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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