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 Will,

You know better than anyone that I am an optimist. I truly do see possibilities more than problems.

Well, I woke up this morning feeling empty. I woke up grieving for children. I blame it on a dream I had. A dream about unhappy students, hundreds of them, shuffling through halls with broken spirits and sad faces. Students who were disenfranchised and unempowered, who were doing what it took to get through school (all 12 years of it) because it is a mandate- required by parents, society and the state. Beautiful, creative, kids who learn so much naturally out of school but remain uninspired in school by teachers who have failed them. These same teachers also feel betrayed by a system that has left them disempowered as well. One that has ripped away their dreams of changing the world one kid at a time. The system is broken and it is going to take hard work to fix it… to reculture it…to transform it.

A Dream Come Real
I know it was a dream – or was it? I found myself wondering if the hard work we are both doing through our workshops, keynote presentations and Powerful Learning Practice is making a real difference. I woke up feeling frustrated that many with whom I learn daily, seem to, especially as of late, want an easy button. They simply do not have the passion or the drive to go deep. They give all the right excuses. “Right” meaning seemingly justified. Excuses like I have no time, I’m just a teacher, it’s out of my hands, we have to teach to the test, we have AP exams we have to prepare kids for, I need more, there isn’t enough money, the kids are not capable of learning on their own in passion based ways, the kids have to be policed, working conditions suck, the culture hasn’t shifted, we do not have the resources or technology, our parents won’t let us, they don’t seem to care, and on and on and on. I hear things like “I am trying to have powerful conversations but no one is talking back” or “these just aren’t my conversations” or “I am just not interested.”

Learner Led Communities

I know part of the answer to re-envisioning education comes in the learning communities we are creating – deep, sustained, communities that have hard, messy conversations and become safe places where we ask controversial questions that push for positive change. But part of the problem is getting participants to buy in and make time and truly commit to spending time in community, building trust and learning together. It takes time and energy and folks have to understand it is developmental. The shift will come if they will invest themselves, the very best part of themselves.

It will require a shift in dispositions, beliefs, and values. Such as these (from my soon to be published co-authored book on connected learning):

Dispositions of a Connected Learner

1. Propensity for and understanding of strengths-based appreciative approaches to learning;
2. Tendency for mindfulness (paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally);
3. Commitment to understanding, gained through listening and asking good questions related to practice;
4. Perseverance toward deep thought, demonstrated by exploring ideas and concepts, rethinking, revising, and continual repacking and unpacking, resisting urges to finish prematurely;
5. Courage and initiative to engage in discussions on difficult or messy topics;
6. Willingness to leave one’s comfort zone to experiment with new strategies;
7. Commitment to deep reflection about the efficacy of the work we do;
8. Inclination toward being open-minded and non-judgmental;
9. Dedication to the ongoing development of expertise;
10. Ardor for a culture of collegiality – that “None of us is as good as all of us” and that the contributions of all can lead to improved practice.

The disillusionment is pervasive though. I see educators everywhere so unhappy. And I see students, masses of students, so unhappy. Everyday, it seems, we all go to school because we have to go. Twitter lights up on a snow day. Something is wrong when educators are as excited as students at the prospect of a snow day. What happened to passion? What happened to teachers motivated by a daily drive to inspire their students?

I love what Joe Bowers says: “True accountability would demand that we ask children if they like school; then we would have to care about their answer – and be prepared to do something about it. Where interest lies; achievement follows. “

It is true — teaching to someone’s weaknesses only produces mediocrity. It is when we work through our strengths and our passions that we can achieve excellence. That’s appreciative learning.

Dream School
I have been dreaming lately, dreaming about starting a school, a place where kids can ask questions and follow their passions. A place where caring adults create the conditions where deep learning can thrive and are willing to get out of the way and let it happen. A place where we value what all learners have to offer teachers and students.

This school is a blended place with inquiry occurring both online and face to face. A school, like a lab school, where others could see self-directed learning in action. Then today I came across the Independent Project. Have you seen the clip at the bottom of this post? Please watch the whole thing and then let’s talk. I am thinking maybe we could start our dream school as a school within schools. What if the Powerful Learning Practice school was an opt-in program that traditional schools had for their students? Just like some schools have virtual classes as part of the choices they offer kids, what if this kind of self directed learning experience was also an option and it was supported by a connected learner experience online as well. Maybe we should reach out to our PLPeep schools and start there? This way it could serve a two-fold purpose. It could be part of our PLP Connected Learner School, and it could serve as the spark that shifts culture in the physical school where it resides in an authentic way — from the inside out. What do you think?

The Evolution of the Teacher

As teachers and educators, we have to shift from doing things TO students and instead create a dynamic learning environment where students take ownership of their own learning and pursue it passionately. In a connected world, with the Internet and powerful digital technologies literally at our fingertips, we would be foolish not to integrate those things into the learning experience. But when I talk about the shift, I am not talking primarily about changing the tools we use. I’m talking about transforming the way most teachers teach today – either because they were taught to teach that way or because the accountability system makes them believe they have to teach that way.

This is going to require a pedagogical shift. Assessment will become a proactive process embedded in learning itself. Rather than just telling us about the quality of the teaching, assessment will be designed to help the learner understand how to improve and learn more. The shift will require much more from teachers than just throwing out a few clarifying questions. When we let learning rule the school structure, teachers will have to evolve into much more than the delivery vehicle – the person who simply deconstructs knowledge into small, bite sized pieces that can be memorized and regurgitated on tests. Rather, teachers will become connected coaches who understand how to use appreciative inquiry to help students construct and validate their own learning.

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During a 25-year education career, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor and digital learning consultant. Sheryl is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice, where she works with schools and districts from around the world to re-envision their learning cultures and communities through the Connected Learner Experience and other e-learning opportunities. She is the author (with Lani Ritter Hall) of The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age (Solution Tree, 2012) and serves on the ISTE Board of Directors.
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