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?
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?
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!
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.
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.
As a School we are committed to bringing specialists in to drive professional learning forward. Our philosophy is clear. We value the importances of learning and growing together. The only way to impact culture and engage in meaningful dialogue is when we are all affected by a learning force bigger than ourselves.
This year has been a challenging year in terms of teaming, collaborating and connecting with one another. We needed an outside force to bring ‘play’ and ‘imagination’ and the power of ‘story telling’ back to the centre of Who we are.
Enter Neil Farrelly. An experienced performing arts teacher who has predominately worked in International Schools. He is also an author and moves around the International School circuit to lead all sorts of workshops.
Our teachers were exposed to situations where they were thrown into expressing themselves, being spontaneous and creative and most of all laughing with each other. And didn’t we do just that! Laugh. We also needed to leave our egos, inhibitions and grudges at the door as Neil pushed, nudged and encouraged us to put our selves out there and be vulnerable again.
Learning how to deepen trust and collaborate has been a focal point for us as a Primary School. Everyone had a voice during the week and there were so many lessons to dissect for different reasons.
How we ‘set up’ the conditions for learning creates the tone and climate for Who we want to become as a caring and connected community. Neil was constantly setting it up for us and together we responded in ways that energized us and illuminated the importance of people, pedagogy and place.
Conversations were elevated and the scope for being part of an audience was just as important as the presenter on the black box. This challenged our thinking in the way we value our audience and how we listen and respect one another. Knowing our audience improves interactions and promotes positive intensions. Listening with our ears does not mean we’re effective listeners. We learnt to listen with our mind, eyes and heart.
One of the things we shared with teachers is that the ‘loudest’ person in the room or the one to be ‘on’ the black box does not always equate to leadership. We stated the opposite is true. We are all leaders and this can take many forms. As long as you are part of the learning and contributing in positive ways to impact ourselves and one another, then that is leadership too.
We often hear teachers talk about ‘looking through different lenses.’ Our professional learning week was all about Who we are when it comes to collaboration and Who we want to become using performing arts as the ultimate lens to look through.
This experience put our teachers in the shoes of our students. The ideas and connections went into overdrive from there. We were constantly ‘connecting up’ and the learning felt real and raw as we shared together.
We could have easily run a workshop on collaboration and why it is important… yada yada yada. This time we were listening to our audience and decided to go a very different direction to shake it up – and it worked brilliantly!
Neil is already coming back in May.
We’ve always stated that meaningful learning is flammable. It starts with a spark and then ignites! You know when learning has caught fire….. agency ensues and the student drives their learning and not too much can get in their way. The difference between a flame and incendiary learning can be categorized quite easily in terms of duration, desire and determination.
A flame burns during a specific period of time (unit of inquiry) and usually reduces to embers, just like a typical fire. The student was empowered and energized, yet there was a point that they moved on to the next thing.
Incendiary learning catches fire and stays burning bright, long after a unit of inquiry. The student is empowered and energized, and they are still in the fire taking their learning even further, long after the next thing.
A stark contrast. One is perishable and one is enduring.
The subtle difference between ‘was‘ and ‘is‘ has a remarkable difference at the same time. This changes the whole complexion of learning as the ‘energy of learning’ has been sustained and has the learner enthralled.
Last week, I visited a previous School I was at and a number of the students I taught literally, hunted me down. One of those students was Nicole.
This is Nicole as a Grade 5 student chatting with the Head of School (Adrian Watts) and explaining the message she is trying to communicate through her art piece. Her art work is incredibly personal and powerful as she is expressing the importance of finding her voice and expressing who she is. The mouths in the background are all those who have told her that she can’t do anything. With Nicole at the center of her art work, her positivity is radiating out and drowning out the negative and judgmental voices. This was a real turning point for Nicole in developing her self belief. She had a teacher who saw something special, and it was all about allowing her to see that too. This was Step 1 in Nicole’s journey of finding herself.
The next learning experience pushed her even further. Enter the PYP Exhibition. Nicole’s artwork was the first step she needed to take and this naturally led her to explore and better understand her next self-discovery…. putting her new transformative experience of who she is becoming into action and finding direction in the process!
This is Nicole during the Exhibition selling her ‘FABTAB’ (comes in different sizes and colours) at a market at a funky local cafe and skater hangout. This is the moment that shaped her to be a confident and articulate communicator as she interacted with dozens and dozens of people interested in her entrepreneurial idea. Incendiary Learning! Students, parents, teachers and customers were truly astonished!
As I mentioned above, I saw Nicole last week. We got talking and she said that she just made her first nternational order to Ireland of 100 FabTabs….. Nicole is still producing, refining and taking orders, now international orders, for her FabTab. What a journey she has been on and is still very much on. It all started from her artwork, that was the first step she took in believing in herself, because she had someone who believed in her. We must believe in all of our students. Personalize learning, individualize learning, whatever form it takes or looks like, choose the right approach at the right time to connect, develop and strengthen their identity of who they are. Work from that point, work from within! Let students determine their own identity and not the other way around! It is our role to play a hand in nurturing and nudging them in positive ways to see their own potential.
This is exactly what I mean by Incendiary Learning! The fire is still burning bright and Nicole has stretched in ways where she can confidently talk about the learning experience….. long after ‘the unit.’ Nicole has led her learning and is proud of what she has achieved. Agency…… yeah, true Agency at its very core! This is Nicole now in Grade 7 doing a photo shot for this very piece. The relationship and connection seems just like yesterday, still very much alive too!
Again and again…. keep our eye on the ball!