Learning without the Clutter

Photos by Stephanie Cerda

Photos by Stephanie Cerda

I would much prefer things to be clean and organized before I sit down to work. A completely open desk space has the instant ability to calm and prepare me to get stuff done in a way I cannot fully describe.  It is the same in my kitchen. Clean countertops simply minister to my soul. In fact I can’t start cooking anything inspired until everything in my line of vision is clean and clear. My mind and habits tell me this space for working is important, but somehow I still forget to clear off space for learning and reflection.

This week was the annual TCEA convention, an incredible opportunity to connect, collaborate, share, and grow with those in the edtech community coming from a variety of perspectives and experiences. In years past I have overbooked myself to the extreme. Partially out of necessity, or so I tell myself, and partially out of my own insanity, I would present, work on the exhibit floor (including set up and tear down which only folks who have done this can fully understand), plan and execute events, and fill in any semblance of margin with a meeting or call. At the end of the week I was always exhausted, overwhelmed, and unsure of what had even transpired in those seven days. On paper it looked super productive I’m sure, but I was missing out on some of the most valuable moments. The moments that occur in the in-between. The unscripted, unplanned, serendipitous moments. The moments I was able to be a part of at TCEA 2014.

Moments like these…

  • Strolling into a presentation in the Digital Square and staying even though it wasn’t on my initial schedule.
  • Making a new, face to face connection with another educator I would have never known from a state far different from the one I call home.
  • Collaborating and digging into writing a manifesto about wonder and curiosity with my new friend during the presentation we both stumbled upon.
  • Diving into a heated discussion on edreform with no official facilitator, direction, or agenda.
  • Accepting a lunch invitation from two, first time TCEA attendees who wanted to talk about applying the concepts from a presentation to their own campus.
  • An impromptu startup therapy session or two…this is where two or more people involved in startups commiserate, brainstorm, pull each other off the ledge and… more.
  • Another meal with an educator I greatly respect and love learning from and with.
  • Catching up with people while walking from one place to the next (key word here is walking—not jogging with five bags or text-walking without looking up).

Don’t get me wrong. I also got to do some structured things…

The time and energy put into the development and deployment of these planned events was totally worth it too, but this is a post about creating space for the in-between and that doesn’t mean you stop planning. Actually I think it means the exact opposite. Only by planning and intentionally leaving the appropriate space and margin in our schedules and lives will we be able to be present in these moments. In one of our Digital Square conversations Stephanie Cerda quoted Tom Barrett who said we have to de-clutter to let learning get messy. To me that implies some organization, some cleaning up, some prioritization of the time and space we have so we can use it well. When I clear off my kitchen countertop I leave room to pull out all the ingredients needed to make something satisfying. And when I finally de-cluttered my schedule I created space for the moments that mattered.
    Even in some of these unique moments I still had to fight against the voice inside that whispered, “You aren’t doing enough, this isn’t real work, and even… what’s the point of all this?” The point is learning, the point is growing, sometimes throughout the scheduled events in life, but other times by decluttering so that we can be inspired by the space between and the unique pieces that come together to create something we never even imagined.

    And so as I reflect on TCEA14, I am glad that I took the initiative to declutter this year. I am grateful that space wasn’t missing from my schedule as Greg Garner wrote about in his post on Getting Smart. Because without that space I wouldn’t get to wrap my brain around what I learned this week and see how I changed and where I can go back to the real world apart from conference-land and actually implement my new ideas and understandings.

    So, why don’t we apply this to our professional learning plans? Why don’t we declutter and leave some space to learn and grow in more authentic, even serendipitous environments? Why is it often the case that any potential margin or holiday or break gets reeled in and filled with a full day PD session? Why don’t we pursue trainers who are better facilitators and model educators than showmen/women?

    Maybe the words professional development wouldn’t make our teachers cringe if we gave them more margin and unstructured collaborative time to explore conversations that interest them and solve problems that they really face.

    P.S. If you struggle with Margin in life too this is a pretty good book on the subject…

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