What Rules are Getting in Your Way?

Challenge Rules With a Simple 1-2-3 Approach

It’s budgeting season, which means as the co-president of our school’s parent foundation I am spending more time than usual at my boys’ school in budget meetings.  The goal is pretty straight forward - plan a budget for the 2018-2019 school year that aligns with our school’s charter and is responsive to the needs to of our students.  We’ve had an incredible fundraising year, so you’d think these meetings would be fun and full of possibilities. Sadly, the meetings seem to be filled with what we can’t do, bureaucratic red tape, union rules and time constraints.  Quite honestly, they suck the life out of me! And I know I am not alone in experiencing this, in fact the majority of our k-12 educational organizations are strongly bound by rules and traditions. Instead of approaching new ideas with a “yes, and” attitude, it is not uncommon to hear all of the “yeah, butts” first.  I wonder how many times new ideas are shut down without a lot of dialogue because people see that the new idea might violate a rule, routine or tradition.

The culture of schools is radically at odds with the culture of learning necessary for innovation.
— Tony Wagner

For most of us, the rituals and routines of schools have become well-established habits.  We don’t even question them anymore or have any expectations that school should operate any differently than it is - especially when we are talking about making changes to a system that so many of us are products of.  But what if all of these rituals, routines and rules are actually get in our way? What if they are getting in the way of learning for students? What if they are getting in the way of our teachers who are trying to innovate?  Shouldn’t we do something to change them?

Let’s all channel our inner rule-breaker and see if it helps us make progress.  Go ahead... break a rule! We don’t encourage rule breaking lightly, but what if you took the time to look at the obstacles in your way and challenge them. They might not even be that big of an obstacle in the first place. In fact, what is the simplest thing you can reimagine that will have the most profound impact?  Is there something small, a practice or a rule that has bothered you at your school? If so, investigate it using a simple one-two-three approach:

  1. Identify one simple rule or practice getting in your way,

  2. Ask why the rule or practice exists, and

  3. Modify the rule or practice to make a big impact.

Here’s an example of a teacher who had great success breaking a rule.  Ashley Auspelmyer, the lead teacher of Studio D, a school within a school at Westwood High School, ran into a challenge with the established hall pass rule. Not uncommon, Westwood has a rule that states any student out of class must be in possession of a hall pass and each classroom is only given one or two hall passes to pass out at any one time. Yet, as an interdisciplinary school, the expectation for Studio D  is that students are not limited to a classroom setting; they are out and about talking to people as a part of their learning. How could Studio D support this type of learning, with only one hall pass for 116 students? After identifying the rule that was getting in the way of learning, Ashley printed 116 hall passes, one for every student in Studio D. In the future, Ashley hopes that this modification of the “hall pass rule” will lead to a culture change across the entire school, one that says we can trust our students to do the right thing. A bathroom hall pass rule seems like a small thing, yet it was a huge barrier to the type of learning experience they were trying to create.  

What rule, practice or tradition will you question?  I know the next time I attend a school budget meeting, I am going to actively work to turn any “yeah, butts” into a “yes, and…” by having examples of other schools who have found a way around the constraint in question.  I’d love to hear about your experiences. What rules, practices or traditions are getting in your way?

When Was the Last Time You Were Bored?

“When was the last time you were bored?” was the question posed by Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant, host of @Notetoself, during a session at SXSWedu earlier this month.  The question stumped me. The last time I was bored?  I’m a working mom of two elementary school kids currently launching my first book who also volunteers to run our school’s foundation.  Who has time to be bored? I can’t remember being bored since at least 2008. Who cares?  And yet, the question lingered and nagged at me long after Manoush’s session.  On the flight home, other questions started flooding my mind. When had life become so busy? Was I wearing busy as a badge of honor?  How much did my phone and all the apps, dings, texts and notifications contribute to my business? Was any of it necessary? And worse, what was I teaching my kids by living such a busy life largely dictated by my phone?

In Bored and Brilliant, Manoush shares incredible research about how our smartphones are not only taking control of our lives but are actually reshaping our brains.  She offers seven challenges to help you establish a baseline for your habits and clear some of the noise to create the space for boredom.  Was I ready to take on the challenge?

When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.
— Jon Kabat-Zinn

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as we were headed to Mexico for five days.  Sharing what I learned with my family, I committed to really disconnecting for our vacation.  No facebook, Instagram, Twitter or email. I was ready to turn it all off. When I told my boys, they cheered (and I knew they would hold me accountable!)  We all agreed our goal was to get bored and it was the best thing we have done as a family in a long time. Our days were filled with sandcastles, ice cream cones, and naps in hammocks.  I felt so happy watching Owen, my seven-year-old, laying by the side of the pool watching a line of ants do their thing. It was then that I decided I wanted more of this and I was capable of making it happen at home as well.  

Vacations end all too quickly and life resumes with all the daily challenges.  While life isn’t as slow as it was on vacation, we have managed to slow it down.  Getting bored is now an option at our house. We are creating space for thinking, creativity, and downtime that we hadn’t done before.  Thank you Manoush, for reminding me that I am in control of when my phone gets to interrupt my life and I don’t need all those notifications all the time.  Thank you for helping me see how important my habits are in setting the tone for those around me. It will be an ongoing journey for sure, but given the choice, I’ll choose the boredom badge over the busy badge anytime!

When was the last time you were bored?

 

How are You Playing with Questions?

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In honor of “Question Week,” I thought it might be fun to share the ways in which I am playing with questions at home.  We all know that questions are important. They can be serious, they can be more important than answers and they can be playful!  With two boys, ages 7 and 8, I am living with the silliness of questions.

After being inspired by a Huffington Post article “25 Ways to Ask Your Kid So How Was School Today Without Asking Them How Was School” originally posted in 2014, I started asking my kids crazy questions.   It wasn’t easy and I fell back on old habits asking, “How was school today?” more than once, but I was always rewarded with a more interesting conversation whenever I had a more interesting question.  One of my favorite tools to support this question asking endeavor is an app called “Talk2Kids” that offers one question a day to use with kids. Here is a glimpse of some of the questions from last week:

  • If you were a zookeeper, what would be the scariest animal to feed?
  • What is the longest word you can spell?
  • If you could choose who would you sit by in class? Who would you NOT want to sit by in class?
  • If you could create a new flavor of ice cream what would it be?
  • What would you do if you found a magic wand?

My boys love answering these questions.  We usually ask and answer them on the walk to or from school.  We talk, share ideas and laugh. Time flies. It has already been two years of me intentionally asking questions during our walks.  I don’t do it every day, but if it goes too long without a question my boys ask for it. It’s become a part of our routine and we all enjoy the playfulness of these questions.

With Amazon’s Alexa at home, there are many more opportunities to play with questions. It turns out 7 & 8-year-old boys push Alexa to her question answering limits.  Here are just a few questions my boys have asked Alexa in the last few weeks and Alexa delivers a humorous response to all of them! (Don’t believe me, try asking them!)

  • Alexa, can you sing me a song about technology?
  • Alexa, what does a fart sound like?
  • Alexa, where did you come from?
  • Alexa, what do you eat?
  • Alexa, can you tell me a joke?

Not too long ago, my youngest son, Owen started asking a question every night at the dinner table.  Sometimes the questions are downright silly, but sometimes they are pretty profound for a seven-year-old and they stump my husband and I.  Just the other night he asked us, “If you could create any business you wanted what it would be? Why? What would name it?” Not to be outdone by his younger brother,  my older son Jake asked us, “What is your biggest failure that you’ve turned into an opportunity?’” Speechless, but happy I have to believe playing with questions on our daily walks to school is helping them develop more curiosity and making them more comfortable with questions.  How are you playing with questions?

I'm Tired of Working in a Worksheet Factory

These were the words of a third-grade student as shared by Ron Baghetto, a creativity researcher, during his session on “Possibility Thinking” at SXSWedu.  I chuckled, captured the statement and shared it via Twitter. In most cases, worksheets represent the drudgery of learning in schools and this student comment captured that sentiment perfectly!

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What I wasn’t prepared for was the immediate reaction to this tweet.  Within minutes, there were hundreds of favorites, retweets, and comments from educators and parents who have witnessed a similar student response to worksheet learning.  The quick response both surprised and saddened me. Part of the reason I look forward to attending SXSWedu is that it attracts one of the most forward-thinking and optimistic groups of educators nationwide. Every time I have had the privilege of attending, I have felt like I found my people and yet even among this very forward-thinking group of educators the “worksheet drudgery” experience resonates.  I’m not intending to get into an argument about the merits of worksheets, sure there are probably some worksheets that are valuable(?), but we know most worksheets don’t equate to true learning. Yet we allow (encourage? ignore?) the practice to continue.

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Why?  If we know better, why aren’t we collectively able to do better?   Isn’t this an opportunity for us to impact change? I know we are focused on bigger education issues—equity, poverty, innovation, digital divide… the list goes on and on. But I can’t help but wonder how we can eradicate the drudgery of worksheets that students are experiencing daily.  Sure it’s a small change, but it is defining the learning experience for children in schools everywhere and it’s turning students off to school and more importantly turning them off to learning.

Ironically, today I emailed my son’s teacher (who we love) to ask what we can do to support his learning while we travel for the next few days. Her response, “I sent home a packet of worksheets for him to complete.”  Sigh…. Being both a parent with students in the k-12 system and an educator pushing for change can create some awkward situations that I am learning to embrace. I wholeheartedly support teachers and schools, but above that, I support developing a love of learning for my children.  We are headed to Mexico where my children will get the chance to learn outside of school. Apologies in advance to our teacher, but I won’t be spoiling any of this learning with “worksheet factory” moments while we travel.

I’d love to hear about your worksheet experiences. How have you made an impact in this area?

 

Does Design Thinking Have a Pedagogy Problem?

 Slide from Julie Schell's SXSWedu Future 20 Session

Slide from Julie Schell's SXSWedu Future 20 Session

This was the question posed by Julie Schell (@julieschell), a leading expert in learning design and innovation in higher education, during her Future 20 Session at SXSWedu.  Julie posed the question to a packed room of educators, many of whom are design thinking enthusiasts and shared not only the problem she sees but also a few solutions. Here’s a recap of the session with my take-a-ways.

The popularity of design thinking is contributing to the pedagogy problem.  With so many people eager to dive into design thinking, the number of design thinking boot camps, toolkits, and free resources are on the rise. This is the pedagogy problem that no one is talking about—rapid exposure and the way we are teaching it.  With such limited exposure, people are not developing an expertise in design thinking but have illusions of familiarity. As a result, are we sending out novice design thinkers who are ill-prepared to tackle our wickedest problems?

The  problem was further outlined that the dominant design thinking pedagogical model creates unintended consequences because we currently have:

  • wildly divergent definitions of design thinking
  • wild variation in implementation
  • lack of sustained engagements to provide course correction.

And the following three ideas were shared to fix the pedagogy problem:

  • Stop saying design thinking isn’t definable
  • Instead of rapid exposure aim for anticipatory socialization
  • Start collaborating with learning scientists

I don’t disagree with Julie and I see value in the proposed solutions, however, I also see value in continuing to expose people to design thinking at a rapid pace. While some may attend a two-day boot camp and consider themselves a design thinking expert, I don’t think that is the norm.  In fact, most of the leaders I have met who are experiencing success using design thinking have committed deeply to learning more about design thinking and developing their expertise. There is great value in learning by doing. Perhaps another solution to consider is the reframing of how we are teaching design thinking.  Rather than aspire to turn out more design thinkers, what if we aspired to teach the habits and mindsets of a designer? You don’t need to be an expert to start thinking differently and therefore leading differently.