Over the last year or so, I’ve been invited to present at a number of conferences, including a couple of keynotes. It’s been an enriching experience, and one I enjoy immensely, although I do always end up feeling like I’m “a mile wide and and inch deep”, to coin a well-worn phrase. I feel like I know quite a bit about a lot, but not a lot about anything. Despite the fact that I like to dabble in lots of stuff, I’m not sure I’m really a master of any of it.
This afternoon, I was asked to run some workshops for another Sydney school, to talk with some of their staff as they prepare to launch on a journey of 1:1 student computing next year. I took a workshop session with a small group for an hour, then presented a keynote to the whole staff for 45 minutes, followed by facilitating some planning and goal setting with a small group of teachers. I took an approach with today’s sessions that I rarely do… I prepared nothing in advance. Normally when I present, I spend hours beforehand, collecting resources, planning what I want to say and figuring out the best way to say it. I assemble a presentation, set up a wiki page and so on, and go into the presentation fully prepared.
Today I didn’t. I just rocked up, opened my Macbook and essentially asked, “what would you like to talk about?” There were reasons for that… It was partly because I wasn’t given a lot of notice for these sessions, so I didn’t have any time to put together something super organised. The other reason is that the brief was pretty open-ended, without a really firm outline for what needed to be covered. But mostly, I went in there ready to fly by the seat of my pants because I’ve come to understand that I can. I do actually have a good enough overall knowledge of technology, of education, of what I think is important, what I believe matters in education, and a pretty good mental catalog of what resources I have at my disposal. I find it relatively easy (and I quite prefer) to “make it up as I go along”, just me and a web browser. Conversations can’t be planned in advance, and I wanted these sessions to be more of a conversation than a lecture. In fact I started the workshop by opening a Google Doc, and asking the group “what do you want to talk about today?” Their responses – the differences between Web 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, the use of blogs versus wikis versus discussion forums, and useful Web 2.0 tools for the classroom; these were not things I would have predicted in advance, but were apparently what this groups wanted or needed. We explored a number of other ratholes, including an exploration of Wikipedia and how it works, along with some simple ideas for developing a PLN. I thought the session went well, and the feedback was positive.
But it was during the keynote that I actually learned a lot about myself. Again, I didn’t prepare anything in advance, but simply had the topic “ICT in my school: Lessons learned” as a starting point. My reasoning for not preparing was that I live this stuff every day… I shouldn’t need to “prepare a talk” to give this talk.
Having listened to a lot of presenters at a lot of conferences over the last few years, I’ve noticed that many of them have a consistent message. A theme. A common thread. Some, even almost a mantra. There are influential people within this ed-tech sphere that have their own important message to share, and they become almost synonymous with their message. They talk about all sorts of stuff, but they manage to stay “on message” all the time. I’d often wondered to myself, as I shotgunned around all sorts of interesting but largely unrelated ICT topics, “What’s Chris Betcher’s consistent message?” What is the one thing that underpins all the other stuff I’m interested in? It’s easy to be a dabbling dilettante and be interested in lots of different things, but it’s harder to have some sort of consistent structure that it all hangs off. I had no idea what mine was…
And here’s what I learned about myself as I talked to this group today with no particular agenda. I do have a message. There were consistent themes I found myself coming back to over and over, themes that are really at the core of what I believe education is all about.
Trust in people. I honestly believe that, by and large, most people are good people with right intentions and will naturally do the right thing if given a choice. This belief has implications on how you treat those around you – colleagues, students and others. It affects how you manage your schools, how you build community, how you interact with your students, how you design learning tasks. My basic belief in people permeates every decision I make in every interaction with others. I was asked by a teacher today for strategies to help deal with kids in a 1:1 environment, and my answer, without even thinking about it, was “Build trust”. I don’t think it’s the answer she was looking for, but I honestly believe that it was the best answer I could possibly offer. Trust your students. Trust that they will do the right thing because the work you give them is interesting enough and they want to do their best at it. Trust that they would much rather do the right thing than the wrong thing. I know that there are many who think this is a Pollyanna attitude; that you should plan for the worst rather than budget for the best, but that has never worked for me.
Have high expectations. I also believe that kids are far more capable than we usually give them credit for, and that by and large we present them with fairly small-minded tasks that require fairly small-minded efforts. We ask them to write a few paragraphs when they are capable of writing a short novel. We give them tasks that are too uninteresting, too unchallenging, too mundane, and we too often short-change their potential to be great. We need to set the bar high, expecting greatness from them, pushing them to exceed the capacity they, and we, often mistakenly believe they have. Trust that they will meet your expectations. I always expect the best, especially from kids, and I usually get it.
Understand what a teacher is supposed to do. I don’t, and have never, believed that the role of a teacher is simply to “teach” students by imparting a fixed body of knowledge. We are so much more than that. Our job is to know our students well enough that we can find interesting things for them to do, things that help them see their world in ways that they have never thought about, then provide them access to the resources, tools and ideas they need to explore those interesting things, getting out of their way enough that we don’t impede their own natural progress, yet available enough to help them when they require it. I truly believe this is my job. I’m not there to do it for them. I’m not there to watch them fail. I’m there to connect them and their interests to a world of possibilities they have not yet discovered for themselves.
I don’t think teaching is all that difficult, and I suspect we usually overcomplicate it with a whole lot of stuff that just clouds the issue. There are standards and outcomes and requirements for graduating, sure. But the real focus of education is pretty simple. Help your kids find their passions. Trust that they can. Believe that they will. And get out of their way while they do it.
That’s my mantra. That’s my message.