Learn: Choose What Matters

Apr 13, 2022 4:12:02 PM | Learn: Choose What Matters

What does it mean to learn?

Seeing Beyond Today

It's Wednesday afternoon. It's 2:30pm. It's hot and windy outside. Your students are restless. 

We all know of these periods of difficulty in our own lives, the lives of our families, the lives of our students and colleagues. We’re living through one of them right now, one which seems to be testing so many of us. How we measure ourselves in these times can make all the difference. We are always our own worst enemies when it comes to the pressure we apply to ourselves to be perfect, to get everything done, to be on top of it all. 

What’s been working well for you lately and what hasn't? What are the ideas for which you're advocating that your students are picking up and using to transform how they learn, live, lead and work? What are the things you really wish they would understand but they're not quite there with you yet? And what about the school itself? Do its systems work? Is its model future-fit? How willing is it to take the big step forward and up? How can we make meaningful and relevant change possible in schools? What is it that allows a school to go from one paradigm to another successfully? How can we provide our students a suitable rehearsal for the adult world that enables them to be future ready and future fit?

What really matters to you in your own work as an educator? What are you trying to do to make this happen? How can you bridge that gap between the noble, the lofty, and the ideal in education, and the practicality that there's a lot to do and there's not a lot of time to do it? What choices are you making to cut through to what’s important?

There are traditions that are now thousands of years old where societies use education and testing as a means for sorting, as a means for discrimination, as a means for giving to some and not giving to others. Is this what it’s really about? How important is it to you that together we might achieve a shared understanding about the social context of education and the social need to humanise and personalise what we're doing in schools? 

The true adventure of a life is one which is grounded in self-awareness, relationship, service and vocation. You know this already but it’s probably hard to locate and appreciate the adventure in your work when you're absorbed by the grind. It's particularly the case when the hard slog is imposed on us by circumstance.

 

"The true adventure of a life is one which is grounded in self-awareness, relationship, service and vocation."

 

Finding Your Purpose

Everyone needs a sense of purpose to help them to draw together the storyline of their life. When you commit to asking these questions and leading a life of purpose, you engage in a process of becoming a better version of yourself on a pathway to excellence. With every step you take, you are more likely to show the character, competency, and wellness of which you are really capable – to become the best version of yourself. It is a pathway to excellence that allows you to live a life that’s both worthwhile and well-lived.

This pathway to excellence has the potential to help you to unlock your humanity because it draws on the particular qualities of curiosity, of compassion, of courage, and of conviction to connect you to a sense of something greater than yourself. You will most likely always wrestle with the needs of your inner self and the demands and expectations of the outer world, and most likely you will never quite resolve the two. But in wrestling with these, you will do the work of building your own character: the civic character of belonging, the performance character of fulfilling our potential, and the moral character of doing what is good and right. After all, if you let what is outside of you drive what is inside of you, you are far more likely to claim a purpose that will allow you to go the distance. 

Hope and faith are so important in this. It’s particularly fulfilling when we can use these to inspire us to embark on that adventure within that is typically the most challenging … when we can look beyond present difficulties that always seem to surround us and to block our perspective, when we can see through to what inspires and influences us to become the best versions of ourselves, then we are more likely to find our purpose and locate it in our practice. Usually, we find this inspiration in the things that matter most around us – our people and our place and our planet. 

As teachers, we do this work of a lifetime, this aggregation of purpose and dissemination through our practice, one lesson at a time, with a purpose in mind that derives its validity and its strength from our care for others and respect for our context. We do this best, of course, when we do it together with each other, our students and their families. It is this kind of co-creation and co-production of learning communities fostered by kindness and compassion and love, and fuelled by a deep respect for cultivating the possibility that is inherent in the lives of others that is at the heart of what we call the new social contract of education: today’s learning for tomorrow’s world

 

"...if you let what is outside of you drive what is inside of you, you are far more likely to claim a purpose that will allow you to go the distance."

 

If we want our students to claim their purpose, then we need to do so first! We need to believe that the solutions for our people and our place and our planet lie with us and the young people in our care. We need to be intentional about how we do this and learn how to collaborate within and across our schools on building the community of inquiry and practice that will see us construct an education for character, competency and wellness that truly supports learners to thrive in their world. 

I believe that the process of discerning what matters most of all – your purpose – can be derived from answering four questions. Who am I? Where do I fit in? How can I best serve others? And whose am I? The answers to these questions (which are the same questions that you should in turn pose to your students) describe a natural inside-out developmental process, a journey from me to you to us that connects self-awareness to relationship to service to vocation. 

When did you last ask yourself about your purpose as an educator? Are you asking yourself the big questions? What really matters to you? Are you doing it? Are you building your character? What do you bring to those around you? Are you ready to decide what you need to do next ? Are you ready to take the big step forward and up? And did you commit yourself to answering these questions in writing and building a plan to help guide how you put that purpose into practice? In other words, when did you last claim your “Why?”

Every teacher and every school needs to know their "Why?" to work out their "How?" Your journey to find our “Why?” provides an example to the learners within it about how to do it themselves. Knowing your “Why?” and your “How?” – what you stand for and what to do to act accordingly – can be a real challenge for adults, let alone for learners during adolescence. Yet, we press on. 

For every day, each of us needs to find our own purpose and then translate this into practice through an ongoing contribution to people and place and planet. We need to be game changers. We need to build what we call “a School for tomorrow.” together. It's the whole work of a school and the work of a whole school. It's the purpose to which we have been called.

Balancing Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Our world is a pretty difficult place. Navigating your way forward within it is a complicated thing at the best of times, especially when you’re not sure that you’re really doing what matters and doing it well. The modern facts of life on how to do what really matters (and do it really well) are a shifting reality with which we are all still coming to terms; some things endure while others move fast, and there’s no clear playbook based on precedent about what our practice should be. 

Some preach revolution in education, but I’m not so sure about that. We shouldn’t always seek what is new and fashionable in education. Despite what we hear, not everything in the past in education was terrible and constrictive and lacking in an understanding about the competencies we seek for our graduates today. We may have changed how we think about many things and school today may well serve the needs of a different world, but there’s still an enduring and continuing story of growth and improvement and consolidation and still more growth to come. There’s always been (and I hope there will always be) a spirit of optimism and gratitude that sits behind the patient work of those who get it done. 

 

"There’s always been (and I hope there will always be) a spirit of optimism and gratitude that sits behind the patient work of those who get it done."

 

On the other hand, there’s also a default position of defending the status quo as though what suited other times must inevitably be the only way. This can’t always be the right thing to do. We can’t imagine, in all good conscience, that what we are doing today is all there is to the work of building today’s learning for tomorrow’s world.

Even worse, while it is appropriate for us to tinker and experiment with our methods, we need to be very wary of favouring solutions based on our personal preferences that are dressed up as inventive or fun “for the sake of the kids”. In the same vein, while we may well use scepticism to sort out the workability of new solutions and a restlessness about the feasibility of existing solutions to drive improvement, we must resist the natural tendency towards complaint. We can’t allow negativity and cynicism to be the justification of what we do; it’s too easy to knock things down and destroy the confidence of those whose fledgling efforts have not yet fully formed and taken flight.

Systemically and habitually, we cling to what was once deemed to be relevant. We add more and more in. Rarely do we engage in an honest conversation about what should be revalued, reprioritised, and removed. Conversations about “productivity” quickly become shopping lists of quantifiable tasks that equate a certain number of hours to industriousness and purposefulness. On the other hand, assertions about what is unfair and burdensome “administration” imposed on teachers always seem to align with the things that over time many longer see as core to the business of learning but which ensure deliberate rigour in methodology or provide opportunity to connect with students outside of the classroom space. 

So, the model of school may be broken and systems may no longer be fit for purpose, but being progressive in our thinking does not mean launching ourselves into an imagined world without careful appreciation of evidence, reflection on research, and commitment to improvement. 

No-one ever has “the” answer but we must keep thinking about and contributing our own ideas about what might be a better way to help our learners thrive in their world. We need to remain their servants and the careful stewards of that which is to come in their lives. 

We need to be measured and rational in how we appraise what matters, what works, and what should be done. There needs to be a balance in what we might seek that allows us to choose carefully what we keep, what we try, and (most importantly) what we discard. 

An education that instinctively leans into the future – a future-fit education – always acknowledges and is informed by a balanced appreciation of what's come before it, as well as the present conditions that it serves and sustains. In this way, we need to honour the past, attend to the needs of today, and prepare for the future by supporting our learners to thrive in their world. 

 

"...we need to honour the past, attend to the needs of today, and prepare for the future by supporting our learners to thrive in their world."

 

We need to be prepared to accept that what might have been fit for purpose in a different social context at a different time is no longer future fit. We need to find a way to do this that sits well with our sense of who we are and our place in the world. We will know that we have done well when we look back on what we have done with the satisfaction of contentment, tinged with just a little residual frustration that a few things remain undone and a lingering curiosity that wonders “What if?” and impels a continuous process of learning and unlearning.

Building Momentum

It’s in my nature to want to keep going in this way, so I tend to do so. I think that a disposition towards driving forward is a better way to do what I do as a learner who supports other learners. I never reach an end point, but as I build confidence and competency in what I am doing, I find that I can come to know in time that I am doing a good job. I recognise that I can’t ever do this by standing still, by believing that I have already mastered everything, or have already done it all, or that it’s not possible for me to grow. 

I am very deliberate about the need to keep going and keep going. If what I am doing doesn't work, I can make a choice to give it another go (which is probably my first and second option) or to retain the option to learn from the experience and try something else – find another way forward. I prefer to incline to the things that work but I also understand that I have to allow myself the time either to grow in success or to exhaust the reasonable possibility of achieving something that warrants continued allocation and expenditure of resources.

I have to work hard not to take myself too seriously, especially when I make the sorts of mistakes I have made all my life – the ones that make me cross because I can’t seem to escape them. As a result, there’s often a practised playfulness, or an experimentation, about what I do that I use to counter my intensity. 

Knowing when to adopt a research mindset can help with this greatly. Research should always be attentive towards an agreed process, but must remain genuinely open about the results of this process. Sometimes a modelled solution or a hypothesis can be useful, but If I impose too many expectations about the end point, I can hamper my capacity to sit at a respectful distance and observe the process as it plays itself out. Alternatively, I can develop a wilful blindness to the outcomes, choosing instead to see what I want not what is and must be.

All of this thinking about both the process and product of my work is grounded within an unrelenting commitment to my own progress. I’ve got to keep moving forward. Sometimes I try to do this in big leaps (many of which don’t work). More often these days, I try to take one step at a time and see how it goes. 

There are very few schools (let alone the people in them) that seem to be able to take a giant, revolutionary leap forward, a revolutionary step. Most of them need to work from a premise of iterative incrementalism: breakthroughs experienced in the midst of a momentum generated from a series of gradual steps forward. Over time, one step at a time, they can even achieve a radical volume of change that can amount to turning the system upside down. 

 

"More often these days, I try to take one step at a time and see how it goes."

 

There needs to be an intentional purposefulness about this, but also a willingness to do things in the moment that allow for free expression, fun, and the generation of divergent thinking. They need to be conscious that the pressure of high-stakes academic testing can destroy the manner in which research and development is undertaken. At the same time, it’s very useful to know what is expected of us and plan to achieve success in a deliberate and targeted fashion.

Central to both of these complementary axes of the intentional and the spontaneous, the explicit and implicit, are those same qualities of adaptive expertise and self-efficacy that are also inherent within the theories of self-determination and mastery learning that I believe are the most powerful and authentic of all approaches to learning. Adaptive expertise means how human beings grow in their character competencies and wellness, and then how they use these things to solve known and new problems. It is, in essence, our commitment to growth. And then there's self-efficacy, which means how we organize ourselves and our learning, living, leadership and work to optimize our character competencies and wellness so that they can thrive in our world. So, self-efficacy is our capacity to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. 

As we work steadily towards claiming and living out our “Why?” and our “How?” through our adaptive expertise and self-efficacy, we never really stop. I think that's one of the challenges of what is frequently termed “entrepreneurship” – that constant reinvention, that constant reimagining of what we do, of how we do it, and of what form the products of our intention and innovation will take. We need to realise our own inner drive while replicating the expectations of those around us. 

I think one of the things I can do as a teacher is get up in the morning and just go for it every day that I possibly can. At the same time, I need to make the time to rest and develop the habit of reflection that will together promote renewal. Because if I don't, who will? And then what reserves of both strength and strategy will I have to help me to make it through the challenge and become the best version of myself that I can be?

Crafting Your Method

A disposition towards action and an unrelenting sense of optimism about what the future brings, coupled with the personal discipline of renewal, can be hard things to hold onto but they are so very important when our times are filled with uncertainty and our official and unofficial sources of news and information amplify conflict, division, and gloom. We need a method for countering this culture of cynicism, a “How?” to go with the “Why?” 

For me, this speaks to the science of learning. For me, this is less about the specific content of theories of learning that are supported by scientific discovery. Like Ozymandias, these may have potency in their time, but we cannot imagine that each and every discovery and the theory on which it is based will stand forever. While some truths endure, we must approach all knowledge with the perspective that it is liable to be discarded in time.

 

"While some truths endure, we must approach all knowledge with the perspective that it is liable to be discarded in time."

 

As a consequence, how I engage with students today may well be the same or different to how I taught three decades ago, based on the method I have developed to bring science to substantiate the learning for which I have stewardship and sharpen the craft of teaching for which I have responsibility. Over time, I have come to realise that there are three key features to the method of research that I typically use to ensure that what I believe about learning is grounded in evidence:

  1. Choose your purpose: we know that education is the global vehicle of social mobility. It is the human system with the greatest potential to make the greatest difference in the lives of people everywhere. Yet, this system (and the schools and other institutions in it) can’t be all things to all people. We teachers can’t do everything that is asked of us. If we want to be excellent, we must choose what is really important to us and work hard at doing it better and better over time. For me, what matters most is the growth, development, and attainment of the character, competency and wellness of students that will equip them with the adaptive expertise and self-efficacy to thrive in their world. I have learned from my colleague Adriano Di Prato, whose approach to learning and education is grounded in an epistemology and a theology that speak to a deep consciousness of the other, we must always be cognisant that, as we work on this with our learners, that each is home to a unique life whose possibility must be treasured. That’s why I talk about character being the purpose of school and the whole work of a school and that's why the knowledge architecture of a School for tomorrow. has been developed accordingly to help us apply this purpose in schools to honour the new social contract of education: today’s learning for tomorrow’s world.
  2. Find your crew: together, we need to build a team that over time can become better and better at achieving its purpose. How we choose this team is important. Not everyone will agree with what we think matters most, so we need to identify and build a community of inquiry and practice with those whose vision, values, intention and means aligns with our own. We need the humility and compassion to recognise that no-one can do it all by themselves. We also need the gratitude and patience to strive for excellence over time without ever aiming for or achieving perfection. In the words of my colleague Leann Wilson, who speaks with the wisdom of over 65,000 years of the practice of learning in Australia, we need to learn from others, learn with others, do it ourselves and share with others. At the same time, we cannot just construct a bubble to protect us from the views of others in the world around us. We can’t simply surround ourselves with people who are exactly the same or whose thinking does not challenge and test our own. We need to be deeply invested in the potential of our crew and ensure that the culture of “how we do things here” allows us to perform and achieve results that both meet expectations and reveal an academic integrity that comprises what my parents taught me: the pursuit of intellectual truth based on moral values with which you can sleep at night.
  3. Explore, encounter, discover: we need to create a team with different strengths and ways of seeing the world with whom we might do the work of improving outcomes for more learners in a manner that is supported by evidence and driven by research. My most significant colleagues in the classroom have taught me that it's important to work hard and to develop theories about how learning works best. Over time, they’ve also helped me to see that it’s dangerous to lock these ideas in too early in the process. We need to evolve before we capture. We need to plan a method and approach to learning that research tells us is most likely to work. We need to put this method into practice and live through the learning of our students and ourselves in our own context. From this, we might gather and analyse the evidence of the impact of learning and form a hypothesis as to how the process may have led to these results. Then we need to test and test this hypothesis, iterating the process that sits behind the method based on what we have learned. We need to calibrate this experience to the learning of theorists and scholars who have weighed up what learning looks like across many contexts and adapt our thinking about our earlier hypothesis. Finally, we need to align all of our learning about learning so that we present a narrative about the projected vision, vocabulary, volume, and velocity of learning in a manner which meets the needs of individual learners to leave their mark on the world while honouring the expectations of those around them that they will measure up to shared standards and expectations. To do this requires us to ascertain the weight of evidence for our views and as my colleague Brad Adams, whose profound body of work in global education is deeply grounded in a scholarship and empirical method, might remind us, we must always ask ourselves the question: “How would you know?”

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to be clear as to why we are doing what we are doing to support learners to thrive in their world. I wonder what your science of learning might be? Have you built a model for your method? Have you tested it in your practice lately? And does it stand up to the promise of your purpose?

Everyone benefits when they use their sense of purpose and practice to inspire, guide and direct their professional motivation and priorities. And so, as is the case with all character development, the answers lie in how we wrestle with our inner drive and our external expectations to bring our adaptive expertise and self-efficacy to our situation every day.

The key is to make a decision that informs our choice of what to do now, informed by priorities about what really matters that are informed by a sense of purpose. This needs to be the culmination of the formation and exercise of your own voice, agency and advocacy  which are the expression of your own character, competency and wellness. After all, if we teach who we are, and we want to help our students to develop their own voice, agency and advocacy, then we need to develop ourselves in the same way.

 

"After all, if we teach who we are, and we want to help our students to develop their own voice, agency and advocacy, then we need to develop ourselves in the same way."

 

Making Your Choice

Every day, every week, every term in schools, we find ourselves faced with the dilemma of priority and choice.  None of us has the capacity to do everything that is both asked and required of us. We all have to make choices about what we will value and (therefore) make sure that we translate into action. 

We need to be clear about what we can and should be trying to do. We need to stop telling ourselves that spending more time doing everything is the best way to learn. There is never enough time for us to do all of the things that are presented to us as being necessary, or indeed which we bring to the table of learning. We need to learn to use our resources differently. We need to think differently about the model of how we engage people in their time and what their priorities are and how we resource them and how we support them within the constraints that we've got. Because the reality is there's no more time and there's no more money. 

We have all learned that if we wait for others to make choices such as these for ourselves about what really matters and then how we might go about doing these things, then we run the risk of taking on a task that is simply not possible. We can’t do it all for everyone – we need to make decisions about our intentions, our points of focus and the activity by which we seek to realise these things.

At the same time, making a choice for ourselves doesn't call on us to be binary in our thinking: life on a daily basis is rarely as easy as saying something like "Maslow before Bloom". We need to meet the taxonomy of human needs at the same time as we support cognitive development. Each clearly supports the other; their relationship is symbiotic and a bit messy. If we can't be as strong in one today, then we might emphasise it more tomorrow ... or next week … or next year. 

All in good time.

We need, therefore, to be discerning about what works – we need to choose our purpose and our practice carefully and selectively. When we know what really matters to us, and we can align this intention to our vision and actions through our method, then we will be in a much better position to generate today's learning for tomorrow's world and measure our progress towards making this aspiration real.

Written By: Dr Phil Cummins