The Space Between: Where our roles as teachers change lives and learning

It’s been difficult for me to stop thinking about this piece by Seymour Papert.

Specifically, I keep coming back to his three phases of intellectual development. He admittedly oversimplifies the development by containing it in three categories, but even in this somewhat rudimentary manifestation, it still gives us as much to think about as we can handle.

Papert calls phase one, “universally successful learning.” This is during the time before we enter formal institutions of learning, and Papert describes it this way. “All children show a passion for interactive exploration of their immediate world. The diversity of possible activity is great enough for different individuals to find their own styles.”

Watch a three year old wonder and make meaning of their world, and you’ll see the qualities of this phase clearly.

Papert calls phase three, “intellectually awake adults.” I really love that. Once again, this is in the space beyond the walls of our formal learning institutions and is replete with diversity of styles. It’s the way we as adults learn that which we desire to learn for a wide variety of reasons and purposes.

Phase two, then, is the space between. Papert’s description of the phase is a bit harrowing. “The second phase is the narrow and dangerous passage in which many factors conspire to undermine the continuation of phase one. School is often blamed for imposing on children a uniformity that suffocates those who have developed markedly different intellectual styles; much as it used to suffocate left-handed people by forcing them to ‘write properly’.”

While phase two is indeed narrow and dangerous, the duration of the phase stretching out often beyond 15 years makes it all the more so.

One of the greatest roles we play as teachers is to serve as the guide to move our students from phase one to phase three. Papert asserts not all adults will make it. That should haunt us.

I hope we do all we can to make the path between as wide, safe, and inspired as possible. Doing so will certainly change lives.

Thanks to Sean Lucas for the use of the Flickr image.

21st Century Leadership Academy

Quality leadership is an essential factor for making change in education. Just ask any classroom teacher who has had a particularly good, or bad, building principal, and they will tell you stories. Stories of triumph or tragedy, depending on which of the leaders they were paired with.

In Project RED’s study of nearly 1,000 schools involved in a major technology implementation, they state “the principal’s ability to lead change is critical.”

As Simon Sinek says, “There are leaders and there are those who lead.”

I’m very honored that I have the opportunity to work in a district where our entire administrative team is pushing and challenging each other to be the latter.

As part of that effort, this year we created the 21st Century Leadership Academy. Every member of our administrative team is taking part, and over the course of this year, each participant will engage in 63 hours of specific, focused professional development on becoming a 21st century leader. That’s a combined total of 2,520 professional development hours for our team.

There are plenty of conversations about the qualifier “21st century”, and wherever you stand on the convention, we find it a very useful way to add the necessary context to say that we want to do things different. We want to move from a traditional means of education to an environment where kids are empowered and given agency in their learning. We want to create a culture where we are preparing students to be successful for life.

We are fortunate to be partnering with Scott McLeod in our efforts, and Scott will join us for seven full day sessions this school year, and our team will then follow up with a two hour session in the weeks between full day sessions. Together, Scott and I will facilitate the conversations about what should change in education and how we as a district can move to an environment where student ownership is actualized and learning experiences are moved from low-level to high-level thinking.

On September 10, we held our first of the seven full day sessions. We spent the entire day digging into the why. We engaged in the thought experiment, “Because of digital technologies, our world today is moreā€¦” We talked about the implications for learning and schooling, and through the process, we came to a shared understanding of why we need to change education. Perhaps even, reinvent it, as Tony Wagner suggests. We created ownership through the process. Not buy in, but ownership.

Our team ended the day by joining a Google+ Community we set up for the group to continue the conversations and dialog until we meet again in October.

Think about the power of having the entire administrative team together to have these crucial conversations and wrestle with the concepts. We have a great deal of learning, and thinking, and challenging, and inspiring ahead. I’m incredibly excited for what that will mean for our students.

What I’m Afraid Of

We live a lifetime of not enough time. It moves by and through and around us so quickly. And if we let ourselves, we end up sitting along the curbside watching it, as if in a parade, marching in front as we fight the other spectators to pick up the best of the cheap candy it throws.

And that’s partly what I’m afraid of.

Life is also too easily and quickly filled with regret. We hold on to big ideas and dreams and hopes that we play around with in our minds thinking of the someday that will come when we have time or motivation or the right circumstances to realize, only to let the short seconds of “one day I’ll do that” pile upon us without taking any action until the seconds turn themselves into years and weigh more than we can move.

And that’s also partly what I’m afraid of.

And then there’s a life lived with passion. Or without it. Of filling our parades and our short seconds doing what we know we don’t really have any interest or desire to be doing. But we do it anyway. Because as Alan Watts reminds us, we’ve been told and taught that sometimes we just have to “go on doing the things we don’t like in order to go on doing the things you don’t like doing.”

This is where I disagree with Dean. At least in part.

Because I find myself more in agreement with Watts. The video is three minutes and nine seconds that you won’t regret having spent if you let it play through.

“But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track. See, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children, and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing. It’s all wretch and no vomit. It never gets there.”

I’m not sure there’s a person in this world who loves every aspect and is passionate about every single detail of the job they work. That’s reality. There are tough parts of every job, but that doesn’t preclude us from finding a way to bring our passions into what it is we’ve chosen to do. I absolutely agree with Dean that working to support a family, survive, and contribute in some way are incredibly important.

However, there are too many options available to each of us that still allow us to follow what fulfills. Because if you are working a job that makes you miserable and makes others miserable to be in your misery, what’s the point? That doesn’t mean you have to exclusively work in the areas of your passion, but you can find yourself a situation that is satisfying and gratifying in its capacity to allow you to work your passions into what you’re doing.

Teaching our students about capturing the joy in life, about marching in the parade instead of watching it pass by, about choosing to follow and pursue passions which fulfill, about moving when the seconds haven’t yet turned into years of regret- I’m not ready to give up on those things yet.

Calculating the Why

This isn’t an anti-math post.

It also isn’t meant to be anything more than an honest question that I’m trying to find an answer to. I’ve long considered not even writing it for fear that people will misunderstand or misconstrue the question.

But, my inability to find a satisfactory answer in the discussions I have with myself is finally leading me to ask.

As a working, adult professional, I use less than 10% of the math I was exposed to in high school. What does that mean?

I’m sure a similar statement can be made about other content areas, perhaps with a variation of the actual percentage, but still. We spent four years learning content in high school that most of us can no longer remember and don’t use as a part of our profession and hasn’t proved necessary for our success.

It makes me think of two pieces by Alfie Kohn. One, where he states ten truths we shouldn’t be ignoring.

In the second, he details a very interesting observation about the result of a standardized assessment question for a Massachusetts high school math exam.

His quote from Deborah Meier is compelling. “No student should be expected to meet an academic requirement that a cross section of successful adults in the community cannot.”

So, what’s the role of content as it’s presented in today’s education?

Why did I spend four years in high school, and then several more in college learning math that I’ve long since forgotten?

Think back on your high school and college courses. If you were to take the final exam today, how would you do? What does that tell us?

What should it tell us?

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