Discordant Metronomes & Connected Educators

Learning in order to lead learning again, this time by exploring a really freaky phenomenon.

I recently ran across a fascinating video (aptly tagged in the category This Is Awesome) of 32 discordant metronomes achieving synchrony in just under 4 minutes. Check it out:

Is that not incredible? My favorite part is the one hold-out on the bottom right, most visible around the 2:07 mark. Eventually, even that single outlier comes into phase with the rest of the group.

The key to this transformation (as highlighted in the referenced article) is the surface on which the metronomes rest. The board as a foundation appears quite rigid and static- though if that were the case, the metronomes would remain out of phase with each other. A closer look reveals that the board in this example is flexible, free to move with the rhythm of the system. As each metronome swings from side to side, the board acts as an “energetic intermediary” that facilitates transfer across the system. It is only because of the flexible surface of connection that this alignment of individuals can occur.

What Is It That Brings Us Together?

Most of the posts containing this video have explored the science behind it. While EXTREMELY tempting, that’s already been done, so I’ll refrain. (For those curious, check out this video by physicist Adam Micolich, this post from CBS News, and this article by professor Jim Panteleone of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.)

I was drawn instead to the role of interconnectedness in bringing about organizational change. Watching this video makes me wonder, what are the various ways that groups of individuals are connected such that they can reinforce each others’ patterns of behavior? For school leaders: if these metronomes represent our teachers, what are the “energetic intermediaries” that help them move together as one?

So far, I’ve come up with three that stand out to me:

Mission: Educators are first and foremost passionate about helping kids learn. All nuance aside, developing quality learning experiences for all students is the common bond that connects us all within the profession. When we as individuals allow ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our practices through the mirror of this core belief, those practices that do not align with this mission become more apparent (and are more likely to change). Those acting in isolation of this mission could swing on indefinitely without a reconnection to this common purpose.

Social Networks: Educators are also human, which means that we are social creatures. As we connect with others through a variety of social networks, we are more likely to align to those around us. These networks (whether built through online social media tools like twitter and Pinterest or via in-person connections across a hallway or building) allow individuals to engage in the cyclic process of sharing their own practices and learning from others. By staying connected, we become more aligned, and behave more like one system.

Leadership: This phenomenon encapsulates how I view the role of school leader as being first and foremost a connector. The school leader connects the individuals within a team, school, or district in support of their efforts, much like the floor in this video example both supports and connects these individual pendulums. Some takeaways for me:

  • The system began as a discordant group of individuals, as disconnected parts of a system often do.
  • A rigid, unresponsive figurehead allows individuals to continue in chaotic discordance, much like the static table would have done for the pendulums. This inflexibility limits the power of the leader’s connection.
  • In contrast, a leader who listens to the individuals within the system, reflects shared elements of those individuals’ practices and behaviors, and moves in reinforcing harmony in accordance with those practices can be the true connector that to help otherwise isolated individuals to learn from each other.
  • This kind of responsive connection slowly but surely brings about system-wide alignment, so long as we have the patience, flexibility, and perseverance to allow it to emerge.

This video ultimately reminds me of NBA coach Phil Jackson and his view of leadership (from his fantastic book, Sacred Hoops):

The wise leader is of service: receptive, yielding, following. The group member’s vibration dominates and leads, while the leader follows. But soon it is the member’s consciousness which is transformed. It is the job of the leader to be aware of the group member’s process; it is the need of the group member to be received and paid attention to. Both get what they need, if the leader has the wisdom to serve and follow.

School leaders: Where do you see yourself in this example? Where do you see your school or district? In what ways do you transfer energy from individual to individual throughout the system, and in what ways do you prevent that transfer? What does it looks like when your group members’ vibrations dominate and lead while you follow, and how might that process lead to successful alignment?

Please share your successes and challenges in the comments. We just happen to be on the verge of Connected Educators Month, a time that the US Department of Education has identified for us to celebrate “online communities of practice and networks in education.” Your story might just be that one nudge of reinforcing energy that will help those of us connected together through the “energetic intermediary” of the blogosphere to grow together as more successful leaders in the future.

Row, Row, Row Your Boats

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This week, teachers and staff in my school division took a breath from the daily grind for Making Connections, the annual home-grown professional development conference where we come together to learn with and from each other. As this news story highlights, a quarter of our district’s teachers put together over 200 unique learning opportunities where our community of learners could continue to grow.

The conference itself could not come at a better time of year. While the graph below refers specifically to a beginning teacher’s well-chronicled experience during her first year on the job, in many ways it reflects each of us as educators on our yearly journey.

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The end of October has signaled the end of the 1st quarter, the end of the first laps on the long race that is our school year. Like many distance swimmers, we likely put a lot of energy into those first laps. As well as things have turned out up to now, there are still three times as many laps left to go. Where will we get the energy to finish the race?

I am reminded of a quote from a colleague I overheard several years ago, and think about every year at this time:

I used to hate the idea of countywide conference days as they approached. I always felt like I had so much I needed to do instead. But once I got there, I would see my friends from other schools and connect with them about things I was trying to figure out. By the end, I always had a great time: It gave me a chance to breathe.

The fact is, if the graph above holds true, many educators may be drowning (figuratively speaking) as the quarter comes to a close. Times like Making Connections become an opportunity to row your folks ashore. These development opportunities and similarly large chunks of time and resources are “rescue boats” that a school district can row out into the surf, getting close enough so that those who are struggling to stay afloat can grab hold. Of course, there is only so much room around the boat’s edge for people to grasp – the only way that we can all make it to safety is to connect to each other while those closest to the boat hold tight.

I appreciated the opportunity to make connections today. I thank those who were willing to reach out with the stories of their learning, and I look forward to many more reconnections over the next laps of the race. I am especially thankful to be part of a school division who recognizes the importance of rowing out the boats, right on time.

Find Your Kobes, Call Your Kareems

A little homage to the start of the NBA season as it relates to organizational change:

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I tuned in this evening to watch one of the NBA’s opening night games, the first for the new-look Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers enter the season with two new additions to their starting lineup- 2-time MVP Steve Nash entering the twilight of his career, and 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard entering the prime of his. Like every new team, these 12 new teammates have their eyes set on winning an NBA championship. I tuned in this evening because I was particularly interested in the addition of Howard as a new potential superstar in the long-time pantheon of Laker centers. How would this team come together?

On first glance, it’s obvious that this is still Kobe Bryant’s team. A 17-year veteran with 14 All-Star appearances, an MVP award, and an all-important 5 NBA championships, Kobe carries the team on and off the court. Apparently, he recognizes this role in the team, though he also plans specifically to mentor his new superstar teammate. He will spend the next few years grooming Howard to grow as a leader, so that upon stepping away from the game, “this organization can ride on as if I [Kobe] never left.”

This idea of performing such that the organization can “ride on” reminds me that every new team – a school staff, a leadership team, a grade-level PLC – has its Kobes. For better and for worse, the institutional memory within a team will tend to define the actions of the new team for years to come. How can we help to ensure that those Kobes, these de facto leaders that will grow the future’s leaders, are setting up the organization to continue in the right direction?

Like everything else, it starts by finding the right people. Last week, I heard a sports radio interview with Lee Jenkins, the author of a recent cover story for Sports Illustrated chronicling Howard’s transition. Among the many anecdotes of Howard’s arrival in Los Angeles was one about the importance of leadership development, where Jenkins describes the demonstration that Kobe was putting on for Howard in how to practice.

According to Jenkins, Kobe led by example – which was nothing surprising, as few others have a comparable work ethic to Kobe. However, he also led by expectation. Jenkins noted that if there was anyone on the court who wasn’t working as hard or as purposefully, then Kobe gave that man what he needed – a high five or a raised eyebrow, a sidewards glare or a sideline encouragement. Kobe was setting the expectation that this is how a Laker practices. I imagine that’s how Kobe treats everything. I can see him thinking, This is how a Laker does pre-game warm-ups. This is how a Laker does a post-game interview. This is how a Laker eats sushi.

And this is the lesson we can learn: in times of transition, find your Kobes. Not only the Kobes in the sense that they are the de facto leaders, but in that they embody the ethos of your organization. More than anyone else on that team, Kobe lives and breathes to improve, to practice, to win. Can you imagine the effect if someone else had been Howard’s example instead? The key is understanding what you want your organization to be. What is your mission? What are the key values you represent? Who are the individuals who embody that mission and those values? Find them, and make sure they have a voice – especially among those who are new to the team.

In many ways, Kobe is keeping up a mindset instilled in the organization by former coach Phil Jackson, who led the team to 5 championships between 1999-2011. In his book Sacred Hoops, Jackson talks about how important practices are to ensuring that the players on the team become “like five fingers on a hand” as they grow in their understanding of one another. The hope is that Kobe – and any leader – is able to be the glue in the present that connects an organization’s past to its future.

Of course, current players are not Dwight Howard’s only mentors: what about those who have since left the organization, but still have a powerful voice? The Sports Illustrated article chronicles a powerful encounter between Howard and NBA all-time scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Following this discussion – a veritible “welcome to the club” if I’ve ever seen one – Howard was so moved by the encouragement by the Hallf of Fame center that he visibly wept. Who are those “former greats” who can bring such a powerful reaction in your newest members? Seek them out, and call them up – the team needs to remember where it has come from in order to find where it will go.

As I finish writing this post, Kobe walks briskly to the locker room ahead of the rest of his teammates following an 11-point loss. The Laker offense looked out of sorts, the defense looked a step slower than their opponents, and Howard watched the end of the game from the bench after fouling out. In short, the Lakers looked like a new collection of players still learning how to play together. I look forward to seeing what they look like in March, after a season’s worth of figuring out how Lakers play together.

Always Put the Cart Before the Horse

Last week, I posted about the search for the silver bullet, summarizing the idea that people and organzations often spend time seeking the magic solution instead of facing their fear of the metaphorical werewolf and spending time understanding the problem.

What if you don’t try to find the silver bullet, but the silver bullet finds you? What if a Eureka moment strikes you while in a conversation, at a conference, in a tweetchat – how do you know if it’s the right solution for the issues at hand?

When it comes to making a decision about the solution, my advice would be: always put the cart before the horse.

Some may read this advice and think, “Tony…are you sure you know how the saying goes?”

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The old saying actually goes, “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” I get the intended meaning, to conjure the image above of a cart being placed in front of a horse in space. Putting a cart before a horse in space obviously doesn’t make much sense, since the horse is meant to pull the cart along a path.

What I am suggesting, however, is that we always put the cart before the horse in time.

When it comes to decision-making, always make sure you first understand what you’re trying to pull before you decide how you’re going to pull it. Run across an idea for a new technology? Consider the size and scope of the change you are hoping to make, and ask yourself if this technology is up to the task. Does it fit your needs? Is it the right-sized horse for the cart? Is it aligned to the mission of the organization looking to move the cart forward?

Once you’re ready to start pulling, then put the horse up front and center. Just recognized that the goal is not to have the best, strongest, fastest horses – it’s to have the right horses to move the carts that carry the organization. You’ll only know you have the right horse if you understand the size and shape of the cart (and the cargo inside of it).

A friend of mine hates idioms. She said once that she never uses them, because she doesn’t know their etymology and what they actually mean. I happen to love idioms, for the exact same reason. Often born from a bygone era, these idioms can give us a window into understanding ourselves, if we take the time to wrestle with them.

Through shared stories, we learn about how to approach similar issues in the future. Share your stories: when have you experienced considering the cart (and the cargo inside) before choosing the horse? What were the results?

The Search for a Silver Bullet

Imagine a problem that faces you. Perhaps a cohort of your students don’t seem to be learning. Maybe averaged grades just don’t “add up” in your head. Maybe you get high scores at golf (which is not a good thing, by the way). Whatever the problem may be, we often approach the solution in the same way: we search for a silver bullet.

Off we go, on the search for that perfect fix. Maybe it’s a shiny program, the latest fad of an instructional strategy, a newly minted technology. We scour the web, we call on colleagues, we look everywhere for that singular solution that will make our problem disappear.

Pretty soon, we find something that we are sure will do the trick. “This is it,” we think as we unwrap the proverbial box. “This is what we have been looking for all this time.” And we try it. We start the new program, we unveil the new technology. We get it in everyone’s hands. We go all in. And we watch. And we wait.

And it doesn’t work. Even with the program in place, the problem is still there, staring us in the face.

Why doesn’t the silver bullet work? The whole premise of silver bullets goes back to stories of heroes defending themselves against scary monsters like werewolves and witches. The silver bullet is the werewolf’s solitary weakness, the one weapon that can vanquish it from existence. Everything and everyone has a weakness – I guess the thinking is that we can find the right tool, if we look hard enough for it. Right?

In the world of computing, folks like Fred Brooks argue that there are no silver bullets. They argue that that there is an essential level of complexity of some issues that cannot be tackled with simple solutions. Doing a Google search for “no silver bullet” reveals 600,000 stories that mirror the idea, from America’s tax reform to Bermuda’s energy supply to Australia’s aging workforce.

While I understand the argument being made, I don’t agree with the idiom being used to explain it, as it hasn’t helped to change behavior. The thing is, there are silver bullets. They exist. You can buy them from an ammunition shop if you were so inclined. The issue is that complex issues cannot be eliminated with silver bullets.

Why? Because complex issues are not werewolves. Because werewolves do not exist.

Werewolf

Werewolves – those creatures of lore, born from the full moon, roaming the day as men and the night as monsters – are but one in a legion of ghouls that have grown from our fear. A camper in the woods hears a loud nearby howl under a full moon? Must be a werewolf. A child laying in bed sees movement in the dark corner of the room? Has to be the Bogeyman. A night driver has a large, furry-looking “something-I’ve-never-seen-before” run in front of her car? Bigfoot, obviously.

They make for incredibly entertaining and suspenseful stories. Fortunately for us, they are stories of fiction. The myths of monsters can be traced back to an active imagination in those times where someone is confronted with something they were either too inexperienced, too afraid, or too intimidated to explore. Movement in the corner of the room? Likely a shadow. The big furry thing? Could have been anything – lots of variables at play when driving at night. That howl in the woods? Probably a regular old wolf.

And silver bullets are simply not the cure for these issues. Imagine taking a silver bullet to what you thought was a werewolf, but was actually a shadow. Shooting at a shadow makes holes in your walls, your windows, and potentially your neighbors! Silver bullets do not fix problems: they make problems. Instead of spending our time searching for silver bullets, we need to spend our time understanding the werewolf.

Silver bullets don’t work because they are misaligned to the issue at hand. We don’t need quick fix-it answers. What we need is to understand the problem, to explore the unknown and describe the issues we find as specifically as possible. See a movement in a dark corner? Don’t pull out a gun – pull out a flashlight. Look. Listen. Explore. Get more objective data about the state of things, and let that data help you identify your needs. Then let those specific needs help to define your next steps.

What often keeps us from exploring this unknown is fear, the same fear that invented the werewolf in the first place. What happens when we look under the bed – what if we see something we do not want to see? What will we need to do about what we find once we see it? This fear is what keeps us looking to fix problems from afar, and keeps us away from building solutions from within. It is far less intimidating to find a simpler and more distanced solution – like a silver bullet – that we can apply from afar.

The solution to all of this fear? Go learn. Turn on the light. Open the closet door. Look under the bed. Go into those places that you fear the most, and explore the unknown until you know exactly what needs to be done.

The other folks may be right in that there are no silver bullets, that nothing but hard work and dedicated focus can solve our problems. While I agree, I’ll also posit that it’s more impactful to recognize that there are no werewolves, and that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And the silver bullet for overcoming fear? To face fear head on.

Learning to Lead Learning since 1979

I recently changed the subtitle of this blog space, from “Where Piaget meets Pink, where Dewey meets, ‘Do Now!'” to the more aptly monikered title above. Breaking this title down into its constituent parts can better explain the rationale behind the change (and perhaps shed some light on all of our roles as educators in the process).

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Lead Learning – Whether I have always known it or not, my role as an educator has always been to lead learning. As a high school physics teacher, I strived to serve as “lead learner” in the classroom – acting less as a content expert than a guy who’s “been there before” and as such could help guide students as they walked the path for the first time. Thankfully, I also took full advantage of the opportunity to continue my own learning, following the lead of my students, their questions, and their insights.

This reinforcing process reminds me of Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy, a video that colleagues in my school district have often referenced in highlighting the interplay of the Leader and the First Follower:

If I do not recognize the efforts to learn made by those around me and then learn alongside them, I realize that I have no chance of leading anyone forward. As I continue my path as a district administrator, I have tried to keep those lessons from the classroom close to heart: keep inspiring learning in those around you, and never stop learning from those around you.

Learning to Lead Learning – I recognize that if I am to be successful in any leadership role, I must keep this central tenet in mind: I must learn to lead learning.

There are a couple of ways to read this statement:

  • Learning How to Lead Learning: This interpretation of the statement is probably more frequently read – in order to lead learning, one must learn how to lead learning. It’s how I spend a lot of my time both in and out of work: exploring books, blogs, and various other contexts where people tell stories about how they learn to lead. Senge’s Fifth Discipline, Collins’ Good to Great (and any of his other titles), Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Heath & Heath’s Made to Stick – these and many others have been highlights on my path on learning how to lead. Twitter hashtag chats like #leadershipchat, #edleaders, and #cpchat have helped me find others who are walking that path and learn alongside them. I learn from content. I learn from context. I learn from colleagues. I learn until I think I will explode, and then I learn some more. Of course, none of that learning does any good unless I apply it.
  • Learning in order to Lead Learning:  This interpretation is what I actually meant by the subtitle – the action statement that continuous learning is leading. In order to lead, I believe that one must approach leadership from the position of learner (and not necessarily that of knower). I must listen before I speak. I must listen for people’s current state of readiness to learn. I must hear the needs of those around me. Even if I have my own agenda, I must respond in ways that meet the needs of those around me, and not necessarily in the ways that meet mine. I must find a common language. I must understand what is heard, and not just know what I said. I must recognize that every context is different, and I likely do not know the whole story. I must study before I act, and not react based on what I think is happening. Learning is contagious. I must continue to learn – personally, professionally, organizationally – as continuous learning is the only way to lead.

Learning to Lead Learning since 1979 – People talk about becoming an educator as if it is a calling, a larger purpose for life that has been burning internally since birth, waiting to be recognized. I am one of those people. Every day that I continue my path as an educator, I am more cognizant of the fact that learning in order to lead learning is what I was born to do. Who knew that when I was getting in trouble in 1st grade for helping my classmates with their math work, I was practicing my life’s work? If it’s part of your core, leading learning never leaves, and learning in order to lead becomes a lifelong journey.

Here’s to everyone on that journey with me – looking forward to learning with you.

Lessons on Leadership: Reflections from the River

DuFour’s popularized leadership motto regarding the ‘banks of the river’. The metaphor of benchmark testing as ‘stream sampling for water quality’. The notion that ‘you can never step in the same river twice’. In educational discussions, we use the metaphor of “the river” quite often, and for good reason. But how often do we examine these idioms? How often do we truly listen to what it is we are saying?

En route to the weekly grocery store run last weekend, I decided to take a detour, pulling off to a little put-in spot just off of the Rivanna River here in central Virginia. I felt a need to go to the river and just listen to it. I wanted to listen to it and take in whatever it had to say. Thankfully, it said a lot: the five lessons I “heard” lie below.

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Lesson 1: The river is much higher than the last time I visited, and seems to be moving much faster today than it normally does. To give you an idea of the differences, the photos above were taken in March 2012 and July 2011, respectively. I attribute the rapid water flow to the recent rainfall and melted snow that have collected upstream and danced their way to this spot in the path. It reminds me that this river is a part of a larger system, one piece in an extended watershed that is impacted greatly by its surrounding environment. It makes me wonder, how often do we lead teams right into the path that we have have navigated so many times before, only to find that it has been deeply affected by the enviroment around it?

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Lesson 2: Because of this increased volume of water, all of the spots that we explored last summer lay buried beneath the river’s surface. These pictures and all of those following are only from this more recent trip. As you can see, the water has covered the land completely- until the water upstream has found its way down the path, I have no chance to make it to those reflective islands and peninsulas I remember, as they do not yet exist. 

Looking further across the river, I see one patch of land that has emerged above the surface of the water. On it, the flock of birds coming to this river for sustenance have collected, bunched together on the tiniest of resting places. It goes to show that no matter what happens, there is a place to stop and survey the scene, even if those places of respite are fewer in number and farther between than would be in ideal conditions.

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Lesson 3: While the banks of the river help to define its boundaries, the river’s bed seems to dictate the river’s movement at the surface. For example, I notice a huge dip in the surface of the river just before the spot where a white water rapid breaks. The stream moves fastest there in the middle, while on the outskirts its flow is interrupted by brush, eddy currents, and its general lack of momentum. As important as the banks of the river are to direct the path, I had never wondered how the river’s bed would be represented in the metaphor, and how key it must be to the stream’s environment.

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Lesson 4: White water turbulence shows up in the spots where large boulders hide just beneath the surface. While I have that baseline knowledge already, I only know in this case because I saw those obstacles there last year, when the river itself was more shallow. While I can’t directly see these obstacles that lie ahead If I were traveling from upstream, I could see their effect on the upcoming environment, and plan to steer clear.

Another note of interest: while dangerous for a traveler, this white water spot also provides the prototypically calming sound of the flowing river. Without this turbulence, the river itself would be near silent. There is something important about this idea, that overcoming the biggest obstacles in the path can also provide the deepest level of calm.

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Lesson 5: It took a while to get here from where I entered the park. Finding the stream was a journey in and of itself. While walking the path set in front of me, I considered the experience of whoever the pioneer was who decided to lay gravel on this particular pathway. What did this path look like before it was set up so clearly for me?

Added note: Entering the path that would take me to the stream, I noticed an observation deck, recently built to allow those on the path toward the river to catch a glimpse of what they will find once they reach it. It reminds me of the importance of ensuring that those on the journey have a glimpse of the destination. In fact, that afternoon, a landscaping crew had begun clearing the shrubbery and still-standing-but-dead trees (which I recently learned are called ‘snags’) to allow for folks to see the view of the river from the deck. Not only must we build these “observation decks”, we must maintain the view – otherwise, how likely is anyone to join us on the journey?

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A friend of mine hates idioms. If it starts with, “Well, you know what they say…” she refuses to say it, predominantly because she does not know exactly what it was originally intended to mean. As mentioned before, we tend to use a lot of metaphors and other idioms around rivers in relationship to leadership. Every once in a while, it’s important to consider what it is we are saying versus what we intend to say. I am thankful to have experienced this opportunity to consider exactly what it is the river can tell us about ourselves, if only we take the time to listen.