How Might We Remain More Curious, Than Certain?

I remember all too well the days pre-kids when my husband and I would be eating at a restaurant and see families at nearby tables.  We couldn’t help but notice the kids entertaining themselves on devices and the easy “kid-food” being delivered to table, you know the mac and cheese, pizza or chicken nuggets.  We were SO certain we would never use those strategies when we became parents. We of course would be engaging our kids in meaningful conversation, and our children would eat healthy, organic food from a variety of cultures at an early age.  Fast forward many years, at dinner with two young boys and ooooh have we changed. We do try to engage our children and feed them healthy, but now can also appreciate the magic of a little screen time and the ease of “kid food” at time — certainty erased!

We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be
confused for a time
— Margaret Wheatley

As a recovering perfectionist, I liked being certain about things in life and having the “right answer.”  In some regards it made things easier and this was reinforced for many years of my life in school where the right answer was definitely more valuable than a question.

Over time I’ve realized that in most situations there can be alot of “rights” and I have become a lot less certain over what the “right” answer or approach could be. Now, instead of searching for the perfect way to solve a problem, I explore options, lots of options.    

If like me, you are a recovering perfectionist or just like having the “right answer” here are few ways you can work to remain more curious than certain.

  • Suspend Judgement - Resist making snap judgements about ideas or situations.  Our certainty has the danger of shutting down ideas. I’ve learned that the best ideas often hide in the crazy ideas, so if I shut down an idea too quickly (even if it sounds crazy) I lose out.  To avoid this, suspend your judgement and try adopting phrases that are more generative in nature. (“What if..?” “How might we make that work?”  “You may be right.”)

  • Check Yourself - The more experience we have in education, the more certain we may became about some of our beliefs.  Try questioning yourself. In any given situation, I like asking myself a few questions to challenge my own thinking.  (“What might I be wrong about?”  “What might happen if I didn’t solve it this way?” How is my experience getting in the way?”)

  • Ask More Questions - Simply, spend more time asking questions. Try asking open-ended questions, questions that start with what, how or why.  And even better try asking questions that you don’t know the answer to! You’d be amazed at how this changes the types of questions you ask.

As I’ve worked to stay more curious, I find I am less certain about most things in education and it is okay.  Playing in the space of uncertainty allows for creativity and possibility. What are you no longer certain about?  I’d love to hear.  #DT4EduLeaders

Using Design Thinking to Inform Strategic Planning

What one public school district learned from 2,535 sticky notes, over 300 participants, days of observation & 60+ interviews.

What would happen if educational leaders started thinking like designers?  This is the question we investigate in our work and in our recent book, “Design Thinking for School Leaders.” Thinking like a designer means being more aware of the world around you, taking the time to empathize with your users, creating new solutions for the future and taking action to implement those solutions.  Design thinking is a mindset that can transform the way you approach your work as a leader and have a positive impact on an entire organization. Here is the story of how we embraced design thinking at the district level when I was working as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction for the Los Altos School District. We decided to dig deeper and closely examine the state of teaching and learning in the district – through the eyes of our users. And so we set out to understand and observe.

As a public k-8 school district we had many different users: students, teachers, parents and community. During this need finding phase, we wanted to make sure we were simultaneously gathering broad data as well as doing a deeper dive with our users and created structures to enable both.  We created opportunities for all parents, teachers, administrators and students to have a voice in the process. We also created a small design team to conduct deeper ethnographic research in our district. Every aspect of this process was geared to help us better identify opportunities for continuous improvement.

Need Finding with a Design Team

We formed a five-person team to take a design-driven approach to understanding the needs of the district.  In keeping with a “design thinking” mindset, the team’s work focused on identifying unmet human needs, which when addressed, would drive instructional improvement as a district.

With that in mind, the team set out with a beginner’s mindset to observe, question and most importantly listen.  After several days in the field and interviews with students, teacher and parents the design team uncovered two unmet human needs.  Both of these needs statements focus on meeting teacher needs as a means to improve student learning. As a district, we recognize how valuable our teachers are and also know that if we want to impact the experience of 4,500 students it begins with our teachers.

Experiential Need:  Teachers need to observe other teachers…

  • In order to make theoretical practices more concrete
  • To expand their senses of what is possible
  • Because seeing students respond positively builds confidence to implement new pedagogies

Relational Need:  Teachers need to connect with colleagues…

  • Because teaching is inherently isolating
  • In order to build a network that provides timely support
  • Because thinking things through with colleagues generates professional confidence

Need Finding: Broad Gathering of Input

For the broad gathering of input, we held eleven input gathering sessions with over three hundred participants.  We used the following prompts to generate both conversation and ideas.

  • Why does learning need to be revolutionized for all students?
  • What excites you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What scares you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What changes do you think need to be made to revolutionize learning for all students?
  • What are your learning hopes for your students?
  • What if schools were places where students could….
    Then we would need teachers who…

Then we would need parents who…

Then we would need leaders who…

  • An LASD graduate will be able to….

Every single response to these prompts was collected and is represented in the data visualizations.  What was interesting to note is the similarities in responses from parents, teachers and administrators.  Essentially, we all want very similar things for our students and our children. All of the data visualizations can be viewed here, but the one that excited us the most is embedded below. The image is word clouds representing all responses, but the size of the phrase/word indicates the frequency of this response.

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Portrait of an LASD Graduate

Developing the portrait of an LASD Graduate was a great first step, that allowed us to have deeper conversations. How do we develop this student?  What are we currently doing that contributes to this? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to do differently to achieve this for students?

Now What? Ideation & Prototype

We have now completed the need finding phase of this process, although I am not sure this will ever truly end.  The experience has changed how our team approaches problems, often reframing them or trying to more clearly understand them from the students’ point of view.  

What we have learned about our own organization during this process was powerful.  While this process took much longer than a more traditional strategic planning process, the investment of time yielded more exciting opportunities for students.  What would you learn about your organization if you challenged yourself to think like a designer?

 

Fun Theory: The Troll in the Library Return Box

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It’s summer.  We are visiting the library a lot more than we normally do during the school year which is fantastic, except for the returning of the library books.  My boys have excitement when it comes to selecting books, taking them home and reading them, but no one ever wants to engage in the process of returning the library books.  That all changed one afternoon when we experienced a “living troll” in the library return box. Whoever was working behind the library desk that day, decided to have a little fun.  Every time a book came down the chute, he either made a funny sound or comment— “Ouch that hurt.” “Hey, I’m trying to sleep in here.” “What do you think you are doing?” These comments had my boys doubled over laughing.  They called me over, “Mommy there’s a troll living in the library box.” Another book down the chute, another funny comment. Who knew returning library books could be so much fun?

Now my boys fight over who gets to return the library books and even though we’ve only ever encountered our “library troll” once, there is always the chance he might return.  Even if he never returns, the simple memory makes this chore more fun for us all!

This experience got me thinking about how a little novelty and fun goes a long ways. Our library troll became the topic of our dinner conversation. The boys have surely told everyone they know about their experience.  I was intrigued by this so much that I did a little research and it turns out Volkswagen developed what they called the “Fun Theory” back in 2009. It’s really a simple concept. The idea is “if things are more fun, they are better.”  If you are given two identical activities, all things being equal but one of the activities was more fun which would be preferred? Naturally the one that was more fun. If this is the case, then it begs the question “Why aren’t we trying to make everything more fun?”  

Volkswagen went on to test their “fun theory” to see if they could change human behavior simply by making the behavior they wanted to engage people in more fun.  Here are two examples of their fun theory tests:

Is there something you want to encourage students, teachers or even parents to do? How might you make it more fun?  I’m committing to bringing more fun to my work and I hope you will too. I would love to hear if you have any success with the “Fun Theory.”

What if...? Host a Thoughtful Brainstorming Meeting

Those two little words are quite possibly my favorite two words when combined because together they have so much power.  To me, the utterance of these two words opens up a world of possibilities and signifies that the person using them doesn’t have all of the answers.  They are open to exploring ideas. One person asking, “What if..?” is intriguing, a collective group of thought leaders within an organization asking, “What if...?” is powerful.

Last week during the ASCD Webinar on the Intersection of Design Thinking and Leadership, we talked about facilitating a “What if?” conversation with your team.  Gauging by the webinar chat and follow-up emails, there is a lot of interest in facilitating this type of conversation but also lots of questions.  Let me share both my experience facilitating a “What if” conversation and some practical how-to advice.

One of the first intentional “What if..?” conversations I facilitated while I was working as the Assistant Superintendent in the Los Altos School District.  We invited a group of twenty administrators, teachers, parents and board members to spend ninety minutes focused on brainstorming ideas that could improve learning for all students.   We structured this conversation to fall in line with our “Educational Blueprint,” part of our strategic planning process, where we celebrate accomplishments towards our five years goals and set short-term objectives.  So while the process of strategically planning for the future wasn’t a new concept in this district, the format of this meeting was different than what our group was accustomed to.

The outcomes from our ninety minutes together were truly exciting.  In less than two hours, we brainstormed over 300 ideas that we believed would improve student learning for all students in the district and then focused in on 50 of those ideas warranted further investigation and exploration.  A range of ideas were generated that surprisingly fell into natural groupings around concepts such as student-centered learning, skills/content, grades/assessments, class size/groupings of students, community partnerships, instructional day, facilities and instructional approaches.  I recognize that idea generation is only the first step, but it is truly an important one in developing the vision for the future of student learning.

Looking back, I am proud to share that our team realized much of what our group dreamt up - a flexible professional learning space for teachers, support for teachers in rethinking instruction, instructional coaches and increased professional learning opportunities.  Would any of this have happened if we weren’t actively engaging in “What if...?” conversations?


If you don’t know what you would do if you could do whatever you wanted, then how on earth can you know what you would do under constraints?
— Russell Ackoff

When was the last time you had a “What if..?” conversation?  Maybe it is time to structure one for your team, your classroom, or even your family.  If you are ready to jump into a “What if...?” conversation, I encourage you to spend some time on the front end planning the facilitation of the conversation.  An effective hour-long brainstorming conversation easily takes a few hours of pre-work to ensure you will get the very best of your team. Here is a list of suggestions, largely taken from the work of Tina Seeling, author of inGenius (which has a fabulous chapter on how to host brainstorming meetings):

  • Ensure every participant understands their role While the perspective of every participant is valued, it was important for us to clarify their role and set accurate expectations.  Those in the brainstorming session would not necessarily be the ones making the decisions.

  • Get the group warmed up prior to brainstorming. We used a combine & connect activity called “Two Buckets”  One bucket had a list of name brands, the other bucket had a list of product categories.  Participants selected cards and paired up. Their challenge? Create a new product with the information they were given and design a slogan using six words or less.  This is a quick activity that requires all participants to loosen up and begin exploring new ideas. One of our teams developed a “Harley Davidson Car Seat” with the slogan “Ride Safe in Style.”

  • Establish & review brainstorming rules.  Here are a few to get you started.

    • reiterate that THERE ARE NO BAD IDEAS

    • do not evaluate ideas as they come but include everything

    • encourage wild and crazy ideas

    • defer judgment and push beyond obvious solutions

    • build on the ideas of others with a simple, "Yes, and..."

  • Encourage flare!  Prepare questions that can be used to spur new ideas. The questions are essential because the way you ask the question will frame all of the solutions. Below are a few sample questions we used:
  1. What if we could create a school guided by the best instructional, innovative, & creative practices available? What would that look like?  
  2. If money was no object, what instructional practices would we want to see implemented across the grades/school sites?
  3. If we had the opportunity to visit a school in the year 2118, what would it look like?  
  4. If we wanted to prepare a student to be the individual that cures cancer/solves world hunger/eliminates global warming, what skills would he/she need to learn and what would their educational program look like, K-8?  
  5. What kind of educational program would students create, if given the chance? How could we build in student choice throughout the instructional day?
  • Be prepared for when people feel stuck!  Sadly we aren't accustomed to being allowed to dream big in education.  It is natural for people to feel stuck after 30 minutes, encourage them to push through.  Switch up the groups if needed.  Throw out some wild prompts. Encourage people to throw out their worst idea.  Usually, the first hundred ideas we come up with aren't very interesting, and yet we stop generating way before we stumble on anything interesting.
  • Spend time narrowing the focus to provide closure. After brainstorming in small groups, we asked every participant to place a red circle next to idea with the biggest impact; a blue circle next to the “Pie in the Sky” idea,  a yellow circle next to quickly implemented ideas or the low hanging fruit; & a green circle next to ideas that are the most cost-effective. This allowed every participant to have a say in highlighting their favorite idea.

I encourage you to take the opportunity to engage in thoughtful brainstorming with colleagues, family, friends, and students.  The possibilities are endless. “What if...?” I'd love to hear what your team dreams up.

3 Phrases That Will Change How You Lead

Changing how we lead isn’t always easy, in fact changing behavior can be downright difficult.  We have to consciously work to shift behaviors that may have been ingrained over time. We’ve practiced behaviors that may come naturally but we have to ask ourselves is it really working? Our schools desperately need leaders who are willing to change and seek out new opportunities.  

As I spend time with educators, I have become more aware of the ingrained language we collectively use in education.  Language has power. Too often I hear the same words or phrases used by leaders that indicate a culture of powerlessness or that unintentionally supports the status quo.  Here are just a few common responses I hear to new ideas or opportunities: Great idea, but we don’t have the time (or money, or staff). We’ve never done it that way. We have too much on our plate right now. Let’s form a committee to talk more about it.  ALL of these responses have become habitual and actually shut down possibility and opportunity before they even have a fighting chance.  

If you want to start seeing potential where others see problems, try shifting from a language of status quo to a language of possibility.   Practice incorporating the following three phrases to change your pattern of thinking into your daily work and I think you’ll be surprised with how these subtle shifts can open up new opportunities for the team and organization you lead.

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  1. Yes, and…  Creativity is fueled by the uplifting words and actions of others. When faced with a new idea it can be tempting to offer a “yes, but..” pointing out reasons why it may not work. Instead try to build on the idea, but adding a “yes, and..”  Focus on taking someone’s idea and making it bigger. “Yes, and….promotes a positive dialogue whereas “yes, but . . . ,” shuts down the conversation.

  2. How might we…?  These three words are  powerful because the “how” implies there is not yet an answer and there is room for discovery, the “might” implies there is a world of possibility, and the “we” implies we are in this together. “How might we . . . ?” becomes an irresistible invitation to the work. Once people accept your invitation, you can continually nudge them further.

  3. What if…?  These two little words are quite possibly my favorite two words when combined, because together they have so much power. The utterance of these two words opens up a world of possibilities and signifies that the person asking them doesn’t have all the answers. They are open to exploring new ideas. One person asking, “What if . . . ?” is intriguing, and a collective group of thought leaders or educators within an organization asking, “What if . . . ?” is powerful.

What are some ways you might incorporate these phrases into your work? What are some habits in your language that maybe blocking what you need to change? I’d love to hear about the new possibilities and opportunities that shifting your language can create.