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.

Orientation in time, place and space: inquiring into boundaries

Is schooling completely future-oriented?

What might be the boundaries presented to inquiring minds by orientation in time, place and space? The global context in the MYP “Orientation to time, place and space” presents the questions of “where” and “when,” as concepts organizing how individuals might think (IBO, 2015).

Consider a few of the recurring misunderstandings in schools:

  • Teachers emphasize engagement in learning for future benefits and students do not rehearse learning in the present (because some other activity is more tempting)
  • Schools emphasize future benefits of procedures such as school attendance and parents take their children away to a holiday, missing school days
  • Schools emphasize focused attention during class time by asking students to put away their social media devices during the school day and students and parents do not understand why
  • Parents ask their children to study and children prefer to surf Youtube or some other website during the time asked to study

What’s really at work here? In this inquiry we explore “peoples, boundaries, exchange and interaction” (from MYP: From Principles into Practice, 2015, p. 60). As we consider the misunderstandings in the bullet-pointed list above, a common conceptual thread that runs through the conflicting ideas might be orientation to time as a function of place and space.

“Orientation to time” presents multiple perspectives framing perceptions of time, and these perceptions impact how people create boundaries between present and past and future. In other words, the ways we think of time directly affect decision-making and consequent action.

The long-standing “Marshmallow Study” by Stanford professor Walter Mischel illustrates an aspect of time orientation through the action of delayed gratification. 40 years after the study, the longitudinal data suggests that children who were able to delay gratification at age 4 or 5– in effect being able to understand the long-term benefits of wait time at an early age— scored higher on achievement tests ten years later. These children also had “lower incidents of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures” (Clear, 2016).

In an interview with Atlantic magazine, Mischel clarified that the study was really about “achievement situations and what influences a child to reach his or her choice” (Mischel in Urist, 2014).

Ideas about time and achievement present this inquiry with the related concept of boundaries. We might ask the following questions (and other, similar ones):

Factual questions:

  • What boundaries might exist for different people, as contextual frameworks for time?
  • What are some cultural orientations to time?
  • What are some cultural orientations to achievement?

Conceptual questions:

  • What other factors might influence ideas of time and its relationship to achievement?
  • How do our ideas of time and achievement influence decision making?

Debatable question:

  • Are all impulsive decisions (without a delay of gratification) a function of orientation to time?

A useful resource in this inquiry is Wittman and Butler’s Felt Time; The psychology of how we perceive time (MIT Press, 2016). In the book, Wittman and Butler discuss what they term temporal shortsightedness, temporal myopia, and provide useful studies to consider and gain some insights into the nature of orientation in time, place and space and the uses and limitations of perceptions which impact how we think of time.

Temporal shortsightedness

The conflict between the present, past and future requires a metacognitive layer of thinking about the thinking we do in response to time boundaries. For example:

  • A student may find social media updates more tempting than the present lesson on chemical bonds
  • A parent may find that the class of 1986 Reunion dinner is more tempting than the back-to-school night
  • A teacher may find that a collaborative dialog on authentic assessment may be less compelling than using a ‘tried and true’ test filed in a binder
  • A school leader might find that waiting for teachers to learn through an implementation dip is taking too long and teachers need to just square their shoulders and make it happen

When the above ideas about time and task present themselves, and when individuals do not consider their own thinking about time, conflicts may arise.

Wittman and Butler suggest that in many cultures, delayed gratification is built in to facets of cultural decision making. For instance, retirement plans have worldwide use, wherein working adults defer monetary reward for use much later in life. The choice of long-term investments is another cross-cultural concept which uses delays in rewards for later times. Most countries’ educational systems have prolonged schooling with the idea of greater gains in knowledge and skills of future professionals and workers. In many cultures around the globe, the ability to delay reward for future benefit is a feature in social institutions.

Temporal myopia

In adults as in children, waiting for some future benefit can vary.

Wittman and Butler define temporal myopia as “stretches of time standing closer to us appear sharper than stretches of equal duration lying farther off. In this context, temporal myopia means, in essence, that we perceive the difference between today and tomorrow much more acutely than we perceive the difference between tomorrow and the day after” (Wittman and Butler, 2016, p. 7).

In studies cited, impulsive people tend to go for lesser sums of money or rewards so that they do not have to wait. This idea of impulsivity is similar to the behavior of children and adults with ADHD, which is expressed in the tendency not to recognize the value of deferred gratification, which is an orientation to the present.

When the orientation of tasks is future-oriented (do now and benefit later) as it is in school, a present orientation (do not do now and benefit now) presents a conflict.

Emotional intelligence as a factor in time orientation and waiting

Emotion plays a big role in human decisions. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo posits research on time orientation and how perceptions of time orientation influence individuals.

Zimbardo and Boyd (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) developed questionnaires, which revealed patterns in how people think about time as framework for perspectives. The researchers found that:

  • People who predominantly have a present-orientation tend to take more drugs, have unprotected sex, receive more speeding tickets, and engage in other, negative risk-taking behaviors
  • People who predominantly have a future-orientation tend to be averse to spontaneity and are risk-averse (for example, will not venture to try new cultural activities or sports)
  • Past oriented people often reject new ways of doing things and prefer to follow past ‘traditions’ to the neglect of innovations

In brain-based studies of reward-and-time orientation studies, researchers found that adults who chose more immediate but lesser rewards (present orientation) showed high activity in the brain region called the paralimbic system, which has a strong link to emotional decision making (Wittman and Butler, 2016). However, when study participants chose to delay gratification for greater future rewards showed higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain connected to planning, decision making, and controlling impulses.

When Mischel’s study subjects were tested again 40 years after the Marshmallow Test, what they found was that people who had not excelled at delayed gratification when they were 4 or 5 showed fMRI scans that showed lower activity in the frontal cortex.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) points to the influence of emotional assessment, which we learned earlier is located in the paralimbic system, on decision making. Damasio found that decisions that go against immediate gratification find value in emotional contexts. This means that for instance, weighing the values of (Choice a) watching TV now and (Choice b) going to the gym to exercise now goes through an emotional assessment. Further, Damasio suggests that emotional responses such as comfort and convenience play a great part in decisions of what people do in the present.

In the beginning of this inquiry was the question, Is education really future oriented? The suggestion is not to advocate for a future-only orientation in schools. Far from it, the gentle suggestion in this inquiry is that we pay attention to the time orientation of others and the boundaries inherent in these, so that we can presume positive intentions in our interactions and exchanges. As Jelaludin Rumi once wrote, “Out beyond the ideas of wrong and right, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

What might we find?



Clear, J. (2016). “40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed “| James Clear. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://jamesclear.com/delayed-gratification
Hadad, C. (2015, July 10). “What ‘marshmallow test’ can teach you about your kids.” Retrieved September 26, 2016, from http://edition.cnn.com/2014/12/22/us/marshmallow-test/

International Baccalaureate Organization. (2015). MYP: From principles into practice. Geneva: Author.

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. (2014). Sci Am Scientific American, 311(3), 92-92. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0914-92c

Wittman, M., & Butler, E. (2016). Felt time: The Psychology of How we Perceive Time (MIT Press) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Photo credit: Eastman Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons




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 http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html 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.


Why we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation)

This blog post might end up with a nice title like “Why Collaboration is Key.” But really, it is about why as educators, we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation).

Imagine that you are a student and that the information on this infographic represents a student’s experience in school.



Some students will be able to transfer from one subject area to another on their own. For instance, a grade 7 student might be able to connect setting and character in Language and literature and then connect these concepts to geography and how geography shapes the thinking and behavior of people.

What are the chances of most students being able to transfer understanding without guidance?

We need to collaborate

Collaboration, and guaranteed time spent doing it, is key to a coherent experience for our students. A study of an impoverished school linked knowledge to teacher and student learning and found that the connection between collaboration and reflection and learning was missing.

The study focused on uncovering how teachers attained knowledge necessary to improve learning in their classrooms and throughout the whole school. The study used semi-structured individual interviews, classroom observations, and follow-up interviews to form a picture of teacher and classroom learning. The purposive participant sample in the study was chosen based on teacher’s individual traits, experiences in the teaching career, and a reputation as an effective teacher. As the investigator gathered data, he examined the narratives for themes that emerged and coded them for analysis. What he found teaches us about how teacher knowledge and practice is influenced by available opportunities for collegial discourse.

Teachers participating in the study classified professional knowledge into four types. Practical knowledge, or knowing the ‘what’ of teaching came in the form of teaching strategies. Pedagogical knowledge, or knowing how to teach, formed the basis of how teachers planned and carried out instruction. Curriculum knowledge consisted of currency with a field of expertise such as subject content knowledge. A fourth type of knowledge was relational knowledge, which was social in nature and addressed, for instance, how to deal with student behavior.

The teachers interviewed in the study found that they experimented with creative ways of delivering content, but received no feedback and so fell back to lecture as the preferred lesson method. Often as they used the lecture method, teachers used questioning, but the questions were found to resemble a script. Teachers asked questions about content, and students quoted facts and descriptions from texts. There was also a reported lack of classroom management knowledge since the only pedagogy teachers used was content transmission. Students were observed to be apathetic, showing no love for learning, and they also lacked self-management, often showing up late to class and not submitting work.

The study also found that there were no structures for sharing knowledge in the school. Teachers were isolated because no common space was provided to congregate and talk about teaching and learning. There existed a negative attitude towards discussion; one teacher admitted that discussion feels like debating and that colleagues did not accept others who wanted to discuss teaching issues. The timetable provided no collaborative time, and there were no other structures in place that would provide opportunities for discourse about teaching and learning.

In interpreting the study, the researcher pointed out that part of practical knowledge is reflective, consisting of knowledge of a teacher’s own efficacy and agency in their professional identity.

Schools impoverished of collaboration are impoverished of learning.

Without collaborative structures in place, teachers cannot be expected to construct understanding of practical, pedagogical, curricular, and relational knowledge apart from what they learn on their own through other sources such as textbooks about teaching. In this impoverished situation, teacher knowledge resides in a bubble, isolated and static. Pedagogy stagnates in this context since it is uninformed and unformed by any other tensions that would result from shared dialog and discussion.

How teachers structure teaching and learning often reflects constructive understanding of these events. In other words, teacher discourse is a source of learning, which in turn shapes how teachers teach and how their students learn. What we learn from the above case study is that schools impoverished of collaboration tend to lose focus on learning. The implication is that student achievement suffers.

From a personal standpoint, teacher isolation impacts teacher growth. More often than not, teachers tend to use curriculum materials that work in their classrooms. If an activity works one time or more, teachers file this away in their repertoire and are more likely to use the activity again. Over years of experience, the piles of activities grow into binders of ‘tried and tested’ activities. As student needs shift, or contextual circumstances shift, the binder of activities may not address learning needs. Rather than a repertoire of engaging activities, the teacher may find that what worked in the past is no longer working to engage students. In this century, when factual and topical knowledge is literally at a student’s fingertips and readily available to Google searches, what worked in the past may no longer be engaging to students. The isolated teacher, although experienced, may need professional revitalization to address current student learning needs. If the school is full of isolated teachers experiencing a dearth of collaborative professional learning, how might professional revitalization occur?

Removing teachers from isolation and providing them with opportunities for collaboration and reflection is not just a way to sustain professional learning. It is also a way to build a culture around inspiring practice.

Providing teachers opportunities, time and space for discourse is a way of putting collaboration into the structure of a school. As teachers transfer knowledge and understanding across groups, several things may happen.

One result of collaboration is better alignment across the board. Because people talk about curriculum, there are more chances to examine how it aligns, for instance. As teachers talk about aligning the taught curriculum, the written curriculum might begin to reflect this coherence. There may even be discussions about assessment and how this needs to be coherent.

Marzano (2006) has pointed out that a “coherent, viable and guaranteed curriculum” (p. 15) is necessary to improve student achievement. Discussions between teachers, which center the development of teaching around student learning is a start to guarantee a viable learning pathway for each student in a school.

But again, we cannot leave this phenomenon to chance. Just because we institute new staff rooms doesn’t mean that teachers will automatically engage in professional discussions that will transform practice and improve coherence in a school. Like all systematic processes, we have to develop ways to sustain the discourse and make it purposeful, impactful work.

As we end another school year, we might reflect on these essential questions:

  • How will we guarantee a coherent experience for our students?
  • How might we use collaboration to guarantee that coherence?




Marzano, R. (2006). What works in schools; Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo credit: Red arrows radom by Konflikty.pl via Wikimedia Commons.


‘Thinking Things Anew’

The other day I had a badly-designed experience in a restaurant. The food came about 50 minutes after we ordered it, which was bad enough. But the real clunker was, they failed to serve the drinks, which was water for two and an orange fizz for the third. That we had to wait for 50 minutes for at least the water was unacceptable. Then when my friend complained after the food was served, the waiter said, “It’s your fault. We could not serve until your soup was ready.”


What I took away aside from the decision never to go back to that restaurant again was that a badly-designed experience could be made better by ‘thinking things anew(Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 40).

Two things stand out. First is that an experience can be designed. Second is that fresh thinking about the design can improve experience.

When we think about the experiences students have as they go through school, it’s a worthy inquiry to explore how we might better design experiences and put some fresh thinking into what we do, how we do, and why we do what we do in the ways we do.

The big question is, How do we design school holistically?

Wiggins and McTighe suggest some facets for designing the experience of school (2007, p. 41):

  • “ The goal of curriculum is not to take a tour of the content but to learn to use and investigate the content, right from the start. Curriculum is thus inseparable from the design of valid, recurring performance tasks.

  • “If autonomous transfer and meaning making is the goal, then the curriculum must be designed from the start to give students practice in autonomous transfer and meaning making, and make clear via assessments that this is the goal

  • “An academic curriculum must be more like the curriculum in law, design, medicine, music, athletics and early literacy: focused from the start on masterful performance as the goal.”

The first implication is the centrality of the assessments we use to frame the experience. If assessments are the experiences of success for students, what considerations might we take in designing experiences students will have so they are able to use content, investigate content, rehearse knowledge, skills and understanding, until tasked with a performance of these in the assessment? And how do we align the plans and instruction to the assessments?

The second implication is that transfer and meaning making or understanding must be rehearsed deliberately. This means that the formative experiences we give our students must be intentionally crafted. Understanding is not gained by chance but by purposeful behaviors toward the goals of transfer and meaning making.

The authors also provide a set of learning principles, a few of which are quoted below.

Engaged and sustained learning, a prerequisite of understanding, requires that learners constantly see the value of their work and feel a growing sense of efficacy when facing worthy challenges” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

This principle suggests that in planning learning experiences, we need to draw upon authentic connections to the students’ prior learning and to their lives and the world. Drawing upon these contexts helps the learning experiences to gain meaningful connections to the students’ own experiences and hastens the cementing of relationships between school and scholar and life.

An understanding is a learner realization about the power of an idea. Understandings cannot be given; they have to be engineered so that learners see for themselves the power of an idea for making sense of things” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

An inquiry makes sense with authentic connections, and part of the design is the anchoring of learning experiences to large, significant ideas, such as our common humanity, what constitutes a personally-relevant and responsible action as a response to what is being learned. These connections provide opportunities to link classroom experiences to the world, breaking the boundaries between real-life and school in ways wherein students can realize the power of ideas at work in their lives and the world.

The capacity to deeply understand depends greatly on the capacity to think things anew (and other related habits of mind), because any insight typically requires the refining of earlier ideas. Becoming willing and able to rethink requires a safe and supportive environment for questioning assumptions and habits (of mind)” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

The above principle is loaded with program implications.

First, the design of learning must provide experiences wherein students must draw upon habits of mind, those attitudes and approaches to learning, which must be rehearsed while rethinking ideas afresh.

Second, how a school or classroom provides a ‘safe and supporting environment’ asks of schools to design its culture – for example, how is risk-taking and failure viewed in the school? What are the attitudes toward failure? How does a school honor its students’ interests, strengths, prior learning? These are but a few considerations when we think of how safe and supportive a school might be.

Third, how students learn how to construct and use questions is a key part of design.

Fourth, how students are explicitly taught to use a repertoire of learning approaches is important in creating a culture of confident inquirers who feel safe to take intellectual risks and pursue personally- significant inquiries.

Some design considerations

To sum up the ideas above, we find that the design of learning experiences needs to consider:

  • How assessment aligns with instruction and instructional intentions.
  • How learning engagements provide authentic contexts for learning.
  • How students gain meaning from their learning experiences.
  • How to create learning experiences so that students arrive at large, powerful ideas (such as concepts and statements of inquiry).
  • How learning experiences are designed to draw out dispositions and approaches to learning and how these become visible to students in those experiences.
  • How to design a safe and supportive learning environment.
  • How to honor prior learning, interests, strengths of students.
  • How students learn how to use questions to pursue their own learning.
  • How to explicitly teach approaches to learning and build a confident self-directed learner.

If we take the patterns within these considerations, we find that these correspond to principles we must turn into practice so that our students experience a coherent, relevant, and challenging program in which each one grows and achieves.

We find that the systems of curriculum and instruction link to systems for assessment. We discover that social emotional learning is built in to the structures that support academic goals. We might also realize that collaboration and reflection are keys to this holistic implementation of a well-designed learning experience.

Making connections between systems

In their book about Coca ColaDesign to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility” (2015, p. 27), Butler and Tischler write, “Problems don’t exist in isolation. You can’t solve one without affecting another. This is where design creates value that’s hard to see or quantify, in that, by connecting things more smoothly, the entire experience improves.”

Essential takeaways seem to be that design is about making connections and that effective design makes for a coherent and meaningful experience.

From this we arrive at some essential questions in our program design. A few might be:

  • What connections can we make explicit between how we plan, how we learn and teach, and how we assess?
  • What connections can we make explicit between the soft skills and the academic ones?
  • What connections can we create between the resources in our environment and the perceptions of safety and support?
  • What connections can we facilitate between the students’ lives, the world and the classroom inquiries?

The fresh thinking that we need as we design learning experiences is mirrored by the fresh thinking we would like our students to do as they experience these.

What connections are you making between your learning and your students’? How might both these experiences gain meaning and transfer?

Just as a restaurant must make connections to make the dining experience a pleasant one, we are tasked with making connections between systems in our schools to make the experience one that our students will savor.



Butler, D. and Tischler, L. Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola learned to combine scale and agility; (And how you can too). USA: Penguin.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by Design; Mission, action and achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


The Learner in Charge

Learning is scalable.

The fractal of how we learn transfers into smaller versions of the full design—such as the specific process of learning how to write from personal significance, with a personalized process, seeking our own audiences and feedback to get better at writing. These patterns also transfer into larger-scale systems predicated on assumptions that people have the capacity for self-directedness. Approaches to learning, for example, could be a system-wide approach to using metacognitive strategies.

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because learning is scalable, we can infer patterns in the larger expression of a fractal, say a culture of self-directedness, from the iterations of behavior in smaller sections of the fractal, like individual self-directedness. In other words, individuals together behaving in certain ways make up the concerted behavior of a whole community.

So how do we enact a culture of self-directed learning?

We might begin with what’s happening with the individual learner.

In their collaborative work The Art and Science of Portraiture, Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis (1997) engage in a dialog on the value of a self-portrait as a form of learning process and product.

They suggest that the creation of a self-portrait “is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections.” If we ask ‘what is good?’ we are “likely to absorb a very different reality than one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The generosity of this developmental self-portrait hinges, it seems, upon the assumptions that people want to seek what is good and start this inquiry from a stance of positive intentions and aspirations. Considering assumptions about self-development consider that “Not only do portraits seek to capture the origins and expression of goodness, they are also concerned with documenting how the subjects or actors in the setting define goodness” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The process might be more concrete if we thought about the self-portrait as a portfolio.

In developing a documentation of learning and achievement, which is the basis for a portfolio, the learner becomes participant in this inquiry and dialog on What is good, how do we find it, and what expressions might be exemplars of this search and its discoveries?

The portfolio becomes an ever-transforming map of growth. As the learner curates his or her own documentation of growth, the reflective nature of constructing this self-portrait facilitates and sustains the inquiry. This is a pattern of the self-directness that we consider a significant cornerstone of transformational learning.

How does this individual pattern influence the larger patterns in the places where we facilitate learning?

Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) suggest that the self-portrait is a conversation. In this sense they are also “acts of intervention” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11) in that within the process of creating self-portraits we engage others in conversations about what is good; we engage in acts of transformation; we provoke thinking and reflection. “This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality and encounter” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

In her book The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983) suggests that the actors within a school context “create conversations and find shared meanings, the significance of the voice of teachers, and the crucial importance of local context as well as the commitment of a scholar to truth and solidarity” (in Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

The conversations about what is good propels our inquiries into constructions of criteria for best practice within the contexts of our schools. In these co-constructions; we seek our mentors and teachers in our peers and in our networks; and we revisit again and again a common ownership of learning.

We influence the story of our school’s focus on learning.

From conversations and patterns of self-directedness emerges a narrative. The resulting narrative tells the story of the landscape of transformation for the individual as well as the group. Together, our portraits of growth collectively “document the human behavior and experience in context.” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

So it may follow that culture is influenced by individuals creating portraits of best practice.

In the conversation between practitioners, we find a similar idea to Eudora Welty’s distinction between the storyteller and the one who listens to a story. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997, p. 12) suggest that “The latter is a much more active, engaged position in which one searches for the story, seeks it out, is central to its creation.”

In this inductive inquiry, we may recognize the “persistent irony” that “as one moves closer to the unique characteristic of a person or a place, one discovers the universal” (Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, 1997, p. 14).

Discoveries of the universal within the personal suggest that learning is scalable. Individuals in self-directedness make up the human landscape of a self-directed organization. By putting the learner in charge of his or her learning, we cultivate resonance within our selves and our organizations.



Lawrence-Lightfoot S. & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture. NY: Basic Books.

Photo By Becks – Windvane, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25740347

Photo Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.