Learner First, Modern Second

shifting-conversations-logoBruce and I had the great fun of spending the day at Educon in Philly on Saturday, and we sat in on a great session led by David Jakes and Kristen Swanson on “Rethinking the Purpose, Process, and Promise of Professional Learning.” (You can watch some of the stream from the session on YouTube.) At the outset, David and Kristen asked the participants to  describe the current state of professional development in schools and, as you can see by this picture, the responses at my table at least were not very positive. (Would love to hear in the comments how you would describe the state of PD at your school.)

During the session, I was struck (once again) at how teacher-centric the conversations were, and how relatively little we focused on the adult as learner. Much of the conversation centered on whether or not the outcomes of adult learning would raise student achievement or success. There was little real discussion of developing teachers as learners, especially in the modern context we’re tracking here.

Which leads me once again to this realization that’s been becoming more and more clear of late: Schools really aren’t focused on learning, neither for students or adults. 

I know I’ve harped on this over and over in this column and elsewhere. And the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I’ve been asking the leaders that I meet at schools and conferences to articulate a belief about how students (or any of us for that matter) learn. Short answer, they struggle. They rarely have a belief about learning that is clearly defined and guides their practice. Rarely can they point to a recent discussion or a book they’ve read that focused on learning. And even more frustratingly, they seem to ignore how learning happens in their own lives when it comes to thinking about how learning happens in their students.

allA couple of weeks ago, I quoted a Dave Cormier post where he wrote “Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured on during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult I know.” Since reading that, I’ve been challenging both leaders and teachers I’ve met with to reject that notion, to push back and say that actually, they hadn’t forgotten 95% of what they “learned” in school, and that Dave was just wrong. Some mounted a half-hearted defense of the curriculum, but the vast majority sat in silent agreement. We know that we didn’t really learn that stuff, because if we had, it would have stuck.

So here’s the ugly truth: even though we know that we ourselves spent somewhere along the lines of 15,000 hours in schools from ages 5 to 18 not really learning very much that stuck with us, we seem perfectly fine with putting our current students through that experience regardless. We know, in our heart of hearts, that most kids aren’t really learning the math or science or history or French that we’re teaching them, at least not in the long term, sticky sense. Yet we continue to teach it in pretty much the same way we were taught it regardless.


This isn’t about being constrained by the system or the assessments or our nostalgia. This is about doing what’s right for kids, especially in the light of the affordances of modern technology which make it more about learning than knowing. This is about putting learning first and foremost, and being able to articulate what we believe it takes for real learning to happen. And if we do this work honestly and understand the modern contexts for learning that now exist, it changes us.

As an education leader, your personal and organizational beliefs around how deep, powerful learning happens must be the foundation for your work as a school.

I’ll circle back around to Esme Capp, the principal of Princes Hill Primary School in Melbourne who was one of our first masterclass interviews. Every year, Esme and her teachers start by having conversations around learning, developing principles that guide their work:

  • Children learn through engagement in social contexts
  • Children learn through multiple forms of expression
  • Children learn through active participation and complexity
  • Children develop motives to engage
  • Children learn through the unity of emotion and intellect

 It starts there, but it doesn’t end there, because those principles don’t play out through a lens limited by traditional notions of schooling. Here’s what Esme writes on her welcome letter on the school’s website:

“New pedagogical practices are evolving to enact these principles through a focus on inquiry-led research projects including approaches such as learning agreement time involving negotiated learning, targeted learning, individual and small group conferencing, and workshops with a focus on provoking thinking. This has involved reconceptualizing all aspects or organization including grouping of staff and students, curriculum content, time management, and parent involvement.”

As an education leader, your personal and organizational beliefs around how deep, powerful learning happens must be the foundation for your work as a school. The good news is that those beliefs are not that hard to construct; you need only look inside yourself as a learner and ask “What conditions were in place that allowed me to learn deeply and powerfully?” Ask that question with a larger group of teachers, parents, students, and others, and you’ll be on your way to changing your school. Frame that answer, then, in the contexts of the technological affordances for learning that we now have and you’ll truly be engaged in the work of developing learners who will flourish in their futures.

Image credit: Denise Krebs

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