“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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Empower

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.

empower-sla

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?)

 

To Foam Cube or Not to Foam Cube?

Readers of this blog will remember that students in my Design Lab class redesigned the classroom, created a prototype and budget, and presented their concept to my school district’s grant-giving foundation.  They did such an outstanding job they earned a $2500 grant.  Part of the redesign was to set aside money to test out

dschool foam cubes

Part of the redesign was to set aside money to get our hands on some of the famous “d.school Sugar Cubes.”  (Ok, this was my own stiff demand.  If I wasn’t going to be able to go to the d.school on my own, I’d try to bring
the d.school’s environment to me.)

So the image at the top represents a set of 4 foam cubes, ordered from  http://www.foamorder.com/ .  (They were the cheapest I could find, but I didn’t look as much at the local level as I should have.  Very happy with their customer service, however.)Luckily, they were able to special order the cubes from a supplier closer to my location (near Philadelphia, PA) and save us a bunch of $$ on shipping.  Nevertheless, those four cubes represent a considerable chunk of change.  And for those of you as spatially challenged as I am–16″ x 16″ is actually a large piece of real estate.  I’m not going to announce how much these were for several reasons, none the least of which is to protect myself from ridicule.  However, the functionality and potential in these cubes is as advertised.  I’ve already seen students picking them up and imagining how they might put them to uses other than for seating.  (No…not for throwing at each other.)

As our classroom evolves and begins to more closely match the vision we had in October of 2016, I’ll continue to post.  And if anyone knows how I can procure solidly built project tables that would accommodate the use of 26″ stools or standard plastic chairs and seat 4 people at each table, please let me know.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Learning

Will Richardson is one of the major change agents in education. I’ve followed him for several years, but recently Will and Bruce Dixon released a White Paper: 10 Principles for Schools of Modern Learning (get it at their website), facebook page, and revamped website that every teacher and administrator in the country/world ought to be reading.

Both the white paper and their blog are shots across the bow at the slow and tedious educational ship of state.  The white paper, in particular is smart, focused, and solutions oriented.  You can find it at this address

Equally important is a sort of overview of “learning” from Will Richardson.  In this little ditty Will muses intelligently on what it means to be a learner and to have learned things:  What is learning?:  Learning is that which causes us to want to learn more.

Couldn’t have said it any better.  Watch Will here:

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