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.
- 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.
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:
- Looking at external factors or forces to explain or make sense of how things could be better; or,
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Innovation, Agency, Empowerment are words that should not be used lightly. As professional educators, we believe with absolute conviction, that we can create the change we wish to see. As a School, we wish to challenge the purpose of report cards. Removing report cards would be an unwise and bold move to do all in one swoop. Therefore, we decided to explore this through a microcosm. To gauge whether our thinking, values and philosophy are in-line with being practical and realistic in terms of, if not report cards, then what?
A smaller and measurable scale needed to be the way forward, a pilot.
In essence the definition of a microcosm is:
A community, place, or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristics of something much larger.
We have created a microcosm, a small world where we have brought parents, teachers and students together to pilot a new initiative in PREP from March until June, of this year.
Our own inquiry into: How can we effectively provide meaningful, dynamic and timely feedback that causes thinking and promotes learning and growth together?
We invited parents to Look 4 Learning as an authentic opportunity to see learning in action.
Parents recorded what they heard and saw and then shared their discoveries, questions, concerns and connections. We weren’t telling parents what we do (that’s blind trust) we were showing them what we do everyday and who their child is at school, where they spend most of their day, and young lives.
As a school, we have gone through a grueling process of establishing expectations around report cards and how best to meet the needs of our community as far as a formal document goes. We keep simplifying and seeking ways to satisfy parents in terms of what they know and have experienced in their schooling life.
We explained to parents the ‘input’ (time) vs ‘output’ (impact) aspect of what is involved in the process of writing report cards. They got it. Great! They understood that the time it takes to write report cards, is time taken away from doing all the other things that has a positive impact on learning, without sacrificing the learning conversations, planning, pedagogy, data collection……… Report cards is a static point in time, let’s use dynamic ways (Seesaw) to document learning and provide feedback that encourages and support the learning process.
The idea around what does authentic feedback mean and how feedback should cause thinking become the focus of the conversation. How can we create a solid partnership between parents, teacher and student to develop shared goals where it is valued in the learning process become important too as the discussion evolved.
The power of partnering with parents and teachers led to a deeper understanding of the importance of creating a situation where ‘really’ knowing our students is central to what we hope to achieve everyday. Knowing where they are in their learning and planning for that process of what needs to happen inspires effort and attitudes towards learning which is incredibly motivating for all stakeholders.
Over the next 4 months we are going to put report cards on hold and pilot what we believe to be a more effective and meaningful approach in understanding our students as learners and provide balanced authentic feedback. We have developed six drivers to provide feedback to students and parents that promotes richer and deeper conversations about learning and our learners.
We will review and evaluate the effectiveness of this pilot in June with our parents. Where could this lead? We don’t know and we’re not meant to know just yet. We find that quite liberating and exciting!
Why do we have reports? We have to do and be better. If it is a formality to facilitate the process of a student moving from one school to the next, that’s not good enough. We can work around that. We’re in education! Our parents are with us. They are in with two feet and we’re open to see where this all goes.
We think we have the right balance between being authentic, informative and also ensuring a deep sense of accountability and responsibility in doing these things well.
Where did all this inspiration come from?
From Alan Atkisson and Sam Sherratt. They were the sun providing light and energy in us asking, Why and Who are we?
We accept the challenge to innovate, lead change and transform to impact and ripple out! Out of touch traditions and norms must be challenged and at-least a re-think should occur.
Who are we and who do we want to become?
The Amoeba of Cultural Change should be happening from, and out of, Education. We should be setting the scene for change and leading it. Education has been idle and mainstream for too long. There are some great things happening out there in schools. We need to connect and explore ideas together to reach a tipping point for others to follow, and then lead from the front. Walking the walk, now that is a school I want to be part of. We’re on our way!
Who are you in the Amoeba?
Where do you get your light and energy from to shake education up and try something new?
How do you cultivate change in your school?
What is a mindful School? Let’s narrow that a bit to satisfy our learning context…..
“What does a mindful School do to promote mindfulness?”
This can mean many different things and seeking clarity on defining this would be an inquiry worth exploring together as a School. For the purpose of bringing this even closer to the middle, what does this mean when thinking about prioritizing and synthesizing the things that should matter in School.
In essence, the below points was a process we went through in determining the Time Space Philosophy. What really matters and where should we be putting our intellectual energy?
Being mindful all boils down to having the capacity and wisdom to listen.
Never underestimate the power of listening. Recruiting and harnessing that power of listening has the potential to unlock a cornucopia of ideas, emotion and thinking. This process promotes a lot of soul searching by being introspective and extrospective. It allows us to listen to ourselves and the things (people) around us. We either get caught up in our own internal existence or other external forces…… and a lot of the time – both, depending on the situation.
How can we delineate between our ‘perceptions’ of what we think is happening, against the ‘reality’ of what is happening? And how does this distort our choices and actions in what drives and motivates us to do what is right, fair or ethical, with everyone and everything in mind? How can that mindfulness influence the things that matter or where our attention should be fixed on?
Raw and honest listening, without fear or judgment.
Stumbling over this Philosophy still stands the test of time. These are as true now as they were when first written, all those years ago. Taking the time to connect again and recognizing my own growth (and failings) in these is such an invigorating and timely reminder about being true to our beliefs and values and why it is important to breathe life into them. For us, bringing them into focus again is important. We recognize that importance, so these can once again manifest and transpire in ways that create the best learning environment and conditions for teachers and students to thrive and flourish.
I just shared these with our Primary teachers, asking if anyone is interested in exploring these to examine what, how and why we do what we do. How seeking simplicity will bring us back to our purpose. And coming up with ideas to make these work effectively for our School community. The response was overwhelmingly positive and full of gratitude and appreciation.
This has now led us to use these to guide our own inquiry into how we can be and do better. Working from within, just as we do with students. After our Pi Mai break we are going to do an eight week inquiry into finding ways to take tangible action. Already some ideas are floating around such as having once a month Barbecues at School to socialize and interact…. another idea is that we create the timetable for next year…..and on and on.
We have no idea where this is heading or what the outcome(s) will be. And that is the exciting part. Having teachers feel united and lead an inquiry to plan and prepare for 2018-2019 is incredibly energizing and motivating!
Listening to the things that are important and then working together can only result in one thing. Developing a Culture of trust. A culture where people feel valued and respected to be part of the growing and learning. Being part of the decisions as everything we do ripples. Taking action that empowers us. And having the fortitude and humility to listen to one another, because we know that is where the real power lies – inside all of us to create a mindful School! A School that we co-constructed together as we amplified voice and listened carefully.
How would these ripple out in your School?
What do you think about these as important elements in creating a mindful School?
- The world is increasingly rushed, frantic and discordant. Most schools have become this way too, many of them even worse than the world outside their walls.
- Nothing powerful, creative or innovative ever happens in a rush.
- Allowing teachers and students to focus on “now” rather than always thinking about the next thing.
- Removing as many things as you can from school calendars that have nothing to do withimproving learning.
- Being strong in your beliefs when working with parents.
- Being creative with the timetable – giving yourselves the time to be creative with the timetable – so that time is used effectively.
- Fostering a culture in the school of making explicit connections between time and improving learning.
- Making it unacceptable for school leadership to allow themselves to lose touch with how teachers use their time compared with how they use theirs.
- Looking for opportunities to free up time, not fill up time.
- Working continuously with school boards to help them see the difference between positive andnegative approaches to time.
- Honesty about the role time plays in putting peer-to-peer relationships under strain.
- Practical ways to remove administrative tasks that don’t improve learning.
- Creative strategies to encourage a general sense of “slowing down”.
- Recognising and celebrating mindfulness and its impact on behavior and learning.
Although meetings are a context for collaboration, they are not collaboration itself. It is totally possible for collaboration to exist without meetings, and it is also totally possible for meetings to exist without collaboration.
True collaboration becomes part of a school culture when educators are inclined to be collaborative. Not because they have been told to collaborate, but because they can see the value in it for learning.
This inclination to be collaborative involves a number of habits. Here’s my take on what 7 of them might be…
- Friendliness – Highly collaborative educators are basically friendly. They enjoy chatting with people, and this opens up a myriad of possibilities to enrich learning. Because they are friendly, other teachers like hanging out with them and this makes it much easier to work together. Pretty simple really.
- Being curious – Highly collaborative educators are naturally curious, always asking questions and always interested in what is going around them. This curiosity is infectious and invites other teachers and students to get involved. Curious people are more likely to stick their head into other classrooms, more likely to probe in order to find out what people really mean and more likely to take an interest in what other people think. They are learners and are highly aware of how much there is to learn from their colleagues, students and community.*
- Looking and listening for connections – Highly collaborative educators want to be collaborative and are, consciously or subconsciously, alert and actively seeking out connections and relationships with ideas, knowledge, talents, skills, thoughts, places and people. Because of this natural connectivity inclination, highly collaborative people become more receptive to coincidence, serendipity and good fortune that can make learning rich, complex and real.
- Continuing the thinking – Highly collaborative educators don’t switch their brains off when they leave the school campus and back on again when they arrive the next day. They’re still thinking late into the night, jotting down notes, sharing ideas on social media, reading blogs, contacting other educators and collaborating with a wide variety of networks. In addition, they generally like to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues over coffee the next day and don’t feel ashamed about “talking shop”!
- Putting learning first – Highly collaborative educators automatically generate more work for themselves by putting learning first, they can’t help themselves! When you put learning first, you remain open to all possibilities and are always keen to explore them further to see if they will have an impact on learning, and these possibilities frequently involve collaborating with other people.
- Making time – Highly collaborative educators do not allow themselves to use time as an excuse not to collaborate. If there’s an idea they want to share with a colleague, they make the time to talk to them. If someone needs or wants to talk with them, they make time to listen generously. If an idea demands more time to become fully developed, they make the time to work on it. Most importantly, they don’t wait to be told what time they can collaborate, they just do it instinctively.
- Making thinking visible – Highly collaborative people invite others to join them by putting their thinking “out there”. They are honest about what they think, they make crazy suggestions, they verbalise possibilities, they expose their vulnerabilities, they take public notes and draw visuals in meetings, they offer to help, they leave their doors open (or remove them), they stick post-its on the wall, they display quotes, they write, they share. Far from being about attention-seeking or self-promotion, these tendencies are all about looking for like minds, allies and the desire to be better educators.
Would you add more to this list?
Thanks to Chye de Ryckel for asking the question that prompted me to write this blog post!
*Thanks to Alison Francis for adding more to the Being curious habit.
Artwork: Totem Pole by Ken Vieth