The Student Planner (but not the one you’re thinking of…)

This article on student ownership got me thinking:

What if I involved students in planning my lessons?

What if I sat down with one student a week and worked with them to plan one of the lessons in the following week? Imagine the empowerment that might come from that. Imagine the learning for that student. I could envisage that student’s passion and interest for the subject going through the roof if they’ve had a say in planning it. And what’s more, imagine the learning for me! To sit down with a student and talk through what they think a lesson should look like would open my mind to their thoughts and ideas and help me see what activities they enjoy. I’m excited just thinking about it.

Now, how might I turn this idea into reality? Hmmmm…..

The teachers are your school

In a short, yet thought-provoking article, George Couros reminds us that it is people that bring missions and visions to life. At UWCSEA, most teachers ascribe to being lifelong learners. We have a great mission, but it’s nothing without the people who can turn it into a reality. Therefore, as a school, we must constantly strive to improve our effectiveness in delivering that mission. How do we do this? Well, the concept is quite simple: keep improving teacher effectiveness. The delivery, however, is always more challenging. It’s also important to note (and I thank Nick Alchin for taking the time to comment and raise this point – see comments section) that the mission also helps the people involved with the school to become better versions of themselves. In a sense, both the people and the mission are interdependent. With this in mind, it could be said that having a fantastic mission is also a form of improving teacher effectiveness. 

This got me thinking about a phrase that I adore: “It’s people, not programs” (Whitaker, 2014). If you want to make a vision a reality or improve a school, then you must focus on the people, not just a shiny new initiative. In the classroom, the teacher is the variable. They are the ones who can make a difference, therefore it is they that we must help improve. How might we do this? Whitaker talks about several strategies, but I will highlight a few that I think to be the most important:

1. Clarifying your core principles

I am currently working on developing my principles. These are fundamental beliefs that I believe to be true about the world and that I will use to support my day to day life and decision making. Much of this is based upon my readings of Stephen Covey’s work and I have a rough idea of what my core principles are. If you were to ask for a summary, it would be something like: to achieve primary greatness. You can read in more detail about my developing philosophy here. What my philosophy is is a story for another time, however. What’s important is the effect this has had on me as a teacher. Even the process of thinking about it has turned me into a more effective teacher. I have been reinvigorated. I have remembered what I hold dear and I remind myself of that with every action I take in the classroom. Of course, I am human and there are occasions where I might fail in upholding my principles. However, I am now aware of every time that this happens, and am able to seek to repair any damage that this might have caused (seeking always to repair is itself a hallmark of an effective teacher according to Whitaker). I think every teacher (and indeed every person) should clarify what their core is. What are their principles? Next year, I will even do this with my mentee’s. They will know my core principles and I will know theirs. Then, the magic can happen.

 

2. Make it cool to care

I love this concept. At every level of a school, it should be cool to care. It’s cool to be excited about education. It’s cool to read about education. It’s cool to care about the mission. It’s cool to have intellectual conversations rather than gossip. It’s cool to talk about educational philosophies in the staff room. It’s cool to want to connect with your students on an emotional level. It’s cool to learn. It’s cool to care about the subject you are studying. It’s cool to be organised. It’s cool to be proud of studying. It’s cool to care about the teacher. If the teacher can demonstrate a commitment to “it’s cool to care” then maybe the students will adopt that approach too. The best teachers make this a reality. How? Well, according to Whitaker, the following can help contribute to such an atmosphere:

  • Treating everyone with respect and dignity
  • Always taking a positive approach
  • Always modelling how to treat others
  • Understanding that what matters is people, not programs
  • Making every decision based on the most effective people (not so sure about this one…)

How you might do the above could be the subject of a whole different blog post!

For me, creating an environment where it is ‘cool to care’ depends upon you having identified your core principles. If these principles are the right ones, then an atmosphere in your classroom where it is ‘cool to care’ should be an eventual outcome.

3. Teachers learning from teachers

A fact of life is that some teachers are more effective than others. So what makes these effective teachers so amazing? This is a question that every teacher in the school should be asking. If we hear something cool about another teacher’s methods from a student, we should be asking that teacher how they do it. One of my goals next year is to become one of the most effective teachers in the school. How might I do this? Here are some of the things I think might be important:

  1. Read about what makes the most effective teachers so effective!
  2. Identify the most effective teachers in the school. In a school like UWCSEA, every teacher is pretty darn effective in their own way. However, there will still be some teachers who are more effective than others. I want to find out who these teachers are. Most likely, these are the teachers that student’s love and talk about all the time.
  3. Go and see the most effective teachers in action. Luckily, UWCSEA has a very open atmosphere when it comes to seeing other teachers in action. It is important to see effective teachers modelling the very things that make them effective. When we see these things in action, it will become so much easier to take them into our own classrooms.
  4. Take your time! It is important to take a methodical approach. Focus on becoming great at one new thing at a time. With this in mind, it is important to prioritise what you would like to implement first.

 

These are just some of the things that might help your ‘people’ become even more effective. What do you think might help you to get even more from the most important resource in a school?

Food for thought: I leave you with this TED talk from Christopher Edmin on teaching teachers to create magic. Maybe, the most effective teachers are those that have the magic ability to engage. What do you think?

References

  1. What great principals do differently: 15 things that matter most (Todd Whitaker)
  2. What great teachers do differently: 15 things that matter most (Todd Whitaker)
  3. TED talk from Christopher Edmin

Educating more than a worker bee

PSE and Digital Literacy Skills

Digital literacy skills are crucial in the information age. We are no longer just worker bees or units of manpower to be educated according to the needs of our industrial masters. We all have the ability to control our learning and it is our duty to empower students so that they can come to this same conclusion. A useful avenue for teaching the digital literacy skills that might empower students to gain control and direction of their own learning (and ultimately, their destiny) might be PSE.  Beyond the obvious imparting of knowledge by incorporating a “digital literacy skills’ unit, digital literacy skills could be carefully integrated with other learning in PSE. Activities could be set up that allow students to learn the PSE content whilst using digital literacy skills. Another interesting avenue is through the use of ePortfolios.

Next year, UWCSEA will be introducing this concept to our students. Our students will maintain a website (via WordPress) which will act as a repository for their blogging and reflection. I have a feeling that the impact here could be huge for a variety of reasons:

  1. It empowers students to take control of their learning
  2. It gives students an online presence in the information age
  3. We could help bridge the gap between vertical mentor groups

Empowering students

Students need to understand that they are masters of their universe. The ePortfolio can act as a place for them to write reflections, record their learning and interact with the world. When they read a book, they can write a review, publish it and get feedback. They have an avenue to learn even if they are not enjoying what is going on in class.

Developing an online presence

We now live in an information age. Employers can search the name of a potential new recruit on the internet and turn out all sorts of data. When they search your name, you want a website that you run coming out as the top search! This can give employers an insight into your personality and fit for the role before they even interview you. To make themselves stand out in the information age, students need an online presence that is positive and interactive.

Bridging the vertical gap

In a big school like UWCSEA, there is little interaction between grade levels. ePortfolios could help bridge that gap. You can envisage a session whereby grade 11 students write a PSE blog post aimed at grade 9 students. The grade 9 students then read that blog post and are asked to comment on it. The grade 11s then follow up on this by commenting back. All of a sudden, new connections are made. Obviously, this interaction will not occur overnight and must be carefully scaffolded in order to make the connections sustainable and meaningful. That is a story for a whole new blog post!

So, these are just some of my thoughts. How do you think digital literacy skills might enhance the PSE programme in your schools?
Food for thought: What even are digital literacy skills? This blog post asks that exact question: Basic Skills for the Information Age: Ideas from the Community College Circuit.

Featured image credit: In the hive

5 Things I learned from “What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most”

5 Things I learned from “What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most”

I recently read “What Great Principals Do Differently: 15 Things That Matter Most” by Todd Whitaker. An experienced educator and principal, Todd is certainly someone worth listening to. The book is short, but from start to finish, I struggled to put it down. There were some real eye-opening moments for me and reading led to a lot of introspection. Although the book focuses on principals, the ideas can be translated to teaching and many other walks of life. With all of this in mind, I’ll share 5 things that I have learnt from reading this book.

1. Treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time

This is a big one for me. The idea here is that a leader should treat everyone with respect 10 days out of 10. You might be tired. You might be frustrated. You might be drowning under a mountain of work, but when dealing with other people, you don’t let that affect your interactions with them. You don’t allow pressure and stress to cause you to snap at someone or treat them any differently to how you would treat them when things are going great. Whitaker suggests that “we never forget that one time” when someone in a leadership role has treated us inappropriately. So, it is likely that a staff member, or student, will remember that one sarcastic or cutting remark you directed at them (no matter how many times you have treated them with the utmost respect). If you want to lead, in whatever walk of life, don’t be the leader that puts other down. Instead, treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time.

I can think of many times I have been sarcastic in my early years of teaching. I can think of when I thought it was right to put a student in their place, in order to keep the respect of others. Looking back, this is laughable, and, luckily for me and my students, now ancient history. My paradigm has changed and my classroom is all the better for it. That is not to say that there are occasional lapses. The trick now is removing those occasional lapses completely.

What are some of the tricks you use to ensure that you treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time? 

2. It’s cool to care

The ‘Make It Cool to Care’ chapter was an important one for me. If I look in the mirror and reflect properly on the person looking back at me, I have probably found it embarrassing to care too much. This is an absurd state of being and is definitely not conducive to being an effective teacher. It’s as if I have been worried about being mocked for caring too much about an issue, a hobby, a student. In the chapter, Whitaker asserts that “best teachers make it cool to care in their classrooms.” Think about it. If students come into your classroom and know, for sure, that it is a place where caring about your work is cool, they become free from the burden of worry and ridicule for caring too much about the lesson. They are now free to create, to contribute, to innovate, to discuss. They are truly in a safe space.

How might we make an environment where it is cool to care? What does it mean to have a safe classroom? 

3. How do we know who the best teachers are?

Another chapter of the book suggests that every decision that you make should be based upon what your best teachers think. If you tell them about your ideas and thought processes, and they think it’s a great idea, then it’s probably a great idea. If you implement a decision, and they are on board, they are likely to set an example that other, less effective teachers might follow. If they think that it’s a bad idea, then, probably it’s a bad idea and needs some more thought. I tend to agree with this concept, but it got me thinking.

How to you go about deciding who your best teachers are? What are the criteria for this and how do you know these are the right criteria? How do you ensure that you don’t show favouritism? How do you ensure that other teachers are also involved in decision-making processes?

4. Don’t need to repair – Always do repair

I loved this chapter. Whitaker argues that some people never need to repair, but always do and that some people always need to repair, but never do. It is likely that your most effective teachers need to do little repair, but will always be trying to repair relationships. They invest in relationships and are their strongest critics. When they think they have let someone down, they will do their utmost to make amends. However, often the person they feel they’ve let down hasn’t even noticed. Still, that person is likely to value the effort made. Those that are less effective see little value in repairing relationships. They are likely to see the problems as lying with the other person, not themselves. These are those people that often make mistakes, but are never willing to admit them. I try to apply this in my classroom. I can think of an occasion recently. I introduced an activity very poorly. After ten minutes, it was clear that the students were not doing what I expected them to do during the activity. Now, in my early days of teaching, I might have got agitated and started getting frustrated at students for not following my poor instructions! The problem lied with them. What a ridiculous notion. However, now I deal with this in a very different fashion. I instead stopped that activity and apologised to the students for the poor instructions. I then calmly restated them in a better fashion, and low and behold, they got it. Although I have no evidence, I am positive that my students gained a greater respect for me during that lesson. Ego can be your biggest enemy. Humility can be your greatest friend.

How do you ensure that you notice when you have damaged a relationship, or let someone down? How do you approach the difficult conversation that follows? 

5. I don’t agree with everything Whitaker says

Whitaker talks a lot about dealing with ineffective teachers. The teachers that shout at students. The teachers who are sarcastic. The teachers who are overly negative. The teachers who are resistant to change. These teachers all have the ‘wrong’ idea when it comes to being an effective teacher and because of this, they exhibit harmful behaviours in their interactions with others. Whitaker argues that it is sufficient to just deal with the behaviours, rather than just the ideas. To some extent, I agree with this. It is not easy to change someone’s ideas and if you need results in the here and now, it is good to at least get on top of their behaviours. However, I do believe that it is important to focus on transforming that person’s internal dialogue also. Perhaps I have misinterpreted what Whitaker has to say here, and I would love to hear the thoughts of other.

What might be the advantages and disadvantages of changing behavious instead of ideas? Have I misunderstood Whitaker’s point here? 

My biggest question throughout this book has been what might this look like in practice? I’d love to hear some anecdotes about effective principals and teachers who have put the ideas into practice.

The 3rd Alternative Review

Every now and then you read a book that helps to transform your thinking and establish new paradigms. This book by Steven Covey is one of those books. In this post, I will attempt to summarise the processes in the 3rd Alternative and suggest some ideas for how it might be applied in education and peacebuilding.

The 3rd Alternative

For me, the 3rd Alternative brings together lots of different concepts. It is always satisfying to see a book that ties together things that you have learnt in other books and courses. A 3rd alternative is a new alternative. It is about stepping away from the “my way is the right way” paradigm and into a paradigm that sees conflict as an opportunity to develop something completely new.

Figure 1 highlights four paradigms that are crucial to 3rd alternative thinking. I will attempt to explain what is meant by these:

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Figure 1 (Source: www.the3rdalternative.com/about/)
  1. I see myself – in order to reach a 3rd alternative, one must be self aware. This will involve learning about yourself, exposing yourself to different perspectives, experiences and books. In essence, this is about personal growth.
  2. I see you – one must understand others well. This involves learning about other people and what they stand for. This requires skilled empathic listening (something which can be developed through cognitive coaching). Covey talks about Talking Stick conversations. This is where one person holds the talking stick (this can be literal or metaphorical) and is the only one allowed to talk. The other person cannot offer their perspective until the person holding the talking stick feels understood. This will require you to listen empathically and paraphrase. These are important skills that take time to learn.
  3. I seek you out – this involves seeing conflict and different perspectives as an opportunity. You must find people who differ in their opinion to you and seek to understand them.
  4. I synergise with you – now that you are more comfortable with who you are, who the ‘other’ is and you have sought out people with different perspectives, you are ready to synergise with them. This is where you will take the perspectives of both sides to an argument and use them to make a 3rd alternative that is innovative, creative and new.

These processes are not easy and take time and commitment. Synergy is very hard to achieve and Stephen Covey’s outlines four steps to achieving it (shown in figure 2). These steps are: ask; define; create; arrive.

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Figure 2 – (Source: www.the3rdalternative.com/about/)

Ask – you must first ask 3rd Alternative questions which read something like this: Are you willing to go for a solution that is better than either of us have come up with yet? If the answer to this question is no, then you have more work to do in understanding the other side.They don’t trust you yet and so you must work harder at listening empathically. Maybe also, the problem lies with you and so self-reflection is crucial. If the answer is yes, then great, you are ready to move on to defining the criteria for success.

Define – at this step, you must define the criteria for success. What criteria will a solution to your problem hit? What does success look like? If you don’t have criteria, then you may not move forward in a coherent fashion.

Create – once you have a definition of success, you need to start creating solutions. This involves using what Covey describes as the “Magic Theatre”. This is a place where all possibilities are on the table. No idea is deemed ridiculous or stupid. Everything is relevant and could potentially lead to a 3rd Alternative. Covey recommends these rules:

  1. Play at it, it’s a game, it’s not for real – this basically means try and make it fun. Forget the formal business or education setting where you might be afraid to come up with ‘crazy’ ideas for fear of looking stupid. It’s ok to come up with anything in this setting, that’s the point. Crazy thinking is encouraged.
  2. Avoid closure – no decision are being made in the Magic Theatre. This is about getting ideas on the table, not deciding which ones to go forward with.
  3. Avoid judging others’ ideas – this is a safe space. Don’t judge, just create.
  4. Make models – in the Magic Theatre, we want to try and make what we are thinking come to life. This involves writing, drawing, building and more. Turning things into a model makes it easier for others to see your thinking.
  5. Turn ideas on their heads – Covey suggests a technique called counter typing. This involves taking established ideas and thinking about the opposite. Online distance learning is a classic countertype. Someone, at some point, thought about reversing the model of students coming to the university. How about taking the university to the students? This counter type thinking (likely to have been ridiculed by many in its infancy) has led to countless people receiving an education that they might otherwise not have had access to.
  6. Work fast – this is one that I resonate with, but might take with caution. Working fast is great. Just get ideas out there. However, I need to see this in practice. What does it look like? How do I create models fast? From this, I take it that the Magic Theatre is not about refining ideas. It’s about getting as much on paper during the session so that the team can then refine this later.
  7. Breed lots of ideas – this is a given. To reach a 3rd Alternative, you want lots of ideas on the table. The more you have, the more you can merge, select from or just leave for later.

Arrive – now that we have lots of ideas, we can choose to refine one (or more) ideas and turn it into a 3rd Alternative. We might merge ideas together. There is so much that we can do and we are open to new possibilities.

The above is my crude interpretation of Covey’s message. You might see something completely different or disagree entirely with some things that I have written. That’s ok and I invite you to offer your thoughts in the comment section. I wish to seek you out, as it were.

Applications of the 3rd Alternative

The 3rd Alternative left me brimming with ideas. I won’t go into detail on them here, but I think these ideas are worth sharing in order to begin a dialogue.

  1. Using the 3rd Alternative in Chemistry – The world has a lot of problems that chemistry could help solve. I would like to turn my chemistry classroom into a Magic Theatre where students can come up with ideas that use chemistry to help solve these problems. This might help make chemistry seem more relevant to the students, and more practically, it could lead to a project that actually addresses the issue.
  2. Teaching the 3rd Alternative as a model for conflict transformation – at UWCSEA, I help run a programme called Initiative for Peace where we train our students to run a peace conference for youth in conflict-affected areas. The 3rd Alternative contains lots of skills needed for peacebuilding and also provides a great framework for transforming conflicts. How amazing would it be if our students can teach this to other students and help them transform their own conflicts and solve their own problems?
  3. Starting a website that collates examples of 3rd Alternatives and assesses them against Covey’s model might be of use. What do these 3rd Alternatives look like in reality? How were they achieved? What lessons could be learnt? This could be a powerful resource for schools, businesses and governments alike.
  4. Using the 3rd Alternative premise to write a list of problems that the world is facing. We could then hold Magic Theatre sessions to help come up with ideas that help solve these problems.

These are just some ideas and there are much more out there.

How might you use the 3rd Alternative in your life?