How selfish are you?

Once again a tweet inspired me. This time it’s Mark Wagner at a conference presentation in California:

Will Richardson’s been talking for a while about having teachers examine their learning. Not necessarily their professional development but their personal learning. For many reasons, this is a major challenge. For people that are in the business of learning, it can be really difficult to engage in this discussion at times. Perhaps because of the busyness, the daily grind, the pressure of teaching, teachers have a difficult time recognizing the need to learn beyond the subject areas and pedagogies they spend much of their day grappling with.

So I understand the frustration and in a sense, ground breaking idea of teachers thinking about personal learning. Without this discussion, our ideas of learning are inevitably confined to the structures and traditions of school. Thinking about the last time you planned a trip, researched a political candidate, compared vehicles you wanted to purchase or tried to learn a new instrument.  What did that look like?

I wonder if these two ideas are somewhat at odds?

  • “Teachers do not need to learn the technology in order for kids to use them.”
  • “Teachers need to model effective use of technology”

Will may not have said it explicitly but the personal learning he talks about involves using the tools of today to maximize learning. Connecting with experts, social networking, publishing ideas are all part of what effective learning looks like. While more and more teachers get this, they really don’t get it for themselves. They want their kids to blog, but they don’t. They want their kids to connect with others but they don’t. They want kids to use all kids of technologies, but they don’t.

I never was all that impressed with Physical Education teachers who were out of shape. It didn’t make sense. They are supposed to be advocates for healthy lifestyles and need to model that. Fortunately most do and those are the ones that will likely have the most impact on kids. Come to think of it, that’d be an interesting piece of research.

If learning is personal, there has to be an element of selfishness. Teachers aren’t very selfish in this area. I’ve posted the Big Ideas of Digital Learning on our school district’s website. I use Will’s Ten Things we May Need to Unlearn idea:

We need to unlearn the notion that our students don’t need to see and understand how we ourselves learn.

That’s way harder than it sounds. Silent reading advocates always demand teachers read with their kids. I was one of those guilty of grading papers or planning when I should have been reading. I guess I just didn’t think it was all that important. I was wrong.

I’ve always been an advocate for teachers to take stuff home and personalize it. That’s how I learned. That’s why today I have a hard time separating professional and personal learning. If I learn a new technique in videography, I play with and use it with my friends or family. It’s not long before eventually I bring it to teachers and students as a new tool.

If you’re a classroom teacher, tell me how do you show your kids how you learn?

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  • More often than not, I will do the same as you – take stuff home, have a good play around with it and then introduce to my students. Occasionally I will say to my students “I’ve found this new tool, I’ve check it out a little, but I’m not really sure how it works completely. Who’d like to have a play and then teach the rest of us how to use it?”
    It’s quite informative to step back and observe students when they do it this way. And of course they get a kick out of teaching the teacher!

  • Great question! I show my students how I learn by first admitting that I don’t know everything. My students have seen me working through a problem, asking questions of other teachers, asking questions of other students, and searching for answers on the web.

    I also share how I learn when we take those few minutes every now and then to catch up with each others lives (like when I tried to explain a lunch meeting(?) in Canada via the web or when I tell them I worked on a math problem- just for fun or when I ask HTML questions of my student aide). Each of these glimpses into my life allow my students to see that I too am constantly learning, and that I learn by doing.

  • Interesting that you chose to post about this, this week. I presented to a group of teacher-leaders earlier this week, and the starting point of my whole presentation was about the need for teachers to be more ‘selfish’ for themselves. My theory is, most educators became teachers because they loved being learners… and yet it becomes so easy to forget about that. Often we stop learning as much as we’d like to – or we get stuck learning things that others tell us we have to learn to be effective (as a building principal, I will confess to having done this to my school’s teachers!). Time for us to regain the joy we found in being learners, by learning things that energize and inspire us!

  • Like Jackie, I model my own learning in the classroom with the students. I welcome those moments when I don’t know an answer and then I transparently model my own thinking, questioning, and searching. If I go to the web to look something up in front of my students, I talk out loud about what I am doing and why I am doing — for example, why I might use certain search terms over others.

    I think it’s very important for teachers to be as transparent and explicit as possible when working with students. They are always watching us and we are models in everything that we do. We need to make sure that we are modeling the actions and behaviors that we want our students to use in their own learning/life rather than fallling back into that “do as I say, not as I do” behavior.

  • I find that technology is the perfect vehicle for teachers to show students how they learn. Our district uses students for tech support for the teachers and in doing so, they swap roles for a little while. It’s good for the teachers and great for the students. Teachers that would never let on that they didn’t know something in their usual content area, can learn from the students while students learn that even if you don’t know everything about a topic, you probably still have something to contribute.

  • Your idea that we as teachers are being selfish hits the nail on the head in terms of many of today’s learning environments. Teachers continue and will continue to do and teach what is comfortable for them, not necessarily what is best for the students. We need to step out of that comfort zone and not only put our students “out there,” but also ourselves. We are teaching in an age where the methods of teaching are changing so rapidly that if educators don’t attempt to get onboard we run the risk of becoming dispensers of useless, irrelevant information. What good is that!

  • I show my kids how I learn every time I say, “I don’t know”. Sometimes when some form of technology doesn’t work I have to say, “I’ll try it another way” or “I’ll see if I can find out”. Other times, one of the kids suggests an idea that we try and voila! it solves the problem. The look on their six year old faces when one of them finds the answer is priceless.

  • AWESOME post – I agree 1000% (no, that is not a typo – just hyperbole!).

    I always practice with a new web tool for at least one semester before I ask my students to use it (for example, I’m playing around with Twitter this year to see if I will try using it in my online classes). I am a maker of websites, and I help my students learn how to do that… I am a blogger, so I hope my students learn how to do that. This year I have also become a maker of wikis, and my goal over the holiday break is to figure out some way to introduce wiki technology into my online courses.

    Although my university runs a very large online course program, most of the other online instructors are not very interested in technology, and they rely on our course management system (Desire2Learn) to provide all the technology they use for their classes. Needless to say, this does not work very well for the classes that are fully online.

    At the same time, I have given up trying to evangelize about technology with other faculty. Evangelizing with students has big benefits, but this does not appear to be the case with other faculty. Evangelizing with faculty has not proved to be a good use of my time. I do not know why… and I have also concluded that it is not a good use of my time trying to figure out the answer to that question, either!

    Instead, it is a much better use of my time to keep exploring fabulous new online tools for myself, and then sharing the best of what I find with my students. In turn, my students do the same, sharing the best of their online discoveries and adventures with me. Teaching online has been a far, far more exciting experience for me than classroom teaching, exactly because of this sense of a “joint mission” together with my students, exploring the brave new world online together.

    Thanks for this great post. It’s nice to read something that I am so wholeheartedly in agreement with! 🙂

  • Thanks for all the great responses.

    Just to add a little fuel to the fire, it’s interesting how all the responses in some ways refer to learning a new technology in a school setting. While certainly this is good modeling, I’m wondering if what Will gets at here is more about learning outside of school. Not learning about something for school purposes but just because you want to learn it. Learning about technology is what we do in school and perhaps doesn’t demonstrate an authentic example for students.

    So I’m wondering about how we show ourselves as learners. Not just about technology but learners. Do we talk with our students about what we’re learning beyond school. I mean if we are asking kids to be life long learners, how do we show them that? Do we talk about our out of school experiences? Have you been able to seamlessly or not so seamlessly fit it into your day?

  • Dean,

    I made a short Animoto about what I did over the summer and showed it to my Current Events classe in September. Nothing earth-shattering, but I wanted them to know that I wasn’t a total couch potato. Included in my list was becoming a blogger and experimenting with cool apps and tools like Animoto, ToonDoo, Voki, etc.

    Even though they don’t have access to at school (and I can’t tag things until I get home), I refer to it daily. Same with my RSS feeds. At least they’ve heard the terms now; hopefully, some of them will be inspired to explore on their own.


  • Dean–
    I am glad to see you bring the post back around to this. I think that many teachers DO learn about things because they want to learn it, but this learning doesn’t always involve technology. In my district we have teachers who have traveled to Africa to teach there, or lived on Plimouth Plantation for a 2 week learning conference, traveled to Asia, and we have some Fulbright fellows. I work with many, many life long learners. The difference is that they aren’t learning with technology because it is not how THEY LEARN…yes we use the tools because they are the tools that interest us and ones with which we learn. I agree that as teachers we must represent ourselves as life long learners, but many folks don’t see technology fitting in with that model…should they? I think they must, so how do we get them there?

  • I recently had a flat tire on the way home on my weekly 3 hour drive. I shared with the kids about the episode–how I first called my husband, then decided I had no choice but to try it. I told about getting the jack under the car–having to call my husband to assure him it was in the right place, and then winding the tool to raise the jack. I told about trying to remove the lugs after raising the car, only to discover the lugs would not come off with the tire elevated–no traction, and trying to loosen them just spun the tire. The kids thought it was hysterical that I didn’t know how to change a tire, but i told them I learned a couple of very valuable lessons that day: 1) loosen the lugs first, and 2) I could change a tire after all. I truly did not think I could, but I kept saying to myself I had seen it done before, so it couldn’t be that hard. My family thought it was funny too. It wasn’t funny though when I was at least 2 hours away from anyone I knew out in the boonies. How did I learn–I reflected on what I had seen done before, and then attempted to try the same thing. Although I didn’t get it exactly right, my failure taught me WHY there was a certain order to doing the steps. I certainly had a CLEAR understanding of the order of operations for changing a tire after that day in October. So I guess this example shows that we can reflect on what we already know, then try based on that metacognitive picture. We can also learn from trial and error. I certainly did that day. Last, just because I failed initially didn’t mean I could not do it. I just had to figure out why i failed so I would not make the same mistake again. And i don’t care how many videos I might have seen or manuals I could have read, the hands on experience was QUITE memorable, and something I am not likely to forget. Of course my middle schoolers never aditted they didn’t know how to change a tire. But ti was a chance for me to share about being challenged t think something through and FAIL, and then have to retry. Oh by the way, two kind elderly gentlemen stopped to finish it, but I was 75% done by that time. All they did was tighten the lugnuts and sent me on my way with an offer to follow me home, which I politely declined.

  • I think talking about books with students is another way to show how we learn outside of school. They love to hear book recommendations or hear that a book they’re picking out is one you read for fun. (Of course, since I’m a librarian, maybe they think it is my job to read, but I know they love to talk to teachers about books they are reading as well and I think it’s a great way for students to get insights into their teachers’ learning habits.)

  • Jen

    I’m not a classroom teacher, but my model may be helpful. I have a Ning site ( set up for our instructors and I keep an open dialog about my learning. I use the tools to share my reflections and I also invite the faculty to test the tools with me and share their thoughts. We’ve only been active for about 3 weeks, but we already have close to 50 members. I think they respond well to the open nature of the forum. They are aware that I post and learn on my own time, and they do the same. We were very active during the last holiday break.

  • KRistin ,

    Great examples! My husband is an 18th century reenactor, and I frequently refer to this when interacting with students. I also use ASL (American Sign Language) with students of all ages, particularly when I’m lining up elementary students. The kids know my husband is a graphic artist and that my son does sportscasting on a local TV channel.

    I share parts of my life with them, and the kids get to see me as a human being, not just an authority figure.


  • Dean: I’m a computer teacher, so my time with the students mostly revolves around the technology. Last year, we got a few new iMacs with built-in video cameras and GarageBand. The kids wanted to know when we’d do a project with them. I said we’d do it as soon as we finished the current project. When we started, I explained to the eighth graders that I’d show them how to turn on the camera, but that we’d be learning the programs together…same with GarageBand. They saw me work through what they wanted to do. I spoke out loud as I worked through searching for and finding an answer. Most of the time, the kids were showing each other what they did and how to do it.

    You’ve given us good food for thought. I’ll chew on the question for a few days and get back to you on non tech issues that have come up over time.


  • I am always finding overlap between things I’m learning on my own, in the context of grad work or just noodling about, and the things that are going on in my classroom. I teach art , I make art and I learn about making art, frequently with technology, and I find that sharing new things with students usually has some kind of content overlap or process overlap that makes sense. Besides that, it’s part of a teacher’s job to be enthusiastic about their content, about learning, and about teaching – and having something new to be enthusiastic about helps on all levels.

    I heard Will speak this fall, and his idea that we should learn it for ourselves first has jumpstarted a whole new process of personalized professional development for me. It is first about and for me, then I will figure out how it works in the classroom for my students, rather than the other way around. If it works for a real person in a real world setting, then it probably has value in the educational realm too, since we are supposed to be teaching them what they need to be successful beyond school.

  • Interesting. We explicitly teach the “Improve Own Learning” Keyskill to our adult learners, yet I don’t think I’ve ever talked much about specific examples of how *I’ve personally* learned things outside of work.

    And this in spite of the fact I love learning, and get bored rapidly if I haven’t got something new on the go!

  • Quite a bit to chew on there. And it really vibes with some things I’ve been experiencing myself in places like Twitter. There’s so much positive learning and collaboration going on. And at times, I hear people say, “But how does it get back ot the classroom. If it doesn’t get back to the classroom, it’s worthless.” At first I agreed, more out of habit and rote than anything else. But the more I think about it, the more I disagree. There’s something to be said of learning for the sake of learning. And collaborating to expand one’s learning network. And having fun while doing it. Sometimes it gets back to the classroom. Other times it doesn’t. And there’s nothing wrong with either.

    I’m not so sure it’s being selfish. I’m actually a big fan of being selfish. Not at the expense of others, but I do think that many people feel guilty about doing something that benefits themselves. But this isn’t necessarily being selfish, it’s recognizing that life is very multi-dimensional, and sometimes the best thing you can do to improve classroom experiences is to broaden your own experiences.

    I keep coming back to Google and their 20% projects. You spend 20% of your time on some other project that you’re passionate about, whether it has to do with your work or not. Can you just imagine teachers being required to work on something else for 20% of their time? Yeah, neither can I. But I can certainly imagine a lot of good things that could come out of it.

    Hrrrm… Much more to digest. Great post!

  • I have often thought that one of the greatest gifts in my career as a teacher was starting out as a special education teacher. When you are given a group of non reading pre teens that don’t care about anything….necessity breeds invention. It doesn’t matter how engaging your teaching is…you have to figure out the “currency” of your students and get them to buy-in to you. I found one of the best methods for reaching my reluctant learners was to model my own mistakes and path to learning. I began by showing them, during lessons, frequently mistakes I used to make when I was their age and since they seemed so interested I began sharing personal struggles I continue to have (putting things together that I buy, losing things and remembering names) When you humble yourself before your students they trust you enough to humble themselves with sharing their struggle with understanding…

    As my career progressed, I began teaching in general classrooms…with more motivated students…but what I realised was — just because they were progressing in their skills, was I inspiring them to push themselves or be risk takers? It is just as important to motivate high functioning students. The road I found in the classroom to help me demonstrate my own learning…was reading and writing lessons. I choose books for read alouds that touch hearts and then share my own personal connections (which makes them want to share personal connections with me). I use true stories from my own life as a child to model writing. One year, I wrote a story for my class to demonstrate a writer’s craft of repeating lines with this line: I love the sound of tap shoes, click, clack, click. My story was about growing up with a family who moved every one and a half to two years…so there never seemed to be an opportunity for me to take dance like other girls. I always regretted that missed opportunity! When I turned 30, I decided I couldn’t live with that regret. I signed up for tap dancing lessons and shared the story and real life current happening with my class. They were captivated. They begged me until I brought my shoes in and every week I promised to give them a five minute update on my progress. It was embarrassing, humbling and down-right scary to put myself out there like that…but to this day, the students from that class still ask me if I dance now. When I messed up they encouraged me, when I did well, they clapped and cheered. They got to see in real time that a grown up can learn something totally foreign and work hard to achieve.

    Thanks for the great post…it got me thinking!

  • Erin Remple

    I’ve spent the last ten days thinking and learning about web 2.0 tools (after being introduced to them at the MB EduBlogger Con). A great deal of my thinking has been “how do I use this in my classes?”, but I’ve also been wondering how I’ll use it in my own life. Last week I revealed to my students (quite by accident) that I had a Facebook account. Suddenly I was not quite as out of touch as they thought! Although, I still don’t know how to get music on to my cell phone. I think being authentically interested in technology gives you yet another connection to your students.

    I love learning. In fact, if my husband would keep paying for it, I would love to be a professional student. What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have to wait until summer session to immerse myself in the educational milieu, I just have to read some blogs and develop a network!

  • I’m just getting into technology in the classroom, in today’s terms. I am doing a lot of “playing” around and experimenting at home, like many of the people who discussed above. However, I study the French language on my own. I have discussed this with my students, and occasionally speak little “snippits” to them in French, to remind them of my outside learning. I’ll insert the French in contextually correct settings, or talk to them about words like “genre” that have a correct French pronunciation, etc. I want them to see the depth of my thinking…see the crossing of the wires, if you will. We see kids making connections to their own lives very easily…but don’t always make the connections between subjects, terms of study, etc. It seems to be a gap in their metacognition.

    I love your blog, by the way. Very thoughtful posts…I’ll keep reading!

  • I’m about to start my next group of learners off with their blogging project. With this post and discussion in mind I may well start by showing them my *own* blog and explain how I came to develop it.

  • Hi Dean, just as response to your query re: in-school and out-of-school, I do some book publishing related to my personal hobbies and interests (about which I also blog, etc.), and I use as my book publisher – that’s been something exciting to share with my students, because some of them are aspiring writers, and I hope that by sharing with them how I publish books at Lulu related to my own interests and hobbies outside of class, they will feel inspired to do some publishing with Lulu of their own creative work. I emphasize to them that is a great alternative for authors who can promote their own work via blogs and webpages – and since they all learn how to blog and create webpages in my class, they are ready to make work for them!


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