With the rise of MOOCs, Edupunks, and other radically transformative notations of school, I hear a lot of talk about building capacities for independent learning in our students. Where will this come from, I ask, if we do not re-awaken the desire and capacity for learning on our own within all of our teachers?
This may not be as difficult as it sounds, if we revive a much beloved learning tool from childhood: Show and Tell.
The Importance of Passionate Play
I don’t know about you, but I loved Show and Tell. I couldn’t wait to bring my favorite doll (a Maori child in custom garb my father had brought back from New Zealand) or book or seashell to class. I squirmed in my seat as I listened to my classmates and waited for my chance to share.
I also loved Show and Tell because it presented learning as play rather than chalkboard or workbook instruction, and because we sat in a circle rather than in long lines facing the front of the class. I loved Show and Tell because it involved telling friends about something special we had learned all by ourselves.
Play, if you think about it, is fundamentally self-directed. When we play, we willingly fail; we embrace trial and error. Play encourages openness and risk-taking, what-if thinking and connection building. Show and Tell gives its participants a forum for telling the story of our play and experimentation with the things we are most passionate about.
Yet when do teachers have the opportunity to feel the kind of freedom and exhilaration that comes from sharing their learning passions?
The closest I’ve come stands out as one of the best professional development experiences I’ve known: a FedEx Day (celebrated by Dan Pink in his book Drive and now called ShipIt Days by Atlassian, the company that invented them), in which we carved out time for teachers to pursue a passion and report back “overnight.” We were moved by our librarian’s story of returning to watercolor painting for the first time since her children had been born decades earlier. We were inspired by another teacher’s determination to learn how to combine Skype with a Promethean board lesson, two technologies he had never used before. Most of all, we felt the passion of exploration and creativity that we wished to ignite in our students.
The Importance of Sharing
Teaching is a closed-door profession. We spend most of our days isolated in our classrooms, trying this or that strategy with our students, and rarely seeing our colleagues’ work or discoveries. Even worse, teaching culture dictates that talking about our successes means showing off and that relating our failures is tantamount to professional suicide.
Teacher Show and Tell pushes against that closed-door culture by institutionalizing sharing. It forces reflection by the presenters and instills a mood of collegial exchange. In the end, it also places a high value on self-directed learning by asking us to be accountable for our time and to our colleagues.
Ways to Share
One version of this kind of Show and Tell might take the form of a Pechakucha presentation or a “Web 2.0 Smackdown,” a technique I learned from attending Edubloggercon at ISTE. Participants are given a brief period, say five minutes or less, to share a lesson or present a tool and demonstrate how it can be used in the classroom (this is great for sharing apps, for example, but need not be limited to them). This volcanic eruption of sharing showers the audience in take-away ideas and generates plenty of molten positive energy. Both of these ideas are easily adapted (or mashed up) to suit different situations or inclinations.
When we learned to Show and Tell as children, we were encouraged to be original and individual. We were encouraged to share our passions for eclectic interests and independent learning. Teachers need to find the chutzpah to create such events, in or out of the school building, where that childhood passion for learning might be rekindled. Administrators need to demonstrate and encourage such play, and to structure time for sharing in an atmosphere of positive exchange. (Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall offer practical advice for finding ways to create learning time for teachers in their book The Connected Educator, Learning and Leading in the Digital Age.)
Before we can truly build lasting capacities for independent learning in our students, we should first direct our efforts to draw upon capacities for independent learning in ourselves and our colleagues. If we make time for more Show and Tell PD, infectious learning will result.
Susan Lucille Davis teaches middle school language arts at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Houston Texas. She also teaches critical reading online for the Center for Talented Youth of Johns Hopkins University. Susan is a regular blogger for Getting Smart and can be found on Twitter @suludavis.