What does it take for a vision to become a reality, when you are able to build a change culture across a school or District? Specifically, what does it take for that culture to reflect a move away from the teaching toward learning and away from consuming to making.
In this episode Will talks with Pam Moran, Superintendent who is an outspoken advocate for change that goes beyond labels and technology.
They discuss a wide range of topics including what a Twitter culture means, making yes to default answer and how to get kids to stop burning their learning once they graduate. Pam’s challenging yet optimistic vision is inspiring others to re-imagine their schools and their districts and we’re sure you’ll be inspired as well.
Dr Moran is Superintendent of Albemarle County Schools and was recently named Virginia’s Superintendent of the Year. Facing the challenges of a demographically complex community having extremes of wealth and poverty, Dr. Moran has provided bold leadership to improve significantly the performance of the economically disadvantaged students in her district of 13,600 students.
Dr. Moran is a leading advocate of an educational model that prepares students for “success in their century, not mine.” She emphasizes the value of student-led research, project-based learning and contemporary learning spaces that promote collaboration, creativity, analytical problem-solving, critical thinking, and communications competencies among all students.
Highlights from their conversation include:
How do you move culture away from the teaching toward learning, and away from consuming to making.
How to get kids to stop burning their learning once they graduate?
What it takes to inspire other leaders to re-imagine their schools.
How a Twitter culture can be used to increase the impact of professional learning for teachers, and build transparency.
The importance of teachers having a real sense of efficacy across their careers, and how it supports change.
The role and value of critical friends in supporting innovation in classrooms.
What it means to put teachers in control of their own learning; to empower their ongoing and continuing development as part of their role.
The importance of focusing on culture in developing a readiness for change.
How District leadership can be model learners and support teachers to innovate, iterate and share insights around their practice.
How a culture of ‘Yes’, is essential to exploring new directions and powerful ideas.
How you nurture those different conversations in your district, which then evolve the vision and how kind of focus or how concrete is that process?
Why you can’t manage any organization, corporation or public or private by visible numbers alone.
The responsibility school and District leaders have to support their profession beyond their own physical boundaries.
Why learning at school only really means something if and when they graduate that students then go out and continue to love learning, to be curious learners, to want to continue, to evolve and develop themselves as learners
Links to Topics Mentioned in this Podcast
Dr Pamela Moran
World Maker Faire
Most Likely to Succeed
Nation at Risk
Zone of Proximal Development
Transcript for the show
Hi, I’m Will Richardson and I want to welcome you back to Season One of the 2017 Modern Learners Podcast. For this year, we’re scouring the world for schools and districts that are raising the bar when it comes to thinking about relevant, sustainable change for their students.
In this episode, I interviewed Pam Moran, who is the Superintendent of the Albemarle Virginia at school district. Where more than almost any other school district that we’ve seen, the culture is moving away from the teaching toward learning and away from consuming to making. Pam is an outspoken advocate for change that goes beyond labels and technology.
In this interview, we discussed a wide range of topics including what a Twitter culture means, making yes to default answer and how to get kids to stop burning their learning once they graduate. Pam’s challenging yet optimistic vision is inspiring others to re-imagine their schools and their districts and I’m guessing you’ll be inspired as well.
Remember, if you want to learn more about this about podcast series, about our white papers or master classes and about our new eighth week course on Modern Leadership that we’re launching in March, check out our private Modern Learners Facebook group or head on over to our site at modernlearners.com where you can sign up for amazingly informative weekly newsletter that tracks all the opportunities and challenges of learning today.
But for now, sit back and enjoy my conversation with Pam Moran. I just want to start with the question that I’m asking everyone in this series and that is, what is the question that is driving you in the work that you’re doing right now?
Pam Moran: Well, I think that for me Will and when I read that I thought that’s a really interesting question to ask. At some level, I think that I’ve really worked on almost a lifelong question of what causes people when they enter their career such as education to continue to evolve and change the way that they think about things, the questions that they ask, the practices in which they engage, the belief systems that they have. How do people make decisions about what they hold dear, how do they consider new ways of thinking that potentially might cause them to actually evolve, what it is that they think about and what they do to act on what they think about?
That may seem really esoteric but it emerged for me and probably at a fairly early in my career from that standpoint of being around educators who are very vibrant thinkers, who continue to ask themselves questions in regards to the successes and failures that they have in the work that they do and seeing some people truly continue to ask that question across their career and to grow and evolve as learners themselves and people that seemed to get stuck and what one of the questions that I have is, why do some people get stuck and why do some people continue to evolve?
Will Richardson ..in terms of getting an answer to those questions.
Pam Moran: It’s really fascinating because I ended up in 1995 using that question, when I did my dissertation as a qualitative study and I went out and did sort of a triangulated look at who were teachers that at least from three different sources, very different diverse sources, people said, “Here’s an educator who has continue to grow and evolve across their career.” And then, when I got that pool of people I went and just did sort of almost an emergent design qualitative study.
It was really fascinating because to then obviously, one of the things I tried to look for was, are there themes across those people and there were some themes. One of them that probably were the dominant piece that really emerged from me as I dug in on that group of educators that represented people who continued to change is that they sustained a real sense of efficacy across their careers. They really believed that they made a difference and when they run into barriers or hurdles, they constantly turn the question back on themselves of almost from a Bill Glasser focus of what do I need to do to help children be successful, to help this particular learner be successful? What do I need to change versus looking at the kid as being the source of the problem, they tended to look at themselves with that efficacy limbs in terms of, “I can make a difference but I’m not making a difference right here. What do I need to do?”
The other thing that I found that was really key across those groups is that, those teachers had relationships with other teachers who believed that they also made a difference and were constantly in a quest to figure out how do I get continually better at helping kids really realize successes in the work that we’re trying to accomplish together.
It really struck me that every one of those people also had critical friends in their lives and they valued that those friends would challenge them in terms of their own sense of what’s going on here, but also really helped them think through. How do I really negotiate a pathway to helping children find that sense of self as learner and to really see themselves as people who had real control over the learning environment from the standpoint of not putting that expectation on others to own it but putting that expectation on themselves.
Will Richardson It sounds like culture, right? One of the things that’s really struck me just in a lot of the visits that I make to different schools is that, there seems to be a culture of powerlessness almost that as much as teachers maybe frustrated by certain requirements or standards or whatever else. They don’t feel like they’re empowered to make the changes that they want to make.
When I listen to you, it sounds like the teachers that you’re talking about not only had a culture where they could make change and they were almost expected to make change but they also had the support from other people within that culture to do that. Would that be accurate?
Pam Moran: I think so. I would even describe some of these people who shared their experiences across careers because all of these teachers, I really looked for people who had at least 15 years of experience in a classroom or in the teaching space that they were in at the time.
One of the things, that’s really fascinating to me is that even if they had been in a place where they had not built that sense of supporting community around them, they made it for themselves. There was that sort of a self-drive in terms of sense of power, of I can control this. I think about it that often times that our teachers who have that sense of powerfulness and confidence as teacher educators are constantly asking questions about what the bureaucracy or the corporate world throws at them as being, this is what works. This is what you need to use that sort of lockstep approach that we really put in place after a Nation at Risk. These are teachers who have a great some confidence.
As a Superintendent, one of the things that I’ve really tried to do is to take that big question now I’ve had for my whole career of, what is it that causes educators to continue to grow, develop and evolve? Who they are in terms of their own confidence, their own sense of power as people who can ask really great question themselves, who were incredibly creative individuals.
I say that, that you can’t find a greater space of creativity than in education. You just don’t see it sometimes because teachers hide it. How is that, that you make that part of the formal culture?
One of the things that I think about is, if you look at the people that I would described, they’re really great researchers and writers and thinkers that have influenced me going back to Dewey and looking at people like Roland Barth, if you look at Mike Rose, if you look at a variety of people, Sarason is one, even Cuban and Tack. Those guys all tended to focus much more on the culture of school than they did on the procedures and the whole sort of reform effort.
Will Richardson Right.
Pam Moran: For me, that’s been a really important part of what I see as being the essence of what we do, is to try to build really healthy cultures. I think it was Barth that talked about what are the non-discussables? That the more things that you have in a school environment, that are off limits for discussion, the more unhealthy the culture is.
One of the things that I think about is that when you open the door and say, “Nothing is off the table. Anything can be discussed. People can put anything on the table.” The hierarchy, the more flat it is, one of the things that can make me crazy at times as a result of really building a culture where, anything on the table and anybody can talk to anybody about those things is that, I have teachers that talked to board members,
I had board members that feel very confident and comfortable walking into our schools and I never really know exactly what’s going to get…said or who’s going to talk to who? I think probably that all of us who become Superintendents have at times an urge to try to control the conversation?
Will Richardson Sure, yeah.
Pam Moran: But when you let that go and you fight that urge to control the conversation, then you never know who’s talking to whom or about what? I think it’s one of the things that was really interesting for me with Twitter was Paul White who is on Twitter, introduced me to Twitter in 2008, 2009. He said, Pam, this is something you should really know about because you actually have employees in the school district who were talking to people all over the world, and I thought, “Oh, let me check this out.”
One of the things that I, and I wrote about this at a later day, that one of the things that really challenge me is that, when you were at the top of a food chain in a school system as a Superintendent, in the old style hierarchy, you really controlled who got access to staff and whose staff accessed? You had control over what conferences people went to. You controlled what professional development people did. You controlled who came into the system, to work with teachers and all of a sudden, social media took down the barriers. Took down the walls of schools, of school districts and you can have somebody in Albemarle County talking to someone in Australia or California or to Will Richardson and bringing things back into the system that really was kind of the Wild West.
One of the first urges I had was I really want to get on so that I can make sure I know exactly what’s going on. Well, eventually, when you have not just 10 or 20 but hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of, we’ve got 1,200 teachers. I think we probably have at least 50% or more of our staff that are in Twitter beyond other certain media platforms. You don’t have control over that anymore. All of a sudden, what you’ve got is this community that has grown from being just a grade level, or a department, or a school, or a school district, you now have a community of learners and people who are corresponding and connecting and sharing resources and asking questions and learning about different practices that extends globally.
Will Richardson I just want to ask you, because I know that as I’ve track your work and track what’s been going on in Albemarle in large measure because of Twitter and because of how transparent a lot of your teachers are and your willingness to reTweet all the things that your teachers are putting up there.
I’m curious as to how that work, informs and helps your vision evolve. When you talk about teachers who are willing to keep changing and keep questioning. That can go two ways, right? That can go toward a more progressive vision or could go more toward a more standardized vision depending on what the culture kind of offers up and what the conversations are there going on.
I’m curious because it feels like in a lot of districts to, the conversation kind of gets stuck and it doesn’t really embrace a lot of those changes that you just talked about.
How do you nurture those different conversations in your district to then evolve the vision and how kind of focus or how concrete is that process? Or is it more just kind of this general evolution that happens because of the transparency? I don’t know if that question make sense but I think you know I’m getting that.
Pam Moran: It’s really interesting because one of the things that I think about is that, an organization, a school division, a school district is a system. It’s interesting because Russell Akoff and Deming…
Will Richardson One of my favorites.
Pam Moran: …those guys had a pretty intense conversation 1992 or 93 about education and one of the things that I always found really interesting is the idea that Deming really talked about how the system really can’t understand itself. I thought that was fascinating way of thinking about. I think the other thing I really took away from him is that you can’t manage any organization, corporation or public or private by visible numbers alone.
I think that’s been one of the things that we’ve tried to do is that the whole reform effort has been based on trying to manage a system that always struggles to understand itself by using a numbers alone, by turning everything into Excel spreadsheets and data charts, but what I’ve really think is that, and it’s interesting because I know that that you have this kind of yin and yang as I think a lot of us do around that the encroaching technology into our world and the face to face opportunity for learning to occur on it.
It struck me a couple three years ago when I was talking to some high school kids and we were talking about the future of learning and the kids really made it very clear to me as a Superintendent from their perspective and these were high school kids circa 2000 and probably 13. One of the things that they really went after is that, what was really important to them, was having a social learning community in which they’ve spent time with their peers and with adults, teachers and etcetera in schools and they had no interest in just moving into a world where everything was just virtual despite the fact that there are a lot of adults who either think that’s what kids want or think that’s what kids need.
I think that our educators that for me, what makes the system run is creating as many opportunities and as many different paths as possible for people to talk to each other. That it is only through conversation and through interaction, through engagement that we are able to appreciate an inquiry process for making the kinds of things that caused us to go after what’s really important, for my perspective of what it is that we leave kids when they leave as learners when they graduate.
It’s fascinating because I think it was maybe Barth who talked about, something I read one time about that he watched a group of kids after high school graduation burning their books. When he talked to him, he was really shocked to find out that these were not the kids that have really struggled in school but these were kids that were actually pretty good students, all be going off to college. And he said, if what we do is to create an environment where when kids graduate that they celebrate by burning their learning, what is it that we’ve really done to the learning process and he said, learning should not be something where kids get hurt by it.
That we create so many systems inside our schools in which kids that we make the case that we’re going to hurt you in order for you to learn whether it’s through grades, whether it’s through variety of things that we do that set up sort of a punishment reward system; but it strikes me that what we really want and that’s where I think that as a system, we have set out very clearly that we want kids that when they graduate, that they take with them at least some the basics of competencies.
That we associate with people who are lifelong learning, committed people and that if we educate kids so that when they graduate that they go out and continue to love learning, to be curious learners, to want to continue, to evolve and develop themselves as learners then we’ve done our job because the kids aren’t going to burn their learning. They’re going to take it with them and they’re going to see it as something that they value and hold dear.
What I think is that inside our system, I’ve really tried to work and I don’t want to paint the picture that everything is always rosy inside Albemarle because we’re constantly growing and developing and evolving and we’re pretty WYSIWYG, what you see is what you get and we’ve got people that are far long continuum of seeing that lifelong learning as being critical. And we have people that struggle with that somewhat and are still held in a sense of that one foot on the side of the stream of tradition and trying to make that leap over the stream to more contemporary life thinking about learning and learners.
But for me it’s about the interaction, it’s about engagement.
It’s about setting up a situation where people define themselves as learners whether you’re a teacher with 40 years of experience or a teacher who’s a first year teacher, a bus driver, a teaching assistant, a kindergartener, a principal, a superintendent that staying open to new knowledge to new questions, to new ways of thinking about what we do to help kids graduate; so that they aren’t burning their learning but in with them is really key for me and we do have processes that we put in place. I mean, we have what we call professional learning communities and we went through the Dufour genre of that back in the 2003, 2003. We’ve really tried to evolve that to have it be much more about robust conversation than simply a data set.
We really tried to encourage our teachers and our administrators and anybody else that that’s out there in our community to engage in seeing themselves as a leader of learning, bringing ideas to us, asking questions, getting out into the bigger world with social media and seeing what else is out there. One thing is Becky Fischer pretty early on said, how do we give people credit for participating in chats online or following blog posts and doing things that are kind of alternatives to traditional professional development.
We’ve put in instructional coaching models that hopefully make sure that every teacher as they come in to our system has a go-to person that can be a critical friend, not a part of any evaluation system outside of administration totally but just simply there to say, what is it that you are interested in? What are your struggles? What are your challenges? What are the things that you really want to pursue? What can we do to help you go through a process in which we can support that inside the classroom, not sitting through traditional professional development?
Will Richardson One thing that strikes me just listening to you now and thinking about again what I’ve know about Albemarle and what I’ve seen about Albemarle. You mentioned earlier how difficult it is for the system to understand itself and I think you look at the things that you share online and you get a better understanding of what’s happening in that system.
In that way I think social media is probably been a great affordance for creating culture, creating a vision that everyone can see. It’s more tangible, it’s more easily shared and in so many schools you walk in and people don’t know what’s happening two doors down. They have no idea what types of activities kids or what kids are doing? What types of learning teachers are doing? The questions that they’re asking and yet I see so many opportunities for the people in your district whether they’re on board with that or not at least they see some of the things that are happening.
Pam Moran: It does really set. It does create an image. One thing that we know is that…
Will Richardson ..and an expectation, right?
Pam Moran: That’s absolutely right. I set you that thing on the thing I did about getting to yes…
Will Richardson I love that, yeah. Just briefly, just tell that story because I think it’s a perfect example though Pam of a leader in a district who is willing to say yes to something that you don’t know really what the answers going to be, right? What the outcomes going to be? Just briefly tell that story because it’s very good.
Pam Moran: I had a middle school principal who had some kids that wanted to quote so that whole design thing. They wanted to redesign the cafeteria in their school to have a better dining experience and…I’ve said, yeah I think that’s a great idea. They wanted to solicit some grant funding and we’re able to bring Alex Gilliam for a public workshop down to work with him and of course I’ve got this mindset of when I think about redesigning anything because you know I’m a baby boom or I think, well, maybe they’re going to put some booths in there some touches maybe put some sports posters up, bring some plants in.
Alex is down there working and of course Ira Socol is kind of overseeing it and you always have to be careful because when I was involved, he is definitely going to push the envelope in terms of what’s out there and I start seeing images going up on Instagram and Twitter and I’m going, what in the world are with these kids doing? Building tree houses and I called the…
Will Richardson On wheels, right? Tree houses on wheels, I love it.
Pam Moran: I called Dan and I said, what are you guys doing? The answer I get on the other end of the line from principal and from well kids actually they decided they didn’t want to build a dining room booths. They wanted to build tree houses, rolling tree houses. Well, I said, how tall are these things? And I’m thinking, okay, I need to say yes because that’s part of my mantra is, how do you always say yes to great ideas? I had a mentor, teacher that to me early on he said, Pam you tell a teacher no when they come to you and they got an idea they want to do something.
If you say no, they’ll never come back to you and they’re going to tell a whole bunch of other people, don’t bother…say no. I said, well, okay so these are going to be maybe eight feet tall and Ira said more like 12 or 14 and I’m like, oh my gosh. I grabbed somebody and I said, I want to come down see. I get down there and you can hear the power saws and stuff down to the cafeteria. You get down there and these kids are all buzzed and working and there’s teachers with them.
This is like two weeks before state testing well and I’m sitting there and I’m looking at this and the principal says to, Pam, you know, if you look at this, she said, it’s really amazing to me because there are kids up there who were some…and this is an at risk middle school. She said, some kids that are real challenges for us and they are some of the most focus leading kids right now in this experience that I’ve never seen them like this and math teachers, my gosh these kids are doing math, I never thought they’d be able to do. I mean, they’re having do all kinds of measurements and geometry and its pretty fascinating watching this whole thing go on and Alex is kind of master minding it.
Will Richardson It’s great.
Pam Moran: I just stepped away and go, how could I say no to this? How could I stop this?
Will Richardson You know what’s really interesting in the blog post, I love the way you wrote it though because in the blog post you say, I work as a superintendent in a school district that is learning to get to yes, right?
Pam Moran: Absolutely.
Will Richardson What that suggest to me and again what I see in a lot of places is that they’re default answer is no and it may not be like abjectly, no, but it’s more like, well, yeah but, you know, you can maybe do this but it’s interesting…
Pam Moran: This is where we’ll put your money where your mouth is moment for me because, I mean, I’ve said yes to all kinds of things. Yes to field trips. Yes to activities. Yes to changing things all over the system.
But this one was and I looked at it and I thought, well, one thing that I have to do is check with my lawyer because I am a superintendent. I don’t have things but I have a great school board lawyer. When I talked to him he said, Pam get the thing inspected so that it meets whatever the criteria is. Make sure that the school has very specific plans for how this is going to get used and he says, go forward with it. This is something that yeah, you can make this work.
Will Richardson But why do you think that we have to learn to get to yes in schools?
Pam Moran: Because I think that bureaucracies are traditionally setup to say no and schools are setup to sustain the traditions that have been in place going back to 19 whatever it was 10 when Coberly put scientific management in and changed the whole way that learning occurs, that I think that we are setup to basically filter out anything that challenges the norm of 1910.
Will Richardson How do you change that? I mean, it’s easy to say yes to the little things but to the big things like that it’s really hard. If you’re given advice to someone who is in a culture of no, right? Then how do you begin to change that and what are the personal characters that you have to have in order to lead that effort? How do we learn that?
Pam Moran: Well, you certainly have the willingness and I wouldn’t describe myself as being this flamboyant risk taker who jumps out off airplanes but I think you have to be willing to walk up to a cliff and leap. Kierkegaard calls it that great leap of faith where you sometimes walk up to the edge of something and the other side is unknowable and you have to be able to make a jump and I think that part of that is you have to be able as a leader to make yourself take that leap and not be fearful that the other side is necessarily going to be something that’s a negative…
Will Richardson Or catastrophic.
Pam Moran: I think you build that over time by taking small steps so when I’m out, one of the things that I say to people and I kind of laugh because I was down doing a thing and started trying to think about how do you really talk to people about that process of getting to yes and one of the things that I realized is that saying yes is the easy part, acting one yes is the hard part and acting on yes for me is about the culture and here’s what I mean by that. That if I have a person who comes to me with an idea and they want to do that in isolation of the community, there’s not a lot of, probably deep change or shifts that’s going to occur except maybe for that one person and one of the things that I’ve really come to believe is that if we truly are a learning community then we have to behave as a community and not as what I call this sort of like a school house full of free agents or independent contractors. One of the things that I will often time say is when somebody has ideas, I’ll say, so who needs to be at the table with you to do this? Who else can you get to invest in and being a part of this? And how do you, if you want to label it as something I would call it engaging a team? How do you get more than just you into this?
If that person says, well, yeah maybe this person or that person, well the first thing I’ll say is, well, could we just get a couple of people together or three or four people together and try to put the ideas out and start to shape this up. Because one of the things that I know is that when you have more than one person working on an idea that is an innovative or risk taking idea, you’ll have more opportunity to have people see where you might have blind spots and one of the things I’ll say to people is, when somebody comes to you with something that’s a big idea and you go, well we can’t do that.
How do you scale that down to something that is within reason that you are willing to trust it to happen and so, I think about when you see the school systems that have this big fails. One of the reasons I have big fails is because they don’t prototype well. The bureaucracy comes out with an idea. They put together strategic plan. They have all these action steps. They go after it and then nobody’s behind the idea and it just fails. But when you start small and you bring in a few people and you let them prototype an idea, that’s how a lot of our work has gotten started well but has really spread is because one school or three teachers in a school are grade level or department will say, hey we want to do this and they’ll get together and they’ll sort of test bet it and then they can work the kinks out.
It’s not like I’ve got schools all over the county that are building tree houses but what message that sent is, if I have an idea I may have something that’s pretty outrageous and here’s one that may sound normal but was pretty outrageous was when one of the high school principals three years ago, two years ago now I guess said, I was really thinking Pam before I saw Most Likely to Succeed that what I wanted to do was to put in a 9th grade remediation program for at risk learners because we just really been working so hard to try to get 9th graders through. Everything they’ve got to do to graduate with all the hoops they got to jump through.
But after seeing that, he said, what I really want to do is to put together a team taught inter disciplinary approach and knock down some walls and just have a very different team base approach and more project base, etcetera. I said, okay we can do that and I said, how long do you want to do that and he said, well I’d like to be able to open it in, this like May. He said I’d like to be able to open it in August. I’m like, okay.
But he went in, he put together a team, this group of teachers, he picked people but that really would get behind this and this school has got so many different kinds of communities for kids inside it that it’s almost as if, it’s a comprehensive high school almost 2,000 kids that at some point they’re going to be at a place where there’s going to be almost no kids that are in what you might call a traditional class. Because what they keep doing is opening up doors for teachers and kids to figure out something that they want to do together and it builds this affinity of communities but then what happens is that because of the energy behind it, the teacher start making connections and the community start to interact and engage.
You have this wild sort of music construction studio that is open for kids to come in and they laugh and they do all kinds of things. But then they bring in the geeky kids to have them figure out how to build soundproof booths in there for recording and then you get the arts kids in there and all of a sudden what as you know most traditional high schools the boundaries between different groups of kids are so sap but when you get that sort of an open culture of kids working on things that they really love and teachers feeling that they have a sense of power to build out those experiences for kids and it starts to reinforce who they are as learners themselves.
You create this culture in which people are less likely to see themselves in hierarchies or to stake out turf and more likely to see themselves as almost if you go back to Thornburg’s caves, campfires and watering holes that the school becomes this watering hole where, I need this and I know that this group of kids are really into making and so I want for my kids in their science this virtual or augmented or whatever it is, reality way for kids to play with them.
Looking at sort of contours and you go to the maker kids and they said, oh yeah sure we can do that and then you get the kids talking to each other and the next thing you know, you’ve got kids who never would have any experiences with each other having those experiences. And it used to be in high schools that those kinds of opportunities for kids to cross pollinate with each other, typically only happened in very specific circumstances but often times the communities were very much set and separate and very much packing order communities.
I see real changes happening in our high schools and as we have gotten to yes, let people prototype up ideas. These teams based approach, Jay Thomas whose is a fabulous sort of very open thinking principal and that’s the other thing too. You ask me about, how do you teach this? I’m not sure you could teach it. I think you can model the process and that as you model that one of the things that you do start to notice is that there are people who are better at sort of the creative side of the work and there are people that are really good at the implementing.
If you can figure out how to have your teams all understand that if our goal is life on learning and our goal is that every kid gets there then my skill set in this area and this is how I help contribute to that, that modeling that by building great teams that cross pollinate really is the way you get there. I don’t think you can put people in a classroom and teach it but I think people when they see it and they see the results of it.
When they see kids walking across the stage who otherwise would’ve never likely graduated from high school and they realize these kids walking across the stage because of something we changed that gave that kid a pathway to learning that didn’t exist 15 years ago or even five years ago. If you really are in education for the right reasons, you kind of get that, and you start to have a belief system that’s less defined by the traditions of education defined in the 20th century and really start to look at, maybe there are kids that we’ve been missing for a lot of years that have real potential and it’s not about educating everybody for college.
It’s not about educating everybody to go be a geek or to have some techy job. It’s not about to valuing one kind of kid over another. What it’s about is building this rich community where kids have pathways. One of my favorite kids this year that’s going to be graduating, Julian Waters says, often times he says, teachers underestimate the value of informal learning. This is a kid who says, the system should be about supporting kids to find their passion and it doesn’t mean that’s going to be a lifetime passion but if it’s a passion in a moment, we should be supporting that up because every time a kid finds a passion, your life’s passions are probably evolved over time and maybe you have new passions today but you didn’t have 40 years ago and that’s okay.
With his belief is that that’s what we’re about and he gave the most amazing talk. He was the only kid that talked at the World Maker Faire live share and he talked about what he saw changed in our moral from the time he was in elementary school, the time he’s in high school.
This is a kid and this is just to give you another story if you can stand another story. But Julian was really into drones and Julian had been watching all these YouTube videos about drones and messing around with stuff but he walked into two years ago, three years ago, we put a Maker Space into the library in his high school and he walked in and discover, it’s like, oh my God I can make drones in here.
He starts making drones and bringing some of his stuff in and he’s the first kid who really get into this and he’s talking to a new principal that came in to the school and he says to Derry, he said but I feel like I’m kind of the only kid and Derry is like, well why don’t you take your drones down to the cafeteria and see if there some other kids that might be interested. Julian drags his drones down and the next thing you know Julian’s got a 30 student Drone Club at the school.
These kids are like I’m seeing Vine videos go up. These kids flying these drones in the gym, they’re flying them outside then the next thing he gets is he gets a call from the middle school that’s right next door, hey we’ve got some kids that are interested. He now has done a startup with the kids over there. He’ll tie at that that wouldn’t have happen if he was waiting on a teacher to make that happen.
That school now has a group of kids that are involved in a change maker project in which they’re building a tiny house and they started out with the idea of trying to be entrepreneurs, to make money off of this and ended up turning it into something that will become a donation back to the community for somebody that’s in need of a tiny home.
It could be somebody’s home or whatever. But that school, I would say that, that opening up the drone, the Maker Space led to that then the music studio led to a kid who knew more about the music studio than any teacher in the building but found the teacher who had some interesting music.
They co-created a curriculum and this year the kid is basically co-teaching a class that other kids are getting credit for that he helped to build a curriculum for it so that kids could learn how to use that music studio and read music and things. I think about that. That that’s one of the things that’s on my mind right now is you hear a lot today about in some higher education environment: The idea of kids co-creating curriculum and teaching courses that other kids can take so that it’s not dependent upon a professor.
One of the questions I have is how do kids become more co-creators of learning in our schools so that’s it’s not something that they see at that learning is dependent upon having an adult in the room? How is it that our kids see themselves as capable of building learning experiences for their peers and it’s interesting because that’s led to and Sarason was really, I think very tuned into the idea that when I go back in time I think about multi age experiences and how we have totally almost filtered multi age experience out of our schools but that kids whether you’re thinking about it through a Vygotsky Zone of Proximal Development focus or through just peer to peer connectivity and communities that when we have started, when we’re putting and a lot more multi age opportunities at every level, what we see is that when kids have aspirational peers within reach that they often times will start to see the learning environment as being less about the adult in the room and more about the community being in the space with them.
Will Richardson One of the things that strike me always is that what you just said, the stories that you just told, they feel like common sense, right? They feel like why wouldn’t we do that? And yet there are a lot of places where they have a culture of no and yet kids are still “successful” in those traditional metrics. They go to college. They get good test scores, whatever else and people seemed to be reasonably happy.
I want to end with this question and that is, why are the changes that you’re doing in Albemarle, why are they important not just for you guys but in a meta-sense, why do you think they’re important for education at writ large now?
Pam Moran: Well, I say to people all the times that I’ve never defined my sense of mission as being limited to kids that I’m getting paid to have a mission to educate that I really say mission as an educator. We’ll say in any group any time that educators belong to the most important profession on earth and that we have an obligation to see ourselves as having a sense of, our voice is important, our agency is important, our influence is important.
I believe that that is absolutely the essence of what I think about for our kids today that I want every kid graduating from high school. In the ideal world every kid would graduate and more county public schools in Virginia United States of America.
I work with educators who saw my voice is being important. Who saw me as a person who could have agency in my own learning and also influencing my community small and writ large. We got a long way to go to get there but the only way we’ll get there is by supporting each other and we can’t afford to have a society that is as divided by education and opportunity as we have today.
Probably the area that I’m working on the most right now in terms of trying to realign resources inside Albemarle is around equity and access and that cuts across everything from infrastructure to quality of the experience that kids get to the resources that they have in and out of schools to the community support for kids and that we’re living in a time in which this is a turning point. It is a revolutionary time.
It’s everything from the wise of the global communication network to a time in which there are a lot of challenges that we have and those challenges won’t get solve through traditional educational means that we need as many kids and adults growing towards thinking about solutions in every way possible and it’s as important for the kid who’s really into programming to be thinking about how is it that I am going to make life better for people around me as it is for a kid who really aspires to be a carpenter or who aspires to be a teacher or who aspires to be a doctor.
Whatever it is that the kids end up becoming and then continuing to evolve over time, what’s really important is that everybody sees themselves as part of the solution finding that we’re going to need to move to this next century and the more disconnected, the more divided, the more that we put people into different categories and labels. The less likely we all are to come up with a solution that will allow us to continue to advance civilization and civilization.
Technology advances civilization in some ways that also impedes civilization in some ways but what truly advances civilization is the quality of the ideas, the quality of the solutions, the quality of the perspectives that people bring inside communities and I think that that’s what I’m really after is having kids grow up to see themselves as being people that their voice matters, that their sense of power and control, to have agency in their own learning matters, that their capability to have influence matters.
One of the most pointed things that I saw a kid do recently was one of our elementary kids in a school, we’ve converted our summer programming to Maker Spaces and this was a school that went after a theme of empathy in the summer so that the kids were thinking about, because a lot of times when you’re little and you want to make something, you want to make something for yourself and they challenge the kids to find out a problem that somebody else in their life had and find a solution for it.
This kid talked about that his grandmother, this is a funny little, tiny problem but it was big one for this kid and this kid work and work on this. The grandmother said that because she was on a cane, that she couldn’t keep her cellphone with her because she was having to use her hand for her cane that she like to carry her cellphone in and so she was always separate from her cellphone.
This one kid worked and worked and finally came up with a solution that allow the grandmother to have this little case that he made that could attach to the cane so that she carry her cellphone on her cane but when the kid talked about it, what really struck me was he could have come up with some kind of a rocket ship that he would’ve made, that he would’ve loved to taken home and maybe shown to his mom and his dad and his grandmother and so forth.
We have the potential to support children to see themselves as people who have a sense of empathy and it is only when we as humanity develop a sense of empathy that we continue to, I think, make our civilization a better space for all of us, not any one of us and so for me I think that as an educator it’s not just about, yeah isn’t it nice when we help each other out.
It’s a moral imperative for us as educators to really help each other, to grow and develop ourselves and our children as people, who first care about other people and then second, use our learning to help advance ourselves and those around us so that we all get better and become better people.
Will Richardson I think that’s probably a great place to end right there Pam. Listen, I really want to thank you for your time to just chat a little bit about your work in Albemarle. It’s an inspiration in a lot of ways and I’m looking forward to see more to come up with next.
Thanks again for listening to this episode of the Modern Learners podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and don’t forget, if you want to continue the conversation just head on over to our private Modern Learners Facebook group or to modernlearners.com for more information about teaching and learning in a rapidly changing world. We’ll see you again next time.
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