Monday, January 15, 2018

Insights from taking my son to work

During December I created the opportunity for my 11 year old son to join me at work. George has just finished primary school and will be going into Year 7 in a few weeks time. I run my own consultancy business called Dialogic Learning and for the last 6 years have been working as an education consultant.

His mini-internship helped me to discover new insights about my work in education and in business, so I thought I would share these with you. First some information about the context.

Why bother?

I have been travelling as a consultant for 6 years. Leaving my family is a cost we all have to shoulder. I wanted George to better understand the work that I do, meet the people I spend my time with and to appreciate the places I have to visit.

Telling him about these things is a poor alternative to actually experiencing them and so the idea of him joining me was born.

At the end of a school day George once asked me:

Why can’t I just go out into the world and learn?

I am pleased to say I have done something about this and given him the opportunity to get out there.

What was it?

George’s paid mini-internship included the following:

What was the expectation on George?

George and I agreed that he was not just there to make up the numbers or sit in the corner. He understood that the expectation was to be fully involved and to participate as much as he could.

I am lucky enough to work with some great clients here and in Sydney who were all really open to having George join us. We spent some time sharing these expectations as we began our sessions and meetings – this helped George hear them again and for the group I was working with align with our expectation.

For the Sydney trip I wanted George to spend some time talking to the school leadership groups – presenting some ideas on his own. We had the idea to share a short presentation, as a soon-to-be primary school leaver, about some things he would like to change about school.

We collaborated on a short presentation that outlined 5 elements he believed are crucial to a successful school. He then used those ideas to develop some questions he put to each of the leadership teams. George ran a short discussion with the leadership teams using the questions as prompts.

If you want a PDF of George’s slides and question prompts we used, sign up for my weekly newsletter and I will share a copy.

What did you learn?

School is a bubble

No doubt about it. School can be an important bubble that cossets and protects our young learners, but it is a long way from the world of work and business. Which is OK. That said I think home can also be a bubble.

The whole experience has made me think about how our students might go from home to school, and from school to home. From bubble to bubble. Again that is OK, but for some, at the right time, they need a guided experience of the cities and communities we live in.

Not to participate in a diluted version of what they should expect in 10 years. Not to “get ready” for the world of work. Not as some pseudo-preparation for life. Not to do a project.

But to participate fully as an equal, to experience all the complexity and expectation that might come along with that and to learn by getting out “into the world”.


It brought us closer together

We achieved one of my main goals, which was for George to better appreciate the work I do and the people/places I spend my time with/in. We were a team for those few days and we bonded in a completely different way than being at home.

He was able to witness me with business partners and share experiences together. We chatted about the work after each experience, about the people and the way they approached everything. I am grateful for the time we spent together.

Now when I say I am going to Sydney to see Jamie or work with BVN, he knows who and where I mean.

The hidden curriculum is real

This idea has always been on my radar. The hidden curriculum refers to what children learn from school that is not explicitly taught. For example, this might be through the investment in high quality resources and equipment for sport. Students will read between the lines that “sport is highly valued here.”

This also works in much more negative ways, I just chose a positive example.

Two insights here. One is that George has been highly perceptive of the little details throughout his primary school experience. He shared these with the leadership teams during his presentation and also the shortcomings of those experiences.

I would expect that the student perception of their school and their learning experiences is hugely varied. Importantly though, their perception is their truth.

The other insight is about the shared expectation from the people George encountered during his time with me. He experienced adults working in different industries who were open, receptive, respectful, challenging and trusting of him. I know that has had a big impact.

It reminds me to pay attention to my own disposition, the language I use when first starting a session and to remain vigilant to how others are experiencing things.

Student participation in school improvement adds value

The picture of George standing in front of a group of school leaders in Sydney (top image) is definitely a highlight from last year. It has made me think about the way students are involved in the ongoing work of leadership teams.

I appreciate that George’s participation was different than normal, but what is stopping us have students taking up a residency in the leadership group. Much of what is discussed is about the welfare and experience of students – perhaps there are ways they could be more present.

Little life lessons are everywhere

A big insight I had, as George’s guide, was how much the little things I take for granted were important lessons for him to experience in these new contexts.

  • Shaking hands when you first meet
  • Looking people in the eye when you talk to them
  • Elevator etiquette. “No, you first…”
  • Punctuality
  • Making sure you are ready for the next meeting
  • Taking the time to understand who you are meeting

There were so many different little lessons along the way we experienced together. From social and group dynamics, the way successful dialogue typically unfolds, to planning travel and accommodation.

An important discussion with George was about the cost of our trip to Sydney and how my business earns money. We discussed revenue and cost, his ensuing calculations were much more authentic as it applied to our immediate context and something he was curious about.

The whole experience was a massive success for us both and also, based on the feedback (and emails for George), for those we spent time with.

I am keen to explore ways that George can participate in some future work days with me as he gets older. I am sure that it will continue to be a valuable experience for him. He is already talking about taking over the business!

Just a reminder that if you want a PDF of George’s challenge to the leadership teams, you just need to signup to my newsletter and I will send you a copy.

from The Curious Creative

Thursday, December 28, 2017

When They Don’t Even Want To Try

I think 75% of my job is trying to figure out my angle when working with students who struggle.  How can I motivate them when they have completely given up? What “trick” can I use now to make them pick up the pencil and at least give it a try? Well…forget the pencil. Check it...
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from Beyond Traditional Math

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Writing as a way to process our experience

Despite over a decade of enthusiasm for blogging I realise that writing is not for everyone – but reflecting on our craft should be.

Writing about my reflections forces me to make sense of my ideas. When writing with an audience in mind I have to communicate my thinking in a cogent way.

Writing is a reflective catharsis.

Developing a blog post quickly became a key method for processing my classroom and leadership experience. It filters ideas and tensions, encourages critical thinking and archives my experiences. Despite writing less these days on my blog, writing is still a vital part of the way I reflect on my professional experience and adopt the attitude of dialogue.

Every week I share a little email newsletter with 3 paragraphs about ideas I am exploring or experiences in schools I have had. With over 50 issues now and hundreds of subscribers it has been another successful medium for my thinking.

Sharing reflections on a blog or in a newsletter is not just about the end result. It is not just about the published piece or the ensuing reactions and conversations. The true value is in process it takes to allow people to catch a glimpse of your thinking.

Photo by Park Troopers

from The Curious Creative

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Learning Networks and Professional Growth

Professional growth is not only about finding like minded people. Our professional learning networks can be built in this way, adding people from similar backgrounds or roles to our Twitter network. But that might just confirm the bias we already have.

I see great value in the exposure to alternative thinking. We gain access to perspectives that differ from our own and that may be in obvious opposition. Our social learning networks provide easy access to thinking and development from beyond the domain of education. I have deliberately built connections with practitioners in a wide variety of fields not just education.

Yes, your professional learning network should help you tap into the expertise and ideas of fellow educators. But I think the real value emerges as your network matures and you build connections far beyond the walled garden of education.

These connections challenge us to think critically about our work and what we think we know. The dissonance instigated by diversity of thought and alternative viewpoints can be a springboard to empathy.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson

from The Curious Creative

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Biggest Mistake I Made in Math Class

This post is coming from a place of both passion and a little embarrassment. I was reminded of my mistake once again the last few weeks as I worked with a student in an intervention group. If you’re a regular reader, then you know that I seek personal growth constantly. You would know that I...
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from Beyond Traditional Math

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Responsive Leadership – leading from the back to the front


I recently stumbled upon a new label for the behaviours we associate with leadership. In this short clip Nipun Mehta explains a “different paradigm of leadership, which he calls “laddership””.

After rolling the idea around a little I thought I would share some thoughts on how it relates to my experience of leadership and development in schools and beyond.

Laddership refers to the role of the leader. The ladder being like the leader. So that others may climb rungs we might create and reach new heights above us. It reminds me of servant leadership.

This way of thinking is placed in contrast to the “lead from the front” type of ideology, that some might consider to be a traditional leadership paradigm.

In education we can be lulled into thinking that leadership only occurs at the upper echelons of a school administration or in those roles with “leader” in them. The career path is set out in front of many aspiring young leaders and it often only looks like a pyramid. This reflects the typical paradigm of a hierarchy in schools and school systems.

My teaching experience was similar. I was tapped on the shoulder for middle leadership within my first year out of university and the steps up were pretty clear. Maybe you have been presented with a similar direction: “If you want to be a leader follow this traditional path.”

The idea of a ladder for others to progress sits well with me. I now know that such an idea is relevant to anyone aspiring to lead. There are different ways to lead, and many different paths to help others rise above you. Education needs to offer more paths through leadership and not just those that point upwards.

Ultimately we need to put energy into redefining leadership in schools so that more educators understand the impact they can have on others.

I started a blog that shared my ideas, my thinking and my classroom experiences. That helped me understand the impact I could have on others. I realised I could lead in a different way – fast forward a decade and I still keep that idea at the heart of my work. I am leading by creating the conditions for others to progress and develop. It might not say Principal or Headteacher on the office door (I don’t actually have an office door) but I know my work is leadership.

Leadership can be defined in multiple ways depending on the sector or domain it sits within. But also defining leadership within a sector has great contextual dependency too. Education is no different.

The leadership that needs to be shown in the emergency services during the bushfire seasons, here in Australia, is very different to the leadership needed at a K-12 school to develop an innovative culture.

In our attempts to seek out the fundemental truths about leadership perhaps we polarise our thinking too much. We might covet the entrepreneurial mindset in schools and look to business for ideas on development, but we should never forego the intimate understanding of the educational context we work in. Cookie cutters are not a leadership tool.

When we setup Laddership Vs Leadership and suggest a shifting of paradigms, or systems of thought, we create these false dichotomies. So although the idea of creating ladders resonates, I think it is unrealistic to set up competing concepts in this way – a choice we have to make, a move we have to make.

In the Design of Business Roger Martin explains a series of ideas related to design thinking and leadership, for example: exploration Vs exploitation; analysis Vs intuition; originality Vs mastery. You can see the others in the image I have added. But the choice is not “either or”. Creative problem solving requires a range and mixture of different thinking modes at different times. It reminds me to consider the balance of different types of thinking rather than such polarised choices.

Adaptive and responsive leadership perhaps describes this best. In certain situations in schools a “lead from the front” style of leadership is the most appropriate. When there is high urgency for change or important processes that need to be modelled and established. Or when we are attempting to shift ingrained habits and behaviours to something different, maybe “follow me” works best.

That same leadership approach should adapt and respond to the context it is in. As Nipun Mehta explains, shifting to the back and allowing others to push ahead and lead the way. Developmental work in schools often needs people to buy in and have ownership. These are good opportunities for intentional and thoughtful design leadership. The best possible conditions for progress and development are (co)created.

When I am working with teams I am attempting to create these conditions. I use a range of protocols that help establish the expectations for the time together. One of them is about how we each need to take responsibility to balance our participation in the session.

Step up and step back is a protocol about session participation but it also has a strong likeness to the idea of responsive leadership. You don’t have to make a solitary choice, you don’t need to operate under a fixed ideaology. Adapt, change and respond to what is in front of you. Increase your awareness of this balancing act.

Nelson Mandela refers to a balance:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

I have presented similar ideas in the past about teaching and learning. Perhaps the true art of leadership is in the complex balancing act between these paradigms. It is not in the extremes.

  • Strike a balance
  • Respond and adapt to what is in front of you
  • Step up and step back
  • Leverage your empathy

The leaders I work with every week wrestle with the tension and complexity of real situations. These constantly demand both the subtle art of nudging others to move ahead, with pointing the direction and inviting others to follow.

In my experience leadership is as much about creating the conditions for others to develop as it is helping to direct that progress.

Photo by Daryan Shamkhali

from The Curious Creative

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What’s the Point of Expanded Form?

OK, I’m going back in time to tell you something totally ridiculous that I actually said to another teacher. It was because of my inexperience and my inability to understand math at a deep level during my second year of teaching.  I was frustrated that my students weren’t understanding what expanded form (that 145 is...
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from Beyond Traditional Math