“One thing you can never underestimate is the power of water.” – Joe Teti
I love water. I always have. When I was young, I was fond of playing in the rain, I loved going to the lake where my grandparents had a cabin, and I spent my entire summer at the swimming pool. As an adult, my favorite place to be is lakeside, oceanside, or seaside. Today, as I sat looking at this stunning view while battling worries and concerns over the current and future state of education, I found myself thinking about the complexities of water and how they relate to education.
Our relationship with water is the epitome of yin and yang. Water is both dangerous and helpful, we cannot live without it yet we cannot live in it unassisted, it is beautiful to look but can also be frightening. Water provides entertainment and is a choice destination, but it is also utilitarian and is a place of work for many. There are many aspects of water that we cannot control, like the tide or rain, but we have learned to adjust our environment to adapt to the water and we have ways of predicting and tracking the movement of water. One thing we know for sure is that water exists everywhere, and that humankind cannot exist or continue without it.
“Why worry about things you can’t control when you can keep yourself busy controlling the things that depend on you?” – John C Maxwell
Similarly, education exists; in all places, at all times and, like water, it will flow and change whether we direct it or not. There are many aspects and factors of education that we cannot control, but like the tides, there are consistencies and predictable patterns. Rather than beating our heads against the wall to predict or change the forces we cannot possibly control; it is ever important that we leverage the power we do possess. We can best do this by adjusting our environment based on what we do know and can predict.
We have learned to adjust our environments to best utilize and co-exist with water, but of course no adjustment is fail-proof. When people live near a river, they build their homes on high ground, yet sometimes the river rises more than normal and homes and buildings are flooded. We build dams to re-direct water and to generate power, yet sometimes they do not work as we intended. As hard as it may be, given my perfectionist tendencies, I will give myself and everyone around me grace as we try to figure out how to create a new educational reality in the midst of so many challenges.
There is so much that we, as educators, cannot control or predict. We do not know when this Coronavirus pandemic will end, we do not know how the economy will impact current or future funding, we have little to no control over what happens in the homes of our children, we cannot go back and capture the instructional minutes that have been lost and so on…. We do, however, know that children learn best when they are motivated and interested, that confident and capable learners embrace challenge and inquiry, that true dialogue allows us to better understand our children, ourselves, and the world around us, that children need to feel connected and cared for before they can engage in effective learning, and that we are all weird and wonderful in our own ways.
So, where do we start then? What is it that we can control? We all have different contexts and realities and cannot possibly create an outline or plan that will work for all schools or communities at all times, but our discussions may be quite similar. Let’s start by thinking only about the things that we CAN control.
We can ensure that everyone in our organization understands our purpose and vision and that we can talk about it using language that leads us to embed it in our practice (whether we are educating students in the physical classroom or remotely) with integrity and fidelity. But first, we need to have effective dialogue to identify what our currently reality is and what our focus should be in order to move from that reality to our vision collaboratively.
We can collaboratively and carefully examine our purpose and clarify our vision for student learning. We can guide and support our students through challenges so that they begin to embrace that feeling of accomplishment they feel when they have successfully navigated through a struggle to create new meaning and extend learning. Once students have formed some ideas about a concept, we can engage them in this struggle by strategically asking questions that have no definite answers to get them in the pit, and then continuing to ask questions without giving answers. Then we can encourage them to the ask their own questions as they begin to wonder more about all of the possibilities and worry less about finding the right answers.
We can practice and refine our systems of feedback so that all feedback will lead to improvement and growth. We can build trust within our learning community so that feedback is welcomed and desired and is not seen as criticism or disappointment. We can clearly identify learning paths so that everyone knows what their next step is and can use feedback to guide their journey. In doing so, we will empower our students and provide them with the self-efficacy they need to learn in any setting.
We can look at the big picture and identify the overarching concepts that students need to learn and understand. Rather than finding ourselves bogged down by the minutia of specific content, we can use these big ideas to capture student interest and then let them explore the content in a way that suits their interest and strengths. We can spend more time developing the tools that students need in order to be independent learners and less time reciting details related to content.
Obviously, as educators, we must attend to the management details that relate to keeping staff and students safe, and that allow us to function in a world that is constantly presenting new challenges. However, it is critically important that we save head space, time, and energy to address the learning related factors we can control, and that will impact student growth and improvement. Perhaps we need to identify those people in our organizations (or reach out to other experts for help) who can best protect this part of what we do. While here are many people who are experts about one aspect of water or another; sailors, cartographers, marine biologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, and on and on…, none of them could possibly be experts about all aspects of water. Much the same, we cannot expect educators to be experts in every aspect of education. It is my hope that we might lean on one another as we focus our time and effort on the things that we can control and that will lead to learning.