Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Power of Flexibility

Flexibility, as displayed by water, is a sign of life. Rigidity, its opposite, is a sign of death.
~Anthony Lawlor
CC image on Flickr by Auntie K

As a former ballet dancer, a teacher, and a technologist, it dawned on me what incredible power there is in flexibility.  It's not uncommon to assume an easily movable object is a flimsy one.  People tread nervously across suspension bridges and balk at the thought of buying a camera tripod as silly-looking as this one. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize the ingenuity and inherent power in flexibility. Surveying many educational environments reveals that some of our most powerful assets as teachers and learners are, in fact, the most flexible ones.  These assets include the wires beneath our school grounds, the resources we find online, and most importantly, our very selves.

The first time I learned about fiber optics, my mind was blown.  Pondering the fact that this cutting-edge Internet connectivity not only offers unprecedented bandwidth but nearly limitless possibility for growth, is mind-blowing.  As the immortal Fisch-McLeod collaboration "Shift Happens" highlighted, fiber optics:
 pushes 10 trillion bits per second down one strand of fiber... [is] currently tripling about every 6 months and is expected to do so for at least the next 20 years.  The fiber is already there, they're just improving the switches on the ends.  Which means the marginal cost of these improvements is effectively $0.
And to think -- more and more places of learning are connecting to one another via this infrastructure that is robust and infinitely scalable.  As I said, "Whoa."

With more of these lightning-fast connections at our doorstep, we find ourselves within reach of some of the most powerful learning resources that have ever existed on Earth.  Simulations, animations, readings, publishing platforms, images, audio, video, discussion fora, and networks of experts and passionate learners abound.  The quantity of choices intimidates many.  However, the beauty of having so many choices, the beauty of digital media itself is its inherent flexibility and potential to serve all learners.  As CAST outlines in its Universal Design for Learning, digital media offers:
  1. multiple ways of presenting information and concepts
  2. multiple ways of expressing ourselves and demonstrating understanding, and
  3. multiple ways of becoming engaged with and motivated by the learning process

Think about that.  Learner differences, flawed assessments, and apathy can all find solutions within the flexibility of digital media.  That is power.

Now that we've reflected on the flexibility and capacity of our wires and media, how are we doing as educators and leaders?  How poised are we to grow, scale, and reach beyond our existing state?  What more can we do to ensure that schools' technology infrastructure and resources are not disproportionately more flexible and therefore powerful than their people?

Tradition and precedence are strong forces, and in any capacity, "stretching" is often unpopular.  It requires time and patience, both of which are a premium in our over-scheduled lives.  However, athletes, dancers, yogis, and the health conscious alike will attest to the fact that taking the time to stretch one's muscles has numerous benefits.  Stretching improves performance, allows for greater range of movement, prevents injuries, and aids in recovery from exertion.  And it feels good.  Why should we not make it a priority to improve our own flexibility as educators and learners at every available opportunity?

My "stretching" is my ongoing professional development.  I do a little each day on Twitter, Google, and Skype.  Whenever I can, I seek out chances for more extensive, intensive PD.  At each turn, my ideas multiply, my reach expands, and my willingness to lean into the momentum of these changing times fortifies my capacity to lead students in powerful learning and growth.


    1. Sarah, this is marvelous, and raises so many issues. I had a lengthy conversation with a tech company last week in which it acknowledged that most school districts spend a ton of money to roll out fancy new technology, and yet have little money and time to devote to actually teaching teachers how to incorporate it into the curriculum. Fortunately, "flexible" educators like you are figuring it out on their own, with the help of a well-developed PLN. And the fortunate students of these educators will forever appreciate them. Conversely, the students of rigid educators who lack the time and patience to incorporate the power brought into their schools via fiber optics will begin to view their teachers as irrelevant to their learning.

    2. Beautiful. I wonder how we can teach a system to stretch?

    3. Hi Sarah,

      I think this article is very thought provoking. As a representative for TeachHUB.com, a free K-12 resource site for teachers, I would like to ask your permission to republish this blog as one of our daily K-12 news articles. I believe our audience can learn from this article. I’d be happy to link back to your blog and give proper attribution.

      Please let me know if that would be okay with you. I can be contacted at pmurray@k12teachersalliance.com

      Thank you,

      Patty Murray