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Best Questions

Just because.

Ask them, answer them, share them. If you have a favorite, tweet it along with the hashtag #bestquestions. If you have one that isn’t here, add it. And if you want to see what happened when a whole community asked these questions of themselves and each other — and then co-created a public portrait series, check out Who Am I in This Picture?

What does the term “learning” mean to you? How has your life journey helped you to determine what learning means?

Who/what has been your most influential teacher?

There are many different ways by which people acquire knowledge. Under what conditions do you feel you learn best?

Is it possible to learn everything about yourself?

How has learning helped you to have better personal relationships in your family, school and community?

When does your community feel loneliest to you? When is it a good place to be alone?

Where, when, and with whom do you feel invisible in your community? When do you feel that other people feel invisible?

Which is the better course, the one that challenges you to learn new things or the one that challenges you to reexamine what you have already learned?

Does being educated make you happier?

How should a teacher define success? What do you see as the primary role of the teacher, and whose responsibility is it if students are not learning the material that is being taught?

How does the lack of education of others affect us? What stakes do we have in the empowerment of others?

What is our responsibility to each other, and where and how do we draw the line between our personal, professional, and school lives?

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What’s Your Declaration of Education?

Those pesky EduCon folks are at it again.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a small, networked, eclectic tribe of educators who attended a conference at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, and who, with great energy and determination, pledged their shared commitment to bring about a different type of public school system by agreeing to the following core values:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

For me, EduCon was a Come to Jesus moment – a time when I found adults who shared my fidelity to a language of possibility that was solution-oriented, relationship-driven, and future-focused. And now I see that they/we are at it again, this time via a drive “to remind ourselves and our students that citizenship means asking questions, finding answers and standing up for what you believe in . . . and that education must mean that too.”

The vehicle for this lofty goal is something known as The Great American Teach-In and, if it works, the result will be, on May 10, thousands of classrooms, students, and schools drafting their own Declarations of Education.

The Teach-In website has useful resources for anyone who wants to structure a conversation that results in an actionable set of aspirational goals toward the creation of healthier, higher-functioning learning environments. And the conversations will all be framed by a core set of essential questions:

1.     When and where do I learn best?

2.     What does an ideal learning environment look like?

3.     How closely do our current places of learning resemble our ideal learning environment?

4.     What barriers to learning/growth exist within our current learning environments?

5.     What will we do to make our current learning environments more perfect places to work and learn?

What I love about this idea is it assumes the best people to change the landscape of public education are those closest to the day-to-day workings of our nation’s schools – educators and students. After all, although there is much to dispirit us with the state of our school system, it does educators no good to assume these ills have merely been “imposed upon them”, and that they have no choice but to keep hoping, as passive victims, that better days lie ahead.

As the great quantum physicist David Bohm once said, “Thought creates the world and then says, ‘I didn’t do it.’” So, too, is it with the current state of public education in America – and all of us have a choice: remain complicit, and passive, in the acceptance of a system that denies us the ability to create truly transformational learning environments; or become active agents in solving our own most intractable problems – and creating spaces for people to reflect on their ideal learning environments, and then think together about how to create those environments as soon as possible.

Sound like a good use of your time? Check out http://declarationofeducation.com/ to learn more and get involved. We can do better – and it is up to us to make sure that we do so.

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It’s the Relationships, Stupid . . .

I’m spending my days observing the two-week summer session of the Inspired Teaching Institute, a yearlong professional development program from Center for Inspired Teaching, a remarkable organization that prepares and supports DC teachers. The institute, described as “a 100% physical, intellectual, and emotional process through which teachers explore the art of teaching in an energetic and safe environment,” is taking place each day in the wrestling room of a DC high school in a leafy green neighborhood of Washington, DC.

The room is large and open. There are no seats, and homemade signs and placards, most of which feature memorable ideas about teaching and learning, cover the walls:

“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.”

”It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained; to be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

“The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world – and become one’s key to the experience of others.”

Although I’ll be producing several longer pieces about Inspired Teaching and their summer Institute, I want to briefly share an activity from yesterday that sparked an essential insight into the nature of teaching and learning – and what it is we adults must prioritize in our efforts to help all children learn.

Towards the end of the day, Inspired Teaching founder Aleta Margolis, a veteran educator and former actor with an aura of presence that stems from her previous time on stage, asked the participants to brainstorm the first things they thought of in response to the following prompt: “What are the questions kids ask when they’re in school?”

A torrent of predictable answers greeted her request:

What’s that? Why are we doing this? What are we supposed to do? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I get up now? How is this going to help me in real life? Can I go with you? How much do you get paid? Do you have a boyfriend? Can I go home with you? Where are we going? How much longer? Can I have this? Do you sleep here? Can I go to the nurse? What if? Can I have some water? Can you get him to stop? Why is that teacher so mean? Is it time to go? Can we go outside? Can we have extra recess? What’s my grade? Can I do extra credit? Why’d you call my house? When is that due? Can I sit by you? Are you allowed to do that? How old are you? Is she OK? Are you getting fired? Do you love me?

Then Aleta asked a different question – “What are the questions kids ask when they’re curious and wondering about the world around them?”

Can you show me? Did you see that? Can I try? Am I doing it right? Can I take it home? What does this do? How do I stop? Will I get hurt? Will you catch me? How fast can I go? Why isn’t it working? Why is it like this? Will you be watching me? Let me do it.

After both lists were generated, Aleta led the group through a process of labeling every question on both lists into one of three categories:  P – a procedural question; N – a question relating to a personal need; or C – a question reflecting innate curiosity.

Notably, the majority of the questions received either P’s or N’s, and there were few C’s in the bunch. The disconnect between what children ask in school and what they ask when they’re curious about the world was clear. “We’re going to spend the next week and a half and throughout the school year,” said Aleta, “getting students to generate more curiosity questions, and less questions that relate to purely procedural needs.”

As the participants nodded their heads enthusiastically at the thought of the new pedagogical skill they would soon acquire, I found myself noticing something else. The overwhelming majority of the questions, regardless of which category they were in, related to personal needs, and underscored the transformative power of interpersonal relationships between teachers and students.

Will you catch me? Did you see that? Can I sit by you? Do you love me?

Some among us may want to resist this fact and stay focused squarely on instructional strategies and the bottom line of school reform – improving student test scores. I’m reminded of the controversial Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” commercial from a few years back. But just as all athletes surely are role models (whether or not they choose to fulfill the responsibility), all teachers are role models, too, and adults with a disproportionate influence on the lives and priorities of their students.

This simple truth reminded me that although our students need us to provide engaging content, clear structures and probing questions, the overriding quality they need from us is nurturance, support, and a place where they can be seen and heard. It’s about relationships – first and foremost. And strengthening the quality and quantity of relationships between adults and children in a school building should always be our primary improvement strategy.

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Education Innovation in the Slums of Rio

Charles Leadbeater, a researcher at the UK firm Demos, spoke recently at TED about his search for radical new forms of education. What he found was remarkable innovation in the slums of Rio and Kibera, where some of the world’s poorest kids are finding transformative new ways to learn.

Among Leadbeater’s chief insights? Focus on asking questions, not providing answers; start developing strategies that pull children into learning, and stop pushing them into a single curriculum; and take a cue from Chinese restaurants, not McDonald’s, by finding models that spread, not scale.

Watch the video yourself and see what you think.

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Best Questions — Starting a School, Part II

I’ve volunteered to take the lead at putting together a plan for recruiting, interviewing and evaluating prospective principals for our new elementary school here in DC (scheduled opening, August 2011), and thus far it’s been a really useful process of trying to surface the “best questions” one should ask to get the fullest sense of a person and his or her philosophy about education and how best to help children learn.

As is always the case when I’m trying to get to the root of an issue in education, I begin by calling Kim Carter, the head of the QED Foundation and, as I said recently on Twitter, the finest thinker/doer I have met in K-12 education work. Kim pointed me to the work of The Haberman Foundation, which has done some great research on teachers who make a difference. She also said the core question to ask should be: What do you think are the most important factors that determine student success?

I like it, and I was also thinking of asking the following. Please check them out and offer any and all feedback and new ideas so we can be sure to get the process as finely tuned as possible.

  • Which ideas/approaches to learning have had the greatest influence on you, and why?
  • What are the core questions/riddles that drive you professionally?
  • What was your most powerful personal learning experience? How would you go about creating a similar environment and similar opportunities for our students?
  • What’s your personal motto?
  • When you interview potential staff members, what traits are you looking for?
  • What’s your vision of the ideal school?
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
  • If you could change something about your approach to work, what would it be?
  • If you could replicate something about your approach to work, what would it be?
  • What core habits of mind & work will you want to see our graduates embody, and in what ways do you intend to help ensure that they do?
  • Describe your ideal system for measuring student outcomes.
  • Describe your ideal system for evaluating educator effectiveness.
  • What do you feel are the core attributes of an optimal learning environment?
  • If we’re having this conversation five years from now, what would you like to be able to say are the five things you’ve done successfully — and how will you know you’ve succeeded at them?
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