Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Reluctant Adult Learner

We are living in a time of educational revolution. I read that on Twitter so it must be true! Being an educator it certainly is an exciting time, with so many opportunities to incorporate technology in innovative ways and to make meaningful global connections. I wasn’t always so excited though. My transition from reluctant, to enthusiastic, adult learner has been a slow one.

I was born and raised in the North of England, the home of the industrial revolution, so being part Luddite is in my genetic make-up. I was sad when digital cameras arrived. Going to the photo shop to pick up prints and eagerly ripping open the packet to see whether or not you had at least one good picture was all part of the experience for me. I resisted buying a cell phone for the longest time-until my car broke down on a cold and rainy night slap bang in the middle of nowhere. So introducing technology into my classroom was not on the top of my priority list.

Five years ago I found myself teaching the inaugural Engage class at Birmingham Covington School (BCS).Engage was developed as BCS sought to reinvent itself to keep up with the real world demands placed upon our students when they exit the school system. The overarching goal of Engage was to engage students in problem-based and project-based activities that integrated elements of science, educational technology, technology education, and language arts as well as the four main elements of the enGauge 21st Century Skills: Digital Age Literacy, Inventive Thinking, Effective Communication, and High Productivity.

I was thrilled to be involved in developing fourteen day projects until I was told that Engage was not intended to be a vehicle for curriculum delivery and that the projects had to be designed in the spirit of Lifelong Kindergarten. What I heard was: Stop teaching for two weeks and have fun with the kids!! I know innovative teaching involves taking risks but in an era of high stakes testing, this approach seemed plain irresponsible. Jordy Whitmer, a patient colleague and mentor, persevered with my constant questioning and misgivings and sold me on the lifelong Kindergarten approach by sharing many readings, podcasts and videos about Mitch Resnick’s philosophy. I figured two weeks out of the curriculum wouldn’t do eternal damage and we set about designing the first unit: Digital Story Telling.

The Luddite part of me became fully engaged. I was digitally illiterate and couldn’t fathom how I could possibly “teach” this unit. On day one my greatest fear came true- a student asked me how to do something and I didn’t have the answer. That was a pivotal moment for me. It was the precise moment that my stranglehold on a traditional classroom environment was relinquished forever. My reply was, “I don’t know, does anybody else in here have an answer to this question?” Hands flew up all around the room and in seconds the moment had passed, the kids moved on and the tone and style of my teaching was forever changed. I learned that I was not expected to be the font of all knowledge and that I didn’t have to know how to manipulate technology tools. My responsibility as a teacher was to provide opportunities for my kids to figure out how to use the tools, and to embrace my students as partners in learning.

Teaching this class has allowed me to witness levels of student engagement I have never seen before. Students are motivated, curious, flexible, prepared to take risks, comfortable with failure and they are also having fun. Aside from learning global competencies they are also covering the curriculum on a deeper, more meaningful level. The big difference is that they are the drivers on their learning journey and they decide in which direction it will go. Being involved in the design and evolution of this class has been the best professional development I have ever had. I now attempt to “engagify” all of my math and science lessons and I know that I am winning when the students ask if they are in Engage or science. Upon reflection, being told to focus less on curriculum delivery, and more on teaching kids to learn while having fun was indeed a gift.

Five years later I found myself representing the BCS Engage team at Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Global Forum in Washington last month. Seven hundred educators from around the globe were gathered to celebrate innovative teaching, to collaborate, to share and to learn from one another. Spending time with such passionate, creative and talented people has ignited in me an even greater desire to not only be prepared for the educational revolution, but to play an active role in it. My journey from reluctant, to enthusiastic adult learner is complete. My journey as an innovative educator has only just begun.


  1. What a brillant post! I so love your enthusiasm and your honesty. You, my friend, are the perfect example of how transformation can happen if we teachers will simply open ourselves and take a risk. What an amazing gift you are! I am honored to know you, and I look forward to learning with you and from you! :)

  2. You Kelli are one of the brilliant people I was so fortunate to meet at PILGF.I would never have had the courage to do this without your support and encouragment-thank you!

  3. I have simply run out of superlatives to describe the quality of this blog and the extent to which the sentiments you've expressed are extraordinarily spot-on.

    What you articulate resonates so deeply with so many teachers - perhaps most poignantly the need for all of us to take risks in order to continue to learn and grow, lifelong.

    The shared community of learners, in which the lines between teacher and learner are fluid, is indeed a meaningful and relevant pedagogy which suits all concerned. There is truly no turning back from an approach that is inquiry-based and constructivist in nature. Our students are indeed lucky to have a practitioner who realizes how they ought to teach and learn and enables them that entitlement.

  4. Can I ride shotgun for part of your journey? (OK, how about we ride as passengers while the kids drive. But let's make sure to give them a good map ... I mean a good phone with access to Google maps ... and maybe a link or two to YouTube videos on safe driving ... on the right/correct side of the road!)

  5. As ever Jordy the voice of reason and a great compass!!Thank you.

  6. Amazing post. True innovative learning...and yes playing is acceptable!

  7. Pauline
    As I shared with you the other day,it is so amazing and wonderful that Alex(and all the BCS freshman) are so well prepared for the 21st CenturyLearning that the high schools are just rolling out. I' m pretty confident that they are more comfortable than the adults because they have been immersed for 5 years in this way of learning/thinking. I'm sure that as they work on group projects they will share or guide their groups. From that first 5th grade Audacity project to having kids who are comfortable searching seeking a way to get an idea across that is out of the box.
    BRAVO to all our learners and teachers at BCS, adult and children alike.

  8. Thank you so much Meli-it's so good to hear such positive feedback from a parent perspective!!I know these kids will be leaders because of the skills they have learned in Engage. Keep us posted :)