Staying Current and Educational Innovation as a Lifestyle and Calling

“How do you stay current in your field and how do you find the time to do what you do?” I often get these two questions when I am chatting with people after a speaking engagement. Part of the answer is that I consider it my job (even my calling) to stay current so that I can analyze the trends, consider the benefits and drawbacks, synthesize the knowledge in a way that it is useful for others and my own educational projects, and use it is as a creative spark for new possibilities.  This takes time, lots of it, so I will not offer any quick tips or claims that Twitter (or some similar social network) will be the answer. Instead, here are 10 things that I do. These are not rules or even guidelines for myself. They simply describe how I tend to think and act.  I don’t suggest that these are the right actions for anyone else, but they give a bit more insight on how I go about much of my own life’s work/calling.

1) I Cut TV & Entertainment Media Consumption – I watch my share of movies and television shows, but they are most often not daily events.  In fact, I sometimes go weeks without watching a single movie or television show, especially when I am in the middle of following some new intellectual “lead.” I have my down times, however, times when I take a break from my standard reading and studying. During those periods (ranging from a few hours to several weeks), I might watch quite a bit. There have even been periods of two to three months where I set aside my regular schedule of reading and study. I just see that as a natural cycle. Of course, I don’t spend months watching TV or movies endlessly, but I might watch a great deal more than normal and spend more time “taking it easy.”

2) I See it as a Lifestyle and a Calling – Studying and analyzing the trends is not simply a part of my daytime job. It is something that I purse at night, on weekends, and during lunch. As a husband and parent, it is important to devote quality time to my family as well, but I find that there are plenty of time slots, like 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM, when I can be very productive in my study and research, or certain weekend hours where everyone decides to do something on their own (read, exercise, the kids playing with one another). As such, a typical week of research and exploring occupies 20-30 hours beyond my regular hours at work. This does not feel like work for me. As I noted before, it is part of my calling, and it is tremendously meaningful and satisfying for me. As I see it, this is as much a part of my identity as the lifestyle commitment that might come with being a professional athlete (not that I’m claiming an equivalent talent).

3) Build a Personal Learning Network – There is plenty of literature on this, but for me it comes from following interesting and leading thinker/doers on Twitter, subscribing to multiple blogs, signing up for newsletters from certain excellence sources (the edSurge newsletter is one of the best that I’ve seen), networking through my blog, reading book reviews, attending conferences and events (physical and virtual) and participating in any number of online groups.

4) Get to the Primary Sources – Many people in education get most of their ideas from secondary sources, textbooks and people who aggregate, synthesize or share packaged versions of an idea. I read those, but I often use them to track down the original sources. I find the scholarly journal articles, the books, or sometimes reach out to interview the people behind the idea. As noted in another recent blog, I also try to visit places in person to see the ideas in action by some of the people who are leading the way.  For me that means visiting and learning from all sorts of fascinating learning organizations (and hopefully more education startups in the future). This makes all of the difference in my work.  It is one thing to be aware or informed about something like self-directed learning.  It is another to connect with and learn directly from some of the leaders in that area. By the way, by leaders, I do not necessarily mean the person with the most popular blog, the viral YouTube video, the elite University credentials, or the most impressive title.

5) Read the Hard and Boring Stuff – This goes with the primary source tracking, but it is critical. Tracking something back to the source may mean reading a 500-page text that only makes partial sense, but persisting and trying to glean as much as possible from it.  At times, this can be like sitting in a room of people who are conversing in a language that you don’t know.  You can leave, ignore it, or give your absolute attention to the conversation; attending to every word that you can catch, noting body language and trying to walk away with at least a drop of meaning. You may not understand much, but you will get more than if you had left or ignored them.  That is how I treat the hard books and readings. In time, the difficult gets a bit easier (sometimes, at least). In other instances, reading the “hard stuff” makes much more sense than trying to understand a trend, model, innovation or something else simply through the popular and secondary sources.

6) Surf – We get the idea of surfing the web, but I am talking about a focused transmedia approach to surfing. When I learn about a new term, person, model, or company; I often seek out more sources that will help me learn more. This might take me to online content, an obscure book, another interview or conversation, a visit or road trip, the old-fashioned library, or some form of digital media. From that source, I might learn about yet another idea and trace that elsewhere.  I am surfing from source to source in pursuit of a deeper understanding.  While convenience may lead us to stick with the web, some of my most rewarding experiences come from tracing an idea across media and sources: from book to book, digital to analog, journal to film, blog post to email interaction, tweet to face-to-face visit. I might surf through a single idea for months or several years (usually switching among multiple ideas/projects).

7) Apply It – I have an applied focus in my work.  I am ultimately interested in doing things that matter, so that means doing more than reading and taking about an idea. It means putting it into practice, applying it, experimenting with it, and innovating.  If I want to know more about MOOCs, then sooner or later I am going to to take one or a dozen, design one, and teach one. The same thing goes for alternate models of education, self-directed learning, project-based learning, leading educational innovation, or most anything else that I study.  It is very rare for me to study something without making it a part of who I am or what I do in some way.  These direct experiences give me insights that I would never gain even from the best books.

8) Write & Talk About It – I think out loud or on text, so to process certain ideas, I need to have conversations about them or journal/blog about them. In doing so, I am able to organize my thoughts, notice new connections, and discover more trains of thought.

9) Go to the Idea-rich Events – We all know that all conferences are not created equal. I try to find the idea events that are at the heart of what I am exploring. I attend, listen, learn, connect with others, and learn more. In my research of leaders of innovative learning organizations, I consistently found that these types of leaders did not just network with the people who were easily accessible due to proximity or familiarity.  They sought out connections with other innovators and thought-leaders. They wanted to inspire and be inspired by the best ideas in the world.  That means looking for the places where those ideas are shared and people converse and connect around them, places where the beginning of the next great innovation begins. In education, that might be events like the Education Innovation Summit, SXSWEdu, some of the TEDx events, or a number of other niche events.

10) Disconnect – I don’t include this as some sort of digital detox advertisement, but to note that disconnecting is a critical part of the thinking and designing process for me. I don’t mean disconnecting from anything digital, but disconnecting from a design project, a line of inquiry or a thought-project. I read over a hundred books year, hundreds of journal articles, as well as lots of online content. In order to process, discover new connections, and let ideas begin to influence my plans and thinking, I find that I need to step away. I might exercise, take a nap, sit in the back yard, ignore #1 in this list, try something new, play or listen to music, work on a puzzle with the kids, enjoy an extra long lunch or most anything else as long as it is does not relate to my current project. Some of my most exciting ideas appear during those down times. I usually jot them down in my idea book and continue to enjoy the down-time.

This is how I stay current and experiment with educational design & innovation. I genuinely consider it a calling and I don’t think of it as work.  It is just who I am and what I do. I’m not sure that this would necessarily be of much value to others, as it is really just that path that seems best for my calling. Other callings require very different lifestyles. Nonetheless, I offer this in response to those who were curious enough to ask me the question, “How do you stay current and find the time to do what you do?”