“Learning by heart”

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I believe that schools can become much more than places where there are big people who are learned and little people who are learners. They can become cultures where youngsters are discovering the joy, the difficulty, and the excitement of learning and where adults are continually rediscovering the joy, the difficulty and excitement of learning. Places where we are all in it together — learning by heart. — Roland S. Barth, Learning By Heart (2004), page 29

I first encountered Roland Barth’s book, Learning by Heart, as part of the required reading for my administrative credential program in the days B.T. (Before Twitter). In his book, Barth warned about the tendency among school leaders to become so focused on the “more important matters” of the job that they miss the truly critical work of “lead learning.” Instead, he urged educational leaders to work as co-creators of a “community of learners” committed to lifelong learning, discovering new knowledge, and making their learning visible by sharing openly with colleagues. Throughout my career, I have taken his words to heart.

And, I find that Barth’s wise words still ring true for me as I try to sort out how to apply their meaning for my work today. Recently, I have started to participate an online interactive course, “Educational Leadership in the Digital Age”, facilitated by Lyn Hilt (@l_hilt) of the PLP Network (Powerful Learning Practice). Last week, one of our topics for exploration was what does it mean to be a “lead learner” in a “time of rapid change with ever-evolving digital technologies.”

As I reflected on the qualities of a lead learner, I was struck by how closely they resonated with Barth’s conception. I think of “lead learners” as those who are deeply curious and open-minded about the world around them. They approach their learning by asking questions guided by a genuine commitment to their own growth in the service of others. From this foundation, they are also active learners who seek out new practices, experiment, take chances, reflect, and share their process openly with others.

As leaders, one of the most powerful ways that we communicate what matters is through our actions — showing, not telling.  By engaging in and sharing our own learning — asking questions, seeking out new information, trying out new approaches, reflecting on practices, taking risks, and persisting in the face of obstacles — we convey the kinds of behaviors and habits of mind that are critical to realizing our vision for children. By stepping out of our comfort zones to learn new things (and, yes, even being transparent as we falter), we also create a sense of safety for our staff to try out and explore and develop new practices to inspire our students.

So what is new about “lead learning” in a digital age?  As part of my exploration this week, I read a piece by Maggie Hos-McCrane, “Tech Savvy Leaders v. Lead Learners.” In her post, she argued that to navigate this new terrain requires leaders who are not simply adept at using digital tools, but who first and foremost are learners:

To me, a lead learner is one who is looking at how we can use these powerful tools to transform student learning opportunities too. Being tech savvy is not really enough, leadership involves more than just walking the talk, it involves walking with others on their learning journey too.

We are so fortunate to live and work in a time when we can access so many tools to make this kind of active, connected learning possible. As educational leaders in this digital age, the challenge is for us to walk with other educators to actively engage in the process of discovering and rediscovering “the joy, the difficulty and the excitement of learning” to create a true community of learners — in our schools, our communities, and beyond. 

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