Starting fresh is a New Year tradition for many, but it is becoming a new daily reality for us all. Over the last few years I have increasingly heard the words neurodiversity, neuroplasticity and cognitive flexibility across disciplines and in various contexts; it seems we are all shifting towards growing evidence that says we need to be able to think differently. We need to be able to increase, decrease and regulate our cognitive control depending on the demands of any given situation. (Is it time to create? Is it time to analyze? Is it time to discuss?) We need to be able to open our minds (or close them) quickly and easily as we navigate the demands of learning, working and interacting in our modern world.
Does this seem obvious to you? As a teacher working with diverse students (as well as their diverse families and support teams) I see firsthand and daily an endless variety of learning styles, skills, challenges and opportunities. We are beginning to recognize, as educators, that our traditional (for us) methods are not working for all learners. It is our challenge to be open to new ideas and to have the ability to take action and create change. We need to support a wide variety of interests and hobbies in students and lifelong learners if we are to create thinkers and do-ers for our future. Children (and adults) need to drive their own learning, on topics that are interesting to them. It’s about the process: the ability to explore, connect and reflect across disciplines develops memory, creativity, innovation and purpose. It is also greater in community. Our social identity, as well as the encouragement and constructive feedback available within that framework, makes collective learning greater than “the sum of the parts”. The school years provide an incredible opportunity for inspiring the lifelong educated contribution required by our evolving world – how can we let it pass without making the most of that potential?
Several books I have been encouraged or inspired to read over the past year (The Brain That Changes Itself, Drive, Quiet, You Are Not So Smart…) have challenged me to think about different learning styles in new ways. I am inspired by their message of change and optimism because the world my children and students are growing, learning and potentially working in is vastly different from the one I knew as a curious child or idealistic teen. I see change there, and want to feel prepared for preparing them.
It won’t surprise you, if you have read this far, to hear that many students in our high schools are not actively engaged in their learning. Maybe you experienced that yourself at school. I loved school, which is probably part of why I still show up at one every single day, but I was motivated enough from as young as I can remember to drive my own learning, and independent enough to suffer silently through the boring parts. (Remembering Professor Summerfield’s English 383: less exciting than cold porridge and only bearable with Dr.Pepper, BBQ chips and a great friend to commiserate with.) Like many other students I jumped through the hoops of education in order to get to a life that I could create myself. Foolish me; the real innovators were bypassing the boring and creating a fantastic future without the traditional education system. Creative thinkers and do-ers (Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos “Innovation is disruption!” and Mark Zuckerberg) turned the world upside down by re-writing the possible and creating the future they wanted to be. The world I work in today is completely different (both environmentally and technologically) than the one I worked in even fifteen years ago. So why are we still arguing about doing things differently?
A great New Year’s challenge for educators and students ready to embrace flexible thinking/learning is to help create the balance of conditions that supports the basics we know to be useful foundations for learning, but opens up avenues for exploration, creativity and choice. (“Autonomy”, “mastery” and “purpose” if you are a fellow disciple of Dan Pink’s Drive…) Flexible schedules, “distributed practice” (over a longer period of time) and “interleaved practice” (mixing new learning with prior concepts) are examples of choices that are having positive results.
All of this change in thinking and learning can’t be done in isolation. The worldwide connections and implications of our actions have long ago erased the idea of individual learners. What we are seeing instead is individualized learning in community. We are thinking about the big picture, and working toward learning how to be a part of it in the biggest global sense. Like Adrienne Gear suggested – as she developed her “Reading Power” process – we are making connections, asking questions, thinking and sharing as we learn.
“Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but what problems to they want to solve. This changes the conversation from who do I want to work for, to what do I need to learn to be able to do that.” (Jaime Casap, Google Global Education Evangelist)
I love this quote because it emphasizes not only what do I want, but how can I serve? We work in community for each other. This idea is as old as humanity, but more relevant than ever. It is not about the I, it is about the we and this future of ours.
By embracing the diversity we already see represented in students and educators we may be able to see the patterns of inquiry and action needed to form a new model for moving ahead into the bigger/smaller world community and creating real, effective, positive, impactful change there.
(Art by Gr.6 students. Awesome!)