Orchestrating Conflict, Developing Experiments…and Carving Butter: Adaptive Leadership #PBL Ponderings

When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern. (Michalko, 2011)

So, how do we get the water to flow in a different pattern on the surface of the butter? Perhaps we need to “orchestrate conflict and develop experiments.” (Creelman, 2009) [See “PROCESS POST: Adaptive Leaders, Orchestrating Conflict, and Developing Experiments…School DNA Evolution“]

In the metaphor of the hot water and butter, perhaps a leader can use some prototype of dams and locks to re-channel the water into new patterns. Perhaps, the surface of the butter could be shaved smooth for a new pattern to form with the next cup of hot water. Regardless, conflict orchestrated on the system is necessary to affect the pattern and flow of the water on the butter.

Scientists used to believe that the brain became “hardwired” early in life and couldn’t change later on. Now researchers such as Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, say that the brain’s ability to change — its “plasticity” — is lifelong. If we can change, then why don’t we?  [emphasis added from my Diigo note taking]

Merzenich starts by talking about rats. You can train a rat to have a new skill. The rat solves a puzzle, and you give it a food reward. After 100 times, the rat can solve the puzzle flawlessly. After 200 times, it can remember how to solve it for nearly its lifetime. The rat has developed a habit. [Also see William James Talks on Teaching re: habit] It can perform the task automatically because its brain has changed. Similarly, a person has thousands of habits — such as how to use a pen — that drive lasting changes in the brain. For highly trained specialists, such as professional musicians, the changes actually show up on MRI scans. Flute players, for instance, have especially large representations in their brains in the areas that control the fingers, tongue, and lips, Merzenich says. “They’ve distorted their brains.” [emphasis added from my Diigo note taking]

Businesspeople, like flutists, are highly trained specialists, and they’ve distorted their brains, too. An older executive “has powers that a young person walking in the door doesn’t have,” says Merzenich. He has lots of specialized skills and abilities. A specialist is a hard thing to create, and is valuable for a corporation, obviously, but specialization also instills an inherent “rigidity.” The cumulative weight of experience makes it harder to change.

How, then, to overcome these factors? Merzenich says the key is keeping up the brain’s machinery for learning. (Deutchman, 2007)

Then, with the nature of change in the world today, adaptive leadership becomes a necessity, not a luxury. How might a school leader, working in earnest to guide the change happening in schools, orchestrate the conflict that could keep up a faculty’s collective brain machinery for learning?

If a school leader pays attention to the wider educational environment, then he or she would know that PBL (Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Place-Based Learning, etc.) is a powerful trend and force in schooling for the future. But what if the school leader does not possess the personal knowledge capacity for PBL? How might he or she expect to lead such an exploration and R&D effort at his or her school? She could turn to her orchestra and scientists – the creators that we call teachers and students.

Idea #1

In Creative Thinkering, Michalko related a story about Rite-Solutions:

Rite-Solutions combined the architecture of the stock exchange with the architecture of an in-house company stock market and created a stock market for ideas. The company’s internal exchange is called Mutual Fun [love the name!]. In this private exchange, any employee can offer a proposal to create a new product or spin-off, to solve a problem, to acquire new technologies or companies and so on. These proposals become stocks and are given ticker symbols identifying the proposals.

As reported in the New York Times, “Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal stock exchange. Each stock comes with a detailed description – called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus – and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in ‘opinion money’ to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock or volunteering to work on the project.”

The result has been a resounding success. (Michalko, 2011)

Schools could totally do this! I can completely imagine a faculty being empowered to select the most exciting projects through “price bidding” and implementing the experiments together. Could such an approach even resolve some of the issues with the current stick of butter…school system, I mean? Would the decisions about what PBL to implement feel less top-down and more grassroots? Would the mental framing of such a process cause a fun, game like psychology? Would it unify and thread the projects through the different disciplines and departments? Don’t you think it’s worth a try?

I can picture faculty meetings being fun debriefs of how the faculty-decided-upon projects are going. Teams could celebrate short-term successes, share bright spots, discuss conundrums and challenges, share failures and poor/early prototypes. Video could be used to capture the classroom experiences with students and the faculty debriefs. These videos could be integrated into presentation and conversations with parents and alums so that they could be a part of the transformations and experimentations [Hat tip to Bob Dillon in Missouri!]. Faculty leaders could exchange stories with other faculties engaging in similar experiments with various PBL developments. We could learn together and keep up our brain machinery and form new patterns with our water and butter.

Idea #2

Posit Science has a “fifth-day strategy,” meaning that everyone spends one day a week working in a different discipline. Software engineers try their hand at marketing. Designers get involved in business functions. “Everyone needs a new project instead of always being in a bin,” Merzenich says. “A fifth-day strategy doesn’t sacrifice your core ability but keeps you rejuvenated. In a company, you have to worry about rejuvenation at every level. So ideally you deliberately construct new challenges. For every individual, you need complex new learning. Innovation comes about when people are enabled to use their full brains and intelligence instead of being put in boxes and controlled.” (Deutchman, 2007) [emphasis added from my Diigo note taking]

To test new channels in the butter of departmentalized subject delivery, every fifth class rotation, subjects could be combined into double periods. If there were an art class 3rd period and a science class 4th period, they could meet as one, double-class. Teachers could serve as facilitators of the student-generated projects that exist at the intersections of art and science. In the doing, the art teacher could stretch himself in the domains of science, co-teaching, class management, etc. The science teacher could enhance her knowledge and understanding of art, performance-based assessment, design thinking, etc. If another set of schedules revealed that a math section and a history section met 3rd and 4th periods, those could be combined for the fifth-day strategy, and students might explore such topics as historical cryptography and code breaking [hat tip to Fred Young, Laurel Bleich, Angela Jones, and Jen Lalley in Atlanta].

Thomas Edison’s lab was a big barn with worktables set up side by side that held separate projects in progress. He would work on one project for awhile and then another. His workshop was designed to allow one project to infect a neighboring one, so that moves made here might also be tried there. This method of working allowed him to constantly rethink the way he saw his projects. (Michalko, 2011)

As we sidled our “worktables” together, continuous support and scaffolding could be offered and provided to faculty because this is a very disruptive conflict to the schedule and conventions of school, as it has traditionally and habitually been administrated. Communications schema could be re-designed to invite parents and other constituents into the experiments. Partnerships might emerge with alumni business and professionals working on similar projects in their own places of work.

Imagine what we could learn from these orchestrated conflicts and developing experiments. Imagine how admin and faculty could grow to be less “us-them” and more “we” by working in such collaborative, R&D-lab experimental ways.

Imagine the never-before-thought-possible channels in the surface of the butter we could discover.

Works Cited:

Creelman, David. “Ron Heifitz: Adaptive Leadership.” Creelman Research. N.p., 2009. Web. 17 July 2012. <http://creelmanresearchlibrary.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/creelman-2009-vol-2-5-heifetz-on-adaptive-leadership.pdf&gt;.

Deutchman, Alan. “Change or Die.” Change or Die. Fast Company, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 18 July 2012. <http://www.fastcompany.com/node/52717/print&gt;.

Michalko, Michael. Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2011. Print.

Related Work:

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway, 2010. Print.

[Cross-posted at Connected Principals]

Different Ways of Knowing

Almost everyday, I watch a TED talk as part of my daily learning routine. Today, I watched Daniel Tammet’s talk, “Different Ways of Knowing.”

His 10 minute and 54 second talk has me thinking about a number of things, and I share below just a few:

  • Isn’t the work of an educator to explore different ways of knowing? Isn’t our life’s work to examine how all of the learners in our care might perceive and understand a thing?
  • Isn’t the intersection of words, numbers, and pictures interesting?
  • How do we show what we see in our minds? Do we too often ignore the synthesis of things because of the complexity of demonstrating?
  • Literacy today (throughout time) is really about understanding the synthesis of words, numbers, and images, isn’t it? About how to communicate effectively?
  • What was Daniel Temmet’s life like in school? Was he a “problem student?” How can we discard that term, problem student, and strive as educators to honor and connect the ways of knowing in our school community?
  • How can I better use my observation journal to understand the rich and complex world around me?


“Anyway,” said Old Wrinkly, “it might be just what this Tribe needs, a change in leadership style. Because the thing is, times are changing. We can’t get away with being bigger and more violent than everybody else any more. IMAGINATION. That’s what they need and what you’ve got. A Hero of the Future is going to have to be clever and cunning, not just a big lump with overdeveloped muscles. He’s going to have to stop everyone quarreling among themselves and get them to face the enemy together.”

As a minister-friend of mine is fond of saying, “That’ll preach.” The paragraph above comes from Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon. My family fell in love with the movie this year, and my six-year old son is now reading the books. He reads to himself mostly, but he asks me to read a few pages each night. That paragraph on pages 63 and 64 really hit me. When I read it, I stopped for too long, and PJ had to spur me out of thinking to keep reading aloud. The movie and the children’s literature possess that amazing, rare quality of transcending the age of the viewers and readers – if you are paying attention, there is something profound for you…no matter what your age.

What a metaphor system exists in the story…in just that short paragraph about a Viking grandfather giving his grandson some advice about his different approach to an issue. For me, I am in the mindset to think of the dragon as school or education. We teachers and school leaders need to examine the 150 year old paradigm of school and re-think if the Prussian military model – the “overdeveloped muscles” – is the correct method for guiding the formalized learning of this iGeneration. Perhaps we need more IMAGINATION.

I certainly mean to point no fingers at anyone. When I point a finger, three point back at me. Maybe we could quit all the quarreling among ourselves and face the enemy together.

Last night, I attended the CFT Talks. The Center for Teaching hosted its Learning and the Brain Cohort for a TED-talk-style evening so that this team of teachers from Westminster and Drew Charter could share their action research projects. The event was superb and inspirational. On Twitter, you can trace the stream with the hashtag #CFTtalks. I learned so much from these “pracademics” who were meshing research and practice in their own learning-lab classrooms. At one point, two of the speakers shared two quotes:

“If students don’t learn the way we teach, why don’t we teach the way they learn?”

“If your job is to develop the mind, shouldn’t you know how the brain works?”

They spoke of “green light” and “red light” teachers. I hope you can see the summary of these terms by clicking on the image below (captured at event). In my mind, I saw the red light teachers as big, muscle bound Vikings who were trying to strong arm learning through something akin to force. I saw the green light teachers as Hiccup, the protagonist of How to Train Your Dragon – full of imagination and willingness to meet the learning dragon as a learner himself…mutually growing as a team that could synergistically thrive together. Maybe we all need a “hiccup” to cause us to draw up an unexpected breath and free the thing that defines us most as children…as the original-learner prototype – IMAGINATION. May we use it to address these changing times. May we inspire it and motivate it in our colleagues and students. May we learn together, as Old Wrinkly say, “the HARD WAY!” Together we can do this. Together we should do this. It’s about our children’s present and future. It’s about learning!

Threads of a Braided Cord…and Myelinating my Network

This morning, I read about 30 blog posts from my feed reader. How blessed I feel to be connected to so many powerful thinkers – working hard to figure things out – via Twitter, Google Reader, WordPress, etc. Are you a school leader? You don’t need a formal title to be such, of course! How’s your PLN? Is your personal learning network full of ever-expanding nodes held together by evolving silks of connectivity? Are you taking risks, reflecting out loud, writing with your students, and getting up after every fall?

In the past 20 years, we have learned so much about the brain…about how synapses that “fire together, wire together.” Since I began tweeting and blogging, I have magnified the sparks that are firing and wiring my brain. And my social network is a professional network that functions similarly to the biology of my brain. I am grateful for my co-learners who are helping me to myelinate my thinking about schools of the future and the future of schools.

Of the 30 blog posts I read this morning, three in particular seemed to weave together for me. To write is to see what we think…and to write requires active reflection…and developing these habits means making errors and mistakes from which we can learn and grow and improve. Here are the three links to the braided cord of my morning’s thinking…my most recent myelination. What’s wiring your brain? Are you practicing writing, reflecting, and getting up after a fall? Who is in your neural network? Who is challenging you and spurring you to grow?

Everyone’s a writer. NWP taught me that,” from Bud Hunt and the PLP network

A Lesson in the Importance of Reflection,” from Jeff Delp (@azjd)

Fall down seven times, get up eight: The power of Japanese resilience,” from Garr Reynolds

NOTE: Some people fear the “opening up” of so many feeds. I often hear, “I have enough to do without adding Twitter and RSS reads to my list.” If you dare, look at what Bill Ferriter and John Burk have written lately about how social networking saves you time. And never be afraid to “prune.” When I get overwhelmed by my feeds, I sometimes click on “mark all as read” and start with a clean slate. What about all that stuff I am missing? I would have missed it permanently if they were never in my feed reading. I – ME – I get to be in control of my reading…it does NOT control me. Take a chance today…try Twitter…start a blog. You will fall down, but you should get back up. Find the threads of a braided cord for your thinking. Provide some threads for others. That’s truly what learning is all about!

What’s In a Name?!

Schools around the United States, as well as throughout the world, are discussing “21st century education.” Some are getting on with it, and some are spending considerable time just debating the name of the movement. The version of the phrase which seems to cause some folks the most consternation is “21st century skills.” From what I gather, some people get irritated because few, if any, of the skills named in any such list have just now become important simply because it is after January 1, 2001. [Some distractors even want to debate the actual start of the 21st century!] Of course…these skills have ALWAYS been important, but they are increasingly important now.

As for me, I say that those who want to spend time debating the best moniker to unite us all under a mutually agreed-upon banner are distracting the real essence of what students, educators, parents – ALL LEARNERS – should be discussing. Forget about the name! It is simply a categorical title to get us all talking about a set of shared language, shared knowledge, and shared values. Let’s spend our time talking about what’s best for learning in the 21st century…at least for the next 80 or so years! Can we just get on with what really matters?!

My vision, simply stated, for 21st century teaching and learning:

  • The 20th century is thematically characterized by the Industrial Age. My vision for 21st century education accepts that learning is not about assembly lines, production widgets, efficiency, and adult convenience. Learning is integrated! Let’s really examine sending our most precious commodity (see…our language is even habituated from an Industrial Age !) – CHILDREN – down an assembly line of siloed instruction in math, science, history, English, etc. The brain is a beautifully complex network of integrated systems. It is a SYSTEM! So should be school! [see Ken Robinson’s RSA]
  • The 20th century is thematically characterized by “sit and get” instruction. My vision for 21st century education accepts that learning is project-based. Before people seat us in rows and columns of desks among four walls, we learn through “projects.” After formal schooling, we learn through projects. Learning is project-based! Context precedes competence. And there is a spectrum of “project-based.” The most advanced projects are those that integrate the all-too-departmentalized subjects, those that develop from STUDENT-learner QUESTIONS and INQUIRY instead of teacher-driven decisions, and those that make a real, authentic, relevant difference in this world – a world that begs for problem identifiers and problems solvers who recognize that great ideas emerge in “coffee houses.” [see Kiran Bir Sethi’s TED talk, Linda Darling-Hammond, Steven Johnson’s TED talk and/or RSA]
  • The 20th century is thematically characterized by an overemphasis on assessment OF learning. My vision for 21st century education accepts that assessment is FOR learning. Assessment is FOR learning! We need to utilize assessment carefully and thoughtfully to maintain a strong, healthly lifestyle and attitude about learning. Autopsies are for dead people, and they don’t offer much assistance to those on whom the service is being performed. If we only do one thing for learners in the 21st century, we should assist their (OUR!) development of the growth mindset over the fixed mindset. [see Robert Marzano, Tom Guskey, James Popham, Rick and Becky DuFour, Bob Eaker, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Alfie Kohn, Bill Ferriter, Joe Bower, Jonathan Martin, George Couros, and the list goes on, etc.]

“What?!” you say. “He didn’t even mention technology. What a fool!” Technology is just a tool to help us accomplish the three points above…it is a means, not an ends, even in our digitially-dominated world.

Let’s get on with it already! It’s about LEARNING!