Approach to Learning

Tiny Disturbances: 3 Areas of Support in Changing Learning Ecosystems

The bad news is that change is difficult. The good news is, we can scale it.

Shifting mindsets in education requires action. It may be daunting to think of how to change an entire system at once. Moving to action from perception is a cultural challenge, especially when perception is mired in habits. This Mindshift article names some of these bad habits of schools: “siloed learning, homework just for the sake of it, spending time planning with no action, keeping the door closed and visitors out, poor communication between administrators and teachers, traditional professional development, fixing problems by mandate rather than by team problem solving and initiative overload.”

Change in schools is not a technical problem; simply purchasing a program for a school, for example, does not mean the principles and practices of that program take root and transform the system. Just like growing a plant, conditions have to be right for something to germinate, grow, and flourish. Taking the lead from the natural sciences, we know that tiny disturbances to an ecosystem can cause system-wide change. Introducing something into an ecosystem impacts the entire system (Garmston and Wellman, 2002).

We can scale change in a learning ecosystem. Here are some considerations for how we can make “tiny disturbances” that might impact our learning ecosystems in positive ways.

Create Time for Personal Inquiries

Time is a finite resource in schools. Remnants of the industrial model leave us with 180 days in the school year, and timetables have traditionally identified time allocation to separate subjects. Rather than run against these ancient barriers of pre-packaged time, we might ask how we might simply provide time for learners to pursue inquiry and then get out of their way. The small-scale change might be to provide time in the timetable for student-driven inquiry and similarly, to provide time in the meeting schedule for teacher inquiry in collaborative groups. Shifting the timetable to create pockets of time for personalized learning is something we can do now.

Create Structures for Collaboration

We learn from professional development research that it’s not the content of PD that impacts teacher agency most; it’s the social processes.

Darling Hammond and Laughlin (1996) strongly suggest implementing “structures that break down isolation, empower teachers with professional tasks, and provide areas for thinking through standards of practice” (in Hindin, et al., 2007, p. 350).

Shifting to a true collaborative culture is an evolutionary process, and takes time. Learning ecosystems might pay attention to the levels of collaborative structures:

Fragmented individualism is on the low end of the spectrum of collaboration. This is the condition in which classrooms are islands. The isolation of classrooms and teachers produces very little commonality in practice.

Balkanization is defined as the condition in which the ecosystem is divided into cliques or small groups, which have their own subcultures. In this type of environment, the learning is isolated in subcultures, and there is no common set of beliefs permeating the entire organization.

Contrived collegiality creates a condition in which there may be congeniality, the feeling that a group is harmonious and agreeable. At a recent PD event, the facilitator cautioned, “Watch the food. Congenial schools tend to feature the sharing of food.” While congeniality is a precursor to true collaboration, it isn’t quite the same as collaboration.

Professional collegiality in learning ecosystems is when teachers gather to engage in dialog and discussion around student learning. In these truly collaborative teams, teachers might:

  • Examine student work
  • Be critical friends to one another as they implement new practices in their classrooms
  • Provide support in peer observations during implementation of new practices, as an ‘extra pair of eyes and ears’ to gather data
  • Share expertise and personal research into best practice
  • Co-construct a common set of beliefs and cultural practices for facilitating learning

These actions in becoming a truly collaborative learning ecosystem present complex work and need adaptive problem-solving, and schools can provide tools to support it, such as engaging in the work of developing norms of collaboration (from Thinking Collaborative).

Give Ourselves Permission to Innovate through Iteration

Change in learning ecosystems often require an openness to purposeful exploration. This means adopting a growth mindset and shifting thinking to the value of process. Constructivist approaches are conducive to purposeful exploration, where the value is not in one-size-fits-all processes but in allowing iterations.

For professional learning groups, support may come in a framework, such as having an inquiry cycle where learners can start anywhere and use the cycle to enact change.


American International School of Zagreb Professional Learning Cycle

Inquiry cycles support the ecosystem in how change can be scaled to micro-environments such as classrooms. For example, if a group of teachers believe that implementing questioning strategies systematically in their classrooms might impact students’ skills in critical thinking, they might investigate ways of using questioning for at least one class.

This scalable inquiry approach allows for some risk-taking and alleviates anxiety on the challenge of change.

The challenge of educational reform is scalable, and when we pay attention to tiny shifts in our uses of time, opportunities and processes, we can remove some of the anxiety that accompanies ambiguity in times of change.

Suggested Further Reading

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2002). The adaptive school: developing and facilitating collaborative groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon .

Hindin, A., Morocco-Cobb, C., Arwen-Mott, & Mata-Aguilar, C. (2007). More than just a group: Teacher collaboration and learning in the workplace. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and practice, 13(4), 349-376.

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: raising your school’s organizational intelligence. Suffolk: John Catt Educational.

Schwartz, K. (n.d.). How Schools Can Face The ‘Bad Habits’ That Inhibit Meaningful Changes. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

Featured Image:

Gamelan Orchestra on Bali, Jakarta or Solo (Indonesia). Painting by Isaac Israëls (1865-1934). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Explicitly teaching skills in disciplinary inquiry

One of the topics that can fuel hours of teacher dialog is the difference between assigning tasks and teaching the process by which tasks can be pursued through inquiry. Assigning might consist of telling students to do a task. Teaching a process involves teaching approaches to learning, which might allow students to problem solve for the task.

It is one thing to talk about how scientists solve problems using scientific inquiry, and it is another thing altogether to experience using scientific inquiry to solve a problem. In every discipline or subject, there are patterns of thinking employed systematically by the people who work in that discipline, which are particularly developed by practitioners in that discipline.

Schooling as it exists has been structured for people to learn how to learn in disciplines. The ways of doing and learning in a discipline follow systematic approaches which help to inquire in the discipline, and these are the experiences we attempt to provide in school, so that our students understand the systems within a discipline, and how these systems help the practitioner to inquire, reflect and take action.

In sciences, the ways of doing research or inquiry have common threads. Research is a big part of each discipline. In studies of language and literature, for instance, experiences in organizing communication of ideas and experiences in the actual production of these ways of communication are predominant approaches for those who communicate through language and literature; authors write specific texts for specific purposes.

Part of our planning of learning in a subject involves planning for experiences wherein students learn and use skills and approaches particular to that subject. Some of the questions we might have in how to do this in a unit of inquiry may include:

  • How do we embed skills into a unit with context, content and concepts?
  • How do we plan for students to experience, as authentically as possible, the ways of doing what people do in a particular field?
  • How do we integrate skills and approaches to learning in a subject as effectively as possible?

These questions of instructional design might give us a hint of the complexity that an integrated and holistic planning approach requires. Design is a creative process, which involves evaluation at every step of the way, and demands of the designer an ability to iterate: to test and use a feedback loop to inform further revisions of the design until the desired outcome is achieved.

The approaches to learning in a subject

What do scientists do?

Science is a good example for a subject with a systematic way of approaching learning. Scientists have a specific way of arriving at understanding – the scientific method. Through research and investigations, scientists have arrived at the body of knowledge which exists because scientists perpetually investigate and demystify how the world works. Through the scientific method, students can also experience the ways that science arrives at understanding. Through research and experiments, students can arrive at understanding the principles that scientists have learnt and used to solve authentic problems and illuminated the thinking through science in our world.

Not only the natural sciences use specifically created methods to find solutions to questions about how the world works. Human sciences, the humanities, have also adopted systematic research and investigation to find solutions to problems in these fields. In psychology, geography, history, and other human sciences, research and investigation play a large role in demystifying the world.

The goal for doing in the social sciences, therefore, remains very close to doing in the natural sciences, in that students might experience problem solving through investigation and research. In this discussion of the integration of skills and practice in units, it is helpful to look at investigation as an experience for students of a subject, in which knowledge is used in processes, which help students to learn and do in a subject.

The process of investigation

Process learning is often more effective when the learner actually experiences the process. Designing ways for students to experience research as it is done in a subject is therefore a worthy pursuit in the unit plan. Repeated rehearsal in the problem-solving process that a practitioner uses in that subject is essential for students to truly understand what it is like to be a practitioner in that subject.

As students rehearse the process through repeated use, habituated thinking within those approaches are more likely to happen (Brown & Bennet, 2002). The implications are that as students learn the process, the teacher might:

  • Draw attention to the reasons why specific steps in a process are taken, to establish the significance of these in the process
  • Facilitate awareness of changes that might result in the students’ thinking as they use the process
  • Allow students to make connections between their own thinking and the effects a specific thinking pattern might have on the process
  • Embed opportunities for reflection and metacognition within the process
  • Find ways to highlight similarities between processes used to solve different problems in the same subject with different contexts, content and concepts, to facilitate understanding of the approach as part of the systematic pattern of thinking and learning in that subject
  • Provide ways for students to highlight transfer of the process in other situations, for example, in solving unfamiliar problems

The implications above also point out the importance of teaching the process rather than just assigning the process (Merzenich et al., 1996). Assuming that students naturally know how to use a process as they get older, for instance, is unwise because there might be no default setting for these processes, which have been constructed to support learning in a subject by those who have developed expertise in the subject’s approaches to learning.

How a teacher breaks down the processes and helps students to learn multiple pathways to understanding impact how effectively the student can use the processes to learn in that subject.

How do you break down the processes and approaches in your discipline? I invite you to share your ideas in a comment.

Further reading

Brown, S. W., & Bennet, E. (2002). The role of practice and automaticity in temporal and nontemporal dual-task performance. Psychological Research, 66(1), 80-9. doi: 101007/S004260100076

Merzenich, M. M., Jenkins, W.M, Johnston, P., Schreiner, C., Miller, S. L., & Tallal, P. (1996). Temporal processing deficits of language-learning impaired children ameliorated by training. Science, 271, 77-81. doi:10.2307/29890377


Waking into Light

I had to hug a teacher today.

She has taught for a decade, and this week has been delving into Marcia Behrenbruch’s Dancing in the Light, Marcia’s monograph on classroom inquiry. With tears in her eyes, the teacher told me how the stories in the book made her feel that she was awakening from a slumber, “emerging from a matrix where I had lain sleeping as a teacher.”

I hugged the teacher because for years, I’ve wrestled with the question of how a pedagogical leader can facilitate for teachers a glimpse into reality that they haven’t experienced in their own education. For most faculty in schools in 2017, how many of us were in schools which used systems to promote self-directed, conceptual, contextual, authentic learning? And how can these dreams we have for our students become reality when we struggle with what that looks like?

In my laptop bag is a set of questions from a workshop I led in November on using concepts to frame units of inquiry, and the sticky notes on which the questions are written are getting frayed at the edges. Teachers wrote the questions at the end of the workshop, as a wishlist for their own learning, for future collaborative inquiry.

  • How do we scaffold successful inquiry?
  • How do we inquire in lower phases of language learning?
  • How do we create performances of understanding?
  • How do we construct units of inquiry that integrate skills?
  • How to we learn concepts in depth?
  • How do we transfer understanding to practice?

That last question in the list, How do we transfer understanding to practice? seems to be the one that holds a possible universe of answers, a new matrix of professional inquiry our community can sustain. As I work on the professional learning community framework for the next school year, the teachers’ question suggests a readiness to deepen a culture of learning in the school.

Why this is The Question

The question above reminds me of an article in TeachThought and brings to mind a phrase overheard at our Dream Summit. Fran Prolman challenged our community to embrace intellectual humility as we began our Dreaming. The teachers’ question, How do we transfer understanding to practice? embodies intellectual humility, the openness to wonder and awe that most often sparks an authentic, personally meaningful inquiry. This is The Question we have to ask as a community of learners now, as we find ourselves in the thick of a future we don’t as yet have a fully formed picture.

Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

For 23 years I’d been in schools where the budget for professional development was ridiculously large. If we needed to implement something, we’d PD the heck out of it and didn’t think too much about the cost. Now, honestly, I’m a little more prudent when I think of what PD we might spend on. It has involved stepping out of my comfort zone, and rethinking high-impact (and not too costly) strategies to “transfer our understanding to practice.”

Like the teacher I hugged today, I am awakening from slumber and stepping into light. I can’t just throw money to address an issue of implementation, it’s just not an option. We needed to strengthen our Professional Learning Community (PLC), calling resources from within to launch our inquiry.

Embedding Professional Learning in the Day to Day Reality of School

Embedded, situational professional learning is not new. We know from research that separating professional learning from practice tends to hinder change in teacher practices. There’s a boundary, that education has seemingly encouraged, between what we do and what we are learning. The boxes that provide this boundary are packaged in weekend workshops, and the expectation might be that we find a deficit, unpack ‘the box’ of the workshop, and get what we need to be able to do. It’s expensive not only in terms of financial cost, but also in terms of sustainability: when the workshop leader leaves, what might guarantee that what we learned becomes reality? Another consideration is, How do we ensure that the one workshop addresses the diversity of adult learners in the school? Because of these concerns and more, professional development in schools has evolved to include many layers, including embedded, situated and differentiated professional learning through Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in the offerings.

Contextualized learning through the PLC is identified as one of the principles of effective professional development. This inherent strength of embedded professional learning may occur because of its proximity to practice, ensuring greater cognitive links between the teachers’ experience and visible impact they see as they apply their learning. Brody and Hadar (2011) for instance, found that teachers who persisted in their collaborative work reported changes in their practice as they internalized the learning and began to redesign classroom learning to reflect what they had learned. In addition, teachers documented changes in practice while working on both personal and professional goals, and reported a new sense of empowerment and agency as their practice evolved.

Peter Senge and colleagues (2000) discussed how learning groups promote new ideas in the workplace. To address change and build teacher capacity, teachers are more able to learn to address these needs by learning with each other in a collaborative context. Professional learning fosters reflection and making sense of problems that emerge in practice and provides a venue for problem-solving solutions relevant to the work context. In the design of a PLC, the collaborative professional learning structures would mirror the problem-solving process that teachers needed to experience the ambiguity of inquiry approaches that we need to internalize within its learning culture. If we want to facilitate the learning of transfer thinking skills for our students, we need to experience this skill ourselves.

At the same time, the PLC structure needs to address the need to build a sense of readiness to change. The design needed to include a process, which helps teachers to become more aware of their own practice and its impact on student learning. This is a key to building the school culture whose purpose is to deliberately impact change through learning.

The key to the PLC design is not in the procedural structure, those visible behaviors that emerge above the surface of the school culture iceberg. The key that we find is an invisible and organic structure, resting in the cognitive networks that the structure facilitated as the PLC functioned. The actual form of our PLC is in how minds, and the knowledge and understanding residing within, are deliberately networked so that teachers’ learning formed the fabric of the ways the school behaves.

Riveros and Vizco (2012) did a study on learning nestled within practice. Their study focused on the structures facilitating enactment of knowledge in practice, as opposed to within the content of the collaborative professional learning. They examined teachers’ conceptualizations of workplace policies in light of their involvement in co-constructing understanding of these policies while simultaneously working to enact them. The authors found that knowledge of practice is actively constructed in a social system through teachers’ connections within the PLC.

We learn that learning communities are not imposed but rather emerge from the work that communities engaged themselves in. As the teachers enact policies, the environmental and contextual factors of application and process provide parameters for enactment. In other words, how teachers apply their professional learning seems to depend on processes and social interactions rather than as a lock-step sequence of events that are predictable (Riveros and Vizco, 2012).

Conversations are easy to arrange, and they don’t cost a lot of money

What this means for our PLC design is that we might be mindful of a separation of professional development and practice, which could be a function of where knowledge of practice resides: in teachers’ minds. Since understanding of practice resides in individuals’ thoughts, the goal of embedded professional learning within PLCs is not to address the cognitive processes of the learners. What we learn is that the design of the PLC has to provide the social processes that allow communities to network knowledge and make useful the connections between what individuals understand through these social processes. We need more professional conversations, steeped in research and fueled by data from student work. We need conversations around learning, and we need time to have those conversations.

The ambiguity of what outcomes might emerge from the PLC leaves us breathless with energy that comes from possibility.

The light is beautiful here.


Further Reading:

Bahrenbruch, M. (2012). Dancing into Light; Essential Elements for an Inquiry Classroom. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Brody, D., & Hadar, L. (2011). “I speak prose and now I know it.” Personal development trajectories among teacher educators in a professional development community. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27, 1223-1234.

Riveros, A., Newton, P., & Burgess, D. (2012). A situated account of teacher agency and learning: Critical reflections on professional learning communities. Canadian Journal of Education, 35, 202-216.

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell.

The Future is Here

A few weeks ago, our school community participated in a Dream Summit, where we used appreciative inquiry to imagine our future.

After 51 years, it was time to dream into the school we are evolving into for the next 50 years. Students from grades 6 to 11, parents, teachers, Board members and leadership volunteered to be at the Dream Summit. Led by Fran Prolman of Learning Collaborative, we searched for the “positive change core” (Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavos, 2003) which would serve as the wellspring of our aspirational journey.


Appreciative Inquiry cycle adapted from Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavros (2003).


What we choose to study makes a difference.

Beginning with the idea that our perceptions shape our reality, our community started with the discovery of the best of the past and present, what works, and our images of the future.

Positive change occurs when the process of change models the future.

It was important for us to smash the box and to imagine a future school from the perspectives of the community. Without a box constraining our imaginations, each Dreamer dug deep to find what we valued as a community, some of which are:

  • Parents and community members learn with students.
  • Unique spaces for personalized learning.
  • Choice and voice.
  • Learning through doing and authentic experiences.
  • Self-directed learning.
  • Partnerships within and without.
  • Inclusive and innovative.

One group’s representation of AISZ Core Values.

The process of Dreaming mirrored what we wanted our future to be: an open-ended, self-directed learning process which had personal and authentic meaning.

Positive questions lead to positive change!

The AI literature suggests that positive questions lead to a release in positive energy. Like in many inquiry processes, the questions the learner asks have a significant role in the reality that emerges as the inquiry progresses. Continuing on the theme of our perceptions shape our reality, we found vibrant, inspirational energy permeate our dialog as we chose our Top Dreams for AISZ.


Top Eight Dreams from the AISZ Dream Summit 2017

Wholeness brings out the best. Gathering stakeholders builds collective capacity.

Since the Dream Summit, I’ve had the opportunity to gather in conversations with students, parents, and staff to reflect on our central inquiry, “If you could reinvent the school, what might it be?”

A few of the inspiring conversations with different groups revolved around their personal questions of change:

  • What would it take to improve our relationships?
  • How does language impact how we respect one another?
  • If I had an hour every week to pursue a personal project, what would I want to learn?
  • How do we embed student voice and choice in school life?
  • What if we smashed the box of the traditional timetable?
  • What if we co-constructed the curriculum with our students?
  • How does adult learning mirror student learning in our school?

The moment we ask a question, change begins.

John Schaar said, “The future is not a destination we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity changes both the maker and the destination.” As the students ponder and take action on personal interests; as teachers wonder how they can be more deliberate in their facilitation of learning; as parents pursue partnerships with teachers and their children, I look around me and the future is already here.

What a Teacher Leaves Behind

For Bill Powell, gone so soon

On the Adriatic Sea in the summertime the light on the water is like diamonds at midday. Without shadows the clean blue hues’ incessant sparkling hits the eye and may elicit tears.

We lost someone recently, someone who has worked with teachers and schools to support generations of self-directed learners, people who believe in others and believe in themselves. This writing will not capture all that he was; to know Bill Powell you have to know all the other people whom he has valued in his life as a teacher, administrator, mentor, and friend. I was fortunate to have known Bill. Conversations with Bill over the years have taught much long after I left the cognitive spaces we shared.

Lessons from conversations with Bill now eddy and flow within, this sea on which I float tinged with sadness , and the coordinates of my destinations made clear by the lessons’ resonance within. Fragments from T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Bill’s favorite poet, and one of his favorite poems, appear like driftwood. I pick them up and show them to you.

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Help people learn, and not by evaluating them.

In their book Teacher self-supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it, Bill and Ochan Powell comment, The distressing truth is that no one can compel learning in another person.

We expound on the value of self-directedness, and we search for ways to create the environment and processes which allow our students to go after learning through inquiry; to self-monitor and self-modify as they self-assess through reflection. Yet in many of our schools, we still subscribe to teacher evaluation systems, giving teachers external judgments of practice and expecting that this external judgment will ignite the inspiration, motivation and empowerment necessary to transform the thinking that goes into creating environments and processes which will facilitate learning for both the teacher and his or her students.

In external, judgment-based feedback within teacher evaluation systems, there is

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time

Learning comes from choice, a self-directed turning of mind toward something that inspires and presents an anticipation and pursuit of something meaningful. This turning of the mind is what we desire in our students as we provoke thinking in the classroom, as we give our students their heads, as we remove the reins and yokes of our own choices of canonical content, and allow our charges to chase after learning because it is meaningful to them.

Self-evaluation for adults is just as important as we deem it is for our students through reflection. The leap we make between the environments and processes we create that allow for self-directed learning is made with an assumption, a positive presupposition that people generally want to get better at what they do.

People want to learn to get better at what they do. This optimism is borne from a personal choice, a choice to honestly self-evaluate, to let go of the fixed mindsets perhaps learnt through experiences, and to become open to growth. It requires humility to reach this peak of wisdom, for

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.

The optimism of wanting and going after growth is endless in its reach, for it creates a world of what is possible—what is possible after all in a classroom is gifted by the diversity of individuals with whom a teacher has the privilege to spend an entire school year. The optimism blooms in our practice as teachers when we embrace the wonderful diversity of people in our care. As many different learners as we have in our classrooms, we receive with each one the gift of becoming a better teacher of each, and

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

In the ways we discover how each person learns, we grow as teachers. Beginning with this assumption that teachers want to get better at what they do, we are on our way to creating environments and processes, which allow for self-directed learning for adults and young learners alike.

We open the gates of consciousness to improve our craftsmanship and flexibility as teachers. Awareness is the mother of other states of mind.

To arrive at where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.

The birth of awareness began with excavation for me. I had always thought, for instance, that I was a good listener. Until I learned, that first Cognitive CoachingSM  seminar with Bill and Ochan, that I listened primarily so I could solve things for whomever was speaking with me.

Spending the last five years digging through the debris of old layers of self– those layers of being which in conversations did not help but rather hindered growth for the other and then discarding the layers of ineffective listening like so much sloughed off skin—has expanded consciousness and increased other resources of mind.

I learned that

In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

In a teacher, consciousness reaches realms of being that embrace balance. Looping through the infinite balancing of polarities between rigor and inclusiveness, for instance. The flexibility of thinking that allows for polarities to co-exist, simultaneously, helps the teacher to recognize and address the experiences and reality of each learner. Each one has a claim on rigor. Each one has a claim on being included as he or she is, and the trajectories that each might traverse is not the teacher’s experiences and reality. We learn that we cannot teach the way we learn; we humbly accept that we must listen more than we speak, and that each learner may instruct the instructor on how learning can happen.

And in another instance, holding on one palm the delicate, complex self of a person and in another, her goal orientation, listening only in order to value both, and in the discipline of complete attentiveness, convey the person to a state of resourcefulness. In this disciplined attentiveness, one is fully present but also absent. Attentive to the other and detached from self. In this I learned to be less so the other might be more.

As Bill used to say, “I have more friends now.”

Be deliberate.

To learn, to teach, to live with self-directedness, one needs to be deliberate. One can be deliberate with choice of words and choices of silence in a conversation for the purpose of conveying the other to a more desirable state of mind. Speech is more poetic than might be previously thought, when we consider that our pauses allow for deep thought to occur, and are meaningful parts of messages we send to others.

In the deliberate use of silence as of words, we command our attentiveness and perhaps sidestep the chasms of miscommunication that endanger our relationships, and we summon the thinking that allows bridges to build across minds. We may avoid

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the one thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.

The discipline of thought, that being deliberate requires, cradles the positive presuppositions that value another.

There is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

We are not the same people today as we were yesterday.

Every day is the day of a phoenix. Our interactions, our conversations change us as they change our thinking. If we are fortunate, we will meet someone who inspires trust, and we choose to learn from and with this person. We can become open-minded to the possibility that any other we meet and interact with is a teacher and a mentor outside of the choreography of a formal workshop or course; we sit at the table and dine with those who teach through conversation.

And this changes us. When we choose to learn, we transform. And if we choose this every day, we eschew a static self. We sleep and awaken new people.

You are not the same people that left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think “the past is finished”
Or “the future is before us.”

For most of us there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction of it, lost in a shaft of sunlight.

Every one has value.

I walk through places where systems have failed its citizens, and the faces floating past mine are sometimes so easily moved to contempt. It is not easy to be in places where many have been disillusioned by decades of communal, enculturated mistrust, and hence closed to learning from someone who might present novel ways of being.

Yet in the dim light I am reminded that context is a persistent and damning comfort; context holds people in its clutches and perhaps it is difficult to see how to let it let go when context has not presented any other possible existence than what is known.

I forgive context, and I dig deep within the discipline of attentiveness to find positive presuppositions: we protect what we know because it helps us to feel safe.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiousity
Or carry report.

The person, after all, is what matters. Deep within the layers of who we might be because of where we are, we are oceans of humanity, deep and layered with tempers, battered by storms, calmed by movements of moons and other, more intangible forces.

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

We cannot think of “Not making a trip that will be unpayable/For a haul that will not bear examination.”

In the optimism and discipline of attentiveness to others, we listen for their footfalls across the tundra they might have to traverse to find the thought that renders them open to growth. We paraphrase their words to illuminate their own thinking; we pause and give them deliberate time to envision ways forward.

And we must do this because it is about learning. Life is about the shift from that undesirable state of walking the endless loop of suffering, to a state of being ingenious within ourselves, and that capacity is the ongoing conversation with self that we are all privileged to enter.

I must say goodbye to the man, but not to the mentor. His legacy continues in the work of so many colleagues all over the world, whom like I did, had productive conversations with Bill.

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.



Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. Retrieved from on July 11, 2016.

Powell, W. and Kusuma Powell, O. (2015.) Teacher self-supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt.


An Inquiry into Time, Thought and Identity

Metacognition within perceptions of time and self mediates attention. As an approach to learning skill, metacognition involves knowledge of cognition, which allows a person to actively control thinking during the thinking process. Hence it is often defined as “thinking about thinking.” Approaches to learning such as ways to monitor understanding, evaluating process and progress of learning, and making decisions about use of time are metacognitive approaches (Livingston, 1997). When a learner is able to control thinking using different strategies or approaches, he or she is able to adjust, evaluate and readjust a myriad of factors surrounding the environment and process of learning he or she uses to improve learning. Metacognition supports self-regulation by allowing the learner to practice targeted attention (Goleman, 2013) to factors such as the learning environment, process, time, and personal investments in these.

Strategies allow for the abstraction of metacognition to become concrete, practical approaches. An example would be while reading actively, the reader uses questions as self-tests for comprehension and monitors the effectiveness of the strategy in terms of the learning objective (comprehension). The strategy of using questions is a cognitive move, while the strategy of monitoring its effectiveness is metacognitive (Livingston, 1997). Learners practicing metacognition while learning develop and use feedback systems to self-direct learning.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction (CSI) is a tool that is worth mentioning in instruction about thinking. A simple way of expressing this tool is to ask students to think of “How do I do this and why am I doing it this way?” The how is the cognitive move, while the why involves finding approaches to monitoring the thinking. CSI is based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model used in teaching writing. In the SRSD model, students who are producing text are asked to perform the following explicit cognitive and metacognitive moves (Council for Exceptional Children, 2009):

  • Self-monitoring as a goal is set and a process designed for students to make the process visible
  • Self-instruction as the students discuss the process and decisions made, use a checklist, use a visible guide for the writing process
  • Self-reinforcement can involve self-talk, use of additional reading or research to keep the flow of the process going
  • Metacognition through modeling think- or read-alouds
  • Self-assessment through a checklist or cue cards, or ways to use questions to evaluate own performance, such as developing a rationale for writer’s choices

An interesting idea in the inquiry towards nurturing agile thinkers is the effects on perceptions of time on how learners learn. Time to think is a requirement for effective self-directed learning.

Being busy without time for reflection creates a mental environment of ceaseless action without deep thought. With this condition, how might we allow for insight, solution design, and making connections?

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo By Brocken Inaglory. The image was edited by user: Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We know that engagement in immediate tasks at hand allow for the possibility of flow: concentration which stretches thinking and capacity. Time for self-reflection is crucial for tasks that ask students to find personal relevance through metacognition. When we think about our thinking, the expansion of our awareness involves knowing how much time to invest in a task and why. Because we become more aware of time constraints, we might also become more aware of changing craftsmanship –whether it is allowing more time or less time—as a function of what we know, understand and can do.

Time is a perception that can change the ways we know, understand and can do. It is a moment of optimistic intersections between all the things we are and the significance of our aspirations for what we must inquire into and rehearse. As time becomes less an external construct and more of an internal one for the learner, he or she allows for time to engage the self, binding identity to the task at hand.

Because the perception of time makes it relative to self, time can protract or extend as necessary within the perceptions of the learner. Challenges like open-ended tasks then allow us to perceive how we have significantly crafted use of time, and how we learn through strategies including metacognition.

Using Reflection

In lesson design involving approaches to learning like metacognitive strategies and use of time during tasks, it might be useful to use reflection as opportunities to develop both. When we stop to record a moment of learning, we step out of engagement in cognition to think about it and how it affects the time available.

This is the ‘trick’ of metacognition—to be able to step out of engagement to reflect on it, to integrate the moment itself and its experience with the reflective thinking as we take action and document its significance.

Council for Exceptional Children (2009). A focus on self-regulated strategy development for writing. Retrieved from on May 7, 2016.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driver of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Livingston, J. A. (1997). “Metacognition; An overview.” Retrieved from on May 6, 2016.

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A Banned Books Week Manifesto

Starting tomorrow, libraries across America (and my library) will celebrate Banned Books Week.  It’s a celebration of the freedom to read, a celebration that people have the right to read what they like.

This year’s focus? Young Adult books, a commonly banned or challenged genre, mainly because the content includes violence, or sex, or drugs, (or sorcery, or religion, or profanity, or communism).

As an avid reader of YA lit, I can appreciate that there would be challenges to these texts.  I know that challenging books comes from good intentions, from the desire to protect a child.  I understand that reading about sex (or whatever objectionable content there may be) may be difficult for an adult to condone.

However, in my role as a youth librarian, I cannot allow a book with a serious theme to be removed from a library.  In fact, removing a book because someone finds it objectionable is the worst possible thing we can do to our students.

Now, I’ve found in my research about banned books that “objectionable” is a very broad word.

Take, for instance, the Captain Underpants series, one of the most banned children’s books.  There is no sex, no drugs, not much violence, but it was still challenged around the United States for being “unsuited to age group” and “encouraging disobedience.”  Harry Potter had a similar challenge, “a masterpiece of satanic deception” because the characters were liars, thieves and witches.  Harry Potter was so popular that this type of challenge resonated across the globe, being banned in other countries for violence, and even being called too complex for children.

Say what you will about Harry Potter, but those books got generations to enjoy reading again.  They were able to entice reluctant readers into books, and still have that ability.  John Green, he who has had almost ever books challenged somewhere, has a cult following of readers.  The Giver, Persepolis, Perks of Being a Wallflower… just a few more examples of immensely powerful and popular books trying to be kept from reach.

These books seek attention from us.  They have an intense power.  Maybe their objectionable content is part of that power, but it is hard to say.  People who try to ban books are forgetting that despite this content, this kiss or this swear word, the book is still teaching empathy and understanding.  At the end of a book, teens talk about their reactions to the characters and the emotions, not just the number of swear words and the sex scene.

Even books that seem to have no value, the ones that I call popcorn (a nice snack, but not really a meal), can still teach us about empathy and communication.

I say this from personal experience.

When I was a kid, I liked books.  After I read Goosebumps and Dear America, I moved on to romance novels.  First, I read romances for teens, and then I moved on to romance novels for adults.  As a teenager in high school, I read through the library’s entire romance section (in two different towns).  I remember that the librarian in one of these towns was not remarkably supportive of my reading choices, but my stubbornness overcame that.  I collected romance novels.  My bookshelves were right next to my bed, and included titles stacked in every available place.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many novels I’ve read, how much time I’ve spent lost in some formulaic story.  I know the ending to every story from the cover.  I can predict the majority of character traits within the first paragraph.  I am fully aware that these books are not mind-expanding fiction.

However, there is the occasional new vocabulary word, the cadence in reading the dialogue, the clarification of an emotional reaction, and the practice for reading a more complex book.  There is a benefit there.  I was allowed to read and collect romance novels anywhere and everywhere.  My mother (still) disapproves, but that’s never banned a book from my hand.  That may be, in fact, why this issue is so crucial to me.  If I hadn’t been allowed to read romance novels, would I still be a librarian?

It’s an odd thing to say, really.  Perhaps I would have found another genre (mystery, perhaps, or horror, because gore is less a problem sometimes), or perhaps I would have stop caring about books.

Either way, the content rarely detracts from the value or reading.

Graphic novels have similar, if not worse challenges.  They’re banned even more often than YA books, and the most banned and challenged book of this year: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has graphics and images inside.  Captain Underpants, with its graphics of boys in underpants, scared the adults into action.

I, too, lacked appreciation of these books, and comics and manga, until quite recently.  I didn’t understand them, thought they were even less classy than my romance novels.  Fortunately, a YA literature class brought me stunning examples of graphic novels.  I took several books home with me for Christmas, with even more on CD for the 14 hour drive (not all graphic novels, obviously).  After finishing Maus I, I explained the premise to my mom, and she picked it up and read while I finished Maus II. This is amazing to me because I’ve never seen her read fiction.  The newspaper, sure, especially on the way to the crossword puzzle.  But a novel?  Only Maus.

She read both that day, and it opened up a conversation.  I also read books during that vacation about lesbians, high school secret societies, gossip, and vampires.  The reading brought questions that I wanted to ask my mother about, and I did.

I think about this when it comes to books, particularly YA books.  I’ve learned communication for books.  I’ve learned about emotions.  I’ve asked questions of myself and others, of the world around me.  I asked questions I didn’t know I would have.  With graphic novels, we’re able to consider the vision and the plot both.  We’re able to discuss serious issues in an even deeper way.

Look at the dramatic differences in artwork between these three stories: American Born Chinese, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and Smile.  These books invite this conversation, in a way that you can only experience if you allow yourself to read them.  And they enhance visual literacy in the very best way.  Banning these books that kids are reading is detracting from the core principals of the IB and the core principals of education.  This content is still very valuable, even if you don’t agree with everything that every character is doing.

A long as a child is reading, the content doesn’t really matter.

They can read manga, or romance, or fan fiction, or John Green, or anything.  Whatever they are reading helps them to get into a story, helps them see a new perspective.  It’s scary to allow that freedom for them, to allow them to find themselves, but reading can give them new solutions to problems.

If they read about drugs, maybe they see that it’s not worth it, or that they should exercise caution.  They may read a book that features a normal boy who happens to be attracted to another boy, and realize that they are also attracted to boys.  They may read Harry Potter, where the main character has some serious issues with authority (seriously, did he ever follow the rules?).  Despite this, they may see that some things are worth fighting for, and that protagonists are rarely (and shouldn’t be) perfect.  Characters have flaws, but books help you realize that you can make those mistakes and still develop integrity.

Most importantly, books give you the opportunity to ask questions you didn’t know you had.  Books make you ask questions of yourself, your people, and your world.

Recently, some adults have said the same things to me.

“Well, how do we know a book isn’t too advanced for a kid?”
“What if a kid checks out something that they won’t understand?”
“What happens if there’s violence in a book and they take it the wrong way?”

Kids get things.  Kids are sensitive little humans.  They know that violence isn’t the way.  They know when they can ask a difficult question.  The online media is rich, and they can find anything.  Banning one book with violence doesn’t change the fact that the news is violent, and just takes away another opportunity to process that.  Banning a book with curse words doesn’t mean you’ll prevent a kid from cursing.  Banning a book because of sex tells a kid that their sexuality doesn’t exist yet, or that their feelings are unnatural.  We cannot take away the books that are dealing with these issues.

If it is too advanced, the child will likely abandon it.  If it’s an issue that they are ignorant of, they’ll learn about it and deal with it, or talk with their friends about it, but they’ll find a way to understand if they’re intrigued.  Have some faith in the child, and let them surprise you with their sensitivity.  Give them a little credit, and let them read.

Happy Banned Books Week!

Originally from Blog