George Couros At #MCOE – Stepping Beyond the Cage of the Known

gcourosGeorge being introduced by Marin County Superintendent Mary Jane Burke (note the assist!)

I had a tough time sleeping last night; many thoughts running through my head after spending three hours with George Couros at the Marin County Office of Education (@MCOEPD) yesterday.  I’ll try to capture at least some of his message (aided by the incredible stream of thought generated by the #mcoe and #mcoeg feeds during the presentation) and the many points of convergence his vision and perspective elicit for me.  This will be more stream-of-conscience in nature – in many ways in line with the tremendous energy, passion, humor, and willingness to CHALLENGE an audience that George brought!

The key shift this idea brings up is that of adults in education seeing ourselves as learners and thinking beyond current structures/positions/titles in education.  Sergio Villegas (@awesomecoachv) participated in the roundtable conversation with George before his presentation and brought up the analogy of a bear who lives in a cage; when the cage is removed, the bear may still pace the same circles as that is what she knows!  Just as the bear needs to learn to be free, we in education need to look beyond the things that confine us (classroom walls, academic/grade level “departments,” belonging to one school, one district, one state, one country…).

Many points of convergence here:

  • Here’s an example of the staff at Fountain Valley High school in SoCal that is using Learning Rounds as a way to bring teachers together in a “community of practice” (thanks @kfostertweet) – moving individual brilliance into the collective space for sharing and beyond the comfortable confines of the four walls (the cage, the silo, the fiefdom…).
  • The nascent Google+ community #Edurivals was launched by two teachers from Fountain Valley (@davidtedu & @MrZiebarth – what a coincidence??!!) as a serious/playful way for “A community to share out your most innovative classroom ideas and see if anyone can use your idea to create an even better idea. Use #edurivals on Twitter to call out a fellow teacher and see if they can TOP THIS.”  George brought up the point of “competitive collaboration” which I think is directly in line with the #edurivals raison d’etre where teachers are pushing each other to expand their thinking and their practice beyond the “cage!”
  • Innovation is challenging and tough no matter how you slice it.  Maybe less than 10% of “new” ideas take off – Ronald Heifetz is a tremendous thinker in the realm of leadership and behavior, and I think this brief clip summarizes powerfully why “failure” is a critical component to innovation! (BTW, George said he hates the term “failure” and I have to agree – way too loaded a word.  All “failure” is is an attempt at learning.) Heifetz’s words are very moving to me, and represent what we need to do in education to make sure we are creating environments where our students can think about, and create, the future: “Ongoing pervasive experimentation…to discover through trial and error what’s going to work here.”

  • A powerful thread George wove through his talk was that of teachers and students (and leaders) all considering themselves learners and all participating in the same work.  If we want students to blog, then we should blog too – in fact, that is how he himself got into blogging (his blog is one of the key “gateway drugs” that has pushed so many people – myself included – to start blogs of their own).
  • It is our responsibility to guide students as they build a positive digital footprint – ergo, make every kid Google-able with great examples of their work.  Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson), a co-founder of the #Edcamp movement, has an important post on why kids having a “robust content portfolio” is so critical to their success in the ever-changing 21st Century job market.  This is one of my “top blog posts” from 2013 that I’ll share when I launch (teaser!) #EdBlogs2013 as a way to get my global PLN to share/compile the posts that have helped them step out of the “cages” of their own experiences/perceptions.
  • ALL of us need to create content to share our unique perspectives and not just “use” the web to passively consume.

  • The Power of Audience.  I blogged about it (that’s a picture of Sigur Ros, if you must know…).  My colleague tweeted it best:

  • “Sharing is Caring” – but do WE share as adults? Ouch. This extends to leaders too (BTW – teachers are leaders too.  Our titles often get in the way of what it is we really DO – in fact, George pointed out that in his district, they seek out the best people they can find and then fit the job to THEM.  Now that is out-of-the-cage thinking!)

The tool doesn’t matter.  What you do with it does.  There is fear that kids will do bad things with devices.  Guess what?  They will also do great things.  But they won’t be able to do great things if we don’t let them, and if we don’t implicate ourselves in their learning with/through the tool/device/methodology/etc.

  • Here is a film shot entirely on a Nokia phone that he shared in his presentation.  Why would we deny our students a tool like this?  Isn’t it our job to help them create something unique and meaningful, regardless of the medium?
  • Alan November (@globalearner) is another tremendous thinker (and guest at our County Office of Ed last year!) who addresses a key tension many teachers feel in the shifted (not “shifting” – the shift has most decidedly occurred!) landscape of student access to information and the tools/platforms with which to contribute to the global pool of knowledge: the fear that their role is diminished.  He correctly points out that kids should be working harder than the teacher (isn’t that also one of the main complaints that teachers have – the kids not “applying themselves” enough?) and that the role of the teacher is MORE important now than ever.  With kids able to access information in a variety of ways, publish their own work to a global audience, and get feedback on that work from their elbow partner AND someone in Greece, the “teacher” now has the time and space to be coach, mentor, idea partner, collaborator, team-builder, moderator, mediator, ombudsman of learning.  George also shared a point that Alan November makes – technology is pointless if it becomes the “$1,000 pencil.”  Got laptops for your students but all they do with them is work on their own?  Then the laptops are pointless, you’ve wasted your money, and the learning experience hasn’t taken any steps beyond the “cage” of what we currently know.  This is from his introduction to his book Who Owns The Learning: Preparing Students For Success in the Digital Age:

“The Digital Learning Farm model represents a shift of control.  Much of what used to be teacher directed in the traditional model is powered by students…Adjusting to this kind of shift can be difficult.  I met a teacher who told me he had adopted the model and his students were working harder than he was.  Then he said something that stunned me: ‘I have to wonder if I’m earning my salary.’  I told him that if anything, he should be paid more.  He had created a culture of learning that empowered his students to dramatically improve their work ethic and encouraged them to develop the habit of curiosity and exploration that mark lifelong learners…the role of the teacher is more important than ever.”

George talked about the urgency to go beyond the “converts” and “first-followers” to scale innovation to the organizational level.

  • At the roundtable talk, I brought up the Edcamp model as one way to build a culture of innovation through the opportunities the “unconference” brings for choice of learning pathway and the chance to network with and learn from peers.  But aren’t the people that show up to Edcamps already the converted?  Does this model really push the learning into the ranks of teachers (and leaders) who like their cages just fine?  This is a great point, and I think it calls out leaders to create purposeful, ongoing, embedded, meaningful professional learning – and to do the learning alongside their staff and students.  We brought the “unconference” to my school (@drakehighschool) and used #drakelearns to archive/share our “learning playlist” (great term thanks to Principal @seabury_liz).  George also challenged us to establish site-specific #s and USE them when we are participating in out-of-school learning experiences like the talk he was giving!   An in-house Edcamp can be a great starting point for MORE learning to happen; as a one-off experience it won’t bring about any meaningful shift.  In fact, the feedback I got from our staff after our initial Edcamp revealed a deep desire to CONTINUE what we had started and not let it be “that cool thing we did once that went nowhere.” Here’s one bit of the feedback: “Great conversation but if that’s the end of it, it was a waste of time. Teachers had great suggestions in both groups. Now what?”  Exactly!

Being connected is the new literacy.  Being an ongoing learner DEFINES how we work.

If you don’t know how to use a # or utilize something like Google Apps , you are functionally illiterate.

This post could easy drag on endlessly.  As it is, I fear the Faulkner-esque format will drive away readers – but I’m powerless to approach it any other way.  George’s energy and insistence on doing what is right for kids (our fundamental purpose as educators, period) was palpable and it brought my internal stream of thought to a spring-thaw roar.  In the “competitive” spirit of #edurival collaboration, I challenge my friends and colleagues to add their threads of insight to this first attempt at capturing our experiences yesterday – and to share how it helped us move beyond the invisible bars of our making.

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