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!


  1. I have heard this same concept explained by Jay McTighe, that leaders set the banks of the river and then let the water flow. Great reminder for leaders to let the professional expertise of teachers take over! Thanks Cale!

  2. Totally dig this, Cale....

    It's an idea that's been rolling through my room since a Paidea seminar my faculty did (we stole that idea from you, by the way!) in early July around a set of action steps that my school is asking learning teams to tackle this year.

    One of our teachers said that he liked the action steps because they built "structure around autonomy." Teams had a clear set of tasks to work on, but had the professional flexibility to imagine different applications of the same task.

    The structure -- the predetermined tasks -- guarantee that we're walking in a shared direction, but the freedom to experiment within those tasks guarantees that teams can shape the direction of their own work and that our school will inevitably discover innovative solutions to shared challenges.

    Your metaphor helps me shape that language a bit more!

    Thanks for sharing it...


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