Five Words to Shape Our Learning Reality

Photo by Mark Basarab on Unsplash

“Words shape our reality and in teaching define our practice. We cannot hope to create something that opens new possibilities or transforms our pedagogy unless we abandon this language for something new.”   -Mark Sonneman

Mark Sonnemann challenged us to come up with one word that could replace accountability in shaping our reality and defining our practice in his comments to Arthur Chiaravalli’s It’s Time We Hold Accountability Accountable.

I woke up in the morning not with one word ringing in my head, but three.  Three powerful words that light my way and guide my thinking. And then the next day, two more words came floating insistently into the chorus.   It could be that one of these words is more powerful than the others.  It could be that I should focus on my “one true thing.”

But I am not ready to do that yet and am certainly not convinced that I should.  Because these words, these ideas, these guiding principles…they go together.  They reinforce each other.  They inform each other.  They balance each other and hold each other accountable.

And the words are….


I have stepped foot in too many classrooms and districts where no-one really seemed to own the learning–not the students, not the teachers, not the administrators and not even the districts.  All of these “stakeholders” may have been working really hard to do what they thought they needed to do, but they weren’t owning it.  They were trying to make the grade, meet the standard, hit the target, obey the laws, fulfill the mandate.

Ownership is something very different than that.

Ownership says, “This is my learning.  I have a say.  I get to design it.  I get to create it.  I get to take responsibility for it.  I get to experiment with it.  I get to explore it.”

And ownership will only come when we move away from mandates and high stakes and forced compliance and grouping learners by ages in batches.

We cannot own when there is only one right way.  When only one voice is recognized as educated.  When only one history is told.  When only one measure is used.  When high stakes cause high anxiety.  When we think in binaries–of right and wrong, good and bad–we cannot own the learning.

Because, in order for every learner to own their learning, they need to be free to engage without shame or fear in all the deep complexities of learning.  In order for learning to be owned, it has got to be…


Too often in education we operate in binaries and focus on implementation.  We rush to define best practice and think in terms of this not that.  “Learning should be deep not shallow.”  “It should be experiential not rote.”  “We should teach phonics not whole language.”  “Or whole language not phonics.”

Richard F. Elmore says,

“I currently live in a world in which I routinely watch well-intentioned, highly motivated educators–teachers and administrators–talk obsessively about “best practice” as if it were a kind of super-hero jumpsuit you could slip on before you step into your formal role as “change agent.”  I am routinely asked by well-meaning system-level leaders to talk to groups of more than 100 teachers and administrators about deeply complex practices of leadership and instructional practice that can only be learned through deep, daily immersion in guided practice.

“Implementation” is something you do when you already know what to do; “learning” is something you do when you don’t yet know what to do.  The casual way policy-focused people use the term obscures this critical distinction.  The knowledge of what to do has to reside not in the mind of some distant policy wonk or academic, but in the deep muscle-memory of the actual doer.  When we are asking teachers and school leaders to do things they don’t (yet) know how to do, we are not asking them to “implement” something, we are asking them to learn, think, and form their identities in different ways.  We are, in short, asking them to be different people.”

Let us not look for binaries, but instead immerse ourselves in the science and study of learning and look for what works in this setting at this this time with this team and these learners.

I spend a lot my time thinking about the stages of learning and how the needs of learners are different at distinct stages of the learning curve.  Our current grade-level based system of education hasn’t encouraged us to explore these nuances.  Yes, we talk about differentiation.  And the teachers with the time and the training and the ownership actually get to engage in the inventive practice of figuring out how to do this in schools where we sort students into batches for a year at a time.

Yet, I want something bigger than this. Something more than differentiation.  Because I want us to invent systems that empower learners and educators to have more ownership over how they group themselves.  I want something…


Water is so powerful that it shapes itself to whatever environment it finds itself in and at the same time can radically alter that environment.

I want us to create schools and systems that can do the same thing.   Schools where there is no one solution or one strategy or one system.  Schools with schedules that are flexible and the pathways to learning can be adjusted as needed instead of at the next semester or next school year.

Learners do not all start at the same place and learn at the same rate.  Expecting everyone to do so causes a huge amount of psychological damage and yet almost every school I have ever worked with is based upon a system that expects that from learners.

We need to create systems that are more fluid.  Where learners can craft multiple paths to mastery and not feel shame if their path looks different from others.  Where the very meaning of mastery can be crafted by the learners themselves.

Other than the work I do in Read Right classrooms,  I personally haven’t seen any of these systems in real life, but I know that they are out there.  And I love reading and to learn about educators that are leading the way in crafting learning environments that go beyond “differentiation” and “personalization” to becoming truly adaptive and fluid.

And yet, we need to be careful in our approaches to personalization and crafting fluid systems because sometimes our experiments in this direction have lead to automatizing the learning process and caused us to push the deeply social and emotional aspects of learning to the side. (See the work of Benjamin Doxtdator for some deeply nuanced discussion of how personalized learning has played out in the world of education.)

We have to remember that learning is not just about crafting fluid systems to help students reach mastery of academic standards.  Learning also needs to be…


Learning is a deeply social and emotional experience.  We cannot only focus on academic standards and academic learning.  Learning is multifaceted and our systems suffer when we forget to include the social and emotional needs of the learners in our systems (and I am talking the needs of all of the players in our systems not just the students).

Relationships matter.

Relationships matter.

Relationships matter.

Psychological safety matters.

Trust matters.

We have to take time for these things.  We have to make time for these things.  We have to own our right to focus on the interpersonal.  On the social.  On the emotional.  Monte Syrie is one of my guides in this journey.  He frequently blogs about this on his Project 180 blog.


But there is one more word that guides my vision of how our schools and classrooms could be and that word is…



Because we can still somehow create learning that is “owned”, “nuanced”, “fluid”, and “holistic” and still have it not be powerful because it only takes place in classrooms (or conference rooms) removed from real life and real practice.

One of the things I love about training Read Right tutors is that I get to spend seven weeks over the course of several months with the teachers in their real classrooms with their real students.  This model of training is, of course, very expensive and thus is not very common in the world of professional development.

I certainly did not encounter anything like this in my own training and development as a teacher.

But it is amazing powerful, and I am very happy to hear about more school districts shifting to coaching models for new teachers and new initiatives.

But, we still have a very long way to go.

And in our classrooms we have a long way to go.  Too often the model of learning is very separate from the real world.

We can do better.

I am heartened by all the other educators who are engaged in pushing our systems up the learning curve to create learning systems that are owned, nuanced, fluid, holistic and real.

Thank you for your leadership.

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