Why We Don’t Ask if We’re a Learning Organization

You may be a learner, you may use a learning device. Does that matter if you’re not part of a learning organization?

My guess is no.

Today, I participated in Ben Wilkoff’s session at Future Ready: A Technovation Institute. The conversation was geared around some deeper thinking of what we mean and imply when we invoke the “1:1” ration in talking about learners and devices.

Midway through, Ben asked us to think about what is needed to support learners in tech-rich environments and what is needed to support devices as tools for deeper learning in those environments.

My answer kept coming back to the place where my thinking’s been living these last few weeks – learning organizations. Being a part of such an organization is necessary for both learners and devices to move beyond the shiny of new tech in learning.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Sure, classrooms, schools, and districts purport to be learning organizations in that they are organizations designed to facilitate the learning of those in their charge or care – namely, students. And, yes, this is a good goal. It is certainly better than being teaching organizations or education organizations. To hit lightly on being a learning organization is to at least imply that your goal is the learning of those within your system.

What I’d posit is necessary for the ongoing support of learners and the view of technology as tools for learning is that the classroom, school, or district is, itself, a learning organization. Better phrased, is any of these an organization that learns? Dice that apart. A school that is comprised of teachers who are learners may find itself ahead of other schools where teachers don’t engage their curiosity or agency to satisfy that agency.

Such a school still cannot go as far if it does not attempt, as an institution to learn from its mistakes, to move forward as a whole, and to be better as a learning body. This is part of what Chris and I mean when we write “Be One School.”

To be a learning organization classrooms, schools, and districts – either by dictate or consensus – would identify a driving, commonly held curiosity and then move toward investigating that curiosity together.

Whenever I’ve had the chance to talk to the leadership of any organization of which I’ve been a part, I’ve asked one question, “What are the three things you hope we’re working toward this year?” For whatever reason, I’ve yet to pose that question to a leader and get a coherent answer. Maybe they don’t know, maybe they’re being politic, or maybe they’re resistant to make their own goals the goals of all.

Imagine, though, what could happen if a superintendent, principal, or teacher engaged in a process of identifying those wicked problems to be investigated throughout the year. Shared ownership of these problems and shared learning toward their solutions would be a powerfully unifying experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • If your organization has a leadership team or committee, pull them together and ask what big issues they would like to grapple with in the coming year. Make updates on learning a standing item on each meeting agenda.
  • In the classroom, select the big buckets of learning (usually disciplines) and have students work through their big questions for each bucket. Keep track of answers and new questions as the year progresses.
  • If you’re at the very beginning of this work and need to build cohesion, build a simple question into your formal conversations, “What is something you’re trying to figure out right now?” Keep track of the answers you get and see how you might be able to use common threads to plan events, learning sessions, and communications toward common cause.

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.

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.

Queer Teacher

I never felt comfortable being queer and a teacher. From student teaching in Illinois to my first years in Florida to working at SLA – while vastly different in their levels of acceptance, none of them felt completely safe. None of them got to see all of who I was.

As much as I’m sure this was informed by growing up in a largely intolerant small, rural school, it wasn’t all that. It wasn’t all baggage. It was also knowing I needed to check when moving from one place to another to find out if I was part of a protected class in my new location. When I first got hired to work in Sarasota, my mom wrote an email with many exclamation marks saying she’d checked and that the county had banned discriminatory employment practices based on sexual orientation.

While I’d had no intention of walking into my principal’s office to say, “Here are the scope and sequence guidelines you asked for, and I’m gay,” it was good to know I couldn’t be summarily dismissed if she found out I’d been dating a guy.

Pause and think about that. By writing this post and outing myself here, I am eliminating the possibility of teaching in 28 states should some industrious principal start to google. Can you say the same about talking publicly about whom you date or marry? If so and you live on the LGBTQ spectrum, it’s not likely we will ever talk about it online. My sexual orientation isn’t listed in my Twitter profile or a part of my about.me listing. It’s not there because I don’t want possible intolerance to get in the way of a free exchange of ideas in the spaces I love. The thing is, though, if you’re straight, it’s only a free exchange of ideas for you, because I give up a part of who I am to connect with you.

I resent that in the same way I resent having to out myself to people when they assume I’m straight and ask if I have a girlfriend. Sometimes, the answer is simply “no” and I let the pitch fly by because I don’t want to have the conversation that starts with, “Oh, you don’t seem gay.” I reply “no” in those moments when my response would be, “You don’t seem like a heteronormative cliché, so we’ve both learned something today.”

In the vein of learning, I would love to have learned who among my teachers growing up identified as LGBTQ. More than that, it would have meant the world to me to hear a teacher say aloud that he or she was an ally, was accepting, wanted to be there for me if I needed to talk. Your safe space stickers on your doors or ally triangles were nice, and I needed to hear you say it out loud. I needed to hear you say something positive about people who were gay so that I, at the very least, knew you knew we existed.

I tried to do this in my classrooms. From talking about Ryan White so that kids knew HIV/AIDS weren’t synonymous with being queer, to choosing books that had gay characters who weren’t merely tokens or getting their heads bashed in for coming out – I tried to build an inclusive space.

I didn’t come out, though. I’m sorry for that. To any former students who could have benefited from me saying it explicitly, I am sorry I wasn’t ready. I’m sorry I let my resentment toward other people’s assumptions and my fear of repercussions keep me from being the role model I wanted to be. Hopefully, this post can still be some small help.

That’s why I’m writing this now, because straight people need help. So, let’s review some things straight people can do to be better people (cause most of you sure have the straight thing down).

Assume someone in the room is LGBTQ. This is different than assuming not everyone is straight.

Use inclusive language. Instead of asking a student if they are going to a social function with what someone of what you perceive to be of the opposite gender, ask if they’re planning on going with anyone or going at all.

Mention LGBTQ people in positive ways. Part of what took me so long to get right with being queer was having Matthew Shepherd as my main touchstone of what it meant to be gay. Think about the lesson implicit in a story about a person whose life came to mean something to people only after he’d been tied to a fence post, beaten, and left to freeze to death.

Call on your unions to champion equity. As I said, 28 states still allow for the dismissal of teachers based on sexuality. If their membership called for it, the teachers unions could at least make this part of the conversation in election cycles.

Out yourself. Give yourself a week of outing yourself as straight when you meet new people or in conversations with people you’ve known for a while but haven’t told you’re straight. If we have to do it, you should at least learn how awkward and annoying it feels.

Know that knowing one LGBTQ person isn’t knowing all or even many. I write this as one queer man, not on behalf of all. In the same way I don’t make assumptions about all members of group X when I meet them, don’t take meeting me or anyone else as having learned what there is to know about someone different from you.

Some people who have known me for a while might have read this post and be surprised or even hurt that we haven’t had this conversation before or that I didn’t explicitly come out to you. I suppose you’re going to have to work through that.

I’m Glad I Waited to Teach

Calendar Card - January


Just like you, I knew in 8th grade I wanted to be a teacher. It was where I started to realize the power of words and the effect playing with those words, studying them, and using them thoughtfully could build or destroy.

If you’d asked me then, I would have said something like, “Because I like English class.” Subtext.

Not knowing what a “good” teacher preparation program looked like as a high school senior, I trusted the promotional materials I’d received from Illinois State University, and handed them four years of my future.

For all of the grumbling and complaining I did along the way, I’m so very glad I did. And I’m glad it took time.

While everyone around me seemed to be lamenting the fact none of the required general education courses aligned with their intended majors, I thought it was fantastic. I learned that geology wasn’t for me and that chemistry might be (something my HS experience had eliminated as a possibility time and again). Those courses afforded me the opportunity to take courses on Islamic art and culture, and the theater of the Civil War. Both offered me perspectives I’d never anticipated and to which I’ve turned more frequently than expected in the years since.

As courses in my major began, I was deep into elements of English I’d never considered before and asked to participate in what seemed like onerous hours of classroom observations and a multitude of mini lessons.

Plan, justify, teach, reflect, repeat.

It was a pattern, but not a monotony. That reflection–public and private–is where I started to play with nascent ideas and justify why views on quality learning and teaching were different from my peers’.

From lab schools to local schools to my student placement teaching, it all felt as though my university was purposefully getting in the way of me being a teacher.

They were.

They were getting in the way of me being a teacher who found himself in the deep end with no experiences, mentors, or theoretical framework on which he could rely. They were getting in the way of me thinking the kids I went to school with growing up were going to be the same as the kids I taught in Florida or Philadelphia in the years ahead.

I was sure I was ready to teach as soon as I thought I was done learning. Luckily, those who’d come the way before were there to show me knowing I was never done with one was the ultimate preparation for the other.

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.

My Most Valuable Chair-less Lesson

Overturned chair

The most valuable learning away from a chair and desk? Running – particularly my first marathon – has been the most valuable learning I’ve experienced. I might include whatever learning has happened at a chair/desk.

I wasn’t a runner when I started. I wasn’t anything that included physical activity, really. Whatever intrinsic joy I might have found in sports and other elements of P.E. in school were subsumed by the social pressures–real and imagined–I felt to know how to do things like layups, bunting, etc. I decided early on that excercise and sports weren’t for me. And that was how things were until I turned 21 and decided I didn’t want the most momentous thing that happened in my life that year to be the ability to legally consume alcohol.

My first steps as a runner were June 1. Two miles. I wanted to die. Oct. 12 of that year, I completed the Chicago marathon.

Running that race, I realized the marathon wasn’t going to be the event that made me a runner. It would make me a marathoner, sure, but I was a runner as soon as I made the commitment to take those first steps in June, as soon as I’d said, “This is a thing I’m going to do.”

Up to that point, I’d seen sports as things you had to have pre-provided knowledge and experience with in order to understand and participate. I’d missed the athletic boat early on, and figured that was my chance. I’d have to be happy with other things I had learned.

While I shy away from an absolute such as, “It’s never to late to become X,” one of the best lessons I’ve learned from running is the importance the decision to do or be a thing in helping you to become that thing. I wasn’t a runner because I’d decided I wasn’t or couldn’t be.

Now, when I let life dictate the terms of how I spend my time and find myself at the far end of a run-less stretch of weeks, I don’t start to doubt my identity as a runner. I’ve been a runner since an exhausting midwestern June 2-miler, and most of the time, that’s enough to get me out the door.

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.

Learning to Stop Chasing the Miles I Haven’t Run

At the top of 2015, I set the goal of running 1,200 miles in 12 months. I’m not going to make it. As of this writing, I’ve run 1,100.993 miles. It’s conceivable that I run just under four marathons in as many days, and it’s not likely.

It took me a minute to get comfortable with this. At the beginning of December, I had 207 miles to go, and I did the math. Twenty-one runs of 10 miles in one month? Sure!

Except – running isn’t all I do. Enter those character-building life lessons my mom has always been such a fan of. Up until about a week ago, my focus was on all the miles I haven’t run this year. They were all I could see. 

Focusing on all the miles I haven’t run would mean fatigue, injury, missed time with friends and family.

Those miles began to take the joy out of running. Every run was a task to complete, ticking away at the miles still out there waiting for feet on pavement. I’ve already run five times as many miles as I did in 2014. In the past thirty days, I’ve run 88 miles farther than the average for men 30-39. I feel better about my health and fitness than I have since my first few years as a runner. I haven’t been able to appreciate it until now, and if I were to hit 1,200, I probably wouldn’t be any see past 1,200.

This is what I’ve learned from running in 2015. As much as moving toward those 1,200 miles has pulled me into or out of bed early because, “I’ve gotta long run in the morning,” missing the goal has made me see the need to let go of some things to get to others. In November, when work had me reading, re-reading, and reading again to edit the National Ed Tech Plan and October’s marathon had brought a tendon strain to my foot, my mileage fell to 25 miles. That, as it turned out, was what I was mentally and physically capable of, and running forced me to find a way to be okay with that.

Slavishly working toward my goal in these last few days of 2015 could get me there. Focusing on all the miles I haven’t run would mean fatigue, injury, missed time with friends and family. It would mean starting 2016 resenting running rather than appreciating the lessons it continues to teach me.

I’ll run between now and the new year. It won’t be to run toward the realization of an arbitrary goal. It will be to run through whatever is happening in the moment and with appreciation of how far the last 1,100 miles have brought me.

On Whose Shoulders: Barn Raising


Today’s shoulders provided more than key ideas for inclusion in Building School 2.0, they were also key for the how of building Building School 2.0.

The barn raising in question is that described by Don McCormick and Michael Kahn in their article “Barn Raising: Collaborative group process in seminars.”

McCormick and Kahn present a possibility for running class discussions and seminars that run contrary to Person A making a point, Person B poking holes, and Person C poking holes in those holes, and so on ad nauseam. Instead, McCormick and Kahn write:

We would like to suggest:

  1. The classroom battle is not a good way to teach thinking.

  2. Even if it were, it makes idea-conversation so unpleasant that students do their best to avoid it, in college and afterwards.

  3. It is a significant contribution to the building of a society of contention and enmity.

  4. And, as an alternative, there is another way to talk about ideas which obviates those difficulties.

That alternative, barn raising. Finding an idea and agreeing as a community to do whatever we can to build on that ideas as a community. In classrooms, in faculty meetings, in any room where ideas are discussed – barn raising can change the game by changing the unexamined rules.

As Chris and I were writing, barn raising occurred time and again as an idea we wanted to situate in the context of the larger messages of the book and as a guiding principle for marrying my ideas to his and his to mine. We would not have gotten anywhere if we’d positioned ourselves as partners whose objectives were to tear down whatever wall of the text the other had just completed.

Here’s the other thing about barn raising – once you know about it, you can’t not see its place in conversations. Every meeting I’m in where we’re supposed to be coming up with ideas or working together to build something, I can’t help imagine how things might have gone if we were all amenable to building something. Instead – and you’ll see it – so many meetings operate on a theory of pulling down whatever ideas propped up next to yours. Nothing of merit tends to get built that way.

On Whose Shoulders: @GLSEN

Just when you thought this month’s series of posts was going to focus on singular writers, their individual texts, and how they influenced the writing of Building School 2.0 – bam, the unexpected.

In all seriousness, the good people of GLSEN work tirelessly to compile one of the most helpful, if not stark and sobering, data sets available on the lived experiences of our LQBTQ students.

GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey is one of the most complete accountings how our country and states are progressing in helping students walk through their compulsory school days without hearing being mocked for differences – real or perceived.

Beyond the Survey, though, GLSEN is also acting on its findings. From resources to start and support school-based Gay Straight Alliances to the Day of Silence and Ally Week, GLSEN is building tools and resources for LGBTQ students, teachers, and their allies to foster understanding, conversations, and change within schools so that everyone might have the chance to feel more comfortable in their own humanity.

While the book may only call out GLSEN’s work directly one or two times, the organization’s work toward its mission “…to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression” embodies the Ethic of Care.

'13 School Climate Survey Infographic

On Whose Shoulders: Lisa Delpit’s _Other People’s Children_

cover of Other People's Children

A quick keyword search for Lisa Delpit on the blog will show I’ve thought and written about her work pretty deeply over the years as I’ve thought about what it means to be the other in my classroom (both as a teacher relating to my students, and for my students relating to me).

As I continue this series of posts about those thinkers, practitioners, and researchers who directly influenced what you’ll find in Building School 2.0 in the run-up to its Sept. 8 release, I cannot say enough about Delpit’s work and this title in particular.

In Other People’s Childrenc, Delpit is challenging, fair, thoughtful, and caring in laying out – over the course of several essays – some key considerations and understandings teachers (particularly teachers who are white) need to take up so that they might be better versions of themselves when working with students who come lived experiences wholly different from their own.

More than anything, I hope you pick up Other People’s Children, select a chapter, and start a lunch-time reading group with faculty friends. The conversations won’t be comfortable or easy, and they shouldn’t be. Most important conversations, most acts of changing your mind, are difficult. That’s good.

I hope, in some small way, Chris and I honor Delpit’s ideas and weave them with those of others.