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Learning at its Best

Learning Like Spies

How do we support students developing as efficacious self-directed, social learners and involve parents as partners in that journey?

This is a question I ask myself daily. While I work in a progressive environment, there are certain methods that are not. There are thematic units, individual studies, and differentiated instruction, but there are also cookie cutter lessons. I try to conceive every day of how to build structures which support students in being effective, self-directed learners who utilize their social environment to catalyze their learning. Sometimes I am able to craft something within my classroom, and sometimes the agreement needed to make larger changes can’t be reached either due to time or other reasons.

One of the first steps to developing these structures of support has to be to build the consensus that this is in fact what we are doing with our time in school. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students all need to agree that this is our aim.

Once this is established the magic doors of the curriculum open and the hard work begins. Rather than work in the classroom like a crew team (I say “row,” and everyone better row at the same time!) to quickly reach a pre-determined destination (e.g. a test score), it becomes more like a reconnoissance team. Each student is charged with a mission—one that is meaningful to them—and given specific instructions as to how they either find the information necessary to their mission or share it.

Then like excellent spies, students go out on their missions, which includes finding information, synthesizing it, and communicating it effectively. Not coincidentally it is these skills that are instrumental to success in the “real world” today, not test scores or memorization. Their informants may include books, on-line social networks such as twitter, blogs, PLN’s, or interviews with community members. Students then report to one another through multiple means-blogs, wiki’s, conversations, and presentations (which can be uploaded to a YouTube channel). These reports then become part of the network of information available to students and the community and are used for on-going assessment and feedback to students.

While there is movement in education to incorporate the tools technology is affording us, including in social media, this is something that must be broached thoughtfully with parents so that they understand how their children will be learning through these experiences, and how their identity will be protected. Students must also receive instruction, yes instruction, on how to use social media for learning as compared to venting the gas out of what appears to be an empty head.

Students create their own best guess of a work plan before they start their mission, to be approved by their field officers, i.e. teachers. I say best guess, because inevitably our plans change as we find new information and leads. Teachers then act as a resource to help provide initial information, ask questions, suggest resources, and collaborate with the student to ensure quality work.

Parents can be included in this journey by clearly communicating with them what we are doing throughout the school year and why we are doing it. A common language and regular dialogue must be held. Parents must know that we value them as partners and that to work well together we need clear expectations of one another’s roles. We also need to be able to call one another out, respectfully, when it seems one of us is not upholding our part of the deal.

Part of this dialogue needs to be hearing the parents’ stories about their experiences in school, positive and negative. We need to let them know we hear them and explain how their child’s experience will be different than their negative experiences. We need to tell parents that we see their child as a whole child (and first we must get to know the student as such).

We need to tell parents how we want them to help their children learn, and how we don’t. We all know how some parents can’t help themselves but to get involved in their child’s work (and perhaps this a better problem to have vs. parents that never get involved). This is natural and good in the right time and place. However, students need to be build the strength to work through tough problems on their own. We also need to provide opportunities for parents to be involved in school and their child’s learning that is meaningful to them.

Can we facilitate conversations where parents can share their stories of passion with their children? Can we share our own stories about joyous learning? And here’s a zinger can we allow students to share theirs? I mean what if it doesn’t directly address the content we are dealing with in class today? Can we allow for such a digression? *gasp* (please note that this was an attempt at sarcasm) Seriously, when these moments do arise, can we aid students to make connections between what they are passionate about and larger ideas? Can we help build scaffolding so that their interests can be the driving force in their school day?

I think I may be grabbing for the low hanging fruit, because we all know there are very difficult situations out there. How do we involve parents with addictions? Have mental illnesses? Those who did not finish school themselves or don’t outwardly value education? These situations are far more difficult. As for addictions and mental illness, teachers need to either collaborate with social workers or get trained themselves to at least recognize the presence of these conditions. Then partnerships must be made with providers and the parents themselves to get them the assistance they need and hopefully want. Just like an IEP, the parents must clearly understand their strengths and weaknesses as related to supporting their child in school, and have clear goals that they, their children, and teachers all understand.

Reaching those who haven’t finished high school, or don’t value education, consists of open dialogue. Allowing time for conversations to ripen as defenses fall. Engaging thoughtfully and authentically, we will forge a healing relationship with them. As they come to experience us as the archetypal teacher, we can begin to repair the harm done to them by previous teachers. If they hear that we believe in them still today, and that we have sympathy for the harms done to them in the past (although it was not us who committed them), new possibilities arise.

Conclusively, it boils down to authentic relationships, where we are able to be seen for who we are and who we want to be. Where open, honest, and respectful conversations are had, and we acknowledge our power not only as teachers but as healers.

I’d like to share a quote that I just came across this morning, which is most appropriate to this conversation:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. -Howard Thurman

In peace,

About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


5 thoughts on “Learning Like Spies

  1. Adam, your post really pushes me to begin working to involve parents in learning as much as I want to involve students. I complain bitterly about the Fed all the time – too often – while I could be doing something positive. How am I working with parents differently than the Fed is working with me? How much input and collaboration do I offer parents compared to how much the USDOE has given me?

    Clearly, there’s work to be done – conversations to be had. I’ll act on your ideas and try to develop my own into regular practice this Spring and next year.

    How would you build a secondary school culture as open to and reliant upon parent volunteerism as elementary schools can be?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 12, 2010, 8:29 pm
  2. Chad,

    You are most correct to highlight the difference between parent involvement in secondary schools as compared to elementary schools. I think project-based learning opens doors for ways for parents to get involved that closed-door lessons doesn’t. Furthermore, this TED talk by Dave Eggers, begs us to think of how we can better engage the community including parents in learning.

    If we just take the lesson that 1-on-1 time in reading and writing really can improve ability by 1 grade level in less time, then why don’t we set up time so that students can have this experience with parents. At the adolescent stage of development it is important for kids to have the opportunity to form bonds with adults other than their parents, what a great opportunity this is to do just that!

    What do you think, can something like this be set-up in your school?


    Posted by Adam Burk | April 12, 2010, 9:03 pm
  3. I’m not sure about the specifics of such a small program as ours. While we certainly work with community partners and have a standing offer of mentoring support from the division’s charter high school, we have a small pool of parents from which to recruit volunteers. I definitely think such volunteerism could be a part of the larger schools at which I worked. I’m not sure why parent volunteerism tapers off so much, but I would like to ask my teacher buddies across schools why we we don’t ask for more of it.

    Thank you!

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 12, 2010, 9:11 pm
  4. Adam, I love the way you describe learning, which is often just the way I think about it: doing it like spies.

    “Then like excellent spies, students go out on their missions, which includes finding information, synthesizing it, and communicating it effectively. Not coincidentally it is these skills that are instrumental to success in the “real world” today, not test scores or memorization. Their informants may include books, on-line social networks such as twitter, blogs, PLN’s, or interviews with community members. Students then report to one another through multiple means-blogs, wiki’s, conversations, and presentations (which can be uploaded to a YouTube channel). These reports then become part of the network of information available to students and the community and are used for on-going assessment and feedback to students.”

    Yeah! And because I use these tools all the time in my real, grown up world of teaching and writing and consulting, shouldn’t students as well?

    But isn’t the fundamental challenge to many teachers that this feels to them like giving up control? Like they aren’t sure what their job will be if they are not the content providers and the content certifiers? Like my question to Paula, how would you suggest to a group of teachers (who do not work in a progressive environment) that treating learning like it needs to be sleuthed out, and they are only the helpers, doesn’t mean a dimunition of their role?

    Posted by oldsow | April 14, 2010, 11:51 am
  5. Kirsten,

    Your question is of course, very pertinent. What are we to do as teachers if we are not the M.C.’s, the experts, the big show! Here’s a passage from a school I admire in The Netherlands (

    “When I see the children here developing in there own way, I sometimes want to cry out to people: “Take your hands off of the children!” The best we can do for every child is to offer a rich environment and respect their nature. They really know what is the best for them, so trust them. Don’t be afraid that they won’t learn enough. Know as much as possible about education and psychology, but use it only when asked for.”

    I love this! As for people who feel that “teaching” in this way is an insult to their role, the answer is not an easy one. First of all, we have to find ways to loosen our mental concept of “school looks this way.” To do this we can approach the topic, much like we have here on the blog. Ask ourselves, “what is the role of education in a democracy?” And much like the Backwards Planning process that is best practice in schools today, we work backwards from this as we develop our “standards” or “Enduring Understandings.” Time and time again when approached this way, I see people arrive at concepts of education like those of John Holt, Paul Goodman, Ira Shor, Parker Palmer, Herbert Kohl, John Taylor Gatto, Alfie Kohn, and David Purpel. Concepts just like those we have begun to flush out here.

    I don’t think there is anyway to just get people to leap to this idea of education. As you mention in your post people have to engage in personally meaningful learning, and the teachers in question here are no different.

    Furthermore, appealing to people as people, just asking what is that you want for your students? And going on from there asking “what does this lead to? and that lead to?” We will end up with ideas like “happy, fulfilled, intelligent, responsible.” Then spin it around “Are children not inherently happy?” And this next question could be perceived as attacking so it would need to be re-conceptualized: “Is this something we must first strip away from children so that they can then find later on in life?”

    Great to have you Kirsten, thanks for the great questions and feedback.

    With joy,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 14, 2010, 1:58 pm

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