Thursday, June 22, 2017

Maps and apps

Last summer was all about trying out apps that can help people with dementia, and also checking out mindfulness apps to keep myself stress-free while staying with and supporting my mother who has Alzheimer's.  This year I've decided to try out some different apps as I'm heading off to the Baltic States with my daughter for a short break.  I know that in India I have really appreciated several iPhone apps that have made my life much easier:  Uber, Google Maps and the Triposo India app. Yesterday I started to look for apps that I could use to plan walking tours around the 3 cities that we are planning on visiting.  Most of these have a "lite" version that I'm going to try out first, and then if I like them I can purchase the full app.

The main reason for wanting to use an app is to cut down on the amount of luggage I am taking with me - I certainly don't want to be lugging guidebooks around with me as my baggage allowance is limited to 10kg carry on.  Also, my main reason for wanting an app is to plan walks around the various cities to the places that we are interested in.  I'm not really bothered about restaurant recommendations as I prefer to eat local food, and I'm not also really wanting hotel recommendations as I'm more likely to do Air B&B, but I really want to know where the museums, galleries and historical sights are and to know how to walk between them.

The first app I decided to download was from GPSmyCity which offers self-guided city walks.  There are apps for over 1,000 cities across the world and each city walk comes with a route plotted on an offline map that guides you to interesting sights.  As I'm starting in Vilnius, I spent some time exploring this app yesterday.  There are 10 walks already loaded as well as the option to make customised walks by selecting the sights you want to see.  It's also possible to take a walk and save it. In the lite version the navigation features related to the walking tours are disabled, so while you can view all the walk details (descriptions and photos) there is no navigation assistance to guide you from one location to the next.  To upgrade to the full version costs $4.99.

The next city that we are going to visit is Riga.  GPSmyCity doesn't have an app for here, so I looked at some other ones.  I found a map app for Riga that allowed me to customise it to remove hotels and restaurants, leaving only the attractions that I wanted to visit (museums, galleries, history and culture).  If you want to, however, you can use filters, for example you can filter restaurants by cuisine and hotels by facilities.  This is a free map and all features work offline.

Moving on from Riga, we are going to Tallinn.  This city does have a GPSmyCity app, so I downloaded it.  I also decided to have a look at the Triposo apps, since I enjoy using this app in India.  I found a Triposo app for both Estonia and Latvia. Triposo is also free and it works offline.  It crawls data from millions of websites and reviews, such as Wikivoyages, to deliver recommendations for hotels, sights, activities and restaurants based on matching patterns.  You can also book hotels through the app.  There are city maps, weather, currency conversion tools, travelers' photos and more.

Do you use apps when you travel to new places?  If so do you have any recommendations for me that I might like to explore?  Or even better, have you visited these Baltic cities yourself and have some tips for places that we really shouldn't miss while we are there?  If so please let me know in the comments.  Thanks!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Trust in leadership

I've been thinking a lot about leadership recently.  This started with the "surprise" results of the UK general election last week, where the Prime Minister went into the election to gain more seats and actually lost a lot of seats to the opposition, whose leader was seen as being a bit of a loony leftist but also as someone with integrity.  Then this week there has been another huge backlash against the Prime Minister following the Grenfell Tower fire where she has been described as "cold as a fish" for not meeting with the victims' families.  Of course "over the pond" there are similar questions being asked of leadership in the US - along with how far can anyone trust what is being said, and how much news is "fake news"?

As I'm writing an educational blog, I don't want this to get political.  Rather I want to reflect on leadership skills and how these can be applied to education.  

A couple of years ago when I started Cognitive Coaching I learned some new things about trust, and one of the interesting things was that we expect a different sort of trust in our leaders than in our colleagues.  With leaders, be it of a country, a business or a school, we are looking for mutual respect, which involves genuinely listening to what people are saying, competence, consistency and integrity. With our colleagues the order of these is different, with competency being less important than caring, honesty, openness and reliability.  

Digging a little deeper, today I read an article from the Harvard Business Review on the skills that innovative leaders have in common.  These are different again, bearing in mind that innovation is a difficult quality to cultivate.  However a study of around 5,000 leaders showed that innovative leaders share the following competencies:
  • experimenting with new approaches while at the same time managing risk
  • demonstrating curiosity
  • leading with confidence and authority
  • being proactive and seizing opportunities
  • being adept at identifying strategic opportunities and threats
Reading through this I started to think about how this could apply to schools.  For example every year there are new initiatives (curriculum, standards, etc.) and could the skills of innovative leaders be brought to bear on these so that implementation is more successful and has more buy-in?  Relevant suggestions from the article that would apply to schools include:
  • creating a learning community to encourage the free flow of new knowledge and perspectives
  • stimulating new thinking by examining mistakes and setbacks as opportunities to learn
  • making time for developmental activities
  • being prepared to deal with people's reactions
  • being assertive and not aggressive - looking for win-win solutions
  • recognising and appreciating leadership qualities in others and involving multiple people in the planning
For myself, though I'm not part of the Leadership Team at ASB, I'm going to be coaching the tech integration coaches throughout the school, and I'm considering which of the facets of trust are going to be the most important to pay attention to next year.  I think I'm already well known for supporting teachers, appreciating their effort and promoting positive interactions (benevolence) and feel I would also score high on integrity, honouring agreements and being authentic (honesty) as well as communicating and sharing information (openness).  But how about the other traits that are most respected in leaders - competence and consistency?  When I consider consistency I think most people would regard me as dependable and reliable.  Generally I think I'm seen as a person who works hard and sets standards.  As far as competence goes I think I could work harder on problem solving, conflict resolution and handling difficult situations:  basically what I am hoping is to develop a more solution-focused approach to the myriad of challenges we are facing in integrating technology throughout the curriculum.

Onwards and upwards!

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Coaching for change

After school today I engaged in a Zoom (think Skype) call to discuss a couple of chapters of the 3rd edition of Cognitive Coaching.  Afterwards, spurred on by some of our discussions, I noticed there were some similarities between the current book I'm reading about brain research (Your Brain At Work), and what we know about coaching.

Just today I was talking with some of the school principals about the different support functions that our tech coaches can offer - collaboration and consultation in addition to their role as a coach.  But we know that consultation is often not the best way to bring about change, as often suggestions can be seen as threats.  The real issue is who comes up with the suggestion.  In consultation, most likely it's the coach/consultant who has the knowledge to give.  What this does to the relationship, however, is that the coach looks smart and the coachee less so - and in fact the better the coach's suggestion the more likely the coach is to resist it.  If however the coach comes up with the ideas and solution him/herself, then there is a sense of autonomy and "buy in".  Despite this, many people think that coaches need to offer ideas and expertise.

There are many skills that need to be developed as a cognitive coach, certainly that of building trust and rapport.  Using positive presuppositions is one way of showing that you believe that the coachee knows more about their students, the content they teach, their own skills and so on, than the coach does.  What the coach does is to ask questions about the coachee's thinking and ideas.  In addition acknowledging the emotions and paraphrasing what the coachee is saying helps simplify and illuminate the issue.  The job of the coach is simply to help the coachee to reflect and move forward without getting stuck on the details of the problem.

The premise behind cognitive coaching is that behaviour will change as a result of thinking changing, not the other way round.  Change is hard - even changing your own behaviour, let alone trying to change the behaviour of others or of entire groups.  This is why behaviourism doesn't really work, especially with adults, who see "rewards" are being offered as a way of changing them, and then they see the person offering the rewards as a threat.  Rock writes, "If being changed by others is usually a threat, this leads to the idea that when real change occurs, it is probably because an individual has chosen to change his own brain."  He writes that an effective way to focus attention on what needs to change is by asking questions that require the coachee to make new connections (in cognitive coaching these are referred to as mediative questions).  When you ask people questions as opposed to giving advice, there is a sense of respect - it shows that you know the coachee has the answers.

For the past few years at ASB we have used the planning conversation to help teachers set goals for how they want to integrate technology.  As people work towards their goals they can feel a real sense of achievement as they decide what to do and notice the steps they are taking towards these goals - this is brought out during the reflecting conversations.  Rock writes, "Setting the right goal is like a gift that keeps on giving: you continue getting positive benefits all the while you head towards it."

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Fairness and status

I went to the hospital today for my annual checkup - and because I knew I'd be sitting around for hours I took my summer read, The Brain at Work.  During the course of the day I managed to read almost to the end of the book, and the sections that really struck me were those on fairness and status.

Fairness is something that I feel is very deeply rooted in me, and I was interested to read that this is true of most people.  David Rock writes that fairness is a big driver of behaviour, often more important than money, and that when you perceive you are being treated unfairly this can often lead into an intense downward spiral.  Fairness is connected with safety, and is linked to relatedness - when we feel that someone is being fair you tend to trust that person.  At the same time your brain releases dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, making you open to new ideas and more willing to connect with others.  Rock suggests that workplaces that allow employees to experience fairness and also those where people report intrinsic motivation - and people perform better in these cultures.

Status is another thing I've been thinking about recently, following conversations with colleagues.  One person who is very highly qualified was lamenting the "flat" pay scale where all the time and effort she put into advanced degrees is not recognized.  In this instance fairness (same pay) seems to be working against status (more qualifications and experience).  Yet again, status can often be more rewarding than money.  Another colleague was talking to me about the fact that she has had to give up one position of responsibility in order to take on another one - she explained that she is not able to do both because "we are all equal".  This got me thinking about the idea of being a small fish in a big pond, as opposed to a big fish in a small pond.  The status of the latter is higher, despite the fact that the pond (school in this case) is not as good - and some people get much more satisfaction out of that.  When I lived in Thailand status was very overt - you were either a phi or a nong.  A phi was someone of higher status (for example you could be older, more qualified, richer and so on) than the nong.  When people meet for the first time they go to great lengths to establish who is the phi and the nong - and after that they understand the relationship and things proceed harmoniously.  For me I found it a bit off-putting to be asked very personal questions by people I hardly knew ("how much do you weigh, how old are you, how much do you earn? etc)

Your brain also reacts to higher status, as dopamine and serotonin levels go up making you feel happier, and your cortisol levels go down reducing stress.  With more happy chemicals in your brain you are able to process more information, follow through with your intentions, and have more control than people of lower status.  Your brain works on keeping this elevated status, constantly findings ways that show you are smarter, healthier, stronger and so on, and along with status comes more certainty, more autonomy, more relatedness and often more fairness.

I'm now at the final section of the book which is about change.  I'm curious to know about how change impacts your brain (and how your brain can open you up to change).

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Zone of Peak Performance

I had a day at the pool today!  I'm really lucky because as part of my school's "Softening Mumbai" package we get an extended benefit that we can use towards a club membership.  India is an amazing and fascinating country - but it's not all easy living here and there are times when you really need to "get away" from everything.  My getaway is my local Taj Lands End.

As I have been determined to finish my holiday read before my actual holiday (the idea of backpacking with a hardback book is not appealing - especially as I have hand luggage only flights), I took the book along with me to read and reflect on.  I managed to get through 6 chapters, interspersed with swimming, lunch, the jacuzzi and a nap.  So this post is a reflection on these 6 chapters - starting with the one on peak performance.

Performance and stress
Studies have shown that performance is poor at low and high levels of stress.  It seems there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.  I was interested to read that the word stress actually just means emphasise - and that this can be positive (in which case it's known as eustress).  This type of stress is associated with more focused attention - and so our performance would actually decrease if this type of stress was removed, and we would become bored (which also explains why I can only cope with so many hours at the pool before getting restless).  Basically this is because of the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in our brains;  norepinephrine brings an urgency to our thinking at the times when we need to be highly alert.  We can artificially increase our brain's supply of this chemical by visualizing an activity and by imagining something going wrong - but obviously there's a tricky balance between producing enough of the chemical to get motivated to do something, but not producing too much so that you end up fearful!  Dopamine seems to. be a better chemical to try to stimulate:  this is what spikes our interest in something - for example when something is new or unexpected.  The good news is that telling jokes increases dopamine, as does anticipating a positive event.

Often, however, the issue isn't that we need motivating, but simply that we have information overload, with too much stimulation coming at us from all sides.  As mentioned in a previous post, one way of coping with this is to get the information out of our heads and onto paper.  Another strategy is to focus on the sounds around you or to do something physical such as take a walk.  As I read this I immediately thought about the mindfulness apps I was experimenting with last summer, as I would take regular "time outs" from living with my mother, who has dementia, to go for a walk several times a day.  Some of these apps did ask for me to pay more attention to the senses, in particular to sound.

I thought a lot about mindfulness today at the pool.  Basically this involves paying close attention to the present and being aware of experiences as they occur.  I want to develop more ability to pause before reacting to something - as this will give me the space to consider and choose between various options.  We've been lucky to have a focus on mindfulness at ASB, and I've also explored more about meditation during my yoga classes.  I know it is a matter of turning off the internal dialogue, not thinking about the past or the future but simply experiencing what is happening right now.  This allows more sensory information to get to the brain and lets you be more flexible in how you respond as events unfold.

My reading today also made me think more about cognitive coaching.  One sentence really stood out: "By understanding your brain, you increase your capacity to change your brain".

Feeling emotional
Later in the book I read a chapter about emotions.  In this chapter I read about the 3 options we have once our emotions kick in.  We can express our emotions, suppress our emotions, or undergo cognitive change by labelling and reappraising our emotions which can change our interpretation of events.  Suppressing emotions is hard - it takes mental energy, leaving less for paying attention to what is going on.  Suppressing emotions makes other people feel uncomfortable as well.  In Cognitive Coaching we have learned to name and acknowledge the emotion and then to move on to the desired state.  It's important to describe it in a word or two (this actually reduces the emotion), but not to dwell on it as this tends to increase it.  I was interested to read that many people in leadership positions do just this to stay cool under pressure:  they name this emotion and turn it into eustress.

Autonomy and agency
Agency has been a word I've been thinking about a lot in recent weeks.  It's going to be really important in the review of the PYP that will be published next year.  When you experience a lack of agency you feel helpless to influence outcomes - yet it is the perception of control over a stressor that can diminish the impact of the stress.  I was interested to read that low-level employees experience more stress than senior executives, as they have less sense of choice or control.  In a nutshell, when you feel you have choices, something that used to be stressful can feel more manageable.  Having autonomy and agency also makes you happier - and people perform better when they are happy.  According to Rock, "happy people perceive a wider range of data, solve more problems, and come up with more new ideas for actions to take in a situation".

I've now read 2/3rds of the book and am ready to start on the next section which is about collaboration.  I'm really keen to read this section as most of my work involves collaborating with my colleagues as they integrate technology into their lessons - and we all know that technology can be a huge distraction.  Hopefully I'll be blogging about the final part of this book before the end of school on Friday.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Driving out distractions

Last year I had an office on the 4th floor.  It was tucked away and had a security lock on the door, so when I was in the office I had very few distractions (basically nobody every went there on the off-chance of finding me).  This year it's been different, however.  First of all, for many good reasons, it was decided I should be based more in the "heart" of the school on the 3rd floor.  I now have an office that is next door to the elementary principal and opposite the elementary reception desk.  I also share this office with 2 other educators.  The office has a couch, and I spend quite a bit of time there as well - as the plug to charge up my laptop is right beside the couch.  However there has been a downside - I'm much less productive than I was last year - and that worries me.

Today I read through the chapter Saying No To Distractions in Your Brain at Work.  I was interested to read that office distractions eat up an average of over 2 hours a day.  I started to think about how this applied to me.  Certainly the number of people who walk past my office has very much increased.  I see more people than last year, and they see me more too.  Also the door is always open, as opposed to the closed and locked door of my old office.  And finally, we have comfy seating that encourages people to stay.  So in general I am more visible (which is good) and more distracted (which is bad).

The chapter I read today tells me that distractions are not just frustrating: they can be exhausting. After being distracted it takes time to get back to where you were, and your ability to stay focused has decreased even further.  Generally my productive and creative thinking is less.  And all this is external distractions - along with this I'm still battling with the internal distractions that we all have to live with as our nervous system continually processes and reconfigures the trillions of connections in our brain, leading to a stream of thoughts and images.  In fact the average person only holds a thought in mind for about 10 seconds before the mind wanders off to something else.  In my case I think it might be even less!

I'm trying to drive out both the internal and external distractions.  I have started to meditate more regularly and try not to be distracted by technology in so far as that is possible bearing in mind that my job IS technology.  My phone is always on silent.  I leave it in my bag all day and never take it to meetings or classes.  I've disabled the email and calendar alerts on my computer.  Sometimes when I want to work I shut the door and I realize that if I sit on the couch I'm less visible than when I sit at my desk, so at times I make a conscious choice that I will sit there (even if I'm not actually charging my laptop).  Despite all this I know that often I'm not really "in the zone".

I notice the next chapter is about peak performance.  I'll be looking at this tomorrow and thinking about what else I can do to reduce distractions.

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Friday, June 2, 2017


A couple of years ago my book club read a book called The Geography of Bliss, where journalist Eric Weiner spent a year travelling to 10 places around the world looking for what makes people happy.  I was interested in this book as I've lived in many of the places he writes about:  The Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Thailand, India, the USA.  He also writes about places I've never been to but would love to visit (Bhutan and Iceland), and places where I most definitely don't want to live (Qatar and Moldova).  I mention this because a couple of our choices for summer reads this year included this idea of happiness.  One was called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k, and the other was called Solve For Happy.  Since several of my colleagues have chosen to read these other books, I'm sure that there are many copies at school and over time one or other of them will make my way towards me as well.  In fact I picked up a copy of one of these books on my colleague's desk this morning, and managed to read the first 40 pages or so before school even started, and discovered that happiness is not based on turning lemons into lemonade, but in learning to like (or at least stomach) the lemons - our fears and faults.  Basically we need to care about the things that really matter and give up on the rest.

Solve for Happy also seems interesting.  Written by a Google engineer, Mo Gawdad tries, like Eric Weiner, to examine the facts behind makes people happy - to come with an equation for enduring happiness.  His theory was put to the test when his son died 10 years after devising the equation - now Mo has decided to help people become happier by sharing his equation with people around the world in his book.  I really want to read this book too.

Anyway what I read this morning led me to this conclusion:  trying to be happy doesn't usually work - all around us we are bombarded with people having a good time and we think if we did those things it might lead us to be happy too (on Facebook, for example, one of my friends just posted that today is his last day of school and now he is going to retire - Retire? I thought - that's a huge number of years away for me .... and where do I want to retire to .... and how can I afford it ....?)  See the way my brain was working?  And actually am I really unhappy that I have to work for another 8 or 9 years?  No because I love my job!  So then I read a bit further in the book and came to this idea:  that what makes us happy is to solve problems - and so true happiness occurs when we find the problems that we enjoy having and enjoy solving (such as where to retire to?  Is this a happy problem?)

So I have one more week of school this school year - and likely this book will be lying on my colleague's desk for that whole time - so if I get in early I can read some more pages and think some more about happiness and not giving a f**k and maybe I can even finish this book before we break for summer.  And perhaps, too, this is a happy problem.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Juggling and managing complexity

This is my second post about our summer read Your Brain at Work by David Rock.  Today I read Chapter 3 which is about juggling.

As I wrote yesterday, there is a limit on how much information your brain can hold at any one time, and also a limit on what you can do with that information.  When you try to do too much, your brain is unable to cope and therefore cuts back on accuracy or quality.  Rock writes that while it's possible to hold several pieces of information in your mind at once, you can't perform more than one conscious process at a time and still maintain your performance.  The analogy he gives is that you can drive and chat on a well-travelled route, however when you go to a new destination you need to focus and so people tend to chat slower.  If you are really challenged, for example by having to drive on the other side of the road in a different country, you will really need to focus hard on just staying on the correct side of the road and will have little room for talking.  I've seen the same thing, for example, when I moved to Switzerland and some students had a German keyboard where the Y and Z were "switched".  When using those keyboards my typing speed really slowed down as I was having to focus on every word.  This also reminded me of my son, who has a handwriting issue.  If he is concentrating on keeping his writing legible, then it interferes with his thought process.  If he thinks at his usual pace, his handwriting becomes almost illegible.

Rock writes that there are 5 main mental processes:
  • Understanding - which involves creating new maps in the prefrontal cortex that represent new information that needs to be connected to existing maps in the rest of the brain (long-term memory)
  • Decision making - which involves activating a series of maps in the prefrontal cortex and then making a choice between them
  • Recalling - which involves searching through the billions of maps already in your memory and bringing the right one into the prefrontal cortex
  • Memorizing - which involves holding maps in the prefrontal cortex long enough to embed them into long-term memory
  • Inhibiting - which involves trying not to activate other (not relevant) maps.
Rock writes that each of these processes involves the complex manipulation of billions of neurological circuits and that you have to finish one operation before another can begin.

Some years ago Dr Larry Rosen visited ASB and he talked to parents and teachers about multi-tasking.  Actually he said that people cannot multi-task, they can only task switch.  When we do two cognitive tasks at once we are affected by something known as dual-task interference, and our cognitive capacity drops dramatically.  Doing two tasks at the same time also doesn't save us time - because it takes twice as long with our diminished capacity.  Rock writes, "The lesson is clear: if accuracy is important, don't divide your attention."

However many people still try to do several things at once, paying partial attention to each one.  For example there are times when I've Skyped with my son and I know his mind is somewhere else as it's taking him longer to converse and answer questions.  And doing too much by being "always on" leads to a drop in IQ which is greater in men than in women.  This always on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace lifestyle has also huge impacts on our health, as it leads us to feel an artificial sense of crisis where our flight or fight mechanism kicks in.

Another reason for multi-tasking leading to lower productivity is because when you hold many tasks in the "background" this decreases the amount of brain power than can be used to focus on something at any given moment.  Because of this, when you multi-task accuracy goes down.  For long-term memories to form you need to pay attention to information.  I've noticed that if I'm checking my mail, for example, at the same time that I'm Skyping, then I come away from the call with little memory of what was discussed.

Can we learn to juggle lots of different information?  Rock thinks we can if we do the following:
  • practice specific activities over and over again until they become automatic - the example he gives is learning how to drive or learning how to type.
  • make decisions in the right order - for example if a thought keeps recurring it could be that a decision you need to make is holding things up.  Decisions get caught up in "queues" and are a great waster of your brain's resources.  This leads back to my post yesterday about prioritizing - taking the time to work out the right order in which to take decisions can save a lot of effort and energy.
  • mix up your attention - if you have to do several things at once you need to limit the time you spend on this.  Rock suggests we consciously decide how long we will split our attention, and then after this go back to focusing on one thing.
A few weeks ago I went away to Alibaug (near Mumbai) on a yoga and meditation retreat.  The idea of meditation is to clear your brain of all the distracting thoughts.  My mind was obviously really cluttered - I found it hard to even count up to 20 with an empty mind, without thoughts flooding in and taking over.  Distraction is something that really keeps me from using my time efficiently, and it's the subject of the next chapter.  I'll be blogging on this over the weekend.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

An epidemic of overwhelm

My summer read arrived today.  Each year we get the option of a professional learning book to read over the summer, and the one I chose this year was Your Brain at Work by David Rock.  As this is a hardback book, and since I have limited space and weight for my summer in Europe, my aim is to try to read the book (or most of it) before I go next week.  Today I read the first 2 chapters.

It's the end of our school year, and everywhere I turn at school I see people who are stressed because they feel they have too much to do before the end of term.  A couple of weeks ago I realized that I also had a huge "to do" list, which I wrote up on a whiteboard in my office, and have spent the last few weeks crossing off the things as they get done:  update all the IT integration documents - done, meet all the teachers I've been coaching to reflect on their goals for the year - done, meet all the TAs to reflect - all done except 2, complete the tech audit - done, meet with the tech coaches - planned for next week.  Today I wiped the board clean and put just 4 items back onto it.  I know I'll get to do these before the end of next week, however what I'm seeing is that many of us are simply managing a larger and larger to-do list and inevitably this gets overwhelming.

In Chapter 1 of Your Brain at Work, David Rock tells us to "prioritize prioritizing".  The recommendation is that this is done at the start of every day, before you start any other attention-rich activity such as reading and replying to emails. Rock also tells us that we spend more time thinking about problems (things we have seen) than solutions (things we have not seen), because thinking about the unknown takes a lot of time an effort.  This is the opposite of what we've been taught to do in our Cognitive Coaching - where we acknowledge the present state but them quickly move to the desired state.  One good way of prioritizing is to write things down - I'm a great fan of making a list because this gets the task out of the brain, saving it to work on comparing the tasks rather than just remembering them.  The other piece of advice in Chapter 1 is to do the hardest tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind - either early in the day or after a break.  He tells us to "plan to do your deep thinking in one block" which allows us to shift around the work we are doing to let our brains recover.  The analogy here is a sports one:  it's best to do some heavy lifting, then some cardio and then some stretching.  This way, as you change exercise, muscles get used in new ways, with some resting while others are working.  At the same time we need to develop the capacity to not pay attention to non-urgent tasks - in fact we need to say no to them (possibly to delegate them to others).

Another analogy used throughout the book is that your brain is like a stage and the tasks you need to remember and do are like the actors on the stage.  You don't have all the actors on the stage at once - if there are too many then some get pushed off.  Studies have been done on how many things your brain can work on at one time.  Fifty years ago it was thought that you could hold about 7 items in your mind at once, however 15 years ago this was revised down to 4, and even that depends on how complex the tasks are.  Your brain works well on tasks that are made up of elements that are already in your long-term memory, but it's usually hard to think about new ideas unless they connect to existing ones.  Rock writes, "While you can obviously remember more than one thing at a time, your memory degrades for each item when you hold a lot in mind."  Basically the fewer things that are on your mind, the better you are at making decisions:  the most efficient number of variables for making decisions is 2, and you should always try to limit ideas to just 3 or 4 at once.

A lot of what Rock writes about I really relate to.  I know there have been times this year when I've forgotten to do something, and at those times I've actually said "I have so much in my mind that something dropped out",  and yet I'm still juggling all those balls and most of the time I don't drop any.  Juggling is the subject of Chapter 3 in the book.  I'll be reading this tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Bust it Away Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How society kills our creativity

This short 7 minute animation was shared by a friend of mine today - and I simply had to share it along further.  Madrid based animators, Daniel Martinez Lara and Rafa Cano Mendez created this film to demonstrate what happens when we let external influences dim our inner light.  Enjoy!


Moving from best practice to next practice

Last week I was in The Hague at the IB office, meeting about PD.  On our first day there we spent some time discussing "background" issues such as forecasts of the number of international schools, and research into the reasons why people attend PD.  One of the studies quoted was by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School who characterises PD into functional, emotional and social.  We were asked to consider these questions:
  • Functional - what is the need that it met?  Often times teachers will reply that they attended PD because they wanted to become a better teacher, they wanted to improve student learning or they wanted to get a better job.
  • Emotional - how did you feel about doing the PD?  Here important marker words were things like commitment and reputation, and teachers said they felt valued and recognised by their school when they were sent to PD.
  • Social - what was the social purpose of attending PD?  Often teachers talked about building a PLN, being able to "keep up", becoming a leader, and enhanced status as a professional especially if they subsequently felt they were able to contribute to the profession.  
Sifting through all the responses to the IB questionnaires following PD, similar trends emerge:  teachers write that they want to learn new things, improve as a teacher, help other teachers, advance in their career, and in some cases that the PD was required by the school.  They noted many benefits such as greater course knowledge, career advancement, networking and being certified for new responsibilities.  I have to say this last one is important - especially in countries where the number of IB or PYP schools is growing fast - being trained in the PYP has frequently led to teachers being "poached" by other local schools and given positions of responsibility, simply because of their experience and professional development in another PYP school.

The international school landscape is shifting - and what we mean by an international school isn't just a local private school teaching in English.  It involves having an international mix of students, international governance, internationally minded teachers and an international curriculum.  Generally these schools are promoting themselves as a different quality of education from that you could get at local schools, in particular some schools emphasis that they are a route to "good" universities.  The biggest growth for new international schools is in Asia and the Middle East.

Here are the figures we were given:
2015 number of schools - 7500,  number of international teachers - 350,000.
2025 predicted numbers of schools - 15,000, and predicted numbers of international teachers - 734,000.  
This is a huge growth and of course has a big impact on the provision of PD.

As well as this, the growth is going to change how international schools differentiate themselves from each other. For example in Mumbai we have more than 40 international schools - each is looking for what its unique selling points will be. Many have characterised these as things like engaged and optimistic students (optimism, for example, appears in our mission statement at ASB). Many international schools also stress their global connections - in fact some are parts of global "groups" like the GEMS schools, or United World Colleges. For many of these schools their selling point is that the learning environment supports personalised learning and that the students from these schools emerge as self-directed learners both today and in the future.  Others stress that their students are multilingual and culturally intelligent.

The European Council of International Schools (ECIS) engaged the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) to study the role of international schools in the future. This study showed that it will be international schools who will lead a new global education system, setting educational agendas and addressing the disconnect between schooling and learning. Our international schools could be a creative catalyst bringing about change and implementing what we know about learning. There should be intelligent communities - to focus on reflection both within the institution and with others - a movement away from competition and a realisation that schools are stronger together.

As the role of international schools changes, this should really affect curriculum - moving from best practice to “next practice” that combines the best of local, national and global. New pedagogies will involve strong learning partnerships among students and teachers and of course 21st century skills.  The idea is that there will be a shift from teacher centred learning (with an emphasis on product - which involves lots of plans and interventions, assessments and giving students choice only through electives) to student centred learning which focuses on process, social and life skills, and where student choice is more important than "learning activities".  And of course as this shift happens there will be tension between those teachers who are subject centred and those who are learner centred. This is an exciting time for the PYP that has placed itself in the gap between the two - and how excited I am to be a part of this change!

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Teaching and Learning with Technology

About two and a half years ago I wrote several blog posts about the IBO's pre-publication of The Role of Technology in the IB Programmes.  Following my week at the IB office the The Hague, I've now come back to read through the publication of Teaching and learning with technology:  A guide of basic principles, that was eventually published a year later in December 2015.  I wanted to dig into this publication again in the light of the changes coming to the PYP from Principles into Practice (PiP). As we transition and upskill our educators I wanted to reflect on the role of technology in this process.

Back in the pre-publication days, I wrote a blog post about whether technology was a language, a literacy or a concept.  I like the way this is now explained:  "things and concepts work together as "technologies" to make the world easier to live in and understand:  technologies are anything that aids or extends you" (the you here refers to the entire school learning community).  Technology supports the curriculum and does not dominate it.  It is:

  • evident but seamless in the curriculum
  • accessible to all learners, creating classrooms that are inclusive and diverse
  • adaptive to many contexts
  • Supportive of intercultural understanding, global engagement and multilingualism (the things that really define what an IB school is - the things that set these schools apart from other "good" schools)
  • helpful in fostering the collection, creation, design and analysis of significant content.
Of course technology is also a literacy - it needs knowledge to be acquired, applied and reflected on, and it is cognitive, being demonstrated more through thinking than simply mastering a variety of tools.  However technology literacy does encourage the development of different skills, and the ability to understand and communicate in many forms (multimodal).  As the emphasis is on the connections to the real world, technology can broaden students' experiences and prepare them for their futures in a multicultural world.  And literacy is developed by actively choosing and using multiple technologies in the classroom.

Back in the day, I also wrote a blog post about integration -v- implementation.  I've been thinking about this again today too.  One part of the document that really spoke to me was this:
Integration means developing approaches to learning that technology supports, or that are only possible by using particular technologies ... the popular definition of technology integration involves learning to use "things", but the academic definition involves learning concepts that these particular "things" support or make possible.
And in my mind this is how it relates to PD: "in order for technology use to be better connected to both pedagogy and instruction, professional development must demonstrate to educators both how and why they need to use new technologies."  Right now I'm facilitating a workshop on digital citizenship and I know that some of the new technologies introduced might be challenging to some of the participants, but hopefully we can explore these hows and whys, so that they will feel comfortable using them with their own students and sharing with others in their learning communities.

Photo credit:  I took this photo last week in Den Haag

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

We are what school should be

In today's staff meeting we were talking about how ASB is different.  With around 40 other "international" schools in Mumbai, what really sets us apart.  We talked about the idea of a value proposition - a promise of value to be delivered.  For example we have often said that ASB students set themselves apart by the quality of their character and the high caliber of their holistic education.  But is that enough?  Today in our staff meeting we talked about the things that make ASB great:  our STEAM programme, the collaboration and relationships we build, the talent of our teachers.

In all we talked about the 6 aspects of ASB that clearly differentiate it from the rest of the schools in Mumbai, and from most international schools around the world.  These are:

  • Being intentionally international
  • Our remarkable educations
  • Our educational ambiance,
  • The pursuit of dreams
  • Individualized pathways
  • Life beyond the classroom

We're going to make a video about each one of these, but here's the first - we are intentionally internationally.  Enjoy!

Photo Credit:  Artwork by Kindergarten Students at ASB

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Staying in Day 1

Following our R&D Meeting today I searched for Jeff Bezos's letter, published a few days ago to Amazon shareholders, about keeping a company great.  He sums this up as a Day 1 approach, and writes that he's been reminding people that it's Day 1 for a couple of decades.  He writes:
Day 2 is stasis.  Followed by irrelevance, Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.  And that is why it is always Day 1.
I've been thinking about this in terms of schools.  Today I was talking to a colleague who told me the next move she makes will be to a "tier 2" school.  She talked about the pressure of being in a tier 1 school, and the toll it takes on her life and family.  However I disagreed.  Having once worked for a tier 2 school I realised how much it sapped my energy being mediocre.  I don't think I'd ever choose to work at a tier 2 school again.  But then I started to think about how schools change - some become much better and others stagnate.  And I started to make the connections between tier 1 schools and Bezos's ideas about staying on Day 1.

Bezos writes that when companies become Day 2 organizations, the decline happens in slow motion - it could take decades, but the final result (decline/death) would still come.  How does a school or a company keep the vitality of Day 1?  Bezos's answer to this is to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings and double down when you see customer (student) delight.  He also points out that the outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won't or can't embrace powerful trends quickly.  He writes, "If you fight them, you're probably fighting the future.  Embrace them and you have a tailwind."

Last week at ASB we hosted a showing of Most Likely To Succeed, a documentary about education and curriculum reform.  The movie explains that our school system was designed over a hundred years ago to produce a workforce for the industrial age, which prized conformity and standardization.  Today the same education system is crushing the creativity and initiative that young people will need to thrive in the 21st century - one where automation is likely to do away with many white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs.  Basically the message is that American schools are failing their students, leaving them without the ability to think critically, and unable to contribute to an innovation economy.  And to be honest American schools are not doing too well on standardized tests either:  the USA is ranked at 24th in the developed world for reading and 36th for maths (well behind countries such as Estonia, Vietnam and Poland) - in fact the maths scores in the USA are actually declining!  In Bezos's terms, American schools have already moved into Day 2 (or possibly Days 3 and 4 if these are associated with irrelevance and decline). And my question is, are international schools doing any better, or are we still pushing forward with an irrelevant curriculum, based on knowledge and skills that are no longer valuable?

For those who haven't seen it, here's the trailer for Most Likely to Succeed.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds Flickr via Compfight cc

People on the edge

In our R&D Meeting today we continued to discuss the diffusion of innovation, this time focusing on opinion leadership.  Last month I blogged about innovators and early adopters,   It's the early adopters who are often highly respected as opinion leaders.  When the early adopters endorse an innovation this is what gets the innovation out to the majority.  There could be many reasons for this, for example they could have greater exposure to mass media or social media.  Today we were talking about how these opinion leaders are often people on the edge - bringing new ideas from outside their social group to its members.  They are not the people at the top, not the leaders of groups, but instead they are the people who move between groups, as they have extensive interpersonal network links. The role of the innovation leader in a social system is to reduce uncertainly abut the innovation - therefore these people must be seen by others as having good judgement about adopting new ideas - and after the opinion leaders in a system adopt an innovation, it may be impossible to stop its further spread.  We talked about how school leaders will often want to get the opinion leaders onboard in order to role out a new initiative, and about the people in school who could be seen as early adopters.

Are you an opinion leader - someone on the edge?

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Developing my skills as a Cognitive Coach

Twice a week, every week, I meet with a colleague at ASB and we practice coaching.  Sometimes we coach each other, sometimes we talk about specific skills, and sometimes we watch videos we have made of us coaching other people and talk about ways we can improve our craft.  Chapter 3 of the book Cognitive Coaching is all about the mediator's skills, and about how both linguistic and non-verbals can foster cognitive development.  There are 5 types of verbal responses that a coach can give that help to mediate thinking:

  • Silence - wait time and listening
  • Acknowledging - both verbally and non-verbally
  • Paraphrasing
  • Clarifying
  • Providing data and resources
I remember when I did the training learning a little about status - I came back to this again in Chapter 3 where it states that the coach assumes teachers know more about their students, the content they teach and their own skills and strengths than the coach does.  They coach conveys this by listening empathetically and questioning rather than telling.  

Non-verbals are more important than verbal cues - nearly 2/3rds of meaning is conveyed non-verbally, for example with eye contact, nodding, matching voice tone and pace, using gestures and so on that contribute to building rapport.  It's also important to use the approachable voice when questioning, as the credible voice can feel to the coachee like an interrogation and can shut down his/her thinking.

Silence also indicates a productive conversation.  In fact when my colleague and I are reviewing our videos we are looking for the pauses which communicate respect for the time the other person is taking to think and reflect and which then results in higher cognitive processing.  Pausing also conveys the message that the coachee is valued and respected and that the coach has faith in the other person's ability to continue to think and then respond.  

One thing I'm working on at the moment is paraphrasing.  I know I need to work on this skill because in general when I look at the amount of time I spend talking compared with the colleagues that I am coaching, I find I'm doing a lot of talking!  I need to be more concise and to get to the heart of what they are saying.  Paraphrasing is important because it lets the other person know that you are trying to understand them and value what they are saying.  And just as using the "wrong" voice when asking questions can shut down thinking, questions that are preceded by a paraphrase can do the opposite - they can lay the ground for inquiry.  One thing I've tried over the past few days is writing down my paraphrases and then trying to cut them down in length - this is also helping me to consider the beliefs and values behind what a person is saying and this helps me to make more abstracting paraphrases.

So far as a coach I've rarely been called on to collect data (I'm thinking perhaps I need to offer this more during the planning conversations).  Data is often a very "neutral" way of giving feedback as, along with mediative questions, it's non-judgemental.   Other forms of feedback are not successful in encouraging the coachee to think - inferences, interpretations, personal opinions and evaluations may lead to mistrust or even fear.

Videoing myself is scary - sometimes I really dislike looking back at the videos because I feel I've done poorly or missed the mark.  But it is really valuable - and it is helping me to develop my skills and get better.

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Developing my identity as a Cognitive Coach

My aim is to read through all 15 chapters of Cognitive Coaching before Days 1-4 of the Cognitive Coaching seminar being held at ASB at the end of this month.  Chapter 2 is about identity and I'm going to start with a quote right from the beginning of the chapter:
Identity is the mental model each of us constructs of who we are as a unique self.  This is an important concept because identity informs decisions and behaviours.  The most sustainable way to change behaviours is to change identity ... The self is fluid.  It is not a thing; rather it is a process.  One's identity is in a constant and imperceptible gradual state of transformation.  We create meaning from our interactions with others and with the environment.  Identity emerges from the web of those interactions.
I was interested to read that there are actually 3 forms of identity.  Personal identity is a person's expression of his or her individuality.  Cognitive Coaching deals with how the personal identity shapes perceptions, values, beliefs and behaviours.  In other words, "identity is the story we tell ourselves of who we are".  Then there's the social identity - people have several of these such as ethnicity, nationality, age, gender and so on.  Social identities can also influence behaviour, especially when with a group that you identify with.  Finally there's role identity which is relational, for example husband, grandchild, boss, student.  These are temporary, situational personas.  The interesting thing is that what starts as role identity may grow into personal identity - and this has been found to be true for those who develop their sense of self as a mediator - the identity associated with Cognitive Coaching.
The Cognitive Coach, having an identity as a mediator, forms and applies values (fostering the intellectual development of others), beliefs (resources for growth lie within a person being coached), capabilities (mental maps to guide conversations and knowing when and how to use certain skills), and finally the application of coaching behaviours (developing rapport, pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions), the use of which is conditioned by environment.
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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Exploring the theory behind Cognitive Coaching

Almost 3 years ago I started on my journey to become a Cognitive Coach, and although I was initially skeptical about the transformative power of coaching, within the first day or so I was hooked. I could see that I could apply to all areas of my life, not just to my role as a tech coach, and I wanted to learn more.  I completed the 8 days of the foundation course, took the advanced course, went to the Presenter's Forum and started scribing days 1-8 with a view of starting to take on some of the co-teaching.  This time has now come!  So for the last few weeks I've been digging a little deeper into the theory.  I find I learn best when I write, as this enables me to clarify my thinking, so the next few blog posts will be about coaching as I get myself mentally prepared for the upcoming seminar.

The aim of cognitive coaching is to produce self-directed individuals, and so the coach develops his or her identity as a mediator to empower the cognitive functioning of others, allowing them to reflect on and solve their own problems.  A coach is not a teacher, and I'm discovering that a coach is also not a mentor which both imply superior knowledge or skills and therefore power.  A coach helps others to learn from situations - "from telling to inquiring, and from finding strength in holding on to finding strength in letting go."
It's a dialogue that provides space for self-reflection, for revising and refining positions and self-concepts, where a colleague is invited to see him/herself in a new light. (Costa and Garmston)
Cognitive coaching is built on the belief that growth is achieved through the development of intellectual functioning - the coach will question the coachee's thinking (perceptions, beliefs and assumptions) and so it's important to establish and build rapport and trust.  The reason a coach focuses on thinking rather than behaviour is because Cognitive Coaches believe behaviour is determined by a person's perceptions and so a change in perception is vital in order for there to be a change in behaviour. Because a coach is there to serve others, a coach has to set aside his or her own unproductive ways of listening, responding and inquiring.

At the mission of Cognitive Coaching is to produce self-directed persons who function well both individually and in groups, the concept of holonomy is a key one that is introduced early on Day 1 of the foundation course.   I'd never heard of this word before starting coaching (it's a combination of 2 Greek words), but basically it refers to the study of parts/whole relationships.  We are all unique individuals, yet are part of many groups such as families, friends, work colleagues.  Each of these groups and systems influences us as individuals, and in turn individuals can influence the systems.

In the first chapter of their book Cognitive Coaching, Costa and Garmston address why coaching can be so powerful in schools.  Teachers need and want support, and research shows that engagement in mentoring improves both teaching practices and student achievement.  Coaching enhances the intellectual capacities of teachers, leading to them becoming more adaptable and flexible and more able to tolerate stress.  They are more likely to empathize with their students, vary their instructional strategies, and give more feedback to students, and as a result these students are more cooperative and involved in their work.  Other studies have shown these teachers show greater commitment to the individual student and employ more generation and use of data.  There is also evidence that shows that high-concept teachers are more effective with a wider range of students, including students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

I was also interested to read that few educational innovations achieve their full impact without a coaching component.  This made me think more in terms of instructional coaches who are responsible for supporting the introduction and implementation of new programmes or standards.

This year I'm mentoring a new teacher and I'm learning how to navigate between coaching and other support functions.  I have come to see how important skillful feedback is - and that when in a coaching role judgements and advice can reduce the capacity of the coachee to reflect.  Studies in California showed that after 3-4 years of service, beginning teachers mentored with Cognitive Coaching gradually assumed significant teacher-leadership roles.

Perhaps one of the most powerful impacts of Cognitive coaching is on interpersonal relationships, for example working effectively on a team.  We know that adult interactions in a school influence the climate of the learning environment, and in turn the instructional outcomes for the students. Cognitive Coaching can promote the norms of honest and open communication that enable everyone to work together in respectful ways.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Creating the Optimal Conditions for Creativity to Flourish

I think I must have decided to focus on presentations on creativity at NESA as I went to another 4 hour workshop led by Garfield Gini-Newman from the University of Toronto and the Critical Thinking Consortium.  Garfield is the author of the book Creating Thinking Classrooms.

At the start of this workshop I was introduced to a new word - creatical which means critical creativity.  Garfield pointed out that to  innovate you need a deep understanding - innovation requires that students use knowledge in new ways and in authentic contexts. You cannot innovate in an area you know nothing about. Creativity can also encourage social entrepreneurism - students can explore ways to solve problems or develop products that have value in their community (locally, internationally globally). It's good for students to explore challenges without limits or boundaries.

We were shown some diagrams (I tried to reproduce them below) and asked about our ideas of critical thinking and creativity - are they separate - overlapping - or is one a subset of the other (and if so which one)?

Barriers to creativity
  • A belief that standardized assessments do not align to creativity - teachers believe they have to teach content through transmission.
  • Creativity is seen at odds with the need to cover the curriculum.
  • Misunderstanding of what defines creativity - it is in fact profoundly purposeful as it is always driven by a goal or purpose.
  • Perception of creativity as the generation of novel ideas without judgement. However creativity always involves judgement and criteria is central to the creative process.
Creativity requires
  • Something is produced - a person cannot be creative if they have never created something
  • The creation is novel (it can do something in a different way)
  • The creation adds value, has significance or solves a problem
5 Keys to creating optimal conditions for creativity
  • Quality thinking - we must pay attention to the community of learners and thinkers, we have to creative opportunity for creativity, we have to teach intellectual tools for quality thinking. We must teach kids that there is not a “right” answer - there are different answers - we need to create the climate. You need to create a safe environment where students can take chances and know they can throw out ideas. Tools needed for quality thinking include:
    • Background knowledge - this is not prior knowledge - it’s the knowledge needed to engage with the challenge.  Students still need content.  Innovation builds upon this.
    • Criteria for judgement of what makes a good idea, what is useful and which ideas have the most merit.
    • Critical thinking vocabulary - this is not the language of the subject.  It’s words like assess, evaluate, appreciate etc.
    • Thinking strategies - information is not enough.  It needs to be organized, and managed to make sense.
    • Habits of mind - 19 habits - we don’t teach lessons on this, they are habitual.  Curiosity, open-minded, perseverance, risk taking.
  • Opportunity - how we frame our questions and the power of constraints. If there are no constraints or too many constraints both can cut off creativity. Try to find an authentic audience and an authentic task. Design thinking starts with empathy for audience.
  • Fluency - Generate lots of ideas. 
  • Verification - provide clear criteria for quality (success, qualitative not descriptive)
  • Time - you have to allow time for creativity

Photo: My daughter with Rodin's Thinker in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Teaching Creativity in a Standards-Based World

The title of this keynote at NESA by Douglas B Reeves intrigued me as on the surface it seems hard to encourage creativity when you then have to assess students according to rigid content standards.  Douglas started off asking us what we thought creativity is, and he gave us a definition - creativity is the process of experimentation, evaluation and follow through, which leads to a significant discovery, insight or contribution. He pointed out that this definition doesn’t say original or novel, however we do need to honour innovation as well.  Creativity is the result of hard work, many failures, lots of feedback, criticism and disciplinary mastery and the entire brain is involved in creative effort.

People may disagree on what is beautiful, original and useful. However, Douglas said that perhaps we can agree on certain teaching and leadership practices that either support or underline creativity, because for sure students need mentors and wise guides.  He also pointed out that constraints can lead to creativity, or as Howard Gardner said "You can't think outside the box until you first understand the box."

Assessing the creative environment in the classroom
Douglas talked about a study where K-12 schools and college evaluated themselves on an 8 dimension scale, with 4 levels on each scale.  The dimensions were research, multidisciplinary perspective, source material, clarity, product, process, collaboration, practice and error.  He elaborated on some of these:
  • Research - we want our colleagues to use latest and best research and to avoid anything unsupported by research 
  • Multidisciplinary perspective - we want students to expand the scope of their work to include different perspectives and disciplines, instead of work being narrowly focused on a single standard.
  • Collaboration - the scale distinguishes between those working together and alone as working together leads to more creativity
  • Practice and error - allowing multiple attempts - the evidence is that students learn from their mistakes so it's not ideal to try to get it right first time.
Practices that undermine creativity
  • Punishing mistakes and risk taking by using the ‘average”
  • Practice as perfection - when students get 20/20 is usually a waste of time - it shows students have already mastered something and have not moved on
  • The ‘good girl’ effect - elevating compliance over performance (girls don’t necessarily perform better but they get better grades). We need to encourage risk taking over compliance.
Teachers need to create the environment and opportunities that will foster creativity.
  • Evaluate students on their final performance, not their average
  • Feedback needs to be part of the process of learning and creativity.  Feedback is one of the most powerful things that teachers do. It needs to be fair, accurate, specific and timeless. It leads to immediate changes in student performance. Feedback needed in the class itself rather than afterwards.
  • We need time and space to explore something deeply. Students need to explore and have their passions fed.
  • Collaboration works best when it’s differentiated. It needs to be practiced so students get better at it. The result of a group effort should be better than doing it alone. However you need to ensure individual accountability together with group responsibility.
And here's an interesting (and sad) finding: the most creative students are often the least popular. How are we as teaching supporting these students?

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A great teacher by design - not by chance

Last weekend I was at the NESA Spring Educators Conference in Bangkok.  On the first day I attended the Keynote by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.  During this Keynote, the following quotation was shared:

Every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance but by design.

Douglas and Nancy commented that we leave a lot of education to chance - we need to focus on how to design really powerful learning for kids.  They talked about walkthroughs and instructional rounds which focus on the teacher, the students and the content students are learning. They also talked about what happens when these areas overlap.  For example teachers and students overlap as “relationship”. John Hattie's studies show that student and teacher relationships are very powerful. Students will take risks and grow when they are part of nurturing, growth producing relationships.

Other areas of intersection are teachers and content - in this model the overlap produces clarity. Teachers need deep knowledge and need to be able to communicate it clearly.  However Douglas and Nancy also made the statement 
We need to spend more time looking down at what students are doing and less at what teachers are doing.
When we look at the intersection of students and content we find challenge.  However, instead often what schools look at is what works at the surface level (skills and concepts) for example summarising, reading comprehension, vocabulary and so on.  Yet we also need to look at what works at the deep level - making connections, relationships and schema, for example  concept mapping, class discussion, student questions. To move learning from the surface to deep you have to change the instruction and change the task.

What we also want is the transfer of knowledge - this is the long-term aim of all education - to be able to use what you have learned in new contexts (Wiggins & McTighe).  Activities that promote transfer include socratic seminars, peer tutoring and problem solving, for example project and problem based learning.  At this point it's also worth considering complexity and rigour.  When we talk about difficulty in terms of learning, it's really just about the effort needed, whereas complexity is about thinking, action or knowledge necessary to complete a task.  You can also compare difficulty and rigour in assessment:  difficulty is about how many people can do the task, whereas rigour is to do with how many different ways it can be done.  All of these are important when considering the intersection of what teachers and students are doing with the content - this is where the learning happens.

Finally we were shown a grid comparing complexity and difficulty.  It looked like this:

Our aim is that students become fluent - that they move from finding things very difficult to finding them easy - the analogy here could be driving a car which in the beginning is very difficult and complex but with time it becomes something you can do easily and automatically.  Ideally we want students to experience learning in all 4 quadrants.  Low difficulty - low complexity builds fluency and automaticity (habits).  High difficulty - low complexity, for example research projects, build stamina.

What learning engagements are you designing for your students?  Which quadrant do these engagements mostly fall into?