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.

The Malnourished Leader

I have been in an educational leadership role for seven years – a PYP Coordinator in two schools and now a Director of Learning.

I have been wondering what is wrong with me for some time. I feel depleted, drained, like the life force and joie-de-vivre has been sucked from me. I fall asleep on the sofa. I’ve stopped all my hobbies.

I am boring. So boring that I bore myself.

Today, I had a bit of an epiphany about why I might be feeling this way.

I think I’m malnourished… if we think of inspiration as nourishment.

Inspiration comes from multiple directions when you’re a teacher, it comes from your colleagues, from your students, from professional learning, from books, from that TED talk, from the world around you. It also comes, or should come, from the educational leaders in your school.

As a leader, people depend on you for inspiration, and so you provide it… and provide it… and provide it. At first, if you’ve just come out of a teaching role, it’s fairly easy and natural to do so. You have your experiences, your approaches, your materials still in your hand, still warm. But those gradually fade and your new reality takes over. People continue to take, but little or nothing replaces what is taken. You look outwards for inspiration, for nourishment, for things that re-connect you with what you loved about education.

But, where is it coming from? Where do you look for it… and why should you have to look for it? That’s kind of tiring in itself! Looking for inspiration can quickly become more work for you to add to your interminable to-do list.

People in educational leadership positions need nourishment. Even if it’s not inspiration, they need someone, sometimes to acknowledge their work, to say “hey – thanks for setting that up”. 99.99% (I just made that up) of all feedback given to people in leadership positions is negative – not “thanks for doing this” but instead “why isn’t this like that?”.

Sure, we know what we’re getting into and, as I often hear people say “that’s why you get paid the big bucks”. But, correct me if I’m wrong, none of us got into this profession for the money. And, its a well-known fact that there’s often teachers on staff in schools who get paid more than people in leadership positions.

I don’t want to turn this into a wining, feel-sorry-for-leaders blog post. Instead, perhaps it could be a provocation for the people who exist around leaders, on every angle. Have you sent your principal an example of something amazing your students did? Have you let your director know how a recent decision they made turned out well for you? Have you popped in and told your coordinator about an idea you’re developing?

Try it. Nourish them.

They’re probably hungry.

Meandering thoughts and reflections…

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article with me over the weekend that gave me a bit of a kick in the ass. First, he caught me in a moment where I realised that I should be writing, it has been too long. Not because I fancy myself as a writer by any means, more as a way to grow and reflect to be better and do better. The second reason propelled me to reflect about my experiences over the years. Below I’ve tried to capture points that demand radical transparency to build my own self-awareness in my professional and personal life.

In the article mentioned above, it stated that 95% of people think they are self-aware. After a 5 year study their findings were very different. About 5-10% of people are actually self-aware. Surely, most of us are too stimulated and distracted to ensure we consistently dedicate time to deeply reflect. I find the reflection piece quite easy. It is the daily discipline that leads to behavioural change that is the true test. To me that action and motivation needs to be in sync with wanting to make positive changes to grow as a person and learn from experience.

This got me thinking… What experiences have revealed more about me, (ego, biases, assumptions and realities) and the people I have worked with over the years.

Over my career there have been many peaks and valleys. Every moment with impact has shaped and uncovered countless lessons. I’m going to do my best to offer some pearlers (yes, at least I think they are) that I have come to value as insights for me to learn from and bring with me for the road ahead.

Alright, let’s dive right in…

Share the things that are hardest to share.

While it might be tempting to limit transparency to the things that can’t hurt you, it is especially important to share the things that are most difficult to share, because if you don’t share them you will lose the trust and partnership of the people you are not sharing with. So when faced with the decision to share the hardest things, the question should be not whether to share but how.

Be extremely open.

Discuss your issues until you are in sync with each other or until you understand each other’s positions and can determine what should be done.

Don’t worry about whether or not people like you.

Just worry about making the best decisions possible, recognising that no matter what you do, some will think you’re doing something – or many things – wrong. Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions. Explain the why behind it, make tough calls and own it when you get it wrong. It’s ok. Be humble. They will respect you if they understand the bigger picture.

Be weak and strong at the same time.

Sometimes asking questions to gain perspective can be misperceived as being weak and indecisive. Of course it’s not. It’s necessary in order to become wise and it is a prerequisite for being strong and decisive. Always seek the advice of wise others and let those who are better than you to take the lead. The objective is to have the best understanding to make the best possible leadership decisions.

Allow time for rest and renovation.

If you just keep doing, you will burn out and grind to a halt. Build downtime into your schedule just as you would make time for all the other stuff that needs to get done.

Beware of fiefdoms.

While it’s great for teams to feel a strong bond of shared purpose, loyalty to a ‘boss’ (or another team member) cannot be allowed to conflict with loyalty to the organisation as a whole.

Make sure decision rights are clear.

Make sure it’s clear how much weight each person’s vote has so that if a decision must be made when there is still disagreement, there is no doubt how to resolve it.

Make finding the right people systematic and scientific.

The process for choosing people should be systematically built out and evidence-based. Also show candidates your warts by being open and honest. Show your job prospects the real picture. That way you will stress-test their willingness to endure the real challenges.

Fall well.

Everyone fails. The people I respect the most are the ones that fail well. I respect them even more than the ones that succeed. People who are just succeeding must not be pushing the limits.

Know that nobody can see themselves objectively.

We all have blind spots; people are by definition subjective. For this reason, it is everyone’s responsibility to help others learn what is true about themselves by giving them honest feedback, holding them accountable, and working through disagreements in an open-minded way.

When you have alignment, cherish it.

While there is nobody in the world that will share your point of view on everything, there are people who will share your most important values and the ways in which you choose to live them out. Make sure you end up with those people.

Assess believability by systematically capturing people’s track records over time.

Every day is not a new day. Over time, a body of evidence builds up, showing which people can be relied on and which cannot. Track records matter.

Know when to stop debating and move on to agreeing about what should be done.

I have seen people who agree on the major issues waste hours arguing over details. It’s more important to do big things well than to do small things perfectly. But when people disagree on the importance of debating something, it probably should be debated. Operating otherwise would essentially five someone a de facto veto.

The same standards of behaviour apply to everyone.

Whenever there is a dispute, both parties are required to have equal levels of integrity, to be open-minded and assertive, and to be equally considerate.

Pay north of fair.

Be generous or at least a little north of fair with others in terms of salary and benefits. This will undoubtedly enhance both work and the relationship. This comes back 10 times when people feel valued. Don’t nickel or dime people over small things.

Learn about your people and have them learn about you through frank conversations about mistakes and their root cause.

You need to be clear when recognising and communicating people’s weaknesses. It is one of the most difficult things to do. It takes character on the part of both participants to get to the truth and find a positive way forward.

Look for creative, cut-through solutions.

When people are facing thorny problems or have too much to do, they often think that they need to work harder. But if something seems hard, time-consuming and frustrating, take time to step back and triangulate with others on whether there might be a better way to handle it.

Do what you say you will do.

Show others that you execute – it’s contagious. This one does not need further explanation.

In the interest of this becoming too big – I’ll leave it here. This has been inspired by ‘Principles.’ What shapes your code? For another time.


Be careful with Seesaw

A friend of mine returned from Canada recently having been shocked by the proliferation of home-monitoring technology since his last visit and the number of his friends and family who now engage constantly in watching the goings-on in their houses while they’re out.

This really got me thinking about how the existence of new technology creates new habits and how this is true also of work. The developments in technology have led to different types of work and the fact that we can, and feel like we should, be working all the time. This isn’t a revolutionary thought, people talk about it all the time. However, I want to focus on one piece of technology, Seesaw.

The advent of Seesaw is exciting. It makes things possible that weren’t really possible before. In a nutshell, it is really the first way that teachers can do quick and easy documentation that is instantly shareable with parents who can see it using an app on their own devices.

Great! Right?

Well, not if you’re not really careful about how you use it.

You see, things that seem cool and different at first can quickly transform themselves into an expectation and therefore into work. If you’re not really, really purposeful about how you use Seesaw, it’s going to rapidly become a pretty pointless instant scrapbooking activity that gives parents a steady stream of images from within the classroom that they are going to depend upon but not necessarily learn anything from.

So, now you’ve got to deal with all of the massively important complexities of being a good teacher while also contend with providing a steady stream of posts that show everyone what you’re doing – basically classroom social media. Some people deal with this by handing responsibility over to the kids and calling it “agency”. But this, more often than not, leads to a steady stream of low-quality images or videos that are captured with little thought or purpose and that provide parents with little or no substantial information about the nature of the learning that students are engaged in. It also engages students in screentime that has little or no value. What’s more, it kind of feels like a gateway to the behaviours we see around us in society of having to post things on social media in order to prove they happened!

In your schools, put the following questions at the centre of everything you do with Seesaw:

When we post something on Seesaw, what are we communicating about the type of learning we value?

When people see what we post, what will they learn about the type of learning we value?

If you have some pretty good answers to these questions… proceed. If, however, your answers are “nothing” or “we’re not sure” or “we haven’t thought about it” then stop using Seesaw immediately and resume only when you have made some proper plans that will make it purposeful.

Part of those plans should involve making some BIG decisions about who your intended audience is for Seesaw:

  • Is the intended audience limited to colleagues? Some schools have taken this approach to great effect and used Seesaw purely for pedagogical documentation that is then used to inform responsive planning sessions. Of course, you’re going to have to wrap some intelligent ways of working around this – mainly involving time.
  • Are parents the intended audience? If so, make sure you are providing them with quality content that shapes their understanding about what education is, what learning looks like and what you are trying to achieve in your school, grade level or class. This is your chance to really have an effect on them – which of course can go either way!
  • Are students the intended audience? If so, you will need to make some plans for how they will make informed decisions about what content to post and why, reflect on their content, how they will receive feedback on their content and how their content will be used as evidence of learning that will inform next steps. This is going to involve a lot of thinking tools and just-in-time instruction to guide them towards those habits and practices.

I’m going to stop here… I think that’s plenty of food for thought for now. Please give it some thought! I hate to see so much time being wasted on something that may be pointless, or even harmful.

The Magic of Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning is an approach that exhibits many dimensions. Students learn through the experience of doing. Early Learning and our Early Learners in many ways have mastered the art of Project-Based Learning and the Reggio philosophy is very much aligned with that approach. It begins with setting up a stimulating environment (not too much, not too little) and observe what children do, through play. Students at this age are naturally curious to explore and it is us as educators that need to respond to the pathways each individual (or group) is intrigued about, connected to or interested in. Let students determine their own learning landscape. There is a huge parallel with PBL here. Sometimes educators can ignite and motivate students to explore a particular path, and sometimes it comes from the students to spark their own passionate pursuits. In balance, there needs to be an interplay of both.

The important thing here is that schools create the space for students to explore areas that speak to them. It is a lot like a calling. The magic in these moments is that inspiration can come from everywhere. It may be innate and the time is ripe to listen to this voice and act on it. Sometimes it could be something that strikes like a lightning bolt out of nowhere. It’s all beautiful. It’s what we do with this magic dust that makes the difference with how students interact with this new found learning experience. Do we breathe life into it or blow the dust away?

Above I mentioned the power of Early Years and Early Learning.  At this spectrum in schools, learning needs to rise up and radiate throughout the rest of the school and then cascade into universities. A bit more pressure needs to be applied so that universities review their old habits and traps of learning. We have to be better than ‘managing people’ or ‘generating profit’ as our model for higher education.

If I was to characterize PBL in very simple terms using contexts I’m familiar with… it would be to combine the Grade 5 PYP Exhibition (Year-long) with the Early Years philosophy of purposeful play. A pinch of seeing the environment as the third teacher, a dollop of observing what is revealed and a cup of allowing a flow of exploration and discovery. A merging of these two worlds and releasing the learning so it is unfiltered.  This is the world I hope our students get to interact with.

Some may argue that this approach is not rigorous enough. What is rigor though? Rigor is not looking busy, being quiet and doing lots of writing – that’s compliance. My definition (in essence) of ‘rigor’ is creating a learning environment that inspires, where students are able to skillfully interpret and construct meaning and seek ways so that understanding is transferable in different contexts. So how can we ensure PBL covers core content and subjects? This is often asked by parents and teachers. We all know that learning something we’re not interested in equates to passive learning; therefore, not much learning is really happening anyway. There is far greater benefit if students are learning about what is timely for them, see relevance and meaning in what they want to do. It’s vital that they see and value learning as constantly moving from one shape to another. This is where being reflective about their growth and progress (high and lows) on a continuum of learning. Students are empowered to set goals that are realistic and also challenging. As advisors and connectors to learning, we need to guide and coach individual students towards areas that they need to be exposed to and having them understand the purpose of how that learning is interconnected, transformational and transferable. Let this process be a natural and highly-personal experience for them. This approach will have a deeper impact when developing new understanding(s) to existing knowledge. This is what constructivism is and it works.

The university conversation is one that still needs a lot more time. My hope is that university entry is based on merit, contributions to society and digital portfolios that document authentic experiences that demonstrate learning in action. Not testing or assessment. The assessment is weighted in the doing, being and showing, not in a timed examination without access to resources – that’s not real-world.

Imagine a world where PBL become the norm, not the exception. Imagine a world where students could show their intelligence, personality, uniqueness, quirks, and talents in creative ways as a showcase of who they are as young dynamic moral leaders. Imagine a world where success was based on confidence, optimism, resilience, problem-solving and creativity. Imagine a world that actually looks at how far you have grown over time, not where you stand at that point in time. Imagine a world where we were telling raw human stories about all our breakdowns and breakthroughs and how this shaped who we have become. It is my hope that universities don’t measure success on a raw test score of what you know or have memorized a few days before. But it is determined rather on what you have achieved and accomplished over the course of many young adolescent years, not the scarce accumulation of one or two. Again, this is why Early Years needs to push up through our tired school systems to ratify change and renewal. It is simply too top-down in our education system, where it needs to be from the roots up from a nutrient foundation.

We are just scratching the surface. There are some great educators out there doing great things for our deserving kids. I encourage those who have a hunch that things are not right in our traditional school system, to experiment and tinker with giving PBL. Whether you call it Passions Projects, Inquiry Time, 20% Time or Genius Hour… have a go. Your students will thank you for it and will surprise you every step of the way. It’s the only way we are ever going to shake things up – demanding different!