Just Because: Rethinking Educator Lifelong Learning
The buzzword ‘lifelong learner’ has been prevalent within educational jargon and highlighted on our past teaching resumes for a reason- it’s an educational core value. As educators, we aspire to instill the desire to learn for the sake of learning within our students. However, in my thirteen years as an educator, I have found that we, as teachers, rarely have the opportunity to live out this mantra. It’s not that we aren’t learning; it’s quite the opposite. We are constantly jamming in the newest ‘how to’ educational information to update our approach. We’re researching best practices, finding articles to enhance lesson design and student engagement. However, is this truly the type of lifelong learning we are trying to promote to our students? Are we modeling the power of learning just to learn to our students?
These were the questions our Arts and Design team tackled at the beginning of the school year. The pandemic had stalled almost all schoolwide professional learning and our designated staff development times were dedicated to logistical work surrounding sanitization, social distancing protocols, and the ever changing school regulations. While important, the nature of this was dry. It wasn’t professional development or learning- it was disaster preparedness. We all felt hungry to get back to the heart of education– to learn something new. Learning for the sake of learning. This simple desire was the basis to the idea behind the program ‘Just Because’.
Learning ‘Just Because’
The ‘Just Because’ program concept is simple, like pineapple charts, entirely grassroots. In base terms, it’s a program where educators facilitate learning on a topic we are passionate about for other educators to experience. We began with these two guiding principles:
- Sessions should be designed with creation in mind. Physical, digital, ideas, and anything else that can be created.
- Sessions cannot be directly tied to educational pedagogy. If indirect connections can be made, great, but it is not the focus.
The second point was initially contested, but in the end, the point of ‘Just Because’ was to promote lifelong learning, not necessarily professional learning. Learning that was, well, just because.
This program began with eight different sessions, one a month on Wednesday directly after teacher contractual times were over. The sessions ranged from DSLR photography, Exploring VR, and even Drawing for Beginners. Teachers were sent an email with session descriptions and an attached sign-up sheet. We expected session attendance to grow slowly over time, so we started out with smaller sign up sheets.
Much to our surprise and delight, this was a mistake. All but one of these sessions was fully booked within the first two days, and teachers added waitlists to most of the sessions. When we knew we had traction, after the first round of learning experiences, we opened up session creation to all staff. We soon found that not only do teachers want to learn just because, they also want to facilitate. We had a science teacher share age-old pasta making techniques, an elementary teacher bring an edge to embroidery, and an art teacher show how to laser print holiday ornaments just in time for Winter Break and a whole lot more.
The Direct Impact
During its trial year (starting in November), educators from across the school have or will host twenty-four sessions with around 350 participants (approximation as sessions are still scheduled for the end of the year). We are currently running two or three different sessions a month on an even broader range of topics than we could have initially imagined.
Participants learn new skills, find ways to leverage these during their classes, develop new passions or hobbies, and, ultimately, have a blast during the sessions. We estimate around 70% of the school’s staff have signed up to attend at least one session over the course of the year, with many attending multiple sessions. This endeavor has built opportunities that place value on learning for learning’s sake; ‘Just Because’ puts lifelong learning in action.
The Indirect Impact
Three impacts of ‘Just Because’ stand out as catalysts to culture change within our school. First, eighteen different teachers and leaders have hosted workshops. They’ve each gained experience facilitating adult learning in a low risk environment. This, in a broader sense, helps boost confidence and a willingness to share educational pedagogy within the school and beyond. As a school community, it promotes an environment where sharing knowledge and passing along expertise about anything and everything is prevalent.
Second, we have found this to be a great opportunity to build wellness within our community. We originally thought these sessions would fit more under professional development, but during a divisional staff audit of our school ‘Just Because’ was unanimously put into our wellness category as a school. We have received numerous emails, thank you messages, photos, and verbal praise for launching this initiative, showing its potential to build wellness within our school community.
Third, these sessions build collegial relationships. They provide an excellent opportunity to bolster work relationships outside of the daily grind of school. Being with each other, by choice, in the same environment within a different context builds bridges between colleagues throughout the entire school community. These bonds influence the environment at staff meetings, have potential to increase collaboration, and, at the end of the day, make school a place worth being, just because.
Five Steps to Implement in your School
If you are interested in launching something like this in your school, follow these five steps to get your process under way.
1. Get a Group of Early Adopters
Gather a group from your school community that you know would be keen to run a session on something awesome. Working together, try to create an original lineup that has a good diversity of learning experiences. Choose people who you know will run engaging learning experiences. First impressions on these will be important and word spreads quickly if these types of sessions are impactful or a waste of time.
2. If it Looks Good, it Must Be
Before launching to staff, create a visually appealing place to house your learning experiences. You want to wow people when they open it for the first time and give them a feeling that “These are going to be awesome.” This document should be as simple as possible, with very little wording. We linked each image in our “Just Because” flier to its individual sign-up form for easy access.
3. Open it Up
Once you have a few successful sessions and people have a better understanding of what this is, open up the sign-up to run learning experiences to your entire school staff. For this, we shared a Google form that went through a few iterations to better help those who were filling out the form, and to assist with creating the blurb and sign-up details for those organizing. In its current form, as long as the person signing up fills it out correctly, it is nearly all copy and paste and then finding a date. This ease makes it manageable for both the facilitators and the organizers.
4. Continuous Sharing
Finding a balance between making people aware of upcoming opportunities and blasting them too many times with reminders is always tricky. We decided to have the admin team share through their weekly divisional update to staff by including a link so people always know where to find it. In addition, approximately every other month, we send out a reminder email and includes new opportunities that have been scheduled.
5. Involve the Community
This is a step we have not taken yet, but we are imagining what this might look like. We started within our school community only providing opportunities to educators. The next natural step is to open up to parents and students to both join and facilitate sessions. The hope would be to extend these ideals of lifelong learning and to a wider audience. We will likely start out by keeping some sessions only open to educators, but we believe this could still be an impactful step to growing the program.
If you would like more information on how to try something like this within your school community, follow and DM me on Twitter at @luke_meinen_