Posts Tagged ‘schools’
This past week of visiting a range of schools has reinforced my perception about the critical importance of structures and non-negotiables in creating a powerful learning and working environment.
In everything we do as individuals we have habitual ways of operating, thinking, and organising ourselves. They are so habitual that we are unconscious to them. In fact, it is just part of how our brains operate efficiently – making the habitual practices we have unconscious. You don’t have to think about walking, you just do. You don’t have to think about speaking, you just speak (unless you are speaking in a language that you are new to and then you are often thinking about each word).
This is exactly the same in schools. The way a school operates is through systemic habitual practices. From what topic is covered when, to “bells” or “music” to signify the beginning or end of lunch or recess, to the habitual practices teachers have as they teach, to the way that staff and students interact. In fact, there are many programs and ideas that have been designed to create habitual practices in the classroom to improve learning: DeBono’s 6 Hats, Thinkers Keys, You Can Do It Program, Habits of the Mind, Bloom’s Taxonomy, using graphic organisers, etc.
Consider that systemic habitual practices are EVERYWHERE and that they are so unnoticed that you wouldn’t even think about it as something you do … “it is just the way that it is”. Consider that a number of those systemic practices have arisen, not because of any thought out strategy, but perhaps because they have always been there or someone thought it was a good idea.
Inside a commitment to creating an exceptional learning environment, extraordinary deep thinking is required to examine and challenge old habits, and implement systemic habitual practices that actually (with evidence and research) provide the learning environment you are out to build.
One school that I visited this week has been on this journey for the past 7 years. The primary (elementary) school lies in an area with generational poverty, sometimes up to 3 generations. Around 7 years ago the principal and the staff decided that it was insufficient for them to continue on as they had. While the results were OK nothing was shifting in the community and the students would end up caught in the cycle of poverty. The team created the vision for learning of “breaking the poverty cycle in the community”. A daunting goal, but one that the staff believed was worth their time and effort. This thinking aligns with creating a Level 5 Tribe as defined within the work of Logan, King and Fischer-Wright in Tribal Leadership.
The principal and staff looked at everything based in evidence. They began investing in a range of systems to be able to examine the student learning data. They started asking “WHY?” to everything they had done. They started looking at the progress of students through the school and what was missing. They looked at their habitual practices for professional development and paying replacement teachers (when out on PD). They looked at how teachers developed themselves. They started looking at every aspect of the child’s learning experience growing up in generational poverty. They then created what it could look like / feel like / sound like and started exploring the HOW. They created specific school-wide focuses and non-negotiables.
Here are some of their structures and the thinking.
- Literacy and Numeracy are key focuses in the school. Research shows that by the time children from lower socio-economic families attend school they have heard only 10 million words of lower order thinking and language structure. This is compared to 40 million in higher socio-economic families. Actions?
- Some children use Fast ForWord to support the development of auditory processing abilities and linguistic development
- The use of a range of literacy programs from Prep – Grade 6 to build up all dimensions of literacy (THRASS, SWST, QuickSmart, etc)
- Focus on the language the every teacher and student uses in every interaction (built upon Ruby Payne’s work on the differing language between economic classes)
- In the lower grades, students have take-home readers but they only take them home after they have been read in class 4 times by the teacher. The repetition builds the decoding ability of children such that when they read them with their parents at home (some who struggle with these books) they can continue to build and grow.
- Awards are based on students taking ground in Literacy and Numeracy and they are given books as prizes. This builds up the library within the home – something these families can’t afford.
- The Principal has sourced getting black and white versions of books such that the children can take them home to keep. Again building the library at home. By the end of being at the school the child will have well over 100 books that are theirs.
- If the data shows that the children in grade 4 are struggling with a particular area in literacy or numeracy, then it is not solely a grade 4 issue. It is a whole school issue. The senior staff will go back and look through the data for the whole school and design a whole school action plan to eliminate the “missing” that all teachers will implement.
- The “bells” in the school are replaced with a musical version of the timetables which rotates through up to 12 times table. This has arisen because the school has the belief that learning is ALWAYS occurring!
- Staff structures. Quite often the Principal and staff have to deal with many competing demands that have very little to do with the learning within the school. The Principal, Assistant Principal, and two Learning coaches (Literacy and Numeracy) share SAMs (Staff Administrative Managers) who handle most of the administrative day-to-day tasks thus freeing them up to focus on learning. The senior management are crystal clear that they are there to focus on the learning and development of each and every child. Inside of this, the professional development budget is rarely used to send staff out to PD but to fund in-house development. The Replacement Teacher budget is used to fund another position within the school to have extra teachers available all the time. Each staff must hand in an action plan by 9am Monday for how they are “value-adding’ to each of the students in their class.
- Culture. It was critical that there was a consistent and coherent culture being built for the students and the staff. The staff are clear that their focus is student learning – all the time. This is not about covering certain material and ticking boxes, this is about whether the students have learnt what they need to learn to move forward. There are teacher rubrics that explicitly outline what the differing levels of the journey to a “great” teacher looks like / feels like / sounds like including room setup, how lessons run, building self-esteem, work displays, etc. The teachers are coached from these rubrics and supported in their development to achieve. Observational coaching and the viewing of other teachers are encouraged. The teachers are expected to develop mastery in consistently using the Covey “Leader in Me”, Habits of the Mind, De Bono’s 6 Hats, Thinkers Keys, Visible Learning in every interaction.
We could go on with a range of aspects but the point is that this school has done and continues to do the thinking to WHY and HOW they can achieve their goal. It hasn’t been an easy journey. The Principal is constantly looking for funding. The school receives visits from 200 schools per year. There were back-lashes and upset staff at the beginning. The staff does work longer hours than the norm. Yet … they are inspired, passionate, challenged, and fulfilled each and every day.
As you finish reading this I invite you to ask yourself some questions:
- Is the school crystal clear about what its vision and focus (at most one or two areas) is?
- Has the school identified, examined and challenged (WHY?) all the systemic habitual practices and measured them against the question “do these practices deliver, with researched evidence, the future that we are building”
- Has the school identified, explored and implemented HOW they are moving towards the vision and fulfilment of the focuses?
- Is there a high performance learning culture being built? How?
- How is the school address the 3 major stakeholders in a child’s learning – student, staff and community (parents quite often)?
I promise you, if you begin to do this thinking and address these areas … your school will produce exceptional learners.
NOTE: if you want to see more examples, videos, audio files, etc they will be uploaded on the website (www.intuyuconsulting.com.au) soon!
I have realised over the past 6 months how few schools are actually clear about what their long term vision is. Part of the impact of this lack of vision and disciplined building of this vision is that schools can quite often be focussed on things that disperse their power and ability. They become like a thirsty person wandering in the desert – going from one mirage to the next. Teachers become inured to change and morale can suffer.
In an increasingly competitive educational and financial environment, and as part of the paradigm shift occurring as we move further into the Information Age, it has become critical for schools to be clear and focused in their vision and actions. Even more so is to develop a culture of disciplined people, disciplined thoughts, and disciplined actions.
- Empowering Level 5 Leadership (as Jim Collins speaks of in “Good to Great”)
- Getting the right people on the bus – getting a strong core group of leaders within the school who will be the team who will take responsibility to create and build the vision within the school community
- Creating a hedgehog concept for the school
- Creating clearly what it means, what it feels like, what it looks like when that hedgehog concept is accomplished
- Creating the non-negotiables as you move forward
- Confronting what is actually the current state of the school – what is working, what is not against the vision, mission statement, or hedgehog concept.
- And so on
What I want to share about this blog is how we worked with a leadership team at a school to create the hedgehog concept and began the process of uncovering their collective meaning, vision and actions to deliver on that vision.
A Hedgehog concept is idea that Jim Collins shares about in his book “Good to Great”. The idea comes from the story that the hedgehog succeeds because is only good at one thing – it rolls itself up into a ball with its spines outwards and it is protected against any dangers (such as foxes who have to come up with many strategies to succeed but rarely ever do). What Jim Collins found is that the most consistently successful organisations follow this concept as well. They adhere fanatically to their vision (Hedgehog Concept) and ignore taking on anything not consistent with it. This gives them an ability to remain focussed and able to develop consistent structures, approaches and culture.
There are three elements to the hedgehog concept:
- What can you be the best in the world at?
• Understand what you can and cannot be the best at
• Let your abilities, not egos, determine what you attempt
- What drives your economic engine?
• What has the greatest impact on your economics (reputation for a school)?
- What are you deeply passionate about?
• Great organisations focus on those activities that ignite their passion
You can see in the diagram below the result of doing this work with a school.
Some of the discussion that raged as the leadership team created the 3 elements was fascinating
- In distinguishing what they were deeply passionate about the team really cottoned on that this was not just a statement for students or learning but their bigger vision for all people. They wanted everyone (teachers, students, parents, etc) involved with the school to be exceptional, inspired and passionate. We toyed with the idea of “the best they can be” but distinguished this was limiting. How do we even know what people’s best is? We toyed with extraordinary but that is a quite oft used word that has lost its meaning for many. This led to exceptional – an exception to the norm.
- The team wanted to be the best in the world at building learning communities. I confronted the group this week to define what that actually meant. In the first few minutes of discussion it was interesting to note that different people had different conceptions about what that meant or looked like. WE spent most of the session doing the work to be really clear about what that meant. Here is what they created:
Groups of people with a common goal / vision
Working collaboratively (learning from and together)
Developing 21st century social competencies
Inspiring passionate and exceptional people
- The leadership team had to define some not-negotiable items in the shifting of the school to deliver its vision. These included:
o Working collaboratively
o Removing mediocrity
o Passion and Professionalism
o High levels of literacy and numeracy
o Making informed decisions on student learning
o Developing 21st century social competencies
o Every child matters
o All aboard or not on board
In the whole process it became clear that as questions and ideas arose it pointed to that certain structures, systems and thinking had to be embedded in the staff (including having the staff plan for delivering social competencies first and then strategically looking at the content to be covered and discussing how the content be used to develop the competencies).
The homework the leadership team is now working upon is to become clear about what each aspect of the hedgehog concept means and what it looks like. They will also share with another staff member who they consider to be a leader within the staff community. The purpose of this is to start enrolling the staff in a future being created and to ignite feedback and leadership. Finally, against the future and vision they have created, they will outline where they are now in that journey. This will allow us to plan the steps to achieve that future.
Archimedes did, apparently, when he stepped into his bath and noticed that the bath level rose by the volume displaced by the volume of his body. Archimedes yelled “??????!” (or Eureka which is Greek for “I have found it!”) before he went running through the streets half-naked excited about his discovery!
Insights come to us seemingly only at certain times and the process doesn’t seem to be reproducible. But insights is what is at the core of our learning and the learning of all human beings. What if we could make it reproducible?
David Rock in his recent book, Quiet Leadership, has given us an insight into insights.
David discusses recent neuroscience research that suggests that there are four stages to insights. The following is my paraphrasing from David Rock’s book and other researchers.
The First Stage: Awareness
Consider that the brain forms mental maps that gathers the information it has stored into some cohesive whole. As a way of accessing the information and ordering it has organised the information and patterns it has discerned into some map and then uses these maps to interpret and relate to the world.
In this first stage the brain is immersed in new information. It could be new perspectives about something we are examining in a class or heard on TV or are currently reading in a book. New information is essentially being processed and the brain is attempting to fit these ideas, thoughts and concepts into its current mental maps. As the brain attempts to integrate the new knowledge it begins to see that there is a dilemma because the new knowledge is creating a different mental map than the one that currently exists but the brain has not yet worked out how to reconcile this conflict by creating a new metamap or by reconfiguring the existing maps.
The Second Stage: Reflection
If one is to develop a consistent process of having insights and thus more productively then there needs to be more second stage “reflection” time in our days.
MRI scans show that people’s brains give off alpha-band waves just before they come up with an insight. Alpha waves correlate with people shutting down inputs from their external senses and focusing on internal stimuli. When we perform tasks that engage the conscious, logical mind we decrease the alpha-band waves. So reflection is NOT helped by asking your students to reflect by writing down their reflections (which is what many teachers do). The writing process should occur after true reflection.
Studies have shown that during reflection we are not thinking logically or analysing data; we’re engaging a part of our brain used for making links across the whole brain. We are thinking in an unusual way, tapping into more intelligence than the three to five pieces of information we can hold in our working memory. We are allowing the brain to think across the whole dataset of ideas, images, thoughts, knowledge to connect and reconfigure its mental maps without any new input from the conscious or working memory.
A simple process to reflect is to sit still and close your eyes (this removes about 70% of external stimuli) and focus on your breathing. Listen to the way you inhale and then exhale for about 60 seconds. Then open your eyes just a fraction and close them again. This sends you deeper into the alpha-band state. Listen to the way you inhale and then exhale for another 30 seconds and then open your eyes and write down your reflections. During this period you don’t think about anything logically just focus on your breathing.
By the way, we have all experienced this process naturally. Quite often we have insights when we are lying in bed before we go to sleep or when we wake up. It is in the quiet “non-logical”, “non-thinking” times that we suddenly go … “ah-ha”!
Third Stage: Insight
At the moment of insight our mental maps have been reconfigured or a new mental map has suddenly snapped into existence. In this moment the body releases various neurotransmitters like adrenaline as well as possibly serotonin and dopamine. This is why there is a sudden excitement and a rush throughout the body.
The intense motivation from having an insight is short term. If you can get people to take tangible actions while the insight is close at hand, even just to commit to doing something later, this will be a big help to ensuring new ideas become reality. If you don’t take some action then and there the insight and new mental map is not reinforced and the insight is lost.
I just returned from running workshops in Queensland and the group of teachers and I had a fantastic discussion around safety, connection and learning.
Let me tune you in to how we got into it by reproducing a bit of the morning of the Advanced Inquiry Workshop.
Our brain is designed to to ensure the safety and survival of our bodies. So it is always scanning to ensure that the body is safe. Given that survival and safety is paramount for the brain … the learning environment must be safe.
But .. are our learning enviroments safe for the brain?
Fear is the foremost inhibitor to learning and growth. The brain, however, cannot distinguish between fear of failure /getting things wrong / making a mistake in a peer environment vs fear of dying or suffering injury. Research has shown that the physiologically they produce the same body reaction. This is understandable because the environment that we exist in has evolved from the dangers of survival out in the wild to the dangers of survival in the modern world.
What this points to is that we must go beyond looking at physical saefty issues like bullying or many of the overt factors that create an unsafe environment for learning. We need to also look at the systemic structures that the brain will interpret as a danger or survival issues.
One of the unfortunate byproducts of a content focussed traditional school environment is that we have created an environment of wrong / right, good / bad … a breeding ground for fear. Students over time adapt by unconsciously becoming passive learners as a way of mitigating this fear as they haven’t yet learnt the skills to mitigate the fear using their pre-frontal cortex or reasoning part of their brain to reframe their perception. By the time we become adults many of us have not developed the capacity to mitigate the emotions and feelings that fear drive up – notice how public speaking is still feared more than death!
When I shared that with the teachers that I had a face to face example of the passivity that our education system breeds with a large group of first year pre-service teachers only last week … they began to share about their experiences of students from year 8 onwards and how they developed themselves to overcome the fear suppressor with the students.
Social networking research indicates that unless the individual has very strong self-confidence and wherewithal to go against group behaviour (the fear of speaking up and being wrong or humiliated) they will be passive and go along with the beliefs of the groups they are in. A simple example of this is how we can be chameleon like when we are in different groups of people. Fitting into a group is a survival technique that is fundamental to design of the brain in most species.
So a learning environment must be safe and develop the self-confidence of the child to question, to challenge, to develop their own place in the world. Young people must learn how to fail and learn from those experiences without fear of consequences for failing (e.g embarrassment, teasing, bullying, etc).
How do we create this?
Well the very best teachers practice it all the time. They know that they must be connected on a deep level with the students. They actively build a safe environment. They share their lives and create mutual respect. They honour their word. They consistently role model behaviour and relate to the students as their learning partners. They create environments where it is Ok to fail and make mistakes. They sometimes ask the students for feedback so they can improve their ability to deliver lessons that are more inspiring or have the students learn better.
Even more than this … why inquiry learning is becoming a more spoken about learning approach is that it is not about right or wrong, good or bad … but it allows students to discover and voice opinions and try different things out in an environment of discovery.
You might realise my point by this time. Unless we move from a content focussed paradigm which is all about passing the test, getting things right, etc .. we will not be preparing students for a world that is profoundly changing.
If we want our students to be self-confident, risk-taking thought provokers who adapt to an ever changing social and technological environment then we need to shift OUR paradigm of education.
The leap isn’t large … but it is becoming more and more urgent.
Welcome to Intuyu Consulting: Empowering 21st Century Learning.
This blog is designed to enlighten, to give ideas, to share thoughts and to empower teachers, schools, students and educators to shift the culture of their schools such that they actually prepare their students for the 21st century.
Firstly I want to say … I am not the font of all knowledge! Far from it. But as I read and work in schools there are great ideas and tools I come across that i will want to share.
Feel free to link to me, to share the thoughts and ideas with others and to make a difference from what you read and see!