Sunday, February 28, 2016

What if we designed our learning spaces for learning?

Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time in a showroom focused on school furniture. Along with traditional school furniture, there were many other alternatives that embraced the flexible learning spaces that our students deserve. The showroom had colors, fabrics, multi-use chairs and tables, and utilized wall space as whiteboards through the use of whiteboard paint.  It was hard to not feel inspired by the use of space and design. All I wanted to do was begin to draw on the walls and the many other spaces meant for people to leave their mark.

Ultimately, the conversation led to cost and budgets. They then led to whether we were preparing students for colleges which have not necessarily embraced these types of learning spaces. Conversations also revolved around the need to have spaces for students to take the multitude of state tests and their ridiculous requirements, and lastly, the reality of the structure and limitations of the size of the classrooms that currently exist.

At one point I found myself mumbling under my breath "Why can't we ever, just once, start from the potential of the learning space?"

It would be easy to take each of these factors and toss them out the window as complaints, but they aren't. They are the current reality of many schools and educators which are still structured for the 20th-century factory model of schools.   It can be challenging to envision learning spaces that are flexible, colorful, and design focused when we are stuck in schools that resemble factories both inside and out. And while it is a chicken and egg scenario, the limitations above can sometimes keep educators from taking risks.

Consistently public schools are "stuck" trying to serve higher education through outdated, highly structured, and content driven curriculum, focus on achievement on tests like the SAT and AP, and even instructional strategies such as the lecture. The domino effect implications of higher education expectations consistently shape and limit the learning potential in public schools across the United States. At the same time, public schools rarely have the courage to buck the system and build schools and design classrooms for the instruction, culture, and academics our students deserve.

The furniture discussion is just a microcosm of how preparing students for college and career readiness place ceilings on learning for our students.   It is also the place where we have been attracted to the bells and whistles which lead to wasteful spending instead of thoughtful design. Every classroom with an interactive projector, class sets of laptops and tablets must be a place where learning occurs, right?  It is easy to be distracted by the gigantic interactive tv's that will be obsolete in two years or the computer enabled tables that provide little to no collaborative learning experiences for our students.  We set our sights on things instead or processes, devices instead of learners.

In so many ways, whiteboard walls (or just large whiteboards in general), magnetic walls (better yet, magnetic whiteboards), or lots of corkboards can transform a classroom space with very little waste in expense. The focus should always be on the design process and the learning that occurs, not on the expensive technology or furniture. New furniture is nice and can change the culture and vibe of space, but until we remember that the most important person in the room IS the room, we may never see the kind of learning we hope to see.

While school board, administrator, and teacher perspectives are incredibly important, decisions on furniture, devices, and other resources often leave out the most important stakeholders. As we were driving back from the showroom, our tech director (@kuzojoe) asked the most important question of all: "What kinds of learning spaces do you think our students would want? What kinds of furniture would they like to have? "

What if we asked our learners how they wished to learned? What if we designed our learning spaces for learning?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What if we valued curiosity?

Along with many awesome things he shared today, George Couros (@gcouros) made the following statement in his #pete2016 keynote:

"If a child leaves our schools less curious than when they started, we have failed." - G. Couros

This might be the greatest condemnation of most schools or school systems.  How many of us can truly claim, let alone quantify, that a majority of our students graduate more curious than when they started as a child?

The dictionary definition is pretty fantastic in that it defines curiosity as a strong desire to know or learn something. I guarantee there are a plethora of  district mission statements out there that use the phrase "life-long learner" and yet do not consider how their  policies, choices, and actions completely drain the curiosity out of their children.   Grading practices, teacher focused instructional practices, and heavy-handed curriculum emphasizing coverage over learning are all examples of things completely in our locus of control  which  remove the love of learning from our students. 

Sadly, the second definition of curiosity is more of the norm in our classrooms and schools. Far too few of us are embracing student driven learning through passion/project/problem based learning.  We continue to complain about the disengaged and distracted learners amongst us while not acknowledging our own culpability in killing the love of learning.  When Will Richardson writes about the nostalgia for school, he is referring to our consistent faith and belief that our own schooling wasn't so bad.  To those who think it wasn't so bad, ask yourself this question: How many times did you get to choose what you wanted to learn, in the ways you could learn best, and show what you learned in the way that was determined by you, the learner? Did any of your schooling reflect the type of learning you do as an adult? Me neither.

Many of us chuckle when we see memes like this:

 Are we still laughing when it says this? 

I believe that our job as educators is to empower our students to be eternally curious. They can't be curious sitting behind a desk. And they certainly can't be curious when we are constantly telling them what to think, do, or say.  

Our classrooms and schools are a direct reflection of what we value.
What if we valued curiosity? 

Monday, February 22, 2016

What if we stopped complaining and started doing?

I had an opportunity to meet and speak with someone whom I have long admired today. George Couros writes and reflectively shares his thoughts on leadership and learning on his blog, through social media  (@gcouros) and in his book  "The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity". What I have often admired about George is that he writes and speaks practically, openly and honestly. He blogs often. He makes time to reflect and he makes time to lead through building relationships.

It's been awhile since I have attended an ed-tech conference for a multitude of reasons, but chief among them is what I have perceived as the increased "self-promotion" of individuals and the exploding capitalism of learning by ed tech companies. Around every corner, there is always a person or product willing to take your money and solve your problems for you. There is also no shortage of people who will showcase how amazing and transformative something is without actually being able to provide evidence of the impact on student learning.   This is also one of the reasons why I have shied away from the use of social media altogether in recent months.

Meeting George face to face actually gave me a sense of guilt and shame because he is one of those people who I believe actually walks the talk. My shame stems from the fact that I often don't make the time to write and reflect. My guilt stems from the fact that I don't participate and share the way I believe we all have an obligation to do. Sadly, I spent most of the early parts of our conversation complaining about lots of things instead of engaging in meaningful conversation.  As I became aware of my overt negativity, we chuckled and George even commented that I should change my twitter handle to @bitchychad. ( I looked it up and no one has used it yet. Maybe we can get it trending.) But in that moment, I also realized how much time and energy I have wasted complaining instead of doing.  Even in a moment such as this, instead of focusing on potential, instead of learning about how to be the change, instead of learning from someone with expertise, I was fixated on sharing my frustrations. I can't say it was one of my prouder moments.

This realization has implications on my perceptions of social media and conferences. When we only see the negative, when we only see the problems, we miss the beauty and the opportunities all around us. I often think of a white sheet of paper with a tiny black dot in the middle of it. How often do we focus on the black dot instead of the vast, white, clean paper ready to be transformed?   How often do we only see the negative in our classrooms, schools, or communities? How much time do we spend focusing on the problems instead of celebrating and working at the opportunities in front of us?

And if I am being truly open and honest, I think it's how many of us waste a lot of our time and energies. We consistently kick the can down the alley: blaming others, blaming our circumstances, and blaming the system.  There is no doubt that there are hurdles to overcome. There is no doubt that there are systems in place that make it challenging. But they aren't impossible circumstances to overcome and the hurdles aren't impossibly high to get over. We have to stop admiring the problems. For some of us, it would mean we might have to admit that we aren't good enough yet. For others, we would have to acknowledge that it is going to take a lot of work to get to where we want to be. And for others still, it would mean looking deeply at why we are avoiding moving forward.

Tomorrow, I am excited that George will keynote #petec2016 and spend some time sharing many of his thoughts, ideas, and perspectives on leading and learning in funny, engaging, and provocative ways. And I will listen, not focused on what can't or won't happen, but by recognizing that there is potential for every student, every teacher, every administrator, every board member, and every parent and community member to do amazing things for our schools and our community.  I hope to get him to sign his book for me, even if he does sign it  "for @bitchychad".

What would we gain if we stopped complaining and just started doing together?