Things Will Be Better When…

As a parent of 4 adult children, I have witnessed a reoccurring conversation, particularly from about ages 17-25. This is a significant time of transition for everyone as we move from high school to college to employment. There are a number of stepping stones during that time that is often seen as barriers to overcome. Whether it’s graduating, passing a difficult course or finding new living quarters or applying for a job, these all cause a great deal of stress and while in the middle of them, my kids will say something like, “things will be better when I get through this.” While it’s understandable and relatable, I was quick to remind them all that they needed to be careful not to wish these moments away. Many times these barriers were just that, they were in the way of a goal. Applying for jobs for example is not something anyone likes but it’s necessary.

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Taking a difficult course, while perhaps seen as just a barrier, hopefully, has some relevant and useful learning to be savoured. While this time of life might contain more change and disruption than others, the truth is life will always have these kinds of barriers. For most of us, this is just life. If we’re not careful, we will always think about our current struggles and focus on getting past them and on to something else. Again, that’s not necessarily bad but it can lead to a life that is never satisfied, content or simply appreciates that struggles are actually good for us.

I’m thinking about the current state of our world. After over a year of living with a deadly virus, we’re starting to see a way out. We’ve all had to make sacrifices, some more than others and certainly, it has not been equal in its impact. Schools and teachers have had a range of experiences and challenges as well. But everyone now sees vaccinations as a great hope as we should. For a year, we likely all have said or thought, “things will be better when….” We likely looked back at past years and remember fondly being able to do things we can’t do now. Educators recall how schools used to gather in large groups, engage in extracurricular activities and attend conferences. I look forward to those things. However what I see that has emerged from this is that those teachers, schools and districts that had well-established cultures and relationships, we’re able to maintain them to a great degree. Lots of schools have lovely mission statements and stated values but this year we witnessed whether or not they were really believed and lived or simply text on a page. If you a lousy relationship with your principal or district leader, I doubt whether the pandemic did anything more than amplify the problems. We all saw how equity issues, in general, were not created but exposed. But I also think our values were exposed as well, for better or worse.

The vaccine, as great as it is, will not change these problems. Things may be better in some respects but it’s not going to solve as many problems as we might think. This Saturday Night Live sketch is equal parts hilarious and poignant.

“If you’re sad now, you might be sad after”

I write this with 2 things in mind. First to remind me that life is full of struggles and wishing them away is natural but also shouldn’t be completely seen as something to get through. There are lots of “silver lining” conversations and realizations that have occurred in the past year. I’m careful not to project my silver linings to others as we all have experienced this differently and many like myself have been privileged to live in a way that others have not. But I do struggles are universal and each of us had to learn to live and embrace them. Second, simply looking ahead to a new situation will not solve all our problems. If problems existed before, it’s not likely that a change of scenery or circumstances will make them go away.

I don’t write this to downplay or dismiss the future. I’m so excited to get vaccinated and start doing the work I’ve been waiting to do. While I do it all virtually now, I’m getting tired of it as I shared in this thread. I’m so looking forward to travelling, connecting with leaders, presenting in person and being in schools and classrooms. But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy spending time with family, appreciating a walk in my neighbourhood, checking in on my family and friends to make sure they’re okay. Things will be better when I get the vaccine but things are also pretty good right now. You may click here for the best cbd products to alleviate stress.

Quick Update: Here’s another great video that is a reminder of how our constant looking ahead for something better is problematic.

Moving from “What is the Matter?” to “What Matters to You?”

The education world is full of smart people. We are not short of innovative and creative thinkers. What I believe holds us back at times is finding a different lens.

When we think about the priorities of our schools and the priority of learning it is of course grounded in curriculum and the things that have been determined to be important. Top of that list is the basics, literacy, math, science and social studies. More recently global competencies or the 5Cs have represented a more updated lens of what matters. On top of that, we are shifting from a one size fits all to a more individualized approach to education.

All of those things address the questions of “What is the matter?” as well as “what matters?” Diagnostic tools and insights help teachers find out both what matters as well as what is the matter with them, or what things impede their learning. From there we work tirelessly to ensure these things that matter are offered, shared, delivered to students. I don’t want that sentence to read as negative because not only is that the core of the work of schools but it can and for the most part is offered with thoughtfulness and care.

But asking “What is the matter?” or identifying “what matters” isn’t quite the same as asking “What matters to you?”

In the book The Power of Moments there’s a powerful story of a tiny shift made by a children’s hospital administrator from Scotland after hearing Maureen Bisognana share a story about her brother, that transformed the work of her hospital. Essentially Maureen watched as her a neighbouring hospital cared for her dying brother. They identified what his needs were and attempted to provide him with the best possible care and make him as comfortable as possible.

…one day at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital a physician came to visit. Maureen was sitting at Johnny’s bedside. The physician turned to her brother and said, “Johnny, what do you want?” “I want to go home,” Johnny answered. What happened next astounded Maureen. The physician asked for her jacket. He took it from her and draped it around Johnny, then carried him from the hospital bed to her car. Johnny returned to his family home, and he spent his final days in the company of the people who loved him most.
Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (pp. 235-236). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

After hearing Maureen share this story at a conference, Jen Rodgers, the children’s hospital administrator realized that at her hospital her staff was doing all they could to determine what was the matter with their patients.

She gave construction paper and markers to the children on her ward and encouraged them to draw on a page titled “What Matters to Me.” One of those kids was Kendra, seven, who had just checked into the children’s ward for surgery. She had autism and had never spoken a word. Her father was with her to help her communicate with the staff. But within 24 hours after Kendra checked in, her father suffered a suspected cardiac arrest. He had to be rushed to another hospital, leaving Kendra alone, terrified, and unable to speak for herself. But she had completed her “What Matters to Me” page, and it opened a door into her world. “My name is Kendra,” she wrote. “I have autism. I can’t speak so I won’t be able to if it hurts. I don’t like medicine by my mouth so watch out I will struggle. I love to feel people’s hair, it is my way of saying hello.” (See her drawing on the next page.) Her nurses used her drawing as a guidebook for caring for her. Without it, Rodgers said, the nurses could have easily misinterpreted her behavior. Imagine them dealing with a hard-to-understand child who grabs at their hair and fights when given oral medication. She might have been deemed aggressive. She might have been confined to her room, which would have caused her even more stress. Her father recovered quickly and rejoined her within a few days. In the meantime, the nurses had looked after Kendra by honoring her requests. They comforted her. (“I love cuddles to reassure me,” she’d written.) They avoided oral medications when possible, knowing she didn’t like it. They high-fived her. They let her feel their hair, and they combed hers. (“My dad is rubbish at doing my hair.”) Their relationship was utterly transformed because of a simple question: “What matters to you?” Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (pp. 236-237). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

I’ve thought about this story a lot and shared it a few times in presentations. Part of me acknowledges it’s a simple thing and speaks to focus on strengths which aren’t a new thing. However, like so many good and important ideas, we don’t fully implement or explore them as we should.

If you ask people “What is important for children to learn?” You’d get a laundry list of good things to learn. It’s important to remember that curriculum, even competency learning is somewhat arbitrary. There is no shortage of things that are important. For the most part, adults are the ones that decide what is important to students and even other adults. While things like “voice and choice” and student agency are shifts to move away from a content driven education it doesn’t quite get to the really essential question. To be clear, I’ve long advocated for adults to share what matters to them to students as well. As we build a community of learners, we need to continue to understand everyone’s needs, wants and desires.

How often do we ask the students and adults we serve “What Matters to You?” And how would their answers change the work we do?

I Don’t Think I’m an EdTech Guy Anymore

I have a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology. For 9 years I had the job title of Digital Learning Consultant. I held another job for a software/media company. I’ve taught post-secondary courses that focus on the role of technology in schools. I’ve spoken at dozens of technology conferences. And yet today I feel more removed from educational technology than ever.

Workshop Preparations
Workshop Prep circa 2006

My relationship with technology is like many people I know. With a limited computer background, I became interested in technology because of its increasing ability to connect us at a very human level, I started becoming interested in computer software systems like Ubuntu. Knowing it just opened a lot more doors for me in the industry. Beginning in the late 1990s, I became an early adopter. It was at this point I began to use computers and cameras, specifically in my classroom. This is when I began to see technology as magic. Doing things I was not previously able to do. At that time, interfaces were clunky, hardware was slow and unreliable and so it was only those that saw the magic and potential that preserved and learned. That enthusiasm allowed me opportunities to share and eventually take a leadership role in my district. An M.Ed and high ranking blog, utilization of Web 2.0 tools, conference presentations and invitations all positioned me to be an EdTech advocate and recognized leader. I identified as a “tech guy” even though I freely admitted my lack of “geekery”.

And somewhere in the last 5 years or so, my relationship with edtech has changed. To be fair, It’s a bit of “it’s not you, it’s me” In my early years, I was busy convincing educators and leaders that technology afforded new opportunities and innovations that would shift and transform learning. For the most part, this message and belief is pervasive in most schools and yet actualizing and implementing this remains a challenge. To that end, my interest has shifted to talking about learning more broadly, stripping away the specifics and focusing on what matters most whether or not it includes a specific technology or not. I noticed recently that many of my talks rarely include much of a reference to technology. The other part of the change for me is that much of what constituted technology in my early years has been either adopted or embedded into learning. Using digital media to create and consume, expanding classrooms to connect with experts and other learners, connecting assessment to technology, effectively using mobile devices as well as exploring the growing interest in digital citizenship were all topics and areas I spent time teaching and supporting. Today those topics, while still of interest do not have the same “newness” that we associate when with think of technology.

If we rely on the Alan Kay definition of technology that “Technology is anything that was invented after you were born” we can see that for our students, most of the things I’ve mentioned are not technology. What I currently see as educational technology would be things like:

  • Augmented and Virtual Reality
  • 3D Printing
  • Coding (arguably coding has been around for a long time but has become a newly sought after skill/experience)
  • ESports
  • BlockChain (data security)

See Horizon Report for similar topics

Some people might add a few more to the list and when I look at what ISTE suggests are “hot topics” in edtech I tend to dismiss things like, professional learning, global learning and digital citizenships given these are not really new but being embraced more and are analog concepts trying to include more digital components.

All this to reflect and acknowledge that those things I think are today’s EdTech issues, are not something that I’m particularly interested in exploring. Not to say they don’t have value but my interest in technology was not because it offered a few students new opportunities but because I believed that the things I was passionate about were in some respects ideas and dispositions there useful for all. I might be wrong about the current edtech trends. Perhaps they will become more inclusive and be things that all students find valuable. I did concede that coding was an important thing to at least explore.

Either way, I’m not sure I identify as an edtech guy any longer. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. What about you?

Nine Lies About Work (and maybe school)

I’ve been using this quote fairly often in presentations because it’s a good reminder to myself and educators that embracing ideas, even ones that seem to contradict our beliefs or thinking can be joyful. As educators, modelling this might be one of the essential gifts we can share with students

I’ve been a fan of Marcus Buckingham and his work around strengths and the title of this book intrigued me. I’ve been told on a few occasions that I”m a bit of a s*&T disturber. Depending on the person or the context it’s unclear whether this is a compliment or not but under the guise of “strengths” that’s what I take it as. This book aligns well with that character trait.

The chapter titles alone might intrigue you:

The book is based on a large research sample of thousands of employees in hundreds of companies. Lie #1 hits you pretty hard. Swap out “company” for “school district” and you have a very interesting conversation. The message is pretty simple. People’s experience at work is not based on a companies values or mission but on the individual teams they work on. The role of a company’s culture is much less impactful that I previously would have thought. I’m currently rethinking some things.

Without going into a full on review, I’ll just say it’s making me think about many potential lies that have become fairly commonplace in schools and education. Over the next while, I plan to explore these both in writing and in presentations.

Lie # 8 was particularly telling. Work-Life Balance Matters Most.

…we humans appear to have had a thing for balance for a long, long while. To us, it has always seemed like the right, the noble, the wise, and the healthy state for which we should all strive. And we can speculate that the difficulty of achieving it has added in some way to its allure—it’s another of those things, like working to remedy our faults, that’s always a work in progress, that’s fantastically hard to achieve in practice.

Buckingham, Marcus. Nine Lies About Work . Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

I kind of hate the word “balance”, adding it to the growing list of words I think are poorly used in education (rigor, accountability, busy, et al). It’s overused, simplistic and often used as a cop-out. When talking about food, “it’s all about balance”. No, it isn’t. Eating better, more nutritious food more often is better. You don’t balance it with sugar or fat. When talking about how we spend our time, “it’s all about balance” I don’t think it is. Balance is sometimes used to justify bad habits or behaviour. I’m not saying I always make the right choices but defaulting to balance as a response to complex issues is often dissatisfying. Saying the answer is both, also doesn’t cut it for me. I like what Buckingham says:

Neither you nor your life are in balance, nor will you ever be. Instead you are a unique creature who takes inputs from the world, metabolizes them in some way, produces something useful, and does so in such a way that you can keep doing it. At least, you are when you’re healthy, when you’re at your best, when you are contributing all that your talents allow you to. When you’re flourishing you are acting on the world and it on you. Your world offers up to you raw material—activities, situations, outcomes—in all parts of your life, and some of this raw material invigorates you and gives you energy. You are at your healthiest when you find this particular kind of raw material, draw it in, allow it to feed you, and use it to contribute something—and when that contribution actually seems to leave you with more energy, not less.

Buckingham, Marcus. Nine Lies About Work . Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

The problem with these lies and others is that they become so pervasive it’s really hard to see past them. No question, it takes some confidence to be able to question your own biases and beliefs, particularly if you’ve advocated for them publicly. Changing our minds or perspective is not a sign of weakness but rather a signal of a thinking, free-thinking human being. We need more of these kind humans.

Who Pushes Your Thinking?

Speaking in generalities and platitudes is easy. But living out the hard things in life is rare. Believe me, I’m guilty as the next person and am working on my own ignorance and faults.

An ever-growing passion of mine is to seek out people that I disagree with and yet can have productive conversations. Even if a conversation is not possible, at least reading/watching/listening to those ideas and beliefs can be fruitful. My premise is that the many of the people I see online would like to believe they are open-minded and yet are so easily offended that they rarely if ever seek opinions and ideas that would contradict their own. We know the echo chamber exists and it’s not always a bad thing, in fact, it’s important to surround yourself with those who support and encourage you. At the same time finding a few folks who will push you, challenge you and straight up disagree with you is the sign of a mature, healthy learner; the kind of learner that educators ought to ascribe to.


As I said, I’m sceptical. Easy to talk about being open to new ideas, harder to seek them out. As I scan my feed, I’m always intrigued when thoughtful disagreement occurs. It’s a rare find. One of my favourite examples of this is a long-standing podcast called: A Christian and an Atheist.  They’ve recorded over 100 podcasts over the past several years.

So who pushes your thinking? Sometimes it’s important to name names.

I asked this question recently and here are the results. As I suspected, I didn’t get many responses. While many thought this was a great question, I think when it comes down to it, it’s hard for many to come up with a list or even a name of those who challenge their thinking. I made it anonymous so no need to reveal your personal beliefs.

In the spirit of modelling and practising what I preach, I included one of mine on the list but thought I’d share a few other names as well.

Jordan Peterson I agree with his ideas about free speech. Not sure about his thoughts on privilege. He’s an odd mix of brashness and yet occasionally shows a humility about his own thinking.
Paul Bennet  Raises many issues in education that plenty of people are thinking but philosophically I think we differ greatly. Good to hear his perspectives.
Sam Harris Super smart guy. His worldview is vastly different than mine but insightful nonetheless on a broad range of topics.
Benjamin Doxtador  Benjamin is relentless in his criticism of education. In general, he advocates for conversations that are potentially lacking nuance or perspectives that don’t include racial or social injustices. I’ve personally been criticized and while I don’t totally agree, I feel he’s honest and respectful.

I think it takes some very distinct characteristics to allow yourself to appreciate, acknowledge and learn from people you don’t always agree with. Things like:

Self Esteem: It’s important to feel somewhat confident in ourselves. Those who feel somewhat fragile are less likely to engage in ideas that challenge them. In addition, without a healthy dose of esteem, it’s too easy to let a challenging idea become personal.

Time and space: I’ve mentioned often how Twitter and even Facebook are typically horrible places for any kind of civil discourse. Online, in general, is a real challenge for nuanced discussion. Taking these discussions offline might be the best thing we can do. However, finding the dissenting ideas online is highly useful.

Seek understanding, not victory: This is a tough one. If we do have a strong belief, it’s so tempting to want to try and convince others. Holding back and working to listen and understand is very difficult. By not stating your best case, you aren’t conceding victory. It may be that some will interpret your silence or lack of debate as such, but swallow your pride a bit, in the long run, understanding will serve you better. I want to give a shout out to Tim Childers. Tim is about the best I’ve seen at trying to engage in meaningful political discussions on Facebook. Always respectful, always thoughtful, always seeking to learn.

Dismiss personal attacks: This is a difficult one particularly if you feel you’re being attacked personally. However, with time and space, work to parse out the argument to seek its validity.  I recently had my students examine a few online discussions and highlight the comments that were of a personal and attacking nature and those that were actually legitimate arguments. I think that’s a skill we all need to develop.

Look for commonalities: In almost every heated conversation be it political, religious or educational, the focus is on the differences when in reality most times there is a fair bit if not a great deal of agreement. Certainly, the differences are what make for the discussion in the first place but perhaps listing and seeking what is agreed upon is important to develop a level of respect and even collegiality.  In fact, I don’t think it works if you find someone who is completely opposite. You have to have some common ground. I think it’s important to establish that up front whether you do that internally or collaboratively.

There are likely many characteristics than this but these some of my thoughts. Cognitive dissonance is not something we always enjoy but I believe it’s part of the human experience and one that in the end, makes us better.