Agile Learning Centers Network Spring 2020 Webinar Series
“Intro to the Agile Roots” with Abby Oulton of Agile Learning Center NYC
[00:00:04.530] – Abby
The topic of this webinar is the Agile Roots – Intro to the Agile Roots – the philosophical basis of Agile Learning Centers, both the one that I work at, and all of the more than 70 around the world.
Some definitions. Because there are some words I’m going to use a lot and it will be helpful if we have a shared understanding of what I mean, some definitions.
Education: the process by which one learns; experiencing, exploring, applying, changing. I put this one here in part because I was in a class at Columbia once – I didn’t go there, I was just auditing – and the professor asked for a definition of education and I gave an answer like this. And people were like, “wait, no, it’s when you sit at a desk at school.”
And so then we had this conversation about “what are we imagining?” And, if we imagine education as the whole process, all the richness of experiencing life, and learning and growing and changing through that experience, then what’s possible in reorienting how we relate to kids and to schooling and to our own learning process?
The quote here is from one of my favorite books, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s an indigenous botanist. She’s great. And this – “Isn’t this the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?” – feels like the definition of education that is most useful to me as an ALC facilitator.
[00:02:20.300] – Abby
Next, self directed education. So if you are – this is very funny, since so many of you are facilitators – but in the education world generally, beyond conventional school, there’s a lot of different kinds of alternative education. We could really nerd out about those in another session, if you’re interested. But the philosophy of self directed education recognizes that education is this broader process of being alive and says, then, that the learner, the person living that life, having those experiences, should get to steer their journey and decide do they want to, I don’t know, mix music for three days straight or do they want to take a chemistry class here and there? Whatever they want.
And so then from that perspective, my role as a facilitator is to hold space and support the flow. And this is both in relationship to a learner specifically and individually – I’m trying to show up and be present for who they are, and what they’re trying to do, and work with them – and also for my community at large. And so all of the learners, and all the parents and volunteers, because we’re an ecosystem and when I can support us having a healthy thing going all together, then that creates the conditions for each of the individuals in there to flourish.
And the quote underneath there is from another one of my favorite authors, adrienne maree brown. If you haven’t read her stuff yet, she’s brilliant. And she had a quote in a design magazine where she talks about how facilitating is about creating space for the people to do something, whereas teaching is passing on knowledge directly. And either thing can, a facilitator can, be called into a teaching role and vice versa. But they are distinct orientations and require different skill sets.
[00:04:53.440] – Abby
OK, the roots. So what are the root values, the philosophical assumptions that inform how we do what we do in Agile Learning Centers? There’s four of them.
[00:05:10.220] – Abby
The first is that learning is natural and it’s happening all the time. Learning can be something you engage with when you attend a webinar. It can also happen totally by accident. I’m out in the park. If I encounter a person in a situation of [poster], engage with that. Learn a thing.
So, I used to be a regular school teacher, and there was a lot of fear that if the kids weren’t forced to learn, then they wouldn’t. Which just scientifically, isn’t actually helping humans function, right? Our bodies, our brains are constantly perceiving what’s going on and interpreting that, and then we’re applying that to continue getting better at engaging with the world.
With this orientation, if I can trust that the learning is happening, it’s what the kids are hard wired to do (And so are we right? Our brains are plastic.) then I’m not worried about how to try to force them to do a math worksheet. I’m much more interested in creating conditions where they feel curious and able to experiment and fail and make messes and do all the things they need to do to be learning. And then to also work with them and make sure that they’re empowered to steer their learning and decide, you know, is this content that I want to engage with? Should I close this YouTube video? Do I quit this book now? Do I walk over to this conversation because it sounds interesting? And how do I jump into that?
[00:07:16.750] – Abby
Second root is that people discover their purpose and passions through making their own choices. Also, children are people. Big shock.
We say that part explicitly because [laughs] there is – I’ll say that in a room of people and the adults will nod and be like, “oh yeah, obviously children are people,” but then listening to and watching the way people sometimes think it’s OK to interact with children… would you do that to an adult in the world? You’re going to run up to them and just like put a tissue in their face and be like, “Blow your nose!” Another adult would not be OK with that. They would want you to ask first, right? So, what’s going on? Unless your child is too little to communicate, why do we think that they don’t have the right to communication and consent and bodily autonomy and that kind of stuff as people, as their own people?
So there’s some assumptions in this root. One is that everyone has purpose, or that purpose is an important thing. And I’m going to send out with the slideshow some links to readings if you want to explore this further, but basically researchers both on trauma resilience and on end-of-life, and what makes for a positive end-of-life experiences for people, and also researchers on what makes us different from computers, if that’s a thing you’re interested in – they all agree that meaning making is really important for us.
If we can make meaning or recognize a meaning, find meaning in our life beyond our individual self and our experience of a moment, then we are more likely to recover from trauma. We are more likely to persevere through hard circumstances and we are more likely to have positive end of life experiences.
There’s a really cute case study by town that bought, like, you know, a hundred birds, four cats, three dogs, and then did a bunch of workshops for the people who were there. It was a hospice center where they were each gifted a plant and taught to care for it. And the people who funded the research initially were like, y’all are nuts. But, maybe not surprisingly, what they discovered over time was that the people in the hospice center perked up, became more engaged, showed some improvements in their health, like they were walking more, or people who had been non-verbal, speaking to their birds. Some cool stuff.
So it is, whether you want to say that we are born with some kind of purpose, track like that whole philosophical argument, that aside – us perceiving that we have a sense of purpose, does good things for us and so does good things for children.
[00:11:34.990] – Abby
Other assumption: passions, that passions are important. That purpose and having something we’re dedicated to and excited for is positive. I just told you, I’ll send you the resources on that one. The other part of this is that delight and joy and pleasure have value.
Which isn’t something we usually talk about in education settings but if you’re familiar with Audre Lorde’s work, or bell hooks, or adrienne maree brown, you’ve probably thought about how what makes life worth living is not SAT prep.
So that’s that part. Oh, and then choices.
Sometimes in trainings, people will be like, well, not everyone can make choices. And while I get that concern, there’s often a communication barrier, right? Just because a toddler can’t tell us what they would like to have for dinner doesn’t mean that they don’t have preferences. Just because somebody has a disability where they can’t verbally communicate or write – you know, the communication is the the barrier here. People – and I’ve confirmed this with friends who work in all different kinds of mental health settings – people can self determine to varying extents. And it’s the job of a facilitator to keep them safe. Right? Help them have good days, help them have a sense of dignity, and to get creative in letting them and supporting them in self determining to the greatest extent possible.
[00:13:44.130] – Abby
So what does this look like – letting people make their own choices?
In our local community, we rent a small space (in non-pandemic times) on the second floor of a church building in upper Manhattan, and there’s twenty or five-thirty of us bouncing around there. And so letting people make their own choices doesn’t mean everyone does whatever they want all the time because we’re trying to not get evicted. If we burn the building down, then nobody has a school. And the other nonprofits we share it with can’t keep doing the good work they do to make sure people have housing and food. And we also have kids with varying allergies – like nut allergies, are a big thing in our space – so we do a lot of work meeting as a community and talking about “How do we let people self-determine as much as possible and keep everybody safe?”
So if you really want to have that peanut butter sandwich, or you really want to do a fire experiment today, how are, how can we work to make that happen for you, without harming anyone else, or putting the broader community at risk? And there are times where the answer has to be “we can’t.” But in more conventional education settings, there’s kind of a gut [reaction]: “that’s an absurd idea, no, we couldn’t possibly with our constraints.”
[00:15:27.840] – Abby
And one of the fun things for me about being in an Agile Learning Center is, if the kids who have been studying bomb diffusing because they played a video game where they had to do that, and then they met somebody who used to work as a bomb tech, and so he started teaching them, and now they want to build a fake one and practice… Definitely not a thing we can do in New York City. And kind of a scary thing to think about, really. But I get to say to them, “If you can fundraise for us to take a field trip outside the city somewhere and you can get our bomb tech friend to come in and help, we can do that.”
How do we take your desire and our constraints and find a way where this all works? It’s a different game, but it’s a fun game.
[00:16:28.300] – Spence
I was reminded of an experience I witnessed – there was a facilitator working with the learner on a DC current device, that measures DC current. They’re playing with, I think, a drone and showing how this DC current works. And then the facilitator and the learner went outside to go play with the drone. And then they came back in, and another learner’s like, “Hey, I fixed this drone that was broken.”
And the facilitator’s like, “How did you figure that out?”
He’s like, “Oh, I saw you showing this other learner how to use this DC current thing. And I tried it out on this broken drone and I noticed that the circuit wasn’t working. So I fixed it.”
And [the facilitator] was just surprised that, “Wow, it’s not always about ‘I have to sit down with someone else specifically, tutor them.’ They can just witness me with someone else and it can just sort of happen organically.”
[00:17:26.470] – Abby
Ok, next root. The next one, is that – shocking – we learn from what we experience, so the medium is the message.
And in non-pandemic times, when I get to this part of this module, we will do an exercise about the format of conventional school, and we’ll talk about the hidden curriculum. What are the lessons in a teacher standing at the front and kids sitting in rows, separated by age, expected to be silent and listen to the teacher and told helping a friend is cheating and no, you can’t go to the bathroom until I, the teacher, say so…? We get into all that kind of stuff, and it’s super interesting.
[00:18:24.430] – Abby
In pandemic times, this has been really present for me, because I’ve been doing a lot of communication with parents about the flip side of the “learning is happening all the time” and “the medium is the message.” In relationship to a conventional school context, taking these ideas about learning lets you open up possibility, and value a broader diversity of paths and activities and intelligences, and it gets really rich and exciting.
The other thing about it is that it’s important to be mindful of these in pandemic times, especially as adults engaging with children, because it’s a reminder that what they’re experiencing in their relationship to us, and through us, and in our shared living spaces, is all stuff they’re learning from. And so it’s important to be mindful of what we’re teaching. If we’re watching the same catastrophic news loop over and over again while they’re in the room. If we’re panicking or repressing our fear or anger.
They’re seeing what we’re doing, they’re noticing how we take in information about the world and then respond to it. And that’s where they’re getting their ideas about whether they’re safe, whether their relationship to us is a safe place, whether their feelings are OK, ways to cope with their feelings, all of that stuff. And so in this particular moment, the medium is the message has been a really interesting kind of adventure.
[00:20:32.430] – Abby
I’m not taking attendance right now for our school because we’ve moved everything online. And I’ve been very clear with parents – I’m not sending home packets of work and calling people and being like, “why doesn’t your kid check in every week?”
The thing I’m sending home several times a week is: “It’s lovely when we see you. I hope you’re safe and well. If not, here’s how to reach us. Hey, I care about you. Here are resources, take what’s helpful and leave the rest.” But, it’s all about the mental and emotional and physical well-being of the family systems these kids are enmeshed in. Because that’s the thing that they’re going to take from this experience much more than whatever we cover in a in a virtual class.
And – I say that that’s extra present for me right now – it indirectly is something we focus on a lot at facilitator trainings. It’s this idea that how I am and how I show up in in relationship to the kids in the community is as loud as whatever I’m, you know, whatever book that I’m talking about, or if we’re doing a — I don’t really teach any offerings right now, but like… in those settings, the kid is noticing whether I’m encouraging them to try a different tool, whether I trust them to like, you know, peace out and go get lunch because they’re feeling hungry.
And they also notice stuff that sometimes as new, facilitators, we don’t realize we’re putting out, and so if we’re carrying in – into our relationship with the kids – unhealthy self talk, or a way of relating to conflict, or shame about whatever that we picked up in our growing up and we haven’t reckoned with yet, that’s what we’re going to like… we have to recognize that we’re going to pass that on to the kids and they’re going to pick it up and copy it. And so it becomes important to be proactively deschooling ourselves, and doing the work to take care of ourselves, so we can show up in right relationship with with them and be healthy.
[00:23:19.620] – Abby
OK, last one. We experience growth in cycles through intention, exploration, reflection and sharing.
If you have done any kind of research on pathways to learning, learning stages, that kind of stuff, you’ll know that there’s a bunch of different versions of this. They’re all slightly different. Most of them are valid in various ways.
The key pieces of this one are the inclusion of intention. And that’s got to do the idea that the kids are learning all the time in our information age, we need to focus on empowering them to decide what they want, value their desires – right? – and then figure out how to move towards that, how to set an intention, set a goal, steer their journey, filter out the noise.
That’s the biggest, interestingly, one of the biggest skills that they need in this day and age: how do you filter out the noise of your 80 different app notifications and finish kneading your sourdough bread? Or whatever you’re doing.
[00:24:50.380] – Abby
Also key in here is reflection – the inclusion of a reflection – a phase where the whole point is to pause. Default culture, conventional schooling has this “go, go, go, do all the things, go, go, go, produce, produce, produce.” And there not only isn’t often time built in to pause and reflect and integrate your learnings from that reflection and past experience; it’s sometimes actively discouraged, right? People try to shame each other for taking a rest. Often we’ve internalized that from regular school and do it to ourselves really more than people outside are doing it to us, but either way.
We value taking a pause, taking a break, reflecting. Because, otherwise, you’re going to do your 13 year sprint or whatever it is, and look up and not not have learned as much as you could have and also maybe end up someplace totally different than where you were trying to get to. So we regularly build reflection into our our weekly rhythms, our daily rhythms, our cycles.
The other thing we have here that most other learning models won’t have is sharing. And so we’re explicit about community and about recognizing that it’s in relationship that we exist [laughs] and grow and learn and have power, can offer things to each other, can change the world. That our reality is an inner subjective one that we build together.
And if you are not super familiar with ALCs, but you know something about the self-directed education world, you might know that there’s a little bit of tension in the self-directed education world between people who think self directed education is my individual child, with the solution that they’re not in relationship to influencing, being influenced by others around them. And then there’s us being explicitly collaborative.
[00:27:44.940] – Antonio
There’s a lot of progressive schools or alternative schools that aren’t self directed, who have a big emphasis on sharing, but their method of sharing is forcing the kids to perform, like at the end of a unit, where they’re doing some sort of public demonstration. And it’s difficult sometimes having conversations with parents who are looking at schools such as… they might have seen High Tech High, in the way they have their end of the year presentation, or Acton Academies, that have these public demonstrations where they force their kids to perform. And I was just — I just wanted to raise that, sometimes sharing can be coercive and also just sort of open it up to people’s experiences with addressing that concern from parents.
[00:28:51.720] – Abby
Yeah, thank you. Maybe I should have put that in the definitions. Because is it sharing if it’s coercive? If you force me to present or perform for the consumption of other beings, that’s very different than my asking if you want half of this chocolate cake, right? In sharing, as in all of the rest of this, consent and self determination are really important for us.
If your education is the journey of your life and experiencing and growth and development, I mean there… one could do that for the consumption of others, explicitly. But to get back to that: do you have a sense of meaning and purpose? Are you fulfilled at the end of your days? Do you want to spend your whole life living for other people’s consumption? I mean, I guess people could. Yeah, thank you.
[00:30:18.890] – Abby
I have two more points on this one. The first is – and I work mostly with older kids now, so this doesn’t come up quite as much, but – regularly practicing intention setting and reflection and sharing, communication with other people, taking a thing I know, synthesizing it, offering it to somebody else, getting feedback on whether they’re clear or not, and iterating: that practice builds executive function, which is a malleable skill set and one that contributes to resilience and satisfaction.
Q&A Section Begins
[00:31:08.010] – Question
[Wait. You didn’t say this tool or that tool is THE answer…?]
[00:31:22.190] – Abby
Tools. Tools are not as important. They’re not sacred. They’re tools. You know, if you find one that works for you, awesome. If you find one and you’re like, this would work better for me if I break it a little bit this way and add a thing over here, great, excellent. If it’s not working and you want to throw it out, excellent. Do that too. It’s going to be different for everybody.
[00:32:04.670] – Question
[If you don’t make kids take, for example, chemistry, how do you make sure they get exposed to topics beyond their norm that maybe they’d discover they really like?]
[00:32:04.670] – Abby
Well, it’s funny when that question comes up at trainings, because I’m in the middle of Manhattan, right? So I’m in New York City, but even if you’re not, it’s 2020. We’re in the information age. There is the whole Internet. You know, there is more content available, there are more people and forces trying to influence kids and put different ideas in their paths than ever before in the history of our species. And no one of us is going to – or would be healthy if we could even – be exposed to and learn the whole Internet. Like, that’s terrifying.
Well, and that ties into my last note on this root, which is that recognizing that learning – here, we say it happens in cycles and sometimes people will picture a really tidy something like a spring or a slinky, and maybe that works. But the exciting thing here is that if growth is non-linear, then there’s lots of space for mess and for chaos. And I can look at a room where there’s slime ingredients everywhere and see it through eyes that are excited about the potential in it, rather than being like, “Ugh, I thought they were over this potions making sensory exploration thing.” And it allows for more patience, diversity of paths, interdisciplinary learning, all that good stuff.
[00:34:03.720] – Question
[What if the kids tell you they’re going to do something then lose interest?]
[00:34:03.720] – Abby
Yeah, this came up on the facilitator slack recently. There was somebody who had a group of kids commit to doing a contest and then right before, like their big presentation, a bunch of them got nervous. There was other stuff going on, but they got nervous, essentially, and were like, “Oh, we don’t want to do this anymore.”
And it’s hard because there isn’t a rule of like when to, you know, step in and manage more for them and when to be like, “Well, if you want this or not that’s on you.”
You, as a facilitator in relationship – authentic relationship – with that child, will have a sense of what they’re capable of, what support they need. Is this, sincerely, that they’re not interested anymore? They’ve picked up this other new interest and they’re trying to jump into that and you should support them. Or is there something else going on?
The nice thing about working on a facilitation team – like there’s four of us in my space – is even if I’m not sure about a kid, I can check with other facilitators and we can decide, together, what we think is going on. We can also just talk to the kids, obviously.
[00:35:37.390] – Abby
And there definitely have been moments where I’ve set up, like, weekly check-ins. I’ve got a kid I’m coaching through graduation right now and we’ve got weekly check-in calls separate from his official ones because within our relationship, I can see that that’s something that he — that’s helpful for him, that he needs.
And there also have been times – there’s a bunch of times – where a kid will say they want to take a field trip to — oh there’s some house on a rock museum out in the Midwest? It’s… far from us. And I had a kid who put a bunch of work into planning how we were going to get there and calculating costs and all this stuff. And then when it came time to fundraise, he just dropped it, wasn’t interested anymore. And as an adult, maybe, if you get emotionally invested in the end product, if you get attached to this exploration leading to a specific outcome, then it can be hard to be like, “OK, I guess I guess we’re not doing that. I guess they don’t want it.” But if you’re following the kid and more curious about the journey than attached to a specific outcome, it’s easier to be like, “Oh, so this child has learned that transportation takes money, which doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. And they know that I’m here to support them in fundraising, if and when they do decide they want to do that.”
And I have had kids, like, circle back two or three years after having an idea and be like, “Hey, we had talked about this thing, like — would you still be up for that if I wanted to do it?” They’ll surprise you if you leave them space.
[00:37:51.260] – Abby
Which was my last note on this root is that also shows up in conflict mediation with really little kids. Sometimes it’ll look to the adult like they’re fighting about a specific toy, but if you do the mediation in a way that is about kind of holding space for them to work out how to get to a place where people are getting their needs met, and feel good… I’ve had kids before, I’d be like, “Oh, we actually would like to go invite this other person to go get a snack with us.” And it has nothing to do, seemingly, with the original conflict, right? But you trust them to make their choice, and you’re there to keep the consequences from being dangerous. But you let it go when they do their thing.
[00:38:57.610] – Question
[What do you do when a kid doesn’t follow through on intentions they’ve set?]
[00:38:57.610] – Abby
Totally. I sometimes am responsible for an Aries teenager who shows up super enthusiastic about her 80 projects and all the things she wants to do. And she’s been a really good teacher for me in that regard.
Because sometimes we set intentions and we’re like, “Oh, I want to do that thing.” And what’s actually going on is we like the idea of that, or we like the idea of being able to do it, or having done it, or whatever. But we haven’t reckoned with, like, “do I want that enough to do the work?” You know, it’d be nice if I spoke Spanish better. Like, do I want to speak Spanish better? Am I intending to learn in a way where there’s enough desire there that I’m going to follow through?
If a kid’s posting an intention, and I’m noticing that they repeatedly aren’t following through with it, I’m going to check in with them and try to figure out, is that what’s up? Is this really a thing that they want? Sometimes it’s not, right? Sometimes they try it on a desire and they aren’t into it and that’s learning, so that’s a success. Now we know more. Cool.
Sometimes it’s that a parent is forcing them to declare that, record that as their intention that day, and that’s a trickier one to navigate.
[00:40:42.360] – Abby
And sometimes it’s that the kid does really want the thing, but there’s some kind of obstacle. And so in, in that case, in checking in with them, we would then explore together and try to figure out, “What are our obstacles?”
Is it that my response to the pandemic is to have trouble focusing? And so maybe this isn’t the moment. Or, is it that I’ve been trying to read, but maybe I am having trouble sitting still, so I need to look at audiobooks? Or, is it that I’ve got 80 projects and I need to pick the two that I’m focusing on this week and we’ll check in on them on Friday. Which is my kid doing the graduation project – that ended up being what he needed. And so, there’s a collaborative aspect of it and a recognition that, the vast majority of the time, them completing their intention, is in service of them learning how to learn. And learning about what they’re interested in learning. So even deciding that I’m going to take this intention off my list, that I don’t actually want that, that’s still productive.
[00:42:12.760] – Question
[Is there space in self-directed education for people to still be teachers to one another?]
[00:42:12.760] – Abby
There’s an interview with adrienne maree brown, the same one, and she talks about the absence of hierarchy, and as a facilitator, on the one hand trying to get rid of hierarchies that don’t make sense. And also if – she was talking about her mentor, Grace Lee Boggs, – and she’s like, “if my teacher is there and she’s 90, obviously I’m weighting her words according to that. And it’s better for us both if I do.”
[00:42:51.980] – Question
[And you don’t worry about measuring their learning or the value of their free play?]
[00:42:51.980] – Antonio
One thing that we use when we’re talking to families, trying to talk about what our space is, we always use the word “a space where they’re free from judgment, ridicule or assessment.”
[00:43:05.080] – Abby
There are people who talk about reflection and sharing, as Antonio said, and they’re focused on forcing performance or documentation. That’s not our goal at all. I mean, if I trust that they’re learning, including when it looks messy, then I’m more likely to leave space and let them play. Which is what they need, right?
[00:43:29.370] – Title Card
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