The annual conference for the Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) came to a close last Friday with a rousing call from Steve Dembo (@teach42). He urged educators and schools to dare to be first; first with new ideas, first with destroying traditional classroom notions, and first with charting new paths to digital learning and collaboration. Somewhere between Steve calling out the “crazies” amongst us as being the ones with the greatest potential for positive change and being urged to avoid policies dictated by fear, I got an idea. I decided to have a bit of fun and “meme-ify” some of the main elements of the closing keynote. I brought up the MemeGenerator site and brought up a few choice image memes. A word of warning, it’s probably not a good idea to use MemeGenerator with your students; while the site attracts some of the funniest users on the internet, it also attracts some of the web’s bottom feeders as far as humor goes.
With such a diverse crowd of educators in attendance at the MACUL Conference (over 4,200 this year), we could certainly spend a lifetime arguing over the nuances of what traditional classroom notions are. I’m confident there’s a strong consensus that desks in rows, teacher-centered lectures, students regurgitating others’ work, and no connection to digital tools or the media ecosystem omnipresent in our lives today covers most of the big definitions of traditional classroom notions. So how do we try to innovate our learning environments without being labeled as one of the “bad crazies”?
I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to avoid being labeled crazy (whether it’s the bad or good kind.) If you’re the teacher who’s encouraging students to ask open ended questions and challenge the traditional notion of lecture, skill acquisition through repetition, and mastery determined through high stakes assessment, you’re going to get called on it. If you’re not called out as crazy by your colleagues, then perhaps a principal, parent, or community member. That’s alright, Steve suggests; brilliance is often mistaken for crazy in most cases before the big “shift” occurs pushing everyone else into the “crazy” bin. It’s happened already with our culture Steve pointed out; who would have thought 5 years ago that “checking in” at stores and restaurants using your mobile device, and sharing pictures of what you’re eating with the rest of the world would now be considered normal? A few crazy people that are now selling their start-up companies for billions of dollars to the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft.
The inner critic in me begged the question, “But how do we know the “good” crazy from the “bad” crazy?” Not every notion of how to move past traditional classrooms leads to greater knowledge acquisition and empowering learning environments. Khan Academy was heralded as a “personalized” learning environment for every student, but drives a farther wedge between districts and communities that have access to technology and those that don’t. The Common Core State Standards have refocused the integration of technology into all content areas, but many parent groups are now pushing back on the idea of students all being put into the same “mold”. There’s a dangerous game we play within our learning communities when we paint ideas as being crazy or brilliant with such bold brush strokes, so I’d advocate that all of those willing to take the “crazier” path of learning, make sure you still have lines of communication back to home base. It’s not bad to be crazy, but it can be extremely detrimental when we breed fear of the unknown in those around us.
The point Steve made about fear was earlier in his talk, but I saved it for the end. He made an excellent point about the fears that legislators, administrators, and even our colleagues use to justify poor policies, and discourage sharing of what others might deem crazy. Fear is a big business in many industries; personal and corporate liability insurance, web content filtering in education, anti-poaching policies and deals among corporate rivals. To build on that point, how do we build encouragement and excitement about breaking down our classroom walls, sharing what our students are accomplishing (both the process and the end product) without creating new atmospheres of fear? I’ve seen the “bright spots” of sharing in my district push teachers and students to greater depths of understanding and achievement. I’ve also seen those same bright spots of sharing breed resentment and fear in colleagues around them. What sort of strategies can we employ to combat those fears and anxiety of “I’m not doing enough?” Do we herald and champion the success of every teacher and student, no matter how small? Do we pour what little resources we have left (in Michigan at least) into hiring more instructional coaches, or
steal create time for more dialogue and conversation among teachers?
These are the questions I’m curious about, and I hope others are asking the same. I certainly want to help the exciting learning continue to happen in our more non-traditional classrooms, but I’d love for the rising tides to truly lift all boats in this situation as well. How do we do this, before we miss the boat entirely, and find ourselves on a sinking ship? Or worse, wind up like “Bad Luck, Brian”…with no “ship” at all.