Learning Conversations

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

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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…

Learning Through Play

My youngest one is starting Kindergarten this Fall and on Friday, we attended a PALS (Parents As Learning Supporters) session at his new school. I love that the school is bringing in parents/guardians to see what kids will be doing in their classrooms and talking about the approach to learning that we shouldn’t expect a highly academic focus, that children this age learn best by learning through play!

There will be four session in the PALS series this first one was focused around the alphabet. We used stamps to make name tags, then stamp whatever words the children wanted. We made letters out of playdough. We played a matching game of upper case to lower case letters. And then we used fishing rods (with magnets at the end) to pick up fish (letters/pictures with paper clips on them). My son loved it all!

Then the children were ushered off to the community kitchen while the adults got a short lesson on preparing children for Kindergarten and the importance of reading. The speaker told us about making a point of talking about the parts of a book, of pointing out the title page, and of showing that we read left to right, starting on the left page. We heard about the importance of letting kids see us reading and having books in the house, so that they know that its a valued activity in our lives. And that, no matter what the language at home, just keep reading aloud to our children so that they are exposed to the rhythms, vocabulary and ideas that come from a variety of books. All wonderful stuff!

And then the speaker started talking about the importance of limiting screen time for our children that good old fashioned books are critical for children.

I bit my tongue didn’t want to be that parent on the first day, I guess!

But as I reflected on the mornings experience, I put together some feedback via email to the Principal of the school (who I know quite well). I thought about learning through play and the role of technology in a primary classroom.

I completely agree with the importance of reading and also believe there needs to be a balance of appropriate screen time. But a recent post from Will Richardson (http://weblogg-ed.com/2010/no-actually-youre-out-of-balance/) got me thinking about what balance really means particularly that balance isn’t about excluding technology.

It made me thing about the fact that, to this generation, play includes technology and it should, because it is an important part of being a literate citizen. My children are not literate if they do not know how to read, write, communicate AND search for/assess the validity of information. That means that comfort with technology is just as important as comfort with writing instruments or any number of other tools that we equip our kids to use.

My point, to make a long story short, is that I believe its important to start shifting our attitudes to include technology as a part of play and learning, right from the beginning. Penny Lindballe tells the story of lingering societal prejudices against technology well in this post (http://web20parents.blogspot.com/2009/11/real-digital-divide.html) its worth a read too!

There’s a reason we don’t wait until middle school to introduce a pencil, isn’t there? Time to treat technology the same way.

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

Can you stand in the way of genius?

I was over at Kris Wandering Ink blog today, reading about her perspective on our school system and how it impedes the development of genius.

Its a powerful piece and definitely worth the read (if you haven’t already).

As I read through the comments, I noticed a few people saying (or implying) that genius will develop despite the system that its natural and will come out, no matter what the world is telling them.

While I agree to some extent I also think that were fooling ourselves if we think were not damaging these kids. Whats the matter with saying a child is intellectually gifted?  How can we possibly believe that our parenting and teaching doesn’t influence how these children develop into adults and use their talents?

When we don’t support and foster their talents, we send them the message that it isn’t good to excel in this way that they need to tone it down and fit in if they want to be liked and accepted. They end up feeling like there’s something WRONG with them!

Now, granted, not all kids react this way I’m sure there some that can brush it off and go on being themselves. But there are lots of kids that aren’t that secure with their own worth, that haven’t been raised to feel their own worth and value.

So, it follows quite easily, that those gifted kids who get ridiculed for knowing the answers, for using advanced vocabulary, for being particularly sensitive or for having an artistic flair well, they stop openly developing those talents to avoid further pain. And if they’re holding back in class, how are they really developing to their full potential??

Coincidentally, I meandered over to Tamara Fishers blog, Unwrapping the Gifted, and read her wonderful article (http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/unwrapping_the_gifted/2008/08/varsity_academics.html) about exactly this topic. She articulates it much more eloquently than I have go have a read!

The fact of the matter is that EVERY CHILD deserves to develop their talents whether that be academic, athletic, artistic, social-emotional, leadership, comedic, etc

Our children all have their unique gifts our job as adults is to help them find and value those gifts.

Honestly, I think its the most important thing we can do for this next generation!

For the best decisions collaborate!

Having been a project manager for many years, Ive long believed in and experienced the power of diverse-group decision making.

Inevitably, teams of people, each bringing their unique perspectives to the table, come up with better, more complete, more creative and more successful solutions.

In the educational realm, I think everyone has been off trying to come up with solutions by themselves educators, administrators, District management, Government Ministries.

Why is it that we don’t talk to each other as much as we could? From the outside, I get the sense that there’s a bit of that leave it to the professionals attitude.

Is it too much effort to try to coordinate schedules? Are we worried that it takes too much effort to include people uninvolved in the day-to-day operations of our schools? And then they cant add value anyways? After all, what do parents know about what it takes to run a school? Or a District? And what do students know about what they really need from education?

And its hard to have completely open conversations and doors because that might expose your weaknesses, or open things up for criticism. We are, often by nature, defensive we want to put our best foot forward, not parade our challenges and weaknesses out for all to see! Do we really want the world to know that we don’t know how to solve a problem? Doesn’t everyone expect the experts to have all the answers? And really, doesn’t everyone have enough to do without opening another can of worms by asking people their opinion??

But are we sure that external partners don’t add value? Why would we think that kids are incapable of contributing to solutions about their own education? Another quote from Starbucks is that the person who sweeps the floor should pick the broom!

How much effort is it worth to come up with solutions that work? What if we had increased odds of finding successful ideas that everyone is invested in and working together on?

What if it resulted in kids engaged in their own learning? What if they were excited to come to school to learn and create and work together?

What if parents felt involved and knowledgeable about what was going on in classrooms? What if they were passionate about supporting their children’s teachers? What if they could support and reinforce at home what their kids are learning in school?

What if teachers felt trusted and safe to make mistakes in their own learning and change efforts? What if they felt supported and valued by the parents instead of judged and attacked? What if they already had relationships with all the parents in their class and could easily call one up to discuss their child’s learning without it feeling like cold calling someone you don’t even know (and who doesn’t want to hear from you!)?

What if Principals had time to build the team and the learning community relationships instead of being overwhelmed by the myriad of administrative tasks that swamp their days? What if they could do the same thing that they used to do with their classrooms (encourage, support each child’s learning, coach, bring out the best in everyone)?

How much more powerful would that make our education system?

And, as a result, how would that change education (having something taught TO you) into learning (participating in the learning process and learning WITH you)?

The way I see it, we can keep complaining about how the Government just doesn’t get the whole picture.

We can complain about how they just don’t understand that you cant measure successful education using standardized tests.

We can gripe about how the teachers not helping MY child and nobody cares.

We can shake our heads at all the parents who never even come to parent-teacher interviews.

We can work all hours just trying to get all the forms filled out, the lockers assigned, the reports completed, the is dotted and the ts crossed.


It takes more effort, but isn’t it worth it?
For them?

Recognizing Opportunities

I’m a big fan of Dave Sands, a principal and inspiring human being. His message about kids, social networking and internet safety is so down to earth and grounded! He reminds us that, although the technology has changed, what kids are looking for and our parental need to stay connected with our kids hasn’t!

I dont think he has a blog yet Maybe one day!

In the mean time, I came across an article (http://cuebc.ca/2007/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=83&Itemid=35) he wrote about recognizing a learning opportunity with WebKinz stuffed animals. From talking to Dave, I know that hes used this program with a few classes now with great success. I love it because it takes what kids are already interested in (or should I say obsessed with??) and uses that engagement to teach them valuable lessons about life and safety!

I think learning is always powerful when you’re having so much fun that you don’t even realize you’re learning!

And Dave does that so well!

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