Wine Glasses on the Table

I’m having a dry April. (I know, I know, it seemed like a good idea at the time, what can I say?!) But I tell you what, there’s nothing like foregoing alcohol for an extended period of time to make you think about the place of booze in New Zealand culture.

You start to realise how many social events revolve around alcohol: have a catch-up with a friend. At a pub. Enter a quiz. At a pub. Watch a sports game. At a pub. Birthday parties. Dinner parties. Parties parties. Heck, even the cinema these days.

Then I feel as though I have to explain why I’m not drinking. No, I’m not on antibiotics. No, I’m not pregnant. Yes, I am driving, but that’s besides the point. I’m just not drinking at all this month. A glass of sparkling water would be delicious, thank you.

It makes me think about how taken for granted having an alcoholic beverage is. How ubiquitous the booze. In fact, even the word ‘drink’ itself in adult contexts is synonymous with alcohol: “Now, what can I get you to drink?” When you go to a restaurant, the non-alcoholic drinks are listed way at the back of the menu. The expectation just is that you’ll be having wine. In fact, there are empty wine glasses already on the table, waiting for you. The prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumption is that everyone drinks alcohol.

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And all this makes me wonder. What are the wine glasses on the table for education? In other words, so as not to torture the metaphor further, what are the prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumptions that we just ‘know’ about school?

That everyone speaks English? That everyone is literate? That everyone has access to the Internet? A TV? That students wish to accumulate knowledge and pass tests? That teachers will be referred to by their surnames? That students aren’t allowed in the staffroom, but that teachers are allowed in the common room? That high schools don’t need playgrounds? That everyone should learn English, Maths and Science? That teachers are experts in their field? That school starts at 9am, finishes at 3pm, and runs Monday-Friday in ten week blocks we call terms? That summer is sacred?

There are several approaches I could suggest at this point, first and foremost being Universal Design for Learning, but I wonder if we need to start even more from first principles here. What if we wrote all the things we ‘know’ about school, and thought about whether they were helpful (i.e. nourishes a culture that empowers confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners – and in that I include adults, and whanau too), or not helpful. What if we asked lots of questions? What if we openly acknowledged and examined our assumptions – maybe by using a framework such as Timperley, Kaser and Halbert’s spiral of inquiry (2013)? What if everything was up for debate, and we welcomed students and whanau to debate them too? Then we might be on our way to reimagining and revisioning school and not just assuming that we should put wine glasses on the table.

How might Design Thinking transform our schools?

This blogpost is the final in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

Let me start by looking at the title of this blogpost. Something that’s common in design thinking practices is to use the phrase “how might we” (often abbreviated to HMW…which doesn’t stand for ‘homework’!) to pose a framing question. I find these three words powerful. “How” implies something is possible, but it’s a broad question word which encourages immersion and exploration. “How” is free from agenda, in the sense that it doesn’t imply that the answer is already known and that rubber-stamping is being sought. “How” asks us to problem find, as well as problem solve. “Might” is another open word which encourages free flowing ideation without judgement or bias. And “we” is utterly inclusive. I like this way of framing a question as it encapsulates the design thinking mindsets: empathetic, curious, collaborative, growth-minded, biased towards actions, requiring deep thought, and focused towards an as-yet-unknown outcome. So, how might we use design thinking to transform our schools?

(Side note, the verb that follows the ‘how might we’ requires careful thought and consideration too. Choosing one often sends me towards a thesaurus and I usually write multiple versions in search of the perfect nuanced combination. I love this post by Mary Cantwell of DeepDT on this very topic.)

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Image Credit

So, if you’ve followed along with me so far, you’ll have learned that for me design thinking is extremely powerful, and I believe that it has much to offer us in the education sector. But you’ll also be aware that I actually can’t answer my own ‘how might we’ question, as it will be up to you in your own specific context to explore how design thinking might disrupt and transform your school. Instead, I thought I might pose a series of ‘what if’ questions. (Design thinkers like those too!)

What if we…

  • Used design thinking to craft a strategic vision for our school, and then use this overarching vision to inform whole school planning?
  • What if we embraced the design thinking mindsets and actively encouraged question asking, risk taking and a ‘just do it’ approach within an iterative feedback loop?
  • What if we wrote bug lists in our staffroom and classrooms…and used these to inform our next steps? (NB: A ‘bug list’ is not a list of the insects to be found in the school grounds, but a list of things that ‘bug’ – i.e. annoy and irritate – you.)
  • What if we explored radical collaboration to give voice and agency to learners, teachers, and the community?
  • What if, by embracing a whole school design thinking approach, we could short-circuit change management concerns because we had engaged empathetically with all involved?

By way of an example, I’d like to return again to Grant Lichtman’s book #EdJourney (Jossey-Bass, 2014), where he tells the story of the Los Altos School District in California that comprises nine schools. They wanted to be able to capture student voice in order to truly revolutionise learning. So, they created “Student EdCon”, a three day design thinking conference that was student centred. In the book, Alyssa Gallagher, the director of strategic initiatives and community partnerships, reports that at the conference they “exposed the students to thought leaders who would resonate with them and their interests. Then they learned about the design process, and had a chance to develop solutions they had created for different ways to approach learning.” (p. 155) I wonder what students themselves would create if we opened up thorny issues like curriculum design and timetabling to them in honest and democratic ways?

Because, I guess, that’s what all this design thinking business is about for me: What if design thinking gave rise to a movement to drive innovation in our schools?

Further reading:

Edutopia: Design Thinking in Education

Questionable Leadership

This blogpost is prompted by my reading of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger (2014).

What if our school leaders asked more questions?

I’ve been wondering what it might be like to work in a school where there is a culture of questioning. I think this would need to start at the top to role model acceptance of potentially disruptive questions. Berger posits that there is an inverse relationship between questioning and expertise. That is, as we get more knowledgable about a topic we question less. I wonder if this isn’t often (sometimes? occasionally?) the case with school leaders.

What if we were more comfortable with our own ignorance?

If we are comfortable that we don’t know, and aware that we don’t know, then we might be prompted to ask questions. How else do you learn if you don’t first pose a question? How else can you understand others’ assumptions or the systems of an organisation if you don’t ask: why We could even start by centring the foundation of the school around a question.

What if we had mission questions instead of mission statements?

A question is engaging. It points forward. It can be a motivating and collaborative experience. “Tim Brown, the chief executive at IDEO, points out that questions, by their very nature, challenge people and invite them to engage with an idea or an issue – and could therefore do likewise in engaging employees with a company mission.” (p. 163)

What might a culture of questioning be like?

I think questioning is a great leveller. If leaders are prepared to ask questions borne of their own genuine curiosity to discover more, this can fundamentally shift power structures. A leader is no longer the sole expert. Others might have the answers that you seek. If we were to, as Berger suggests, let listening inform questioning (p. 98), I think this could be transformational.

To listen is to be respectful. Respect, I think, builds empathy and trust. Questioning is a way to bridge divides. Berger quotes Jon Bond, who considers “questions to be ‘the verbal equivalent of nonviolent conflict resolution’” (pp. 205-6). If we seek to understand another’s point of view, then we might be able to find a way forward.

I think this process would take time. It is an investment in people. But I think it could be powerful and ultimately transformative. Questioning is a way to disrupt with humility.

What question might you ask today?

Image Credit
Image Credit

IALT

learn

It’s six months since I wrote this blogpost on my ‘word for the year’. In summary, a previous school principal used to challenge the staff to choose a word for the year as a focus point. I much prefer this to New Year’s Resolutions or even goals because it’s significantly easier to keep one single word in mind. I have a strong preference for verbs as an action point. This year, being in a new job – and my first job outside of the traditional classroom – and being a CORE Education eFellow, it seemed quite natural to settle on the word Learn.

To my surprise and delight this blogpost became popular, with other teachers also choosing their own word to shape their year. When this occurred, I thought we’d better follow this up with a six month review. We often write on classroom walls ‘WALT’s – we are learning to… – so here’s my ‘IALT’s – I am learning to…

Actually, when I reflect over the past six months. And boy, has it ever been a journey, I think what I’m mostly learning about is myself. I expected to learn techy skills (and I am, I made my first playdoh piano with a MaKey MaKey). I expected to learn about content related to The Mind Lab postgrad course (and I am, I’m getting my head around the LEAN canvas, startup jargon, and agile-based approaches). I expected to learn more about the power of design thinking practices (and I am, I had some amazing feedback about this from the current Wellington Mind Lab postgrads), but I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself.

So, here’s a snapshot of the things I’ve come to learn about myself in the last six months:

  • I’ve got to feel as though I’m making a difference.
  • That listening is a profound act of love and respect.
  • That WellyED is a force to reckon with, and is something that brings me great joy and pride.
  • That before we can shift practice (and what a presumptive act that is), we must build empathy.
  • That ‘building a plane while flying it’ (as the educators of Hobsonville Point Secondary School often phrase it) is tough, demanding, and, at times, deeply unpleasant. But with huge rewards as potentialities.
  • That working collaboratively can be exhausting, and, as an introvert, I need time by myself to work on my portion of the project, but overall the project is better for working in this way. (But I’m dubious whether many hands do make light work…)
  • That I like the opportunity to think ‘big picture’.
  • That I have a complicated relationship with the future and with school.
  • That my leadership practices are different to others’, and that’s okay.
  • That we must never stop asking why?
  • That ‘thinking’ is my core educational value.

So fellow bloggers, I challenge you to share your 6 monthly reflection on your word for the year… What has happened? Have you managed to keep your word front and centre, or has it become a four letter derivative? Let’s share and support one another on our learning journeys.

Reflection: ‘Is the Sage on the Stage Really Dead’?

Something I’ve been enjoying is listening to podcasts on my morning walk (Wellington weather permitting…).  Friday morning’s podcast was asking whether or not the ‘sage on the stage’ model of teaching was really dead.  To be fair, the speakers’ responses clearly indicated that it is not, as they were mostly giving advice on how to move away from direct instructional teaching methods to more guiding or facilitating of students.

Some of the comments I heard really got me thinking and reflecting on my own practice.  The comment that had the most impact on me was the thought that many teachers agreed with the need to shift from ‘sage’ to ‘guide’ from an ideological view point, but found it difficult to enact from a practical stand point.  Hands up.  No, just me then?

This comment really encapsulates my fear when looking to move forward pedagogically next year.  I’m in the process of writing programmes for my classes in 2014, but what if they’re not ‘flipped’ enough, or provide enough authentic context, or seek to provoke genuine engagement… And I’m meant to be leading professional learning with this stuff?  Yikes!

In a way it’s really difficult to imagine what a student-centred classroom would look like when you’ve never experienced it yourself.  I’ve moved so much from when I first started this journey – from being a reluctant adopter, motivated essentially extrinsically due to the fact that my school was moving to BYOD and I would hate to see laptops as expensive electronic exercise books and pens, to being a raving enthusiast.  But.  I’ve yet to implement any of the stuff I’m likely to advocate.

I guess I just have to live in hope that my fear will be my saving grace.  That, as one participant in the podcast said, where there’s a will; there’s a way.  I’ll consider the advice I gleaned from the chat: ‘ask, don’t tell’ – how can I pose questions to lead students towards information rather than rely on me for direct instruction?  I kind of like the idea of setting the daily homework assignment of students asking a question about their learning every day – preferably in an online environment – which could help me to guide further learning, and, if I track the questions over time, to help me develop question-asking skills in learners.  Because, ultimately students don’t need us to be their source of information.  They have Google and Wikipedia for that.  We need to provoke students into asking their own questions, and to help them find or use the tools to explore their own answers.

 

Higher Order Questions

As teachers, we know that we need to ask the (dreaded?) high order questions to spark in-depth thinking, engagement and evaluation.  These kinds of questions help us to connect to the critical thinking and creativity we want to teach to embed future learning principles and skills.

I really enjoyed this blog post by Rebecca Alber, which reminds us that ‘higher order’ questions do not require agonising thought processes on the behalf of teachers to pose them.  The old adage of ‘KISS’, keeping it simple, works well!  She suggests the following five questions as being powerful ones:

  1. What do you think?
  2. Why do you think that?
  3. How do you know this?
  4. Can you tell me more?
  5. What questions do you still have?

Better yet – make these into posters for around the classroom walls, and get the students asking these questions of themselves, their peers, and …  their teachers?!