Tag Archives: innovative teaching and learning

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.

Innovation Does Not Happen in Schools If a Child Does Not Feel Loved

Innovation is something that I talk about a lot, but so are relationships.  They are connected, yet relationships can never be focused on enough.

I remember early on in my career, someone once told me that if a child comes to hug you, never let go first. They will hold onto you until they need it.  That has never left my mind.

When students tell me about some of the things that they deal with, even at such an early age, I think about how strong they are to show up to school every single day, and how privileged we are to be able to serve them.  Not only should we have high expectations for our students, but we need to also have high beliefs in what they can accomplish.  Innovation does not happen in schools if a child does not feel loved.  This can’t be the job of some teachers; it has to be all.  I will take a teacher that loves and believes in their students over one that is extremely innovative yet lacks the aforementioned qualities.

Schools are about people, not stuff. When you know someone believes in you, that is sometimes the only thing you need.

I was inspired to write this after watching this incredibly moving Ted Talk by Linda Cliatt-Wayman.  These words resonated to me:

If nobody told you they loved you today, you remember I do, and I always will.

My students have problems: social, emotional and economic problems you could never imagine. Some of them are parents themselves, and some are completely alone. If someone asked me my real secret for how I truly keep Strawberry Mansion moving forward, I would have to say that I love my students and I believe in their possibilities unconditionally. 

Find eighteen minutes in your day to watch it.  It will remind you of the power of a great teacher and leader.

Your Social Media Guidelines in One Sentence

Social media is becoming the norm as opposed to the exception in many schools.

With that happening, many administrators are rushing to make a list of policies and guidelines to ensure that teachers are using the medium wisely.  Yet the more policies and guidelines we have, the more we deter people from using social media.  I even recently saw a profile that explicitly stated that all students will be blocked from seeing their accounts as per district guidelines.  When we do that, we limit the opportunity to model what “appropriate use” could look like.

To me, your social media guidelines can be summed up in one sentence.

“Anything you can say to students in class, you can say online.”

That’s it.

Saying it online is similar to saying it to a student. No personal versus professional, just understanding that the context of social media and that anything online would be considered a public space.

Too many rules and guidelines can deter innovation or even using the space in the first place.

The simpler we make social media, the more likely it is that it will be used.

Just because it deals with technology, doesn’t mean we don’t use common sense.

It is interesting that when it comes to technology, many people are nervous about not knowing what to do when something goes wrong. One conversation I had recently, an educator asked me, “What would you do if you found a student was doing something inappropriate on their computer?” I answered a question with a question and asked, “What would you do if they were doing something inappropriate that wasn’t on their computer?”

She nodded her head and understood what I was saying immediately. Far too often, we are worried about the possibility of the unknown online, and think that the punishment should be spelled out ahead of time for students. We are often scared of what we don’t know, but the need for control is something that we are going to have to let go. The best leaders and educators don’t micromanage; they build trust.

Tons of schools have all of the consequences planned out for inappropriate use of technology, but I have never seen a single school do the same thing with a pencil.  Once we see the technology as crucial to learning, as many do with any writing utensil, our views obviously change on how we handle situations.

One of the approaches I have used with students, knowing that there are a lot of bad things that one could find online, is just having an open and honest conversation with them. I remember talking with students and simply saying, “If you find anything inappropriate online, either intentionally or unintentionally, I I want you to talk to me about it. I want to hear it from you as opposed to someone else because then you will have lost my trust. Obviously we all make mistakes and I trust you, so if you make one, I hope you will talk to me about it.”

No list of rules and/or consequences, just open and honest conversations.

Here is the one thing that I can guarantee, without a doubt, 100 per cent; something will go wrong. That being said, it is important to create a culture where students feel comfortable coming to you with the mistakes they have made.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t expectations or consequences for negative actions, it is just about treating people the way we would want to be treated. Sometimes we have to give trust to others before we can earn it ourselves.

5 Teaching Practices I Would Never Do Again

As an educator for almost fifteen years, I think about what I used to do and shake my head at some of my thinking. Many of the practices that I had adopted were things that I had learned as a teacher and few had challenged at the time, or at least I did not have access to a different kind of thinking.  When we ask others to try and move forward in their practice, it is important to not only share our stories of success, but also our stories of growth. Vulnerability is crucial to leadership and building trust.

Here are five things that I used to do that I would never to do today.

1. The rule is the rule is the rule.

I remember walking into a teacher’s classroom and early in the morning, students were eating in her class while they were working. I became irate at her because the rule in the school was, no food in class, and it was hard when different teachers had different expectations for students. The problem was that the kids were hungry, and I know that I have trouble concentrating when I am hungry; kids would be no different.

What I know now is that when a rule is detrimental to kids, it’s often a stupid rule. In fact, the less rules we have in our schools, the more often we are able to treat kids as individuals. If the expectation is to do whatever you need to in the pursuit of helping kids, it is important to use wisdom and common sense to achieve this, as opposed to having a rule for every possible situation. This is not only respectful to students, but also to staff. I know that I am frustrated when employees in an organization are bound by a “rule” when common sense should prevail; schools should be no different.

I am frustrated when employees in an

2. “The bell doesn’t dismiss you. I dismiss you.”

I have been guilty of saying this far too often early on my career, and to be honest, I would love to see schools have no bells at all. It creates a Pavlov’s dog scenario where we are conditioned by a bell to get up and go to the next space. This is not conducive to learning. One student I saw on Vine said, “That’s such a stupid saying since the whole point of the bell is to signify the end of the class.” They are right.

So if you do work in a school that still has bells, how do you create learning where the bell rings that students are so deep in their learning, they don’t think to move? If a kid is engaged or empowered in their learning, the bell should be disappointing, not a relief.

3. “If you don’t get this done, you will not be able to go to phys. ed.”

With health and obesity rates on the rise all over the world, this is a terrible thing to hold over a student’s head. It says that healthy living and physical activity are not as important as other subjects in the school.

Here are a couple of issues I have with this looking back. If a kid loved going to physical education, I used that against them. Instead of building on their strengths, I used that against them. The other problem that it created was the student that hated doing physical activity, learned quickly that if they didn’t get their work done, I would hold them back. They used this to their advantage. Some of my best thinking has come during a workout or a run, and I am disappointed that I didn’t realize that movement was crucial to clearing our minds and growth not only physically, but also intellectually.

4. Asking students for feedback only at the end of the school year.

Feedback is crucial to growth, but if you use that growth only for the next group of students, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. There has been a lot of evidence that immediate and constant feedback is crucial for learning, so as a teacher, it is crucial to do this often throughout the year, to help the kids and staff that you are serving right now, not only next year. If this type of assessment is beneficial to kids, it would also be beneficial to our own professional growth.

5. Think my grading system was perfect.

If I look back at my own gradebooks, they make no sense to me now. Why is something worth 25% and something else worth 15%? Where do these magical numbers come from? Why would a test on one day be worth 50% of a grade, and a project done over weeks be worth 10%? Ugh. No sense at all.

What I am glad to see now is that more and more people are moving away from “grading” and moving towards competencies and written feedback. I am sure that in the world, people are still rated and numbered, but I doubt it is a powerful practice. Kids that are ranked and reduced to a number, often become adults who do the same thing.

Meaningful feedback takes time, but as teachers, it is essential for learning and growth. Believing that a number system for grades is somehow “scientific” and not actually totally subjective, was naive. It is also not effective if the conversation is led by the evaluator, as opposed to the learner. If we started the conversation by simply asking, where are you strong and where do you need to grow, the ownership of learning actually goes to the learner, not the teacher. Having students on the outside-looking-in on assessments, does not promote learning, only ranking and sorting.

When I look back at these practices, most of them are not things that I learned at university, but were things I experienced. As an adult, many of these things that I used to do to kids, I would hate being done to me. That is why I believe experience is crucial to growth in our organizations.

What things would you take back in your teaching career?

Fitting Into the Same Standardized Hole

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Albert Einstein

I was having a really interesting conversation with a parent about technology and the thought that it is leading to the decline of intelligence.  She shared with me her belief that many students struggled with reading and writing because of a dependence of use on things such as spell check, and that kids just didn’t seem as “smart” as we were in our youth.  Then she asked me about where she could learn more about this idea, and I simply said “Twitter”.  She responded that she had no idea how to use it, to which I asked her, “Do you think some kids could show you?”  Obviously she responded with the answer “yes”, to which I replied, “to some of those kids, they would think you are the dumb one.”

I didn’t say this to berate her in any manner, but to challenge her thinking that sometimes we base someone’s intelligence on the information we value, not necessarily on what they value and/or know.  To the person that can fix my car, I see them as a genius.  I honestly don’t know if they finished high school or what their grades were, but looking at them as someone who is expert in an area that I have no clue.  Because you know something that I don’t doesn’t make me less intelligent, and vice versa.  We all have different strengths and knowledge, but the question we should focus on is how do we tap into people, instead of trying to fit different shaped pegs into a single standardized hole?

That’s why I look to people like Chris Wejr, who not only focus on developing strengths into students, but also in staff.  Staff that are recognized and encouraged to develop their strengths, also treat their students with the same regard.  So instead of focusing on what people don’t know, schools would benefit from focusing on what they do know and helping them develop those strengths as long with their weaknesses.

It is easy to constantly focus on what is lacking, but it also loses people along the way who do not feel valued.  Knowing and tapping into someone’s strengths often leads to the confidence and competence to learn in other areas.  As learners, we are individuals, and should always be treated as such.