Monday, September 28, 2015

When Paths Converge

With the Jedi Master himself!

This past week I was one of an incredibly lucky group of Administrators who had the great fortune to attend the inaugural CUE RockStar Admin Camp.  For three glorious days, we escaped our offices and converged on Skywalker Big Rock Ranch in Marin.

While here we engaged in conversations that made our heads hurt by the end of the day, but also left us wanting more.  Underlying our three days was the idea of the Hero's Journey.   Here is a great video to explain this concept:

While we were exhausted on Saturday, it was still a bit hard to leave, at least for me, because I knew that I needed more time to process all that I had taken in during that short time.

Simultaneously I began reading Switch.  As I am trying to digest and organize all that I took away with me from RockStar Camp, I was struck by the appropriateness of my current reading selection.  Eric Saibel was one of my Yoda's at RockStar,  and I took much away from his sessions on building culture.  Where his work with us intersected with the ideas that I have begun to reflect on from Switch is where my new starting point will be for my work at our school.  I put together this simple visual to help me with the process of synthesizing the many ideas from RockStar:

The quote from Switch really struck me as I was revisiting my notes from RockStar.  And suddenly my big take-away was crystal clear:  change has slowed at our school not because people don't want to implement change, but rather, because they are so tired that they have no energy left to dedicate to creativity.  According to Heath and Heath, self-control is exhausting--this ties in with what Eric was trying to convey: we need to have room for dissonance and we need to learn to work with that dissonance for positive outcomes.  If people don't feel they can disagree, they have to then exercise a whole lot of self-control.  The more self-control they must maintain, the more exhausted they become.  And once they reach that point of exhaustion, their mental capacity for creativity is gone and thus change can't happen.  And this realization provided the clear link for me between all of my sessions at RockStar--everything from engaging adults through the 4C's to asking for feedback to sparking curiosity to building engaging presentations.  My task this year is to find more "space" for our adults so that they can process, they can feel comfortable pushing back, and we can then move forward together.

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Change is a constant in our lives now.  So much so that I really dislike the term when applied to new innovations in education.  We as educators must recognize the need to be agile and constantly accept that adjustments are just par for the course.  David Culberhouse wrote a great blog post on the concept of agility that I find very appropriate.  And thus, again, the need for "space" so that we as adults are able to reflect on "what's next" and engage in meaningful dialogue to ultimately move to a new place of action.

White space isn't the only idea that I took away from RockStar, but I think that this is the critical starting point for our community.  I look forward to finding ways to provide space for our community to engage in honest conversations, healthy conflict, and ultimately creative collaboration.

Monday, September 14, 2015

What is the Purpose of School?

This is a great question and one that was chatted about in one of my Voxer groups recently.  This question stuck in my head and led me to this blog post.  So I am grateful to my #LeadWild Voxer #PLN for bringing this up.  It was actually quite timely as we have been, in slightly different words, grappling with this question at home as our son adjusts to 4th grade.  Sometimes work and home align, and this is one of those times.

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To begin to answer this question, I turned back to my "roots" so to speak, of a history teacher, and began with Socrates.  Really, I could begin my quest in many places, but for me Socrates seemed an excellent starting point.  During Socrates' time, Ancient Greece was a democracy of sorts.  Citizens (read: free adult men) were expected to contribute in different ways to the running of society.  For Socrates, he encouraged his students to seek the truth (this eventually will lead to his death).  To seek the truth, there were no textbooks or multiple choice exams.  Rather, there were conversations spurred by questions designed to illicit critical thinking and original thought.  Hmmm, not a bad idea!

Let's jump forward a millennium or so to Italy during the Renaissance.  During this time, the educated (read: those with means) sought out private tutors or sent their children to small schools.  The emphasis for study was,
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coincidentally, the classic works of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Recall that prior to this time, education had focused on religious teachings, when people had time to pursue learning at all--the Dark Ages have that name for a few reasons.  The belief at the time was that Ancient Greece and Rome afforded unparalleled growth in human history so this was an excellent place for those during the Renaissance to seek knowledge themselves.  There existed a more structured learning environment than Socrates created--students were expected to demonstrate mastery of many topics that today we would label "Humanities" or "Liberal Arts".  Regardless, learning was somewhat self-paced and allowed for deep exploration.  Once "official" studies were completed, students went into the family business or could pursue their own path.  No standardized tests, no requisite grade promotion dates.  Students advanced as they were ready.  Hmmm.  Also not a bad idea!  And today we recognize the Renaissance as a period of unparalleled growth.  Coincidence?

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My final stop on the education timeline before looking at what is happening today is the Industrial Revolution.  This is when schools as we know them really began to emerge.  Classrooms were organized by age first and then by skill--if there was something other than a one room schoolhouse to send your children to.  They were very teacher centered.  Standardized curriculum evolved.  And the primary goal was to produce good factory workers.  So now the practice of critical thinking disappears.  Instead, students are taught what they must know and are expected to parrot the information back on assessments.  We were entering an age of standardization due to factories, increased large-scale wars, and nation-building.  Suddenly those who can think for themselves are not the ideal citizen.  Rather, countries are looking to create vast populations who are, on paper "educated", but in reality are simply well-behaved rule-followers who are not encouraged to have original thoughts.  It is easier to do what is expected because in a world of growing standardization you will know where you belong.  Those who attempted to break the mold might suffer as a result--I think about the supporters of Marx and the women who fought for suffrage, in particular.

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So this brings me to today.  Looking around, many would argue that we are experiencing another renaissance.  The rate at which new ideas are being brought to reality is staggering.  Yet as the world changes around our classrooms, many classrooms are not changing.  They are still operating in the Industrial Revolution model with worksheets, direct-instruction, and multiple choice tests.  I have to ask "why"?  We have so many tools at our disposal to allow for a more Renaissance-style learning experience.  Students of different aptitudes can use technology to support their learning.  Why does learning have to take place during a 10-month calendar?  Couldn't the year-round model be used throughout education and allow students to work in small cohorts to help direct their learning?  Why complete worksheets ad nauseam when students could collaboratively engage in real-world problem solving?  We no longer need to produce good factory workers.  Instead, we once again need to be producing critical thinkers who are actively engaged in the learning process.  These are the people that will move our nation forward.

I envy those students who got to sit with Socrates and question.  I envy those young Italians who would create without fear of failure.  I want my own son to be so engaged in his learning that he forgets sometimes that video games are within arms reach (I said sometimes).  I want students today to be so excited about going to school that they continue the conversations on the school bus and via collaborative documents housed in the Cloud.  I want parents to be excited to hear about what their children created today or failed at today, rather than what their children did today.  It is hard to let go of what we know.  But our world is evolving and if we truly subscribe to the idea that every child deserves an education and needs an education in order to be a successful, contributing member of society, then we have no choice but to let go of the past and reimagine schools that prepare our students not for factories, but for the future.  We owe it to them to provide an appropriate education that will set them up for success, rather than a dated education that prepares them for no jobs that will exist in their future.

And thus, I come to an answer to my question: Schools facilitate learning opportunities for students  to master the skills they will need for their own futures.  Returning to the beginning, Socrates NEVER gave students the answer.   He simply facilitated their own learning and understanding.  The ability to think critically about everything was the skill those young men needed.  What skills do our students need today and how can we facilitate opportunities for them to master these skills?

Monday, September 7, 2015


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Invariably, at the heart of what we do as educators is our ability to manage, maintain, and foster relationships.  Without relationships that are open, trusting, and safe, no one learns.  And I mean, NO ONE.  No student or adult can learn if they don't have a positive relationship with the person sharing knowledge.  Think about conferences you have attended.  Do you often find yourself sizing up the facilitator in the first couple of minutes and deciding if they have anything to teach you or not?  I will never forget a week-long training I was attending.  Day 1, the presenter shared some statistics.  One of my table-mates decided to Google the stats that were shared and found some discrepancies between what the facilitator said and what was presented in the original study from which the statistics came from.  Oops.  There went that facilitator's credibility and that was a week of wasted time.

So now think about all of the interactions that you have on a daily basis.  I have found myself reflecting on this quite a bit of late as I have been involved in several difficult conversations, and we are only 3 weeks into the school year!  These conversations have been with students, teachers and parents.  My reflections have focused on how I have approached each of these conversations.  As leaders, we strive to send clear messages.  We strive to invoke "fairness" in our interactions.  But this is where it starts to get "mushy", as my son would say.  Inevitably, every person is different.  So how do we send clear messages, invoke the change we want or come to a resolution that satisfies everyone when each person might need something different?

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You have heard the saying: You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion (or something to that effect)?  Essentially, listen twice as much as you talk.  It seems simple enough.  That is, of course, until you are in the middle of a heated discussion about your latest policy change,  or one of your teachers is being accused of poor practice, or one student is angry with another, or... What has really been hammered home for me these past few weeks, is that in most of these scenarios (there are always exceptions), going in with a few guiding questions to ask the person or persons, and then being prepared to just listen, has had much better results than those conversations where I have worked to engage on every point.  Is this a good approach to take?  Well, it's working for me.  Is there research out there about how to facilitate successful conversations?  Of course.  But full disclosure: I haven't read all of it.

What I have come to realize, however, is that when I stay focused on the individual I am speaking with, drawing out their story first, they feel heard and respected and it has made the subsequent portion of the conversation, (you know, the one where we have to talk about changing behavior, or identifying an appropriate solution or compromise) much smoother.  And because I allow them to feel heard, there is some level of trust created.  Our conversation may not result in the same consequences for them as for the other people  I am also talking to.  But I don't know how much that matters.  What matters to me is establishing clear boundaries and a commonality of expectation.
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Just as every person is different, so are the paths they can take to arrive at a desired outcome.  Thus, for me, fairness in my interactions includes creating a safe, open environment for discussion and a solution that engenders change.

I am always striving to improve my practice and this is one tool that I feel I have been able to hone to a place that it works for me most of the time and I'll take it.  What practice have you been working on  this year?