Priorities for Positive Professional Development

This month marks workshop season for me. I’ve had the chance to facilitate three workshops in total in the last two weeks (2 versions of one plus a stand alone event). Every time I finish I feel grateful, satisfied and also a little wiser. I’ve been designing and facilitating workshops for at least 7 or 8 years, often for educator conferences in Europe and once in the US. My favorite topics revolve around effective communication and collaborative work.

image by Spelic

One of the things I have learned about myself in this process is how critical it is for me to see myself in my participants. I know what easily bores, tires or frustrates me in a professional learning environment and I take measures to avoid those habits when planning each event. Whatever the specific topic, I have established certain priorities in designing experiences that participants will ideally find stimulating, relevant, and worthwhile. These are:

  • high levels of participant activity – Whether talking, moving, writing, thinking, keeping participants actively engaged in the topic requires a steady diet of activity throughout a session. Sitting and listening may be good for a while but we all need brief breaks to process and digest what we are taking in.
  • Movement – I like to have participants physically move, by walking, standing, switching partners, perhaps even dancing or playing a short game. Movement injects energy into the space and offers a change of pace. Depending on the group’s needs, with movement you can slow things down or shake them up, calm the waters or stir the pot and it can loosen the atmosphere and allow participants to experience each other in a different light.
  • Experience over content. In an adult learning environment we often assume that content is what people are after. My experience tells that this is a “Yes, and” proposition. People want content – skills, tips, tools, ideas that they can use and apply in their specific context AND they want an experience which will help them connect with and retain this precious content. For this reason, I think of the content as a vehicle for creating a meaningful learning experience for participants. This means that processing time, practice and reflection are built into the plan. Being a realist, this priority has helped me see the need for the next:
  • Doing less.  In order to balance content sharing with high participation, I usually decide to cover less content. In my design I allocate the time that participants will need to share their experiences or  think carefully about a subject. Rushing folks through multiple activities is of little use if participants feel stressed and pressured as a result. I strive to be clear about my priorities and plan accordingly.
  • Being present to what the group needs and offers.  This is a broad, catchall way of saying, have an agenda and be flexible enough to tweak or alter it, if the needs of the group demand it. It is also a reminder to be open to the wisdom and experience that resides in the group and seek ways to tap into it – for ultimately, this is the reason we come together at all.
  • Designing a learning experience that I will like.  So far I have enjoyed the privilege of creating the learning experiences that I value. I have not had to deliver anyone else’s message or curriculum. So when I create a plan, I do so with my audience in mind as well as considering which content and methods excite me as the facilitator.

When I manage to pay attention to and recognize these priorities from the design stage through to the workshop’s conclusion, the results for participants and me are remarkably positive.  What has also become apparent to me when I work with adults is how important validation and recognition are. My teaching roots are in physical education, an arena where different people can feel inadequate and lacking at different times and the sentiment is often quite visible. So much of my work is grounded in cultivating an atmosphere in which all skill levels can feel welcome and free to express themselves. In my workshops, a similar frame of mind is critical. Creating a safe environment where participants feel encouraged to share and bring their whole selves to the learning lays the foundation of the work I aim to accomplish with any group.

To this end, I invest time and energy thinking carefully about the language, both verbal and body, that I use to communicate my essential values. I say, Thank you, after nearly every interaction. I try to listen without interrupting. I use an invitational tone of voice. I move around as I speak. I laugh at my own mistakes. These are habits which express who I am and they also represent a conscious and deliberate way of  “showing up” for participants and clients in these special learning spaces.

In my most recent workshops, participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And while the content was certainly of interest, what people most often acknowledged was how they felt as a result. Following a workshop on inclusion activities, the room did not empty until 15 minutes later as participants were still deeply engaged in conversation. Inclusion took place. In fact, one participant offered me the best facilitator feedback I believe I can ever hope to receive: “You practice what you preach.”

 

A hat tip to Laura Thomas (@CriticalSkills1), a facilitator over at Edutopia, who sparked my interest with this post on a recent experience she had with a group of educators. Let there be more positive professional development experiences for educators. We deserve them!

 

On Becoming Adaptive

...and I'm in.  CC via pixabay.com

…and I’m in.       (CC via pixabay.com)

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.