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What If Learning — Not Fighting — Were the Focus?

As accusations fly back and forth over the reported DC cheating scandal – the latest in a series of battles between America’s two dominant Edu-Tribes – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped spending so much time focusing on what is broken or who is to blame, and started focusing instead on how people learn, and how we can create better learning environments for everyone.

This week, as part of an effort to spur such a conversation, a coalition of individuals and organizations is doing just that — envisioning a movement of adults and young people in search of better places to work and learn, and highlighting powerful learning experiences to make a larger statement about how and when transformational learning occurs.

I am proud to be a part of the campaign, which is called Faces of Learning, and which aspires to help people understand we are all effective learners, with differing strengths and challenges. Kim Carter, executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, a non-profit organization that is a member of the coalition, explains: “We want to elevate four essential questions that are, alarmingly, almost completely absent from the current national conversation about school improvement: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?”

To help provide the answers people need, Faces of Learning is asking people to share personal stories of their most powerful learning experiences; attend and/or organize public events at which people think together about how to improve the local conditions in which people learn; and use a new interactive tool called the Learner Sketch, which invites users to explore their own strengths and challenges among the various mental processes that influence learning. Rather than just categorize the user as a certain “type” of learner, the Learner Sketch feedback actually suggests strategies users can try to help them become even more effective learners. Users can also explore what research is teaching us about how we learn, and find resources that help improve the overall learning conditions for children (and adults).

Ideally, of course, a campaign like this would be unnecessary. And yet, when one looks back at the last 15 months – a period in which school reform has been at the forefront of American life, from “Race to the Top” to Waiting for Superman to the endless coverage of Michelle Rhee or the union fight in Wisconsin – what becomes clear is that we haven’t been having a national debate about learning; we’ve been having a national debate about labor law. And while that issue is important, it is a dangerous stand-in for the true business of public education – helping young people learn how to use their minds well.

What if our efforts were squarely focused on the true goal of a high-quality education, instead of the hidden goal of a well-funded few?

What if each of us could identify our own strengths and weaknesses as a learner?

What if each of us had the chance to discover – and contribute – our full worth and potential to the world?

What if all of us came to both expect and demand high-quality learning environments throughout our lives?

It’s a great and worthy vision. And before any of those things can happen, we all need to work together to see more clearly what powerful learning actually looks like — and requires.

Join our efforts – and share your voice – at www.facesoflearning.net.


Name the Book Competition — We May Have a Winner!

First off, thanks are in order to everyone who has weighed in — either here or on Facebook — to offer such useful feedback on our ongoing search for a title to the forthcoming book of 50 learning stories. Yesterday, I had a long meeting with the publisher’s marketing folks, and when I explained to them the concept for the cover — a mosaic of images of either each author’s profile photo, or a montage of photos that remind them of the learning story they shared, or perhaps a combo of the two — I think we may have found our title:

Faces of Learning: 50 Inspiring Stories



The Book of Learning Stories — Title Search

I need your help in coming up with the title for the book of learning stories. Whoever submits the winning entry will get a $50 gift card to the bookstore of their choice.

Here are the three I have so far:

  1. The Learning Book: 50 Powerful Stories of Learning & Teaching — In School & In Life
  2. Learning Matters: 50 Powerful Stories of Learning & Teaching — In School & In Life
  3. “Dear Mr. Hatfield”: 50 Powerful Stories of Learning & Teaching — In School & In Life

Yes? No? Maybe? Something else? Talk to me . . .


Draft Intro for Book of Learning Stories

For anyone interested in learning a bit more about what the book will look like . . .


This is a book of different people’s stories.

Some are about teachers who changed their students’ lives. Some describe the moment when a person first discovered how to ask the right questions, or found what they were most passionate about.  Others are about making art, or going on a challenging hike, or studying everything from Morse code to Macbeth to Kung Fu. But all of the stories in this collection are about one central thing – learning, and what it feels like to discover one’s purpose, passion, and capacity for greatness.

The 50 stories gathered here, along with hundreds of others, were submitted as part of the Rethink Learning Now campaign, a national grassroots effort to change the tenor of our national conversation about schooling by shifting it from a culture of testing, in which we overvalue basic-skills reading and math scores and undervalue just about everything else, to a culture of learning, in which we restore our collective focus on the core conditions of a powerful learning environment, and work backwards from there to decide how best to evaluate and improve our schools, our educators, and the progress of our nation’s schoolchildren.

In sharing their stories, our authors – who range from students to social workers to the Secretary of Education himself – were responding to one of two simple prompts:

  1. What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community – regardless of whether that experience took place inside or outside of school?
  2. Who was your most effective teacher, and what was it about that person that made him or her so effective?

The purpose in asking these questions was twofold: First, to give people an opportunity to reflect on what they already know to be true about powerful learning and teaching – rather than tell them what some “expert” thinks it is; and second, to use the insights of these stories to help people see more clearly what a powerful learning environment actually looks like – and what it requires.

Based on those insights, the stories in this book are divided into five sections – challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential. As you read them, imagine how the insights they provide might be used to strengthen the learning cultures of the schools in your neighborhood. And rather than viewing each story as a “best practice” that should be replicated and scaled up, think instead of how these authors’ collective wisdom clarifies a “best question” we should ask whenever we want to improve our schools: “How can we best support educators in their work to create schools that are more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential?”

Now, more than ever, our country needs these sorts of schools. Unlike any other pillar of our society, public education is the only institution that reaches 90% of every new generation, is governed by public authority, and was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society. And as these stories illuminate, the business of improving our schools doesn’t need to be a tiresome, desperate, and futile task; it can be a collaborative, risky, and deeply fulfilling journey that results in us better understanding ourselves – and each other.

So please, enjoy the stories that follow. Consider which of the recommendations we provide might be worth putting into action in your community. And take the time to share your own story, and read the stories of hundreds of other fellow citizens, at rethinklearningnow.com.


Final 50 Selected for Book of Learning Stories

Nine months ago, the Rethink Learning Now campaign launched a national storytelling initiative by asking people to reflect on their most powerful learning experiences, and/or their most effective teachers.

Since then, the campaign has received hundreds of insightful and illustrative submissions from people across the country –from students to social workers to the Secretary of Education himself. And this past month, I’ve had the difficult challenge of selecting just 50 of those stories to be collected into a book that will be released next spring.

My work has been so difficult because the stories people have submitted are all so good, and so varied. Some are about teachers who changed their students’ lives. Some describe the moment when a person first discovered how to ask the right questions, or found what they were most passionate about.  Others are about making art, or going on a challenging hike, or studying everything from Morse code to Macbeth to Kung Fu. But all of the stories in the campaign – and, ultimately, the book – are about one central thing – learning, and what it feels like to discover one’s purpose, passion, and capacity for greatness.

And so, I’m proud to officially announce the Final 50. I want to congratulate all of you who took the time to share your stories with the campaign. And I want to urge anyone that hasn’t yet done so to add your voice to our growing patchwork of learning memories. Do so today at rethinklearningnow.com.

  1. Zainab Ali – Office of the Mayor – Los Angeles, California
  2. Anonymous — Evanston, Illinois
  3. Rachel Barnes – Humanities Teacher — Chatham, Massachusetts
  4. R. Dwayne Betts – Spokesman, Campaign for Youth Justice — Suitland, Maryland
  5. Maritza Brito – World Languages Teacher — Toms River, New Jersey
  6. Cass Carland – Youth Voice Consultant, QED Foundation – Keene, New Hampshire
  7. Gary Cohen – Businessman, CO2 Partners – Wayzata, Minnesota
  8. James Comer – University Professor — New Haven, Connecticut
  9. Elijah Cummings – United States Congressman — Baltimore, Maryland
  10. Jill Davidson –Director, Coalition of Essential Schools — Providence, Rhode Island
  11. Arne Duncan – United States Secretary of Education — Washington, DC
  12. Michelle Durange – 1st & 2nd Grade Teacher — Littlestown, Pennsylvania
  13. Joel Elliott – Peace Corps Volunteer — Limpopo Province, South Africa
  14. Amy Estersohn – Afterschool Program Volunteer, Learning Unlimited — Chicago, Illinois
  15. Jamal Fields – Elementary School Principal — Livermore, California
  16. Jenna Fournel – Outreach Director, Center for Inspired Teaching — Alexandria, Virginia
  17. Jenifer Fox – Founder, Strong Planet — Franklin, Tennessee
  18. Al Franken – United States Senator — Minneapolis, Minnesota
  19. Emily Gasoi – Student — Washington, DC
  20. John Goodlad – President, Institute for Educational Inquiry — Seattle, Washington
  21. Loretta Goodwin – Senior Director, American Youth Policy Forum — Arlington, Virginia
  22. Carl Glickman – Educator and Writer — Athens, Georgia
  23. Stedman Graham – Businessman and Educator — Chicago, Illinois
  24. Patrick Ip – Student — Chicago, Illinois
  25. Gerlma A.S. Johnson – Middle School Principal — Detroit, Michigan
  26. Gloria Ladson-Billings – University Professor — Madison, Wisconsin
  27. Liz Lerman – Choreographer — Takoma Park, Maryland
  28. Sitembiso Ncube Maduma – Special Education Teacher — San Bernardino, California
  29. Andrew Margon – Special Education Teacher — Brooklyn, New York
  30. Kevin McCann – Senior Vice President, Edelman Public Relations — Washington, DC
  31. Robert McLaughlin – Administrator, New Hampshire Board of Education — Concord, New Hampshire
  32. Deborah Meier – Retired Educator – Hillsdale, New York
  33. Renee Moore – Teacher Instructor — Cleveland, Mississippi
  34. Steve Moore  — Reading Instructor — Republic, Missouri
  35. Larry Myatt  — School Leadership Consultant — Boston, Massachusetts
  36. Susan Oliver – Communications Consultant — Waterford, Virginia
  37. Margaret Owens – Student – Palo Alto, California
  38. Terry Pickeral – President, Cascade Educational Consultants — Bellingham, Washington
  39. Bruce Deitrick Price – Founder, Improve-Education.org — Virginia Beach, Virginia
  40. Jan Resseger – Minster for Public Education and Witness, United Church of Christ – Cleveland, Ohio
  41. Mark Rockeymoore – Senior Fellow, Global Policy Solutions — San Antonio, Texas
  42. Carrie Rogers — 2nd Grade Teacher — Rancho Cucamonga, California
  43. Elizabeth Rogers, Public Affairs Director, Oral Health America — Portland, Maine
  44. Ahniwake Rose – Policy Analyst, National Congress of American Indians – Washington, DC
  45. Chantale Soekhoe – Legislative Liaison, New York Civil Liberties Union —  Bronx, New York
  46. Maya Soetoro-Ng – Education Specialist, East-West Center – Honolulu, Hawaii
  47. Angela Valenzuela – University Professor — Austin, Texas
  48. Jill Vialet – Founder, Playworks — Oakland, California
  49. Stephen Vick – Director of Child Welfare, Association House — Chicago, Illinois
  50. Jenerra Williams – 2nd & 3rd Grade Teacher — Boston, Massachusetts

The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand?

In case you missed it, Steven Brill wrote a relatively balanced piece in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the national education reform landscape — and how teachers unions are truly facing a sink-or-swim moment of reinvention.

As someone who feels neither allegiance nor antipathy toward either of the increasingly polarized camps (I actually like and respect both Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Schnur), I see the partial truths in each side’s argument. On one hand, for example, it’s clear that K-12 teachers should not be granted lifetime tenure so easily — tenure, after all, was originally designed to protect the free-expression rights of college professors, and since the First Amendment barely even applies to public employees anymore, that point is moot. So I say bring on this reform.

It’s also clear that teacher evaluation systems need to be dramatically retooled. When educators can only be scored ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory,’ that’s a huge problem. So again I say yes to any reform that results in a new system that creates a reciprocal flow of feedback and helps educators improve the quality of their professional practice.

However, I see one massive problem — and it’s a problem that no one, Brill included, seems interested in addressing:  Everyone wants to tie these new teacher evaluations to student performance data, but no one wants to talk publicly about the fact that we lack sufficient metrics for truly evaluating the full extent of whether or not young people are learning and achieving at high levels.

As I’ve written many times before, basic-skills tests in reading and math provide a single, useful proof point that is, in the current climate, dramatically overvalued. To help students learn to use their minds well, schools — and teachers — need to focus on not just basic- but also higher-order skills; they need to engage children in not just reading and math but also the arts and sciences; and they need to focus less on just data per se, and more on how well we’re equipping our teachers to respond to data in ways that improve the overall learning conditions (and outcomes) for kids.

A system, therefore, that incentivizes compensation and job security by using a single measure to count for as much as 50% of an evaluation will incentivize — you guessed it! — a relentless focus on basic-skills reading and math scores. But that’s not enough if we want the achievement gap to mean more than test scores. And more people need to start calling it out.

The good news is that although we may not yet have these more sophisticated metrics in place, at least we know what we should be looking for. This month, I’m finalizing the manuscript of a book that brings together 50 powerful stories about teaching and learning — selected from the many hundred that have been submitted by people across the country as part of a national campaign. The stories recount a wide range of experiences — from third grade classrooms to Outward Bound courses to church missions to prison sentences — but what they combine to make visible are the core conditions of a powerful learning environment. (See for yourself at rethinklearningnow.com.) And although they do not reveal a simple, single answer to the deeply complex question of how to improve our schools, they do clarify the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn — How do we create more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential learning opportunities for children?

Imagine if more people started asking that question. Imagine what a new statewide teacher evaluation system would need to look like in response. And ask yourself — would you want that sort of environment for your child?


Book of Learning Stories — Deadline Nears

I’m spending every minute this week finalizing the manuscript that will stitch together 50 people’s stories about powerful teaching and learning (Jossey-Bass, Spring 2011 release).

Already, there are powerful voices and insights in the mix — from everyday citizens to U.S. Senators to the Secretary of Education himself. And although we already have several hundred stories to work with — and far more than 50 that are worthy of being in the book — you still have one week to share your own experience and have it be considered for publication. Just visit rethinklearningnow.com/stories/submit and tell us about your experience, and what it is that made it so worthwhile.



USA Today Covers Launch of Rethink Learning Now

Greg Toppo of the USA Today covered today’s launch of the Rethink Learning Now campaign. See what he had to say.


Will We Do What it Takes to Improve Public Eduication?

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