Tag Archives: learning

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.


I jumped into a cab to get to the Sydney airport and my driver looked very familiar. As I sat in the car, his phone rang and he started to talk to his son in Greek. Scattered in English and Greek, I listened to him give advice to son, talking about not frivolously spending money, and then asking about his grandkids. I could not help but to start crying in the back because it was like listening to my own dad. When he got off the phone, I asked him where he grew up, and he told me he was from Tripoli which is very close to where my parents grew up and in the same area. I showed him pictures of my dad and he was so moved by what I shared.

I miss my dad so much every day but for a moment I could hear his voice and it was so comforting. I will miss all of the advice he gave me, even though I know I should have listened a lot more.

I saw this cartoon on Imgur the other day and it really hit home so I just wanted to share it.


Is it about what you have learned or that you are learning?

When do you give up on someone?  When do you just realize that they are never going to get what you are trying to help them learn?

Early on when I first started doing workshops with teachers, especially in the area of the technology, there would be a point where I would just give up on some.  I hate to admit it but they were nowhere near where I thought they should be so I would turn my attention to those that seemingly were getting it and basically cut my losses.  I am not proud of it, but that’s what I did.

Then I remember a teacher coming into my room extremely frustrated with her classroom.  She had talked about how big of a challenge they were and that she was seemingly getting nowhere with the majority of them.  Then I asked her the question, “Are you a great teacher?”, where she emphatically replied, “Yes!”  Then I said to her, well it is pretty easy to teach a class of students that all seem to get what you are trying to teach them, but a great teacher works with any student that is put in front of them, recognizes when they are trying to get better, and helps them move forward.  She took my question and advice to heart and she had an amazing year with her students.

As I thought about my own words to someone else, I realized that I wasn’t even following them myself.  As I thought about our conversation, I started to look different on the professional development opportunities that I was delivering myself.  I started to realize that it was not about what people had learned, but that they were learning.  If they were trying to move forward,  they were successful that day, and making sure they knew that would push them that much further.  I often tell my workshop participants early on that if you do not think you have picked up everything that I have shared, that is fine, as long as they are trying to pick up some of the things.  I have even told them that if there brain is full, and that they have picked up enough, to feel free to just explore what they have learned while I share other things.

As much as we talk about the importance of collaboration, learning is an extremely personal experience.  For some people, whether it is our kids or adults, just showing up is a victory and a way of them saying they want to get better.  Don’t ever give up on someone that is learning, even though sometimes it would be really easy to do.  We wouldn’t accept doing that to our students, so we shouldn’t accept doing that to each other.

Time is a gift; use accordingly.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by epSos .de

A personal reflection…

At the end of February, 2013, I was incredibly excited to be asked to “come home” and speak to teachers for the opening day of the Horizon School District 2013-2014 school year in Saskatoon.  This was a special honour to me as it was the district that I grew up in as a kid.  I called my mom soon after it was confirmed, excited to shared the news with her.  She was really excited, but I remember her saying, “well hopefully your father and I will be around still by that time.”  I told her to be quiet and stop being “ridiculous” as the talk was at the end of August (tomorrow) and obviously that was a scenario that would not play out.

A month later my Dad passed away from a heart attack.  He will never see me speak.

Anyone who has been through that knows you change forever. My world, my outlook, and sometimes I even think my demeanour.  Life seems a little bit slower.  I have no other way to explain it.

So I decided to really take a look at my life and what makes me happy.  Because of this event, I decided to take a half-time leave from my job at Parkland School Division to pursue the opportunity to speak more, as well as write.  Although last year I was either at work or on the road working, I wanted to do things differently.  I want to, as a friend of mine always encourages, “smell the roses”.  I want to have more experiences.  I want to meet more people.  I want to connect deeper with those I am closest with.  I want to pursue my passions.

As the school year started today for teachers within our school division, I have thought about what I want to focus on, not as a teacher, but as a person.  Here are some of those thoughts:

  • Surround myself with amazing people.
  • Trust when it is tough and forgive those closest to me a lot quicker.
  • Try to give more than I receive.
  • Pursue my passions with all my heart.

Teaching is a “people business”, and I believe that there is a considerable need for us to look at ourselves and what we need to be happy if we are inspire those we connect with every day.  Time is a gift and I am going to try to make the most out of every moment by focusing on living better this year, than I did the last.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” Henry David Thoreau

Two Roads to Innovation

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Paro_for_Peace

I have been really trying to study the notion of “innovation” and how we create an innovative culture.  From what I am seeing, two make an innovative “mindset” a culture, there are many factors, but there are two ways that those factors need to be delivered that are on opposite sides of the spectrum.  One is through mass collaboration, and the other through individual connection.  With one of those areas lacking, that culture will either never happen or it will take a significant amount of time.  Through the “School Admin Virtual Mentor Program” (#SAVMP), I am trying to create something that shows both sides of that spectrum.  The ideas for the program though have been inspired by many different things (Stephen Covey’s ideas, open networks, MOOCs, etc.), yet have come together in one space:

“The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.” Steven Johnson

How do (and how should) these big ideas come together?

Mass Collaboration

Sitting with George Siemens yesterday (who basically blew my mind for three hours in a car ride), I listened as he shared two major ideas.

The first one talked about the notion of mass groups.  He shared the idea if that you put 100 people in a room, that you learning could increase exponentially.  With different expertise in the room, each person will bring different strengths and knowledge that they can share with the larger group.  Although each of us knows a sliver of information compared to the knowledge of the room, by sharing, our knowledge goes up exponentially.

Think of this analogy to help further the idea.

Most people know that a program such as Microsoft Word, although seemingly simple, is under-utilized.  If we use it to only 10% of it’s capacity on our own, that 10% is unlikely to grow.  What happens if you share YOUR 10% with others, and it is different from the 10% that they know?  Although we will not all know totally different things, there will be elements that we each bring to each other that will raise our learning exponentially.

The use of social networks works much this way.  Groups that I have been in such as Connected Principals, have brought each person’s 10% to the forefront and it has opened up ideas, for myself, that I would have not had on my own.  Now I do because I was willing to create and be a part of the network.  Although with Weinberger’s idea that the “smartest person in the room, is the room”, there are two important elements that we overlook.  First, we have to be able to “create the room” for those “hunches” to come together, and secondly, we have to be in the room.  If you do neither, you are more likely to be stuck with your 10%.

In my own school district, there are 22 principals and although that is a network in itself, it is not certain that you will connect with all 21 others in that position, nor is there necessarily a space that we can connect on a consistent basis.  Through things such as hashtags, blogs, google plus communities, we give an opportunity to learn from that group of 22, but also the opportunity to open it up to the world.  While closed groups tend to shrink, and sometimes die, open groups usually expand and grow as do many of the individuals within them.  How we tap into those “individuals” is just as important on the road to an innovative culture.

Individual Connection

The second idea that George shared with me was the notion of “Reed’s Law” which talks about the idea of smaller networks being developed that push a larger group.

As we continuously look at the power of networks to improve our learning and the system within our schools, we also have to look at how we tap into the strengths of individual.  With mass networks or groups, many of our quiet educators may get lost in the mix because they are not as “out there” as others, yet have much to share.  This is where the idea of starting from each individual’s “point a” and moving to their “point b” is crucial.  As we look at the #SAVMP program, the mass network is able to share ideas to a large group, but the small mentor-mentee connection is able to build relationships in a much more personal environment.  Through the small connections within the network, there is the potential to learning from both sides of the mentor-mentee relationship.

The ability to share and discuss in a smaller place brings the opportunity to learn from individuals and feel a deeper connection to a smaller network, while also creating a stronger accountability to growth.  If I am one out of 400, it is much easier for no one to notice if I am not writing a blog post or sharing my thoughts in a larger network, but if I am one out of four, I am more accountable and my lack of participation is much more identifiable.  The human connection in a smaller setting creates a higher level of accountability to growth than a large network where you can easily be missed.  It is easy to get lost in a crowd, so make the crowd smaller.

Creating These Spaces

So within a school, you often see one of these spaces utilized.  Whether it is through PLC’s for that “individual connection” or the use of a hashtag for  “mass collaboration”, it is imperative to bring these two ideas together in one space.  For example, using something such as blended PLC’s gives educators to share the same learning that they do with a small group, but also with a much larger audience that is often willing to jump in and share ideas.  Sharing the work of each PLC group to one hashtag, google plus community, blog, etc., gives the opportunity to learn from both the large group and the individual.  What is imperative though is the openness of the larger group.  Open often leads to growth, closed (or fixed) leads to stagnation.  Carol Dweck’s idea of “mindset” is not limited to an individual, but applies to networks as well.

Concluding Thoughts

So as I move forward continuously learning and experimenting in the “online” space, I look at the implications of that work and how it applies to what we do in schools every day.  The learning that is happening in groups such as the #SAVMP program tell me (and hopefully others) a lot about how we can not only lead and learn, but help people to embrace change.  The mass ideas that are shared through many large networks brings many of those ideas to the forefront, but the actual embracing of those ideas often happens on a one-to-one basis.  It is essential to ensure that we are looking at how we take both roads in our work.

Learning Experience

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Imad HADDAD

John Spencer wrote an interesting post entitled, “Do we value experience?“, that struck a bit of a chord. He wrote his thoughts of the perception of older staff by others:

Veterans on staff are viewed as curmudgeonly. If they criticize the system, they’re being cynical (as opposed to a young teacher, who is simply being “young and idealistic”). People make huge assumptions about them. They will be slow to adopt new strategies. They will be reluctant to new technology (in many cases they were the pioneers in educational technology, knowing computers on a deeper level than my generation).

First of all, I believe the title may be a bit misleading compared to the content.  Many educators do value experience, but experience is something that comes from people at different points in their career; it is not only about age.  I often speak to administrators, and often I am younger than most of them and I am hoping they are valuing my experiences that I am sharing, as I value theirs.  We have done different things and we can learn from each other.

Why do so many people go on Twitter?  Because of the very reason that they value experience.  They look at what others are doing, their experiences, and tap into them.  There are many educators out there that have more years of experience than I do, and if they are willing to share, I am willing to learn.

Does this really have to do with age?

Does everyone think like this? Absolutely not.  But many educators are excited about connecting and learning from others and you are seeing more tap into the wisdom of others every day.  John Spencer, on Twitter, brought up the notion that many teachers in their 50’s have been overlooked for opportunities to become principals because they were viewed as “too old” (which is much too hard to determine unless you were doing the interview), where I have been told outright that I was too young for a specific job.  Not that I didn’t have enough knowledge and experience, but that I was too young.  Ageism can happen on both sides of the spectrum, and as Josh Stumpenhorst said, it depends on the perspective of the person hiring. I want the best person for the job. I could care less whether you are 25 or 65. Rich Cantrell, a retired principal in his 70’s, still connects and shares, and anytime he shares his wisdom with me, I listen.  He stays relevant because he choose to continue learning.

I can only speak for myself, but what I value is the strengths that different people bring to the table. I value someone that is willing to grow and learn.  I value someone who has a critical eye and asks tough questions. I value someone who is passionate about teaching and learning.  What I know is, that once you are done learning, you will slowly become ineffective as a teacher.  I have seen this trait in new and old teachers.

So to answer John’s question from the title of his post..I do value experience. I appreciate what he is saying in his post, and believe that our long serving teachers bring a lot of knowledge that we have to appreciate, listen to, and think about it in our work every day with kids. I just believe that “experience” comes in many forms and being a learner myself, I am going to tap into it any way that I can.

Teacher See….

In talking with a friend, a story from my past popped into my memory.

Spending a lot of time with educators and focusing on their learning, I have noticed the impact of the principal, even when they are not in the room.  This is always not a direct reflection, but after connecting with some of the leaders of the schools that these teachers were a part of, there was a common thread.

If the principal is not learning, many teachers will follow that lead.

Here is a reminder from my own past…I remember one of my principals, who was one of the most amazingly kind men I have ever met, sitting at a teacher conference day listening to the main presenter.  Although he was an awesome man, he was in the last year of his career and many felt was just finishing off his time.  As the speaker started presenting, and was about five minutes into his presentation during this conference, myself and some of my colleagues sat and watched in amazement as our principal simply stood up, and left.  There was at least another hour to go, but he was done.

So what did we do?  We stood up and we left.

I have no idea what the circumstances were that day for our principal, but what we saw from our leader is what we chose to emulate ourselves.  We often talk about our students “checking out” right before holidays, but in many cases, are the teachers still totally checked in?  It is easy to point fingers at those that our lower in the organizational hierarchy, but as I have stated many times before, if principals do not show themselves as the “lead learner”, why would anyone follow suit?

To effectively lead, leaders must continually learn and share that learning.  It is always easier to say “do this”, but is more valuable to say, “do this with me.”

3 Reasons Why Next Year Could Be Your Best

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Emiliano Horcada

Having a tiring end to the year after dealing with some tough personal events in my life, I have decided to take some time and enjoy things outside work.  Although people get on my case about blogging, I find writing to be soothing and a release for my mind that seems to be all over the place on most days.  As I sat on a plane heading to The Avett Brothers concert, I thought about the next year (year in teacher language is usually August until June in many countries) and what are some of the things that I am going to focus on that will make next year great.  Hopefully some of these thoughts will help others as well.

1. Your Experience Matters – Having a couple of years in my current position without having anyone to follow or no template on what needed to be done, I constantly wondered if I was on the right track. It felt like my first year of teaching where I constantly questioned how I was doing.  A few years in, I feel a lot more comfortable.

That being said, being able to connect with people within my organization and outside through a PLN has taught me that I am not solely on my experience, but if I am willing to connect with teachers through social media, I have access to thousands of years experience that I don’t have myself.  New teachers have an opportunity that I never did as a teacher starting off if they are willing to take the time to connect.  Tapping into this experience is invaluable for a teacher in year 1 or year 35, you just have to make the effort.

2. You are a Learner First, Teacher Second – The notion of doing the same thing for 30 years has always terrified me.  I remember distinctly saying that I would never last 30 years in the profession because I would be too bored teaching the same thing over and over again.  In the past few years however, I have really focused on what I am learning and what I am trying in my job and with this focus, I have a renewed passion for the profession.

I have seen this renewed passion with others first and it has led to their own sense of passion for the profession.  In one article, the author states the following:

“I see myself as a learner first, thus I create my classes with learners, not for them ….”

I remember the reason I loved school so much as a student and it was that constant discovery and growth that you get from the process.  Teachers that focus on this will truly ensure that no day looks the same.  That constant growth could be quite invigorating.

3. Culture Starts With You – I remember having the same conversation with a friend that was frustrated about her situation and felt her boss could do so much better.  The problem was that no matter who the boss was, she always had the same issue.  I would talk with her and say, “You can’t control what other people do, only yourself.  What are you going to do differently to make your situation better?”  We have to remember that we always have options in what we do, and that if we want the environment around us to get better, it starts with us as individuals.

I recently talked about this notion and shared this powerful quote from Jamie Notter’s blog:

We all create the culture we’re in. Our actions, our words, even our thoughts. People in leadership roles often have the opportunity to leverage those words, thoughts, and actions, due to the attention they get, but we all are creating the culture every day. Be intentional about it. Be clear about what is valued and what drives success. And choose to behave consistently with that understanding, even if that feels like the harder choice in the moment.

Taking ownership of that culture and embodying what you want to see in others, no matter the position, can be the step that changes an entire culture.  It always start somewhere and with someone.  Is it you?

Many of these things that I have shared are things that people do already, but sometimes just realizing that and making it a focus when we walk into the door at the beginning of the year helps to focus on what we want the year to be like.

What are some of the things that you are going to focus on next year?

The Twitter Story

In less than 140 characters, there is a funny little story that is topical and pointing out some of the funny characteristics of Canadians (very polite and that we are big fans of rapper Jay-Zed).

So why are we so hard on kids that they “overshare” on social networks?  Much of what they do would be considered a short “story” that they are often telling in 140 characters or less to an audience.  Stories have been, and always will be, an important part of our world.

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. —Ursula K. LeGuin

The mediums to tell these stories have not changed; they have expanded.

In the recent article, “Twitter is the New Haiku”, the author shares Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s belief in the artistry that can come from a simple tweet:

“Sometimes I get asked, ‘Don’t you feel that the 140 characters has meant that people don’t think about things deeply anymore?’ The reality is that you don’t look at haiku and say, ‘You know, aren’t you worried that this format is going to prevent people from thinking deeply when you can only use this many words and it has to be set this way?’ I think that people develop language for creatively communicating within whichever constraints you set for people.” Dick Costolo

The author then continues to discuss that with this type of communication, less can often mean more:

“The power of communicating in fewer words is that those words mean more, and in their best forms, those words can inspire thousands more in discussion and speculation.” Emma Green

So are all tweets powerful stories?  Absolutely not.  A lot of what is shared is absolutely terrible, and many would say that Twitter is really harming our use of language.  Yet more people are moving to Twitter to share short stories that often turn into something more:

More recently, Twitter, too, has been coopted as a tool for fiction. Last year, Jennifer Egan wrote a short story in 140-character nuggets, which were posted on Twitter before they were published in The New Yorker as “Black Box.” A few months later, novelist Elliott Holt wrote her own Slate opined. “With its simultaneous narrators and fractured storyline, this is not the kind of tale that could march steadily across a continuous expanse of white space. It’s actually made for the medium.”

The major difference with something like Twitter is that it immediately can give our students an audience.  Looking at the traditional time it takes to publish a book, it can almost take a year from the moment it is finished until it is ready for an audience.  I am not saying that it is not a worthy endeavour to try writing a book, but we live in a world with multiple opportunities to try different mediums.  We do not have to focus on one.

Almost 700 posts into this blog, I first found my voice through Twitter, which expanded into a blog, and may now expand into a book next year.  By learning to use the first medium. it helped build my confidence in expanding to the next.  The ability to share short little messages and stories, has helped me to move to actually expanding my thoughts.  Wouldn’t starting with the 140 character story be a good start for our students?

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Wesley Nitsckie

The Prophets In Your Land

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Brisbane City Council

Interviewing teacher candidates for new positions in a school, I will always ask the question, “What areas do you believe that you can share with the staff to help them improve in their own practice?”

This question is imperative in the hiring process because I am looking for “school teachers” versus “classroom teachers.” School teachers do all of the things that a classroom teacher does, but they believe that within the school, all of the kids are their kids. They enjoy doing things like supervision because this is an opportunity to connect with students that they do not usually teach. They also look at what they can share with other staff (both giving and receiving) because in a school, it is not about egos and competition, but about collaboration. They believe that what they share with other staff members will help them become better teachers, ultimately helping students. Sharing does not make someone narcissistic. If it does, we should stop telling our kindergarten kids to do the same.

Losing belief

Talking to teachers that are now in school and talking to them about sharing through social media, a response that I often hear is, “I don’t really have anything of value to share.” My first thought is, “Why did someone hire you?” In reality, if someone believes that they have nothing of value to share, is school a place for them to be? Now take that same teacher, throw them in a job interview (where they need that job), and ask them if they have anything of value to share with staff. Do you think that they are really going to say the same thing?

So why the difference in the answer? A few reasons could be that they really don’t have anything to share (doubt it), they underestimate their own value (watch this Derek Sivers video to help get them over that notion), but more importantly, they are in a culture that frowns (either directly or indirectly) on sharing. The view is that the people that “share” are all about themselves (which, if you think about it, goes against the whole notion of sharing), or that anything of value would only come from an outside context.

Bloggers anonymous

Think about it … there are tons of teachers out there sharing awesome things on their blogs, great ideas to improve teaching, learning, and leading, yet how often does their OWN staff use their work as a basis for anything? Have we ever started with, “One of our staff wrote this fantastic post on __________, let’s all take a look at it and have a discussion.” A teacher’s blog often becomes their “dirty little secret” and something that is for the outside world only, not for their own staff.

Sorry to put it bluntly, but that is just stupid.

“My name is George, and I am a blogger. Please don’t tell my boss!”

Promoting within

In my role as division principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning in a school district of 10,000 students, I open my Google Reader every morning and look first at what our teachers are doing and share their work with the world. I know that it is only a small gesture, and I probably miss a lot of ways that I can share, but I want others to see their expertise. I am proud of what our district does, as other leaders should be as well, which I am sure they are, but how do they share that. How do they go about moving away that the “sharers” are the narcissistic ones, but in most instances, the ones that just want to help others do what is best for kids. We have always been good at looking outside for experts; time to start doing a better job looking and promoting within.

Change the focus

So the next time I talk to a teacher and ask them, “What do you have to share,” I am going to perhaps ask, “What does your school do to promote the sharing of your expertise?”

The onus for sharing should not only be on the individual, but the culture of the school as well.