Category Archives: Embodying Visionary Leadership

How do we make “great learning” go viral?

A question that has been burning in my mind lately is “how do we make great learning go viral?

Many want positive change to spread quickly, but often we create conditions that limit ideas to a small community that can often be contained or die off together.  For example, seeing great practice in a classroom from an educator and asking them to talk about the practice weeks (or sometimes month) later, ensures that this great practice will not spread at a rate that we would like, whereas tweeting or blogging about it could make it visible immediately.  Not only is it visible immediately, but it can now change the conversations amongst staff immediately because seeing something great should spark curiosity and conversation.  Making something go “viral” and keeping it offline, seem counterintuitive in our world today.

Another practice that I have seen that keeps great ideas hidden is when we use “closed groups” online as opposed to opening things up.  For example, in a closed group, you may start with ten people having a conversation, but often, that group is the largest it will ever be.  At any point, two of the people in the group may be busy with something and have to check out for awhile, leaving eight left.  The posts become less, and the interest often decreases, and the group can become smaller and smaller.  There is obviously benefits of using closed groups (appealing to different comfort levels, privacy in conversations), but they are often not conducive to making great learning go viral.

Start with the same group of ten in an open environment, and you see the same two people drop out.  If the information is group is great, others might see it, and jump in whether it is through something like a hashtag or a Facebook group.  Although the original “ten” might not still be in the group, the idea lives on and grows with others, and might actually bring many from the original ten back at different dates.

The visual in my head is of the old notion of a fish in a bowl (which I learned in researching this that you should not do). The fish is limited in growth to the size of a bowl, but when the fish is an open stream, there is much more opportunity for growth based upon the environment.  Sometimes the environments we create are the exact reason that great ideas don’t spread.

What is the environment you create to make great learning go viral?

Inconceivable Learning?

While flipping back and forth between playoff basketball and hockey last night, some things popped into my head that I tweeted out.  As I thought about them, the two tweets are actually correlated.

Here is the first one:

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post talking about “8 Things to Look for in Today’s Classroom“, and why I mention that is I used the term “today’s classroom”, because those were/are things that I see as crucial today.  I am actually currently in the process of writing a short book  on the topic to go deeper into the learning.  There is a reality of what I know now, and what could change in the time of publishing a book, could change.  I would love the opportunity to share with a different audience that may not read a blog, but I believe it is also important to being open to being challenged in what is written in a book.  Learning is not linear or stagnant.  It is something that is constantly in flux and ever-changing . That doesn’t matter whether it is written in a book or a blog. We have to be open to ideas being challenged and growing as educators.  Things change and we need to be willing to adapt and learn. Here is another tweet that I believe has a correlation in thinking:

The conversation that this sparked really pushed my thinking.  For example, if a child comes into school and creating and sharing videos is the norm to them, would this be considered “redefinition”, and if it is, is it to the learner or to the teacher?

Is “substitution” sometimes transformative to a student?  If I can write with a pencil but prefer to write with a mobile device, even if I don’t want to share it with others, but for my own thinking, is it considered “less”?  If a learner publishes a video at school, but has done it for years on their own, is that still considered “redefinition”? Being transformational to the learner is much more important than being transformational to the teacher.  What technology really empowers is personalization, not standardization, and what learning looks like to any person is a very individual process.

When I looked at the idea of “redefinition” and what it means in the SAMR model, one of the definitions that I saw was, “tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable“.  What I started to wonder is how time sensitive is this?  For example, YouTube is over 10 years old, so is publishing a video and sharing it with the world something that we think of as inconceivable, or is just something that we haven’t embraced in schools?  Is the ability to have the conversation on Twitter to discuss this tweet was pretty amazing and pushed my thinking, but I have been doing that for five years now. Is it still “inconceivable” or does it at some point become just what we do?  What was interesting was that I received a tweet from someone in Switzerland who shared a quote from one of my blog posts and it was still amazing to me, and something that I try not to take for granted.  It’s incredible and awesome (to me), but not inconceivable.

Here are two things that I have heard (paraphrased) lately that have pushed my thinking;

Technology is not technology if you were born when it existed.

and…

The technology that you experience today will be the worst it will ever be from this day forward.

This makes me think about a couple of things…

Is the technology we make a big deal of the norm for the students, just like a television was the norm for me when I was a kid? And, when does “inconceivable” become our new norm, and how do we react when the next “inconceivable” opportunity comes along? That is why I have been focusing more on the notion of the “innovator’s mindset“, because the one thing I know for certain, is that things will change (in technology, learning, life, everything).  How we deal with and embrace change is more important than ever, because of the rate that change happens, and we will need to become comfortable with what we know continuously developing and changing over time.  What is “inconceivable” now, will become our “new normal”, meaning there will be a new “inconceivable”.  How we deal with these shifting paradigms is more crucial than ever.

The Biggest Barrier to Innovation

“Being realistic is the most commonly travelled road to mediocrity.” Will Smith

Maybe it’s because I have been listening to “motivational speeches” on 8Tracks, or maybe because I have been emotionally touched by so many tributes to all of the moms out there in the world, but I have been thinking a lot about our mindset towards innovation and the barriers that we need to overcome to create better learning opportunities in our schools.  This post is a tribute to my mom who is my hero for more reasons than I could ever count.

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I saw the above picture a few months ago, and it is one that has resonated with me.  When we talk about “change”, it is often something we think about when talking about others, and rarely in connection with ourselves.  It is easy to want others to change, but it always starts with “us” and our attitudes to change.  Constantly looking at the life of my parents, I learned from them that change is an opportunity to do something amazing, and that when we embrace new opportunities, even when they seem like obstacles, we can create something much better than what currently exists.  Change is scary and we often stay with a “known bad” than take the chance on the possibility of a “great” new opportunity.  Fear can stop us or make us reluctant, but it doesn’t have to defeat us.

My mom has proven this to me over and over again throughout her life.  Having a grade six education in Greece, and nearly dying from meningitis as a young child, she decided one day to come over to Canada to create a better life.  If you think about the time that she came over, she probably had no idea whether she would see her family again.  Yet she worked hard, and with my dad, created a life for themselves and for my siblings that had more opportunities for us than what they had as children. I remember her taking lessons to read in her 50’s and 60’s because she knew that being able to read and write would create opportunities, even though learning it would be an obstacle. To this day, at almost 80 years old, she constantly sends me emails and it is amazing how she gets better with every single one.  I save each email that she sends to me in a folder, and it is like my mom’s own learning portfolio. I cherish each one.

In the last few years, I have watched her deal with so much adversity and come out strong, although not without her struggles.  My dad passed away two years ago, and her only brother passed away a few months ago.  The older we get, the more we seem to lose, yet my mom still goes out of her way to show me love and connect with me and give me advice.  With such a little amount of formal education, she is wise in so many areas that I need her to be.  This wisdom comes from her attitude to the world more than anything.  She sees light in not only situations, but people, when it would be really easy to see dark.  If I could be one-tenth the person my mom is, I would be happy.  Although I am all about embracing change, I don’t know if I could have done what she has done in her lifetime.

In relation to this attitude, I have been thinking about the challenges that we face with school.  Budget restrictions, policies that don’t make much sense, and curriculums that are way too static for a world that is constantly changing, we could just throw in the towel and be okay with the notion of school in the past.  But like my mom who wanted better for her kids than what she had, I am hoping we can create something better for our students than what we grew up with.  When we know better, we should do better.  People challenge others to think “outside of the box”, when really we need to think how do we become innovative inside of the box.  When Vine came out, many people asked “what in the world could you possibly do with six seconds?”, when others said, “I wonder what I could do with six seconds?”  While some looked at the constraints as a barrier, others looked at the constraints as an opportunity.  It is your perspective.  One of the questions above is not a question, but an excuse.  Are you asking questions to stay still or to move forward?

Often, the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking.

It is not the policies, it is not the curriculum, it is us. I hear things like, “Well we can’t possibly do that because of our (parents, students, teachers, principal, lack of resources, government, etc.)”, yet someone somewhere has done whatever you might be trying to do facing the same adversity you face.

In fact, the story is better because of the adversity.

Do you know why people love reading comics or watching movies about super heroes?  It is not only because they often go beyond our imagination, but more importantly, they do it while overcoming adversity.  The story becomes so much more compelling when it is not easy.  Have you seen those shirts that say, “I teach…what’s your superpower”?  Just being a teacher is not a superpower; the way we teach is. That can help change the world.  Just showing up each day is a start, but it’s not enough.

I thought of this when I recently heard the quote, “be the hero in your own story,”  I think of my mom who taught me to always look in the light when all you can see is dark, and who has overcome so much adversity to give everything she has to her kids, to create something better, while showing love and kindness to everyone she encountered.  She’s the hero in her story because she focused not on what she didn’t have, but on what she did have and what she could do with it.  This (her) mindset is crucial to the innovative educator.

If the adversity wasn’t there, would the story even be that interesting?  How will you become the hero in your own story?

I am thankful for my mom, who constantly teaches me to see the light in the dark, who treats every person with nothing but love, and through adversity, not only has created opportunity, but does it with a smile, laughter, and joy, when it would be easy to choose a different way.

It’s not about the technology…or is it?

One thing that I believe in deeply in my work is that we should always focus on relationships and learning, before technology, and if technology can’t enhance those things, it is a very tough “sell” to educators.  The focus, although on relationships and learning first, is also on the use of technology.  They are not separate.

Yet I have seen people say that it’s not about “technology”, it’s about “pedagogy”.  In fact, I had this conversation with Brian Aspinall on Twitter recently which sparked this thought. This statement could easily be taken as separating the two ideas of “pedagogy” and “technology”, and can sometimes provide an easy “out” for many educators who see the use of technology as irrelevant in their classrooms.  If it about “pedagogy” and NOT “technology”, then why would I ever have to use it?  I will have to be honest; there are a lot of classrooms that I walk into that have very little use of technology with students in their learning, other than the occasional visit to the computer lab.  Sometimes when the statement is made, “it is not about technology, it is about pedagogy”, you then hear the roars of approval, and off we go on our merry way with nothing changing for many students.

In reality sometimes it is about the technology, and the opportunities that it provides that were not there before for a student.  For example, teaching students how to code is something that is really hard to do without the technology, yet this is not happening with the masses in schools, and it would be extremely hard to learn it in an effective manner with 40 minutes a week in a computer lab.  Is it happening in some classrooms? Absolutely. Is it happening more every day? Absolutely.  Is it happening enough?  I am not sure it is.

I have been reluctant to say things like “technology is just a tool”, because again, the statement often provides an out. If you do not see it as transformative, then why use it?  A video that I have shown to show how technology is more than a tool and can be “transformational”, is this video of this young boy getting his first hearing aid. You can literally see the second the boy’s life changes:

When you look at Lachlan in that video, you can see that as soon as he has the “hearing aid”, a light goes on in his eyes.  I will have to admit,  that there are a lot of students in school who have lost that light.  This is no different from when I was in school, but there are more ways to create that “light” in the eyes of kids because of the use of technology in some cases.  It is about what they need, not what we are comfortable with.

So yes, it is about the learning, but it is also about the technology and the opportunities that it provides us.  They are no longer separate.

If you have the choice, shouldn’t they?

As someone who often leads professional learning opportunities, it is always interesting to try to take notice of the little things that are happening in the room, and then some of the comments that are made regarding student learning and learning environments.

Lately I have noticed the variance of devices and tools that are used by adults in the room.  Although most people are working on either laptops, tablets, or smaller mobile devices (or often a combination of two to three of those things), you will still see several people using a notebook and pencil/pen.  A lot of times, it is not that they aren’t comfortable with using a device, they just prefer a pencil.  Sometimes I will talk with them in front of the larger group, and ask them if they think that I have a problem with them using a pencil, while promoting the use of digital tools?  They often look stunned that I would ask, but realize that I have no issue with what they decide to use.  What I do say though is that I would have an issue with them saying that a student could not use a device that worked for them.  It is not only about having access to a tool, but the choice that is allowed in the first place.

Sometimes a student will choose a pencil and sometimes they would prefer a mobile device, but do we allow them the same choice that we would want afforded to us? Yes, some students will totally be off task from what is happening in the classroom, but so are many adults, whether they are “engaged” or not.  It is not about making blanket rules, but seeing these opportunities as teachable moments, or understanding that all of our brains need a break.

Taking a kid’s pencil away because they used it in an inappropriate way rarely happens because many teachers see it as an inconvenience to themselves. When will we see taking mobile technology away from our students in the same light?

So even if students have the choice, do they have the option?  Schools out there will talk about how they have access to a few desktops in the classroom, or are able to bring in carts, but not necessarily using a BYOD model because they are worried about the inequity that it would bring.  What we need to do is aim for equity at the highest level instead of the lowest.  If you have several students in your classrooms that do not have access to their own technology on a consistent basis, how do you rethink your budget to provide something the have constant access to?  It will not be by replenishing your “computer lab”, but perhaps thinking differently about how that room could be used and how we could ended up getting more devices in the hands of more students.

One of the schools that I worked with in the past year decided to make their old computer lab into a “Starbucks” room that had different levels of seating and was much more of a welcoming learning environment than what the computer lab had been in years prior.  Not only did they go with mobile technology that could be at the point of instruction, they also created an environment that teachers in the school wanted to recreate in their own classrooms.  If you experience something better, you are more likely to implement something better.  This is what that school wanted to create in the “Starbucks” room.

What many schools have now and what many schools want are very different.  This is where the “innovator’s mindset” is crucial.  Expecting to do everything that you used to do in schools and now adding laptops or tablets is not a viable option.  It is not about doing more, but thinking different.  What is crucial though is thinking about how we, as adults, would hate not having the choice of what tools we use for learning, and thinking about how we can create those same opportunities for our students.  Is it okay in our world now for a student to only realize they love using a tablet for their learning once they leave school?  Schools need to not only help students learn, but also help them realize how they learn best.  That will make a much larger impact long past their time in our system.

It’s not always about the decision, but often about how the decision was made.

If you have read this blog before, you have known that I am repetitive on the notion that innovation starts with the question, “what is best for kids?”  We have to do our best to make this a focal point in our decision making, and although it seems redundant to say it so often, sometimes it is forgotten about in our work.

Many schools are pushing new technologies in their schools/districts, to really try to focus on helping students become successful in our world today.  The idea of moving forward, is important, and I think more now than ever, schools are trying to put the tools in place to support staff and students.  Yet I have noticed resistance in the “tools” that are being implemented, since the decisions are made are often from a “top-down” approach, as opposed to a focusing on a servant leadership perspective.

A colleague shared a story with me about two competing technologies that were discussed at a conference in sessions that followed each other.  One of the observations that he made in attending both sessions was that in one room, it was mostly IT department staff, and in the other session, it was mostly educators.  The disconnect between what educators want, and what is actually implemented, happens far too often in schools.

For example, having a suite of tools that central office suggests will be great for teachers, with little or no input from teachers and students is a top down approach that often irritates many educators, no matter how great the “suite” may be.  Learning should always be the primary focus, and then you figure out what technology would support that, not the other way around. You will never make all people happy, but not trying to make as many people as comfortable and empowered in the process as possible with decisions that directly impact teaching and learning, is not a good approach.

Consensus is not always necessary the answer, but a collaborative approach should be the standard.  It is especially hard to ask teachers that work with technology the most or serve in the professional learning of other educators to “champion” tools that they dislike or don’t believe in themselves, especially if they have had no input.  If you can’t get your “champions” excited, good luck with the reluctant learner. (By the way, if you ask for input, get it, and go the same way you were going to go in the first place, don’t waste the time of others.)

The best IT departments that I have worked with focus on questions that directly impact teaching and learning, and find answers in conjunctions with those on the “front lines” working directly with students. The model exudes servant leadership as they start with an empathetic mindset that helps to figure out what will make an impact on learning.  Our IT departments are experts and crucial leaders in creating better environments for our learners, yet is there a focus on implementing with a “top-down approach” or a “bottom up” mindset?  The best leaders remove barriers and unleash talent, not try to control it. The “decision” is often not the issue, but more often, it is the approach in how the “decision” was made.

Leadership is a tough position, where you will always disappoint someone, and sometimes tough decisions need to be made.  But if leaders aren’t open to listening, we often lose the people who would have been our biggest advocates.  As a leader, it is not about “your decision” or “my decision”, it is about making the “best decision”, and the more we know and the more we listen, the more likely we this will happen.

Similar but different?

As I was walking through several schools today, I noticed objectives and goals that could have been the same when I went to school. How we get there today and what they mean, may be different, especially as we learn more about pedagogy, but also connect learning and opportunities to the changes that have happened/are happening in our world.

Here are some questions that I have that are pushing my thinking.

If we promote students learning in a “safe” environment, do we mean only in school or in learning?  Does ignoring technology in a world where we learn so much from “strangers” keep our kids truly safe?

If we want students to be literate, what does that look like today in schools?  How does it go beyond basic “reading and writing”?

If a school has a focus on “citizenship”, how does a world where we are all connected to one another change what that looks like?

If parent participation is beneficial to the learning of a child, how do we use technologies that are easily accessible to both schools and parents to tap into our community?

If you look at the key components of each question, they are the following:

1. Keeping Kids Safe.
2. Promoting Literacy
3. Citizenship and Social Responsibility
4.  Parents as Partners in Education

If I would have shown you those as objectives in a school in 1980, they might not look any different in the wording, but in practice, they look significantly different.  I was taught over and over again how to cross the street so that I could access what was on the other side, but do we teach kids how to keep their information safe while they are connecting to others across the world?  The idea of “safe” has changed.

There is a lot of areas where schools have changed, but some of the objectives are the same.  How do we make sure that we are keeping up with what our students need for today and tomorrow?

What do you think?

 

3 Things That Have Slowed the Change Process Down in Education (And What We Can Do About It)

There has been a lot of talk on the idea that education as a whole takes a long time to change.  As an educator, this is a challenging notion, since we are seeing many people doing some amazing things that did not exist when I was a student.  Change is happening but sometimes it is hard to see when you are in the middle of the process.

Some things are out of the hands of schools. Budgets and government decisions can make creating new and better learning environments for students tough, but not impossible.  Educators are not powerless, and in some cases, more powerful that ever.  The story of education can not only be told from the perspective of educators, but also from the students that are currently in the system.  Although there is still a lot of work to do (as there always will be in organizations that focus on continuous learning and have an emphasis on becoming “innovative”), there are also opportunities in education, now more than ever, that we will need to take advantage of and create a different path.

Here are some of the challenges we have had in the past and how we can tackle them

1. Isolation is the enemy of innovation. 

Education has traditionally been an isolating profession where we get some time together, but not nearly enough.  Even if we wanted to change this significantly, in most cases, the current physical structures do not allow us to work with other educators.  Some administrators have been very innovative in their planning of teacher prep time and have embedded collaboration time into the regular school day, but it is not necessarily enough to make a significant impact.

How so many educators have shifted this “norm” is by using social media spaces to connect and learn from educators all over the world, and making a significant difference in their own classrooms, and creating much more engaging and empowering learning spaces.  Isolation is now a choice educators make. Where the shift really has to happen is using things like Twitter is for educators to connect and share learning that is happening with educators in their own school.  I challenged people to do the following (as shared in this visual from Meredith Johnson);

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We need to make this happen and create transparency in our own classrooms.

How does a song like “Gangnam Style” go so viral that most people around the world not only know the words but the dance moves?  Social media.  If a song can spread so quickly, so can great learning.

Make it go viral.

2. A continuous focus on what is wrong, as opposed to what is right.

Think about the traditional practice of what school has done with many of our students.  If they struggle with the subject of math, we often send the more math homework to do at home.  Does this really make sense?  If they are struggling at school, making them struggle at home with the same content is often counterintuitive.  It is not that we shouldn’t struggle, but it is important that we are very thoughtful of how we spend our energy.

The shift that has happened with not only our students, but also our schools, is focusing upon building upon strengths as opposed to focusing solely on weaknesses.  This is imperative as building upon strengths often helps us to not only build competence, but also confidence which leads us to the mindset that we are more open to tackle our other challenges along the way.

I love this quote from Forbes on putting people in the right positions to be successful:

Leadership is a privilege, not a right, and we need to treat it as such. Leadership means encouraging people to live up to their fullest potential and find the path they love. That, and only that, will create a strong culture and sustainable levels of innovation.

Many organizations outside of education are hiring not on need, but finding the best people and empowering them based upon their strengths.  Schools should try to do their best to follow suit and put people to be in the best situations to not only do well, but to lead.

3.  Experience is a very powerful teacher.

I remember sitting and listening to Bruce Dixon at a conference and something he said has always stuck out to me:

In no other profession in the world do you sit and watch someone else do your job for 16 years before you go and do it yourself.

Wow.  That is a powerful message and shows why so many new teachers aren’t coming into school with all of these “innovative ideas” and changing our school system like so many people predicted.  Many educators simply replicate their experience as a student. If you think about it, at least one-third of many teachers educational experience is as a student, not a teacher.  That is a tough thing to overcome, but not impossible.

Innovation has no age barrier, and if we can tweak the experience for educators in their professional learning, they are more likely to change the experience for their students.  Writing ideas about “21st century classrooms” on gigantic pieces of paper with a felt marker is not going to create cultural shifts; changing experiences will.

People are starting to look differently at professional learning, and create experiences that are much different from what I first experienced as a teacher.  I think a major reason for this shift (going back to point 1) is that educators are seeing the shift in practices in so many other organizations, and are trying to create a different practice where more educators are not really focused on teaching as much as they are about learning.  This empathy is crucial since to become a master teacher, you must become a master learner.  

Changing experiences to shift the focus on the learner from the teacher helps to disrupt routine.  If you would want to create an environment where students would want to be a part of your classroom, we have to experience what learning could look like for ourselves and start from a point of empathy.

One shift that was not mentioned was the mindset of looking at obstacles as opportunities. As mentioned earlier, not everything is in our control, but as educators know, they can make an impact every single day.  It is not always easy, and teaching can be a very daunting and tiring job, but I believe that every day we can make a difference if we choose.  Having that mindset is the only way that we will ever truly be able to make a powerful change for ourselves and our students.

The Game of School

I have a minor in English yet I never had the interest to write consistently until about five years ago when I started blogging.  What it took for me to really start wanting to write was the opportunity to write about things that I cared about and have the ability to share it with others.  Unfortunately, I never really knew I had the opportunity to do that until after I was done my “education”.

But here is my confession…Although I have a minor in English I have never read a novel from end-to-end.

Gasp!

Here was the problem for me…Fiction has never really been appealing to me in book form.  I love watching movies and hearing a great story, but I much prefer hearing and seeing that story, than reading it.

So how would I get a minor in English when I had no interest in reading fiction, when the majority of the reading that we did in those classes was from novels?  I learned the “game of school” and applied it to my work.  I knew that I could read a bit of the beginning of the novel, part of the middle, and read the end (where I would usually start), and then write an essay to connect these things to my life in somehow or something going on in the world.  This wouldn’t necessarily get me a grade in the 90’s, but I did know I could consistently pull off something in between 70 and 80.  That was all I needed to move onto the next level, and that next level, ended up being my degree in university.

Some people will say to me when I am tell them this that I miss so much because I don’t read novels and it is such a shame.  There is probably some truth to this, but people missed out in school because they didn’t play sports, write for the school newspaper, or act in plays.  We miss out any time we choose not to do something, and unfortunately, it is impossible to do everything.

This wasn’t to say that I didn’t love reading.  I actually love reading and did it all of the time in school.  Anytime I would have a free period, I would go to the library and read the latest Sports Illustrated and even though I would read all of it, I would go directly to the back page and read the article from Rick Reilly.  I loved his sharing of inspirational stories and was saddened when another author took that page.  I also loved reading non-fiction and still do to this day.  True stories are appealing to me, as are books on leadership, teaching, and learning.  Those books still inspire me, yet I don’t know if any of my teachers knew this, cared about it, or had the opportunity to care because of the system that they were working in.  Tapping into what I loved seemed secondary to teaching the curriculum.  It was only until I started exploring my passions that I really felt that I was actually learning.

Don’t get me wrong…There are many things that I learned in school during my time that are beneficial to me today and gave me the tools to learn.  But more of that was from teachers who cared about me as a person, than focused on their teaching.  That is something that will never change.  I have said in the past, that if we only teach students the curriculum we have failed them.  There is so much more to our world than what is written in the static pages of a curriculum.

We need to ask questions and challenge the things that we do that have become so commonplace and “normal” in our everyday.  For example, does a rubrics set up expectations for students or limitations?  Or does having five classes a day in five different subjects make you become more curious or simply exhausted and confused?  Is school getting in the way of learning or enhancing it?

So are our students learning at school, or learning to play the game of the school?  If the system doesn’t serve our students to follow their passions and go deep into learning, then they’ll either leave or learn to play the game. Do we really want either?

Literacy as “Comprehending and Creating”

In my presentations, I often use a hashtag for people to share their thoughts during the time I am speaking, and also asking them to use my twitter handle (@gcouros) if they have any questions.  This is a great way to be able to keep up with the audience while I speak, and to encourage them to connect with me after if they need help.  Any time I show a video during my presentation, I usually go to the hashtag and see what the audience is sharing, and it gives me an insight into what they are thinking, or what they are challenging.  Sometimes it helps me to decide to re-emphasize a point or clarify something when I am speaking.  This is an incredible opportunity as a speaker to not only work with the audience during the conversation, but also for them to learn from one another.  I really believe that if you are only learning from me when I am speaking, that you are missing a great opportunity.

The one thing that I do mention when I speak is that if you don’t know what a “hashtag” or a “handle” is, in this world today, you are becoming illiterate.  It is a statement that is meant to challenge more than anything, but it does raise some eyebrows.  Some people disagree, and some people adamantly agree, but it is more to push thinking and start conversation than anything.  I do however go on to say that in the room, everyone at one point had no idea how to use the Internet, and then figured it out, as well as email.  These are things that were not the norm in our world, yet they became extremely important in our work.

So what is literacy? The “traditional definition” is the ability to read and write, but you will see that definition is a little different according to some sources.  The definition of literacy has changed over time, and there are many different perspectives on the topic.  In this article on the “Definitions of Literacy”, the author shares some differing perspectives that go beyond simply “reading and writing:

“…we acknowledge that the word literacy itself has come to mean competence, knowledge and skills (Dubin). Take, for example, common expressions such as ‘computer literacy,’ “civic literacy,’ ‘health literacy,’ and a score of other usages in which literacy stands for know-how and awareness of the first word in the expression.” Dubin and Kuhlman (1992)

Or this thinking from Langer in 1991:

“It is the culturally appropriate way of thinking, not the act of reading or writing, that is most important in the development of literacy. Literacy thinking manifests itself in different ways in oral and written language in different societies, and educators need to understand these ways of thinking if they are to build bridges and facilitate transitions among ways of thinking.”

(Read the entire article…there is lot to think about in what is shared on the “definitions” of literacy.)

When groups say that students are “excelling” at literacy, they often mean reading and writing scores, not necessarily anything beyond.  One of the definitions that has really pushed my thinking is this one from the  National Council of Teachers of English who define 21st century literacies as the following:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

What would our “scores” be in this area for our students and for ourselves?  There are areas that I would be considered “illiterate”, but I do know that I could learn them.  This is crucial to this mindset.

When I think about literacy in the traditional sense of “reading and writing”, I think that we would lose out on a ton in our world if we couldn’t do either.  Yong Zhao once said, “reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling.”  This is a minimum. But the less we know (from anything to coding or hashtags), the more opportunity we lose, and that could lead to more opportunities being lost by our students.

Do we have to know everything in our world today?  Absolutely not.  But we also can’t just dismiss things as “insignificant” because of our lack of knowledge when we know they provide opportunity for others in our world, especially when those “others” are our students.  Literacy is more about the ability to comprehend and create today in many different faces of learning, than it is simply about reading and writing.  As our understanding of literacy develops, so should our understanding and practice of teaching and learning.