Conversations from the Edge

Conversations from the Edge is a series of raw, honest and candid dialogues about education’s shifting learning landscape. Hosted by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson.

Dear Sheryl,

As always, you have me thinking. The idea of a “virtual” school built on the self-learning concepts of the Independent Project within a real school is intriguing to me on a number of levels, not the least of which is the marriage of the face to face learning environment with the online. As the ideas you’ve developed in PLP articulate, there are many contexts for learning today, not just physical space places which are still important, but now the anytime, anywhere, anyone contexts which the Internet supports. There’s no question that in the short term at least (and maybe the long term, too), schools as spaces will maintain their importance in our communities. But the idea that we go to school to learn outside of school intrigues me. We need to give our students a path to inhabit those spaces not just in a social sense but in a real learning sense, discovering, applying and creating new knowledge to their real life passions in ways that could change the world. We really need to begin to rethink the school space on every level. And I think it could be doable, provided, as you suggest, the mentoring “teachers” the kids get connected to are there to learn for themselves and to become part of the process. I know I play with the words more than I should, but what if we assembled a “learning staff” rather than a “teaching staff,” a group of adults who are experts not at content but at learning, at personalizing the process for each individual child? And generalists who can not only help point them in the right direction regardless their need but motivate them to dig deeper and harder when the going gets tough.

And I agree on the assessment piece as well. A few weeks ago, I got to visit Poughkeepsie Day School where Josie Holford is the head, a place where (sit down before you read the next part) there are no grades. Seriously…no grades. Shockingly, however, kids that graduate from there actually go on to college. One even “made it” to Princeton. Amazing, huh? ;0) I didn’t get a chance to ask more about it, but briefly Josie said the kids get narrative reports from teachers, do performances and self-assessment, and that all seems to suit everyone just fine. I’ve been thinking a lot about how at the end of the day, performance is really the only assessment that’s important. Can you do it? And if not, what do you need to be able to do it? Helping kids understand how to do that for themselves and really deeply reflect on their performance is something that schools seem to struggle with, for obvious reasons.

You’re right, however; you are the optimist in this duo. I wonder, can it happen? Can we really remove the barriers to learning (rather than create them) in ways that teachers and parents and the businessmen and politicians who have been bastardizing the definition for the last 50 years will support and encourage? Can we really move the conversation to where it needs to be, away from a Common Core and another layer of one-size-fits-all assessment to a place where each child is celebrated as a unique learner, not a cog in the machine? I hope we collectively can do that. I love this quote from Seymour Papert which Sylvia Martinez used in a recent blog post: “for those of us who want to change education the hard work is in our own minds, bringing ourselves to enter intellectual domains we never thought existed. The deepest problem for us is not technology, nor teaching, nor school bureaucracies. All these are important but what it is all really about is mobilizing powerful ideas.” Amen. And I also know that we “cannot not change the world.” The future is not something that is preordained, that we have no control over. In fact, we have the ultimate control if we find a way to act collectively.

So, is it time for a wiki? ;0)

About the author
Will Richardson is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice and an internationally-respected author, speaker and blogger whose focus is helping educators realize the potential of Web 2.0 technologies in their own personal and professional practice and in their classrooms. Will writes the blog Weblogg-ed and you can follow him on Twitter at @willrich45. Read more about Will here.