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.

The Report Card as a Design Challenge

“Mommy, can I open my report card?” Jake asked me at least three times on our four-minute walk home from the last day of school. I was a little surprised at his eagerness as we’ve never made grades a big deal in our house, but he just finished third grade and was clearly excited to see how he had done.  He was also excited to read what his teacher had written about his progress this year. I convinced both boys to hold off on opening report cards until after dinner when we could look at them as a family. I don’t know if it was the additional anticipation or the hope that somehow the report card would be different at the end of the year, but opening the report card was a disappointing experience for us all.

It was the box standard LAUSD report card that assigned students a numerical value on a 4 point scale.  Both boys had a fantastic year, their report cards were full of 3s and 4s. We read off the categories and celebrated success, but were unable to answer the simplest of questions.  Owen, who is very talented athletically, asked why he only received a 3 in PE. No clue. Then we moved on to teacher comments which consisted of a few pre-written comments that teachers click on. That was it.  After 180 days of learning that was all the information we received. Sadly, as a parent, I was disappointed but not surprised. I was surprised that my boys wanted more. They wanted comments from their teachers on what they excelled at and what they might need to work on.  Now I totally get that our teachers (whom we love) were following LAUSD protocols and did everything they were told to do, but I wonder if their practices might change if they saw what it was like for a student to open the report card. What an opportunity for a redesign!

Having been a part of “Report Card Redesign Projects” at the district level, I know what a long bureaucratic process it can become. Don’t get me wrong it is important that we tackle these problems at the systems level, but I don’t think it should stop innovation at the school or teacher level.  What if we empowered teachers or school leaders to redesign their own report card? What if schools started with a question—How might we design a report card that provides meaningful and actionable information in a parent-student friendly manner?— and then empowered those closest to students to do something about it.  Yes, we may still be required to have the official standard report card, but there is nothing to say that schools or teachers can’t attach their own documentation. Here are two examples I have personally seen in action that make a difference for students and learning.

  • School: Design 39 in Poway has questioned everything, so it’s no surprise that they are also rethinking how to report student progress.  They are choosing to report student progress via “Growth Guides” instead of formal report cards. Growth Guides weren’t anything fancy, in fact when I visited Design 39 their first iteration of a growth guide was an elaborate shared google doc between student, teachers, and parents but they communicate actionable feedback about learning in a timely way.

  • Teacher: When I worked as a principal, I had a rockstar team of first grade teachers who never felt that the “district report card” was enough so they created their own. As a team, they worked together to create a template of the types of learning feedback they wanted to share in narrative form. They wrote about students’ strengths, areas of growth and areas for improvement - including opportunities for summer learning and reinforcement.  

What does your current report card communicate to parents and students about the last 180 days of learning?  What is their experience opening the report card? Does this experience match your core beliefs about learning?  If not, don’t wait—redesign it! Like others you may still have to complete the required, official documents but there is nothing to say you can’t add your own. The more clearly we can share authentic feedback with students, the more engaged they become in their own learning process.

Celebrate, Support & Empower Teachers (Especially the Rulebreakers)

In the midst of the last week of school chaos, I find myself being very reflective about the year.  I am filled with deep gratitude and appreciation for teachers. I love seeing students walking to school with cards, flowers, and gifts for their teachers who deserve this appreciation and so much more. Do we appreciate and celebrate teachers enough through the school year?  Do our current methods of appreciation and support encourage teachers to stick with the status quo? How might we shift our support if we are hoping teachers will join us in reimagining learning for students? What would it look like if we supported and empowered teachers to no longer conform to an archaic school system?


As Ted Dintersmith details in his latest book, “What Should Could Be: Insights & inspiration from Teachers Across America”  innovative teachers all over America are bucking the system and showing us the way forward, they are refusing to conform to practices that don’t meet the needs of students.  While inspiring to read about these “rulebreaker” teachers, rule-breaking isn’t always received well within school communities. Education isn’t alone, most industries don’t welcome those who challenge their long standing wisdom or practices.  If we are going to ask our staff and faculty to intentionally challenge the way we have always done things, then we must also support and empower them.

Reflecting back on my time as a school leader, here are three strategies that I found useful to both support and empower teachers who were ready to shake things up:

  • Give Permission - As silly as it sounds give teachers explicit permission to question and rattle the collective mindset.  Teachers may experiment, but they are unlikely to challenge the status quo without the support of the school leader. And while talking about permissions, teachers shouldn’t ever need permission to: make the best instructional decisions for students in their class, be learners in front of their students, or take risks that benefit students.  This is only the beginning of what could be a very long list, but you get the idea. What permissions do you need to give your teachers?

  • Be Explicit About What Outdated Practices Can Be Left Behind - Remember that memo was that sent out 5 years ago detailing a testing protocol for math facts? Me either, but some administrators and teachers do.  With the best of intentions, they will follow the established rules until they are told otherwise. Explicitly communicate which practices can be thrown out to create space for new ones. Or even better, are there outdated practices you might encourage your teachers to question?

  • Provide Air Cover - The idea of air cover comes from the military world. It essentially means that aircraft are used to provide protection for ground forces when they are engaged in a difficult operation against possible enemy attacks. While teachers may not be physically attacked, those in our schools who are making changes can sometimes feel under attack from parents, the central office or even sadly, from their colleagues. Where can you provide air cover for those making changes at your school?

Knowing there are big challenges ahead for all educators, let’s support and empower our teachers to question rules, traditions, and practices.  A school leader questioning “the way we have always done things” can be very powerful, but imagine if EVERY teacher at a school was engaged in the same process. So yes, let’s celebrate our teachers for providing another year of learning for kids, but more importantly, let’s empower and support them to teach outside the lines. Collective and intentional rule-breaking can help us step into the universe of possibility.

What Rules are Getting in Your Way?

Challenge Rules With a Simple 1-2-3 Approach

It’s budgeting season, which means as a parent volunteer I am spending more time than usual at  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 are some of the most frustrating meetings I have ever attended 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?

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.

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