Tuesday, February 7, 2023

School visits and appreciative inquiry

Over the past 6 months or so I've done a lot of school visits - some in person but mostly still virtual visits at this point.  It's been a real learning journey for me, as we have been using the new IB 2020 Standards and Practices, and our approach to evaluation visits is now totally different from before.  Gone are the commendations and recommendations, and instead we are using appreciative inquiry.  For me (and for the schools) this has made a huge difference in the general "tone" of the visits - it is much more positive, much more of a conversation about the unique context of each school, where the school is on its journey and where it aspires to go next.  Because of this I decided I would do a little more research about appreciative inquiry and its benefits.

One term I use a lot with schools is "action research".  I think appreciative inquiry is very much like this as it promotes change.  We ask questions to help schools see some of their challenges in new and innovative ways.  At the heart of appreciative inquiry is the understanding that something works well in all school contexts and our aim is to discover what this is, what energises all stakeholders in a school, and what is it that they care about and that motivates them:  everything here is a positive assumption or affirmation as opposed to the previous approach which was more of a deficit model to find and analyse issues or problems in order to help a school move forward.

As I plan for each of the meetings on a visit I draw heavily on my skills as a cognitive coach - asking the right questions is important!  I always like to start with the successes or strengths that the school have already identified, and to acknowledge their achievements and existing good practices that have developed over the past 5 years since the previous visit.  Of course we do acknowledge the challenges they have faced as well - every single school I have visited recently has spoken about the impact of Covid and school closures on students' communication, social and self-management skills.  A focus on what they have achieved despite these difficulties creates a feeling of enthusiasm and hope, and helps people to expand their thinking into what could be possible.  

The model of appreciative inquiry has sometimes been called the 4D model:

  1. Discovery - exploring "the best of what is"
  2. Dream - articulating and discussing "what might be"
  3. Design - working together to develop "what might be"
  4. Destiny - collectively experimenting with "what can be"
Just as in cognitive coaching, appreciative inquiry focuses on what people think, not on what they do.  The idea is that change comes from discussing new ideas and collaboratively creating new knowledge.  If there are challenges that need to be discussed, then being open-minded and sensitive to different ways of seeing things will encourage people to consider possibilities that may address the problem.  In this way problems are not seen as threats:  instead the focus is on what is working well and what more needs to be done to make it even better.  

When an IB team visits a school we have just 3 days to collect a picture of the learning and teaching there so it's really important to focus on building relationships right from the start, so that there is a sense of trust and safety in all our meetings and classroom observations.   We ask curious, non-judgemental questions.  I often use sentence stems like, "Tell us a little more about ...." or "Help us to understand ..."  These questions encourage people to talk about the things that matter to them, and also to share some of their hopes.  In our meetings I also like to ensure that all voices are heard - so that all perspectives can be considered.  For example if there is a teacher who isn't saying much I might ask the question, "What does this look like in your classroom/subject/section of the school?"

At the end of our visit we have a Conclusion Meeting where we share our thoughts and give some suggestions the school might like to consider as opportunities for future development.  We stress these are considerations, not recommendations like before, as the school needs to feel agency and ownership of their own next steps.  One thing I'm always looking out for in this meeting is that the schools recognise themselves in the strengths and opportunities we are sharing.  Often people will say "You've only been here a few days but it seems like you have a real understanding of what we have been through in the last five years."  When I hear this I always feel that the school feels acknowledged and that they recognise their strength and existing good practice and now know how to build on these in order to grow and change. 

Image Credit:  Peter Durand on Flickr shared with a Creative Commons licence

Monday, May 30, 2022

Making a PYP Playbook

The next book we are looking at in the PYP Coordinator's Book club is The Instructional Playbook by Jim Knight.  This could well be a very interesting collaboration, but first of all I need to find out more about what an instructional playbook is.   Judy explained that the purpose of an instructional playbook is to...
  • Help educators identify the highest impact teaching strategies
  • Lead to a deep knowledge of teaching strategies
  • Build a shared vocabulary
  • Reduce stress and overwhelm
  • Foster teacher hope and confidence
In The Instructional Playbook Jim Knight explains that improvement can be difficult as to improve we need to face our current reality.  Sometimes this involves recognising what we are doing well - and to improve we need to do more of this.  Sometimes it involves taking already existing knowledge and integrating it into what we do .... hence the need for a playbook.

He writes that instructional coaches help teachers learn and implement strategies that teachers want to implement to help their students hit powerful engagement or achievement goals, and that a playbook is a tool that helps coaches to firstly develop the deep knowledge they need to be effective and then secondly to use the collection of tools to support teachers to learn, implement, refine and adapt practices to meet their students' needs.

What is an Instructional Playbook?
It's a concise, precise document that summarises the essential information about evidence-based teaching strategies that instructional coaches use to support teachers and students.  It's an organisational tool that coaches use to help them focus on high-impact teaching strategies and then explain those strategies to teachers.  Playbooks help instructional coaches to be more successful with teachers, which in turn help teachers to be more successful with students.

Looking at the bullet list above, the final point is to foster hope and confidence.  Here's the thing:  when people have hope they have a goal that describes where they want to be and what they want to accomplish.  If you have hope you also have agency because you have the belief that you can make things happen and that your actions will help you to reach your goal.

How is a Playbook created?
The first thing to create is a table of contents - this is a list of the most common goals that teachers identify during coaching and all the possible strategies to share with teachers to achieve those goals.  This is shortened down into a one page list of powerful evidence-based teaching strategies.  Following this a One-Pager is created for each strategy - this captures the most crucial information people need to know about a teaching strategy and gives teachers a resource that supports them in classroom implementation of the strategy.  Creating a playbook "is fundamentally an editing process to distill the most relevant, clearly explained, and high-impact strategies for teachers to use to hit goals for students."  Working together as a team to create a playbook is more manageable and effective than creating one alone.

Beating the Imposter Syndrome
During the week I had a discussion about the Imposter Syndrome with one of my mentees in The Coach programme.  Many of us worry that we do not know enough about a topic to share it with others.  This is an important concern as if coaches can't explain the important elements of a strategy, then it won't be possible to implement it.  Creating a One-Pager might help with this as it involves describing:
  • What the strategy is about
  • What its purpose is
  • The research that supports it
  • How teachers use it
  • How students use it
So here we go .... a great summer project in collaboration with other PYP coordinators I think!

Wednesday, May 4, 2022


Change ... this is a big topic.  The past few years have seen so much change - we've had a global pandemic, schools have closed, lessons have shifted online, some of us have had to deal with hybrid teaching with some students in school and others at home.  And we have survived .... but for some of us only just!  We are tired.  Change has sapped our energies.

Some change is welcome, some change is not.  Some change happens instantaneously, some is much slower.  For me there have been times when I've chosen change - a new job in a new country - and other times where I'd much rather have stayed but circumstances were pulling me in different directions.  One of the hardest changes for me was to leave my school in Amsterdam and to move my entire family to Thailand.  I think I cried almost every day for the last year I lived in Holland.  I knew it was coming - after years of free tuition I was counted as local and needed to pay for my children's education at the school, which I could not afford on a teaching salary - but gosh, it was hard.  And yet ..... it turned out for the best - I became an international teacher. Having made one "tough" move, I knew I could (and did!) make many others.  This led to opportunities that I'd never thought possible before.  Fast forward many years when circumstances again made me move - this time from India to the UK to take care of my mother after she was diagnosed with dementia.  Everything was uncertain:  no job, no home and so on .... but again tough circumstances led to me setting up as an independent consultant to schools, and again the impossible became possible.  My Indian friends told me it would all be OK in the end - this sense of karma - and it was, though it wasn't always easy.  As Elena Aguilar writes, "the key to resilience is learning how to get back to the surface when a ferocious wave knocks us over, how to ride those waves and perhaps even how to find joy when surfing the waves."

There's another kind of stress associated with change too - the stress we feel when we feel change is too slow.  I identify with that too.  I remember being at a school - a school that had employed me to bring about change - and then being blocked from changes I wanted to make.  Learning to navigate these obstacles, challenges and setbacks is also important.  Learning to deal with feelings and responses when things don't go as you want is also important.

I like the model of The Spheres of Influence that Elena shares in Chapter 11 of Onward.  She writes about what you can control, what you can influence and then everything else which is outside your control and influence - and therefore not worthwhile spending time and energy on.  I know that even when I could not to control or influence a situation, I could certainly decide how I felt in those times and how I responded to adversity.  It's all about deciding where I want to put my energy.  And even when times are really bad, we can hang onto the hope that we can emerge from these times stronger than before.  For example teachers around the world have told me of how their students have gone backwards in social skills, self-management skills and even communication skills during online learning, and yet they also tell me some students have thrived and they have noticed an increase in agency.  I think we need to be open to different outcomes - to have a growth mindset and be flexible and adaptable, to be able to manage our uncertainty and to live with the unknown.

Change causes a lot of fear.  I know now that when I got impatient at the pace of change that was unreasonable because teachers had spent years becoming the teachers they were and here I was, a newby, asking them to become different teachers.  I think they felt threatened - perhaps they thought that I thought they were not doing a good job.  I think, looking back, that I did try to develop more of a culture of learning but it wasn't until I became a coach that I realised that if we want people to do something different we have to change their beliefs - because all actions emerge from our beliefs.  Looking back I think I could also have been more patient (something I'm not very good at).  I should have been more fully present for people.  Elena writes:

In order to cultivate perseverance and tenacity, you must look beyond short-term concerns and toward long-term goals.  You need to put off immediate gratification and manage your impatience.  You also must venture beyond your comfort zone and take on challenges of different sizes so that you can learn and can increase your confidence .... you'll have to view setbacks as opportunities for growth.

The truth of it is that I had a lot of growing to do.   

Photo Credit:  Elias Schäferle on Pixabay

Creativity and the benefits of play

Time has been running away from me the past couple of weeks, but it is coming up to the time for another PYP Book Club so it's time to read on in Onward by Elena Aguilar.  I'm now on Chapter 10 which is called Play and Create.  The basis of this chapter is that creativity and play unlock inner resources for dealing with stress, solving problems and enjoying life - so of course they will help us to become more resilient.  Here's now Elena describes the link:

Our experiences interact with the creative world on a continuum: at one end we consume or appreciate art; perhaps around the middle we play; and at the other end we create art.  At each point on the continuum, we activate different parts of our minds hearts and spirits; it's likely that the greatest opportunity for cultivating resilience lies in the most active point - in creating art.

This is interesting to me on a personal level.  A couple of years ago, shortly after my mother died, I joined a local art class.  For me, spending time each day drawing and painting, I came to manage my grief and to build resilience.  The creating definitely worked! 

Let's think about play - this is something we do for fun, not because it helps us to reach a goal.  We know that play shapes our brains, makes us smarter and more adaptable, fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups.  In humans play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.  Children are experts at play because it's natural and instinctive to them.  However when we get older, we often come to see play as a waste of time - we focus instead on being productive!  The interesting thing about play, however, is that it's improvisational, so we are open to doing things in new ways and we get new ideas from it.  We know that play relieves stress, improves relationships by fostering empathy, compassion and trust, and that it improves brain function and so can prevent memory problems.  Play boosts creativity and also helps us to learn new tasks quicker because it's fun.  I think about the years my son was "forced" to learn Spanish in a traditional way at school (it failed - he didn't master it) and yet as an adult he was motivated to use Duolingo for 15 minutes every morning to learn Spanish through play.  

Creating art is also important - our early ancestors decorated the walls of their caves, made music and danced.  Today we know that art is also a vehicle for connection and empathy; it combats loneliness, alienation and dehumanisation and it has long been an essential tool for social justice.  Numerous studies also show that creative activities such as drawing, knitting and writing raise serotonin levels and decrease anxiety.

As many of you know, I visit a lot of schools.  I'm always sad that the arts subjects have been pushed out of the curriculum and are seen as optional as opposed to the "real work" of schools.  I see this happening with play too - with schools cutting back on recess time.  With what we know about the importance of both creativity and play being important builders of resilience, perhaps it's time to reverse these trends.

Photo credit:  Elissa Capelle Vaughn on Pixabay

Sunday, April 17, 2022

How do we learn? How do we change? How do we improve?

These are three big questions that are addressed in Chapter 9 of Onward by Elena Aguilar.  She opens the chapter with the following statement, 

If we see challenges as opportunities for learning, if we engage our curiosity whenever we're presented with an obstacle, we're more likely to find solutions.  This habit and disposition help us not just survive adversity but thrive in the aftermath.

When I was working at ASB I was part of the Research and Development Core Team.  This team was set up the year before I arrived to study, prototype, design and develop new teaching and learning environments.  We looked at faculty design, project-based learning, alternative school year calendars, the library and mobile technology.  The action research we did led to real transformations by creating new physical spaces for learning and new learning approaches, supporting and enriching student learning at the school.  We often asked the question "What if ...." and we discovered the joy of inquiry and learning for ourselves as teachers.

Having an R&D department is not usual in schools, but teachers can use their own classroom to inquire into what is happening and why, and to ask the question, "What would happen if I tried ...."  

At various times in my life I've struggled to be a learner.  For example I remember when I moved to The Netherlands I attended evening classes to learn Dutch.  It was hard - but it was also good for me to put myself into the role of the learner as it gave me a lot of insight into what my students were going through.  Elena shares two frameworks with us that help to explain the process we go through as learners.

The Conscious Competence Ladder - this has 4 rungs on it:

  • Unconscious incompetence - we are blissfully ignorant of what we can't do therefore our confidence exceeds our abilities.  At this level we need to figure out the skills we need to learn.
  • Conscious incompetence - we know we don't have the skills and that others can do things that make us struggle.  It's easy to give up at this stage as we lose confidence.
  • Conscious competence - we have the skills and we need to put the knowledge and skills into practice to gain more confidence.  We need to concentrate when we perform the skills.
  • Unconscious competence - we use our skills effortlessly and perform tasks without conscious effort.  In order to keep growing at this level we need to teach these skills to others.  If we don't regularly use these skills we can slip back down the ladder.
Putting this into context reminds me of learning how to drive.  At one time I didn't need to drive because as a teenager I relied on my parents for lifts to places.  In my 20s I learned to drive and found it really difficult - at one point I gave up and only took up driving again having moved to Miami where it was vital I had a car to get around.  My challenge as a driver has been moving country, as each time I moved (USA -> UK -> Netherlands -> Thailand -> Switzerland -> India) I had to drive on the other side of the road and at times it felt like learning all over again as oftentimes the rules were also different.  Even worse, in some countries I didn't drive for long periods of time so I got out of practice, and I definitely slipped back down the ladder from unconscious competence to conscious competence each time I got into the car again.

Let's give another example from teaching.  I lead a lot of Category 1 workshops and the most challenging thing teachers face when new to the PYP is writing strong conceptual central ideas.  Having been doing this for over 20 years I can often look at the wording they come up with and suggest simple tweaks to make the central ideas more conceptual and more open to inquiry.  I'm probably at the unconscious competence stage, but I need to keep teaching this skill to others to keep it sharp in my own mind.

The second framework for learning is that of fixed -v- growth mindset.  Here the important thing is to keep using the word "yet" (you can't do it yet) and to keep people focused on the skills they need to develop and practice.

With a fixed mindset people believe that success is the result of a fixed intelligence and with a fixed mindset people avoid challenge as they are unable to take criticism and give up early.  With a growth mindset we assume intelligence and talent can change so we thrive on challenge and see failure as a way to learn and grow.  Having a growth mindset allows people to thrive during challenges.

In this chapter I was really interested to read about learning needs and the Mind the Gap model.  

I can see that in order to improve we need to identify where the gaps are that we have in different areas.  Emotional intelligence and cultural competence at the foundations of all others - without these we cannot close the gaps in other areas.  However in schools we are focused mostly on the uppermost areas of skills and knowledge.  All of us have gaps - this shows us we can still learn and grow and as you dig into your gaps you can discover the actions you need to take to close the gaps.

One of the things I love most about coaching is that it gives us the space to really explore these gaps.  We know that coaching is an effective way for professionals to continue to refine their skills and so a great mechanism for teacher improvement.  We also know that it's important to have time for teachers to improve their skills and coaching can form part of that time as it's a form of PD.  

Our aim is that schools are learning organisations - places where everyone is learning (not just the students!). We know that teachers can excel when they work in learning organisations, and so these schools thrive. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Eat chocolate during meetings

Yes I thought that would grab your attention!  All will become clear as we look at the next chapter in Onward by Elena Aguilar where she inspires us to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.  But first a few definitions since I wasn't totally clear about the difference between empathy and compassion:

Sympathy - when you feel sympathy you care for someone who is suffering but maintain your emotional distance.

Empathy - when you feel empathy you place yourself in someone else's shoes and feel their pain.

Compassion - when you feel compassion you are moved to take action to relieve someone else's suffering.  Action is what distinguishes compassion from empathy.

If we find ourselves relating to others from a feeling of frustration and judgement eventually this will wear us down.  However when we exercise compassion our hearts soften, our relationships strengthen and our perspectives broaden so we can see possibilities.

Elena tells us that in most schools one of the primary challenges teachers face is a shortage of empathy and compassion.  It's so important to develop compassion as it strengthens our learning communities, is good for our physical health, allows us to collaborate more effectively and also helps us to deal with difficult people.  Physically when we are compassionate our heart rate slows, our stress hormones decrease and our immune response strengthens - it's preventative medicine as it releases oxytocin which makes us more willing to take risks in interpersonal exchanges and it promotes long-term bonds and commitments.  Getting back to the title of this post, eating chocolate also boost oxytocin - therefore it's good to have some during meetings!!

Before you can develop compassion for others, you first have to develop self-compassion.  This includes acknowledging the impact that others have on you and setting boundaries around someone else's behaviour that is causing you suffering.  Basically it's about extending kindness to yourself so that you have have the strength and energy to make changes:  it's about talking to yourself as you would talk to a close friend, without rejection, criticism and judgement.  It's about opening the door to learning and growth.

Of course all of us will encounter difficult people that we have to work with.  Elena offers us good advice here such as listening to the complaints of others without commenting, not getting hooked up in someone else's story or with their attitude, being curious about what is going on for them and never taking their behaviour personally.  She reminds us that it's possible to find connections, it's possible for people to change but at the same time we have to be clear about our own values and give ourselves permission to step away or even ask for help.

It's also important to forgive.  There are many world figures who have exemplified the power of forgiveness but I saw this happen personally in a school I once worked at when the spouse of a teacher who was being treated poorly decided to speak up to the management and offer them her forgiveness.  She explained to me it was important for her to do this because of her Christian beliefs, but in fact it's also important for ourselves because it helps us to move forward from the unhappiness.  Forgiveness doesn't mean reconciliation or reestablishing relationships with the person who has done wrong, but it does mean you have drawn a line between forgiveness of the wrongdoing and acceptance or approval of it.  Forgiveness is for yourself - it's connected with letting go of our expectations about another person and is the only way to free yourself and take back control of your own feelings.  

Another emotion that Elena addresses in this chapter is envy or jealousy - the pain of something you don't have and the fear of losing something that you already have.  When we feel these emotions we compare what we have with others.  It's important to realise that we are not in competition - if someone else accomplishes something it doesn't mean we are less successful ourselves.  To combat these feelings we can try to practice gratitude and perhaps also use envy as the motivation to improve our own situation.

Finally we also need perspective:  we need to look at situations from multiple perspectives and points of view.  We need to try to look at things within the bigger context, to expand our vision and to see the long view.  Remember, changing the way you see changes the way you feel and act.

Image Credit:  Public Domain Pictures on Pixabay

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Look for the light

When I was teaching in India I did the Strengths Finder survey from Gallup.  This is what emerged and I feel it is absolutely true:

Your mind is open and absorbent. You naturally soak up information in the same way that a sponge soaks up water. But just as the primary purpose of the sponge is not to permanently contain what it absorbs, neither should your mind simply store information. Input without output can lead to stagnation. As you gather and absorb information, be aware of the individuals and groups that can most benefit from your knowledge, and be intentional about sharing with them.

Reflecting on this strength put a lot in focus for me - it helped me understand why I blog, for example, as a way of sharing my knowledge and continual learning.  I also came to realise that I was happy in schools that recognised this strength, and unhappy in schools that didn't.  

Chapter 7 of Onward by Elena Aguilar also calls on us to focus on our strengths, assets and skills.  This helps us to boost our levels of self-efficacy and to feel more empowered to influence our surroundings.  It also helps us to respond to challenges more effectively.  In the workplace, people who focus on their strengths are more engaged, more productive and happier, and those who are given the opportunities to focus on their strengths every day are 6 times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and to be more productive both individually and in teams.  Research has identified 34 strengths that exist within everyone, but Gallup defines the "signature strengths" which dominate a person's actions and behaviours. Once you discover and develop your strengths, this helps you to achieve your full potential. In addition, knowing and developing the strengths of the people you are working with helps you become a better leader and allows you to maximise the full potential of the team.

When I worked in Amsterdam we had a Director who would leave us "happygrams".  These were bright pink slips of paper where she would write on things she'd notice us doing around the school and then would post them in our pigeonholes in the staff room.  It was always exciting and affirming to get one of these and to see that someone had noticed our successes.

The idea of making change is that you can focus on what isn't working and decide to do less of it, or focus on what is going well and do a bit more of that.  Focusing on what is working can give us energy to make changes to things that are not going so well.  It allows us to gain confidence and to direct our positive feelings to the areas where we are struggling.  However it's hard to focus on the positive because our brains have a built in negativity bias - we perceive negative stimuli faster and more intensely than positive ones.  Research shows we must focus on a positive experience for 12 seconds before we can retain it in our memories - however danger lodges itself in our brains in just 1/10th of a second.  It's one way our ancient ancestors survived, by overestimating threats, but not so useful perhaps these days.  

Another difficulty is that focusing on the positive goes against some cultural norms, and that for many of us praise or appreciation can even feel uncomfortable.  For example if you are working in an organisation that values analytical and critical thinking then being positive is seen as rather naive.  Complaining is also cultural acceptable in many work places (staff rooms) and this can be very corrosive.  Remember that what we focus on grows - so it's much better to focus on something good!

Over the past year I've trained in the new IB evaluation protocol of appreciative inquiry.  I have to say this has had an amazing impact on the visits I've done to schools.  Our visits now take an inquiry stance and we observe with an appreciation for the strengths of the school.  It's not our job to assess or solve problems - though we do recognise challenges that schools may have been faced with in recent times - but the idea is that we ask questions that focus the attention of the school in a particular direction so that they can evolve.  Elena writes, "the moment we ask a question we begin to create change.  If we choose positive questions, we lead ourselves to positive change. " Here are the 5 steps of appreciative inquiry:

  • Define the topic of the inquiry
  • Discover what is already working (strengths and successes)
  • Dream about what could be and what are the hopes and wishes for the future
  • Design - what might happen if we combine what is already working with what could be?
  • Deliver - what do we need to do?
PYP teachers use a planner to develop their units of inquiry.  The great thing about the planner is that reflection is built in.  Before, during and after the unit we meet together to think about our experiences and consider future choices of action.  The prompts help with decision making and reflecting with colleagues through talking and writing on the planner forces us to put our experiences into words, which helps us recognise patterns and trends over time.

It's also worth noting that in order to build resilience we must feel that we have the ability to respond to challenges - focusing on our strengths helps us to feel empowered, to believe that we can influence our surroundings and events, and leads us to feel competent and confident.