Tag Archives: innovative teaching and learning

Sometimes We Just Need To Ask

What’s your dream job? Have you ever been asked?

As a principal and vice principal, nearing the end of every year, when when our leadership team would look at staffing, we would send out an email to all staff and ask them, “As we are currently undergoing staffing, we were wondering if you could describe your dream position next year, what would it be?”  Obviously, there was only so much we could do if you said astronaut or reality tv personality, but in the context of the school, we wondered what opportunities could we create.

What was important in asking this question, was simply, asking the question.  We could not guarantee that we could create the job that you wanted, but if we encouraged people to share what they had dreamed of doing, maybe we could?  As an elementary principal, I remember one teacher saying that although they loved working with grade five students, they would really like to work with kindergarten or grade one students.  The crazy thing was we had a grade one teacher, that wanted to work with our older students.  A simple swap was made, and both did amazing at their jobs, and unbelievably grateful for the opportunity.

Another teacher shared how much he loved teaching one subject and wasn’t too passionate about the other.  They loved working with students but really wanted to be passionate about the subjects they taught.  A couple of adjustments and it was done!

I also remember our grade two teacher at the time saying, “My dream job is teaching grade two and I get to live it every single day, but I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you asking in the first place.”

Giving people the opportunities to try something new or pursue something they love is not something we should only value for our students, but also our staff.  Sometimes people are afraid to share what they want because they didn’t even know it was a possibility in the first place. The way we saw it, was that if we can move people into positions where they feel most passionate about what they are doing, they are more likely to be successful as individuals, elevating the organization as a whole.  What was surprising was how many times we could actually accommodate the requests.

I wouldn’t have known that in the first place, and that is why we asked.

Understanding and Removing Barriers

Grant Wiggins, a visionary education reformer who has made a tremendous impact now and will continue to do so even after his recent passing, and was one of the developers of “Understanding by Design” (with Jay McTighe), shared a powerful “guest” blog post of a learning coach mirroring two students for a day each in her school (it was later acknowledged to be written by Alexis Wiggins).  Here was the initial plan for the process from Alexis:

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

The post was telling as it shared how much Alexis struggled through the process of “being a student”, and it led her to the following three key takeaways:

    1. Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
    2. High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
    3. You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

Now the point of sharing this is not to challenge the ideas that she shared (as this is from the perspective of her school at the time), but to think about the process.  This is not the norm for many students in schools around the world, but as leaders, how do we know this?  Do we often make assumptions in what is happening in our school, or do we actually experience something different?  One of the toughest groups to teach in the world is other teachers, and to go from that viewpoint, some of the expectations we have on our students, is not something we could handle for an hour, let alone, a full day.  The one quote from the blog post that really resonated for me, was when the student was asked about her perspective in class:

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, and how little of their learning they are directing or choosing.

Can you imagine going to a place every day where you felt your voice didn’t matter?  That part shook me.

The power of this post was not only in what was written by the author, but also the comments (there were 285 as of the time that I referenced this article and probably they will continue to receive more), that came from a variety of people, including students and educators.  The comments had a range of stories shared from personal experiences as a student, and struggles to accommodate something different as a teacher.  The reality of the learning environments that happen in our classrooms, are that they are not only created by the teacher, but the entire school.  If this is what school looks like for our students, what are we doing as leaders to help support to create something new?

The Impact of Our Decisions

One of my own thoughts as a central office administrator, was to be in our schools as much as often, to support our educators.  If you really love education, this can never happen enough, but I saw this as crucial to the work I was doing.  If my decisions had an impact on classrooms, then I better experience and see the impact of those decisions.

What I would often do is take my laptop and sit in a classroom in a school for anywhere between three to six hours, where I would get to the point that the teachers and students did not even notice I was there.  That way I could really see what their experiences looked like.  What I struggle with in our mobile world, is how reluctant we are to take our computers as leaders and do some of the administrative work in our classrooms?  I could answer my email a lot faster in my quiet office, but there are so many reasons why I would rather do it in the classroom.

What needs to be clear in this process is that I was not there to evaluate the teachers.  In fact, it was more to evaluate the environment that was created by the school district.  What I had noticed is how much “other stuff” teachers had to do, to make things work.  Whether it was going through an arduous logon process with students, or constant issues with WiFi, they looked less like teachers, and more like magicians.  From an IT department perspective, Internet is often “fast” and the logon process is quick, but times that by 20-30 students in a classroom (if you are lucky), and you have many frustrated educators that go above and beyond to create powerful learning opportunities for our students.

If we want “innovation” to happen in our schools, we have to be willing to sit in the environments where it is going to happen, and be able to not only discuss teaching and learning, but also do everything in our power to remove barriers from those that we serve.  One of the things that I have noticed in education is that we do not need “managers”, but we need “leaders”.

The truth is we need both.

We need leaders to have a vision of where we can go in our schools, but the “management” part is about making sure we have what we need to get there.  Stephen Covey (paraphrased) said that we manage things, but we lead people.  The educators that we serve, need the “things” to work if we truly want to create a “culture of innovation”, and support in creating an environment that we would truly want to be in as a learner ourselves.

Resilience and Innovation in Education

“The person who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it.” Chinese Proverb

Oh if it were that easy!

The reality of the work of someone with the “innovator’s mindset” is that the work is going to be questioned because it is something new and can often make those around them uncomfortable. Comments like “let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater” are often disguises of a fear of moving forward. If you really think about change, many people are comfortable with a known average, than the possibility of an unknown great.  With that in mind, to be innovative, we will have to focus on moving forward even when there is risk of failure and being criticized involved.

Trying something new is always going to be up for a challenge, and I have watched so many struggle when that challenge becomes public.  It is not about ignoring the naysayer (sometimes you should really listen to them), but about having the conviction to push forward and do something that you believe will make a difference.  As I listened to the first episode of the podcast “Startup”, one of the things they talked about is the importance of passion and conviction to become successful.

If you don’t believe in your idea, why would anyone else?

One thing that I have learned from my experience as an educator is to always focus on the question “what is best for kids” when thinking about creating new ideas to further your work in schools.  If you are trying something new in the context of learning, and this question is at the forefront of how you make your decisions, you are doing the right thing.

The other pushback you may face from trying something different is actually from the students.  As stated earlier, many of our students are so used to “school” that something outside the lines of what they know terrifies them just as much as any adult.  If school has become a “checklist” for our students (through doing rubrics, graduation requirements, etc.), learning that focuses on creation and powerful connections to learning, not only take more effort, but more time, which sometimes frustrates many students.  Yet if we do not challenge our students in the learning they do in school, what are we preparing them for? What mindset will we actually create in our students?  It is important, if not crucial, to really listen and act upon student voice, but it is also just as important to help our students become resilient and face adversity in the school environment.

Being a huge basketball fan, I remember watching Phil Jackson coach the Lakers, and when the other team had some success against them and most coaches would have called a timeout, Phil Jackson made them struggle to learn to work their way out of it; they could not be dependent upon someone coming in to save them (Phil Jackson has the most championships of any coach in NBA history). Do we create spaces for our own students that pushes them out of their comfort zone and they have to work themselves out of it, or do we provide the solutions for them?  It is important to understand when to help a student back up, but it is also important to help them sometimes figure it out on their own.

Resilience is not only needed to be developed as an “innovator”, but just as a human. Life is full of ups and downs, but how you recover and move forward is not just important to how we learn, but how we live.

IN TO THE

Competition Is Great Depending on Who Wins

“Collaboration” is one of the words that is often discussed in what is crucial for our students today.  There are so many variations and quotes surrounding the idea that we are better together, and with that, I would totally agree.  The problem sometimes with this is that collaboration is often seen as the opposite of competition. In reality, the two should actually support one another.

Here is when competition is bad…

School “A” is competing with school “B” for students.  Because of that, they are not willing to share the things that they are doing with other schools because these are now “trade secrets”, and giving them away to the “competition”, might actually reduce enrolment.  Although the idea of not sharing your stuff to gain a competitive advantage, is sometimes a fallacy (if no one knows you are doing anything great, why would they come?), this mindset is not about helping kids, but helping ourselves.

And here is where competition is great…

I was having a conversation with a district level coordinator that told me about two high schools using the same hashtag to share amongst their schools for the same subject.  The collaboration between the schools was beneficial to not only the teachers, but more importantly the students.  The competition came in when one of the schools did an activity that the other school was not doing and the kids thought it was amazing.  Not wanting to be outdone, the other school quickly had their own similar activity, with some tweaks to make it better.  Both of these schools are more than willing to help one another, yet not wanting to be outdone.  Who is the ultimate winner of this competition? The kids.

I don’t know one teacher that wants to have the classroom that kids don’t want to go to, yet I have seen a lot of teachers that are reluctant to share. When we see “sharing” as something that both supports and pushes us to be better, the big winner will always be our students.

Competition is only a bad word in education if our students are the ones losing out.

When we see sharing as something that

Does “Brainstorming” Lead To Innovation?

MORE DAYS

I have a confession to make.  I hate meetings.

Maybe that is not entirely true. I hate bad meetings.

You know the ones where you spend a lot of time going round and round in circles, yet seem to accomplish little at the end of the day.  One of those main staples of these meetings has been “brainstorming”.  This process is one that has been heralded in not only meetings, but also for “Design Thinking” (here is a document on the techniques os brainstorming in design thinking from Stanford University, Institute of Design).

So out of sheer curiosity, I googled “brainstorming is bad” to see what I found (not biased at all I know).  Here are a few of the articles that I read with little snippets from each.

 

Why Brainstorming is Overrated; A New Approach to Creativity

This is a great article and talks about how sometimes “extroverts” can easily jade this process. It also talks about other opportunities to become creative through “not meeting”.

I love this quote from the article:

My brainstorming basics are simple.  Meet less.  Think more.   Draw inspiration from your day’s little moments.

Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Spark Innovation

This article is an interesting read because it focuses more on the science of “brainstorming”, and actually compares it to “leeches”. Here is a little tidbit:

The theory of brainstorming is that you turn off your analytical left brain, turn on your intuitive right brain, and creative ideas pop out. But neuroscience now tells us that there is no right or left side of the brain when it comes to thinking. Creative ideas actually happen in the mind, as the whole brain takes in past elements, then selects and combines them — and that’s how creative strategy works.

This article, actually linked to the following discussing innovation, entitled, “From Intuition to Creation“, and how some of the ideas aren’t necessarily “innovation”, but simply rehashing “best practice”.

Brainstorming works fine when you don’t need an innovation. People brainstorm mostly to solve problems they already know how to solve with their current expertise, at least as a group. When you brainstorm, you really throw out ideas from your personal experience — these come to mind fastest and strongest. If you have a problem that the total personal expertise of six people can solve, then brainstorming is very efficient. But if the solution actually lies outside their personal expertise, brainstorming is a trap — you toss out ideas and get conventional wisdom, not an innovation.

This really makes me think about the differences between “solving a problem” and “creating a solution”. Are the two phrases always the same?

Why Brainstorming is Bad For Creativity

I thought this was a great article, for two reasons.  First of all, how much do we really listen to others ideas when we are trying to share our own great ideas.

Remembering what you were going to say is not easy when you’re listening to others sharing their ideas. Chances are you’ll have forgotten your brilliant idea by the time you finally get to speak. Even worse, the entire time you’re trying to listen while remembering your own idea, you won’t be able to generate new ideas. The classical brainstorm session limits the amount of ideas that can be generated in a set amount of time. The more people you add to a brainstorm-group, the fewer ideas will be generated per participant per hour.

The second part is about the process of quiet reflection when we are trying to move forward.

Of course there is an obvious solution to these problems: quiet thinking sessions. First people write down their ideas (as much of them as possible) individually or in duos. Then every participant shares their ideas in the group. This doesn’t mean the ideas will be discussed of course, for the ideation phase is no place for criticism. Ideas can be built upon however and might be improved or reshaped into a new idea.

Anytime I have done workshops, I have ensured that there was time for quiet, yet open reflection.  Often, I don’t only ask people to share their thoughts, but also their questions, because you never know the spark that it might create in someone else, hearing about a problem they never thought existed.

Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead

This article talks about the few people that can often dominate a brainstorming session, and this little


Thompson – Brainwriting

I like the shift from “brainstorming” to “brainwriting”. This process allows a focus on the ideas, as opposed to the people, which ultimately is the most important aspect of this process. You do not want to eliminate a great idea because the person behind doesn’t “sell” you enough on it.

 

With just these few articles, I know that I am going to challenge the next time I am asked to “brainstorm” in the way that I have mostly seen come to play in schools.  What I really noticed from this piece is just how important it is to find ways to share ideas that are not biased or affected by individuals, and give time for people to have some of their own processing.  The opportunity to reflect is not done enough in schools or professional learning, and it seems that my best ideas tend to come while I am exercising or listening to music, as opposed to shouting ideas in a room with my peers.  We need to think about how we can honour more voices and create better ideas through this process.

UPDATE:

John Spencer wrote a great post titled, “Seven Ways to Fix Brainstorming“, in response to what I wrote above.  The process he shares is much different, than what I have experienced.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

My idea of a leader or an administrator when I was starting early on in my career, was that they were “all knowing”, like some type of “Wizard of Oz” figure.  What I realized was that not only was this not possible, but something is actually lost when we do not feel comfortable to say “I don’t know”.  I have noticed some administrators, when told of a new idea, feel the need to say, “I thought of that a long time ago”, are playing a game where they feel the need to always assert their status as “leader”, when in fact, it actually disconnects.

Think of the difference between saying, “I had already thought of that idea”, as opposed to, “I never thought of that…that is a really great idea”.  Essentially you are not only giving power over (which some are afraid of losing), but you are showing value in the ideas of others.

With a lot of things that I have found myself thinking about, I am not as much “black or white”, as I am somewhere in the middle of grey.  Lately, I have more questions than answers, but the point is that I am trying to understand new and complicated ideas. “Not knowing” is part of this journey.

This post was inspired by Dean Shareski’s latest blog posts on having conversations, where he keeps using the word “trust”, which is needed to really go deeper into our own learning.  This tweet nicely summarizes some of my thoughts on the topic:

Think of that student that is in your class, that tells you something, to which you respond, “I did not know that! Thanks for sharing that with me.” Once they realize they were able to teach something new to the person of “authority” in the room, it creates a much more powerful dynamic in the relationship.  Adults are no different, especially when they feel they can teach the “expert” something that they didn’t know.  To gain trust, we have to give up power.

Empathy is crucial in developing the innovator’s mindset, and that takes listening, and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint, while being able and open to learn from them as well.  It is not about who can shout the loudest, but often who can listen best. Being open to learning from others, is crucial to our own development.

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Being able to say, “I don’t know” and being willing to be able to go find out, is much more conducive to building relationships than “I already knew that”.  Great leaders often show vulnerability, which in turn, helps develop teams that feel their contributions are not only valued, but necessary. Learning organizations value learning together over learning from one. Saying “I don’t know”, is crucial to not only our own curiosity, but shows an authenticity that helps to build relationships with those that we serve.

 

Learning is Relational

Sitting in a session with Tracy Clark, about “A Posture of Experimentation“, she asked us to fill in the blanks on the following statement:

Trying something new is like ___________  because _________.

This was a great exercise in having the group think about, and embrace the opportunities for our own growth.

As I thought about it, it is easy to promote the ideas of others embracing their own personal growth, but as educators, both with our colleagues, and our students, do we create environments that are safe for this type of “experimentation”? For example, I walked into a classroom recently and saw the sign that stated, “Do it right the first time.”  This does not promote the mindset.  Although it is easy to criticize this quote, I honestly would have had the same mindset in my classroom as a teacher when I started in 1999. You often create, what you experience.  But the reality is that it is easy to say, “try something new”, without the work of creating an environment that is safe for this type of experimentation.  In education, this is not simply on one person or group, but about us as a whole.

Even this past week, I watched a Twitter account have their grammar corrected by someone (who was thankfully not an educator) online in a very blunt manner.  Was their grammar incorrect? Yes. Did it really matter? No.

Although I saw the tweet and the response and thought it was not the best way to use the medium, I did not know the person behind the account, until they showed up to my session.  They just happened to be a high school student who was actually crushed by the public correction.  Did this interaction, as small and little for one person, help create a mindset in another individual that was open to “taking risks”?  (I did end up tweeting everyone to follow that account and hopefully made them feel a little bit better!)

This happens online though, but I have seen the same interactions in classrooms and meetings as well.  Instead of seeking first to understand, we can often be quick to correct or squash the ideas and thoughts of others, instead of asking questions or seeking first to understand.  This is not about being “fluffy” and not challenging the ideas of others, or even our students, but it is about creating an environment where this feels safe, and is about helping others, not tearing them down.

Learning is relational. It is not simply a transfer of knowledge between two people or parties, so the connections and moments we have with each other are also crucial to growth. This safe environment is necessary if we want people to truly take risks.

Ask Questions and Listen

Carol Dweck’s work on “mindsets”, has been one that (justifiably so) educators have gravitated towards. The idea of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets are ones that are crucial to our development as learners.

Innovators - Fixed vs growth

Yet here’s a trend that I have noticed though in some conversations.  We talk about one way of learning and the power it may have, then someone doesn’t agree with our point of view, and sometimes label others with a lack of a “growth” mindset.  Not agreeing with a person doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have a “growth” mindset. All that it means is that they don’t agree with you. When I speak to educators, I explicitly state that I don’t expect them to agree with me, but that they are open to my point of view as I will be to theirs.  Our best answers are sometimes not on the far edges of a spectrum, but sometimes closer to the middle.

To help others embrace this type of mindset, it is important we model it.  When someone doesn’t agree with our point of view, it is crucial not to label, but to listen.  Covey’s idea of “seek first to understand” is crucial in learning from others.

Ask questions and listen.

That displays and models the “growth mindset” since we sometimes can learn a lot more from those that disagree with us, than those that do.  If we truly want others to grow in their learning, it is important that they feel valued and that their perspective matters as well. This relational piece to learning is as important, if not more so, than any ideas that we could share.

Personalize, Not Standardize

I received the following question in one of my sessions today:

How do you engage the teachers and students who think it is “easier” to just do it (learning) on paper?

My response? Let them do it on paper.

The thing that is powerful about technology is the opportunity to personalize, not standardize. There are some really amazing things that you can do with a computer or mobile device, but the power is often more about the “choice” than the medium.  We have the opportunity to reach more students now than ever, not because of “technology”, but because of the options that we are now provided.

Below is one of the tweets from a session at the conference I was just recently at:

I talked to Jenny after, and she was obviously very comfortable using technology, but she chose to personalize a lot of her learning through paper and pen. That is what worked for her and that is what is important.  What is also necessary is that in her classroom, she creates the same opportunities for choice as well.

People like Sylvia Duckworth amaze me with their ability to draw and connect their learning in a way that is so appealing to many.  Her collection of SketchNotes that she creates and shares openly are absolutely amazing and not only appeal to her, but to so many others. She actually helped my learning by sharing a Sketchnote she created on the “8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset”.

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

The idea that all learners need to use “tech” is not necessarily a step in the right direction. The opportunity to create learning experiences for yourself that are personally driven, as opposed to created for you by someone else, is one of the benefits that we need to really recognize in schools today.

I promise you that I will not take away your pen and paper to learn, if you let me use my computer to do the same. Deal?

The Acceleration of Leadership and Learning

I am a lot smarter now than I was five years ago.

Simply saying that out loud to people, tends to throw them off and sometimes even suggest there is a certain arrogance in the statement, but I am comparing myself only to myself, not to others.  That being said, I distinctly remember a few years ago a long time friend of mine who is a principal, was listening to me talk in a conversation, turned to me and said, “What happened to you? When did you become smart?”  Simply stated, putting myself into spaces where I had not only access to information, but more importantly, the thoughts of others, accelerated my learning in areas of interest.

I pride myself on being a “sponge”, and look for others to connect with that highlight that same attribute.  Do I know it all? Not even close.  But I am willing to not only grow, but apply what I know.  Any person in a leadership must embrace both the concepts of not knowing everything, while also having a willingness to learn.  Too many schools are limited to the idea of “we don’t know what we don’t know”, but don’t try to find out.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” John F. Kennedy

When I first went into administration, my former principal shared with me the idea that I would become a much better teacher if I went to teachers classrooms.  Access daily to seeing great teachers teach, would give me an opportunity that I didn’t have as a teacher.  The problem was that I didn’t need to necessarily become a better teacher, but I needed the teachers in my school to become better.  Instead of seeing a practice in a classroom that we would share days or sometimes weeks later ensured that great teaching and learning would NOT go viral.  Instead of waiting, teachers would blog or tweet about their practice, and this openness would accelerate not only the learning, but the conversations that would happen in the staffroom.  People would start asking questions about what they saw through social media while they were in the staffroom; we did not depend solely on the scheduled professional learning days; we had access to the thoughts and practices of one another 24/7 and removed the isolation that had been so prevalent in schools years prior.

As a leader, this willingness to learn is essential to the growth of all those that you we serve.  My knowledge, or lack there of it, impacts all those around me.  Ignorance or a lack of willingness to learn from leadership often leads to slower growth from any organization.  Accelerated learning is crucial to accelerated leadership. As we grow, so do our organizations.  These ideas are correlated not only in education, but in all areas.

Some of the questions that drove this growth…

How are we breaking down both the time and physical barriers that have led the field of education to be “isolated”?

How does the ownership of my own learning impact those that I serve?

How do we make great teaching and learning practice go viral in our organization?


The old practices of waiting for the staff learning day for the growth of individuals and our organizations are no longer acceptable in a world where transparency and openness are becoming the norm.  If we want to accelerate innovate leadership and learning, closing our doors and mindsets to the technology that is afforded to us to create this openness in learning and leadership, is no longer acceptable.