Cleaning Out the Backpack

I carry my work life in my backpack. I try to make sure it has everything I need, everywhere I go. If I’m in a school or at a meeting or in a coffee shop, my backpack has all the stuff. If I’m at home and something comes up that needs my attention, I can grab whatever I need from my bag. It works well for me.

But every few months, I pick it up and wonder why it seems to weigh as much as I do. What’s in this bag that I’m carrying around everywhere? So I take everything out, spread it on the floor, and just put the things back in that I really need.

Some of it is easy to weed out. I don’t need three pairs of reading glasses. I don’t need that empty lunch container that’s been in there for two weeks. Oh, here’s a book that I finished reading a month ago. Do I really need these five covid masks? Why are there four uneaten granola bars?

Some things are harder. How many of the various Apple adapters should I carry around all the time? Do I need a wireless hotspot? I never use this hand sanitizer, but I feel like I should have it just in case.

Inevitably, I get the backpack down to a reasonable weight, and I almost never miss the stuff I’ve taken out.

I’m less good at cleaning out my figurative backpack, though. There are lots of ideas and perspectives and experiences that are always fighting for my attention. I have strong feelings about assessment and inquiry and the purpose of school and all kinds of things. I have opinions about blended learning and school schedules and “college and career ready.” I want students to be independent thinkers and innovative problem solvers and resilient navigators of an uncertain future.

But I can’t carry all of those things around in my backpack all the time.

I have to balance the really important things with the really useful ones. What are those? What are the ideas that I have to keep front-of-mind? What are my non-negotiables?

Technology is a catalyst for instructional change. If we’re not using technology to do something we can’t do without it, we’re wasting our time. Technology can help us individualize instruction. It can help us adjust academic rigor. It can help students demonstrate their learning in unique ways. We have to focus on how it can transform teaching and learning, and make us all better at what we do.

Student engagement is the key to school success. We have to intrinsically motivate students to be inquisitive, passionate learners. If we only motivate students with praise or coupons or grades, they will be compliant. But that means we are measuring what students are doing rather than what they are learning, and that significantly clouds our ability to measure what they’ve learned and adjust accordingly.

We live in an information abundant world. This is different from the world that we grew up in. Schools haven’t really figured out what that means yet. Our education system was built for a world where remembering things was really important. Our students need to do more than that. They need to analyze, synthesize, connect, and apply information of varying quality and authority in order to solve complex problems.

Everyone is a learner. Call it growth mindset if you must. Invoke the old Toffler learn/unlearn/relearn quote. The reality is that we are an educational institution. Everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner. We have to have the humility to open our minds and be receptive to new ideas. If we always assume we’re the smartest person in the room, we miss out on the wisdom of the room. I forget that sometimes.

What’s in your backpack? What are the ideas you carry around?