Learning is Vulnerable | Hooray For Monday

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September 11, 2023

Jenna Fournel, our director of teaching and learning, continued Inspired Teaching’s series of live-streamed conversations on building School Connectedness. She spoke with Dana Mortenson, co-founder and CEO of World Savvy and celebrated expert on social entrepreneurship and global education.

Below is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

JENNA: So welcome, Dana. World Savvy is an organization with a mission and goals that are very much aligned with those we have at Inspired Teaching. Your approach is based on the belief that students learn best when they are engaged in relevant and important issues that impact their communities and the world.  So tell us what this looks like in the work that you do.

DANA: Yeah, and thanks for having me, Jenna. It’s, as you mentioned, a real honor, just given that the Center for Inspired Teaching is so well aligned philosophically with what we believe about classroom experiences. So what that looks like for us is: We have comprehensive, multi-year partnerships with schools and districts that help them reimagine what learning looks like, with students at the center. driving learning and connecting that learning to things that are of real consequence to those students and to the communities that they inhabit and the world that they live in. 

So that is a combination of direct support for students where we’re using design thinking, something we call a “Knowledge to Action” model, to embed in the learning process. So students are sort of drivers of inquiry and exploration and then have opportunities through prototype solutions, intensive professional development and instructional coaching for educators, not just to produce curriculum and resources, but to rethink pedagogy and rethink how to operationalize some new practices in the classroom that will build more equitable, inclusive and future- ready learning environments. And then more recently, in the last five years, very intensive work with school leaders and superintendents to understand and think about how to connect vision to action and operationalizing that. We have a saying: Big sweeping transformation in education is not about huge, broad strategy, but about 1000 small moves that are all working in the same direction to produce really meaningful and durable results. So that’s sort of the how we do that. But at its core, it’s philosophically around thinking about how we define connection. So I’d love to talk about that if you want me to sort of jump into that. 

JENNA: Yeah, exactly. I would love to hear that because I think that We perhaps lose a lot in thinking that that means the same thing to everybody. 

DANA: Yeah. So in talking with our team yesterday, they’re sharing a metaphor they’ve been using in schools, which I find totally fascinating as a way of really interrogating what we think about when we say connection and what the purpose, what we’re seeking when we’re saying we’re seeking connection. 

They describe it as sort of , if you’re an educator in a classroom, and you begin by thinking about your students as passengers on a train, right? They’re all moving in the same direction. They may or may not be interacting with one another. They’re driven by a conductor that has set the direction and the destination. So that’s one way to think about teaching and learning.  If you thought instead about students as scuba divers, where there’s a baseline level of training and understanding things you need to understand about the equipment for safety, but that once they’re unleashed in the water the ability to pursue curiosity, go out independently and explore and bring information and learning back, and share that with the group and build on individual experience for collective knowledge is dramatically expanded. And so I think as an educator, as anyone in a classroom or as a parent thinking about your child’s learning, it’s interesting to sort of think about the mindset you bring to what it means to be what the role of the student is and what real agency looks like. 

And then the other thing we think about a lot is: To what end? So if you’re seeking connection in the service of reducing disciplinary action, right? Or to push achievement or connection as compliance versus connection as relationship that fosters deeper learning and inquiry and other things in the classroom. I think those are two things to sort of be personally honest about because they inform the smaller ways, the intangible ways, that we show up when we’re pursuing that and the way that we employ tools to make that happen in the classroom.  So we think a lot about that in our education approach. There are four pillars, and the first is cultivating connections. So the most important work we do to springboard to this broad “How are we looking at global issues and how they impact community,” is starting with cultivating connection because that belonging and connectedness is the only thing that empowers young people and builds enough agency to address those bigger and broader things. 

JENNA: It’s so interesting, because as you were talking about that, it was making me realize that even the notion of community can be compliance based or can be based in the collective ability of a variety of distinct, unique individuals to be able to come together.  And I’m wondering a little bit about that. When you talk about belonging, that’s definitely also something that’s coming up in a lot of the data and concern around issues of school connectedness, around issues of students’ well-being and mental health. And what does that look like either in the work that you do with teachers or the work that you see the teachers doing with their students in the classroom? What are some ways that they’re thinking about cultivating that sense of belonging? 

DANA: That’s a terrific question. We use a self-assessment that educators and schools actually employ that kind of help them identify whether it’s emerging or intermediate or advanced. But a different way to think about it is sort of, to us, belonging and student voice really go hand in hand. Right. So this idea of what does it look like at your school or in your classroom? Do you talk a lot about it, but then how might you see it when you’re walking around? How do you engage students in creating classroom culture? How do they have a voice in even the questions that you’re asking? The students actually involved in even decision-making roles and other things that kind of are happening in the classroom.  And then the other piece of it is: opportunities for students to give feedback and reflect on their own learning, that actually has a loop-back to an educator. So when you’re talking about belonging, that’s the essence. I’m seen, I’m valued, it matters what my experience is in a way that gets reflected back in real time and contributes to adapting. Which is also a gift as an educator; you want to help students grow from where they are.  If you go back to the train metaphor, everybody moving at the same speed, stopping at the same stops, going to the same destination. It’s not a great metaphor for how the messy process and the nonlinear nature of learning actually happens in a classroom. So I think for that, belonging is key. 

The other thing in the data we were talking earlier about, this Belonging Barometer that was introduced by the Center for Inclusion, belonging and diversity go hand in hand. So people who report a higher level of belonging experience more diversity in their friendships, in their relationship. So at World Savvy, this is deeply embedded and supported by all the evidence around culturally responsive learning. But as an educator, part of that in the classroom looks like: How do you not only get very curious about who your students are and what they bring to the classroom through their own lived experience, but how is that valued in how you create learning environments? So we have sometimes sort of very bound definitions of knowledge, but if we were to expand that, to understand that and create actual intentional structures to build on that.  You’re starting a project at the beginning of the year. Sure, you might have a textbook, you’ve got articles, you’ve got Google research for your students, you can guide them through. But what do their families know? What about the cultural traditions and histories that they bring? What do they know from community, in community, that can inform an understanding of an issue that might seem abstract? So I think those are things we work with educators to do as almost like flexing a muscle. So that this works in the service of building content knowledge, but at the same time, you’re creating environments where who you are matters and what you know is knowledge. It’s valued as knowledge. So I think that’s pretty key.

JENNA: That’s such an important point and something we spend a lot of time talking to teachers about. Devoting time to in the very beginning of the school year. If you spent two weeks doing nothing but getting to know your students and have them get to know one another and get to know you, you would serve yourself so well for the rest of the school year when you do that. But what’s interesting about what you were just sharing is that it also positions the students as experts. And I know that youth as experts is also maybe it’s not specifically one of the pillars, but is embedded in everything. So I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about what that looks like. 

DANA: Yeah, absolutely. That’s at the core. And I know we share that philosophically of youth as experts of not just their own life experience, that has sort of a real impact on how we understand the world, but also they are particularly in the last decade, living through some really acute, intense times in the world. I did not grow up in a global pandemic. I wasn’t, as my kids were in the third grade, watching an insurrection, right, and watching degrees of polarization that are really like testing the limits of democracy in these very, very pronounced, upfront visceral ways. 

And so I think we talk a lot about “little e” experts when we think about global issues. We’re used to piping in experts from the UN or people who have a lot of letters and degrees at the end of their name. But the truth is, even a community or a group of young people who live in a rural community in the United States who might not know what the Sustainable Development Goals are, for example, there is collective knowledge in that community. There are people taking action. There are agents of change in that context and sometimes that “big E” expert framing diminishes agency and creates conditions where people count themselves out as solution-seekers and problem-solvers that have any value and that isn’t placing the blame on them. This is structural and institutional. It’s how we set up what we deem expertise and knowledge. And so I think we approach this and we try and build schools where youth see themselves as experts. They see themselves as agents of change from the get-go so that they continue to be curious and leaning into learning more and building on knowledge in ways that promote deeper learning and relationship.

JENNA: I’m thinking about that so much in terms of what’s happening as we head back to school and thinking about the teachers in my life who are talking about the professional development they’ve been in over the last several weeks and the messages that they’re getting from leadership. Everybody’s sort of beating this drum of what we need to do to create more school connection. But I’m wondering how many students they have in the room on that, because a lot of times, I think as adults we come up with solutions to problems in schools and we leave students out of the conversation entirely. 

And I’m wondering if you have any examples just so people can kind of hear concretely what the work of World Savvy looks like in practice when students are actually at the center of thinking about solutions. You have some beautiful examples of the projects that have been underway, but sort of seeing what that looks like when students are able to bring their own agency, their own experience and their own perspectives. To grappling with real things that are going on. 

DANA: There’s an example I love, and I use it a lot because I also think that’s sort of an inside-out example. I think we tokenize sometimes, like taking action and civic action and engagement in community, and then we don’t deeply internalize what competencies that requires in how we do school. And so we worked with a school in New York that essentially was using our “Knowledge to Action” framework for students to look at and tackle a problem in community that they identified as something of consequence. And this is around the time the census was happening. 

So the students were deeply engaged in trying to understand, “Why is the census important? What does it tell us? If the data isn’t accurate, how does that impact, right, how resources are allocated?” So they partnered with a few local agencies that were working on that issue to learn about it and then try to be of service to get the word out and increase engagement in the census. They went through our “Knowledge to Action” experience and then came back around and we worked with the school and said, okay, this is great. It’s teaching a really important skill about how to take action in community and how to be of service in a way that places the most proximate individuals at the center of solution-seeking. 

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that was happening in school. And so at the same time, the school was grappling with how to create a master schedule that promoted 21st century learning. So they brought in an expensive consultant, and that consultant led the teachers through planning sessions. And we said, well, what would it look like to actually do a “Knowledge to Action” experience, which is like a design challenge, and have students lead a conversation around how a master schedule might get designed? The people experiencing that master schedule as learners, right, were like, never in the room for any of this.  So they went through that process and what they learned from it informed the master schedule. And the assistant superintendent said, “Wow, I just spent a lot of money on an external consultant, and this could have really shortcut a lot of the resources we had to spend.” But the other thing that that did in terms of that inside-outside example is, you’re saying you value wanting to create change-makers and problem-solvers and civically active, globally engaged students, flexing those muscles and building those competencies. It’s not coincidental, right? It’s intentional. And it needs to be in the drinking water and in the structures of how you do school and how you set up culture. And that’s kind of what we work schools to do. So it doesn’t have to be about a global issue. When you’re flexing this muscle on a competency. It can be small, pedestrian, seemingly inconsequential, so that you can scaffold that. So, yes, a student can go out and tackle some of the bigger, thornier issues that we know are at our doorstep wherever we live.

JENNA: Yeah. And that’s making me think about this connection, the fact that so often when I talk to my son who’s in high school, the things that he shares with me that are happening in his high school feel like they’re happening in like, a microcosm. I’m looking at a snow globe of the world outside, and these things are happening there. And schools are places where we practice learning how to be members of a democracy. They can be.  But I think some of the things that you were bringing up earlier about what do we really mean when we talk about connection? What do we really mean when we talk about community? And are we actually creating connections and community in the way that we would like to see happen in the world beyond school? And I’m thinking about how it seems like the work that you do creates really fertile ground for having those conversations.

DANA: Yeah, and figuring out ways to make sure that they’re consistent. So, for example, if you’re in your classroom and you’re using assessments and rubrics and frameworks that help students navigate conflict in a healthy way, let’s say, but there’s no similarly situated framework that helps educators do that one-to-one, or school administration, or the capacity to do that and interact with caregivers. Or maybe the school board is wild and absolutely entrenched in conflict. That alignment matters.

That’s the hard stuff, because those are messages students can pick up on and they can say, this is disconnected from reality.  “I’m being asked to do something that actually isn’t mirrored or valued by others in the community.” I think school, on the flip side of that, that sounds pessimistic, is like one of the last vestiges in the modern world where students have these years, if set up appropriately and scaffolded towards this end, to do this well. To disagree with someone and still have lunch together and understand that understanding isn’t agreement and that a solution, a durable solution, requires differences of opinion. And finding ways to bring them in. And I think that K-12 is an amazing place to cultivate that when it’s done well. 

JENNA: Do you feel like, in your observation, you’ve been doing this work for some time, do you feel like some of these things that are coming up about school connectedness, these issues in schools have to do with the fact that students aren’t having practice with living in a space of disagreement? I think so much about how they’re living in this siloed world with their experiences with social media that show them sort of a very narrow way of thinking. And I don’t know that we’re counteracting that in the way that we have discussions and what we do in school. And I’m wondering if you see that. My question comes from, “Why is this a problem right now?”

DANA: Yeah, 100%. These things don’t spring organically from someplace just because you’re a, quote, good person, however you define that. Navigating conflict and integrating empathy into understanding – those things require practice. They require practice, and they require setup and intentionality. They don’t just happen because of proximity. Proximity to difference helps, but without the tools to navigate that, it could go a different way.  And certainly to your point, I mean, you don’t need to look far to know that right now, interaction in an online space rewards judgment, and it rewards the binary. A SmackDown or a great burn on TikTok will get much more, many more eyeballs. It’ll get spread faster. So those things, that’s not happening with the hour-long process of slogging through disagreement. 

So I think your point is 100%, practicing this and valuing it. If you consider this extra or ancillary to deep learning or quality learning, it won’t be prioritized and embedded and integrated. This isn’t an elective. It’s not something you should be doing in advisory. It’s not an after school club, and it’s not a separate program for a portion of students. It’s a way of thinking about teaching and learning that doesn’t just get you to a place where you’re advancing understanding about content, but you’re actually building the skills and dispositions and competencies to navigate the world. And I think that’s what places of learning should be. You talk about making it school, a place where everyone loves to go. And for us, what we know right now is that school for most kids is something they get through and the world requires and demands something different if we’re going to navigate what’s ahead.

JENNA: Absolutely. Well, I’m very inspired by the ways in which you’re making that happen through your work. As folks are beginning school, have already begun school and are heading into the next couple of weeks, can you think of one thing  that you think that every teacher might be able to do to spark a conversation or to create a beginning mind shift?  I’m thinking about what you said about how this starts with small steps and is there one thing that you’ve seen that can be particularly effective right off the bat? 

DANA: So we have a set of global competence cards that we use. They’re called that because they’re aligned with our matrix. But they’re really interesting prompts that help, off the bat, get outside of potentially more one-dimensional and surface-level understanding and questions that can complexify and challenge creating equitable learning environments like, “What did you do this summer?” That can be hard. One of the things about belonging is folks from different socioeconomic status is a big indicator of whether you feel belonging. And so that’s a hard thing to start with in a classroom where you’ve got students from lots of backgrounds.  Some of them are questions like “Describe something that you have to keep relearning again and again” or “Describe the last time that you tried something multiple times and you finally got it. What did that look like?” Or questions that get students into a space where they’re safe questions to answer. But they’re telling you something a little bit deeper about how a young person thinks or maybe what their lived experience is or the things that matter to them in a way that can create a culture. 

Learning is incredibly vulnerable. When done well, it’s a dramatically vulnerable experience. And I think using the first month of school to establish that we’re going to be vulnerable and learn together and, as an educator, being willing to answer those things as well right alongside and open up those opportunities is really important. 

JENNA: Yeah, that’s such a beautiful way to phrase it. I don’t think I really thought of that before. But it’s true that learning is vulnerable. If we accept the idea that learning takes place in our zone of proximal development, that it’s not always going to be in the space of comfort. And it’s making me think about a point that you raised about respect. And I’m willing to take those steps and be vulnerable and do that learning if I feel like I’m in a space where I am respected. But even that goes back to what you were saying earlier about how sometimes creating community and connection can also be an act of compliance. And I’m wondering what respect looks like in the scuba diving example versus the train example.

DANA: That’s interesting because I’d have to be a little bit more expert in scuba diving, but I can tell you how we think about it, or how I certainly have thought a lot about this. Respect in the context of K-12 is often really about power structures. Respect is about compliance: I’m the adult. The way that you show me respect is that you follow the rules that I established. Whether or not those rules you were a part of forming, whether or not they have any connection or meaning to your lives, whether or not they were created with you in mind, with your identity and your experience in mind. That’s a very different thing than seeing it through the lens of humanity, and take it out of the sort of student-teacher dynamic and just think: I’m the CEO of an organization. If I enter every interaction assuming and buying respect because of that title or the positional power, it’s a very different way of defining and understanding it versus two human beings. 

That respect is about being seen, being understood and having, regardless of whether there’s agreement or sameness, of placing value on that. And so, again, I think as an educator, and K-12 has not done historically and systematically and systemically, hasn’t set up the conditions to do a lot of what you and I are talking about right now. It’s particularly binary. The answer is right. The answer is wrong. These are the rules. Follow them, get through and get to this. And so I think it’s brave and important and inspiring work for educators to think about, like, well, how would I redefine what that looks like? What does it really mean to me? What do I need to feel respected? And how might that translate and be true for a young person beyond a compliance standard? So I think it’s worth interrogating, too. It’s another thing to think about and complexify.

JENNA: And also interesting to hear what students have to say about what that means, too, to them. When do they feel respected? Right? What does respect mean to them? You never know unless you ask the question. Well, I love this notion that questions are so at the core of what you do. And when you were talking about the idea of it’s really a shift from thinking in terms of judgment to thinking in terms of curiosity and,  “How do we bring that curiosity to everything we’re doing?” And I think that schools have an incredibly unique opportunity to be sort of the last bastion of teaching people how to hold that, to hold complexity and ambiguity, and to lean into understanding how to design better questions, then arrive at more right answers. Which we have to do right now. I see it across a lot of the things that World Savvy is doing. This point that keeps being brought up: We no longer live in a world of great certainty that says, you go out of school and this is the job you get, and this is what that looks like, and this is how it is. But actually, most of the jobs that our young people are going to go into are things we can’t even imagine right now. So if we don’t build these skills of curiosity and inquiry and imagination, if we don’t have that at the core of what we’re teaching, we’re absolutely doing them an injustice.

DANA: I just had a discussion about this recently with a workforce development panel and I stressed this idea of we’re living in a world we can’t predict, not with any real degree of certainty. And that’s a wildly uncomfortable notion. It is to me, too. I mean, it’s uncomfortable in general. We’re not really wired to thrive in that. Rather than thinking about it as predicting, just thinking about it as preparing. What are the core competencies and the things that will allow you to navigate that kind of change? Dramatic change, dramatic diversity, a pace of change, complexity. All these folks use the framing of VUCA world, right? Volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, complex. If it’s unpredictable, then what does preparation look like? That helps you be sure you’re ready for anything to the greatest degree possible. And the answer to that question really shifts learning a lot. That’s not what we’re doing, by and large, in K-12 environments.

JENNA: I actually really love the notion, as you were talking about preparation. It was just making me think about the idea that preparation can also be such a collaborative activity. It’s something we come together, working in community with one another on. So there’s probably some really beautiful connection between that and connection and school connectedness when we’re doing that.

DANA: 100%. And there’s a lot of evidence and research to suggest that’s true. Better solutions, more durable solutions come from diverse perspectives that have come together to contribute to something meaningful. Solutions designed in a vacuum, without a lot of diverse input, don’t tend to sustain any real impact.

JENNA: You’ve given us so much to think. I’m really, really honored that you joined us today to share these insights and excited to be able to share the work of World Savvy with others. But Dana, are there any other things at the end that you’d like to make sure that folks know  about? 

DANA: No, just that it’s been an honor to be with you. I’m so grateful. I’m really appreciative of the work that Center for Inspired Teaching is doing as well. It’s so aligned. And if folks are listening and have questions about how schools and districts and educators get involved with our work, certainly reach out. We’re just WorldSavvy.org.

Hooray For Monday is an award-winning weekly publication by Center for Inspired Teaching, an independent nonprofit organization that invests in and supports teachers. Inspired Teaching provides transformative, improvisation-based professional learning for teachers that is 100% engaging – intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Our mission is to create radical change in the school experience – away from compliance and toward authentic engagement.

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