"The means is dialogue, the end is learning, the purpose is peace." ~ Founder Dr. Jane Vella

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Valedictorian “Schools” her Teachers: A Sign of Learning

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The valedictorian stands at the podium, in front of a row of beaming adults (I can only assume they are her teachers and administrators).  She begins with this fable of a Zen student who is disappointed when his teacher says it will take 10 years of study to find Zen.

“The student then said, ‘but what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast - How long then?’

Replied the Master, ‘Well, 20 years.’

 “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?’ asked the eager student. 

 ‘30 years,’ replied the Master.

 'But, I do not understand,’ said the disappointed student. ‘At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?’ 


Replied the Master, ‘When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.’"

The valedictorian is Erica Goldson. Her 2010 high school commencement address – in which the fable becomes a harsh critique of her education and the “educational system” -- went viral with more than a million views on YouTube.

A cartoon version made the rounds on social media.

“I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system,” she says.

 She describes her education as a “period of indoctrination,” preparing her for university, “the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work….”

She equates achieving valedictorian to being “the best slave” of the system. (see the full text of her speech here)

This particular criticism of the educational system is not new or unique. But it is new and unique to hear it from a cap-and-gowned high school valedictorian graduating at the top of her class.  I came across the video, as I prepare to co-facilitate Education 2.0: Teaching in a fast-changing world at University for Peace in Costa Rica.  I find myself watching the reactions in the row of teachers behind her. They stop beaming. They fidget; they cut glances at each other.  It is uncomfortable. I feel for them! It would be easy to interpret her words as a description of their failure as educators. That is pretty much what she is saying.

 However, if we reframe it – if we ignore, for a moment the whole subject of education, and instead focus on learning – they could easily celebrate her speech as evidence of a wild success.

 Here she stands, a high school graduate, delivering a thoughtful, eloquent and brave speech. She is able to take a step back from her experience, to question her own choices:

“While others sat in class and doodled to later go on to be great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker.”

She can raise questions about a system that has rewarded her.

“I wonder; why did I even want this position? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful? Or forever lost?”

She uses the platform they gave her to challenge them:

“You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system.”

Her very act, her questions, her comments belie her message – clearly she had been learning deeply!

Jane Vella is fond of quoting Paulo Freire, “Only the student can name the moment of the death of the professor.”  This is the moment when the student realizes that she (or he) can question, disagree, challenge the professor. It is evidence of the beginning of great learning, which is, after all, a solid reason for us to pursue great teaching.

Erica’s commencement speech points not only to the problems she met in her education. It also points to the possibilities she saw and used. The possibilities lie in keeping our eyes on the path, as the fabled Zen master noted. That path is learning.

What would that look, sound and feel like for you and your school?

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Join GLP Partner Christine Little, Mohit Mukherjee, and talented and passionate change makers from around the world for this year's UPEACE session, Education 2.0: Teaching in a Fast-Changing World, taking place July 5-10, 2015 in Costa Rica at the United Nations mandated university for peace. 

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Education 2.0: Teaching in a Fast-Changing World

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At a workshop I attended a couple of years ago, we were all asked to come up with a six-word sentence that captures who you are. The sentence I came up with in the few minutes we had for this activity is: “Learn and teach what I love”.

The story of ‘Education 2.0: Teaching in a Fast-Changing World‘ is a reflection of this philosophy. It was September 2006 when I transitioned from my job at the Earth Charter Initiative to help start the UPEACE Centre for Executive Education. As the education Program Manager at the Earth Charter, I had been diligently helping build an ‘Online Education Resource Centre’ that documented useful resources for educators to use in their professional practice. But in my four years at the job, I had noticed that the energy, connections, and actions that came from people meeting each other face-to-face and sharing their stories could not be replicated easily via online tools.

It was this vision of passionate and socially conscious educators who want to come together and interact deeply with others from different contexts and experiences, that guided the development of this one-week immersion experience.

The challenge that I wanted to take on is how can the course reflect and model the educational changes that it itself proposes? It was clear that for this experience to be transformative, a few things were essential:

  1. A balance between structured time and time to interact freely
  2. Space for participants to share the work that they were doing
  3. Field visits to organizations engaged in impactful educational work
  4. Diverse participants working at different levels in the educational endeavor
  5. Building a learning community that would endure beyond the time period of the course

Having offered the course for six years now, I can see how some of these design objectives have been achieved more comprehensively than others. What has worked best are the first three objectives in the list. In fact, two participants in the 2007 course got married a few years later, having met at the course! Two others in the following year co-authored a book. I myself have been collaborating closely with a number of the participants and in 2013 started co-facilitating the course with a couple of alumna.

Reflecting on the past, planning for the future, here are three major changes to the ‘Education 2.0’ course for this upcoming year:

  1. Participants will come to the course with an educational intervention that they would like to work on and implement post-course.
  2. We will have an intentional focus on dialogue as a mechanism for thinking, and for making our thinking visible.
  3. We will use all of the above to dream big, and design our own answers to the big questions about educating in the 21st century.

This experience promises to be one that will allow us to discover, to create, to challenge and be challenged, on UPEACE’s beautiful 300-hectare piece of land. Costa Rica – the happiest country in the world – is the perfect setting for a course that puts forward the idea that Peace Education needs to be a big piece of the 21st Century.

But what always makes a party are the guests. What are you doing the first week of July?

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Join Mohit Mukherjee, GLP Partner Christine Little, and talented and passionate change makers from around the world for this year's UPEACE session, Education 2.0: Teaching in a Fast-Changing World, taking place July 5-10, 2015 in Costa Rica at the United Nations mandated university for peace.  

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What Is the Purpose of The Conference?

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“We are weary of academic conferences.”

That’s how Christy Wampole starts her article The Conference Manifesto in The New York Times (posted May 4th 2015). Indeed, I can relate to that. In fact, it is getting increasingly challenging for me to go to conferences at all, for fear of experiencing undesired levels of stress and frustration.

Then I read:

“Academic conferences are a habit from the past, embraced by the administrativersity as a way to showcase knowledge and to increase productivity in the form of published conference proceedings. We have been complicit. Until now…. We believe it is time to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the conference?”

That’s when Wampole’s article really got good. She then continued by offering the following 10 statements for workshop presenters to agree to – a sort of contract to sign. If we can’t change the entire conference planning, at least we can start with the workshops. I love it!  

  1. I understand that the conference paper should do something that an article cannot. Since it involves direct, real-time contact with other humans, the speaker should make use of this relatively rare and thus precious opportunity to interact meaningfully with other scholars.
  2. I will not read my paper line by line in a monotone without looking at the audience. I needn’t necessarily abide by some entertainment imperative, with jokes, anecdotes or flashy slides, but I will strive to maintain a certain compassion toward my captive audience.
  3. I understand that a list is not a talk. I will not simply list appearances of a theme in a given corpus.
  4. I will have a thesis, and if I don’t, I will at least have a reason that my talk should exist.
  5. I will keep direct citations to a minimum, not relying on them to fill up time. I understand that audience members shudder at lengthy blocks of text in the PowerPoint or on the handout.
  6. In the Q. and A., I will not ask an irrelevant question for the sake of being seen asking a question. If my question is hyperspecific and meaningless to anyone but myself, I will approach the speaker after the talk with my query.
  7. I will not make a statement and then put a question mark at the end to make it sound like a question.
  8. If I ask an actual question, I will a) not take more than a minute or so to ask it, and b) ask it politely even if I disagree with the speaker.
  9. I respect the time of my colleagues who’ve come to hear me speak. I will do my best to be as clear and succinct as possible, and make their attendance worthwhile.
  10. I understand that if I disregard these recommendations, I might be complicit in the death of the humanities.

Thank you Christy Wampole. Where’s the contract I need to sign – I’m in!

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Don’t Tell What You Can Ask…

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When my friend Maria and I get together, watch out world! Sunday, over a cup of tea on the back porch, we struggled with this axiom:

Don’t tell what you can ask

Don’t ask if you know the answer,

Tell, in dialogue

“How?” asked Maria. “How do you tell in dialogue?”

Swimming this Monday morning I found this response. How about considering two interfacing frames for “telling in dialogue”?

One is the Eight Steps of Design where the SO THAT behavioral indicators of learning, transfer and impact hinge with the WHY, and of course, the content: WHAT. Those behaviors (actions) are how learners learn the content and how they know they know when the session is over. The 

  1. inductive work, anchoring the new content with the context and experience of learners
  2. input: the content presented, (added)
  3. implementation:  learners doing something ( those behaviors** in a small group (action)
  4. integration: taking it away to their context

Designing the learning event, where you will “tell in dialogue”, you make explicit the bright hinges between the content: WHAT, the situation: WHY, the behavioral indicators of learning SO THAT and, of course, the achievement-based objectives: WHAT FOR: By the end of this session all will have… which are a foreshape of the learning tasks and materials: HOW.

These learning tasks are designed using the four steps to connect to the context of each learner, to present clearly the new content and invite learners’ interaction with that content in small groups, anticipating some kind of projection of that content into their personal context.

There is a lot of telling within these two frames. As teacher-designer I have the deliberative voice, deciding what will be taught/learned. This decision has been informed by my earlier dialogue with learners through the LNRA: the learning needs and resources assessment. The breadth of that LNRA has given me some idea of the learners’ contexts.

So the materials I decide to use in the learning tasks are selected with concern for the principles of relevance and immediacy.

Telling in dialogue is hard work from the very beginning of the design phase! It is evident throughout the design and in all aspects of the event.

In our Sunday tea party,Maria and I agreed that this axiom, which encapsulates the system of Dialogue Education, guides us to avoid too much WHAT for the WHEN. A careful selection of strategic content can start adults on a personal learning journey within their own context.

Download and read this example. Mark what you see as telling in dialogue. Please share your markings with me at jane@globallearningpartners.com.  I will share them with Maria!

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On Assessing Learning Needs & Resources: The Art of the Question

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In a recent Foundations of Dialogue Education course in Stowe, Vermont, 10 wonderful and wise learners examined three aspects of engaging and getting to know participants in learning events or meetings by Asking, Observing, and Studying.  This art of engaging learners prior to coming together suggests that first, whatever you do; do no harm!  Remembering that the intention is to create an opportunity to engage and respect each learner through inquiry of what they already know and bring to this event (Resource).  Whatever we ask can be done so to strengthen the apparent relevance of the topic and the work each person will apply it to.  It is so important to be specific and super intentional, avoiding asking extraneous questions such as those that ‘might be nice to know’ but not really necessary or engaging given the situation of these people. 

That architectural axiom of “Less is more” is top and center here.  Remember folks are busy and may engage at this point if it feels relevant and meaningful.  The questions you choose need to be limited and clearly related to the context of those responding, while done so in a way that gets them thinking about the event already and recognizing that what you ask may well be used in your preparations.  What you discover may suggest meaningful “generative themes” of the group with which to further engage participants in the content of the event.

Here are examples of questions I have used in two different contexts:

Context:  4-day Foundations of Dialogue Education Course

  1. Briefly describe your current role in planning, designing and facilitating learning events at your place of work.
  2. What have you seen work well AND what positive things resulted with learners when a learning experience was designed effectively?
  3. Share two (2) frustrations or challenges you often experience with learning events that you plan, run or even attend?
  4. What are 2 or 3 things that you believe to be effective and useful in designing and facilitating effective learning experiences for participants of your events?
  5. Review the draft achievable objectives for the workshop. Which (3) objectives would you say at this time you are MOST INTERESTED to achieve during this workshop?
  6. As you think about how this course will help further develop your own practice of designing and facilitating effective learning, what are 1 or 2 aspects of your current practice that you already know that you want to develop further or that you want to discover new ways to approach it?

Context:  A Statewide Summit on Housing Victims of Violence:

  1. What most engaged you to be part of this statewide Summit on housing victims of violence?
  2. In order for you to best contribute to this summit, what 2 or 3 things would you like to know about the domestic and sexual violence community and programs?
  3. In order for you to best contribute to the housing summit, what 2 or 3 things would you like to know about the Vermont housing community and programs?
  4. Based on your experience, what 2 or 3 key elements are necessary to achieve safe and stable housing for Vermont victims of domestic & sexual violence?
  5. Based on experience, what are 2 or 3 of the biggest challenges in housing victims of domestic and sexual violence?   How might challenges be unique to these victims?
  6. What 2 or 3 ways do you think housing and service agencies could work together more effectively in successfully and stably housing victims of domestic violence?

And now here's a question for you!

What are a few questions you have found useful to your context?

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