Riffing, Swirling, and Boarding

Had I taken my sabbatical more than four years ago, I believe that my time at Unboundary would have seemed like a journey to a foreign land. As it is now, Unboundary is very recognizable and familiar to me because of the work in which I have immersed myself regarding PLCs – professional learning communities.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes:

The tools and ideas presented in this book are for destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces. When we give up this illusion – we can then build ‘learning organizations,’ organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.

During my first week as a sabbatical intern at Unboundary, I witnessed the power of three collaborative tools: riffing, swirling, and boarding.

  • Riffing is improvisational brainstorming. Often team members will declare that they are riffing. This seems to bring into play a set of unspoken, agreed-upon norms – these next ideas are for building more ideas, so don’t shoot them down and don’t add them to the more-concrete draft yet. Just hear me and think with me. Try to pick up a note that you can riff on, too.
  • Swirling is perspective and feedback seeking. It is asking for input and assessment. It provides evaluation from the standpoint of mixing things up so that new lenses can be applied to the thinking and creation.
  • Boarding is communal mind-mapping. Making boards literally means putting index cards up on a tack-board wall (often movable panels) in order to outline and storyboard an idea. By utilizing a board, big-picture visualization and idea connectivity is facilitated.

Watching an Unboundary team riff, swirl, and board is akin to watching a PLC. In a PLC, team members work through the four questions: 1) what should be learned, 2) how will we know if learning is happening, 3) what will we do if it has already been learned, and 4) what will we do if it is not being learned. In a PLC, this work is accomplished collaboratively through such practices as analyzing student work, establishing SMART goals and essential learnings, engaging in lesson study, and participating in instructional rounds. By working together and breaking out of the traditionally isolated way of working in schools, PLC members are able to riff, swirl, and board their ideas…all for the benefit of learning. WE are smarter than ME. Therefore, schools need to ensure time and space for teachers to work together as lead learners, rather than continuing on the path of the egg-crate culture typical of most schools.

In the 21st century, schools and other businesses – all learning organizations – must partner together to share productive and innovative techniques. We need to expand our capacities to create the results we truly desire, we need to nurture new and expansive patterns of thinking, we need to set free our collective aspirations, and we need to learn how to learn together. We need to riff, swirl, and board…together. We need to unboundary ourselves and strive for more significance…together. Imagine the thinking that school and business could do as a team. Imagine the thinkers we would facilitate in schools – thinkers who would grow into the business leaders of tomorrow. Imagine the learning that could happen!

– Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency Doubleday. Accessed via e-copy on Amazon Kindle App for iPad.

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