Random Thoughts

Becoming an Active Learner

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Just wrapping up from ITSC11 in Portland and a previous conference send me a link to a survey from participants. This one frustrated me a bit:

Here’s the thing…first of all I’m never going to run a session that goes “Click here, now click here, now type here” I’m sorry, that’s not my style and if that is the reason your coming to a session at a conference then you’re telling me you are not an active motivated learner. That’s as bad as kids coming into our classrooms and saying “I don’t want to think, just tell me what to do, what to learn so I can learn it.”

Learners take responsibility for their learning and me telling you to click here, then click here isn’t going to help you learn it because the learning is out of context anyway. How many times have you had previous show you how to do something only to go to do it a couple days later and not remember? Learning does not happen if there is no context for the learning to take place.

I think the other thing that bothers me about these comments (this isn’t the first, and I’m sure not the last) is in every presentation I start by giving everyone permission to be off task and do what they need to do as a learner. If you want to click, go click, go learn. I never expect you to listen, or be active with what I’m saying. If what I’m saying isn’t motivating you, isn’t pushing you, isn’t what you need as a learner then that’s my fault not yours and go be off task. 

On the other end of the spectrum of course you have educators like intrepidteacher in this reflective blog post about a resent conference who is frustrated that many sessions are still doing the click here, then click here type workshops.

So here it is:

If you are looking for a presentation that is all about the tool and has nothing to do with the pedagogy or how and why you would use it…I’m not your man.

If you want a presentation where people just sit and get and don’t want to take responsibility for their own learning….I’m not your man.

That doesn’t mean we won’t “play” or “dabble” with technology. At ITSC we played with blogs for 2 hours, but people were free to click where they wanted to and taught themselves the software. I answered questions, led discussions, supported people 1-on-1, but other than pointing people in the right direction they had to learn it on their own.

What is the role of a conference? As conferences try and redefine themselves, try to stay relavent in a world where content is free and open. They become places of connections, discussions, and motivation. We still need conferences, not for the “stuff” but for the ability to come together with others and learn with them through conversations. 

I’m waiting for the conference that has no sessions, has no structure. But instead is just a specific time and place for people to come together and connect, discuss and learn.

The problem: Try to sell that conference to the powers-that-be. 🙂

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. I agree that it is very difficult to offer up one-size-fits-all PD. You are obviously passionate about teaching and learning. You have found a niche and you should always stick to your guns.

    My only suggestion is that you proof read your blog posts for spelling and grammar. It doesn’t matter how fluent you are in the content…if you can’t spell correctly or use proper grammar, your credibility will suffer. Don’t let otherwise fine ideas get chewed up with simple grammar mistakes.

  2. Thanks! I am not a click here, click there learner, I have to search and do for myself. I like your ideas.
    I must agree with John (above) that you need to proof readyour blog post. I know it is easy to make spelling errors, but, it does cause you to lose some credibility.
    I also want to thank you for your book “Reach”. i enjoyed it very mush and have recommended it to others.

    • Thanks Cindy and I apologize for the blog post. It’s fixed now…I forgot to go into the html and add the paragraph breaks and proof read before getting on the plane. Live and learn.

  3. I totally agree, Jeff. For the first time in 3 years I will not be attending the CUE (Computer Using Educators) Conference in Palm Springs. The number of worthwhile and relevant sessions has been overshadowed by the sit and get “click here, then type this, then click here” sessions that are of no use or value to me, so I’m not going to waste the school’s money again.

    When I do my PD sessions, the first thing I’m usually asked is “where are the step-by-steps? (handouts)”. I don’t do step-by-steps. Some participants, after their initial outrage, give the training a chance and are often thanking me at the end. Others shut down completely once they realize they won’t have a step-by-step crutch to take home. The entire session was a complete waste for them, which is too bad.

    I’ve used the car driving analogy many times when I get push back on lack of step-by-steps. No analogy is perfect, but I think this one is pretty darn good. When you rent a car, you don’t need a step-by-step to operate it, even though the gas cap release is likely in a slightly different spot, the radio works differently, as do the wipers and headlights. Yet, you’re able to get up to speed pretty quick based on past experience. You know *approximately* where the gas cap release is, you know to look for certain icons/symbols to find the headlights and wipers, and you’ll probably figure out how to tune a radio station.

    I want my attendees to learn what’s possible with a given tool, and actively engage in discussion about how that tool might best be utilized for learning. I have no interest in showing them where the “copy” menu item is, or how to change the margin. That information is readily available both in the built-in help system and all over the Internet. Seek it out, and you will find. I’m still amazed at how often I get push back by educators who would rather sit and get step-by-step instructions.

    • I agree…I feel like my time is so limited with participants that I want to talk about the big ideas, get them motivated….if I do that I feel they’ll make the time to learn where and how to click. That can be found in many places on the web. I keep coming back to the same thing I tell the participants.

      In a world where content is free what’s the reason we come together face-to-face and i really don’t think it’s to have someone walk you through ever click.

  4. Your post inspired me to try this out on Monday. We have a professional development day and I am scheduled to show our teachers how to use Google Docs. I think I will simply point them to the website and help them login. Then I will let them learn on their own. I might have a mini lesson or two set up on how to share with others or what the privacy settings mean but besides that, I’m just going to be there to answer their questions. I think this might work really well! Thank you so much for the inspiration!

    • Hey Geoff,

      Let me know how it goes…and part of me worries because much like students we have trained teacher to not think and just do. Hopefully I’m wrong and people learn a lot on there own.

      Sometimes it’s just giving people time to play…I like your approach. Here’s where you go, now start clicking and see what you learn…now tell someone else what you learned and learn together.

  5. Thanks for the shout Jeff. I haven;t been able to stop thinking about differentiated conferences since I returned from Hong Kong. It is frustrating to know that so many teachers who claim to value learning, simply want their hands held when it comes to technology.

    Seems that finding a room that can guide curiosity while making learners feel safe and knowledgeable enough to take risks and push all the buttons to see what they do, is just as hard for adults as kids.

    Maybe we can have a session or an unconference in Shanghai to discuss the topic of differentiating conferences.

    Not to side track this thread, but I have to disagree with John about grammar. I am an English who can;t spell very well and one who is sloppy to say the least with my grammar.

    I agree that you can lose an audience but distracting mistakes, and you are right one can easily lose credibility, but there must be something said about harness raw passion and honesty in prose. I hate the idea of the blog being pigeonholed to the role of “published” work.

    Sometimes we simply need to get some ideas out there, not because they are fully cooked or grammatically correct, but to get a response, make some connections Sometimes the real post is written in the post.

    I try to encourage my students to simply write and work on editing later., but let us not lose focus on this post and start worrying about grammar, let’s worry about finding a way to train teachers so they are curious and really learning to help our kids learn to their full potential.

  6. Jabiz,

    Thanks for articulating what I do feel about Jeff and his passion for teaching. I’ve followed him for several years and many times he inspires me to think differently and modify the way I teach to better reach learners. For ME, the grammar/spelling doesn’t distract from his content because I know Jeff (sort of…he ate a lot of BBQ in San Antonio with us a few years back). I just would hate to see his passionate message and writing have distractions, as you say, for any new readers or for people who aren’t that familiar with him. Jeff is an insightful guy with great ideas and I will continue to mine his Thinking Stick brain for ideas and inspiration, regardless of whether he uses a spell check or not. 😉

    • Thanks John…to you and Jabiz for your comments. I wrote this real quick before getting on a plane to Taipei this morning I knew it needed to be looked over one last time but then they called my flight…I hit published…and 20 hours later seeing now what i wrote. I’ll go back and have a second look…and still some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. Need to get back to Texas! 🙂

  7. I’m just getting back from speaking at the Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) conference in Chicago. Great conference. Immaculately planned, organized and run. Great kudos the organizers. But what I found was an overwhelming want from people of “5 secrets of …..” and “tools and tips to …..” sessions. Ryan Bretag and I had a discussion revolving around the hashtag #toollust” which he introduced one day. We wondered about the increase in political and assessment pressures in the US and this causing people to look for “solutions” and magic bullets to solve their problems. I had more luck convincing people of things like tools come last at a 2.5 hr workshop I did compared to the 45 minute sessions (and I wonder if that contributes to it as well.)

    As usual, great thoughts from you.

    • Hi Clarence,

      I think those are some great observations…especially the 45-60 minute presentation time slots. We all know we’re not going to learn anything in-depth in that time period so participants just want the “goods”. I wonder what would be a good time period to have during conferences. Personally I like the one or two days together institute style. The more of those I do the more I feel like we’re getting somewhere. I like the though of people looking for the quick solution or magic bullet. To often people turn to the tools for that and not for the learning.

      Hope all is well in the snowy north!

  8. Jeff – Loved the session in Portland. Thanks for turning me onto some many outstanding websites. Also, really like the QR code ideas for literacy and science.

  9. As classroom teachers, it is important for us to model the expectations that we have for students as well as scaffold the content that we are trying to teach. As providers of PD, it is just as important that we model learning environments that teachers are expecting (hoping?) their students use as well as scaffold the discussion surrounding the tool or the pedagogical approach. We also need to be flexible with respect to the needs of our audience.

    I think the Learning 2.010 conference went a long way towards these aims. My greatest take-away was not about anything tech-related, but that I forgot how much pressure is put on somebody when asked to create and present ideas in a classroom setting! That collaborative group environment, which is so prevalent in today’s classroom, seemed foreign to a lot of the members of my cohort – myself included! Combined with unconference sessions that I had a hand in choosing and/or creating, Learning 2.010 went a long way in meeting my needs as a learner. It was challenging and timely, and the discussions that I had in my cohort and in my unconferences made it personalized.

    Was it perfect? Of course not. But I walked away from a conference, where I had a chance to be an active participant, wondering what I could have done differently to make it better!

  10. Alex Villasenor Reply

    hi jeff and others … my first reply on your site! 🙂

    i think we have to be more compassionate about the different tech levels out there. i say this because i can totally understand why some teachers want the very methodical hands-on approach to learning something on the computer … for the most part, they are not fluent in many of the basic aspects of what computers and applications/programs can do. i have some teachers at my school (albeit, older ones) who still do not know how to use right-click or do not know how to organize their desktops … forget about having them create their own websites and using it with their students in a meaningful manner. And i think we have to understand that some teachers do not have the time or energy to spend hours and hours “dabbling” on their computers (unlike myself who is single and a bit geeky! haha). so, needless to say, some attend tech workshops to learn these skills to “keep up” with their students or other teachers — that is, they attend to not talk and share tech ideas and discuss where it is going and its ramifications. they want to take back something “easy” and “useful” without much headache and problems around its implementation. i know what i’m saying is not new to everyone here, but i think we sometimes forget about our audience and where many teachers are coming from when we talk about technology.

    with that, i still like the conferences that offer a mix of everything based on skill level or interest. a-little-bit-of-this and a-little-bit-of-that type of conference allows for people to move in and out of what they want to get out of it. if someone wants to learn how to setup a site for their classroom, then they can attend that particular session … if someone is more interested in sharing tech-talk around a particular issue, then that should be made available. this inclusion model for a conference allows people’s interest to be sparked just by being the presence of others regardless of where they are on the interest or skill tech level. and we must not forget about the energy that permeates throughout a conference that heightens creativity and gives teachers more awareness to take back to their classrooms.

    • Hi Alex,

      I appreciate where you are coming from in regards to some teachers not even knowing how to “right-click.”

      But I am left asking, why is this okay? We are almost at the point where there are few people who would not agree that even if technology is not enhancing education, it is dramatically affecting our culture. It is a matter of time, before it becomes that technology will not be debated or ignored as an influence on education. So how is it okay for it to be cute that teachers are not “good” at it?

      Teachers are after all dedicated, educated, professionals. We have taken an unspoken oath (perhaps we need a real oath) to promote and model learning. I think it can no longer be acceptable to say, “I don’t do tech.” Teachers simply have to start the journey somewhere.

      You said,

      i think we have to understand that some teachers do not have the time or energy to spend hours and hours “dabbling” on their computers.

      Would we accept that from surgeons. “I don’t have time to learn the latest surgical techniques.” “I don’t have time to learn the latest editing software to make my films or record music.”

      All professionals learn new skills and push their comfort zones or become irrelevant. I have been flip-flopping back on forth on my thoughts about how to handle teachers who are being left behind, and this comment may reveal more of my frustration than I would like, but we need to move forward. We cannot wait for the people at the end of the line to catch up for much longer.

      If you cannot right-click and are not actively trying to change that, teaching may no longer be for you. As for learning skills and tools at conference?

      I think the Internet is big enough of a place for any college educated professional to be able to learn how to use Voice Thread. These conferences should focus on how we can change pedagogy and the culture of schools.

      • Part of the problem is that not being able to right click is accepted. Not growing and learning is the norm. A doctor who does not use an x-ray machine would stand out, not so with a teacher who can;t “right-click.” I feel like this year that I am being asked to go backwards, like a doctor being to told to treat their patient with bloodletting.

        There is a very, very large group of teachers and parents that believe that “right-clicking” is dangerous and should be stopped. I still try to keep “right-clicking” but have equipped my mouse with a silencer.

  11. I read with interest the comments above as they seem to sum up my technology journey of late. I have always thought of myself as quite tech savvy yet 15 months ago I went on extended maternity leave and in my absence there was blog explosion at my school! When I left each class had a web page and wikis yet now the web pages have gone and every class, even EY, use blogs.

    I must admit I returned to work for a 4 month contract in November 2010 and felt like a duck out of water. My initial reaction was rejection. Our school’s poor, suffering ICT facilitators kept promoting the use of blogs in the class (Grade 5) but I responded with an eye roll and my usual phrases, “just a gimmick”, “waste of time” etc. However slowly they kept picking away at me until one day, on the weekend, just to get the guys off my back, I made my first post.

    Well…. fast forward only 4 months later and not only do we as a class use the blog multiple times daily but I have started my own professional blog; started a Twitter account; figured out tweet deck on my own; used Google docs for planning; and set up my Google Reader account; and just tonight announced that I am starting a family blog so our family can keep track of my son’s exploits.

    Now, some of you more experienced techies might be laughing at the simplicity of all these new tools but for me it was a significant learning experience and a personal achievement. I do understand where Alex is coming from in the comment that we have to be more compassionate to the “oldies”. I’m not old but without the patience, humour, perseverance and sometimes hand-holding of our ICT staff, I wouldn’t feel as empowered as I do tonight with all the new technology tools at my disposal. i am driving the guys mad with my constant emails of interesting blog posts!

    Yet I agree with Jabiz and Jeff that a conference is not the right environment to learn these tools. Our school’s awesome ICT guys showed me the tools at lunch, after school, on the weekend. They would give me a quick run through and leave me to explore. I did spend hours on the weekend, late at night dabbling and learning because I know that it is not okay for me not to have these skills.

    • Great comment Simone! The difference between your experience and what i was talking about is that you showed an excitement and openness to tis new world. You weren’t looking for a tool to magically fix your classroom or to satisfy your admin in terms of “using” tech.

      You, correct me if I am wrong, began to understand the power technology can have for you as a person and as a professional.


      not only do we as a class use the blog multiple times daily but I have started my own professional blog; started a Twitter account; figured out tweet deck on my own; used Google docs for planning; and set up my Google Reader account; and just tonight announced that I am starting a family blog so our family can keep track of my son’s exploits.

      All I am trying to say is that a school is only as good as it’s teacher’s openness to learning new things. I think all tech facilitators would love to work with, as slow as it takes, teachers who are willing to learn and dabble and play. It’s the teachers who say, “I don’t do tech.” Just show me something that works that we have trouble with.

      I know it sounds silly, but there are more of them than one would think.

  12. Alex Villasenor Reply

    @ Jabiz … ideally, every teacher would be open to technology and willing to learn new things with an open heart … in a perfect world, every teacher would have the time and energy to teach themselves, at the very least, how to implement some technology in their lessons/curriculum, right? but this is not realistic for any large institution … every institution will have that (small) minority of adults who need more attention to address their resistance, who will need more basic classes in using technology in their classrooms (e.g., internet, blogging, setting up a class site) … once we realize this to be true for every school, then we can set up systems and/or programs to deal with those few who are either more resistant or just downright scared to embrace technology at some level.

    @ simone … i enjoyed reading your story … thanks for sharing! … i would like to think that your learning experience and motivation are part of the majority and not the minority … but who knows, right?

    • I know, you are right Alex. Like I mentioned earlier I flip-fop back on forth on the best approach. I know I need to be more patient, but a lot of what we are saying is nothing new. I know I have been dealing with these conversations for at least seven years. At what point to our “institutions” start moving closer to an ideal world and making learning by students and teachers a prerequisite for inclusion.

      I am looking for an institutions that tells its teacher, “We are willing to help you, but if you are not willing to learn about the effects of technology on your pedagogy and understand some basic skills and philosophies about the use of technology in education than our school may not be for you. We are looking for our teachers to be learners who are eager to push themselves and learn the latest in educational technologies. We do not want you to blindly drink the kool-aid, but we do expect from all our teachers an open, critical look at the new classroom and what it means to all stakeholders.”

      Does anyone know of an institution like that? A place where all of our rhetoric online is not merely tolerated but set as policy?

      • I think that the key to introducing technology into a school is not the technology itself – but a focus on relevant pedagogy. If our pedagogy is going to help prepare our kids for a world of constant change, then our pedagogy has to change and that’s where technology becomes part of possible answers. At NBCS (www.nbcs.nsw.edu.au) we have had the great opportunity to hire teachers who have a passion for technology as we grew – but at the same time learn with the existing staff. For a couple of years we ran ‘sandpit’ time where staff explored new technologies with help on-the-shoulder. We started the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (www.scil.nsw.edu.au) to empower teachers that were keen and ready to take risks. I love the mantra of the Icelandic Ministry for Education back in 2005 – ‘do, then think’. Now we seek to minimize meeting times (and restrict the length and frequency) and staff attend Professional Learning Courses as the major staff development time in any given term. The courses come from the skills and talents of the existing staff. We also started a SCIL Associates so that all staff could feel supported to try new things. More recently we have been exploring the critical role space (real, virtual and pedagogic) has in enabling teachers to shift paradigms. I’ve been blogging about that on Tumblr http://imaginelearning.tumblr.com. We’ve tried to make innovation both policy and practice – last year we had over 500 educators from lots of countries come and visit and that in itself was an energizing process. It can happen – but you do need a team approach, a vision and the willingness to take risks. It’s been fun.

  13. Alex Villasenor Reply

    @ Jabiz …. well said, well said … i love the kool-aid reference … and i agree that if a school sets these standards and hires based on what you wrote above, then the expectation is established … and then perhaps non-tech savvy teachers will not feel that they are being wrongly targeted, no?

    btw, last week i did read your “WHAT DOES A 21st CENTURY SCHOOL LOOK LIKE FROM AN ADMIN/FACULTY PERSPECTIVE?” … many found it refreshing and some were put-off by it … but i’m sure you expected that already … and that’s ok with regard to the future education and job prospects of our students, right?

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  15. Jeff –

    Your post and the comments make very interesting reading. As the IT Coordinator at a small international school in Bandung, Indonesia I am responsible for IT training. After a few years of good, bad and indifferent training and conferences I came to the conclusion shown below (and added to my “Technoids for Teachers” blog):

    “A good ICT workshop is one that that gives people learning time by getting participants away from their normal workspace and into a specific place at a specific time to explore a specific aspect of ICT.”

    “The job of the ICT Trainer is to give a starting point and then use their expertise to guide participants appropriately.”

    After reading your post and the comments I feel I need to modify my ideas a bit to somehow include differentiating the participants….


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