Calling, Life Stories, Fears, and Learning

I do not usually get this personal on my blog, but something tells me that now is the time to share this story and struggle with you. What I am about to share with you is a story about calling, and I share it because I believe that stories, purpose, meaning, and calling are all important parts of our life and learning. When we stop thinking about these topics, education turns into something less interesting. It is in the absence of meaning, purpose, and calling for each learner that we start to see people use comparisons like school as a factory, school as a jail, or school as glorified babysitting. Or, we let it turn into a political battleground, a money tree, or a club that we can use to force our ideological opponents into submission. School can be so much more than that. It can be a place that helps young people learn about, shape, and live out their unique stories in life.

I believe that our lives are heavily influences by the stories that we live, learn, and tell ourselves, and I am going to tell you part of my story. This is not something that I share very often, but as you read it, I invite you to think about your own story and the story of the learners with whom you interact.

When I was twelve years old, only a week or two after our family moved to Laredo, Texas to be closer to some of my father’s new business clients, my life changed. It was one of our first days in this new home when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night. My father, suffering from a longstanding heart condition, needed immediate medical care. Within an hour, at less than fifty years old, my dad died of a massive heart attack, and I sat there, physically trembling as if I were sitting unclothed in an ice storm.

My dad was the definition of an entrepreneur: determined, driven, confident, quick to take responsibility for the outcome instead of blaming others, a bit stubborn but deeply curious, constantly looking for the third option when everyone else only saw two, unswerving amid risk, persuasive, and always ready to pick himself up after a failed effort. He also neglected his health, worked too many hours given his condition, and did not seem to listen to the advice of doctors.

Before my birth, my dad applied these same traits to a very different career as a Southern Baptist minister. He planted a church and worked long days in service to that church while also working a second job to make enough money to feed his family. My brother tells me that the elders of this church promised him a living wage once attendance at this church “startup” reached a viable number, but when that number came and passed, the elders changed their mind. My dad’s long work days were even longer, and it became increasingly difficult to feed and care for his growing family (a son and two daughters at the time). At one point my dad had enough. Bitter and burned out, he left the ministry, and headed into the business world, eventually becoming a broker, determined to never allow his family to be in want again. He delivered on that promise tenfold, but it caught up with him.

As an entrepreneur, my dad faced failures. He also celebrated plenty of financial wins and successes along the way. I do not know what happened to any of his assets at the time of death, but a modest life insurance policy provided my mother and me enough money to get by afterward (all of my siblings were grown and married by this time). Eventually, my mother married a widower who lost his wife around the same time that my dad died, and this man turned out to be an incredible anchor and mentor in my life. My stepfather, a farmer in Southern Illinois, lived a very different lifestyle than that to which I was accustomed. I soon learned to bail hay, shovel manure, load livestock, paint tin roofs of sheds and barns in one-hundred degree heat and almost equal humidity. I came to know my stepfather as a wise, compassionate, innovative, and incredibly hardworking man. He exemplifies a commitment to steady, focused, hard work in one direction for decades. He is a loyal family man, husband, father, and neighbor. He is the type of man who is quick to sacrifice for the needs of others. During his working years he showed no drive to change the world in some grand or global scale. For him, it was and is all about doing what is right, working hard, and caring for your family.

It probably became most apparent during my college years that I inherited a few traits and learned even more lessons from my dad.  Even with years of practice and effort, I do not know if I could muzzle the entrepreneurial drive that I saw in my father and I see in myself. However, most of my life, as much as I have incredible love and respect for my father, I found myself interpreting his life as a tragedy, a Hero’s Journey cut short, a little like Hercules dying in an unfortunate car accident on the way home from his fourth labor, never to finish the other six or the adventure.

If I am honest with you, I embraced this story as the defining narrative for much of my life, and it includes a series of lessons, ones that I do not necessarily suggest for others. I will mention some of them below and share how they shaped my past and present.

“You must keep that entrepreneurial spirit in check or it will be your undoing.”

Like my father, I am wired to look for the third way. The idea of being the first in the world to try something is stirring and inspiring, especially when it is something that I believe can have a positive impact in the world. Yet, I have spent my adult life in learning organizations because they have clear boundaries, are steeped in tradition, and they are slow to change. That is not the only reason, but I have begun to suspect that this is indeed one reason. As much as  I know that starting something new gives greater opportunity for some of my ideas to grow and flourish, I have admittedly kept that entrepreneurial drive in check by staying in safe and stable organizations that do not let me “take things too far.” This is rarely a conscious decision, but it is nonetheless something that I began to discover about myself.

This persistent tension is what shaped me into who I am and what I do today. Admittedly, I often wonder what would happen if I were to let loose of the restraints, venturing out on my own. However, unlike a true entrepreneur, I have a tragic story that keeps me from doing anything too “risky.” Ironically, some in education find it hard to imagine that I could become more risky or extreme in my ideas or actions. If only they knew.

“You must make sure that your family is taken care of financially in the case of your untimely death, but you must also be suspicious of wealth and its negative impact in your life.”

I spent a decade studying and learning about the role of entrepreneurship in education and, while I appreciate accountability and oversight, I celebrate the work of the educational entrepreneur. In fact, I suspect that some of the most important learning innovations will come from outside of the highly regulated confines of modern learning organizations. There are so many times when I want to found that next education startup, but I will confess a persistent fear of success that, too often, keeps me from taking the plunge.

A few times in my life, I received incredibly generous job offers. Taking any one of those jobs for ten years in my early adulthood could have set me up for spending the rest of my adult like taking some of those entrepreneurial risks without stress on my family. It took me a long time to realize that I was afraid of making too much money. It felt too similar to my father’s path.

“If you abandon or run away from your first calling, you will suffer an equal or worse outcome.”

There are many ways to look at my father’s story. You could see it as a story of a man who sacrificed his calling as a minister so that he could be faithful to the calling of a father and husband. You could also see it as a story of a man who abandoned his calling and experienced constant torment that affected all aspects of his life, eventually leading to his untimely death. You could also see it as the story of a man whose calling took him many directions, first as a minister, second as an entrepreneur, but it was a journey with a sudden and unexpected ending. Or you can just look at it as the story of a husband, father and friend who lived on his own terms while expressing a deep love for and loyalty to his family.

As much as I can intellectually see his story in different ways, I sometimes live in fear of running away from my callings. If I step out and take this risk, will it lead me down the same path as my father? It might seem foolish or unrealistic, but this is the fear that I sometimes find myself facing. I sometimes even risk undermining my own successes. If I do not reach some great success, then I do not have to face the difficult decisions, I reason to myself.

In fact, when I first graduated from college, I received two job offers on the same day. Not knowing what to do, I weighed the options. Then I chose the one that I wanted the least because I thought that would protect me from hubris. It did not, but I give myself a couple of points for a novel, albeit foolish, approach to decision-making.

Then there are two other stories that I have come to associate with my father and myself for one reason or another. On the one hand, there is the story of the prophet who ran away from his calling only to find himself in the belly of a great fish. This brought Jonah back to his calling, but what would have happened if he still kept running? Is that the story of my dad? Would that be my story if I uncaged the entrepreneurial side of my personality? How do I avoid living the same story? The other is The Parable of the Talents, namely the man who, afraid of the master, hid his talent instead of investing it. To that man, the master replied:

You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.

These stories conjure a persistent fear of not following my calling, wasting my gifts, and accordingly facing the earthly consequences. If such fears are not kept under control or overcome, they have a way of haunting a person. You are afraid to act and afraid to stand still, so you try to do a little of both. Some say that is certain pathway to mediocrity and perpetual discontent. Others say that it is a way of blending your passions, gifts, and interests; perhaps even preparing for some future but presently unknown adventure.

This is also probably part of why, throughout my life, I find myself working two or three jobs. When I worked on my doctorate, I had a full-time job in a Christian middle and high school, a 20-hour-per week graduate assistantship at the university, a part-time job at a church, and a part-time job at a college. Even today, I have a full-time leadership position that actually includes three distinct roles, maintain a teaching load, spend enough time on writing and related projects to count for a second full-time job, and I do other projects on top of that. Why? Part of it is because of my insatiable curiosity and love of learning. I enjoy all this. From another perspective, it might also be that I can feed the entrepreneurial spirit without giving in to it. I hold on to what I think is that “first calling” while embracing these other areas that sometimes feel like a “deep gladness” intersecting a “great hunger” in the world (ala Buechner).

This is part of my story. You have your own. So do each of the students in our schools. New events add to our stories each day, and they play a role in who we are and who we become. As I think about what I believe about education, reflecting on this very personal part of my own story reminds me about one of my core convictions when it comes to education. A good education is one that binds us together but also one that helps us go on a very personal journey, one that is unique to each of us.

Many students already come to school with stories very much like the one that I just shared with you: stories of loss and fear. Each day that a student is in school, that student is in the process of creating new parts of his or her life story.  These can be forgotten and ineffectual experiences. They can also be stories that inspire them, help them make sense of their lives, help them learn to persevere, empower them to discover and develop their gifts and abilities, help them tap into their passions, guide them on the path of discovering current and future callings, help them face and overcome their fears, and equip them for the challenges and opportunities of the future. School occupies too much of our lives to simply be about standards and tests even if that is what most people measure today. School is part of something much more significant, it is part of our life story.

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When A Broom Falls in Life, You Just Keep Dancing

When a broom falls in life, keep dancing. That is the lesson that my twelve-year-old daughter took from our recent trip to the ballet. It was a great family date, two ballets in one night, opening with Angels and the Architecture. I’m far from an expert or even a nuanced observer, but I was intrigued by this abstract performance that expressed a myriad of shapes and movements in this 30-45-minute performance. Using the props of brooms and chairs, the dancers explored any number of architectural expressions.

Something in the performance resonated with me. I still see myself as a designer at heart. I design with words, ideas, metaphors and illustrations; usually exploring any number of themes in the education space. As I watched the dancers and their movements, they drew me into thoughts about inspiration, creation, design, and the life that is breathed into each of those. It was less of a traditional story expressed through dance, but there was still a narrative. Buildings are static creations to many, but when I think about the work and influence of the designer, I see them as living and dynamic creations. Those who view and inhabit them become part of the design, creating something that takes on a life of itself, even beyond the mind of the architect.

At this point you might be wondering if perhaps I started inviting guest authors. This doesn’t sound like my typical post. Nope, it is still me. Stick with me and you’ll see where I’m going with this. In fact, let’s go there right now.

I couldn’t help but think about the relationship to education. Those of us who value a design-thinking approach to the education enterprise sometimes refer to the idea of learning architects. They do not necessarily design the learning. That is too individual, personal, and full of surprises. Yet, learning architects create the spaces and shape the experiences that the learners inhabit. As the learners enter the spaces or experiences, they help to create something that amplifies the intent of the designer, but they just as often create something completely unexpected and unplanned. This is the wonderfully serendipitous part of great learning environments and learning experiences.

Some designers/teachers like to carefully control and manipulate the experience, and that careful attention is not without value. Many good and important lessons are learned from such designers/teachers. Yet, that is never the entire story. Even the most carefully crafted learning experience designs are living creations and they will always take on a life of their own. The intended lessons might be consistently delivered and learned, but so much more is at work.

Not only that, but even the errors or imperfections take on a life of their own. While sitting in the ballet, there were six brooms hanging near the back of the stage, but one fell early in the performance. A male dancer quickly tried to remedy the error but didn’t manage to do so before the music called for the performance to move forward. So, people improvised. They danced around it and next to it. I couldn’t help but be drawn out of the performance a bit as I thought about how people would respond to this unexpected element of the performance. I think that I enjoyed the performance more because of this perfection. I couldn’t wait to see what the next dancer would do or not do about this misplaced broom.

They just kept dancing around and over it for much of the performance. Finally, there was a part that called for the use of these props again. A dancer simply picked up the broom and joined in the next part. The imperfection faded away and the dance continued. As my daughter enjoyed pointing out, when a broom falls, you just have to keep on dancing. That is how it works in life. That is how it works in learning. Or maybe you find a way to make use of that misplaced item, learning or experiencing something that you might have missed if everything would have gone as planned. I have to think that there are a couple important lessons in there for those of us who work in the education space.

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Squirrels, Tomatoes & The Education Assumption

Beware of the education assumption. A colleague was recently telling me about his past gardening difficulties, namely the squirrel problem. Squirrels would take a bite out of a tomato and then move on to the next. Before long there was a single squirrel bite in almost every tomato in the garden. He explained that he didn’t have a problem with squirrels eating a few of the tomatoes, but one bite out of each? What is the solution?

Given that I was in a room full of University administrators and faculty, I jokingly explained that this is clearly an education problem. If only we could teach the squirrels to act differently. If we could simply create a section of the garden dedicated for squirrel feasting, put a sign up indicating as much, and finally teach the squirrels to read the sign, then our gardening problem would be solved! Maybe my response was strange more than it was funny, but it was my way of poking fun at myself and many of us in the education system while also pointing out a couple of important truths.

My first point is that those of us in education are often too quick to assume and seek out an education solution to every problem. There may well be an education solution to my friend’s squirrel problem. There are indeed examples of people training squirrels or modifying their behaviors. That might work. Yet, there are plenty of potential non-education solutions to the problem too. Perhaps there are fencing or cage/cover options along with other means of deterring squirrels from coming into the garden at all. The same thing is true in life. Training is not the only solution. Sometimes there are design solutions, relational solutions, technological solutions, and more. Perhaps we would be wise to stay open to a broader range of possibilities before we jump right to the assumption that education is the best solution to our many problems in society.

The second point is about the specific educational approach that I described in this unusual example. If we want to educate the squirrels, we should create a separate section, put up a sign and teach them to read the sign. Of course, teaching a squirrel to read is much more challenging than teaching squirrels not to go into the garden by finding some creative way to modify their behavior. Yet, this is what we do in education. We often jump to the method or approach with which we are more familiar, even if it is not a great fit for a given learning context, goal or audience. We draw from a limited set of options and then we find ourselves frustrated when the results are not what we had hoped. Even once we have decided that an educational solution is the best route, we want to be open to exploring many possibilities, including the ones that we don’t know about at the moment. That requires us to be constantly learning from others and deepening our knowledge.

I’m saddened when I sometimes meet teachers who are burnt out and cynical. They are quick to give you the list of things that they have tried without success. They come to believe in a few set ideas about students, their attitudes, how to “deal” with them, and what will or will not work. They get frustrated when you push them to consider new options because it conjures fear or they are truly convinced that anything new is not really new or worth their attention. If you’ve been in enough schools, you’ve come across people who have fallen into this mental and emotional trap. What is unfortunate is that there are sometimes simple (in the broad scope of things) solutions. They just need an open mind, some good exemplars, maybe seeing a promising practice in action, and perhaps a little coaching.

As such, even in school, perhaps we are wise to consider these two important points. First, education is not always the best solution to a problem. Second, even when education is a viable solution, our preferred methods or the ones with which we are more familiar may not be the best. In the end, this is a simple remind to bracket our assumptions, or at least to look beyond them.

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From Power Struggles to Open Discourse About the Future of Education

What is your greatest concern about the future of education? I’ve been asked this by more than a few people over the past year. My answer, it seems, is not provocative enough. My greatest concern is not the funding of higher education, the charter/choice debates, how to achieve access and opportunity, 21st century skills, reimagining the school, testing, the Common Core debates, re-inventing schools, protective core values of the Academy, the role of teachers, the role of technology in education or any specific issue. Some of these are personal passions that drive much of my work and thinking, but there is still something more fundamental. It has to do with how we discuss and consider the future of educationMy greatest concern relates to our capacity (or what sometimes seems like a diminished capacity) to have deep, rigorous, candid, persistent, extended but open-minded public discourse about current and future policies, issues and innovations.

I have as firm of convictions about education as anyone else, but for me, one of the most important places to start when considering the future of education is to get deeply informed about the possibilities. This requires an openness to looking, listening, learning, and candidly sharing our own comments and questions. People will get emotional. After all, we have deep-seated convictions about education. We will slip into ad hominem arguments. The need to make timely decisions will force us to compete for our cause to win out long enough for a policy to pass, a decision to be made, or a bill to pass (or not pass). These are realities. Yet, somehow, amid all such realities, how can we still make progress toward discourse worthy of a our most fundamental democratic values? I don’t know the answers, but I have a few tentative thoughts on the matter. These thoughts may well be as contentious as any specific debate in education, but I offer them for consideration nonetheless. For the sake of this post, I’ll limit my comments to 9 suggested starting points.

1. Recognize that any educational decision will have both affordances and limitations, and invite canid discourse about both.

If I am going to arguing strongly for something, it is important for me to know that it has limitations as well. That is true for virtually every educational practice or policy. There are winners and losers, benefits and limitations, unexpected blessings and curses. Such a perspective is a huge part of Neil Postman’s legacy and contribution to the discussion about education. His examination of affordances and limitations led him to be deeply skeptical about claims of technological progress, but the means of analyzing trends provided equally powerful tools for critiquing some of his own ideas and proposals. This is good. Having the humility to publicly recognize the good, bad, and ugly of our proposals may not be in the recipe of PR perfection or political prowess, but it is a key ingredient for candid public discourse about education.

2. Resist the urge the demonize the “other” side as if the person’s policies and decisions represent a grand conspiracy to take over the world.

Again, many of us have strong opinions and convictions about various aspects of modern education. There are people deeply passionate about tenure for professors and strong teacher unions. There are others who believe strongly in giving educational administration and leaders with more power and influence among professors and educators. Yes, I have a few convictions about these topics, but it is really important for me not to over-generalize and turn the person with the other perspective into a member of some vicious army desiring to undermine the entire system. There are likely people with such sinister goals, but our public conversation would be better off if we saved going there as an absolute last option. I’ve done this, mostly in my mind, sometimes out loud; so this is a challenge for me as much as anyone else.

3. Take our public discourse into the details and nuances.

“MOOCs are going to shut down the University as we know it.” “Higher education is oblivious to the real world beyond the ivory tower.” “The Common Core is an attack on children.” “Charter schools are a detriment to public education.” These may or may not have proverbial truth, but to have a rich discussion, we need to get into the details. Which higher education institutions, because not all institutions are alike? How do the offerings and function of MOOCs coincide or deviate from the that of Universities? What aspects of the Common Core are of greatest concern or worthy of the greatest praise? What about charter schools is a perceived detriment? What needs are they meeting that where otherwise unmet? We need to ask the questions that allow us to get back to the details, understanding that there are not always yes or no, black or white answers. There might just be room for a compromise. Charter schools are wildly different from one state to another, even one school to another, for example. By being quick to generalize, we might all miss out on a wonderful win-win option.

4. Recognize that there are multiple paths to a given conclusion and people arrive and certain words and phrases in different ways.

As a largely interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and a-disciplinary scholar, I run into this all the time. I might be discussing an issue with a person who has a PhD in psychology, sociology, history, or American literature. I use a term or phrase and it immediately conjures up thoughts of a lengthy discourse within their field of study, leading them to label me a certain way. Yes, it is important for me to take the time to learn about the different discourses around a given term or phrase, but words and phrases have multiple working definitions, and people get to their conclusions and vocabularies in different ways. As it stands, if you use the “wrong” word, you might find yourself quickly labeled with any number of groups: socialist, radical capitalist, racist, classist, trans-humanist, Luddite, or pretty much any educational term with anti- or pro- in front of it.

How do we address this? We ask people to tell us more about their position, how they arrived at it, and how they think it does or does not align with how a given group might use the term. We get really curious about other people and their perspective. We realize that there is a story behind the terms and phrases that we and others use, and we explore those stories.

5. Acknowledge that there is more than one way to go about education.

There is no such thing as a perfect educational system. As I mentioned before, they all have affordances and limitations. Similarly, there are usually many possibilities that will work. I realize each of us have strong convictions and preferences for certain systems and policies over others. I even respect the “slippery slope” concern that leads people to take a position on a given bill or policy. Yet, there are endless possibilities, many of which might offer benefits that we’ve never experienced before.

6. Valuing the role of data and research, but also recognizing that much of it needs context, and we want to be cautious when arguing for an absolute and widely applied policy or practice.

“We need this policy because all the research shows that it will lead to the best outcomes.” Well, that might be true if we keep the system “as is”, but most educational research is contextual. We suggest policies and practices for helping students with ADHD find success in “school”, but those policies and practices partly (sometimes largely) depend upon “school” having certain attributes. What if we put them in a Montessori school, self-directed learning academy, scripted directed instruction classroom, a classical school, a hands-on learning school, a school built on game-based learning, or sometime else? Do the same policies and practices stand? My point is that we want to value and learn from both data and research, but finding one or a dozen studies to “support” your policy doesn’t mean that the debate is over. There are still other options and possibilities.

7. Respect the right for a minority opinion or smaller group with a set of beliefs, values and convictions about education.

One of the strengths of democracy in the United States is that we have deeply held national convictions about individual rights and rights of minority perspectives. Yet, our debates in education do not always seem to tap into these values. Wherever we end up with an educational policy or practice, how does it honor and prospect the minority perspective and the rights of individuals?

8. Recognize the role of educational philosophy.

People have fundamentally different educational philosophies that often lead to their position on policy and practice. People sometimes change their philosophies, but this fact means that we are not going to have universal consensus. What we have to decide is whether we want to be a system or nation that honors a diversity of philosophies in education or whether we deem it better to force our philosophy on the rest of the community, state, nation, or world. By how I framed that statement, I suppose you know where I stand on the issue.

9. Be candid and leave time for discourse.

I’m thinking specifically of bills on the state and national level, along with other broader initiatives. It means that we don’t try to push things through unnoticed. It means we have to be willing and seeking to engage the broader public in conversations about where we will go. I know I’m being a bit idealistic with this one, but if even a few more people took this to heart, we would all be better off.

These are some of the perspectives that I think can help us have a more open-minded, rich, candid and substantive discourse about the future of education. What about you? Consider sharing some of your thoughts in the comment area or bring the conversation over to Twitter, LinkedIn or our favorite social outlet.

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5 Whys for Lifelong Learning & the Role of Learning Organizations

We’ve talked about “lifelong learning” for decades but what do we mean by that phrase, how is it different from the past, and what are the implications for learning organizations? On one level, it is simply learning throughout life, but there are different arguments for the importance of lifelong learning that give us a more complete understanding of the term. As such, following are five ways of thinking about it along with a few thoughts on the role of learning organizations and education companies in each of these areas. Advocates for lifelong learning do not necessarily separate it into these distinct categories, but doing so sometimes helps us develop a richer understanding of the phrase across contexts. Doing this is also critical for learning organizations and educational companies that are considering their role in supporting different types of lifelong learning.

A Life of Many Chances

As Jacques Delors explains,

“In the 1996 report, the UNESCO Commission on Education places a strong interest on lifelong learning…the further we evolve in a society that is both fixed and constantly changing, in the context of globalization, the more we become aware of the centrality of education, the central nature of education in society, and we defined four objectives relating to education that, it seems to me, are still relevant today:

  1.  learning to know – a world subject to major evolutionary change, but which also entails learning to know history and scientific discoveries;
  2. learning to do – by which I mean having access to necessary competencies;
  3. learning to live together – undoubtedly the most important of all in the world riven with inequalities, fundamentalism and wars;
  4. and finally learning to be – in other words, getting to know oneself better in order to gain self-confidence.

Delors goes on to explain that a critical why behind lifelong and adult learning is to fill gaps that were missed in primary education and to address inequities that result from having those gaps. This might include a person who grew up in a community or part of the world with poor or limited access to early education, but it also includes someone who missed important lessons due to various life and social circumstances. Should such a person be restricted from the many jobs and opportunities of life because of those early experiences? Proponents of lifelong learning like Delors argues that this should not be the case, and we can help by giving learning experiences throughout the life span that are substantive, accessible and equalizing. This is a vision for lifelong learning that rejects the idea that, if you missed it the first time, then you just have the live with the consequences.

What is the role of learning organizations?

As we look at this why, learning organizations contribute by creating opportunities for formal education that has a low entrance barrier, embracing the opportunity and challenge to help people address potential gaps in their learning. This might come through degree programs, certificates, stand alone courses, as well as non-credit offerings. There are also organizations dedicated to helping people gain the pre-requisite skills to be successful in future formal learning. In addition, education companies provide inexpensive learning solutions, often available online, that help people fill gaps and gain skills that increase one’s employability.

In some ways, this was a large part of the early vision behind the online learning revolution that launched in the 1990s and is already integrated with mainstream approaches to both K-12 and higher education. Online learning continues to increase access and opportunity. It started by reaching out to those who were not served or undeserved in traditional contexts, and it has now gained a solid grounding in the broader landscape of P-20 education. Today online learning is one of many forces that is helped move higher education from an education of the elite to an opportunity for the majority.

 Living & Learning in a World of Constant Change

Others focus on the reality of modern life, that lessons learned in school five, ten or twenty years ago are not enough to prepare us for the constantly changing world in which we live. We must embrace a mindset and commitment to ongoing learning: acquiring new knowledge, skills, mindsets…and we must further develop important character traits as we face increasingly complex challenges and gain access to greater opportunities. Within this perspective on lifelong learning, we see champions of ongoing formal and informal learning experiences. We notice reminders that education can’t be segmented into an early stage of life, as if you get and education and then go on with the rest of your life. Learning does not stop with primary school, secondary school, a first college degree or even a doctorate or other terminal degree. It requires a lifelong commitment.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Here learning organizations are partnering with companies to provide formal and custom training to meet the changing needs of organizations, and the changing demands of work in these organizations. There remain many leaders and individuals who are overwhelmed and less interested in the “teach a man to fish” approach. They want packaged training and educational programming that will help them achieve their goals and meet the immediate demands. As such, there is a massive market for startups, educational publishers and content providers, and traditional learning organizations who are willing to partner around these goals, or to simply create and market produces and courses that address high-demand training needs.

MOOCs, personal learning networks, online communities of practices and many other develops are helping to meets some of these needs as well.

Preparing for Life in a World of Constant Change

This is largely the same argument as the last, but the difference is on the preparation. Now we are looking at the approach to lifelong learning that is less focused on creating increased access and opportunity to ongoing learning experiences, and more focused on equipping people to be competent and confidence self-directed learners. It is a survival skills approach. Make sure people can survive and thrive in a constantly changing world by being able to own and manage their own learning, becoming confident as both the designers of and general contractors for a life of continual learning. This is something that can be nurtured in formative years, but it can also be developed in adulthood. This short video from Salman Khan illustrates this perspective.

What is the role of learning organizations?

We see more learning organizations embracing the importance of a curriculum that is not simply about learning to know, but about learning to learn. On the K-12 level, there are schools fully committed to nurturing a generation of self-directed learning by creating new types of learning environments where students take greater ownership for how and what they learn. The same thing is happening in some higher education institutions as well as new approaches to professional development in the workplace (like Jay Cross’s excellent work around informal learning).

There are countless online resources and communities to support people who want to learn how to learn, but it takes a certain measure of drive and initiative to pursue them. As such, formal learning organizations and educational companies still have a role to play to help people learn how to help themselves. This might seem counter-intuitive from a business perspective. Why would you want to equip people so well that they don’t need you anymore? Yet, that is the ultimate aim of all great education. While it may seem this way at first glance, I am certain that any organization capable of nurturing and empowering deeply competent and highly confident self-directed learners will have no problem addressing the financial realities of running a learning organization or educational company. Besides, being a self-directed learner is not about being a lone-ranger learner. As such, there will continue to be a valuable role for learning organizations that help people connect, collaborate, network, and co-learn.

Preparing for Changes in Life Circumstances

Just as the world around us is in constant change, people make changes in their lives; and those changes often require new learning, formal and/or informal. As Jeanne Meister points out, Job Hopping is the New Normal for Millennials, with an average of 4.4 years in a job. Some are shifting a job in one organization to a similar one in another. Others are making small or massive career shifts. Both often (or almost always) require some measure of retraining, retooling, and new learning. Sometimes these changes are by choice. Other times, people experience changes in their lives beyond their control that require them to look for new lines of work.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Adult education programs in community and technical colleges, traditional Universities, online schools, and other organizations already offer a multitude of options for this purpose. There is no evidence that this is slowing. There will continue to be huge demand for programs and services that help people transition from one context to another, or that prepare people to do so through formal and informal education (and training) programs. Any program, product or service that proves its value in helping people make these changes will find plenty of opportunities.

Ongoing Personal & Professional Development, and Peak Performance

A fourth why for lifelong learning relates to the traits of those who achieve true expertise and excellence in one or more domains. It is about reaching new heights in one’s life, goals and aspirations. How does a concert pianist become that skilled and continue to develop throughout her career? How does one grow as an increasingly effective or excellent leader, educator, government official, parent, community organizer, gardener, designer, or entrepreneur? This is an area that has its own domains and disciplines, and is sometimes separated from what we refer to as lifelong learning, but it is certainly a vibrant part of learning throughout life.

What is the role of learning organizations?

At different stages of life, people experience plateaus. Sometimes this leads to frustration, other times to boredom. Achieving new goals, growing and improving helps people remain engaged in their work. Companies want people who are deeply engaged in their work in ways that help the organization achieve its goals. Similarly, there are many other aspects of a person’s life that are important to them: health and wellness, family and relationships, avocations and hobbies, leadership capacity for future possibilities, financial goals, citizenship and activism. As such, there remains a valuable role for learning organizations that help people improve and advance through training, resources to help with accountability, networking with like-minded peopled, formal coaching and mentoring, rich and engaging interactive content with feedback, along with guides and tips for taking things to the next level.

Lifelong learning is the new normal. It is a perspective on education that has largely shattered past notions of education as something limited to primary school, secondary school, a college degree, or a formal training program. The shift from a schooling to an education mindset is largely complete, even as some only focus on the former. What does this mean for learning organizations? As I see it, this further solidifies the value of agile, innovative, and learner-centered organizations. It invites them to consider the distinct role(s) they will play in the 70+ year education of people in the modern era.

 

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Notes & Quotes from Jeff Sandefer’s The Learner Driven Revolution

My visits and reviews of creative and promising school models must have reached the triple digits by now. Near the top of the list for me remains a school that I’ve yet to visit in person, one that I briefly described in the past when I wrote about the Acton Way. As such, I was delighted to sit in on a presentation at SXSWedu by Jeff Sandefer, one of the founders of Acton Academy. Following is my biased and flawed recollection of his words…combined with a bit of commentary, ending with a couple personal reflections. In, The “Learner Driven Revolution,” Jeff didn’t start his presentation with proclamations. True to his philosophy of education (as I’ve come to understand it), he started with questions followed by a story.
  • What if…?
  • What if children are far more capable than we imagined?
  • What if children could share learning with each other in a tightly bound community?
  • What if they could find a deep, burning need in their hearts to meet a deep burning need in the world?
As Jeff explained, “the start of Acton Academy” was an impulse more than a vision.” Even the beginnings of the school was passion-based learning at its best…a passion for something personal, the education of his two boys. They attended a Montessori school in their town. Jeff described an eye-opening meeting with a teacher in a traditional classroom. He asked the teacher when he should think about moving the boys to a traditional school, and the teacher explained that he should do it now. His reason? “Once they’ve had that kind of freedom, they will not take well to sitting in a desk for 8 hours a day.” Jeff went home and decided that his boys would not sit behind a desk for 8 hours a day. There has to be a better way. This is the type of story that led to the launch of a wonderfully distinct type of school, one that began with simple questions for students like the following four:
  • Who am I and where am I going?
  • What tools and skills will I need and which will I master?
  • Who will affirm me and hold me accountable?
  • How do I prove what I can do?
Jeff described four metaphors for their school design, although he acknowledged that they are always on the lookout for new and promising practices.
1. Superman – This is a person who discovered his special talent. He refined it, used and changed the world.
What a powerful vision for education. What if our schools sought to nurture a generation of young people who did the same. They discovered their genius, nurtured it and used it. When I hear that word “genius”, I don’t think of people with 150 IQ. I think of the day I first walked into The Sistine Chapel over twenty years ago. It was crowded that day and I was not allowed to stand and look for long, but my eyes were instantly drawn to the paintings of the prophets and these little children sitting or standing behind them. According the person next me me, these were not children but geni, which artists sometimes used to represent inspiration or genius. They represented the calling and inspiration in people’s lives. True or not, the concept stuck with me, and I continue to see each person as having callings. What a compelling way of thinking about schooling, not as a place to make young people as uniform as possible, but a community where people discover their distinct genius and some of their callings. They develop them, come to understand them, and they experience the joy of sharing their genius with the world.
2. Alcoholic’s Anonymous
There is this wonderful self-organizing element to AA. People mentor one another and hold one another accountable. And there are “explicit covenants.” At Acton Academy, eagles (as the members of the community are called) create similar covenants around their learning.
3. Google (and Gaming)
This is a place with a culture of innovation. It is place where teachers are game designers, and they take advantage of the growing research about quest-based learning, game-based learning and gamification to design rich and engaging learning experiences. Students travel back in history, playing roles as they go on quests, for example. They also make use of developing adaptive software like Dreambox, Khan Academy, and Rosetta Stone.
4. The Boy Scouts of America
In the Boy Scouts, you show what you can do, and you are granted a badge as a symbol of your new skill. The same happens at Acton, and students build a growing digital portfolio of their work. I also see many parallels wit the BSA focus upon learning by doing.
What do students learn at Acton Academy?
While there is plenty of content that is learned, Jeff explained a vision that goes well beyond learning to know. Instead, it is about “learning to do, learning to be, and learning to learn.” They learn to do through hands on projects culminating in public exhibitions at the end of a quarter. They learn to be as they go on quests, meeting “giants, ogres, and fellow travelers.” Along the way, as in the hero’s journey, they learn about themselves and their gifts. This is not just about completing a challenge, but it is about “the change that happens in the hero” through the journey. They learn to learn as they are invited to organize their own learning, self-direct, and come to discover the wonderful capacity for learning inside of each of us.
How does Acton know how they are doing as a school? 
They take a transparent, customer-centered approach. Each week they ask parents a simple question. “How did we do this week?” The responses are open to the public and, as Jeff explained, “sometimes it is pretty and sometimes it is not.” More important, they actually use this feedback as an ongoing source of improving and refining what they are doing. As Jeff explains, The Hero’s Journey matters a lot…get[ting] them to believe that they are on an important journey and their gifts matter.” By the way, this feedback approach is used with the students as well. They get 360 evaluations from fellow Eagles at different times throughout the year.
What about motivation?
Jeff shared the same thing in my recent interview with him as well, but this can be a problem for some of us who seemed naturally inclined toward self-directed learning. He explained that, in their school, it is important to “focus on the tribe,” to remember the importance of “hav[ing] fun and hang[ing] out with friends…They all love to learn but because they want to be with friends.” As such, he has learned the importance of fun first, challenge second.
What about the Teachers?
Teachers are guides. They are also game-makers, although the students are game-makers as well (with high school students designing challenges for the younger eagles). When it comes to finding teachers, he pointed out that it is really challenging to convert traditional teachers to such an approach. In this context, when there is chaos, teachers need to step back. When it gets worse, they step back more. The teachers offer processes and possibly options, but it is up to the students to act.
Contrary to some champions of solving challenges in schools by creating smaller teacher to student ratio, Jeff’s vision stems from a conviction that, “the more adults in the more, the more things are going to go wrong.” He is confident that this model works well with 4 adults for 120 students and $4500 per student; and he is working on getting to 1 adult for 120 students, dropping the cost to $2500 per student.
How did he end the talk? 
He finished with with this sentence. “Don’t dismiss their super hero dreams.”
A Couple Last Personal Reflections
I realize that such a vision of education is frightening, maybe even troubling to some people. It isn’t what many of us experienced and people are unsure how this could possibly work. I’m not sure that I can alleviate such fears or concerns with words. In most cases, people probably just need to see it in action.
The vision for Acton Academy is truly unique in many ways. In other ways, it is part of a growing movement in K-12 education (and possibly soon to be in higher education as well). It shares many values and convictions about education with a variety of schools that I’ve visited and/or studied , everything from Montessori schools to self-directed learning academies, project-based learning schools to student-centered quest-based learning academies. It is a broader movement that believes in empowering the students to take ownership for their learning, to make school a community where people learn to set goals, self-organize, and to grow as a competent and confident people with a deepening sense of agency.
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Do We Need Liberal Arts Schooling or a Liberal Arts Education?

Faculty are nervous, at least some of them. The higher education headlines highlight questions about online learning, the affordability of higher education, open learning, high school / college dual credit programs, competency-based education, alternate credentials and a growing focus on workforce development and professional programs. Amid such changes, I see a growing number of faulty, especially those in the humanities and liberal arts, speaking up about what is lost with each of these areas, even while others in the liberal arts are among some of the greatest champions for one or more of these developments. I read heartfelt as well as carefully thought-out responses to these movements, and there is much to learn from such texts. I particularly appreciated Martha Nussbaum’s 2012 text, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

The case for the liberal arts has not changed over the years. The liberal arts prepare literate and thinking people. They seek to cultivate good citizens who will promote and uphold the principles of a democracy. They equip one to fully embrace the life of a free person. They help one explore the life of truth, beauty, goodness. It is not difficult to agree with such outcomes. However, are we talking about the liberal arts or a formal liberal arts curriculum? Are they the same? Were they the same for people in the past?

Consider some of the texts that will be read in many formal liberal arts curricula. They are texts from antiquity, and often more recent literary works. Among many others, one is likely to read Whitman, Hemingway, Shaw, Salinger, Sandberg, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Frost, Twain, Blake and Austin. Interestingly, what these authors share in common is no formal college liberal arts education. The student of history and government will study US presidents like Washington, Van Buren, Lincoln, Taylor, Cleveland and Truman as well. None of these people had a formal college education either; with Washington, Lincoln and Johnson having only one year of any formal education between the three of them. Yet, many of these people had liberal arts influences. Many read widely and nurtured disciplined habits of the mind that we might associate with a liberally educated person. They were self-directed and lifelong learners who read, wrote, spoke, and lived the principles often identified with a liberal arts education. Is this what we really want, not just people with liberal arts credentials, but people who live with a liberal arts world view?

The liberals arts are about more than courses, credits, degrees and programs. As such, perhaps the debate for a formal liberal arts education is not as critical as one about the importance of the liberal arts in an individual’s life and community. In other words, if one truly wants to defend the value of the liberal arts, then perhaps there is need to think more broadly than formal schooling, instead looking at ways to encourage and nurture a value for the liberal arts in the world beyond school. It is one thing to read Chaucer to pass the quiz, test and class; and yet another to read such a book in evening after a long day of work.

The University does not own the liberal arts, nor does any particular school or department in higher education. By narrowing the debate about the liberal arts to the method of learning…to formal programming, we may risk losing the spirit of the liberal arts. The liberal arts is about knowledge, skill and disposition. The “how” is not as central. It might be for some proponents of formal classical education, but not as much for the broader community of liberal arts advocates.

If the debate is really an economic one, with employees of liberal arts programs fighting for the viability of their jobs and programs, that is one thing. Yet, it is a qualitatively different thing to discuss the value of a liberally educated person. One can shared that value without necessarily advocating that more people should study at liberal arts colleges or pursue liberal arts degrees, or that a formal liberal arts education is worth the cost. In other words, for the sake of the liberal arts in contemporary society, I suggest that it is time to carefully separate the two. Both are worthwhile discussions, but the program is not the only possible route to promoting the liberal arts. In fact, I suspect that investing more time, energy (and resources) into the promotion of the liberal arts in society may well benefit the programs. Just look at what CSI did to criminal justice and forensics programs, or what Indiana Jones did for archeology programs in the past. After all, I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare didn’t get his start in the lecture halls, but rather in the public square (or rather the theater).

Out-Thinking in the Education Sector: Beyond Pro-Teacher Rhetoric

According to Kaihan Kirppendorff, out-thinkers are entrepreneurs, innovators, leaders, or marketers “with a new playbook.” They don’t just study what the best leaders, marketers, and innovators do. They certainly might study and learn from the work of others, but in the end they insist on writing their own playbook. By having a bent toward creating and not just imitating, they see things that others miss, challenge age-old practices that sometimes allow for breakthrough innovations and opportunities, they even transform fields/disciplines/markets.

Kirppendorff’s text is largely framed as a different way of thinking about business competition, about doing more than winning by investing the most money, being bigger or more powerful. Instead, these are people who look for third, fourth, fifth, and sixth options and possibilities. Add this mindset to the heart of a social entrepreneur in the education sector and you see amazing things happening.

You don’t just see new models for doing school, but you see models that might be hard-pressed to even fit into a category labeled as school.

You don’t just see new curriculum, but entirely new ways of thinking about curriculum, design and development.

You don’t just see new businesses taking advantage of the latest policies or government mandates, but you see entrepreneurs who shape future policy and practice.

You don’t just see people who bolster an existing and sometimes struggling educational system, but you see new visions of how to think about life and learning.

These people are more compelled to seize new opportunities and possibilities than to please those managing the status quo.

These sorts of educational entrepreneurs are different. In my experience they know and value the need to collaborate, but they also don’t just flatter people. They don’t tend to network and collaborate by telling people that they are amazing and what they are doing is great. For example, consider the many educational companies and organizations that spend so much time telling us teachers how they think we are valuable and amazing. It is nice to get encouragement, but we educators are not in this to be applauded. Great educators are in it for learners, difference-making and social impact. The vocation of educator exists to serve others, not to secure our positions, champion for our preferences, and gain the reverence of a society. We exist for students and society. The out-lookers in the educational innovation landscape get that.

I was at an invitation-only meeting of higher education leaders hosted by several leaders at a massive, innovative and well-known technology company; one that you know well and whose services you have probably used a dozen or more times today. This company has teams working in everything from marketing to education, new media to communication technologies, commerce to health and wellness. When a panel of leaders from this company was talking about some of their work in the education sector and the future of education, they were sharing some brilliant and exciting possibilities around crowd-sourced learning, blended learning, and the democratization of education.

During the question and answer time, I asked how they saw their work impacting the educational establishment and teachers. I was taken aback by what seemed like defensiveness.

“Oh, we love teachers.”

“Teachers are the most important part of education.”

“Teachers will never be replaced by technology.”

“We are pro-teacher.”

I was stunned. My question wasn’t about how much they valued teachers. I was generally curious about their honest, substantive and candid reflection on how their work in the education space might impact the field as a whole. Their work is clearly verging on disruptive and it has already transformed the role of teacher and learner in some contexts. Yet, they backed away from talking about any of that. It felt like they were afraid of getting on the bad side of teacher’s unions, or that they might get an anti-teacher label like some try to place on Salman Khan (which I contend is unjustified).

That was terribly disappointing for me. Here I was with leaders in one of (if not the) most powerful and influential companies on the planet. They have a deep interest in education and their products and services are creating unprecedented possibilities and opportunities. And in that moment, I started to realize that the leaders of the education team that I was meeting were not out-thinkers. They were not going to contribute to some of the most exciting and emerging possibilities in the education landscape. They could not. Their in-thinking would now allow them to see these other possibilities. They sacrificed a rich pro-learner advocacy for a pro-teacher pitch that may well blind them from seeing how close they are to addressing huge and important needs in education.

Please don’t misinterpret this as an anti-teacher post. I am an educator. I’ve been one for over twenty years. Yet, I also realize that the moment teachers make education about the needs and wants of teachers, it becomes about kingdom building, self-promotion, furnishing a warm and tidy comfort zone, and self-preservation. We have real and important needs in education. The digital and connected world along with a rapidly growing educational entrepreneurship sector is giving us wonderfully exciting possibilities to explore! And for that to happen, we need out-thinkers in the field, people don’t just replicate but who “write their own playbook.”

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8 Simple Ideas for Helping Students Become Self-directed Learners This Year

8 Simple Ways SDLEducation is about more than setting up a fish (knowledge) distribution center and handing fish out to all who come to the institution. Education is about fishing lessons, equipping people with the competence and confidence to fish (learn) for the rest of their lives. This is not simply about job preparation. This is preparation for life: family, church, community, work, avocations, leisure time, and relationships. That is the liberal arts vision behind education. As such, an education that simply disseminates knowledge is a limited one.

As we read headlines about whether MOOCs will disrupt the modern University or if the cost of eduction exceeds the benefit, we risk missing the main goal. The main goal of education is not about credits, diplomas, letter grades, degrees, or classes. It is about cultivating knowledge, skills, and dispositions that empower us to live the good life, to develop wisdom and eloquence, to become lifelong learners, and to use what we learn in service to our neighbor.

At this moment, countless educators and students are heading back to school for another year of what we hope to be a rich and full education. Here are eight simple ideas that educators, parents, students, and learning organizations might want to consider; ideas that promise to help with the goal of fishing lessons over simple fish distribution.

1) Learning in Depth – I wrote about a program / project recently known and Learning in Depth, but in this case I am using the phrase more broadly. The Learning in Depth movement is about giving each young person, often in the first years of school, a single word that they will personally investigate and study until they graduate from high school. They will look at it from different disciplinary perspectives (biology, literature, religious studies, statistics, etc.) and leave as one of the leading experts on this narrow topic. The words are concrete items like cats, clothing, mountains, whales or tunnels; and the students do not choose the word. Through this exercise, students learn the benefits of persistence and studying something on their own for an extended period. This not only develops new knowledge, but it builds confidence and skill in learning how to learn.

More generally, learning in-depth can happen by giving students a narrow topic to explore for a long time: over an entire course, semester, year or several years; also having students report back in small groups about their ongoing learning in their assigned or chosen area. These small groups become times when you get to teach students to give each other guidance, support and encouragement; learning from and teaching one another. Such an activity is rich with skills that contribute to lifelong learning.

2) Create a “My” Learning Journal – This can be a physical or digital journal, but the goal is to document three or four aspects of your learning over an extended period. 1) What am I learning? 2) Why am I learning it? 3) How am I learning it? 4) Where am I learning it? This is not just about keeping track of what teachers assign in classes. It is a journal about lessons from all of life: lessons from school, relationships, personal media consumption and leisure time. It allows students to expand their understanding of learning as something that is larger than just what happens in classes. At the same time, it allows one to develop valuable self-reflective and meta-cognitive skills that help them become more thoughtful and intentional about what, how, why, and where they learn. The “why” is an especially interesting element to document. In some cases, it might be because a teacher assigned it, but this also allows one to begin to recognize times, situations, and topics that motivate them to learn for much different reasons, perhaps giving insight to a potential future calling in life that turns into a profession or meaningful avocation.

3) Have Students Enroll in and Complete a MOOC or an Open Course – Free and open courses of study are all over the web (iTunes U, Coursera, Canvas.net, CourseSites, Edx, Udemy, Udacity, Peer-to-Peer University, etc.). While the total number of learners in these open learning opportunities reaches the millions, many lack the awareness, interest, or skill to thrive in these sorts of learning environments, despite the rich body of knowledge and the continually growing quality of guidance and instruction available to the world through these outlets.

One promising practice in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges involves having students in a traditional school/class sign up for and complete one or more MOOCs. This may be done in small teams from the same school and with the guidance of a face-to-face teacher from the school, helping the students with time management, study skills, and providing some extra tutoring as needed. This serve as a potential means of helping these students progress toward a place where they have the confidence and knowledge to take advantage of these learning experiences for the rest of their lives. They do it at cost that even the lowest priced local community college is not able to beat.

4) Have Students Develop and Gradually Build a Personal Learning Network – Google the phrase and you will find most of the examples focused upon teachers and other professionals leveraging digital tools and communities to develop a network of people and resource that they use for their ongoing professional growth and development. It might include networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, following certain blogs and tracking certain people and organizations on YouTube or iTunes University.

With that said, the concept of a personal learning network can be much broader than that. Part of a network might also include family members, the local library, colleagues, friends and professionals which whom I connect via email and listserves, journals that I read, clubs and book groups, television shows, as well as community organizations like churches and the local nature preserve. This is a network of people, resources, and organizations that we leverage to learn (and help others learn). Why not encourage students to start building and mapping out their own networks right now, adding to it as they progress through school. This serves as a way to help students become more aware of their existing and developing networks. It also helps them become more conscious of the way people and groups shape, help, and influence their learning in different aspects of their lives.

5) Have the Students Find a Problem, Solve it, and Report Back to Class – You might point out that you already do this in the form of a paper or project. Yet, most students do not experience a paper or project as identifying and solving real problems. My suggestion is to make it about the problem and the solution, not the paper and the grade. Just challenge students to find an actual problem in the world that relates to the broad topic for the course and become a resident expert on that. Think of it as a sort of show and tell exercise where students informally report back at set times throughout the class, sharing how they are or are not progressing. They can use these sharing times to get feedback from the group in a more informal and authentic way. Some students will run with this more than others and that is fine. You are at least giving them the space and encouragement to give it a try.

6) Have the Students Flip the Class – Yes, the Flipped Classroom is a popular educational buzz phrase right now, but I am referring to student-led flipping, where students create at least part the content and resources that other students use outside of class. This allows students to learn by teaching; sharing the illustrations, examples, and metaphors that help them make sense of a new concept. In doing so, they learn about their own learning and they reach others with examples that many of us teachers might have never considered.

7) “How I Did It” Show and Tell – In many classes, we focus upon what students did and what they did or did not learn. Those are important. It is also valuable to spend time thinking and talking about how they learned something. Creating a time and venue for students to share how they learned something, studied for a test and earned a good grade, designed an especially impressive project or wrote an exemplary paper gives others students insights into best practices and helpful heuristics as a student. Without doing this, we risk leaving these best practices a secret among some students while leaving others students to fall further and further behind simply because they do not know what they do not know.

8) Teach About the Vocation of Student – From Latin, vocation refers to a calling. I encourage students to think of their role of student as a vocation. The ultimate purpose of a vocation (whether it is a work vocation like a banker or teacher, or if it is a vocation like citizen, son, sister, or mother) is about using your knowledge, gifts and abilities to love your neighbor. Framing the role of student as a vocation is an invitation for students to look at how they think and act in terms of love for others. I study and prepare so that I can use this to the benefit of others. When I read a book, I might even think of the author as my neighbor, someone that deserves my attention and respect (even if I ultimately disagree with key points by the author). When I push through a hard week, I recognize that this is helping me develop character and the ability to persevere under adversity, a trait that will serve me well in the future as I live out my other callings. This also helps to frame education as being rich with meaning and purpose that goes well beyond earning a passing grade and getting a diploma. Grades might motivate the achievers in the room, but it leaves others dreading the next class, missing the purpose behind all of it, turning school into a game, and/or leaving school with many missed opportunities and valuable life lessons. The vocation of student is valuable, noble, and important; not just for that student but for the people that will benefit from the knowledge and skills that the student develops.

What a Diploma Doesn’t Tell You

Look in my office closet. In a box on the top shelf you will find a stack of diplomas and related documents, including a 6th grade diploma. Look further into the box and you will find several certificates indicating successful completion workshops, training programs and certificate programs.

What do these documents mean? Choose any one of these items and find another person who has an identical piece of paper. Then ask this question. What do the two of you have in common? Find three or four more people with the same piece of paper and ask again. Do this again until you have interviewed twenty to thirty people. What would you expect to discover from this exercise? With a little perseverance and carefully crafted follow-up questions, you might learn a little more about the meaning of that piece of paper. You may also discover what the paper does not signify.

In the case of my certificates and diplomas, they are historical documents. They only show what I have or have not done in the past. At minimum, barring the possibility that I cheated my way through the program or school, they indicate that I met some minimum threshold of requirements needed to graduate at a given time in history, but there is no guarantee that I still meet those requirements. Graduation requirements, curricula, and the faculty likely change over time, so simply seeing that diploma in hand does not show what I do or do not know in comparison with someone who graduated twenty years earlier or later.

Looking only at the diploma, it may not indicate a fraction of what a person learned during their time pursuing a degree. One might expect that the diploma is evidence that the person met certain standards for college level reading, writing, listening and speaking; as well as competence in certain bodies of knowledge. However, if you think back to your most recent schooling experience, I have little doubt that you can recall people with widely different levels of knowledge and skill who earned the same diploma, even the same grades in many classes. If three such individuals applied for the same job, I am confident that the hiring body could (often with ease) be able to tell us the differences between the three.

While nature contributes to these differences, nurture is no small influence. Self-nurture, in particular, makes a tremendous difference. Consider the following questions as a way to get at much of the learning that goes well beyond what the diploma signifies.

  • What did the students do during their free time?
  • Did they attend optional lectures on campus or in the community.
  • Did they get involved in extracurricular activities?
  • Which books did they read for fun or personal interest?
  • How many books did they read?
  • Did they travel domestically or globally?
  • What sort of volunteer activities occupied their time?
  • What sort of late night conversations and debates did they have with their classmates?
  • Did they cram for every test and pull all-nighters to finish every paper, or did they spread that work over weeks and months?
  • Did they spend time exploring topics in their professor’s offices, or over lunch or coffee?
  • Did they work with their professors on any research projects?
  • Did they spend time building a personal learning network that extends beyond their campus, finding others who share their intellectual interests.
  • Did they attend any professional conferences, workshops or related events?
  • How much time did they actually study?
  • Did they do just enough to get the grade, or did they sometimes over-learn and dig deeper into a topic just because it interested them?
  • Did they work during school or the summer? If so, were these jobs anything to make some money, or were they jobs that they used to learn new skills or to better understand a given profession?
  • Did they ask many questions (in their head or out loud) in class and while they were reading?
  • How much did they learn how to learn? DId they develop effective organizational strategies, study skills, problem-solving heuristics, as well as strategies for listening well and communicating persuasively?
  • How did they nurture their emotional growth and development? Did they intentionally find ways to practice postponing gratification, empathy, or the ability to real the nonverbals and emotions of others?
  • What sort of relationships did they develop amid their studies?

These questions help us surface what is different between two people who went to the same school and ended up with the same diploma. There is little doubt that how one answers these questions will determine much about what someone learns. In fact, one’s answers to these questions may well influence the rest of a person’s life much more than answers about the grades they earned or their performance on individual assessments.