Those of you who have been around these parts before know that one of my biggest frustrations is the imprecise ways that we talk about learning, as if everyone defines it the exact way and it therefore requires no context or is without nuance. On almost every occasion that I find myself talking to teachers or leaders about their work, I find myself asking clarifying questions, sometimes to the great frustration of the people I’m with. I do it not to be a foil but to be clear: “What do you believe about learning?” I just think that’s crucial.
I’ve reference Seymour Sarason’s age old question (and book) “And what do YOU mean by learning?” more times than I can count. And most recently, I’ve been bringing Frank Smith’s “classic” vs. “official” theories of learning into my work even more. (Short version: “classic” is what we all know about learning, “official” is the school sanctioned version that looks little like what we know. Here’s a graphic. Read his book, too.) Both require us to say what we believe about what learning is, what makes it happen, and how we foster it in the classroom. Too often, that fundamental piece is missing from the process and the conversation. Or, we’re not sure whether it’s there or not.
I think Gary Stager gets it right:
In the absence of a clear and publicly articulated vision for a school or district and a misguided quest for the holy grail of balance, the weeds will always kill the flowers. If you are a school leader with a coherent vision for educational progress, you must articulate your vision clearly and publicly so people will follow. Why make others guess what you want and stand for?
Case in point, Future Ready Schools. Now first, let me be clear, I have no opinion on the work that FRS is doing. And the reason I have no opinion is that despite spending a good deal of time on their site, and despite engaging in a protracted Twitter Q&A yesterday with some of the folks who are involved in leading the effort, I still have no idea what they mean by “learning.” They use the word often, but they are not clear as to what their version of learning is. And there are many versions to be parsed.
Briefly, here’s what I wonder as I read the site:
1. What are “digital learning opportunities” exactly in the following sentence, and what are the measures of success:
“Future Ready is a free, bold new effort to maximize digital learning opportunities and help school districts move quickly toward preparing students for success in college, a career, and citizenship.”
2. What are the “personalized learning experiences” that participating schools are supposed to lead?
3. How does FRS define an “engaged” student?
4. What are the “student learning outcomes” that FRS wants to help schools measure?
5. What are the “issues that drive student learning?”
6. The site says “Technology now enables personalized digital learning for every student in the nation.” What do they mean by “personalized digital learning?”
To be fair, FRS does attempt a definition of “student learning,” but they break the cardinal rule that you shouldn’t define the word with the word itself:
Digital learning is defined as “the strengthening, broadening, and/or deepening of students’ learning through the effective use of technology.” Digital learning can serve as a vehicle to individualize and personalize learning, ensuring that all students reach their full potential to succeed in college and a career.
The elements that comprise this Gear include:
Authentic, Deeper Learning
21st Century Skills
College and Career Readiness
Anywhere, Anytime Learning
I struggle with so much of that because they leave the fundamental questions unanswered. Are students learning our stuff (curriculum) or their stuff (interests)? Are we more concerned with them becoming learners or learned? Are teachers organizing the school experience or are students building it? Do the technologies we give to kids transfer agency and increase freedom on the part of the student learner or do they just transfer our curriculum in digital form? And, importantly, what does success look like, and how is it measured?
These are harder questions. These are not about doing things “better” but about looking at schools and classrooms and teachers fundamentally differently. And these are important to ask and answer before we embark on any initiative that purports to “improve student learning.”