If you are getting this in your email, thank you for being one of our almost 200 subscribers. We are excited to be on this journey with you. Our recent reader survey revealed that many of you not only read the articles regularly, but you also forward and discuss them with friends and co-workers. We are grateful that we are able to create something you find valuable enough to share.
This has been a tremendous experience, and a big challenge. When we embarked on this process, we saw it as a way to aggregate and celebrate the work we have done with our friends and co-workers at Gamble Montessori and in Cincinnati. We also had a bigger, and more secret dream. A dream that is now coming true.
We have signed a contract with the publisher Rowman & Littlefield to write a book with the working title, Angels and Superheroes: Teaching the Whole Child in an Era of Accountability.
The process has been fascinating. Encouraged by friends and readers, and our own belief in our student-centered approach to education, we embarked on this voyage in October of 2014. At a break in a conference where we were presenting, the idea of a book surfaced, as a way to catalogue the important ways that Gamble didn’t seem to be just another school. Then 15 months ago we started the blog. We had a notion that these two works were related, but we initially wrote short blog posts on what we knew and what we believed. Just two professional educators, spitting in the wind. More than 60 posts and nearly 400,000 views later, we are drafting a book.
With advice from a small cadre of wise friends who have published books of their own, we quietly submitted sample chapters and a prospectus to an “A-list” of education publishers who we thought would be receptive to our work, and who we saw as prominent publishers. We were excited to hear positive feedback from Corwin and ASCD, along with a handful of rejection letters. “Thank you for your interest in ____ Publishing.” It was one of these rejection letters, soon after we sent out our prospectuses, that directed us to a company we did not know well, Rowman & Littlefield. We redrafted our work to each set of suggestions from ASCD, Corwin, and Rowman. Ultimately, R&L provided the most enthusiasm and support for our work. The contract landed in our emails on the day we were flying to San Diego to present at the American Montessori Society annual conference. That weekend was a whirlwind of emotions – anxiety about our presentation and the upcoming work, time with prominent Montessori educators – and the excitement of a dream coming true.
With this new work ahead of us, finishing this book by December 2017, we need to make some changes with the blog. To this point we have been writing a new entry each week, averaging almost 2,500 words for each one. Between us, we were writing the equivalent of a chapter a month over a wide range of topics. Now that we are under contract to write actual chapters (to an actual book!), we have revised our publishing schedule. Starting in April, we will begin to alternate new material with pre-published posts. “Classic A&S.” We will curate the older posts, selecting them to appear at an appropriate or significant time for each. We will work in some way to identify to the reader which are pre-published by incorporating a short introduction explaining this.
We are also working to make some other changes to the website to make it easier to search and navigate, and to increase the number of subscribers with some rewards and useful resources, keeping all of our content available to current subscribers.
As we said before, we are excited to be on this journey with you. Many of you are friends, family, and like-family, who have been traveling with us for some time. Your support and encouragement means the world to us. We continue to believe that none of us are angels or superheroes. That, in fact, we are just dedicated people who work hard as a community to find the best way to teach each child who walks through our door. Together we can accomplish a lot. Teachers, parents, students, administrators, entrepreneurs, paraprofessionals – inspiring each other, learning from each other, challenging each other to be the best we can be.
Perhaps, in thinking about it this way, we are ALL angels and superheroes.
Usain Bolt. Katie Ledecky. Michael Phelps. The US Women’s Gymnastics team. In this Olympic season we collectively pause to contemplate greatness and excellence as the world’s best athletes compete in carefully adjudicated sports, with times measured to hundredths of a second, and the title of “World’s Best” at stake. We examine Usain Bolt’s long, muscular frame and we could easily dismiss him as “born to run.” Michael Phelps’ extraordinarily long reach aids him as he propels himself through the water. Simone Biles’ compact build seems made for the floor routine. Are they born to it? What does it take to be elite?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell outlined a common factor among leading innovators, athletes, and experts in a variety of fields – 10,000 hours of focused practice. This research reinforced and depended in no small amount on the work of Anders Ericsson, a brain scientist whose research suggested the same correlation between practice time and success. While not simple, the number at least seems straightforward. Measurable. More like a goal than a mystery.
As educators, charged with aiding the most natural human process of learning, we turned this 10,000 number over in our heads. 10,000 minutes. How many hours was that? And in school days? Weeks? How exactly to get to this goal? 6 hours a day, 180 days a year. Well, simple: we could get there by the middle of 10th grade with every student … if we remained focused on only one subject. And so, to try and do this for every student, the work seems impossible. Frustratingly, Gladwell’s evidence is largely anecdotal. There are naysayers, like the author of this Business Insider article who claimed to “destroy” Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.
And there are other authors who, as with any innovative and popular idea, had been researching in the same field and explored the notion further. One of those authors is Daniel Coyle, whose book The Talent Code unpacks the notion of being born with certain talent. He concludes, in the subtitle of his book, “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.”
As with Gladwell’s book, Coyle’s uses prominent athletes along with somewhat lesser known musicians and other experts. And while he recognizes the importance of time in improving skills, he explores areas where not just one athlete or team, but instead many, have achieved excellence and prominence. These people do not have more time than others available to them. There is something powerful in how they use that time. Gladwell recognized that important detail in his book, that excellence is not something to be stumbled upon at the end of 10,000 hours of just any sort of practice, and wrote an article to dispel the idea. Instead, these authors understand that you have to be working on a skill at the edge of the student’s abilities. The area that Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” where our skills are being challenged and our work is improving in speed and accuracy. An area which, not coincidentally I believe, has all the characteristics of the conditions of “flow” as researched and explained by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Jeff Brokamp, Principal of Walnut Hills High School, by many measures the best public high school in Ohio and an annual member of the US News and World Report’s national best schools list, feels that this book has an important message for educators. “Every teacher should read this,” he told me. I replied that I think everyone who works with learners should read it. Subsequently, I have shared it with my coaches and recommended it to teachers who have asked how to improve their practice. Here is why I share it with those who are interested in getting the most out of their limited time with learners.
Coyle breaks the “talent code” by declaring it a process of 3 key parts. Helpfully, these are all controllable factors: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. While the book seems targeted at coaching athletics, it has powerful implications for the academic classroom.
In deep practice, the student enters a “highly targeted, error-focused process” of stopping and focusing on repairing small errors. Whether it is a clarinetist working – as if from a blueprint – on getting each note right in a challenging passage, or a pilot working on the skill of instrument-only flying in the “Blue Box”, deep practice focuses narrowly on a specific skill. A quick illustration of the concept comes from Brazil’s soccer team, where players – due to a lack of resources including soccer fields – practice in a highly confined space, using soccer balls that are smaller and heavier. In this way, the unintended consequence of insufficient resources is a mastery of the ball handling skills required to out-maneuver an opponent on the field. While much of the game of soccer is spread out on the open field, these pivotal moments of defender vs ball-handler really determine the outcome of the game by allowing a team to control possession and set up more shots and better shots on goal.
Deep Practice in the Classroom
In the academic classroom, a math teacher can emulate the deep practice model by breaking down a math process into its component parts. If a particular step slows down or confounds one or more or her students, the teacher can provide practice just on that step. Instead of having students run over the open fields portion of the questions, the parts they already have mastered, wasting precious classroom time, the teacher can isolate many examples of those particular steps. The student can enter deep practice by practicing, over and over, the specific skill they lack. This intense practice speeds growth and maximizes the little time we have.
This can also happen by using the concept of writing across the curriculum where every student is asked to write in response to every question in every class. This creates additional practice where some students would otherwise simply tune out or attend to something other than the question at hand. In a typical classroom, a teacher covering a concept can pose a question to the group and have only a few hands go up. The response might be to call on one of those whose hands are up. A more skilled teacher might recognize that he has called on those students already and ask for additional volunteers. A master teacher will use the concept of cold-calling and writing to learn to ensure deep practice. Here’s how that works. For the key concepts in a lesson, instead of calling out a question to ultimately be answered by one student, the master teacher asks every student to write their response. This creates almost universal engagement with the question. If students then pair up and share those answers with each other, then offer their own or their partner’s response to the whole group, each child has twice engaged with the question and possible answers. When shown or guided to the correct answer by a skilled teacher, the student can refer to their written notes and their conversation – their deep practice. The work is rewarded with the right answer, and they have put themselves in a position to understand why it is right, or at least to remember it better. This process takes a little longer than the traditional call and singular response, but increasing participation from 1 to 28 students in the same period of time makes it far more efficient.
There are three steps to help someone move from merely understanding deep practice to helping it happen. Collectively Coyle calls these “ignition.” Some children arrive in the world with a “rage to master” a new skill or skills, according to the appropriately-named psychologist Ellen Winner. Perhaps all children arrive with it, and their environment either nurtures that or stifles it. However, creating the conditions for igniting learning is not a mystery. Through all the examples of individual passion and genius like that of world-record holder Katie Ledecky, Coyle sees evidence of three common steps available when ignition finally happens
Chunking and slowing it down – the best learners and masters of skills find ways to master small steps within the larger skill. In reading, we master the sounds of letters even as we are memorizing common words as a whole. Together these skills help us read for understanding and attack new words we have not seen. Again, with a musician as an example, rather than practicing the whole piece over and over again, chunking means breaking the work into parts, then focusing in on the areas that are difficult, and not wasting time with the parts already mastered. Additionally, the masters slow a skill down to understand its component parts. While they do this, myelin is still forming, and they are understanding the pieces and how they fit together. This way they can focus on eliminating errors, and understand the blueprint of the larger whole.
Repeating it – the deep practice model calls for a lot of targeted practice. Over and over again. You hear it from the greatest athletes, as well as researchers and artists. They are practicing their skills, researching their fields, over and over again. Typically about 10 years’ worth of practice is what it takes to become elite in the field.
Feeling it – Coyle is quick to point out that none of the actual masters in their fields with whom he spoke used the words “easy”, “natural”, or “genius” to describe what they had accomplished. Instead they described their practice using words like “alert”, “edge”, “focus”, “mistake” and “repeat.” In short, even in practice they were working toward a goal and feeling the effort closing the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be.
Ignition then happens when these parts are in place, and the artist, athlete, or academician sees themselves as engaging in a task to achieve a long-term goal. Perhaps they see someone in the field who they want to emulate, or they have a life goal of achievement in a certain area. A commonality among the champions is that they knew they wanted to be champions, and they knew that it would take a long time. And, most importantly, they identified with someone who had accomplished what they wanted. They knew they belonged at the top.
Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.
Ignition in the classroom
Ignition then has clear implications in the classroom, closely tied with research by Carol Dweck in the area of Mindset. Students need to understand the work in front of them, be willing and able to engage in the work of targeted growth, and, importantly, see themselves as capable of being successful over time.
Additionally, students benefit from seeing how they belong to something bigger and more important than themselves. In the classroom, we can help students feel part of something bigger by telling the story of our classroom or school, and particularly of students who achieved lofty goals who emerged through these same classrooms and hallways. We can also build connections to professionals in the field through intersessions and other real-world experiences, and innovative projects such as Gamble Montessori’s Senior Project (to be featured here soon.) In this way, we can demystify success and expertise, and put it within range of every student.
In the hotbeds of success explored by Coyle, he saw another common theme: a master coach. Coyle watched a master coach, Hans Jesson, walk two students through cello lessons. Coyle asked, after the lesson, which of the cellists were better. Coyle believed the first was much better and was surprised when Jensson struggled with the question. “It’s difficult to say. When I teach, I give everyone everything. What happens after that, who can know?” Basketball Coach John Wooden is the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. When his coaching style was explored through scripting and breaking down every audible comment, his coaching was found to be lacking in overt inspiration, and instead was infused with practice. An article by two researchers even found that he had a particular sequence of events he used so often they dubbed it a “Wooden”: he showed the player the right way to do something, imitated the wrong way they had just done it, and then he showed them the right way again.
Master coaches have what Coyle calls a “matrix” – a vast understanding of the task and what is needed to accomplish it well. Also, they have a perceptiveness about the needs for each of the individuals with whom they work. Third, they possess what he calls a “probing, strategic impatience,” where they interrupt practice to strengthen specific things they see need work. Finally, they possess a “theatrical honesty” with which they point out mistakes almost as if each mistake was the end of the world, then transform that moment into a chance for new learning, which is equally theatrically praised.
Master Coaching in the Classroom
It is the work of the teacher to become a master coach in the classroom. Meet students where they are, through pre-assessments and close examination of work to determine their level, then using differentiation and targeted practice to help them continually work within their zone of proximal development. That is – they need to become experts not just in their area of teaching, but also at seeing where their students are currently, and how to move them forward.
A reading teacher might work with a student reading aloud, inviting them back to the word they just mispronounced, or even back to the start of the sentence to make sure they read it at a fast enough speed, or with sufficient fluency, to get meaning from it. One student might get assistance with pronunciation and decoding, while another might get assistance with sentence inflection.
Most importantly, a master teacher can forge a personal connection of trust and love with his students. This happens through hard work, masquerading as effortless “being there” for students. Thus, building relationships become the fundamental first step of learning.
The Brain Science of Deep Practice and Master Coaching
Every signal the brain sends travels along a path of neurons. That path is coated and reinforced by a recently-understood substance called myelin. The more the pathway is used, the more it is reinforced. This is true for every skill and every action, whether the action is correct or not. This, of course, has implications for all of our actions. As a teacher, it has important implications for teaching and re-teaching as a primary tool to address not just classroom errors but disciplinary matters as well.
Deep practice of specialized, broken down skills develops myelin in important information and skills that will need to be recalled. In this way, practices in the classroom that create multiple chances to learn a skill, such as deep practice, will physically change the brain of the student. Practicing the correct skills correctly, can permanently improve students’ acquisition of the target skill and related skills. If we can expand to an entire classroom answering a question, this is 28 times the amount of growth we would get in a traditional classroom. If we can target the practice to a specific skill and cram 6 or 8 practices of the skill instead of 2 practices of the whole process, then this is growth at a factor of 3 to 4 times the traditional classroom. That’s a lot of myelin, laying the groundwork for a superhighway of correct skills.
Master coaching means, in short, understanding which pathways are not yet developed. Looking closely at student skills and addressing deficiencies promptly and accurately helps ensure that the right pathways are being formed. This is why it is important that we correct students’ grammar at every opportunity, and teach them to make eye contact and give a firm handshake at every greeting. This is also why at Gamble we use the Teach Like a Champion skill of No Opt Out, where a student who gets the answer wrong has a chance to hear the correct answer, then must give the correct answer verbally to the teacher. The right action reinforces the learning. We are creating powerful habits that sometimes are working to erase older powerful habits. The master coach does not pass up an opportunity to help rebuild it the correct way.
In a way, we are all called to be John Wooden in the classroom. However, the work has been demystified. In order to create superhighways of excellent practice, we need to utilize deep practice – chunk the work, practice it over and over, and help students understand when it is right. We need to help students see the value of their work and identify with those who use the work in a valuable way in our society. We need to build deep relationships of trust with students, and we need to provide them very specific interventions at the time when they need it. Most of us do most of this just about every day.
What area seems most natural for you? Which area will be the biggest struggle? We welcome your comments.
It always seemed to happen this way: The parents left the room at the end of the meeting, and walked down the hallway. We resumed our team meeting, addressing the next issue on the agenda. Someone would exclaim, “Rats! Forgot to ask them about the permission slip for the field trip!” And he or she would rush to the door, but the parents were gone.
Or maybe we had forgotten to explain a key upcoming homework assignment, or mention an important project deadline.
This was a chronic experience for each of the teacher teams I was on at Hughes Center. And it turns out that forgetting things is a problem for people in other professions too. I learned a simple and effective solution to this vexing problem in a book about making detailed lists, and following them in order: The Checklist Manifesto.
Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and author, starts The Checklist Manifesto by differentiating between errors made in the face of great complexity (because we do not know enough), and errors made by ineptitude (because we fail to access or use what we do know). Speaking from his profession as a surgeon, great complexity is a reality of his daily work. We encounter similar complexity as educators – what is the necessary preparation to help a student understand or create an appropriate metaphor, or to know when to solve a problem using the quadratic formula? These are complex, but knowable. As professionals in a particular discipline, we should be expected to have a grasp of the solutions to these intellectual progressions. This is where our expertise is absolutely necessary and irreducible. Checklists cannot necessarily help with this. Errors of ineptitude or oversight, however, are the kinds of errors that checklists are designed to eliminate. Procedures need to happen in a certain order, and doing them that way creates better outcomes.
I picked up a newer version of The Checklist Manifesto at a book store last year, and saw that it had a new introduction. Though I had read the book years before, I was immediately drawn into the narrative, demonstrating how a checklist was instrumental in helping to safely (and famously) crash land a plane into the Potomac River. More on that later, as I talk more about the book that helped me see the world of my work completely differently. Principals and teachers inhabit a world of tremendous complexity. There are layers of expectations placed on their students, dozens of types of assessments, and countless instructional tools and techniques at their disposal to help their students master the skills necessary for promotion. Within this complexity, there are some processes that repeat somewhat endlessly into the future, processes contained within a single class period, a day, a week, a quarter, a semester and even a year. There are right ways to do many of these regular processes. Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.
Checklists to help with routine events
In 2012, as part of training for principals in Cincinnati Public Schools, a member of the Board of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital spoke about the mistakes made by doctors at the hospital. They had a patient mortality rate of 4.6% in 2001, which had been a very slight improvement on the year before. This placed them above the middle of the pack for similar hospitals, and had been a point of some pride for earlier leadership. However, they had become dissatisfied with being in the middle of the pack relative to the percentage of children dying in their care. Each number was a tragedy, and there was no excuse for not taking effective measures to prevent them. The Board at Children’s was especially concerned to note that many of these deaths were, in their estimation, preventable. Doctors administering incorrect medicines or doses, doctors and nurses making mistakes that resulted in infections, such as pneumonia acquired while on a ventilator. They instituted a series of reforms which included checklists. At the end of 2011, their mortality rate had been cut dramatically.
Gwande provides as an example a different institution, Johns Hopkins hospital, where checklists were instituted for a specific common ventilator procedure. In addition to a clear set of steps posted where all could see them, nurses were given the unusual authority to stop the procedure if a step was missed. Prior to the implementation of the checklist, secondary infections had been the leading cause of complications and deaths at one of the world’s most prestigious medical facilities. This simple addition nearly eliminated those infections.
Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.
So checklists can help eliminate mistakes as we repeatedly complete important procedures. An example of an academic use for routines is the weekly checklist in the structured classroom. In a typical classroom, a child might receive one or two assignments each day, with varying due dates. Assignments may even be dispensed one at a time. However, a checklist is an important tool in helping a child develop skills related to managing time and work. The Montessori weekly checklist enumerates planned lessons and activities, such as regular reading time for students to encounter challenging and engaging material, teacher-led mini-lessons to provide new content, and shelfwork to help each student develop existing skills. The checklist format aids the student in utilizing her time wisely to complete the necessary work. Powerfully, the checklist in this case serves the “patient” and the “doctor” equally, as utilizing the format from week to week ensures that the necessary modes of instruction are regularly used, instead of a teacher falling back on a favorite or comfortable routine or lesson format.
Checklists to help with infrequent events
The popular rock band Van Halen’s live performances included massive amplifiers, fireworks, lights, and electric and audio cables spread across entire stadiums. Their shows were memorable, but their demands as a band were legendary and one was individually ridiculous: they demanded M&Ms at every show, with all the brown ones picked out. Their manager explained to Dr. Gawande that it was not because they were pampered celebrities with an aversion to brown candies. Instead, their demanding checklist was created to make sure that the performers and fans were safe on stage every night. There was a lot that could go wrong, especially as the lead singer was hoisted in a harness for a spectacular entry, and fans stood near scaffolding holding massive audio equipment – and did I mention fireworks, water, and electricity? The tour double-checked everything the day they arrived; if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would know that the venue did not pay attention to the details. It was not a frivolous demand; it was a fail-safe to ensure that no one’s safety was at risk.
So checklists can help make sure that an infrequent or even one-time event, such as a Van Halen show in your local arena, happens flawlessly.
I explained earlier that Gawande said checklists could help with errors of ineptitude or oversight, where someone makes a mistake in carrying out a familiar procedure. This is the team meeting problem. We would enter a conversation with a specific objective, and the intention to cover one or two items in particular, such as poor grades, or a particular disciplinary incident. The conversation would address the big issue, and the parent might bring up new and important information. We would wander off-task, fully engaged in the new direction of the conversation. These can be contentious meetings, full of hurt feelings and embarrassment for students and adults alike. It is understandable that everyone involved might forget other, less significant topics momentarily. Perhaps we missed a signature on a permission slip for an upcoming trip, or we failed to make sure the family could access the online gradebook.
Inspired by this book, and motivated by our repeated experience, we created a team meeting checklist. We made a simple list on the bottom of the page, charting the things we might need to cover in a conference. We used our old meeting form with this small addition and we found that we forgot less, and accomplished more, than we had before just by assigning one person to run through the checklist at the end of the meeting, to ensure we hit each topic.
This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection.
Okay, so maybe conferences are not life-and-death situations on the surface. And they definitely are not rock-n-roll concerts. However, they can be important moments in a child’s education, and key pivot points in the relationship between a family and the school. Getting things right in the conference – covering the important issues fully, addressing critical needs, and valuing the family’s time – is an important part of building trust and making sure that the student’s needs are met. There are a finite number of things that can potentially be covered in a conference, which have a seemingly infinite number of permutations. A checklist like the one here is an investment in the golden triangle – the relationship between the student, teacher, and parent.
Checklists to help in moments of conflict or crisis
Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will be the first to tell you that he finds it odd to be famous as a pilot because he crashed a plane. As his passenger jet lifted off from LaGuardia airport in 2009, it struck a flock of geese, causing damage to both jet engines. There could have been dozens of causes. The airline industry, which has an understandable focus on safety, has used checklists for years, and they had one for just this situation. Sully and his copilot were able to speed twice through this troubleshooting checklist before deciding they needed to look for the safest possible place to land a plane in Manhattan. He chose the Hudson River, and there were – famously – no deaths. He attributes his clear thinking to his familiarity with the checklist. The process for eliminating all possible causes reduced his panic and allowed him the time to find the best place to crash land.
Checklists can not only be used to make sure that the necessary steps all happen in a moment of high tension or anxiety, they can also work to make sure that steps happen in the correct order. At Gamble Montessori high school, we realized that when students returned from suspension, that they felt dislocated from the school – out of touch with what they had missed in class, and still feeling as if their teachers distrusted or disliked them because of the incident. So we instituted a return conference checklist, which we explain in more detail in our post Welcome Back. We had learned from experience that these steps had to happen in a certain order. Too often, these conferences after an incident immediately start with a description from someone at the school of what happened. The student often would react one of two ways: they would either dispute the details of what was being said, or they would sit in silence and mentally remove themselves from the conference. We know that a student in this mindset will not be a partner in problem-solving for the future. So we turned the old, ineffective conference model on its head. Our checklist starts with a non-negotiable step where every adult at the table offers a strength that they see in the child. Only later in the conference is there a brief description of the incident followed not with accusations and a re-hashing of the event, but with everyone involved being asked to partner in helping the student be successful moving forward.
This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection. The student, having been welcomed back with a shared awareness and acknowledgement of his strengths, gets to become a partner in problem-solving how to help himself be successful moving forward. The intentional sequence of events works to help students return to school ready to learn.
Ordered checklists, simple lists of routines and important processes, are tremendously useful in many professional situations, including education. Whether in routine events, infrequent occurrences, or moments of conflict, having a list of the correct sequence of steps to try can help make sure we reach the best possible outcome for all involved.
Perhaps there are processes for which you already use effective checklists, or there are processes at your school that need to be “checklisted.”
We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
 “Newsroom.” Cincinnati Children’s Earns National Award for Patient Safety. Jim Feuer, n.d. Web. 30 July 2016.
If someone had told me that I would discover my favorite book of all time at a school sponsored professional development training, I would have laughed out loud. No way. Simply not possible. But it’s true, I did. During the summer of 2011, among the three books assigned as pre-reading for the Ascend Leadership Institute was The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. The text on the back of the book says, “In the face of difficulty, we can despair, get angry . . . or choose possibility,” and from the very first pages I was hooked. Jack was also deeply impacted by this book – it served as the impetus for the Giving an A teacher evaluation process that he implemented shortly after reading it, and when discussing who would get to write this post, we had a bit of a scuffle. I won.
The Art of Possibility is a life-changing work. I have recommended it to others more often than any other book I’ve ever read, and rather than loan mine out, I purchase new books for those who want to read it. I love my copy so much that I consider it a kind of talisman . . . or perhaps a blankie. It is underlined and annotated, and has been so well-loved that the pages are beginning to separate from the binding.
So what is this book actually about?! It’s about life. And leadership. And perspective. And hope. I would like to say that reading this book opened my eyes and elicited such great changes in me that I am now . . . well . . . that I am now perfect. Unfortunately, that would not be a true story. Instead let me say that reading this book opened my eyes, and now, sometimes, I can see with a different perspective. Other times, I forget entirely, and for every two steps forward I take, it seems that I take one step (or sometimes even two) backward. Just as I say about my students, progress does not happen in a straight line, and surely mine has not. This book, however, has served as a catalyst for change, and it continues to provide grounding and reminders when I feel that I have lost my way.
The content of this book seems impossible to summarize, so rather than trying to do so, I want to share the ideas I have found most impactful. I know that these sections have such resonance with me because they are the areas with which I struggle the most. While it is tempting to tell you stories of how I courageously implemented these practices and mindsets, the truth is I don’t have many of those stories – I ask that you view those that I share here as the exception for me, rather than the rule. I continue to be a work in progress.
The Myth of Scarcity
In the first chapter, Zander and Zander discuss the myth of scarcity. The idea that when we believe that there is not enough of an important thing, it leads to competition, judgment, mistrust, and fear, but that ultimately, this way of understanding the world is false. Here is how they describe living with a scarcity focus. “On our path to achieving a goal, we inevitably encounter obstacles. Some of the more familiar ones, aside from other people, are scarcities of time, money, power, love, resources, and inner strength. . . . The assumption is that life is about staying alive and making it through – surviving in a world of scarcity and peril.” They write that a better model is found in seeing the world as “A Universe of Possibility.” “Let us suppose, now, that a universe of possibility stretches beyond the world of measurement. (p.19) In this reality, the relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.” (p. 20)
We no longer live in a world in which “survival of the fittest” makes sense. While neuroscience has taught us that the human brain remains wired to scan our environment for threats in order to trigger the “fight or flight” response when necessary, we no longer have to live this way in order to survive. Instead of seeking out the threats, or problems, what if we embraced possibility? The Zanders note that living “in abundance” brings greater abundance — that when you give up competition and scarcity thinking, greater connections and resources follow. We don’t have to succumb to the temptation of constant comparison, or that what you have takes from me. The thought that if you are an incredible teacher, it makes me less of one; that your creativity reduces the uniqueness of my work, or that your success threatens mine. We live in a society where we are regularly pitted against one another in competition. This is true, even in education. Over a year ago, out of 20 finalists, I was named the Hawkins Educator of the Year. I rarely talk about this honor, and the official plaque with my name on it sits at the bottom of my desk drawer where it has been since I first brought it to school. I simply cannot bring myself to hang it up because, you see, in my mind, if I am the Educator of the Year, it somehow seems to imply that those around me are less, and that is simply not true. Why not 20 winners? Why not 200? Why not all of us? Ultimately, it is only in giving up the idea that there isn’t enough to go around that allows us to “step into a universe of possibility.” (p. 23)
Being a Contribution
Without the inevitable competition that scarcity thinking necessitates, we can let go of the notions of success and failure, and instead focus on the more achievable concept of being a contribution.
“The drive to be successful and the fear of failure are, like the head and tail of a coin, inseparably linked.” (p. 56) It seems nearly impossible to let go of the importance of success. Isn’t this the whole purpose of living – to be successful? Perhaps not financially per se, but to be successful in each of our roles – as a spouse, parent, friend, colleague, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc? This list could go on and on. Just thinking about being successful in all the possible ways feels exhausting, but, without that, what is it all about? Isn’t success the whole point? The Zanders say no. They suggest that we replace that entire concept. “All at once I found that the fearful question, ‘Is it enough?’ and the even more fearful question, ‘Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?’ could both be replaced with the joyful question, ‘How will I be a contribution today?’” (p. 57) How much easier it is to think about simply being a contribution each day, rather than getting it all just right. I wish I could tell you that I have mastered this perspective shift, but I have not – I’m not even close. That’s why my book is falling apart; I have to keep returning to it to remind myself that there’s a different way. As the book notes, it is a “discipline of the spirit” (p.62) that is transformative. The one thing that I have discovered is that there is great joy is saying yes – in making myself a contribution to others. So often, I come across the advice to “set boundaries,” “know your limits,” “learn to say no.” Each time I hear this, I want to say, “Why?” Why on Earth would I say no to something that will help? What would happen if we all just said yes to one another?” I get teased about this socialist-type philosophy of relationships, but why not “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need?” Beau said it best on a summer evening when I was overwhelmed by a time-sensitive and monumental work task that had nothing to do with him. He offered to come and help. I protested, until he clearly and firmly said, “Shut up, Krista. We’re a team. We help each other.” Being a contribution allows us to use our ability to meet another’s need. It leads to relationships that are rooted in the premise of “I’ve got you” – when you have a need, I am there to contribute.
Being a contribution, to individuals or to the world in general, occurs most easily through calling on our Passion. This is how the Zanders describe the process of giving way to passion: “Notice where you are holding back, and let go. Release those barriers of self that keep you separate and in control, and let the vital energy of passion surge through you connecting you to all beyond.” (p. 114)
Please allow me to be the first to say that the idea of “letting go” sounds utterly terrifying. And yet, I know how it feels when I have done it. It feels like flying – like being lifted by an ever-present current, so that no matter what risks I take, I cannot fall. Why is it so hard to trust that process? And while I don’t believe in magic – I only believe in hard work – tapping into passion seems to elicit a kind of timeless magic. “The life force for humankind is perhaps nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. “ (p. 139) I don’t believe that we can do this unless we say yes to one another. Let’s give up the concepts of balance and limits in favor of “scattering light in all directions.” We need more light.
And yet sometimes Passion eludes us. Sometimes we get seduced by the siren song of the downward spiral. It is easy to fall into this trap as it can feel so much safer to assume failure. “Downward spiral talk is based on the fear that we will be stopped in our tracks and fall short in the race.” (p. 108) The downward spiral occurs by focusing on the negatives – that same scanning the environment for threats. This leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, which can be paralyzing. This is my great Achilles’ Heel. During the first five weeks of this summer, I compulsively walked the equivalent of several marathons while engaged in countless hours of obsessive rumination on the challenges Gamble was facing at the end of the school year. In the process, I mentally catastrophized the situation such that I had myself nearly convinced that things would never get better, I was powerless to effect change, and that the best recourse was simply to quit trying. I allowed myself to become fully entranced by Downward Spiral Self-Talk.
The Zanders strategy for addressing the Downward Spiral is through taking responsibility, or what I would call “owning your part.” As comfortable as it is to point fingers and assign blame, responsibility for every conflict and every challenging situation is held by all impacted parties. “You can always grace yourself with responsibility for anything that happens in your life. You can always find within yourself the source of any problem you have.” (p. 152) While on the surface, it may seem that taking personal responsibility might only result in greater discomfort, this is not, in fact, the case. As I frequently tell my children, my students, and myself, “You can only be responsible for you, but you are always responsible for you.” You cannot force anyone else to change, but you have the power to make choices that influence every situation you are a part of. This dispels the feeling of powerlessness that the downward spiral elicits and allows for the emergence of glimmers of hope. Ultimately, this is what knocked me out of my early summer Downward Spiral stupor. What was my role in the situation and what corrective actions did I need to take? Once I was able to answer those questions, I was able to see how I could get the things I was responsible for back on the right track.
I reflect often on the Zanders’ question, “Who am I being that they are not shining?” (p. 74) They being anyone you are engaged with – students, employees, colleagues, friends, family. Essentially, when there is a problem, what is my part? I am ineffective, helpless, and hopeless when I find myself stuck in the blame game – focusing on who is at fault. I open up to possibility and to change when I can see the steps that I need to take to impact the problem. This attitude extends far beyond personal benefits. “Imagine how profoundly trustworthy you would be to the people who work for (with) you if they felt no problem could arise between you that you were not prepared to own. Imagine how much incentive they would have to cooperate if they knew they could count on you to clear the pathways for accomplishment.” (p. 158-9) The benefits of combating the downward spiral through personal responsibility are far reaching and generate a deep-seated trust that is powerful and inspiring.
Rule #6/How Fascinating
While I certainly acknowledge that the perspective shift the Zanders propose is challenging and requires difficult internal self-reflection and work, they are light-hearted in their approach, providing just one rule, which they call Rule #6. Rule #6 is very simple – “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” (p.79) They prevail upon us to “lighten up,” saying, “Humor and laughter are perhaps the best way we can get over ourselves. Humor can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions, and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other’s throats.” (p. 80) Ummmmm . . . guilty as charged . . . I don’t do Rule #6 so very well. One strategy for getting closer to not “taking yourself so damn seriously,” is the procedure they provide to their students when a mistake has occurred. Fortunately it is simple, humorous, and nearly pain-free. “When they [students] make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’”(p.31) So, next year, if you see me briskly walking through the hall, with my arms in the air, muttering “How fascinating,” under my breath, understand that this is progress for me. Just continue about your business knowing that I have not lost my mind, I have just screwed up yet again, and am practicing embracing possibility and Rule #6 .
An Invitation to Possibility
I highly recommend that you read this book. It is challenging in the best possible ways. As for me, I’m waiting on the incantation, magic pill, or snake oil that will transform me. Until then, I will keep my trusty copy by my side and continue re-reading the underlined and dog-eared pages, each time trying to get a little closer to living within The Art of Possibility.