Are We Ready to Learn Again?

We’ve seen a major focus on Social Emotional Learning in the past few years. Certainly, the pandemic made it a universal priority for schools. Overall, this has been a good thing and one I’ve advocated for a long time. Our mission is not simply to develop knowledge and skills but also citizens who have a sense of well-being and dare I say, happiness. That said, I’ve noticed a trend that is separating SEL and learning and making it appear at times that the two are mutually exclusive. While no one would ever voice that idea, I think that the ways in which the pandemic has affected people differently are revealing themselves in the lack of readiness for many to really engage in deep and meaningful learning.

It’s difficult to say which comes first: “deep learning” or “wellness”. If I’m forced to make this a binary decision, I’ll likely opt for wellness first, and deep learning second. But that’s just it. I don’t think it is a binary thing. In fact, I think in many cases deep and engaging learning leads to wellness and vice versa. They are complementary. I will say that early on in the pandemic it was clear that the general level of wellness in our schools and the world was so low that it was necessary to put our efforts into the health and well-being of our learners (students, teachers and leadership). We were indeed impoverished and the degree to which schools and leaders took on this challenge was quite spectacular and educators proved they could really do hard things.

But the wellness issue has not been solved and likely won’t ever be solved. And yet what I’ve noticed is a wide range of readiness for individuals and communities to re-engage in deep learning. I know many leaders are working to make this once again the focus of their culture while others remain in neutral because they may be lacking a critical mass of influencers to get back to their purpose. As I talk to various leaders and educators I get these mixed and competing messages regularly. But returning to my previous point that well-being and deep learning are complementary, I’m looking to bring these two ideas together to design professional learning and culture for all learners.

When I think back to my early days with technology, I recall some similarities to what I’m seeing with well-being. Many tended to see technology and deep learning as two different things. They had a difficult time seeing how technology could be embedded into their traditional classrooms. Technology was a class that required specialized teachers and a designated space to access it. It’s taken years for this mindset to shift and some are still working to resolve this resistance. But for the most part and in theory, we understand and believe how one fosters the other.

So when it comes to developing mentally and physically healthy learners we have to include their intellectual health. The concept of intellectual health is somewhat nebulous and academics is not typically considered a health issue but by thinking about it in terms of health, perhaps we’ll do better in aligning it with our overall purpose of young people prepared to live, thrive and become contributing adults.

My research is anecdotal at best but I would still love to hear your voice around this matter. Speaking either for yourself, your district or colleagues, what is the readiness level of staff to re-engage with personal and professional learning? What obstacles or barriers still remain? What steps or structures have you seen that have supported a return to innovative practices and a desire to grow as a learner?

Two Things Are True

This is essentially what I’ve been trying to figure out for the past 18 months

The real truth is I’ve been trying to figure that out for the past 20 years, ever since I shifted from teaching children to teaching adults. As much as we try to model the classroom experience to adult learning, I realize that pedagogy and andragogy are different. This is true not only in terms of capacity and perspective but also the environment. Classrooms have the advantage of a daily connection. In lower elementary, it means you’re spending hours each day with each other. You have time to connect and build relationships which we know is essential. We also have learners whose primary job is to go to school to learn. When it comes to professional learning, it’s above and beyond their main job. Even when time during school is given, it’s extra, let alone the time it would take to prepare for a substitute teacher.

Even under normal circumstances, teacher well-being is tenuous. Today many would say we’re in crisis mode. And yet, the vast majority of educators enjoy and value the need for continued growth. After all, the mantra of lifelong learning is best modeled by those sharing it every day with their students. But it remains complicated. With that in mind, here are but a few of the over 100 responses I had to this query.

While responses vary, a few themes are clear. Choice and well designed experiences top the list. This is where things align perfectly with the classroom experience. I know I’ve been working hard to acheive these two elements with varying degrees of success. The other theme that emerges is a flat out call to reposition the role of professional learning

My response was to agree but also wonder if that means we are in no position to learn. I think about many people’s response to the early days of the pandemic. Some couldn’t read or go deep into any content, others found it a time to learn a new skill or hobby like searching for the best solitaire app. Like grief, we all handle things differently. I realize there are many teachers who cannot move beyond survival and that needs to be acknowledged and honored. At the same time, there are many who are seeking support and in need of specific coaching. Structurally, some districts are not able or willing to create space for teachers to learn.

I don’t disagree with any responses here and this one hits home as much of my work does touch on the ideas of deeper learning. As an organization, ALP has shifted much of our work to designing resources and supports that address urgent needs of educators without having to have them do much more than use our stuff. And yet, as I think about what excites me about professional learning is not the content but the relationships that are forged and the true desire to help people achieve their personal goals. That’s part of well-being.

I still think two things are true. But that’s about all I know.

Online VS In-Person Professional Learning

I had the privilege of sharing a session last month called “The Future of Professional Learning” based on these previous blog posts. Admittedly I’m still parsing out in my own mind these thoughts and this session was an opportunity to clarify my own thinking but will continue to evolve.

I’m not typically a big graphics guy but created these two images that I believe help to identify what the specific benefits are of both online and in-person professional learning. While some might argue that this is true for all learning, I do believe there are some significant differences between adult/professional learning and learning as it pertains to school and children. First, adults are there most often by choice. While there is still some obligatory professional learning, adults have more choices than most children. If you will like to boost you learning abilities, consider this adderall alternatives which can boost learning. Adderall is a prescription stimulant medication that is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). It helps to increase your capacity to pay attention, stay focused, improve listening skills, and also to control behavioral issues in more problematic cases. In some instances, it is also used to treat sleeping disorders like narcolepsy to help patients stay awake throughout the day. Secondly, adult learning differs from development learning and finally and I think most often overlooked is in most professional learning settings, the opportunity to build and create community is difficult in that we aren’t together daily and in the case of many elementary students for entire days on end. This means relationships, which are the foundation for school learning, will not play the same role. Each of these differences can probably be argued and discussed in terms of their impact and while there are certain individuals who might share unique experiences, they are by in large in need of consideration.

When it comes to online learning, we are certainly more acutely aware of what its benefits and downsides are. Never have educators been so immersed in online learning as this past year so we are all in better positions to consider what makes it work and what indeed are negative elements.

Flexibility: Being able to offer PL at all kinds of times, multiple times and recording sessions created lots of flexibility for learners.

Access to Experts: Not having to fly people in, meant that in many cases, learners were able to connect with a greater number of experts from a greater number of places than ever before.

Diverse Community: Participants were also able to connect with others they might not normally connect with because geography and expense were not as relevant. The ability to hear from voices you don’t normally hear from was a real possibility.

Affordable: Perhaps the most obvious advantage was the way in which we could still offer PL but at significant and in some case no cost.

Efficient: Eliminated travel, even at the local level means a meeting could start and end in an hour and you could return to other work and activities with no downtime.

Change of Environment: In-person learning usually means going somewhere you don’t normally spend time in. Even in a staff room or school library, that represents a change of location. In the same way we are currently talking more about learning spaces than ever before, meeting and learning in spaces designed for optimal engagement and participation matters.

Informal Conversations: Ask people their favourite part of a conference or workshop and they’ll often refer to the hallway conversations or coffee time with people. While not often built with intention, these elements of face to face learning are critical.

Fewer distractions: Unless you’re superhuman, checking in and out of online learning is almost the norm. This is not to say you can’t do the same in person, but it’s more difficult. In addition, the fact you have made an effort to be somewhere, typically makes you more accountable. Not always, but more so that in online settings.

Sensory Additions: This is harder to identify and quantify but online learning is limited to sight and sound. But the smell of the room, the taste of bad coffee and the feel of chart paper are elements of in-person learning that not only enhance your experience but are part of the community experience as well. See my Twitter thread.

As we think about how to choose the best and most optimal learning in the future, I think we ought to consider deeply the type of learning we want and what approach is most appropriate. Both are viable.


The Future of Professional Learning Part 1

While the pandemic is raising lots of questions about the future of schools and education and rightfully so, there isn’t much talk about the future of professional learning.

While virtual conferences and webinars have been around for a while, they only reached a small percentage of educators. Much like the early days of using technology in schools, the idea of virtual conferences and webinars was seen as pretty innovative. I recall presenting for Discovery Education’s Virtcon back in 2010 before I even worked for them. One of my personal watershed moments was listening to a keynote from David Weinberger back in 2005 and I recall thinking how wonderful it was that I was experiencing the same learning thousands of miles away as those sitting in the convention center in Philadephia. Today these events are commonplace. The beginning of the pandemic saw a deluge of online events and conferences as many scrambled to either replace scheduled in-person events or take advantage of people working remotely to offer learning directly related to remote teaching and learning.

9 months in and remote learning for students is still being met with mixed reviews and mostly leaning to the negative. No doubt this speaks to not simply the difficulty for schools and teachers to suddenly be proficient in what it makes to teach and learn in virtual settings but also because students need the belonging and more intimate relationships that are not adequate for many in online spaces.

I do think that virtual PD has had better success. Partly because it’s not as dependent on relationships and there are more options than face-to-face. That said, I’ve seen this kind of sentiment shared numerous times

Conferences and face-to-face professional learning aren’t going anywhere but I do wonder if we’ll be more intentional about what constitutes and justifies a great face-to-face experience and what can be highly effective as a virtual option?

I’ve had the privilege over the past few months leading a group of interested high school leaders from the Metro Vancouver area in a series of conversations about transforming the high school experience. We had anywhere from 120 to 200 participants for each session and these 2-hour sessions were largely putting them into small groups to discuss various issues they all were facing which might lead to something transformative for the future. Thinking about the idea of bringing all these people together would mean months of planning and preparation and huge costs both in dollars and time. The fact they could hop on for 2 hours and be fully engaged without driving anywhere is a pretty big benefit. I know most PD providers, including myself. are doing things virtually at a significantly reduced rate as well. There is no way we would have had this many opportunities to meet. Because the time was limited, it allowed people to commit and the richness of their conversations was very evident.

Once travel and gatherings are back to normal, I imagine there will be a craving to return to face to face events just like there will be a return to students in schools. I know many are exploring just exactly what schools might do differently to allow for more autonomy and take advantage of the benefits and affordances of technology and more specifically how it can empower learners. A similar but less urgent discussion will occur with regards to professional learning but not likely with the same intensity. I believe my own work with feature more virtual options both because it’s been experienced by a greater number of educators in the past 9 months but also because when done correctly, provides great benefits. Face-to-face gatherings I hope will be much more thought out and cherished. If people are going to travel or give up full days to learn, it will need to be a lot more than tolerating bad coffee and boring presenters sitting in small desks in poorly light classrooms.

I’ll be following this post up with some thoughts around both virtual and face to face experiences. But in the mean time, I’d love your thoughts on how your own thoughts on this topic may have evolved or changed since March.

This Is The Time

The spread of the Coronavirus is one of the most challenging things to happen to us as a society in a few generations, but it very well could turn out to be the best thing to happen to education in 100 years. While that’s a very difficult idea to process at the moment, looking ahead this could be a true turning point in education.

If you look back at education over the past 20, 30 or even 50 years there doesn’t seem to be any substantive shifts in the overall structures of learning, however, significant pressures on the system have become apparent: the pressures and ineffectiveness of standardized testing, the lack of relevance and boredom of students, the constraints of time, systemic inequities that negatively impact marginalized populations.  All of these things are being exposed today and recognized as major problems with our system. We’re constantly looking for examples that buck these trends and trying desperately in many cases to change education en mass. While to the greater public this is a relatively new discussion, I’ve been on this journey my whole life.

My life in education has been built around two main ideas: Technology and Joy. These two themes have been tied together in my mind for the past 30 years and during the current crisis, as we consider the role of learning in our lives, I would argue that these concepts are more important than ever.

This is the time to explore the advantages and disadvantages of learning online. As schools scramble to shift to online learning, what I’m seeing is a shift to a focus on online teaching. School systems are looking for ways to replicate the simplest and most basic level of education that is centred around sheer content delivery. I don’t intend to chastise anyone for this approach, but it reflects a rather a limited view of both technology and education; it’s a futile attempt to uphold pre-existing structures of teaching and learning. Online learning, while in existence for decades, is a brand new practice for the majority of classroom teachers. I would venture to guess that far fewer than half of all teachers have dabbled in creating any kind of online or even blended learning environment. There are many unique affordances with learning online but indeed we will recognize the downsides.

When I first began teaching online over 13 years ago, I remember someone using the apt analogy of playing a game of polo to describe the difference between teaching in a classroom and teaching online. As the metaphor goes, it would be like telling an expert polo player the game is the same, but instead of playing on a horse, they’ll be playing water polo. No big deal right? Obviously you can see that while the rules are similar, a completely different set of skills is required.

I think it’s important to also be very clear about the language we use to describe what’s happening now. This article clearly shows the difference between online learning and what we are currently doing now which is Emergency Remote Teaching. To that end, it’s important not to be tempted to evaluate and compare what will happen over the next few weeks and months to what’s been happening for years in higher education and K-12 with regard to courses and other blended experiences. It is not the same.

This is the time to understand the power of technology. When I think back to where technology stood 20 years ago, there was the prevailing attitude that it was a “nice but not necessary” thing for most schools. However, I was immersed in seeing its possibilities and the new potential to think about learning differently, always led by the question, “What is it that we can do with technology now, that we couldn’t otherwise accomplish before?” For me, it was never about the cool gadget or innovation for innovation’s sake. I truly wanted to see technology used to make us more human, not less. While most people don’t need convincing that technology has indeed potential, I’m not sure it’s fully accepted as the powerful tool it can be. Many districts still don’t provide educators with laptops and many also have been slow to define and support blended online learning. Today they are recognizing the gaps in their teachers around the comforts of learning and teaching online.

This is the time to foster community. When I was first asked to teach an online course, I remember being asked by a student two months before the start of class, “Can you send me all the assignments ahead of time?”. They believed online courses should be more or less like the old correspondence courses, where the work was totally independent of others and you could complete all the work the minute the course officially opened. Even at the time, I knew I didn’t want that to be my experience with my students. I wanted the idea of community and human connection to be fostered and seen as essential to the learning.

This is the time to explore joyful learning. The concept of joy remains central to the human experience and indeed is at the heart of the learning experience. Right now, more than ever, our children need to be calmed, reassured and encouraged to pursue learning as a joyful act. Teachers now need to play an integral role in this, more than ever before. While joy seems like a big ask in the current world, teachers are going to play a huge role in the social and emotional learning of children. I’m not talking about severe mental health or other diagnosed issues, but simply the well-being of their kids. Learning might be a distraction, as blasphemous as that sounds. Finding delight together will be an important way we can give each other hope and maintain the meaningful human connection that we had prior to this or perhaps a connection we’ll develop now.

This is the time to begin to address issues of equity. As our schools, states, provinces piece together some semblance of a plan to continue education, there is a great opportunity to do things differently. First and foremost we have to acknowledge the vast differences and inequities that exist. While equity has been a hot topic in recent times, we will see it at an even greater degree now. Obviously, access is an issue but even when it comes to families that have access, the one or two laptops at home are being used by Mom and Dad. Moreso than access is understanding the myriad of home environments and other needs that are out of our control. Experts fear child abuse may increase at this time. That’s scary stuff but we need to be aware this may be something we face. For all the negatives about compliance and uniformity, schools at least in part attempted to be an equalizer. No matter your status or background the premise was that all students were equal. I won’t argue this was flawed in many ways but today trying to teach students from there homes exposes the vast differences and equities that exist more than ever. There is no perfect solution here. But at the very least making meaningful connections with children and parents. is the most equitable thing we can do. We’re also seeing the myriad of responses of parents around what schools should be doing. Everything from “get started now” to “back off and give us space”. Pleasing everyone will be impossible and tensions are higher now than ever. Districts are treading carefully to address the range of wants and needs along with their own capacity to support this. Leaders have a very difficult job here. They need our support and so do teachers and parents and kids. We’re in this together and this is the one thing we all have in common. We won’t solve all the equity issues but getting more time to reflect will help us come face to face with the realities many of our students face every day. It’s a great time to see how much we’re alike as well as how much we’re different.

This is the time to give up control and embrace personal learning. Teachers have control of their students as they did while having 30 children in the same room. The range of support and access alone is complicated and overwhelming, let alone addressing the differences in students’ abilities and readiness to learn. So now, more than ever is the time to double down on individual and personal learning and toss the curriculum out the window. That’s not to suggest curriculum is the enemy or necessarily a problem but it does tend to rely on resources and also constraints and affordances of a classroom setting. Teachers have a hard enough time doing their current job without adequate resources and asking them to pivot to online spaces while delivering a curriculum modelled in a completely different learning environment is both nearly criminal and missing the opportunity at this moment to do something great. I love asking teachers this question, “If you were told that you didn’t have a curriculum, what would you teach?” Today this is not a hypothetical question, but rather, their new reality.

However, before we venture to restructure the learning process, we need to consider our relationships with students. If you are missing your students, it’s likely you have great relationships with them. They miss you too. At a minimum, finding ways to reach out – call, text, facetime – just to make sure they’re okay is job 1. If you don’t feel like you developed that kind of relationship with your students, now is the time to start building one – there has never been a better time! At this point, you should follow this idea:

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Let your students lead. When they are ready, this is the perfect time to let them follow their passions and interests. As the learning expert, you can be there to guide, support, encourage and question. I’ve long practiced self-assessment in my courses and there is no better time than to use this strategy. Whether you want to dive deeper into portfolios or even the idea of going gradeless, you may never have a better time to do so.

This is the time to rethink assessment. As mentioned, I’ve built my career in education around 2 themes and now is the time to understand and explore the intersection of technology and joy; to allow students to see more clearly than ever that learning is a human disposition, one that should not be directed by duty but rather by joy. As an educator, you have the gift of being able to watch your students pursue ideas and skills that interest them with no pressure to grade it. If it fails, it fails. You don’t have to know anything about project-based, or problem-based learning, you just have to be a caring adult who wants the best for children. I also recognize that some jurisdictions may still require traditional grading practices but at the same time, many are backing off on expectations. In either case, we can certainly add more reflective and self-assessment to our practice. I’ve had push back in the past saying reflection is time-consuming but that’s no longer an excuse. Helping our students and ourselves think deeply about their learning might never be easier than now.

This is the time to extend grace. This is virgin territory for everyone. Students, parents, teachers and leaders are all at zero when it comes to figuring this out. Mistakes will be made by everyone. Give people grace. Give students grace when they don’t know how or just don’t want to learn. Give parents grace when they can’t figure out how to support their kids or get frustrated. Give teachers grace as they try and navigate what an online classroom is supposed to be. Give leaders grace as they try and make the right decisions.

This is the time to prioritize well-being over all else. Perhaps this goes without saying and again I believe this is something that should be the case with or without a crisis but our message has to be loud and clear and ongoing: we care about you as a human first, learner second. As mentioned in the conversation about equity, we will have many students and families who need to know they are loved and cared for. You cannot ever say this too much. That said, well-being may include those opportunities to learn and perhaps be distracted from the day to day challenge of survival. It will be tempting for some and challenging to bypass this messaging or soften it because of your prior commitments to academic success. If that’s your culture, it needs to be tempered or modified at the very least.

I believe so strongly in this moment as an opportunity to change how we do school, that I believe it’s my duty to offer support to any schools and districts looking to seriously consider this as a great opportunity to reform practice. Having taught and developed online learning for that past 13 years, building community with thousands of educators, I know I can help you as an educator, school or district work through this transition. Specifically, I would love to support your teachers in:

  • Using simple tools to connect. (you don’t need a fully online classroom management system to teach and learn online)
  • Meeting students where they are. Essentially create IEPs.
  • Designing and co-creating learning experiences
  • Building community with your classrooms
  • Using self-assessment and gradeless approaches

If you’re interested or know someone who is, please send me a message and I’d love to continue this conversation: If you’re a district or school leader, I’m happy to create a specific proposal for you.

Above all, be safe my friends and colleagues, do what you can, and most of all take care of the human side of your children and students by bringing even just a modicum of joy into their lives – it’s needed now more than ever.