“Timeless Learning” on the Biodiversity and Terroir of Learning

When learning is allowed to be project, problem, and passion driven, then children learn because of their terroir, not disengage in spite of it. When we recognize biodiversity in our schools as healthy, then we increase the likelihood that our ecosystems will thrive.

Source: Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.” This book gets that. This is equity literate contemporary progressive education compatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability. The book describes the already implemented policy and culture at the authors’ school district in Virginia, USA. Very cool.

Selections from “Timeless Learning” on biodiversity and terroir:

To be contributors to educating children to live in a world that is increasingly challenging to negotiate, schools must be ​conceptualized as ecological communities, spaces for learning with the potential to embody all of the concepts of the ecosystem – interactivity, biodiversity, connections, adaptability, succession, and balance. These concepts have become a lens through which we consider and understand the schools we observe and what makes learning thrive in some spaces and not others.

The problem is that standardization becomes the antithesis of creativity in schools. There’s no “follow the questions” inquiry or problem‐ and project‐driven assessments in standardized classrooms. Covering the standardized curricula means rejecting the biodiversity of communities that have the potential to generate new ways of thinking based on their own unique environments. Those statistical norms that drive much of standardized practice seem to be built for mythical school communities, model neighborhood schools where we expect students to succeed in the same way. Using “teacher‐proof” assessments and programs makes a lot of sense if the goal is one‐size‐fits all schooling. The programmed learning of today—moving through curricula paced to finish on time for testing and using filtered pedagogies designed to maximize standardized testing results—is just twentieth‐century efficiency and effectiveness, carrot and stick, management by ​objective, modernized through contemporary technologies and infused with algorithmic monitoring systems.

But in our work, we have learned that no average human exists, no median community does either. And we have learned that human learning is messy and complex, and that childhood, especially, is very messy, and very complex. Authentic opportunities for learners to create, design, build, engineer, and compose cannot truly coexist within the standardization model. That’s why tinkering around the edges, adding a “genius hour” to an otherwise unchanged school day, accomplishes nothing except to highlight all that’s wrong with our schools for this century.

A school cannot change without system change. Nothing can.

It is reckless to suppose that biodiversity can be diminished indefinitely without threatening humanity itself.

– E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (n.d.)

It doesn’t take long to figure out when observing the natural world that biodiversity creates pathways for organisms to not just survive, but also to thrive within ecosystems. Unlike the cornfields of Michigan where row after row of hybrid plants are identical to every other one, nature seems to appreciate differences among species. It’s a way of foolproofing longevity that stretches back generations across millennia, and the variety within and among species tends to support an entire ecosystem to sustain balance and thrive. In the scientific world, geneticists worry about our dependence upon crops that have been standardized genetically. The hybrid tomatoes keep longer in the grocery store, but the scientists know they are subject to potential blights that can wipe out the entire crop in a short period of time. It’s happened before – with corn, potatoes, and citrus crops. It’s why plant geneticists recommend never becoming reliant upon a single hybrid. It’s why ecologists know that biodiversity matters in an ecosystem. It’s the opposite of what we are doing inside the human ecology of our schools.​

We need variety and biodiversity in schools, too. The walls of schools are a contrived barrier that keeps kids and teachers apart within the system. The walls of schools keep new practices, tools, and strategies out and traditions in. When we think about creating a biodiversity of learning, we turn to new ways of thinking about how systems change. That doesn’t happen without removing barriers that wall off the potential for change. We have found that breaking walls is best interpreted through the ecological lens as defined by the work of Yong Zhao and Ken Frank, who framed the problem of introduction of a new species in Lake Michigan as having similarity to introducing a new practice, tool, or strategy into a school (ETEC 511 n.d.).

We also believe in the concept of terroir, used so beautifully as a metaphor by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze in Walk Out Walk On – that the soil and climate of two different continents produce variations in crops even when the seeds planted are the same (Wheatley and Frieze 2011). Schools are like that, too. Two schools may be situated in different terroir even though children work and play similarly no matter where we visit. However, those children grow up in different cultural contexts that shape what they bring with them into school. Educators do the same. Because of that, each school represents a unique identity, one shaped locally, not by the federal government. While school communities certainly benefit from cross‐pollinating of ideas and resources, allowing them to localize their identity makes a lot of sense when it comes to figuring out what children need to thrive as learners.

Together the concepts of biodiversity and terroir combine to support the idea that schools in different localities need the freedom to be different. It doesn’t mean that neurology research shouldn’t drive educators’ understanding of how children learn and the pedagogies they need to use in response to that understanding. It doesn’t mean a curricula free‐for‐all instead of a ​coherent focus developed locally. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any sense of standards at all for what’s important to learn in and across disciplines. It does mean that broad parameters should allow children who need to learn about simple machines to do far more than simply memorize them for a test. It means that if a child or class is obsessed with simple machines, they don’t need to stop immediately to begin studying phases of the moon. When learning is allowed to be project, problem, and passion driven, then children learn because of their terroir, not disengage in spite of it. When we recognize biodiversity in our schools as healthy, then we increase the likelihood that our ecosystems will thrive.

Four Actions to Increase Learning Biodiversity in Your School Community

  1. “We need more than a genius hour once a week to build learning agency” (Genius Hour n.d.). Analyze how covering content standards for a test at the expense of creating a deep context through exploration of integrated content and experience impacts students in your class, school, district. Write this down and share your perspectives with colleagues. What can you together do to begin to tackle the problem of coverage at the expense of learning?
  2. Add a small makerspace in your room or school. It can be anywhere and it doesn’t need to have a lot of expensive technology to get it started. Our librarians say that glue sticks, cardboard, and duct tape are a great start to building a makerspace. Ask students “What do you want to make?” Watch them and see what happens.
  3. When you use project‐oriented learning, break the parameter rules by reducing your own constraints on what students can do. Give choices. Get kids to ask questions about what they want to learn. Teach kids the McCrorie ISearch approach and let them construct projects in first person versus third person (Zorfass and Copel 1995). Accept different media submissions from videos to websites, not just a poster or a written report.
  4. Unschool your projects. Abandon an “everyone does the same project” approach. Make more white spaces in your day to move beyond the standards. Begin by asking learners what they are interested in. Grab inspiration from their responses and find connections from their interests to questions they might pursue. Look for curricular intersections as you support them to collaborate with each other in pursuit of learning that’s intrinsically interesting to them. If you are tethered to standards, creates spaces every day for students to explore outside of that box using technology including ​devices, books, maker and art supplies, and experts in and out of class. Teach your children with their intrinsic drive in mind. Get them talking with each other. Record their questions. Make opportunities to share their work with their parents, the principal, and others in class. Invite parents into the community for learning exhibitions that represent biodiversity.

Source: Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools (Kindle Locations 761-766, 1500-1513, 4999-5009, 5066-5086, 5435-5453). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

More selections from the book are available on my commonplace book.

Obsession and the Art of Teaching

There’s lots of good stuff in this podcast with Gary Stager on The Lost Art of Teaching, but I’m particularly glad to see educators talking about and centering obsession. Embrace obsession. Autistic Special Interest and ADHD Hyperfocus crush learning curves when allowed to pursue passion.

Less coercion, more obsession.

Selected quotes:

A teacher’s role, then, should be to create the conditions for obsession to happen.

Gary believes that deep, meaningful learning is often accompanied by obsession, and his focus is on answering the question: How can we create experiences and context in classrooms where kids can discover things they don’t know they love? This is done by implementing good projects that spur creativity, ownership, and relevance.

Through his professional learning conference Constructing Modern Knowledge (CMK), Gary has teachers put on their “learner hats” and learn how to create obsession, since, he says, very few of us have experienced what greatness looks like.

Around the time of Nation at Risk, legislatures all over the world removed the art of teaching from teacher preparation and all they left was curriculum delivery and animal control.

Knowledge is a consequence of experience.

The instruction might not be necessary at all. A good project can replace a great deal of reckless instruction.

Curriculum is so arbitrary and so arrogant.

When it comes to a skill like computer programming, the kids never develop enough fluency to be able to use it to solve real problems.

Curriculum is the most dangerous idea in education.

As we remove agency from teachers, they become less thoughtful in their practice.

The best projects are generative.

Not enough adults have experience with what greatness looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like.

Great artists reflect the milieu in which they live.

You can’t possibly be 21st century learners if you haven’t learned anything this century.

I never worry about classroom management because I never go into a classroom feeling like I have to manage it.

Much of the PD we see expects nothing of teachers.

Apparently, everyone needs a good seventh grade social studies teacher.

A great 80 year old pianist said: Nothing needs to be taught, only experienced.

There are folks in every walk of life who understand Piaget. You Go to Latin America or you go to Reggio Emilia and they say, “We get John Dewey better than you get John Dewey.” People who are living these ideas of learning by doing, of valuing expertise, of understanding the importance of an aesthetic…

Source: ML Podcast #42 – The Lost Art of Teaching with Gary Stager – Modern Learners

Embrace the obsession. Special interests are “intimately tied to the well-being of people on the spectrum“. “Special interests have a positive impact on autistic adults and are associated with higher subjective well-being and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure.

Source: I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.

We don’t need your mindset marketing.

Autistic Special Interest and ADHD Hyperfocus crush learning curves. Both are powered by passion and intrinsic motivation. Without agency to pursue passion, these rockets can’t take off.

We don’t need your mindset marketing.

We don’t need your behavior mods.

We don’t need your sticks and carrots.

We don’t need your compliance cult.

We need agency and acceptance.

Embrace the obsession. Special interests are “intimately tied to the well-being of people on the spectrum“. “Special interests have a positive impact on autistic adults and are associated with higher subjective well-being and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure.

Noncompliance is a social skill“. “Prioritize teaching noncompliance and autonomy to your kids. Prioritize agency.” “Many behavior therapies are compliance-based. Compliance is not a survival skill. It makes us vulnerable.” “It’s of crucial importance that behavior based compliance training not be central to the way we parent, teach, or offer therapy to autistic children. Because of the way it leaves them vulnerable to harm, not only as children, but for the rest of their lives.” Disabled kids “are driven to comply, and comply, and comply. It strips them of agency. It puts them at risk for abuse.” “The most important thing a developmentally disabled child needs to learn is how to say “no.” If they only learn one thing, let it be that.” “When an autistic teen without a standard means of expressive communication suddenly sits down and refuses to do something he’s done day after day, this is self-advocacy … When an autistic person who has been told both overtly and otherwise that she has no future and no personhood reacts by attempting in any way possible to attack the place in which she’s been imprisoned and the people who keep her there, this is self-advocacy … When people generally said to be incapable of communication find ways of making clear what they do and don’t want through means other than words, this is self-advocacy.” “We don’t believe that conventional communication should be the prerequisite for your loved one having their communication honored.

Compassion and acceptance are practical and effective magic. They remedy a lot of problems and contribute to psychological safety. Acceptance matters. “A big part of our susceptibility to issues like anxiety has to do with how we were slowly socialized, either implicitly or explicitly, to believe that an autistic lifestyle is something that is defective and therefore needs fixing. A recent Independent article sums up the strong link between lack of autism acceptance and the development of mental health disorders in autistic people: Research shows that lack of acceptance externally from others and internally from the self significantly predicts depression and anxiety in young adults with autism. ” “We also reject the equation that accepting autism and disability means giving up. Research consistently shows that autism acceptance leads to better mental health for parents as well as autistic people themselves. Evidence is mounting that acceptance and accommodation provide a more reliable path to increased capability and independence than fighting autism or disability does. Acceptance isn’t a cure, but it does facilitate recognition and support of abilities that often go unrecognized and under-valued. We are better off when not only our disabilities, but our real abilities, are recognized.”

Source: I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.

PBIS is Coercion

This is an argument usually used for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), but it applies to PBIS as well. Because PBIS emphasizes the use of tangible rewards and teacher praise to motivate “appropriate” behavior, it often escapes this description.

The overall focus of PBIS is obedience or compliance with rules leading to a reward. The flip side of that coin is there is a lack of rewards or outright punishment administered for noncompliance. The pressure of complying with this system turns kids into ticking time bombs. Having to focus on compliance with school-wide and classroom rules stresses kids out and causes them to enter a state of anxiety when they come to school. In fact, I have seen this escalate to the point the school building itself was a trigger for panic attacks.

And, take my word on this, no one can identify and rebel against an unfair system as efficiently as a kid or adult with ID, except perhaps an autistic person. They know the system is unfair!

Source: PBIS is Broken: How Do We Fix It? – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

In preparing a new Afterword for the 25th-anniversary edition of my book Punished by Rewards, I’ve sorted through scores of recent studies on these subjects. I’m struck by how research continues to find that the best predictor of excellence is intrinsic motivation (finding a task valuable in its own right) – and that this interest is reliably undermined by extrinsic motivation (doing something to get a reward). New experiments confirm that children tend to become less concerned about others once they’ve been rewarded for helping or sharing. Likewise, paying students for better grades or test scores is rarely effective – never mind that the goal is utterly misconceived.

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

Since reading NeuroTribes, I think of psychologically & sensory safe spaces suited to zone work as “Cavendish bubbles” and “Cavendish space”, after Henry Cavendish, the wizard of Clapham Common and discoverer of hydrogen. The privileges of nobility afforded room for his differences, allowing him the space to become “one of the first true scientists in the modern sense.”

Let’s build psychologically safe homes of opportunity without the requirement of nobility or privilege. Replace the trappings of the compliance classroom with student-created context, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and BYOC (Bring/Build Your Own Comfort). Let’s hit thrift stores, buy lumber, apply some hacker ethos, and turn the compliance classroom into something psychologically safe and comfortable to a team of young minds engaged in passion-based learning. Inform spaces with neurodiversity and the social model of disability so that they welcome and include all minds and bodies. Provide quiet spaces for high memory state zone work where students can escape sensory overwhelm, slip into flow states, and enjoy a maker’s schedule. Provide social spaces for collaboration and camaraderie. Create cave, campfire, and watering hole zones. Develop neurological curb cuts. Fill our classrooms with choice and comfort, instructional tolerance, continuous connectivity, and assistive technology. In other words, make space for Cavendish.

My cave, campfire, and watering hole moods map to the red, yellow, and green of interaction badges (aka color communication badges). The three-level communication flow used at my company and other distributed companies reflects the progressive sociality of cave, campfire, and watering hole contexts and red, yellow, green interaction moods. These triptych reductions are a useful starting place when designing for neurological pluralism. When we design for pluralism, we design for real life, for the actuality of humanity.

Source: Classroom UX: Bring Your Own Comfort, Bring Your Own Device, Design Your Own Context