One big piece of my learning over the years has been that working with adult learners is really no different than working with young learners. I used to believe that adults who worked hard to earn degrees and credentials for their chosen profession would be interested and excited about their own continued learning, and would have the stamina to engage in deep cycles of learning that demand time and attention. The truth of the matter is that adults — like our young learners — need to see that the purpose of their learning is meaningful and relevant beyond the task at hand, and need to be engaged in the learning process in order to make meaning of new concepts and ideas. And just as important as it is for our young learners to develop stamina for learning, so too is it important for our adult learners. I have learned that we cannot take stamina for granted.
At CEL we work with teachers and leaders from coast to coast and we have seen a wide variation in what I will call “cultures of learning” from district to district. In some districts, a six to seven hour learning day that may involve some joint reading, lesson observation and analysis, inquiry work, etc., is perfectly normal. In these districts leaders come together with a passion for the work and just as important, with stamina to engage in intellectually demanding work (work that is critical to student learning) that isn’t necessarily entertaining and fun. In these districts leaders typically end the day asking for more.
In other districts the idea of a six hour learning day for adults is as foreign as finding yourself on another planet. In those districts I typically hear comments like, “This is too long of a day,” or “We need to build some more fun into the day” without considering for a moment that these educators expect their students to spend six hours a day engaged in serious learning for 180 days each year for 12+ years. I struggled with this disconnect for some time before realizing there is something fundamental at play with respect to leadership for learning.
In districts with a culture of learning I can almost always map a direct link back to a superintendent or other executive level leader(s). In these districts leaders model several important behaviors. First of all they have a well developed learning stance, meaning that they are curious about and interested in developing their own learning; they take a position of co-inquiry with their principals, i.e., we don’t have the answer but will study and learn together; and, they are prolific readers and consumers of educational research. Finally these leaders have developed their own stamina for learning and create a culture that expects and reinforces that same stamina in their staff. These leaders expect, sponsor and support a curiosity and fortitude for learning. After all, aren’t these traits we want for our own students? In these districts 3:00 p.m. isn’t the exit to the Promised Land; it is simply another hour in a long, meaningful day of learning, which by the way is hard work!
I have written in the past that expertise (or in too many cases, lack of) is the core issue plaguing the American education system. Many teachers do not have the content knowledge and/or pedagogical knowledge necessary to ensure all students learn at high levels. Many leaders do not have sufficient knowledge of what constitutes high quality instruction and/or the repertoire of leadership moves necessary to help teachers improve practice. If we are to tackle this issue of expertise, we must develop cultures of learning that are intellectually demanding of our time and attention. Creating this cultural ethos begins with the chief executive(s). For a district this means the superintendent and his/her immediate staff. For a school this means the principal. Ultimately it is up to us, as leaders, to create the culture of learning necessary to improve our individual and collective practice. If your staff members are singing “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” by noon during a six hour scheduled day of professional learning, it’s time to think about what you need to do to build your staffs’ stamina for learning.