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The Study Hall

5 Questions with Adora Svitak

Adora Svitak is an author, advocate, and world-renowned speaker. Not bad for a college student and former child prodigy. To prepare Adora for her keynote at InstructureCarn, we asked her five questions:

Q: Why are you excited to speak at this year’s InstructureCon?

AS: I'm excited to share lessons from my own educational experience and advocate for the importance of incorporating student voice into every education system. I'm looking forward to learning a tremendous amount from an audience of people who are deeply passionate about learning, since I believe that learning is a two-way street--we all have just as much to learn as we have to teach.

Q: When did you discover your talent for teaching others?

AS: I believe there's a quote floating around the internet along the lines of 'good teachers aren't born, they're made,' and that's true in my own experience. I started teaching when I was a little kid and my mom asked me to teach a five-year-old neighbor how to read. There's a picture of me just scrawling letters out on a chalkboard while this other little kid is staring at the board, transfixed. I always find that picture funny because it highlights just how much I enjoyed teaching before I realized that was what I was even doing. But I had to learn to let go of a lot of traditional hang-ups I had about what it meant to be a teacher--that it wasn't about absolute expertise or authority or control, but instead, quite often, letting go, learning from the students, and making things up on the fly. It took years and years of teaching writing workshops to audiences ranging from excitable first graders to slouching high school seniors, having to customize for every new classroom, to figure that out. So there wasn't an 'aha' moment where I realized this was something I was good at. There were a million moments where I realized this was something I chose to work at, and I think that that consistent re-applying of intention is what comprises love.

Q: What aspects of educational technology have made learning easier for you?

AS: I used video conferencing technologies to teach writing workshops to students and watched a lot of educational videos online (and played games--as a kid, I loved the games on the BBC Kids and Nobel Prize sites). I also benefited a lot from learning management systems--as a student who took online classes in high school during periods of time when I was on the road a lot for public speaking, and as a student in college who downloaded most of my readings as PDFs off of Berkeley's bCourses (a Canvas product).

Q. What is one thing people should know about the way we learn?

AS: This is trite, but I love the Socrates quote on learning as “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” (Now is it really Socrates, or is this another quote the internet has virally misattributed? We may never know.) I grew up in a place where a lot of kids had parents with huge ambitions for them and everyone wanted to get into an Ivy League college, and often the model of learning that these peers internalized from a young age felt more vessel than flame. I think our education system tells us it's more vessel than flame. The best teachers are those who are able to move past the rote memorization stage and instead focus on critical thinking and drawing big picture connections for those eureka moments. I think that's where the joy happens.

Q: Given that this is InstructureCarn, what is your favorite memory of a carnival or circus?

AS: I really loved eating funnel cake because it's the kind of thing you never get to eat anywhere else, and it also belongs to that very special category of food that tastes good almost entirely because of context (right up there with 3am Taco Bell after bad life choices). I think that's a magical thing.