How we can actually create lifelong learners – a response

Wondering: so is this the answer?

I read this post because I was intrigued by the title. And it was a link provided by Edutopia, so I figured it would likely be worth my while.  Well, I have to admit I was a little disappointed and a few hours later after I thought about it some more, I found myself actually somewhat bothered.

The blog post bears the title: How We Can Actually Create Lifelong Learners and within a  couple of short paragraphs we learn that the author has found the key in his district’s 1:1 iPad program.  The program is in its 4th year and where they previously failed to produce lifelong learners, they now are regularly hitting home runs through the addition of these versatile gadgets which allow them to (finally) offer student-centered learning and to abandon that traditional instruction model of teaching as telling.

While I do not wish to discount the perceived advances achieved with students as seen through the author’s eyes, I do question the assumptions made about lifelong learners, past, present and future.

After lamenting having fallen short of the lofty goal of creating lifelong Learners over the years, he says this:

However, after all these years I now see that we have been working extremely hard and not realizing the benefits we should because the right tool hadn’t been developed yet for the job. I’m now enjoying the most exciting times of my career because I see that the dream of developing lifelong learners can be a reality.

“I was blind but now I see”? Is that what’s going on here? First of all, the presumption that teachers “create” lifelong learners leads us to the wrong river. We may inspire, foster, encourage, or further lifelong learning and learners, but we do not create them.
Concerning education outcomes, much  remains in the realm of the unknown and unknowable. Cause and effect are not readily obvious even if we often behave as if they were. We easily mistake correlation for cause and a particular outcome for the effect. And yet our perceptions are so uniquely and spectacularly flawed on many occasions. (See Daniel Kahnemann on this topic). What we teach and what our students “learn” can be wildly different depending on whom you ask and when. So how do we know which of our students have become the desired “lifelong learners”? What are the criteria? And at which stage in their development can we make that assessment? Upon admission to college? After grad school? When they become the helicopter parents we dread? When can we say, “here’s the lifelong learner I educated”?

Please let’s give ourselves and our students a break. In the quest for fostering lifelong learning in our students, it seems to me that the best we can do is to model it. We need to demonstrate our struggles and successes in striving to become the people we most wish to be. We need to make our mistakes and admit them and be able to move beyond them. To do this means making ourselves vulnerable. We can create student-centered learning opportunities that are meaningful, differentiated and engaging both with cool technologies and without.

I challenge us all to bear this in mind as we connect with each of our students daily. The learning is happening on many levels with each individual in multiple ways. At some point we need to give in to that mystery and have faith that our own contribution to the mix is helping, not harming; empowering, not impeding.

“If education is the key then school is the lock…”

My 19 year old son shared this spoken word video by Suli Breaks with me today. It is powerful, poignant and painfully real.
Over the years James has introduced me to all sorts of internet lore from gaming circles to college humor to deep house drum and bass. While my immediate response (often in the middle of preparing dinner) might not have always been enthusiastic, the impact of so much internet exposure on his learning and self-development has never been lost on me. So when he sent me a related link through Skype (, I knew it was a thoughtful choice on his part.

My oldest son’s educational trajectory has been so fundamentally shaped by the range, reach and audacity of the internet and the fact that we were able to have a heartfelt and deep conversation about the direction education needs to go in the future after watching this video together tells a much deeper tale of connection and the path to mutual understanding than any conversation we ever held related to his actual school performance.

When you watch this, ask yourself:
What am I doing to redefine education?

More questions than answers

Several months ago I jumped at the opportunity to write a guest blog post on emotional intelligence and educational leadership. Of course that’s a very broad area on which much has already been written. As I began to delve into the world of educator connectedness through twitter and a variety of blogs, I got very curious about how all this e-connectivity is playing itself out at the intersection of leadership and EQ (the borrowed shorthand for emotional intelligence).

Here are the questions I came up with:
How are our professional relationships changed through increased use (and reliance on) social media, e-mail, and other forms of digital communication?

How can leaders make use of media and technology to underscore their commitment to building and supporting emotionally intelligent learning environments?

What are you experiencing at the intersection of school leadership, technology use and emotional intelligence?

Finding and forming questions which get to the heart of what I want to find out has proved challenging thus far. Locating specific articles or posts which speak to this topic in the realm of schools and their leaders has also been surprisingly difficult. There’s plenty of talk about SEL (social emotional learning), best methods for all manner of tech integration in the classroom, a fair amount on meeting admin challenges in the trenches and yet an unbelievable dearth of voices on the intersection of EQ, leadership and tech use.

Just yesterday I was fortunate to find a post which offered a great window into one administrator’s practice and gave clues as to how this might be interpreted as insight into his particular understanding and application of EQ:
The Principalship: How Have Smartphones Changed the Landscape?

So what’s the big deal? It’s tough to say. However fascinating and enriching the possibilities are for instant and far flung connection through our wonderful gadgetry and ever expanding digital capabilities, I still maintain a fundamental concern about the implications for our communicative existences – for better, worse and for the entirely unknown and unanticipated.

So I find myself asking more and more questions and seeking the widest variety of responses. What does it mean for administrators to be potentially accessible to their school communities via their phones 24/7? Where do school leaders draw the line and insist that certain forms of communication take place face to face? What kinds of presence are possible and desirable for school leaders and in which contexts?

Considering the four categories of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management – all of these can show up in any of our day-to-day communications and interactions and they are critical to the success of any leader. And with our increased use of and reliance on electronic media, there is so much more room for ambiguity, misunderstanding and mixed signals. This is perhaps the root of my concern: how do we, can we, actively mitigate this gap in perception that comes along with our use of new media? When it is done well, how can we recognize it?

So many questions in search of many responses. I need help on this one. Please share these questions with others, respond to them yourself. Let’s get this conversation going. Thanks.

Step 4: Celebrate and Reflect


Although I have been teaching team building to elementary students for many years, my learning in this area just never quits.  So this year when pulling out my favorite group challenges and rounding up the necessary equipment, through conversation with my partner colleague I realized what I felt I was missing in the process: not enough time and attention dedicated to reflection at the end of a challenge.  In response to that need I drew up a plan outlining 4 steps for the team-building process which my colleague and I posted in our teaching areas:

  1. Form a group.
  2. Understand the task.
  3. Solve the challenge. Try and try again.
  4. Celebrate and reflect: Talk about it.

Team Building Blocks

This way it was clear to my students and to me that reflecting on what happened, how it happened, and what we learned from it was as important as solving the challenge itself.  What I also realized was that certain structures and tools needed to be in place to allow the process to run smoothly and to have a sustainable impact.  Successful student reflection requires:

  • Time, especially for listening and for each person to have a voice.
  • Conversation norms  (i.e.,  raising hands, listening to each other, taking turns)
  • Use of open questions starting with what, how, who, when. Use “Why” sparingly or not at all.
  • Paraphrasing or duplication: relating back what someone just said.
  • A reference point or points of how this learning relates to other topics
  • Opportunities to practice reflection in the short term and one on one (i.e., after correcting or redirecting a negative behavior).
  • Varied means and formats of expression (i.e., verbal, written, through art; publicly or privately)

What my colleague and I have found is that the conversations among students have grown increasingly layered over time. Our students can recognize and name behaviors such as blaming and supporting.  They are able to acknowledge each other’s specific contributions to their collective success. They can also identify where they experienced roadblocks and define what got in their way.  They learn to listen to each other. As they have grown accustomed to the types of questions which require them to actively recall, name and interpret their actions, their responses have become increasingly nuanced.  Also, as I experimented with gathering feedback privately from individuals, my ELL students were able to share their thoughts with greater confidence.

Now, as our groups have moved on to other movement topics, the benefit of this approach is paying further dividends. After struggling to make co-ed groups for a game, I stop the class and ask: “What seems to be the trouble?”  The responses often hit the nail on the head without much probing. Or before I release a class to go change, I ask them to tell me on their way out: “two things that made your team successful.”  In both cases, students are able to articulate and safely share their take on a given situation.  While not every child is anxious to speak up, I feel confident that every child is creating their own internal response; a process  we call “thinking.”

The Disconnect amid so much Connection

Just recently I willingly labeled myself a “lurker” in order to describe my social media engagement as an educator.  A lurker is someone who reads, follows, observes online conversations and postings and chooses not to publicly engage by producing output.  I adopted the term because I felt that it best captured my own approach to this (for me) relatively new realm of professional and personal learning.

Here’s the thing: As I read more and more posts concerning how to get more educators connected, the best way to initiate the uninitiated and essentially how to get more folks to jump on said bandwagon, I’m getting a little frustrated.  I think it’s the labeling we are using to frame the dialogue: connected vs. unconnected or semi-connected, initiated vs. uninitiated.  After reading these terms I have essentially asked myself: What’s the price of admission?  At what level of output do I get to call myself “connected”?  How many tweets until I become “a really useful educator”?  It seems to me that the purpose embedded in so many labels serves to determine exactly this.  If I make enough of my learning public through particular online forums (of which there are many, many), then I get to officially board the bandwagon and become its latest new ambassador.

While thinking (and getting all worked up) about this topic, I realized how much I long for a different tack in the conversation. As educators our most significant connection is, and remains, to our students. We connect through the care, concern, and respect we show each of our students every day.  We connect when we reach out to parents and communicate our hopes, expectations and desire for partnership in developing our young people.  We connect in the way we share and collaborate with our colleagues across the hall, upstairs, in the next grade level, or even on the other side of town.  We connect with our craft whenever we experiment with new ideas, take risks in our approaches and recognize our weak points.  When we co-opt a term as broad as “connected” to define a fairly narrow range of activities and behaviors, we do ourselves and our colleagues a disservice.  We create the “us and them” divide before we even can begin the conversation.

Tom Whitby argues in his latest post that

Connected educators may be the worst advocates for getting other educators to connect. Too often they are so enthusiastic at how, as well as how much they are learning through being connected, that they tend to overwhelm the uninitiated, inexperienced, and unconnected educator with a deluge of information that both intimidates and literally scares them to death.

He may well be right. I appreciate his recognition that educators new to social media may be hard pressed to comprehend the fervor of some, yet I can’t help but chafe at the insinuation (in this post and others) that the “unconnected” among us represent so much lack in our whole education system. That may not be the intent yet I feel that sentiment come through again and again.

Come on, educators! We can do better than this! We can be enthusiastic about our turbo learning and wear our merit badges of connection and still remember that every time we divide ourselves, we lose more than we gain. Our “unconnected” colleague down the hall is still, first and foremost, our colleague with whom we share kids and a school community.  We need to always be in the business of supporting each other in striving to serve kids and doing our best with what we have. Let’s stay connected and let’s address the core of the topic: how do we help each other achieve our professional best?  Whether in person, on the phone, by e-mail, or online, let our connection, above all, be human, compassionate and genuine.



The Gift of Sheila Bridges

I just finished reading Sheila Bridges’ memior, The Bald Mermaid (Pointed Leaf Press 2013) and I am compelled to share.

From the website

It was an unusual read for me as it was a personal memoir and I tend to shy away from individuals’ life stories because I feel like a voyeur rather than a welcomed listener.  Sheila’s book (see, I’m already using her first name), however, touched me in ways I never expected.  Sheila is a wildly successful interior decorator and designer in NYC with clients all over the world.  She had a TV show, her work has been featured in all those glossy design magazines I never look at, she’s African-American and she is bald.  The book itself, its colorful pages, it’s hardback heft, the wonderful collection of personal and professional illustrations, underscore the author’s eye for and careful attention to the aesthetic.  Sheila’s memoir proved to be a remarkable page-turner which laid bare so many throughts and sentiments I have experienced over the years on the topics of being female, black, independent, articulate, a family member, a professional and just being me.

Have I not mentioned being African-American in this forum yet?  No?  Isn’t that funny?  While racing through Sheila’s very witty and thoughtful prose, I felt so understood! The struggles of not fitting into so many neatly patterned roles and expectations from childhood to the present rang so true for me, I could hardly put the book down.   Although coming to terms with the consequences of her hair loss to Alopecia areata proved central to the overall narrative, the truths of her storytelling went much deeper than that specific episode.  How much does our professional and personal success have to do with our appearance?  When it comes to others and their perceptions of us, how much control do we actually have?  When we venture to take risks by living our own truths, what resources do we need to have and develop in order to make it a viable proposition for the long haul?  What does it mean to be a success? And be black? And female? and Independent? All of those at the same time?  What does our hair (especially, but not exclusively for black women) have to do with all this?  Does it mean learning how to swim without getting your hair wet? (See the chapter on “Weave Etiquette”)

These are the questions Sheila explores, wrestles and dances with throughout.  And I finished the book this morning feeling like she had truly done so much “heavy lifting” on my behalf.  She writes, “That one life-altering event forced me to dig deep – to find out what I was really made of.  In the process, I let go of everyone else’s expectations of who I should be or how I should live my life, which included how I ought to look.” (p.333)  I can’t say that I am that far in my own development but I certainly aspire to such a level of self-understanding.  And I am reminded of something my mother said often in response to the countless times she was asked to justify wearing her hair short : “I have been asked for many things in my life; hair was not one of them.”  Thank you, Sheila and thank you, Mom!

Me and my mom and our hair, 1983
Me and my mom and our hair, 1983

Lurking, listening and proud of it

This post is a shout out to a fellow educator whose thoughtful insights on what it means to be “connected” helped me put my own professional/personal online activities into context.  I first encountered an article by Rafranz Davis in the following way:

A twitter link posted by Tom Whitby on Oct. 2nd led me to a blog post celebrating CEM (Connected Educator Month)  by Stephanie Sandifer which lists a number of articles written by prominent and perhaps not so prominent connected educators (  That’s where I found Rafranz’s article on edSurge: “Connected, Lurking, and Listening”

In this eloquent article she describes those educators who read, follow,  take in and experiement with what social media forums such as twitter and the many related chat groups offer but who do not yet actively contribute. These folks are termed: “lurkers.”  Her point is that educators who are not out there tweeting and blogging to beat the band can and do benefit from the myriad possibilities to seek out new perspectives, special expertise and the comfort of shared stories, even if they themselves are not yet joining the conversation or creating output.  And here the emphasis is on “yet.”  Rafranz offers readers insight into her own path to full connectedness and also illustrates how many of her colleagues discovered their own paths in learning to make use of their online learning for the benefit of students.

This post spoke to me so directly because it captures where I see myself: I am a social media lurker when it come to topics educational. My twitter feed has become a genuine fountain of ideas and worthy perspectives which I enjoy sharing per e-mail with colleagues and friends as the situation fits.  Occasionally I will retweet something out to my 4 (!) followers but that doesn’t have the same priority.  My own blog posts show up in my twitter feed but if anyone arrives there I think it is largely by accident.  And all of that is completely OK.  I didn’t enter the twitter stream to become a big fish.  I wanted to find out what all the positive fuss was about.  Now at least I have a good inkling and I look forward to making the most of my lurker/listener existence.  Am I a connected educator? Sure.  And I am happy to say for the time being I feel connected enough.

I also want to add that the notion of being connected enough is one I have been wrestling with based on some of the more prominent voices in the educational twitterverse.  In some cases I felt discouraged because I wasn’t tweeting up a storm and widening my online reach, although that aspect of online presence still does not interest me.  This is yet another reason that Rafranz’s voice arrived at just the right time to remind us all that there are many roads to learning and expanding our professional repertoire.  And good, deep listening is a piece of the communication puzzle that is so often left to chance and allowed to founder.  Lurker/listeners have a significant role to play in the educational commons were create daily.  I am proud to be among them.

Thank you, Rafranz, for the words of encouragement and boost of confidence.