Lessons from Reggio Emilia #2: Purpose, Clarity and Strength

The second in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.

There is a powerful certainty that underlies everything the educators in Reggio Emilia do and say. There is an incredible clarity of purpose behind all actions, all words and all decisions. This clarity is unifying, and gives educators strength as they work together to teach in a way that is actually much more difficult than traditional, teach-from-the-box or from-the-planner approaches. This clarity makes it very easy to help new parents understand their approach, their methods, their beliefs about the capacities of children and the parenting styles that are compatible with these beliefs.

The source of this sense of purpose is easily identifiable when the history of the Reggio Emilia approach to education is explained and illustrated to you. It can be traced back to the emergence from the horrors of World War II and the determination of a group of villagers that schooling, for their children and future generations, must have the rights of children at its epicentre. Over the years, this conviction remains just as strong. But, it has also expanded into additional beliefs about the competence of children and the quality of education that they deserve.

There are no grey areas in this, no confusion and certainly no fluffiness.

The schools you and I work in, though, are often prone to such weaknesses – philosophical gaps, indecisiveness and differing practices. We believe we are unified by the fact that we work at, for example, an IB school. Yet, even then, we find ourselves at odds with our colleagues, we even work with colleagues who don’t really believe in what they’re doing, and therefore don’t really do it – whatever it is (something we also struggle to reach a genuine consensus about!). These inconsistencies are sources of weakness – they hold us back in terms of what we are able to do with and for children – but they also make it too easy for parents to pick holes in what we do. We are unable to give parents real explanations because we may not really be sure of what we’re doing, or what we do may differ so much from person to person, from grade level to grade level, from year to year that any explanation may simply be untrue.

Beyond this, though, is the sense that many of our schools lack any kind of genuine ethical stance or purpose beyond teaching some kids of some people who can pay us to teach their kids. This is something that has bothered me for some time as I look around at the world and question the impact of education on society. I think its high time our schools traced back their origins to seek some kind of moral purpose and, if there isn’t one, engage with the whole community to develop one. A real one. Not a collection of fluffy throw-away sentiments in a mission statement. 

Perhaps these questions might help:

  • In what ways are we, and the surrounding community, better because of the existence of our school?
  • What are our shared beliefs about life and what we hope for the future?
  • How much of what happens inside the walls of our school is affected by what happens outside the walls of our school?
  • What do we hope the impact of our school will be in 50 years time?
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Lessons from Reggio Emilia #1: Our ways of working

The first in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.

One of the most powerful impressions that I left Reggio Emilia with is the mind-blowing intelligence of the teachers who work there. Each one of the people I encountered spoke of children and their learning in a way that was deeply rooted in psychology, described in evocative – often poetic – language, richly conceptual and always, always, about growth and what is possible.

Teachers in Reggio Emilia are constantly poised, alert to the nuances of learning that goes on around them. They see concepts as they are unfolding in front of them (as though they were being displayed in their retina!) and are able to name and document them as possibilities for further inquiry. They notice, for example, when a three year-old child says one toy car goes faster down a ramp than the other toy cars “because the air goes through it”. They name that concept as “aerodynamics” and they respond in the full belief that children that young are capable – given the right materials and support – of launching into a full-scale research project into such a complex concept.

Clearly, there are many ingredients that help to develop this intelligence. But one quote, hit me really hard the moment I heard it:

“Teachers have a right to intelligent ways of working”

Silvia Crociani, a Teacher in Reggio Emilia

This resonated with me because I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on two things that have become fundamental in the art of teaching today – (1) the mentality and dispositions of the teacher, and (2) the processes that teachers are involved in.

Those processes are our ways of working.

As a PYP Coordinator, I have been trying to develop processes for planning that encourage teachers to operate intelligently – to question habits and norms, to avoid repetition of units or teaching from the planner, to identify the real purpose behind what we’re doing with students, to grapple with semantics as we endeavour to describe learning, to be researchers into their students’ thinking and behaviour, to document their observations and see them as data, to ponder what ‘to understand’ means and what might be genuine evidence of understanding, etc…

But it struck me that we may have been trying to go through these processes within a bigger context of unintelligent ways of working. In other words, we have been trying our best, pushing our mental capacities, but we’ve been doing this within some systematic constraints that limit our ability to go beyond a certain point.

The first, and most important, constraint is time.

In Reggio Emilia it has been decided that, if teachers are to be capable of thinking about the children they are teaching, going through the notes and other forms of documentation they have about the children, sharing thoughts and diversifying their perspectives about the children with other adults, making thoughtful decisions about how they will respond to what children are doing and saying and taking action to make those decisions become reality… then they need time to do so. As a minimum, six hours per week is devoted – officially – to doing just that.

It is a priority.

It may even be the priority because everything else hinges on what comes out of it.

In most of the schools you and I operate in, that time has not been identified as a priority. When creating school timetables, very often with an industrial mindset, this often comes as an afterthought – in 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 24th place in the order of priorities depending on the school you’re in. Many teachers snatch at snippets of time throughout the week, others may have one hour a week, two if they’re lucky. Great teachers continue to think well beyond the school day, their minds never turning off, making them prone to burn-out or that feeling of isolation many of us feel when the system doesn’t support how we wish we could operate.

I urge all school leaders to ponder the following questions:

  • Do we believe that the quality of learning is directly related to the amount of time teachers have to reflect, think, discuss, make plans and take action?
  • Are the systems in our school promoting these things as a priority?
  • How can we use the phrase “intelligent ways of working” to reflect on how we do things in our school?

Set-up. It’s more important than you think.

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Recently, Chad and I ran three days of professional development at United World College Maastricht.

Every session had a different focus: we wanted to provoke different types of thinking; we wanted people to collaborate (or not) differently; we wanted people to experience different emotions and sensations; we wanted people to move (or not) in different ways.

Over the course of three days, we must have changed the physical set-up of the space more than 10 times. We moved, changed, found, borrowed, adapted and replaced furniture, lighting, display boards, music, scents and resources over and over again to try and achieve the desired effect.

This is not something we just do for teachers. It has become a natural part of our pedagogy. If we want students to think, feel or act in a particular way – which we always do – then we take the time to set up for that. We don’t just assume it will happen and then get all disappointed (or, worse still, blame students) when it doesn’t happen.

So:

  • when we want students to focus on one thing, we set up a space in which all other distractions are removed
  • when we want students to be calm, we set up a calm atmosphere with lighting and music
  • when we want students to create, we set up a studio space that promotes creativity
  • when we want students to collaborate, we set up furniture that encourages togetherness
  • when we want students to be able to access materials easily, we set up so that everything is accessible quickly and easily
  • when we want students to…

I could go on… but I think you’re getting the point! The only time we don’t set things up for students is when we want them to set things up for themselves, when that is the focus of the learning. But, come to think of it, that involves some setting up too!

The scary thing about setting up for learning is that there are many educators out there who don’t do it, who don’t see the purpose or the power of it, who don’t take the time to ensure that their students are thinking, feeling or acting in a way that maximises their potential in each learning situation. Then, when their students are fidgety, when their students misbehave, when their students don’t produce what they’re capable of, when their students’ thinking doesn’t go as deep as it could, when their students make thoughtless choices, when their students struggle to find the materials they need, when their students become irritable… they point the finger at their students, not the fact that they didn’t spend 30 minutes setting up.

Think of the classroom, or learning space, as a series of dinner parties. Take the time to create environments and atmospheres according to the purpose.

It works.

 

Thinking Aloud

There are some great minds out there in different circles. Leaders and teachers doing creative things to explore and examine Who we are and Who we want to become. You just have to look at the steady stream of books being published about the importance of people, relationships, community and culture development in schools, and for life in general.

It’s all great stuff!

For inquiring minds, it creates time and space for contemplation and introspection. However, this is only where the seed is planted. The real growth happens when the germination of ideas breaks through the soil to reveal one’s conscious effort and energy to put words into action. Not only to learn more about Who we are, but to understand why we are the way we are.

It all starts with the notion of ‘Working From Within.’ We need to work on ourselves before we expect our culture or community to change. The climate of our culture, environment and community is a direct reflection of who we are as individuals.

Challenge: Over the course of a week, when chatting with people about a concern or issue do an audit on whether the person you’re talking to is doing one of two things:

  1. Looking at external factors or forces to explain or make sense of how things could be better; or,
  2. Looking within to explain or make sense of how things could have been handled differently.

There are many ways you can view the above circles depending on the situation and context.

How can we increase the circle of “What I say to other people,” in the way of honest feedback or challenging negativity without placing pressure or straining the relationship?

While all these books tell us to have radical candor, give feedback, be open and honest…. it’s all great stuff, it really is. In theory. In practice, when feedback is given or there is challenge, the reality is, that after such an interaction, things shift. In the end, we are human.

How can we truly express the things we want to say or more importantly need to be said with grace and honesty, in a way where others understand and the relationship deepens?

We all know of people who are forward and have a steady stream of consciousnesses. We all know of people, who live in their heads and keep it locked there. And then there is everything in-between.

Right now, it feels like (it is like) we are always skimming the surface. We talk a big game, yet we’re constantly traversing and balancing our weight on a tight rope filtering through these circles.

Is it just in schools that it is like this? A lot of us have never left school in the way of a being a student and then coming back as a work place. I wonder what it is like in the police force, hospitals, business firms, law office, construction site……….

It’s not what we say to people, it’s how we say it. Easy to say, more difficult to do.

Developing a culture starts with you. Parts to the whole. What is one thing you’re going to do to be true to your inner thoughts?

 

Evolution Starts Here, Part 2: The Language of Learning

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Nothing irritates me more than teachers saying that educational terminology is “just jargon”. I work in PYP schools, and I hear so-called PYP teachers referring to the language of the PYP as jargon very often. I’ve noticed a pattern – its always the ones who don’t actually know the language, the ones who don’t know what it says in the documents… the ones who are not fluent in the language of learning in their school. Its a type of defense-mechanism, I guess. A front to cover for laziness, or perhaps the fact that they don’t really believe in what they’re doing.

In order to bring about sustainable change, to create the conditions for innovation and to develop a culture in which teachers play with possibilities… everyone in a school needs to be speaking the same language of learning. Once they have that shared language, and they all understand what each other is talking about, there is more room for manoeuvre. Once they are all noticing learning, naming it using the same terminology, they start to see it everywhere… they become liberated from their previously limited views of what learning is, or could be.

This breeds change.

A school needs to actually have a shared language of learning. Then, steps must be taken so that all teachers are fluent in that language. In PYP schools, that language is contained in Making the PYP Happen. Use it! (I’ve written more about this here). In other schools, there are equivalent documents, frameworks, written curriculum, scope and sequences etc… Use them!

Become fluent in the language.

Use the language.

Question the language.

Only then can you really say you know, understand and recognise learning.

Only then can you go deeper into what it all means.

With the fluency comes creativity.

Evolution Starts Here, Part 1: Inquiry-Based Leadership

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It’s funny. There is much talk of inquiry-based learning in schools, but very little of inquiry-based leadership.

Neither is there much of it in practice.

I pondered, for some time, where to begin this series of posts about the evolution of a school in which innovative, even revolutionary, ideas like Studio 5 could become a realistic possibility.

But, looking back, it is clear that the habit of school leaders perpetually asking questions is the very first ingredient in the soup of change.

Why is it like that?

Could it be like this?

What is the purpose of that?

Do we need to do this?

In 2013, the International School of Ho Chi Minh City leadership team – an entirely new group of nine – had no choice other than to ask questions like these. The school was starting a new era, a clean slate… and it was exciting.

These habits of questioning didn’t fizzle out though. We didn’t rest on our laurels, we didn’t allow practices to fossilize or thinking to congeal. Adrian, our Head of School, just would not accept it. “School is broken” he would say “what are we going to do about that?”

This approach permeated everything we did and, Kurtis, the Primary Principal opened up as many aspects of running the school as possible to debate by adopting an inquiry approach to things that, in many schools, are not even remotely that way. Here are a few examples of what this looks like


 

Primary leadership meetings

The intention was that these were always thinking meetings, where issues, challenges or opportunities were put on the table and where input was actively sought, captured and acted upon.

The appraisal process

While still jumping through the hoops of a mandated process, teachers were invited to give their feedback about the direction of the school – things they’d like to see changed, implemented or taken away – and these thoughts were documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.

Coordinator meetings

All too often, these are one-way information delivery meetings dominated by the person with the most authority. Our meetings were, as much as possible, the opposite. All subject and grade level coordinators, in weekly 30-40 minute meetings, were frequently invited to help make decisions about the day-to-day running of the school. Ideas, thoughts and questions were gathered, documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.

The Green Hat Room

It was made explicit that the primary office was a place in which “Green Hat Thinking” (de Bono) was both promoted and expected. Anyone who came in with a problem, a dilemma or an idea was invited to be part of the thinking around it. This goes against the limited view that leadership means “you give me your problem and make it my problem”. People struggled with this, at first, but grew into the intention behind it. The office was always busy with the sound of problem-solving and idea-generation.

Professional trust

Trust is an essential ingredient in inquiry, and inquiry is an essential ingredient in trust. To be able to trust someone, we cannot micromanage them. We must be curious about what they might do, what we might learn from them and how they may shift our thinking. This trust is, of course, not blind – there are always those upon whom trust is bestowed more easily than others. However, the intention was that trust was the default.

Students first

When you deliberately put students, their needs and their learning first, there can be no definitive answers. Education is a behavioural science, not a formula. When it is clear that students are suffering, or not flourishing, questions must be asked of ourselves, our pedagogy, our environments, our culture and our school. It is in asking those questions, and in how we respond to those questions, that school leaders show themselves to be inquirers, or not.

“Let’s try it”

This is a crucial mentality if there is to be any change in education. While it is a good idea to base your practices on established research when possible, sometimes you are the research. This does not mean leaders glibly saying “yeah… go for it” to every idea under the sun. Quite the opposite. It means encouraging disciplined thinking and planning, data collection and reflection, i.e. inquiry.


 

There’s a book in this, as well as many consultancy opportunities, so I’d better stop here or Kurtis will kill me!

Please feel free to share your thoughts about what inquiry-based leadership looks like in your your school context, or what you wish it would look like!

 

 

 

Studio 5: It took more than 7 days

There is considerable hype around the Studio 5 model that is currently being piloted at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City… and rightly so. Studio 5 is a brave concept that doesn’t just pay lip-service to the philosophies upon which the IB Primary Years Programme and other student-centred, inquiry-based frameworks are built. It creates the conditions for all of that philosophy to become practice. Very rare.

Don’t be fooled though.

This stuff is not new.

Progressive and innovative educators have been doing some of these ideas for years. Schools have been designed around them. Movements have evolved around them. Books have been written about them.

But, these have either fizzled out, faded away, disappeared or survived as weird exceptions to the rule. Perhaps sustained by wealthy benefactors, enigmatic leaders or a powerful niche market.

Studio 5 is a wonderful example of what is possible. But it is critical that anyone hoping to move their school, or even just a part of it, towards a similar model must understand that Studio 5 didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It comes after four years of smaller, very significant, steps. Shifting mindsets, pedagogies, structures, systems, habits, priorities… incremental changes to these over a sustained period of time cleared pathways, opened doors and generated momentum.

Each change was a question that could only be answered by the next change.

Without this evolution, one in which the Studio 5 model was genuinely a natural progression, it would just be a novelty.

In a series of upcoming posts, I will reveal the milestones in the evolution of a school in which Studio 5 is possible. Perhaps these can provide tangible ways that other schools can begin to consider similar change, but change that is logical and natural in their context.