Stop Scaring Teachers with Students’ Inconceivable Futures


It’s back-to-school season, so there’s a strong chance you’re reading or writing posts from people getting you jazzed about the work ahead in the 2016-17 school year. Maybe you’re attending a back-to-school kickoff or orientation or induction or whatever fills out your buzzword bingo card. If you’re doing any of the above, someone is likely to remind you of the impossible task before today’s educators – Preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

Well, that’s terrifying. It’s terrifying for students, and it’s terrifying for teachers.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Zac? You know what, don’t even answer, because that job will be done by a robot and whatever job you will be able to get is beyond comprehension.” Maybe that’s a stretch, but you get my point.

Instead, I’ve got two points to fight the IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE blues:

  1. This isn’t our first rodeo. Before the Industrial Revolution, we couldn’t quite conceive of the jobs for which we were preparing students. Before the computer revolution, who knew we’d need to figure out GUI programming? Before globalization and the Space Race and the Internet and so many other societal seismic shifts, those in teaching roles could not fully conceptualize the jobs for which they were preparing students. And while that system had many inefficiencies for preparing the students in our care, it always will. The future moves fast, and it’s a big world. All we can do is our best and keep learning. So, when you hear someone say our job is to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, think to yourself, “It always has been.”
  2. The present is full of plenty of jobs that need doing. While I’m not necessarily talking about honest-to-goodness W-9 requiring and W-2 generating jobs, I am talking about the jobs any news program will remind you need attending to. Rather than throwing the dart of preparation at the invisible dartboard of future employment, let’s aim our schools and classrooms at the targets we have in front of us. Climate change is a thing we’re 99.5% is a real thing. What if we turned our science curriculums toward saving the glaciers, the coast lines, and the polar bears? Ask students who haven’t yet learned not to come up with creative solutions to turn their beautiful imaginations toward poverty, systemic racism, strengthening the republic, sustainable energy, and interconnected economic systems. And, then give them the resources, lessons, and teaching they need to start figuring things out rather than telling them, “The adults have this.” Because, we don’t.

While we may not have the codex on the jobs employers will be hiring for as our students leave our care, we have a pretty good line on the problems educated, informed, collaborative, thoughtful citizens will need to solve. And that’s what we’re working to create, right?

Citizen-Focused Schools


Someone today acknowledged the fact that an audience of folks had likely heard many keynote presentations over the last decade or so warning, proclaiming, and evangelizing on the need to change schools to better meet the shifting demands of the modern workforce. This was a lead in to the question of what the assembled educators should do about it and what they might ask employers to help them focus the work of school.

For my money, it’s all the wrong question. As much as I want every student I’ve ever known to find gainful, satisfying employment, shooting for a successful workforce aims below the best possibility of what American schools can be.

In an election season jacked up on discourse and discord, we see the highlights of how worker-focused schools are set to fail our country if they do not become citizen-focused schools.

Workers who know how to collaborate, innovate, adapt, and design are still less powerful than citizens who know how to organize, advocate, and investigate.

Rather than asking employers what schools can do to produce students to fit their needs, we should be speaking to politicians, public servants, and civic leaders asking what it takes to get their attention, what effective advocacy looks like, and what problems are on the horizon for communities and cities that our students will need to be ready to tackle.

Chasing jobs that don’t yet exist and may only exist for a moment is a fool’s errand not worthy of our children. Learning how to craft a society that realizes the best ideals of our democracy, our republic, and our grand experiment is not only a worthy goal, but a necessary one as well.

From Theory to Practice:

  • As you wrap up your school year or plan for the start of next year, make citizenship and the kinds of citizens your school community is working to create a central conversation. Keep in mind this is a conversation for all subject areas, not just social studies. Citizen scientists, public health, and a mathematically literate public are just as important as those who volunteer and show up at the polls.
  • Invite civic leaders in to build out the conversation. Ask anyone from the city manager to the mayor to local congressional leaders to come speak across classes on where any given subject area intersects with their work.
  • Think about the civic centers your schools can become. Host candidate forums. Ask leaders to come in and participate in town halls. Keep voter registration forms on the counter of your office and linked on your homepage. Make participatory citizenship part of the DNA of learning and teaching.

Nihil Sub Sole Novum


60: How should we teach remixing, sampling, and forking (coding) to children? #LifeWideLearning16@MrChase

— Ben Wilkoff (@bhwilkoff) February 28, 2016

nihil sub sole novum

One of the best questions we can ask our students is simply, “What makes you think that?” This is akin to the question my grandmother will ask me from time to time. With a sly look in her eye (usually when I’ve accused her of something), she’ll reply, “Whatever gave you that idea?”

Pick whichever phrasing you like, but the soul of these questions is all we really need to help students understand the importance of interconnectedness in a remix, reuse culture. It took me a while to get used to thinking about the issue through this lens when I was doing the unforgiving work of teaching my students to cite their sources in more formal writing or as an editor working with novice journalists on their first stories.

Get close to any creative work about which you’re passionate and all the ideas and can begin to feel as though they are yours or that they are so clearly general knowledge that it would be foolish to explain. For this reason, when I finish a piece of writing or some other act of creation, I’ll step away for a bit and return to ask the question of each sentence, “Whatever gave me that idea?”

When the answer isn’t that the idea came from new contribution I brought to the ideas, it’s time for me to shout out my sources.

When Chris and I were finally wrapping up the book, this was certainly the case. We’ve both been writing and speaking about the ideas in each thesis for many years. Knowing we were about to put them out into the world in something as formal as a book, though, meant looking closely at each piece of our rhetorical architecture and asking, “Where do we need to point out the shoulders upon which we stand?”

It’s a bit strange to be typing these words. When it comes to fair use and open content, I’m likely as close to the liberal side of the spectrum as you’re likely to see. If you’ve used the work of another person and made that work more useful or uniquely different from its source, to my mind you now own at least a portion of that original work or idea.

At the same time, I know what it’s like to see something I’ve created travel through the world without ever pointing back to me as its source. It’s not a great feeling. While the Fair Use Doctrine has always felt quite formal and legalistic to me, it becomes much more personal when I see someone else get credit for my work and can only think, “Hey, that’s not fair.”

And this is the best way I can think of helping our students think about remixing, sampling, and coding in whatever the medium. If the answer to “What makes you think that?” lies somewhere in the work of others, it’s likely best to acknowledge that somewhere in your notes.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Have students think about the thing they’ve done of which they were the proudest. It could be a project completed for school, a winning shot in a game, or a supremely executed artistic performance. Then, ask them what it would feel like if all of a sudden, someone else – a stranger – was not only taking all the credit for the accomplishment, but the world was acting as though this was the truth. Rooting the conversation of giving credit where it’s due in a personal experience, can go miles to grounding the conversation.
  • Take students, faculty, administrators through the I used to think…, Now I think… activity to compare what has changed in their thinking as they move through assignments. Good questions here help people to consider how their outlooks have shifted over the course of creation of “new” ideas and artifacts of learning.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Building Self-Sustaining Communities

Sustainable Rays

How do you start a community that is self-sustaining?

Start with a problem. Always start with a problem. Any community that’s been worth its while has started around a problem that was either already directly shared by its members or had the potential to spread to all of its members.

Some communities start with a solution. They rally around an idea that says, “Would it be neat if…” It likely would, and so others rally to the cause. Soon, a bunch of people are collected around this solution, and they realize they need a problem to solve. These are solutions in search of a problem and the issue they raise is that everything looks like it’s ripe for the solution. For further reading, see any example of colonialism from history.

Instead, start with a problem and gather up everyone you possibly can to help you solve that problem. It won’t be difficult. People living in the presence of a problem are usually interested in finding solutions to that problem.

Then, and this is key, imagine the problem is solvable while at the same time acknowledging you have no idea what its solution will look like. If you knew what the solution looked like, it wouldn’t be a problem or you’d be obstinate. (Note: Consider both of these possibilities as being on the table.)

Once you’ve found your problem, you’ve imagined it as solvable, and you’ve eliminated pre-conceived solutions; it’s time for you and your community to get to work. A community dedicated to building a solution to a shared problem will sustain itself.

Here’s what such a self-sustaining community will not do.

It will not always be composed of the same individuals. People get worn out. They become interested in other problems. They discover limits to their curiosity. They move one. That’s okay. People leaving doesn’t mean your problem isn’t worth solving, it means the people who are still there are the right people.

It will not always sustain. Sometimes, people conflate the idea of sustainable with the ideas of eternal or infinite. They aren’t the same thing. While it’s possible that a self-sustaining community might be or become infinite or eternal, I’ve not yet seen such an example. Again, that’s okay. Communities dedicated to existing for the sake of their own existence have shifted away from whatever problem they were trying to solve and have, instead, taken mortality as their problem. Things should end. This makes way for new beginnings.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

The Sweet Dangers of Setting Vision


As much as I love to cook, one ingredient fills me with a sense of foreboding. In cakes and cookies, sugar is easy enough to handle. Whisk it with soft butter and the crystals puncture the fat cells, giving you the rich creaminess that’s going to glom on to everything else in your batter. In its resting state, sugar is attractive to everything in the bowl. Who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness.

It’s when working with sugar specifically, in confectionary work, that the stakes are raised. Temperatures become precisely important. Depending on what you are trying to make – a taffy for instance – you’re going to need to watch the sugar closely. While the end result will be delicious, in the process of cooking with sugar, touching it will blister the skin. Once sugar has moved to a liquid state, too much is in flux to be able to take hold of it. You’ve got to wait until it’s found its final form to grasp it.

So too is it with vision. In its solid state, everyone can take a piece of vision. It can be a part of everything an organization does. Again, who doesn’t want a little low-risk sweetness. Vision that’s been set somewhere off-site or prior to a team’s formation seems easy enough to handle.

When vision needs to be something more, when an organization needs to head a different direction, that’s when it can become too hot to hold for some members of a team. While they were fine to pass around the standard refined message of the organization, they may not have the tools, the patience, or the know how for transforming a pretty standard statement of vision into something in flux and then returning it to a solid state.

Maybe you’ve been in meetings with these folks. You’re talking about the new vision for a school or a interdisciplinary team, maybe it’s a cross-classroom unit plan. Whatever the stakes, you’re likely to find one or two people who tap out. They’re fine to support whatever vision is crafted by the rest of the team, just let them know when you’re done.

Moving a vision from a solid, graspable statement to something in flux can create heat between colleagues and peers. While that heat and friction are exactly wha are needed to mold a new vision, they can and will become uncomfortable for some team members. Blisters will result in relationships, between offices, on teams; if care isn’t taken in how creation of this new vision is handled.

Similarly, you won’t know if you’ve crafted the vision you were setting out to create until it cools and sets to a point where you can put that vision to practice. Many batches of candies have ended up in the garbage after hours of work because I’d rather throw them out than eat them or serve them to others.

This is exactly what any vision-setting team must be prepared to do. A vision that doesn’t serve the organization, that is a mismatch for the passion of its people, is a vision that should be tossed. Even if you need to throw it out, I can attest to the fact you’ll have learned enough from the process to move you closer to success in the next batch.

From Theory to Practice:

  • When starting the process to refine or redefine the vision for your organization, identify a coalition of the willing. This doesn’t have to be limited to folks who think it’s time for the vision to change, in fact it shouldn’t. Make sure you ask people who like the vision just fine the way it is to come on board. Having the loyal opposition as part of the process will help to make sure you’re building something everyone can own.
  • Make sure you get it where you want to go. Sometimes, when working with sugar, it can be tempting to ignore the temperature and say, “This hot is good enough.” In the end, it won’t be. Ending the vision-setting process prematurely can mean you’ve got a vision that won’t hold together or will be too brittle to stand up to external pressures. It can be tempting to stop the process when you want it to be done. Stick with it until you’re entire team is sure.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

When Collaboration isn’t the Skill You Need

Google Docs new sharing feature

I’ve enjoyed these of these posts. Aside from that damned tree question, each question you’ve posted on Twitter has been one I’ve met with curiosity and an element of joy unique to the experience. These posts are a kind of writing I’ve not gotten to do for years, and certainly have an audience much different from my day gig.

It is collaboration moving apace with some of the best of what’s possible. Each morning twitter lets me know you’ve posed the day’s question, and I know my question to you has been sent along the string connecting our technological tin cans. From there, I add it to my queue of questions to be answered. For a few, I’ve pulled them into the physical world, explained our setup and asked what other folks would say. Usually when I’ve done this, it’s a combination of wanting to know what others think, and hoping they could help me jumpstart my own thinking when my answer isn’t apparent.

For the more confounding questions you’ve posed, I’ve pulled you aside in online chats to see exactly what you meant. My favorite response you’ve given thus far, by the way, has been, “You know these questions are open to interpretation, right?”

Again, collaboration working at its potential.

Sometimes, though, collaboration isn’t what’s necessary. Sometimes, what’s necessary is a solitary, thoughtful effort that asks a person to turn inward on herself or on a problem to be considered.

Sometimes, collaboration is a bad idea.

I don’t have a list of these situations. I don’t even have a list of attributes to help you determine where collaboration is called for and where it should be avoided. Instead, I have three other big picture concepts that should be the part of all learning experiences – choice, context, and openness.

Choice in collaborating or not comes down to the task for me. If you ask me to draft a piece of writing, my response is likely going to be to pull up a new doc, throw on my headphones, and ignore the world until I’m done. At that point, I’ll show you my first effort. Until then, for me, writing is a collaboration-free task. Ask me to solve a complex statistical problem, though, and it’s all hands on deck. Not only will I want you to collaborate with me, I’ll need it.

Collaboration is right in some contexts, and not in others. If I’m writing a blog post, it’s going to be a solitary task as mentioned above. The editing is going to stay solitary as well. If I’m writing something for larger distribution (say, a book), my editing and revising process is going to draw in as many voices as make sense for the audience of the text. Similarly, if the effort is to be representative of an organization or system beyond me, again, context points to collaboration.

Openness means several things. It has to do with my openness to the ideas of others as I work my way through a problem. Sometimes, I don’t want to hear your ideas, even if they’re better that mine. It also has to do with how open I want to be with my process. Sometimes, writing is ugly. Sometimes building a unit plan means I need to let things sit until the last minute. As it is, I have a project of import for the day gig. I haven’t yet fully collaborated with anyone because the ideas I’m working with are still in my head. I’ve erased the white board of my mind several times over the last few weeks because I need to be the sole owner of the ideas for now. Eventually, collaboration will be called for and I’ll invite others in to the process to pull things apart. For now, though, the work is solitary.

I love collaborating. I love the thrill that comes from building something that reflects the perspectives of many minds. I also have an abiding love for working alone.

From Theory to Practice:

  • When designing tasks for your students, ask if they need to be collaborative, solitary, or either. Sometimes, the social-emotional learning comes from being able to rightly decide whether you want and need to work alone or as part of a team.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

In Defense(ish) of Lectures

Lecture Hall

If I’d been smart, I would have started an archive when I started prepping to be a teacher. It would document each of the teaching practices to come en vogue during my career and the approximate date when each became the villain in the stories we tell young teachers about learning and teaching.

The tool/practice with the most checkered past is the lecture.

Everything in my undergraduate preparation was a warning (direct or tacit) against the lecture. Workshops were the state of the art. Like the NCAA organizing a bracketed tournament, we were to match students with each other, have them pass their work around and then comment, defense, revise, edit, repeat. But, no lectures. The students wouldn’t learn from whatever ramblings we threw at their ears we were told.

The cognitive dissonance came as I considered the lectures I enjoyed in other courses I was taking. Pre-eminent scholars in their fields who knew how to craft stories of Hemingway, the history of the English language, remedial chemistry were regularly holding my rapt attention, while I was being told not only were they doing it wrong, but that I wasn’t likely learning form them.

It hurt my brain.

Things only got worse as I entered the classroom and the Internet made it possible to spread, embed, and mobilize lectures. Kahn, TED, and classroom flippers were putting bows on exactly the tools I was told and had come to believe were antithetical to learning. Teachers were spending time recording their lectures and telling students they were worth taking time at home to watch. Universities were making lectures freely available for anyone outside their admissions shield to learn from top professors. And big thinkers were taking to standing on a big red dot to inspire through nothing more than lecture.

Meanwhile, I was refining what it meant to operationalize a constructivist, constructionist pedagogy in an English classroom. I’d started identifying myself as a teacher whose pedagogy was inquiry-driven and project-based. This all stood opposed to the lecuturephilia I was hearing and reading about.

Except it didn’t. Because, even inside my classroom where students were asking questions that drove there creation of myriad projects, I was still lecturing from time to time. When I wanted to introduce the ideas of literary theory and literary analysis to a class of juniors, it was through a lecture that I modeled a close feminist reading of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance“.

I did it, and I didn’t feel badly about it because it was the right tool for the moment. And, it only lasted a moment. I lectured through a narrative that helped to construct a framework of understanding of literary analysis and then told a story that exemplified putting that framework to use. After that and some discussion, I put the work in the students’ hands. I never again lectured on the topic. Instead, I gave mini practice sessions, prodded students to ask each other (and the internet) for help, and then asked them to do something similar to what I had done with my model text. (They may even have workshopped.)

This is the place of the lecture. With a few exceptions, it’s the place of most every practice, theory, and tool that’ve made their way into popular edu-parlance. As trope-ish as it may be, each of these pieces is a tool in a toolbox of teaching. The key will always be determining when telling a story is the most appropriate tool or letting students write their own stories of experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Keep a running list of the tools in your own teacher toolbox along with your own current thinking on the affordances and limitations of each tool.
  • Seek feedback from peers and students on your plans for teaching with a given tool before you put it into practice. Many times students are the best voices to tell you when an exemplifying lecture might be more helpful than throwing them into the deep end and asking them to swim.
  • Watch masters. No matter how good I ever felt about a well-deployed lecture, I could always learn something by walking next door or across the hall to watch a colleague. Oftentimes, my learning was best when watching teachers of another subject area where my expertise was limited.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

I Don’t Want to Sound Nerdy, but Do You Want to Hear About My Leaf Collection?

Leaf Collection

Moving around the country has seriously put a cramp in my tree identification game. I don’t mean to brag, but when I was in high school, I was able to name at least 40 coniferous and deciduous trees native to Illinois. If you wanted proof, I had a binder full of their leaves along with identifying tags explaining their scientific names and other pertinent information.

I didn’t take the binder to college with me, but I might have been known to point to a tree as friends and I walked across the quad and say, “Do you know what kind of oak that is?”

They never did – fools – and, self-satisfied with the setup, I’d let out a soft chuckle and lay some knowledge down. Making friends was difficult.

The binder and leaf collection were part of a project assigned in my biology class. Our assignment was to find and correctly identify at least 40 trees native to Illinois. I can’t say we loved it. I also can’t claim we saw the value in it. Even more grumbling was done when we learned the Japanese maple we’d found wasn’t native.

For years after that project I did, in fact, point to and name trees aloud. When I moved to Florida, I considered buying the southeastern complement to my Audubon Society guide to the trees of the northern US. It turned out I’d started to identify as someone who knew trees, and I liked what it meant about how I thought about my surroundings.

On its face, this story seems to go against my belief that learning and education are at their best when driven by the curiosity of the learner. I wasn’t inherently curious about trees. I’d picked up the basics when I was in elementary school, was grateful for syrup, and had had my fill.

It took a teacher creating an experience in which I needed to ask questions for my curiosity to re-emerge. This belief in the creation of targeted experiences to draw out curiosity that are aligned aligned with the goals for learning is a key aspect of what draws a line between how I thinking about learning and teaching and those who champion unschooling or open schooling.

I should also point out I would not design the experience in the same way. I would present the subject of study to my students and then drafted questions for exploration with them. We would have co-created our plan for finding the answers we wanted. I would have attempted to activate their curiosity at the outset rather than counting on the project to lead to them being slightly weird adults who can’t stop asking, “What kind of tree are you?”

From Theory to Practice:

  • Begin a lesson or unit of study by asking students what questions they have about the topic. This may take some time at the outset and some creative thinking for content that might not appear inherently interesting to kids on its face.
  • Once you’ve got your questions, follow up with, “And how will we know when you’ve learned this?” While this may sometimes mean completely co-designing performance tasks with your students, it needn’t always. Sometimes, you may come to the table with a basic outline to prime the pump and invite them to help you fill in the holes.
  • Don’t think you’re done when you’re done. It’s tempting to move on to the next project when you wrap one up. Skipping reflection means leaving a lot of information on the table. Take students back to the beginning of the process, have them consider what they did, made and learned. Then, ask them what you or they could have done differently to improve the learning.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

The Extrovert Paradox


For a long time after I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test , I was amazingly stressed by the pressure it put on me. No one in the high school class where we took the test had explained it too my classmates and I beyond the simple results we received.

So, I wore my E not as a descriptor of how I tended to interact with the world, but more as a commandment as to how I was to present myself to the world. I was an extrovert, so I needed to be outgoing, hang around with people, and be energized by them all the time.

While that was often true, it wasn’t always true. Sometimes, I wanted to be by myself, and that made me feel guilty. Typing this now, I realize why I identified so closely with the Divergent series.

It wasn’t until my mom made a comment one night after I said I was going to my room that I started thinking differently about what that E might mean. “Yeah,” she said, “you’ve been with people pretty much non-stop. I can tell you need some time alone to recharge.”

I quickly corrected, “No, I’m an extrovert. That’s not how I recharge.”

Luckily, my mom had worked in human resources for decades. “You know that’s not what that means, right? Extroverts need time by themselves, too. And, it’s not a fixed label so much a descriptions of your proclivity on a scale.”

I’d like to say I stayed and had a deep conversation with her about what this news meant to my sense of self and how I’d been burdened by the designation. I was 17, though, so I said something like, “Oh,” and headed to my room. Still, my world was rocked, and it has shaped how I see my free time since then. My initial understanding of my free time as an extrovert designee was that un-programmed time was to be spent fulfilling my duties as an E and surrounding myself and interacting with other people.

Now, though, my free time is the time when take stock of what I’m feeling and decide if being with other people or being alone will help me to feel more energized and take on whatever responsibility or task is on the horizon. This has also helped me to understand the unfree time. The time that’s spoken for by a responsibility to others includes tasks that either require me to find energy in my interactions with others or that I find what I need in solitude to complete a given task. The choices I make that lead to me taking on these responsibilities reflect my tendency to live as and E, and my free time ensures I have the space to let my introverted freak flag fly when I need to.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.