Opening Up Spaces for Answers

September 7, 2016 — 2 Comments

Spaces for answers

The other day in our online class meeting in EDLD 5313 – Creating Significant Learning Environments course, one of the core courses in the M. Ed. in Digital Learning and Leading at Lamar University, one of my students asked me why this particular course that deals with learning theory and creating significant learning environments was not one of the first courses in the program. I explained that we run the learning theory course after EDLD 5305 – Disruptive Innovation in Education, the course in which the students research and develop a learning innovation proposal and plan, because 5305 creates a context for which you need to explore your beliefs about learning. Without having a context to look at how people learn, the work on learning theories is just theoretical. The genuine context provides the real world need or application where one needs to explore how best to design and create learning environments.

I am more than likely articulating this better in this post then I did in the meeting and as I thought about what I wish I would have said, Clayton Christensen’s perspective on learning came to mind. In a conversation with Jason Fried published in Inc in 2012, Christensen and Fried talked about innovation, the trap of marginal thinking, and learning. The perspective on learning that really caught my attention was the notion that someone can’t be taught until they are ready to learn. Christensen frames his perspective in the following unique way:

Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question — you have to want to know — in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.

When viewed in this light the reason we run EDLD 5305 – Disruptive Innovation in Education first and get students to start the process of creating a learning innovation proposal and plan, is that 5305 disrupts students enough or disrupts their typical thinking about teaching and leanring enough, where they start asking the types of questions that will be addressed in EDLD 5313 and many other courses. Many students lament in the class discussions, class meetings, and in their reflections that this course and program has forced them to re-think many of their ideas about teaching and learning. Students often feel unsettled or uncomfortable because they may feel they have more questions then they have answers.

We have designed the DLL program and the courses to push students to start questioning conventional thinking about teaching and learning, the educational system, their schools and classes, and their process and methods so that their minds are opened up enough to the point that they want to know how to do things different. The program and courses are design to open up spaces in our learners minds for new ideas to fit and when we explore those new ideas in the next module or course many of those disconcerting questions or spaces are filled with the new ideas—only to have new questions that start to open up new spaces in their thinking.

In an age of standardized testing, of covering the content, of checklists masquerading as rubrics, and the need to regurgitate the right answer, getting learners to struggle with challenging questions is unfortunately a foreign concept. But learning has never fundamentally been about spouting off the right answer; it has always been about making meaningful connections and to make those meaningful connections you have to start with the questions. The type of questions that open up the spaces in our thinking and motivate us to want to know and to make those meaningful connections—only to have the whole process start over. This is learning—this is life.


Fried, J. (2012, September 25). A Conversation with Innovation Guru Clayton Christensen. Retrieved September 7, 2016, from

My boys are competitive Down Hill Mountain bike racers and they recently raced in several events at Whistler Crankworx. This meant that they had several practices, qualifiers, and final races that ran very close together and had to incorporate protein and energy bars into their nutritional plans to get them through their hectic schedule over the week of racing. High quality protein and complex carbohydrates packed into a portable bar are not just a convenience for my sons, they are a necessity if they wish to stay fully fuelled and competitive. Slipping a couple of these small energy packed bars into a jersey or shorts pocket means my boys can quickly and easily maintain their nutritional needs for the hectic training and/or racing session.

A quality protein and energy bar has little or no sugar, uses natural ingredients, and has a balance of protein and complex carbohydrate to help an athlete maintain their energy when they are unable to access whole foods. Bars that are nutritionally high quality often don’t taste the greatest because the manufacturers stay true to the purpose of helping to fuel a competitive athlete. Unfortunately, as protein and energy bars get more and more popular quality bars are getting harder and harder to find because too many manufacturers are willing to move away from the fundamental purpose of the bars and focus primarily on the taste of the bars at the expense of the nutritional quality.

When you focus on the taste and not the nutritional needs of an athlete you end up with something that sounds like it would be a good thing, but when you look at the details you find it’s not the case. The list of ingredients on the following popular protein and energy bar reveals that taste and not nutrition is their priority:
Power Bar Ingredients

Evaporated cane juice syrup and corn maltodextrin are the first and third listed ingredients which also indicates their quantities. While neither of these ingredients are listed as sugar they are essentially the same as sugar hiding behind a more natural name. The more diligent athlete who is aware of the sugar synonyms won’t be tricked by the manufacturer and will look for a better bar, but for the average person who isn’t as informed this fake protein and energy bar is really not much better then a typical candy bar. At least in the candy bar the manufacturers don’t try to hide the actual ingredients behind more natural sounding names:
chocolate bar ingrediants

What makes this really serious is that the majority of protein and energy bars are really not much better or different then candy bars when you look at the first three ingredients:

Protein bar – Evaporated cane juice syrup oat bran, corn maltodextrin and soy protein isolate
Candy bar – Sugar, peanuts, and corn syrup

Yes the protein bar does have a few better ingredients, it does have soy isolate protein powder, but for the most part it is just a candy bar with added protein. This is very alarming and in the display pictured below there are a couple of dozen different types of bars and there were only two that were actually healthy enough to be used by a competitive athlete:
Protein Bars on Shelf

How does such a good idea, a portable highly nutritious bar that a competitive athlete can use to stay energized, go from good to bad. Simply shift the primary purpose from a portable highly nutritious bar used by competitive athletes for fuel to a good tasting convenience snack used by anyone. Most competitive athletes are willing to deal with the lack of flavour and even a chalky texture in their bars because they know that it isn’t about the taste it is about the fuel that they need to stay competitive.

This shift in purpose from fuel to taste has as a dramatic effect on an individuals results as a shift from a focus on learning to technology has on the learner.

We can run into a similar problem in education when we shift our focus from the learning to the technology. In his post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick satirically posits how to:

“fake 21st century thinking and learning environment to make the right kind of impression with the right people, and give the appearance of forward-thinking.”

Useful ideas like Project-Based learning, 1 to 1, and blended learning can all too easily loose their benefit when we shift the focus from learning and just do projects, just focus on the devices, and just focus on the content delivery part of the blended learning. Heick points to ten good learning ideas that can easily go bad for the learner if we shift our focus from the learning to the technology or to what appears to be a trendy 21st Century activity. His post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick is worth the read but I must caution you that you may be bothered or convicted by a few convenient or fake activities that you may have fallen into. I know I am taking a hard look at several of my activities as a result of reading his post.

As educators, our responsibility is to know better, to know that you can’t fake Project-Based learning by doing make work or fake projects. You have to give the learner the control, ownership and voice over an authentic project that will make some sort of difference in the learner’s personal life or community. You can’t just fake 1 to 1 by making students do digital worksheets on their iPads. You have to give the learner the opportunity to use their devices for creation, collaboration and communication and enable them to learn all the time and everywhere with everyone. You can’t just fake blended learning by focusing on the content. The emphasis on creation, collaboration and communication in your blended learning environment will also enable your learners to go much deeper then they would if you were to focus on the delivery of content.

As educators we should know better but just like the average person who is swayed by the appearance, convenience and taste of the fake protein bars we too often can be swayed by wanting to give the right kind of impression and the appearance of forward-thinking.

We can also be swayed by the fact that we may be faking it until we make it; meaning that we may move toward our learning goals by implementing changes incrementally and may use that worksheet on the iPad as a transition activity until we can focus on more genuine activities. This is understandable and as long as the transition happens this will be fine. But just like the fake protein bars that will work when you don’t have anything else available, temporary or transition use of technology can also work, but also like the fake protein bars long term use would not be heathy for the athlete or the learner.

Influence Not Control

The following is a copy and adaptation of Todd Henry’s wonderful post Why great leaders aim for influence not control in which I have replaced a few key words to change the focus from leadership and organizations to teacher(s) and classrooms or learning environments. Henry does an exceptional job of pointing out how important it is to let go control and use influence rather then reigns to get people to move in the right direction.

Why great teachers aim for influence not control

“Control is all about my needs, my ego, and my desire to feel like the center of my environment. I wish to impose my will on everyone around me, and expect them to fall in line with how I believe things should be… we should instead be striving for influence.” – Die Empty

I’ll admit that as a parent, one of my biggest challenges is letting my children make mistakes. Instead, I want to swoop in and help them do everything right the first time. Sometimes this is for my own convenience. (Honestly, I don’t want to have to wait for them to try something five times.) Of course, I know this is not good. In order to grow, children have to make a lot of mistakes, and learn their limits. They have to become comfortable with uncertainty, and understand that there is sometimes pain on the other side of effort.

In different ways, I believe that the same principle applies in classroom or learning environments. I regularly hear stories of teachers’ grasping tightly to the reins of their students, and closely controlling every aspect of their behavior. They have to approve every decision, manage every interaction, and oversee every collaboration. In the end, these control-freak teachers are actually doing much more harm to the students than good.

I believe that in any area of life in which the goal is to multiply your effort over time, you should be attempting to achieve influence, not control.

Influence is leading by vision, but control is leading by sight.

When your goal is to grow your influence over time, you are working toward a long-arc goal, and you’re willing to accept some short-term failure in order to achieve success in the end. When you lead by control, any shortcoming is intolerable, which causes students in your learning environments to adopt a “wait until you tell me what to do” mindset.
Any rules and guidelines should attempt to inform decisions, not to control and tightly restrict them. Your objective is to teach students to think for themselves.

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” – Dee Hock, founder of VISA

Influence is situation agnostic, but control is situation specific.

On a related note, leading with influence means that students will learn principles that they can apply broadly to any number of similar circumstances. Control is always situation specific, because the objective is to ensure that behavior in a given circumstance is acceptable. Again, this will train students to look to you for answers rather than training them to be resourceful. Influencers teach principles; control freaks deal in absolutes.
Influence is about care, but control is about self-interest.

When you genuinely care about someone, you want to do your best to ensure their continued success even when they are no longer under your instructions. You want them to learn to take on increasing amounts of responsibility and to grow in their own influence. Control, one the other hand, is all about ensuring that they don’t embarrass you or stain your record in the here and now. You just want to ensure that they don’t mess everything up, regardless of whether they learn anything they can carry forward.

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader

Influence is about spreading praise, but control is about claiming credit.

When you lead by influence, you will dilute credit for any given initiative. The student gets acclaim for any successes. Control is ultimately about putting yourself at the center of everything, which means that you believe that you are the only person capable of making the project successful.

“It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
– Harry S. Truman

Controlling behavior never leads to results beyond your own grasp.However, when you are able to achieve influence, you multiply your efforts and reproduce your values and principles in the lives of others.

Aim for influence, not control.


Henry, T. (2016, August 26). Why Great Leaders Aim For Influence, Not Control. Retrieved September 2, 2016, from