Metaphors are frequently used in education to explain a concept, to aid in the understanding of new ideas, and for clarifying complex frameworks, systems, and so on. Teachers naturally use metaphors to make new and unfamiliar concepts more meaningful to learners by connecting what is already known to what is being learned. The role of a teacher itself has been likened to being a coach, juggler, artist, and gardener. Because we attach value to the metaphors that matter to us most, it’s critical that those metaphors are appropriate and sit comfortably with us.
For many years I have been uncomfortable with the metaphor of professional learning as a journey, especially when it was claimed by one on behalf of others, working in a team, school, or centre. Who is making the decisions about the destination? Who is in the driver’s seat? Who is navigating? I imagine there are educators on a professional learning journey going along for the ride, without any control over the direction, any opportunity for a personal destination, and with little ownership of the steps or stops along the way. I prefer a metaphor that convinces me that I have control over my own professional learning, and at the same time enables me to deal with the vast array of factors that influence modern learning.
Mixing it up
I have spent time in studios recording and mixing audio, and it occurred to me some time ago that the mixing desk was a metaphor that really suited me. Most of us are familiar with the long mixing desk, and the rows of sliders with which you can adjust the level, timbre, and dynamics of any sounds in numerous combinations, and in that way create the ideal mix.
Modern learning practice brings with it numerous pedagogical possibilities, theories discussed, trends observed, teaching strategies introduced, learning approaches espoused, and aspects of teaching and learning practices for teachers to consider. Teachers will add these to the practices, strategies, and approaches they already use. It makes for a long list.
The tricky bit is the composition — the mixing of all the elements so that teaching is right for you, and learning is right for your learners. It must be overwhelming for teachers exposed to ongoing professional learning and development.
So, how about visualising all of these ideas, theories, strategies, and dispositions as individual instruments, listed under each slider in a long mixing desk. You can add new strategies as you come across them.
Then using the analogy of the mixing desk, you control the mix by moving the sliders up and down according to your own situation. Approaches, strategies and ideas can be emphasised when required or faded out entirely if they are not appropriate, not working, or if you simply aren’t confident.
An example would be if you were creating a learning environment designed to enable self-directed learning. There could be a mix of student agency, inquiry learning, goal setting, students managing their e-portfolios, critical thinking, digital fluency, shared access to cloud services, structured learning opportunities, authentic contexts, online collaboration, and more. Some of these you might be confident about adding to the mix for your teaching situation, some you may want to learn more about and become more confident before adding it to the mix, and others will be incorporated only now and then when appropriate.
Mix your own professional learning
If you see yourself in control of the various ‘instruments’ and the extent to which they are incorporated into your teaching and learning environment, you also know exactly what it is you need to learn more about — so you will be driving your own professional learning. As the musical arranger and the performer you will know when all the instruments are arranged in harmony and the mix is right.