The word “co-conspirators,” as Stephen Hurley (half-jokingly) suggested during our latest “Collaborations in Learning” conversation for his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” show this morning, conjures up images of people furtively meeting to plan some sort of insurrection. And I have to admit that it makes me smile by reminding me of those comically sinister little figures from the Spy vs. Spy series I enjoyed many years ago.
But it also, as our conversation suggests, is a wonderfully subversive and productive word to describe the relationship between learning facilitators and learners when they toss out assumptions that learning involves one person providing information and another person (passively) absorbing that information. Co-conspirators in learning, as I learned from my time with Alec Couros and others in #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course) several years ago, are those who see the learning space as a place where everyone learns—teachers and students alike. It’s a space where we toss out quite a few assumptions about what learning involves and place a focus on the collaborative nature of learning.
It requires tremendous levels of trust. Learning facilitators (aka “teachers” and “trainers”) must trust their learners to be willing participants in the shaping of their own learning. Learners must trust the learning facilitator’s assertion that everyone has something to bring to the table during a formal or informal learning opportunity and makes the experience stronger, more productive, more results-driven, and more transformative than learning situations where learners are an audience drawn to words of wisdom provided by the person at the front of the room. In fact, as I suggested to Stephen, there really is no “front of the room” in a learning space (onsite or online) where everyone is seen as a co-conspirator in the learning process. Every part of that learning space is a dynamic space in which trainer-teacher-learners interact with other trainer-teacher-learners to achieve the learning goals they are pursuing. Together.
But all of that is far too theoretical. Far too academic. It misses the dynamic nature of “learners as co-conspirators” that becomes obvious when we see how it plays out. As I did last week during the first of six two-hour online sessions with a group of wonderful adult learners in a train-the-trainer series I have designed and am currently facilitating.
I made it clear, during the opening session, that we would be doing far more than learning the basics of training in a way that supported course participants in their efforts to hone their own training skills. I am encouraging them, through different approaches I am taking in each of those highly-interactive learning sessions conducted within Zoom, to interact within the basic structure of each of those formats. I try to get them to help shape each of those sessions by participating in discussions and activities that give them practice at using the skills we are exploring. And I make efforts to inspire them to question and understand the approaches and techniques and skills under discussion so they can decide for themselves which were worth using with their own learners and which might not work within the specific contexts in which they foster learning.
Which means I need to be ready for those hoped-for moments in which they take control of the learning space and ask questions I might not have anticipated so I, too, am a learner in those sessions. Like the stunningly-unexpected question that came during the second half of the first session: why are there so few people of color included in the images used in the slide deck for this session?
Understand, please, that the question was sent privately through Zoom’s chat feature so I was the only person initially aware that the question was being raised and the only person seeing the brief, very polite, almost apologetic comments surrounding the question. It was in no way confrontational, and the learner explicitly expressed the hope that I wouldn’t be offended by the question. It was clearly a difficult question posed by a wonderful learner who felt comfortable enough to raise that question in a way that had none of the public-shaming aspects that we so often see these days through social media posts and other online interactions.
It deserved an immediate and honest answer. So I took a deep breath, stopped the lesson-oriented conversation that was underway, and told all participants that I wanted to share and address a comment that had been directed at me privately—because I felt it was an issue well worth acknowledging and addressing in a virtual room with co-conspirators in learning. Without identifying the person who had raised the question, I started by saying I was appreciative that our co-conspirator had brought the thought to my attention. And, glancing quickly at the images I had been using in the PowerPoint slide deck supporting the discussions we were having, I acknowledged that I had not been as diligent as I always try to be in creating something that was visually representative of the diversity of our community of learning. I assured everyone that I would be applying a different, more critical eye to the decks for the remaining five sessions. Then, after again thanking the person for the comment, I returned us to what we had been doing. And, afterward, took the small amount of time it takes to review decks already prepared for subsequent sessions and making adjustments that were easily made.
This might seem like something that, once addressed, would be done. But the real work is to see what sort of positive impact our actions with our co-conspirators in any learning situation have. So, without doing anything to overtly continue that particular thread of conversation and learning, I worked with that same group of learners during the next session and, as always, let the learners know that I would stay for a few minutes after the formal end of that virtual session in case anyone had further questions or items to explore—the online equivalent of staying in a physical classroom for post-session conversations with interested learners. You can, of course, anticipate what happened next: The only learner to stay was the one who had raised the question about the lack of images of people of color in the first session. And the reason the person stayed was to continue a conversation springing out of the second session. Because that learner was engaged. Comfortable. Interested in gaining all that could be gained during the time we had together.
As the post-session conversation around Session Two content wound down, I couldn’t resist asking whether there had been any noticeable difference in approach to the images used for that session. “Yes,” the learner replied simply and directly. “It felt more on point.”
And those few simple words, for me, spoke volumes in terms of how much we all gain when we are co-conspirators in learning. We all learn. We all improve. We all gain. We are all transformed, long-term, by the positive nature of those all-too-brief short-term interactions. And those we serve long after our shared learning moments have ended are the real beneficiaries of what we accomplish together.
N.B. – This is the first in a set of reflections inspired by a collaboratively run online train-the-trainer series.