Thinking Beyond the School Box: Inspired Architecture + Contemporary Learning


I recently visited our newest multi-age space redesign in a small rural elementary school. When we began the process to modernize this school, we knew we had to design and build new space from the inside out.  The school had some nice elements including a clerestory roof line that should have allowed natural light into classrooms but didn’t because tall storage cabinets added over the years blocked light from the classroom work areas.

In the redesign the school’s 20th century rectangular classrooms were combined to create a variety of multi-age spaces. An art room located in an older trailer and the small library were moved and integrated into a common arts and library space. The design team increased connectivity and transparency by adding doors and windows that opened up access to the school’s rural, park-like setting. The teachers in this school see the rural area, local farms, and natural environment as a learning asset. They also believe that access to fresh air and movement is key for learners to stay engaged throughout the day.

(the school’s playground view) 

The learning flexibility created by our new school-wide, multi-age spaces offers a much wider bandwidth of opportunities and potential experiences to children. We have learned from multiple research sources that natural light is a key ingredient to create environments in which learners thrive. Since the redesign, light pours into halls and learning spaces. A variety of flexible furniture, seating, and informal work areas provide learners and teachers with both choice and comfort options to locate in space differently depending upon the work that is being done. The teachers know from learning research that both spaces for quiet, independent work as well as for small and large groups to gather are critical to address the range of children’s needs, planned learning experiences, and instruction necessary to maximize learning potential across the school.

When I visited this newly redesigned school, I watched a live cam of polar bears wandering the ice pack in the Arctic on a touch screen in the library. Multi-age learners gathered in informal hall spaces to work together on projects. Students oriented themselves at tables and on the floor to write in a 3,4,5 space  —  some choosing more traditional seating while others, as some teachers label it, engaged in “belly-writing.”

It’s not easy to make changes from physical teaching places to child-centered learning spaces. It’s even harder to shift practices, values, and beliefs associated with teaching age-based classes to those essential to creating viable, multi-age learning experiences. It takes time for teachers who have “owned” a room to learn how to share space, plan, and teach together.

Sharing space in concept is different than sharing in reality — for adult and young learners. Seeing children through a developmental lens in multi-age spaces challenges the way we’ve learned to use learning standards, benchmarks, and expectations in single-age classrooms. What does “on level” really mean? How do we teach grade-level math standards in a multi-age class? What do we notice about social-emotional learning development that’s different in a group of children ranging in age from eight to ten versus a class with all ten year olds?

Negotiating curricula, assessment, and pedagogy isn’t easy when you begin to work in a co-teaching team. Compromise, collaboration, and negotiation skills become critical to moving through the forming to storming to norming to performing phases of the team’s work. The dysfunctions of working in isolation become more apparent in teams than in the traditional structures and schedules of schools. That’s one reason why time to build relationships, plan, and reflect together is key to the process of developing a strong and effective team.

From prior shifts in redesigning spaces in our schools, we know that change is an iterative process with both growing pains and gains. I see it every time we go through the process. Are there strategies that increase the likelihood of success? Yes — here’s what I notice.

  • The ideal and real life of change are quite different. Accept that every journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.
  • The first step is visualizing big possibilities and then moving towards that vision in stages. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We must accept that deep change in school processes and practices doesn’t happen overnight.
  • Physical space redesign doesn’t force change but it can make it easier to shift to contemporary practices. More than anything, it’s the time adults devote to working together to design, plan, experiment, and reflect that results in change. You can’t undervalue investing the funds for the time teams need to build relationships and plan ahead. Space matters. Resources matter. People matter the most. Invest in their time.
  • Care, support, and empathy are essential to working with educators embarked on making radical change. We say that kids need to feel emotional comfort when they take on learning challenges. The same is true of adults.
  • Every time that we take a risk, it may lead to either success or failure. Celebrate success but avoid punishing failure. Many years ago a leader said to me when I took a risk and failed, “rather than beating yourself up, let this be a learning experience —  and consider what you would do differently next time. The failure to do that would be the real failure for you in this.” Be present as a leader with your team when you are taking them into the waters of deep change.  Leadership matters.

Finally, I’ve learned over time that children know everything we adults need to be wise in our work together. The children in this small rural elementary school recently offered words of wisdom to their peers and their teachers. Practice words of wisdom with the adults in your team and not just with the children you serve.

And remember, the sun always shines after a storm.

A New Year. Multi-Tasking. My Peach Cobbler. Connections. Hidden Figures.


A New Year.

The opening of a school year creates the same fluttering inside me as occurred on the first day of the first year I attended school. I remember that year, first grade because there was no kindergarten, helping my mother pack my metal lunch box, obsessively snapping a 3-ring binder filled with fresh Blue Horse lined paper, and filling a wooden pencil case with sharpened #2 pencils. The scent of learning has changed but tonight I feel the same tension created by a desire to sustain both the slower pace of summer balanced with the pull to again experience a first day of school. Today in the grocery store, the day before all the teachers return to schools in my district, I was asked if I was ready for a new school year. I replied, “Of course. School just isn’t school without kids and teachers in the building.” Summer is beautiful. School is even more so.










As I consider this next first day of school, a precursor first day with all teachers walking through our doors a week ahead of our young people, I am checking my email on the phone, writing this post on my laptop, and watching a semi-final 1500 meter women’s race. It’s hard to even remember the first days before mobile devices – days when everything was written out longhand, when the TV was still a small box catching signals from an antenna perched on the roof’s ridge, and the landline phone hung on the kitchen wall, its compressed cord tethering me to a limited area in the room. Some friends express nostalgia for those days but I don’t think many would give up their microwaves, on demand digital television, smart devices, or online apps even as we sometimes yearn for a slower pace and fewer intrusions from the digital world. At new teacher academy last week almost no hands went up from 140+ new teachers when I asked them if they could identify a reel film case – even fewer than just a year ago. Soon there will be no educators left in schools who can remember threading film through a projector – maybe just a few middle aged educators, once students who watched long ago teachers struggling to show documentary films found in film cans such as this.

film container

My Peach Cobbler.

Earlier this evening, I peeled a large bag of peaches thinking I would make my 95 year-old-mother’s peach cobbler recipe. I pulled the index card written in her flowing script from an old tin recipe box given to me before I left for college. It lives on a shelf in an even more ancient pie safe in my kitchen. Self-rising flour? None of that in my cannisters  so I immediately googled “how to make self-rising flour” and the answer popped up. Two hours later I slid the cobbler out of the oven. Old tech. New tech. Tools matter. Problem-solving usually depends upon them.



Time is more precious than gold. I think of the countless hours of practice, practice, practice in which Olympic athletes engage as I watch a British male gymnast take the lead with a tenth of a point. Many in the audience film him on floor exercises with their phones. It won’t be long before footage is posted in some version of YouTube, GIFs, or Vines even as the IOC works to get unauthorized images and footage taken down.  At the same time, I watch my twitter feed light up with retweets of an article delineating why homework is not a particularly good use of time, especially in elementary school. People’s beliefs drive opinions for and against homework (most RTs are against.) I read comments about homework building self discipline and rebuttals from those who see it as a compliance-driven exercise. It’s a lively conversation but civil. I like that. Educators are in general a very polite group even as they exchange perspectives. They tend to listen. They ask questions. They share. Today these connected educators make sense of a topic which continues to create conflict among teaching peers, parents, and students old enough to hold an opinion. The world is connected as it has never before been. Communication is not limited to face-to-face communities. Instead, communication happens everywhere all the time – it’s a global network unlike anything ever seen before in human history.


 Hidden Figures. (The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race)

Tonight I am inspired by Olympic athletes.  Most of all though, I am inspired by stories of young black women who in the 1940s and 50s became “human computers in skirts” for NASA. Who knew? Men went into space because of these women’s calculations. It’s a story worth knowing, sharing, and celebrating even as we educators bemoan the math performance gaps of today. I am reminded that we choose to define and limit the possibilities of what children are capable of accomplishing.  The narrative of Kathryn Johnson challenges us to do better by at-risk children in today’s classrooms. We have come a long way since the days of the segregated world she experienced in Hampton, Virginia. We still have work to do.


Getting to Yes


Have you ever agreed to something and then wondered if it was the smartest thing you ever did?

That happened to me last spring. A colleague shared with me that a group of middle school kids was on a mission to reimagine the dining experience in their cafeteria which I thought was a fabulous idea. After all institutional cafeteria settings aren’t typically the most human-centered community spaces in our schools. I imagined the kids designing and building booths in their relatively new maker space, maybe putting a few plants around and placing posters or student art work on the walls. Instead, I began to see images pop up on Twitter and Instagram that caused me to wonder what I’d agreed to support.


When I checked in with colleague @irasocol who was working with architect Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and our middle schoolers, I heard they’d decided what they REALLY needed was not dining booths but rather tree houses, and not one but two tree houses. Rolling tree houses, no less.

I didn’t see tree houses coming.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” — Albert Einstein

If we want a culture of contagious creativity, we have to get ourselves to yes. Sometimes that’s not so easy. This was one of those times for me.  But, I immediately did what I advise others to do and said yes – as long as the tree house didn’t get too tall- say 8 foot or so. I decided I better visit.

I imagine you are thinking, “Pam, get yourself to yes all you want to on cafeteria tree houses, but not me.” But go with me through this – you see I’ve been there saying to myself “just say no.”

Getting ourselves to yes is a lifetime challenge in education when our urge is NOT to say “what if” instead we are quick to go to “yea but or just plain no” and the conversation ends there.  Fortunately, a mentor early in my career said to me that if a young person or a teacher comes to you with an idea, say yes. If you don’t, they will leave your office and tell ten others that you said no. More importantly, those ten will ask why bother coming to you when they have an idea they want to make happen.

alexprojectHere’s what I discovered when I visited the cafeteria. Middle schoolers were scrambling all over the tree houses. I could only think  that maybe this getting to yes philosophy does have limits. Then I stepped back to observe the kids working under Alex Gilliam’s watchful eye. They were a diverse mix representing all the demographics of their tiny middle school. But what really caught my attention was their joy in designing and building, using saws, and drills, and hammers like pros.

I talked with the principal and discovered that several of the kids climbing the structure with great care were kids who weren’t always the most successful in class. I heard from a teacher about his reflection that the kids were learning to use complex math competencies that some thought were beyond their skill level. I stepped back and thought this may be the best story ever to define getting myself to yes on a proposal that challenges every radar beep from my superintendent’s antenna.

I work as superintendent in a school district that is learning to get to yes  – from teachers to principals to learners. Last summer, watching the evening news, a story popped up that caught my attention illustrating our trust in students when we say yes. It was one of our high school students in the woods sharing a summer project. As I listened I smiled to realize that this project was the perfect example of the contagious creativity that emerges when we say yes and unleash the potential of young people.


student Iyoade.jpg

Iyoade in maker space

Iyaode, high school student and budding engineer, had approached a mentor teacher to share a challenge she wanted to solve; how to engage middle school girls to understand the possibilities of engineering.  His response to her? Why not?

She  wanted to gather some high school friends and offer a summer engineering camp for middle school girls. The solution she designed? A bridge-building summer camp in which her team and the middle school girls designed a bridge, hauled construction tools and lumber into the woods, and built a bridge over a creek along a walking trail in our community. That night, as I watched middle school girl builders and realized that the power of yes to encourage creativity in our schools had spread well beyond my office doors. 

student Julian.jpg

Julian with his drones

In my district, creativity abounds and we believe that getting to yes is step one in the process of redesigning every nook and cranny of 20th century schooling. It doesn’t matter whether I walk into a library maker space and find Julian  working on a drone or flying one in the gym. Or, I wander into a former computer lab turned into a music studio and get the chance to listen to Grace performing and recording original music.

Our schools are different because of educators who are getting to yes. Our kids have 3-D printed prosthetic solutions for peers with handicaps and prototyped a portable MRI.

Teens such Nyghee, Courtney, Josiah, Emily, and Obed have choreographed their own dance numbers and directed musicals that challenge their peers to think. They’ve posted their performances to YouTube and shared face-to-face with live audiences. Others like James have posted original music online to share with authentic audiences all over the world. 

student drama kids.jpg

Memphis cast members on stage

This work happens in formal and informal learning spaces because we encourage passing on the power of saying yes to creativity – and when we do we find that creativity becomes contagious, spreading from person to person, classroom to classroom, school to school across our district.

So, why should we all work on getting ourselves to yes? Unless we can get ourselves to yes, the next steps in the change process won’t matter.


Getting ourselves to yes keeps kids coming back to school every day to pursue their own passions in learning for a lifetime.

Getting ourselves to yes embodies an open atmosphere of creative design to address grand learning challenges that can be solved together by adults and children alike.

And, getting ourselves to yes means that collaborative communities get the chance to reimagine what it means to educate young people for life, not for school.

Henley gym3

Middle School Fitness Center “not a gym”

Our schools now have maker and hacker spaces, learning commons, design studios and wonder lounges, spark spaces and fitness centers, genius bars and mechatronics labs, music construction spaces and dance studios. We’ve taken down walls  and removed lockers literally and figuratively.


And, with each redesign we learn that imagining education differently means our young people no longer must check creativity when they enter our schoolhouse doors.

Today, when I visit the tree house cafeteria, I find kids perched high above or below working on writing and projects or eating and listening to music with friends during a lunch break. The kids in this school have gone on to build beautiful seating for outdoor spaces in their schools. And, I have no idea what they might want to do next but I am sure they have no issue with bringing their ideas forward.


There’s no secret sauce or recipe for getting ourselves to yes. Yet, it’s the cheapest but most powerful strategy we have in our tool belt to encourage fresh and creative ideas.

Why not try it?  Just remember to take a deep breath.

After all, sometime soon someone is going to ask you about building their own version of a tree house.

Be ready.

Just say yes.

The Pendulum or the Butterfly


“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Governor George Romney to the Michigan Legislature (9/20/63)


Floor time project work

What compels us? Pulls us? Catalyzes us? Connects us? Who are we and what are we doing in this profession? In this public sector? In this institution we call school? Why do some of us keep coming back, day after day, year after year, decade after decade until we look back and realize that we accomplished something called a career; even as we watched others go silently into the night across those years?

Why do some of us keep pulling ourselves up and off the floor of the ring to continue on to the next round, in spite of our bruises and the blood we spill?

What binds us together? What pulls us apart?

Blog posts, twitter conversations, backchanneling and #chat discussions center the language of out of mainstream educators, parents, and even young people who attempt to answer these questions.  Social media capture the cadence of our conversation with the sometimes painful, sometimes achingly beautiful words and images of a poet even as others of us debate with impassioned, but crisp, political analysis.

We question whether we continue on another swing of our own perverse Newtonian pendulum. Or, is it possible social media lifts the quantum butterfly whose beating wings shift air currents across this nation, creating a learning world that we could never have envisioned in isolation of each other?

Still more of a back channel than a mainstream educational movement, those in the global communication network of educators still mostly watch from the outside as the next sentence is being written by politicians to frame American education.  We know well the drafting, revision, and editing processes in which our communities, our states, and nation now engage. We understand how mainstream media, political positions, new policy, new legislation, budget deliberations, and public hearings give voice to those who attempt to define the some; the all of us. Those with decades in education have seen this before. We know what the swing of the pendulum means inside schools.

However, in parallel universes, today two conversations exist.

One, a voice exploring the meaning of words like passion, joy, drive, inspiration, learning, democracy. The other, a voice of market share, big data, votes, rules, money, incentives, brand placement, and rhetoric.

butterfly10clockThe intersection of these voices juxtaposes the choices between the pendulum or the butterfly.

Both objects of motion- one coldly inanimate, the other joyfully alive.

One defined by the freedom to move at will. The other by  external control.

One mechanized. The other, part of the ecosystem.

In most ways, the current story of public education still represents our commitment to Newtonian physics, the classical mechanization of the factory school pendulum that many still hold dear.

But, in the back channel, our quantum butterfly wings unfold; with each pump of fluid we weigh our potential to take flight. It is here that we consider how learning becomes dynamic, active, deep, and vivid.

So, what will give lift to voices in the back channel? Will it be new legislation, policy, funding, political voices? I think not.

Instead, we must design education anew by generating an ever-increasing number of educators who believe in a mission to create spaces of inspiration for learners and learning. However, it will take more than 1 or 10 percent of us speaking the poetic and analytical voices of passion, joy, and drive to create spaces in which young people and educators can thrive in these 21st century days.

tower builders

To accomplish such a vision, it must become one of lift, influence, and power that creates a front channel for our voices. We need our best educational technologists, our courageous leaders, our creative geniuses across America’s communities to create the front channel we must become. It’s our job, and our time, to increase the inspiration quotient for public education in every community in this nation.


For if not us, who? If not now, when?

Otherwise, we must accept again the next push of the educational pendulum and forget the potential of the butterfly’s flight.



( I wrote the first draft of this post in 2012. I felt then as if public education was in a downward spiral in which learning had become defined as being about passing tests and prepping for tests alone. Few questioned the standardization of every curricula, the loss of inquiry as an anchor for engaged thinking, the subtraction of hands-on learning from the academic curricula, the loss of play, story, and movement by design as a path to learning for our youngest children, and removal of course options from arts to physical education to shop class. Reduction or elimination of libraries, recess, club time, and field trips seemed to go without question.

Today, I am more optimistic that an awakening occurs. When I watch the movie Most Likely to Succeed, read Learn or Die, or listen to educators such as Yong Zhao speak to a different vision for learning, I know something is changing. It’s occurring in the social media conversations of educators everywhere. It’s found in a groundswell of big conference themes that focus on children as learners, not as data points. Even politicians challenge status quo assumptions about elevating national and state standardization expectations over the choices of local communities.

Some might say we are at crossroads in 2015. I see it as more of a chance to define education in this century not just a reform of the last century’s schools but a turning point transformation, indeed a contemporary Renaissance fueled by intersections of trans-disciplinary content with new contexts for learning. Because of our knowledge, tools, and communication networks, we have the potential to create learning opportunities that have never before been available in human history.)

Why Connect? Reflections on Our Filters, Virtual or Otherwise #CE13


Why Connect?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve participated in multiple activities of Connected Educators Month.  It’s evident. Walls tumble down that separate educators from each other as they connect around the world. New ideas proliferate as a participation culture emerges. In my own district, connected educators create new pathways for learning – for themselves, colleagues locally and around the world, and their children.  The key word among connected educators during #CE13 seems to be share – whether in a Pinterest “PD Scavenger Hunt” or through a school-wide tweetup on what choice and comfort looks like for children.

Kindergartners Skyping on 3rd Day of School

Kindergartners Skyping on 3rd Day of School in @abigailkayser’s class

We benefit from professional connectivity because it helps us make eye contact with other educators across global watering holes. That’s a step in removing filters that prevent us from learning with and from each other.  Yesterday I caught a bit of chat at #globalclassroom and had a chance to witness how we filter across diverse cultures, experiences, and time zones. In virtual environments, exchanges at watering holes open us to new ways of thinking – multiple points of view from around the globe – and as we interact we find our perspective isn’t the only one out there.

Such connectivity helps us take down our professional filters and see what’s outside our walls, our boundaries, and our barriers. When we connect, our natural human curiosity and urge to explore causes us to seek what’s beyond our known learning horizons. When we discover others with different ideas at virtual watering holes, that leads to questions about our own filters. I believe that’s a good thing.

globalclassroomReflecting on Filters

A mentor once said to me that we all have to watch out for our filters. He was a mentor before the topic of “the filters”, you know the ones I mean, became a different kind of headache for contemporary educators.  But, I think his reference applies to any kind of filters in our lives, even virtual ones.

student writing on desktop
Using desk surfaces as a writing space challenged my filtering system – until I saw the  walls and windows at NPR covered with notes, diagrams, and outlines. 

Over-filtering represents one of the greatest sources of failures in our individual thinking and that of our systems. It’s why I keep a mental list of the four failures of government – imagination, policy, management, and capability – that the 9/11 Commission identified in their final report as root causes of 9/11. It’s why I am conscious of Ellen Langer’s mindful leadership as a frame for thinking about why individual leaders working alone are poor predictors of the future. It’s why I believe in finding new pathways to advance our work and the concept of “terroir” and scaling across not up (from Walk Out, Walk On), rather than thinking all schools should or can implement identical solutions, even when they’re trying to address the same challenges. Why?

There are no “one size fits all” answers. There are no magic formulas. In this day and age, there are no standard problems, and no standard solutions. Pentagon staffers articulate that in their work, and so should we. No two school communities, no two grade-level teams, and no two parents, children or teachers are exactly alike.  As @yongzhaoUO says, we need to consider the uniqueness of the local work we do rather than focusing on mass standardization.

Filters tend to push us towards seeing different situations similarly, rather than recognizing that no two are the same. Filters tend to cause us to go to the same people for feedback – often people who reinforce our own perspectives and ideas. Filters are why we lack the capability over time to see watermarks on our own professional wallpaper. Filters are why in our work as educators we don’t always get or attend to the full breadth and depth of information we need. Filters can be our worst enemy when it comes to decision-making.

We all filter.

Our brains must filter to accomplish anything in a given day. Other people also filter for us. Sometimes because they see it as necessary to getting work done in priority order. Sometimes, it’s to advance someone’s perspective. We need to be aware of that and constantly monitor how our filters, and those of others, impact our work, and ultimately impact how our work impacts young people we serve.

1950 classroom                                                                                       Factory school traditions centered students and teachers in isolated silos

When we work in isolation, and we all do need that time sometimes, we don’t consider a full range of ideas and possibilities to help find solutions to challenges in front of us. While I’m not an impulsive person (well, maybe just slightly impulsive), I’ve found that time to think and reflect with others who represent diversity of background and expertise isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. Over years in leadership roles, I’m still learning to slow down, seek advice, and take time to consider decisions – and to work on lowering, not raising my filters.  Pretty often, I don’t hear what I’d like to hear when I go outside my own personal filters, but usually it’s what I need to hear.

Checking Filters

I’ve also learned it’s important to periodically change my work environment because my personal filters can cause me to stop seeing what’s around me – the proverbial stains on the wallpaper no longer exist in my line of sight. It’s why I’ll occasionally ride a school bus to chat with a driver, help a custodian stack chairs after a program, serve food in a cafeteria, or teach or co-teach a lesson.I need to work outside the hierarchy to understand the impact of decisions on those most affected by them. Twitter helps me get outside the hierarchy, too.

However, even in using Twitter, we can either set up situations where we lower filters or even maintain a different version of face-to-face filters in the virtual world.

If I chose to follow people who express the same opinions and ideas that I’m drawn to, then I’d end up with the same echo chamber that can exist in my professional work environment if I’m not constantly attending to that. I’ve pushed myself to look for and follow people with different points of view, people who work in very different fields than education, people who ask hard questions, challenge authority, and who don’t accept the way it is as the way it has to be. I’ve found people with great educational expertise around the world who do things very differently from the practices used in my own work spaces.  Twitter has become a watering hole that encourages me to lower filters and consider other possibilities, options, and potential new pathways for improving our work to serve learners well. Without access I wouldn’t know:

@catherinecronin @marloft @lasic @largerama @poh @colonelb @joemazza @liamdunphy @tomwhitby @flourishingkids @doremi @mrami2  @gravesle @jguarr @mcleod @blogbrevity @jonbecker @grandmaondeck @blogbrevity @cybraryman and literally thousands of valued voices sharing ideas, resources, and questions routinely on twitter as well as in  #cpchat, #edchat, #musedchat #edchatie #ccglobal #engchat #ntchat #ptchat #nwp #ideachat #satchat #rschat  and the many other chat waterng holes that run every day,

hundreds of superintendents on @daniellfrazier’s supts list who offer perspectives on challenges I face daily in a similar role,

@monk51295 @maryannreilly @paulallison and the book Walk Out Walk On  and why we should consider a different option than simply “scaling up” educational programs,

@karenjan and #spedchat regulars who champion Universal Design for Learning and a range of accessibility solutions that allow children’s capabilities to emerge,

@saorog @pamelaaobrien @scratchteam because sending some teachers to #scratchmit2012  and interacting with our Irish PLN led us to implement #coderdojos and use of Scratch across our school district,

the work of @kcousinsmles @mlsmeg @bkayser11 @mthornton78 @paulawhite @mtechman @ethorsenahs @beckyfisher73 @tborash  @mpcraddock @khhoward34 @andrewwymer10s @sresmusic  @jatcatlett @wingfriends @jengrahamwright @chalkrelic @gweddettecrummie @mrglovermhs @peacefulsmiles @ebredder @hoosjon @irasocol @csratliff @hobbes4564 and many other tweeting educators who work in schools across our #acps district,

the work of connected educators such as @dcambrid who is a champion of Connected Educators Month and strategic focus upon ways to support educators to make critical shift as digital learners themselves.

A Few Questions

So, when we reflect upon what we don’t consider, don’t ask, and don’t learn when we have our filters up, I’d suggest we consider these questions in regards to digital, connected learning:

Why do we think that filtering social media and virtual learning tools – Youtube, Skype, Wikipedia, Twitter and others, even Google for heaven’s sake – makes sense for either us or our learners?

Why not teach children what we’re learning at the virtual watering holes; how to navigate and learn the shifting protocols, rules, etiquette and boundaries associated with digital citizenship and literacy so we can take full advantage of opportunities to lower filters and learn?

Why deny ourselves and our young people a world of opportunities that allow them to learn from experts and access the tools they need to search, connect, communicate and make?

Why block educators and the young people they serve from being able to consider that the way they think could be informed by points of view from people all over the world with different knowledge and informed understandings of science, maths, history, economics, the arts, and literacy?

Filtering, virtual or not, limits all of us from exploring beyond horizons of what we define as possible to learn. It was true for those who tried to limit the work of Galileo.

image of galileo with telescope
Source: Galileo With Telescope Image

And, it’s true for young people and us today.

Unblocking our filters allows learners and educators to find a different learning world beyond the horizon – one of panoramas, 360s, microscopic, bird’s eye to fish eye, and telescopic points of view.  And, wouldn’t we all be better critical thinkers, creators, problem-solvers, designers, builders, producers, and engineers as a result?

kids drawing map on table
@mthornton78’s class at work

Three Stories: One Influence


Leadership Academy


I am listening to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. It’s full of research about all the topics that educators discuss when they see children, adolescents, or teens who struggle because of challenges attributed to home environmental stressors. It’s painful to listen. Much of what Tough reports as empirical research represents the common sense understanding of educators who know children growing up with an overload of allostatic factors increasing chronic stress will typically experience disproportionate academic and behavioral difficulties as they move through school. They are more likely to be labeled special education students, need behavioral intervention, or be suspended, expelled, or drop out of school than their middle class peers – and far more often than children living in poverty who do not experience intense familial stress factors.

While poverty is often a root cause of chronic stress factors, there are children living in poverty who succeed. Such children live in homes where strong, functional attachments to a significant adult make a positive difference for them. I was struck by a body of research reported in How Children Succeed related to attachment theory. Intervention that helps young mothers, at-risk because of their own stress factors, to learn positive skills to nurture infants and toddlers actually makes a greater difference in the success of young children entering school than other interventions, including building early cognitive skills. In fact, according to Tough, kindergarten teachers in large numbers report that it’s not children who struggle to learn the alphabet or numbers that’s the biggest challenge for them as educators – it’s children who lack basic capabilities to build positive peer relationships, relate to adults, and control anger impulses.

When children have high allostatic loads, they enter school with chronic stress. Their symptoms often continue unabated through school impacting their capability to hold what they learn in working memory, a basic prefrontal-cortex function that supports learning in school.

I wonder how our at-risk children’s success in school might be different if an intensive, national initiative to provide deep parenting intervention occurred? How might breaking the cycle of chronic stress in children change their emotional and learning trajectory as they move through school? Imagine how different their learning experiences could be.


Seamus Heaney died this week. I often have thought of the great poets as being the best of farmers who till words into soil, then reap poetry from the land. Heaney’s gift for  sowing words created poetry that fed the world. His perfect command of word is a great loss in an imperfect world.

However, I am comforted that somewhere out there another great poet grows into her or his own, finding pathways to expression because a teacher creates space for children to explore language as more than an information base or a response to a writing prompt. Perhaps, just as Heaney did, such a child struggles to make sense of an imperfect world, digging as poets do when they reach down to plant earth with words.  Every class contains poets, and somewhere out there the next version of  a Seamus Heaney one day will emerge to “gobsmack” us with his or her unique talent to till image into verse.


It’s our role as educators to support children to sustain their creative passions and find their own voices through art. After all, poets,  storytellers, artists, musicians and sculptors define the bandwidth of our culture, not politicians, economists, or CEOs.  Because of artists, we see and hear a different world, one filled with color, symphony, story, and dance. We may need STEM to save the world, but, I for one, believe we also need artists to advance humanity and civilization even more.


I talked with a teacher, @hobbes4564,  this past week who just blogged about how she is  helping children learn about friendship. Beth’s a fabulous teacher who engages kids in powerful ways through old and new learning tools. Her third grade kids are maniacal bloggers who routinely log and share posts and comments with other children all over our district – and the country. She’s started a new activity, “Challenge Friday”, that builds from her love, and the children’s, of Legos as learning tools. Last week their challenge was to build a working lever made of Legos and use it to lift a 50 g block. It was fascinating to watch children work in pairs to explore concepts of force, load, and fulcrum as they experimented with their Lego bricks.

However, her goals for learning go far beyond cognitive skill acquisition. This weekend, she reflected upon how she is helping children who come from a mix of countries and localities to make and sustain friendships. Playful Lego work in her class offers not just opportunities for children to learn new content and skills, but also to build friendships, learn new language and express themselves artistically. I loved listening to the children talk with each other when I visited. One child asked another, “how do you know what to build?” The other child responded simply, “I see a picture of it in my mind.”


In watching children in her class work so carefully and civilly together, I am struck that this educator is teaching them both how to succeed and to become artists in their own right, even as they create and build STEM principles with their Legos. I’d love to be able to bottle her expertise as an educator – her understanding of how children succeed is worth its weight in gold.


Together these three somewhat disparate stories that I experienced last week connect for me the importance of our influence as educators beyond building cognitive skills and knowledge among young people we teach. We educators aren’t miracle workers, but we do make a difference with children who need strong, positive, trusting relationships with adults in their lives. Not every child will grow up to become a great poet, but every child needs to grow up with a communicative voice.  Not every child represents chronic risk factors, but all need to know they’ve adults in their corner.

We hold the power to help all children gain a sense of strong personal voice, sustain curiosity, develop caring relationships, maintain well-being, and explore learning through multiple pathways.  We are responsible for nurturing the complete child, not just their cognitive functions, using every possible strategy to protect children with allostatic risk factors – not add to their debilitating stress during their hours with us. In doing these things, we gift children with competencies that equip them to succeed in life – as parents, community members, co-workers, and friends.

That’s why I believe educators represent the most important profession in the world.


Helping Hands

The “K Playbook”: Professional Learning for a Lifetime

World Peace Gamers

A mentor once said to me that he had never seen a kindergartener arrive at school with the idea that he or she was not a learner. During my professional years spent as an elementary principal, I cherished the opportunity to “kid-watch” kindergarteners on a daily basis.  The block area served as a favorite space of the kindergarteners and me. Here the fantastical imaginations and risky behaviors of five-year olds led them to design and construct post-modern expressionist structures reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s most interesting work.

I learned kindergarteners aren’t afraid to explore the intersection of disparate materials that leads them to create whimsical, sometimes even absurd architectural spaces – towers, homes, castles, even whole cities – combining Legos, wooden blocks, aluminum foil, cardboard – whatever they could find in the kindergarten co-laboratory.  Turned loose, kindergartners epitomize the dispositions of lifelong learning. They are adaptable, flexible thinkers who will play in the sandbox for hours, despite their short attention span in circle time. They love math and science and writing and painting and music and mythical stories and non-fiction information and chasing each other and dancing – all in the name of learning.

Educators’ Tower Building

Taking a page from the MIT kindergarten playbook and the design focus of  Parsons School Institute of Play, I wrestle with how we can grow the passion for learning inherent in kindergarteners in our own work as educators. What it means to educate and be educated takes on new meaning in today’s technology-driven world. The task of educating young people who will graduate from our high schools with the capability to add value to our communities and workforce presents a challenge unique to these times. Our country’s democratic survival depends upon our educational community doing its best work ever in the history of public education.

We educators have watched Shift Happens (Mcleod and Fisch) on YouTube, read  Yong Zhao’s World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students and listened to Tony Wagner push us to not just focus upon the national achievement gap but also the global one. Yet, the momentum necessary to make necessary changes never quite gets us off the ground.  In fact, as Larry Cuban noted in 1992 in the article, “Computers Meet Classroom. Classroom Wins”, reforms do not change schools, but rather schools change reforms and, in such a way that little change ever occurs in schools.

A lifelong quest as an educator has been to figure out why we educators are less likely to change, indeed to incorporate new learning into our work, than almost any other field. I have come to believe that the potential for“deep change” in which knowledge, practices and processes shift is a function of the availability of substantial time for our own adult learning – something that is in little supply in America’s Pk-12 schools.

We educators have little time to play in the sandbox; to explore the intersections of disparate ideas, disciplines, and cultures that would lead us to create, design, and invent the curricula, assessments and instruction necessary to provide learning sustenance to contemporary learners. Instead, teachers work long hours during a 200 day school year, using what daily planning time is available to accomplish clerical and administrative tasks related to operational details of the job. Little to no time exists for a typical Pk-12 educator to read, think, reflect, collaborate, write, study, listen, converse, create, problem-solve; indeed, simply learn. This situation is inconsistent with other professions in this country and with the professional life of educators who work in high performing educational communities around the world.

I have come to the distinctly simplistic perspective that our educators need more unencumbered professional time dedicated to learning and that if they had access to such time, education would be transformative for learners and learning. However, expecting educators to acquire and use skills and then assimilate rapidly shifting technologies into their work with students, means coming to terms with the fact that integration of new technologies, new pedagogies, and new content demands far more time than our teaching educators are obligated to work in traditional contracts and on traditional calendars which do not serve us well in the twenty-first century.

Time to work together

On the other hand, some aspects of educating young people well in today’s world aren’t a lot different from 10,000 years ago. I suspect the best tribal teachers knew the value of team learning, hands-on approaches, practice, coaching and high levels of Bloom’s. For early Homo sapiens, teaching well surely meant the difference between the life and death of a tribe’s young people. Our earliest teachers knew that neither they nor their pupils could afford to rest as learners, but rather that they all had to constantly adapt and flex as they acquired new knowledge and skills essential to survival. Tony Wagner describes the skills that teenagers need in this century’s colleges, workforce, and communities as survival skills, too. These skills include Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence, Agility and Adaptability, Initiative and Entrepreneurship, Effective Oral and Written Communication, Accessing and Analyzing Information, and Curiosity and Imagination.

High school kids build bridges

Primary students build bridges

Opportunities to develop and use Wagner’s skills don’t typically emerge as a result of traditional curricula, instruction or assessments used in most of America’s public schools. If Tyack and Cuban are correct, not much will change as a result of any of our ghosts of reform – past, present or future. So what will it take to drive home the deep change needed so that our digital learners get the learning spaces they need today? And, if educators have little opportunity to engage in and assimilate new professional learning, why would they not remain closed and resistant to change?

Lifelong learning is essential to practitioners in the field of education. We must provide time for our teachers to continue learning if we expect them to embrace meaningful and necessary changes to transform schools of our past into schools for the future. This means providing significant time to try out new strategies and tools, to build relationships with each other as learners, and find the value inherent in participating in both virtual and face-to-face learning communities, including social learning media such as Twitter chats.

Teachers connecting F2F and virtually via SM

Time should not be either a luxury or an excuse for educators to do the hard work and play essential to their own learning. Just as in kindergarten, creative and inventive ideas in the block area or sandbox come with the time to think, to collaborate, to try out different construction materials and strategies, to analyze, and decide what to do next. Expert kindergarten teachers purposefully schedule the time needed for young children to do the messy work of learning. School calendars and contracts that reflect the time needed for educators to engage in their own learning work are a must. The biggest challenge is finding the funding, and, even more important and scarce, the will to make the necessary changes in structures leftover from the agrarian and industrial ages of public education.

Perhaps, if our communities and educators believed our survival depended upon it, change would happen tomorrow.

Why not Children as Teachers – not just Learners?

This morning I glanced occasionally at a range of adolescent orangutans engaging in problem-solving play and stick-based learning with, and from, each other on an Animal Planet show. They were teaching and learning together as mammalian young have been wont to do across time. It reminded me of an I-search question that’s been on my mind for a while. What if we set up school communities to more formally and informally situate children and adolescents to teach and learn together in multi-age opportunities as they’ve always done? What might be different and why? And does the rationale still make sense for sustaining our current paradigm for single-age learning communities, a paradigm that only developed in the early years of the 20th century?

Orphaned orangutans, Borneo, Andy Bingham

While visiting Irish educators and observing in multiple school settings with @irasocol, our conversations often centered upon how highly effective and supportive use of multi-age classes leads children to learn from other children. We dropped in on a range of multi-age learning communities from large, diverse urban to tiny, 2-teacher Gaeltacht primary schools (K-6 in U.S. terms.) Despite my experience with some multi-age classrooms when I was an elementary principal, it was eye-opening to witness the ethos of multi-age learning that’s so deeply embedded in Ireland.

In this class, level 6 routinely teaches Level 2

In Ireland, primary teachers have a difficult time envisioning a single grade classroom and they consider deep literacy acquisition and the nation’s high literacy rate as related to multi-age opportunities to build vocabulary, learn concepts, and scaffold learning across disciplines. They also saw this model as creating a culture that socially advances appropriate behaviors at work and play by and among children, causing significantly less devotion of time to teaching children “how to do school.”

Versions of this comment also surface from local teachers in our very few systemic multi-age settings, such as a K-1 classes, as well as from teachers who loop up with children to the next grade.Teachers in multi-age  communities  or those that stay together for more than a year seem to spend less time enforcing rules and more academic time working with children – in Ireland or here. This seems important given the concerns of educators about never having enough time.

Since May, I’ve also had the chance to watch multi-age, really multi-age communities from 7-18 years of age attending #coderdojos in both Thurles,Ireland and Albemarle, Va. In Thurles, my friend and colleague, Pam O’Brien, @pamelaaobrien, provided an opportunity to experience my first #coderdojo. This summer, I was in and out of a local school observing #coderdojo participants over four days in my own district. In both cases, children relished the opportunity to play and work with each other, often in antithesis of the stereotypical images of tech learning and learners. Instead, girls taught boys and younger children helped older ones code in Scratch, HTML, and with Lego robotics design software. Age was not the greatest variable. What the kids knew and could do was though. Sometimes the adults were the teachers. And, sometimes children taught the adults.

a younger and older elementary student working together on a laptop

#Cvillecoderdojo: kids teaching kids

When six-year-old Sean in Thurles was asked what he did when he got stuck creating a Scratch game, he pointed to an 11-year old red-head, Steven. When I posed the same question to Steven, he turned to a 20-year-old college student and said, “she helps me when I need a hand.” At our local #codedojo here in Virginia, the teaching team started out with 4 relatively age-based coding rooms. By the end of four days, the kids were working together with as much as ten years difference in age to search, connect, communicate, and make.

As a result of thinking about the possibilities of multi-age teaching and learning, I was drawn back to reconsider the “hole in the wall” project of Sugata Mitra’s. In this educational “experiment,” Mitra, in 1999, first placed secure computers in walls and made them accessible to children who have no schools in their community. Then, he watched. Over time, the children worked, played, and figured out how to use the technology, connecting to the Internet, creating music, and playing with applications. Then, they began to teach and learn with each and from each other. Outside school. Outside adult teaching.

These observations of recent have led me to consider how little we advantage learners by creating opportunities for them to learn together, with and from each other, as storytellers, writers, readers, problem-solvers, creators, builders, designers, engineers, producers, makers, researchers, and decision-makers. How might opportunities to teach and learn from each other more deeply facilitate all young people to remain curious, passionate, engaged, connected, and futuristic in their thinking and doing?

3 students working on math problem-solving on the floor

working together to problem-solve maths

Adults are the first models for learning.  By nature, they’re also teachers in the home as parents and by profession as educators. However, children, too, in their DNA are teachers and learners, too.  Mammalian young learn from each other with the same ease as  taking their first breath. So, why do our U.S. schools, in general, not take advantage of that versus trying to isolate children from each other in the learning process? In the natural world of orangutans what scientists label as learning from each other; we, in the education world, label as cheating.In Ireland, I saw children share their project work with each other and use it to scaffold and advance their own work- a very different way of thinking about learning than we practice here.

But, think of the potential to maximize learning in schools with a “many to many” rather than “one to many” teaching and learning approach. While commonplace in both the 1800s multi-age schoolhouses of America and in the “hedge” schools of Ireland, the multi-age community disappeared in the United States as we modernized our one-room schools into factory schools that became ubiquitous in the 1900s. As in most of Europe, Ireland’s commitment to multi-age learning did not.

a one room school house made of logs I wonder to what degree the single grade nature of our current factory-driven, teacher-directed elementary classrooms has contributed to the social and academic learning gaps with which we are concerned today. Does the single grade system that we use really make us more efficient or effective to borrow from the business language that emerged from the work of Frederick Taylor and Elwood Cubberley? Or not?

Teaching and learning together occur naturally in children’s tree-house building projects in community backyards. However, such informal multi-age “play, teach, learn” experiences seem to be fast disappearing from our culture, just as multi-age learning evaporated with the advent of 20th century schools.  Watching the Olympics, I think of all the games that older children have taught younger children to play, naturally and without much adult intervention. Given our historical and evolutionary dispositions to play, teach, and learn in multi-age communities, why would we be so surprised to see contemporary children teaching and learning together, whether abandoned in the mean streets of India or dropped off at a #coderdojo by their parents?

After observing multi-age communities in Irish classrooms and coderdojos, adolescent orangutans in Borneo, and Mitra’s “hole in the wall” child-teachers, I wonder why we wouldn’t begin to redesign our schools to take advantage of this natural capacity of young people to teach, not just to learn?

In what ways could we create multi-age learning opportunities in our schools? Why not set that as a goal this year? It could be a game changer for contemporary learners – and you.

In this classroom everyone is a student everyone is a teacher

Wandering and Wondering about Educon 2.4

The Journey:

It’s been two weeks since EduCon 2012 and lots of posts have been put up since then.  I’ve postponed writing until the experience soaked in a bit more. The distance to Philadelphia that late Friday afternoon in January felt farther away from my country lane in Virginia than it would have if I’d left in the morning. However, I was late leaving because I’d been asked to speak at the funeral service of a former colleague. Along with a community of educators, we gathered to offer respect to one who fell from among us too soon. All other agendas were put on hold that day, including Educon.

When I left town late, I knew the 95N beltway battle to head above the Mason-Dixon line would take on a life of its own. I grabbed my navi – a survival necessity in my 21st c “possibles”  bag.

This year, the GPS became “Hal” as I merged into the streaming DC traffic that Friday afternoon. I knew I was in trouble when “he” directed me to exit  95N onto Pennsylvania Avenue. ”I’m not that stupid, Hal.  There’s no invite to visit from the POTUS in my inbox.” Then, “he” tried to convince me to take a side trip to Annapolis. What that was about? I had no clue why “he” was misleading me so far afield from the planned trip. In his soothing, but illogical, voice, “Hal” insisted I u-turn for miles beyond the Annapolis exit until I finally had the good sense to hit mute. “Dave” could have used that feature back in 2001.

Despite GPS problems, I continued on course up 95N wondering why I was bothering with  “Hal” anyway. Stuck with “Hal’s” dysfunction, I began to wonder if “Siri” would be a better option but, then again… . when I found this, I thought maybe not so much.

Wondering as a Starting Point:

In wondering about the learning impact of using navigation systems on human navigation skills, I tried to find a piece of research I’d read some time ago. I couldn’t find the original post, but did find something recent about how our navi-dependency causes us to lose the occasional homing pigeon sensibility we humans use. It caused me to wonder about the importance of those skills in the physical, social, and cognitive worlds we inhabit.

You can go with ESSO!

What does it mean to become dependent on today’s mobile devices that exercise place-finding skills on our behalf? What are we NOT learning when we choose to shove old paper maps into the recycling bin or abandon them to the back of a file drawer? What changed when paper maps became ubiquitous, replacing a set of skills that our ancestors considered essential? What did a few generations back think when their children made the move to ESSO road maps?

And, what changed when humans abandoned the dead reckoning and celestial navigation skills used by Lewis and Clark on their trip to near Portland, for example? If in the process of today’s generations abandoning yesterday’s lay map reading, what if the next generation doesn’t learn skills of physical navigation? What changes when the navigation process is fully abandoned to Hal and Siri? Should we worry about the learning implications of that?

Reflection as an Observation Point:

We sometimes forget that technologies have evolved for all time and, as a result, some human skills that once were important are no longer of the same value as to a prior generation. This was as true of life in the caves as of life in today’s 21st century skyscrapers. The evolution of technology sneaks up on the general population, often a surprise to the psyche. Like other generations we mostly resist letting go of the old and adopting the new.  It’s why I’m only half committed to using “Hal” when I travel. I don’t really trust in the GPS for both mystical and real life reasons. If I feel that –  and I’m pretty open to using new technologies – how does that play out in people who aren’t adopting or adapting to the rapid tech changes in every aspect of our lives- cars, homes, entertainment, medicine, education, government and … social media?

I sometimes hear, “what will society do, if all these computers fail?” Now that’s a good question, one that likely parallels the “yea, but”  thinking of monks in response to the printing press and buggy whip makers regarding the Model T. It’s a fact of life that turning points take time and the “imaginators” pushing the flywheels of change on those points often take hits on their journeys. They certainly have been on the receiving end of a lot more “yea buts’ than @djakes’ “what ifs” as they’ve pushed beyond the envelope of invention, travel, engineering, and mapping the world and beyond over the past few thousand years.

Arrival as a Point of Departure:

Somewhere in Philly

As I drove into Philly with just a bit of sun setting behind the city, I was reminded that I’ve learned to appreciate the concept of “city” from my son. In some ways, Twitter also has expanded my tolerance of city as I’ve formed virtual connections with folks from all over the world, many of whom live in and love their cities. When I hang out with people who represent diverse backgrounds and perspectives, I find myself trying out new ways of thinking.

I’m a country kid, but I’ve learned, within certain parameters, to find joy in cities. I like to look up and down (and yes, I know that act alone labels me to street people) to soak in intricate cornices of buildings, skyscraper reflections, signage over doorways, ancient wooden doors, steaming grates, and the wrought iron that often wraps around old churches.

I think about how people are kept out and in within cities. Paths and sidewalks funnel people to and from buildings. Country people learn to navigate differently than my city friends.

Rattlesnake orchid

I’ve learned to wander the woods along my country lane, in swamps, up and down mountains, straddling fences, and navigate the way home using a downed poplar tree, a greenstone outcropping, the sun, or a path well traveled by deer. In Denver for a conference, I learned from walking with a city friend that urban and rural  kids grow up learning to navigate differently. I thought about how I mostly used a kind of dead reckoning as I took the risk to move alone to and from EduCon – albeit with the capability to phone @beckyfisher73, text Jeff the Educon concierge,  or access a navi app on my own phone.

In reflecting about my use of multiple navigation systems to travel to and from Philadelphia, I’ve thought about old tech, new tech, old strategy, new strategy, and my appreciation of the accessibility of all. I am a different navigator with my tools than my father was. He also became a different navigator from his  “three sees”   father.

EduCon 2.4 as a Learning Point:

licensed by KJarrett via CC – educon 2.4

I always learn when I’m with people of diverse experiences, capabilities, and interests. Educon and a few other conferences remind me of the old style tribal or mountain folk Rendezvous. EduCon attendees individually and through a variety of communities connect throughout the year, but value the coming together face to face with a full community. Just like our ancestors, we go to Philly to exchange ideas in the corridors and around the tables, break bread at local watering holes, share artifacts at session campfires, and cross-pollinate in conversation while we wait for sessions to begin and end. We share what’s in our “possibles” bags and take possibilities away with us when we leave.

This year, voices emerged from all over about the informal connections of conferences as having as much worth as formal activities such as keynotes and panels. They both offer opportunities through different pathways and that’s important to remember. There’s no right or wrong path to learning.

My navigation adventures in the city along planned, formal pathways led me to built, indeed structured, environments that challenged me to wonder and observe and ask questions about things I do not know.  At the same time, I value the informal trails of my Virginia mountains where I can wander on my own terms through a natural environment. The natural environment also holds different kinds of mysteries that push me to wonder, observe and question. While I am learning to use navigation tools and improve my skills in the city, I sustain my capability to move around in the woods. As a result, I am a better personal navigator today than twenty years ago.

In reflecting back on EduCon 2.4, my experiences remind me that our personal learning needs get met in different ways – sometimes formally and sometimes informally. We learn from both scenarios how to navigate through learning, life, and space.

Lewis and Clark Map

 EduCon participants explore horizons. The role of explorer may seem pretty cool when we’re learning history but when you’re an explorer, the world you’re traveling through can feel pretty perilous. That emerged in some of the discussions among those attending Educon, both formally and informally. As a colleague reminded me recently, “the pioneers got the arrows, and the settlers got the land.”  EduCon participants struggle with navigating the unknowns of education’s frontiers just as those who pushed beyond boundaries always have. Coming together seems to renew the energy needed by boundary pushers in this “Age of Educational Exploration” whether it’s @chrislehmann in his ongoing leadership at SLA or @dancallahan in a new teaching position.In reflection, understanding navigation as a lifelong learning competency seems to be a take away for me from my Educon 2.4 journey. It wasn’t a session really but it was an underlying theme for me during  the weekend and since.

After all, isn’t this a big question for educators pushing into new territory and through old boundaries of the past:

How do we successfully navigate ourselves,  and those who explore and settle new frontiers of learning with us, into the coming decades of this century?

By the way, I turned “Hal” off on the way home. Enough said.

Out of the Quicksand: It’s About Passion not Standardization

The President emphasized the words education and innovation in his State of the Union speech last week. In fact, he used both words in some form at least 10 times each- not necessarily in tandem. While I didn’t do a frequency count of all the words used multiple times, those two certainly jumped out as I listened to his words.

The President's Speech

He also spoke to America’s frustration with losing our balance because we didn’t see change coming. It’s as if we woke up one day and the world had changed without asking our permission. We just didn’t anticipate the shift of global sands under our nation’s feet as the rules of the game changed that govern our economic survival.

We, the current crop of Americans, don’t remember a time when we weren’t the world leader we are today. None among us are old enough to remember the 19th century preeminent status of the British Empire as the world power prior to its decline in the first half of the 20th century. Many of us are too young to have processed the truly recent emergence of the United States as a “super” power in the second half of the 20th century.  We’ve grown up assuming that’s just the way it is and has always been – America leading the world.

Connecting with China circa 1972

Times have changed though. Instead of a universal confidence in our capability to negotiate our way through tough times, some feel we’re sliding into a pit of quick sand and we’re not sure where to grab a handle to pull ourselves out.  The President seems to think our capability to educate and innovate might provide that handle.

In concept, these two words do feel like the right handle when used together. In reality, I don’t see viable and multiple pathways being applied in the President’s education office to link those two words in a meaningful way in our schoolwork. Instead, the “trickle down” economics of USDOE’s approach to public education feels disconnected from the work of those who labor out in the field (with the exception of the National Educational Technology Plan which I see as USDOE’s best work).

At the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best educators in the field could get behind a grassroots-driven plan to support radical invention of a public education system for contemporary learners and learning.  They gather all the time now at teach-meets, un-conferencesonline in social learning media networks, and in formal settings such as this weekend’s EduCon 2.3. They also understand we can’t get to innovation without going through invention as a precursor process.

Unfortunately, the time to simply do what inventors do – think, consider ideas, try things out, talk to others, reflect, modify, figure out possibilities, do something – just doesn’t come often in their world of full time jobs. They need time and the space to do the work of radical invention. If anyone wonders why it doesn’t happen, shadow our best educators for just one day. They need the attention from the private sector to support them in DARPA-like invention work.

The Internet: a DARPA invention

We need radical invention learning models, but we need them working in just plain “old” schools that represent the range of demographics and facilities distributed across the country.  Unless we’re committed to wholesale replacement of the buildings, learners who attend America’s schools, and those who teach, we need to spend concentrated time and resources working as inventors in the schools we have.  The charter concept isn’t bad. We need customized options for kids. It just won’t change the game for the vast majority of America’s millions of students.  All of our students need schools that operate like the best functional communities. All of them deserve the best we have to offer in schools, teachers, and resources. All of them deserve learning spaces where they can pursue their passions.  It’s not about providing that opportunity. It’s about providing that reality.

This year, I’ve spent a number of hours in job-embedded “invention” work with teams of elementary educators. Some of these teams are from upper middle class community schools. Some are from schools populated with children who represent either the urban or rural poor. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common.

They all know they want more for the children they serve. More creative time to think and act upon big learning ideas. More opportunities for project-based learning work for all students, but especially for those trapped in the molasses-slow drudgery of remediation and intervention. More spaces to connect with like-minded educators who also dream different ways to reach out and offer children a handle out of the quick sand of the 20th century testing curricula 1.0 that we’ve adopted across the nation.

Their rooms and schools may look different because of the resources they have available. Most live in the time capsule of boxed places created in the 20th century, but not all. Some have access to additional parent-driven funding for resources about which others can only dream. Their worlds aren’t the same and most likely never will be. Yet, they all see themselves as inventors, creators, designers, builders, and innovators in the learning places where they’ve landed. They just need time, permission, and support to engage.  Each of their inventions may be different and that’s okay. What we need to scale is more creative customization aiming towards passion-based learning inside all our schools, not rote standardization of a one-size fits all model.

What's Your Favorite Learning Experience in This School

We hear that teachers of poor children should be able to propel children over the testing hurdles we place in front of them at equal rates to those of teachers whose children have come to appreciate the Paris Hilton over spring break. But, their worlds are not the same. Their academic and social background knowledge is not the same. The resources their teachers have access to are not the same. The places they call home or school are not the same. While we can find both wealthy and poor schools that have figured out the buttons to punch to get great pass rates, we have not come close to leveling the playing field in the provision of the rich and varied learning experiences that those of privilege have come to appreciate in the schools they attend- public or private. If we believe in the past three Presidents’ public commitment that all children must realize their maximal potential through the work of our system, then we have work to do, not just in schools, but also in every other service sector of our government.

In Life Magazine 1958: Kids Create "Space" Helmets

It’s not Sputnik rocket science to figure out President Obama’s correct in saying that extending the handle of education and innovation provides Americans with the best chance to escape the quick sand into which we are sinking globally. However, innovation of education won’t happen without an infusion of passion into the work of the millions of teachers who serve our young people.  From my observations, I’ve come to see passion for learning and standardization of learning structures and processes as representing an inversely proportional relationship.  The more our schools become standardized, the less passion is evident in the work of teachers and students. In other words, standardization drains passion from our schools. Unfortunately, without passion-driven learning, innovation just won’t occur, not in any field- but especially not in education.

learning passion vs school standardization

The accountability pathway we’re on won’t ever lead us to passion-driven learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Children who get a chance to pursue interests- the things they love- generate a passion for learning in themselves and others. When given the opportunity to create, design, build, work with each other and share their interests and passion, their excitement about learning creates a contagion of creativity among peers and their teachers.  If what America needs the most is to fuel our next generation economy, then we better focus on how we set the stage from the ground up for both children and educators to get passionate about their learning work.  One thing’s for sure. More focus on the standardization of schools, curricula, classrooms, and teachers with the goal of more children passing more high stakes multiple choice tests will not sustain America’s children in their journey towards a 22nd century world.

The Intersection of Tech and Passion-Driven Learning