Learning Conversations

Come sit with me. Well talk, well ask big questions

Category: Leadership

Aim High

Through my Twitter network, I came across a video of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk at the Apple Education Leadership Summit in April, 2008.

He finishes with a quote that I want to remember:

Someone said the great problem with human societies is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.

And for education, for the future, for all of us collectively, I think we all have to accept that for now, and for ever, we have to aim very high in education and we have to succeed.”

– Sir Ken Robinson


For me, I’ve always felt the same way about my parenting I aim very high and I have to succeed.  This is not something I’m willing to fail at…

That mindset certainly has helped me feel the urgency to make my parenting choices consciously and to do the personal reflection and change that need to happen to allow me to make those better parenting choices.

Otherwise, it’s just too easy for me to go day to day, year to year always doing things, always busy but not getting done the stuff that’s really important!

At a District workshop I attended yesterday, Assistant Superintendent Sylvia Russell spoke passionately that it’s important for us to remember that “No child is expendable!” I heard many people discussing that again during the session – it obviously resonated with all of us. It’s not good enough to do our best – we want to remember to do whatever it takes to help every child feel like a success.

What does that mean to me? It means that every one of us needs to hold a central belief in our hearts – that every child is capable of feeling like a success. And therefore, it’s only a matter of being curious, asking questions, researching, trying new things, working together and being creative until we find that solution that we already trust exists. That we won’t give up. Ever.

That’s how I parent too. I begin by having faith that my children and I will find our way forward and that they will grow up to be wonderful, contributing and whole human beings. And then, even when I’ve lost hope in a particular moment and can’t see my way forward, I still rely on that overall faith in the outcome to remind myself that I’ll find the way and we just need to keep trying.

And that’s what matters…

A Trifecta for Change

Keeping student learning at the center of all we do in the education system is absolutely critical – I have no doubt of this! In fact, as parents, we have exceptionally high standards and expect schools to have a 100% success rate. Our District talks proudly of its graduation rate – up in the high nineties (percentile), it’s pretty impressive. And I still say “not good enough!” Ask any parent if they want their child to be the kid that falls through the cracks? I doubt you’ll get any takers!

So that means one thing to me – we all need to be part of the education “system.” We all need to work together: students, parents, teachers, staff, leaders, politicians, communities.

These are things we all know. And we talk about them a lot – what to change, what we want, what we dream of, what we value, etc

The hard part is figuring out how to DO all these things? How to embed these beliefs into every thought, word and deed? How do we shift a system? How do we change the world? These are, indeed, big questions…

David Truss, Dave Sands and I have had many “big” talks about educational change over the last few years. We keep coming back to three core components to change – and that all three need to work together for success. We’ve talked about them as leadership, systems (technology, policies and procedures, administrative requirements, etc…), and shared learning (or Pro-D). Projects undertaken in only one of the three areas without considering/incorporating the other two areas inevitably fail or, at a minimum, underperform and lack sustainability.

I’ve come to think of the three areas that David, Dave and I talk about as a trifecta, of sorts. All three are needed to support innovative, systemic change. All three need to be considered and embedded into all we do in order to “win this race” for 100% success. As I reflected on Elisa Carlson’s post about Engaging Digital Natives, I got thinking again about change – the “engrossed” learning that she describes, I want for my children. For ALL children – and all adults too!

So, what will move us forward? How will we spread change and all the great things happening in pockets further and further, until we have a system we no longer recognize?

Here are my thoughts:

1) Relationships for Learning

(what David, Dave and I originally called “shared learning”)

I bet on relationships first. If there were only one thing I could focus my time on, it would be on building trust and relationships between all involved in our education system. Because if we have solid relationships, then we communicate with each other, we share our challenges and our ideas, and we learn together. And that, alone, changes my child’s learning experience in a classroom, even if all other challenges stay the same.

We have to remember that not only student-teacher relationships are critical to learning, but an entire community of healthy relationships are needed. Andy Hargreaves talks about the need for active trust to support systemic excellence and change, because we need learners to take risks. So we need supportive relationships between parents and teachers, teachers and students, all peer groups (students with students, teachers with teachers, etc), principals and teachers, etc

There are so many approaches, ideas, methodologies and projects – so many great things I see happening all over the place! But there is only one FIRST step in education change: we have to start by knowing each other. We have to encourage each other to remember that we’re all human and we all care about the same, fundamental things – children growing up to be happy, healthy, self aware and contributing citizens. We have to keep trying to remember not to assume or judge each other (and ourselves). We have to move beyond the old system and find ways to work together instead of fight against each other.

I never underestimate the power of the “system” (see #3 below). Barry Oshry writes about organizational behavior and how systems have personalities that inevitably influence us. We’re so used to doing things the way we always have and operating by habit. And particularly when under the influence of busy lives, it’s only natural to fall into old  habits – in this case, the old habits of treating parents as “clients” or the outsiders, doing “to” instead of doing “with” and falling back to assumptions about each other because it’s easier than the uncomfortable and vulnerable work of revealing yourself as an individual (with all the human foibles we all wish we could hide).

It’s easy to get frustrated with people – it’s much more effective to get curious. Ask questions. Don’t assume. Listen with an open mind. Don’t judge. Let yourself and those around you be whole, imperfect and amazing human beings. Open doors and take first steps in getting to know each other. Start by sharing something about yourself – you have a dog, you like snowboarding, you want to travel to Paris some day. Something that let’s people see you as an individual. Connect. It’s the foundation!

Parents need professionals. Professionals need parents.
The children need us both.

-Federation of Invisible Disabilities

2) Creating a Space for Learning

(Originally “Leadership)

I bet on the leadership needed for building communities in second place because we need those relationships to move beyond one-on-one interactions. We need support and modeling to learn how to trust that we can take risks (and won’t be made fun of or reprimanded), to come together as groups that collaborate and share, to decide that it’s safe in this space to be vulnerable and uncomfortable.

We all need leaders/mentors who encourage us without judging, who ask questions instead of give answers, who inspire us and who motivate us to believe in ourselves. Sometimes, we need the wisdom of an expert learner to help us keep going when we’ve lost hope and to walk beside us without taking over.

This could be a principal working with her staff, a teacher working with students, a student leader working with peers, a parent who advocates for greater involvement, etc We are all leaders in different ways and at different times.

Ultimately, creating a “safe space” for learning has to do (first and foremost) with who we are, not simply what we say or do. It takes silence, self reflective practices and conscious effort to be able to “show up” for those around you in a whole, healthy and supportive way. Without baggage. This is where Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” becomes the core guiding principle!

We cannot force someone to learn. We cannot mandate or legislate change. Ultimately, we can’t even motivate people to make the changes we want them to make. Goodness knows, I’ve tried! My daughter is a beautiful, smart, sensitive young lady. She is also disorganized, quick to anger or frustration, anxious and vulnerable. She’s quick to beat up on herself (afraid I’ve modeled that for her all too well…) and hates to hear feedback (because it all feels like criticism to her). Knowing that, in a way, I’ve “done” this to her through modeling my own insecurities and reactions, I sometimes feel like I have to also “fix” this.

It may be obvious to anyone from the outside that I can’t “fix” her, but fear and overwhelming love for our children isn’t always conducive to logical parenting choices… No surprise, then, that my dear daughter always fought harder when I tried to “teach” her – because every time I started some mini-lecture on the need for self control or having to clean her room, all she heard was “mom thinks there’s something wrong with me and I’m going to be a failure…” That led to nothing but more fights and more self doubt – the exact OPPOSITE of what I wanted for her!

Instead, I had to deal with my own fears FIRST. Only then could I start to learn to “hold a space” for her – to start every conversation by thinking “I love this child so much, how can I say what I want to say with that love at the core, so that she’ll hear me?” I don’t tell her what she’s done “wrong” anymore – she knows it (and desperately fears it) already. I ask questions instead. “How did it feel to be so upset? Did you like that? What do you want to do differently?” I ask her “How can I help?” or “Does that seem reasonable?” or “Can you think of a similar time when you found a solution?” I say “I love you” and offer her a hug (more and more, she asks for hugs now).

I set expectations and hold her to them by reminding her that she is capable – because sometimes she’s afraid and has lost hope, so helping her remember that she has successfully handled such situations in the past helps her remember to trust or believe in herself. And only once she lets go of the fear does her mind open to all the solutions that were sitting in front of her all the time! I could have told her what to do until I was blue in the face and she wouldn’t have done anything – because a mind closed with fear is blind. But simply to say “I believe in you and here’s the proof I see” shifts her a little, makes her question her fears, and invites her to open up just a crack.

What does this mean in our schools? Well, how often do we berate teachers who “don’t get it” for not changing their teaching practices? Or when that perpetually tardy student shows up late again, how often do we pull him into the office for another “mini lecture” on the need for punctuality? When parents sit around complaining in the parking lot, does anyone go listen to their concerns and invite them into the school for discussion? Or do the staff stand at the windows thinking “there they go again. THOSE parents…” (insert rolled eyes here). Every day, every moment – are our actions supporting the change that we can’t to make? Are we creating that space and that safety needed for those around us to learn?

In other words, I’ve learned something critical about leadership and systemic change from my darling, high strung daughter. We can only create a space that is safe, caring and supportive – then invite people to join us in making the changes that matter to us all. And join us, they will. I have faith! NOTE: return to review importance of #1 now, in context of #2…

3) Systems for Learning

(originally and still “systems”)

Ahhh… The SYSTEM… We do, indeed, have a hard time shifting a system, don’t we? There are rules, policies, Provincial learning outcomes, legislation, administrative procedures, best practices, standardized tests, class sizes, reporting requirements, budgets and limited resources, Roberts Rules of Order, and (not least of these) “the way we’ve always done it.” There are computer systems, software programs, support structures, hiring practices, purchasing rules, and parents who “don’t get it.” There are innumerable reasons why we can’t change.

Right now, we have excellence that happens in spite of the system. Every day, I see educators, principals, parents, students – all doing amazing things! But too often, these great programs or projects are driven by the determination and persistence of individuals – fighting the system and moving mountains because they care about kids and want to make a difference.

Too often, we have to find ways around policies, we have to fight technology barriers, we are working alone (“reinventing the wheel”) or we have to ignore politics (with career risk involved) in order to make great things happen. And the problem with this kind of change is that it isn’t sustainable – eventually, you get tired of fighting, you doubt your effectiveness and life becomes overwhelming. So the great program ends and you move on to a new challenge, hoping that this time it will be different…

In order to move forward and truly achieve lasting change and 100% success, we need excellence that is supported by the system.

This is where we usually start. Perhaps because it’s the most obvious – the lack of computers, the wireless networks, the budgets we debate every year, the curriculum or standardized testing mandated by government, changing assessment and report cards, the pro-d days, the possible programs (i.e. project based learning, IB, Montessori, French Immersion).

But the projects we choose often lack the conscious inclusion and consideration of both leadership and relationships/trust. I’ve noticed that we carefully select our pilot sites for technology projects, considering who the Principal at the school is, what kind of pro-d culture they have, how the parent/community relationships are. And I don’t think we often list those considerations specifically – it’s more of a gut feeling or instinct based selection. We sit around a table and throw out suggestions for pilot schools – and certain ones immediately resonate. We know we can make change there. Why? Because the “right” people are there…

When we roll it out further, it often struggles. We still deploy the computers, but they get used by only certain people. Or they are used in much more adaptive (rather than transformative) ways.

Yes, we need to change the system – there’s no doubt of that! But we need to change it together. We need to pay attention to relationships and communities. We need a shared understanding of our ultimate goals – what Andy Hargreaves calls an inclusive and inspiring vision. And we need to constantly questions our assumptions along the way. Changing a system has as much to do with what we do as with what we choose NOT to do…

Life’s two most important questions are “Why?” and “Why not?”
The trick is knowing which one to ask.

– Gordon Livingston

Crowd Accelerated Innovation

In the TEDTalks video, Chris Anderson talks about the YouTube phenomenon and how it is fueling incredible innovation – just by sharing ideas in big ways!

From the description on YouTube: TED’s Chris Anderson says the rise of web video is driving a worldwide phenomenon he calls Crowd Accelerated Innovation a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print.

This is why I’m encouraging my Districts parents to share their stories on a Posterous website (http://dpac43.posterous.com) – with each other, with the District, with our community (both local and global)!

We have ideas – schools and PAC’s are doing great things all over this District. I know that because I hear stories every time I talk to someone or walk into a school!

We have the “crowd” – parents are part of vibrant school communities and we want to be involved.

We have the “desire” – I know that parents in this District care SO much. About our kids, about our schools and about our communities! It’s why we volunteer our precious time – because we know it matters!

And sharing our ideas in a way that all can see, read and contribute is a start at shedding “light” on all of those ideas that are happening in every corner of our District!

I’m also hoping that we’ll be able to engage our student leaders to share stories from schools from their perspective – showing us the things they care about and that they are proud of!

More stories = more sharing = more ideas to spread!

I think a lot about ways of sharing stories. How could teachers share their stories and ideas? Shed light on the great things that happen in classrooms and schools all the time? Share ideas for teaching practices or lesson ideas? About classroom management and ways to personalize learning? Share resources?

A group blog perhaps? A wiki? A video library?

Or I dream big about an innovation and collaboration center. Allow discussion to form around questions or topics – use @injenuitys idea of having a tag cloud as a dynamic, fluid way of surfacing what people are talking about. Follow the words that pique your interest and join in.

Some educators do this already on Twitter or via blogs. I think the catch to having the majority being engaged in such sharing, though, is making it (1) easy and (2) relevant within a trusted peer community. The first one removes the technical barriers to participation.  And the second one makes it meaningful for individuals because if these are stories that are being told in my own District, then I know the curriculum is the right one, I can call the person if I have questions and I know its possible within my own community.

Stories are such a non-judgemental, non-threatening way of that sharing! No one is telling anyone else what to do or how to do it were just telling the stories of our own journeys. Allowing others to tag along.

Maybe, my story might spark an idea for someone else. Maybe they will add their own personal touch and come up with a new idea! And who knows where that might lead??

Let the learning (and innovation) spread!

Say it loud say it proud!

Somehow, in the midst of a conversation, a colleague laughed out loud and said you’re such an idealist!

I stopped, noticing that I might have (in the past) apologized for being so unrealistic. For being driven. For being relentlessly focused on the things that matter to me.
As if those are bad things

Or I might have felt bad for being high maintenance

But this time, in that moment when I stopped those apologies, I felt a wave of pride instead.
You bet Im an idealist! I responded. And I smiled.

I believe in the power of teams. I believe that people want to be a part of meaningful projects. And I believe that everyone wants to rise to your expectations. So why not have great expectations?

And the very next day at WeDay, I found this t-shirt:

shameless idealist

I love it!
And I’m proud of it!

The Push and Pull of Learning

My youngest son is four years old and just started Kindergarten. He’s joyful, loving and extremely energetic!

Whenever we walk in the local park or on the sidewalk in town, he lets go of my hand and skips ahead or stops to examine some rocks. I empower him to follow his own interests, to spend some time seeking out his own learning, asking me questions about the things that interest him. I love seeing the world through his eyes – its all fresh and new and ever so exciting!! His insights or questions often surprise me, leading me to think “wow, I’d never thought of it that way!”

He’s curious and wants to explore everything, all the time, everywhere! He is the epitome of the “continuous learner” that we want everyone to be! And all I have to do is get out of the way and let him lead the way!

However, when we have to cross the street or when we walk into a parking lot, I take his hand. He hates it! Sometimes he screams, he tries to pull his hand away from me and he loudly protests that the hand holding is even a requirements. “I can do it, Mommy!! Let goooooo!”

It’s important for me to recognize that there are times when he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know! As we walk through the parking lot, I stop and remind him to listen – does he hear any car engines running nearby? Does he see anything? Do any cars have someone sitting in them? I point out the white backup lights on a car about to start moving. I talk about why those lights are there and what they mean (that the car is running and in reverse). I ask him what he thinks might happen if we keep walking? When we cross the street, we look at cars that are approaching and we just stand and wait sometimes, to see how quickly cars move or how to gauge when it’s safe or when it isn’t? I talk about turn signals and what they mean – and that even when a car has their blinker on, it’s still smart to see if they’re actually turning or if they might change their mind at the last minute?

He still likes to think that he’s got it all figured out and he doesn’t need me to teach him anything. I support his independence and self confidence. And I still do my job of keeping him safe and teaching him the things that he doesn’t understand yet. I don’t need him to agree with me, in these cases. I don’t need him to like it.

There is a balance I strive for in raising my children. I strive to make sure that they are loved, that they feel safe to take risks and fail and get up and try again. I encourage them to recognize their strengths, follow their curiosity and pursue their passions. And yet, I have perspective, experience and some resulting wisdom that I apply to decide when the risks are too great. Sometimes, I can recognize opportunities to share some of my hard-won wisdom to help them think of things they hadn’t considered. And when they’re trying to do something and don’t know why it’s not working, I offer to help. After all, it’s ridiculous for everyone to reinvent the wheel – why wouldn’t we want our kids to know how to learn from each other (and from mentors/leaders)?

I choose to lead AND to empower. This is what I think of as the “push” and “pull” of learning. And the trick is to know when to step back and let someone learn their own way vs. when to step in and provide direction or guidance? It’s a very fluid way of being. It takes a willingness to allow others (even children) to do the same – to sometimes learn from us and other times to teach us.

I’m learning that leading an organization or team is no different (in this way) than parenting my children. There are some times when I seek input from everyone, strive to make sure that all have a voice and empower those around me to accomplish our goals their own way. It’s a powerful culture to develop – one where the hierarchy disappears and the lines of leader vs. team disappear.

We are all leaders when we feel ownership and pride in what we’re doing! That kind of shared ownership and collaboration results in better solutions – I have no doubt! And empowering people leads to relevant, meaningful learning for all – just like my four year old remembers all about the rocks that fascinate him so.

There are also times, though, where we see something that not everyone else does. Perhaps we have experience that others don’t. Maybe it’s an area of particular interest or research. Whatever the reason, we know something that others need to know. With that knowing comes a responsibility to share –and sometimes, the responsibility to lead or take control/make decisions. Even if people don’t like it or they fight you –just like my four year old fights to pull his hand out of mine as we cross the street.

This leadership needs to happen with integrity and respect – not from a desire for power or control. Just like I strive to make sure my children feel loved, I need to have a relationship with my team and that sense of trust before people will follow me when I try to lead.

The push and pull of learning – and of life – needs to be a cross between individualized, empowered learning and a benevolent dictatorship with caring, inspiring leaders. I believe that either, in exclusion, is insufficient – it’s the blend of the two that has always been the most powerful

Shared leadership vs the voice in my head

Ive started working on a new project recently and I’m darned excited about it too!

We’ve got a fairly major technology change to deal with and we want to minimize the stress of such a change by putting ease of use and high value at the center of all we do. But we’ve also got a core group of leaders that understand the possibilities inherent in disruption

I feel like we have an opportunity here to create solutions that support a breadth and depth of benefits including community engagement, including parents in learning, empowering students, supporting relationships, creating shared learning, making learning visible, supporting leadership, etc

And the project team is on board to model all that we believe open and transparent communication, shared leadership, collaborative problem solving, listening without judgment, seeking positive exemplars, etc

You can see why I’m excited, right?

So this is where all of the conversations I have on Twitter (and with anyone who will engage with me on a day to day basis!!) hit the reality of having to DO what we’ve talked about. The values I believe in are lofty and probably more than a little idealistic.

I sat in a meeting yesterday, talking about approaches and next steps. There is no clear leadership hierarchy. We have many strong personalities involved. The project sponsor has purposefully brought us all together as thought leaders in different ways. This is growing into a great team

Yet I caught myself falling into old paradigms. I started noticing the voice in my head

Listening and looking around the room, I thought Ok, I thought I was the project manager on this why are there all these conversations that have been going on that I haven’t been included in? Deep breath I had to talk myself through it. This isn’t a big deal people have to feel free to collaborate without limitation no ones trying to exclude you

That made me think Ive struggled a bit during the team-forming phase of this project trying to figure out what role I’m supposed to be in and whats expected of me. Ive sat back at times, unsure whether I’m supposed to be speaking up (to the frustration of the sponsor!!)

And it finally drilled home today this is the discomfort of doing things differently than I have before. In previous projects, Ive wanted to know it all, to have a handle on everything that’s going on (read control) not in a malicious way, but because that was the way Id always been successful before.

It was a great big ah-ha moment! This is what shared leadership looks like! No ones in charge here, were making decisions together, we have to rely on each other, we have to learn to trust each other, were allowing each other not to know it all. In order to allow each person to bring their individual strengths and perspectives to the table, I also have to acknowledge that I cant do everything and therefore I shouldn’t control everything either!

Wow! Its incredibly freeing and incredibly frightening, all at the same time!

I like this journey