Practicing What We Preach (part 2, maybe I can do it)

21 02 2012

I’d like to share a story of learning with you today. There was a recent occasion that brought my previous blogpost’s shameful confession to the surface, Practicing What We Preach, and why I can’t do it, where I confess that I have trouble teaching adults in the same fashion that I’m espousing. Generally, the point is that learners learn best when they’re learning by doing. Yet there I stand, talking at them. I rarely did that with my students, yet here I am…

The blogpost confession gave me courage to directly think about how to tackle the problem of modeling learning by doing instead of hiding behind the excuses as to why it’s not possible in my current position. That “learning by doing” is absolutely possible for teachers who’ve not yet established long-term working relationships with their charges, whether young, or experienced.

And in deciding to tackle this issue, I’ve also decided to be keenly aware of the moments that will allow me to safely experiment; to safer observe adults in learning by doing situations.

“I try hard not to preach, but I get carried away, which is a mistake, but it’s a risk worth running.” ~Ben Elton

Here’s

One of those moments…

Bear with me. It’s a bit of a story, but there’s an educational point, I promise.

I’m new-ish to the ESSDACK office and new to this consultant position, but I think I have a pretty clear path of where I’d like my position to develop, what I’d like it to grow into. And it goes along nicely with the direction that I’ve been told that the organization would also like to expand a branch of its own capacity. I’m pleased. And along with that movement forward, we need some support personnel to shift their roles as well to reflect the new model of operation for this portion of the organization.

One of my office friends, Diane, who is also new here in a support role, approached me about possibly making this shift with me, as we forge new paths. She’s bright, a retired educator, creative, and so much nicer than I am. Seems to be a winning fit already.

What she lacks is knowledge and experience in social media and other tech tools that would be essential to the position. Of course I have plenty of knowledge to teach anyone this stuff, so I started planning out where we’d start, what pieces we’d tackle first, based on her abilities, interests, my needs, and her time availability. After all, she still has a full-time job to do, and so do I.

I had a weekend to think. What would I start with? And what time could we “steal” from our days to make this work?

What happened was that I realized I needed to see her skills more than I needed to “teach” her. I needed to see what type of fit she’d be for me, how I might help her along, and most importantly, I needed to see her independence, willingness to learn, and take ambiguity as a working condition.

I realized I needed to give her a PBL assignment.

And then I realized, I needed to give her two, so she could pick which one she’d prefer to do in order to best show off her strengths. I knew that having a choice would also allow her to feel more empowered in the process, especially when the going got tough in the one she selected. After all, it’s about learner empowerment to choose, while still having the teacher expectations built in that provide the foundation for allowing the learner to demonstrate his/her skills.

This was a grand experiment, not only for me in my “Practicing What I Preach” experience, but also for the organization, as a potential model to tweak and follow as this future capacity is developed. While I didn’t have explicit “permission” to do this since I’m not her supervisor, I had been given permission, or actually rather, been given the expectation to be creative, innovative, and bring ideas to the organization’s table. Hoping I’d not be pinched between “permissions” I cautiously proceeded.

The scenario…

I created two projects to offer her. She would have 3 days to complete the one she selected.

Map My Digital Footprint

In this, she was asked to drill down on who I am online. Where am I? What’s my reach? What are my topics of experience and expertise? She was to come back to me with a “map” of my digital footprint, that could be manifested in anyway she’d like.

Outcomes: She learns about social media and some of the sites out there beyond Facebook; she learns about me, since she’s hired as support personnel; she is able to demonstrate how quickly she learns and how her creative mind works. Neither of us has to have our time monopolized by hours and hours of training; we can continue with our full-time jobs, as is, and work on this as we’re able. She’s utilizing her known PLN to learn more about me. In the debriefing portion of the project, we both get to see her clear strengths and areas we can laser pinpoint for professional learning.

Poster Me!

In this project, Diane was asked to create a flyer for each of the workshops I’m hosting here at ESSDACK this Spring. One is on creativity and the others are PBL workshops of varying degrees. She was given a couple of examples of what previous flyers I’ve created look like and told that I don’t necessarily like the design of them, but that was what I was able to complete in the time I was given.

Outcomes: She would learn software tools (hopefully Pages), as well as learn my design aesthetic, . She would be able to demonstrate her creativity, speed of learning, and perseverance through frustration. She also be creating some sorely-needed flyers with her time. Again, this would be done as part of her job, but she would still have the flexibility to work on her current responsibilities as well.

Quite honestly, I’d like to have given her 2 hours, but…

1) she needed to have time to explore and learn on her own. I wanted to see that capacity.

2) she had her other required work to do and I didn’t want to take her from that.

Getting started…

I gave her a choice on which project she’d prefer and in good linear fashion, decided to start at the beginning and go with the “Map My Digital Footprint” project. She was excited to jump aboard. Throughout the first day as she was working on digging up my dirt, I would stop by, give her tips, questions to find, and encouragement in what she’d already found. I also told her she could use whatever resource she found, even personnel inside the office, as long as she used technology. See, communication via tech tools is a skill that she’ll need to have for this new position.

What I found after the first evening was that she’d gone home and worked her tail off on it. While I felt bad that she’s an hourly employee and didn’t get paid to do this work, I was excited to see she was ignited in her learning, just as I’ve seen countless students engage in learning “after hours” using the same sort of empowered learning format.

The next day was a busy one for both of us at the office, but we did check in a bit to see how things were going. She told me she could be finished a day early. That made me smile.

At the end of two days, she’d completed that project and I could indeed pinpoint exactly where she needed more time and practice in social media.

The Educational Point… 

I promised you. 

While this seems to be purely a personal story that may not seem to be connected to life in the classroom, let’s try to see what we can take from this as we think about our K12 learners.

1) As the “teacher” I wanted my “student” to learn how to fish; that is, to learn how to help herself. I don’t want her to be reliant on me each time she needs something. Heck, I’ve got other work to do, too!  So I wanted her to begin those tentative steps to learning that she can learn. And she felt confident enough to do so. Lucky me. Sometimes we have students who are capable, but who have learned helplessness. They want people to outline, step by step, what to do. You know what I’m finding? I see more of these types of learners in my adult-centered workshops than I ever found with students. I wonder why that is.

2) I had to be able to think on my feet; I had to know who she was; I had to give her enough room to struggle yet not “punish” her or make her feel bad for not having it right the first time; we had to have some level of trust between us; I had to find ways to build her up *where she was* so that she could move forward with the learning.

What’s the biggest obstacle(s) to doing this in our traditional classrooms, I wonder.

Since I’ve moved from teaching Middle and High School students to teaching adults, it’s been a bit of a shift for me. Students are much more willing to work within perimeters of “optimal ambiguity,” that is, not having the instructions linearly set out to allow for genuine creative input from the learner.

The opportunity to struggle is be powerful for learners. But it’s a balancing act that a teacher has to monitor carefully to not let the struggle win. It’s like a baby learning to walk. We take a few falls but eventually we keep being encouraged and we win. The falls are inside “safe” boundaries…we don’t let our babies learn to walk with access to stairs, do we?

What if we never let the baby fall? Or learn to pull herself back up?

What if we never let our students struggle?

*On another note, yesterday I received survey feedback from a workshop participant that thanked me for modeling what I was trying to teach them. It was a full-day, high school level, differentiated instruction workshop with a complete staff of 50 teachers, counselors, student teachers, etc. And at least one person recognized that I am starting to practice what I preach. *smile*

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