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Tetris and the Crowded Curriculum

December 13, 2017

Too much stuff.

 

Curriculum directives, technology and innovation, literacy, numeracy, NAPLAN, Y12 exams, assessment and reporting,..the list goes on and on. We only have 24 hours in the day and while we allow these things to pile up upon our work as educators, eventually, like Tetris, we will lose the game.

 

I am not naive enough to believe that we can ever have a relaxed "easy" job as those to whom we entrust the learning and wellbeing of our young people, but I think we can win the crowded curriculum by, like Tetris, making horizontal connections. 

 

Let me explain my 3 step plan...(because every great plan has 3 steps)

 

1. The core business

 

Focus on the core business. I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes things build up, like Tetris bricks, and remain unchallenged. The number one complaint I hear when working with educators is the lack of time; being "time poor". Well unfortunately, I am unable to create more hours in the day; that is beyond my pay grade. What I can share with you are a couple of ways to utilise that time more effectively by ensuring it is aligned to the core business of the school. 

 

 Some schools like John Monash Science School in Melbourne, have organised their week so staff have professional learning every Wednesday from 1:30pm until 4:30pm and most staff have no other obligatory meeting times in the week. What is this witchcraft I hear you say? The core business of John Monash Science School is designing deep learning through a co-teaching paradigm. You cannot have effective co-teaching without using available time to design learning collaboratively. So out go the administrative staff meetings and people reading out things that could have been put into an email bulletin (more on that momentarily) and in come professional learning and collaboration sessions focussed on the core business.

 

2. Language matters

 

Staff meeting. What does that term actually mean? Is it a time when we are meeting as a social construct? Is it a meeting of minds? Is it a swap meet? A sporting meet? What are we meeting about?

 

Having a specific language around the way we work is incredibly important for me, and while a lot of my time is spent with educators elaborating a language of learning, we can also develop a language which allows us to have clarity in the way we work as a staff. 

 

One way to achieve this is to ensure a protocol for collaborative working. I have one I have cobbled together from many excellent examples I have seen over the years which goes;

 

  • Safe Space - we all have egos which can be bruised, but if we are hard on content and soft on people, we can be honest and robust in our discussions

  • Share the air - make sure everyone has an opportunity and an obligation to participate; all voices should be heard so that when we leave the space with any decisions or strategies to move forward, everyone is on the same page

  • Be kind, specific and helpful - this gem comes from Ron Berger's work and one of my favourite books "An Ethic of Excellence". When critiquing ideas, policies, strategies etc, we can be much more constructive if we are kind (but realistic), specific (focus on the parts to make the whole better) and helpful (give actionable feedback in the form of feedforward). I also tack "approve or improve" onto this so that we avoid naysaying and idea bashing.

  • Be mindful - distractions are everywhere and technology, while a powerful ally, can also lead us down the rabbit hole of reading and responding to emails rather than being present in the moment of discussion. While I am happy for technology to be used to collaboratively take notes, I respectfully ask that  you remain mindful of what we are here to achieve

  • Hold your ideas lightly -borrowed from my great friend Tom Barrett this phrase always reminds me to not hold onto my initial idea so tightly it suffocates and dies and listen to feedback from others which help further improve my initial idea.

I recently ran a design sprint with a school who is looking to further build collaboration between staff to enhance learning design. A number of great prototypes were launched and one, which I thought was such a low effort/high impact strategy, was the redesign of the "meeting agenda". The key aspects were;

  • tl;dr  (too long didn't read)- a section of the agenda summarising information which does not need particular discussion during this meeting but is important to know

  • elephant in the room - this time in the agenda is when we can talk about the problems we might be having and even have a bit of a whinge. It is time delimited and if any of the issues need further discussion they can be tabled for the next meeting or simply dealt with.

  • Collabshare - a dedicated part of the agenda for the sharing of great practice

  • Stand, appreciation or apology - a short period of time where anyone can make a stand for a specific thing ("I want to make a stand for respect in our meeting time and remind everyone to close their emails!") an appreciation of someone else or an apology. I first witnessed this at a whole school Community Meeting at XP school in Doncaster UK where it was led by students. It was one of the most uplifting educational experiences I have ever had an merits its own blog post later.

  • Outcome focus; what do we want to achieve, what are the milestones, what resources are needed, who is repsonsible?

Simple changes to the meeting structure move it from being a spoon feeding of information or amorphous talk fest to something much more focussed and time conscious. 

 

3. Look for horizontal connections

 

This year I have worked with a number of schools looking for horizontal connections when designing learning experiences. How do we ensure that the general (and yet extremely important) capabilities of the curriculum are given as much importance as the maths or literacy outcomes? How do we make sure that technology use is not an add on, but rather a critical component of powerful learning? Essentially, how do we build horizontal connections so that we are both efficient and effective with the precious learning time of our children and don't burn out because of crowded curriculum?

 

One approach is to design learning using outcome hexagons. I first saw this approach at St Mel's in Campsie, NSW a couple of years ago and have adopted it as a core part of my work supporting schools in learning design. Once educators see that far from being in silos, the curriculum invites us to make strong conceptual connections, we can suddenly free up space, stop delivering curriculum and start uncovering it. I will delve more deeply into this in a future post, but here is an image of some work I did with 20 primary schools exploring STEM and social innovation.

 

We can use our time more effectively and efficiently and we can win the Tetris game of the crowded curriculum, but it does take a little bit of courage and the will to do things differently.

 

Until next time...

 

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