It’s all in the (re)design

Of all the things I explored across my quarter-century (and counting) career, I can honestly say it is my morphing experience with Design Thinking that fascinates me the most.  If asked to express that feeling in a word, I’d say “authentic”.  There are countless strategies, methods and “programs” that burst onto the educational scene, gain notoriety (or infamy–Guided Imagery, anyone?), but as I think over the recent emergence of Design Thinking, I can see how it’s suddenly gained traction across not only K-12 education, but in many aspects of business, research, and of course product development.  Here is a Brief History of my connection to Design Thinking.

But first… a definition:

Design Thinking comes to us from faculties of Engineering and industrial design.  Originally the tool for rapid prototyping and the creation of new “things”, designers–and educators–began to recognise the value in the process, which is organized around what I call the Five Pillars.

1) Empathy– This, to me, is the critical piece for education.  A human-centred approach is the launch of every challenge.  Before ever considering solutions, strategies or plans, you must first deeply understand the “Who” at the heart of the issue.

2) Definition–This stage is actually, to me, a continuation of the Empathetic focus, where the end user is considered in relation to all the details– how does the challenge impact or influence the focus? How is the environment formed, moving, or is it? This is the “What” of the issue.

3) Ideation–The fast-paced, inventive and highly creative stage of ideation is where solutions are discussed for the first time.  This is the vital difference between other “problem-solving” strategies and Design Thinking– the solutions are not even discussed until a deep look at the Empathetic focus, and the problem or challenge clearly defined.  But that’s not all– the ideation stage encourages a variety of solutions and strategies, and, done authentically, provides a rich tapestry of possibilities– many paths, not just one.

4) Prototyping– this is were the “design” actually begins– prototyping allows participants to select one of their ideations, or a combination of several, and begin to craft a solution. By its definition, prototyping intends that the perfect version is not the first one….in fact, there may be many iterations until one is perfected.

5) Test/Reflect– the final stage, but seldom the end point. The beauty of this pillar is that you are encouraged to consider, try, receive feedback, try again, reflect again….etc.  When I do round in a workshop, I try to include 2 Feedback rounds, so that participants can experience the benefit of other eyes and opinions on their design.

and Sometimes 6) Often there is a 6th stage–Implementation.  This does suggest an endpoint, and makes sense in product development, where the goal is to perfect an item, to create the best version of a car, bird house, jacket, backpack, etc….. To me, when designing an approach to a challenge, I don’t necessarily see that as an endpoint– for example, Bullying, Poverty, Homelessness, Graffiti… unless the challenge is completely eradicated by the solution, you may remain in the Test/Reflect stage indefinitely.

Part 2:  What have I learned?

This is where the rubber hits the road.  There are two prongs to this question– what have I learned about the process, and what have I learned about facilitating the process.  At the time of writing, I have edited, rearranged, re-imagined and redesigned my own template several times.  I use elements from Susan Crichton’s work at UBCO, Stanford’s D-School, Future Design School and the iie (Institute for Innovation in Education). I have also started to layer in Liberating Structures and different Inquiry strategies.

Facilitation-wise, I have worked with groups as small as 6 and as large as 100+.  The most successful sessions have been the largest ones, where I talk the least and the participants work collaboratively through my template.  I have taken grade 6-12 students through the process, whole school districts (and their multi-partners), post secondary instructors and support staff, and recently a multi-employee group of senior admin, teacher union reps and custodial/support staff. In every case, I was facilitating both the use of Design Thinking and leveraging the opportunity to address a challenge in their culture or workplace.

Learning #1: Provide the participants the opportunity to address a challenge while learning about Design Thinking.  Standing and talking about it is never going to give the full flavour of the strategy.  However… ensure the challenge you offer is one that is relevant to the whole group. Which leads me to…

Learning #2: The most successful sessions I’ve had are the ones where participants come with, or quickly land on, a challenge they wish to address. The bigger the group, the more diverse the issues, and it’s a rich experience to all to see what their colleagues are considering vital at the moment. On a few occasions, I have designed a challenge based on conversations with the organizer.  These are successful too, as the organizer generally has intimate knowledge of the organization.  Participants are always, however, encouraged to tailor the challenge to address a situation they care about.

Learning #3: If the participants don’t have a challenge in mind, or can come up with one on the fly, have some standard challenges on hand to share.  Recently I led a session that was scheduled at the end of a Friday Pro-D.  The participants were interested, but not overly participatory. I ended up running the session as an overview, rather than working through the process.  I left that session feeling like the participants hadn’t gotten the most out of the afternoon.

Learning #4: Don’t make them solve a fake problem. Because this is an exercise all about empathy, I feel strongly that there is disrespect in not making that authentic. Human beings have infinite capacity to empathize, but we also have innate “BS” meters. Choosing an activity that focuses on a marginalized or disadvantaged segment of the population may seem like an easy entry, but unless it’s relevant to the group, it can come off as a bit of a cheap ploy.  Likewise, a “global challenge” can by it’s very nature not spark the creativity that a personal connection to an issue can. As one colleague expressed it to me one day, “I don’t care about the (x). I wanted to make something else for that user.”  That’s not to say you can’t (and I certainly have) offer a generic challenge, especially when the goal is to more deeply understand Design Thinking, but I’ve learned to always offer that extra layer of authenticity.  It’s a simple sentence: “Of course, if you have a similar challenge in your situation, please feel free to tailor this experience to your needs.”

Learning #5- Make sure you understand what empathy is.  There is always a “who” at the heart of every issue.  Usually there are multiple Whos.  Sometimes it’s all the Whos down in Whoville, but the empathetic focus needs to be human, even if the most elegant and well designed solution presents itself, if it doesn’t meet the needs of the humans, it’s destined to be a beautifully designed and elegant failure.

Fortunately, all failures are welcome in the Design Thinking realm.  In fact, it’s failing that moves forward thinking.  DT helps you fail faster to learn quicker. To learn better. To learn more better.  Hmm… I think I need to run that motto through the process again.

Design a Student Council
This is the template I used with secondary students– I provided sample empathetic focus to kickstart the process.






Cut of Jib

Hello from the vortex…This autumn seems to have been even busier, more hectic and altogether much more a whirlwind than many in recent memory. My days have been long, and varied and utterly chaotic.

Did that sound like I was complaining, dear reader?  Not my intention at all…. in fact, as I said in a meeting the other day: “Chaos is my candy.”

Part of what contributes to the chaos is an overwhelming shortage (wait… can a deficit situation be “overwhelming”? In any event, you get my meaning) of TOCs– Teachers On Call, or substitute teachers, supply teachers… depending on where you live, you may have different names for them. But our shortage is so drastic, we’re almost at the “Do you you have a criminal records check and a heartbeat?” set of filters. The situation will soon be eased, however, as I passed through the board office the other day, the foyer was filled with fresh-faced, excited young teacher candidates awaiting entry interviews.  What a time to be alive! The decades-long-anticipated teacher shortage has manifested itself– in spades.

In my part of the organization, there are a few of us in positions of special responsibility, and there are also other specialists, like speech and language pathologists, or ELL teachers… but in any event, there we are, experienced and licensed teachers who travel to classrooms on a daily basis to support specialty programs, suddenly called back in to Active Duty because of this extreme shortage.  In my case, because a big part of my job is side-by-side teaching, this hasn’t been too daunting to step into the breech on occasion. However, even with 25+ years’ experience and deep knowledge of the district, it is different to stand in front of a room full of little (or even big) faces and know you are responsible for them during your time together.

I have been called out a few times this year, and it has given me a good glimpse into what teachers are doing, strategies they are employing and maybe challenges they are experiencing. A good reminder. An opportunity to reflect on my career, and still learn new things. And also re-learn old things. Such as “Cut of Jib“.  I’ve used this expression for years to describe that unmeasurable, intangible, non-provable but absolutely dead-accurate and innate ability teachers have to size up a kid at first glance.  Now, please don’t misunderstand, I do not mean the “scan the room and instantly pick out the trouble-makers”, although we can do that too.  I mean much more importantly, much more authentically being able to sense an important truth about the child standing in front of you. When I had my own classes (which, as I break down the math looks like this: 15years X 25 kids per class + 6years X 120 kids + a few summer jobs and community groups, and raising 2 kids of my own = a few thousand kids in my head) I maybe wasn’t always an exemplary PE teacher, and sometimes lacked discipline (both self and outwards) but I know kids.

It was a happy–and a bit surprising– reminder that this skill is not lost, just because I’m no longer standing in front of a class on a daily basis. A couple of examples from a recent call-out: I was in a grade 6 class for an afternoon, and their little grade 1 buddies arrived to do some reading. I glanced over the grade ones as they arrived, like so many tumbling puppies, and saw one little face, still calm on the surface, but, to borrow another maritime phrase, I could see a storm a’brewin’. I stretched out my arm in the universal sign of welcome/shelter, and sure enough this tiny human glued herself to my side and began to sob… all because she could not find her big buddy. Well, in short order the crisis was averted and the tears soon stopped, but I grinned inwardly at the finely honed radar that allows mommy / teacher to spot tears even before they sprout. On my way out at the end of the day, I stopped and chatted to the vice principal for a moment.  I wanted to share an observation about one of the older students, something that was a little flicker of concern, even though the student had neither done nor said anything inappropriate, there was something about about their demeanour that made me want to ask a question. The vice principal looked at me with something I would say akin to “agog”, and expressed shock that of all the kids I had seen in little more than 2 hours, this was the one that stood out.  This child that, after several months’ observation, they, too, wanted to get to know more about, to see their learning style and engagement be more successful.  The only answer I had as to Why was: “Cut of jib”.

My favourite COJ story, however, came from a classroom visit to the school I had done my final teaching practicum in decades earlier.  By coincidence and happenstance, the young teacher who invited me in happened to also have been a student at that school, and was there as a learner when I was a student teacher.  In fact, her older brother was in my practicum class and I remembered him and his friends very well. As we chatted about the fun of the coincidence and she caught me up on all that had happened with her brother since grade 5 (well, the highlights, anyway), she ended by saying “Well, I guess you might not be surprised to know he is a lawyer.”  (PS: not just any lawyer, a well suited and booted highly respected lawyer in a prestigious big-city law firm– also a mommy / teacher thing, we brag on our kids). I smiled and said I wasn’t surprised at all that he would have chosen law, or even accountancy, but I also wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he was a successful writer. Again, eyes bug / agog is deployed and she says “I can’t believe you said that. He was headed for a masters degree in literature and when he couldn’t get into the program he wanted, he went into law instead. How do you even remember that much about him, almost 30 years later?”.  I smiled and shrugged and said “Cut of Jib”, of course.

The other thing that makes me smile in thinking about all of this today is remembering my own daughter, before she started school, looking at something I was doing (I’ve long since forgotten what it was– marking papers? Putting together Christmas treats? Sorting class photos?) and she said “Is that for one of your kids?” And she didn’t mean herself or her little brother, she knew that I had other kids, too, that I cared for, was proud of, thought and worried about, and could tell a lot about, just by Cut of Jib.

It’s a Teacher Thing….

Walking the Design Thinking Walk

So….hello, gentle reader….guess what I did today!  For the first time in about 25 years, I walked into a class and said “Hi!  I’m your substitute teacher today!”.  When I was a kid, it was called being a Substitute Teacher, at the start of my career,  we were known as TOCs (Teachers on Call), and then THAT morphed into TTOCs (Teachers Teaching On Call) and along with the name change, so too has the call-out system, pay and benefits changed, but I digress. Today I was called back into active duty because of the desperate shortage of TTOCs we are experiencing.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I was happy to do it, and had a great day.  But for the last 4 years, while I have been a number of classrooms, and have done a not-insignificant amount of teaching, there is a huge difference between showing up cold as “The Sub” and  walking in with an armload of iPads and with the classroom teacher riding herd.  Now, me being the perverse creature I am, that wasn’t enough of a challenge.  I took a look at the classroom teacher’s beautifully prepared day plan (and I mean, this was a thing of beauty– typed, highlighted, times and activities mapped out, aligning with the neat stacks of photo-copied work sheets), glanced around at the orderly desks and pristine white boards, and thought “Well, I could be in for a easy day!” And then I thought…… “Nah”.

Because here is the thing.  I love what I do– I mean I LOVE it.  It’s chaotic and messy and diverse and something different everyday, and I am ever so grateful for the opportunity to help other teachers, to encourage them and help them integrate elements into their practice that I think are valuable.  Ah… there it is…. In other words, I can talk the talk… (you know the rest).  So, despite the well -organized and orderly path presented me, I instead chose, as is my wont, Chaos.  I have been facilitating sessions on Design Thinking, in particular, using Design Thinking Mindframe activities that pull in elements from a variety of sources (see my posts here and here). Although I had seen great success taking adults through the process, I had yet to try it with kids. And so… that was the background that led me to spending the day fully immersed in the an activity that had a group of sixth graders developing emergency safety responses for natural disasters using the Design Thinking Mindframe process. In full disclosure, I definitely see areas where this process can be refined and fine tuned, and there is a risk trying something so unfamiliar to a roomful of kids you’ve not met before, who don’t necessarily have a lot of buy-in to the process.

Pictures and a thousand words, and all that….


Design in the cards

As a follow up post to This One I share a deeper dive into design.  As I’ve dabbled in design thinking, muddled through maker space, and tinkered with tinkering, there is one certainty.  There is no one way to work through a design thinking challenge.  There are good practices, and there are false starts– fortunately, at the very core of Design Thinking is the built-in opportunity to revise, reflect, reiterate. With that in mind, I offer you, gentle reader, my Design Thinking Framework 101 goods.

First, the template. DesignThinkingMindset Template This is a mash-up of materials from Stanford Design School, Susan Crichton and Future Design School.  You’ll notice that the first stage, Empathy, is given prominence, as is the Ideate phase. The empathetic question is at the core of any design challenge. Without a deep understanding of the needs and demands of the target, the rest of the process falls short.  The steps can still be followed, but the resulting efforts will lack authenticity and may not even address the actual core question or concern. Narrowing focus on the empathetic stage is perhaps easier when the challenge is one of problem solving instead of “widget building”.   The beauty of this template is that it is equally applicable to any design challenge, but it reinforces the pillars of the process.

Complementing the template are the Design Mainframe cards.  Created by cleverer people than me at the Institute for Innovation in Education, these mindframe cards are intended to encourage the creative process by re-framing your thinking.  And because the design process is best worked through collaboratively, the mindframe cards behave like another collaborator, offering a divergent point of view, sparking a different, but related conversation.

I’ve put some mindframe cards together as a resource that can be checked out of our resource centre, and included this poster which maps the cards to the relevant section of the template, and includes a brief overview of the Design Thinking process.  IMG_8523.JPG

You can order a set of iie. Mindframe cards here: Printer Studio Canada  They include a breakdown description of each stage, as well as a glossary of terms and explanation of activities. Follows is some examples of awesome “AHA!” moments I had using this activity for a whole school district recently. I was invited to a small northern BC community called Bella Coola (located in the Great Bear Rainforest– how cool is that!?) with a goal of walking the entire school district through my Design Thinking Challenge. In sum total, that includes about 50 personnel, including teachers, assistants and administration serving a student population of around 250. So, in terms of scale, some of what we achieved would be challenging to reproduce in bigger settings, but great conversation and thinking came out of the day.  I divided the group into 9 smaller working groups, and used one mindframe template per group, and then circulated with 2 decks of mindset cards.  It didn’t matter if some tables had the same cards.  I also provided them all with the same question, though they were encouraged to modify it as they wished.  Here are snapshots of the process.

Empathize (Discover):

Simple questions, but not necessarily the ones you remember to ask…
Everyone wanted the sketch artist in their group…










Define the Issue (Frame):



There was never a lull in the conversation













Ideate (Imagine): I run this as eight rounds of 45 seconds each to ideate as many potential solutions as they can.  There is resistance, and often participants don’t enjoy being rushed through, but it’s important to do this section “rapid fire”, because it encourages the most “out there” and blue-sky thinking possible.

…and even then they find it difficult to not just focus on one.
The hardest part for participants is waiting until this stage to start offering solutions…












Prototype (Feedback): Finally, they get to choose a solution and start to build it…

The Prototype cards include examples, but many are more suited to a longer-term process.
Even though this process is not about building a “thing”, there is very much a building and constructing component.










In this phase, once the solution is arrived at and a prototype version of it created, the groups are then combined in order to give one another feedback.  What was particularly fascinating with the Bella Coola group that despite it being a small community and sharing common experiences, each group came up with a very different focus and solution, and so the feedback round was critical, and authentic.

These cards really supported the feedback process by prompting and framing helpful and insightful reflections


Test (Reflect): This is the part of the cycle where it can kind of bog down a little, and where I can see having a longer time frame would be valuable.  It also underscores how critical having a deeply authentic question is– why the Empathize round is essential.












The participants returned to their original groupings and revisited their solutions, and then:



Had the opportunity to share with a new group their revised prototype, based on round-one feedback.

And THEN the whole group got to listen as each small group shared out their ideas.  This is a spot that can be challenging.  In a room full of educators, it’s not difficult to find the willing performers to stand up and share.  I can imagine that being a challenge in other settings.  However, remember how I keep going on about the Empathy piece?  If this whole activity is anchored in empathizing, rather than, say, competition, you have set the stage for understanding and support…. as well, the final cards in the Mindset deck do exactly as advertised– they Spark a refreshing perspective.  I would go so far as to say I was shocked at the “meant to be-ness” of each of the Spark-urtunities (yes, now I am just  making up words… )


It requires stepping off into the unknown to do this process successfully… expect to be uncomfortable, and to be deeply rewarded…

Designing Design Thinking


Hello dear reader– I’ve been off the grid for a while (well, you have to understand that “Off the Grid” means something a little different to me… I still require a coffee maker and a curling iron, I’m not a savage for heaven sakes).  As the whirlwind of September abates, I have the opportunity to reflect. Several years ago, I moved out of a classroom of my own and into the broader system of classrooms that make up our school district.  And I use the word “system” with intentionality, as understanding a system, or organization, is a much different prospect than I realized when I was looking in from the other side of the glass.

Educational fads, or as I call them, Flavours of the Month, come and go with regularity.  A good rule of thumb for educators thinking about a retirement date is to recognize Ed Trends coming around for the second or third time in a career…

And so it is, because I am in my 26th year as an educator, I do tend to view the Next Great Thing with a somewhat jaundiced eye. When Design Thinking arrived at my desk, I gave it a cursory glance and thought “Oh yeah, I’ve seen this before…”. And there it is… THAT is the critical piece. If we go back to the “Flavour of the Month” analogy for a sec, there is a reason why there is ALWAYS Vanilla ice-cream, and probably Chocolate. They are classics for a reason.  Often the Feature Flavour is a stand alone (Pumpkin Spice Maple-Moose Ripple) ((yes, I meant Moose– that’s the comedy portion of the post)), and frequently it’s a twist on a classic (Salted-Caramel Pretzel Chocolate) ((oh what!  “twist” and “pretzel”!  That wasn’t even intentional)). But my point here is a simple one– sure, sometimes trends come and go (please don’t let low rise jeans come around again….), but more and more I realize we have, over time, cherry-picked the critical bits and used them to highlight or accent standard good practice. And sometimes, you need to look at a concept from another angle.

This is where my love affair with Design Thinking began. My first glance at Maker (another hot EdTrend right now) was via this gem: Caine’s Arcade. Again, there is nothing new here– kids have been making stuff out of cardboard boxes since the first Easy Bake Oven shipped.  But this was different… there was more here than just whacking things together, there was intention and deep thought, and then there was social impact. Next came Design Thinking as a natural complement to the ADST Curriculum (Applied Design Skills and Technology). And certainly this framework allows learners to create on a much deeper level than just sticking a pipe cleaner to a Pringles can and calling it good.

But THEN…. I started to think about applying the steps of Design Thinking to Problem Solving and Critical (as opposed to Creative) Thinking, and the Thinking core competency. Now, full disclosure.  All the materials that I use in my Design Framework activity are all borrowed (stolen) from those that came before me.  So standing on the shoulders of giants, here is a break down of Design Thinking Framework– Uncoordinated style.

The Giants:  Susan Crichton of UBC, Elizabeth Childs of RRU, Remi Kelir of U of Colorado, the Future Design School and the IIE –Centre for Innovation in Education. And perhaps the Giantest Giant: The Stanford Design School.

The Goods: A (so far– it keeps growing!) Five page “workbook” that walks participants through the stages of (good) Design: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test,  Reflect/Implement. Sometimes these steps have slightly different names, but the idea, process and goal, is the same. It’s easy to see design thinking applied to creating a Something. “I’d like to invent an automatic sock-putter-on-er” and the steps go something like this:   Think-Sketch-Create_a_model-Try-Ta_Da!   But what if you aren’t creating something concrete, but rather trying to arrive at a solution to a problem or a concern? And what if there are a lot of people involved and one solution doesn’t fit all? And what if it’s just MESSY.

That is when I love it the most. You can envision a Maker Space full of kids being messy and chaotic.  The same is true of the process inside the brain when people are grappling with a thorny issue. One of the most empowering facets of the Design Framework is reflection and feedback are built in and integral steps.  Here is another “borrowed” piece of my presentation:


The Neilson Norman Group provides this model as an education tool with a business focus. I like it a lot, because it shows the “map” for reflection and feedback.  The Stanford model has a simpler visual, but the steps are the same, the reflection implicit as you move through them. triple-aim-design-thinking-stanford-medx-2014-30-638


My workshop begins by introducing the basic description of what Design thinking is, and where it comes from, and then the participants do a rapid-fire design cycle on their issue or problem.  Three hours seems to be the sweet spot for this as an overview.  I tell my participants that as an authentic experience, Design Thinking to solve a problem would be a days-weeks-months proposition to get the greatest value out of the model. I have, at the time of this writing, run a few large groups through “my” process, and each time I do it, I learn a little something more, and in true Design Thinking style, I incorporate that into my next iteration…

Here are some highlights:

BCIT Teaching and Learning Summit.  I offered this imaginary problem to a roomful of Instructors and IT support:  “You have been mandated to incorporate some element of technology into 25% of your coursework.”

My best learning nugget from this workshop was a lightbulb moment from one of the IT guys who said “Oh!  I didn’t realize how we are always just jumping to a solution! As if to say ‘Don’t bother me with the details, here are some things that will probably fix it!’ ” Going forward I remember to emphasize Empathy and Ideation– and NOT even THINKING about a solution until the Prototyping phase.

VIU Year 5 Pre-Service Teachers. My learning from this session was definitely that the collaborative question was the right approach– they all had the same concern, and listening to all of their solutions was of benefit to them all.  The drawback was that it was difficult for them to give deeper feedback, as they were all too close to the problem.  However, the problem (or challenge) was most definitely authentic.

My take-away from this group was to think of a way to improve/support the feedback cycles.  Also, because they would be working with Elementary – age students, several of the learners re-worked my template and created a “kid-friendly” design thinking package.

Bella Coola District Learning Day. Most recently I traveled to the beautiful Great Bear Forest to visit School District 49. The entire staff: teaching, admin, and support gathered for the day to share their learning.  Because this was a diverse group, it was challenging to construct a question that they all shared as a common concern.  I landed on a 3 part problem that allowed groups to pull out 1,2 or 3 aspects of the question. My learning from this event was that, again, the Empathy part is critical, the authenticity of the question makes a huge difference in engagement, and by supporting groups tailoring the question, the feedback rounds become much richer. Next time, I would, if possible, more purposefully arrange the groups.  My goal is to make this a full day workshop, but begin with rapid-prototyping activity, then use a Liberating Structures activity to help participants self-select groups based on need/interest, rather than proximity or “alikeness”.

By far my best take-away from the Bella Coola group was when one of the participants came up to me at lunch and said that he found my approach shockingly subversive.  I asked him to tell me more (!!) and he said simply that it was so refreshing to have done my workshop– that usually on these days an “Expert” flies in and talks about themselves the whole time.  I had done very minimal talking and they got to work with their colleagues on a problem or question that was at the heart of their professional lives right now. I was flattered, humbled and energized knowing that I was Designing a path that was addressing the needs of those I was serving…

The Eyebrow… and other things Teachers recognize.

I was presenting at a conference the other day.  Actually,  I’m being a tiny bit modest– I was delivering a keynote to about 300 post-secondary instructors.  I was honoured to have been invited, and chuffed that my talk went quite well. (At least, that’s how I feel until I see the video recording….)

I was speaking about the changes to our curriculum, and general changes in practice, and how, particularly, those changes are going to affect post secondary institutions welcoming our learners over the next few years. 17082_0615-7467jpg_35177553282_o.jpg

It is very different presenting to adults than to children– adults tend to be quiet… almost freakishly quiet. And sometimes it’s hard to read the crowd and know if you are hitting the right notes. But there are other universal truths about being a teacher that never leave you.


My talk was to have taken 45 minutes, and while I had prepared and practiced and primped and tweaked my slides, I had not actually timed myself delivering the talk. My internal teacher clock that knows the imminent end of the 50 minute period is nigh still functions.  I looked at the clock on my second to last slide and I was bang on time.








But the best universal teaching-truth came when a fellow approached me, and as I smiled in greeting, smiled back in a very particular fashion.  Even though this was a adult man, even, actually, an adult man approaching middle age, with school-aged kids of his own, he smiled at me in that way I recognized.  Teachers know it, whether it’s in a grocery store at the weekend, or on the sidewalk during summer vacation, days or years after having a student in one’s class. It’s the look on a child’s face that shines with the message “I know you, and I don’t know if you recognize me, but HERE I AM!!”. You will be forgiven if you can’t remember the name– although again, teachers have tricks for that too– but you always know that THAT grin and slightly abashed look is that of a former student.  And so, I knew this fully – formed human had at some point been a student of mine,  but I hadn’t quite placed him yet.  I said , “Hey!  How are You!?” and the abashed look grew into amazement and the grin to a wide smile of delight and he responded “You remember me!?”.  That’s when all the teacher tricks come out, and my memory for all my learners, which borders on the savant, is challenged.  The pieces fall into place, and I can remember the campus (Yes…) the building (Yes!) and that his first name begins with …. (YES!!) and I am secretly amazed and delighted, for I never knew this man as a child– he was one of the adult learners I had taught at University, probably 5 or 6 years earlier.  But here’s the thing.  As soon as he knew I legitimately recognized him, his response reminded me of a lesson I keep getting: Relationship is all. I may or may not have been his favourite prof, or taught his most or least favourite class, but what was important was that I care about my learners. That that relationship we form in the class extends forever and everywhere. And all learners, regardless of age or situation when I meet them, understand that they will live forever in my head.

I feel like my whole audience that day sort of understood that — even if they didn’t agree with what I had to say, my message was being delivered on behalf of my learners who would become their learners- that I insisted they care for them as I do, and relationship is the only way to do that.

I also was reminded that no matter how we grow, what we experience and how long we live, we are all secretly 10 years old at heart.








How to Conference

Actually, you know, I think a person could make money with this scheme:  Have a conference where all the workshops, sessions and keynotes are all about How to Run a Conference.  Plus, all things Meta are hot right now.

In any event.  Here are my reflections based on a couple of recent experiences.

Now first of all, full disclosure.  I am often a little resentful when I find myself in a situation where an outside expert has been engaged to provide service or information already curated by a local professional/member/citizen.  In other words, the idea that because someone is From Away, they are inherently better qualified to speak with expertise, regardless of the topic.  Now, of course, if I am the Out-of-Towner invited in to speak or present, I don’t regard myself (in the mirror) with such a jaundiced eye. Interesting how that works….speaking of metacognition…. but in the events I refer to today, I was in one case a local, and in the other case a visiter– a stranger, in fact, to the parts.


Here is how the situations were similar:

Both events were one-day school district-wide professional development days.

Both events were run by pro-d committees/ local members

Both events included a keynote speaker and multiple break-out sessions

The break out sessions in both cases were of  varying lengths, and hosted by local teachers, out-of-town guests and community partners.

Attendance was similar at both events, as was the size and configuration of the host buildings.

And here is where the events were different….

The out of town event provided and booked my hotel

The local event gave me a gift card as thank you

One event provided coffee-tea-fruit-pastries at coffee time, lunch was provided only the presenters, but was also open to support staff and organizers. As well, students of the school were tasked with checking on presenters and distributing water bottles.

One event provided lunch for all attendees, all together, with frequent reminders to only take one sandwich until everyone had a chance to eat, and them more frequent reminders for people to come and take all the leftover sandwiches.

At one event I was welcomed, given a package of information which included a claims form, a gift card, and attendance lists, with email addresses.  Two committee members jumped up to ask if they could show me my room, provided me with some paper I had forgotten to bring, asked if I needed anything else.

The other event…. “welcome” would be too strong a word to use.  A person, sitting at a table, clearly tasked with “helping” people, did notice me when I came in.  That is, she did look at me with a blank stare when I said who I was.  The blank stare continued when I said I was a presenter. A clarifying question replaced the blank stare: “Do you know where you are going?”.  Now it was my turn to assume the blank stare.  I had received an email some days before from the local secretary giving me a room number, so I proffered that tidbit.  “Ok”, said Blanky McWarmWelcome, “you should be good to go.”


The offer of a map? Or someone to help carry my things? Possibly a hand out containing pertinent information, like the floor plan, the wifi access, washroom and lunch locations.

But no.

So, I stumble about the unfamiliar school until, quite by luck, I find the room….and also find a locked door.  Back to Helpy McUnHostess. She seems quite surprised that my door is locked, and quite perplexed as to how to deal with it.  A staff member from the site overhears the issue and finds yet another staff member to provide unlocking assistance.

I happen to notice a Wifi password posted on the wall as I pass and am able to figure out how to connect.

I eventually figure out where lunch is being offered by following the crowd.


So, I’ll leave it with you, gentle reader. Think about similar situations you’ve been in, as visitor or as guest. Regardless of which set of events happened at which location, the basic fundamentals should have been similar.  Even the dictates of common courtesy should have laid some groundwork for protocol.

In lieu of a hint, let me say this…. our local event did have a few out-of-town presenters.  I am so proud of they way I know they were welcomed and treated. Were any of them to ask me, I would have said they might not care to visit the town I just did…..

The Secret Stand Up

In the ever-shifting culture of an organization, there are good ideas that fly, and good ideas that die, and sometimes there are just funny things that happen.  I have been out of town the past 2 Fridays, so I have missed an activity we started last year called “Friday Stand Up”.  It’s a brief staff meeting, in a sense, with a view to dispersing important or timely information regularly.  We still have formal Staff Meetings once a month, but the Friday Stand Ups give us an opportunity to more casually share what we are working on, to celebrate good news, and even to learn a little something. Incidentally, it’s called a Stand Up because it’s intended to be an informal, just gather around and share for a moment-situation, not a formal sit down and follow the agenda-deal. At times, though, it does not seem out of the realm of possibility that the Stand Up could refer to a comedy act.

Although all people present at the Stand Up can, and do,  share, it is run by various members of the Senior Admin team.  As it happened, there were two meetings/conferences running in Vancouver this week, and all of the team and most of the Coordinators were out of office.  I didn’t realize they were all away until I went over to our usual stand-up space and waited.  About a dozen or so colleagues had gathered by start time, and so I texted the member of the team I thought was still in the building.  Jokingly, I said in the text that he and I were the most senior people left in town, was he still going to come over for stand-up? His reply I shared with the large crowd: ” I am in Vancouver.  That means you are in charge.” And that was when the first cheer went up.  And then it got even better… as new people came into the room, cheers and applause exploded.  And each colleague had the same reaction: Confusion and Delight, in equal measure.

So I ran the meeting, after a fashion, and people contributed authentically, as they always do, and we shared our learning as we could. I made a connection between our impromptu stand-up and a little piece of learning that was shared earlier– it was around a community event where some of our First Nations elders were offering a drumming station. As the children took a seat and were given a drum,  the circle learned to beat the drum in time, and to sing or chant a name of one of the drummers.  As each child had a turn to have their name sung and drummed, you could see their pride and delight in being acknowledged in this ancient and authentic way.

I saw that same bashful delight reflected in my colleagues faces as they received applause and acknowledgment from their peers.

The more I learn about learners, the more I realize we all have the same basic needs…

Road trip! The C’s, philosophy, Harvard and me.

Hi Kids.  I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Toronto last week.  It was an Educational Technology “summit” (what ever those are when they’re at home) and it was designed to address EdTech in both the K-12 space as well as post secondary, so, given my day job and my other adventures, it was a great fit.  As I listened to a variety of speakers in both streams, from public and private enterprises, I could see a few themes emerging.  In my presentation (which, as a side note, I thought I would be doing in the K-12 stream as a small workshop turned out to be a presentation to the entire contingent, directly after the keynote….delivered from a professor….from Harvard Business school.  Yes, THAT Harvard.

So, here’s the thing– I was, admittedly, a touch, shall we say, wide-eyed? But then I reminded myself of 2 things.  I had been invited by the conference organizers (who don’t like losing money, so must have seen value in what I had to offer and then I did what I always do in these situations: said to myself “Remember who you are”. And as I launched into my talk it did all come together in a neat package, with connections to other speakers (I call them the Core Competencies, others referred to them as 21st Century skills, and still other “The C’s”– Creative Thinking, Critical thinking, Communication).

It was satisfying to feel we were following the same path, if in different ways.  For example, during my talk, I expressed how due to a variety of factors, financial and philosophical, we were not working in an 1:1 scenario.  I said this out loud and with anecdotal comments to back up the philosophy part, but I still said it knowing that the presentation directly following me was going to speak to their successful 1:1 Chromebook program. I also said to the audience, nay, beseech-ed them, to please stop referring to our learners as “digital natives”.  They did not come out with any more of an innate ability to compute than any other generation, and we are doing them a disservice by using a sexy term to excuse ourselves from teaching them.  This after the Day 1 keynote had particularly used this term several times, and on top of which I really liked her and didn’t want to disagree with her, and yet I did.  Respectfully, but I did.  It was worth it, too, for when I pleaded with the audience of EdTech teachers and leaders to please drop the term from their lexicon, I actually felt a ripple of energy move through the room, and heard a couple of affirmative claps and muffled “whoop whoop!”‘s.

So all this to say that as I take our learning out of our district, I find more similarities than differences, which is heartening, and I find that we are still, despite our path, trailblazers in many ways, but especially around  pedagogy– that is, our craft and practice.  Well done, my friends– you made me look good up there.

Here’s a “Storify” about my presentation:


When Passions and #meatonastick Collide

So, here’s the thing about going to a conference.  It’s about the learning, sure, but also there are hotel soaps, door prizes and meals on the town with colleagues.  That’s the situation I found myself in the other night, sitting at a large table of colleagues that included senior admin, teachers and other coordinators.  I mention that specifically, because it was a rare opportunity to be immersed in an experience that we could all take back home and share– instead of going in one direction, up or down, this time it would spread organically and laterally.  At least that’s my hope. Because I learned an ancillary lesson at this event, which underscored the importance of having context.

Allow me, dear reader, to set the stage for you…. so, this large table of our contingent was situated in the middle of a Brazilian Steakhouse Restaurant. The concept is awesome– gorgeously roasted meats of all manner of mammals, ruminants and fowl appear on large skewers at table side, and diners enjoy as much variety and as many servings as they wish, indicating surfeit only when turning over the card on the table from Green to Red (or, The Quitter Side).  An unlikely place for a conflict over educational philosophy, no!? And, that’s the funny thing, there was no conflict, but there was passion, and isn’t it interesting that when taken out of context, that can look very different from what it really is.

And so. I was making a point. We had all been laughing and joking and enjoying the Meat-on-a-stick experience when I and a colleague sitting kitty-corner to me got into a deeper conversation. She made a kind of a self-deprecating comment about herself (well that’s redundant), and I was trying to make the point that she shouldn’t feel even remotely awkward about it, that she was advocating for her learners, and to me, that trumps everything.  After all, they are our whole reason for being. Now, because the atmosphere was light, and loud, and celebratory, I didn’t want her to think I did not take her comment with the utmost seriousness.

That’s kind of where it all went south.

I realized what had happened when I suddenly became aware of a hush falling over the table, my boss appearing at my shoulder, and HIS boss speaking my name in a kind of a shocked manner. Here’s what they saw/heard: I was leaned forward in my chair, making fervent eye contact (if that’s a thing) with my colleague, shaking my pointing finger at her (that wasn’t really well thought out) and remember how I said it was really loud in the restaurant? I was also SPEAKING REALLY LOUDLY. And I was saying: “I don’t care what you say to me, you are advocating for your learners and that’s all that matters.  My feelings are irrelevant, and I will always support you.”  And I meant it, and I meant it in only the best, most positive way, but somehow it didn’t look or sound like that to the rest of the table (and possibly restaurant, maybe even people on the street). My friend knew exactly what and how I meant it, and I think SHE was a little surprised by the attention our conversation attracted too.

But here is my point (not that I am an over-loud talk-too-much-er)– despite the fact that I should have modulated my voice and could probably have done without the finger pointing– people didn’t recognize what they were witnessing. They mistook my emotion for anger, our passionate conversation for conflict, and felt the need to intervene.  Part of the problem was that we were talking shop at a social event– but I felt I HAD to say what I did– it was imperative to me that I not let her own self-criticizing comment be allowed to slide by unaddressed. And it was imperative to me that she know I was in DEADLY EARNEST. I think I actually used those words (to preface the finger shaking). It was the Teachable Moment in a few ways.

So the upshot of all of this was that I had another opportunity to learn some things about myself, and I reflected why it was SO important to me that she knew I 100% supported her advocacy of her learners. I’m still mulling that over 3 days later.  So this event was on my mind this morning when asked for a reflection on the conference we attended.  I said: “I would like to share that the richest learning for me is always the loudest, most chaotic and sometimes includes arguments and yelling.  Sitting quietly and passively and absorbing knowledge never worked for me.  I need to wrestle it to the ground and see if it keeps fighting back. That’s how I know it’s good learning– it keeps kicking me in the butt.”.  And yeah, I felt a little butt-kicked, in that I was embarrassed, both by causing a scene, and by having it misconstrued. But in the same situation again, I’d probably react the same way– hopefully a little less yelly, and with my pointy fingers out of sight.  Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 11.34.22 AM.jpg  But seriously, MEAT ON A STICK, people… that alone is worth yelling about.