In my first year as a science teacher at Chelsea High School, I took over the teaching duties for Dr. Richard Audet who recently vacated his position to assume a professorship of science education at Roger Williams University. To help my transition over those first few months, Richard spent quite some time with me discussing teaching methods. Richard had built a project-based program that utilized a small aquaculture system to teach inquiry-based science. He tossed me the keys and encouraged me to drive the vehicle that he had engineered.
Richard's conversations with me often focused on the nature of inquiry and how to facilitate students as they construct their own knowledge. He even introduced me to some of his colleagues at Boston University who told me about the importance of discovery. While I listened to Richard, out of respect for the time he took from his busy schedule to mentor me, I need to honestly admit that I did not hear him. I had come from a traditional learning background and had the mental model to prove it. In one particular meeting, we discussed a Geographical Information System program we were using and how I could structure some activities for my students. I advocated for an exhaustive, teacher-centered introduction to the program. Richard contended that a more powerful approach would begin with a brief introduction followed by time for students to explore the program and discover some of its features. The next day we could initiate a student-centered mapping project that I could facilitate. Richard had the experience and wisdom to understand that these students would not "break" the program if they did not know all of the ins and outs of the GIS software and that the pay-off would be significant. I was not so sure and dismissed his idea as unstructured and wasteful playtime. Both my inexperience and arrogance got in the way of a great idea that day.
Again and again since that first year of teaching I have learned the power of student-centered, self-directed and and inquiry-based learning approaches. I have re-learned this lesson many times as a teacher, as an assistant principal and as a father. I also learned that once I think that I have it all figured out, I need to get off of my high horse and consider alternate ideas. Ingrained mental models are threats to creativity and flexibility. It has been fourteen years since that conversation with Richard on the GIS package and it has been on my mind recently. While I have reflected on and admitted that he was right many times, never did I realize just how prescient his argument was until this past month when I jumped with both feet into the wave of social media.
My new adventure was sparked by an email invitation to an unconference from Patrick Larkin. In researching what an unconference was I looked up his blog. I also looked at a blog constructed by one of my teachers for our school's service learning student group. Finally, I checked into my hibernating Linked In account which I opened months earlier at the invitation of a former student. I realized that there was a thriving world online, one that I hardly knew anything about. A world that was not superfluous, but rather substantive and communal. Within seven days, I had started accounts on Twitter, the Educator's PLN and Google Reader. I linked my Twitter and Linked In accounts and started following Connecting Principals, Steven Anderson and, more closely now, Edutopia through my Reader account. I learned about hashtags, what the heck bit.ly was, and Google's Wonder Wheel via a tweet. Before I knew it, I was living the powerful learning experience that Richard had advocated for my students! I am lucky to say that I had learned this this lesson once again.
In my new-found obsession with these 21st Century applications I am not abandoning many of my 20th Century philosophical roots, I am just viewing them through a different lens. This was my epiphany. I have come to realize that sustained membership in social media for the purpose of self-directed learning marks the nexus point that joins Vygotsky's theory on the social construction of knowledge, Dewey's experiential learning and Maslow's self-actualization. This has been a profound learning experience for this school administrator and now my challenge is to facilitate this same kind of discovery for all of my students. Thank you Richard for the great idea, I am hearing you now.