Thursday, December 13, 2012

Initial conversations

A good friend is moving to a substantially new role in the coming year. His background is mainly in PR (he is terrific with people) and he is about to become the CEO of a service organisation. His PR capabilities will be invaluable but how will he start to bring things together -  the organisation is in need of some updating and he will need to make sense of the situation asap.

 My recommendation is to start a conversation with staff  that will be ongoing. It could be based on a simple but valid job description
  1. Know what is happening
  2. Work with others to improve what is happening
  3. Make it easier for the next person to do well
Using this framework, my friend will begin with information 1:1 conversations along the lines of
  • How clear are you about what is happening? (And how can we improve that?)
  • How do you work with others to improve what is happening? (Examples? And how can we extend that?)
  • How do/could others make it easier for you to do really well?
  • How do/could you make it easier for others to do really well?
Effective systems as well as individual and team performance rely on the 3 key elements of the job description (above). Improved systems can then emerge easily, naturally and quite quickly from such conversations because they are about real-life actions and solutions. Used continuously they also form a sound basis for integrating continuous improvement into the culture of the organisation.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Social Contract

What is the glue that holds all our individual and collective actions especially given the uncertainty of the next person's possible responses in the present context?

Perhaps we proceed on the basis of a social contract to which we believe that we and those with whom we interact are both parties.

Restorative practices restore and strengthen the "social contracts" that underpin our interactions.
Problems arise and harm is done when these social contracts are broken intentionally or inadvertently.

However most social contracts are unconscious - they are just assumed and "understood".
The long term power of restorative practices in general, and circles in particular, is that they can strengthen our social contracts by making them more explicit.

This can also make the wider implications of our actions much clearer before we make our next serious mistakes."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Reviewing progress

The world has the idea that if we measure (and report) outcomes all else will follow. One of the flaws in this approach is that it ignores the everyday reality of those charged with achieving the said outcomes. But what is the alternative?

The following is based on a review process that we used almost universally at Riverside Primary School, albeit, at the end of last century. However this significantly post-dates much of the current thinking which tends to be a form of Management By Objectives (circa 1950).

Three simple questions
The proposed alternative it is a form of action learning based around three simple but insightful questions:
  • What's working? 
  • What's not? 
  • What else (might be possible, desirable, feasible, worth a try...)?

Not only is it quick, simple and meaningful, it leads to positive action. It is more likely to lead improvements than counter measures. It is naturally solution focused, rather than problem focused.

And it builds up the social contract around core purposes - the social contract is strengthened when people are consulted, heard, and responded to, and their contributions recognised.

This approach can be used individually and in groups (especially circles) for virtually any purpose.

And (used consistently) it results in continuous improvement (plan-do-study-act) and not simply episodic attempt to fix things. When it becomes part of the culture ("how we do things around here") people continually monitor how things are going gaining insights from their everyday experience./

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rethinking education - some common traps

This morning I came across this
Three essential questions
In discussing our response to new possibilities it can be really helpful to think about what questions we are answering. Clearly Will Richardson and many of the commentators have been answering the question
Q1. What is possible?
But in responding to what is possible we need to be able to answer two more questions:
Q2. What is desirable? And to whom?
Q3. What is feasible? And for whom, given their current constraints such as time, energy, existing policies, practices, expectations...?

So what is possible for some stakeholders (e.g., teachers) may or may not be perceived as desirable and/or feasible by other stakeholders (administrators, government, families...)

Common Traps
Clearly there are some potentially hidden difficulties here including
  • Answering any of the above questions in isolation from the other two questions
  • Being unrealistic - "There is a simple answer to every question and it is usually wrong"
  • being unfair - "Nothing is impossible to those who don't have to do it"
  • Underestimating the disruption involved in taking advantage of what has become possible by focusing exclusively on the future and not how to get there. As Deming would ask "By what method?"
  • ...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Being 'scientific' about schooling

Wouldn't it be great if we could be 'scientific' about schooling?!!

If only we could find the right thing to do, all would be well. We could treat all cases (students, teachers, schools, sessions...) as if they were all the same. This is a natural (but futile) ambition for anyone wanting certainty, predictability and the capacity to guarantee the outcomes of schooling.

It is obvious that every family, community, school, student, teacher.... is different. Also, cause and effect in teaching and learning are not consistent over person, place and time. Amazingly, this everyday experience flies in the face of so much of the current discourse around school improvement. We need to remember the Emperor's New Clothes!!

But does this mean we should give up trying to achieve improvements? Of course not, we all need to do better and better.

But firstly we do need to give up imposing flawed school improvement strategies including
  • confusing student achievement with school/teacher performance - students in the same class, with the same teacher and lessons, do not all achieve the same results
  • treating all schools, students, teachers... as if they were the same - they are simply not!!
  • identifying and transferring 'best practice' by policy - practices cannot be transferred, they have to be continually constructed and reconstructed
  • being 'scientific' - using evidence-based ('proven') methods - see above
  • firing 'silver bullets' - 'There ain't no one best way (Law of Tanobway)
  • any method based on 'hope for instant pudding' (Deming) - there is a simple solution to every problem and it is usually wrong!!
As well as not really working, such approaches can be disruptive and damaging to current arrangements, practices and relationships. They often result in serious unfairness. When an approach 'succeeds' certain people are rewarded for things they didn't achieve - the 'success' of the approach is substantially coincidental, a matter of luck and/or the result ongoing unofficial corrective efforts of those doing the work. When such approaches 'fail', the blame usually shifts to those doing the work (teachers and/or students). Sadly this often justifies the marginalisation or exclusion of those students not well served by the imposed arrangements (curriculum, pedagogies, sequencing...)

At the same time, under certain conditions and for certain purposes, it can be useful to treat many cases (Pareto's 80%?) 'as if' they were 'basically the same'. Well thought out and delivered programs, courses and timelines can be helpful to a significant proportion of students, but this does not justify imposing them on all students, everywhere and all the time. A significant number of cases (20%?) need to be treated differently and increasingly differently.

There are alternatives to being 'scientific' in this sense. The phenomena involved in schooling are not just complicated, they are complex. Therefore we need to consider improvement strategies derived from complexity theory, for example Nurturing emergence and Solutions Focus.

All schools need the requisite variety of responses in order to meet the needs of those they serve. It is worth noting that there are already mature school systems, such as BigPicture, that have moved beyond the dominant discourse of schooling as a linear activity that can be managed 'scientifically'. These schools have a coherent framework that enables them to make a wide range responses in the best current and future interests of their students.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The issue of predictability in education

On the Solutions Focus discussion list, one member (Hans-Peter Korn) recently posted the following recommendations
  • " with complexity in an iterative/adaptive way of work based on small solution-increments produced within short timeboxes..."
  • "...(most) systems should be seen as complex... Don't try to act on them based on the paradigm of predictability and don't apply huge and detailed analyses and long term planning!"
Schooling is a complex endeavour. Yet schools and school systems, world-wide, continue to make major changes of direction (goals, curriculum, ...) and processes (organisation, pedagogy, assessement, ...) based on the idea that they can predict the outcomes and all will be well, if only the staff follow the plans and policies involved.

In a sense, this approach is almost "fool-proof", at least for those initiating the changes
  • the plans and changes are usually based on successful ('best') practices elsewhere which 'proves' that the proposed changes do 'work'
  • if things do improve the initiators are proved right, and should be rewarded
  • if things don't improve then it must be because staff did not follow the plans and policies properly
It is usually easy to show that "staff did not follow the plans and policies properly" after the event. Making major changes, on a large scale is usually quite difficult and disruptive. It can be useful to keep Hofstadter's Law in mind:
  • "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."
Not only does it take longer, it also costs more!! And because of the rate of change expected, many major changes are disrupted by other subsequent major changes. For example, lack of expected success frequently prompts those in charge to introduce new major changes to fix what isn't succeeding, further disrupting the capacity of staff to achieve what is hoped for.

Hans-Peter is recommending strategies like Solutions Focus that achieve significant improvement while requiring minimal change.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Requisite variety

The law of requisite variety states that 
The larger the variety of actions available to a system, the larger the variety of perturbations (input variations) it is able to compensate more )
Although derived from cybernetics the underlying principle can be useful in considering a wide range of situations, including the schools:

The challenge

Schools as 'systems' must be able to compensate for perturbations in terms of the actions and responses of students, staff, families, the community, the school system and society.

There are two ways to increase the effectiveness of a school:
  • A school may increase the range of its possible responses that enable it to deal with the range of actual inputs from those involved, especially the student. Example: it may extend the curriculum and/or extra curricula activities and/or customise provision and support for individual students (BigPicture...)
  • A school may reduce the range of inputs. Examples; it may be selective, exclude some students and/or it may address common issues in order to prevent their recurrence (SWPBS, Broken Windows...)
These initiatives are not linear since the inputs from those involved are partly in response to the experiences, prompts and options provided by the school. 
Perhaps this explains why training is generally so much more straight forward than  education. Training usually involves 
  • a specific context (to which the training applies) leading to
  • well defined learning tasks (often related to specific competencies)
  • anticipated starting points (people seeking training are likely to have certain characteristics as a result of being ready for this particular training – readiness being more or less established in the entry process
  • anticipated previous experience (on which to draw)
All of this contributes to reducing variation in user inputs, that is, fewer perturbations to which the school must be able to respond.

In contrast, education is much more problematic in terms of the inputs arising from the learner’s context, needs and goals and the learning tasks that are likely to meet those needs and goals

From the perspective of the school perturbations reflect the mismatch between 
  • the assumptions that underpin the design and functionality of the school  and 
  • the user’s needs and/or the user’s attempts to meet those needs through engaging in the school
An ideal school would be able to
  • gauge the students needs, interests, hopes…
  • identify suitable tasks in order to address these matters
  • gauge the student’s zone of proximal development in relation to each task
  • place the next steps within the zone
  • mediate the student’s learning, that is, engage with the student in a way that helps them to 
    • reflect on how they responded to the inputs received, 
    • reflect on what thinking they used to develop a response to the input
    • prepare a response appropriate to the input received and the situation into which the response is to be made
    • reflect on how they presented their response to the inputs received
    •  monitor the effectiveness of all these steps and draw conclusions for future use 
  • respond to the student’s progress in relation to all of the above
Teachers with the requisite variety
Great teachers appear to take a sociological perspective with respect to  learning, rather than seeing learning as an almost clinical or linear  process. These teachers achieve the requisite variety by placing the learning within the life of the student, they are flexible and dynamic in making responses around purposes, meaning, provision of support, actual tasks, working arrangements, access to facilities and resources. And they need to be supported by a school system that adopts a similar perspective.
The Law of Requisite Variety prompts us to take a total system view and to understand the way in which control within a system moves from element to element on a moment by moment basis. The implications are that, while simple models can be useful for the purposes of design, the underlying assumptions should not be so simplistic that the practices and arrangements developed on the basis the simple models fail when placed in real situations. They must have the requisite variety in their range of responses to deal with the 'perturbations' encountered when situated in the lived experience and everyday activity of those for whom the arrangements and devices are developed.

[The original version of this article was written for the COLAT research project, UTAS 2002-2006]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Comparing systems - mainstream & BigPicture education

For some time I have been a peripheral member of a research project being undertaken by BigPicture Education Australia. So how does BigPicture compare with a lot of mainstream schooling?

In mainstream schools, students are largely organised by the system which determines curricula, timetables, assessments and to a certain extent teachers as managers... and for many capable students this can work well. Minimal responsibility for students, economies of scale, a sense of order...

Mainstream schooling tends to…
  • assume a linear “production” system approach: input -> process -> output, and so,
  • provide blue-prints* for educating students based on the assumption which implies a concept of education as "processing"
  • result in schools being be managed as production systems - the rules are specified at each step, increasing lock down, reducing flexibility, production is measured
  • associate quality with uniformity
  • has limited capacity to accommodate special causes of variation
  • make minimal demands on students in terms of engagement (other cooperation)
Perhaps, most significantly, students are rarely, if ever, involved in the development and/or evaluation of the system. Their contributions are minimal which leads to a low sense of belonging for many students.

[*Note: the well-intentioned blue-prints also tend to be fragmented and most systems have only low levels of overall coherence, especially from the perspective of many students. The result is often something akin to an Escher architectural image]

In BigPicture, students and teachers are largely self-organising within the context of the Distinguishers

BigPicture tends to...

  • provide a flexible, modified supportive, coherent environment
  • promote and supports learning by the students, one student at a time
  • accept that purposes and activities emerge from the interactions in which the student is involved, that is, the members of the system interactions are largely self organising within the environment provided
  • provide a few simple rules: Students learning, "one at a time in a community of learners" that underpin this self-organisation
  • associate quality with consistency
In summary, the difference lies in the assumptions made about about the systems involved
  • Mainstream assumes a linear "production" system (centrally managed, aiming for uniformity...)
  • BigPicture assumes complex adaptive system (emergent, self organising, co-evolving, aiming for consistency rather than uniformity...
More soon...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why Statements of Duty don't really work

In order to achieve significant improvements in Tasmanian education, the Department of Education is in the process of rolling out new(?) Statements of Duty (SoDs) for its Principals. And the adherence to the SoDs will be overseen by newly appointed Network Leaders.

Sounds great!! But will it work? Statements of Duty are not exactly a recent invention. And when and where have they worked before? After almost 50 years in education I am personally hard pressed to recall any successful use of this approach.

There are some potential conflicts in this process
  • Improvements are achieved in context and contexts vary from place to place and moment to moment. Will the SoDs cover all possible contexts? From their initial responses, some Principals seem to have doubts.
  • Network Leaders are given the role associated with their position. But leadership is fundamentally a dynamic  aspect of (working) relationships. It is  rarely (if ever) one-sided within healthy productive relationships. No doubt some Network Leaders will understand this and act accordingly. Others may not. 
  • But perhaps the greatest potential conflict will be within the Principals who are subject to the SoDs. To be successful,  Principals need to ensure that the schools have a strong sense of life (energy and capacity) and purpose (important things to achieve). But will the "waters of life" for the school and its people be found in the SoDs?
By some accounts Carl Jung’s favourite story went something like this.

“A tribe sent seekers out into the desert searching for the Water of Life.  The Water showed itself in the world by bubbling forth from an artesian well. After a long journey the seekers came upon the well and drank from its invigorating waters. They felt life surge through them and were truly satisfied.

They sent for the tribe, which soon arrived. There were many people gathered around the spring, so a wall was built to protect the purity of its crystal water. As the people arrived shops and buildings sprang up. Roads were built. Eventually to organise access and pay for the necessary administrative costs a charge was made for drinking from the vitalising waters. Still the people came.

And then one day the people woke up and the Water of Life had gone. Water still flowed, but it was not the Water of Life.  People drank, but in time realised their loss. 

The people sent seekers out and the cycle began again.”

Sound familiar? Is there an alternative? One proven approach is to reach agreement that the everyone's "SoD" is to
  • Know what is happening,
  • Work with others to improve what is happening, 
  • Make it easier for the next person (and all of us) to do well

Friday, March 23, 2012

High challenge - high support for all

Helping staff move towards a more high challenge / high support (HC/HS) mode of working with students is fundamental to school improvement leading to success and well-Being for all.
Many staff experience this as an "either/or" dilemma because they see
  • (a) high challenge as working ON
  • (b) high support as working FOR
The resolution is to understand HC/HS as working WITH students. This means working with students on the basis of relationships (respectfully collaborating, sharing responsibility, values, purposes...) more than roles.But for some staff this seems to undermine their "role" (another either/or dilemma)
The resolution is to understand that
  • working on the basis of relationships is usually more productive and is therefore the preferred mode, but
  • when relationships are not productive, then the work continues on the basis of roles, at least in the interim
Staff development tends to focus on acquiring new pedagogical strategies and  needs to be undertaken using a HC/HS approach. That is, to resolve the above dilemmas,  staff need practical alternatives that are supported and endorsed by the school (and community) including:
  • curriculum developments that include SEL 
  • understanding the difference between change and improvement
  • solution focus
  • matching leadership, e.g., restorative leadership (an interesting recent development!!)
  • associated organisational developments, including the
  • development of some "universal" ways of doing things and solving problems
 At Riverside we developed some 'universals' that served us well, including