Learning “With” vs. Learning “About”

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Tawheed Manzoor

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
The Matrix

I sometimes get these secret emails or direct messages from some pretty amazing thinkers in education, talking about how they feel really constrained by the leadership in their schools.  Sometimes after speaking, I get teachers in near tears thinking of “what could be” in their schools if only their administrators started reading blogs, looking at twitter; just something to push their learning.  It seriously hurts to see the pain in the eyes of these teachers because they just want to do what is best for kids, yet they are feeling extremely constrained.  They feel they are not in a situation where they can serve students in the way they feel would help them best in the future.  The paradox that they face is that they stay and be frustrated or leave and feel they have abandoned students that need their help.  This is an extremely tough situation.

The misconception for many is that if you start using social media, you are focusing on “technology” and not really what is important in schools.  I will be terribly honest; every time I am referred to as the “tech guy”, I cringe on the inside (and sometimes on the outside as well).  I am very comfortable with technology, yet I am extremely focused on school/district culture, building relationships, leadership and learning.  Those are my passion areas. My use of social media helps me learn about those things, not just about technology.

Stepping Back

About four yeas ago, I did not blog, read blogs, or really read much anything other than “From Good to Great”; I only looked into the really popular books and felt that this was enough for me in my leadership pursuits.  I could tell you about what I did in the classroom as a teacher, but I drew upon my own experience only, and not the experience of others.  Teaching was always something I was comfortable with and I did not spend 18 hours a day at school.  My students did well on exams, I felt comfortable connecting with parents and students, and it just came easy.

Then I jumped into Twitter.

Then I ignored it for a year.

Then I tried again.

Then it stuck for good.

I look back at that time when I started reading and learning from so many educators and felt like taking the “red pill” that opened Neo’s eyes in “The Matrix”.  It was like this whole new world had opened up and I had started connecting with actual practitioners sharing their work as they went.  I did not have to wait for a publisher to put something out after a year.  A person would post about what they did “today” and I could read it that night.  The notion of “just in time learning” was now something that was going beyond technology, and into all areas of school.  

As I felt more comfortable consuming, I then started creating and sharing myself as well.  It took awhile, but I wanted to be able to give back to so many other educators that gave me so much in my own learning.  I wish that I could say that this just came easy and I got it the first time I tried, but it took me awhile.  The most important trait that I had during this time was that I wanted to learn.  As I look at any successful educator, that trait is so apparent.  The best ones always want to learn more and once I started to connect on Twitter, so many opportunities to grow and become better became apparent and accessible.

Present Day

It is funny, but as I write this, I just received a direct message on Twitter from a good friend (who lives nowhere near me but we have built a connection through social media), that said the following:

Our people have great intentions. I just don’t think they have any vision. Frustrating.

This is a problem.  Many get so frustrated with posts like this that I am writing right now, because they feel people need to be able to go at their own pace, and be comfortable with learning, and I get that.  The difference is that when you are the principal or superintendent, shouldn’t teachers and others be at least a little impatient?  The teacher that wrote me this note is not only a great writer, but a great teacher (I have seen her in action as I know being a great writer about education does not make you a great teacher) and her district is probably going to lose her sooner rather than later.  The scary thing is that I am not sure they would know exactly what they would be losing.  I am positive they know she builds great relationships with students, but I am not sure they understand that she is churning out kids that are solid learnersnot simply kids that have mastered school.

One of my mentors has said to me, “my patience with kids is endless, but with adults, not so much.”  What about our leaders?  Our role needs to go on beyond saying buzzwords such as “21st century learning”,”success for every child”, and “lifelong learners”; I want to know that they can articulate what a classroom, school, and more importantly,what learning could look like today.

Here is the thing…I don’t think that anyone has the “best” answer for this, but are we as administrators the “problem finders and solvers” that we want our kids to be?

Moving Forward

There is so much more to school than simply the use of technology.  Relationships are the foundation of any good school and as Kelly Christopherson shared with me, each community is unique and it is important we recognize that.  There are lots of opportunities for leaders to openly learn, and I have done my best to share these strategies in the past with others.  What is extremely important though is that we recognize the difference between “learning about technology” and learning with technology”.  Leaders need to understand that distinction.  The second statement opened my eyes to things that I honestly never knew existed in all elements of learning and leadership, and I believe has led me to do my best to help others learn along with me.

Still, as many educators may be frustrated with what they feel may be a lack of “vision”, it is important that we still talk to our administrators and help them to see the learning opportunities that are out there for them.  You don’t have to be “above” them in the food chain to have a conversation.  Sometimes they just don’t know what they don’t know.  I have said many times that people should not complain about something that they have never talked to their boss about.  Take the time to sit down with them because honestly, they want to do what is best for kids as well; they may just not see what you do.  Once you do that, the next move is theirs, and I am again reminded of a quote from the Matrix:

I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.

In my own experience, it took several times for me to see the door, but when I finally walked through, I feel I saw different and better opportunities for our kids.  When leadership gets that, often those doors will really start opening for others as well, including our students.  To me, that is all the reason I need to keep trying.



  1. Thank you, George! I recently joined the “Twitter-verse” and YOU are that person that I enjoy reading & learning from, as you found so many others before you became “the one”. So thank you, “Morpheous”, you have opened the door for so many, and now we are the ones plowing through. You words continually inspire me, as I am that teacher/wanna be principal that is so very frustrated being “an island”.

  2. Thanks George – once again, we share parallel thoughts and experiences. Several of your contemporaries have recently written posts describing the “born again” learner revelation that is hard to explain to those who have not bathed in the connected learning waters. Effort and persistence will pay off eventually. I heard Will Richardson speak about teachers needing to focus on learner dispositions. A favorite quote from his session, “We don’t need to make students college ready, we need to make them learning ready.”
    My notes from the 1/17/13 MPC session:

  3. I like the wisdom here and the challenge! Thanks! Just learning to twitter myself!

  4. This is right on target. I am the Director of Technology for a supervisory union with 7 districts, having transferred from my former position of assistant principal and National Board certified English teacher at our high school a little over a year ago. In my current role, I frequently deal with principals about tech and social media issues as they pertain to education. One thing I find frustrating is their general assumption that all such issues are out of their scope of responsibility, and they are far too willing to defer to my decisions. On the one hand, that is fine; I’m perfectly happy to make the call and sometimes be the “throat to choke” when it comes to technology and education. However, by allowing this to continue, I give them permission to remain ignorant of the paradigm shift (sorry for the catch-phrase) that we are currently experiencing.

    I fully understand the chaos that surrounds building principals and the relief they must feel in knowing that with technology related issues, at least, they can set all thought aside and focus on the other myriad problems that cross their desks. Nonetheless, it’s important for them to realize that the pendulum is never swinging back regarding the advances in technology and social media, and they need to at least be aware of what the advances are and how they are being used in order to contribute to meaningful conversations that will influence the future of their students.

  5. Sometimes I read a post and feel compelled to comment. This time? What you have written is so completely defining and true that I am speechless. Thank you for the perspective I needed, but couldn’t find for myself.

  6. Great article – it resonates with me on many levels. I went into teaching/education after having spent many, many years in the business world. I immediately had two horrific experiences in teaching two very different demographic groups. Administrations talk a good game but they do not walk the talk – I was told to be innovative, I was hired because of my background, and yet whenever I stepped outside their box they reprimanded me. They were each so far behind it was way past scary. I know there are multitudes of “business” reasons due to financial constraints (and fears) within the structure of both systems that drive administrations, however I have yet to see these be of any benefit to the actual students. The saving grace for me was always my students who I fought for. Hopefully things will improve soon.

  7. Phew, no #flipclass in this one :)

    I love the metaphor supplied by the image (the key in the lock) and the reflection that sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get through a doorway and to what lies beyond.
    Do we each have out own threshold for what draws us through? Is it the right combination of variables? Or is it just after so many exposures we acquire the taste for a new norm (like trying a new food many times before we like it).
    Getting people through the door and on to the side seems like the trickiest bit of this whole change deal. I wish more than anything I knew the secret, cause yes, waiting feels like standing still. Thanks for remaining hopeful!


  8. great thoughts put together george!
    it all goes back to connecting within. doesn’t it?
    to really know who you are and then search for what you want.
    unfortunately kids start out in a system that doesn’t even allow them
    to find themselves, nor question themselves and their passion.

  9. George, as you can tell, I enjoy reading and learning with you. I understand where teachers may feel frustrated with what they believe are ‘visionless’ leaders – I would suggest that they are not visionless just have a vision that is aligned with an old and nearly dead paradigm. I have a different take on this though, as a leader (superintendent) I am active on my PLN to understand how to do things differently than before so we can get a system that will actually turn out life-long learners. My frustration comes from two points – first and most frustrating is the state and federal policy leaders who continue to paint a picture of US failure in order to drive their platform of ‘school reform’ only to make financial opportunities for the private sector. They test and label for one reason – so that there is a ‘problem’ and they are the ‘solution’ for that problem. Sounds like they are creating their own job security right? Second- is from teachers and staff members who do not want the change that is in my vision, They dismiss it as new-fangled-fluff – they cling to what they know and what they are comfortable with. So more basic skills drill and kill with students who will decide by 2nd grade that school is not for them…We must push the policy makers first, because most leaders are unwilling to buck against the departments of education who control our funding and fate. Keep pushing and asking tough questions!

  10. Wow! This post is right on target in so many ways, addressing the frustrations of so many teachers, yet maintaining a positive perspective and a hope that as we continue to share our experiences about the journey, others will begin to take notice and take action as well. I was struck by three words: vision, patience, and free. If we can cast vision for others, be patient as they try to make meaning of it, we can be used to help free others to embrace new ways of thinking and learning. Thank you for the insight and perspective…it was much needed today!

  11. Really loved this because I am a little over the “buzzword” syndrome that is used by some leaders but not understood. An enjoyable and provoking post.

  12. I am not an educator, I’m a disillusioned parent.

    You wrote, “she is churning out kids that are solid learners, not simply kids that have mastered school.” and I think you’re dead on. My daughter just finished more than a year of research and writing about how the cultural differences between Finland and the United States prevent US students from achieving the Finns level of excellence. Finland is known for turning out lifelong learners and enthusiastic readers, with teachers held in high regard. Right or wrong, she concluded that the heart of the problem in the US is throttled teachers and hamstrung schools.

    I’m very interested in what else other commenters here think about both the problem and possible solutions.

  13. Wow; inspiring blog post. Thanks so much for sharing. Technology and Twitter have revolutionized my teaching abilities. Twitter allows me the opportunity to build a PLN that goes beyond my school building or district; it allows me to collaborate with others that are futuristic thinkers, technology integraters and risk-takers. Many times in the field of education we are locked in by the walls of our classrooms, buildings and districts. Twitter changes this; it tears down walls and provides collaboration with others in the field of teaching from all over the globe, as well as, your colleague down the hall that you never see because you don’t have a common prep or lunch time. Administrators do make a huge difference; having just attained the first great one in my career it’s awesome. However, nothing seems to shelter educators from the realities of politics, pay cuts and disrespect that is always hanging over our heads. Again, thanks for all your efforts, time and work on all of our behalf.

  14. Great post! I find some of this is reversed: the administrators have the vision and forward movement, but the teachers do not. I am working to address individual vision. I encounter a lot of digging in of feet, “It has worked fine for 20 years, it’ll continue to work fine.” That vision, that ability to create a whole new world in the mind’s eye can carry us through the bumpy parts of the journey. That vision could be specific to the classroom or personal lives in general. We all need to walk through doors every day and look for even more doors; it is the only way we grow and learn and change. I can teach you to swim, but you have to move your arms. Thank you for this. It has provided me with some “conversation starters” for upcoming teacher observation discussions and discussions in general about improving effective sustained learning applicable in a lifetime.

  15. George, thank you for the comment however as a leader I am very discouraged by teachers lack of wanting to become 21st Century teachers or innovative teachers. We have given them the tools, offered the time and yet the idea of change is very scary. Please do not lump all leaders together, many of us are trying but are being met with resistance.

    • I wouldn’t say that I have done that…I honestly believe that many are doing this already. I am trying to create a narrative of what we can aspire to. I agree that not all teachers are there and it can be frustrating, but I like to focus on what I and other administrators can do to get better. It is more important to look at ourselves and improve what we are doing, than to look at others and say what they are doing wrong.

  16. Wonderful blog – Your passion is authentic! So many academics that I am familiar with simply hope this ‘social media thing’ will just go away. It is unfortunate as the innovative uses for this new media are endless. College’s for example, could set themselves apart by becoming a shining example of social media done right! Meanwhile I continue to enjoy your tenacity to guide them into the light!

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