The Water We Swim In

Fish in a fishbowl

Every aspect of life carries with it certain unspoken assumptions. (A business meeting, for instance, requires a tucked-in shirt; a movie theater assumes viewers will refrain from talking; a waiting room means cordiality–but rarely conversations–with strangers; and schools require classrooms with walls.) If we are successfully assimilated, we move through our lives without giving these things a second thought. We are like fish in a fishtank, and culture is the water.

It is only when we step outside our culture that the assumptions of the majority become immediately apparent– or transparent, like an overlay. It is in these moments that we have the opportunity to see the water we are swimming in.

What assumptions have I been unaware of? And how does the culture I have been swimming in look different now?

During our team’s work to develop the Burlington City & Lake Semester, we have had the chance to engage with a number foundational philosophies at the heart of community-based learning.

Questions to consider, as you play with the ideas that follow:

Do agree with these assumptions/philosophies?

How different are they from the assumptions/philosophies about teaching and learning that currently exist in schools?

Real-world learning is complex.

Everything is naturally cross-disciplinary. (In the building of a bridge, for example, where does one separate civil engineering from art and design?) School is the only place where knowledge, concepts, and meaning is carved up into distinct disciplines.

Active, engagement should happen now.

Rather than being prepared for “citizenship,” “community-involvement,” or “career success” in some abstract, distant future, learning should be facilitated as if learners are involved citizens, with evolving skills–ready to engage with real issues–now.

Intrinsic motivation is the engine.

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”  – Dorothy Parker

Learners need time to explore.

Adolescents are still discovering who they are. They need space to make discoveries and to make these discoveries meaningful. Relevant learning is often inductive.

We all learn all the time.

Limiting “credits” to hours in which learners are within our walls, or in front-facing chairs, does not honor the richness of pathways that exist in the world outside these walls.

Learners should show what they know.

Assessment that is shared, performed, and demonstrated in context, for an authentic audience, is the best way for learners to show what they know–and how they’ve grown.

Youth-Adult Partnerships can be transformative.

There is only one way for young people to learn how to be a successful adult: spend time with successful adults. In the traditional school system, the only adults students spend time with–for 12+ years–are teachers. Otherwise, we expect students to learn how to be adults by spending time primarily with peers.

Relationship matters.

Authentic, caring relationships are an investment in trust, which in turn allows learners to take risks. Since rigor is a function of risk, investing in relationships leads to greater learning.   

Partners are out there.

Community members and organizations care about supporting the success of our learners; they often haven’t had a chance to authentically partner with schools.

Teaching and learning must change forms.

If students are to actively engage in integrated, real-world learning, and if what they are able to do is to be demonstrated authentically, learning environments will naturally shift to include space outside the classroom walls, and the role of the teacher will shift to include collaborating, facilitating, advising, etc. Instead of being simulators of real-world problems, teachers become portals to issues that both need and deserve student engagement and energy.

As a coda, I’ll share that I continue to struggle with these ideas, especially in my own teaching practice. The clearer my belief in these foundational assumptions becomes, the more obvious it is how far I have to go in order to live them out.

What is stopping me? What are the barriers to shifting my own teaching practice?

What are the barriers for each of us?

And how might changing the setting–the context–of learning open up opportunities for growth in these areas?


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