Many months ago I spoke at a leadership conference in Vancouver. When the event was over, officials with the British Columbia Principals and Vice Principals Association, held an invitational gathering of school leaders from throughout the province to create a new document establishing leadership standards for principals and vice principals.
To help them prepare for the upcoming conversations, seven relevantly accomplished professionals were invited to spend eight minutes each sharing their insights about school leadership and culture. They included a former superintendent, international educator, a director of education for a large Canadian school district, a developmental psychologist, executive director of the (Canadian) National Staff Development Council, president of a large chain of grocery stores, a professor of sociology ––– and me.
As I explained here (Warlick, 2012), I was fortunate to have been the last to speak – addressing literacy and learning-literacy. It was one of those singular learning experiences for me, sitting on the stage, listening to these really smart people, and changing the outline of my short talk with just about every idea set forth. I watched as my own presentation morphed into something different, articulate, and –– awesome.
So, with the 2013-2014 school year gearing up, and my own education career spinning down*, I thought I would spend some bits here expanding on each of the items that seemed to spontaneously appear on my iPad that afternoon.
A school that practices learning-literacy is a school where:
- The distinctions between teacher and student begin to blur.
In a time of rapid change, when new jobs emerge and fade faster than any education institution can respond and lifestyles change with a globally connected cross-cultural conversation, literacy becomes something bigger. It no longer seeks to make readers. It makes master learners, people who can successfully learn, unlearn, and relearn. **
In this environment innovation becomes a commodity, the ability to resourcefully learn becomes the defining foundation of literacy, and the principal goal of formal education is to produce learners. In this environment pedagogies shift from best teaching practices to best learning practices.
Of course teaching does not go away and neither does a good lecture. but no teacher will deny that we all learned what we teach better, after we started teaching it, than we did as students in the classroom. Teaching is a potent learning skill. Therefore, perhaps one of the best ways that we can help our children to become skilled learners is to practice learning in front of them, and one of the best ways for children to learn, is to teach.
This means, for instance, becoming comfortable using technologies in your classroom, with which you are not comfortable. Demonstrating and talking about your process for figuring it out, or even asking for help from students becomes a life-size illustration of adapting to change – being a master learner.
- There is less reliance on textbooks and authority, and more reliance on the work of learning.
Our information landscape has changed: in what it looks like, what we look at to view it, how we find it, where we go to find it, what we can do with it, and how we communicate it. We all engage in content generating conversations through blogs, twitter, YouTube, and what ever is to come. We can no longer believe it, simply because it was written down. We are more than information consumers today. We are participants.
I learned to assume the authority of the information that I encountered. I was taught with approved textbook, in academically managed libraries and by teachers whose position was based on their learnedness. Questioning the information that I encountered was not encouraged. It was unnecessary.
Today, habitually questioning content is required. It is a foundation of being literate. To become literate, students should learn within an information environment that exemplifies today’s information landscape, where discussions of an idea’s validity become part of learning the idea. We must learn to be responsible participants.
- There is a natural convergence between the rich information skills of literacy and numeracy, and the information and data that define the content areas.
Information is increasingly networked, digital and abundant (overwhelming). Each of the qualities are new and they expand what it means to be literate. If you agree that learning is at least a major part of why we become literate today, then knowing how to employ these new qualities, in order to learn, are basic literacy skills.
At this writing, I am creating an infographic that tells a story about how today’s North Carolina General Assembly came to be and what it cost. Because information is networked, I am able to find, evaluate and select information about campaign spending and its sources that would not have been practically available to me in the past.
Because that information was digital, I can capture that information, translate, organize, manipulate and interpret it using tools that didn’t exist when I graduated from high school.
Because information is abundant (we are all overwhelmed by it), I am using graphic design and publishing tools that didn’t exist when I left classroom teaching, trying the practically convey my findings in a visually clear and compelling message.
There is a physics to today’s information landscape and accomplishing goals relies, in no small way, to the ability to harness these laws of digital behavior to invent solutions to brand new problems.
- Teachers teach from new learning, as master learners.
When my grandfather was in college, molecules were defined as, “The smallest part of any substance which possesses the characteristic properties and qualities of that substance, and which can exist alone in a free state.” (Webster’s revised unabridged, 1913) By the time my father was in school, atoms were defined as “A particle of matter so minute as to admit of no division. Atoms are conceived to be the first principles or component parts of all bodies.” (Webster’s revised unabridged, 1928) I learned about electrons, protons and neutrons while my children learned about quarks and other strange particles. Today, we’re reading about future computers that will operate on the behaviors of quanta.
The answers to the test questions are changing.
According to a 2010 Bowker report, 2009 saw 1,829 new books published in the U.S. about agriculture. 5,131 new books were published about computers, approximately 9,000 each about business and education. 14,281 brand new books were published about history – new knowledge about history. As we gain more access to information and to each other, the new knowledge that we generate as a society not only astounds us, but it is forcing us to redefine what it means to be educated. We have rapidly moved from a world of information scarcity to information abundance, and an education is no longer measured by what you can remember, but what you can learn and what you can do with what you’ve learned.
Teachers, who teach solely from their university experience do a disservice to their learners. Teachers should model themselves as habitual and resourceful learners, and skilled artisans of what they’ve learned. We must walk into our classrooms out of today, not from the day that they graduated.
- Digital Footprints become a central part of the school’s culture, building evolving personal and school identities based on learning and “doing” with the learning.
When I built the nation’s first state department of education website, there were probably less than 100 parents in the entire state who could access it. But today, institutions are identified by their web sites. Some sites have become institutions unto themselves – Wikipedia, Amazon.com and Google.
When most of our children’s parents think about the institutions that support them in their daily endeavors, they recall URLs instead of building facades. They expect to interact with their world through the World Wide Web. They expect to have the same digital access to the schools their children attend and the teachers who manage their classrooms. It has evolved from the exception to an expectation.
This is an enormous opportunity for education, to be able to communicate with and even educate the communities that they serve. We can distinguish ourselves, present ourselves for judgement and tell new stories about education, teaching and learning not through bureaucratic methods of measurement, but by enthusiastically sharing what and how our children are learning, and what they can do with what they are learning.
- The library magnifies the world outside, but also reflects the culture inside, curating collections of learner-produced media products.
As already mentioned, a school that practices learning-literacy cultivates a digital footprint, along with its learners. One outcome of preparing children for an unpredictable future is that they are learning things that their parents didn’t know. When those parents visit their schools’ web sites, it should not be merely to learn about their children, but also to learn things that they didn’t know, to be astounded, to spark new conversations for their families and to redefine teachers as master learners, not simply learned.
Since children are not merely learning, but also doing with what they learn, then they are in constant production, working knowledge, like raw material, into refined and valuable information products. The school’s library becomes the repository for these products and the librarian, its archivalist.
Learners will visit the library not merely to find what’s available from outside, but also from inside, to find work that previous students have done, and perhaps even improve on that work. After thousands of years of civilization, almost nothing starts from scratch.
- Where learners learn, teachers model learning, and the school teaches the community.
I later rephrased this one to “In a school that practices learning-literacy, teachers model learning, students learn to teach themselves, and schools educate the community.” This sentence, with its three principles, says it all for me.
** A quote often attributed to Alvin Tofler, but actually his paraphrasing of Herbert Gerjuoy’s “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.“
(1913). Webster’s revised unabridged diction. Merriam-Webster.
(1928). Webster’s revised unabridged diction. Merriam-Webster.
Bowker LLC, (2010). Bowker reports traditional u.s. book production flat in 2009. Retrieved from website: http://www.bowker.com/en-US/aboutus/press_room/2010/pr_04142010.shtml
Warlick, D. (2012, October 22). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://davidwarlick.com/2cents/?p=3733