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Jumping in

Folks, I just want to say how awesome it feels to be here with you, such a group of thoughtful and powerful teachers and educators.  I am really drawn to the specificity and reflectiveness of the posting here, and want to join in full tilt.

As to the question, “How do we support students developing as efficacious self-directed, social learners and involve parents as partners in that journey?” I offer a little of my own background here.  I mostly directly teach undergraduates (and adults), so I deal with folks who have already been through a system that has largely (with some exceptions) encouraged them to be passive, to be attentive to the rules of the game, to be really, really conventionally successful (as defined by the institution), and who are often self-directed and social learners–OUTSIDE of the classroom.  So long attentive to the rules of the game of school, they sometimes resent being asked to deeply engage in their own learning.  Here’s a little recollection of my own journey through this as a teacher…

In my first year of teaching, at a fine undergraduate college, I tried to instruct without many rules. “I’m your friend,” I suggested to my students. I’m on your side. We’re going to put this course together mutually. I had just gotten out of graduate school, and from under the tyranny of white, male professordom (so I thought!). I understand. Really. I want us to do something different! My students were sullen, blank, and cross. Hey, I thought this course was an easy A in the education department! I just want to come in, listen to the lecture (not really), write the 3 papers, take the exams, and get out. Please don’t complicate this. Also, you, teacher, don’t have the reputation yet to get us all excited about doing so much work for you. You haven’t got the institutional cojenes to pull this off! What are you trying to do anyway? How can we trust you when we don’t know anything about you?

The next year I tried, against my principles, to be more “traditional.” I didn’t ask students to grade themselves, keep a portfolio of their work, or write endless self-reflective essays. I hired teaching assistants to run discussion groups and handed out rubrics for written work I’d gotten off the internet. Another misjudgment. Although the students understood the rules perfectly, I hated teaching this way. My heart just wasn’t in it. My teaching assistants, sensing that they might need to become the harsh end of institutional law, became whip-toting dominatrixes of the grade book-jamming kids (their peers) for handing papers in late, grading without much sense of heart or meaning, taking attendance vociferously, not accepting work that wasn’t in the right format. They became enforcers. (I say this like I knew what was going on, but I really didn’t. This is all with the benefit of hindsight.)

So finally, like Goldilocks, third year I started to get it just right. I spent a lot of time carefully explaining where I was coming from as a teacher. I didn’t have any teaching assistants, which put my face first in every student teacher interaction. (This was much more work, of course.) By then students did know me better and they were more willing to come along with me on an educational journey, to grade themselves, to reflect openly about what had happened to them in educational institutions in the past, to “own” the class as a space where they might actually say something powerful, important and new about themselves.

So based on this, and the now hundreds of classroom observations I do and conversations I have with teachers and kids in schools, it seems to me that to be a self-directed, deeply engaged learner, you have to believe that the task you are engaging in is:

  • truly personally meaningful;
  • that you will have choices all the way along about the nature/definition of the task;
  • that you can control the pace of the learning, and how you show what you know;
  • you can adjust the level of challenge based on how you are progressing.

This is a pretty high bar for most of us who also work in K-12 settings, where so many learning exercises are nothing like this.  John Holt often described “learning, real learning” (as he would say) as an adventure, and you need a brave heart and a lot of self-confidence to engage in it.

Paula and Adam both talk about how they do this, real time, in the classroom every day.  But how successful can we be, given the hardshell conventions of the classroom, AYP, NCLB?

I’m just trying to provoke here.

As to being social learners, my experience relates to something Aaron raised in his post.  Most kids need to be taught collaboration skills pretty directly. Although they use collaborative tools very well, intellectual collaboration (I’ve found) is deeply related to the ability to listen to someone else’s point of view and be changed by it, without losing track of yourself; being able to amplify someone else’s work (to “plus up” your partner, as I sometimes say), and to be playful and broad.  Most students need direct instruction on this, role-playing, case studies, scenarios, scripts.

So how are OUR tools as teachers?  Do we collaborate well as social learners?  If not, how can we teach kids?

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About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Jumping in

  1. Kirsten,

    What a great splash you have made with “Jumping In!” I love your succinct points about what the tasks look and feel like to foster being a self-directed learner:

    “truly personally meaningful;
    that you will have choices all the way along about the nature/definition of the task;
    that you can control the pace of the learning, and how you show what you know;
    you can adjust the level of challenge based on how you are progressing.”

    Also you are correct, intellectual collaboration is another matter, discussions about thinking, analysis, contemplation, meta-cognition might be some of the only one’s we need to make sure we are directing in our learning environments. As Aaron has mentioned we must be models for self-directed learning and the same goes for this concept. it sounds like you have some great tools for this and I hope to hear more about it as we go on.

    With hope,
    Adam

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 14, 2010, 2:08 pm
  2. Welcome, Kirsten – great post! This passage really speaks to me:

    I spent a lot of time carefully explaining where I was coming from as a teacher. I didn’t have any teaching assistants, which put my face first in every student teacher interaction. (This was much more work, of course.) By then students did know me better and they were more willing to come along with me on an educational journey, to grade themselves, to reflect openly about what had happened to them in educational institutions in the past, to “own” the class as a space where they might actually say something powerful, important and new about themselves.

    I think that conversations about philosophy and relationships built in the open are missing, by and large, from public education. I work in an incredibly supportive division, and I don’t hide my blogging or tweeting from anyone, but I also don’t share with my students my deep misgivings about grading, testing, and tracking, or my practices in dealing with them. I don’t often talk about these things with students’ parents or with my colleagues either. It’s hard to take public ownership of ideas that run contrary to the systems of public education. The blogging helps.

    How do schools like the New Country School take shape and thrive past their initial implementations? What kinds of questions should teachers, students, parents, and administrators pose for one another to build trust, discover one another’s philosophies, and garner broad for schools that look different from those in the media or those that teach to the test?

    How should we build the conversational and collaborative culture you describe among educators in a public school and/or school system?

    Best regards,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 14, 2010, 2:51 pm
  3. Kirsten:

    Thanks for this post. I’m not familiar with your work. Looks like I have to get your book. As to your last paragraph, I would say that drama, when taught well, is a good way to help develop the social learning sills your describe. At it’s best, drama education asks students to listen to one another, to collaborate with one another, to make new connections, all as part of creating a gift for the greater good.

    As you suggest, we don’t ask students to create much in school that is meaningful for them. We don’t encourage them to do much for other people, rather than the obligatory work that gets them ranked and sorted. We need to get the blinders of possibility off early and keep them off for older students.

    Posted by Bill Williams | April 14, 2010, 3:54 pm
  4. Okay, Chad, Adam is always pushing, you are ALWAYS questioning. . . . Your questions are always making me think. Thanks for that. Aaron is ALWAYS writing–or perhaps provoking, and Joe is always blunt and passionate about whatever he is being blunt about! This is quite the group! :-)

    Kirsten, thank you for joining us, and I agree with Adam, it’s quite a splash you’ve made. I love the questions you end with–“So how are OUR tools as teachers? Do we collaborate well as social learners? If not, how can we teach kids?”

    I believe we began this blog as a cooperative venture to think, probe, and suggest about changing education as we speak, and I certainly have been challenged to think through many of my beliefs and practices by the questions and thoughts posed here.

    However, the best collaborative pieces for me, in this particular venue, have been the shaking out of the philosophy and mission statement, the wordsmithing and changing the slant on the pledge and the moments when we together have been struggling to define or compose a belief statement that represents the group.

    We met through Twitter–so we knew of each other in 140 word spurts–or reading each others’ blogs–or in mine and Chad’s case, from knowing of each other’s work in the same school division. One thing I have noticed on social networking sites is the lack of conversations sometimes–the lack of active listening and responding, the lack of building on a prior response, the lack of follow through with a particular topic or the lack of building a cohesive conversation.

    This experience has been different for me, though, in that the common topics and the various viewpoints on something that I have already been thinking about is incredibly powerful for enriching and making my thinking deeper. it has made me think about how to get that depth going with my kids.

    I’ve had to experience this sense of thinking deeply together to think about how to go about it with my kids. I’ve begun thinking much more about what the definition of collaboration is–so I’ll throw that one back to you.

    What does it mean to “collaborate well?”

    (You also might want to check out what some others have said about teaching and learning well. :-) http://tzstchr.edublogs.org/2009/10/15/learning-well/)

    Posted by Paula White | April 14, 2010, 5:27 pm
    • I love that question!

      I think that great collaboration offers a trade off: you get the freedom to share your beliefs honestly in return for taking on the personal responsibility to act on them.

      The time and trust necessary for that work have to be fostered by structures that sustain the collaboration. Collaborators and their facilitators have to make sure that participants’ work isn’t made moot by conflicting policy or competing realities. Collaborators share decision-making and administrative tasks and accept fluid and mutable task-oriented or project-based leadership roles.

      Dependable, primary modes of communication and consensus building are used, with alternatives that support collaborators’ communications needs.

      Not everyone does the same work coming out of the collaboration, but every participants’ work is enriched by the others’, and credit for learning is shared.

      The collaboration lasts as long as it fulfills participants’ needs.

      Great collaboration reminds me of the Reader’s Bill of Rights: lots of freedom balanced by the real need to participate and act to learn and affect change.

      What do you think?
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 14, 2010, 6:05 pm
  5. Welcome to the roster, Kirsten!

    I love how you point out that our teaching changes from year to year. It makes me laugh at the idea that anything about learning is standardized. If we as adults can’t (and we shouldn’t) standardize our teaching, why the heck would we ever expect out students’ learning to be standardized.

    Posted by Joe Bower | April 14, 2010, 7:34 pm
  6. Wow I love this.

    I was a part of an online learning community for about a year, and finally dropped out when a lot of the commenting became repetitive and not about powerful learning. So Paula, I really hear you. To the degree we can build on each other’s responses, and share our own experiences in ways that align with what has just been said, and add directly to what has been said, I am really with you that this is the way to go.

    Are we going to talk about collaboration next? Because I was just meeting this morning with my friend Larry Myatt (founder of the Fenway School in Boston, and the Forum for Democracy) talking about the qualities of collaborative teams in schools and I am really thinking about that this afternoon (trying to write a book proposal, oh dear!).

    I want to not say anything more except to Chad’s comment. “I think that conversations about philosophy and relationships built in the open are missing, by and large, from public education. I work in an incredibly supportive division, and I don’t hide my blogging or tweeting from anyone, but I also don’t share with my students my deep misgivings about grading, testing, and tracking, or my practices in dealing with them. I don’t often talk about these things with students’ parents or with my colleagues either. It’s hard to take public ownership of ideas that run contrary to the systems of public education. The blogging helps.”

    I am constantly in the dilemma of wanting to have real and more open conversations about what I feel I am actually seeing in schools, and feeling that this might not be helpful in actually forwarding the work I have been charged to do. I have a sense sometimes of not being fully integrated because of this. I am interested in where other people stand on this.

    I look forward to knowing everyone better.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 15, 2010, 4:43 pm
  7. Hi Kristen,
    I love this post. You have raised, one of the questions which I constantly fight against, even still as a graduate student. I’ve found in choosing my colleges, methods of study and observations in classroom as truly beneficial once I got my head “out of the way.” A story to relay goes like this…

    Once upon a time, I knew a teacher who was full of progressive educational vigor, completley determined, once coming out of the graduate school classroom, to be an agent of change in the public system, especially in collaboration methods. Once he got a job in a public school, and told on the first day, “to be the disciplinarian to set the tone,” has since become a shell of his former confident self. The teacher gave into the pressure and fear of maintaining his position and job as reason enough to not fully invest or collaborate himself with the students. Today, he still struggles and the spark that once existed in this graduate student is dim as a teacher.

    What is my point? Follow the heart. The head always gets in the way and compromises your true self. I believe, never should we, as educators, allow for the fear of a job loss, the culture of the public system or the challenge of communicating ourself stand in the way of following our heart. Students will always recognize when the teacher does not care and I believe, be far more disappointed if you do not follow your heart, rather than if you choose to challenge the system which you are ironically, associated with.

    However, this of course, could be chalked up as a, still idealistic, optimist graduate student, but, we have a saying at Goddard College that goes something like this, “trust the process,” while it is hard to do, to free fall, in the end, it is far more beneficial and often, mirrors your hearts intent.

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | April 18, 2010, 6:29 pm
  8. I have not had a chance to read this post yet, but I wanted to say thanks to Kirsten for her great conversation in this months AERO magazine. I was so inspired this morning to go out and have Press Conference to get the ball roll. I am one of the young educator you mention to Ron Miller. I am going to be at the AERO conference this summer and hope to get to meet you in person.

    Okay I will read the above post.

    Posted by David Loitz | April 21, 2010, 1:29 am
  9. Hi EdRev and David! I like you, EdRev, believe in following the heart. In practice it is often really hard, especially if our institutional settings don’t value where our heart leads us? This, really is a true dilemma. David, I want to meet you at AERO and talk more. I am hoping Ron and I generate a good discussion on that article, as I think it is at the center of a lot of what’s being talked about here, too. Do we withdraw from the current landscape, because it is unfixable and too broken, or do we keep on keeping on in our imperfect efforts to reshape what exists? For me there is no question about this, because of the 50 million kids who basically have no choice but to attend public school. To say it’s too hard just doesn’t work for me. How about for you? Where are you on this?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 21, 2010, 8:09 am
  10. Kirsten, in skimming your last comment, I misread “attend public school” as “attempt public school.” I think that fits, though: we ask kids to attempt public school without any certainty of success or, in some cases, safety. What kinds of schools, policies, teaching, and learning can give our kids schools that guarantee success in exploring multiple options for employment, education, and fulfillment? How do we dare something worthy so kids don’t have to dare themselves to learn despite the obstacles to learning built into outmoded school structures?

    How do we shift students’ experience from attempting school to enjoying and appreciating it?

    I look forward to pursuing these lines of inquiry and enacting possible solutions with the Coöp. Thanks for your comments and posts!

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 21, 2010, 11:13 am

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