Finding the Collaboration Balance
by Nick Truxal
The move to teaching online, even if it may be over for you, dear reader, does seem to have pushed some new practices into place that prove dangerous for teachers and students in the long-term. In particular, I’d like to focus on the new modes of communication and collaboration that have been implemented in the wake of Zooming to class.
Being more accessible to our colleagues, students, and parents certainly has its advantages. We can instantly help a student with a question, quickly let a parent know the status of the classroom, or have a great professional learning community with colleagues across the district, city, state, or nation. Of course, that student may want an answer at 11:00 pm, that parent may be trying to send an instant message during class and wonder why they don’t hear back, and “just one quick ten-minute meeting with administration over Zoom” may happen twice an hour.
Rob Cross, Adam Grant, and Reb Rebele wrote a fascinating piece on “Collaboration Overload” in 2016 (which Rob Cross continued into the book Beyond Collaboration Overload). In the article, they cite some interesting (pre-pandemic) trends. Trends such as:
Of course, in a school, the most in-demand employees are teachers, administrators, counselors, psychologists…all of whom are finding that the world of instant communication has opened up certain flood-gates.
Interestingly, Adam Grant offered a solution to this issue three years before he helped to identify it. He spoke of a certain Fortune 500 company that implemented “Quiet time.” Three mornings a week, employees would not be exposed to superfluous e-mails (or any e-mails), “Just one quick thing” situations, “stand-up meetings,” nor anything else. The interesting part of this: when the company successfully implemented these quiet times, productivity increased an enormous 65%. However, even having employees self-impose (to the extent they were able) a similar policy, resulted in a 47% increase in productivity.
To me, this led to an interesting tension.
In my own practice, and in my own data, I can tell you that communication is important (I am sure you’re shocked). I have long been in the habit of sending FERPA safe emails to every parent with updates every Friday via a mail-merge setup. When communication was personalized and consistent, I found a 20% positive change in the grades and skill attainment that my students had in my classes. Just from communicating with their parents. I did a similar experiment in sending e-mails to my students, and found similar results.
So, communication is vital—and detrimental—to the surprise of no-one.
The Break Down of Implications...
Hold some time as sacred.
Giving students uninterrupted time to work: increase productivity.
I am sure there are many implications to these studies that I haven’t had time to parse, yet. If you have further insights, please feel free to share them with us.
by Julie Brock
Shrouded in blame and punishment, accountability has been twisted into a punitive action versus the rich conversation it actually is intended to spur. To account is to reconcile, balance, see the full picture so future decisions are better informed.
In his Fast Company article, Four Ways You’re Getting Accountability Wrong, Mark Lukens explains why a culture of accountability is vital to the success of any organization. The principles Luken presents ask leaders to:
“Whether you’re looking to fix a problem or to replicate a success, don’t act until you’ve understood why you got the results you did,” says Lukens.
Depending on how many classes of students move through a classroom in a day, it is possible to have three to six ‘micro-organizations’ that look to an educator as the ‘CEO’ responsible for setting the tone and expectations of their collective work.
How, then, do we function as a leader cultivating a collective culture of accountability as well as one of individual progress?
Mark Friedman, author of Trying Hard isn’t Good Enough, created a data framework that helps communities work toward big, shared goals. The crux of his argument is that no one organization can own the results of an entire community. It takes many organizations contributing to get sustainable solutions. Within each contributing organization are departments or programs that contribute to the overall effectiveness of the organization. For example, a large school district may think that they do own the graduation rate for their community, but they do not—they do not have every student who lives in their boundaries attending their school, so they share that result with other education settings.
Each educational setting can contribute to the overall graduation rate; yet, it does not have to look exactly the same. It is why school choice exists. Imagine each of those settings creating a culture of accountability in which students understand the systems serving them and also understand their role within the overall culture. It creates collaboration, cooperation, and communication.
The conversation that data inspires what leads to actionable change. Our educational systems are limping along. The last blow of COVID damaged our barge and we cannot bail the water out faster than it is coming in . And it is all levels. No educational setting is immune. We are a fleet of zero—grad school education settings taking on water and pivoting to figure out if the bucket brigade will work from a different angle.
That’s the thing with pivoting. I think about basketball. Once that pivot foot is set, it cannot move before a dribble. Players are stuck in one place until a pass or a path opens up for them to move. It is stationary, but all the while we keep spinning…thinking something will change.
But it doesn’t.
Instead, I ask…
The state of education can be overwhelming, stifling, and feel futile. But a classroom’s contribution matters. A department’s contribution matters. A building’s contribution matters. An afterschool program’s contribution matters. They matter when we hold ourselves accountable to a shared result. Students want to learn. According to the 2019 Minnesota Student survey, 97.8% of Olmsted County 9th graders (current 11th graders) said “if something interests me, I’ll learn more about it.” In that same survey, 99.2% of 11th graders said they will learn more about something that interests them.
Maybe we need to co-design around standards with students. Ask them how they want to learn the standards, what will resonate, and what will ultimately spur them to learn more within the content area . Results Based Accountability™ (RBA), Friedman’s framework, asks for a community of people to solve community problems together. It isn’t a framework that leaves people behind. If we adopt this framework within communities, new partnerships start to blossom. Youth who move between organizations are more likely to be supported when there is a framework holding us together around the success of youth. Pair RBA and the co-design process with students, and now we have created partnership, collaboration, and ownership for youth over their own education, potentially fueling that 97-99% curiosity students reported in 2019.
The nice thing about RBA is that we can start right now, today, using it in classrooms. We don’t have to wait for the community to get on board: it can start a ripple effect. In fact, we may already live in a community that is using RBA to effect systemic change. Strive Together is a national nonprofit that has seventy communities across the nation doing this kind of work. If you live in Minnesota, there are seven cradle-to-career communities and two promise neighborhoods working for systemic change.
Accountability isn’t about shame and blame. It has to be reclaimed and untwisted from its negative connotation to create space for creativity, for innovation, and a way to get those on the shore to help get those on the sinking barge off and together—find our way into the next wave of education.
Interested in learning more about RBA and using it in your classroom / department / building / feeder system / district? Let me know and we’ll collaborate!
Finding Our Portals to Transcendence
by Phil Olson
There is an experiential continuum between being awestruck by the majesty and scale of the natural world and being utterly engrossed by a detailed, complex task. Macro versus micro, breadth versus depth.
My students and I are suffering from a lack of both.
When my Advanced Placement Literature classes recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, they encountered dense prose and the need for a good thesaurus. At first, they didn't like it. The plot is a slow burn, and all those words make it a slog, so we get through the early pages by looking for word combinations that might make excellent band names:
Some students take offense when I point out that young Victor Frankenstein is a STEM student who is obsessed with the potential power of numbers and formulas and is determined to make them answer humanity’s biggest questions:
As he pursues science, Victor becomes a narcissistic jerk who makes an eight-foot-tall mistake, and students are eager to criticize him by arguing that no one could be so short sighted as to actually assemble and animate such a powerful creature without heeding its obvious dangers. Then we talk about nuclear arsenals, the petroleum industry, Facebook and Twitter….
Shelley’s title character is not a good romantic, so he serves as the perfect foil for Shelley’s celebration of Romanticism, the early 19th Century artistic movement that championed a love and respect for nature, emphasized emotions over intelligence, and foregrounded the rights and potentials of all human beings, even those without rank or wealth. Radical stuff. Victor is a failed romantic because he violates nature, lacks empathy, and watches passively as lives are destroyed.
Basically, we experience the sublime when we contemplate features of nature that are vast, mysterious, enchanting, and even dangerous. When we encounter a violent storm, a glacial mountain, or a roiling ocean, we feel small, vulnerable, and even afraid. And this is good. It’s humbling and allows us to take a load off: we are not the center of the universe. It also helps us put our daily experiences, especially nagging frustrations, into the proper context where they matter a heckuva lot less. We need the sense of proportion afforded by the sublime.
Last summer I had a sublime experience while hiking, alone, in California’s Redwood National Forest. It is morning, not yet full light. Moisture hangs suspended between the mammoth trees and the carpet of ferns. Silence. I am tiny; somehow both exhilarated and at peace; and I can’t help but recall a conversation with a local who told about recent sightings of a mountain lion.
My spine tingles in the same way when I share this story with my students, and then I ask them about their recent, sublime experiences. Some share stories, but many don’t, and some discover that the sublime erodes with time. We all agree we want more sublime experiences, so we spend a few minutes planning class trips we’ll never take.
And back to the continuum. When teaching Frankenstein, I place the sublime at one cosmic pole. On the other, I situate another concept that emerges when reading the novel with my students: the idea of “deep work,” a concept explored a few years ago by Cal Newport, a professor, author, and podcaster. (Check out his book, Deep Work, and/or listen to this revealing podcast interview with Newport for a quick, thoughtful introduction to the topic.)
The starting point of Newport’s argument is that, in our distracted world, we have an increasingly difficult time engaging in meaningful, complex, absorbing work. We have a hard time paying close attention. If you want to test your ability to focus, see if you can read the first ten pages of Frankenstein and, as you do, immerse/lose yourself in the setting and the plight of the characters. It’s not easy. Reading complex literature is deep work, and so is writing essays (especially this one!).
Everything educators do is deep work: reading and offering feedback on papers, planning lessons, creating projects, facilitating discussions, composing consequential emails, listening to students and colleagues, and on and on. And, of course, studenting is deep work, too. My students spend 35 hours per week in school, and each day is organized into eight periods, in which they take six classes, many of which assign homework. Calculus, physics, economics, Spanish, orchestra, art, and English all require deep work.
The problem for students and for me, is that we all have to juggle competing demands while also attempting to fend off distractions. The result is that I am always incredibly busy and seldom incredibly productive, and my students report the same. It feels impossible, but we must all carve out more time for deep work.
Here, at the end, I had intended to list some actionable ways to approach the sublime. How to engage in deep work. But my draft list is rather obvious (i.e. When experiencing sublime experiences, do not take selfies, and Close Outlook if you want to accomplish anything, ever). Instead, I return to Frankenstein and close with metaphors:
There are portals to transcendence at both ends of the continuum. When we channel our minds into the depths of experience, we flow with passion and power; and when we escape ourselves to tune in to the epic drama of existence, we’re left humbled, breathless.
We are readers. Readers of novels, readers of people, and readers of ideas—all intricate and not-entirely insignificant elements of the sublime world.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
I may be one of few adults with reliable internet access who has yet to see Ted Lasso. In fact, my partner and I don’t even have Apple+ TV, which airs the show. For this reason, I was startled to learn the other day that, apparently, I have been quoting the show for months, often asking of myself and of other, “is this rooted in judgement or in curiosity?
I thought, over the last few months, that I had been quoting Arij Mikati of Pillars Fund, who’d used the phrase in a recent podcast interview. Perhaps it is possible that Mikati had been quoting Ted Lasso?
I wonder it if matters who said it first, since no matter it’s origin, there is extra need for us to lean into curiosity right now. It’s been a challenging fall. A challenging fall that’s followed a difficult year. A challenging fall that followed a difficult year, which came right after an unthinkable spring. A fall that has left us with many, well, challenges. And when challenges come along, judgement often follows.
Deliberating as to why this is, I did a little digging; learned that psychologically, it’s often easier to label a struggle than to really work through the challenge itself. Labeling things can make them easier to file away and to move on. Ella Alexander shared in 2020 that, particularly during the pandemic, people have had a greater quickness to judge during times of stress; that “when we’re stressed or anxious, as humans we need to find a release for those emotions and...one of those ways is criticizing others because it makes us feel good...If we shame someone else first, then it deflects from our own insecurities and internal unhappiness, and even our own fears about being judged.”
But Alexander goes on to note that while we “cannot condemn anyone for processing quickly—life really is tough enough when you think of the many things an adult must concern themselves with” there are, “some things which we do need to stop and think about…”. That since “judgement is quite base; we have to learn to understand complexity.”
In the world of education, the benefit of being curious might prove more useful than judgement from three levels.
On a Micro-Level
On a Meso-Level
On a Macro-Level
I think it was Dr. Sharroky Hollie who I first heard say that, “our first thought doesn’t have to be our last thought.” We have the ability to rethink, to rephrase. Therefore, while stress may drive us to initially judge—making it easier for us to file away our struggles and to think we have pushed past them—we don’t have to sit in that judgement. We can push through, actually push past judgement, and embrace the curiosity that sits just beyond. Curiosity, which may make it harder for us to file and move on, is what is more likely to help us find solutions, grow stronger relationships, and increase our understanding. And isn’t that what the world could benefit from?
Speaking of increasing understanding…in the aforementioned Ted Lasso episode, which I still have not seen, the quote “Be Curious, Not Judgmental” is attributed to Walt Whitman. Curious, I attempted to verify: eventually I learned that, according to Snopes, it’s misattributed. How curious.
by Jean Prokott
Part of my classroom décor involves 8 ½ x 11 laminated prints of quotations, in color, that line like a 1990s-inspired wallpaper border. These quotes are about art, or education, or books, or our existential place on Earth, no big deal. I'm not sure the students notice them (perhaps when they zone out they'll take a glance), and, in fact, I forget them, too; they've become omniscient words of brilliance that mean something only when a body needs them to.
Not long ago, I needed a quote about education to jumpstart a journal for my philosophy students. And, like a student I'd jokingly **tsk tsk**, instead of observing my environment, I Googled "quotes about education," which led me to Pygmalion playwright George Bernard Shaw's: "You have learned something. That always feels at first as though you have lost something." It sounded familiar. I glanced up, and there it was in the wallpaper, written in Georgia font with colorful floral flourishes surrounding it. It'd followed me from classroom to classroom since 2009, when Georgia was still an acceptable font choice.
The line comes from Shaw's play Major Barbara, which is perfectly British in that it hits you over the head with themes of morality vs. materialism. Spoiler: in the end, utilitarianism wins.
If I sit with the quote, it takes different forms. To learn something is to lose naivete. Naivete might be synonymous with innocence, or childhood, or even nostalgia, which makes the loss heartbreaking. Shaw is suggesting the antithesis of ignorance is bliss. Instead, he says knowledge is worth loss. And/or he's saying loss is not loss. And/or: anti-intellectualism is bad. And/or: have you seen Pleasantville?
The quote reminds me of an essay I teach in creative writing that students often love, called "The Things I've Lost" by Brian Arundel. The essay explores the literal and the abstract things we lose throughout our lifetimes, how the small and the large can be one in the same. On Brevity, an education piece by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood notes, "[part of Arundel's essay] is largely focused on beliefs he has lost, and isn’t that the sign of wisdom gained through life lessons?" Wisdom comes from loss, because loss makes us grow; the holes that come from loss need to be patched, and quickly, with the sticky substance of knowledge, which is defined in many ways: grief, hope, intellect, power, reflection. What we've lost is just as much our personal identity, our autobiography, as the things we are or the things we've done.
While this allows for lovely existential reflection, there are ties to education as well--how we learn/lose and how our students do the same. When I showed one of Third Eye Education’s founders, Heather Lyke, the quote, she gave me a perfect response: It's not about "best practices"--it's about "better practices." We have to let go of what we knew was best to find the next best--often there is something better.
There was a time in history when teachers of yore were very excited about worksheets, how they would help students become stronger readers. (I like to think of this conversation: "No, no, see--I'll leave blanks and the students have to fill them in.") There are times when worksheets are great--the blanks are a metaphor for loss, I mean--but I think consensus is that worksheets should never do the heavy lifting. We know now students learn better when they are creating and questioning and writing their own worksheets. Research does not reach an endpoint. We do not say okay, we won research! That's a wrap! Everyone go home! We learn, ∞. This is social science and hard science in harmony. Think of how dull the field of education would be if we ever reached a finish line.
Looking further into the quote's diction, I interpret "learned" in a couple of ways. "Learned" could mean enlightenment, or a simple fact, or both. (Another quote I have in my classroom is Afred Lord Tennyson's: "knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." You can memorize the formula, but the wisdom is knowing when to use it.)
And there are the words "at first that feels like you've lost something." But you didn't actually lose, did you.
At the end of our metaphysics unit in philosophy (how do we know what is real, how do we know what is True), I show my students a web comic from The Oatmeal (author Matthew Inman) that explains the psychological response when our Truths are challenged. (As educators, when our best practices are challenged.)
The first line of the comic reads "you are not going to believe what I am going to tell you." In the following panels, Inman offers facts that help readers judge the "barometer" of their reactions. In the first example, he considers what most of us are taught: George Washington had wooden teeth. We begin on common ground. Then, he offers a new fact: George Washington not only had wooden teeth, but in 2005, the National Museum of Dentistry confirmed his dentures also included "horse and donkey teeth." (Inman calls it a "petting zoo of nightmares.") He asks us to consider the amount of "friction" we encounter after learning this. Generally, a reader would think wow that's nasty, but it wouldn't impact what they think of Washington. The final fact Inman offers: Washington's dentures may have been made from the teeth of slaves. This fact causes the most friction, and we must consider why. This knowledge stings: a founding father crossing the Delaware, a hero, did terrible things.
Inman explains our friction by means of science: "the part of the brain that responds to a physical threat also responds to an intellectual one." If something we've stood by in the classroom is challenged, we react in the same way we would to an alligator holding a knife or an administrator sending a vague email to meet him in his office. Our core practices are a house, and a challenge to them knocks the entire house down, implying we no longer have any practices. Thus, our amygdalas tell us to defend it. But wisdom says: build a new house. It's okay. (Inman offers solutions in the form of a pinky toe.)
In the perfect way it's supposed to, The Oatmeal's comic forced a metacognitive gag reflex in me, that I, too, have a house of comfort/knowledge. To build a house is a lot of work, and it's much easier to reject the new information. "At first," I feel as though I've lost my entire framework of pedagogy. I "learn" to rebuild again and again. This also could move beyond self-denial. If someone you value and trust helped you build your house, to let it fall could be taken to mean that person once lied to you, or betrayed you. While this is not the case, it is the response our brain offers. I train myself to understand that no, my second grade teacher Ms. Henderson, who taught me lies about Christopher Columbus, has not betrayed me. It was 1989, and school curriculum had a lot of work to do. ("In nineteen-hundred eighty-nine, some wrong school teachers told us lies…")
There's a lot at stake if you change your mind. You have to admit you were once wrong. At the start of the pandemic, scientists said masks weren't needed, and then they said we definitely needed masks. While some took that to mean scientists knew nothing about Covid because they changed their mind, most of us took it to mean they were doing their jobs, and it was saving our lives. That new knowledge meant Covid was more serious than we thought, which was scary. That stung. It'd be easier to say the scientists were wrong.
In a similar way, society considers a politician, or a political party, as wishy-washy if they change their mind or platform. It is ingrained in us that changing our position is in bad form. Honestly, I'd prefer a leader (a teacher, a boss) who changes their mind when they learn something new rather than a person who clings to old ideas for the sake of "stability." I'd rather be the teacher, anytime, anywhere, who realizes she was doing it wrong. There have been lessons I've loved that I've put in the back of the closet because fresh pedagogy renders them weak. In fact, transitioning back to in-person from distance learning has made me realize there are a lot of things that need to go. All educators (and the whole institution) had epiphanies during that time, ranging from the achievement gap and equity, to building student relationships, to changing a test question, and it would be a shame if we left those lessons behind. I, sadly, learned a lot about how and why students cheat, which breaks my heart, but now I've considered ways to make my assessments more personal. I've learned students don't define "education" the same way I do.
What I arrive at, with Shaw, and subsequently with The Oatmeal, is learning is hard because learning is changing. I don't care for change much--I eat the same thing for lunch every day (a breakfast sandwich, a yogurt, and an apple, if you want to follow the English teacher diet--it offers nothing beyond not having to think about it in the morning); I have a tattoo of the delta sign to remind myself change is the only constant and often get mad at the tattoo for being correct. A tattoo on my other arm is the Wallace Stevens quote: "it was snowing / and it was going to snow," from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird." (It follows the line "it was evening all afternoon.") It is snowing forever, and in the process of the first forever another forever happens. You have learned something, you have lost something. You have shoveled, and there is more snow. The present and the future happen simultaneously. We are our best and we will be our best. This is what it means to be a lifelong learner, and this is what it means to lose.
By Gina Meinertz
As a leader, I have always avoided data. I know that sounds crazy.
We all know that we can’t make decisions without data, but every time I heard data analysis, goal setting, or SMART goal, I thought about someone else’s accountability for objectives and goals in someone else’s dream (or mission and vision if you want to use the 'correct' terminology). I would go into these meetings and learning opportunities knowing I would spend the time complying to the process without much excitement, action, or vision for how I would implement changes in connection to the data we were reviewing.
Then, along came an opportunity for me to help guide a data collection, reflection, and action-planning process for an area organization. It would be a way to give back and guide other districts in our region with their own MTSS structures.
My first response, internally, was the same as always, a little gag reflex and a deep breath, but then a "yes, I can do that."
I went to work learning about the Tiered Fidelity Inventory that the Minnesota Department of Education recommends. I learned how to give this inventory to other school districts and how to help these districts create an action plan from their data.
As I worked through this inventory in a few different systems, I started to appreciate how the data from this inventory was bringing each district’s story of collaboration alive. We were not just analyzing student growth, but discussing what processes and structures supported a productive team. The inventory used such depth and clarity, people who used to shrug their shoulders and say, “We do that,” started to question their system, their teams, and their data in new ways. They started to look at the patterns of their system to find specific ways to shift their system for the better. Finally, I was seeing data for the possibilities that it holds.
Many of you may already see it, but for those of you who don’t. Keep searching. You just have found the right data, reflection process, or personal connection to the data yet.
Here are a couple of things that I have learned about data once my fear decreased and my curiosity increased.
I am not in a place to call myself a data geek quite yet. But I am ready to share how I think you could find more meaning in the data you use. Here are three directions to explore:
| 1 |
Know your strengths and interests. Then, find data that tells you the story that relates to your strengths and interests. For instance, I am a big picture and systematic thinker. By looking at data that was drilling down into specifics, I was missing the view that serves me the best. I need data that gave me a view of where we needed to be as a system and what we needed to do and change to get to our desired point.
| 2 |
Data takes many forms. Many times, we feel like we only have one option, standardized assessment data, to guide our decisions. This is a great starting point, but we also need to be able to use other points of data to guide our decision making.
| 3 |
I hope this quick read has convinced you to look at data with a new perspective, a curious one.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.