Friday, June 18, 2010

I believe there are no emergencies in education...

I believe that there are no emergencies in education; in nearly every challenge we need only to realize that the past can show us the way to the future.
I am re-posting this article as the second installment of my beliefs about leadership and education. Thanks for reading.

Teachers, parents, students, society... there are no emergencies in education.

I first saw this video about a year ago, and have used it in virtually every presentation I've done since to parents and teachers both. Having been fascinated by the concept of scale my entire life, (and like most, having felt insignificant so many times,) this speech by Carl Sagan is the starkest reminder that we are truly blessed just to be here leave alone the opportunity to interact as human beings in a "mode of dust suspended on a sunbeam."

We are privileged beyond belief to be here on this earth. Humankind is a bizarre and wonderful gift when viewed from the perspective of Carl Sagan... when thought about, our existence in the cosmic reality is seemingly implausible. However, we are here, and this fact makes it so hard to realize why it appears to be our human tendency to exacerbate problems and issues to the point where our experience being here is not enjoyable. When we reduce ourselves to over-complicating issues, especially those that can't be explained, we cannot simply be here, in the present, gracious for our gift of existence.

Sagan's message carries massive implications for teachers. Notwithstanding the obvious physical emergencies that simply come with all aspects of life (injury, threat, risk etc.), within our daily grind when even the most trivial challenges become emergencies, how often can we say we are truly in the 'here and now' for our students, modeling the virtues of wonderment, curiosity, awareness... mindfulness? We get so wrapped up in the externally applied pressures of what we do that we lose our connection with our students; the only reason teachers exist.
Yes, teachers have pressures: we have deadlines; a responsibility to be accountable; the requirement to be well-planned and challenging behavior to deal with (from our students and colleagues)... our job requires  substantial skill-levels in organization, efficiency and decisiveness... doing it would be impossible otherwise. All this is not a burden though, it's a privilege.

Teachers, we have a challenging job, but in every challenge lies opportunity, and I would argue our teaching opportunity provides us with what I consider to be the most impacting and resonant responsibility this pale blue dot has to offer- the responsibility to teach.

We exist within a cosmic irony. Our very existence on earth is unexplainable, our origin unknown... we are a faith-based entity... we have to believe we are here for a reason. To believe otherwise would result in a very lonely, purposeless existence. So in this vast, unexplainable and overwhelming universe wherein our existence is completely insignificant, alas teachers are here and we have something significant to do. We are the ones responsible for helping all of us make sense of our ironic existence, our role in the world, our purpose... to find significance.

Every student is worth our full attention, and it is our primary responsibility to divine their individual strengths so they can be shared with the world. At the same time, we must bring the world to each individual student... help them realize how truly massive it is and what can be learned by being part of it all.

There is no person alive that should miss the opportunity to be significant.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Competition doesn't have to be a four letter word...

flickr CC image via stockicide

Competition isn't inherently bad. Whether a competitive learning environment is perceived as positive or negative depends entirely on the context within which we define competition.

When it comes to competition, once again, educators are polarizing an issue unnecessarily. It's a black and white issue for us- either we endorse competitive learning environments as positive teaching and learning, or we denounce them as a negative influence. I think it's when we impose a norm-referenced competitive learning environment on kids in school that it becomes potentially negative and perhaps debilitating.

There has to be a middle ground.

Are we not competitive by nature? Just watch a group of kids playing sometime... inevitably, and without provocation, they will engage in some sort of competition... seeing how long they can hold there breath under water, seeing how high they can climb on the monkey bars or just having a friendly running race... kids like competition when it's designed by them. Why not nurture this tendency in school? Perhaps we need to let kids be the authors of their own learning to a degree. Perhaps this is the middle ground we should target.

Let's use a standards-based learning (SBL) environment as our positive example. In as SBL environment, every student is judged against a set of learning standards that are consistent and measurable. When these standards are differentiated into levels of achievement, they also allow for a considerable amount of assessment flexibility. SBL environments permit us to get away from variations of a Gaussian Curve analysis of any particular group of students- arguably an unfair and statistically-biased form of summative assessment, and instead focus on the individual achievement of each student. In this context, each student is competing against his own prior levels of achievement, working to improve his knowledge and skill-set... taking on the responsibility for directing his own learning. In my mind there's nothing wrong with this form of competition.

Education, like golf, is ultimately an individually driven effort... to be successful at golf we need only to worry about our own score... to be successful at learning we need only to be concerned with our own progress.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

You might be learning authentically if...

flickr CC image via yonolatengo

It sounds a little strange to say that learning would be anything other than authentic. To assert otherwise would imply that learning is somehow counterfeit or imitative... but wait a minute; we need to contextualize if we're going anywhere with this.

Learning in its purest, most natural form is as close to automatic as a human response can get. It's our human nature to learn. We live; we learn.  It's arguable that the act of living, growing and developing new skills is synchronous with learning. We learn despite ourselves.

So if we're accepting that learning is a natural human tendency, we should also accept that schools, our institutions of learning, should reflect this tendency. But this is where it gets a bit dicey, and where I think defining the authenticity of school-based learning becomes an issue. Learning is natural, automatic even, in some regards... so how do we make it so in the context of how we teach and learn in schools?

Much debate surrounds traditional pedagogical practise, and I won't get into that here, but I will say that teachers as learners shouldn't be terribly concerned with traditional pedagogical structures. Today's teachers should display an orientation of perpetual improvement toward their practice... a constant striving to find more effective ways to teach. To me, that's how we emulate the natural forces of learning in human nature... constant striving to be better, healthier, smarter. This striving to develop and grow is the essence of authenticity in learning... a genuine search for meaning and relevance. If we get hung up on a pedagogical stream of consciousness that we feel is adequate and righteous, we risk becoming blind to potentially better, more effective ways to teach and learn. There is always something to improve upon, and engaging colleagues in the Twitter Universe is a great conduit for dialog about what teachers do.

I've been engaged in allot of Twitter #edchat lately surrounding the principles of authentic learning. Like so many other elements of formal, organized teaching and learning, defining authenticity in schools can be difficult- everyone has their own opinion of what authentic learning looks, sounds and feels like. Again, I would assert that a genuine search for meaning and relevance in what we teach and learn in schools is the context within which we should define authentic learning.

I want to diagnose authentic learning. To that end, here's a Foxworthyesque list of symptoms that I have come up with so far:
  • You might be learning authentically if school is exciting instead of stressful- a challenge, not a burden;
  • You might be learning authentically if you talk about school experiences rather than lessons;
  • You might be learning authentically if every answer leads to another question;  
  • You might be learning authentically if you let your grades take care of themselves- you're too busy learning;
  • You might be learning authentically if you feel an overwhelming urge to share what you know with others;  
  • You might be learning authentically if learning isn't like your 9-5 job;
  • You might be learning authentically if you're taking home homework that wasn't assigned.
Perhaps you'd like to add to my list... tweet me @graingered.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Power of silence...

flickr CC image via Polloek

Some people say too much.

Fact: many like to hear the sound of their own voice. If the tone of the statements being made are provocative in any way, an unfortunate side effect of this is often other's chiming in to refute... and we all know where that goes... this reactive tendency prolongs an exchange that the group likely already didn't appreciate.

Whether in a formal group discussion, staff meeting or even just a friendly conversation; I'm learning how to pick my spots in dialog. In the Art of War by Sun Tzu, it is stated...
Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate.
It's so easy to be drawn into an ignorant or uninformed perspective, the desire being to "enlighten" the source, but the adversarial context that usually results very rarely moves the dialog forward... at best, it stalls; at worst it completely breaks down.

In our professional conversations, sometimes saying and doing nothing really well is a good idea. Allowing the opponent a sufficient platform and time to express his opinions fully without making a response allows the group members to judge his point of view for themselves, and it allows you the time to formulate an articulate and clear response, if you choose to make one later on.

The trick is to pick your spot... don't get drawn into a verbal ambush.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Those blindly insulting things we say to others...

flickr CC image via jerine

One of the most insulting things we say to each other is "I know how you feel." Not one of us can ever truly know how any other of us feels about anything.

Even those of us who have shared a similar, or perhaps even the exact same experience... people's perspectives are as unique as their fingerprints. The variables at play in an individuals mind relative to the emotions surrounding their experiences are infinite... and different for all of us.

When we say " I know how you feel" to someone, the tacit message we're sending is your emotions aren't so deep and personal that I can't understand them... your emotions aren't complicated. To someone who is experiencing emotional jeopardy, someone who may not even understand their own feelings at the time, this is not a helpful message.

We can be empathic, or even sympathetic when necessary, without implying we know how others feel. It's a matter of how we say it... instead of saying "I know how you feel," why not simply say, "I hear what you're saying, just tell me how I can help." Doing so validates the emotions involved and acknowledges that although people can't truly know how others feel, they can still be completely available to those in distress.

In the complex arena of our human emotions, it is critical that we take responsibility only for our own feelings... we don't need to understand how others feel, we just need to be present and let them know we are completely willing to unconditionally share their feelings without judgement or comment.

Nobody can make us feel anything. Our feelings are only ours, and we alone are responsible for them. Don't take responsibility for the feelings of others... just be there when they're feeling them.
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