Recovering From the “M” Word

Hello again. A writer that I follow describes his newsletter as appearing with “fanatical irregularity”. It appears that I’ve joined his scheduling pattern. I’ve never asked why he publishes so randomly but I can easily explain how this has happened for me. Have you ever moved?

moving 1 IMG_0374Two weeks ago we finished a whirlwind process that saw us complete the purchase of a new home and the sale of our previous home of more than a decade. It was an exciting time.

Things moved along very smoothly with only small doses of stress. But then it was time for the “M” word… moving. Now, 10 days after “the move” our conversations almost all include sentences like, “Do you remember packing xxx”; “What box what it in?”; “Where is that box?”; “How did we get so much stuff?”; and, “Why the hell did we bring it?”

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ease my way back into some kind of writing routine by relying on a couple of pieces that I read this past week between collapsing into whatever chair was at hand and falling into a sleep filled with dreams of packing boxes.

Will Parker writes a blog entitled, Principal Matters. He has been a teacher, the Oklahoma Assistant Principal of the Year in 2012 and is currently the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association for Secondary and Middle Level Principals. He’s ‘been there, done that’. As we have been exploring the issues surrounding the concept and reality of school leadership, I wanted to share his recent blog.

Will entitled the piece “Managing Demands, Dealing with Difficult People and Promoting Positive Morale.” It struck me as valuable because it dealt with practical matters in day-to-day leadership and culture creation. Note: Will’s blogs are also available in podcast version.

This is a “how to” piece and Will has organized each section with a short contextual intro followed by his suggestions for dealing with each. I’ve reprinted his sections and, as usual when I reference someone else’s work, I urge you to read the entire piece entire piece and to become acquainted with his work.

Note: After each of Will’s sections I’ve added some of my own thoughts/comments.  These are not intended to critique Will’s observations. Rather they’re intended to tie his work to concepts and thinking previously explored here in Rethinking Learning.

Part 1: Managing Demands

As you walk through a school, you will find teachers, students, and staff rely on you for more than just supervision or observation. People are looking for problem-solvers. In my first year as an administrator, I carried a notepad with me and tried to write down notes on every conversation I was having for follow-up.

I soon discovered I was spending more time do follow-up than I was helping others find their own solutions. In some ways, I was fishing for them rather than teaching them to fish. With that in mind, here are four takeaways to keep in mind when managing questions or demands:

  1. Give up your “Savior” complex.(It takes a team to lead a school.)
  2. Share follow-up.(If it’s important, have them write it down.)
  3. Teach others to find solutions.(Learn to “shift the monkey” as Todd Whitaker teaches.)
  4. Set timers for time consuming tasks.(Your value does not equal an empty inbox. Sometimes mundane tasks like emails or reports can go faster as timed tasks.)

You cannot lead alone. And the sooner you realize you need a team, the better. It is easy for leaders to fall into the trap of believing their job is to save the day. That kind of mentality will lead to burnout. Instead, shift your mindset so that you approach the complex problems of your school with the idea that it will take everyone on your team to find solutions, create strong environments, and reach new goals.

Comment:  It is assumed that, in order to be a good leader, one must be a good problem solver.  There is no question that problem solving is an essential part of the leadership role; however, too frequently this expectation leads to two unanticipated and undesirable consequences: (1) we become better at ‘problem solving’ than at problem analysis (leading to solutions that seem, not surprisingly, do not solve the problem) and (2) we reinforce a hierarchical structure in which only the “one at the top” solves the problems – i.e., we create dependence among our colleagues rather than building the kind of ownership that follows engagement in broader problem analysis and solving.

Part 2: Dealing with Difficult People

It’s easy to remember hard conversations—especially ones where people lose it emotionally. No one ever learns to perfectly manage difficult conversation(s). But there are some ways you can shift your mindset so you learn to better manage them. Here are six tips to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you’re not the difficult one.
  2. Seek to understand before being understood
  3. Be firm but friendly.
  4. Change your posture and use humor when appropriate.
  5. Agree to disagree
  6. Consider bringing parties to the table.

Keep in mind that others want to be heard and understood. Sometimes the goal is not finding complete agreement as it is being a sounding board and helping find solutions together. Simple things go a long way in deescalating emotional conversations: like keeping your hands open when you talk, taking notes to show you are listening well, and repeating back what you hear someone saying. At the end of the day, you want to know you’ve given others the courtesy you would want if the tables were turned.

Comment: My experience in working with school leaders has taught me that there is little or no intentionality in leadership preparation programs in the area of productive conflict resolution or the development of confidence in what Susan Scott refers to as “Fierce Conversations”. I would add the intentional development of this skill to Will’s suggestions.

Note: See Susan Scotts two books entitled, Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership

Part 3: Showing Appreciation and Maintaining Morale

It is easy to lose sight of the culture and morale of your team members when you’re focused on managing demands or difficult moments. I talk to a lot of principals who ask what they can do to keep their team members encouraged. Here are eight suggestions on ways to embed appreciation into your routines:

  1. “Kudos” emails(These are quick summaries of great things you see happening when you do a walkthrough of your building.)
  2. Video shares(Use your smart-phone to capture great learning moments and share via email, social media or link in a newsletter.)
  3. Hand-written notes or cards (All of us enjoy the thoughtfulness of a handwritten thought or word. I once had a 25-year veteran teacher who told me she had never received a hand-written note of encouragement from an admin till I gave her one.)
  4. Monthly awards(Use your faculty or team meetings to highlight great team players once a month and publish it out to others.)
  5. Newsletter/website publicity(Have a frequent, consistent summary of communication for parents and community members; use it as a way to brag on your teachers, students, and staff.)
  6. Face-to-face(Take advantage of observation follow-ups to look a teacher in the eyes and tell them something specific you appreciate about what they do with students.)
  7. Food, food, and more food(Maybe it’s because I love to eat, but I always feel encouraged and loved when someone adds food to a meeting.)
  8. Social media shares(Never before have we had access to so many free, accesibile ways to share and brag about our teachers and schools. Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LindedIn, or Voxer: find ways to celebrate and encourage others.)

Comment:  Think of each of the suggestions that Will has include above as ways in which relationships (whether they be with students, colleagues, parents and/or community members) are strengthened.  I connect this to the conversations, relationships, trust, followership model previous shared in some of my earlier posts.

Will ends his piece with the following thought:

As school leaders, we are directly involved in the kind of environment where learning can happen. How we manage demands, deal with difficulties, and encourage positive moments will lend to the outcomes others have in our learning environments. Don’t think you will ever do this with perfection. By sharing tasks with teammates, learning to navigate tough conversations, and highlighting successes of others, you will find yourself cultivating the soil for positive outcomes for your teachers and students.

As always, your comments and thoughts help each of us grow,  Be well.

Kindness Can’t Be Random

It’s been a while.

I began this blog in the hopes of clarifying my own thinking and, perhaps, contributing perspectives that may not have gotten (in my mind) sufficient attention. Every now and then I realize that I need some distance.  Some time for reflection. And, as usual, the universe lays a trap and there goes the plan.

The trap this time was a video clip that I saw earlier this week on Facebook. Take a look (spoiler alert… tissues are almost mandatory). It’s a clip from a Garth Brooks concert. . I recall seeing it before but had blissfully forgotten the ambush. In the clip, Garth Brooks is performing and sees a lady who is holding a sign that catches his attention and changes the evening for him, for her, and for the audience.

As I replayed this clip in my head over the next couple of days, what emerged were two words… kindness and compassion. Two words that I hadn’t included in my posts about the components of leadership but should have. I thought of all of the kids I taught who may have been holding up signs that I missed. I thought of all of the teachers and staff members who were holding up signs that I should have seen but didn’t. I thought of kids I didn’t reach with my teaching, adults I didn’t reach with my leadership. And the words echoed… kindness and compassion and I realized that they are two critical elements in the process of building caring, trusting relationships and the culture of safety that makes risk-taking possible.

I thought of how easy it would be to ask kids in our classes, adults in our care, “What is the most important thing you’d like to say right now? What’s the most important thing you’d like someone to hear?” How easy would it be to train ourselves to look for “the signs”? To move beyond kindness weeks?

I’ll close this with a quick anecdote and a few questions. (I’m also working on brevity)

A couple of days ago we were meeting with an elder care attorney. I shared the name of the attorney who had recommended her to us. She never hesitated and replied, “He’s a good attorney… and a kind man.” What an eloquent tribute.

How many of us would be proud to know that people consider us kind? That we had a role in the growth of our students towards kindness? What could we do intentionally to insure that this happens? What might we be doing that incidentally gets in the way? Is kindness a value in your school? Is compassion? How can we grow a culture of kindness and compassion in our school community? What have you done? What can you do?

A change of Pace…

Jay Armstrong GradIt’s that time of year here in NJ… the time for graduations and, naturally, graduation speeches. Having attended, by my rough count, approximately 35 I’ve become a bit jaded. This week, in the district where my wife works, a remarkable young teacher shook me. In the tradition of the district, Jay Armstrong had the opportunity to share his thoughts as a result of his award as Teacher of the Year last year. He is a teacher and a writer. For more pieces of his writing and additional insight into his approach to teaching, I highly recommend that you visit his web site.

I realize that each of us is touched by different things… things rooted in our life experiences. Jay’s words touched me and I wanted to give him the chance to speak to you as well. I’ve reprinted the transcript here.

Note: In the event you’d like to listen to Jay’s talk, here is a link to access the audio file.

Transcript – graduation address, Robbinsville HS

Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)

First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.

Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.

It has not been proofread.

And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.

I’d also like to thank…

Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration,  the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.

I appreciate it. I really do.

But I have a ask to question…

What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?

It’s the predicament I’m in right now.

Understand, I’m honored to be here.

But I know my role.

I am your impediment.

The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.

My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…

“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”

I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.

How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.

How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”

In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.

So… the question remains…what do you say?

Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.

My wife.  Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.

My mom is here.

My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.

And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.

(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)

And that’s about it.

4 people.

In the whole stadium.

My wife. My mom.

Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.

And one of the 87 Twamleys.

Let’s breakdown my situation even further…

What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?

Seriously. You do.

If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.

That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.

So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…

And then there’s everybody else.

To most people here I’m a stranger.

And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.

So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?

I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.

Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.

Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.

Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.

The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.

A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.

And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.

So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?

I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.

Two stories that have made me the person I am today.

One from high school, one from adulthood.

Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.

Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” (high five)

Do you realize what I just did there?

Do you?

That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.

 The First Story

The first story goes like this…

I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.

My teacher, Ms. Baker, is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.

I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.

As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.

Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.

She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.

Right then in freshman English class I submitted.

Right then I began to distrust myself.

If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.

For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.

I listened too closely to opinions.

Don’t listen.

I bought the fabrications the world was selling.

Don’t buy them.

 The Second Story

The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.

On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.

A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.

This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.

Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail”  available on Spotify and Soundcloud.

In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.

To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)

Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.

All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).

No, Joe Natalie*…

(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… if I was God.)

I am not God…

I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)

Senior English…

Representing…

What… What…

The second story goes like this…

It’s March 2010.

I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.

After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.

I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.

At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.

I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.

For 90 minutes  author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.

Then it was over.

I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.

I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.

When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.

I stop.

I turn toward him.

I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.

I step forward.

29 feet.

Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.

28 feet.

I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.

27 feet.

It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.

I take a step back.

28 feet.

What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?

29 feet.

The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me?  What if he told me to shut up and go home?

I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.

Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.

Scoring your dream job.

Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.

And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.

But those chapters are often short.

The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.

They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.

My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.

Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.

For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.

A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.

You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.

But what will you do now?

Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.

Intuition does not get easier with age.

Self-reliance comes with a real cost.

And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.

I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.

You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.

Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.

Trust your change.  

Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.

But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…

What will be the subject of your next chapter?

Will you be a minor character in your own life?

Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?

It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.

Don’t do it.

It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.

Don’t believe it.

Before I go…

I challenge you…

To relax.

Trust yourself.

Avoid cliches.

Be authentic.

And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.

Finally, I have a last request…

To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…

If you had one shot, one opportunity to

seize a picture  with the class of 2017

would you capture it or just let it slip?”

 

Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…

It’s been an honor and privilege…

Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.

 

A Holy Season Reflection…

For many people this is a holy season… a time of reflection and affirmation. This is a short post to respect the tradition

I recently read a post that offered thoughts about the relative impact of words and pictures. The author shared that we now live in a time of expanding possibilities. It’s a time a time when the word can be strengthened and the emotional power significantly increased by our access to the world of video. We laugh, we cry, we respond (and, yes, sometimes cringe) to the images that we encounter.

A few years ago at Fenway Park in Boston, a group of fans not usually known for their gentility, did something remarkable. On a day dedicated to people with special needs, the Red Sox arranged for a young autistic man to sing the national anthem. As those of us who have worked with special needs students know only too well, there are times when not everything goes as planned. When things go south, they can do so in a hurry. This one had disaster written all over it. But then something special happened. Take a look for yourself.

I have used this clip often at the end of presentations to remind participants of the power we all have when we act together.   But the more I’ve seen this (and I still need tissues), the more I began to realize just how remarkable this event was. Take another look and this time see if you can notice what happens when the young man begins what could have turned the event to disaster. He loses it and begins to laugh at around :38 and the crowd begins to laugh as well. By :51 he’s well on his way to a train wreck. But by :58 the crowd has somehow come together to save him. Not only do they begin to take over, but around 1:04 the entire crowd adjusts to sing with him. It’s still his day.

How did that happen? How did 37,000+ fans come together spontaneously to do something that special? And for our work, how do we tap into the support, caring, of people who came to our schools to do their best for kids?  Can we, as leaders, own the responsibility for making this happen?

Here’s another clip…

A colleague and friend shared this with me recently. In his message he mentioned that his teenage son had shared it with him. Teenagers sharing video clip of rocket launches with their parents… who says the world isn’t changing?

It’s a clip of the successful launch of one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets. I found it powerful and moving.  Take a look.

The feat was inspiring, but what hit me hardest was the pieces of the clip that showed the workers at SpaceX and their engagement in the moment. I know it’s a promo but I also know you don’t fake the emotion that is captured in the clip… the anxiety, the hope, the celebration.

As usual, I connected it to school and the creation of a learning culture. I thought that even at graduation ceremonies I had rarely witnessed what I was seeing in this clip. And I know that the vast majority of teachers I have encountered in the schools I have visited throughout the country began their work with the same commitment, the same enthusiasm, the same anxiety, the same hopes for success.

Perhaps, as leaders, we need to be able to acknowledge this more often and acknowledge the fact that, while they are not likely to put a woman on Mars, in their work they do something far greater. Each and every day they impact the lives of the kids… kids whom they teach, the kids who see them, the kids who excel, the kids who struggle. Perhaps as leaders we can ask them how we can help them, like the SpaceX crowd, hold onto, recapture, live with the joy of doing something that great.

Be well.

I’ve seen your future and…

A long time ago, while attending graduate school, I witnessed an exchange between the professor and one of my classmates. After a particularly heated exchange in which it seemed that all members of the class got it with the exception of the lone, belligerent student, the professor said, with both a remarkable lack of charity and equally remarkable insight, “Son, I’ve seen your future. It doesn’t work.” I was reminded of that statement when I read Bernard Chan’s article, For the digital economy, traditional education needs an update.

As some of you may know I was very fortunate to be able to spend a few years working with a exceptionally talented group of people at the Successful Practices Network on the development of the SPN Career Readiness Institute. The primary focus of that work was an attempt to achieve greater balance with initiatives aimed at improving college and career readiness. At the time we began our work, there was a significant body of research emphasizing the importance of the intentional development of what were called “soft skills”. While there were various lists of such skills, there was surprising agreement on many– i.e., strong work ethic, team oriented, tolerant, organized, flexible, effective communicator, etc. – and there was a growing consensus about the importance of such skills and dispositions, In spite of this awareness, however, the commitment of policy makers to test and punish approaches as the way to raise student academic achievement dominated the majority of school improvement initiatives.

Today, more and more parents, educators and a growing number of business leaders are coming to “see the future” and are recognizing that “it doesn’t work”.

Some time ago I recall reading (it may have been something by Stephen Covey) about the problems that occur when we pay more attention to our “to do” lists than to the interrogation of our direction. If I recall correctly, he described this as a conflict between the tyranny of the calendar and a focus on the compass. I see now that this was another way of getting at the distinction between time spent trying to do things right versus spending time trying to do the right thing.

As I continue to explore the relationship between change and leadership and the ways in which leadership can be more effective in moving the beyond the self-perpetuation of the disproportionate emphasis on schooling and the ways in which this, too frequently, is at the expense of the needed focus on learning, I encountered a post by Bernard Chan.

Chan is the founder of ALPHA Camp, a tech school startup with campuses in Singapore and Taipei. He is from Hong Kong and has degrees from both MIT and the University of Waterloo (Canada). What makes his perspective potentially instructive is that he speaks from the perspective of one of the world’s most successful countries as measured by the standards and assessments that we have elevated to “godlike” status here in the US.

He introduces his thinking as follows:

I remember when I moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the 1990s, school got easier for me. I was getting 100s in some of the math and sciences classes — something unimaginable before. Asian countries are known for tougher but “better” school systems. In a global education survey, Singapore even topped the ranking for proficiency across all the key fields of reading, science, and maths.

However, in my capacity as the founder of a technology school in Asia, I have concerns that education systems across the region are resting on their laurels when it comes to preparing students for the new economy. In fact, I would argue the current pedagogy and [sic] is incentivising the students to become exactly the opposite of what “talents of the future” need to be. (Italics mine)

Chan echoes the work of many involved in finding a balance between academic achievement and the development of skills and dispositions that are critical to the preparation of learners for a rapidly changing world.

He offers examples of the paradigm shift that is underway and notes that because business problems are “more complex and dynamic” we see increasing examples of new companies “empowered by technology and innovation” working in ways that demonstrate that “there is no one right answer to a given problem”.

While we tend to focus our assessments on the ability of students to choose the “right” answer, there is increasing evidence to support the reality that “questions are becoming more important than answers” and that cross-disciplinary solutions are increasingly becoming the norm.

In completing the shifts that we are experiencing, Chan concludes

Hard skills are becoming vulnerable. Technology and artificial intelligence now allow many of the more process-based jobs to be partly or fully automated, including in highly professional industries (e.g. accounting, finance, law). Hard skills are becoming less relevant; instead, success will go to those who can effectively break down a problem into parts and find the right people/tools for each.

A word to those who recoiled at my use of the term “godlike” status in reference to our affection for a standards and assessment base approach. This is NOT about promoting the absence of high standards. Sir Ken Robinson may have captured the essence of this false argument when he stated (my paraphrase), “Of course we want high standards. Who in the world would ever argue for low standards?” This is NOT about standards. It is about the kind of standardization that has developed in response to the desire for rigorous standards.

Chan captures the essence of the issue when he notes (again from a perspective of a country that leads the world in test-based measures of academic learning) that the current pedagogy is incentivising the students to become exactly the opposite of what “talents of the future” need to be.

Here is where Chan’s work in Asia and our work here in the US is dramatically similar. The dissonance between learning targets and real-life needs: The mismatch of growing learner needs and traditional focus and strategies.

He cites that having trained more than 2,000 people across Asia he has seen the ways in which schooling has shaped the way students process problems. His descriptions are eerily similar to the critiques we have been seeing with increasing regularity about the results of our own system of schooling.

Consistent with the increasing criticism of the results of focusing on preparing students for success on large-scale assessments – i.e., the over-emphasis on learning and/or finding the single correct answer – students both here and in Chan’s Asia demonstrate difficulty in dealing with problems having multiple solutions.

Not only does the ‘teach to the test’ consequence of high stakes testing continue to place disproportionate emphasis on the acquisition of hard knowledge and shortchange both time and intentionality devoted to the development of soft skills/dispositions, it seems directly correlated to the focus on the ‘single correct answer’ and the dominance of ‘one way’ learning. Chan notes that, in his schools, he has seen diminished patience for figuring things out, minimization of the importance of finding things out and for the process of problem solving.

I am tempted now to channel my inner Rachel Maddow and try to build to a dramatic conclusion. Blessedly for those of you still with me here I’ll just add one more piece. This comes from a post I read this morning by Jordan Greenhall on Medium entitled, And Fear No Darkness. He is talking about the various ways one might interpret the current state of our political process and the implications for our future. He probably didn’t realize (or care) that he was speaking to me about the issues facing our schools and our system of public education. He is building on the word “crisis” and the implications of understanding how it might/might not apply to our political climate and the state of the world. When you read this next quote think “schooling”.

A crisis is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained.

This is the deep point and understanding it brings clarity. A crisis is a threshold between an old system and a new system. From the point of view of the old system, the crisis is death. This is why the old system always struggles like hell to stave off the crisis. I don’t want to be uncharitable here. Systems are hard to get right — so leaving an old system into some new, untried and untested system is almost always a truly terrible idea. And even if there is some new system to get to, the transition itself will be unavoidably painful and often fatal. The instinct to preserve the old system at all costs is almost always an adaptive instinct.

One might argue that Greenhall’s portrayal is extreme. But taken together, Chan and Greenhall speak to me of a sense of urgency. Chan tells me that if you don’t pay careful attention to the compass, you may not wind up where you thought you would be. It’s one thing to “double down” on current strategies with the goal of reaching the mountain top. It’s quite another thing to have done that and find out that you’ve been climbing the wrong mountain.

Greenhall says to us as educators that it is normal (and predictable) for systems in crisis to fight to the death to stay alive. Our system is on the edge of crisis. We began a journey in good faith and with great intentions… all kids should become college and career ready. Is this the wrong goal? I’d be hard pressed to argue that it is. But what I can argue is that equating college and career readiness with one form of measurement (a large scale standardized assessment) and with a focus on hard skills, which are rapidly disappearing and diminishing in importance and which are delivered in discrete content chunks and in standardization format, needs our attention. It’s the wrong mountain.

Coming Next – How to Climb the Right Mountain

Moving Beyond Self-perpetuation: Two Stories about Action

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By BK – ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC- BY- SA 2.0

 

 

When I began this blog I decided to call it ” rethinking learning”. I did that because, after visiting a number of schools throughout the country, I realized that much of the focus the recent reform era has been on improving ‘schooling’ and, many times, these efforts had too little to do with learning. The approaches used by No Child Left Behind and its successors focused on the act of teaching rather than on the process of causing learning.

In writing and talking about this with friends and colleagues it seems clear that moving the focus beyond the act of teachers (and blaming teachers for lack of anticipated progress) to the process involved in causing learning requires more than just thinking about learning. It requires action. And so that led me to look at why change oriented actions are so difficult for our schools and for our teachers.

In the last post I shared some thoughts about the tendencies of institutions (like schools) to self-perpetuate and protect the status quo and how fear frequently keeps us from attempting the kind of changes that we know are necessary but don’t know how to begin. One of shortcomings of our system here in the US is a tradition in which our professionals have significantly less time in their workday for professional growth and exploration than their peers in countries which are regularly cited as producing results superior to ours. I know that I now have much more time than many to find and read some of the many things available for my professional learning than I ever did as a teacher.

This past week I encountered two very different approaches to beginning the change process. I thought I’d share these with you as examples of how we can take actions that begin to increase our focus on learning and escape some of the less effective aspects of schooling.

The first of these comes from a post by Mary Tarashuk entitled “3 Ways My Students Assess Their Progress”. It’s a great piece and I urge you to read it in its entirety. In it, Ms. Tarashuk describes the struggles she has as a 4th grade teacher in the face of the increased pressured imposed on her and her students by the test and punish culture of the school reform agenda. She makes a connection between her own response to conferences with her principal when she receives her Student Growth Percentage and the response she sees in her students when they learn their scores on the now annual PARCC assessment. She writes…

I wish it wasn’t true. I wish that, the other week, when my principal called me into his office for my Student Growth Percentage, I wasn’t slightly curious about my score. I wish I could say, wholeheartedly, that I didn’t care about that score. I can’t.

Something deep within, from years ago, is still there. It tells me that my success is somehow defined by a grade…or in this case, a statistic.

For years, I’ve been frustrated and angry about standardized testing in general, writing about it ad nauseum here at my MiddleWeb blog. Dissecting it. Needing to uncover and expose the injustice of it all.

For years, I’d been finding more and more ways to “prove” that standardized test scores do not give an accurate portrayal of my individual learners, that the use of the data generated from these test scores should be examined more closely. So I really and truly wish that, when my principal told me I had scored well, I didn’t feel a tiny little flutter of something, deep inside my chest. I can’t quite describe this feeling, but I felt it…if only for a brief moment.

What Ms. Tarashuk is describing is one of the lessons learned in schooling… in her schooling and that of her students. But she goes on to describe an awakening she had as a result of her reading of a work by Dr. Brene Brown, Daring Greatly. She describes Brown’s research as it relates to education and how her work on shame and vulnerability applies to her work as a teacher.

Let’s face it. There are days when teaching children is like herding puppies. Kids are curious. They explore their surroundings, bumping into each other or crawling over each other to get to the next objects of interest. This is a good thing.

There are also days when I “fail” in the moment, when some of my own shortcomings – a lack of patience, or a lack of sleep the night before – can affect my relationships with my students, especially those who need a little “extra patience.”

I’ve seen shame in the eyes of my students…and I feel shame just thinking about the times I’ve been the cause of it. Dr. Brown believes that, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.” Shame doesn’t belong in a classroom.

My experiences in my own schools and in schools I have visited leave me confident that the vast majority of our country’s teachers agree with Ms. Tarashuk’s statement, “Shame doesn’t belong in a classroom.”

So why have I included Ms. Tarashuk’s story in this piece? She is like many of us. As she describes, “For years, I’d been finding more and more ways to “prove” that standardized test scores do not give an accurate portrayal of my individual learners, that the use of the data generated from these test scores should be examined more closely.” Mary took action. I don’t know if she protested, wrote her congressmen, spoke before her board of education. I do know that she changed something in her classroom… in her classroom.

It’s why I chose her story. It’s not a new school. It’s not an instructional revolution. It’s just one thing. It’s the story of a starting point.

That’s where positive and constructive self-assessment come into play. I don’t want my students to feel shame. I want them to try to look at themselves (and the people around them) more realistically, and to learn to set personal goals for growth.

I share stories with my class about the life lessons I learned from my father. I’ve also shared the sadness that I sometimes still feel about his death, over a decade ago, especially when we come across a character that reminds me of him. We’ve laughed about my son’s potty training tales from days long ago. And they, in turn, share their family legend and lore with the group, safely, honestly, and often with no filter!

Mary offers an option for those who know there has to be more that we can do but who may be uncertain/fearful about starting as big as the problem seems to warrant.

The second piece  I’m sharing tells the story of the Apollo School… a school within a school at Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania. In this post, Jennifer Gonzalez describes a learning option made available to students at York Central.

This represents a step beyond the action taken by Mary and yet it remains well within reach for many teachers and students. In introducing the reader to the Apollo School, Jennifer asks the question we explored in out last piece last piece , “…why are so many teachers still using the same old model, where we plan and deliver lessons in separate subjects, in lock step, using the same traditional schedule as we always have?”

Jennifer offers two explanations. While I’m not on board with her first explanation.. “because it works… more or less”, I am in total agreement with her second…

The other reason we stick to the traditional framework is the one I believe is more powerful: It’s because we don’t know how to change. We have no template for what school could look like if we restructured it to reflect priorities like cross-curricular connections, student self-efficacy, and inquiry-based learning.

The remainder of her post offers a description of the Apollo Program…

The Apollo School is a program that operates inside a regular public school, Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania. Apollo is a semester-long, four-hour block of classes—English, social studies, and art—all blended together and co-taught by three teachers, one from each subject area. Throughout the semester, students are responsible for designing and completing four major projects, each of which is aligned with standards in all three subject areas.

Students set their own goals for each day based on whatever project they happen to be working on at the time: This includes independent and group work, one-on-one appointments with teachers, and attending optional, self-selected mini lessons taught by the teachers. By lunch time, when the Apollo block is over, students resume a regular schedule for the rest of the day.

 I urge you to read the entire article which also includes a video and transcript of an interview that Jennifer conducted with the program’s founders. If you find the program interesting and would like additional information, here is a program program website

What I wanted to share …

How the program started?

Two teachers organized the program in response to (a) their own observations about the problems caused by adherence to artificial content boundaries and (b) the district’s commitment to customizing instruction/learning for its students.

What are the Course Requirements: Curriculum and Assessment?

  • The program is theme-based
  • Students complete four projects per semester
  • Students are provided with the curriculum standards for each course
  • Students must correlate their explorations/investigations with curriculum standards and must demonstrate proficiency in each by the end of the semester
  • Students are assessed via a defense of the their project conducted by the three course instructors
  • Students are also assessed on how well they met four thinking skills—reasoning, perspective, contextualization and synthesis—and two “soft skills”—communication and time management.
  • Students may utilize any of the three “work” classrooms as well as the media center
  • Students may also elect to attend mini-lessons. Some are generic while others emerge as defined by student needs.

Given our experiences in schools as students and the enculturation process that takes place in many of our schools, it is understandable that many of the teachers who recognize the need for change simply can’t envision what steps they might take. Mary Tarashuk’s approach is being implemented in one the nation’s most aggressive large-scale assessment states. It is the result of an individual decision. It is one that requires only one simple statementI will.

The Apollo School requires more. It requires collaboration. It requires a culture that support and welcomes innovation. It does not require a new school. It does not require that all members of a school’s staff and community participate. It has one major idea I common with Mary’s steps… it has replaced “We can’t” with “We will”.

Please feel free to use the comment section to share with other readers additional examples of action that teachers, administrators and/or communities have taken to move beyond the culture of self-perpetuation.

 

The Joy of Painting

I hope you all had an enjoyable and peace-filled Thanksgiving. This has been an unsettling time in our history for many. Having the time to reflect on all the gifts we’ve each been given seemed to come at a great time this year. We had the opportunity to travel to a wedding for one of my grandkids. Not surprisingly, a couple of long plane rides surfaced some thoughts that had been wandering around in my head for a while with no clear sense of direction.

You may recall that I began this writing process as a means of helping to clarify my own thinking. It’s been a real help to me and I hope it’s been useful to you as well. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reflecting on several pieces I’ve read recently and how they connect with my experiences. I’m going to use this piece to see if I can organize some connections that I think I see and hope you will be able to offer some thoughts that may add to my understanding.

To help you understand my thinking, here are the topics that I’m seeking to connect:

  • The development of fixed mindsets in adults and the impact on the change process;
  • The ways in which unlearning and learning are connected and how they relate to mindsets;

As you probably have surmised, I’ve been doing a lot of work around the relationship between school cultures and change. Right before I left I had revisited a piece that I had moved (“flipped”) a while back into one of my Flipboard “magazines”. 1 In this piece, “Never Too Late: Creating a Climate for Adults to Learn New Skills”, Deborah Farmer Kris makes the connection between the current interest in the concepts of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets and how these can affect the learning of students. I highly recommend that you take a look at the complete article here link.

What I found interesting was that she had extended this thinking to adults as well, noting how frequently we encounter colleagues who announce things like “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I doubt you can tell me anything new” or “I’m just too old to learn this Twitter stuff” or “I already know what works for me”. Extending the concept, she offers suggestions from a school superintendent for helping to move adults to growth mindsets. These are (and I’ve paraphrased here a bit):

  • Remodel Faculty Meetings to move away from informational meetings to times used to respond to teacher identified learning needs – i.e., times devoted to teacher learning;
  • Reach Out to Seasoned Teachers to personally connect to veteran teachers who may be reluctant to adopt new strategies;
  • Model a Growth Mindset by taking a lead in the use of Twitter or exploring learning that takes place beyond the walls of school.

Some time ago, I had encountered a previously unknown (to me) piece of Piaget’s work on child development (see below). Since that time, I have been fascinated by the concept of the relationship between unlearning – i.e., abandoning explanations that no longer work – and learning. So naturally I just had to read an article that I came across from the Harvard Business Review (and no, I don’t regularly read this periodical but I saw it in Flipboard and couldn’t resist). In this article, “Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning”, Mark Boncheck offers:

“Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.”

In Paiget’s explanation, by the time a youngster reaches school age, he or she has developed explanations (mental models) for almost all of how the world works. What’s interesting about these explanations is that about 90% of them are wrong. This was a real revelation for me as a teacher for the many times when I thought students were having difficulty grasping a new idea. Piaget help me understand that what was really happening was they were having difficulty unlearning an old idea, an explanation (mental model) that they had developed that was contradicted by the new learning and they were struggling to abandon their previous explanations.

But I don’t work with kids so much any more so I found myself looking at how this new learning fit with my work with adults. Can you see it? We are looking at creating cultures which require a growth mindset – a perspective where we are not limited by what we currently know but how we currently perceive ourselves and the world around us. If that view is fixed and based on explanations developed at a time that no longer exists, we need to see (and help one another see) how the old explanations no longer apply.

Here’s a brief personal story that documents my own experiences with “unlearning”.

Earlier this year I asked my wife what she might like for her birthday. Since we both enjoy the same kind of music I kind of assumed that my somewhat subtle suggestion that we might want to go and see Peter Mayer in concert could be well received. Wrong! Not only was she lukewarm to the concert suggestion but she had a pretty definite alternative in mind. “I want you to paint me a picture.” I thought maybe I was losing the hearing in my good ear so I stalled for time. She ended my stalling by continuing, “You know a … You remember that watercolor set I bought you two years ago that you never used.” The old double whammy, fear AND guilt. “But I don’t know how to paint with watercolor,” I countered. “You can learn,” she said. I mumbled something both inaudible and obscene, but in that brief exchange we had captured the essence of the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset… “I can’t” versus “you can learn”.

I used to love to draw as a kid. I drew all kinds of things. Then I tried painting. Bad idea. No clue how to do it. Paintings sucked. Conclusion and explanation of my world… ”I can’t paint.” It became a pretty fixed idea. But, not surprisingly, in 50 years, a few things have changed, including the arrival of YouTube. And so, faced with the prospect openly defying my wife or looking at other options, I turned to YouTube. (I was encouraged to look there knowing that my son-in-law had learned to butcher a deer by watching a YouTube video.)

Lo and behold I found all kinds of instructional videos on watercolor painting for dummies. With the help of my new best friend, The Frugal Crafter from Maine, I was able to unlearn my previous understanding of my “painting world” and , for the record, here is my first public showing of my first attempt ate watercolors without the help of the Frugal Crafter.

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Here is my learning from this. My early experiences with painting (1) resulted in an explanation of my painting skills which went unchallenged, (2) discouraged further attempts, and (3) resulted in a fixed mindset.

  • My fixed mindset about painting (you can fill in the blank with your own fixed mindsets) was challenged by a new demand.
  • My new demand provided an incentive for me to re-examine and unlearn my mental model (I can’t paint).
  • My experience has resulted in (1) a realization that old explanations, mental models, paradigms, etc. may not be valid in a new world and (2) a new growth oriented mindset about he possibility of actually enjoying painting with watercolors.

Questions:

How can we use the concepts of Unlearning and Mindsets to help us help support the students and adults in our learning communities in the creation of cultures we need and to re-assess our explanations of “schooling” and learning?

What can you do intentionally to identify areas for unlearning? To enhance growth mindsets?

Notes:

1 Flipboard is an app which is available for desktop, laptop and tablet use. It uses a “magazine” metaphor to allow the user to access information, articles, media, etc. either from a library of sources or via user defined search criteria. In addition to allowing the user to indentify sources for reading, Flipboard allows the user to create user defined magazines for curation. Such magazines may be kept private for user organization purposes or made available to the public either via searches or invitation. I currently have a “magazine rack” of over 50 sources and curate several public magazines… EdRethink, Career Readiness Now and for the Future, RT’s Google Tips, Quantum Learning. Going to Flipboard.com will get you started.