Centering on Essential Lenses

(Cross-posted from the Center for Make/Hack/Play, a new project we’ll be working on.  Find the Center for Make/Hack/Play on Twitter and Facebook.)

photo: alexkerhead

Lenses are powerful tools.  With the right lens on your camera, you can see things very close up, or incredibly distant.  The right lenses can help you bring light to dark places, or shelter the darkness from too much intruding light.  Turn the lens on your microscope or telescope the right way, and what was blurry becomes much easier to see.

Lenses are good for focusing on what matters in a given situation, challenge, or opportunity.  But you need several in your camera bag if you want to see the most of the world and capture it for yourself or others.

Beyond cameras, the metaphorical lenses or frames that we apply to our experiences can help us to better understand them, or to give us new ways of seeing what’s happening to or around us.  There are three lenses that seem essential for any learner’s toolbag, be that learner a student in a classroom, or one who frames the learning of others.  Helping to build and shape and develop these lenses is essential for lifelong learning in the 21st Century.  Or the 20th.  Or the 22nd.

How you see is shaped by how you look.  And we say folks should look with lenses like these.

1. Making

There’s a copy of Make Magazine on my desk right now as I write this, as much as talisman as anything else.  I’m not a big DIY guy around the house.  To be honest, my lawn sprinklers are in serious need of attention right now, and I am in over my head.  I pity the portion of my yard that suffers while I figure that out. It’s a slow journey for me as a suburban homeowner to adapt my environment to my needs.

But I’ve always believe that making things is essential to the craft of teaching and learning.  Students learn more and better and fuller and richer when they are making something to demonstrate their learning.  Or making something to share their learning.  Or making something to help them understand their learning.  Or . . . well, you get it, don’t you?

Learning happens when we make things.  We make sense of new situations.  We make knowledge by processing our experiences.  We make tools to help us do things we might not yet be able to do.  Making matters.

2. Hacking

Hacking too often gets a bad rap, because we’ve lost the sense of the word.  The original definition of a hack was a fiddle that improved a process or a program.  A hacker was someone who made such changes.  Hackers were revered in technology communities, because they took what was there and made it better.  The first hackers tweaked some code and made their software or hardware do something that it couldn’t do before.  Later, the term grew to include people who fiddled for nefarious purposes.

But the original meaning of hacking is worth reclaiming.  Hackers are the folks you want on your side when something’s not working like you want it to.  Hackers improve things.

Learning happens when we hack things, too, because we must understand what our situation is, and how we can fiddle with it, in order to improve it.

3. Playing

While there are many definitions of “play,” our favorite is the definition of play as the search for freedom within constraints.  When a system, be it law, or culture, or “the rules” of whatever you find yourself in, blocks something, playing with that system results in your discovery of freedom or agency.  That playing might require you to make something, or to hack something.  But good play certainly requires that you understand what and who you’re playing with, and perhaps even the nature of the game.  If you don’t like the game, perhaps you can tinker your way into a better one.

Playing with information or structures or situations can lead to powerful learning.

Centering, Then

And maybe the best sort of way to spend your time as a learner is through making, or hacking, or playing.  Or maybe all three.  And along the way, you might rediscover the parts of yourself that have gone to sleep.  Or have never been awake.  Those are the parts that you can use to make and hack and play wherever you happen to be.

These lenses can lead to agency.  And that’s worth shooting for.  That’s a life skill that’s bigger than science or geography or math or language arts.  Applying and being aware of agency to and in whatever you’re doing, agency informed by your abilities to make and hack and play, leads to you being more fully in control of your situation.

That’s powerful learning.  So enter the Center for Make/Hack/Play, an ethospace informed by and seeking to inform others of the value of making, hacking and playing.  A place where it’s all about the agency of the learner and the art and habits of active learning.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing some ideas for applying making, hacking, and playing lenses and principles to the work that should happen in schools and classrooms and learning organizations.  We hope to offer workshops and work with schools and teachers and the community to build and sustain spaces for this kind of learning.  While some of this learning requires specialized tools and equipment and classrooms, not all of it does.  The principles of making, hacking and playing can thrive in any learning situation.  And maybe they should.

So that’s worth figuring out.  That’s worth doing.  So let’s begin.


In Search of Agency

It sure seems like a lot of things just happen to people. You know, beyond our control and all. We’re well-intentioned, and rocking along, and all of a sudden, but on a pretty regular basis, something just happens.

And we are helpless in the face of all this happening stuff. Right?

Of course not, but when it comes to teaching and learning, I have come to see that way more often than I’m comfortable with, teachers and students alike just let their schooling happen to them rather than acknowledging that they have control over what and how and even when they learn. Even in the face of mandates and political pressure. Even then.

But folks feel helpless more than I think they actually are.  Learning, or school, or whatever, seems to happen to them, rather than the other way around.  It’s supposed to be the other way around.  Folks are supposed to own their actions and habits and the way they spend their time.  And our culture too often supports passivity and compliance.

I feel like folks forget they are the agents of their experiences.  We have agency.  Power. Control.  Maybe not over everything that happens.  Certainly not all.  But over more than we realize more often than not.

So how might we work to build agency in teachers and learners?  Let me simplify that question – how can we help folks develop the ability to recognize the constraints of a situation and to begin to play with them?

As I delve more into elements of play and hacking, and even maker culture, it seems to me that there’s fertile ground there.  Play, if you recall, is the ability to move freely within constraints.  Hacking is the ability to see the system – and a problem with it – and work to improve it.  Making is creating.  It’s fiddling with the constraints of lots of different systems.  Yarn.  Blocks.  Food.  Circuits.  Classrooms.  Textbooks.  Laws.  Whatever.

Hacking and making and playing are how you figure out where the constraints are, and how you might be able to fiddle with them.  As well as what happens when you do.  These skills/habits/attitudes/frames of thinking are useful when thinking about developing agency.

That was where I got to in my wondering and thinking when it was time for Michelle and Kyle and I to think about what we’re going to work on next.  And then I got a whiteboard pen in hand.  And we did this1:

Enter hacking/making/playing. Or, more specifically, Hack/Make/Play.  It’ll be a multiple day and ongoing PD experience that we do in the district.  In conversation with other folks. If school’s but one node in the learning networks of children, well, we want to play nicely with the other nodes.  And we want to use our time with teachers to help them make things.  To help them understand how to identify building blocks.  And to help them figure out when and how to take things apart and put them back together differently.

Building on others’ successes in maker and hacking spaces, and on the idea that learning is, to some extent, playing with information, deconstructing and reconstructing it, we would like to create some professional learning experiences that would help people to begin to feel equipped, and to a more important extent, empowered, or permissioned, or whatever the word is for “it’s okay to do this”-ed in order to build those senses of agency for teachers and students and anyone involved in learning.

Right now, it’s just notes on a board.  And messy ones.  We started thinking about a week-long camp.  But that wasn’t right.  We want lots of entry points into this kind of thinking.  Lots of ways to engage and get involved.  So the “days” I spell out are probably not going to happen sequentially.  We don’t know yet.  But I do think that each of them is a kind of entry point.  Hacking the Web seems an important way of thinking.  Making stuff another.  Hacking curriculum?  Well, you get the idea.

The essential question at the bottom is, I think, the big piece – “How do I approach a system to determine where my agency lies?”  If you’re able to play, you can see the constraints.  To see them, you’ve got to know how and where to look.  Hacking, making and playing seem to be useful ways to answer that question.  Not the only ways – not everyone needs to play with Picocrickets, or build toy cars.  Heck, the knitting circles I’m familiar with in our district likely embody the ethos we’re aiming for.  Everyone needs to be making something.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll begin to flesh it out and look for the connective tissue that will hold various groups of hackers, makers, and players around our district together.  In some cases, we’ll probably start new groups.  In others, we might help existing groups to find one another.  I don’t know.  But I do know that something I said earlier in this post is worth saying again – there’s fertile ground here.  Hackers and makers and gamers are really good at learning.

You might already be farming spaces like these – so I’m asking: Where do we go next?

  1. I should not be allowed to use whiteboards without some serious remedial handwriting work. []

Visiting with a Neighbor. Sort of.

Had a short visit the other morning with monika, who’s trying something new ((Or, really, quite old, perhaps.)) just up the road from where I work and down the road from where I live.  I can’t quite sum up her work in a one sentence “this is what she’s doing” statement – but I can say that she and her students are exploring something important.  They’ve been on a journey for a few years now that’s leading them to some interesting spaces.

And I’m looking very forward to hearing from her and them on this month’s CLN Webinar next Tuesday, November 15th, at 3:30pm Mountain.  You should come, too.

On a semi-related note, I just had to share with you these words monika wrote recently in response to something I said back here a week or so ago.

i think we compromise too much be seeking proof for things.
what if we experimented more with a culture of trust.
that people are good right now.
that you are fine today…. let’s just start being/doing more of you.

Poetry there.


What Counts

On Thursday night, I was helping to introduce the concept of teacher research to a group of teachers in my school district.  And it happened.  The thing that often happens when you introduce qualitative methodology.

We read a sample teacher research study that Michelle and I are fond of.  I like the study, a short piece on a teacher wondering about the value of a pullout literacy program in her school, because it emphasizes three things I think are essential to consider, and often re-consider, when ot comes to teacher inquiry specifically and qualitative research generally:

  1. Teacher research is an opportunity to dig into the “I wonders” and the “what ifs” that come up from time to time in your classroom.  But it’s not the same as “what good teachers do every day.”  It’s more intentional and purposeful than that.  And that’s a good thing.
  2. Teacher research is contextual.  It comes from you, the researcher.  The classroom you teach in, the students you know, the wonderings you have.  That works two ways – both the questions and your answers to them are contextual.
  3. Teacher research involves “data” that doesn’t show up in a quantitive study.  Stuff that doesn’t count because it can’t be counted.  Or, at least, not as easily.  And what matters, or at least what should, when it comes to measurement and paying attention is not either/or but yes and.  Qualitative and quantitative measures are friends.  Honest1 .

And it’s the third point that usually involves controversy.  Things get heated.  And that troubles me.

Folks make statements, when we start to fiddle with traditional notions of “data,”2 about their stats professors, or n values, or other things that suggest that Math Is THE Way of Knowing The Universe.

While I find lots to like in science and math, it’s not the only way to go after what’s right and good and true in the world.

Teachers, of all people, should have a good and always developing sense of this: they should know and understand what it means to measure, and how measurement affects the thing you’re measuring, and how there are ways other than percentages and standard deviations to explore vital areas of life and living and learning.

If you think that’s wrong, and that cold, hard numbers are the only way to Know Something, well, consider this –

How do you know you love your spouse?  Your best friend?  Your children?  Your parents?

Prove it.

But you only get numbers.  I’ll wait here.  Take your time.

  1. As I write this, I’m in the middle of a mixed-methods study.  The two go nicely together. []
  2. And the air quotes make appearances usually at this point in the conversation. []

A Year of Learning

Tonight, we kicked off the first team leader meeting of the year for the new cohort of the Digital Learning Collaborative.

The DLC, if you didn’t know, is a two-year professional development program we’re in our third year of developing.  Year one is a year for personal and professional learning.  Year two, which we’ll kickoff later this month for a different cohort, is a year of teacher inquiry into what happens for students when we use technology in the classroom.

Last night, we attempted, with our teacher team leaders, to set the culture for what it means to learn as teachers in community.  We reviewed some of our habits – making sure we have a plan for all of our monthly team meetings, how we use Google Docs to share those plans and to share notes we take when and as we meet, and making sure that we’re separating time for learning1 from time for collaboration and sharing.   And, yes, that’s messy.  Messy is okay.

But we spent the bulk of our time last night reading and thinking and talking to each other about a couple of pieces, written by Will Richardson, that explore connected and passion-based learning not just for students, but for teachers, too.

That led to some good conversation.  I heard Kelly, a first grade teacher, when she asked about how we help connect students to passions that they might not realize they have, and how we can encourage students to explore areas of themselves and the world when they might not have any knowledge about, well, much of anything.  I heard Rebekah, a high school math teacher, when she said that somewhere, students have learned that it’s cool to not like math.

I hope that folks heard me when I invoked Mr. Rogers, and his definition of teaching, the idea that what teachers do is that they love something, and they love it in front of their students.  Passion, indeed.

I heard Mollie when she said that it was important for teachers and students to follow their passions, and that, in a time of scripts and pacing, we’d do well to make sure that we’re injecting student interests and differences into our work.

I heard others, too.  It was a fine culture setting conversation.

We also talked about the power of reflective writing, and took some time to write together, as we will do during all of our meetings.  While I cannot share their writing with you just now, know that we’ll be hearing more from these teacher leaders and their teams as they begin to dig into their learning this year.

It was a fine start.

  1. Sometimes, this is training.  Other times, it’s time for reading and conversation.  There are other things this learning might look like, too.  Learning is complicated. []

The Podcast: Two Fall Projects

In today’s podcast, I talk about a couple of projects that are keeping me pretty busy this fall – finishing my thesis and building  with some friends from the NWP.  Oddly, they go together.  Which is a good thing.  Keep your fingers crossed.  And, as always, would love to hear your thoughts in response to mine.  This time, I could definitely use the help.

Direct Link to Audio


On Being Afraid

On Friday, Converge did a quite nice write up of some of our district’s work with technology. I found it to be a splendid piece. Specifically, a large portion of the article featured some of the work we’ve been doing with the Digital Learning Collaborative. If you need a one sentence summary of that work, well, Paige does a fine job:

It was awesome and scary for some to be in charge of their learning.

I think that pretty much sums up what I’m seeing with regards to the way that we’re asking teachers in the DLC to take control of their own learning. It is scary for many of our teachers to take control. And it is awesome, delightful even, when it happens.

More often than I’d like in the DLC, the teachers that we’re working with, and we work with the leaders of the teams, folks identified as teacher leaders in their schools, so chew on that a bit, are afraid, or unwilling, or unable, to take control of their own learning. These teachers, quite fine and thoughtful people, are often waiting for Michelle or I to tell them what’s worth learning and/or doing. That’s troublesome1.

This is mostly a rhetorical question, but I’d encourage you to consider it anyway – what’s happened to teachers and teaching that it’s so difficult for teachers to feel they have agency enough to follow their own lines of inquiry and learning?

And why in the world is that okay?

  1. And the word “troublesome” is quite the understatement, I think. []

So I'm Going To Be Teaching This Class. And Could Use Your Help.

I like new frontiers.  That’s why I’m excited to be participating in Karen’s attempt to create a School of Ed at P2P University this fall.  It should be a neat opportunity to fiddle with what it means to do PD.

I couldn’t be more excited to be facilitating a course we’re calling “.”  I pitched the course as “a course on writing to learn for non-English teachers” and that’s almost exactly what I’ll be teaching1.  Better yet – some of my friends from will be helping me to develop the course.

The six week course, which will begin mid-October, is going to begin with a deep look at the Common Core State Standards, and particularly the section of the standards that addresses the role of writing across the curriculum.2 Then,’ we’ll tackle writing in the classroom from two distinct lenses:

  1.  Writing to Learn – the habits and bits of writing that you do to make sense of whatever it is that you’re learning and exploring.

  2. Writing for the Disciplines – the writing that’s specific to content areas other than language arts.  How do historians write for each other?  Scientists?  Mathematicians?  And why does that matter? How can we help our students to write in these ways?

As a final project, participants in the course will use for their own classrooms that should result in some thoughtful writing for and with students.   We should all get some good ideas.

As I’m developing the collection of resources, I know that NWP’s Digital Is will be an important text for the group.  And I’m also reminded of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray and their essential contributions to writing as process and writing as something that teachers just, you know, do.

But I could use your help.

Here’s a Google Doc where I’m beginning to draft a collection of readings and resources for the folks3 who I hope will take this course.

I’d sure be grateful if you’d offer your favorites and help keep me honest by pointing participants to actual examples of the two areas I outlined above.

And of course, this entire experience is, for me, first draft thinking.  I’d be open to your ideas, suggestions, and feedback as I’m working to construct an experience that’s ultimately useful to teachers and results in increased use of writing in their practice.

Thanks in advance.  And perhaps I’ll see you in class?  Sign up opens soon.

  1. Er.  Facilitating.  Teaching.  Guiding.  Whatever.  The participants and I will experience it together.  And we’ll all take turns. []
  2. Yes, technically, this is a rather large section.  Pretty much the entire language arts section.  But we’ll hone in on the specifics of writing for the disciplines other than language arts. []
  3. Remember – a targeted audience of non-language arts teachers. []

Thinking. Making. Learning.

This morning I had the opportunity to visit our school district’s Camp Innovation, a summer program for Kindergarten through second grade focused on engineering and exploration and inquiry.  In partnership with IBM, our district developed this two-week summer experience.  Here’s the formal description of the work:

Teams of students will work directly with IBM employees at the IBM facility, along with SVVSD educators and high school volunteers on important and relevant issues to building a Smarter Planet: transportation systems, water, cities/buildings, food, and energy. Each group will be facilitated by a SVVSD teacher, an IBM employee, and multiple SVVSD high school students who participate in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or IB (International Baccalaureate Diploma) programs. At the end of the two week camp, project exhibitions will be shared with community audiences to culminate the experience.

My informal discription?  Students digging in, asking questions, and wondering about the world.  Then doing something about it.  It was fun to watch, even for a few minutes.  Students and facilitators and volunteers were moving around, making things, discussing options, and clearly engaged in very important work.

Below is a video describing the inquiry cycle that the Camp Innovation team, a group masterfully facilitated by Paige Gordon, worked to build into every aspect of the students’ experience.  As I was wandering and shooting pictures and exploring student creations and how they camp has transformed a wing of office space at IBM into a design and fab lab, I saw the cycle in action, on the walls, and in the work of the students.  I’m looking forward to seeing the students’ final projects, which will be shared in a community event at the end of the week.  Thankfully, the entire experience has been well-documented by our district communications team, specifically Matt Wiggins1, and you can get a feel for the camp and the events as those videos emerge ((You can catch them as they hit the Web if you’d like.)

One more thing – as I was exploring the students at work, other district administrators who were visiting were remarking that it was essential that we get ideas like “So what?” and “How are you going to personally get involved?” into our “regular, during the school year” classrooms.

And that’s a fine thing to remark on.  I look forward to their, and our, continued efforts to mix design and tinkering and inquiry into the daily culture of our classrooms.

Here are more of the photos I took during my short visit.  Take particular notice of the “Prototyping Lab,” a large space full of supplies.  I’ll have more to say on the lab in a future post.

  1. The original version of this post had Matt’s last name incorrect.  My apologies. []

“Interactions with Technology Should Be Playful.” (Yep.)

So I’m giving a short “setting the mood” talk today to a school that is up to some interesting work.  They’ll be spending the next couple of days working through some play and exploration around many of the tools available to them to help them in the work of teaching and learning.

And I’m supposed to say something clever and upbeat to get them started.  Which is a bit of a challenge.

Or, it was going to be, until I stumbled across a draft of a position paper by the National Association for the Education of Young Children on the role that technology can and should play in the learning and development of young children. I was prepared to be frustrated by their work, and I was so tickled to be wrong.

It’s a delightful read, painting a picture of what I believe learning can and should look like.  That it’s a technology document is almost of secondary importance.  I’d encourage you to give it a read.  But I can give you the gist of the document in these three statements taken from the text1:

We can learn lots from the situations of discovery and exploration that are the best of our early learning spaces.  Preschool.  Kindergarten.  A good library, theater, or museum.  The joy of discovery and wonder and budding curiosity.  The technologies that we use with children for learning should help us to amplify the best of us and to help us become better and wiser people.  It matters less what technologies we employ than it does that we are working thoughtfully and purposefully to create spaces for good learning.

And I hope I can convey that to the folks I’m speaking with today.


UPDATE:  Here are the slides from the talk.

  1. The text is from the position paper.  The pictures were taken by me of my children in two recent trips to the Denver Art Museum. I’m preparing to do some work with them and I’m excited by the learning spaces I’ve seen there on our recent visits. []