What Is Learning?

What is learning?

It’s been an unbelievable month since my last post. This question has been coming up in my life recently. So I ask you, what is learning? For a quick demonstration, please follow this school on Twitter if you get a chance. I will explain more later, but if you tweet, if you could give them a follow, I plan on illustrating what I think learning is.

Yesterday, I was in an indoor water park with my daughter. I wish I had a picture, but I didn’t take my DroidX or iPod into the pool. My two year old girl was flying down water slides, performing the backstroke, and splashing me with all out exuberance- you would expect this from a two-year old. Yet, just a day prior, the same girl walked slowly in terror of getting water in her eyes. She did not understand what two giant orange tubes were doing wrapped around her tiny arms. And she didn’t know why a random peer insisting on pelting her in the eyes with spray gun that pointed at the exit of the water slide. It took four sessions and five hours. By the end of her time at the indoor waterpark, my daughter had learned how to do what she wanted to do, and even better, she began showing others how to use, interact, and manipulate their surroundings. With that, here’s my 140:

Learning is entering the unknown & struggling to make meaning in order to interpret, use, interact, & manipulate surroundings confidently. 

I don’t know who said it or blogged it, but it applies here: if you can google it, it’s not learning. Or, if you can google it, it’s not an appropriate source. I love that bit of teacherspeak. Knowledge-comprehension are worthless or at least of little value because that can be googled; thus, learning has not occurred. This is basically the calculator argument I presented to my least favorite teacher of all time (my 6th grade teacher at Children’s Choice). My teacher wanted me to show my work, I never understood why. I had the right answer on the paper, just give me my credit so I can continue to draw up basketball plays and analyze Wu-Tang’s lyrics. Today, in my student’s learning spaces, the no calculator rule, is essentially the no google rule. If you can google it, then don’t present it to me as your learning.

What did you learn today? I am asking you– WHAT DID YOU STRUGGLE WITH TODAY? And yes, I am screaming at you, because I want you to do the learning. I don’t want to do it for you. I want you to create your own experience that are as unique to you as my experiences are unique to me.

Last week was ______. Enter your favorite cliche finisher: phenomenal, amazing, astonishing, awesome, incredible. I had a life changing experience. I was altered by a learning community. My thought partner and co-founder of Kornerstone School Tom Krause called me about 10 days ago and said something like this, “Barney got the learning community approved. Everything is a go. We’re going up to Chippewa Falls on Monday to start. Are you interested?”

I didn’t have a choice.

I knew I had to go.

I didn’t want to go.

In fact…

For a year and a half, I had one week blocked out on my Google Calendar as ‘Vacation’. The week of July 18-22 was a ‘do not work’ period set aside to spend time with family, unplug, and get charged for the new school to open. Of course, that’s the same time the cohort would launch. As I said though, I didn’t have a choice. I had to get up at 4am on Monday, July 18 and get in a car with Tom. I had to drive 3+ hours to get to class. I had to start another Masters Degree, or at least work towards Administrative Licensure (meaning I could be a certified principal from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction– does this licensure go next to my other one in the hotel space rented by the DPI? Rumor has it a bunch of paperwork is sitting in a hotel in Madison per space issues…I digress)  I knew I didn’t have a choice due to a promise I had made to myself two or three summers ago. I got my Masters of Education from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh at a time when a specific department was undergoing major changes and in an active state of ‘transition’. Many of the professors/instructors left during my three years. I was left with a staff member who insisted I jump through hoops; albeit hoops that didn’t always make sense and certainly weren’t directed at authentic learning. I was talked out of completing a thesis and into doing a field research project. I perceive the reason for this was an overworked advisor who didn’t want to take on the workload of a thesis. While I was spending my nights and weekends completing a field research project that was read by fewer than a dozen people, Tom was completing his Master’s Degree in Teacher Leadership.  (Interesting sidebar, my Fantasy Football payroll has 163 views, ten times more people have viewed this obscure document than have read something deemed critical for proof of higher learning. So which learning is more authentic? The fantasy football payroll spreadsheet or a paper that rots with dust on my shelf?)

I watched as Tom, Steve, and Carla went through a learning community cohort and change their teaching practice. I watched with envy. I saw their classrooms transformed. I saw their students engaged in real learning. I saw their career trajectories explode.

My promises. I will never jump through higher education hoops to get a licensure or further my career. And if an admin learning community ever comes along, I am in it.  There is was, I didn’t have a choice. The spirit called. I had to answer. I had to go. Then, something else happened. I got excited. Really excited.

On July 13, I had an explosion of ideas. A blog was started. The first post, ‘What is Learning’. I didn’t know where anything was going to go, all that I did know was I wanted to be a part of the type of learning I’m trying to design for my students. I want a student directed project-based learning style of learning. I want to be in control of my educational experience. I want my colleagues to assess my work and I want honest feedback void of punitive damages (grade chasing).

Here’s where I’m going to rant, and things may not always be coherent. I’m writing to reflect and capture. I’m now writing for myself to have something to come back to a year from now.

It’s so difficult to put those three days into words. I need to be vulnerable here. I need to be a bit arrogant in order to be honest.

What attracted me about this program was the fact that Teacher Leadership and Ed Leadership (admin) were in the same cohort. The teachers and administrators learning in the same community intrigued me. Flattening the educational hegemony is something I’m passionate about. How many ed leadership programs exist where the teachers and potential administrators do their learning side by side? Rather than putting current teachers in another silo labeled, ‘soon to be former teachers in a better tax bracket’, I craved something this cohort offered: community.

Monday began with opening circle, in which everyone introduced themselves and gave a brief plug about themselves. The facilitators of the learning community are Barney Slowey & Tamara Slowey. They’ve done over a half dozen learning communities, but this is the first one that offers the admin licensure/masters, so I knew heading in I was going to be a guinea pig. Barney is 72 years young. He was a long time social studies teacher, and has held several different administrative positions. Barney is highly creative. Tamara was a long time English teacher. She continues to direct community theater. She’s also held several different administrative positions. Tamara is one of the best listeners I’ve ever been around. These two folks are the learning designers of the program. As with any endeavor, traditionalist muddy the clean reform waters. However, I wasn’t aware how muddy the waters were until Monday afternoon.

At 2pm on Monday, the admin folks split away from the teacher leader folks to discuss program specifics. The six of us met with Tamara. Much to our surprise, the program wasn’t yet ‘officially’ approved by the college. We needed to create our own program. Tom and I had been through a two year school design process. We were ready for this. Suddenly we were bouncing ideas. We were flowing. This learning community was going to be project based. Since the college was giving us latitude for the delivery model of the content, we were going to deconstruct the instructionalist content and reconstruct it as material useful to the student. The six of us underwent a process that will hopefully become a staple for future cohorts. We designed our program. Over three days, we outlined out our expectations.

While Tom and I were flowing, others in our group were getting uncomfortable and agitated. As we talked about putting everything on Google Docs, Sites, and wiki’s- others mentioned they had to, “go into school to check their email.”

As we talked about creating a template that other learning communities could use to positively impact their schools, “I feel much better,” I exclaimed, “than I did an hour ago.”

“Not me, I think I’m going to sleep in tomorrow.” Announced a colleague of mine.

Chapter 2 – The Digital Divide is Real
Tom, Ryan (Mac), and I worked in the car while we traveled to Chippewa Falls. We used the 4g Mifi to pull a decent signal the whole way up. Tweeting (#sllc1112), blogging, Google Doc-ing, and emailing our whole way up to grad class. Mac had a MacBook Air in the backseat. I had my MacBook Pro in the front. Tom got directions from his smartphone and took a few calls through the blue tooth.

We got there and were jacked to tell Barney about what we created on the drive up. Barney said, “Great. You can share it with everybody this afternoon.” And that’s exactly what we did. Tom and I did what we’ve both done dozens of times with colleagues and students. We taught Blogger/Twitter 101. While Tom was breaking down Google’s Blogger, I heard someone in the front row say, “I’ve never opened a laptop before.” In my technolust of the moment, I didn’t actually take that comment seriously and for some reason my brain ignored it. On to Twitter…time for me to do my thing. I opened with: “I’m going to sound arrogant here, Twitter is the most underutilized tool in K12, and if you’re not using it, you should be.” About 17 seconds after I made that comment, I realized I was in the midst of doing something I hadn’t done in a while. I was bombing. Every teacher knows what I mean. I was flowing, but I was the only one. Blank. Stares. Starring. Back. At. Me. Okay, so what’s the first thing that happens mid-bomb, quick ask a question or three rapid ones.

  1. How many people are on Twitter?  Only Tom? This is not good.
  2. Okay, how many people have Google Accounts? Again, only Tom. This is not good.
  3. Time to move onto something I know every teacher has done, how many people have blogged? 

A hand fired in the air, only to recoil when she realized she was the only respondent. Too late. I as excited instructionalist saw your reluctant participation and mistakenly assumed you wanted to be a part of my bomb. I ask reluctant participant three more rapid questions, “Great you blog! What did you use? WordPress or Blogger? What did you use it for?”
Responder, “I don’t know it was for an online class. I don’t think it was actually a blog. I think it was called a forum.”
Me,  “D2L?”
Responder, “Yes that’s the one.” She stated with excitement.
Me, “Oh.” Stated with dejected body language that could only be interpreted as, D2L is not blogging.

Barney entered with a save to end the bomb, “That’s fantastic stuff. Let’s break for lunch.”

I was struck with a quick impulsive thought, quit. What am I going to get out of this program. Quit. Fortunately, my arrogance was temporary, I was struck with an even louder thought. Directly from my belly, Give back. It’s time to do work and give back. Feed them. Give back. There’s talent here. Learn from them.  I was put at peace. I knew I was in the right place doing the right thing and I needed to go with the flow. Over lunch, I thought several times how fortunate I was to have $30,000+ worth of training over the last 24 months to get a new school up and running. I thought about all the professional development my district had put in to all of the employees and generous latitude my principal had allowed me- the countless hours of sandboxing during my 90 minute prep time. I was actually pretty quiet at lunch. I was lost for a bit. Feeling better than, less than, and grateful for, sorry for–all in the same 45 minute span.

What unravelled over the next two and half days was magical, possibly miraculous. Although Tom and I were vocally driving on the school design discussion on Monday afternoon, we had help. One colleague voiced several great ideas. A few of the ideas were:

All of these things are possible with Web 2.0 tools. Not many of these are easily pulled off with a paper/pencil binder system. The paperwork and tracking would be a nightmare. My colleague who was getting stressed could not imagine what a Google Apps learning system looked like, because this colleague didn’t have web-based email. As I delved deeper into logical concerns of some of the group members, they began to open up about their lack technology skills. Most of which had to deal with their lack of hardware.  How could someone be expected to leverage all things Web 2.o with a binder? What was exciting for Tom and I, what excited a few others, completely alienated people in the group who didn’t have the equipment.

What do you mean your high school only has six computers?

And you can’t even get on Youtube or Google? 

Your district doesn’t have a technology director? 

One of the coolest things I heard at a conference this year was getting devices into Africa and leveraging Sugar (#POSSCON @POSSCON shout out). I’m all about conquering the digital divide. But I don’t need to look at another continent, I only have to go North of Highway 29 in the State I love to see the effects of people not having computers. I have to tell you, these are incredibly smart, hardworking people- as proof of this, they went from 1994 to 2009 in just a day and a half. The same person that had never opened a laptop on Monday and wanted to sleep in on Tuesday, would not stop playing with Google Docs on Wednesday. This is real. When seeing collaboration and words change in real time on a document, “This is so cool. Why haven’t I been doing this? This has been around for how long?” You can’t blame a person for not compartmentalizing what they can’t visualize. Once demonstrated, comfort set in, and the whole thing was magical. It almost seems Disneyesque.

Although some folks were startled on Monday, everyone came back on Tuesday. Here’s why: At 4:30pm I stopped talking. Inhaled deeply and took inventory. We’d been talking loudly in the commons area of technical college for the last 2 & 1/2 hours. We got passonate. We were talking about things that would sound foreign to anyone outside of k12, and some in it. We have two people who are on the fence and might not come back tomorrow, and Tom is really fired up. See, Tom has been through a learning community before, and when he speaks, he has credibility. The previous cohort irrevocably flushed his traditional high school social studies classroom into a multiple intelligence student directed learning mecca. In fact, he changed districts and positions due to the new network created by the last cohort he was in. Tom has what I lack, credibility. He started…I just feel so good right now. I know we’re all in different places. I know we’re going in six different directions, but I just want all of you to know I got your back. We’re in this together. That’s how I know we’re all going to be here a year from now when this is done, because we are one. It sounds corny as I type it, but at the time I felt like I was among William Wallace. Tom was Mel Gibson and we were going to protect Scotland. I hadn’t felt that in an educational setting as a student before. I have never felt that sense of community.

Here’s what’s even cooler. By Wednesday, one of the people from the Teacher Leadership program had wanted to join the admin group. That’s the other impact of real community, attraction rather than promotion. A person who a day before had said, “I could never do that. I could never be an administrator.” That person saw what was going on and wanted to jump in. Yet another reason for putting teachers and potential administrators in the same program.

Chapter 3 – Onward

What is learning? Did you follow Silver Lake College like I asked you to at the beginning of the post? Why or why not? Are you on Twitter? Do you trust me? Examine why you did or did not do what I asked. My motive for providing an assignment in the post is twofold. 1. I want to demonstrate something Barney emphasized over and over last week, “We learn what we need to when we need to.” How did you learn to tweet or follow? How did you learn to cook or vote? How did you learn to program your favorite radio stations in your car? How did you learn read this blog? I stand by my 140 character definition of learning. Learning is entering the unknown & struggling to make meaning in order to interpret, use, interact, & manipulate surroundings confidently. If you are new to Twitter, but have an account, you may have followed Silver Lake College confidently, but if you’re my lovely Ma reading this, you have probably just closed out of Twitter (always have to shout out my Ma for reading the entire 3000+ word post). Finally, did anyone learn Twitter from an instructionalist delivery method? Teacher as instructor is dead. Teacher as facilitator/coach/mentor is the way I want to teach and be taught.
And 2. Can Silver Lake get 1% of the followers as Harvard? Yes. Here’s how: the students become the disseminators. This small private liberal arts college is placing considerable amount of trust into its students. Amazingly, this college is piloting a program whereby students create the instructional delivery method. In return, when students tweet, they’ll use hashtags signifying their association with the college. I am betting Silver Lake College will go from 7 followers to 700 by July 25, 2012. I’ve seen a young entrepreneur go from 0 to 1000+ in under a year. A college can do the same. What’s the significance? Who cares if some small college has 700 followers…I do. When a college allows for authentic learning, when a place allows for genuine community, when higher ed permits experience to trump theory, I want to be a part of that. I benefit. My students benefit. My school benefits. That’s something worth spending $440 per credit on.

Still not a believer? How about this real-time real-impact tweet to end this cathartic lengthy narrative. On Tuesday, I received this:

Think that statement had an impact on the program design? I know it had an impact on this learning designer.

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About Michael

Do Work!
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One Response to What Is Learning?

  1. David Warr says:

    Have just read Chapter 1. I’d have loved to hear your ideas for your curriculum!

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