Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

December 2, 2021

Writing about ShapingEDU and Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering recently as part of this continuing series of blog posts has made me more grateful than ever for the people and communities that serve as a source of support and inspiration to me in much of the work I do. What connects that disparate group of capital-M Muses is that each, without overtly embracing the label, serves as an activist within the communities served—a theme I intend to address more fully in a different post.

When I think about my colleagues and many other people I have met through my involvement in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) and their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, I think with tremendous appreciation about our collective/collaborative approach to gathering—and our willingness to share lessons learned about gathering with others, as was done through the fabulous ShapingED-YOU Toolkit providing guidance on how to successfully produce “focused, collaborative Unconference and Community Camp-style events.” Our meetings, face-to-face, online, and in blended environments (those wonderful intersections where online and onsite colleagues meet using platforms including Zoom), consistently create the sense of a global meeting room that quickly erases the usual constraints of geography and are, in significant ways, one long-extended, often asynchronous conversation designed to produced positive, measurable results.

At the heart of our approach to gathering is a commitment to listen. To learn from each other. To maintain a playful approach to the work we do. To foster a sense of inclusiveness that welcomes newcomers as well as returning community members. And to focus heavily on those we are attempting to serve through our efforts. (Our commitment to reshaping learning, furthermore, includes a commitment to include students and other learners in our planning efforts and our events.) That’s something that is clearly visible through the online gatherings we have had this year—particularly the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference which, because of remaining concerns about gathering onsite during the pandemic, was once again completely held online (over a four-day period in July 2021).

Shaping the unconference around the theme of “Reshaping Wicked Problems” allowed and encouraged us to reshape our unconference structure a bit this year. Where previous unconference gatherings centered on an initial set of 10 actions the community was attempting to pursue, the latest unconference identified (though collaborative pre-conference exchanges online) 10 wicked challenges to be explored by unconference participants with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Among the wicked challenges were attempts to find ways to more effectively connect strategies to the tools we use in teaching-training-learning—an ongoing effort spearheaded by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes through the Teaching Toolset project he is developing (and also writing about on the ShapingEDU blog); better engage virtual learners and avoid burnout; and identify, document, and disseminate stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020—something that has turned into another long-term ShapingEDU project under the newly-adopted name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

A glance at the “living agenda” for the unconference gives you an idea of the approach to and scope of the work we planned to do—and, more importantly, offers you a template you can adapt for your own gatherings. Looking at the archived recordings of some of the sessions on the aforementioned ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel or directly from links within that living agenda will more fully immerse you in what we did—and, possibly, provide you with ideas you can incorporate into your  own action-oriented gatherings. You’ll see the day-long context-setting series of exercises ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Ruben Puentedura facilitated on the second day of the conference through his use of a Black Swan approach as a framework for our discussions. You’ll see a series of keynote presentations and panel discussions, including an engaging discussion centered on “The Intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Technology” from the third day of the unconference and the tremendously thoughtful and inspiring “Student Panel” discussion that opened the final day of the unconference. An archived recording of the final hour-long unconference report-out session also remains available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel, along with plenty of other recordings of ShapingEDU unconference sessions, ShapingEDU webinars, and other sessions the community has produced since its formation in early 2018.

If drawing you into this level of immersion in the ShapingEDU community is successful, it will leave me with one more thing for which I will be grateful: I’ll see you there in the community as a contributor to the positive goals we are pursuing.

Next: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

N.B.: This is the seventh in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-first in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

November 28, 2021

When you’re still thinking about, feeling grateful for, and applying lessons learned several months after reading a book, you know the book is a winner—which perfectly describes Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and how it will transform anyone interested in making each gathering/meeting/training-teaching-learning offering as engaging and memorable as it can be.

Priya Parker; photo by Jeff Allen, from Parker’s website

Described (by its subtitle) as a book on “how we meet and why it matters,” it might not immediately catch the attention of my colleagues in training-teaching-learning—which is a real shame, for in adjusting our thinking so that “lessons,” “workshops,” “courses,” and “panel discussions” are seen through the powerful lens of “gatherings,” we find magnificent ways to liberate ourselves and our learners—what some of us call “co-conspirators in learning”—from the “tedium of learning” and find new ways to turn those lessons/workshops/courses/panel discussions into engaging, transformative gatherings with long-term impact.

The initial chapters of this engagingly-written book focus on social gatherings and the gatherings that occur when, for example, students and senior citizens living together in a retirement community interact over a long period of time. She offers concise reminders that successful gatherings grow out of myriad up-front decisions about the purpose of the gathering, the location in which it will be held, the duration of the gathering, and even the number of people who will be included in the gathering—all of which, of course, are elements considered and decisions made as we design and facilitate effective, memorable, transformative learning opportunities. She reminds us that “…a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people. Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines” (p. 62)—again, something that any creative, learner-centric trainer-teacher-learning facilitator knows and considers regardless of whether a gathering is taking place onsite or online.

One of the sections where she tremendously inspires us in our lifelong-learning environments is in her discussion, near the middle of the book (pp. 172-173), on the importance of providing a memorable opening to any gathering:

“Openings are a big missed opportunity in gatherings. They all too often underwhelm us, and they don’t have to. After all, openings lay the track for a gathering….Our brain effectively chooses for us what we will remember later. Studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk….And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.”

Continuing on this theme (pp. 177-178), she reminds us that we have plenty of adaptable models for providing stimulating, memorable openings for our gatherings—including the formats common today in movies and television programs:

“The cold open is the practice of starting a TV show directly with a scene rather than with opening credits….Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

And that, for me, is the reason I’m including Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering in this series of “Giving Thanks” essays: I’m grateful that I came across that passage about the cold open and then had an opportunity to discuss and explore it with Stephen Hurley during an episode of our “Collaborations in Learning” conversations for his voicEd Radio program earlier this year; it made me completely change the way I open any learning opportunity I design and facilitate face-to-face or online. Gone are the (occasional) openings I used to offer about what was on the agenda for the session I was about to facilitate; the learners already knew that from the session or course description that had lured them to that particular learning gathering. Gone are the introductory comments designed to provide a brief overview of whatever topic we are going to cover; that, again, is generally covered in the brief descriptions or pre-session work that so often accompanies sessions I facilitate.

What we are left with is the best, most engaging story I can provide—that cold-open approach that grabs a learner’s attention, immediately inspires conversation, makes my co-conspirators want to know more about the people or circumstances at the heart of that story, and makes it clear that we are not going to waste time on turgid, unnecessary scene-setting. We’re here to work, to learn, and, in the best of situations, have some fun along the way through the act of sharing stories and drawing, from those stories, ideas we can immediately adapt in our workplaces or other places where what has been learned is meant to be applied. We are left with learning as storytelling and community-building rather than something that is focused on a lecture and ends with a quiz or formal exam.

There’s plenty more meat on the bones of this book. Parker leads us through an exploration of the value of storytelling. She describes the importance of creating gatherings that are “safe” places as well as places that offer challenges—those places where we are not afraid to take risks (the sort of personal risks obvious to any learner who tries to avoid the pain of “failure” while learning, even though temporary failure is an integral part of the learning process).

And she eventually travels full circle by coming back to a discussion of the combination of supporting vulnerability in our gatherings while fostering storytelling as she quotes Moth founder George Dawes Green (p. 212):

“Story is about a decision that you made. It’s not about what happens to you. And if you hit that and you get your vulnerability and you understand the stakes, and a few other things, people will intuitively find great stories to tell, and as soon as they do, we know them. We know them as human beings. This is no longer my boss’s colleague. This is a real person who had heartbreak. Oh, I know that.”

Parker, nearing the end of her book, reminds us that gatherings need to include appropriate, satisfying conclusions/endings (p. 268): “Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.” And, in a parallel moment of recognition, we recognize that the learning opportunities—the gatherings—we facilitate also need to end with those all-important moment of preparing our learners for reentry into the environments in which they will—with a sense of gratitude for what they have obtained during their time with us—put lessons learned to work. If our gatherings produce those gem-like moments, we are well on our way to success…and a reputation for gatherings worth attending.

Next:  Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

November 27, 2021

As the coronavirus pandemic started shutting things down here in the United States in March 2020, many of us were scrambling to find ways to stay in touch with cherished friends and colleagues. We quickly began exploring ways to innovatively respond to our rapidly-changing training-teaching-learning environments, and we also looked for ways to more advantageously build upon the online relationships we already had in place.­­

Stephen Hurley

One of the unexpected pleasures for me, as the pandemic continued to change the way we all work and play, was re-engaging with Stephen Hurley, whose voicEd Radio programming remains a bright light in terms of innovative online programming directed toward “a community of researchers, educators, students, parents and policy-thinkers committed to a dynamic vision of knowledge mobilization in Canada’s education space” featuring “podcasting and live broadcasting to tackle the big questions facing K-12 and post-secondary education in Canada and beyond.”

Although our paths, before the pandemic changed our world, only crossed occasionally—often through the efforts of our mutual friend/colleague Jonathan Nalder (whose lovely Edunauts podcasts were a staple of voicEd Radio programming for a couple of years)—I always found Stephen to be one of those people with whom conversations easily resumed regardless of how much time passed between each of those exchanges. So when Stephen reached out to me early this year to propose a biweekly half-hour segment that would be recorded in my time zone at 6:30 am Monday mornings, I leapt without hesitation, figuring that a half-hour with Stephen every other week was well worth whatever loss of sleep accompanied that commitment. And I was right!

To this day, I remain grateful that we kept that commitment throughout the first half of 2021 and recorded a dozen of what (at least for us) were some lovely, playful, memorable conversations connected by the theme of “collaborations in learning.” For me, at least, they were far more than ephemeral conversations; they drew upon pre-determined topics ranging from books we were reading and online conferences we were attending to powerful, easily adaptable examples of online collaboration we were seeing, and they often carried over into other work I was doing, including a blog piece on the practice of treating learners as co-conspirators in the learning process.

The first episode in that series focused on my recently-released book, Change the World Using Social Media. As he noted in his summary of the episode, we talked about “the power of social media platforms to create community, nurture a sense of action, if not activism, and what this could mean for our future world.” And, more importantly, we established a practice of trying to create threads from one episode/conversation to the next, often by pulling one comment from the latest episode and creating a thread to a related topic in the next episode.

One of Stephen’s superpowers, for me, is his ability to move seamlessly from the role of interviewer—posing stimulating questions designed to keep a conversation moving forward in engaging, productive ways—to the role of equal partner in a conversation to the role of willingly playing foil to his interviewees in ways that produce playfully serious exchanges filled with ideas that any interested listener can incorporate into their own training-teaching-learning efforts. Another is his willingness to look for connections to previous conversations so that a series of recordings along the lines of what we did together can serve as stand-along podcasts or be heard as an extended multi-episode conversation with nuanced, multiple layers of interactions. Those “superpowers,” combined, have provided me with tremendous examples of approaches and techniques that I have absorbed, sponge-like, into my own work—to the benefit of the learners I serve.

There are numerous moments from those conversations that have stayed with me far longer than the amount of time I put into preparing for them. One that has proved to be transformative was the discussion we had about Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering; again, Stephen beautifully summarizes the conversation by describing it as an exploration of how “a gathering begins the moment you send out the invitation” and what that means, along with what impact it could have on the way we plan our virtual and face-to-face events—something I have continued to adapt into my own work with learners and other colleagues throughout the year. Another of those moments involved an exploration of the role of storytelling and an examination of the difference between stories and anecdotes.

As the current year comes to an end, I remain thankful  for all that Stephen has offered me and all the inspiration he has provided. And I hope you’ll support Stephen (and your own learning process) by tuning in to voicEd Radio whenever you can.

Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

N.B.: This is the third in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping change the world in positive ways, and the thirtieth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering.


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