Passion and Professional Development: Four Anecdotes

I’m thrilled to involved with a book edited by Mike Lawrence, and I’m currently working on a chapter about “Passion and Professional Development” – a topic I’ve been excited about for some time (more…). For this chapter, I’m collecting several anecdotes and metaphors that I use in my workshops – and that inspire my work as a professional developer.

The following are four short segments I’ve written for the chapter so far, some of which you may’ve heard from me in a workshop (or earlier on this blog) in one form or another. These will be combined with a few similar segments, plus some updated material about effective professional development. I hope to share more of that here soon. Meanwhile, I’d love your feedback on these segments (they’re rough drafts), and I hope they might be helpful to some of you in your own work. :)

A Message From The Future

When I lead professional development for educators, I often begin by sharing an image of The Edge, the guitar player in the Irish rock band U2. I took the picture with my phone at a concert in 2005 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, during the band’s Vertigo Tour. The picture is a bit out of focus and low resolution, but it’s a great close up – and the Edge is back lit from above, like he’s just stepped out of a UFO. I’m really as close as the picture looks; it’s me and my buddy, six feet of air, and the edge. I’m something of a U2 fan, so sharing this image is one way I can connect with the participants right off the bat. They learn a little something about me – something I’m passionate about. But the story I tell with the image is even more important.I like to think Edge is playing the opening riffs to a song called Miracle Drug, which they had released earlier that year. It’s an anthemic rock song, perfect for arena shows, and you wouldn’t know the story behind the song just from listening to it. A little research, though, will reveal that it was written about an Irish kid named Christopher Nolan, who went to school with the band. He was deprived of oxygen for two hours at birth, and as a result developed sever cerebral palsy that left him paraplegic for life. As the story goes, there was no reason to believe he could understand the world around him. But his parents had faith that he could, so they included him in their lives, talked to him, read to him, and taught him at home. When he was 13 a “miracle drug” was developed that gave him limited motion with his neck. They fitted something like a unicorn horn to his head and he learned to type. By 15 he was a published poet, and later became an award winning, globally renown poet and novelist.

There is a line in the song that says “with science and the human heart there is no limit.” To me, that line captures why I’m involved with educational technology. I believe that if we combine the heart of a teacher with the science and technology available today, we raise the limits off of what can be done in the classroom today.
When U2 played “Miracle Drug” live, they would often dedicate it to public servants, such as doctors and nurses (like those that helped Christopher Nolan), and others, including firefighters, police officers, and even educators. On one particular occasion (a Canadian show I was able to hear via recording), Bono introduced the song in another way. As Edge played the beautiful opening riffs to the song, Bono was a bit silly.
“This is the sound Edge’s space ship made when he came down to earth,” he said. Edge is known to be something of a geek, so to fans, this was funny. The crowd loved it and Bono continued, painting a picture of the band meeting for the first time outside Edge’s ship (in the early 70’s presumably)In Bono’s story, Larry Mullen, the drummer said, “Where are you from?”

And Edge said, “The Future.”

Adam Clayton, the bassist, asked, “What’s it like.”

And Edge said, “It’s better.”

As Bono said that, the band launched into the anthemic song about science and the human heart. It’s this same belief that the future is better that drives me in my work as an educational technologist. As I often say, we don’t bring computers into classrooms to connect kids with predators – or make a headache for IT staff. We do it because we believe it will make the future a better place for our students… and our children.

When the context is right, I follow this story up by challenging workshop participants with this welcome activity: if you had a message from the future for the educators of today, what would it be? Their answers are always inspiring.

Pets and Babies

I have a much more personal stake in this future now. My son Clark is about to turn 3 as I write this. His brother Finn just turned 1. When I first showed Clark an iPad (when they first appeared almost a year ago), it wasn’t “magic and revolutionary” to him. He simply fingered the slider on screen to unlock the device, swiped a few times to find the page with his games, and got straight to work having fun. Obviously he’d already been using my iPhone for some time – and he’d already been learning the basics of reading, writing, numbers, shapes, fitness, and more by playing on the device. He’s learning so much, so fast, with the freedom we give him at home, that I have a hard time imagining sending him off to “power-down” at school in a few years, not to mention at pre-school any day now.
But, I’m a big believer in the importance and the mission of public education. I don’t want a world where I feel like Clark’s school experience might be a tragedy in any way. As proud as I was of my public education (and as grateful as I am for my teachers), I don’t want his K-12 experience to be the same as mine. I want Clark’s future to be better… because it can be.

I often share this perspective, and pictures of my boys (in their Google shirts, with their iPhones and iPads) when I lead professional development for educators. This serves to clarify for them my mission and some of the higher purpose behind my work. Also, like the U2 story, it serves as a way to connect with the audience on a personal level. I think they probably feel the same way about their kids. And, as I’ve said for a long time, “pets and babies will teach educators more about technology than I ever will.” I’m always happy for workshop participants to use the new tools they learn to create projects focused on their own kids, their own pets, or their other passions. They are better able to apply the tools professionally, for the benefit of their colleagues and students, once they have had the freedom to learn the tool in a more engaging state of flow as they explore their passions.

Driving a Race Car

Before Clark was born, and before I finished my Ph.D., I thought I might have time for a new hobby once I completed my dissertation. Of course, now I’ve got a three-year old new hobby… and another 1 year old new hobby. But at the time I thought I might try to learn something completely new, something completely outside my comfort zone, and something I’d really always wanted to do since I was a kid. In short, I thought I might pursue a new passion. I thought I might learn to drive a race car.

Now, I never actually took any racing classes (or at least I haven’t yet), but when I was getting excited about it, I let myself start buying books on the subject while I was still working on my dissertation. One book that resonated with me was Speed Secrets by Ross Bentley. It’s a sort of Zen thinking-man’s race car driving book, and as I understand it, that’s reflected in his racing style. Ross Bentley is known for driving smoothly with a graceful economy of motion behind the wheel. Like any good sports book, this one was rich with many metaphors for life. One in particular still speaks to me today, and I often also share it with educators as well.
Ross Bentley suggests that a race car driver doesn’t look at where he is. Frankly, that would be folly in an ordinary car, I think as I look down at my own shoes. But a race car driver doesn’t even look at where he’s going, as you would in an ordinary car. A race car driver looks as many turns down the road as he can, because the way he enters one turn will effect the way he comes out of it into the next turn, and then the way he heads into the next straight away – and thus his laps times. Race car driving is a surprisingly cerebral and premeditated sport. Drivers will literally walk a track and plan what lines they will take in each corner before driving the track slowly, and then building their way up to race speeds.

In education (and in life), we certainly don’t have the luxury of knowing what the track will look like ahead of time, but we can plan several turns down the road (as many as we can see in our mind’s eye). Where we are today in education, and where we are going, are the result of many decisions made long ago. And decisions we make today will effect the course of education in our classrooms, our schools, our communities, our states, our nations, and the world for years to come. I challenge workshop participants to think not only of what they can “use on Monday” (though I always hope they come away with something pragmatic they can implement immediately), but also to think as many turns down the road as they can… to where they want their practice to be in three months, six months, two years, or five years down the road.

When I use this story as a welcome activity, I challenge participants to identify things they can do today to set things in motion that will lead to what they’d like to see in their future as educators – and in the future of their students. I challenge them to think like a race car driver, looking several turns down the road.

Teach Like Wayne Gretzky

Another passion of mine is playing hockey, and when I was much younger another book that captured my imagination was Wayne Gretzky’s autobiography. One passage that made a big impact on me was his surprisingly simple view of the game of hockey. He explained that even though there are twelve skaters on the ice at any given time (including five players and a goalie for each team), the whole game comes down to creating as many two-on-one opportunities as possible. Defense men need to create a two-on-one to move a puck around a fore checking opponent up to their own forwards. The forwards need to create a two-on-one situation to move beyond a defender, and then create a two-on-one against the goalie in order to have the best chance of scoring a goal. This was one of the key strategies behind Gretzky’s brilliance as a play maker.

Several years later, I was a young teacher, already working on an emergency authorization (this was back when California had a shortage of teachers) and attending night classes to complete my credential. One night, while in class, I had something of an epiphany (for a first year teacher of course). I realized that education could be seen in a similarly simple way. Education is all about creating as many one-on-one opportunities as possible. The sort of broadcast learning that normally takes place in classrooms (lectures and similar whole group activities) typically leaves each student with very few opportunities for learning at their own level and their own pace. Occasionally some certain students would raise their hands and get a moment of individual attention, while some of the rest of the class looked on either already knowing the answer, not being prepared for the answer, or simply not being engaged.

More powerful learning seemed to take place at times that were rare in the classroom: a teacher sitting with a single student, one student helping another student, or (even less often) one student working with a peer or expert from outside the classroom. These were times when instruction (or more importantly, learning experiences) could be tailored to challenge individual students without frustrating them too much.

Thanks to my credentialing courses, I learned there were many strategies teachers can use to create more one-on-one opportunities for learning. Many of these have nothing to do with technology. For instance, students can be encouraged to work in small groups or with peer tutors, and teachers (free from the front of the room) can spend that time connecting with individual students as well. This is also the way learning has worked best for millenia, with parents and mentors passing knowledge onto the next generation, and masters sharing with their apprentices.

But I also realized what a great role computers can play in providing students with more one-on-one learning opportunities. In many contexts, a computer could serve as a teacher for an individual student, providing more one-on-one time of a sort, and also freeing up the teacher to work with individual students who need  additional help. Networked computers also made it possible for students to reach out to more peers and experts outside the classroom than ever before possible. Today, tools such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, and collaborative tools like Google Docs expand the possibilities of long distance (even global) one-to-one learning opportunities. And modern search tools, such as Google Books, Scholar, News, and Blogsearch – and newer more visual tools like Qwiki and others – make it possible for students to explore and learn more about their own passions than ever before.

Another thing I learned from Wayne Gretzky’s book was the obvious statement that 100% of all goals scored in hockey result from a shot on net. The corollary is that you must shoot to score. And in the NHL, a typical goalie will face 30 shots in a game and let in perhaps 3 goals. That means the opposing forwards are failing on 90% of their shots. Ultimately, they have to create as many two-on-one opportunities as possible so that they can take many more shots – so that one more of them might go in.

In education, the equivalent to scoring a goal might be helping a student create a new solution, make a new connection, experience a moment of enlightenment, or simply find a sought after answer. Not every one-on-one learning experience will be successful, but we should create as many one-on-one opportunities as possible for our students so that a they might be able to experience a few more of these moments.

The same is true when it comes to professional development. The more we can create one-on-one learning experiences for educators, the more quickly they will be able to advance and improve their practice – and the more quickly they’ll be able to learn new tools that might benefit their colleagues and students. Naturally, one-on-one experiences also make it easier to allow educators to pursue their own strengths and passions as well.

Over the years, simply focusing on creating more one-on-one learning opportunities for the participants in my workshops has allowed a richness of learning in my workshops that I never could have orchestrated from the front of the room. Now when I’m leading a train-the-trainers session, I challenge the professional developers involved to teach like Wayne Gretzky too.

I’m also very excited that Scot McLeod and Chris Lehmann have been able to announce their upcoming book about What school administrators need to know about digital technologies and social media, and I’m particularly excited to have contributed (along with Diana Laufenberg) to a chapter about Online Office Tool Suites (such as Google Docs). I can’t share the material for that chapter here, but I look forward to sharing both books once they’re published. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to reading any comments you might share on these four anecdotes.