Responsibility in Learning or Responsibility in Teaching

I participated yesterday in a discussion about learning preferences–specifically in relation to professional development. There were a lot of assumptions made about how professionals want to learn, from “just tell me what you want to do” to “game changing, thought-provoking” open discussions. Specifically, we spoke about people’s preferences about how they want to interact while in a room with peers. Some of us like to sit and hear about a new idea, or how to accomplish a task (like use software). And others want to be “doing” something, whether the doing is “building,” “debating,” discussing, or even “drawing.”

I walked away from the discussion thoughtful, because while I recognize there likely is a range in learning preference, in our field of education, the method of delivery can be learning itself, no matter the content.

I have been to a lot of conferences. Last year I went to a conference where I didn’t present, and I think, it was the first time ever. I was miserable, as I figured I would be. My primary motivation for going to conferences is to present, and also to hear first-rate speakers. Over the years, however, my own preference for sitting back and listening to an amazing speaker has been challenged with sessions where I have been asked to not passively sit, but to stand up, or sit around a table, and contribute. Some of these sessions have been frustrating, but others have been really cool. The coolest ones have been those that went beyond “share with your neighbor” types of 2-minute conversations to something where all of a sudden we’re challenged to build something… together. There’s no time for norming or getting to know folks formally… it’s dive in with your sleeves rolled up.

My intellectual side will likely always favor constructionist learning. It’s a theory that’s very important to me. It means we don’t learn best by sitting passively, however efficient that may be. It means we’re active. It means we’re applying what we already know to create something new–either alone or with others.

So, one idea folks have used over the last 5 years in more frequency is an unconference format for professional development. Born out of the tech industry, the idea is simple: instead of a pre-organized conference where presenters are building decks of slides with handouts and a 45 minute talk prepared, people of like minds convene in a space and self-organize themselves into sessions based around their interests. Sounds very “loosey goosey” until you realize there are some expectations attached.

According to the link above,

The unconference format creates space for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity.

These are my ideas, based on what I have read and have experienced with this format:

  1. We assume many participants are leaders.
  2. Participants are open to sharing their ideas and accepting challenges to those ideas.
  3. You are responsible for growing with the experience.
  4. Creativity will be celebrated in the sessions.
  5. It only works if you’re engaged.

So, with likely dozens of ways to lead professional development, it got me thinking if each and everyone holds professionals accountable for learning. Is any expectation for responsibility for learning in a session where you’re talked at the same as for a session where you’re exploring a solution for something you’re really, really interested in? I think the “principal” or the “trainer” role in our field would say yes, we want learners, no matter if they’re teachers or students, to walk away from a training session better informed. If I go to a basket weaving session, I hope when I leave it (however long it takes to weave baskets) that if I can’t yet weave an entire basket myself, I will at least have a deeper appreciation for how one weave’s baskets, or have an appreciation for what it takes to make good baskets. If I’m irresponsible, I’ll sit in the back and read a magazine while others get their materials and give it a try.

I think more often than not, in school classrooms we test this “responsibility for learning” thing at test or quiz time. And instead it should start one day 1.

I do think all learners have a responsibility for their learning, but that cannot obfuscate our responsibility as teachers (or professional developers) to design engaging instruction opportunities that reaches participants on multiple levels: intellectually, emotionally, and creatively.

So, let me land the plane. Let’s take basket weaving as my example. Pick your preference for learning about basket weaving. There are no wrong answers.

  1. I’ll sit in a chair for 1 hour, listening to an engaging veteran in the art of weaving baskets, who will maintain my interest through her savvy use of slideware (PowerPoint) and her special gift for story telling.
  2. I’ll sit in a chair for 1 hour, watching someone build a the base of a basket using tools of the trade. If I am interested in this after the hour, I can go to a store and buy the materials and maybe try it out at home.
  3. I can join others around a round table for an hour, each of us with different experience levels at building baskets (I’m a newbie!), and hear multiple perspectives on how to go about the art and craft of basket weaving. Some participants will have brought pictures of their finished products, and some, surprise, surprise, carry small projects in their oversized purses and backpacks.
  4. Small groups are formed with chairs, and in the center of the circles made by chairs, are basket waving materials. Together in small groups we are instructed to build our own baskets. Four experts circulate the room helping the novices, while groups naturally are peppered with participants with previous experience. While we were given an hour for the session, we’re welcome to extend the session by eating lunch in the same space.
  5. I peeked in a room with a “basket weaving” sign on the door, just to see what crazies might come to that session. Instead of going in, I entered the room adjacent, where there’d be a “fair share” of great project-based lessons teachers had delivered.

No matter which number you picked, consider how:

  • engaging one session might be versus another,
  • how much your own passion or interest in the subject plays into that engagement,
  • the type of preparation and expertise required to lead one session versus another,
  • your students might think about their next lesson on something they may initially know nothing about, or have any interest in (say, like basket weaving), and what they payoff is at the end of the year, or the end of their career: was basket weaving the important thing to learn? or was it the skills they developed through the learning process? And if you pick skills, which ones will those be? Sitting and absorbing? Storytelling? Problem solving with others in a group? Seeing how their own application of a solution to a problem (in this case project lesson design) could be improved by the experience or expertise of another)?

Happy learning!