“What’s that Type of Learning Look Like?”

4be46c84fe8fed255075caec5ad84cc3-literacyLike many other teachers, I use my summer to reset, refresh, and recharge for the coming year.  For me, that means I finally get the time to engage with the words and the voices of people who are interested in shifting the way we–I hate this term–“do school.”  However, for the past three years (more or less ever since I moved from 21 years as a middle-school teacher to my current high-school position) my head has been swimming in the voices and words of these people.  You see, I’ve not been able to smoothly negotiate the tremendous chasm between the culture of learning in a middle school and the culture of learning at a high school.

And the differences are as vast as I suggest.  The pressure for grades, the pressure for academic standing, the pressure for students’ and teachers’ time, the pressure for (insert your own observation here)–it all just adds up to one big ball of stress for students and staff alike.

Of course, given what we know about learning at the level of biology, a little stress is a good thing.  Raising student’s level of concern, putting tasks just out of reach of their present capabilities but providing the scaffolding and assistance to make the stretch–these are good uses of minimal stressors.  They help attach emotional tags to the content we want students to retain.  But the stress I’ve sensed in my own students?  No.  That’s different.  Flat out different.  And it isn’t healthy.

Not only isn’t it healthy at the biological level for students, it isn’t healthy for the system.  These stressors, at least as I’ve observed them in my own district, have had the effect of pushing the act of teaching at the high-school level back into the “sit and get” methods I’d thought we’d moved out of decades ago.

So the culture shock for me?  It lingers.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we know what works and doesn’t work best for learners, and yet we continue to create classrooms that lock students into rows of hard plastic desks, ask them to pay attention for 45 minutes, and then send them off with homework for another few hours.  Add it all up, and it is easy to see how some of my students are up until midnight or later.

If, as someone has said (apparently not William Butler Yeats), “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” then the majority of my students were all wet.  And sure, students need to fill their pail.  There’s a joy in finding things out, whether on your own or from the brilliant and engaging lecture of a scholar on Chinese history post-WWII.  But that’s substantively different than filling a pail for the better part of 7-hour sedentary days in rigid desks in rigid rows inside a rigid system.

All of which is to say, essentially…

I’ve had it!

I’ve had it with a system that knows what works best, or at very least, knows what doesn’t work very well and what is not healthy for students, and yet we perpetually roll out the same unhealthy, non-pedagogically-sound methods.  My own district is an excellent example, if only because we have a list of goals (see image below) created in 1994 that were, and largely remain, forward-thinking goals. And yet we’ve lost our way. Where once we forged ahead, driven by a community-created vision and mission, we now find ourselves wandering back into the future, our students once again little more than pails hoping to tip over into the lottery of Advanced Placement classes and colleges of choice.

You see, we’re good.  By any standard measure–SAT scores, APs taken and passed, State Standardized Tests–we’re good.  But good isn’t good enough for the future our students are facing.  “Good” doesn’t help us help students learn how to become self-directed learners capable of finding and solving real and relevant problems in their community or the world.

And if scholars like Tony Wagner, Young Zhao, Sir Ken Robinson, Grant Lichtman, Thomas Armstrong, George Couros and countless others are correct, it is that final skill set, the skill set of the innovator and entrepreneur (perhaps), that is clearly what we need to develop with our students.

But look at that last goal:  “Self-directed learners who accept responsibility for their own physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being, make decisions independently, develop life skills, adapt to an ever-changing world, and are accountable for their actions.”  We wrote that in 1994!  (Yeah, I know, Postman and Weingartner wrote about it in the 1970s…and Dewey wrote about it in the 1920s…are you sensing something here?) I can tell you, neither my district, in all our prescience, nor most districts I know, especially at the HS level, have achieved this.

So it is this frustration that guided my discussion with my superintendent.  (And this meeting was just one of many, both in person and online, I’ve had with my administrators to seek means for change in the district.)

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Mindmap of the discussion with my superintendent.

My superintendent and I have a strong relationship.  Several years ago, at her insistence, I left my self-created middle-school humanities class and developed our 9th and 10th grade gifted English program (a work still very much in progress).  Her encouragement and belief in me, as well as the monetary support for attending numerous conferences, was invaluable in my (somewhat successful) transition.

Thus, the conversation I had with her was frank, lengthy, and filled with a lot of affirmation.  And at first I was feeling rather positive about the possibilities this fall. I’ve asked us to host a community viewing of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed and/or a community gathering to watch the XQ Superschools Live Network Takeover on September 8th.  That’ll start the ball of change rolling and hopefully help us build some of the innovator’s mindset in the staff and community.

But we can’t/don’t stop there because in November my high school is hosting George Couros for the day.  He’ll be speaking about his ideas and his book and helping the high-school teachers work through ideas as to how those concepts can be realized within their own classrooms.

And then we…um…well, actually, that’s it.  All that build up and drive and then…we stop. Strangely(?) that’s sort of where our conversation stopped because my superintendent said, “Ok,  So what does that type of learning look like?”

“What does that type of learning look like?”

Yes, I responded.  Yes I talked about self-directed learners (pointing, OF COURSE, to our sixth goal from 1994!), Deeper Learning20time projects, Don Wettrick’s Innovation and Open Source Learning class, project- and design-based learning, XQ Superschools, Geniconsulting. I even spoke copiously about the full-time work I’m doing this summer at the educational design consultancy, PlusUs.

Yes, I made the case that we need a systemic change, not just change in certain classrooms, because the grounding philosophy of schools is so “off.”   (Larry Geni makes this argument far more eloquently than I am doing here.  These are his words below.)

The purpose of school as we currently practice it…

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The purpose of school as we ought to understand it…

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And, yes, I spoke about the Maker movement, and I nailed the reference to

AJ Juliani and John Spencer’s Empower: What Happens When Students Own their Learning (especially the last 30 pages or so) and so much else. I’d venture a guess that I’d left very few rocks of progressive education unturned.  And, given that one of the final comments I received was:  “I’d love to see your type of learning, this type of learning become more contagious,” I have to say that we have some common ground.  Perhaps things are looking up.  Perhaps empowerment, true learner empowerment is in play for this year.


So what does this learning look like? It looks like the future.  It looks like a juggernaut.  It looks inevitable, unstoppable, and, yes, to those who are just sitting around waiting, it’s frightening.  All change is frightening, not because change itself is frightening, but because it is always associated with loss.  Loss of space, loss of comfort, loss of the story we (teachers) have been telling ourselves and the country for so many years.

But there’s certainly one thing more frightening than change.  Irrelevancy.  I don’t want my district to find itself there.  I don’t want any district to find itself there.  But if we don’t change something fundamental about how we view the purpose of school and about what we do in and how we “do school,” we’ll rapidly discover what irrelevancy looks like.

(Post Script)

Grant Lichtman recently responded to my query about what to do in the face of the “What’s that type of learning look like?” question.  He noted that it seems like the district is in a perfect place for a design thinking challenge:  “How might we learn what deeper learning looks like in practice?”  I like this far more than the ominous image of the future looming over us.  As a design thinker, I should have seen this opportunity.  (They are everywhere, right Don Wettrick?)


10 thoughts on ““What’s that Type of Learning Look Like?”

  1. Pingback: Redesigning Education: "What's that Type of Learning Look Like?" | PlusUs®

  2. Pingback: Redesigning Education: What's That Type of Learning Look Like? | PlusUs®

  3. Hi Garreth–I totally agree about what it feels like to teach in high school (I did that for 7 years before starting this work at SFU) and feeling the TENSION between what is and what could/should be. Something’s gotta change. You are clearly doing great things in your classes, with your students, in your school to inspire BUT the “system” doesn’t budge much does it? People aren’t talking enough. We need to have more conversations in schools and within schools-in-communities. HARD ones. All the way through it. We need to unearth the presuppositions we hold about school that hold us back from really making changes. (Which is hard to do–thinking about education, our theories, when we only have those theories to think WITH. Questioning, the “unquestionable” norms.). You likely know Elliot Eisner’s great work? I loved his argument about the problem with trying to get credibility with the public by using standards/language of business. Education doesn’t work that way. And, of course, the way we talk about schools is rooted in a industrial thinking–but that’s, good, right? Efficiency! Time on task! Productivity!. Thankfully we aren’t facing in Canada the kinds of standardized testing initiatives they are in the US, it’s devastating. And, as you note, we also need the follow-through. Liked your piece and I share you passion for creating great thinkers, doers, innovators.


  4. Reblogged this on Curiosity in Education and commented:
    “Self-directed learners who accept responsibility for their own physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being, make decisions independently, develop life skills, adapt to an ever-changing world, and are accountable for their actions.”…..Oh…hey…yeah…. that’s right! How do school districts trying to steer themselves toward this path stray from this goal? So, so excited and grateful to see educators in our school district climbing towards true engagement and empowerment to get at the heart of education: “…to prepare students to live productive, engaged, and satisfying lives”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, ladies. It takes a village. It’s probably unreasonable to think that the entire system will shift for this; that’s just irrational. But then, rational thought is one of the (ahem!) reasons we’re in this spot. When I look at the purpose of school as we ought to practice it (as I quoted from Larry Geni of Geniconsulting.com above), it has so much to do with those things that aren’t rational. And as much as it confounds me to say it, the research in neuroscience is pretty clear that we are rarely “rational” creatures. Our emotions play far more of a role in our decision making. Indeed, William Glasser, a psychologist and educationist (about whom I will be writing a blog post soon), posits that there are really 5 main needs that drive all human behavior: Love/belonging, power, freedom, fun, survival. Aside from the final one, none of those are “rational” at the level of the empiricism we associate with rational thought.

      Anyway, all that’s just to say that being productive, engaged, and satisfied…? It’s so much of a crap shoot, but what will definitely make it more difficult for more students to achieve that kind of a life is continuing the grading, grouping, sorting, and tracking that we currently practice.


  5. Hi Garreth – I’m a freshman at UC Berkeley who, like you, is passionate about education reform. “But good isn’t good enough for the future our students are facing. One of my favorite lines from this read is: “‘Good’ doesn’t help us help students learn how to become self-directed learners capable of finding and solving real and relevant problems in their community or the world.” Too often, I believe we equate success in a school or district to high SAT scores, high AP scores, high grade point averages, etc. But all those measure is ability and resources to memorize and train for exams. We want students to adopt innovative and entrepreneurial mindsets – do our exams measure growth mindsets? Critical thinking? I’d argue no. I love this read and am looking forward to future posts from you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ellamonia,

      Thanks for the reply. Given your age and your passion for reform, I’m going to point you to the work of Anya Smith @PinyaBannans. She was part of the first cohort to graduate from Mount Vernon Presbyterian’s Innovation Diploma program. Her work there, as well as in many other places on the web is just outstanding. Check her out here: https://pinyabananas.wordpress.com/ Her school, Mt. Vernon Presbyterian, is a model for change in schools, except that it’s a private school. Her latest post does a nice job of calling AP classes into question. (As a Junior, Anya and a fellow student created their own AP class in English that was actually approved by the College Board and they received AP credit for it. It’s an amazing story about how students today can and SHOULD “hack” their education.

      Thanks for reading. I’ve many more blog posts in the queue, I just have to find the time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Garreth – thank you for your reply. Funny you mention Anya – Grant Lichtman shared her blog with me in the past also. Grant is a friend of mine and #EdJourney definitely was a catalyst for my passion. I’ll definitely read and follow her blog! Thank you!


      • That’s great. Glad to hear you know Grant. I’m eagerly awaiting his new book. I’ve talked to my district about bringing Grant in to facilitate change, but I don’t think they’re ready yet.


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