Why I like Passive Professional Learning

I like to learn ‘passively’. I like to sit in an auditorium and listen to a speaker present their research and build a case for a particular approach or finding. I love to listen while having my perspective broadened, my assumptions challenged, my thinking pushed.

While I enjoy hearing case studies, I don’t need to be given practical ideas that I can use in my classroom tomorrow. All I need are ideas and principles. I’m more than capable of considering how I can bring them to my context.

I enjoy discussions, but I need to have time (sometimes a lot of it) to process the ideas and information I’ve heard. When I’m made to plunge into discussion too early, it disrupts the deep thinking that I need. I feel frustrated as without that, I feel forced to just skate across the surface of ideas. That’s why sometimes I baulk when I know I’ll be attending an event that focuses on networking, hands- on activities and group discussion.

My psychologist says I’m a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP). I prefer to say that I have “high sensory processing sensitivity” as to me its more helpful than ‘HSP’ which suggests I run around being offended all the time.

From the Wikipedia entry on HSP

a large body of research[17][18][19][20] now suggests that sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) is innate and found in about 15–20% of humans and is characterized by a greater depth of processing of sensory input, leading to a greater awareness of subtleties[21] along with the probably necessary result of becoming more overaroused by levels of sensory stimulation that do not bother others.

And its true, I do have many of the characteristics of high sensory processing sensitivity. I pick up subtleties and need to process information deeply. Bright lights (especially fluorescent), crowds and noise can overwhelm me. I pick up on other people’s moods and can be deeply affected. At the train station, aware that the person next to me is highly stressed, I find myself absorbing their mood and feeling it too. On busy days, I have to withdraw to a quiet space.

I don’t know if I can describe what being overwhelmed feels like, but it’s as if my brain is full of chaos, I can’t think or focus. It’s a physically draining, stressful and deeply unpleasant experience.

Therefore, I don’t  thrive at conferences. As much as I loved  EduChange, for example, the combination of quick presentation after quick presentation, small group discussions and larger networking activities completely overwhelmed my ability to process. I felt stressed and guilty because instead of using the break times to catch up with people I’d hoped to see, I was using them to escape outside, to find stillness and clarity. I felt frustrated because there was so much information and too rapid for me to process – I couldn’t absorb it.

I’m apprehensive about attending the Social Ventures Australia Education Dialogue this week. I’m honoured to be invited,  the list of speakers sound amazing. However, a significant part of it will include discussion. It may be fine, but I fear that the noise, the multitude of ideas, and the stimulation of meeting new people may overwhelm my system again. To cope, I can always walk away and then return. But it reflects poorly on me when I take that option. It can be interpreted as disinterest both in networking and in the ideas.

I’m not against discussions. I value them. Hearing perspectives, exploring and testing ideas add to my depth of understanding and lead to valuable and ongoing professional connections. But I like a gap between presentation and discussion. I learn best when I have time to process new information. I also prefer working in smaller groups where I can really listen to what people have to say and tease out ideas.

But back to my first statement about preferring to  learn ‘passively’.

Passive learning is an odd concept. I seems more illustrative of what our bodies are doing than what is taking place cognitively.  As I sit, listening to a lecture, my body may be passive, but my mind is actively listening, processing, critiquing and evaluating what I hear. There is nothing passive about it. I wonder if such a thing as ‘passive learning’ even exists.

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Putting on the Black Hat: Why Being Negative is Essential for Positive Change

Years ago I was the sports coordinator for a small primary school. On Friday afternoons our Stage 2 and 3 students would play sport. A small percentage played on our representative softball, netball and soccer teams, competing against other schools. The remaining students would participate in activities back at school.

For reasons, which I no longer recall, we wanted to increase the range of options available to those students who didn’t make it into the representative teams. With the full support of my principal and colleagues, I set about contacting local organisations. Soon, I’d arranged for tennis and golf lessons, orienteering, rock climbing and ten pin bowling in addition to our regular school based sport.

It was a popular move. The feedback from parents was enthusiastic and our students were excited about the new options. It was only after they’d signed up for their activities that I realised my mistake. Only four students enrolled in the in-school option. In my planning I hadn’t considered that we would need a minimum number of students to run an effective in-school program, and I hadn’t considered the impact on those families who couldn’t afford choice. I was so focused on developing the off-site opportunities that I’d given no thought to how our in-school offering would work and in the process managed to decimate it.

I don’t recall how we managed the situation. What I do recall is the lesson that I learned: that no matter how small the change project, it’s impact has to be considered not just in terms of how it well it might achieve its aims, but in how it impacts everything and everyone around it. Every change project creates expanding ripples which can have effects well beyond the original scope.

I worry about the increasing emphasis on change and innovation in education. We rush towards our goals, so inspired and excited by our vision and ideas. Do we take the time to consider broader impacts?

Think about the rapid increase of private schools in Australia, many of which provide incredible programs for their students. While those students benefit, the impact on our broader society is not so positive. Residualisation of public education is  a reality for some communities where the flight from public schools has resulted in huge concentrations of disadvantage. I do wonder how desirable it is for society  to be creating what are effectively gated communities for students, separated into groups based on religion or wealth, or both. We wouldn’t tolerate this in our classrooms, but as a society, it seems that’s what we are doing.

Concerns about broader impact started to nag at me when I attended the EduChange conference back in August. Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrific event which I blogged about here. But there was so much talk about solution oriented change, with no opportunity to examine whether the solutions would create even greater problems of their own.

In education circles, it  seems to me that this type of thinking is sometimes misunderstood as being negative and undesirable. I’ve been shut down and have witnessed others being shut down after questioning or pointing out potential problems ideas shared during education Twitter chats. I’ve participated in design thinking sessions where ample time is provided to generate ideas in brainstorming,  but extremely limited and sometimes no time provided to critique them. We’re told, “all ideas are good ideas, we’re here to be positive”.

However black hat thinking is essential for innovators. If we don’t take time to consider what could go wrong,  we risk creating greater problems and limit our effectiveness. We must to be willing to examine negatives if we are to genuinely create positive outcomes

Any good school change project should include a risk assessment. We need to consider the ripple effect and ask ourselves how our project might impact on every stakeholder group, not just those targeted within the project. This does not mean we  abandon projects when we foresee undesirable consequences. It means we weigh up our options.

Just like any other risk assessment, we follow a process. We determine if we can eliminate or minimise those risks, and if we can’t we then need to decide if the benefits of the change are worth the costs.

EduChange: A Conference with a Difference

This is a somewhat overdue post about the EduChange Conference (EC15.org) that took place on the 21st and 22nd of August this year.

EduChange was promoted as

‘unlike any education conference you have been to in Australia. In fact the EC crew created a list of all the things that we don’t like about education conferences and strive to do the opposite. EduChange is less listening, more doing. It’s less short term inspiration, more real application. Less theories, more stories. Less awkward networking, more team collaboration.’

So I was really excited to have the opportunity to go along and find out what it was all about.

The conference was a two day affair, held at the NAB Village, in Melbourne Australia. Unlike the the often barn like conference venues I visit, this was a modern, well designed and welcoming space, with natural timber, warm, calm colours and plenty of natural sunlight. It was the perfect setting for EduChange.

The Arena

The vibe was positive from the moment I arrived. Outside the venue, I was warmly greeted by smiling and excited volunteers in bright orange EduChange shirts who directed me towards The Arena where the days events would be held. Instead of the usual registration process, we were asked to fill in a bio, briefly describing ourselves, our educational role and passions as well as our contact details. We were also ushered towards a booth where a photograph, to attach to our bio, was taken. These were all displayed along the glass walls at the entrance to the arena, allowing us to see who else was at the event and find people with common interests that we may wish to collaborate or network with in the future.

From the friendly greetings to the wall of ‘Collective Genius’, the message was clear – everyone at the conference was important. We weren’t there to be treated as passive consumers, listening to the wisdom of education gurus. Instead, there was an assumption that we all had expertise to offer each other.

Wall of Collective Genius

Bio form

Day One followed an interesting format. Rather than keynotes, we listened to a series of ten minute presentations from speakers telling stories of change projects that they had worked on in their education context.The topics were wide ranging, from individual school concerns such as increasing parental engagement, and increasing engagement in mathematics;  to system wide concerns such as how to spread good practice across a system; to social justice issues, such as how to provide a great education for society’s most marginalised students.
Each speaker would finish with a provocation, asking the conference for suggestions to help further the impact of their project. We discussed these provocations with the attendees around us, and wrote our thoughts on post-its which were collected and provided to each presenter at a later point.

Shortly after arriving, I’d run into two colleagues from my PLN whom I greatly admire, Matt Esterman and Steve Brophy. They are both deep thinkers who often challenge my thinking through their blogs  and Twitter conversations. It was with Steve and Matt that I discussed each of the provocations, and thus I found that part of the event extremely worthwhile. I enjoyed the thoughtful and at times critical nature of the conversations.

I wondered, however, what the experience might have been like if I’d been sitting with people I did not know, or didn’t gel with. Would those conversations been as productive or would we have been restrained in our discussions, bound by a sense of politeness or unwilling to reveal too much of our thoughts to strangers?

Prior to the conference, organiser Summer Howarth had told me the conference was all about drawing on the collective genius of the room. I wasn’t sure what she meant, but this format of responding to a provocation and providing suggestions that might add value to the work the presenter was doing was a brilliantly simple way of doing that. I’d love to see it applied to other events, like teach meets.

we had to take a selfie at one point on Day 1

Day Two of EduChange was all about doing. There were about 50 different workshops and events running throughout the day that people could attend. These included activities such as a mindfulness session in the main, participating in the Saturday morning Twitter Chat, #satchatOC, as well as design thinking workshops, a maker space, and the chance to pitch educational ideas to an expert panel, made entirely of school students, who would then provide their feedback. Many of the attendees came to the event in teams, with a project in mind, and used this day to work with people who could help refine, improve and develop their ideas and project plans.

Unfortunately, that morning I had what turned out to be a bad reaction to missing some medication. After an hour I had to leave the conference due to extreme dizzy spells, and spent most of the day lying down at my hotel. As a result, I couldn’t run my own part of the event, which was to record an episode of my podcast, The Teachers Education Review and have attendees share their stories of change, and of course, I couldn’t witness how Day Two took shape. However, the Twitter Feed from the conference was buzzing all day, and it seems that many people left inspired with a visions and plans for their own change projects.

Did EduChange live up to its promise of being unlike any education conference I have been to in Australia? That was certainly the case for me.

Well done Education Changemakers for bringing a great new style of conference to Australia, one that respected and celebrated the expertise of everyone in the room, and inspired so many people to make a difference.

Why I Teach Mindfulness

My first experience of ‘mindfulness’ was as a fourth grade student. The school I attended offered Yoga as one of its sport options. I don’t remember anything about it other than the meditation at the end. Our teacher would take us through a progressive muscle relaxation exercise, followed by a visualisation which usually involved us imagining our bodies filling slowly with light, and becoming weightless, floating above the floor.

Learning this relaxation technique had a profound effect on me.I was an anxious child who often wrestled with strong emotions throughout the day and terrors at night. I used these relaxation techniques whenever I couldn’t sleep. It empowered me by enabling me to calm my fears, to be at peace, to experience moments of tranquility.

As an adult, I continue to meditate, practice Yoga and engage in other mindful activities. When I neglect this, my quality of life decreases, I lose that sense of inner peace and am easily overwhelmed.

And so, as a teacher, I have always included mindfulness in my classroom program. Sometimes it has been as little as  a five minute relaxation exercise after lunch, at other times it has been a 40 minute yoga session as part of our sport offering, and I frequently embed it in our art activities.

I do it to offer my students a way of finding their own path to tranquility, should they need one. It’s to demonstrate a useful process that might help them, as it helped me, to find relief from the strong emotions which sometimes overwhelm them.

This article in The Huffington Post expresses a number of concerns about teaching mindfulness. Including:

  • that it is taught in order to increase  ‘”normalized” behavior, fewer emotional outbursts, teaching children to accept the frustration and hardships they endure, instead of taking a critical approach to understanding them.’
  • that ‘several schools are standardizing this approach to well-being and several mindfulness curriculums are indeed measuring and evaluating your child’s ability to remain “zen”.’
  • ‘The emphasis on sublimating strong emotions such as anger could send unintended messages about not speaking up in the face of injustice, which has serious ramifications for dissuading children’s later participation in social activism.’

If schools are indeed teaching mindfulness in order to promote compliant behaviour or to sublimate emotions I would share the authors’ concerns. And certainly, the idea of standardizing and measuring mindfulness seems not only impossible, as such a thing cannot be quantified, but to utterly miss the point of the practice.

However, my own understanding of mindfulness is that it has nothing to do with either compliance or sublimating emotions. Practicing mindfulness does not deny emotions. Instead it helps us not to be controlled by them. It lowers the cortisol levels in the blood that are generated by stress and trigger a fight or flight response. As we practise, we develop a greater capacity to respond rather than react to situations.

The author of the Huffington Post article worries that teaching mindfulness ‘may encourage children to become peaceful and passive in their acceptance of hardships, rather than questioning, or holding an oppositional stance to inequities of social class, race, or gender.’

Instead, I believe it increases the ability of children (and adults) to respond to setbacks and injustices in a calm and effective manner.