Friday, August 24, 2012

Eliminate Failure with "Flow"

As we are getting ramped up for the start of another school year in British Columbia, I have now shelved my John Grisham novels and Sports Illustrated magazines until next July.  Like many educators at this time of year, I have re-engaged in professional reading to get myself amped up for Day 1.  Last night, I finished Five Disciplines of PLC Leaders by Timothy Kanold, and found a number of parts that resonated with me, especially around the concepts of failure and engaging students through appropriate level of challenge.

Earlier this week, BC Principal John Tyler (@mrjtyler) sent out a tweet indicating that "Failure is not only OK, it is a necessary part of learning..." .  This evoked a number of comments from different educators (including myself) about the use of the term 'failure'.  I have long opposed the idea that 'failure' teaches students:  as a result, I have written a few posts about it ("If you could not fail" and "Failure doesn't teach kids, we do!") and truly believe that we need to teach kids resiliency skills through the use of appropriate levels of challenge rather than posthumously saying that failure is a necessary evil when students are unsuccessful in doing something for us. 

I like downhill skiing.  However, downhill skiing can be particularly intimidating for a novice.  As a new skier, had someone pointed me down a run with two large black diamonds and a name like "The Washing Machine" or "Cliffhanger" and said, "You are going to have to learn to ski moguls at some point!  Falling is just part of the process.",  I likely would have taken my skis off, walked down the mountain, and never attempted to ski again.  My exposure to skiing would have ended in abject failure. Even if they would have taken me to a steep blue run without moguls, I probably would have done the same thing.  But as a new skier, if they had taken me to a green run with a wide and gradual slope, and were there guiding me along the way, I would have found a level of challenge that would have suited me.  I would have been IN. (This is exactly what happened for me as a kid, and now The Washing Machine is not too bad). 

Adapted from "The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In Kanold's book, I found an image that helped me better visualize (and should help me better articulate) what I mean when I am speaking of the importance of an appropriate level of challenge for learners when it comes to developing a new skill.  This can apply to students in our classrooms, and for me as a building administrator, it can also apply to sessions when I am working with our staff on professional development.

Kanold states "to keep your teams (students) at a level of optimal performance, you must achieve the proper balance between their current knowledge and skill level and the level of complexity for the new task actions or challenges".  This makes so much sense to me.  We cannot put learners in a situation that is too difficult without the prerequisite skills.   They will struggle, feel that the task is beyond their ability level, become anxious, and once that anxiety level has gotten to a certain level of intolerance, learners will give up.  To me, this 'giving up' defines failure--failure occurs when we make learners quit.  Similarly, if we put learners into a situation that is not challenging to them, they will likely become bored and disengage in a relatively short period of time.  In this case, we also may have caused the learner to quit: this represents a different type of failure, but a failure nonetheless.

However, if we can get learners into the "Flow Channel' that Csikszentmihalyi and Kanold illustrate, we can truly engage them in the process of learning and executing the skill that we are teaching.   To me, getting into this Flow Channel requires a few things:

1)  A clear understanding of the skill that we want the learner to master, broken down into manageable checkpoints
2)  Understanding the ability level that the learner brings to the table (so we know the appropriate entry point to the skill)
3)  Frequent monitoring (so we keep the level of challenge in the flow channel)
4)  Constant feedback (so that we keep them moving toward the target)
5)  Freedom for the learner to develop their own meaning and explore their own ways to master the skill

Granted, looking at tasks in this way takes work.  But it is good work, and it is our responsibility to do so.  By considering the concepts around the Flow Channel, we can move learners through the skill acquisition process in a way that engages them fully, limits their anxiety and boredom, and ultimately reduces (and hopefully eliminates the 'need' for) failure.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Hot Tub" PLCs - Get out of the Way!

Several months ago, I wrote a post called The Pink PLC.  The purpose of this post was for me to try to find a way to marry Daniel Pink's concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that came from 'The Surprising Science of Motivation" with the tenets of the Dufour model of the Professional Learning Community.  An excerpt:

"Pink talks about a variety of things in this clip, but what truly resonated with me was his description of how a software company (Atlassian) gives their employees time to innovate and come up with different ideas.  To quote Daniel Pink on this concept-- "You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of the way".  As Pink describes his own challenges with accepting this, I struggled with my not having a finger in all of the pies.  To completely 'get out of the way' was a challenge for me, mostly because I want to believe that I am not 'in anyone's way'.  I want to feel as though I am just an actively interested member of the team.  But looking at how things were going at that time with our Learning Community, I have to admit that I likely was 'getting in the way'.  As a result, I have made some changes to the way I approach collaborative time, and how we work together in our learning community.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Victoria vacationing with my family.  I love going to Victoria in the summer--it's a beautiful city with temperate weather, great restaurants, and great golf courses (the things near and dear to my heart).  We get to visit family, take the kids to Beacon Hill Park and the beach--it's just a great time and we do it every year.

On our last full day in Victoria, some very dear friends invited us to their cabin at Shawnigan Lake.  We loaded up the car, packed up the kids, and off we went.  When we got there, the weather was gorgeous and we took the kids down to the beach.  As our children are still very young, I was wondering how we could occupy the kids and keep them safe so near to the water.  We had their life jackets on of course, but our kids would love nothing more than to go diving in; fear is not really a part of their psyche at this point.  I had visions of Dad standing waist deep in the not-so-warm lake for most of the afternoon preventing minor disasters.

Our host (who has two children a few years older than ours) quickly grabbed a shovel, and began creating a game that he called "hot tub".  He dug a trench, made a small pit downstream of the trench, and told my four year old daughter, his six year old son, and his son's friend that they needed to make sure that when he poured water down the trench that none of it would flow over the top.  He told them he would come by every three or four minutes with a bucket of water.

As my daughter has little experience with "hot tub", I felt a compulsion to help get her started.  Give her a few fatherly tips, you know.  Our host quickly stopped me, and said "Just watch."

With very few words exchanged, the three of them began working on the structure.  My daughter began grabbing wet sand and putting it around the edge of the pit.  Sterling's son began digging the hole so that it was deeper.  And the friend began digging another pit farther up the trench, so that the effects of the bucket of water would be lessened.  After a while, my daughter went and grabbed a bucket, went down to the water, filled it up, and brought it back up to the trench to see what a bucket of water would do to their "hot tub".  When it made water flow over the walls, Sterling's son went and grabbed some more mud to make the walls taller, and his friend took over digging the pit out so that it was deeper.

With very little direction (but a very clear objective), the three of them worked interdependently toward the common goal of preventing water from spilling over the top of their hot tub.  They took the structure (the hot tub), tried some new modifications (building up the walls, digging out the hot tub, and making a smaller reservoir upstream), they collected their own brand of formative data (through seeing the effects of the water on their structure), and then went back and adapted their hot tub to make it better by ameliorating the weaknesses that they saw as a result of their trials with the water.

A couple of other points:
  • They were completely engaged.
  • They did this for 45 minutes without taking a break.  
  • They did it without any supervision or direction
  • The structure that they created withstood the "water test" four times
But maybe most importantly, when the water went over the edge and collapsed their structure after the fifth bucket, the three of them eagerly started all over again, and implemented parts (not all) of the original design that worked for them in the first place.

It made me realize that as a school leader (and as a father), it is important to clearly outline the objective for a collaborative group and parameters that surround the project (in this case, keeping the water in the structure and the five minute checkpoints).  However, once the project is in motion, it is likely just as important to back up and watch the flow of the creative juices that are brought to the project by the group. 

The strength of collaborative groups comes from the diverse knowledge and skill set that each group member brings.  If leaders (or dads) get over-involved with the project, the organic and creative dynamic of group can quickly be lost.  The leader (or dad) needs to be in the background ready to provide support, but needs to trust that the group that she or he has brought together is competent and will come up with solutions to the problem at hand.  Ultimately, there are times when I need to remember to get out of the way of my collaborative groups

It is truly amazing what one can learn from a kids' game of "hot tub" on the beach!