A few weeks ago, Dean Shareski — one of my all time favorite thinkers — posted a bit on his blog where he thought through several occasions in his own learning when “the light bulb came on or something profound was shared or understood.”
For Dean, these occasions happened in various contexts — in conferences he’d attended, sessions that he’d sat in on, tools that he’d used, and people that he’d interacted with. He called these moments “watershed moments of learning” and encouraged others to write about their own.
That’s a neat concept, isn’t it?
If we carefully think about those moments when we know that deep and meaningful learning happens, maybe we can pinpoint the characteristics of learning experiences that matter the most — and then maybe we can start to incorporate more of those characteristics into our personal and professional practices.
So here’s mine:
I don’t get a chance to attend many conferences — it’s the curse of being a classroom teacher in a state that has spent the better part of two decades stripping cash out of the public school budget — but one that I’ve tried to find the cash to attend over the past several years has always been Educon, hosted by the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.
What I love the most about Educon is that it brings together really progressive thinkers for three days of conversations — NOT presentations. I always leave provoked and renewed and energized by people who share the same ideas as I do. It’s preaching to the #educhoir, but sometimes preaching to the #educhoir matters because it leaves us confident that we aren’t alone in our notions about just what school can be.
Given how important Educon has been in my own learning, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the presentations that have moved my thinking the most were Educon sessions. Two in particular stand out the most. The first was a 2012 session on design thinking in education led by David Jakes. While David is always provocative, what mattered the most to me in the session was the table conversation that I had with Kristen Swanson, Patrick Larkin, Larry Fliegelman.
Together, we wrestled with the notion that schools as they are currently structured promote a culture of knowing instead of a culture of doing. The resulting thinking — which we whipped into a pretty interesting graphic — still sits at the core of who I am as an educator.
I was also deeply moved by a session that David did with Scott Glass a few years later on the differences between “engaging” and “empowering learners”. The entire conversation forced me to think more deeply about the reasons why our learning spaces are irrelevant to our students — and one of those reasons is that we are always trying to trick them into being more interested in OUR content and OUR questions instead of using the time that we have with kids to develop learners with the skills to explore THEIR interests and answer THEIR questions.
I’m a pretty voracious reader, so choosing one book that has had the deepest impact on my own learning was harder than I thought it was going to be.
But one title — Why School by Will Richardson — kept popping up in my mind as I was thinking about this post. Will uses Why School to point out all of the reasons that traditional schools are poorly suited to meet the needs and interests of modern learners. He goes on to make practical suggestions about the changes that need to be made if we are going to truly create more relevant learning spaces for today’s kids.
There’s an urgency in Why School that drove me to rethink my own practices — and themes in my own thinking about closing the knowing/doing gap and empowering instead of engaging learners were reinforced.
Dean chose the blog as his Watershed Tool, and that certainly rings true for me, too. Blogging here on the Radical for the better part of the last decade has given me chances to slow down and think through my own thoughts, feelings and opinions about education. That consistent reflection is a defining trait of true learning.
But I’m going to name Blog COMMENT SECTIONS as my own watershed learning tool.
Even though blog commenting seems to be dying — thanks, Twitter — I’ve tried to consistently read and react to the thinking of my peers in digital spaces since jumping into networked learning with both feet. I do that for a ton of different reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it is a way to acknowledge the time and effort that blog writers put into developing their content — and by acknowledging that time and effort, I am encouraging those peers to continue writing!
Long story short: I learn a TON from people who are thinking transparently online. Giving back in the form of sharing a few comments every week is an easy way to protect the overall intellectual health of that learning community.
Like Dean, it’s hard to pinpoint just one person who has driven me to watershed moments of learning. I owe Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach a ton, given that she’s the person who convinced me of the learning and networking potential of both Twitter and blogs. Scott McLeod was probably the first thinker that I started following closely in social spaces because he was asking provocative questions about educational policy and technology. Will Richardson, George Couros and John Spencer have all forced me to rethink elements of my classroom practice. Some of the most reflective, powerful conversations that I have are with my buddies Brett Clark, Philip Cummings and Paul Cancellieri.
Looking at my current classroom practice, though, I’d have to say that no single person has made a greater impact on what I do with students than Dean himself! Here’s just one example: Dean started asking questions about student-involved assessment back in 2012 that set me off on a mission to rethink the role that teachers should play in providing feedback in my classroom.
So what’s the common strand in all of these watershed moments for me? What are the characteristics of the learning experiences that have served as an intellectual fulcrum, moving me forward as a thinker, a practitioner and a person?
It’s definitely conversations with others who are thinking deeply about ideas that resonate with me. Whether those conversations happened in person at a conference or a PD session, through a book that I read, or in the comments of a thousand blog posts, opportunities to have my own notions about education challenged by people engaged in open, collaborative dialogue stand at the center of real learning for me.
Now I need to create more of those same opportunities for my kids.
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