How Do We Not Crowd Out the Space for Wonder? (2/365)

photo of the Orion Nebula by Bryan GoffAs is so often the case, a post from Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings gave me pause today. Popova writes about John O’Donahue’s Walking in the Pastures of Wonder – in Conversation with John Quinn and offers some beautiful reflection and several excerpts. This one, though, struck me most deeply:

Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.

It is, perhaps more socio-emotional than you’d prefer. Stop, though, and think about the possible implications – particularly for education.

When I get the opportunity to observe a classroom, I am constantly on the lookout for evidence of curiosity. If I leave a room and can only comment on the knowledge of the teacher and what questions he might have about algebra, biology, or literature, then I know we’ve missed an opportunity.

For all the talk of personalized learning and data mining, we often miss the greatest source of data-turned-information-turned-knowledge-turned-wisdom to which we have access – the inner worlds of our students (if I might borrow from Quinn).

In the classrooms where I find the most evidence of learning, I have the fortune to see teachers not only asking students to share their curiosities, ideas, and beliefs, but helping their classmates to develop these habits as well.

One particular observation sticks with me. In a third grade classroom, students and teacher assembled on the carpet at the front of the room, the teacher has posed a questions for discussion. The students have talked with their partners about what they think of a given topic, and one little girl has raised her hand, been called on, and is now “um-ing” and “well-ing” her way through her answer. She gets a bit off track – the consternation clear on her face.

In too many of the classrooms I see, the teacher would have stepped in, kept the child from struggling, and either asked someone else or said what he hoped the child was trying to say.

This teacher did something else.

“Do you need time or help?” she asked.

The child paused, “Time.”

And she was given time to sort out her thinking. And her peers were kind and attentive.

Not only were the children in that classroom being immersed in the idea that a teacher might actually be interested in their thoughts and making room for them to be tinkered with, they were coming to an understanding that getting to our answers might take more time than we’d sometimes expect.

It has me thinking about where I can create space in my daily conversations to give more room to others to bring forth the ideas they might otherwise think too nascent for sharing.

What about you? What might you do to make space for those with whom you learn to share?

The Search (and Price) of Intelligent Algorithms


Sometimes, when I want to know what it’s like not to be me, I’ll jump into incognito mode on Chrome and search for something, anything – just to see what a newborn baby might find on his first search.

If there’s a notable difference, it’s that I’m searching alone. None of the content from my friends (as Google knows them) is present. None of the recommendations take into effect what past me has gone searching for. I’m asking a question of the entire web, not the web as Google curates it for me.

Still, Google lets me search. It doesn’t require I feed its data monster with my specific personal information. I am free to wander the Internet as anonymously as possible for anyone with a static IP address.

When I turn to sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, though, doors are closed. While Google will let me get by only paying with the what of my searching, these sites raise the price – they want to know who.

All of this rests on the idea that computer algorithms are strong in their ability to furnish me with answers. The more they know about the questions I’m asking, the better their ability to anticipate and queue up answers most relevant to me. That’s Me, specifically, not someone like me. Insomuch as is possible for a machine, these lines of code are personalizing the answers for which I’m searching in my learning.

But these algorithms are doing more than that. They are deciding what I don’t see. They are narrowing the Internet I experience. Because search engines and other sites that track my behavior online track what they take to be my habits, the options I see when I go looking for information are the answers I’m anticipated to need or want. And, there’s a trade off. I often find what I’m looking for, but I hardly ever stumble upon something randomly interesting. Imagine traveling the world an avoiding all the places you hadn’t seen or heard about before.

These are the answers algorithms provide.

What’s more, while these lines of code are narrowing the world and people I experience online, they’re failing to help me ask better questions. When I’m led to ask questions online, it’s because of breadcrumbs left by other people on the chance I might want to make a turn. Think of a Wikipedia entry as an example. A well written page includes loads of links to what a computer might read as randomly selected. Even when able to identify parts of speech, it is the human element that decides Prince Adam deserves a link on the entry for Skeletor while leaving Keldor as plain text.

Algorithms suck at curiosity. They don’t anticipate it well, and they rarely engender it in users. Any program that ushers a user through a series of pre-conceived questions is avoiding actual questioning. To keep the travel metaphor going, these experiences are like riding It’s a Small World rather than actually traveling to each of the countries depicted. And, no matter how well such applications anticipate your reaction to a given set of stimuli, whatever is put in front of you next isn’t computer generated, it was programmed by someone who decided where your unknowing should go next.

While the secret soup that makes search engines and other sites pull up the answers to my questions is imperfectly good, I have to remember that it comes at the cost of my information (anonymous or not) and experiencing the world in a way someone like me is “supposed” to see it. This is more limited than I know.

For however good these systems are at finding my answers, they are nowhere near as capable of helping me generate questions as a conversation with a friend or reading a thoughtful editorial. While they are able to learn, they are certainly not curious.

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.

Inquiry Beats Mastery

An education with inquiry as it’s goal beats an education with mastery as it’s goal every time.

I didn’t realize this is how I feel until a friend asked about the role of mastery at SLA.

Here’s why.

Mastery takes as it’s goal a finished target. This might not always be its intent, but it is the implication whenever we say the goal is getting a student to the point where they or we can say they have “mastered” some content or skill. Such a goal does not invite a logical next step.

Contrastingly, inquiry takes as its goal a continuing cycle of attempting to find things out. Questions beget questions, which beget questions.

If we are asking good questions, our students are going to examine the work they are doing and the answers (partial or whole) they find will lead to the generation of ideas that require more questions be answered before an issue be set aside as satisfactorily answered for the moment.

Some questions, lead to mastery mindset rather than a cycle of inquiry.

If the professional learning modules we are building in my district to help teachers consider and plan for teaching and learning in a 1:1 environment, I am attempting to thoughtfully craft essential questions for each one with avoiding a mastery mindset as one of my goals.

In the module investigating Internet wellness and digital citizenship in middle schools, one question reads, “What is a teacher’s role in helping students consider digital wellness?”

Whatever their initial thinking, a teacher grappling with this question will continue to evolve the answer throughout his career.

“How does a teacher block a website?” Doesn’t invite the same questioning. A skill is learned, and the content mastered. What’s more, when the process changes (as these things inevitably do), a mastery mindset invites a presupposition that the learning was taken care of the first go ’round.

Mastery makes sense as a tool for inquiry. In considering the biological answers to the essential question, “Who am I?” An SLA ninth grader will likely need to master some pieces of proper lab technique or working with the scientific method in the service of their questioning.

As questions become more detailed and the topics more complex, even that mastery will need refinement in hopes of more exact questions.

Mastery offers a waypost of certainty in what can start to feel like an endless cycle of inquiry. For students who frustrate easily, this can be a relief, a respite that allows them to say, “I don’t have the answers I seek, and I know this for now.”

Inquiry with moments of mastery is an invitation to greater discovery founded in growing abilities.

Photo via Candace Nast

79/365 Start Surplus-Model Thinking

They cross the threshold to our schools and our classrooms as complete people with lives, memories, and experiences embedded in their senses of being long before they begin first grade or fourth or twelfth.

We must, now, right now, abandon our deficit-model thinking about teaching and the students in our care. It must happen.

In the absence of such a model, we must not rest on the idea of students as neutral beings. Eliminating our assumption of difficulties is a start, but it is not enough. Agreeing teaching is not designed to overcome is only the first step, and it leaves us assuming students come ready for whatever we throw at them. Such a mindset leaves us ready to throw whatever we like at these empty containers of knowledge.

The schools we need operate on a surplus model of thinking around the students they serve.

For many, this will be a difficult shift to make. It will mean acknowledging that students come to us with more than we can imagine and more than we are able to comprehend. It will mean a sense of humility that will leave those who have been the kings and queens of their classrooms for decades in a difficult spot.

Still, we must.

We must understand that the experiences students have outside of the classroom are more complex than whatever we could hope to set in front of them. They are certainly more complex than worksheets and packets of practice problems to be completed by the end of the week.

We must understand the student who takes three buses to school and sets out before the sun rises has a greater understanding of systems thinking, motivations, academic preparedness, and internal locus of control than is likely to be taught in any civics or leadership class.

We must understand the complex narrative threads that exist in the communities of our students outstrip any put to page by Hemingway, Joyce, Dickenson, or Morrison. And, we must up our game.

A surplus model of education means understanding the funds of knowledge that Luis Moll et al. found when they trained teachers in sociology, took them into students homes and asked them to keep track of the knowledge that was important and active in these spaces.

A surplus model of education means looking at the work of the Institute for Democratic Education in America and recognizing that they are tapped in to educational organizations around the country who are doing right by the communities they serve.

This draws on another important surplus in education – teachers. We must recognize the wealth of knowledge our teachers bring to classrooms each day and free them to activate and implement that knowledge.

The teacher who is able to see that her students are coming to school hungry must be able to act on that knowledge and devise the creative solutions she knows will work by leveraging community partners to help her students access nutritious meals.

The teacher who knows that the district-prescribed reading curriculum is not truly helping his students become life-long readers must be honored by those to whom he answers so that he might help his students find this love of letters and grow into it.

The biology teacher who examines the scripted curriculum she’s been prescribed and finds it wanting compared to the experiments, expeditions, and inquiry she has in mind must have the freedom to pursue and implement those notions to make scientists of her students.

Our teachers and our students have a surplus of abilities and ideas simply by being human, curious, and present.

When we design systems that assume this surplus and operate on the belief that the people walking through our doors are capable and accomplished, what they will achieve will be awe-inspiring.

53/365 The Most Important Question is What Students are Curious About

Sit in any classroom, traditional or not, and wait until the end. Then, attend to following question, “What were the students in this class curious about?”

It will be tempting, in this excercise, to answer with what they were “supposed” to be curious about, what questions were asked as a class via teacher re-direction, or what you yourself were curious about and thereby assigned to the students. Don’t do any of these things.

Instead, look at the notes you were copiouslly jotting down during your observation and try to find direct, empirical evidence of student curiosity. If you cannot, something is wrong.

One of my favorite questions to ask when debriefing a lesson teachers have just taught is to ask them what they thought students were curious about during the class period. To do so reframes our reflection on teaching in a way that looks to learning as a process of exploration based on the naturally occurring questions and wonder that come along with encountering new ideas. Ask any teacher more in love with their content area than anything else why they love that content, and they’re likely to describe some formative experience when they started questioning and never quite found the motivation to stop. Sadly, these same teachers, enamoured of their content often fail to hold enough back in their teaching to invite those same questions from their students.

Lessons in these classrooms often become, “I know this, and this, and this, and this…and you should too.” Students in these settings have no need for curiosity. The content is presented to them as having uncovered all the answers worth finding.

If our goal is to foster in our students the same sort of wonder that drives our own curiosity, we must realize the answer is not showing all that we know and can be known.

Instead, the answer comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing as outlined in his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box. We don’t even need all eight. One will do.

“Start as close to the end as possible.”

While appropriating a guideline for fiction writing may seem strange when discussing those things worth knowing as true, it certainly isn’t. To instill curiosity in our students (and ourselves) we must start as close to the end of the story as possible.

History classes are as fine an example as any. In their most traditional sequence, these classes begin with the earliest recorded history and then move forward across the years. Oddly enough, since we began the teaching of history, more of it has taken place, but that might not be obvious in the contemporary history class. A student graduating high school might have learned about the past through the end of World War II (maybe the Vietnam War if he’s lucky), but that is likely where history ended for this student because of our fascination with passing on our knowledge of how things are starting with the earliest details as though they are inherently important to those during the learning.

Imagine, instead, if we take a page from Vonnegut, and teach history starting as close to the end as it stands now and walk into a classroom saying, “Here’s what happened in the world yesterday, what questions does that raise?” Such a class is likely to face a time crunch just as the traditional class did. This time, that crunch will be students not having enough time to ask and search for answers to all the questions that arise rather than the teacher not having enough time to lead an abstract field trip that finds as its point of origin ancient Mesopotamia.

If we ground our reflection in “What were they curious about?” and start our teaching as close to the end as possible so as to draw out that curiosity, we will have moved a long way to creating the schools we need.

Things I Know 335 of 365: Curiosity is sufficient

Enclosure occurs when content industries try to turn the Internet into a pay-per-use vending machine; when sports teams commodify the folk culture of fans by auctioning off the naming rights to sports arenas; and when companies disrupt the openness and collegiality within scientific disciplines by privatizing research and imposing non-disclosure agreements.

David Bollier

A few weeks ago, a link came through the P2PU listserv. It led me to this list from the Open Knowledge Forum providing a great initial collection of resources for thinking about open and its implications. In conjunction with the video below from a 2007 interview with Howard Rheingold for Steal This Film 2, it’s got me thinking.

A classroom strikes me as the optimum commons. Upward of 20 individuals from diverse backgrounds meet daily with the goal learning about themselves, the world and their place in it.

Each of these people comes equipped with knowledge, skills, and experiences not shared by the other people in the room.

The questions each has about the world might intersect in overarching ways, but would likely be as unique as the individuals in other ways.

Attached to each group is at least one adult who has been trained in the general theories and practices around helping others to learn, to seek out the answers to their questions and develop deeper questions.

The classroom, considered this way, becomes laboratory, testing ground, focus group, intellectual locker room and support group. It becomes the commons ground.

The teacher need prepare very little, but should stand ready to adapt to most any eventuality. Anything can and will happen if curiosity is unhindered and unhampered.

This isn’t the case. Not enough.

If curiosity is referenced in the modern classroom, it is in the implied statement, “You should be curious about this.” If not, then we, will make you become curious about this, or at least get you to fake curiosity.

Allowing student curiosity is frightening. I means a lack of control. It means abandoning the plan and abdicating control. In most contemporary schools, even the teachers whose inclinations pull them to such abandon and abdication have no model for curiosity-driven learning in their own lives. Professional development is decided at the institutional level. Teachers are told what they are curious about. Here, again, we cannot lay blame on the shoulders of administrators. Their learning, too, is absent a model of curiosity-based learning. What they must care about is directed by the policies and directives of those above them.

This externally-directed curiosity continues up the hierarchy of formal education until those making the directives become so diluted in their understandings of the power of natural curiosity and the potential of the commons that they make decisions apparently absent any faith in an individual’s propensity to wonder.

This can shift in several ways. Those within the hierarchy at various levels can wait for the directives to change, for the strictures to be reduced and for curiosity to be the guiding principle of education. Additionally, they can move themselves from one level of the hierarchy to another and attempt to cling to their ideals while using those ideals to shift the strictures.

Perhaps most immediately effective, though less impactful on the entire system until critical mass is reached, is ignoring of the directives and belief that learning led by curiosity will be sufficient.

This means embracing the commons of the classroom. More importantly and difficult, it means teaching in the face of scholastic inheritance and trusting the sufficiency of students’ curiosity.

Things I Know 246 of 365: I’m deciding to learn something new

True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.

– Winston Churchill

In my first weeks at SLA, I got a little terrified. I inherited my classroom midway through the first quarter. By the time I’d started thinking about getting my bearings another teacher approached me, “What are you planning for your benchmark this quarter?”
For what was the fiftieth time since joining the school, my heart stopped.
I had no idea.
I talked to Chris. It was a moment of intellectual cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Essays, he explained, could be projects.
I breathed again.
I can do essays. They are the coin of the realm for the bulk of schooling. Whether you believe the 5-paragraph essay is the devil or the first step to clean livin’, schools find ways to get kids writing essays. Take a look at standardized test scores and you won’t be able to turn around without bumping into a schools whose writing scores outpace reading, math and science.
I’ve got three major essays in the offing here at school. This is on top of the weekly essay assignments for two classes. Add to those the daily postings here, and I start to feel like the essay king.
It’s ok. Essays are my sport.
So, I’ve decided to take up a new sport – one I appreciate watching, but have no idea how to play.
I’m going to learn to create data visualizations.
In google reader, my “Infographics” folder is my favorite.
I’ve been quietly building my collection of resources in delicious.
After I complete my next two essays, I’m starting. Seriously.
As many people better versed in the visualization of data have written, information and making sense of it are the coins of the realm for the modern age.
This realization is my secondary drive. Most of all, I’m curious. It’s the same things that led me to open up and dissect every telephone I could get my hands on as a little kid. It’s what prompted me to mix rain water, onion grass and other things I found in my yard and leave them in the garage to see what happened.
I’m curious about something I don’t know. So, I’m learning a new sport.