When we experience new learning that is exciting and valuable, we are often bubbling over with the desire to share and to envelop others in our heartfelt enthusiasm. I’ve recently returned from exactly that kind of learning experience. A seminar where I left feeling love and gratitude for everyone in the room, where I had daily “a-ha” moments which nearly knocked me off my seat, where the teaching was so good that it often felt more like magic than learnable practice – that’s the kind of experience it was.
I attended the Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar (http://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/) which was hosted by the Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan (TIS). The 4-day training which focuses on developing individual and group capacities in leadership and collaboration was sponsored by the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) of which my school is a member. A small contingent of international educators from Delhi, Dubai, Bangkok, Vienna and Vilnius joined the TIS staff in creating a tremendously trustful atmosphere for exchange and community. Our facilitators, Carolyn McKanders and Fran Prolman, guided us expertly through a rich program of awareness raising, skill building and actionable next steps. And yet, the content, as compelling and applicable it may be in its own right, was not the star of the show. No, the real star, the giant outcome for me, was the overarching process which I would dare to call a transformation.
In four days it’s possible to cover a lot of content. And we did that. What was different was that at every stage we were consistently exposed to these four things:
- Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.
- There was 100% transparency on the What, Why and How of each step.
- We received both modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced
- Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.
Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.
Both facilitators engaged participants by being authentic, welcoming and approachable. Questions were encouraged. Attention to feedback was meticulous, so that small changes in the program which better served the group’s understanding were honored and carried out. As a participant, I felt empowered to participate fully without fear of stepping on the facilitators’ toes. In the Adaptive Schools framework, I believe this might fall under the heading of “promoting a spirit of inquiry.”
100% transparency of the What, Why and How of each step
Skilled educators understand the value of making it clear to students, participants and group members why something is going to be done, exactly what it is that is going to be done, and how it will be done. Throughout the training every strategy, reference point and skill was described, explained and recorded, so that the information was consistently visibly available – posted on the walls all around our meeting space. By the last day we were literally surrounded by the fruits of our learning. If I was ever unclear as to what we were doing and why, all I needed to do was look around or ask a question. I never needed to leave thirsty for an answer.
Our facilitators provided modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced.
This practice really hit home for me. “What? Why? How?” is in fact a strategy which says that you answer these three questions for the group before asking group members to do something. You play with an open hand by providing clear rationale and reliable instructions. This frees group members up to actually focus on the task at hand rather than second guessing the possible motivations or likely outcomes. This piece is so important because it, demonstrates and reinforces an uncontested respect for group members’ time, presence and energy. And the effect of seeing the strategy in action and then actually practicing it in real time builds a participant’s sense of efficacy. Seeing is believing – believing that, “yes, I could try this, too.”
Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.
The oft repeated sentences offered by our facilitators spell it out: “The learning is not in doing the activity, it is in the reflection” and “any group that is too busy to reflect on process is too busy to grow.” We don’t get smarter by simply doing, we need to reflect on what happened and how, in order to make sense of it on our own terms and eventually internalize what holds meaning. In the space of 4 days, there were no superfluous activities. All of our doings had a purpose and at each stage we were given opportunities to process our thinking sometimes silently, or by talking with a partner or in a small group; sometimes in writing and in pictures. This habit of reflection steadily contributed to group trust, participant efficacy and enthusiasm, and a gradual anchoring of the content in our lived experiences. Brilliant!
While there may be plenty of resources, agencies and consultants out there that offer to teach a group how to run more successful meetings, boost employee morale or even how to build and sustain professional learning communities, the capacity to stimulate genuine transformation remains rare. The Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar achieved more than most by attending to the needs of adult learners in fundamentally deep ways. Rather than focusing exclusively on tips, tricks and raw skills, we addressed the significance and contribution of identity, mission and values in the mix. In order to do that we had to make ourselves a little vulnerable from time to time. In some cases we had to let go of a few long held ideas while making friends with new ones. Carolyn and Fran, by applying the four characteristics mentioned above provided the space, structure and atmosphere for the group to feel capable and prepared for true transformation to take place.
For more information on the work of Adaptive Schools, please visit the thinking collaborative website (see above) and consider getting a hold of the sourcebook: The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman, 2009, Christopher Gordon Publishers, Norwood, MA.