Taking Root and Growing

If it hadn’t been for That Cold, which still seems to be lingering this morning, I would have spent some time Saturday morning on “them hedge bushes,” as my Former Lawn Care Guy used to call them.  They’ve been growing steadily, and so has a vine which looks suspiciously like Virginia creeper.  “Them hedge bushes” are sturdy and resilient, but they’d appreciate some attention and some judicious pruning.

During a long, hot summer like the one that officially ends today, you can see things taking root and growing all over the place.  Some, like the rose bushes that produce more flowers for me the less attention I give them, are welcome; others, like the creeper on “them hedge bushes,” perhaps less so.  But in nature, and even in the domesticated bit of nature that surrounds the Current House, things do tend to take root and grow without much intervention from us.

Is that true of learning too?  And what about joyful learning communities?  Do they take root and grow by themselves, or do they require the kind of careful attention that my old friend Colonel Q lavished on his prized orchids?  Or does it all depend on the context?

For the next few weeks, I’ll be participating in a NovoEd MOOC with the memorable title of “Scaling Up Your Venture Without Screwing Up.”  I “just happened” to get a notification about the course a month or so ago, right around the time when it was becoming clear that the Tres Columnae Project and I would be taking the next step and scaling in some interesting ways.  So the topic was timely, the initial video lectures were interesting, and the participants I’ve met seem to be an insightful bunch.  Our first submitted assignment was to conduct a “pre-mortem,” to imagine that our venture had spectacularly failed and to create the story of what caused the failure.  Most failures to scale, as the instructors noted, can be traced back to the three deadly factors of illusion, impatience, and incompetence: a failure to see clearly, an insistence on going too fast, and a lack of the necessary skills or understandings.

They’re all preventable, of course, but they can all take root and grow if you aren’t careful.  Now that I’ve written that pre-mortem, in which Future Me displays spectacular amounts of all three, I can better see how to avoid them in the short and medium terms.  But I can also see how easy it is to fall into them, and how many times they’ve each taken root and grown in projects of mine over the years … and in other projects I’ve watched, projects that began with the best of intentions but delivered so much less than they might have.

Laura’s Google+ post, which links to her response to a Randy Bass piece from 2012 about “disrupting ourselves” in education, isn’t directly connected to my image of taking root and growing or to the notion of failed projects caused by illusion, impatience, and incompetence.  But as I read the original article and Laura’s response, and then as I participated in the Google+ conversation she started, I began to see some important connections.  If you’re not careful, an attempt to “disrupt yourself” can easily become fertile soil for illusion, impatience, and incompetence to take root and grow.

I think of my early attempts to create (or perhaps mandate is the better word) joyful learning community in my face-to-face classrooms.  I had the illusion that it would be “easy” because my students generally liked me, liked each other, and disliked the more onerous aspects of School As It Is.  I also thought it would be “quick” … and that illusion led to impatience.  Naturally, none of us knew what we were doing, since our mental models for school and class were all deeply influenced by School As It Is … so incompetence quickly became a factor.  Initial results?  Anger and disappointment.  Longer-term results?  A slower, much more successful process in which joyful learning community actually did begin to take root and grow.

It’s easier now, with the students at District Q and District Y … easier because I’ve done it before, made the mistakes, and learned from them, and easier too, I think, because the context is so different.  None of us had ever taken Latin in a real-time online environment, so the expectations encoded in a physical classroom weren’t as much in the way.  I had fewer illusions about an “easy” process, so I started out by walking the talk and modeling the process … and the District Q and District Y Latin Family members, in turn, had relatively few illusions (or expectations) about me.  We have all year, and we don’t see each other every day, so there’s little need for impatience.  And of course the best way to reduce your incompetence is to try things, make mistakes, learn from them, make new mistakes, and repeat the process time and again.

So today, as the upper-level groups begin presenting (and responding to) their first Minor Assessment products, they may not be perfect, but all signs point to excellence.  The preliminary products on Friday looked great; the emailed questions over the weekend were thoughtful; and I’m hoping we’ve eliminated (or at least reduced) the illusion that we need “perfect grammar” and the impatience that Novice language learners often feel when they realize how much more they want to say than they can say.  Without any mandates or directives, we’ve started to build a culture of joyful learning together, and if we’re thoughtful and deliberate, that culture will take root and grow in the weeks and months to come.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await!

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Published in: on September 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

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