Connectedness and Uncomfortable Thinking

I am attending the ASCD annual conference in Philadelphia, and spent yesterday in a day-​​long pre-​​conference session by Bobb Darnell about encouraging an environment for high achievement for all students. During the session I learned some new things and gained some new techniques that I will bring back to my district and share with other staff members. I was also participating in a backchannel conversation on Twitter (use hashtag #ASCD12 to follow the conference if you like). I was tweeting interesting points from my session, but also following one or two other sessions through the hashtag. Through the day, I was reflecting on my own practice and the culture of connectedness I have become a part of, and I discovered that one of the things that makes it worthwhile to me is that it keeps me uncomfortable.

[Full disclosure is warranted before I continue: I am attending ASCD at no cost as a member of the “press.” ASCD invited me to come and report on the conference through this blog and my Twitter feed. I am grateful not only for the opportunity, but also that ASCD put no constraints on my use of the pass. I have full access to the entire conference, and there were no expectations or requirements for what I write or how I portray my experience. I was not asked to promote or mention any resource or product. All opinions are mine alone.]

Why would discomfort be a good thing? Through Twitter, primarily, I am able to stay connected with a number of other educators, many of whom are constantly pushing my thinking. Throughout the day, I was responding to tweets and prods by many of my network which helped me analyze and rethink the things that I was hearing in the session.

As I thought about the various techniques and research that were being shared, I became very uncomfortable with a number of things. My network keeps me grounded on one hand, but also reminds me to keep stepping back to look at the big picture. My work and my own professional development experiences recently have highlighted for me that so much of what we do in schools is at a granular level. We run one-​​day (or one-​​hour) workshops to pour a bunch of new strategies into teachers and then hope that one or two of them might get used occasionally. But how often do we step back and think about the underlying philosophy behind the strategy and whether it is aligned with the other strategies and philosophies we’re implementing? How often does a school district have an explicit stance on these philosophies?

Example: A fair amount of the techniques I heard about yesterday had to do with techniques for improving students’ acquisition, retention, and recall of information. Chunking data, for example, or scaffolding with graphic organizers. All are research-​​supported methods that do in fact accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. But without a conscious philosophical stance to provide context, I fear that different people will have walked away with different perspectives. Different people will have different beliefs about the importance of fact mastery, explicit knowledge, and direct instruction. If you aren’t aware of those differences, though, you won’t be able to recognize when a strategy doesn’t align. A teacher working in a district without a philosophical position may try to implement many different strategies without a coherent plan or cohesive structure of teaching and learning. The result will be confused and erratic, and results will suffer.

My network, however, and the questions and information that are constantly shared through it, help me to keep stretching my awareness not only of my own philosophy, but also the contrast with that of others, and it helps me also to make better choices about how I design learning experiences and curriculum for my teachers.

I am intrigued by the contrast between the culture at ASCD compared with that at another large education conference, ISTE. At ISTE, nearly every presenter shares their Twitter name, and many of the people in my network are those who I first connected with by attending a session by them. The backchannel conversation there is full, rich, and varied.

At ASCD this weekend, by contrast, I have seen only a few names in my stream, and none of the presenters to this point have even mentioned being accessible on Twitter. They share their email addresses, but that is by necessity a static and private communication.

The value in the Twitter connection is that the conversation is not limited to a few minutes at a conference with a limited audience. It is ongoing, reflective, and public. I am constantly refreshed when a new voice jumps in and pushes back at me to rethink—again—an idea or a position, and it also frees me to do the same for others. I’m reminded every day that if I get too uncomfortable with my own thinking and am not constantly reflecting on it, I am not growing any more as an educator.

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