Backseat Learning

Backseat Learning Sketchnote
Sketchnote by @andCreative

Andrea and I cannot stop thinking about the question, “why should we learn?”  This question comes on the heels of many many articles on engagement that whip by on my twitter feed on any given day and because I know many many educators who turn themselves inside out trying to connect with their students and to set conditions for their students to achieve.  Andrea sent me a text with reasons to learn, none of which are about content. Oh oh..

compelled text

I circled back to Carlina and to a parent of grade 9 applied course type English student from a northern rural high school in our board.  She told the Board at an open Board meeting, I have never seen my child want to go to school like this before, he told me, “mom, I can’t have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday, I will miss 20time, I can’t miss 20time.”  My words cannot capture the slight catch in her voice, the emotion which came from the place of wanting her son to love school and to learn. This was after he presented his learning with his buddy that, in fact, was about fishing lures.

When you ask a student, “what are you learning?” I believe there is value in leaning in and listening to their response; not for the what but for the why?  “My teacher gave us, my teacher told us, my teacher asked us, my teacher read us, my teacher showed us.”  I look back to the text Andrea sent me on Saturday and I stare. What if learning, deep learning isn’t about the content at all, but about the learners – the students and who they are, and what they need to figure out exactly who they are in the world.  Do we compel them through the giant hoop of engagement or does that come from inside them? How as educators, can we risk finding out?

Hoop of Engagement

4 educators from 2 high schools and an elementary school wanted to know. Amber, Kate. Leigh-Anna and Michlyn wanted to know if you give the learning and they why over to them, will it change them as learners?  Could we be looking at engagement from the wrong angle?  This group of educators needed to know.  The students were from grade 7, grade 9 and grade 12.  They gave the students 20% of the course time to learn about anything they wanted to.  They used the framework of 20time, a little gem created by Kevin Brookhouser, and for the semester the students dug internally and externally into what mattered to them.  Aligning the achievement chart and the skills within the specific and overall expectations of their curricula was incredibly easy as 20time was not about the what but about the why and how…lots of space in the curriculum for those questions.   The students were tentative and curious and kept asking the question, “anything I want to learn about?”.  The process was incredible and the end result was a symposium where all three grades came together and presented their learning to each other.  The keynote was a grade 7 student and in that gym you could have heard a pin drop. The students knew why and they knew deeply. When she spoke, she was them.

We enrich our knowledge and our subjectivity by listening to others and being open to them  when we learn as a group. When children are working together, each is developing her own process by learning from the processes of the others.  If you believe that the others are a source of your learning, your identity and your knowledge, you have opened a very important door to the joy of being together.  Carlina Rinaldi

I also know that in the classroom when you asked the students during 20time, what they were working on, they began their response with “I.”  If I heard nothing after that one word, I still would have stopped dead. The projects included an Instagram account named Positive Piineapple to boost positivity and self-love, a homemade water purifier, a shoe drive for the homeless (Soles for Soles), a collection of paintings to represent what is happening globally and many many more.  The students put themselves and the learning out into to the world. They not only wanted feedback, but they wanted to make sense of themselves outside of the classroom walls and to make a difference in the world around them.

Skeptics will say, that it is not in the curriculum content.  I will ask them to revisit the front matter of their curriculum.  I will ask them to stay there for a little while.  The curriculum is for their students and for them to figure out who they are as learners and in the world.  They bring their stories to it and need to bump up against it with their own theories. I stand at the front but really the learning does not lie with me – it can’t.  I don’t have to hand out tech, a framework, a model or anything else that is shiny to engage them. The why they learn has been in front of me the whole time. They learn because they need to know why?  Every human on the planet is compelled to ask and figure this out because we are here and we need to know who we are. As educators we need to make space for this building to happen. We have to listen deeply and with who we are as learners – we have to give it value.

Listening is an active verb that involves giving meaning and value to the perspective of others, a form of assessment. Carlina

They are looking to us to help give it all meaning, to help them make sense of it but not do it for them.  They are building something much deeper than a project to hand in, they are building themselves right in front of you. The hardest part what you are building with them that it isn’t  yours and to listen, and trying not to miss it so you can give it right back to them.

A: I know that it’s about the humans, the learners, and who they are becoming – probably still more in my head than in my heart.  I’m not sure what’s keeping me from it, but there I am watching myself standing, telling.

K: I am not sure what part we are afraid to let go of.   The content, the “teacher” name plate, the grade book, the control of the class or the belief that they simply can.  It is incredibly scary because we clutch at all of it and try to do the very best job. We have been defined as co-learner, facilitator, provocateur, etc – listener feels like none of these.

A: Maybe it’s not a re-positioning but a way of listening to ourselves simultaneously.  Listening means constantly re-configuring your own identity, your why.

K: I think about the sit beside all of the time – the place for it during the learning.  I think what you just said above reminds us that we also have to sit beside ourselves and are prepared to listen. I have reread that part of Carlina many times and as you were typing it it flooded in – ohhhh – that’s what that means.  I am unsure as to how I reconsider, let alone reconfigure who I am and my why seems like a moving target. I sense it is supposed to be.

A: Yes, I think so.  We don’t know – we have theories.  Just that word of Carlina’s changes everything.  It feels hard and it’s the crisis. You and I have talked before about needing the itchy tag – something that we are working on, trying to figure out and make meaning.

K: If we are constantly reconsidering our theories and our whys and trying to make sense of learning, it is not a far stretch to conclude that students also do not know who they are and their place in the world.  Why do we need them to know? Why do we expect them to be able to just give us the answers without trying to figure how they matter in the learning?

A:  It’s faster. It’s factory efficiency.  My son asked me, totally out of the blue – the wheels were turning in the back seat as we drove home, “why do we even HAVE drugs in the world?”  I answered him. I didn’t even think about it.  But as we continued the conversation and I caught myself.  He asked, “Who is a criminal? How do people become criminals? Why are people criminals?”.  I’m in awe of his curiosity. What I needed to do in that moment was slow down and find out his theory.

K: I am thinking about the traditional purpose of a question – to provide an answer…this thinking that the line is for the answer, “I wasn’t getting from them what I wanted to hear.”  I lean back to you and the word theory…they aren’t satisfied and want to find out and we somehow need them to find out faster…or get to the line and feel satisfied? But are they? Or are we?

A:  Whoa. I love this question. This is cynical, but my gut reaction is: neither.

K:  Exactly – it brings me back to the word engagement.  I wonder if the grind of doing is simply wearing us down.  20time, for the students as learners and diggers and theory makers, it felt different.  The teachers were in awe, the parents were in awe and the board office folks who listened in at the symposium were in awe. Does engagement (I know this word is yucky to you) mean they are doing what you planned or does it mean they are actively forming theories of their own and mucking around in them?  Do they just need time? Do we?

A:  I read John Spencer and can’t go back to the word engagement.  Engagement is about me, the teacher, and the conditions I set.  I think about what you said above, We have been defined as co-learner, facilitator, provocateur, etc – listener feels like none of these.  He prefers “Empowerment”  because it’s learner-centered.  20time is meta-cognitive and I think that it is learning for learning’s sake. It is seeking out the itch and the crisis because that’s what heroes do.  I say heroes because I’m thinking about each of our stories of becoming – becoming who we are.

K: My mind is jumping around.  20time is shouting at us. I am looking at the word empowerment and wondering if teachers feel like that during 20time because the pressure is off regarding content and they can simply listen, sit beside and learn right along with their students – about them and their passions?  I love the word hero – but tell me – what stops us from becoming? I am twirling “content” in my mind. “They have to know certain things and I have to teach them.”

A: We don’t know – we have theories.  Maybe knowing stops us from becoming.  Facts and information are not in the paintings I love to look at, the people I love to be with, or the streets I love to walk down.

seth godin quote

K: If I don’t teach them background and context, how are they going to be able to form theories or make meaning? They don’t have enough experiences to draw from. They won’t be able to make sense of it.

A: My son’s theory (he has very little background knowledge on the justice system) is that if we were allowed to steal from each other, then we would all go into survival mode.  He said, that our family would have to grow our own food. I balked inside my head, but nodded and listened. What do you think of his theory?

K: He doesn’t need the answer.  The second you stop nodding and listening he stops caring about his theory and accepts yours.  His theory is his. I also thought about Lord of the Flies immediately LOL.

A:  Holy crap.  I thought about The Time Traveler’s Wife.

K: He caused us to have an inference – boom – relate ourselves to his theory but not exchange it for ours.  Being right is not learning finished – it’s thinking over. He doesn’t need us to give him feedback, he needs us to give him time and to value who he is in that exact moment. He is becoming right in front of your ears.

A: A young protagonist.

K: That word feels interesting to me.  Hmmm. What if they could be that for each other?

A:  We all could be that for each other.  A source of identity, as Carlina says.

K: Source feels like nourishment.  It feels slow, important and something we can reach for when we need it. But, it feels like we cannot be without it.

A: Hmm. We reach. We need to reach back to novels and stories and maybe even other parts of our humanity like works of art and architecture.  It all comes back around as we make meaning and reconfigure who we are.

K: The other parts of our humanity…the listening to ourselves, the sitting beside who we are and who we were but with an eye on who we are becoming. The spiral.  The 100 languages. We have to know we are never just going to get there…we are never just going to know. The theories need space and time and new theories. Learning is not ever going to be about knowing and the black line. The sooner that feels good, the sooner we make space between and remember what it feels like to sit in the backseat and ask a million questions while our mom is driving. It was never about the answer she gave you, it was about being in the car with someone who was just listening to you.

4 thoughts on “Backseat Learning

  1. Thank you!!!!!
    Ps. Imagine if the language from the belonging and contributing frame of the FDK program was part of every learning space in our schools. Including the staff rooms?
    What if we don’t learn?



    Backseat Learning and 20time takes me back to how eloquently Jerome Harste and Vivian Vasquez spoke about paying attention to and listening for what matters to students not only in the classroom but in other spaces inside and outside the school.

    One of Harste’s most powerful quotes for me truly applies to what learning is. Instead of focussing on best practices Harste emphasized the importance for educators to “test their best hypotheses and then outgrow themselves.” Is that not the iterative process we want for all learners?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The research and the researchers are in our classrooms. We are asking ourselves again and again – always in process, always becoming. Thank you Lynn! We are still carrying Vivian and Jerome with us.


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