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. []
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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. []
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Skating Along

Last month, I took my three daughters skating.  They’ve all been to the skating rink plenty of times, and are at different levels of skating expertise.  Ani and Teagan both motor along at their own paces, leaving their four-year-old sister, Quinn, and me behind as they skate it up to whatever loudly pulsating track is pounding through the speakers of the skate sound system.  Ani will even play some of the inevitable games that creep up during a perfectly fine all-skate, limbo-ing her way into the second or third round of competition.

Quinn skating

Quinn, though, until last month’s trip, had never put skates to feet.  Her idea of roller skating was playing in a big indoor jungle gym they’ve set up for the pre-skating crowd.  But it was time.

When my older daughters learned to skate, they pretty much just fell down.  A lot.  Until they figured out the mechanics of wheels on their feet and their centers of gravity.  Quinn had some new options.  In the picture to the left here, you can see the frame on wheels she used to help her find her way with a little less falling down.

And while she was trying out the skates and the helper contraption, she had a safe space on the skate floor, behind a row of colored barriers, set up for new skaters and their teachers.  Her sisters on the other side of the barrier could see her progressing and she could wave and smile as she scooted across the floor.

But the greatest thing about the divided skate floor was that she could see the “real” skating world she was learning to use.  She could get there at any time, and, in many ways, it was the same place she was skating in.  She was skating with everyone else, even though she was off to the side.

Quinn was immersed in a real-world learning experience – not separated from it.  She wasn’t in a special carpeted room that bore no resemblance to what skating was really like.  She grooved to the same music, heard the same announcements, and could smell the same pizza1.

I’m probably making too big a deal about it, but I find that lots of learning spaces don’t ever really resemble the environments where the learning gets put into practice.  The learning, too, doesn’t resemble the way that life or work or whatever the students are learning about is enacted in the “real world.2

I loved Quinn’s experience because she was immediately in control of her experience – she could lose the cage and leave the protected area whenever she wanted.  But it was also connected to the goal she set for herself – to skate like her sisters.  It wasn’t a walled garden.  It was the actual garden – she just had some extra tools to help her make sense of her experience and transition out of the training area.  I guess in a way she was in the garden with some hedges – but not walls or gates or anything exclusionary or separating.

If the learning you’re facilitating, or the learning space you’re facilitating it in, doesn’t resemble OR connect to the places or opportunities you’re attempting to connect your students to, then it seems to me that you’re doing it wrong.

How many contrived spaces do we build for students, spaces that don’t even approach the real world, much less connect to it?  What does it mean to build classrooms or learning spaces that connect, physically or otherwise, to the spaces we are teaching our students about?

Take a look at the picture below of Quinn gazing over the boundary between her classroom and the real world.  She’s curious and eager and ready to move beyond the barrier – when she is ready, that’s just what she’ll do3.

At least sometimes, learning should look like that.

A walled skating garden

  1. I’m not certain the pizza smell, as good as it was, was entirely necessary. []
  2. The mythical real world is a fascinating place for me.  It’s often invoked as a reason why an experience has to be terrible, or hard, or boring, or involve showing one’s work – but I’ve not found the “real world” to be necessarily boring or work-showing.  The “real world” is often what we make it to be, and can be pretty great. []
  3. And part of my job as her teacher there in that moment was to not push her too fast, but to provide some steady pressure. Her goal was to get out on the floor, not to muck about forever with the support structure. Knowing just how much pressure is the right amount is an area of my practice as a teacher AND a parent that I’m certain I’ll never quite master. []
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Where’s Your Refrigerator?

A couple of years ago, when I was doing some regular work for an area art museum, my daughter, Ani, asked me if, on our next trip to visit the museum, it’d be okay if we took along some of her artwork to show the museum.

That was a tricky conversation we had to have then, about who gets to decide what hangs in museums for other folks to look at.  But it wasn’t hard for me to suggest to her that we can make our own display spaces whenever and wherever we have something we’re proud of, something we want other people to see.  And we have them at our house – the piano wire stretched along the back of our playroom, for one.  There’s always a fresh clothespin or two there for hanging the next made thing.  Our refrigerator is another, frequent home to excellently made things by our children.

Museums have, for the most part, embraced the idea that the stuff that visitors make or create is valuable.  They even have fancy names for it – “User Contributed Content” I’ve heard some of my museum-y friends call it.  But the stuff that the visitors make is not often given the same prominence of place as the stuff that the museum selected to hang.  That’s okay.  It’s their space.

What isn’t okay, at least to me, is how many students and grownups I meet who would say they don’t have anything to share, or to hang up for folks to look at because they’re proud of how they made it, or what it looked like when they finished.  They’re not making stuff.  And the stuff that they make by accident isn’t something they’re proud of.

IMG 7699

We should all have a refrigerator and a handful of magnets around and available for us to use to display our next creation.  We should all be creating regularly enough that we know we’ll have a “next creation.”  And it should be easy for us to find and see and respond to the refrigerators of the people we care the most about.

This blog turns ten years old right around now – I’m not sure of the exact date.  Since I started it, it’s been my fridge of sorts for posting stuff I’ve been wondering or thinking about, and some of the stuff I was proud of or wanted to share.  I go through different periods of activity here – I’ll write regularly for a while, then drift away for a bit.  Some of what I’m most proud of doesn’t make it here, because it shouldn’t be shared widely, or I don’t want it on the Internet, but plenty of it does.  And having the blog reminds me that I CAN share stuff, even if I don’t.

Even when I’m not writing here, though, I am thinking about what I might make next, and I know that I can create and make things whenever I’d like to.  That’s something that I don’t think plenty of capable people have – the knowledge that they’ll be making something in the future that I’ll want to share.  Even when I’m my most frustrated, I carry that little bit of hope, the hope that I’m not done yet, and there’s more that I can contribute.

“How can we make sure that everybody carries hope like that?” is something I’m wondering about as I start the second decade of my life as a blogger.

What’s on your fridge right now?  What’ll you put there next?  And where are the fridges that we need for sharing the stuff that won’t fit in other places?

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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. []
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Allowing (And Accepting) Students’ Choices Is Hard

One of the really difficult things about giving students meaningful choices is that they will sometimes make horrible ones.  This isn’t a school problem, so much, as it is a democracy problem.  And I’ve met plenty of people who don’t feel that all adults are able to make good choices, either.

People don’t always make the choices that we want them to.  But honoring freedom and liberty means that we allow them to make bad choices.  And we don’t stop folks from making choices just because we wish they would’ve made different ones.

I was reminded of this today as I was listening to a teacher lamenting the fact that some of his students sometimes don’t complete their schoolwork.  In class or at home.  They just choose not to do the work.  It’s a struggle to figure out sometimes when to acknowledge and when to struggle with doing something about that.

There’s a school of thought in education that suggests we cannot allow a student to make the choice to not do things, to choose to fail.  This gets expressed in plenty of ways, but one of my least favorite of those is the ways that lock students into situations (lessons, projects, readings, or even devices) over which they have no meaningful control.

I don’t find myself aligned with that school of thought so much.  Real choices mean real consequences – but also they mean that we can’t undo the deal of every bad choice a student <ahem> chooses to make.

I noticed tonight that an Alfie Kohn essay I fawned over when I read it in English Journal four years ago was recently re-posted on the Answer Sheet.  The whole thing is worth your time (and related to the above), but here’s a choice bit:

The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day — than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.

When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.”  Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.”[8]  This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments.  One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on.  But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.

Conversely, students who have almost nothing to say about what happens in class are more likely to act out, tune out, burn out, or simply drop out.  Again, it takes some courage to face the fact that these responses are related to what we’re doing, or not doing.  And the same is true of my larger point in this essay:  A lack of opportunity to make decisions may well manifest itself in a lack of interest in reading and writing.  Were that our goal, our single best strategy might be to run a traditional teacher-centered, teacher–directed classroom.

If you only let1 students make choices where the stakes are irrelevant and the options are, too, then you’re not really in the choice business, are you?

  1. This notion of permission is tricky, too, isn’t it? Are we really the folks who control whether or not choice can occur in our classrooms?  I’m not so sure about that. []
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Connecting to What, Exactly?

Last week, Educating Modern Learners published a piece I wrote about some of my worries about online communities and students.  The piece is called What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Connectedness.  Here’s an excerpt:

I say often that the Internet isn’t good or bad. It’s a mirror of our best and worst selves. And we can be pretty wonderful sometimes.

Other times, we can be downright terrible.

When do we stand with our students and model how to resist bullies?   And how do we reconcile our desire to connect students to a world that is sometimes sick, twisted, and just plain mean?

How do we encourage educators and students to be brave and compassionate and firm with each other and strangers both online and off, and how do we support each other along the way?

I have no idea. But I have three daughters. And only so much time before they are potential contributors to online discourse.

Or only so much time before they are targets.

You can read the rest over at EML if you create an account.   You should.  They’re up to some good stuff.

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Keyboards? Who Needs Keyboards?

For quite a while now, I’ve been concerned that not enough writing is going on in our classrooms1. It seems as though we really want our students to write, but we never seem to give them time or models of writing.

Now that devices are going into our classrooms, I regularly see concerns raised that without keyboards on those devices, our students will never be able to write either fast enough, or correctly, or in the same way that they’ll be expected to in an assessment. So they never write.

Might it be that we are stuck on the notion that writing happens when keys are touched and that the only way words go into computers is via keyboards?

What did we do before keyboards, and is it possible for the first time we are in a world where we can think about what will do after them?

It might be a little premature to think about a post-keyboard world, but I sure think we’re getting close.2

  1. That’s not just me – the National Commission on Writing wanted time spent on writing in classrooms to double.  I suspect that didn’t happen. []
  2. How, where, and when are you working with dictation and input tools that aren’t keyboards? []
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Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

Screen Shot 2014 03 15 at 5 40 11 PMRecently, a project I spent some time on last spring and summer came to life. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is now available for free download as a PDF or a 99 cent eBook via the Amazon Kindle store.  I’m biased, but I think you should take a peek.

The goal of the project was to put a face of specific examples from real classrooms on the Connected Learning principles.  Again, I’m biased, but I think if you read the text, and follow the links to the projects from Digital Is we focused on, I think you’ll get a sense that real, live teachers and students are engaging in some very dynamic work in classrooms right now.  They’re not waiting for someone to show the way.  I was particularly pleased to see so many examples of “teacher” and “student” shown in the text.  We all take turns with both of these roles.  That’s important to remember.  Gail, Mike, Adam, and Jenny, the teachers who wrote the examples I showcase in the chapter I worked on, were all my teachers on this project and I’m grateful for their contributions to my learning and this text. You will be, too.  So take a look already.

But other teachers, as well as plenty of non-teachers who make big pronouncements about schools and schooling, would benefit, too, from a glimpse of the work we reference. So share this with them, would you?

Last week, several of the other project editors visited for a webinar at Educator Innovator. That webinar is below.  Give it a listen.

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A Little Bit of Modeling. A Whole Lot of Love.

I taught a class tonight and made it home just in time for bedtime.  I’d been looking forward to stories – and expected my daughters to be on their way up to bed.  But what I found instead was that Ani was already in bed and tucked in.  She wasn’t feeling super well and had retired early.  

Without packing her lunch.  Which meant it was going to be my job.  

But I found out that the lunch wasn’t made because I caught Teagan, her younger sister, already in the process of packing two lunches.  Without any prompting or complaining, she was helping out.  Just to be nice.

That, though, wasn’t what floored me.  I watched Teagan grab a Sharpie and begin to mark up the sandwich bag she had just filled full of sliced peppers, a staple vegetable in our school lunches.  Immediately, I told her that she needed to show her mother what she had done.  

She did this1:

Teagan Loves Ani

 

I can’t tell you how proud I was.  But I can tell you that I never told her, explicitly, that the way you help someone feel better is to write them a note.  That was something we modeled for her by slipping notes her way from time to time.  

You can’t teach love, so much, by way of demanding it or requiring it or lecturing on its finer points.  You’ve got to model it.  You’ve got to live it, or at least try to, and let the lesson come through a little bit on its own, as we trust that our children, or students, or colleagues, pay attention.  

Tonight’s scribbled notes2 were a fine reminder that, even when an example isn’t perfect, plenty of times the message still gets across.  

And I wonder where and how I could be modeling love better, myself.3  

  1. It’s maybe a bit hard to read – but it says “I love yuo (sic) Ani! (Heart) Teagan”. []
  2. She wrote a similar message on the pizza in another sandwich bag, too. []
  3. Later, Teagan chose Peter Reynolds’ The Dot as her story for the night.  Love notes to sisters and that book were the one-two punch of love for me tonight.  If you haven’t read that book, oh, you really should. []
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