Friday, November 29, 2013

Responding to problems

Things go wrong from time to time. People sometimes 'do the wrong thing' - sometimes by choice, other times by error or accident. In every case there can be value in making multilevel responses to the problem at hand.

1. Contain the problem to minimise further harm. 
2. Repair the situation (working with the parties involved if possible)
3. Learn how the problem occurred (focus on process before people)
4. Prevent (or reduce the likelihood of) the problem recurring

There is a tendency to blame the person who 'caused the problem' and/or to change the system.  Improve the system/process only if necessary. Often nothing needs to be changed. Blame is usually unproductive -  the person who 'caused the problem' often simply lacked some key insight, understanding, knowledge or skill. Work with them to bring them up to speed.

And, try to avoid the use of counter-measures such a increased control and supervision, extra requirements, needing permission, new restrictions... Counter measures are often costly to implement and difficult to maintain. 

Restorative practices are a good example of a multilevel response when someone has 'done the wrong thing'.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The school system - enabler or driver?

For more than a decade Tasmanian public education has been in a state of continuous structural and policy change. Given the disappointing outcomes this is likely to continue. Well intentioned  initiatives have been largely top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches that ultimately require the compliance of staff at all levels. That is, governments and senior officers have attempted to drive improvements from on high by providing schools and staff with the answers while failing to properly understand the questions - classic MBO (management by objectives, circa 1960s).

To be fair, most initiatives have been rational, "best practice" and/or "evidence based" meaning that the initiatives appear reasonable and have been successful elsewhere. However, initiatives have to occur in a context and each situation (student, teacher, school, family, community...) involves a different context: each with its own history, needs, hopes, culture, resources...

In engineering, "best practices" are readily transferable - cause and effect are consistent over place and time and the outcomes are predictable The same cannot be said for human endeavours such as education. Education is a complex endeavour, not subject to consistent natural laws. In complex systems similar initiatives can have very different outcomes in different places - like the weather, starting conditions (the initial context) make can a huge difference.

Schools, classes, education departments... are all complex (adaptive) systems. They are not factories that can be controlled in a mechanical way - the processes involved are not based on natural laws.  They are not changed by flicking switches and turning dials. Rather they are the sum total of the everyday interactions of their various parts  (the people, policies, rules, working relationships, resources, opportunities... and the context).  What happens emerges over time from the all interactions of the parts of the system.

Key questions
What is the purpose of our systems?  
 - We create systems in order to achieve what is desirable.

What are the underlying mechanisms involved?
- In context, the people involved continually construct (and reconstruct) their knowledge, (inter)actions, arrangements and relationships in ways that will (ideally) help them achieve of what is desirable.

What design principles might apply? 
At all levels, systems should enable the achievement of their purposes easily and well.
Systems should also incorporate their own ongoing improvement strategies.
Due diligence should be undertaken before implementing a major proposal

The implications are that top-down initiatives need to be complemented by matching responses throughout the system. To be successful initiatives need to be coherent and useful. All this sounds a bit cumbersome, so why not allow people at the top make the decisions to drive the achievement of what is desirable?

When systems try to drive detailed change they often end up requiring compliance and this is usually counter-productive and difficult to sustain. When  system requirements conflict with the immediate needs of students, schools and staff often face a dilemma. Such dilemmas are best understood as  opportunities for learning and for system improvement. If such a dilemma is resolved by requiring compliance there will be more losers than winners, especially in the longer term.

The alternative is for the system to focus on providing enablers (purposes, principles, tools...) that will nurture the emergence of what is desirable. People want to do well and to contribute - schools and their staff care about the success and well-being of their students. The system needs to be judged by the extent to which it enables all to achieve success and well-being now and it the future.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Evaluating proposals - some useful questions

All proposals are naturally about achieving a better future and are usually presented as "good ideas". Business regularly does due diligence before undertaking major projects. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for education. Before proceeding with any significant initiative it could be worth considering following

Sample Questions
  1. What differences will we notice if this proposal is successful?
  2. What small scale evidence supports the proposal?
  3. What is necessary for the proposal to succeed?
  4. What is sufficient for the proposal to succeed?
  5. How does the proposal integrate with our key purposes, processes, the present culture, and other historical, current and future initiatives?
  6. Where is it already happening?
  7. What will be the costs of any failure?
  8. Will it be safe to fail
  9. What responses will be made to those situations where the proposal does not work
  10. Can the proposal be easily reversed or abandoned at any stage? 
  11. What is the expected cost of implementing the proposal? (Costs mat include include losses and waste in terms of finance, time, energy, expertise, disruption, deterioration, resources, expertise, social capital,….)
  12. Will the outcomes be sustainable ? Will they require substantial ongoing support and maintenance?
  13. Are we ready, at this time, to undertake this proposal?
  14. Is there a better, cheaper, less disruptive and safer way to achieve the same outcomes?
Three Key Questions
Working through the above (or similar questions) collaboratively will enable consensus to be reached on three key questions:
  1. Is it desirable (and for whom)?
  2. Is it possible (and by what method)?
  3. Is it feasible (and in what time frame)?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tasmanian Education - a better future

Early next year Tasmania is likely to have a new Minister for Education. The Minister will promise a better future for Tasmanian education. If this is to be achieved, the new Minister will need to avoid the traps into which the current and recent Minsters and senior bureaucrats have fallen. So the key question is...

By what method?” (Deming)

Core Method:
  • Operate consistently on the basis of (explicit, agreed) principles (Covey,... Webb)
Some principles for consideration
     Core goals: Success & well-being for all now and in the future
Use low cost, low risk (safe-fail), potentially high return initiatives (Snowden)
Maximise improvement while minimising change 
Provide principle-based authority and responsibility - shared accountability
Address the current constraint (Goldratt)
Make things easier first
Adopt a common “job description” for all involved; staff, students, families… e.g., 
o       Know what's happening
o       Work with others to improve what is happening
o       Make it easier for the next person to do well  (Webb)

Our knowledge, actions, arrangements, relationships and organisation emerge from (everyday) interactions (complexity theory)
"If you understand the principles... you can choose your own method" (Gaping Void)
A principle-based approach is sustainable
Consistent sharing of authority and responsibility
Sound principles are widely applicable (DoE, other schools and services...)
Sound principles change only slowly co-evolving with the context
A well understood set of principles provides coherence
Moves the focus from driving to enabling
Attracts minimal tampering and disruption
Promotes initiative and commitment
Minimises cost
- Enables and promotes local and system-wide initiatives
- Builds and attracts social capital
- Flexible and adaptive - provides basis for customisation
- Achieves consistency without requiring uniformity
- Responsive to opportunities

It works
I know the above works - I have lived it at Riverside Primary School (1988-2000). And current technology makes the above manageable and scalable at a system level.
Big Picture schools and the Coalition of Essential Schools are other  great examples of very successful principle based  school systems

Common recent traps that can be avoided using a principle-based approach
Confusing drivers and enablers (eg, Naplan with delayed results)
Confusing plans, policies and standards with actual performance
Confusing change with improvement
Confusing additional resources with improvement
Confusing structural change with improvement
Relying on command and control management (compliance)
Ignoring the real starting point – the individual student in his/her current context
[Note: There is nothing wrong with programs, plans, policies, standards, resources... Indeed they can be very useful, if implemented in the right context using sound principles. They should not be assumed to be drivers (causal) despite their successful use elsewhere. At best, they may be useful interim enablers in some contexts.]

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Keeping it simple

Our everyday lived experience is often complicated and uncertain... so how to cope?

The human brain has evolved to engage with reality on the basis of simple rules-of-thumb (heuristics) that we can readily recall, share and apply at short notice. No heuristics are universal truths but some are useful under certain conditions.

Here are a few of my favourites on Change and Improvement. These are not listed in any particular order - it depends on the situation at hand and the needs of those involved:
These and many similar heuristics could be distilled down into the following set of three (thanks to Insoo Kim Berg & Steve De Shazer):
  1. Identify what works and do more of it 
  2. Identify what doesn’t work, stop doing it and do something different 
  3. Take some small (safe-fail) steps in the direction you want to move
In many ways heuristics are like keys - they are easy to carry and open the door to a richer set of possibilities.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Restorative Conversations

Have you noticed that most Restorative Practices are just conversations? Well structured, open, honest, disciplined, respectful, insightful, and usually quite productive conversations?

Restorative conversations can be
- incidental within other conversations
- informal
- gatherings (e.g. circles) or
- formal restorative meetings or conferences

Restorative conversations involve statements and questions, in particular,
- affective statements
- restorative questions

As a result of the careful way in which they are structured, restorative conversations reveal and share insights that provide a basis for
- knowing what has happened
- understanding the impacts of what has happened
- sharing responsibility for what has happened, and
- repairing any harm done
- improving relationships

All conversations are social interactions. Restorative conversations are examples of the highest order of social interaction: “working with”.  Consequently, the outcomes of restorative conversations are usually sustainable and significantly better than a zero-sum result. And this helps to explain why restorative practices have been so successful in improving schools and other organisations - restorative conversations work!!

(1) Working with others involves both high levels of challenge and high levels of support.
This and contrasts with
- “neglecting” = ignoring or abandoning: low challenge/low support,
- “working on” = controlling and punitive: high control/low support
- “working for” = rescuing: low challenge/high support
(2) Most controlling and punitive activity is based on the notion that, at best, the situation has a zero-sum outcome!!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Culture, conversations and school change

Schools are under continual pressure to improve. Most major initiatives come as proposed changes.
Most school changes involve a culture shift for staff members. Some staff members have practices that are already close to the intended changes. Other staff members will be committed to practices that are not all that consistent with the intended practices. When our culture changes so do our identities, so this is not a trivial matter for many of those involved. But where does a school’s culture come from, and how might it be changed? 
Culture is basically “the way we do things around here. And the way we do things is continually constructed and reconstructed in the (everyday) conversations of those involved. In formal and informal conversations we continually construct (and reconstruct) our knowledge, actions, and arrangements. In the process we also construct and reconstruct our identities and relationships

Each conversation occurs in a context that involves the histories, hopes, commitments, identities, relationships and interests of those involved (staff, students, families, the school, its communities…) as well as policies, regulations and resources...
That is, the school's culture continues and/or changes (emerges) from the interactions of its people, hence changing the culture means changing the conversations.
In schools, ‘conversations’ occur at a range of levels including individual reflections, chats, meetings, workshops, publications, reporting... Conversations are central to formal processes such as policy implementation, scheduling, delegation, coordinating, staff selection, performance management and staff support (coaching, mentoring and debriefing)… 
Somewhat paradoxically, while the school’s structure, and organisation, and associated staff roles co-evolve with the conversations they also enable and/or constrain the conversations that occur.
Conversations and leadership
From the above, school leadership is largely a matter of engaging in everyday conversations by affirming what is working, and shaping and reframing key concepts, purposes (values), relationships, observations, evaluations, possibilities, processes… all strengthened by the stories told about the school and its people.
Responsibility for school leadership frequently resides with principals and senior staff and it is fairly natural for staff to attend to the contributions that senior staff members make to the ongoing conversations within the school.
Consequently effective school leadership requires three things:
  1. A sound knowledge of the how the proposed changes can become part of the life, work and culture of the school
  2. Extensive participation in the life and work of the school, and
  3. The capacity to engage in, and shape, the everyday conversations occurring in the life and work of the school. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Supporting Students - What is involved

It is easy to under estimate what is involved in schools managing support for their most mobile and highest needs students.

Effective school support requires clarity and transparency about the planning and management of the support provided, including,
  • a good understanding of the student's story
  • the current (and long term) goals for the individual student
  • the actions and arrangements actually being implemented (who is doing what, when...)
  • ongoing (daily) monitoring of the effectiveness of these actions and arrangements
  • the sharing of key information and responsibility by the key stakeholders
  • ongoing (daily, weekly...) refinement of this support, which means...
  • the information involved needs to be readily available and easily accessible according to each stakeholders' responsibilities
Dealing with this amount of information at a school/system level this means having an integrated device that enables the storage of key data and communication between stakeholder. But no device is foolproof. It effectiveness depends on the actual practices of those who use it.

Such devices exist (e.g., my Support Planner used by some 50 schools in Tasmania and NSW). This device has enabled many of them to plan and manage their support for students, as above, in a very collaborative and transparent way with numerous stakeholders including other agencies and external support providers.  But supporting students is not a simple matter.

Other schools have been less successful for a number of reasons...
  • It is easy for a school to get stuck at the stage of simply recording data on problematic behaviour
    • problematic behaviour often requires urgent attention
    • schools may be more reactive rather than proactive
    • the data can provide some validation for the schools' responses (including suspensions)
    • problematic behaviour tends to (unconsciously) underline the student as the problem
    • the data may mask the fact that problematic behaviour is key indicator of a need for support
  • Some schools fail to recognise that having a plan is not the same as providing support
  • Many schools fail to appreciate that goals need to be explicit, achievable, and known and agreed by key stakeholders (ideally including the student)
  • Actual goals (if they exist) are often about what is not wanted (e.g., problematic behaviour), and the real actions are about containment rather than substantial supportive intervention
  • Comprehensive multi-page individual learning plans (ILPs) rapidly lose their effectiveness
    • in my experience, most have a 'half-life' of perhaps two weeks;
    • they are difficult to share, and are often unknown key stakeholders especially in relation to highly mobile student
    • ILPs tend to be monitored and reviewed less frequently than intended (if at all) - schools are busy places and getting stakeholder together is usually difficult
    • they are often skewed to educational needs a
    • their 'professional' appearance can distract from the significance of simple everyday things
  • It takes time and thoughtful effort to integrate the use of any device into the actual day-to-day practices of a school and its staff
  • Schools receive little or no recognition and return for their efforts with many of their highest needs students (especially if those students who are highly mobile)
  • There are so many other matters competing for the school's attention at this time
It takes time, effort and commitment to address these issues. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Serious incidents can be distracting

Don't be distracted by the serious school incidents
Restorative Practices can be vital in responding to serious incidents in schools. The outcomes that are often achieved by using restorative practices can be life-changing for those involved - relationships to self and others are restored, the harm repaired to some extent and the sense of identity, belonging and community greatly enhanced for key participants and those who care about them. The flow-on effects include improved attention to the core purposes of schools (teaching and learning) and less waste of precious school resources (time, effort...). Such achievements are often quite spectacular. Even when all this is achieved could we still be missing something?
Restoration needs to be undertaken as early as possible.
Serious incidents rarely happen without some prior factors being in place. Students, staff & family members who seriously harm others have often been previously harmed themselves through abuse, neglect and/or trauma. This prior harm may well have happened elsewhere and a long time ago and have no real connection with the school. Still such harm can underpin serious school incidents.
For this reason schools need to be restorative for all students all the time.
Serious incidents are urgent and important . But what about the unresolved harm from elsewhere that is being carried by students and staff?
The everyday use of affective statements, a wide range of circles, and asking the restorative questions are essential and powerful practices that can gently (and indirectly) reduce the harm done elsewhere at earlier times.
Even without explicitly addressing the earlier harm, the circles and questions can restore  a student's (or staff member's) sense of identity and belonging, and give key insights that reduce the likelihood of the student being involved in a serious school incident in the future.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Restorative Schools - Accreditation

I have been wondering if there are any systems /schemes that give formal accreditation to schools in relation to restorative practices?

Such an arrangment could be very useful in helping schools develop and sustain their restorative practices. 

I am confident that, properly managed, formal accreditation would...
  • give a clear and consistent developmental pathway for schools to become increasingly restorative
  • provide clear milestones that would enable schools to demonstrate progress (improvement and achievement)
  • articulate the links between restorative practices and the key purposes and functions of schools (teaching, learning, community building....)
  • provide an ongoing cycle for re-accreditation and further development of the school
  • enable ongoing self evaluation and reporting by the school
  • prompt the school to commit (and recommit) to the school-wide use of Restorative Practices
  • prompt the school to acquire and deploy resources ($, time, effort....) as required
  • add to the school's identity
    • locally in ways that add to the school's standing in the community
    • more widely as a member of a national/international network of schools and other organisations building community and serving those in need
  • support the school's sustained use and development of Restorative Practices in the face of competing demands and emerging "alternatives"
  • improve the success and well-being of all staff, students (and those who care for them)
  • improve the school's overall effectiveness in all aspects of its life and work
  • significantly build the restorative community locally, nationally and world-wide
  • ...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Everyday tasks - multiple outcomes

Yesterday I outlined why I believe multi-tasking is often counter productive.

One email respondent rightly pointed out that 'multitasking does not actually exist, unless one task is so easy that you do it automatically (breathing, driving on the highway, eating, etc...)'.

Still it is worthwhile for individuals to consider the disruptive effects of having several tasks on the go at the same time. Deferring the start of a task may not delay it (tasks B and C in yesterday's example).

For schools and other organisations multi-tasking is certainly possible - numerous tasks can be undertaken simultaneously by the school. In fact this is one of the main reasons for organising any organisation: to undertake several task at the same time.

In order to be more efficient and effective the school needs to minimise the disruptive effects of multi-tasking,  especially the disruptive effects of development. This can be achieved by minimising Change while maximising Improvement.

The alternative to multi-tasking is Multiple Outcomes

One way to do this is embed ongoing development into the everyday tasks being undertaken. This means achieving multiple outcomes from each task:
  • complete each task well
  • complete the task at the first attempt
  • improve the process
    • make it easier
    • reduce the likelihood of errors/oversights (and rework)
    • stop doing unnecessary steps
    • get the timing right
    • get the right people doing each step
    • find other useful applications for the process
    • ...
  • learn from doing
  • capture the learning (e.g., document major processes - example)
  • embed the above into the school's culture (e.g., job description)

Monday, March 4, 2013

The inefficiency of multitasking

Multitasking has an undeserved reputation as a good thing.

In fact, multitasking simply results in delays, disruptions and inefficiencies.

Does it matter whether you do one after the other (mono-tasking) or you multi-task and do a bit of each one each day?

While things are not usually this simple it is enlightening to see the difference:

Suppose you have three tasks (A, B and C) that each take three days to do (a total of nine days work).

Multitasking will result in all three tasks being finished on the ninth day.

By mono-tasking two of the three tasks get completed sooner!!!

  • A will be finished on the third day - giving six additional days benefit
  • B on the sixth day - giving three additional days benefit
  • C on the ninth day. 
And completing tasks earlier means less chance of disruption and displacement.

In practical terms there are other factors that come into play which may or may not be significant. There are many more changeovers between tasks undertaken with a multitasking approach. Sometimes such changes consume additional time and effort.

On the other hand, one may not have the opportunity to use a full mono-tasking approach. But it is wise to maximise the use of mono-tasking wherever possible.

One way to achieve a higher proportion of mono-tasking is to delay starting some of the tasks. In the above example of mono-tasking  B is not started until Day 4 but is finished at the end of Day 6 - three days earlier than the multi-tasking result.

Worth thinking about, even if it is contrary to common wisdom.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Leadership and Management

This is a perennial point of discussion. Leadership and management get very confused.

So here is my offering:

Every group needs leadership, but that responsibility doesn't need to be allocated almost exclusively to one person - everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the success of the group (to be a leader) at times. It is simple, and it works!!

Occasionally a situation arises when someone has to make a decision now - that is a job for the manager.

Most of the time a group simply needs to find (often small) ways to make things easier and better - this is where leadership comes in. The leader is the person who can help the group move forward.

Leadership is a relationship with other members of the group - ideally flexible, dynamic, etc.

  • Authority to lead is granted from below by the group.

Management is a role assigned to a person - largely fixed.

  • Authority to manage is delegated from above by the organisation.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Are systems real?

Maybe not as real as we think. And certainly less real than our everyday conversations generally suggest. Naming something as a system does not make it a system. Nor does it validate the use of system thinking in the situation.

However for various purposes, and under certain conditions, we can proceed 'as if' we are dealing with a system, at least for the time being. The danger lies in assuming that some aspect of a situation can be treated as if it is a system. As Marshall McLuhan said, when we name something we stop thinking about it.

The central idea underpinning systems thinking is that, to a greater or lesser extent, we can rely on the existence of certain patterns of interaction between the elements involved.

In the physical world interactions are shaped by largely universal natural laws, hence the consistency of many interactions is usually very high. Drop a raw egg from a height of two metres onto concrete and the acceleration of the egg and the outcome can be readily predicted - the interactions between the egg and gravity and the subsequent interaction between the egg and concrete are highly consistent for eggs in this situation. Hence, we can address the situation with systems thinking.

Highly consistent patterns can also emerge in human interactions. Not so much because of natural laws but because of shared belief systems, shared goals and agreed practices, social regulations, corrective consequences... Shared beliefs, agreements, regulations, and consequences can act as 'attractors' around which consistent actions and interactions emerge.

Such situations can often be treated 'as if' they are systems, especially if
- the goals/expectations are known and agreed
- inputs are consistent
- processes are clear and practiced
- 'outcomes' are measured and reported against the goals/expectations

Systems thinking can then be applied so that changes and improvements are achieved
- increasing the consistency of the interactions
- changing the interactions to
-> use different (new, less...) inputs
-> reduce variation 'errors'
-> make interactions easier (so that the 'system' is more efficient)
-> improve outcomes (so that the 'system' is more effective)

That is, by continuously monitoring a situation and using informed judgement it may be valid to treat the situation as if it was a system.