So last week, I was planning my work with teachers in a district that is beginning to design curricula. At one point, I knew we’d be taking a peek at the draft of the new Core Standards, and I wanted to provide everyone the opportunity to highlight different aspects of the draft that they were interested in discussing together. My inclination was to show them Awesome Highlighter, a nifty little tool that allows for highlighting web pages. I have such inclinations often, as some of you well know. I’ve loved tools since preschool, when my teacher encouraged me to use finger paint to create a mural out of our classroom windows (they did this on Sesame Street too–anyone remember that one?)


I find that my love of tools has everything to do with creativity. I love making things, and I love watching what others do when they use creative tools in different and unexpected ways. I have a pretty wide circle of friends who provide me this kind of fix on a fairly regular basis—some make jewelry, others are photographers, some knit, some garden…some teach art….I know quite few writers. My husband comes from a tremendous line of fabulous cooks, (and I blame him for the fact that I am definitely NOT the Biggest Loser in the contest we tethered ourselves to this spring).

I also have friends whose creativity is fueled by the use of tech tools. It’s always been pretty clear to me that tools can actually inspire innovation and creativity. So, for as often as folks are criticized for collecting and promoting tech tools, I gotta say–I’m not yet convinced that this phenomenon is worthy of much concern.

I’m wondering if alignment is, though.

Tossing the use of Amazing Highlighter into a conversation about the new Core Standards would not have enhanced the dialogue in any way. In fact, it may have been a distraction, and it may have even overwhelmed those who are not as comfortable with the use of technology as I might be. It wasn’t aligned to our purposes. Fortunately, I ran this idea past a friend in the field whose perspective I respect, and she questioned me in ways that helped me think this through a bit more. There are quite a few people in the field who do this for me, and often, I’m asked to challenge the thinking and planning and work of others as well. This doesn’t happen in Twitter or in Ning or in the comments field of my blog, though….even though so many folks in the edublogosphere suggest that this is where conversations like this should be happening. I think this may have to do with safety.

I have to be honest….the best work that I do involves a lot of discomfort. It happens as a result of someone questioning me, challenging me, and forcing me to rethink a lot of what I thought I knew. I see some people participating in these sorts of conversations within the field online, but not many. What I do notice is quite a bit of campaigning and endorsement. Or silence. That’s not a bad thing—I’m happy to campaign for more than a few ideas and the work of quite a few thinkers and writers right here in this space. I also have a tremendous respect for silence.

Here’s what concerns me though—if these same people who are on a constant campaign are unwilling to question the very ideas, work, and perspectives they embrace (or be willing to hear it when someone else does), then the conversation only grows louder while no one is really saying or learning anything. We’re merely just adopting what others tell us is worthy without examining it in any way.

I don’t think it’s tools that do us in. I think it’s our need to be liked and our unwillingness to engage in respectful and thoughtful criticism. I think we should value tools….for what they are worth. I certainly value those who write about them online. But the conversation is much bigger than that, and so is the learning. I don’t know if the conditions are in place to truly inspire either of those things though.

This post has been rolling around in my head for a while, and it came together last night when Brian Smith was willing to engage me on a Twitter for a bit. He was reflecting on his recent trip the ASCD conference and suggested a greater need for critical consumption. This is true of so many conferences, and I wonder if we reinforce passive learning when we position presenters at the front of the room and expect them to enlighten us by telling us what they think. This is how many conferences unfold, although I know that some have taken steps to shift that model. And they unfold this way because those in attendance often demand it. It’s a lot easier (and often entertaining) to sit back, listen, and walk away with someone else’s ideas. When facilitators don’t create that sort of experience for their audience, particularly at big conferences, there is often quite a backlash. Is it possible to facilitate sessions where we aren’t merely sharing what we think we know, what we’ve done, or what we’d like to inspire others to do? I think so, but people have to want that first. And honestly? I’m not sure anyone really wants that.

Sometimes, it seems that the greatest inhibitors of this sort of change are those who call loudest for it to begin with. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched leaders push masses of people to drive change change change faster faster faster and then call ’em all out for “doing it wrong” when they try to heed the call in ways that are deemed imperfect. Or worse…..dismiss them. I’ve been on both sides of that dynamic, incidentally. Learning is messy, right? I hope we’re all learners.

So how do we proceed? Anyone willing to share their thoughts? I think I’ve rambled long enough here……..but it’s been a while, so I hope you’ll forgive me ; )



  1. Interesting points – a colleague and I are presenting at a data conference next month on standards-based report cards and we approached the organizers with the message that we just started this work and have no clue what we’re doing. It took some negotiating and some great questions from the organizers to help us clarify why we wanted to share but they accepted our proposal and it will be interesting to see what unfolds.

    • Don’t you think that often, many people are really just beginning to learn or study something when they share at conferences? I’m wondering how to shape format of conferences I’m presenting at this year (even ISTE) to allow for collaborative exploration of a topic rather than presentation/persuasion around “what I/we did” or “what others could/should do.”

  2. I would like to think that many people at conferences are sharing their learning “so far” and looking for discourse around their ideas – but all too often I have seen them embrace the “expert” stance: that finite “here is everything there is to know about it” stance, not expertise as we know it in Communities for Learning.

    Your post had me really thinking so I posted an extended response on Grand Rounds /a> Not sure that it answered your questions(s) but certainly shows how you promoted my learning tonight!

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