My Education Manifesto for 2015

Way back in 2007, my friend and OG mentor Chris Long published his "Future of Learning" Manifesto along with a challenge to others to steal it, tweak it, riff on it, and rewrite their own version. He set the bar far too high, if you ask me (you didn't), but I can't blame him for my own procrastination of boiling down into words what's important to me about education. So here goes, in no particular order...some is stolen (from Chris and others), some is riffed, some is original. That's the way, eh? In no particular order...

(caveat: manifestos are often a bit preachy)

draft #1, 12/30/2014

Short version:

  1. Teaching is the only way to be immortal 
  2. Learning is the work
  3. Seriously, everyone must be learning. All the time.
  4. No one owes you their interest or attention
  5. The world is full of fascinating problems just waiting to be solved
  6. If you don't love people, I mean really love people, please don't go into education (or get out if you're already there)
  7. Schools must help our communities learn how to be good citizens and humans
  8. Technology / the internet is not optional
  9. Technology is a tool, not an end goal
  10. Please know why you're teaching something

Long-winded version:

  1. Teaching is the only way to be immortal - As my body will be part of something else someday (a plant, a bug, some coral, a star, another planet...) and will live on in small bits and pieces, so too will my mind IF I can spend my life spreading and sharing ideas, wonder, and fascinating questions. Otherwise, why was I here? Whom did I serve? Not myself nor the greater world.
  2. Learning is the work - (thanks Michael Fullan) I'm not just talking about student work, or teacher work. ALL work (read: life) is learning, and learning has to be given top priority and fanatical support (time, tools, space, money) for everyone involved: students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents, neighbors. Whatever your business, imagine what kind of a product you'd deliver if you never learned - repeating mistakes, falling behind, becoming irrelevant. Imagine interactions with a loved one that never got better, never progressed deeper b/c you couldn't learn how to communicate with that person. Imagine what medicine would be like! *shiver* Learning is the work. If schools don't put learning first - for EVERYONE - it just won't work. "When you know better, you do better." - quasi Maya Angelou
  3. Seriously, everyone must be learning. All the time. - Educators have a crazy amount of resources for improvement at their fingertips: Twitter is amazing. Google+ is showing serious promise. Podcasts like Edu All-Stars will deliver growth inspiration directly to your ear holes. Hordes of educators congregate at conferences and edcamps around the world and in the next town over. As I've quoted here before, "Our job as educators is to actively work at getting better. If you are a classroom teacher, like me, and your job is to cause learning, but you aren’t actively searching for ways to better cause that learning, then you aren’t really doing your job. If you are an administrator and your job is to help support teachers cause learning, but you aren’t actively searching for ways to help those teachers, then you aren’t really doing your job." (Alexis Wiggins, international teacher and education writer/blogger)
  4. No one owes you their interest or attention - Disengaged students are not flawed - your message is. Could be the content, its importance/relevance, the delivery... (or any or all of the above) but something isn't working. Find it, make it relevant.
  5. The world is full of fascinating problems just waiting to be solved - (thanks Eric S Raymond) We've really screwed things up - the planet, our communities, ourselves. The next batch of folks to inherit the world have their work cut out for them. They will need different tools and ways of thinking to fix our problems. Stop focusing on the tools we used to get us into this mess and start helping them develop a richness of intelligence, compassion, ingenuity, and culture to give them half a chance. If you don't know how to do this, see #3 above.
  6. If you don't love people, I mean really love people, please don't go into education (or get out if you're already there) - How are schools like soylent green? They're both made of people. People are imperfect and exactly as they're going to be - both children and adults. It takes roughly a cubic ton of love, compassion, and empathy to work with someone on anything meaningful, and if you don't like that, leave. No disrespect meant there - in fact, it'll be more respectful to everyone involved - students, colleagues, and yourself - if you do.
  7. Schools must help our communities learn how to be good citizens and humans - There's a lot of talk about online bullying and the other dangers our children (and ourselves) are exposed to on the internet. Lots of it boils down to "people are horrible, we must protect our kids." To me, that's like driving an SUV for safety: you might be more likely to survive a collision, but you're more likely to kill anyone you run into. (It's simple physics: F=MA; add more mass, get more destructive energy.) Trying to remove your kid from the overall culture might, MIGHT, protect that kid, but it does nothing for the rest of us. The fix is to make us all more in touch with the humanity of others, and that requires being present for the conversation, which hints at my next point:
  8. Technology / the internet is not optional - Our students need to be part of the global conversation. We need them to become experts at managing the modern digital landscape and they need their teachers to be knowledgeable and skilled guides. Their guides need to be well-versed in not just the WHATs, but the HOWs and WHYs as well.
  9. Technology is a tool, not an end goal -  All the gadgets, sites, services, applications, apps, etc. are an integral part of the process of learning, but they suck as end goals. School's shouldn't have learning goals about using a specific tech tool, in just the same way that we shouldn't put pure content knowledge in a place above its application or relevance to our learners - we don't learn Mandarin to cross something off a list, but to communicate with a billion+ people on the other side of the world; the point of Algebra is not to learn that letters can sometimes stand in for numbers, but to acquire new problem solving skills in the face of limited information. We may love Mandarin or Algebra (and I do love gadgets), but they serve higher meanings. (Don't even get me started about Carnegie Units and graduation requirements...).
  10. Please know why you're teaching something - If your students can look it up in less than a minute and they won't ever need it for survival in a world without electricity, just how much time and energy do you think it deserves? Perhaps some essential question reflection might be in order.

OK, I think that's good for now. There you go, I've opened my brain to you all, what can you now put in it? If you've made it this far, I challenge you to keep the ball rolling and come up with your own, and have your students do so as well. Communication is good.

It's amazing how scary yet powerful (redundant?) it can be to put your beliefs out there. Comments are on.

Do students care about our subjects or about us?

Not that there has to be a total dichotomy, but overall, do our students care about our subjects or about us? This idea recently had me asking lots of questions, to which I don't have many answers.

 It certainly makes us teachers happy to have devoted, loyal fans as students, and if we can connect to the people in our classes, it seems much more rewarding and meaningful to us. But do we have the interest, ability, or liberty to consider why the students are doing what they're doing?

Traditionally, good teachers say that the way to get kids engaged is to build the relationship between student and teacher. One particularly thorny effect of this, though, is that the student can come to do what the teacher asks because the student cares about impressing the teacher, not letting the teacher down, making the teacher happy, etc. Once students care about us, or feel that we care about them, it's much easier to get them to do what we want them to do. It seems to me that this might be quite unhealthy, manipulative, and even exploitative of a student's natural desire to not upset a person they care about. There be dragons here for sure!

Some progressive educators, while not discounting the need for a strong teacher-student relationship, talk about engaging the student with the content to be learned itself by making it relevant to the student's lives, harnessing the student's intrinsic motivations, such as the three aspects of Daniel Pink's Drive: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. 

The ramifications of the former approach could be staggering: what if the steady growth in the importance of end results (standardized tests, college placement, class rankings, GPAs, etc.) is the product of generations of students growing up having learned to value the system that such an authority-pleasing approach builds as what good education is? 

We talk about students losing their natural love of learning somewhere along the way between elementary and high school, that their main motivation in school sometimes shifts to their only wanting to know what'll be on the test, to be worried about grades and end products, and so on. What if this shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is just the end product itself of a student's long-term focus on authority-pleasing rather than their own curiosity, wonder, and engagement with their world?

How might we help our students focus on their inherent drive to learn about things that interest them, and reduce our association with their end products? How might we enable students to be more concerned with letting themselves down - or, more abstractly, the intellectual endeavor itself down - than letting their teachers (or parents) down? 

As students age into their high school years, their relationship to authority drastically changes as they are driven biologically and culturally to identify and enforce their own identities. This often manifests as a reduction in their interest in the established authorities in their life, sometimes even to fairly direct rejection of those authorities. This is seen as an important and natural part of human development, for the most part. But what happens to a developing student who has no knowledge of or experience with their own curiosities, their own passions, and is only left with the void of authorities they used to want to please? What are they left with that can help them grow and adapt as they navigate the world beyond their schooling?

My accidental PBL

I'm 37 years old, and I have never tried to make a casserole. 

Correction: I'm 37 years old, and before a couple hours ago, I had never tried to make a casserole. I'll let you know by the end of this post how it turns out, and whether or not I can then claim to have made a casserole. In the meantime, I'll share what I'm calling my accidental PBL experience.

My wife and I belong to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) which I refer to as our "farm subscription." Being summer, every other Tuesday we get a box chock full of veggies we then have to figure out how to store, prepare, and eat. It's our way of supporting local food while at the same time getting outside of our culinary comfort zones (and eating a ton of healthy vegetables).

So, dinner time rolls around this Thursday night and while staring at a full fridge (for which I'm thankful), I see a half-used jar of pasta sauce and decide right then and there to make a baked-pasta casserole. It seems like a good way to experiment and make some space in the kitchen.

I quickly look up on Google some directions for what to do with pasta before baking with it, but there are no recipes I can find that use the random ingredients I have, so I just jump in with how I think one would make a baked pasta casserole. Perhaps it's because I listened to the two latest Edu All-Stars podcasts* while working around the house today. Whatever the reason, I think it was an ill-advised course of action. I have a really bad feeling that it's not going to turn out to be something I want to eat, or even something that it's possible to eat...

This looks absolutely amazing, and nothing at all like what I made. Courtesy of Flickr user notahipster 

This looks absolutely amazing, and nothing at all like what I made. Courtesy of Flickr user notahipster 

Anyway, despite the imminent future of cereal for dinner, I'm really excited about this experience! I just realized that I've ventured into project-based learning while merely trying to feed myself tonight. This is the "real-world" learning experience we want for our students! Seriously, I'm stoked - writing-about-it-while-waiting-for-it-to-finish-cooking stoked. I have decided to proceed through tonight's cooking as a form of some meta-science, both experiencing and recording it.

So far, here's some of what I've learned, in no particular order:

  • the baking dish I chose was way too small for the ingredients I prepared
  • I should check to make sure we have good layering pasta before beginning to chop veggies
  • after cooking the pasta, don't let it sit in the colander while chopping the rest of the veggies or else it will be one giant pasta piece by the time you get to the layering stage
  • my combo microwave-convection oven set at 350° really has a hard time getting the internal temperature of casseroles up to the food safety recommendation of 165°
  • setting it to 400° alleviates this problem
  • it's a good idea to pre-cook the harder veggies so that they don't come out basically still raw after 30 mins of cooking
  • 30 minutes of cooking is far too long to bake small chunks of tuna
  • double-check how much sauce you have before you start the hour+ long process of making a casserole
  • casseroles take a long time to prep and bake
    • related: don't decide to make a casserole when it's already 2 hours past your usual dinner time

And not just content-related learning either - check out this self-reflection and metacognition:

  • I'm good at managing multiple tasks so long as they are all on the same level of abstraction - e.g. I can prepare the individual ingredients - chopping, washing, boiling - all at once but I'm liable to lose sight of the overall big picture goal (making sure the dish is big enough, remembering to add seasonings...)
  • I'm stubborn enough to commit to eating something I spent hours of my time on, even if it's most likely going to be fairly unappetizing
  •  Why am I so obsessed with cleaning things immediately after I use them? (sometimes learning takes the form of new questions, right?)

Of course that's not all, but I wanted to highlight the fact that there is oodles of learning in every experience, if our minds are tuned to it. It is not hard for me to imagine what a skilled educator could do in the role of guide to help their students recognize that learning and learn to focus their personal experiences (i.e. "projects") on certain desired learning outcomes and content. Honestly, it could only take a nudge here and there - a purposeful, skilled, and empathetic nudge, but a nudge all the same.

Content goals would not be the only learning going on in such an environment, either! My mind gets overloaded when I think of the sheer amount of serendipitous tangential or collateral learning that would accompany the course objectives and benefit a healthy, well-rounded student. The traditional core curriculum-focused classroom can't even come close.

Though I'm not too pleased about potentially ruining a bunch of food, I'm jazzed about the process of creativity, problem solving, and solution testing that I just went through. This is exactly the self-directed, serendipitous, directly applied learning I want for my students, and I just happened into it. So very cool. 

Upon reflection, I only had this opportunity tonight because I let go of control, and did not follow a recipe or use ingredients I'm familiar with. Getting comfortable with less control than we're used to is a common refrain of proponents of PBL/maker education, and I totally see their point.

...a little while later...

I know you're all dying to know how dinner turned out. The experiment actually wasn't half bad. I wouldn't probably serve it to friends, but I consider it a success. I consider it a casserole.

* If you aren't a listener of this fine podcast from Todd Nesloney (@techninjatodd) and Chris Kesler (@iamkesler), stop what you're doing right now and go give it a listen and/or subscribe. I recommend the last two episodes for those interested specifically in PBL & #makered, but I find every episode terrifically inspiring.