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The Learning Revolution, Circa 2012

Six years ago, a funny Englishman gave a stirring speech about how schools were stifling the creativity of their students. Today, Sir Ken Robinson is a worldwide celebrity, and his TED talk has been seen by as many as 100 million people.

How did that happen, exactly? And what is the state of the learning revolution Robinson urged us to launch?

The first answer has a lot to do with TED, and the ways it has become an unparalleled global phenomenon and idea accelerator. But it has more to do with Robinson, and the ways he was able to – clearly and cleverly– articulate our education system as it is, and as it ought to be. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” he argued. “By the time we get to be adults, most of us have lost that capacity. We have become frightened of being wrong. We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

The second answer has a lot to do with the impact of those words, and the ways in which our education systems have started to move – slowly but surely – in the direction of Robinson’s recommendations. In particular, I see three trends worth noting:

  1. Shifting Endgoals – In 2006, it would have been impossible to suggest that anything other than content knowledge was the desired endgoal of a quality education. The rest was fluff, and if you couldn’t measure it, it didn’t matter. Today, however, there is an increasing recognition that content knowledge is actually the means by which we acquire a quality education, while the endgoal is a set of life skills or habits we can rely on throughout our lives. This paradigm shift was foretold by Robinson, whose talk centered around one of those skills – creativity. It has since expanded to include a rotating cast of others, from critical thinking to collaboration. And it will continue to reshape how schools see their work, both strategically and morally, requiring a new wave of creative thinking about how we assess both student and teacher learning and growth.
  2. Growing Grassroots – Robinson was right to urge people to stop waiting for policies to change before they themselves change. The only way a learning revolution will begin is if we heed the advice of Myron Rogers, who advised us to “start anywhere, and follow it anywhere.” That means recognizing each individual school is, as Ken says, its own school system, and insisting that educators start being more proactive in how they reimagine the structure and purpose of school. Scores of networks and organizations are already doing just that – from Expeditionary Learning to the Institute for Democratic Education in America. More communities are joining every day. And eventually, the policies will have no choice but to catch up.
  3. Emerging Leaders – In schools and districts across the country, a new wave of leadership is emerging with the confidence to speak publicly against the dysfunctions of the current system and think strategically about how to transform education for the long haul. Montgomery County superintendent Josh Starr is one such example – the leader of a massive network of schools and educators, a passionate believer in working collaboratively with all stakeholders, and an astute communicator who relies on everything from podcasts to Twitter to community book clubs. “I see my work being as much about helping people understand how we learn as it is about balancing budgets or driving student growth. These are community-wide conversations we all need to be having, and my job is to help seed those – and to keep learning alongside everyone else.”

It’s instructive that the most watched TED talk in history is about public education – despite the mainstream media’s ongoing reluctance to provide anything more than cursory coverage. Sir Ken’s talk is a reminder that people everywhere recognize that there is no issue more important to our future than the education of our newest generations. And his message, fittingly, is that we are the people we’ve been waiting for all along.

(NOTE: This article also appeared on Huffington Post as part of its TED Weekend series.)


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?


Faces of Learning — Portland, Maine

On October 14, hundreds of Mainers came together for an evening of storytelling, in conjunction with the Faces of Learning campaign.

To hear the stories yourself, visit this link and scroll down for direct links to each of the featured storytellers.

Want to organize something similar in your community? Visit our “Events” page for some tips and then keep us posted so we can celebrate your success!


Sam Chaltain’s TEDx Talk: The Freedom to Learn

I hope you like it!


Faces of Learning San Diego — High Tech High

A little over a month ago, I spent a few days on the campus of High Tech High (HTH), a remarkable network of schools in San Diego that are, simply, among the best examples of public education our country has to offer.

As you can see from the video, what distinguishes HTH is its ability to think differently about what a public education should look like — and accomplish. The schools are all housed in former Navy barracks, giving the school and its hallways an airy, open, almost half-finished sort of feel. Student artwork is EVERYWHERE, as are engineering and design projects, from robots to a whole wall of bicycle wheels, all connected via a long, single chain. It’s impossible not to feel creative — or at least to want to try something new.

Beyond the aesthetics, I asked Ben Daley, HTH’s Chief Operating Officer, to help me understand the keys to their special sauce. “We make sure our teachers have time to plan with each other,” he began. “Their day always starts earlier than the students, so there’s built-in time for teachers to coordinate what they’re doing and provide the kids a more integrated learning experience. We’re also doing a lot with videos of our own teaching, so we can study our own practices and find better ways to improve our teaching. And of course we have our own graduate school of education, so the overall learning culture for adults is of such a quality that it can’t help but be passed down to our kids.”

Indeed, HTH is the first school I’ve ever visited that literally houses its own graduate program on site. (Could anything be more logical?) As Ben and I talked, we ran into Stacy Caillier, who runs the program. Smiling as she spoke, Stacy explained what makes the program distinct. “For over 75 years, the average American High School has followed three critical assumptions that have become deeply ingrained in our understanding of what school needs to look like: segregate students by class, race, gender, or perceived academic ability; separate academic from technical learning; and separate adolescents from the adult world they are about to enter. Here, we try to overturn all of these tenets — we group students heterogeneously; we integrate our curriculum; and we embed students in the adult world of work and learning. By extension, our graduate program is designed to prepare educators to both design and assume leadership in this sort of learning environment, and to do so in a learning community that is collaborative, challenging, and very much grounded in the day-to-day world of the classroom.”

As part of its missionary spirit, HTH had spent the previous months building an impressive and eclectic local coalition of individuals and organizations, as the San Diego manifestation of the Faces of Learning campaign. I was in town to bear witness to its first public gathering, an impressive evening of storytelling and strategic planning.

Interested in learning more? Check out this short video of the event — and join us in imagining the possibilities of a movement of adults and young people — in search of better places to work and learn.


Lifelong Learning Radio Series — Crossing the Finish Line

Another week, another inspiring learning story from WAMU 88.5 FM as part of its ongoing weekly Lifelong Learning series of radio stories about people’s most powerful learning experiences.

This week’s story comes from H.Y. Griffin, a Washington resident who works as a community organizer through AmeriCorps, achieved a big dream with a little celebrity inspiration a lot of community support.

Take a listen — and please spread the word!


Learner Sketch Update

We got a great note the other day from Max Roach, a Utah-based educator, and wanted to share it as an example of how some people are using the Learner Sketch Tool with their students.

How are YOU using the tool, or the other resources associated with the Faces of Learning campaign? Share your voice with us . . .


I just used the Learner Sketch tool with my classes and WOW! It was fantastic. The class is 9th-12th grade Learning Strategies, a class where we explore the constructs of the mind and how our minds’ makeup interacts with academic tasks (among other things). This tool’s exportable PDF learning profile is a fantastic way to frame a meaningful conversation about learning outcomes as an expression of our cognitive strengths and weaknesses. -And of course that we all have them! What I like most about this tool is it gives students, parents and teachers specific strategies to overcome difficulties.

I would recommend this tool for any classroom teacher, parent or student. Whether studying English, math, history, etc., every student can benefit from knowing more about how they learn and getting specific study strategies CUSTOM TAILORED to their learning profile. Here is a basic recap of how I used this tool over two class periods.

Day 1:
1. Whole group demonstration and introduction to Faces of Learning website.
2. Students asked to go online and explore website for 5 minutes.
3. Whole group debrief. Prompt: What did you find that might be of some use on this website?
4. Whole group demo of tool on overhead projector. Note: Demonstrate that there are three areas within the sketchbook and that students should consider each statement carefully before choosing where to put it. Say, “Be sure to place statements that represent a weakness for you in the ‘Not Me’ spot at the bottom of your page.”
5. Students asked to log on to website and complete a learner sketch.
6. Students required to download a copy of their learner sketch for themselves and to email it to their parents as well as to me, their learning strategies teacher.
7. Homework, print and read your learner sketch with your parents (if possible). Be prepared for activities and discussions about the document during the next class.

Day 2:
1. Review/ preview major sections of document on whiteboard: Write: “About Your Sketch, My Strengths, Not Me, Explore More, Ideas for Further Exploration.”
2. Prompt students to share what they recall from each of the sections and write a summary of the purpose of each section on the board alongside the section heading.
3. Students will re-read each section, underlining key points and making comments in margins (active reading strategies previously taught) in preparation for a “Think, Pair, Share.”
4. Think Pair Share: Write prompt on board: “Think about what surprised you, what you already know about yourself, and what could be useful to you in each section (I minute silent review of document section). Discuss one section of the document at a time. (4 minutes each section). -Total five minutes per section for each pair of students.
5. Whole group debrief. Prompt students to share with whole group one section at a time: “What did you find interesting About Your Sketch section? Use terms like “useful,” “meaningful,” “thought provoking,” etc. When you get to the “Not Me” section, point out that the format changes to include “strategies that may help.” Prompt students to share any strategies they found particularly useful. Ask, “Did any of the strategies spur your thinking on another strategy you might use to bypass or improve on a weakness?” Continue section-by section debrief through the rest of the document.
6. Close by recapping the importance of knowing how how we learn as a component of making well-informed and most productive decisions about what to do when we face a learning challenge. Recommend that students share some of their thoughts on these activities with parents.

My students reported that they enjoyed these activities because they were online and user-friendly, not too jargon heavy, and offered meaningful strategies. I could also see this tool used as a homework assignment for parents and students together… -That they complete a Learner Sketch themselves and then guide their children through the process and discuss the document with them. With this tool, the possibilities are endless! …And no, I don’t work for Faces of Learning. ;-)

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