Brian Grenier blogged recently about a comparison of the way construction workers prepare an area for new buildings, and the ways we need to work with our teachers to help them approach instruction in novel ways. He wrote:

In many ways I think we can draw a parallel to the change in teaching paradigms that are, or should be, taking place in our educational system today, especially among those seasoned teachers who are truly “immigrants” to technology. A lot of digging and scraping away of the classic ways of teaching needs [to] commence before a new foundation can be laid and built upon. Just as the workers across the street have had an easier time digging and scraping in some areas and a rougher time in others, so too do we face similar challenges when trying to bring about change.

I am reminded of the idea of empowering pioneers to not only embark upon their journey, but also successfully reach their destination. I love studying the historical era of westward expansion in the United States, and I think the pioneer metaphor is powerful here. We still see evidence of the paths the pioneers took with their wagons, many over a hundred years ago.

Wagon ruts

Who were these pioneers, and what drove them to change their lives in such drastic ways? What motivated them to be willing to accept such tremendous risks, often not only with their own lives, but also with the lives of their family members? How did they do it?

I think one clear conclusion is that the early pioneers collaborated well. They were seeking new lives for themselves, and were taking risks to attempt something they had likely never done before. They could not have been successful alone. They had to work together.

They also relied upon leaders. Good leadership matters. Ask the Donner Party. I am reminded of the song “Lonesome Dove,” by Garth Brooks, which is a ballad about the American frontier. There were threats, there were dangers– there was a need for courage, and also an abiding need for teamwork. There were setbacks, but there were also triumphs. Incremental changes. Resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity often counted more than a burst of energy at the end of the day. Patience to stay the course. And courage to remain, even when the threats seemed formidable. Courage to stay, and remain engaged in the struggle to move forward in their journey.

The story of westward expansion is also a tragic tale of genocide, in many cases, especially after the US Civil War when the victorious Northern generals and officers turned their attention westward on what was then termed, “The Indian problem.” I am not romantically condoning everything that was done during that era of expansion– but I do think we can learn a lot from the pioneer spirit, of both the immigrant newcomers to the western landscape as well as the Native Americans who had been on the North American plains for centuries already.

Many of us in education, utilizing technology tools to engage students in their own personal learning quests, are like the early pioneers of the American West. Like Brian observed, we have a lot of digging and scraping to do. We are seeking to build a foundation: not one that will be washed away by the storms of summer or the snows of winter, but will endure. Like the tracks etched in the stone around the old Pinal City townsite, we want to leave our mark, and make a difference for the generations that will follow us.

We are not the first pioneers and advocates for authentic educational engagement, and we shall not be the last. We are preceded by many: Dewey, Freire, and others have gone before us and fought the good fight. We seek to change a culture that has a different view of education– a different pedagogical foundation, than the one we hold to be authentic and most desirable. Rather than merely getting students to memorize, regurgitate, and perform on cue when it is multiple choice test time, we want students to engage in deep thought– ongoing reflection, to become lifelong learners, to seek diverse voices and critically analyze them to discern truths. We want them to collaborate and learn to lead: not to merely become passive consumers, but to become courageous, ethical leaders who will help our society move forward rather than backward in the years to come. These are highly challenging and complex tasks, far beyond the narrow and limited goals of legislation like NCLB in the United States.

As citizens in a democracy, we are pioneers engaged in a process of educational redefinition. Of paradigm changing. Our goal is not merely an engaging lesson for students on Friday, but a changed educational culture. A changed educational landscape, filled not merely with the traditional approaches and the age-old, rutted roads of our forefathers– but dynamically alive with pathways through the air as well as roads through the woods. We need Interstates that can get us places fast, but we also need to spend time on a lot of dirt roads, because it is often on those paths– those less traveled, that we find time to engage in the conversations that really serve to transform our own ideas and those of others.

I read the following words today in the excellent book, “John Dewey and the Art of Teaching: Toward Reflective and Imaginative Practice.” On page 109, the authors wrote:

Finally, we need to examine democracy as a personal way of life. Dewey adds this theme or, perhaps, subtheme to associated living, to avoid an important misunderstanding. That is, he wants to clarify that government laws and social life are extremely important but inadequate if the individual remains unchanged in her attitudes, feelings, and thinking. Democracy is founded at least in part on internal and personal attitudes, not merely external laws and mores. Consequently, he argues that schools and teachers should be interested in a moral education that goes beyond citizenship education and community interaction…..

We, who are educators, are called to a higher purpose. We are called to teach, to learn, to invite and to share. We are called to grow and help each other along the way– and that is a major part of the constructive role I see the edublogosphere playing in my own life, on a regular basis. We choose to be pioneers. Like the pioneers of old, there is much work to do. But together, we can and will be successful in this journey of discovery and adventure. Our kids are in the wagon, and they’re counting on us. If we stick together, we’ll keep this wagon train going and reach the gold fields of promise in California… or New Zealand… or wherever it is that our compass and our leaders take us. What will that destination be? It’s up to us to decide.

The future is open. Let’s write it together.

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2 Responses to Empowering the pioneers

  1. […] Brilliant!   That is what I have to say about Wesley Fryer’s recent blog entry comparing the educational redefinition taking place today to the pioneers of the westward expansion era of American history.  From his blog entry: […]

  2. Jim Cottrell says:

    This topic reminds me of a saying another teacher told me once, “Pioneers get arrows and settlers get land.”

    I agree that the expansion in the use of technology to facilitate authentic learning is similar to the westward expansion in the United States. The current, “native” educational practitioners often shoot arrows at technology pioneers because they sense the coming culture change. They see this change in their student’s as well as the method of pioneering teachers and fear that their educational practices will suffer genocide. Because of this fear many educatiors fight the use of technology.

    What traditional educators don’t often realize is that the educational philosophies behind the use of technology are just following in the ruts of good educational methods. They also don’t see that technology just extends the ruts of good educational practice into areas that traditional practices couldn’t reach. These areas may just be our current and future, technology savvy students. Hopefully the pioneers of technology can communicate that genocide is not the goal, but a “mix of cultures” and best practices. What must be communicated is that technology often makes “expansion” possible. And this can be true in education.

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