Looking forward or back?

One of my favorite quotations to share during conference presentations and workshops, whose source I unfortunately do not know how to properly attribute, is the following:

Are you preparing students for their future, or for your past?

Missing from this quotation is the idea we also need to prepare students for the PRESENT that is taking place right now, and not just a faraway “la la fantasy land” vision of the future when the world will look just like that of the Jetsons.

The Jetsons

As some authors have observed, our vision for what the future is going to “look like” has changed markedly over the years. Predictions from people like Benjamin Franklin that new technologies would yield vast amounts of leisure time have given way to conditions of information overload and overscheduled calendars, with often little time for people to enjoy unstructured time in natural environments. I’ve never visited Disney’s Tomorrowland in Florida, but I understand the vision it communicates of “what the future holds” has undergone interesting evolution over time.

The fact is, NO ONE can predict with certainly what the future holds. Yet, we still must live our lives today (in contexts which are often dynamic with respect to communication, information flows, and technology) and strive to prepare learners (both young and old) for flexible readiness in the months and years to come. How can we do it?

I read the following quotation by Herb Caen recently which brought many of these thoughts to mind:

I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.

I think many of the most innovative uses of digital technologies for learning we see today in the United States are happening in charter schools where educators as well as students are freer to think and act differently than learners have in the past. It is natural and even unavoidable to look at our present context (as well as future prospects) through the lens of our own past experiences. We form our perceptions and decide on our actions based on those experiences and our thoughts about them.

For that reason, I think it is essential we strive to experience (ourselves) and help other teachers experience successes in using new digital technologies to access information, collaborate with others, publish ideas, and thereby create new knowledge. I find the quotation from Alan Kay, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” extremely compelling. If we want to help teachers lead students in their classrooms in ways that will empower them to “invent the future,” I think we need to recognize the primacy of encouraging PERSONAL USES of technologies by teachers.

Those ideas will strongly inform the three day workshop I’m helping facilitate here in Oklahoma next week, and Karen Montgomery is facilitating for teachers in Missouri. We’ve titled our team-taught workshop “The Digital Learning Academy.” We have four main goals:

  1. Have fun creating media and collaborating with other teachers.
  2. Gain an experiential understanding of the read/write web. (web 2.0)
  3. Help teachers make “A-Ha” connections for instruction and learning with digital tools.
  4. Help educators “plug in” to the growing network of educational Yodas.

To support these goals (and hopefully accomplish them) Karen and I have constructed a three day workshop agenda focusing on the use of several web 2.0 tools for learning as well as videoconferencing. The key will be follow-up, I think. We’re planning to schedule dates in the fall when teachers will come BACK together, both face to face and via videoconferencing hook-ups, to share how they’ve used the tools and strategies they experienced in the digital learning academy with their own students to help improve learning opportunities.

My philosophy in helping putting together and facilitate this 3 day learning event is informed by the words of John Norton, who I met and visited with several weeks ago at NECC. He observed that accomplished teachers have GREAT capacity for supporting positive instructional change and ongoing professional growth of other educators, but that process often needs facilitation by others. The Alabama Teacher Leaders Network is focused on supporting the dynamic of accomplished teachers mentoring each other as well as novice teachers. I hope our digital learning academy and the online network we’re building (via Ning and other tools) will also model and support this philosophy.

I hope our workshop next week will be fun as well as “successful.” Rather than view myself as the source of content knowledge for this series of learning days, I view myself more as a “connector” and “facilitator” who will hopefully invite and encourage the teacher-participants to learn by doing– creating knowledge products which have personal meaning and relevance to their own lives with others, located in the same room but also geographically distant from their own classroom. We’ll see what happens! If we have fun “making stuff” together with digital tools, I think chances are high we are all going to learn a LOT. 🙂

One of the most beautiful things about leading and participating in a summer learning workshop like this is the AUTONOMY we are afforded when it comes to the curriculum. Accomplished teachers need to be afforded the same opportunity in their classrooms to seize “teachable moments” and not necessarily stay on the exact page of a curriculum pacing guide which was written in stone months before, and does not respect the learning opportunities which may present themselves in the dynamical and chaotic environment of a REAL classroom.