Learning Conversations

Come sit with me. Well talk, well ask big questions

Category: Learning Communities Project

What we know about learning…

How we design technology tools and systems must be firmly grounded in all we know about learning (from both current research and educator experience). I believe that the qualities of effective learning environments must guide IT decisions and design processes.

Here are my initial ideas – what are your thoughts? Things I missed? Does it resonate?

Focus on Student Learning

  • The ultimate focus is always to support student learning and growth.

Learner Centered

  • All learning (i.e. students in a class, teacher pro-d, parents seeking info, etc…) requires similar types of supports (relevant, empowered, social, etc…)
  • We all need to be lifelong learners. Process of continuous improvement is critical.
  • The rate of change in the world is still accelerating and isn’t likely to stop, so we need to be able to continuously learn


  • Connect learning to real world situations. Don’t want learners to have to ask “why am I doing this?” without an answer!
  • Continuous communication of the “why” of everything we do is critical
  • Create meaning within each person’s own context. When I can connect something new to something I already understand, learning is better retained and becomes sustainable.
  • Bring together and respect existing communities. People self-organize by what matters and has value for them.
  • Community and parent inclusion in learning strategies can both support and reinforce the learning that happens in schools.
  • Problem solving within real world contexts helps learning “make sense” to learners
  • Critical thinking is a necessary real world skill (we rarely have only the information we need – so what is relevant vs. what is needed vs. what is superfluous?)
  • Access to up to date information and expertise.


  • Need to respect diversity of needs/abilities/learning styles, etc…
  • Flexibility is critical to success. Provide a variety of options and let people select their own combination of tools/techniques.
  • There is no “one way” or “one size fits all” solution. Asking questions and being curious is critical. We will provide a variety of tools and options that can be assembled as needed.
  • Support differentiated methods of instruction and access, ability for individuals to select their preferred tools


  • Learning is social – we learn together, no one is the absolute expert, need for “co-learning”
  • Relationships are fundamental to all learning. Learning is social.
  • Every project must be approached as an opportunity to build a culture of learning that supports any kind of change (current or future)
  • Everything we do must provide an opportunity to build and support relationships
  • Trust/safety is required for risk taking and learning
  • How we build trust and individual comfort levels will vary

Networked Learning

  • Learning at all levels supports student learning in classrooms.
    • “Expert Learner” Networks (learning from…)
      • Teacher/student, Principal/teachers, District Leadership/Principals (and VPs), Parent/student, Principal/parents (PAC), Teacher/parents, subject area experts/learners, etc…
    • Peer Networks (learning together…)
      • Students, Teachers, Principals, Parents, District Leaders, Support staff, etc…
    • PLN Personal Learning Networks (self reflection, making meaning of my learning…)
  • We must provide tools and environments that can support all of the different types of networked learning, so that they can be used as needed.
  • These networks are fluid and continually shifting, depending on the topic or the expertise in the room. The “expert learner” is not always the “authority figure” – teachers sometimes learn from their students, principals also learn from their staff, etc… The “expert learner” is the one with the experience and expertise on any particular topic.

Involve Parents and Community

  • Learning is continuous and extends beyond the school day, so also includes families and communities
  • Respect that families all have different values and learning outside of school will reflect those values/interests. Work to connect, not replace, learning outside of school to the learning inside classrooms.

Financially Responsible, Sustainable and Effective

  • We operate within an environment of limited resources, so have to balance idealistic beliefs with the reality of available funding.
  • Build tools that leverage work being done across multiple contexts (e.g. the approach we implement for training users during the IT project could be used for training principals regarding leadership standards)
  • Clarity of purpose is required to ultimately keep the focus on supporting student learning
  • Every project, pilot or test must be considered from a point of view of a District wide implementation – is it feasible? Is it sustainable?
  • Think creativity and build in measurements of success and effectiveness (both quantitative and qualitative, re: hard and soft benefits)
  • Assessment tools must support summative and formative assessment (assessment of learning, assessment for learning, assessment as learning.) (e.g. self assessments, peer feedback, survey tools, etc…)

The Push and Pull of Learning

My youngest son is four years old and just started Kindergarten. He’s joyful, loving and extremely energetic!

Whenever we walk in the local park or on the sidewalk in town, he lets go of my hand and skips ahead or stops to examine some rocks. I empower him to follow his own interests, to spend some time seeking out his own learning, asking me questions about the things that interest him. I love seeing the world through his eyes – its all fresh and new and ever so exciting!! His insights or questions often surprise me, leading me to think “wow, I’d never thought of it that way!”

He’s curious and wants to explore everything, all the time, everywhere! He is the epitome of the “continuous learner” that we want everyone to be! And all I have to do is get out of the way and let him lead the way!

However, when we have to cross the street or when we walk into a parking lot, I take his hand. He hates it! Sometimes he screams, he tries to pull his hand away from me and he loudly protests that the hand holding is even a requirements. “I can do it, Mommy!! Let goooooo!”

It’s important for me to recognize that there are times when he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know! As we walk through the parking lot, I stop and remind him to listen – does he hear any car engines running nearby? Does he see anything? Do any cars have someone sitting in them? I point out the white backup lights on a car about to start moving. I talk about why those lights are there and what they mean (that the car is running and in reverse). I ask him what he thinks might happen if we keep walking? When we cross the street, we look at cars that are approaching and we just stand and wait sometimes, to see how quickly cars move or how to gauge when it’s safe or when it isn’t? I talk about turn signals and what they mean – and that even when a car has their blinker on, it’s still smart to see if they’re actually turning or if they might change their mind at the last minute?

He still likes to think that he’s got it all figured out and he doesn’t need me to teach him anything. I support his independence and self confidence. And I still do my job of keeping him safe and teaching him the things that he doesn’t understand yet. I don’t need him to agree with me, in these cases. I don’t need him to like it.

There is a balance I strive for in raising my children. I strive to make sure that they are loved, that they feel safe to take risks and fail and get up and try again. I encourage them to recognize their strengths, follow their curiosity and pursue their passions. And yet, I have perspective, experience and some resulting wisdom that I apply to decide when the risks are too great. Sometimes, I can recognize opportunities to share some of my hard-won wisdom to help them think of things they hadn’t considered. And when they’re trying to do something and don’t know why it’s not working, I offer to help. After all, it’s ridiculous for everyone to reinvent the wheel – why wouldn’t we want our kids to know how to learn from each other (and from mentors/leaders)?

I choose to lead AND to empower. This is what I think of as the “push” and “pull” of learning. And the trick is to know when to step back and let someone learn their own way vs. when to step in and provide direction or guidance? It’s a very fluid way of being. It takes a willingness to allow others (even children) to do the same – to sometimes learn from us and other times to teach us.

I’m learning that leading an organization or team is no different (in this way) than parenting my children. There are some times when I seek input from everyone, strive to make sure that all have a voice and empower those around me to accomplish our goals their own way. It’s a powerful culture to develop – one where the hierarchy disappears and the lines of leader vs. team disappear.

We are all leaders when we feel ownership and pride in what we’re doing! That kind of shared ownership and collaboration results in better solutions – I have no doubt! And empowering people leads to relevant, meaningful learning for all – just like my four year old remembers all about the rocks that fascinate him so.

There are also times, though, where we see something that not everyone else does. Perhaps we have experience that others don’t. Maybe it’s an area of particular interest or research. Whatever the reason, we know something that others need to know. With that knowing comes a responsibility to share –and sometimes, the responsibility to lead or take control/make decisions. Even if people don’t like it or they fight you –just like my four year old fights to pull his hand out of mine as we cross the street.

This leadership needs to happen with integrity and respect – not from a desire for power or control. Just like I strive to make sure my children feel loved, I need to have a relationship with my team and that sense of trust before people will follow me when I try to lead.

The push and pull of learning – and of life – needs to be a cross between individualized, empowered learning and a benevolent dictatorship with caring, inspiring leaders. I believe that either, in exclusion, is insufficient – it’s the blend of the two that has always been the most powerful

The Dimensions of Social in Learning

I was chatting with a friend recently, bemoaning my struggles to “be different more authentic, true to myself, putting my beliefs into everyday action. And I was describing how distant I often feel – that despite connecting with some fantastic mentors and surrounding myself with people who are modeling what I aspire to, I still felt really lonely at times…

He thought for a moment and said “don’t forget that you don’t just need your personal truth and wise teachers, you need community too…” He then went on to explain that the foundations of Buddhism are the “Three Jewels” – the Buddha (the wise teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the community).

I’m not going to go off into a discussion of religion at this point, but this chat got me thinking about how we learn and what the dimensions of social learning need to include. It got me thinking about how I would design a system to support all of those dimensions? Because we all need a balance of all three to learn most effectively!

To start with, I believe that learning is learning is learning is learning…

In other words, what we want for students is ultimately no different than what we need to provide educators in terms of professional development opportunities, or what we need to help parents experience as they support their children’s learning. It’s an idea I’ve espoused for quite a while and it’s showing up for me now as I look at how to leverage what we know about learning in order to create a supportive technology infrastructure for all participants in our education system?

So, I believe that there are three dimensions of “social” in “learning”:

  1. We “learn from…”
    • This is our “expert learner” network. I like to think of it in these terms because it really emphasizes that we are learning together – but that “experts” will arise from different places. Traditionally, this would be the teacher in a classroom, a mentor or coach when we’re looking for assistance with business or personal growth. It could be a leader of your religious community or your grandma. In less traditional terms, this is anyone who holds a level of experience and wisdom beyond the crowd and is willing to share that with others. It could be one of the students in a classroom. It is often our children, teaching us about using Facebook or how to win at Wii Mario Kart…
    • We all need time with our teachers or mentors because they offer us the perspective of someone who has “done” what we’re trying to do. They look at our efforts objectively and can give us feedback that we can’t see ourselves because we’re too close. They help us by knowing the questions that we don’t even know enough to know we need to ask! And they have a view that allows them to “push” us to develop in ways we don’t know we need because we don’t have the experience of completion or success yet…
  2. We “learn with…”
    • These are our “peer” networks. For a student, it’s their classmates. For a teacher, it’s their fellow educators. For most of us, we have several communities we participate in (local, virtual, centered around our hobbies, interests, charities, work, sports, etc…). Twitter is probably my favorite peer learning network – oh the conversations we have and the depth of learning I experience there!! *contented sigh*
    • When we learn with our peers, we struggle together. Learning that contains some struggle to figure things out, and ends in the creation of meaning, is a powerful thing! We’re all in the same boat, in this case. No one has the “answers” and the process is what we’re after here. How do we work together? How do we ask questions and get curious? How do we scaffold off each other’s ideas or thoughts – creating something greater than we could have done alone?
    • This might be group projects for students. Maybe it’s teachers coming together on inquiry based learning teams. It might be parents talking over coffee about the trials of puberty and having tweens! Often, this works best when we figure out how to be a “team” (incorporating a variety of skills that are used to complement each other), not just a “group” (two or more humans interacting together). And the larger the team/group, the closer we come to being a “network” (enter George Siemens and “Connectivism”)
  3. We “learn about ourselves…”
    • This is the “personal” part of learning – though I don’t think this is what we mean when we talk about “personal learning networks” or PLNs. What we learn this way is what drives the formation of our PLN, but they are two different things, in my mind.
    • This is the time we spend self reflecting or thinking about what really matters to us? Who am I? What matters to me? What am I good at? What would I like to be better at? What causes me grief or pain (and therefore, warrants my efforts to change)? And what do I want to develop in myself?
    • Often, my interactions within groups or comments that my mentors make will help highlight things personally. My patterns, my beliefs, etc… So they’re definitely linked.
    • In terms of the Buddhist model, this is my “personal truth”!

Without a teacher, our learning is incomplete. We quit because we simply can’t imagine that achieving our goals is possible. We lack the wisdom to even know what we need to learn…

Without our peers, we struggle to “Do it all” by ourselves. We feel isolated. We lack all the skills to accomplish the things that we want to do. We get tired of struggling alone – of feeling like we’re “the only one”…

Without time to learn about ourselves and examine who we are, we stay in reactive mode. We trust outside voices rather than our own gut feeling. We lack direction. We’re unmotivated. We make poor choices about what to do or how to do it (since we don’t understand our own strengths and motivations).

As we plan our training efforts, our classroom activities, our professional development programs – are we considering all three of these dimensions? Because they all contribute to a rich learning environment.

And if you’re tech planning, make sure you incorporate all three in the methods or tools you provide…

Shared leadership vs the voice in my head

Ive started working on a new project recently and I’m darned excited about it too!

We’ve got a fairly major technology change to deal with and we want to minimize the stress of such a change by putting ease of use and high value at the center of all we do. But we’ve also got a core group of leaders that understand the possibilities inherent in disruption

I feel like we have an opportunity here to create solutions that support a breadth and depth of benefits including community engagement, including parents in learning, empowering students, supporting relationships, creating shared learning, making learning visible, supporting leadership, etc

And the project team is on board to model all that we believe open and transparent communication, shared leadership, collaborative problem solving, listening without judgment, seeking positive exemplars, etc

You can see why I’m excited, right?

So this is where all of the conversations I have on Twitter (and with anyone who will engage with me on a day to day basis!!) hit the reality of having to DO what we’ve talked about. The values I believe in are lofty and probably more than a little idealistic.

I sat in a meeting yesterday, talking about approaches and next steps. There is no clear leadership hierarchy. We have many strong personalities involved. The project sponsor has purposefully brought us all together as thought leaders in different ways. This is growing into a great team

Yet I caught myself falling into old paradigms. I started noticing the voice in my head

Listening and looking around the room, I thought Ok, I thought I was the project manager on this why are there all these conversations that have been going on that I haven’t been included in? Deep breath I had to talk myself through it. This isn’t a big deal people have to feel free to collaborate without limitation no ones trying to exclude you

That made me think Ive struggled a bit during the team-forming phase of this project trying to figure out what role I’m supposed to be in and whats expected of me. Ive sat back at times, unsure whether I’m supposed to be speaking up (to the frustration of the sponsor!!)

And it finally drilled home today this is the discomfort of doing things differently than I have before. In previous projects, Ive wanted to know it all, to have a handle on everything that’s going on (read control) not in a malicious way, but because that was the way Id always been successful before.

It was a great big ah-ha moment! This is what shared leadership looks like! No ones in charge here, were making decisions together, we have to rely on each other, we have to learn to trust each other, were allowing each other not to know it all. In order to allow each person to bring their individual strengths and perspectives to the table, I also have to acknowledge that I cant do everything and therefore I shouldn’t control everything either!

Wow! Its incredibly freeing and incredibly frightening, all at the same time!

I like this journey