Complexity Theory: Collaboration in Schools

I listened to a great TedTalk today (Zurich, Switzerland 2013) by Nicholas Perony called ” Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory.”  Perony studies animals to understand how they maintain individualized stable social relationships over long periods of time.  Complex social systems in the animal kingdom are identified and broken down into interacting parts based on simple rules with emergent properties.  He grabs our attention with the picture of puppies pinwheeling around a bowl with the sole purpose of accessing the milk.  The dance is deconstructed to identify the one rule – get the milk.  Bats demonstrate simple association rules that result in complex social structures.  Meerkats teach us about the basis for their complex social hierarchy.  Animals show extraordinary complexity that allows them to adapt and respond.  Simplicity becomes complexity that ultimately emerges as resiliency.

Perony acknowledges that the more complex the machine, the more likely something unexpected will go wrong.  What could be more complex than a school community?  Particularly a school community at the end of the school year.   In days gone by or in strict hierarchical systems, perhaps decision making was easier because one person determined the direction.  Ultimately the stress came from the fact that the decisions didn’t reflect the needs of the diverse elements of the school community.

Perony identifies collaboration as an example of a complex system.   We aspire to a democratic process that best reflects the voices at the table and the needs in the school community.  The first time I participated in an Aboriginal Talking Circle, I was itching with impatience as everyone took the time they needed to express their thoughts.  What I have learned over the years is that I just need to be more patient.  Giving people the opportunity to voice their thoughts and provide the opportunity to participate in the decision making process allows us to all walk together on a common path.  With the end of the school year comes celebrations, reporting, ceremonies, transitions, staffing for the next year and planning for September.  All demand time that is in too short supply and requires collaboration.   If we try to break down collaboration to simple rules, does it increase our resiliency?  I can identify two simple rules that I believe facilitate the longevity of positive collaborative relationships.  1.  Respectfully listen to other people’s ideas.  2.  Be willing to change your mind based on what you’ve heard.

What would are your simple rules be to maintain longevity of positive collaborative relationships?  How do you go about defining them in your decision making structures?

I Believe in You

“I Believe in You!”  This is the mantra of my daughter.  To my chagrin in secondary school, she joined the Cheer Squad at Charles Best Secondary School.  I saw the objectification of women.  She saw the comradarie of the cheer squad and the physical challenge.  It has served her well.  She bought into the importance of encouragement.  As a tiny little girl who only wanted to be with her Mommy, she experienced the encouragement to go out into the world on her own.  In Kindergarten, her teacher nicknamed her Sparky because she brought palpable, positive energy into the classroom every morning.  As a competitive soccer player in school, she witnessed the power of encouragement to impact her performance.  In cheer, she learned why cheerleading came into being.

I worked very hard to interest Larkyn in attending UBC for selfish reasons of my own.  Her quest for adventure and independence, took her off to Queen’s University.  She made a group of friends that negotiated the ups and downs of university life.  Visiting her and her housemates was always refreshing.  The young women who she pulled close to her, were people who demonstrated the same encouraging way of being.  “I believe in you” was often uttered as a young woman with the unbrushed hair in a sock bun emerged from her room with a scowl on her face to take on some assignment or test or interaction that she was not feeling particularly good about.  In this case, “I believe in you” was not a statement assuming success would be the end product.  It was a recognition that her friend was doing something hard.  It was a promise that at the end of the day, success or failure, you were still someone who mattered.

I had an adoring mother who believed I was wonderful and always assumed success in my ventures.  My steadfast determination assured a fair record of successes.  However failure meant not only failing at an intended task, but also disappointing her.  It is something to this day that I experience.  Missing the mark and disappointing the people who really want my success, results in the heavy heart times two.  Perhaps this is residual from being a little girl with blonde ringlets and an over reliance on pleasing.  I do find the “I believe in you”, received and delivered with a smile, has a more positive impact.  It’s like being sent off with a hug of reassurance.  It doesn’t presume an outcome, just the encouragement to “Go for it” and acknowledgement that you’re taking a risk that is hard.

In Grade 3 due to a significant family upheaval, I ended up in a new school after the beginning of the school year.  Peer groups were already established and I was doing poorly on daily timed math drills.  My Mom suggested I talk to the teacher about what I could do to improve.  The teacher told me not to worry about it, I was in the average range.  My take away was that she didn’t believe in me and my belief in me faltered.  It took me until my statistics class in Graduate School to discover I didn’t actually suck at Math.  We have huge power as educators to deflate or inspire.

“I believe in you” is a message that inspires people or at least may help them lighten up.  It isn’t the belief that success is imminent.  It isn’t the belief that failure is an opportunity to teach you an important life lesson.  It’s the statement, “You’re on my team!” and the commitment to cheer for you no matter what!  Unconditional cheering.  Not a bad way to go out into the world and make our mark.  It is a message that I aspire to communicate to my staff, students, friends and family on a regular basis.

Brave Enough To Try

Over many of years as an educator, I have presented to many audiences in many capacities.  I’ve presented to students from Kindergarten to secondary, students at the university level, educators on staff and at professional development events, parents at PAC meetings or on school tours.  I have informed and entertained individuals to large groups.  I can throw a good party where everyone is invited.  I can fill in uncomfortable silences and make my guests feel welcome.


I was invited by Gabe Pillay to present at EDvent2017.  An event framed around the words of Cicero, “Learning is a kind of natural food for the mind”, promised an entertaining and thought provoking event.  The ideas came fast and furious.  What makes a fabulous restaurant experience?  What makes an optimal learning experience?

I had 5 minutes to quickly enlighten and inspire my audience.  The challenge from my friend and SFU colleague, Linda Klassen, was to try the Ignite format based on the Japanese PechaKucha .  Twenty slides advancing with a timer.  She did warn me about the challenge of maintaining the timing with the slides and the talk but assured me I was up to the challenge.

I loved the thinking around the idea of a menu for meaningful learning.  On Spring Break, the ideas came together on the beach in Vietnam.  Choosing the slides was fun. The big challenge for me  was being concise.  As I’ve told many of you, when my Auntie Myrna said “What’s your story, Morning Glory?”,  I included a well developed plot with all of the details.  Words had to be cut right, left and center.  Every word that was uttered, mattered.  Of course, it didn’t help that the slides and timing were submitted long before I finished changing the script.  If only I had followed the advice frequently given to my students to leave lots of time to practice.  I stopped scripting talks long ago because I thought it made me sound stilted when I talked.  In this format, I needed to relearn the art.  Scripting was imperative to maintain the timing. My Grandmother singing Rambling Rose was in the forefront of my mind.  I needed to focus.  To be specific yet still…inspiring…entertaining.

With every risk comes the chance of failure.  When self doubt triggers, it multiplies exponentially.  I am a big picture thinker with imagination which in cases like this does not help.  I am on the slate of presenters who I respect. I step up to the podium with a real sense of regret I hadn’t finalized in enough time to memorize the talk.  Why am I doing this again?  I scan the room and consider the worst case scenario.  Yes, I was that nervous.

In 5 minutes, it is all over and I am free to truly enjoy the rest of the event complete with inspiring speakers, yummy appies, hilarious Iron-EDU-Chef challenges and the infamous Candy Bar.  This risk taking endeavor has perhaps not been as inspirational as I had hoped for but has allowed for a connection with the audience and an experience to reflect on.

As school leaders we welcome, encourage and prompt our staff to take the risk to try something new on a regular basis.  The new curriculum in B.C. commands not only new ways of approaching established curriculum  but new ways of thinking.  Yet, it is easy to forget the range of emotions engaged by the process of taking risks.   It is an act of courage to try something different.  It is an act of bravery to do it repetitively.  Every now and then I think we all need to try something that scares us enough to remember the extent of that bravery!  Kudos to our teachers who do it everyday!

Beyond Face2Face

image

The holiday season provides annual opportunities to catch up with friends and family.  It is so easy to get swept away in a plethora of commitments throughout the year and lose track of each other.  The parties, get togethers and dinners allow us to take the time for face to face interactions and laugh and enjoy each others company.  Yet, the reality is that we don’t get the opportunity to connect with all of the people who matter personally and / or professionally.  Fortunately there are a myriad of ways to communicate with people when face to face communication isn’t an option.  Sometimes it seems like too many and sometimes it seems there has to be a better way.

In the past few week, I’ve explored several familiar and not so familiar options.  I’m curious about how about how other people are connecting and if there are other options that I should explore.

Professional Development:  I think Twitter is one of the best forms of online professional development.  I love the links to articles, websites, blogs and YouTube clips shared by the people I follow.  I’m also a big fan of the TwitterChat.  @ILAToday hosted a TwitterChat yesterday that included people from all over North American and allowed me to connect with a like minded teacher in Vancouver.  I like how you can participate in online conversations and also message individuals directly.

Connecting with individuals:  The telephone still factors in big here.  It certainly is more reliable in ensuring the message is understood and that the interaction is sincere.  If there is tone, it isn’t imagined as it is sometimes via print.  Perhaps I’m dating myself by saying that yes, I STILL like Facebook.  It’s a great way to touch base briefly, share a laugh, pass on a birthday wish and connect briefly with people.  This summer I had a chance to visit with an fb acquaintance from high school while I was in L.A.  We have a lot in common as adults and surprisingly very common experiences growing up.  I wish we had known that in school.  Great evening.  Good fun.  Connection worth keeping!

I don’t know how I ever lived without messenger and texting. When my kids first got flip phones, I use to text “Y” for yes, “N” for a definite NO and a “P” for phone me and give me more information.  I’ve come a long way!  Texting allows for quick and easy communication when not a lot of context is required.  WhatsApp is also a favorite with friends and relatives without a texting plan.

I have also used Skype for several years.  I has been great to connect with family in Italy, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the US but it is all about the connection available at any given point in time.   It is frustrating when the calls are just dropped and of course it’s limited to individuals or however many people can squish in one screen.    Perhaps my expectations have just gotten too high for something that is provided for free.  Just recently I’ve been trying out Voxer.  The walkie talkie type of set up allows for a more personal connection without the cost of long distance or the set up of Skype.

Connecting with groups:  This seems to be the biggest challenge.  The conference call is typically reliable but there is a down side.  It is difficult to connect the voice with a name unless you know the people in the group quite well.  The International Literacy Association schedules conference calls with provincial and state coordinators to pass on information.  It works well for this purpose but doesn’t lend itself to any interaction.

The BC Council of the International Literacy Association used Google Hangout to meet last week.  The president was in Kamloops, another member was in Halifax and the rest of the members were in a school library in Vancouver.  I’m not sure if it was because we had two computers in the library but it was difficult for the people outside the room to hear well enough to follow the conversation.  I’m curious to learn if anyone else has some good tips to pass on.

Any feedback about the types of online communication that others are using with success will be very much appreciated.

To Blog or Not to Blog

The perfect sunset.  The funny moment. The great jazz performance.  There are all kinds of reasons that people take to social media to “share”.  Tweets and blogs abound.

  

I started my first travel blog,  Hoodooquest.blogspot.com, on my first trip to China as a way of learning about this “new terrain of blogging” and to share my Chinese teaching adventure with family and friends.  My friend, Jan Wells, informed me she read it every morning with her coffee and the newspaper while I was in China.  Then I discovered that people I didn’t know, read it too.  This gave me the confidence to jump down the “rabbit hole” into the world of blogging.

I’ve always written a journal. I have volumes, starting with the pink Holly Hobby diary, on family, school, friendship, skiing, romance, food, travel, motherhood, injustices of life and grand celebrations.  They are highly personal and come with disclaimers that they should be destroyed and certainly not read when I die.  Yes, I have always had a flair for the dramatic.  Blogging can encompass a similar style of writing with strong voice and opinions.   However the public aspect of blogging requires an additional lens.  I am processing my own thinking, but very aware of engaging an audience.

My early blogs were specifically intended as teaching tools (T2fish.wordpress.com, tecumsehcomputerwhiz.wordpress.com).  They had specific learning outcomes and a body of content to present.  They targeted Tecumseh students but the stats reflected the interest was beyond the school community.  My next evolution of blogs were very similar to newsletters.   They shared relevant information with a specific audience and I tweeted them for accessibility to a greater audience:  For the foodies – SeriousIdulgences.wordpress.com; For educators and community members interested in social justice for children-  cultureofpeace4kids.wordpress.com ; For PDK members in Vancouver – pdkvancouver.wordpress.com.  However I learned most about engaging an audience when I used Kidblog to introduce blogging to gifted students.  Those kids created amazing blogs about their passions and our conversations about audience inspired interesting thoughts about reaching a like minded community of learners to provide feedback and mentoring.  I’m just beginning to touch on the things they taught me.  It was at that time that I started to actively follow blogs and the twitter feeds of people who inspire me and make me think, such as Jordan Tinney, George Couros, Chris Kennedy, Steve Cardwell and Ruben Puentedura.

This input, suggested reads, my professional  inquiries, collaboration with colleagues and students have made Inquire2Empower (carriefroese.wordpress.com) my most interesting blog to date.  I started writing it as a way to build community with other literacy educators in British Columbia.  It has emerged to a place where I not only share information but also develop my thoughts on a variety of professional topics including literacy, leadership, thinking skills, educational technology, human rights …basically all of those issues that are near and dear to my heart.  The public nature of my blog, holds me accountable for taking the time to reflect on my learning and articulate my thoughts. Once it hit over 2,000 views, I realized people were interested and I had developed an online PLN.

Inquire2Empower is very much question driven, as suggested by the name.  During my first temporary contract as a teacher, I was doing a maternity leave.  My burning questions were why did I hate teaching reading when I loved to read?  How could I engage students in the lesson with contrived, didactic material?  It taught me early on in my career that the pursuit of the answer is what has the real power to make a difference my practice.  Blogging and tweeting brought to light the concept of Virtual PLCS (Casey Reason 2015).  Social media has very much facilitated the formation of a wider community of informal groups that have emerged into symbiotic relationships.   The world of blogs and twitter have provided a structure for me to reflect on my learning but also provided opportunities to participation in Ignite Nights in Vancouver and Coquitlam that personalized the online connections.   It also opened up risk taking ventures like “One Word Burger”.  It has provided amazing choices of speakers for professional learning and the people attending are eager to participate.  It also allows for the follow up and consideration of the ramifications after complex sessions, like Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model.   It has opened up opportunities for me to personally present to interested audiences.  Multiple pathways of learning.  Isn’t that what makes the world of education so interesting? Yes, for me, the answer is “to blog”.