system really was. It’s now commonly referred to as a factory model of education. Nowadays I want more critical thinking and expansion of world view for our children.

Hilary: Does anything particularly stand out in this shift from factory model to your feeling something else is now possible?

Dawn: I developed a vision for what I want education to be for children in the United States. Closing the discrepancy between what remains the experience for most children and this vision is my work. I think education can be more beneficial.

Hilary:  Say more about your vision.

Dawn: It’s a vision in which schools  recognize the potential that humans have within themselves and are working to develop structures that help draw out that potential. Speaking from a constructivist position, we’re recognizing that humans need to have experiences from which they can construct their own understandings and then have the opportunity to transfer and apply it in different ways in their world. This means children are developing a stronger sense of self and have agency and have knowledge of who they are as a learner. It will be a great service for them throughout their lives as they continue to need to invent themselves and become who they are. Modern life, I don’t think, allows us to be static, right?

Hilary: You’re preparing your young people for lifelong learning. Lucky students.  How do you think about experience as an experiential educator?

Dawn: We work with the experiences that are naturally occurring in the social dynamics of the students. And I think then our role as educators is to be watchful for the ones that can further learning or further opportunity and then engage children in reflection around those. There needs to be some natural provocation and then engagement that comes from the educator as well.

Hilary: I could talk to you forever about that. Personal experience is the key to experiential learning and therefore to action research. Sounds simple, but it’s rather a mystery how best to learn from experience.  But let me stay focused and ask you how your school, a progressive K-12 finds synergy with AR+. Yours is the first  K-12 system to reach out to us. And as we talk I start to think, OMG the K-12 system may well be the key foundation for a learning society!

Dawn: It’s great to connect with AR+.  Independent schools like ours can suffer from from our own success, such as our alumni success. We need to be outward looking and in conversations that are wider.  We know we can’t be static or silo’ed.

Hilary:  I see a learning relationship between your school and other learning institutions in AR+ could be mutually useful. What do you see as a good point of connection?

Dawn: Action research can be perceived as a bit of an amorphous process. And so helping us to be able to make visible our thinking, and our work and the impact of it, is the big benefit. We’re finding that the teachers who were early adopters with  action research in their classrooms this school year have felt a large personal transformation in the ways that they’re approaching their teaching practice. The impact has been within individual teachers. And it’s difficult to share out in a way that’s easily understood. If we’re connected with other organizations that are engaged in similar work, it might help.

Hilary:  Would you consider your organization joining us at the Chalmers Gathering in March 2019?

Dawn:  Yes, I think it would be valuable to be in relationship with other organizations who are doing similar work.  I am curious what others do around some of my tension points. We want our work articulated in a way that key stakeholders can easily digest and be able to understand the value of what we are up to.

Hilary: It has to be able to travel, right?  I see the Ed lab in action. They seem great. Do you think they’re getting what they need from engaging in action research?

Dawn:  The Ed lab team members see how things have transformed for themselves from doing their own action research projects. So I don’t think the team itself has question around the value. But the ways in which we’re communicating that to broader constituencies,  it’s not so smooth.

Hilary What thrills me as I hear what you are up to is the space you give to teachers and they give to students for what matters most to them in learning. This is way beyond the factory. Free range learning, happy learners!

Dawn I will follow up with you on how to take things forward. For now thanks so much.

Hilary Take good care. Bye. Bye.

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