Posts Tagged ‘classroom culture’

What YouTube Taught Me About Learning

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

This week I’m giving a post-dinner talk in Niagara Falls, Canada.  I’m never too sure about how such a thing can be done, but as I prepared the presentation, I asked myself, what would I want after teaching all day, driving to a conference, and having a nice dinner?  Aside from a short talk, I thought, I suppose I wouldn’t mind watching some videos and talking with my friends.

So that is what I decided to do.  The presentation summarizes six ideas about learning, both personal and professional, illustrated by some of my favorite video clips and quotations.  I’ve included the clips, ideas, and quotations here.

1.  Learning that dehumanizes carries the seeds of its own failure.

This clip, for me, captures a simple idea, that life should be fun, joyous, playful and human. Margaret Wheatley says it beautifully:

There is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what’s possible. Being willing to learn and be surprised.

The learning we experience and the learning we provide should celebrate that humanity.

2. Learning involves partnership.

This conversation, for me, illustrates that no matter how different our level of expertise or status, we can still engage in respectful, partnership conversations.

When we do learning to each other, using what Paulo Freire refers to as banking education, we decrease humanity. An alternative is to learn with people in partnership, that is, to design learning that recognizes each adult or child’s need for autonomy.  Peter Block, whose work really introduced me to the idea of partnership, writes about it this way:

Partners each have a right to say no. Saying no is the fundamental way we have of differentiating ourselves. To take away my right to say no is to claim sovereignty over me. For me to believe that I cannot say no is to yield sovereignty.

3. Learning occurs in a culture.

Learning in any system — a classroom, a school, a school system — occurs in a culture. Therefore, one of the true challenges for a leader (a teacher, principal, superintendent, whomever) is to shape culture. Edgar Schein, who literally wrote the book on organizational culture and leadership, puts it this way:

The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.

4. Coaching accelerates learning.

For more than a decade we’ve been learning how coaching can help people improve practice.  When coaches help teachers set goals, work as partners with colleagues, demonstrate what Michael Fullan refers to as impressive empathy, they provide a very important service for their colleagues.  Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article is the best writing I’ve seen describing the challenges and potential of coaching.

5. Learning involves striving for personal bests, striving to do things we couldn’t do before.

What I notice about this clip is how profoundly empowering it is for Cooper in this clip to do something he couldn’t do before. There are at least two ways to understand learning. One way is to assume that people need to be motivated by leaders, and therefore learning requires extrinsic rewards and punishments if people are going to move them forward.

An alternative is to assume that people actually want to do good work; people need to be trying to improve, to be striving for personal bests, to feel they are living a fulfilling life.  One of my favorite authors, George Sheehan, puts it this way:

My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. If I do what I have come to do, if I create the life I was made for, then happiness will follow.

6. Learning involves moral purpose.

One thing, I believe, that characterizes Mr. Rogers is that he clearly did what he did because he cared about other people more than himself. For professionals, for educators, focusing on something bigger than ourselves is very important.  Michael Fullan, who’s written several books about moral purpose and moral imperative, put it this way:

Moral purpose, defined as making a difference in the lives of students, is a critical motivator for addressing the sustained task of complex reform. Passion and higher order purpose are required because the effort needed is gargantuan and must be morally worth doing.

I love all these quotations and clips, and like so many things, I see them through my perspectives. I hope you see them from your perspectives, and that you benefit from watching them too.  I’d love to know what other clips and quotations you think truly illustrate key ideas about professional and student learning.

What clips and quotations inspire, encourage, and educate you?

Steve Jobs, Radical Learner: Create Insanely Great Experiences

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Jobs launched an innovation in the retail space precisely because he had a bigger vision than his competitors. His customers would enter an Apple store to shop for products and leave “feeling” inspired. —Carmine Gallo

One of Steve Jobs’ innovation secrets, Carmine Gallo tells us, was his desire to create insanely great experiences that affect us emotionally. When he decided that his company would create Apple stores, for example, he was convinced that he needed to do more than “move metal,” which was the commonly held approach to selling computers. He had a much bigger vision. Gallo quotes Apple store designer Ron Johnson who describes what they were trying to accomplish with the Apple store:

To succeed in any business, you need an exceptionally clear vision… The fewer the words the better… When we envisioned Apple’s model we said it’s got to connect with Apple. It was easy. Enrich lives. Enriching lives. That’s what Apple has been doing for thirty plus years.

To create stores that enriched lives, Jobs and Johnson, Gallo explains, established criteria that clearly differentiated them from other retailers:

• Design uncluttered stores
• Locate the stores where people live their lives
• Allow customers to test-drive products
• Offer a concierge experience
• Make it easy to buy
• Offer one-to-one training

A classroom is not a store designed to sell electronic equipment. However, a lot can be learned from Jobs’ desire to create insanely great experiences.

First, we can all ask what our vision is for the experience that our students experience? Are we committed to inspiring students to love learning, to experience respect, to love to read? There is value in asking, “What kind of experience do I want for my students in my class this year?”

Second, we can ask, How can I arrange my class so that it best embodies that vision? Sandi Silbernagel from Slidell, Louisiana found her vision by asking a simple question, “What would I want if I was a seven year old?” Her answer was “comfortable,” and she created a classroom culture that beautifully brought that vision to life:

You can see a short video of Sandi talking about her class here .

You can download a checklist for analyzing your classroom’s environment here .

Creating insanely great experiences for learning takes a lot more than a pithy statement and a perfect room, but environment does make a big difference. Steve Jobs knew that, and his company greatly succeeded because of it—Apple recently passed Tiffany’s for having the highest sales per square foot of any retailer. When we understand the importance of environment, we improve our chances of making a difference for our students.  And in my mind, that’s insanely great.

Steve Jobs Radical Learner: Do What You Love

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Steve Jobs

You want more good jobs, spawn more Steve Jobs–New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman’s advice to President Obama

In 2011, Carmine Gallo published The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Since I’m pretty much all-Mac all-the-time, I dove into the book with gusto, soaking up Gallo’s insights into what separates Steve from the rest of us mere mortals. What hit me as I read it, though, was that Steve Jobs’ secrets have a multitude of implications for how teachers and students learn. In the next seven columns I’ll summarize the innovation secrets and suggest a few implications for all forms of learning.

Secret One: Do What You Love

Mr. Gallo writes, “Steve Jobs followed his heart his entire life, and that, he says, has made all the difference.” Gallo supports this idea with ample evidence, but his key piece of evidence is Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford graduate address:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.

I hear Steve Jobs’ words echoed in the comments of teachers I’m interviewing for a study I’m doing into motivation and excellence. When I talk to these truly outstanding teachers–the radical learners–they almost always tell me they teach because they can’t imagine doing anything else. They teach because they feel they born to teach. They do great work, as Jobs says, because they love what they do.

What, then, if you don’t feel you were born to teach? What if you feel that when you chose to teach, you did settle?

Each person has to answer that question on their own. Every person has to fight through dark times. Even Jobs said, “I’m convinced the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did.”

My quick answer, though, is that we have to work hard to find what we love about teaching—creating light bulb moment in students, rising to the challenge of a complicated class, learning with peers, creating a powerful, positive classroom culture. We can’t rest until we find what motivates us. Whether we feel we were born to teach, or we are trying to find ways to love this profession, teaching is best done with passion and love. If we dig for what we can love, I’m confident we can find it.

One way to find that passion might be to commit to helping students find the key to what motivates them. If we commit to helping our students find what they love so they can do great work, we may find we love the great work we do as teachers.

Speak Truth to Power

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

There are people still in darkness

And they just can’t see the light

If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it’s right


None of us are free, one of us are chained.

None of us are free.

Solomon Burke

“Speak truth to power” is my good friend Jean Clark’s favorite phrase.  When we do the work of reaching out to students, doing our best to ensure all students are learning, we have to, according to Jean, “speak truth to power.”

I think Jean has in mind the same thing as the late, great, soul singer Solomon Burke when he sings that none of us are free when one of is chained.  (You can see Solomon Burke sing the song with the Blind Boys of Alabama here). To speak truth to power is to speak out when we see oppression in its many and varied manifestations.  To speak truth to power is to speak up when we hear racist or sexist comments, when we hear people dismissing children by holding low expectations for students who hold amazing potential, or whenever we hear others being objectified, dehumanized, or stereotyped.

When we speak truth to power, we often have to be the voice for others who have lost the ability to speak for themselves, because institutions or individuals have misused their power to diminish others. Speaking truth to power, I believe, is not just about standing up to those who are above us in an organization.  When we speak truth to power, we should also stand up for what is right when we see oppression rise up in more subtle ways.

When we see someone being bullied, it is easy to recognize that we must act, but when we stand up against an organizational culture, it is much harder to step outside the culture and say what needs to be said. Too often, organizational culture trivializes those actions that are most important for moving forward, such as a deep belief in the moral purpose of teaching, a commitment to personal learning and growth, or articulation of the importance of being empathetic towards our students or their parents.

I had lunch not so long ago with a wonderful instructional leader, an unabashed Radical Learner, and during our meal together, I learned that she had just finished her PhD and that she passionately loved continuing studying about leadership, organizational change, and instruction.  She related that when her colleagues kind of gave her a blank stare as if to say they had no idea why someone would be so committed to learning, my friend held up her hand in the universal sign for loser, and said, “Yeah, I know, I’m a loser.”

Such is the power of culture.  We don’t want to suggest we are better than others, and we don’t want to stand out from a given culture in which we live or work, so we tend to acquiesce or put ourselves down.  But the truth is that my friend is anything but a loser—just the opposite, her personal learning makes her a better leader, a person much better able to make a difference.

And this is when speaking up is especially important.  Learning, personal growth, and commitment to students, these values need to be celebrated, not downplayed.  School culture can be as oppressive as any power-tripping egomaniac. Speaking truth to power, then, is not just about addressing oppressive leaders.  Speaking truth to power is about creating the kind of classroom culture that is best for everyone—students, educators, and parents.

As Susan Scott has explained, culture is shaped one conversation at a time.  When we speak truth to power, we speak up to create cultures where learning, humanity, and respect are celebrated, not trivialized.

And we need to take Solomon Burke’s words to heart:  “If you don’t say it’s wrong, then that says it’s right.”

The Empty Room

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, begins her wonderful book, The Creative Habit, by describing how she feels when sitting alone in an empty dance studio just before she meets the dancers with whom she will create a new dance program.

To some people this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. It’s no different for a writer rolling a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter (or more likely firing up the blank screen on his computer), or a painter confronting a virginal canvas, a sculptor starting a raw chunk of stone, a composer at the piano with his fingers hovering just above the keys. Some people find this moment – the moment before creativity begins–so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people.

The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.

Ms. Tharp’s empty room is strikingly similar to teachers’ classrooms before their students arrive at the start of the year. Just like an artist, composer, or writer facing a blank canvas, music sheet, or computer screen, radical learners see their classes as settings that are ripe with potential for creative expression.  But where the composer strives to create beautiful music, the radical learner strives to create beautiful learning.

The way teachers fill the empty space, the classroom, also constitutes their identity, as the empty room did for Ms. Tharp. For radical learners, teaching matters. A lot!

The classroom is their canvas, and they bring their minds and souls to the task of teaching. The classroom is much more than a job; it is an extension of their creative selves.

Few people have the opportunity to do work that is as meaningful and creative as the work done by a passionate teacher facing an empty room. Radical learners know this, and their students are all the more enriched because of it.