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Learning is All

December 10, 2009

I have been thinking—again—about the future of education as we know it. In the short run, we are going to see demands for more similarity in public schools, driven by national standards and assessments. The window of what is possible is going to seem narrower and narrower. In the middle future, charters will provide options in education, some good, many mediocre, and most focused on a narrow view of children, teachers, and learning, one that seems salable in the marketplace of charter alternatives.

And then—things are going to blow wide open.

This revolutionary shift will occur because, while public educators and the policymakers who direct them are obsessing about minutiae that have nothing to do with children or learning, or clamoring to create the charter school that is marketable to whatever view of schooling their publics may hold, the “edupunks” in the digital world are creating ways to learn that have nothing to do with schools. This movement is beginning in “higher” education, where the rigidity of university requirements and rules is being replaced by online sites where people can access courses and knowledgeable others and therefore can learn just about anything. (For starters, check out the University of the People at http://www.uopeople.org/ and Peer2Peer University at http://p2pu.org.) All of a sudden, learning of virtually any kind and in any manner will be available to everyone who can use a computer (and, contrary to some beliefs, the digital divide is becoming narrow).

Lately, these seismic shifts – from a continued focus on “my-way-or-the-highway” views of schools to the faux-free-for-all of charters to the real free-for-all of learning without schools—have most of my attention. What is the role of someone like me, who is committed to making schools make sense for children and for the adults who work in them? And, in addition, what is the role of the clients with whom I partner, who are mainly teacher leaders, principals, and curriculum leaders? And what is the role for the teacher partners of all of my clients?

The answer I keep returning to is learning.

Learning is all.

In the short term, we must continue to focus our attention on learning—our own, in order to better serve students, and then the learning of children. We have a moral obligation to continue assuring that learning is taking place in our classrooms, yes, but learning is also our strongest tool in demonstrating the benefit of doing what we know how to do best. When others suggest that test scores must be used to determine teachers’ abilities and that the value of schools is demonstrated only in the way that they implement certain programs sanctioned by the Department of Education, our best counterargument is to show what children are indeed learning, and how. The “how” requires that we educators and leaders continue to learn as well. Our knowledge about and evidence of student learning are the most powerful arguments we have in support of different approaches to public education.

And, if the trend toward charter schools continues to build momentum, educators will again enact power if they can demonstrate the learning that takes place in certain kinds of charters. Of course, they also will continue to face the moral imperative that all students with whom they have influence do indeed continue to learn, in charters as well as the remaining traditional public schools.

And when the window truly opens to a wide variety of learning opportunities beyond the structures of what we now know as schools, the focus truly will be upon what is learned and how. The teachers of today who wish to continue teaching in this new world of learning, not schooling, will be the ones who can create learning environments and opportunities and who can mentor students engaged in such opportunities.

Teacher learning and student learning. Like never before, these will be the focus of this endeavor called education. (For those who are wondering, I am not so naïve to believe that corporate agendas and ideologies will be removed from such new views of learning, but the details remain to be seen.)

The greatest skill set that educators can possess, now and in preparation for the futue, is the ability to learn and to support the learning of others. For educational coaches, principals, and others who are visible leaders in schools, there is no time to lose in focusing on learning. For today and tomorrow, leadership of learning is essential.

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