Posts Tagged ‘personal best’

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?

Personal Best

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

“We strive for the excellence the Greeks called arête …–to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best.” George Sheehan

In Personal Best, the great philosopher-runner (or running philosopher) George Sheehan elaborates on one of his core beliefs: Our struggle to achieve personal bests helps us know and actually create who we are. We all have felt the “joys of indolence,” Sheehan reminds us, but the true measure of a person is how he competes with himself. The heroic human journey, he says, is “to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best … not to excel against others, but to excel against yourself.”

Sheehan writes about running, and for him, running is much more than a way to lose a few pounds; it is a way to achieve a happier, more authentic, fully realized life. Talking about why he runs, Sheehan writes as follows:

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.

Sheehan’s idea that meaning and happiness can be found in striving to achieve our personal best extends far beyond running. In fact, I believe it is an even more powerful concept when applied to professional pursuits. Sheehan himself describes how the same striving for excellence that he sees at the heart of a dedicated writer is manifested in the creative life of a famous writer:

“I am writing the best I can,” said the author of some bestselling popular novels. If I could writer any better I would. This is the peak of my powers.” It matters little that she cannot write any better. It matters, more than life, that she is doing it with all her might.

How does Sheehan’s heroic notion of the quest for excellence apply to teaching? I believe it matters “more than life,” to borrow Sheehan’s phrase, that we see teaching as exactly the same kind of opportunity for excellence, that every day in the classroom we embrace the challenge to achieve a personal best. It matters greatly that our quest for excellence is our quest to create an opportunity for our students to experience as much growth, joy, empowerment, and learning as possible.

Like a race, the classroom provides a clear standard by which we can measure our growth. Runners like Sheehan compete with themselves to see if they can run faster, longer, or with more ease or joy. As teachers, we can compete with ourselves to see if we can have even greater positive impact on all of our students.

To pursue a personal best in the classroom requires several things.

First, we need to have a clear understanding of how well our students are learning or not learning. Thus, formative assessment becomes an essential tool for anyone striving for a personal best because, like a runner’s stop watch, it tells us how close we are to our ideal.

Second, we need to have access to new ideas, instructional coaches, collaborative colleagues, and other resources and supports so that we can make adjustments when we fall short of our ideal. The real joy of teaching is learning how to reach all the students we teach.

Finally, we need the courage to see the classroom reality exactly as it is and have the perseverance to continue striving for excellence. And since inevitably some days won’t go as well as we had hoped, if we really want to achieve personal bests, we need to accept that there will be times when we feel uncomfortable.

To learn, to see the classroom exactly as it is, we need to venture outside our comfort zone. If we don’t take risks, we are in danger of being satisfied with what William James, one of Sheehan’s favorite authors, describes as “lives inferior to ourselves.” Sheehan sums this all up as follows: “It’s more comfortable not to try. But life is, or should be, a struggle: Comfort should make us uncomfortable; contentment should make us discontented.”

The rewards of challenging ourselves, of pushing ourselves for a personal best, are enormous. When we pursue excellence, we gain a deeper understanding of our purpose, a fuller knowledge of the contribution we make, and the satisfaction that comes from doing work that makes us proud. Most important, of course, if we strive to be the teachers we were meant to be, we will make a bigger difference in the lives of children. By our example, we can even encourage our students to start their own journey — to strive for their own personal bests.