“It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.”
― Robert M. Pirsig
As teachers we exist in a constant state of change… I call this state innovativeness. Like a hero in an epic tale trying to maintain our innovativeness, we must first learn to frame our efforts as that of a journey with ups and down, trial and error, reward and disappointment. Wanderlust is described as a strong longing, or desire, to travel. It is this desire I hope to relate to you as necessary to have a fulfilling career. A musician once said “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” I would argue that destinations in the form of goals are relevant and important as they provide us with compass-like guidance. Senseless, meaningless, directionless wandering is not what we will explore. We must focus on the waypoints in life, not just the endpoints… the process over the product.
In our professional (and personal) lives, we can frame our thinking around four attributes, that if identified and fostered, will lead to a successful journey: Knowledge, Skills, Environment, and Motivation.1 Knowledge is what we know through training and experience. Skills are gained along the way through a state of constant change, packing and repacking, like gear in a backpack, updated to suite our needs. Environment describes conditions in which we exist and embark. Motivation is both our waypoints and endpoints (destination) and what drives us to continue. If we do not take care to nurture a successful journey by addressing these attributes, we will have an experience rife with anxiety, frustration, a feeling of being trapped, and/or apathy. Here we will explore the the journey of the educator and learner as a journey that each of us take and that each of us must learn to embrace in order to be truly successful.
Knowledge: “Experience is the teacher of all things.” – Julius Caesar
As educators we develop our knowledge is several ways. We study our content areas with the intent of being the sage-on-the-stage, that is, the one who knows the answers. We are trained in educational pedagogy which is gleaned from psychology meant to understand the mind of our student and how to best meet their needs as a guide-on-the-side.
Yet, perhaps the most powerful form of knowledge is that which we gain through experience, this knowledge can, at times, appear to contradict our training. Experience-based knowledge teaches us to be both sage-on-the-stage and guide-on-the-side at various times, all while keeping our finger on the pulse of the classroom to inform our next move. Teacher Experience (TX) can be found at the intersection of our Pedagogical Knowledge (PK) and Content Knowledge (CK).2
In this intersection TX becomes relatively stable with some shifting due to adjusting of content standards and the implementation of new pedagogy-based strategies. TX is part of our knowledge growth as teachers.
Knowledge is naturally experiential and with that understanding I would ask that you consider the gamers mentality. We may not all be gamers or enjoy video games, but we all can learn so much from going and doing, from failing, and from success. And at each failure we should change our method, doing the same thing over and over again, even if well intentioned, is just plain insanity. The difference between a master and beginner is that the master has failed more times than a beginner has even tried.
Skills: If I got an F the first time I tried to ride a bike, I wonder if I’d try again.
Like a quest game, skills are gained along our journey. Skill acquisition is an iterative process, like knowledge, experiential application of skills will lead to mastery, here our mantra must me: out with the old, in with the new. Skills are directly related to emergent technology in our classrooms. Think about the most advanced piece of technology you use each day is the lowest piece of technology our students will use! Technology causes a real disruption in our TX, it forces us to exist in a state of constant change, a state of innovativeness.
Adopting Technological Knowledge (TK) causes a great disruption in our relatively stable TX.3 Technology is the great disrupter. Keeping a balanced TX with a rapidly shifting TK is the very nature of Innovativeness. In the midst of this, it can be intimidating to try to apply every new skill we learn. I think of the earliest explorers of the earth, that were told the earth was round. Scientist and cartographers explained that the earth was round and demonstrated it with stunning visual aids. These great thinkers gave direction and contributed to the planning of brave explorers, but not many of them went along to test their theory, to prove their point. So is the educator’s journey, we are told new innovations or best practices will work, but it’s up to us to bravely go forth and apply what we learn.
Gaming provides us with an excellent example of gaining and applying new skills. This form of growth is highly disruptive to our modus operandi, we must stretch our comfort zone to increase our skills.
Games (and simulations) are an important way to create meaningful, experiential knowledge for students. Games allow us to fail, the allow us to see the benefit in learning new skills through experience. A fail-forward mentality is a skill set necessary for our students. For our learners to master grit, a sense of stick-to-itiveness in adversity, they should must observe it modeled by adults who attempt new things with a certain degree of risk (in failure… not safety).
Games can capture the attention of our students, are relevant to their world, appeal as an appropriate challenge that students feel confident they can approach and offer frequent feedback leading to student satisfaction. When employing gaming in the classroom, it is the job of the educator to relate and connect the activities to the required content. Admittedly, there have been times in my own classroom where I got caught up in the student excitement over gameplay and let the content-learning take care of itself… which is seldom does. We must regularly accept that failure in implementing these types of activities is a very real possibility… so Why do I bother? The positive student reaction to gaming experiences in the classroom is both powerful and transformative. If you are thinking of taking on a little more advanced gameplay like the example discussed here, I highly suggest user testing. Start a club or find some kids in a study hall and have them work out the kinks for you, they will love it, and you will have meaningful data to inform a full class rollout.
Remember Oregon Trail? dysentery, cholera, broken wagon tongue… good times right? Even the 1980s Oregon Trail (OT) Game excites students. If you are not familiar with Oregon Trail: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
In my classroom, I use OT v5 (2001), but clearly of my own experience as a student with OT (I loved hunting on the MECC (1985) version and was not concerned with all that extra stuff: history facts), I redesigned this single-user experience into a multi-user experience, so that we are all focused on one adventure and we all can talk about the common shared experience. The teachable moments are numerous! Collaboration, Interdependence, Consequences, Critical Thinking…. monumental attributes for Social Studies Class can be gleaned from thoughtful gaming adoption and shared failure!
It’s so important for educators to embrace the gamer mentality and that we must innovate to support our student. But to innovate means to accept the possibility of failure, believe it or not, it is a good thing for students to see adults fail and to problem solve. Telling students to be resilient, to persevere, to struggle through difficulties is good, demonstrating it is better.
Environment: “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. – Albert Einstein
Environment are the conditions in which we exist and embark. The impact the environment has on an epic adventure is undeniable. In our classrooms, is that impact positive? Does your environment inspire? Have you ever sat in the back of your classroom and thought of yourself as a learner in that space? Think of your classroom from the standpoint of your students, what is their user experience (UX)? I have found that much of my classroom setup was designed for me (sage-on-the-stage) not for my students. My classroom UX was not working.
Maybe you just need some gamer cheat codes for your learning space, so you can #hackyourclassroom.
Setting out to prepare an environment conducive to learning is a daunting. We have limitations in space and money, but we can creatively look for solutions within our environments. This takes time and like building a road for our journey, it is a continual process of growth.
Many teachers can relate to a special class activity where we rearranged our seats to best facilitate a special lesson. I once changed the layout of my traditional seventh-grade social studies classroom to mimic a courtroom. We were learning about the Puritans in New England and I wanted to simulate the Puritan court. I was struck by how engaged the students were by simply entering the room and seeing a different setup. The thought that students could enter the room in be excited simply by seeing a different atmosphere was something I didn’t really think was going to happen. For the remainder of class, students were given jobs such as witnesses, defendants, magistrates, and bailiff. Student-centered tasks included writing the court notes on the board, standing and giving testimonies, and three magistrates passed verdicts (all guilty) complete with “appropriate” punishments. Each class a student was banished to the hallway for heresy. I loved the look on their faces as they were sent to the hall all in fun. This was a purposefully designed UX, but what about everyday class? Sometimes UX solutions are simple, accidental even.
Most classroom chairs and desks are not nailed to the floor. I highly suggest moving them around to try find a match for you and your students in a given lesson, there is no ideal classroom layout for all instructional activities.4, 5
The concept of hacking your classroom or developing inspiring spaces is something that teachers have been doing for many years. We find ourselves with a limited space: four walls usually one with windows and 25 to 30 desks. And we ask ourselves what am I supposed to do with this? Yet with a little ingenuity, sometimes with student input, we can create a space that inspires students instantly and we can leverage their excitement for the remainder of the class. When we first went 1:1 with Chromebooks in my school. I reorganized my classroom in the shape of a box, with desks facing out, so that I could stand in the middle and see/manage all the screens in the room.
I changed my room simply for classroom management sake. What I found was I had uncovered a huge projection screen… the floor.
This accidental discovery led to the mounting of a short-throw projector to an old computer cart so that I could project onto the floor. My new 7’x12’ “screen” allows for gaming and lectures in a new, engaging way, all born out of trying something different in my environment.
Motivation: The Reciprocal Nature of Inspiration, Inspiring Other Will Inspire You
Have you ever attended a conference that excited you? Have you ever had a speaker move you? Have you ever had fun playing with a new “toy”?
Motivation can be categorized two ways: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of each of us and includes: salary, tenure, retirement, and healthcare. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside of us, this is the stuff that keeps us, that drives us to accel for extended period of time. One or both can define our destination, but I would argue that the intrinsic motivation is the one that matters, the one that gives us a rich life experience.
It may seem a bit reckless to abandon our extrinsic focus, but maybe a little reckless abandon is just what we need to refocus our journey. What motivates you intrinsically? When you think to yourself: Why am I doing this? What is the image that pops into your brain? Think about that, tweet out your motivation, let’s backchannel with #wanderlustEDU and #whyiteach.
Backchannel – the practice of using devices to maintain an online conversation alongside the primary group activity or live spoken remarks.
We all started out our careers with a plan or focus to make a real difference in our various learning contexts. But as many of us learned, things do not quite work out as planned.
I had always viewed my tenure in public education as temporary believing that I would end up being a teacher leader at the small private school I attended as a child. After a decade of preparing and planning I was offered the position I had dreamed of, yet two weeks later it was taken away and given to another… a true heartbreak. I believe heartbreak is part of the human condition, if you have not experienced it, don’t worry, you will, and the rest of us are rooting for you.
So what did I learn in this part of my journey? Quit, give up on teaching? No and I don’t think you would either. I knew that I had literally, approached every school opening as potentially my last and every school year closing as my last. This was a real gift. I had nothing to lose each year, I devoted my energies and time into my students then and there, in that moment, with no concern about the next year, or about maintaining a long career by making people happy. I had no plans for a pension-retirement and I had not planned to rely on a stable teacher salary. I did not realize at the time what a liberating experience this had been. I have come to refer to this teaching approach as teaching with Reckless Abandon. I know, I know, it sounds like some crazy unrealistic approach to teaching, but let me define it for you with the tenants I have come to understand as teaching with Reckless Abandon:
- Teach each day like it is your last (Embrace the Here and Now)
- Seek forgiveness, not permission (Whose rules are these anyway?)
This is a re-framing of our destination to 365 waypoints a year rather than one big retirement. Be your best today, teach for now!
If you are alone on your quest for innovativeness, you are doing it wrong. You need to find your tribe, grow your world-wide Professional Learning Network (PLN), and communicate with your local Professional Learning Community (PLC).
Image Credit: Chris Stein, a superstar Teacher, and illustrator Extraordinaire!
- Harless, J.H. (1973). An analysis of front-end analysis. Improving Human Performance: A Research Quarterly, 4, 229-244.
- Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1–22.
- Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108, 1017–1054.
- “Classroom layout – what does the research say … – Teacher magazine.” 16 Mar. 2017, https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/classroom-layout-what-does-the-research-say. Accessed 7 Jun. 2018.
- “What does your classroom layout say… – TES Teach with … – Facebook.” 15 Aug. 2016, https://www.facebook.com/TESTeachBlendspace/videos/857262131070472/. Accessed 7 Jun. 2018.