The Freedoms to Learn and to Question

I was asked to respond to a question, which I will, but first a bit of a good old fashioned soapbox style rant:

When I think of popular movies like Good Will Hunting, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poet’s Society, School of Rock, and a few others, I think of how these movies celebrate aspects of learning and how they portray student-teacher interactions … and just as evident, how the Institute of education always takes a back seat to these interactions. The students and teachers in these movies are not dehumanized, but rather hyper-humanized. They get to know each other well and, as a result, turn even the simplest conversations and questions into robust learning opportunities – learning opportunities that grow into deeper understanding and inquiry. Cultivated by their hyper-humanized experiences, the students’ and teachers’, students’ and students’, and – sometimes – teachers’ and teachers’, relationships blossom and they all learn long-lasting lessons that deeply apply their respective knowledge and thus endure long after their formal schooling ends.

Idealistic movie review aside, what can I say about working in The Mosaic Collective, a program and environment designed to push the Institute out of the way of student learning… to strip back bureaucracy and encourage exploration, fun, and messy learning?

Working in an environment like Mosaic is revealing.

It reveals the often-unnoticed battle between the freedoms to question and learn and the Institute of education and its need for efficiency, order, and quantification. What inspires me is that we can focus on the freedoms to question and learn (though often at the expense of the tidy efficiency of the Institute). What scares me is how much systematic energy goes into feeding the Institute – and yes, most often at the expense of the freedoms to learn and question and thus inhibiting our efforts in Mosaic.

I think the freedoms and the Institute can strike equilibrium, but my experience as a teacher suggests they are far from balanced. The Institute rules today’s system of public education. Focusing on the freedoms to question and learn is hard work as they seem to fly in the face of the demands of the Institute – it’s just getting harder and harder to creatively maneuver and think clearly.

Here, maybe an analogy will help.

It’s like administering CPR during an earthquake or some other catastrophic event.

1-2-3, pause, breathe, dodge falling building, shimmy around the lava, 1-2-3-, pause, assess, breathe, duck pyroclastic flow, avoid the exploding gas line and opening crack in the ground, 1-2-3-4-5, and breathe…

I know. Silly… but replace the 1-2-3-4-5 numbers with things like quality conversations, presentations, and authentic opportunities to communicate learning needs and progress, replace the falling rock with lazy intercom announcements; and the lava with ear-piercing bells that prehistorically announce the end of one class and the beginning of another. Replace the pyroclastic flow with low-quality school-wide programs designed to “raise awareness;” the exploding gas lines with standardized testing and professional development; the cracks in the ground with malfunctioning or nonexistent equipment and facilities and the analogy may make more sense and better convey the message.

The Institute is hardly invisible in our schools. It can be seen and heard at all times. Next time you’re in a school, stop for a moment and just watch and listen. You may be surprised at much the Institute bullies the freedoms to question and learn. Really.

The dramatic CPR-catastrophic event analogy takes me back to Hollywood. It reminds me of other movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Napoleon Dynamite … where the Institute of education plays prominent roles in the plots and stories. School, teachers, and administrators in these movies are goofs – they just exist – their presence runs parallel to the students’ lives, curiosities, needs, and interests. The characters are there and not there – ghosts really. Nobody knows from where they came, but they all wear cheap clothing and eat lunch in large teacher’s lounges where they spend too much time complaining about their students. These characters make silly, comedic, and sometimes tragic impacts on their students’ lives and on the lives of the students’ families. These movies are relatively old, but – sadly – timeless, not because of the genius behind their writing and production, but because the Institute hardly changes. Show one of these movies to current high school students and they’ll find them just as entertaining as students did back in the 1980s and 90s.

As a teacher, I get these roles, boy do I get them … as a teacher in Mosaic, I live in a Goldilocks zone between the roles in these movies and those of the teachers in the hyper-humanizing movies I first described. My time and energy is spent striking a balance between the two. What kind of movie am I helping create? What would a movie about Mosaic look and sound like? What would it be about? What would the characters be like? And just as important, would anybody watch it?

If I close my eyes I can see the movie’s trailer. I’m picturing an action-type trailer, you know, the ones with the dramatic music, huge text, and scenes that flash in and out.

(Big flash and dramatic sounding music)

This Fall.

(Flash)

Some students.

(Flash, boom)

12 Teachers.

(microsecond group picture of the teachers)

100 Students.

Flash, boom, bang…

LEARNING.

(Ken Burns effect from L to G in the word learning)

Invigorating.

Exhausting.

Rewarding.

Fade to a dramatic black screen // cue dramatic and intense music…

Ken Burns effect on a smiling student looking at and away from the camera at the same time…

Silence…

The Mosaic Collective:

What.

(Boom!)

Is.

(Boom!)

Learning?

(Bigger Boom. Explosion!)

Ken Burns Effect on a student deeply pondering something.

And who gets to learn?

Coming to a school near you … (maybe)

*****

Alright … so I began by saying that I was asked a question – so what was the question that I was asked? Here:

What’s been the effect on your own freedom to teach? In other words, can you give me a paragraph or so that talks about how this has changed your own practice… freed you up to work with kids in ways that maybe the traditional system doesn’t allow for? Freed you to learn about your craft? Etc.?

Questions, not question… Here’s a long-winded response:

Mosaic is designed to reveal and strip away anything that distracts from learning and that effectively acts as a barrier to the identification and pursuit of learning opportunities. It stretches the word assessment back to its Latin origins, as much of our “assessing” is in the form of conversation, interviewing, listening, and simply working in the presence of one another. Other, more formal forms of assessment often happen during presentations, performance opportunities, and in the creation of products that can be easily shared, reviewed, critiqued, and curated. These products can then go on to inspire other students and teachers and thus serve as learning opportunities and launch points for others.

The freedoms to learn offered by our program know no bounds. They can extend well beyond traditional school hours, as students and teachers use social media and texting to share information, ideas, and questions. As a science teacher I love it when I can stretch my expertise and content into other areas like history, writing, world language, and math. It’s just so natural to do this and in doing this I am exposed to new ideas. I learn so much in Mosaic.

Some of my students have preferred a more traditional approach to learning – that is, they have asked to be led through the topics of a course and to use many of the materials these courses would use in a traditional classroom. In these cases, however, they have progressed at their own paces, often hyper-focusing on one subject area over another and toggling back and forth. These students perform many lab experiments when they feel compelled and curious to do so… again, often working in bursts rather than a controlled rationing of information and skills, which tends to happen in more traditional environments.

Other students read articles, watch videos, and relay conversations they had with other people, like their friends and parents, and share this all with me. We then find ourselves launching from these conversations and thus learning in a more organic and free-flowing manner. I’ve really enjoyed these approaches. They set aside over-planned lessons and curricula for more organic and interconnected approaches – a sense of spontaneity replaces calculated efficiency. Like the aforementioned students, these students also work in bursts and can be the ones who share what their research discovers in a way that ignores traditional schedules and time and location restraints.

The freedom to teach in Mosaic is more about sharing and networking than it is planning and grading. My ideas can be almost instantly shared with my colleagues, which results in a peer-reviewed process of sorts than always serves to improve the idea and shift it towards authenticity. The idea may be implemented immediately or it may percolate for some time – eventually resurfacing when either I or a colleague remembers the idea because of our network and suggests a version of it to be implemented. The networked freedoms to teach in Mosaic also provide ample opportunities for intense conversations about ideas, events, and philosophies that always challenge us beyond any happenstance conversation I would have in an isolated environment built around traditional content areas (i.e., science, math, social studies, English, etc.).

As a teacher in Mosaic I am the consummate researcher. Teachers are researchers, but many fail to identify themselves in this manner. I have a front row seat to “ah-ha” light bulb moments, fatigued breakdowns, … I know my students well and so, too, they know me. I’ve never grown so close to a group of students in such a short period of time. The freedom to teach in Mosaic affords me the opportunities to roll up my sleeves and get messy with my students’ learning and to nimbly respond to their needs in ways that were not always possible in a traditional environment. I leave my school on a daily basis wondering about my students’ threads of investigations – I hear songs and stories on the radio as I drive home that may be of interest to them, I watch videos and think of how they may overlap with the ideas shared with me by my students, I naturally find and share books, links, and relay aspects of conversations I have with colleagues, parents, neighbors, friends, and even complete strangers.

As a teacher in Mosaic I am always on the move. My mobility seems proportional to my freedom to teach and to the success of my quest for learning opportunities and opportunities for some “just in time teaching.” There’s something so profound about my going to my students rather than it always being the other way around. I can’t put my finger on it – exactly, but it does seem like I’m able to better navigate our learning network of students and teachers to help make connections. In a traditional environment I, despite major efforts to do otherwise, was always constrained by both time and space and by the sometimes-limiting effects of group think and group dynamics.

I’ve realized that teaching and learning can really be quite simple. Traditional methods, while stemming from good intentions, can often over simplify to the point of complication. Methods to communicate learning get engineered as cold, online student information systems that relegate students to logins, passwords, identification numbers, and percentages. Efforts to pace a group of students logically and thematically through a course of study can stretch too far and essentially pinch out any time for creative and open-ended inquiry. When teachers see themselves first and foremost as master explainers they can front-load content to a point devoid of exploration and discovery. And desires to make things easy and understandable can come at the expense of students’ making their own connections after wrestling with an idea or concept. In short, our good intentions may have created unhealthy, uninspired, and unnatural environments in which to learn enduring lessons and skills. We’ve over-thought ourselves into a hole so deep that others think we need rescue and reform. How many of these reforms are simplifying? How many of these reforms free teachers to create, inspire, and mentor?

In Mosaic we seek to do just these things. And I am finding my newfound freedoms so liberating and refreshing. I am not just a master explainer. I am a free mind not bound by the artificial constraints of a burdened system lost in a maze of its own creation. I am free to learn with my students; I am free to teach and to be taught; and I am free to dream and make connections that extend well beyond the walls of school and the start and finish times of a traditional school day.

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