The Power of Conversation

I have been reading Tom Peters (Blog, Twitter) work for almost 25 years now. I find it insightful, inspiring, and occasionally infuriating. I always wanted to have a chance to meet Tom and have a conversation over coffee. He does not address the topic much, but his thoughts about education, and what it means to learn, are filled with great potential for rethinking school. I have found that many of his best ideas are not business specific, though he presents them in that context. These ideas are foundational to the process of learning by doing – a critical idea long ago removed from our schools. On numerous occasions I have used a video clip of or quoted Tom in my posts here.

I have also have been following Tom on Twitter since he jumped into that pool about a year ago. I enjoy what he shares in 140 or fewer. This morning one really struck me and I decided to respond. I have responded to other “top shelf gurus” not expecting a response, and they have never let me down. Tom responded. Now, it was not an hour over coffee, but I appreciate his attention to “customer service” (the man practices what he preaches!) and count myself lucky to have had the brief interaction.

Reflecting on the momentary experience I find myself asking, “What power can be brought into classrooms around the world by ensuring interactions between our students and experts in the fields of architecture, art, medicine, sciences, business, engineering, technology, and especially authors, artists, thinkers and inventors?”

There is tremendous power in establishing, within our classrooms, the reality that we as teachers don’t have all the answers. At the start of every year in the classroom I began with a statement of my manifesto (of sorts) for the learning that would occur over the next nine months. My first line was an unapologetic announcement that they better be prepared for the fact that, “Your teacher doesn’t have all the answers.” Following on the heels of that announcement was a promise to always work with students to discover the answer to any question when none of us in the room knew the answer. I remember that every year at least one student would comment on how shocking it was for a teacher to admit the truth. They would also remark that teachers they had had previously allowed the “sage” aura to be perpetuated and they admitted they would often remark (usually under their breath or in their heads), “But you’re suppose to know, you’re the teacher” (my own kids have a version of that statement using “dad” in place of “the teacher”).

How many students in classrooms across the country have had the opportunities I have had today? Not just my short interaction with Tom Peters, but prior to that I was in an Elluminate session with amazing teachers from China, Germany, Spain, Qatar, Texas, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Alaska (Flat Earth Project 10-1). In the past month I have virtually “attended”  TEDx events in Austin, Texas (#TEDxATX and #TEDxAustin) and New York (#TEDxNYED), listened to Jon Becker (Blog, Twitter) from Virginia Commonwealth University, throw everyone under the bus discussing “The Logic of ‘Our’ Arguments” and listened to a conversation with Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the University of Regina (I watched/listened to the archived presentation the following day as it occurred at the same time as Jon Becker’s presentation). This is just a sampling from the past two months. How many students don’t even have the benefit of a field trip to their local museum? I went with my daughters classroom to the Milwaukee Public Museum yesterday to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit and will go with them to tour the Wisconsin state capital building later this month which will include twenty minutes of conversation with a justice from the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Another great example of the power of reaching outside the existent walls is shared in a post by Karl Fisch (Blog, Twitter) in his post, “Sometimes This Stuff Mazes Me.“:

Just a quick post to note that I still find my own personal networked world to be pretty fascinating and amazing. Yesterday I was talking with my wife about a homework assignment Abby had in math where she needed to gather some data. So I threw together a quick Google Form, posted on my blog, and tweeted it out.

Very quickly the responses started coming in, mostly from Twitter I suspect because I doubt that many folks had seen the post at that point. (Next time I may add a question about where they found out about the survey just to confirm that.) About a day later we now have 299 responses (as of this writing) from 43 states and 18 countries (counting the U.S.). (You can see the results embedded in that post.)

Now this particular survey and this particular post are nothing earth-shattering, but it again reminds me of how different the world is from when I was growing up; how easy it is to connect with others around the world, and certainly how easy it is to gather data via Google Forms, a blog and Twitter. While I certainly still need to do a lot of thinking about how best to utilize this capability in meaningful ways, I think we all as educators need to be constantly asking ourselves the question, “What can we do now (that is relevant and meaningful for students) that we couldn’t do before?”

Teachers lament the learning curve (for them) of new technologies, curricula, pedagogy, etc. They spend countless hours in conversations about how they don’t have time to learn to use technology, or they can’t see the possible benefit to them or their students. Most of these artifices are constructed out of fear, but these, and other excuses, just don’t stand up. My own personal experience today is evidence that the equation isn’t complex like a theoretical physics concept, isn’t expensive like the top-shelf MacBook Pro, and isn’t constrained by time. The status quo no longer suffices. Here are a few simple, dare I say game-changing equations for our classrooms:

(Computer + Internet Connection) x Skype = Powerful Conversations

equally as powerful

(Computer + Internet Connection) x Elluminate = Powerful Collaborative Interactions

a little higher up the learning curve

(Computer + Internet Connection) x (Google Forms + Blog + Twitter) = Powerful and Meaningful Research

or the very barest of minimums

(Computer + Internet Connection) x = Sowing Powerful Idea Seeds

The only constraints placed on those equations would be the limits of the teachers creativity and desire to open their classroom to the world (Skype, Elluminate). An email or phone call to potential experts  is all it takes to begin the process . . . what’s the worst they could say? No. Then you move on. I would wager however, that teachers would receive far more enthusiastic “Yes” responses than “No” and would then have the opportunity to share their classroom with many wonderful individuals. The power of such opportunities for students is obvious. Equally as important, teachers would have the opportunity design a classroom environment that would escape the restrictive confines of the physical building.

David Jakes (Blog, Twitter) in a recent blog post, “Rethinking Conversation and Change,” took on the tension that exists between talking about change and actually doing it.

Continually talking about the need for change isn’t helping.  At some point you have to do it what you are advocating for.  How exactly does that get done?

He argued that we need to pull our larger conversations into our daily ecosystem and dig deep. Then act.

Let’s see if I can tie it all together, at least as it sounds in my head. Tom’s response, “The first step is a defacto leap” is the point. Teachers need to leap or get out of the way (or, as may be necessary, be asked nicely to get out of the way). One of the first leaps we can make is to turn in our “Guru Badge” and open our constrained classroom to the world. The act of teaching, by nature, is a learning experience for teachers as well as the students. The call to all teachers should be:

Stop generating artificial obstacles to rethinking your classroom. Give up the false constructs that money, time, fellow teachers, or administrators will keep you in check if you decide to take your first leap – and there will be many that need to be taken.

David said it best:

Simply stated, change begins at home.

If we care about our students, as discussed by Chris Lehman (Blog, Twitter) in his post “Educon 2.2 Reflections – What Do You Think?” we have a responsibility to,

[Ask our students the] question — “What do you think?” and then listening, fully and deeply, to their answer. That is the ethic of care made manifest in the inquiry process.

Providing opportunities for our students to interact and collaborate with experts, thinkers, innovators, artists, risk-takers, leaders, and arguably most important: their global peers, will be a brilliant first leap. Then, we ask them Chris’s question and allow the learning to grow exponentially. The equations above are cheap, easy, and already exist in our classrooms today. It’s not hard to move past the conversation to action . . . It’s harder to make the decision to leap.

What great leap will you take in the next week, quarter, semester, year . . . personally, professionally . . . for your students, because, it’s the right thing to do for them?

Additional Reading:

While I advocate the leap above, it is always wise to look while you are jumping. Brian C. Smith (Blog, Twitter) talks about a crucial part of the process in his post, Being Critical: Transformations on his blog.


One thought on “The Power of Conversation

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  1. I tell me students on pretty much a weekly basis that it is there awareness of what is possible and their ability to approach learning in creative ways that will dictate what they do for and with their students. They get overwhelmed by the feeling they have to master all of the new TOOLS that I show them, but I have to keep refocusing them to the possibilities that these tools can afford. For, if we don’t strive for meaningful (and perhaps new) possibilities, then the tools don’t matter much at all. I am going to blog about the Skype project that I implemented in my course this semester as soon as my students have all had the time to complete it and reflect on it. Overall, most were worried about “talking to strangers”. I was worried that perhaps the whole thing would fall flat. But, I kept focusing on the possibilities and kept reminding my students to focus on the possibilities. So far, those who have completed the project are ecstatic about what transpired over a free and simple tool like Skype. I don’t care that it’s Skype. I care that they connected, learned, were inspired, and now have a new vision for what is possible, both for themselves and for their students.

    Change begins at home. Learn about what is possible… and make it so.

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