I Don’t Read Educational Books

My good friend George Couros gives me a hard time about this. He gives me a hard time about a lot of things. I like that. The truth is, it’s been a long time since I’ve read an educational book and in particular an educational book written in the last 5 years.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit and yet I hadn’t been able to fully articulate my own thinking on this until a recent conversation with Kristina Ishmael. (Disclaimer: We didn’t actually jump after we talked but we should have)

It’s not likely that it is because of a single reason so I’ll list a few. I’m not writing this to convince anyone of anything but perhaps this might alleviate some guilt folks about who for their own reasons, don’t find educational books particularly compelling. Keep in mind, I wrote a book and am grateful for those that have read it.

  1. I’m immersed in this work. Particularly in the last 10-15 years I’ve spent my work life not just as an educator, which I had for the previous 15 years, but immersed in conversation and thought around the topic. Unlike a classroom teacher, I’ve had the luxury of exploring lots of ideas and issues that most teachers can only do outside the regular day.
  2. Blogging. Creating a blog and writing opened up a brand new world for me. For me, connecting directly with others in the field offered a very personal, intimate, conversational way to learn. Books were limited and fixed ideas. Having direct access to authors spoiled me. Another aspect of blogging I value is that it’s highly personal. I like blogs that are specific and don’t try to make their learning universal. I like the unpolished, raw nature of blogging. Many times, when bloggers, including myself, write a book, the tendency is to make it less conversational and more prescriptive. Certainly, you can argue this isn’t always the case but too often people take their own learning and want so badly to make it accessible for others they resort to things like cute acronyms and frameworks that magically align to their learning. Again, I know they are just trying to be helpful and they certainly are helpful for many. I’m just voicing my own reality. I prefer folks sharing their learning in a less packaged way.
  3. I need another perspective. When your world revolves around education you can get pretty insular with the way you see the world. I take great pleasure in taking ideas that live outside of traditional education and seeing how they might be beneficial for classrooms and schools. I want to read someone who has had vastly different experiences than I’ve had.

Again, this is in no way a knock against all the great people who are writing and telling their stories through books. As someone who thinks of himself as a learner it would seem natural to be reading these books. So when I find myself disinterested, I need to ask why that is.

As a follow up to this post, I’ll share what it is I am reading .

Bad PD is Sometimes Your Own Fault

Pro tip: If you want to make a group of teachers laugh, show them this image:

You can even change “staff meeting” to “PD session” and get the same results. Professional Development/Learning is to teachers what school is for many students. Ask a random group of students what they think of school and you’re sure to get answers related to boring or worse. it’s almost cliche. It’s also kinda cool to say school sucks.

While it may be cool to suggest that PD sucks and yes, it sometimes does, I think the difference between how students experience school and how teachers experience PD is different at least in 2 ways. First, as teachers, we chose our profession. Secondly, it is our job to model and be good learners.

Maryellen Weimer offers 7 characteristics of what makes someone a good learner. Along with being curious, and open-minded, I’d add they are willing to embrace some dissonance. The best learners can learn something from almost any experience. That’s partly what makes them a good learner.

There has certainly been an awakening in teaching that suggests teachers ought to be master learners, learners first and other statements which shifts education from being focused on teaching to focusing on learning and what it means to learn.

Along with this shift, student agency has become a recent pursuit: getting students to own their learning. This is a challenge given that school is still very much prescribed. The reality is adults still have most of the controls and variables around learning. While this might be concerning, it’s also a response to the nature of childhood. Younger students require more guidance and direction and in theory, a gradual release of responsibility and ownership should occur as students move towards adulthood.

We presume adults should be able to manage and control their own learning. Yet of course, in education, theory and practice don’t always match. I’ve been speaking and writing about autonomy and trust for a while. When it comes to Professional Development/Professional Learning we still have a ways to go.

And yet.

I try my best to avoid absolutes in statements, thus the word “sometimes” is intentionally used in the title of this post. It’s obvious that some PD experiences and events are better than others. Katie Martin suggests it’s also important to re-define PD. People complain about boring speakers, lack of engagement and irrelevance as primary factors that make PD bad. These certainly exist but I also think that speakers, presenters or experiences need not always take the blame. Sometimes our expectations are misplaced. Here are some factors that often contribute to poor experiences:

Time: I often struggle when I’m asked to do an hour presentation. The reality is, an hour isn’t usually going to be life-changing and I fear that both presenters and sometimes participants expect that it might. Conferences and PD events typically use these small chunks of time and meaningful learning is really difficult.  I’ve been guilty of complaining about the lack of depth by some presenters. I need to be more gracious in understanding their limits and the limits of time.

Community: A very common complaint of PD sessions is that they are “sit and git” and do not reflect what good teaching ought to look like. Valid point. However including “hands-on” activities should at least consider who the learners are. A good teacher designs learning to meet her students’ needs. When you’re presenting at a conference or even in a district, many times you have no idea who the people in the room are. In addition, your lack of relationship means you can’t dive into many things that typically require building relationships and trust. Yes, there are some things you can do but you also have a lot of limitations. Participants need to understand this.

Context:  Related to community, it’s difficult to know the context of your audience. People sharing their experience in a rural, elementary context might not seem relevant to a high school teaching in an urban setting. Often when these differences are revealed, participants tend to shut down and begin to dismiss ideas. Presenters also have a difficult time making their ideas broad and relevant to every person.

I suppose the one big idea I’m nattering on about here is that each of us needs to take some responsibility for our learning. It’s easy to blame others but good learners can find truths, ideas and wisdom in almost any circumstance.  That’s why we read books about business, go to movies, have conversations with people who aren’t in education and take those ideas and learn to apply them to our situations.  The best learners can find truths and ideas in all situations.

What examples do you have of being able to turn a bad or perhaps seemingly irrelevant PD session and finding value for yourself? Conversely, if you offer PD, how do you tackle some of the issues I’ve shared?

Lessons From 70+ Ignites

Over the past 18 months, I’ve hosted 8 Ignite Events as part of my role as Community Manager for Discovery Education. If you’re not familiar with these events, here’s a brief invitation I created for our upcoming event in Vancouver.

I’ve heard superintendents, principals, teachers, community members and students share over 70 of these talks. Mostly hosted in pubs or restaurants, there are several factors that make this one of the best networking/learning events I’ve been a part of.

  • Location: The fact we hold them in a pub is important. It’s purposely not in a school and not just because people can drink, although that can helpful. 😉 An offsite location immediately relaxes people, let’s them know this isn’t necessarily work related as well it represents a neutral meeting space. In addition, the less fancy, the better. Each location has had its challenges in terms of viewing screens and hearing speakers but those constraints actually make people work harder to support one another.
  • Social first, learning second: The order is important. In most professional learning environments, social is at best acknowledged, at worst ignored. Our focus is on the networking. We create time and space to have conversations. For many participants, it’s the awakening to the idea that learning can be social and professional. Many say they’ve never experienced an event like it before.
  • Stories, not performances. I gave an Ignite talk at ISTE a few years back. That was a performance. People didn’t want me to mess up. I didn’t want to mess up. I rehearsed every word. I practiced my timing and cadence. At my events, we want the focus to be on the story and community. We expect people to mess up. We laugh with them, we cheer them on, we applaud, we talk about them later.
  • Diversity rules. I work hard each event to have as many educational perspectives represented. I’ve had 9-year-olds follow Superintendents. All voices are considered equal. Even the topics are diverse. Some folks talk about their classrooms and schools, others talk about their personal lives. The binding them is discovery and curiousity.

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My goal with each event is to grow community. The wonderful role I have with Discovery Education is to continue the mission we have to connect educators with their most valuable resource: each other. This is one way we do that. Watch for an Ignite event heading your way.

Professional Learning is Messy

Many people say learning is messy. But is professional learning messy?

There seems to be an ongoing search by districts and teachers for the best kind of professional learning. That’s a bit like searching for the best kind of food. I appreciate the need to provide better learning opportunities but like food, there is a wide range of learning that is essential or preferred depending on the learning and the learner.

When it comes to student learning, we often hear, “hands-on” or active learning is the best. If we’re talking about professional learning, it’s similar but now we might hear about job-embedded learning as being a preferred or optimal type. Job-embedded learning is associated with results. Results are important but they aren’t the only outcomes we should be seeking in our learning. Or at least, we shouldn’t ignore that many kinds of learning occurs before results might ever be considered.

This recent  quote from Will Richardson about learning makes me think:

if learning is measured by a desire to learn more, to continue learning, then the focus is on creating the conditions for that to happen

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Those conditions are created in a variety of ways and indeed the new role of the educator is to design these environments. For our teachers, that desire usually doesn’t begin with a job embedded experience. Job-embedded learning is about implementing specific strategies or pedagogies. Often the job embedded approach is often a top down mandate and even when it’s not, without the desire for the teacher to learn more, the learning is in question. When I think about my own learning, I’ve experienced a plethora of events, moments and conditions that have fueled my desire to learn more. Most of my significant learning has been as a result of connecting with smart people and their passion and expertise, It’s made me want to learn more. Books, articles, conversations and lectures have all been means by which I’ve been influenced and challenged. Often times afterward, I reflect, practice and act on the ideas of these smart people. When it comes to events it’s often lectures at conferences when I get a chance to spend time just listening. The act of listening remains one of the best ways we learn, particularly when dealing with complex, engaging ideas. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to talk with them, ask questions. But more than likely, if the ideas are provocative enough, I’ll need time to reflect and revisit the ideas and then begin to implement them. The idea of job embedded is likely not the first thing to consider and yet, I don’t think there’s a recipe or order that must be followed. With all the emphasis lately on creation over consumption, I worry that we’ve forgetton how important and necessary it is just to listen to others.

Obviously as someone who frequently speaks to audiences, I would hope that what I do helps to create conditions for people to want to take action and learn more. But the truth is, I’m doing the least amount of learning. This seems to go against some folks who suggest that the person doing the talking is doing the learning. I am doing some learning, but the bulk of my learning was done before I stood up in front of an audience. That’s why I love listening to smart people. They’ve done the work, they’ve done the learning and now they’re sharing it with me.

The reality is learning is messy. Professional learning is messy too. It’s not a sequential journey. It’s a hodge podge of ideas, conversations, time to work alone, time to work together, insights from colleagues and outside voices with perspectives we’ve never before considered. Most learning is like that. Many districts and teachers hate that notion. As districts and teachers consider professional learning, I hope they get more comfortable with this messiness. I hope they’ll search out smart people to learn from and with and I hope they’ll find opportunties to embed practices and then keep going back for more ideas not because they have to but because they have a desire to grow and learn more.

This shouldn’t be seen as a lesser form of learning. And yet it seems that we’ve devalued this form but using disdain when referencing it. “Sit and git” or lecture-based learning is generally seen as the lowest form of learning. While this can’t be the only kind of learning, it remains essential for growth. Listening need not be passive. It’s only passive if the content or the delivery is boring. But good listeners can overcome some of that to glean ideas and concepts that challenge and inspire.

We need all kind of opportunities. All learning is messy. We need to recognize and create times to be quiet and times to speak, times to act and times to sit still. What smart people do you listen to, to increase your desire to learn more? How do you and your leadership create conditions and opportunities for you to listen?

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Encouraging Ownership

After every course I teach I receive an evaluation from my students. Typically 80% or higher provide with highly positive feedback. 10% are indifferent and 10% are less than satisfied. Most of the dissatisfaction revolves around lack of structure and and timelines. This is partly my personal flaws and partly student preference and partly a communication failure. I take these evaluations seriously and don’t dismiss these critiques but really do try to improve. I need to get better. But….

As I try and create more ownership and agency for students, my efforts to empower them is the thing I need to really work on. How do I get my students to “own their learning”? Consider what ownership means and check this home for sale near me. When considering home ownership in Utah, it’s essential to factor in various aspects, including the logistics of relocating. Engaging with Utah moving services can streamline the transition process, ensuring a smooth journey into your new home.

A Renowned Developer is launching Family-Sized Home North Gaia EC at Yishun Avenue 9 EC. When you own your house, you can complain about the manufacturers of your home for its flaws but ultimately you’ll need to consider and act upon things that aren’t working. Sometimes you do it yourself, sometimes you ask for help, but either way as an owner you take action. Even if you ask for help, you are responsible they do the work and do it well.

Today I saw this tweet:

Change the word “conference” to class or event. I agree. I don’t want people to feel that way. But…

One question to ask your students or yourself is “Do you feel empowered?” As much as I want to design spaces that make are conducive to great learning but ultimately I don’t own the learning. I do take responsibility for creating the space but I quickly invite my students to own it as well. It becomes a co-op. Some students quickly move in and start to move the furniture around. Others sit quietly and are either afraid or not interested in taking charge. As host, I want them to feel welcome, I want them to feel comfortable enough to ask a question or suggest a change. When they don’t feel this, that’s my failure.

Filter Failure

I go back to a quote from Clay Shirky:

I’ve used this example before but when you enter a library you don’t say, “How will I ever read all these books?” We come to a library either with a specific purpose or the knowledge of how to find things or find someone who can help us. The library sits as a resource that inherently empowers the user and acts as a facilitator of learning. In some respects this is what our classroom/events should be like. We all understand how a library works and what the roles and responsibilities they hold. As classrooms and events shift, these roles are blurring.

With regard to conferences, formats like edcamp reflect this blur. These events are explicitly about empowering learners. That’s why the event resonates with teachers. It represents a shift from directed professional learning.  You design your learning and take advantage of all the resources. The first time you attend it’s weird. People are encouraged to leave sessions they aren’t interested in. They are asked to contribute. It’s about community and collaboration. Those two ideas have not been valued or necessary in traditional classrooms or conferences when the locus of control is with the teacher or speaker.

I need my students to ask questions and say things like:

“This makes no sense”
“Can you tell me how I can make this better?”
“I don’t think this assignment is very helpful, can I do something else”?

I need to do a better job empowering my students. Some of my students do feel this way and ask these questions. Others do not. I use to think it’s a learning style issue and that some students need and require more structure. I’m not so sure now. It may be a mindset and perception and expectation of what education should be. Some think of it as a contract. They see themselves as consumers and teachers are selling a product. They either buy it or they don’t.  I’m trying to create a community where everyone has a stake and responsibility. The ultimate goal is empowerment. Sometimes structure and scaffolding can lead to that, but that scaffolding still requires student input. The more you are the sole creator of this structure, the less ownership the learner has. You perpetuate the idea of expert and novice. Yes, there are some types of learning and situations where the learner is without any background knowledge but this is rare. Most of us come to new learning with some background, some familiarity and this is what a great host/teacher does. They help them see those connections and use background knowledge to build upon.

When you hear words like “overwhelmed” I wonder about who is responsible for this feeling.  Feeling overwhelmed usually comes from not understanding or too many choices. When I speak or teach a class, I’ll take some of that responsibility. Like a library, I need to give people multiple entry points and explicit ways for my audience and students to take the reigns of learning and make meaning.  What usually solves this problem is conversations.  I need to have more and better conversations with my students. If you’re at a conference, you need to seek out people to help you work out ideas. The word “engagement” is often used passively. We expect engagement to happen because of something that’s done to us and not so much something we do.

education we create

This is what I’m going for.

PS. Let’s say you read this post and you think “this makes no sense” or “there’s something missing here” or “he’s wrong” and you don’t leave a comment, you kind of prove my point. I want my blog to be a community space where we learn together. If you have a complaint or suggestion but offer no comment, either I didn’t make it clear I want you to contribute or you see yourself solely as a consumer of this post. Or you’re just lazy. 😉