Category: Professional Inquiry

Leadership vs. Management

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School leadership positions require a lot of energy. In a way, people in school leadership positions are expected to operate a lot like a battery, to have an energy source of their own, to have a source of answers, to have a source of ideas, to have a source of solutions and to provide all of those things for everyone else around them at will.

Like all batteries, however, the energy eventually runs out.

One of the biggest drains on this energy are the people who consistently need managing. By managing, I mean the people who need constant persuasion to:

(a) do their job

(b) do their job properly

(c) do their job well

This management of people is particularly debilitating as it tends to be never-ending.

During his keynote speech at the IB Annual Conference a few years ago, Richard Gerver stated that he always tries to hire people who don’t need to be managed. The fact that so much energy can be conserved as a result of not having to do the three things listed above means that it can be converted into the energy of inspiration, which I see as:

(1) inspiring people to push their own boundaries

(2) inspiring people to challenge norms

(3) inspiring people to reimagine what their jobs are in the first place

Now, in most schools – as far as I am aware – there are people who don’t need to be managed and there are people who do. The ratios obviously depend on all sorts of factors, recruitment – as Richard points out – probably being Number 1. Sadly, however, the energy output involved in managing the ones who need managing leaves little left for those who don’t. Yet they have a different, but entirely equal, need to be inspired. To ignore them may be more of an omission for the well-being of the school than to ignore those who need managing.

Unfortunately, people in school leadership positions suffer from an inability to define their roles with any certainty. They are referred to as “management”, “administration” or “leadership”. Implicit in the labels of “management” or “administration” is the perceived inevitability of having to get people to do their job. As long as people in those positions see themselves that way, that is what they will end up doing with most of their time and energy. It is also what everyone they are managing expects them to do too… leading to a disturbing culture of adult “learned helplessness”. Assuming that people in those positions were formerly teachers, one must also assume that the skills that led to them being promoted came from the management of students. Yet, we must surely be moving away from an educational culture based on the management of students. So, too, we should be moving away from a culture of having to manage teachers.

“Leadership” on the other hand, has entirely different connotations. Not always good ones, admittedly! But implicit in the idea of a leader is the ability to inspire. Again, assuming people in “leadership” positions were formerly teachers, we must also assume that the skills that led to them being promoted came from the inspiration of students.

I wonder how often this is truly the case?

And, when it is the case… how long can those people last until:

(a) they just become managers

(b) they give up

(c) they leave the profession

 

Header image from techpp.com

 

 

 

“Time and Space” – a recurring theme

Ever since Chad and I came up with the time space education concept, I am hearing people refer to the need for time and space more and more when talking about education, school and life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim responsibility for this trend! I’m just concerned that the issue of having less time and less space is becoming bigger, and so the need for people to refer to it is becoming more widespread. As it says in this clip from “The Gods Must be Crazy”… we don’t know when to stop!

Students like Nikita and Kaithe, IB students at Saigon South International School, are referring to the need for people like them to have time and space, to understand their need for time and space and to be able to harness the power of having time and space to improve their learning and the balance of their lives.

Teachers – everywhere – are concerned about how fragmented, scheduled and full their daily lives and their students’ daily lives are. Everyone seems to understand that real, deep learning only happens when people are given the time and the space to engage with what they are doing fully. Yet, take a good look at any school’s schedule and you will find a grid that is dedicated to keeping everyone busy, built on the overriding concern that anyone and everyone must have their days cut into small, manageable “segments of time” that can be managed, planned and accounted for. Furthermore, they are built on the premise that learning can not and will not happen unless these grids, and other grids that dictate what must be learned and who will deliver that learning, exist.

So caught up in these grids are teachers that – even when there is no expectation from anybody to treat time and learning this way – they continue to do so. The mindset of busyness is so palpable that we can’t help ourselves as we usher kids around, interrupt them, split them up, put them back together, tell them to hurry up, tell them to slow down… We believe we are preparing them for real life, for work. But, strangely, there are almost no workplaces – except perhaps for those we believe we are not preparing our students for – that treat time in this way, that abuse time so routinely!

I guess I’m writing this because I believe that schools won’t really change for the better until they explore how time is used. Sure, we can all do funky things with funky new technology in the segments of time that we have and there’s lots of amazing teachers out there doing amazing things with their students in those segments of time. But, until we really face up to it, we will continue to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • where has the time gone?
  • why aren’t students able to go into great depth with their learning?
  • why are so many students unsure what to do when they do have free time?
  • why do we always feel like we’re behind?
  • why are our students, and ourselves, so distracted?
  • why are schools such busy places?
  • why does it feel as though nothing was really achieved some days?
  • why do we often feel dissatisfied with our teaching?
  • why are we so exhausted?

I would like to see every school faculty be given the chance to inquire into how time is used in their school – a full, professional inquiry into “busyness” during which they can pull apart the traditional moulds they put time into and think again.

The question is… how do we find or create or find the time to do give this issue the attention it deserves?

Grade 5, difficult conversations and responsive teachers

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(apologies for the low quality image, but it really says it all)

Working with our Grade 5 team is really interesting at the moment because what’s going on is a real to and fro’, a real Ping Pong game in the way that the students are responding to the provocation that the teachers have designed for them, and then the way the teachers are responding to the provocations offered back to them by the students’ responses.

The teachers are having to re-think, not only having to re-think the nature of this current Who we are unit, but today they began to re-think how the data they’re getting back from the students affects the unit that comes next also. This is very exciting because this means that the teachers are not seeing difficulties as roadblocks, but instead seeing difficulties  – as a result of what their students are doing and saying (or not doing and saying) – as an opportunity again to reflect and to think “OK, how do we respond to what we know about the students now?”

The case in point here is that Grade 5 teachers, through the provocations they have been doing this week and last week, have really unearthed that the students (a) are not particularly curious about human behaviour and, probably as a direct result, (b) are not particularly good at observing human behaviour and noticing patterns. And so, as a result, they’re thinking that their initial hopes that students would be able to get to the point where they are designing their own social, behavioural experiments as part of Who we are were overly ambitious. Instead, they are going to have to devote the time and energy of Who we are to really developing that curiosity about human behaviour  – with an ongoing reflective angle that “learning about other people’s behaviour helps me reflect on my own” – and also developing their ability to actually observe human behaviour and asking those questions… what am I looking at, what am I looking for, what do I notice, what evidence is there, how do I record that evidence and what kind of patterns am I noticing that could become a big idea or even a hypothesis?

They then said “OK, well let’s do How the world works next… and in How the world works, we give them six whole weeks just to test those hypotheses and to do so using a clear scientific process. Now that flow and constructivism from one unit to another is really exciting.

And, there’s a lot of tension and worry about “how am I going to get my students to this point or that point by this time?” or “oh, my students haven’t responded to this very well” or “they’re not that interested in it yet”… all of these natural tensions that teachers feel – good teachers feel. But then, coming together spontaneously – not waiting for a meeting – coming together spontaneously, working their way through it using all that information  to help them redesign and redefine how things go from here.

It’s brilliant.

It also reinforces a point that I make over and over and over again and that is that teachers have to have difficult conversations, teachers have to go through the struggle themselves, teachers have to finish the day thinking “I don’t know where this is really going… how do I find that clarity, how do I help my students find that clarity?” The only way they can do it is by having difficult conversations, by challenging each other, by challenging themselves. Good teaching is not just a series of tick-boxes that you can say you’ve done. Good teaching is critical thinking, it is tension, it is emotion, it is responsiveness, it is spontaneity.

As Suzanne, one of the Grade 5 team said after reading this post:

“Openness to spontaneity makes good teachers great.”

 

 

Minecraft… an acceptable “virtual outdoors”?

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Next time one of your students or children is using Minecraft, stop and take a good look at what they are doing. I can guarantee you that they will be…

  • in a virtual version of “outside”
  • learning about topography, flora, fauna and materials
  • building
  • solving problems
  • experimenting
  • inventing
  • getting lost and found

Many of us obviously think this is pretty cool, myself included. After all, the skills that the students are using “in there” are the type of skills that we are trying to help them develop as we educate them.

But then, its actually also really uncool that modern kids can only possess “virtual freedom” and that they can only develop “virtual skills” and that, rather than using their whole bodies and all of their senses, they are using only their thumbs and their increasingly failing eyes.

You see, Minecraft is basically the childhoods of older generations wrapped up, written in code and presented in a device. Yeah… lots of things are possible in Minecraft that are not possible in the real world. But also… many, many, many more things are possible in the real world than are possible in Minecraft.

So, is it a good thing that students are using Minecraft and developing the skills that they are developing? Yes.

Is it a good thing that the “virtual outdoors” is replacing the real outdoors for our young people? No.

Can we allow the existence of Minecraft to allow ourselves to be apathetic about fighting for children’s right to play, explore, experiment, create and learn in the real outdoors? Absolutely not.

 

Student-created learning is the key to inquiry

Inquiry-based learning remains a mystery to many teachers, and a serious challenge to others. Creating the conditions for our students to be intrinsically motivated while still addressing important areas of curriculum is not easy.

Or, is it?

Maybe, we just have to readjust our expectations, like…

  • expecting all students to be working on the same curriculum areas at the same time
  • expecting all students to be interested in the same things at the same time
  • expecting all students to move through an inquiry “process” or “cycle” at the same time, and with the same momentum

Once we get ourselves out of these habits of expectation, we can free ourselves up in order to free our students up. Once we do that… then we can set out to create the time, the space and the conditions for students to be able to design their own learning.

This, of course, is another crossroads… and another point where teachers become lost:

  • they struggle with the openness of the idea of students designing their own learning
  • they struggle with their own judgments of the value of what students are interested in
  • they struggle with the identification of learning connections
  • they struggle to see the potential for where students may take their ideas
  • they struggle with strategies to help students who have no idea what they want to do
  • they struggle with the redefinition of their role that is so crucial (more on this in the next posting)

Very often, these struggles become the reason not to pursue student-created learning. It goes in the “too hard basket”. But, these struggles should be the justification for pushing forward with it, because these struggles symbolize what it means to inquire, they represent the efforts needed to nurture students who are inquirers, they are the inner battles we must face in order to drop our tendency to teach too much!

For those of us who push forward with it… this is what it could lead to.

Imagine a classroom full of students who have all had the chance to design their own learning (this might only be for a section of a day each week, or maybe a whole day every week… or more!). Imagine them all working on very different things – building a prototype of something they have designed, researching the existence of planets beyond our solar system, cutting fabric to create a dress, mixing ingredients for a new recipe, writing the seventh chapter of a book, conducting experiments with light.

The potential list is endless… because our students (if we allow them to reveal them to us) have endless interests, curiosities and dreams. Usually, the only thing stopping them from learning about them is the person in charge of their learning, or the institution in which they learn. But if we can reverse that, let them bring these interests, curiosities and dreams into our schools and let them pursue them… the learning that happens as a result is unprecedented.

If we know our curriculum well enough, we can make a myriad of connections for our students, we can help them see all sorts of ways in which they are learning what we would normally have had to teach them. We can use our curriculum to help them figure out where to go next… the curriculum becomes our friend as it reveals possibilities rather than reminding us what we have to cover.

Its just not going to be all the same areas of the curriculum, at the same time and at the same pace.

But, who really believes learning works that way anyway?

 

 

 

Sharing practice – whose responsibility is it?

Over the last few years, I have seen amazing teachers get dragged down and raked over the coals for “not sharing what they do”. This accusation is often made as a way of labeling a teacher as “uncollaborative” – a really serious crime in modern schools, it seems.

“I just don’t know what she’s doing… I wish she would share” they say.

And yet, it is often more about the person making the accusation than the accused.

By saying you don’t know what they are doing, you are basically admitting that you have made zero effort to be curious enough to find out! Weird.

But then, it does make me wonder about that sense of entitlement many teachers have… and a tendency to operate from a transactional perspective rather than a transformational one. How many times do you hear things like:

  • “I would do more inquiry if my students were more curious”
  • “I would use maths manipulatives if the school ordered more”
  • “I would do play-based learning if we had more time”
  • “I would take my students out there if there was more equipment”
  • “I would do that if you show me exactly what to do”

and…

“I would know all the wonderful things that teacher is doing if they shared them with me”

There is one, very quick, very easy and very powerful way to find out what people are doing. Go and take a look. Walk in the door. Speak to the kids. Listen in. Take some photos.

Its not threatening – it is flattering.

Let’s face it, most of the best teachers we know are not 100% sure what they’re going to be doing with their students until they are doing it. Also, most of those teachers do share their ideas with us during planning sessions… but other people often just don’t get it until they see it.

The best way to share is to show, not tell. The best way to have something shared with you… is to go and take a look for yourself.

Whose classroom are you going into today???

Using visible thinking strategies to open doors

Visible thinking is nothing new.

Many people do it, at varying levels.

This got me thinking about how people use visible thinking beyond just using visible thinking strategies. Do we use this to drive student inquires and interests by taking the time to read everything students write or is it just decoration that looks good on the wall?

Let us share something that worked well today and consider the possibilities and potential in the “new doors” that visible thinking strategies open up. At the moment students are exploring, interacting and creating through the arts as a way to launch into their next unit of inquiry. We set the rooms up with different art zones and they had total freedom in what they could do, and choose where to go and when. We just stepped back and let it all happen. 30 minutes into the experience we brought them together to respond to some questions and statements that were written to provoke thinking. IMG_3346

The results were incredibly revealing.

We started to read all of them carefully and noticed that just about every student made a connection that opened up new doors to learning.  This is responsive teaching. Could you imagine what doors would open if we gave the students time to explore, create and interact with the powerful statements and ideas they have revealed to us? Whether it be revealing their personality, learning style, knowledge, skills, attitudes…….. it is all telling. They are telling us how to teach them and maybe what they want school to be more like, if we gave them the time to do so. Where could these lead? How could they spark new connections and learning? Are we opening doors and walking through them, or shutting them closed?”

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If it takes two weeks to recover, your school has problems.

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All the teachers I know need at least two weeks to become “de-schooled” and relax into their holidays. They finish each semester in such a frenzy of busyness that they are desperate for a break. They depend on adrenaline and the last reserves of their immune systems so that they may get sick only when the holiday starts.

This seems to be an accepted part of our profession. But why should it be? Isn’t the fact that everyone, including students, is so exhausted and depleted by the time holidays come around that they barely have the energy to enjoy them rather an embarassment for our schools? Exactly what is it that we are doing that demands so much energy and overwhelms us all so much?

Not much, really.

Let me qualify that. We are doing lots of stuff, thousands of things, a mountain of routine tasks. Countless pointless formalities. Endless inexplicable traditions. In my school, for example, there was a whole load of things going on that nobody could rationalise. At one point, as all the classes did “transition day” and rather pointlessly went up to the next grade for 40 minutes, one teacher looked up at me with exhausted eyes and shrugged. The gesture said it all. It said this was another in a long list of things we’re doing without knowing why. It said this was turning into another experience that will have little or no impact on the students themselves. It said that we were, once again, caught in that familiar trap of doing, not being.

I suggest that all schools carry out an experiment for the next couple of years. If everyone reaches the end of each semester exhausted and ready to be out of there then consider that as a serious warning signal that there are problems with the school. Then, and this is the clever part, act on those findings! Discuss what makes the place that way. Simplify. Remove things. Rethink formalities and traditions. Try your absolute hardest to make school a place you feel sad to say goodbye to for a while, not somewhere you can’t wait to get out of!

Re energizing Assemblies

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Assemblies, we all have to do them and most often than not a teacher’s first reaction is not a positive one.

Why is that?

Before we start to unpack that question, let’s look at the purpose and role of what an assembly is and why we do it:

What is an assembly? An Assembly is a real-world opportunity and experience for a school or a class to express themselves. It serves as a way to communicate and express student talent (and non-talent) and provides an authentic experience. Essential, an Assembly is a way to provide students with a real experience to communicate.

Why do we do them?
It is very much part of Language. PYP or not, look at the strands contained within it. It is an opportunity for students to speak and present when they are on stage. It is also an opportunity for students to view and listen when they are part of an audience. This helps students know how to behave and act when they are in an audience outside of school. Messages and important information can be shared. Parents, teachers and students get another ‘window’ into the things students are learning at school. Students grow and develop their confidence, especially in front of a large audience. And on and on and on….

Why are teacher’s (typically) first reaction a negative one? Time: We find ourselves having to create extra time at the expense of something else already happening. We all know what this means. Something gets pushed aside, while the assembly moves in as a priority. There is a sense of pressure and stress added to the ‘healthy competition’ of what other classes do. This adds another layer of pressure when doing something meaningful and interesting, even though your strengths may not lie in this very niche field. We sometimes force things upon our students or ourselves because of this added responsibility. And on and on and on…

What can we do about it? Look at the schedule. Does anyone have better ideas to move things around and not to have them during those ‘extra peak’ times of the year? Does the SRC lead them? Does the staff sit down and agree on the essential things that must be part of an assembly? Bring in more specialist teachers such as art and music? An idea I have been thinking a lot about is having the speech and drama teacher co-lead the assemblies. Give it to people who are naturally good at them, where there an already-made real audience to showcase learning and talent and just general sharing. How many times do students not know where to stand, or how to speak into the microphone with a clear and loud voice? What about how to applaud respectfully if you are in the audience? All these things need to be taught as skills and as attitudes.

I am not saying that Assemblies are a burden. Personally, the students and I have done some really good assemblies. We have also done some very average ones too. The reasons why always comes back to time and what is already going on during the week inside and outside of the classroom.

I am sure there are many other good ideas out there. I would be very interested in hearing about how your school runs assemblies. Assemblies are important and they do give students experiences that are real and meaningful. Maybe I just need to admit I am not good at them and need help.

Bring Education Up-to-date by Breaking Moulds

We need to stop talking about the 21st Century as if it is the future, we are already in it.

We need to stop trying to address new situations and challenges with old models and moulds.

If we are in any way serious about moving education forward, or even just catching up, we need to be in the business of breaking moulds. If we keep using the same old moulds, it doesn’t matter what we put into them… the end product will always be the same.

Here are some educational moulds that could do with being broken:

  • Leadership  – Leadership roles in schools tend to be very restrictive as there is usually only one possible way to advance if we are ambitious and wish to expand our scope of influence. The career path usually takes us further away from kids, further away from learning. This will inevitably make leaders less relevant! Why not break a few of those moulds and create alternative career paths for people so they can continue to be their best?
  • Homework – For all the talk about homework, there is still remarkably little change. Thousands of teachers are still handing out homework to thousands and thousands of students that is still in the same mould as it was 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. We have moved on so…. let’s move on. We could even go so far as to break that mould and then simply not replace it!
  • Reports – Another mould that we continue to use even though we know it isn’t the right mould. Break it, rethink it, redesign it, discard it… anything but carry on with the same.
  • Classrooms – It is such an uncomfortable feeling to walk into a classroom (for any age) and find it to resemble classrooms we endured when we were kids. It is so refreshing, on the other hand, to walk into a classroom that breaks those moulds. Imagine a classroom  with different seating options, different shapes and heights of tables, different lighting options, different smells and sounds… Teachers need to have a daily routine of asking themselves “would I like to be a student in my own class?”
  • End-of-year class parties – just adding this as our school year comes to an end and I have been around every classroom and found mountains of junk food, packaging, throw-away cups and plates and wide-eyed over-indulged children who ate lunch only an hour beforehand. Time to think again people! Have a pool party like we did in Year 6 at NIST, have a class sports day, go out somewhere, bring someone in to do something different with them. Or, at the very least, cancel lunch on that day.
  • Technology – Funny isn’t it, most of us actually think 21st Century leaning actually means using technology. We are mistaken. It actually involves, but doesn’t mean, using technology to make learning different to how it was before, not simply replicating what is used to be like but using a computer or other device instead. Use technology to break a few moulds, then it may serve a purpose. Be careful, we are in danger of creating some rather dull new moulds in the way we currently use technology.
  • Committees – Instead of creating a few of those dull old committees and populating them with people who have to be in a committee, how about using an inquiry style of leadership and letting teachers determine what needs to be done to improve their schools and then empowering them to take action and make those improvements happen. Teachers who feel empowered to create change have a much better chance of nurturing students who feel empowered to create change.
  • Timetables – The fragmentation of the school day is often done with little thought about the flow of learning or the time needed for genuine inquiries to take shape. Discrete lessons, certainly in primary education, may be close to obsolete. In fact, in my teaching practice over the last few years, I would struggle to give an example of a lesson that actually ended – many began, many had middles, but I can’t think of any that had an end. And, I wouldn’t want them to!
  • Meetings – Any time any person is running any meeting, they should consciously try to make it unlike a meeting. This is really hard, the meeting is a very strong mould! But, if we can just approach them with the determination to chip away at the mould we will start to create something different.
  • Professional development – Throw some money at it, get on a plane somewhere, sit and listen to someone, take away one or two things, implement one of them, share nothing. All too often, PD falls into that trap. Great for getting around the world, meeting people and making connections… don’t get me wrong. Hopeless for moving a school forward. Even bringing in big names and filling rooms with teachers can sometimes have little or no impact. Good professional development should have a sustainable impact on a school’s culture of learning and to do so it needs to be dynamic and multi-faceted. A model that we are experimenting with and getting a lot of success is bringing in practitioners, people who still teach, and setting them up to have an effect on the teaching and learning in the school in multiple ways – team-teaching, demonstration teaching, helping with planning, working with parents etc… there’s lots of ways to do it. Give it a try!
  • Learning – Yep, even learning is stuck in a type of mould. While doing a teacher appraisal today, I snapped a photo of this image that was on top of one of my colleague’s files – it pretty much represents the mould of teacher/student relationship that is being broken and needs to be broken more!

 

 

Anyway… enough from me. What moulds are you breaking? What moulds would you like to break?

 

Image from OKFoundryCompany on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesoneil/