Reference: Recorded at the 2015 Georgia-Cumberland Conference Teachers' Convention in Crandall, GA
Contemporary Learning Environments
The capacities of the contemporary teacher are a combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that correspond directly to the changing roles of all learners. Marie Alcock describes the viable classical capacities that we should prize and keep as teachers as well as share the new capacities identified as vital for all contemporary educators.
The identification of the six capacities and their corresponding provocative questions and action steps might lead to the reconsideration, if not a renegotiation, of a learning institution’s job description and professional development services.
What I’m going to talk about now is in a book that has yet to be printed. This book was written in conjunction with my mentor Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs. And what we did was we took a look at what's going on with the contemporary learner, and we were floored by how much brain research hasn't yet been fully adopted, we were floored by how the industrial model is still driving some of our choices and we were floored by how powerless we felt as caring teachers doing our best. So what I wanted to share with you was something that we went through to help us with that, because it's not the way you want to feel when you're trying to be innovative. That's not how you want to feel when you’re trying to do good work.
So what we did was we took the job descriptions and we took one job description from, I think it was from 1750. And in this job description, it said teachers have to make sure they chop enough wood and have it ready for every class period. There are wonderful things in there that reminded us of the time that those teachers were working in the agricultural. It did talk about fairness, it also said that female teachers could not be out unescorted, again it was the time. So then we looked at a job description from 1850 and it talked about excellence. We looked at the job description from 1960, actually we took one from after Sputnik so we had to go to 1972, and wow we were in the industrial era. It was a completely different expectation, we were into sorting kids and having that sorting mean something. Then we looked at the job description from 2010, and what happened was what inspired the picture you see in this image, they were juggling. And they were juggling so much, it didn't look like something that one person could juggle. It looked like it needed two because the job description try to be all things at all times to all students, which is why when we talk about a job which is something that you do to get money to pursue your own interests. Then you talk about work, work is something that you do in the pursuit of someone else's interests, your boss. You talk about a career which is something that you do consecutively through other people's interests in pursuit of your own interests on topic. And when you talk about a vocation which is something that you do because you have a calling to do it, it is the closest to a selfless act as we can get. But I'm not here to stand in front of teachers and say “just do it goes through a [inaudible] and the kids need us”, but what I will say is that I understand when I look at that job description and I look at how it evolved over time, how one might look at it and be intimidated and a little bit confused about how we're supposed to do it all.
So what Heidi Hayes Jacobs and I did was we wrote a new job description, we wrote a job description for the information age and we wrote a version of it for teachers and then we wrote a job description as if it were written from a student. And that's what led us through this book because it allowed us to shed some of the things that we were holding on to, because we thought that was the definition of a teacher. So I'd like to share with you a couple of the items, is that fair? And then we call it a day.
Here we go. The list you see before you now, these ten items are the capacities of a contemporary teacher. If I am a teacher today, these ten things are the things that I am called to be. These are the things that I need to have the content and I need to have the skills, and I need to have the time to be able to do. They encompass the entire story and I don't have time today to go through every single one of them, but the book does. And another thing the book does is it starts off with how these reflect a contemporary learner, because this is what a child needs to be able to do by the end of their time with us. Which means what the job description is, is to be a model learner and to share your process and to give them the basic skills they need to perform.
The first one is a nurturer. I think everyone in this room would agree that for a child to learn, they need to be in a safe environment. And that the job description is absolutely to nurture the learner, which means I can suspend evaluation, I can suspend judgment, I don't have to be that.
I also need to be a connected citizen just like the jugglers in the picture, I can't do this alone. I need to be connected to my colleagues, I need to be connected to other people doing the same thing I'm doing, who can share, who can help. If a teacher thinks they're going to sit in their own room all alone and do it all, they will get exhausted and they will become resentful. I even reach out to my homeschooling parents, don't do it alone, find support.
Be a connected citizen which also means to be a self navigator. No one's going to hand you a manual and say learn all these things. We have to go out there and we have to find out what we need to know, and then learn it. But isn't that the most fantastic skill to pass on to our students? How to be a self navigating learner.
I also need to be a social contractor, I need to ask for help and I need to offer help when I can give it, I need to make those deals. But that's what I want my students to do, I want them to ask for help when they don't understand. How many of them don't do that? They say they are going to wait for it to somehow magically get fixed. But as a pep talk to a profession, I say to you teachers do not wait for someone else to fix our profession, it is for us to do. In my building, my school, do it.
A media critic and a media maker, we talked a little bit about Wikipedia and movies. I need to model professional learning, if I do that I am loyal to learning. Schools and this new job description is fundamentally based on being a defender of innovation and being loyal to learning, we're going to talk about that little bit. I need to publish, it is a not enough for you to be excellent in your own environment. If you have excellence, share, say it, publish, write, by doing these things, we all move forward as a profession. If I have an amazing doctor who is cured breast cancer and they refused to publish the results, what exactly do we think of them? As a master educator, as you design solutions and explore ideas, publish and share. I have to be an innovative designer which means I need to think about problems as a designer. There is not one way to do it, there's not one solution, there's lots of ways to do it but you will have to design the path and customize it to your environment, your students and your identity. And lastly we must be accountable to innovation which is where I dedicate this talk. We started off this morning saying “hey let's be innovators”, I think someone even said they hired me because they thought I was one. I am humbled by that because what an innovator knows how to do, best of all is an innovator knows how to fail. An innovator tries things even though it is not 100% certain or proven where it will go. But there is a way to fail correctly and there is a way to fail incorrectly. What does it look like when we fail incorrectly and what does it look like when we fail correctly? What I'd like you to do is turn to a colleague briefly and just share, when someone fails perfectly what happens, what does it look like, what does it sound like? When someone fails incorrectly, what does it look like, what does it sound like? Take a minute to really think about this because what I'm about to advocate for is teachers being okay to fail publicly. So what does it look like when we fail correctly and what does it look like when we fail incorrectly? Think about it for a minute, then turn to a colleague and discuss.
So what are some examples of failing incorrectly, what do people do when they fail incorrectly? What do they do? They quit, they don't ever try it again. Blame, it's always someone else's fault. Is it not the most unattractive thing to see someone blame someone else for their failure? They internalize it and make it personal and identity. I'm not good at this they say, I'm not good at spelling, I'm not good at math. And oh yeah this is the worst thing that’s ever happened. My son, my eleven year old, he sometimes comes out, he's like this is the worst day ever, and then you said that yesterday. How many bad days can we have? They wallow in it, they love it. They keep secrets. Talk about that a little bit more, what does it mean, how does that look like? Yeah I just won't talk about it, I won't show it, I'll keep it private. If that's failing incorrectly, they are symptoms of when failure sorts us and labels us, that's what we have done to failure. But I say to you failure is the most human natural part of the learning process, without proper failure I cannot learn. Very few children were born perfect with all the knowledge of the universe in their brain, very few there was one, maybe two or three. But the idea becomes this, why make it unnatural to fail? It’s called trying find out what does and doesn't work and learn. If that's the case, then we have some serious work to do in the field of education because we have tainted the learning process. What does failure look like when it's done well? We learn from it, they do something different, they try something else. That's exactly it, or what was the definition of insanity to try the same thing over and over and over again and expect different results? Yes, learn from your failure. What else do we see when people fail correctly? Which means we share it, it's public, it's invisible. Wow! That’s huge, that's tremendous. What does someone look like when they're failing with dignity and with honor? Yes enthusiasm to it, a positive attitude. I don't take it personally, I look at it objectively but I also own it. There is responsibility, I tried that and let me tell you, it didn't work so don't do it. There's a maturity to it, there is safety in it. It's almost like a wise or sage leader or a facilitator, I have qualified to be on the stage because I have failed a lot. Let me tell you all the ways not to do because I wasted hours of my life I'm not getting back. I joke with you but I am serious. And if we could nurture that kind of culture in our own buildings as professional learners, you will succeed at any of the things we talked about today.
So how do we do this with curriculum? This is an example of some of the charts that Heidi and I did where we sorted out what was antiquated, what was classical and what is contemporary. And what we started to figure out is that we really need to think about physical space, what are we doing in our classrooms, what are we doing in terms of time? How many hours do I have, are we meeting virtually, can I meet with you when it's convenient to me instead of disrupting everything, what do we doing in terms of how we're grouping children, are we always grouping in the same way, and what do we do in terms of grouping of adults and if I work in a system where I'm the only teacher or I only have one colleague my connecting with other schools. So here's some different images of different kinds of schools in our own country that have really taken on these questions and I encourage you to reach out. This is from the architect Prakash Nair and they have been designing spaces based on the brain encourage you to learn more. One thing you'll notice is they change how they talk about these spaces. I know there's the maker space movement and this was actually a prerequisite to the maker space movement. But inspiration, motivation, thinking gardens, using the words we want to talk to the brain about what should be happening in this space has proven very helpful a little better than the giant multipurpose room. Maybe you have one, it's that room that's the cafeteria and the gym and the grand meetings but yes there we go. So what kind of mindset do we need to make this work?
As I mentioned before being loyal to learning, want to talk about that a little bit more. Loyal to learning means you embrace the cycle of expertise, you're okay with failing correctly, you're loyal to the learning process. And by being loyal to the learning process, that means you defend a student's right to learn and an adult's right to learn. That’s what being loyal to learning means that we defend the process which means before we take an initiative, we need to talk about learning about it and trying it and everyone being safe. So you saw some of that today, the Southern Union isn't suddenly jumping into Standards Based Grading. But what do we do today? We talked about it, we learned a little bit about the definitions and we learned a little bit more about what we want to learn about it because we're loyal to the learning process. Trying to make sure we do that for students as well, we don't want to end up in the “look kids I have tasks we have to get covered, so you've got to keep up because if I lose you along the way, you doomed”, this is a high pressure situation. What if I had started our afternoon sessions like that, look folks we're doing standard base grading, there's a test next week. And that's the example of the away state and the tour. I encourage all of us to live a little bit more loyal to learning because after all, we are a bunch of educators.
So how will you learn more? The bigger your network, the more impact you have. Tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3 networking, if you know how to network on your own, how many of you are on Twitter, how many of you are scared of Twitter? I would encourage you to just maybe start with a personal network, maybe meet someone here today, meet someone here during this retreat and stay in touch with them as you continue to go through this process, start there. But if you go on Twitter, it's free and you don't have to do anything. Maybe you just follow me, I share new resources and new techniques and if you have a question after today you could go to Twitter and just ask me and I will reply to you, it's a direct link to professionals. And after you finish following me for a while, maybe add Heidi Hayes Jacobs or Ricks Diggins, or any of the people I talked about. They will not tell you what they have crocheted for their cat. By the way I loved the crocheted potholders that were in my basket, that was very nice and I have nothing against crocheting, it's beautiful and I love to do it. But the issue here is you get to pick who you follow on Twitter, it's a good way to grow your network. Here's that tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3, just for those of you who are wondering. Maybe your network as a group, maybe you have one Twitter account for three of you and you just monitor it together, but what I am talking about is self initiated learning which in our profession is required. Gone are the days where I expect my school to get the professional development to train me in everything I need to know. If I worked in the I.T. Department in the Silicon Valley, if any of those professionals said I'm just waiting for my company to pay for me to stay cutting edge, they lose their jobs. Self initiated learning to stay with what we need to do for these kids but we can do it together, isn't that true? For our students in our buildings going from spiritual to the academic to the social emotional and the physical, we are there for our students and there's no one way to do it.
So I leave you with that thought. I want to thank you deeply for your time and commitment to children, it's an honor to work with a group like you. So I wish you all the best as you continue to enjoy your retreat. I'm going to have to leave you but please stay in touch with me and let me know how it's going for you so I can support you in any way possible. Thank you everyone for a great day.