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“…walk softly through life… I haven’t wanted to make a fuss about where I am going until I have arrived. I have avoided noisy confrontations whenever possible… making relatively little noise until I had arrived at my destination—and it was too late to stop me…”  — Carl Rogers

The learning choices in our household over the last ten years or so have been kind of hard to explain. The “results” to date have been the source of frequent questions (or questioning) and much bafflement. Many of the stories involved are not mine to tell. Thus, general principles such as those laid out here can ultimately seem too cryptic to be useful. Still, it seems that we have reached a reasonable point for a retrospective interlude. So here are few things that we — learners all– have gleaned.

1. Mix-and-match learning, or edges-of-multiple-systems learning, (or “knowmadic” learning, perhaps) is much more feasible than institutions and their personnel would like to admit, allow, or set a precedent for. Site- or time-bound learning programs can accommodate, at least in part, off-site and asynchronous learning, if someone dares to say “yes.” (Institutions will always say “no.” People within them can say “yes.”)

2. For many reasons, some fair, some not fair, and many that are grossly unfair, learning on the edges is not “do-able” or acceptable or perhaps even appropriate for every learner, for every family, or for every learning resource or institution. Edge learning is not a process of wholesale substitution. It is not a single “new and improved” system with more or fewer bells and whistles that can still meet all the tacit needs and expectations of an old system, whereby everyone then can go back to sleeping well at night. Different needs, different goals and different processes reflect a fundamentally different worldview. The cost of this is consistent and insightful attention and a futures orientation, often accompanied by a goodly quantity of time. This calls affordability into question, however one calculates that.

3. When it comes to acquaintances, teachers, administrators, parents or fellow learners, not everyone will like you, believe you, trust you, understand you, or treat you respectfully. It helps to recognize that what is expressed as judgement is often more about fear (not that this makes it any more pleasant). On the other side, those who are able and willing to trust the learner’s own sense of what is needed and to quietly say “yes” to this will often change a learner’s world forever.

4. The best learning process is the one of showing up wherever the desired learning is. Consistently. On time. Even if it is in an unusual place. Even if it is with unusual companions. In spite of odd looks or overt objections from the peanut gallery. Don’t be obnoxious. Don’t be out to prove something. Just listen, or do the work, or the practice, or whatever applies. Let time be the ally. Nothing– no genius insight, no dazzling performance, no social media coup– beats consistently “representing.” And staying. And going again. And again.

5. On a practical and concrete note: selectively use the damn standardized tests. No need to unduly advertise the action or the results. But having numbers in your back pocket saves a lot of unimaginative debate if a wall goes up. In crossing edgy territorial boundaries, nothing quells the naysaying and obstructionist eyebrow-raising faster than (yes, narrowly subjective) “data.” (A passing observation: some people seem to suffer less cognitive dissonance if unorthodox methods get orthodox results, while other experience more.)

6. Always, always have a backup plan or three in sight. Even when things are going well, changes and opportunities are always on the horizon. And it doesn’t hurt to have some of these optional paths be a 45 or 90 degree change of course from the current one. It’s not always going to make sense to replace something; sometimes paths need to be re-formed and re-routed.

7a. Take with a respectful grain of salt those who would like to claim (usually with a sorrowful little smile) that a change of course means someone (you) made a mistake. True, there are egregious mistakes that can be made. But these are often more an issue of framing: one person’s disaster is another’s call for course adjustments to meet emerging needs and circumstances. And while adaptability and resiliency are trendy concepts often bandied about in status quo environments, these lifelong skills can only be modeled and practiced in ill-defined and fluid circumstances.

7b.  Change and resiliency on learning journeys are much easier to practice when there is a consistent and mature core of emotional and personal support and guidance. The argument for change and adaptability in learning is not one that supports familial or parental or institutional or peer chaos, or even otherwise harmless flakiness. This is not about letting people run wild. (On the other end of the equation, using others’ learning journeys to fulfill personal ego needs –aka stage parent syndrome–also hurts everyone involved.) This element, too, becomes an “affordability” factor.

7c. In light of the two above points: All edge learners and facilitators are helped by being serious students of psychology and family and organizational systems. Because dysfunction…is. Some people struggling with personal issues have contact with and responsibility for learners and (conventional and non-conventional) learning situations. The unfamiliar (such as unusual learning processes or unusual learners) increases unresolved personal stress and pain, and even adults sometimes cannot stop themselves from directing this pain onto those around them, including children. It is important  (if sometimes difficult) to know when empathy is appropriate, and where healthy personal boundaries must be drawn.

8. The purpose of learning on the edges is not to ensure that learners are receiving the right learning “content” at the right level of challenge (although this may be a by-product). This conversation and process is not about “prepared for college” or “doing well in school” or “gifted” or “accelerated” or “early college” or “STEM“ or “arts schools” or “MOOCs” or “virtual schools.”  It is about defending the unique space required for and of authentic beings. It is about ensuring that each developing human being has the room and support to become whatever and whoever he or she is best at being.

9. Historically honored hallmarks of learning (graduations, degrees, awards) become uninteresting or pale in comparison to processes and goals defined and accomplished by individuals whose work cannot be slotted into standard expectations or measurements of success. That said, alternative forms of documentation, both for process and for product, abound and are increasingly significant.

10. A learning path or process is over (or only over) when the learner says it is. Often, there’s no end in sight.

“[This] work… has altered the thinking about power and control in… interfaces… which have been dramatically changed by persons who trust their own power, do not feel a need to have ‘power over,’ and who are willing to foster and facilitate the latent strength in the other person…. It is not that this approach gives power to the person; it never takes it away.” — Rogers

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“…individuals whose work cannot be slotted into standard expectations or measurements of success…”

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The last time I traveled, the Transportation Security Administration managed to inspect every single bag from every single person in the family… at least according to the little cards they left behind inside the suitcases. Were they bored, or were we a suspicious lot? We’ll never know.

What's in your luggage?

What's in your luggage?

The thought of strangers rummaging through all those undergarments is a bit disquieting. But I have been wondering if such scrutiny, as uneasy as it might make us, might be useful in other venues.

For example, I’m still unpacking the implications of George Siemens’ question “does education need to change?” My answer was yes, but– surprise!!– not everyone agrees on how, if at all. Here are a few things I’ve heard from other adults in the last month or so:

 

“I can’t imagine ‘going to school’ in my jammies.” (In response a description of the connectivism course. Yes, there were air quotes.)

“It’s not healthy for kids to learn too much from computers.”

“Our [professional education] group has to meet in person [as opposed to using online communications], or we can’t sense each other’s electrical emanations.”

I know, I know: this raises questions about where and with whom I hang out. Actually, these were three separate and rather casual encounters, so it’s probably not fair to hold the speakers to these comments in perpetuity. But as a quick view off the top, they stuck with me, because they serve as a good reminder that while we share some demographics or geography, shared thoughts on education are not as easy to find.

Of the people above, two are female, one male. Each was born on a different continent. Two are currently employed in professional positions, one is currently a stay-at-home parent. All have lived or traveled extensively abroad. All are what I would consider current-events savvy. Two are politically “liberal,” one “conservative.” They all know how to use “the Google.” All have master’s degrees. (One has two).

All have kids under the age of 12.

And, taken in isolation, their comments suggest that ideas related to educational change have some pretty big hurdles.

In unpacking these statements, it strikes me how difficult it is to counter them with data or facts or logic or examples. They reside in an affective zone that is not quite neo-Ludditism, but something…else. And while these parents would certainly argue that their concern is for their children’s futures, the statements seem to be rooted in their individual presents.

Change advocates sometimes see present and even future-oriented resistance to educational change as people just “not getting it.” But I do wonder if it’s helpful to ask why people aren’t “getting it.” What allows people to stare changing circumstances in the face and choose to continue on in a linear trajectory? And, conversely, what causes people to see radical change in what others view as an unaffected or mildly transitional situation? (Is it brain wiring?)

There is a lot of uninspected baggage when it comes to change. Jamais Cascio recently wrote about the concept of legacy futures, old beliefs about what will happen in the future that obstruct our ability to construct new visions. (The classic example: How many of us are still waiting for our jet packs?)

… We get legacy futures in business from old strategies and plans, legacy futures in politics from old budgets and forecasts, and legacy futures in environmentalism from earlier bits of analysis. Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them… we have to figure out how to deal with the leftover visions of the future that still colonize our minds.

I’d say that education is not immune to this phenomenon. I hear a pre-industrial, knowledge scarcity “legacy future” in the demands for standardized content. I hear a Sputnik-Cold War “legacy future” in the pervasive statements that students will have to “compete” globally. I might even hear a Puritan “legacy future” in the insistence on “rigor.”

In thinking about how to address or bridge different understandings about change, I have been intrigued by ethnographic and action research processes that are intended to develop community-based understandings of how people view their futures and why. In particular, Sohail Inayatullah’s causal layered analysis explores beliefs about and expectations for the future on four levels: litany, social system and structure, worldview, and myth and metaphor. All of these layers, as suggested by the situations outlined above, seem to be part of educational viewpoints.

Some baggage seems heavier than others

Some baggage weighs less...

 

One intention of such layered explorations is to create conversations with multiple perspectives within a community or communities. Another is to create futures scenarios. These descriptions of what could happen in the future, based on a deep view of spoken and (previously) unspoken understandings, open opportunities for making (hopefully wise and insightful) choices in the present.

My knowledge of causal layered analysis is rudimentary. Additionally, reports from this rather marginalized field suggest that the space, time, and tolerance for such explorations are limited or non-existent. For the non-futurist, it may seem that such explorations are nothing but blind conjecture, or that the speed at which the future arrives makes such explorations impossible — or moot. And there is a certain truth to the idea that educational changes are coming, no matter what, thus suggesting that the best advice for those who are not interested in understanding and exploring them is indeed to “hunker down, keep doing what you’re doing, and take early retirement.”

But since a lot of folks can’t afford to retire for a while (or ever), it might not hurt to respectfully examine the luggage of assumptions we’re all toting around.

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