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Heutagogy And What Mo Willems Can Teach Us About Remaking Education

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
March 11, 2021

Mitigating Learning Loss

I shared in a recent post that Mo Willems, author and artist of children’s classics like “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus” and “Knuffle Bunny”, is a family favorite. A few days ago while reading “Can I Play Too” with my youngest daughter I was struck by the parallel between the story and some school’s plans to address learning losses resulting from the pandemic. In summary, these schools are doing what the two characters Gerald and Piggie did when trying to include their new friend in a game of catch. Basically they kept doing the same thing, again and again, but it never worked. To make distance learning possible schools around the globe equipped students with hotspots, devices, and suites of online tools. For many students this plan worked to keep them connected to their teachers and helped facilitate their learning. Now as we plan to transition back to in-person school we’re faced with widening learning gaps - clearly the plan did not work for all students and families. My challenge in the article is to “think different” when mitigating learning loss instead of doing more of the same. Instead, we should focus on what promotes learning in the first place. 

More Mo

We read a lot of Mo Willems around my house. So much so that both of my daughters, before they could read, would recite entire books to me while we flipped the pages. Yesterday, my youngest daughter Olive and I read, “Can I Play Too”, yet again. If you have not read my previous article, it is a 4-minute read, and will give you some background on Gerald and Piggie. In short, a snake wants to play catch with them, they hatch a plan to include her, but since she has no arms, after 3 unsuccessful attempts, they have to make a new plan. 

As we read the story this time I noticed something that Gerald and Piggie did that made me think about our opportunity to remake education. Each time their plan failed to include their new friend (Snake) in a game of catch they consulted to design a new plan, but they did so privately (see the picture below). They never included the snake in the planning at any point! 

Photo from Mo Willems' book "Can I Play Too"

On the heels of a global pandemic, distance learning, virtual instruction, hybrid schedules, and pods, we are entering a unique era. This is a time to rethink and remake education into something that is more engaging and congruent with an evolving workforce. It is time, as I mentioned in my previous article, to channel Steve Jobs and find the courage to “Think Different” rather than mirroring Gerald and Piggie and repeating the same thing we have historically done.

Shifting To Heutagogy

Heutagogy is defined as self-determined learning. By design, the learner is at the center of the process. My friend Bryan Gibson, with LearnLife, writes about how their organization is reimagining global education. Their model for education “...places the experience of positive and functional relationships as the starting point for everything, drawing from Maslow’s concepts of a hierarchy of needs.” With an end goal of empowering “self-directed and self-determined learning.”

I’m curious what the snake’s input would have influenced Gerald and Piggie’s planning, and overall joy of the experience. The snake’s perspective, from their initial attempts to play catch, was clearly different from their own - they were never nearly knocked unconscious! Both the teacher and the learner’s experiences are critical to design a learning plan that is student-centric. 

Authentic Differentiation

Even if your school or district is not ready to reimagine education from the group up, involving students in the design of their learning is possible through authentic differentiation. My friend Bonnie Nieves (aka the Biology Goddess - catch her on Twitter here) is the master of student-centered differentiation. She involves students in activities, sprinkled throughout her lessons, that give them choice. I can’t encourage you enough to explore her work or reach out to her personally, she will respond! You can learn more about how to differentiate via student choice and steal some great ideas and lesson activities in this article she wrote for the ISTE’s Cognitive Science blog. Specifically I would draw your attention to her Retrieval Power Grid. 

Involving Students

“Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.” Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage

I believe the snake could have helped Gerald and Piggie design a better plan if they would have just included her in the process, and she would have been more engaged. Whether you are redesigning your school, your personal approach as an educator, or wanting to better engage students, invite them to your design table. Include them in the process! We can invite our students to be active subjects in the design and execution of their education as opposed to objects in their experience, passively consuming information we share with them. In doing so we amplify their engagement, their interest, and the retention of what they are learning. 

How can you include your students in the design of their own learning? I’m curious to hear your ideas and thoughts. Please share by adding a comment below so others can learn from your ideas! 

Be well,

Mitch 

ps. Gerald and Piggie eventually figure out a way to include their new friend, snake, in the game of catch. However, they do so only after they listen to her input which gives Piggie a new idea - snake becomes the ball, everyone is included, and happily playing catch.

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