Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Interests and Interest

Steve Gilbert, the leader of the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group (TLT Group), and I had an interesting conversation yesterday. We were doing an interactive interview/conversation piece for use with his national listserv and online community.

As we talked about the usefulness of student evaluations of instruction, new course designs at MIT, and broad strategies to increase student engagement, another topic kept popping up. The persistent theme we circled back toward involved the modern push and pull between preparing our students—and ourselves for that matter—for a world of rapid change, career mobility, and shifting priorities versus challenging our students to be part of a community, to develop a sense of authentic purpose and belonging. This conversation got me thinking that this dynamic strongly relates to a defining dialectic of our postmodern age: practical cynicism and individuation versus daring to believe in something and becoming a caring member of a community.

I’ve seen it in almost every world in which I’ve worked over the last ten years: education, association, and corporate. People are torn between looking out for number one and looking out for each other, focusing on their own interests or really showing interest in someone else. It’s as if we are desperately hopeful for real, authentic, inspirational leadership that will make us a substantive part of something larger than ourselves, but cynically resigned when our greatest wishes are dashed away by scandal, betrayal, or incompetence. I touched on this a bit in the Don’t Stop Believing post a few months back.

What is this duality doing to us? Maybe it’s a healthy dose of reality therapy, and this push and pull is an important part of being hardy enough to take the “slings and arrows outrageous fortune.” Probably true. However, there is also a possibility that this duality is becoming so pronounced that whole groups of people are swinging too hard either way. Some are becoming so cynical and individually focused that they’ll withdraw from any position or stand. They sit on the sidelines deriding all players on the field. Others are so fanatically obedient that they dutifully play their part in partisan divides or, worse yet, will blow themselves to bits for a cause.

What is the perfect pathway to the balance of interests and interest? I’m not sure. But we might want to challenge ourselves to be even more thoughtful of our own take on this divide. Even though we are hard pressed to prepare our students for a fast changing world, we may be sowing some hurtful seeds if we don’t also help them learn more about being thoughtful members of a community. In this regard, developing interest may actually be in all of our interests.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


I’m being serenaded by the sounds of my oldest son’s video game, soothed by the sight of my daughter playing on the swing set outside, and amused by the antics of my youngest. You see I’m home after making my usual August tour of education institutions, speaking at convocations, opening staff development weeks, and leadership workshops. I’ve been to K-12 districts, community colleges, and universities on this go around, jumping from Tulsa to Tampa, from Illinois to Indiana. I’ve also visited more Walgreens and CVS drug stores in more states than I care to remember. No toothpaste allowed in carry-on bags, remember.

Because I’m finally home after thousands of miles of travel, this entry won’t be that long. But, I do want to share a quick observation about a common cluster of questions that came up in working with faculty across K-20, and from whom they came.

In my town meetings and Q&A sessions, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the challenges and opportunities facing the world of education. Teachers, reachers, and leaders alike seemed eager to rise to the challenge of swirling students, global social networks, and rising insight initiatives. There is an almost overwhelming acceptance building surrounding the fundamental overhaul our education system is undergoing, and deep interest the shape it might take. What was unique, however, was the reaction from cohorts that usually remain either quiet or contentious.

During these dynamic dialogs, there is almost always a contingent of faculty and staff that wait patiently as we “consultants” do our thing. Some are polite and quiet, just waiting for it to be over; while others like to throw bombs in the forms of observations and/or questions just to see how you might react. It’s just part of the process. However, this time, there seemed to be something different going on. I got the sense that many of the folks that often fall in these camps were engaging in a different way. They were asking hard and heartfelt questions. Questions they might not usually ask. Things like:

“Okay, I’m interested in these technology tools; but how am I supposed to find the time to take try these new things? I’m already buried under paper grading and advising. I’m serious, if I was going to try one thing, what would it be?”

“How am I supposed to support a ‘culture of evidence’ when our technology systems won’t even spit out a clue . . . much less evidence? I really do want to know if we’re making a difference, but I don’t control the information I get. How can I change that?”

And there was a different tone. I didn’t get the sense that these where excuses for not changing in the forms of questions—which is often the case. There was a somber seriousness in these sentiments. These were veterans who really wanted to know what the risk/reward ratio would be, what the right strategies might look like.

I tried to be as responsive as possible. I noted the reality that there was real work to be done to get our systems in line to enable the “front lines” to meet rising student expectations. But I also noted, the great news that when it comes to ideas for where to start, it’s often nice to be “the second mouse to the cheese.” And if you’re willing to honestly look, there are models all around. We just have to be open to trying, to putting our proverbial toe in water.

This little observation about the questions and questioners could easily be an artifact of these August engagements. However, it just may be that we’re approaching a critical mass. Maybe we are reaching the Tipping Point in the coming overhaul of our educational system. Maybe the policy and practitioner worlds are finally beginning to align around fundamental ideas of access, affordability, quality, and engagement. Maybe were on the verge of an exciting decade of dramatic change, where even the most caustic cynic will carry the transformation banner. Or, maybe, listening to my oldest son, watching my playful daughter, and laughing at my littlest boy is making me just a little too hopeful. Maybe.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Learning and Living Well and Free

I spent the day yesterday with a passionate group of educators—career and technical program leaders, teachers, and reachers serving in the Orange County Public Schools in Florida. These are the folks who teach kids and adults courses and programs in electronics, construction trades, business entrepreneurship, information technology certifications, and whole lot more. We dove deep into future trends surrounding technology, globalization, and student social networks, and how each of these drivers might impact career and technical education in the years to come. More interesting, however, was the town meeting we had later in the day, which evolved into a deeper and more interactive exploration of these trends.

Joining this conversation with these educators brought to top of mind an important truth—learning is valuable in many forms. Learning about literature has incredible value; but so too does learning about career and technical topics. Academic rigor is essential; but so too is engaging and practical education. All too often, however, we see divisive wars of importance emerge in educational settings. Liberal arts educators denigrate practical training, and career educators disparage the utility of Shakespeare. “Higher learning is more important than training,” scream elitist English teachers. “Philosophy degrees simply help you think deep thoughts about being out of work,” sneer testy technology teachers.

Of course, both camps are wrong. And both are right. They are wrong in assuming that either is of greater value. They are right to think that their focus on learning is essential. As with many debates, the answer to this conflict is found somewhere in the middle.

Without higher-order learning and an academic core, students who aspire to any career will have a difficult time keeping up with the modern reality of lifelong learning. However, without practical, job-related skills, it will become increasingly difficult to find employment in a job market increasingly requiring certifications of learning. From doctors to electricians to real estate agents to network administrators, demonstrated and continuous learning are essential to employment.

We have to remember that our local, state, and national learning systems need to help people live both well (e.g., get a job they love) and free (e.g., be empowered, well rounded, and engaged community members). And please let us jettison the arrogance that pushes too many to think that all students need to go to Harvard, or that life as a construction foreman is unfulfilling. Hard truth: there are extremely happy, thoughtful, and educated people and dangerously unfulfilled, angry, and ignorant people in every career field, in every income bracket. Some of the saddest characters I know have the most money, the highest degrees, and the loftiest titles. It’s not about money or prestige in learning; it’s about great fit, good choices, and people having an authentic sense of purpose. And nothing will help us live well and free like all of us embracing learning across the K-20 spectrum that is engaging, practical, rigorous, and on purpose.