Conversation 3, by Andrea Christman

I’m partway through my second Educon, and as I found the first time around, my brain is having trouble keeping up with the intensity of learning that is going on. I continue to be amazed at the number of educators willing to spend an entire weekend, almost around the clock, thinking deeply and richly about education and how we can make it better for our students. And I’m not just talking about how to improve computation or comprehension or proficiency scores. I’m talking about people who are constantly poking at the whole idea of what education is for and how it should work at a fundamental level and what it needs to look like today, next year, and in the next few decades.

If you want an example of what’s good and great in education today, if you want to meet the best of the best educators, come to Educon.

Also as I discovered last year, there are a few big themes that seem to be emerging from the conversations, both formal and information, that I have participated in so far. I imagine that some of this is a result of my own bias and self-selection–I do tend to end up with people and in sessions that already lean the same way I do, after all–but these seem to be pretty consistent no matter which particular cluster of people I land in. I’m not going to attempt here to analyze these themes in any great depth (I’ll save that for future posts), but simply to put out some of the raw thoughts for your consideration. Push back, pick at the parts I am not considering or grasping properly, and continue the conversation that is going on in Philadelphia this weekend.

Voice, Choice and Passion

We talk a lot about student-centered learning in education today, but much of it revolves around differentiation and keeping student abilities and needs in mind as we deliver our prescribed curriculum. But what about student-DRIVEN learning? Give students more freedom to express themselves, to explore and discover what they are passionate about.

We are wrestling with the very nature of what school and education are for here. What is our role? What are the limits of that role? Or are there any? Part of me believes that more than simply training kids to be competent adults (which I do think is part of our mission), we have a bigger question to help students answer: Who am I, and what is my place in the world? On the other hand, I’m not sure I want schools to shoulder all of that responsibility. That’s what families and communities and faith are for, too.

I believe part (or perhaps most) of our job is preparing kids to make a contribution to the world (I could well be wrong about that, of course). Different kids will make different contributions. Different kids SHOULD make different contributions. So should we be working harder to mold students into our box, or should we be refitting the box to accommodate the students? The Educon conversations seem to be pushing that even further: we need to let the students design and build their own boxes.

Challenging Assumptions

Another frequent theme that is arising this weekend is the idea that we can’t be content with our assumptions. More times than I can count, I have been involved in a conversation where the comments settle into a comfortable place where we mostly agree on the principles, then someone (sometimes me) says, “Wait a minute,” and points out that the assumptions behind the principle aren’t necessarily givens.

There are dual dangers, I think. If we get too complacent in what we “know” is true about students, or schools, or education as a whole, we can’t innovate and adapt to the world. But if we are too skeptical, if we only ever act as if all our assumptions are potentially wrong, we may never actually act on anything.

But I think we probably ought to lean much harder towards regularly stepping back and analyzing what our assumptions are. Students change and the world changes quickly enough now that things that really were true last year may not be true this year.

A question I am starting to ask myself in every conversation and with every book I read is “What are the biases and preconceptions that are framing my point of view, and what happens to the argument if I turn them upside down?”

Now I need to figure out how to bring these ideas back to my district and what to do with them in the context of every day school life. What are the practical applications of these ideas about student passion and assumptions? What do they look like in a classroom? How does productive change happen? Maybe today’s sessions will move me towards some answers.