On Constraints, Road Maps, and Driving Directions

1601 De Bry and de Veer Map of Nova Zembla and the Northeast Passage Geographicus NovaZembla debry 1601

I’m working this weekend with the Compose Our World project, and we’re digging in hard to the curricular units that we proposed we’d develop in that work.

As we do so, we’re struggling with notions of when to allow for choice and when to constrain it.  Constraints aren’t evil – they can be quite helpful and useful for limiting the possibilities and allowing for actual, reasonable responses from teachers and students to the events, habits and practices of the classroom.  Wide open choice for everyone on everything isn’t necessary helpful.1

One way that’s productive in thinking about constraints that are helpful and still provide for choice is the metaphor of road maps. The decisions we make that constrain possibilities are those that create the universe, or the map, where a project or learning experience can occur. We might choose a single town, or a county. Maybe a state or an ocean. And anything outside the boundary of that particular map is, well, out of bounds. When we constrain a learning experience, we hand students a map, and help them see where, at least for the moment, the boundaries are.

The territory left open on the map is available for exploration. Students can pick a path or feature or two (or three or four) and venture off to explore in more depth.

But we don’t help our students if, after providing the map, we also give them the turn by turn directions to get them from point A to point B. If we do that, then why provide a map at all?

When you’re engaging in project work with students, teachers, and colleagues, make sure that you’re thinking hard about what constraints matter in your project, and then build them in. But if a constraint doesn’t matter, isn’t important, or gets in the way of your instructional objectives, then don’t implement it. Don’t rope off a path that might be the one that is the one the folks you’re working with and for most want to take.

Let at least some choices matter. But only the ones that need to.

  1. Frequent readers here know that I believe that choice is essential for agency and investment, but I don’t believe that everything should be open for choosing all the time. That way leads to madness. []

On Agency, and #whyIwrite

Earlier this evening, I had a conversation with a colleague who is thinking hard, very hard, about how to teach and perpetuate SEL1 principles in classrooms in deep and meaningful ways for children.

We ended up talking because I pushed a bit to ask that, as she creates resources to be used widely by Very Important People, she consider the importance of including teachers and the grown ups in schools.

If teachers and administrators don’t experience care and concern in the habits and practices of their work, I cannot fathom how they will be able to perpetuate those same habits and practices of care and concern with and for the children that they serve.

Our charge in the conversation was to generate some ideas about how to “operationalize social and emotional learning.” An important charge. So she needs to advocate and articulate discreet and specific actions, habits and practices that will lead to greater care, concern and recognition of the children in learning institutions.

As is often the case in such work, it’s difficult to turn theory, even the best ones, into actionable habits and practices in plain language. And when you don’t spell out the specifics, then wide dissemination of practice that leads to significant change is, well, difficult, to say the least.

We talked for a long while, and shared stories and ideas and experiences of how we want students and teachers to feel safe and looked after, but also about agency, a key term that’s emerging for her as essential in moving forward the idea that social and emotional learning practices must happen at school. It’s essential in my work, too. So I pushed for the conversation.

I’m not sure that I was helpful, but as Toby Ziegler reminded us once, sometimes, you’ve gotta preach to the choir – because that’s how you get them to sing.

Because it was productive and fertile and rich2 , I was ruminating over the conversation and the charge. And figured it’d be worth taking a moment to try to tease out some of the specifics that came up, and that maybe, just maybe, would help move her work forward. So I took to my notebook and made a list of the habits and practices I wanted to remember:
agency notes 1
agency notes 2
You probably can’t read my writing, but I’ll come back to this list at some point to take it further if I’m able.

Agency isn’t something you can give to someone else3. It isn’t something you can demand, require or mandate. It’s something, like a flower or a good relationship, that you can work to create the essential conditions for, and if you’re lucky, you might can watch blossom.

You can invite folks to engage. You can ask them to try. But you can’t force something to grow. You can’t mandate love. You can only work to create the essential conditions under which it could grow.

If anyone ever says they can “give” you or yours agency, then they’re mistaken.

But helping to build spaces where people can flourish is quite a delightful way to get to contribute to the rich tapestry of human experience. And such a great use of one’s potential.

And, as today is the National Day on Writing, it’s worth jotting some of these thoughts down. Because, friends, here’s the thing:

I want my schools and libraries, and my children’s schools and libraries, and your schools and libraries, to be places where everyone feels safe to explore and wonder and dream and play. I want the learning environments we create for teachers and students and everyone that might enter them to feel exciting and joyous and wondrous and safe.

I want the tech that I develop, implement and support to work to support people, and not the other way around. I want the fights to be clean and respectful and focused on building things and people up, instead of tearing anyone or anything down.

I don’t know if love and care, if genuine respect for young people, can scale. But I sure want to try. I want to work on that. And, at least in some small way, that’s what I am fortunate to get to try to do.

That’s why I get up in the morning. That’s why I go to work. That’s why I write.

And I want you to want that, too.

  1. That’s Social Emotional Learning, of course.  []
  2. Three words, as you might’ve noticed, that mean the same thing. []
  3. As I’ve said before. []

“The System Won’t Let Me”

System Lock

System Lock by Yuri Samoilov

The other day, I pulled up to a fast-food joint, trying to grab a quick bite.1

I ordered the value meal2, but I quit drinking soda a year or so ago, so I asked if I could just have water. I didn’t mind getting charged for it, I told the disembodied voice out my car window, I just wanted to not have a soda.  Could they please, I asked, just put water in the cup?

The gentleman at the other end of the speaker wasn’t able to help me.  When I made the initial request, he got quiet, and I heard the electronic beep of buttons pushing, and then he told me that he couldn’t not give me a soda.

The system, he said, wouldn’t let him do otherwise.

The system.

I argued this for a minute or two.  Could you type in “Sprite” or something, but just, you know, fill the cup up with water?  Or just put water in a cup and hand it to me with the burrito and tots?

Nope.  The system just wouldn’t allow it.

Being someone who can’t support systems that won’t let folks do things, I drove off without making a purchase.

As I think now about the beginning of a new school year, the first one in fifteen years I’m experiencing as an observer, I’m wondering about the systems you might find yourselves in.

Do you work, promote, or build systems – in your classroom, school district, or organization – that allow for choice and change?  Or do you work, promote or build systems that are lockstep systems, systems predetermined to know the answers that resist and/or require participants in them to remain locked in?  Does your system, instead of your judgment, shape all the interactions that occur within it?  When can the system be overridden, and how often do you do so?

And if you are in a system that’s locked down and doesn’t allow for change or choice, how are you going to resist or challenge that system this school year?

How will you teach your students to resist such systems, too?

I’m asking for me, but I’m also asking for my children.  I don’t ever want them to find themselves in a situation where they can’t do something they might like to do because “the system won’t allow it.” Worse yet, I can’t fathom them becoming people who are bound from doing what’s right or better or good because they feel stuck inside a “system” that’s beyond their control.

And I suspect you don’t want that for your students or children, either.

  1. Okay.  It was a Sonic.  I really, really like breakfast burritos, and I can get one there pretty much any hour of the day.  Eggs and bacon is the “fast food” I eat these days. []
  2. Because tater tots. []

Stop Filling Pails

The number of people who believe that education is simply pouring facts into children, whether those children like it or not, is astounding to me.

We won’t serve children better by buying better funnels for those facts, or better shovels for those facts, or better containers for those facts once we get them into the children.

Admiring the hoses, shovels, and funnels is certainly not a productive way to improve learning for children, nor do fancy shovels make the process any better for the children involved.  Fancy tools used for terrible pursuits are a tremendous waste of resources.

We won’t serve society((Or the children.)) better by making sure the students sit more quietly, obediently, or patiently while we shovel, pour, or toss those facts, either.1

That is not what education is, should be, or could be.

Not even close.

  1. And children reacting negatively to having their time wasted is not the fault of the children, nor should it be used to justify more pouring or shoveling. []

Let’s Hack School: A Recent Talk at CSU

Earlier this week, I had the honor of giving a talk in the CSU Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life speaker series. With my time, shared below, I talked about some of our work around professional learning and agency, as well as some of my thinking on the essential actions/literacies/habits that should be in our schools. I probably tried to cram too much into a fast talk, but I think it got some thinking going, which was my goal in the first place1. Below is a Google Hangout video of the talk, and below that is the slide deck from the talk, which is rather hard to see in the video.

I’d love to hear your response to these ideas and where and when you’re fitting in make/hack/play in your teaching and learning.

Thanks so much to Antero and Cindy and the CSU Writing Project for having me out as a part of a really great series.2

The talk starts at nine minutes into the recording.

  1. I’m certain there’s a workshop or two in this talk, specifically around helping folks design learning spaces with certain attributes in mind. I’m tinkering now with building a thinking tool to embody the slider stuff I get into near the end. Get in touch if this is something you’d like to know more about. []
  2. PS – Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the Executive Director of the National Writing Project, is speaking on April 7th as a part of the same series. You should go if you can. More info on the CSUWP’s website. []

If Public Isn’t an Option, Then It Isn’t a Choice

The title of this post will likely bug some folks because it’s a fairly obvious statement. Except I see plenty of teachers, well-meaning and kind-hearted every one, requiring students to post work they do in class online. Without exception or choice in the matter. 

They require this work to be posted publicly for a number of reasons, but they all seem to involve the power of authentic audience, and the sense that students putting their words in public will magically create citizens who get the power of civic discourse. 

The thing is, there’s nothing authentic about being forced to speak in public. 

No one attending a city council meeting is forced to speak during the meeting. Folks reading newspapers never find themselves compelled to write letters to the editor.  

The power of public is in the choosing of it. There’s no agency in required speech. 

Writing in public is hard. Really, really hard. And it requires a mix of bravery and determination and gumption and a sense that the words one is about to share are IMPORTANT.  It also requires the ability to walk away and abandon the words at any moment. 

You don’t just shout to the world because your teacher says you have to. Or you shouldn’t find yourself in that position, anyway. 

If you’re in the business of helping children develop their public voices, then I sure hope you’re giving them choices about when and how and what (and IF) to publish. And sometimes, “I choose not to post today,” is the most important choice you can offer. 

Otherwise, I’m thinking you’re doing it wrong. 


Building (Better) Organizational Habits

I become more and more convinced each passing day that learning and culture are habit-based skills1. We either have healthy learning habits, or healthy cultures, or we don’t.

Any organization can improve its habits. But habit formation and cessation aren’t events. You don’t change habits in one-day workshops, or a summer conference. You change habits through long term, intentional planning and execution of the behaviors, choices and experiences that lead to better behaviors, choices and experiences. That lead to better habits.

Why do schools and organizations spend so much time on Band-Aids – one time shots at change – and/or the justification of the ability to not improve/change/grow?2

Denial? Doubt? Disbelief?

When does compliance and the convenience of comfort get in the way of changing the rules that perpetuate old, and maybe ineffective, behaviors and habits?

What are the long term structures, routines and expectations that you’re using to change the learning and culture habits in your spaces?

  1. Maybe skills isn’t the right word. But perhaps you know what I mean. []
  2. Why do people do that, I guess, is the same question. []

Suppose We Just Left Them Alone?

One thing that never seems to be in short supply in the learning organizations I work with is a steady stream of new priorities, initiatives, and programming.  There’s always an agenda, pet project, new idea, or something fresh, exciting, and game changing that’ll make all the difference for everybody in the organization.

I get it.  I do.  And I’ve created my fair share of acronyms and new work, work that didn’t start necessarily at the end of the old, but work that had to be squeezed into the mix of already happening stuff.

The thing is, there’s an awful lot of priorities established way high up that find their way down to classrooms, schools, and districts.  And each new one requires a change of some kind, a new emphasis on the one more thing that must get done.

But very, very rarely does the new push come with the requirement of stopping to do the things from the last great idea or priority that was really going to fix things.  So it’s not just that a school has to get better at something new, but it has to keep doing all the other stuff it was doing before.

So here’s my idea for the new initiative of 2015.1 How about we take a look at the 37 odd 1st priorities that have been established for our classrooms, schools, and districts, and just go ahead and cut at least a third of them.  33% of the stuff we used to do? Let’s not do it anymore.  If you must add something new to the plate after that, that’s fine – but you must cut a third of the old stuff first.

We can’t get better at new things, or the old things we’ve gotten crummy at while we’re working on the new things, if we don’t stop doing at least a few of the other things.  And deciding what we’re not going to do is a big ol’ step towards getting better at what we’re going to do instead.

So let’s get right on that.  What will you stop doing this year?

  1. Superintendents, you’re welcome to this one. []

Trusting People, Who “Will Do Dumb Things,” to Make Their Own Decisions

I haven’t read A Place Called School.  Yet.  But it’s one of those books that comes up when I talk to and listen to and read folks who talk, listen and write about what schools are and what they might yet be.  And this piece on its author, John Goodlad, who died earlier this month, helped me remember that I need to get that book on my reading list.  Here’s the choice bit:

 The project convinced Mr. Goodlad that education reformers cannot simply take a successful education innovation and ‘install’ it in a new school, he told Education Week shortly after A Place Called School was published. ‘Several years ago,’ he said, ‘I gave a talk in Beverly Hills to a very sophisticated, bright audience. It was on the dynamics of educational change and the change processes. After it was all finished, the first question was, ‘All right, can you tell us what it is you’re supposed to do to bring about change?’ ‘And I’d just finished,’ he continued. ‘This woman didn’t even begin to grasp the notion of what it’s like for people to empower others to make their own decisions, how that requires trust, and that people will do dumb things. What she was looking for was: Tell me, one-two-three, how to do it. And there are no one-two-threes.’ 

“There are no one-two-threes.”  A hard, but humbling, reminder from someone who paid close attention to schools and education for most of a century.  Better still was the list of criteria for meaningful change:

  • empowering others to make their own decisions
  • building trust
  • allowing people to make mistakes and, from time to time, “do dumb things”

I’m so cool with that list.  Wish I saw more efforts focused on those things.  On my mind of late: How do we help to build good structures for people who need structures to help them learn how not to need other people’s structures1?  How do we build schools and classrooms and learning experiences like that? I wonder if some of that answers are in that book I need to read.   

  1. Okay, this has been on my mind for most of my career. []

The Danger of “Good Enough”

Reply All is a new podcast I’ve been enjoying lately.  It’s a “show about the Internet.”  Their third episode featured Ethan Zuckerman, an Internet pioneer, apologizing for a very bad thing he did twenty years ago, a thing that really helped to shape the world we live in today. (9Or, at least, the Internet we live with today.))

You should listen to the whole episode – it’s not very long, and it’s embedded below.  And it’s good to know our collective Internet history.

Near the end of the episode, at about the 16 minute mark1, Ethan sums up something he’s learned from the story he’s just told.  Here’s what he says:

One of the things that I think I’ve learned in all of this is that “good enough” is a really serious problem. So, if you just flat out fail, right, if you do something and it just doesn’t work at all, you can look at it and say that was a fiasco, let’s do something really different.’ If you do something, and it kind of works – it works well enough to support what you were doing, it generates enough revenue to keep the lights on – you tend to get really attached to it, even if it was a pretty lousy solution.

“Good enough” hit me as a concept that gets in the way of, well, plenty of the work I’m doing lately.  Schools are, in many ways, “good enough.”  They’re limping along.  My family relationships?  “Good enough.”  The training I’m doing for my next race?  Heck, even my Angry Birds scores of late2 are “good enough.”

And I wonder what it is that pushes you, me, or anyone to move beyond good enough.  What are the factors and forces, aside from sheer will and determination and downright stubbornness, that will move a person or a group past “good enough” and towards “better than ever” or “continuous improvement” or “let’s nuke this whole thing and start over?”  How do we move organizations, and ourselves, beyond “good enough” in the places and situations where that matters most?

I’m cool if stubbornness is the right approach.  I just wonder if there’re better ways.

  1. 16:10 if you’re in a big hurry and don’t trust my transcription below. []
  2. Angry Birds Transformers?  Makes no sense – but such a fine way to remember my childhood fascination with robots that were cars.  AND robots. []