What If Learning — Not Fighting — Were the Focus?

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

As accusations fly back and forth over the reported DC cheating scandal – the latest in a series of battles between America’s two dominant Edu-Tribes – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped spending so much time focusing on what is broken or who is to blame, and started focusing instead on how people learn, and how we can create better learning environments for everyone.

This week, as part of an effort to spur such a conversation, a coalition of individuals and organizations is doing just that — envisioning a movement of adults and young people in search of better places to work and learn, and highlighting powerful learning experiences to make a larger statement about how and when transformational learning occurs.

I am proud to be a part of the campaign, which is called Faces of Learning, and which aspires to help people understand we are all effective learners, with differing strengths and challenges. Kim Carter, executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, a non-profit organization that is a member of the coalition, explains: “We want to elevate four essential questions that are, alarmingly, almost completely absent from the current national conversation about school improvement: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?”

To help provide the answers people need, Faces of Learning is asking people to share personal stories of their most powerful learning experiences; attend and/or organize public events at which people think together about how to improve the local conditions in which people learn; and use a new interactive tool called the Learner Sketch, which invites users to explore their own strengths and challenges among the various mental processes that influence learning. Rather than just categorize the user as a certain “type” of learner, the Learner Sketch feedback actually suggests strategies users can try to help them become even more effective learners. Users can also explore what research is teaching us about how we learn, and find resources that help improve the overall learning conditions for children (and adults).

Ideally, of course, a campaign like this would be unnecessary. And yet, when one looks back at the last 15 months – a period in which school reform has been at the forefront of American life, from “Race to the Top” to Waiting for Superman to the endless coverage of Michelle Rhee or the union fight in Wisconsin – what becomes clear is that we haven’t been having a national debate about learning; we’ve been having a national debate about labor law. And while that issue is important, it is a dangerous stand-in for the true business of public education – helping young people learn how to use their minds well.

What if our efforts were squarely focused on the true goal of a high-quality education, instead of the hidden goal of a well-funded few?

What if each of us could identify our own strengths and weaknesses as a learner?

What if each of us had the chance to discover – and contribute – our full worth and potential to the world?

What if all of us came to both expect and demand high-quality learning environments throughout our lives?

It’s a great and worthy vision. And before any of those things can happen, we all need to work together to see more clearly what powerful learning actually looks like — and requires.

Join our efforts – and share your voice – at www.facesoflearning.net.

Categories: Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Brian
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Hi Sam,

    I attended the Faces of Learning event in San Diego and found my way here. Kim Carter’s quote above prompts a fifth question in me that I’ve never seen adequately posed or answered: What is the benefit of an educated society?

    (I’m probably being overly pessimistic and dramatic. Please, feel free to talk me down.) Numerous jobs and industries require not only the expertise and skills of their practitioners, but the ignorance and inadequacies of the general population. Sell a man fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll never buy another fish from you. Would our world work if everyone became capable and self sufficient? How?

  2. Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Hey Brian! Thanks for finding us online and staying connected. I think you’re right; up to this point in history, it’s debatable that we’ve really desired a fully educated society. But if we’re really going to pivot from the Industrial Age to the Democratic Age — and I think the upheavals in the Middle East are the latest indication that it is the Democratic Age that awaits us — we have to have a world where all people understand their worth, and feel equipped to unleash their potential on the world. The distinction is that those levels of self-awareness need not be directly correlated to acquiring the most stuff, merely living a fulfilling life. So, in short, not only would the world work, it would reflect our destiny as a species — and we may not get there for a long time (or, who knows? We may get there much quicker than we imagined possible).

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