The Power of Positive Community: A Winter Games Hackathon Reflection
— January 13, 2021
I have always been a firm believer in the principle that ideas create ideas. This has been an underlying current to every project I have done with the ShapingEDU team and in most of my brainstorming work. Last Wednesday, as a mob attacked the US Capitol, I was privileged to host a mob of an entirely different sort at the ShapingEDU Winter Games. One mob was a mob of ignorance attacking our democracy. The other was a mob of ideas attacking the challenges of learning in a Digital Age marred by a pandemic and social dysfunction. This was a mob dedicated to hope, not despair. And new ideas, not vandalism and death, were its outcomes.
The difference between the first group and second group was that the second group fundamentally understood the power of community to shape positive outcomes whereas the mob that attacked the Capitol embraced only the concepts of individualism and privilege to try to assert power over the future of our country. We must ask ourselves what role education plays in determining which of those futures ultimately wins out. It’s time to get to work.
The underlying message of last week was that we live in a society that is struggling to find meaning and that in instances of crisis those seeking meaning often grasp for false gods. It is the job of education to give our graduates the tools to find their own meaning, build meaningful communities, and to find meaning in learning itself. We often find ourselves lost in this endeavor and our students, as a result, fail to see the point of their exertions.
This is the task we embraced as we attempted to ski down “Pandemic Mountain” and to start to constructively build a meaningful future for education. Using the 9 Strategies outlined in my book, Learn at Your Own Risk, as a departure point for a series of brainstorming sessions, we successfully skied down the Pandemic Mountain into the Valley of Possibility. The central goal of the 9 strategies is the creation of communities of practice and, as I’d hoped, the ShapingEDU community took this to new levels. We worked on a digital canvas connecting practical approaches to the concepts laid out in the book. Afterwards, I went through and connected the ideas together and looked for patterns. This graphic shows the end result of that work.
I want to tease out three broad themes that seemed to emerge.
- Student agency is the bedrock of meaningful learning
- Faculty and educational leaders need to create communities ourselves in order to foster community among our students
- Specifically, the importance of ongoing collaboration among faculty and staff around tool implementation
There was a general consensus that student agency should be the bedrock of all teaching. Community is not possible without agency and, by extension, neither are communities of practice that make deep learning possible. Everything else, from the tools we use to the way we assess their work. must be built up from there. The COVID-19 pandemic robbed many students of what little agency they had even before socializing became a dangerous proposition. The Industrial Age has dehumanized us by making us part of the machines. For learning to be meaningful, students cannot view themselves as merely cogs in the machine, they must learn to build systems of their own design. The Digital Age makes this possible but not if we fail to embrace its possibilities.
Learn at Your Own Risk challenges its readers to take a hard look at all of the ways in which their students are reduced to mere ciphers. Grades contribute mightily to this feeling. How many times have you heard a student say, “I’m not an ‘A’ student”? This is extremely pernicious. The purpose of learning is to open doors to opportunity, not to “find your level.” Grades, however, are not the only dehumanizing aspect of education. Attendance requirements, scheduling (particularly in K12 environments), high stakes testing, poorly-designed learning spaces that are more like egg crates than places of inspiration, and many facets of “modern” education contribute to a sense of isolation and purposelessness among our students.
Technology threatens to make these facets of education worse as systems replicate some of the worst aspects of industrial education in an effort to make them more familiar. I doubt many POWs would appreciate a VR experience of their prison camp experience. We should not be surprised if our students don’t approach online learning with any great enthusiasm if all it does is simulate the worst aspects of the learning experience in person (and I have seen all too much of that over the last year).
Another recurring theme of the discussion was the need for us to mutually support one another, to develop our own communities of practice, in order to understand and initiate change, both within our own classes and throughout the larger systems of education. This idea is implicit in my work but (and this is the danger of freezing your thought into a book) I could have done a better job of forefronting the importance of communities of practitioners in shaping change in the industrial systems of learning that disempower our students.
We are not immune from viewing ourselves as cogs in the machine. Our measures of success are shaped by simplistic measures of student success. We are held accountable for “pass rates” and “completion” agendas based on external forces that often have a poor understanding of education (having been products of the industrial system themselves). In many instances we allow our instruction itself to be shaped by “Student Learning Outcomes,” which are all-too-often focused on content rather than demonstrating skills in mastering content.
The third, related, theme that emerged from the session was that teachers needed to create groups to support one another in evaluating, understanding, and shaping the impact that our tools, which are often equated with technology, have on our pedagogical options. The idea of standing committees at institutions whose purpose would be to discuss and evaluate pedagogical tools was floated. I think that is an excellent idea.
Last year, I started the Teaching Toolset Triangle Project with ShapingEDU that was designed to create a tool for connecting teaching to the tools we use to do just that. In my effort to finish Learn at Your Own Risk, this project has remained somewhat fallow since the summer. However, this session served to reinforce in me the importance of that work. We create environments with our technological systems, whether we are talking about learning spaces or learning management systems (and in myriad other ways). We have learned to accept the technologies that are given to us as teachers and often fail to understand how these systems shape how we feel we can teach, and, most critically, the perceptions our students have of the possibilities of the spaces in which they are consigned to learn. We have all been trained to be, as I like to tell my students, “rats in a maze” when it comes to our educational systems. It’s time to change that and we are looking at initiating a series of workshops this Spring centered on the ideas in the Teaching Toolset Triangle (stay tuned for details).
2020 has been a tough year for education but even before we were afflicted by a biological pandemic, we were struggling with pandemics of an entirely different nature. These pandemics were a product of an inability to teach ourselves to accept the realities of a changing world being shaped by automation and climate change. Understanding the complex realities that these two challenges represent is the fundamental challenge we as teachers and educational leaders face in producing thinkers capable of successfully navigating humanity through the coming decades. This is the task that ShapingEDU has set for itself. If there is one thing I am confident of, it is that we will continue to model communities of practice for the larger educational community we serve. This is how we find the fertile valley of opportunity that we must show to our students.
Here are some other highlights of discussion broken down by strategy
- Strategy #1 - Empathic Inventory of tools with an emphasis on student agency
- Strategy #2 - Value of collaboration to create meaning and agency
- Strategy #3 - Student agency - student-designed assessments create opportunity for student agency
- Strategy #4 - Gather.town as an informal meeting space tool
- Strategy #5 - Faculty collaboration to get away from “firefighting” to rethinking/re-imagining
- Strategy #6 - Employ collaboration tools in asynchronous settings
- Strategy #7 - Faculty collaboratives to explore tools
- Strategy #8 - Employ digital roadmaps to make sense of student ideas and incorporate them into the learning process - individual concept maps to generate challenge roadmaps.