Change the practice by changing the words!

George Couros is a thought provoking educator whose blog is a daily read for me. His post of today titled, “5 Terms We Need To Rethink In Education” has inspired me to write (which is one of the main reasons I read blogs!).

In his post, George asks us to rethink the terms we use in education, to unpack the perception of their meaning and the possibility of what they SHOULD mean. I agree completely, and write to extend the thinking.

My proposition is that our educational reality is strongly shaped by the words we choose to use. Let me illustrate.

A few years ago I was tasked with leading a K-12 school, which had not previously considered itself a “K-12” school. It had always had a Kindergarten program, elementary grade levels, middle school classes and a high school. It was lead by a Director, an Elementary Principal and a Secondary Principal. But they had been “Divisional” principals. The culture had never been K-12.

So upon my arrival, with the leadership structure changing to include a K-12 Principal, I changed the words.


We began to use the word “sub-school” instead of “division”. There was no longer an elementary division, or a middle school division or a high school division. We deliberately chose words to reinforce the thinking required to build a K-12 culture. We referred to the elementary sub-school, the middle school subschool, and the high school sub-school. A little bit wordy, but important. Now in year three of making that seemingly simple change, we are almost at the point where the word “division” is no longer used. Almost!

We also discussed the idea of banning the word “homework”! Not banning the activity of homework, but banning the word “homework” to describe the activity of doing school work at home. Instead, I was suggesting the terms “preview” and “review” be used. The ensuing discussion was one of the most animated, charged, emotional, informative, full-participation discussions I have ever experienced in a faculty meeting! Just to change a word!!!

A school-wide blanket ban of the word “homework” was a bridge too far for the present faculty, but a number of faculty members DID rename their school-work-at-home and reflected that it did result in some changes in their practice.

As George prompts us to reimagine or rethink what the words we use in education mean, I am prompting you to be very critical when choosing which ones you will use. Words are very powerful influencers of practice.

What practices in your school or classroom can you change by changing the words you use to describe them?



Your lightbulb in your classroom?

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow. – C. William Pollard


There is a danger that when we think of innovation we imagine devices that can turn salt water into drinking water, or self-driving cars, or mouldy bread that can charge a phone battery (yes, it does exist!). While these do fit the definition of innovation, to most of us, these types of new ideas are well beyond our scope. Innovation, as portrayed by the media, is usually big and life changing and sensational.
But innovation can be something you do every day!
When you consider that innovation is defined as “a new method, idea, product, etc”, then your own scope for innovation suddenly widens. And innovation can be a personal thing! What is innovative for you doesn’t need to be innovative for someone else. If what you are doing is new for you – a new method, a new approach, a new idea – then you are being innovative.

So, as you consider your teaching today, what are you doing today that you have not done before? Where are those moments where you are challenging yourself with a new teaching idea, or a new assessment practice or a new approach to planning. If you have always taught a certain book or a certain unit a certain way, or have always taught from a content perspective, or have always set a final exam, how can you innovate? Can you take the big ideas of the book and allow students to choose their own books that address those ideas? Can you reconsider the content from a conceptual standpoint and teach from that new angle? Can you develop a rubric that covers all the elements of the final exam and give students the opportunity to choose how to demonstrate those understandings via a project?

Innovation carries with it a certain amount of risk. Will the conceptual unit be as good as the usual content approach? How will I assess students if they are all reading different books? Will a final project be as rigorous as a final exam?
Risk taking in teaching is critical. Not everything is going to be fantastic first time around. It won’t be the end of the world. You will be able to try again.
So today, how will you innovate in your classroom? How will you innovate in your teaching? How will you allow your students to innovate?


Be the paintbrush!

At a recent staff meeting we discussed the departure of a staff member. The departure was unexpected and unexplained, and understandably, there was a low rumble around the various offices and staff rooms of the school. The weekly staff meeting failed to raise the topic until one of the more concerned staff members brought it up. “Can you elaborate on the departure of this person?” For once, the room was all ears. All laptop tinkering ceased and the audience was captive.

After the meeting I had the good fortune to chat with a good colleague who shared the concerns of the question raiser. He was looking for some feedback on what I saw in the meeting. “Could I see the anger in the room?” or something like that.

Rewind 24 hours.

Golf is an interesting game. Most of the time you spend playing golf you don’t actually play golf. You walk. You talk. You reflect. You analyse. You plan. And then you play golf. For about 30 seconds as you stand over the ball and try to condense all that reflection and analysis and planning. Inhale. Exhale. Focus. Swing. Strike. Watch. And then you stop playing golf. You walk and talk and reflect and so on until the next 30 seconds. And it was last night, as I was walking and reflecting that I was presented with the opportunity to reflect on the general tone of conversations happening in and around my office and in the school in general. From some quarters the tone is dark. From others the tone is golden. In between are the rest of the shades, and it was on this continuum that I attempted to plot myself. What shade is my tone. And then the next 30 seconds of golf interrupted my musings. I’m wasn’t sure I reached a conclusion until my colleague asked me about the anger in the room.

My response was, “You see what you look for.”

I shared that if I was looking for the angry people in the room they would have been plainly visible. If I had been looking for the happy people I would have seen them just as clearly. Darkness is just as easy to see as light if you are looking for it.

So as I revisit the “What tone are my conversations?” question I have decided my conversations are a paintbrush and I have the power to choose whatever colour I want to paint with.


Hockey, Principalships and Space

Below is a recent picture of my first foray into the world of ice hockey as a player.

Growing up in the land of sunshine, beaches and big patches of green grass, my formative years involved a lot of water sports, running around chasing an assortment of different shaped footballs and hitting smaller balls with different shaped lumps of timber or stringed things. So now, at the age of 42, I can give you a good run for your money with any of those types of sports. I’ll take a game or two off you, score a couple of goals, land a try, hit a six, kick a point, sink a long 3 or drop into a nice curling right hander. Hitting a small solid rubber thingy with a long flat stick whilst sliding on ice on two thin blades is ANOTHER THING ENTIRELY!

The process of me diving into this “other thing entirely” has been a most interesting

It all began with some encouragement. “C’mon Knox. Join us for some ice hockey. It’s not that hard. You’ll love it!” and it continued with some more encouragement. “C’mon Knox. You’re an athlete. You’ll be a natural! You’ll love it!” Then it dropped a notch and continued with challenges. “C’mon Knox. If Smith can get out there, so can you!”, before devolving in to common school-boy taunts. “C’mon Knox. You’re being a pussy! If you think you’re a man, get out there and play!”

I rode the taunts and challenges and found myself watching a bit more hockey on TV. Following the puck was the first challenge. Where the hell was that bloody thing? Then, as I began to see the puck, I began to see the positions and began to ask questions about the rules, the plays, the coaching and the refereeing. I was beginning to understand how the game worked, from a spectator level. At that point I began to consider having a go at it.

While my formative years in Australia saw my sporting focus elsewhere, I had been roller-skating (during junior high at Skateland on a Friday night) and on the ice on a handfull of occasions. Not really enough to answer in the affirmative when my taunting colleagues asked if I could skate, but just enough to know that if I did get out there, I would not be completely useless.

So I borrowed all the required equipment (which is considerable), joined my now-relentlessly-taunting colleagues and headed off to “IceLand” to play in my first game of Ice Hockey. And then the reduction began. My first question was, “How do I get dressed?” My next question was, “How do I stop?”. Then it was, “How do I turn?”. The one I worked out for myself pretty quickly was, “How do I get up?”. I had a lot of practice at that! While I was correct in presuming I would not be completely useless, I was not completely (or even partially) useFUL either. By the time I was heading in the direction of the puck, the puck was already heading back in the direction it had originally come from, with three of my taunting colleagues dangling or dribbling or whatever they call it with I’ve-done-this-since-I-was-three aplomb. On the few occasions that my random orbit was interrupted by the trajectory of the puck, some very interesting scenarios transpired.

Scenario 1: My still-taunting-colleague slammed me like the noob I was, relieved me of the puck with shaming simplicity and sped off like Mr Ovetchkin to perform an even more heroic ice hockey manouvre.

Scenario 2: My still-taunting-colleague slowed his/her motion, counted to three to see if my interaction with the puck was going to result in anything magical… and then slammed me like the noob I was (because there was no magic!)

Scenario 3: My still-taunting colleague slowed his/her motion, counted to ten to see if I could summon some magic, hoping that I might (by some stroke of random happenstance) do something useful with the puck.

This continued for a good hour, by which time I had thoroughly experienced the game from the player level.

The theory had been put into practice and I had been completely reduced to the point where I understood, better than ever, how much more I had to learn. I was bruised, wet, sweaty, sore and smelled awful… and loved every minute of it!

As I continued to reflect on the whole first hockey (not “Ice” hockey! There is “Hockey” and there is “Field Hockey”. There is NOT “Ice Hockey” and “Hockey”!) experience, it occurred to me that my move into my first principal role is going to be strikingly similar.

There will be elements of being a principal that I will presume I will be useful at. There will be moments when I will not know what to do. There will be moments when I will need someone to pick me up. There will be staff members just waiting for a chance to jump in, while others will give me a starting chance. And there will be some who will just sit back and watch.

With some form of humility I will contend that I will be stepping out onto the ice that is being a principal with a lot more training and experience than onto the ice of a hockey game. I will also contend that my understanding of the “rules” and the “plays” of an elementary school is somewhat more sophistocated than those of hockey, where dropping the gloves is the equivalent to having a difficult conversation!

But consistent throughout both experiences is the space in which all of this happens.

The space where I am standing in different shoes, looking back at the comfort zone I have left behind, being stretched in ways in which both my body and my mind have not been stretched before, learning things about who I am and what I can accomplish.

And in all that I do, that is where I want to be standing.



Looking beyond your fence

It is interesting that I am finally getting back to the blog after more than a year, in that I am now enjoying my Summer holiday in Australia (where it is actually Winter), and I have a some time to sit and ponder. It seems I need to build some pondering time into my regular schedule when this break concludes.

But on to the ponder of the moment…

It is very easy to sit within the boundaries of the world that you inhabit and lament your lamentable bits and pieces, regret your regrettable bits and moan about all those things that need moaning about. It is only when you find yourself in the company of someone who lives in a different world and listen to their laments, moans and regrets that you can begin to get some perspective. But it is dangerous to visualise those significantly different worlds as Australia and Somalia, or Saudi Arabia and Canada, or Laos and Minnessota and presume that this is what I am referring to.

I am not referring to these dramatically different worlds when I talk about gaining important perspectives.

Think more about the world that you inhabit – your family, your job, your house, your community – and compare it to the world that your brother or sister inhabits, the world that your colleague inhabits, or the world of your next door neighbour. This is where the interesting perspective exists.

And the perspective is interesting because it enables you to compare your laments and moans with the laments and moans of someone else, who, from the casual observer, is to all intents and purposes, someone just like you.

But they are not. Or maybe they are. And maybe your laments and moans are the same. Or maybe they're not.

I'm not now going to say that your laments and moans are not important. I don't accept the point of view that goes something like, “Stop your whinging! You've got nothing to worry about compared to those starving children in Africa.” We all have something to worry about. Admittedly, nothing that I have to worry about compares to the worry that a father of a starving child would have, but mine are still worries none-the-less.

When I am invited in to the world of others, and get a hint of their perspective, that perspective helps me regulate how much I worry about things, how much I moan and groan to others about things and what I do to make things better.

And it was recently that I had that opportunity to see things from the perspective of someone else just like me. And then they were not just like me. And then they were.

And now, as I think about my laments and moans and regrets there is a new ingredient in the mix that is influencing my thoughts, what I might do, what decisions I might make. Some decisions I make may be different. Some may be the same.

Whatever happens, having spent some time looking beyond my back fence has reminded me that while the grass is green, how green it is is a matter of perspective.



25 years in the blink of an eye

I recently had the great privilege of meeting up with a friend with whom I shared the travails of high school – 25 years ago! We had not seen each other since the last day of high school. We had not, until very recently, communicated with each other since that day, so rolling in to her driveway on a wintery July morning was a slightly daunting experience.

What do you say when someone asks you, “What have you been up to?” and they are referring to 25 years of being “up to” stuff? Where do you start? And more importantly, when do you finish?

Over the course of a few hours, a few glasses of wine and a lovely riverside picnic, we talked about careers, study, relationships, children, travel and the various doings of other high school friends, all the while marveling at how time flies and how steadfast some things truly are.

Due to our careers taking us in very different directions and living on different continents we may not see each other again for a while, but if we were able to step right back in to being friends after 25 years, then I don’t think that is going to be a problem.



Some interesting fruit!

This morning I had the opportunity to work with secondary teachers of my school in a session about professional learning, blogs and Twitter. I don’t know if my sentiments or feelings were shared by all in the group, but I left the session feeling quite invigorated. We spend so much of our time focusing on student learning and doing the best we can to make sure that our students succeed, that we often neglect our own learning.

Having recently moved over to Google apps across the school, I spent the session leading teachers through Google Reader and subscribing to RSS feeds from blogs. Scott McCleod’s Castle organisation has a fantastic page of links to teacher blogs and we used this as a diving in point for blogs related specifically to classroom practice and curriculum.

On a survey of the staff, I was interested to see that only a handful of the 60 teachers maintained their own blog and nobody used twitter.

I’m looking forward to continuing to bring these tools to the attention of the teachers at my school and expect to see some interesting fruit.

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