Professional Learning

Metacluelessness: Understanding that You Don’t Understand

April 26, 2006

Ready? Here's a new phrase I made up a couple of years ago: "the achievement of metacluelessness," which means becoming aware of what you don't know. I coined it to help describe what I was seeing as educators became open to learning about how to bring new technologies into their classrooms only after they were shown digital possibilities they didn't know existed.

It is also a critical step for principals and other administrators if they are going to actively support their classroom teachers in making the best use of digital technology to improve teaching and learning for all students. If they are going to be part of the change, folks have to take the blinders off and look outside the frame of what they already know about how school works and what tools are available.

I find that because the learning opportunities digital technology makes possible are so vastly different from the traditional model of school, these non-technology-using professionals have to begin their progress toward improvement by seeing the new way in action and accepting that it is a better method for supporting more students.

And it is only when they admit their ignorance as to how these new practices are put into play in a school or in a classroom and adopt a sincere desire to become informed that professional development can be effectively used to support them as they take on the new methodology.

Think about it: Until one sees the magic that is possible through the use of global positioning systems in the classroom or in the field, or the power of digital video production, it is unlikely someone who does not use technology will seek out professional development that supports them in moving in this direction.

Let me give you an example: After years of obsession with flying toys of all descriptions and a college career devoted largely to playing Frisbee on grassy quads and in dormitory halls across the Northeast, I happened to see an article that described these strange huge "kites" people were using that make flight accessible to anyone.

They were called hang gliders, and they required no license to fly. All you needed was a good-size hill that faced the wind. As soon as I saw the pictures of people being lifted into the air on these wings, I knew this was something I had to learn to do.

How many times had I sent my mind's eye into the air riding a balsa-wood glider or a paper airplane? How often had I stood, Frisbee in hand, and visualized the wind as a flowing river on which I was about to launch my imagination, looking forward to the feel of releasing the perfect throw into those invisible currents?

As you can see, I had needed to learn to fly hang gliders for years, but until 1976 or so I had not known they existed. California, where hang gliding was being developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was just too far away from Maine, and I had not had the chance to achieve the requisite metacluelessness.

Once I had achieved it, I set to work with a passion to learn how to fly hang gliders, and when I first lifted off a sand dune at Jockey's Ridge, at Nags Head, North Carolina, it simply felt right. Finally, my balsa-wood glider and I were one.

This is why, when I am beginning a relationship with a school or a school district, I often suggest starting out with a large group show-and-tell of sorts: me, a computer or two, an Internet connection, a digital camera, maybe an iPod or a digital voice recorder, and a digital projector demonstrating some of the things that are now possible.

Understanding that many people in the room are already active users of these technology tools outside their classroom, I set about modeling how they can be put to purposeful use in real classrooms in real schools in real communities by real teachers with real kids supported by real principals. Trust me; it works. People are awakened, metaclulessness is achieved, and a hunger for learning is born.

So, what have you achieved metacluelessness about recently? Have you seen the use of digital audio-recording software being used to record the voices of a community, capturing material from which a rich story can be woven by a classroom of middle school students, and then realized you move lots of music files but you really don't know jack about creating digital audio from scratch?

Or maybe you have witnessed a one-to-one laptop classroom where every student is actively engaged in creating meaning from environmental data collected via probeware and, while it is something you have heard about in a journal, you now realize you are clueless as to how probes work.

And, as to that laptop classroom, it looks great, but how does it really work?

And what about blogging? Can it really be an effective part of a classroom-literacy program, and how does it work? And how is a podcast different from using a good old tape recorder? Is there, perhaps, a thing or two you don't know about this new toolset?

So, here's your assignment: Head to the multimedia section of the Edutopia Web site, and see what you can see. Purposefully go looking for some effective uses of technology beyond your ken. Having found them, blessed metacluelessness will be yours, and you will then know what you don't know -- the first step on the road to growth. And then, having been inspired and because you insist on doing the best by every young person you have an impact on, you will want to go learn.

Let me know what you find out you don't know. I'd be interested.

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