Conferences are a day of school, not a day off school!

Image from here

In some schools, conferences – whatever the configuration – are not seen as a “school day”. In other words, they are regarded as a “day off school” for the students, often by parents or school boards. As a result, school leadership teams may be forced into further devaluing them by squishing them into short a space of time so they don’t cause too much “disruption” to the learning. Teachers may then further devalue them by not having a plan, or not helping students prepare for them.

What a missed opportunity.

I see no place in a modern education for parent-teacher conferences, but a really well-prepared student/parent/teacher conference could actually be the most important learning experience a student has all year. Pressing pause, taking the time to reflect about what and how they are learning, having the opportunity to curate evidence and then the time and space to discuss it with their parents and their teachers is potentially profound.

Really good conferences are, in fact, the opportunities to do many of the things schools say they do. To breathe life into the buzz-words. The opportunities to develop “assessment capability”. The opportunities to nurture “agency”. The opportunities to “evidence learning”. The opportunities to foster a culture of meaningful “reflection”. The opportunities to increase genuine “parent participation”. The opportunities to make strides towards really becoming a “learning community”. This list could go on.

Sadly, though, it seems many schools are caught in a Catch-22 situation: conferences are undervalued and are, therefore, not set up to be as powerful as they should be. But, conferences are not set up to be as powerful as they should be and are, therefore, undervalued.

I keep saying “prepared” and “set up”, but what does this look like? Briefly, I believe it looks like this:

  • Enough time is given for each conference. In my experience, 15 minutes is the bare minimum.
  • Schools have formats for conferences that teachers must plan for and implement.
  • Schools have high expectations for the quality of conferences.
  • The priority must be that students lead the conversation. Naturally, it can take a few years to get them to that point, so there’s some gradual releasing of responsibility involved. But, by the time a student is in upper primary, they should be leading the conversation (and, I have seen 4-year-olds do this too).
  • The emphasis must be on dialogue, not a teacher saying stuff while student and parent(s) listen.
  • Priority must be given to looking at student work as a central part of conferences.
  • Students must know, understand and be empowered by the format.
  • Students must be given the time and the tools to be prepared.

If anything, these opportunities should be more frequent, not less.

My advice to anyone working in a school in which conferences are undervalued, is to raise the bar… and do it comprehensively. By helping parents and students have powerful conference experiences, it is inevitable that they will begin to value them and to understand their roles in making them powerful. Once this trend starts, conferences will become an important part of the school’s culture and the question about whether or not they are a day of school or a day off school will start to go away.

P.S. If your school only has parent-teacher conferences on the calendar, kick up a stink!


Being a pedagogical leader… and doors.

Pedagogical leadership is a tricky pursuit, so many nuances and complexities to navigate. While my wife and I were chatting about this the other day, the metaphor of doorways emerged… so I will try and put it into words!

It occurred to me that being a pedagogical leader means seeing a wide variety of doors in front of you and then knowing which ones to move towards, which ones to open, who to open them for and how much to open them by.

When guiding a team through unit design, for example, a pedagogical leader must make a series of choices. Having a well-designed and clear unit design process will already reveal which doors the team needs to go through in order to go deeper into the process, but the order in which those doors are opened is critical. Going through the first door must, of course, improve what happens when the next door is opened. It must be developmental, and logical. At times, however, teams encounter a locked door, or a door they can open but are struggling to get through, and a good pedagogical leader must handle that situation. Here’s some examples of situations in which that might happen.

Imagine a team has reached the point in the planning process where they must use the decisions they have already made in order to design a provocative initial experience, or series of experiences, they can use in order to give students the chance to reveal what they already know, think, understand or feel about the context . The pedagogical leader uses the unit design process to open up that door, ready for the team to start generating ideas, but the team is struggling to come up with any. In this situation, the pedagogical leader must open that door wider by sharing a few ideas of their own, by modeling the act of putting ideas on the table, by modeling creative thinking, by challenging the team to consider what is possible… and possibly even pushing those boundaries a little while they’re at it.

Imagine a team is exploring the content that they feel should shape the unit they are designing, yet they miss an area of the content that is obvious to the pedagogical leader and that could take the unit in a novel and interesting direction. The process has been designed well enough for them to see that door, move towards it and open it… but they just don’t (yet) think that way. Rather than let it slide, the pedagogical leader must nudge them towards that door, open it for them and describe what could lie on the other side… otherwise that opportunity could be missed.

Imagine a team is analyzing some student work so they can use the data they have gathered in order to make decisions about where to go next with the learning, and a pattern or trend becomes visible to the pedagogical leader but not to anyone else in the team. The process is designed to try and help the team to notice potentially powerful patterns and trends, but they just don’t (yet) see things that way. The pedagogical leader must point it out to them, describe it and open up the door that shows the team what implications for teaching and learning lie behind it.

Imagine a team has taken their unit design into a really good place and are ready to start thinking about the pedagogy that could really breathe life into what they have put on paper. However, when conversation turns to pedagogy, the pedagogical leader notices a worrying shift back to the pedagogy he/she is trying to move people away from. He/she can see, very clearly, the pedagogical moves that really would breathe life into then unit they have designed, but the team just doesn’t (yet) see the art of teaching that way. The pedagogical leader must open up that door for them and show them the practice that lies on the other side… he/she may even have to go into classrooms and show teachers what it looks like rather than just be satisfied with telling them.

I could go on coming up with examples, but I guess the main point I am trying to make is that pedagogical leadership involves, but is not limited to, the following interactions with doors.

  • Knowing when people are stuck and how to generate and put ideas on the table that open doors for people and take them through to the next level.
  • Knowing when people are limited by their own experience and how to nudge them towards and through doorways that push their boundaries and take them into new practices.
  • Knowing when people are limiting what is possible for students and their learning and how to pull people through doors that reveal the variety of possibilities that young people deserve.

Photo by Nick Chalkiadakis on Unsplash

Wisdom, Plastic and Education.

A familiar sight?

One of the principles of the Time Space Education consultancy is the pursuit of wisdom. We define this as “seeing the big picture, having a sense of proportion and observing how things play out over a period of time.”

The intention of this principle is that education, and educators, know and understand that there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, and that knowledge – on its own – is just not enough. Educators must, themselves, be in the pursuit of wisdom so that they may become the genuine mentors that they are supposed to be as they guide young people through their childhood. To believe we are solely purveyors of pieces of information and mechanical skills is to misunderstand the purpose and significance of the profession. It is to shirk our responsibility.

I write this blog post from a wooden bar on the beach in Zanzibar on the coast of East Africa. I have returned here after an absence of 30 years and this hiatus gives me the gift of “observing how things play out over a period of time”.

What I see is not a revelation, it is a reminder.

30 years ago these beaches were pristine. Fortunately, they’re still pretty clean… but they are not pristine. A walk along the beach reveals a large amount of plastic bottles and other plastic detritus. Nothing like the staggering quantities I have found on beaches in Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia, but I guess it’s that “over time” aspect that hits me hardest here.

It is just as easy to accept no responsibility for this as to take on all the guilt for it. For me, the source of guilt is the fact that I have worked in a series of international schools in which we have done nothing, or done very little, about this issue. This is despite the fact that, as adult people who have experienced places without plastic, we know about the problem. As international educators, we have all stepped into many sullied paradises… of that I am sure.

But what is the effect of those experiences on us, thousands of teachers, thousands of us influencing – or at least with the capacity to influence – those young minds who look to us for guidance?

Well… let me tell you.

Many schools still sell drinks in plastic bottles.

Many schools still provide food in plastic containers and with plastic cutlery.

Many schools still run conferences and distribute plastic to participants.

Many teachers still order take-away food and stuff the packaging into crammed trash cans.

Many schools routinely order kilo after kilo of plastic crap, or other stuff that comes contained in plastic crap.

Many schools’ curricula contain glib references to environmental issues yet the schools themselves remain repeat offenders.

Many schools service the owners or employees of the industries that are the biggest offenders.

I could go on making this list for a while, but it would be very boring – anyone reading the blog post knows what’s coming. Like I said, It’s not the knowledge that is the problem. The problem is the absence of wisdom.

Wisdom would tell us to take a stance (something we are not really accustomed to doing in our profession).

Wisdom would tell us to bring the environment to the front and center of everything we do.

Wisdom would tell us to stop accepting, stop perpetuating, stop ignoring.

Wisdom would tell us that the custodianship of our world is one of only a few things that really matters, not an afterthought… not a thing to be left to the kids.

It is our responsibility to hold their hands… to show them what is happening, to help them learn about the systems and mental models that are the causes as well as the potential solutions, to demonstrate how to live differently and to empower them to live more differently than we can imagine. To live in ways that they can imagine, not to be prisoners of our indifference.

So – all those in the profession of education – be brave. Put things in place in your places of work that show you are wise, or at least in the pursuit of wisdom. Stop hiding behind meaningless educational jargon, and do something.

Maybe, just maybe, these Zanzibar beaches might be pristine again in 30 years time.

Why Bubblecatchers Matter

Anne’s stack of Bubblecatchers

A few days ago, My family and I went for dinner at Anne’s house. Anne was one of my Mum’s closest friends when we lived in Tanzania in the 80s, and I haven’t seen her for 31 years. During the evening, I spotted a very nice notebook on the coffee table in front of us… “nice Bubblecatcher” I said.

“Ooooh yes… Bubblecatchers!” Anne replied with incredible enthusiasm.

It turns out that, for many years, Anne has shown her students at the International School of Tanganyika – and her students in the school she works in now – the video of my Learning2 talk in which I shared the story and concept of Bubblecatchers.

As we talked about how she has used them, I was reminded – again – of their profound importance, of the many nuanced habits that they encourage, of the way they can change and enhance relationships with writing for all sorts of purposes, the way they can become beautiful records of our lives and contain nuggets of information – written, drawn, scribbled, stuck in – that may reveal their importance at any moment.

Just this morning, I posted the photo on the left during breakfast in Zanzibar. On the other side of the world, my Mum – an avid Bubble Catcher – remembered a sketch she had done from almost the exact same spot over 30 years beforehand. She dug through her many notebooks, found the sketch and sent it to me.

When that kind of thing happens, there is a definite magic to it.

And, I think, there is a magic to the Bubblecatcher concept.

As teachers, we continue to fabricate things for students to write about… and are still surprised when they are reluctant to write, when they can see right through the situation and realize there is no genuine reason to write. They are not fools, they know they are being asked to write “just because”. That justification went out of fashion years ago.

Bubblecatchers turn this situation around. Life is full of reasons to write that require no fabrication. When we give our students rich and varied experiences, when we put them in situations or contexts that are interesting or inspiring, when we empower them by helping them see that the things they do, the things they need to do and the things they have done are valuable and worth remembering… then writing them down makes perfect sense.

And, their Bubblecatcher is the perfect place to write them.

Next school year, I challenge all teachers to be like Anne and take their students on the Bubblecatcher journey. Take them somewhere to buy notebooks, or just give them a week or two to buy them in their own time (choosing their own is an important ingredient). Then, bring in the habit of jotting things down in them, of carrying them around to different learning experiences, of quickly writing to-do lists at the end of the day, of taking notes and quotes when watching a video, of doodling in them when there’s some time to spare, of pausing for a moment and recording how you all feel.

And, have your own Bubblecatcher so you are with them.

Don’t mark the writing, but also make sure it is not always private. Invite students to read things out sometimes. Model the enjoyment of the words, model the satisfaction of crossing out an item on a list, give them the beautiful sensation of having something they said become a quote that shifts your collective understanding.

Let your pedagogy create the bubbles… and then let the notebooks catch them.

P.S. a digital replacement is a cop-out, don’t kid yourself. A real Bubblecatcher doesn’t need charging.

The Quicksand vs. The Fertile Ground

In my experience, schools can feel like two very different organizational extremes – The Quicksand or The Fertile Ground.

In The Quicksand, the general feeling is that more things are impossible than are possible. You frequently hear phrases like “I don’t know” or “oh… it’s always been that way”… or “good luck” when trying to solve a problem or massage an idea into reality. Often, cultural references are made about the host country that are supposed to be explanations about why things are, or are not, a particular way. The language disempowers and erodes.

In The Quicksand, problems that have been problems for a long time tend to remain as problems. Ideas – if they are still being generated – are not welcome, they suffocate and fade away. Buildings and spaces are neglected… becoming physical manifestations of the mindset that has taken control. Teaching practices congeal and the more congealed they become, the more expectations dwindle until the highest expectation becomes mediocrity… “good enough”. Great people come (maybe) and usually go… unless they get stuck!

Factors that create The Quicksand include:

  • the absence or invisibility of any systems that enable things to get done
  • overly bureaucratic systems that make getting anything done too difficult or impossible
  • individuals who shut ideas or solutions down (this might be due to the fear of increased work, fear of change, feeling under threat or simply just having too much control)
  • lack of exposure to schools that possess The Fertile Ground
  • lack of vision
  • departments and divisions (teaching and non-teaching) that are silos
  • a lack of, or damaged, relationships
  • privatized and even secretive practices
  • a tall poppy syndrome culture – “when you do that, you make me look bad… so let’s all just not do that”
  • a culture of fear, particularly of being judged
  • cooperation purely because it’s an expectation

In The Fertile Ground, there is a general feeling of possibilities and that “where there’s a will there’s a way”. You frequently hear phrases like “”that’s easy” or “that’s a great idea” or “let’s figure it out” or “let me show you how”. there is a sense of empowerment that permeates throughout the community. This sense of empowerment liberates, enables, motivates, expands and stimulates.

In The Fertile Ground, problems are identified and solved rapidly, which means that more complex or fascinating problems begin to manifest themselves as challenges or opportunities. Ideas are treated with hospitality and even the most crazy ones are valued and explored! There is visible evidence of an all-round attention to detail – architecturally, organizationally, systematically, culturally and… most important… pedagogically.

In The Fertile Ground, people are poised and ready to do interesting work because it’s exciting, because it’s rewarding and… because it’s possible.

Factors that create The Fertile Ground include:

  • strong, clear and empowering systems everyone is fluent in
  • an emphasis on effectiveness over bureaucracy
  • open-mindedness and a spirit of inquiry
  • a clear, simple and motivating vision
  • interconnected departments and divisions that communicate with each other
  • healthy relationships
  • a culture of permission
  • a steady flow of people with new, different experiences and perspectives
  • a culture of experimentation and inspiration – “I love what you’re doing, I’d like to try that”
  • collaboration… because it makes sense

What might you add to those lists?

Your Inner Resources

A long time ago, during a workshop – probably PYP – we were encouraged to develop a kind of filter as we planned for learning. This filter required us to ask… will our students remember or be able to use this in 40 minutes, 40 hours, 40 days, 40 weeks, 40 months, 40 years? It wasn’t an exact science, of course, but it was an interesting way to think about what we teach students and its long term impact on their lives.

I feel like we need to be using a similar filter at the moment as we – educators – endeavor to preserve our inner resources at a time when they are being threatened more so than ever before. Those inner resources are our time and our thoughts.

Right now, for educators, it seems like there is no boundary between working and not working. My wife, for example, teaches kindergarten all day – with students in the room, students online in real-time and students online and out of sync – and then works much of the night and weekend planning for that – because it’s [insert expletive] complex!. All the teachers are doing this. People in leadership positions have been scrambling 24/7 since February or March to keep schools operational, to solve perpetual problems, to manage parent expectations, to tread the fine line between supporting colleagues without overloading them, to plan for what’s coming next without knowing what’s coming next.

Our precious inner resource – time – which was already under threat in our profession, has become a serious issue. Individually, we must apply some filters to how we use our time, to what we allow to occupy our time and to help us ensure we preserve time and take care of it.

Then there’s our thoughts.

Teaching was already a profession that caused us to think about our work at almost every moment – both awake and asleep. Teaching nightmares are highly prevalent in our world. Waking up at 3am worrying about that student happens to us all. Even in those moments of solitude – a shower, a walk – our minds are still processing our work, generating ideas, solving problems, making plans. It doesn’t stop. How often do you hear educators say they wish they had a job they could do, be done, go home and not think about it? They mean it, but also don’t mean it because they know that’s not who they are.

So, that other precious inner resource – our thought – is like a tap that never turns off. It’s like continuing to water a plant even though its waterlogged. Try and turn that tap off, however you can, so you can preserve your thoughts for the things that will matter. That’s easier said than done, right? I mean, doesn’t everything matter in education? It would seem so. But when you really start trying to filter, some things will inevitably reveal themselves as not mattering so much, not now, not then… maybe never.

The image above works as an effective filter. But you could easily add more layers to it – like things that matter now, things that really matter, things that will still matter tomorrow!

The effect of our encounters

Chad Walsh and I recently ran two 3-day workshops at a school in the Netherlands. One of our goals was to leave several mantras behind that would help the leadership team and the faculty focus in on some of the main themes that revealed themselves before, during and after the workshops. One of those mantras was “connect up”.

Chad had picked this up while doing some work with Neil Farrelly, and we found ourselves saying it a lot as we explored communication, relationships and encounters within the faculty. Like in many schools, there had been some situations in which the encounters between colleagues had left one or more of them feeling down, disheartened, disempowered, disengaged, disappointed, disrespected… lots of “dis” words! The concept of connecting up really seemed to resonate as something that could create positive change in the school.

So, what does it mean?

Well, basically it means intentionally trying to make sure that all of your encounters lead to an upward connection, such as:

  • feeling more empowered
  • feeling uplifted
  • feeling affirmed
  • feeling more energized
  • feeling more connected to someone
  • feeling seen or heard
  • feeling amused or cheerful
  • feeling inspired
  • feeling curious
  • feeling excited

… the list could go on.

Obviously, it’s at its most powerful when everybody is setting out to achieve the same upward connections.

But, you can give it a go next week – see if you can monitor your encounters with other people and get a sense of what effect you might have had on them as a result. You could also gather some informal data about the effect the people you encounter have on you, and start thinking about how that might impact your mood, your mindset or your capacity to be at your best.

Trust: The delicate balance

I know many people who have worked in many schools. A recurring theme in conversation and behaviour is an unwillingness, or inability to trust. A kind of protective wall, probably erected because of previous bad experiences.

I too have found myself silently uttering the negative mantra of “trust nobody” at certain times in my life, nearly always as a result of being “burned” by someone professionally in some way. But, even as I do that, I know that is not a good way to live. If we are all, or if most of us, are living that way in our schools then it means trust is absent from our culture. If trust is absent from our culture then it will become apparent to our students too – they don’t miss much you know! If it becomes apparent to our students it means we are modeling it to them. If we are modeling it to them it is more likely to become a thing for them too.

I’m not writing this post because I have the answer. Bestowing, investing, earning, denying and betraying trust are all complex parts in the bigger complexity of what it means to be human.

What I will say, however, is that there are things that can be done to create the conditions for trust to thrive in our schools. A quick search online, or reading a couple of books will show us that. The most important thing is that leadership teams in schools understand how much trust matters, how much having ways of getting along matters, how intensifying relationships can transform the work… and then setting out to make that a priority for them, and for all the protagonists in the school community.

The only way to make it a priority is to give it thought and give it time.

Forget multi-tasking (it’s B.S.)

There is something utterly compelling about a person who does one thing, and who does that one thing deeply.

Think about how transfixed we are by TV shows about bakers, tailors, photographers, make-up artists, chefs, glass-blowers, BBQ-ers, farmers, designers, surfers… its a very, very long list. But the common thread is that these are all people who do one thing, and who do that one thing deeply.

If you’re like me, when you’re learning about people like that, you experience a mixture of emotions that range from awe to envy.

But, mostly, it makes me ask questions:

  • How did they find their thing?
  • What is my thing?
  • How do we help young people find their thing?
  • Is it good to have “a thing“?
  • Does “school” help people find their thing?
  • How many disciplines can blend into one thing?
  • Do we find our thing by accident… through serendipity?
  • How do we create the conditions for serendipity in schools?
  • What is the relationship between having a thing and being happyor fulfilled?
  • What is like to ‘be fulfilled’?

These are complex questions… each worthy of a long and detailed study. If doing so is our thing!

Personally, I’d love to work in a school that was designed to help students identify things they want to work on deeply, for extended periods of time. A school dedicated to the pursuit of the flow state. Sadly, I probably never will… it just doesn’t seem to be compatible with the school institution.

In the meantime, perhaps something I can take away is that multi-tasking is B.S. When we’re multi-tasking, we’re doing several things badly. Our concentration is fragmented and interrupted. People who have a thing are generally “mono-tasking”, their concentration is focused, their time is dedicated to doing that thing fully, deeply.

So, I suppose the actual thing is less important than the knowledge that we need to mono-task, to allow ourselves to focus fully on what we’re doing… knowing, without doubt, that we do things better that way because years and years of human history tells us that is the case – no matter how unfashionable that may be.

Quieten the Noise!

“Read this article”

“Watch that video”

“Try doing that thing”

“Don’t do that thing though”

“Study this methodology”

“Do his workshop about that thing”

“Get that book about those strategies”

“Join this chat”

“Sign up for that webinar”

Shut up!

The educational noise is even more deafening than ever.

Do everyone a favour and let them just try and get on with their job. Continuously pointing them in a hundred directions confuses people, makes them feel lost, makes them feel like they’re not doing anything right, like they’re not good enough.

It’s hard to avoid though, isn’t it? I just did it this morning.