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 ….

writing2

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.

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

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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 Source:genderroles1950.blogspot.com                                                                                       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
pbs.org

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