The Phygitals have Arrived — A Generation for this Century

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The phygital generation or Gen Z finds manipulating virtual reality paddles or headsets, entering an AR world, snap chatting with a friend, or posting an IG story as comfortable as playing a game of soccer under a lighted night, dancing with friends, reading a paper book, shopping with a parent or swinging high in the playground.

Learning spaces today aren’t all physical. Kids today locate themselves in space that is multidimensional, sometimes without walls, sometimes without solid artifacts, sometimes without another “bones and muscle” human.

They move with ease across boundaries, more interested in activity than watching. They are the #experiencedesign generation, kids who want to hack, invent, participate, infuse, create, and connect with their artifacts, memories, ideas, opportunities, communities. Place is just where they happen to be in the moment. Learning is not limited to school or home. Community is not limited to church or soccer practice or the cafeteria. Identity is not limited to demographic check boxes on a census form.

Phygitals value experiences as much as, if not more, than material possessions. They like to make learning – not just receive learning. They return us to our roots as humans because they value the power of story – as told through graphic novels, video games, or one-sitting, asynchronous, multi-device accessible video series. They have moved well beyond their grandparents’ Saturday night at the movies or weekly Tuesday night sitcom episode.

They care about their own wellness and that of the planet. They believe community matters and taking care of community is as important in distant physical places as it is to the people in their hometowns. It’s why, from my perspective, young people in so many school communities across the nation extend themselves to fundraise or collect donations for those impacted by disaster. They also don’t limit themselves to local car washes as the fundraiser of choice. Instead, they augment physical reality by seeking support across a multitude of online fundraising platforms, through social media publicity, and in student-crafted websites.

Phygitals use a multitude of text and image-based tools to learn, communicate, and share with others. They like face time and screen time. Given opportunities to chase down a drone or play foursquare, they will move. They easily locate themselves in a variety of spaces and know how to navigate those with ease.

However, even as phygitals’ sense of space has expanded, their physical need for caves, campfires, and watering holes remains. Our young humans still seek a continuum of places for silent work and meditation, family gatherings, tribal connectivity, and cross-pollination opportunities whether at games or marketplaces.

In school communities that understand and value learners’ active participation and leadership, educators are changing how they set up and use environments, pedagogy, tools, curricula, and assessment. Progressive school communities who shift practices left over from the 20th century become less “schoolish.” And, their children become less schooled as passive listeners and more active as empowered learners.

Educators in such contemporary learning communities value educating children for life more than teaching them to pass decontextualized tests. In taking the risk to make changes that lead to learners who see their voices as important, their agency as desired, and their influence as real, we adults can find inspiration in our capability to teach even as we learn along with our phygital children.

Habitable Worlds of Learning

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I watched the Paralympics held in Rio last summer and I was both amazed and inspired by the drive, resilience, passion, and accomplishment of people we label as disabled but who, in many cases, can athletically outperform the average person who has all body parts intact. Disabled athletes use accessibility tools that create pathways allowing them participate in events that years ago no one would have considered possible. These athletes swim, run, jump, fence, ride, throw, lift, row, sail and so much more. The Paralympics celebrates Universal Design, Inclusion, Can Do beliefs, equity, and openness to possibilities. Not only do disabled athletes demonstrate self agency and advocacy but they are surrounded by people — family, friends, coaches — who champion their assets and capabilities and support removing philosophical and physical barriers to opportunities rather than sustaining them.

The Paralympics story reminds me of the barriers to learning we may still erect in front of young people, both in PK-12 and higher education. Rather than promoting equity of access by actively advocating and acting to take down philosophical barriers, we sometimes maintain those barriers because of beliefs and values that limit potential. Access to a full, rich curricula is one example.

writing9I remember talking a few years ago to a teacher who was concerned about a middle school student who was upset because he’d been excluded from reading a book he wanted to read in a book group because of his learning disability. The teacher commented that he just couldn’t read the text and so he had been placed in a less sophisticated book. I was just on the front end of processing background on universal design for learning and asked her if he could listen to the text since he would have no problem handling the cognitive challenge of the content. She replied, “but listening is not real reading.” Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to say. I myself had begun to listen to audio books in the car and felt when I finished a book I had indeed “read” it (for the record I’m a lifelong voracious text consumer which seems to  be worth less and less as we move into the Machine Age.) I walked away thinking we have to challenge our definition of what it means to be a reader – and what it means to be labeled as learning disabled.

Today, the district where I work has adopted Universal Design for Learning as one of seven pathways to transforming learning. We are not “there” yet with 25 schools in terms of full ownership of this philosophical shift but we load every student device with an image that includes a suite of accessibility tools so every student can use a multitude of apps that open the door to equity of curricular access. After all, if medical school students listen to podcasts at triple speed rather than going to lectures and use text to speech to turn assigned text into audio to maximize access why would we continue to deny children with learning disabilities access to complex text they can’t read but they can comprehend?

Why would we not choose to create habitable worlds of schooling for all learners?

I just ran into the work of Professor Rosemary Garland-Thomsen of Emory University who researches, teaches, and writes about expansion of assistive supports to create more habitable worlds for disabled people. The phrase ‘habitable world’ caught my attention because I believe that each learning space, community, and the full curricula of our schools should be accessible to everyone — in essence, schools as habitable worlds of learning.

In her work, Professor Garland-Thomsen speaks to two different narratives that drive people’s decisions about equity of access within a community: either a eugenics philosophy or an inclusion philosophy.

The term eugenics should not be used or taken lightly given its origins and its impact. The worst of American history has been rooted in the Eugenics Movement, a legacy of Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Sir Francis Darwin. Social Darwinism, a cultural perspective on why class systems exist, made child labor and inhumane adult labor conditions acceptable long after slavery was abolished in the US. In the early 1920s, the Eugenics Movement gave birth to the infamous sterilization laws of states across the nation. In Virginia thousands of citizens were sterilized, including under-aged teens and mostly adult women. The tragic case of young Cary Buck, of Charlottesville, Virginia, traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court soon after Virginia enacted its eugenics law. Virginia’s laws were upheld and, in the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Beginning with the sterilization of Cary Buck, the SCOTUS ruling led to decades of sterilization across the nation and citation of Virginia law in the Nuremburg trials in defense of the actions of Nazi Germany.

As the Eugenics Movement faded, the Civil Rights Movement emerged as a progressive force leading to integration of public schools and full community access to public spaces for all citizens through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then Public law law 94–142 or IDEA as it’s known today was enacted in 1975 to support disabled children to attend and receive needed educational services in public schools, regardless of disability. Coupled with IDEA, the 1990 enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act protected disabled people from discrimination, adding a layer to a progressive philosophy of inclusionary procedures and practices.

These three federal acts increased the potential of accessibility to a habitable world (defined broadly as a planet supporting life or more narrowly as schools supporting all learners, Pk-12 to higher education, with the tools, resources, and strategies they need to succeed) for people in communities across the nation.

How do create schools that are not boxes that wall learners in?

In schools today, we talk the talk that learners’ voices matters, their learning agency is valued, and their influence is of merit. When it comes to walking the walk, however, our work breaks down without a relentless commitment from professionals who will challenge assumptions and practices that represent the vestiges of a eugenics philosophy and promote the inclusionary practices to which progressive educators aspire.

If we are to realize our inclusionary aspirations, how do we attend, act, and advocate to confront the soft ‘eugenics’ still inherent in educational settings? How do we change practices that create school cultures where it’s acceptable to:

  • Sort and select children by perceived differences that limit access to and equity of learning opportunities
  • Turn a blind eye to ostracizing, bullying, name-calling, and shunning that can represent both adults’ and/or children’s behaviors in learning communities
  • Negatively label children based on value judgements about gender, color, economic background, class, sexual orientation, native language, parental behaviors, disability/ability and so on
  • Avoid development of pedagogical skills essential to teach children through a culturally responsive, trauma sensitive, equity of access lens
  • Ignore differences among children’s assets, resources, and home support outside of school
  • Refuse to provide access to the tools children need so that print isn’t a barrier to information sources and text entry isn’t a hurdle to showing their knowledge or sharing their creativity
  • Set up rules, situations and schedules that isolate children from access to their full community whether during recess, play-time, lunch, extracurricular activities, or academic groups and teams?

When contemporary educators endorse and use these practices, we create an uninhabitable world of learning reflective of schooling traditions of the twentieth century. We limit opportunity, potential, and possibilities and never even know what has been missed because we filter the capabilities of young people through beliefs long outdated by the tools available in today’s world.

The Good News ….

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We can and are doing better in many schools today. Some teachers make different choices, challenging the normative factory model that is still relatively intact in some schools despite deep, well-researched knowledge about learning.

Social media make us aware of the voices of progressive teachers who practice a philosophy of open-ended learning rather than instruction limited by rigid standards or performance measured mostly by four-choice, one-answer tests. Today’s progressive educators provide children with opportunities to pursue their learning interests, passions, and curiosities as they learn with peers of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and capabilities. Such teachers recognize the learning power when children work together to find solutions, create, make, design, build, and produce learning.

Teachers who create a habitable learning world for all children value them as explorers, pioneers, settlers, and even resisters of learning. They don’t see a singular path as the only one navigable to learning. They don’t see one destination as an end point for a child’s year. They remain open to and notice the semiotics that help them make meaning of the learning community. They study what each child needs to access full participation in the habitat of the classroom. They listen to children to learn about their culture, stressors, assets, values, interests, and capabilities. Such teachers tune into and confront their own and others’ deficit thinking. When faced with their own biases and the biases of others, they don’t back away from tough conversations and reflection. They own their own learning and value working with a heterogeneous community of learners and peers.

Progressive educators are changing education in their classrooms and influencing others so that all children enter a habitable world of learning, one that has for too long been off-limits for some. They seek to re-norm educational practices through an inclusionary philosophy that embraces all learners.

As a mentor said to me years ago, “it takes a long time to turn an aircraft carrier around — and to change an educational practice. Both can be done. It just takes the will and the skill to do it.”

Attend. Advocate. Act. It’s how we will accomplish just that.

Becoming Educated: More Questions Than Answers

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What if we were designing learning spaces where kids would develop and sustain personal understanding? Empathy? Collaborative competencies? Social-emotional learning?

(Creating collective social efficacy in a school community)

What if thinking in every way possible — collaborative, creative, logical, analytical, effectual, entrepreneurial — became a key end in mind for curricula, assessment, and pedagogy?

(Thinking through solutions in a design and build project)

What if we stopped designing spaces for decontextualized, content acquisition but rather designed for contextualized, transdisciplinary learning experience?

(Setting up bee hives for environmental studies, Photo courtesy of @munseyclass )

What if we designed learning spaces so that children grow up to thrive not just survive in the rising Age of Smart Machines? What if we created curricula to educate our young people for life, not school?

(Sharing sound studio skills at Entrepreneurial Showcase)

What if our goals, outcomes, expectations of learning were not, at their worst, painful or, at their least, limiting and inconsequential?

(Creating from music improv to tiny house construction)

What would change if our group purpose instead became democratization of learning so that children could access time, tools, expertise, and space to grow from their curiosity, interests, passion, and joy?

(Working on a personal project in the hacker space)

What if we designed spaces in which our young people inspire us to become better educators for them?

(Teens design and run a Youth Summit to share talents, projects, design challenges and solutions)

What if we designed spaces where contemporary children get to change the stories we tell about our own schooling? What if their narrative became stories of the power of their agency, voice, and influence as learners?

(Teens participating in School Board work session discussion on what they personally value about learning experiences)

What might the soul of learning become for those who teach, live, and learn together in this century’s learning spaces — if we made it our core work to make sense of these questions?

(Performing original music at the high school Entrepreneurial Showcase)

Learning Made Accessible = Life As Opportunity

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The Journey

I have to admit that five years ago, I didn’t, in general, use the terms access, accessible, or accessibility as a frame for beliefs about learning. Of course, as with most educators, I’ve been quick to embed phrases such as learning for all, eliminating achievement gaps, and opening the door for all learners into my language.Today, I’m shifting how I think about what accessible learning for all actually looks like as my district adopts practices of Universal Design for Learning as applicable to all learners.

For example, at a recent start-up edu weekend (#cvilleedu) co-sponsored by my school district, a physically handicapped teen showed up with an idea to create a virtual math keyboard to make inputting math problem responses into devices easier than using a standard keyboard – a solution not just for physically handicapped learners but also the able-bodied. She worked all weekend with a team to build her idea into a working prototype. From young people like her and adults who are helping to integrate UDL as a learning pathway, I’ve come to realize that every time we create a new accessibility pathway to learning, we all have the potential to benefit.

I began to define the concept of access over twenty years ago through the lenses of a close colleague. She was a Jedi Knight for creation of an inclusionary community in the elementary school where we worked together in the early ‘90s. I was the principal. She was the teacher. A summary of what I learned from her? See special education children as – children. Back then, access was a term typically used to talk about special education kids being allowed to participate through adaptive PE or use communicative devices that seemed to function almost like Ouija boards to those of us on the outside looking in at special educators at work.

Soon after I was appointed principal, the entire staff gathered together during a series of school days – every teacher, every teaching assistant, the librarian, the custodian, cafeteria workers, the office staff, and me – to dig deep into what we valued for children in our learning community.  This wasn’t easy to do since we had to cover classes with substitutes and school volunteers. Today, given fiscal restraints and volunteer “rules”, this kind of work likely wouldn’t happen during the school day. I also had to get past that some people in the room questioned why certain “others” were there. It had felt important to me that any one whose work brought them in contact with children be present, so everyone had been asked to participate – every last one of us in the school. If inclusion was something we needed to explore for our children then we needed to begin as seeing every one of us adults as fully included in the discussion.

The Reflective Friend

The special education teacher (a woman whom I came to think of as a close reflective friend) and I had tangled a bit philosophically in a prior year over the “new” concept of neighborhood school placements of high needs special education students. She’d been a teacher of moderately and severely handicapped children in another school. Her class was being disbanded and kids were being placed in neighborhood schools. That didn’t make sense to me. I respected her expertise as a teacher, but worried she didn’t understand the impact of moving high needs students into schools where they would be “one of a kind.”  I think, in hindsight, a lot of us were just scared of children whose needs we didn’t believe we could meet.

After she came to work with me, I came to understand that she was a teacher not just of children, but also the adults with whom she worked. Over the years under her tutelage, I came to realize that each child is “one of a kind” and it’s the labels we assign that filter our capability to see children as individuals.

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Work can happen by orienting differently in space – How do we provide choice and comfort?

I will never forget one of those pivotal, epiphany moments in one of our more heated “vision” sessions that began to shape the concept of access differently for me. We were sitting in the crowded library of the rural elementary school where we worked, trying to incorporate something about the importance of community into our belief statements. This special education teacher stood up and with grace drew a simple circle on a flip chart sheet. She then drew a series of “X’s” inside the circle and then put one “X” outside the circle like this:

the inclusive community

Then, she asked us a question, “ Is Erin* inside our community circle or outside it?” Erin (pseudonym) was “moderately handicapped” according to all the state special education formulas. She was the first child with that label to attend our school and we reluctantly had placed her in a regular early childhood classroom because we couldn’t bear to isolate her from peers. Her voice was garbled, her processing limited, and she lacked all kinds of small and large muscle coordination. Parents of “regular ed” children questioned her presence in “our” school. We were all, I think, a bit afraid of, and for, her. The children seemed to be the only ones who saw her as just another kid in the classroom and, they ultimately became the best teachers of teachers about the value of an inclusionary community as a space in which to learn relationship skills for a lifetime.

But, that question, “ Is Erin inside our community circle or outside it?” stopped us all in our tracks. No one seemed to know what to say. The special education teacher stood there and the wait time stretched out. She was good with wait time. I knew that from watching her at work with kids.  Someone was going to have to fill the void of silence in the library and, I realized,  it would be up to me.

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Children build community naturally when adults believe in them and support that occurring.

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Relationships Matter.

I remember the next few moments as if it happened yesterday, even though it’s now been over twenty years ago. I first acknowledged how hard it was for adults, including me,  to make sense of this new neighborhood model for delivering special education services. Next, I spoke of the challenges of inclusion which we all felt had become another “buzz” word in the educational lexicon. Then, I looked at our soft-spoken custodian, a man of great compassion and wisdom. I saw him kneeling in the hall at the beginning of a school day beside a child, the  one whose “X” was outside the circle, helping her tie her shoe. When he looked the child in the eye, there seemed to be some sort of kinship there.

I thought about the fact that some in the room had questioned the custodian’s presence in our work and imagined he knew that as well. He represented, in some ways, another “X” outside the community circle. I had a mentor who believed that in our work we just have to stand up sometimes and say what we think is right even if we know others might not agree or question the rightness of it. The special education teacher had done so. I took a deep breath. It was my turn.

I stood and said something like this, “We all say we value community. As long as I’m here with you, I”ll do everything I can to make sure that everyone is an X inside our community circle. If any of us ever allow any child or adult to be placed outside the circle by our actions, then we can’t call ourselves a community, we are simply a group of people who show up to work every day. If that happens, we need to acknowledge that what we say we believe isn’t what we believe at all.” While it was no great speech, it was a first step in defining access and accessibility differently in my own mind, and within our school community. Because of  that teacher, we took on inclusion as a way of being. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do.

Today, I’ve come to understand another evolution emerging in my understanding of accessibility. Accessibility applies to everyone, not just the Erins in our lives. We need to stop thinking about the concept of access as isolated to those with federally determined labels – Special Ed, 504, LEP, Title I, gifted, talented. We need to reboot our beliefs about access. And, it’s as true for adults as well as children.

Preferring Collaborative Time

When I recently asked adults with whom I work if they wanted to read a book together on a specific topic, they told  me they wanted options of titles. Some of them wanted a paper book. Others preferred to download a copy to an e-reader. Others didn’t want a book in any form, they wanted to watch a video, participate in a webinar, or take a class. Some of them wanted to get together for face to face discussions, others struggled with doing that. Some wanted to meet in school spaces, others preferred a local watering spot. Adults want accessible learning for themselves. Our kids need that, too.

finding  private reading space in the elementary library

finding private reading space in the elementary library

We adults simply mirror what our kids want and need as learners. They also have different preferences for how they access information. They, too, prefer different tools and different modes of input. They find comfort in different kinds of spaces for learning and in different configurations of interaction. Just like adults they can all benefit from adapting and flexing some of the time to fit into different learning situations. It strengthens them, and us, as learners and community members to do so.

But, if we expect any of us to learn well – regardless of our age – by sitting in the same way, using the same tools, and interacting when and how our teachers choose, then we will get the same learning results we’ve always gotten.  Some will attain great success, some will get by, and some won’t learn much at all. Some will love school, some will tolerate school, and some mostly will hate the experience. We’ll just maintain the faux nature of the Bell curve.

Kids Preferring the Floor

Teachers Preferring the Floor

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However, changing our viewpoint on access to the learning tools, environments, and experiences learners need for learning could, if implemented well, change the game regarding discipline, management, and learning performance by any measure. It also could change the game regarding motivation, drive, curiosity, interest, and commitment. I believe if we were to change the game, think of our jobs as providing universal accessibility, we’d achieve results beyond our wildest dreams; indeed a j-curve of learners who attain great success and love their spaces for learning for a lifetime.

tower builders

* a pseudonym