Nurturing a Sustainable Culture of Active Thinking

As the school year launches, teachers prepare for their new and returning students, school leaders to welcome new and returning staff and the focus turns to designing ways in which learning communities can come together, develop and thrive. In my experience this often means that team building activities are dusted off and there is a flurry of discussion about how to communicate expectations and set the tone for the year ahead. Brief side-note, I still struggle with the term ‘expectations’ and gravitate much more towards ‘beliefs’ as a stance that asserts a more outward-facing and growth-orientated mindset, see my earlier blog post ‘No Expectations’ for more.

As someone who loves the back-to-school buzz of bringing everyone together, I wondered about shifting focus; from team-building and expectation-setting to co-creation towards a culture of active thinking. What I mean by this is to treat the bringing of groups together as an opportunity to nurture leadership, to invite decision-making and facilitate co creation as opposed to team-building being ‘done’ to the group. The process itself of bringing the group together being the ‘team-building’ experience rather than a fixed outcome from an activity. Sometimes, we, (read ‘I’) tend to get so immersed in the scheduling and ‘doing’ to structure collaborative time perhaps we miss the most crucial piece, letting go a little, carving out space and enabling opportunities for others to lead.

So, what if we let go and shift focus to invite our learners, our colleagues, our community members as decision-makers, as leaders, as creators and we truly fully embraced this? What an impact there could be. This could be a powerful mechanism to elevate towards process driven community building where a culture of active thinking is celebrated and reinforced. Moving from passive activity to activation of a mindset where all members see themselves as creators, contributors and leaders.

What might it look like in practice?

Some experiences, ideas and wonderings:

  • setting up learning spaces together – this being a collaborative process and part of the back to school experience. Community members organise and design spaces together.
  • setting intentions/outcomes of what is to be achieved and then teams designing how they will get there as part of their collaboration or meeting time.
  • posing the questions that we might use to provoke our planning to the students or our colleagues to gather their input on how we could respond to these. For example, in a Grade 1 classroom – How can we get to know about each other? or with a Grade Level Team – What structures can we put in place in our collaborative meetings to ensure balance and equity? or with a Grade 5 class – How will we demonstrate our learning around our classroom?
  • inviting community members to co-create a rubric to guide self and peer assessment of a task.
  • what if… student guides were invited to design and lead the back to school parent information sessions?
  • what if… students were asked to design their morning circle routine or gathering place rituals?

This requires a shift in approach and thinking, and ultimately ownership. It calls on us as leaders of classrooms, spaces, teams or communities to step back, listen, observe and find the balance to sustain this active thinking culture. I would be interested to hear from others’ experiences as they shift their focus to one of nurturing active thinking in an ongoing sustainable way.

What’s in a name?

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

I miss the puzzle of learning names.

As a School Principal I used to love greeting families, learning student names and being part of the early morning routine welcoming everyone into school. I struggled, I got names wrong, I mixed up pronunciation, put the accent in the wrong place and from time to time muddled up siblings names… not to mention colleagues! I used rhymes in my head to try to remember and put effort in to do better the next time.

So as I sit and write this, my first year ever of not having a ‘Back to School’ experience – I can honestly say I miss the puzzle so much!

What I did not realise at the beginning of my career was the power of knowing and connecting with our name and of others honouring it. The story that can unfold, the space our names hold for us, and the power they possess to nurture connection and belonging. As I greeted students with their name, even better if I could pronounce it well, and perhaps even said ‘hello’ in one of their languages – their smile would broaden, their step lighten. The shift in how they presented themselves and responded was the affirmation that this mattered. It meant something to them, it empowered them, they were seen. As I struggled and stumbled and practiced I knew that this is a learning that has an impact; that nurtures connection and builds community.

Inviting our colleagues and students to ‘teach’ us their name is so valuable and I absolutely love the book ‘Tell Teach us Your Name’ by Huda Essa. This uncovered this concept so strongly for me. Since encountering this book, I have shared it with so many colleagues, read it with students and adapted how I approach meeting, greeting and connecting with others. You can find this, along with a few other books below that send a message of affirmation of our names.

Made with Padlet

So to all the teachers, school leaders, indeed anyone, anywhere who meets someone new – be sure to ask them their name. Listen to how it is pronounced and invite them to teach you how to say it. If you make a mistake, ask again, practice and demonstrate how important it is for you to be able to say their name just right. Enter into an introduction with curiosity and wonder. From there, the magic of discovery, connection, and belonging can unfold.

Agency, Advocacy and Multilingualism

Empowering young learners to share their voice, to take action, to advocate for themselves and others, and to engage in all aspects of learning in local and global issues is crucial. Communities hold space for this agency and are central to creating and fostering a climate in which this can thrive.

It seems logical that if we are fortunate to be in a rich multilingual environment of student learners that our adult learners would also reflect this linguistic diversity. What might some of the indicators be that would reflect agency and advocacy towards creating an inclusive multilingual learning environment for staff as well as students.

So, imagine a community. A community of people from many places, many traditions, many cultures, many different life and educational experiences. A community with a rich tapestry of languages. What does it look like when agency and advocacy are nurtured to enable it to flourish?

Many of us may have experienced working in a multicultural/multilingual environment. Many of us may not. Many of us may not have known or know the cultural and linguistic diversity of our community yet. Here are some of the indicators I would suggest represent that staff multilingualism is not only acknowledged, but seen as enriching and valuable in the community. What would you add to this?

Reframe our Language – From ‘Lost’ to ‘Leverage’

In a world where information is so easily accessible and communication is immediate, it isn’t long before a phrase begins to ‘trend’ on our news feeds. A storyline of a particular issue or topic is quick to dominate the narrative. This has most definitely been the case with the current trend to refer to our students’ learning experience over the past 12 months as being ‘Lost Learning’ due to the pandemic. This is an emotive, negative framing of what has occured over the past 12 months – the idea that our students have all ‘lost learning’, are ‘behind’, or are ‘disadvantaged’ creates a sense of unhealthy panic and urgency for parents, teachers and also our students.

I am not disputing that there is huge inequity in learning access over the past 12 months. A massive issue to be addressed. However, negative language only serves to disempower everyone and leave us in an even greater space of uncertainty – as if we weren’t already all dealing with enough of the unknown right now! It is also hugely discouraging to the many teachers and parents who have put forth so much effort during this time to support their students and children in continuing to grow and learn.

It has prompted my to to think once again about the power of the language we use, what this projects, and the impacts it has. I wrote previously about how small words can instigate big changes and also the power of our attitude and outlook to propel or hinder learning and growth.

I came across this quote on twitter that someone had taken from a workshop with Kath Murdoch.

“The language we use suggests to children what we value.”


It made me think about what the phrase ‘Lost Learning’ says to our children. Does it tell them we value them? For me, the phrase emits the following messages:

  • You’re behind
  • You’re on your own
  • You won’t be able to find it (learning)
  • You’re missing out
  • You are disadvantaged
  • You can’t
  • It (the learning) is gone

Which language will help us to reframe the ‘lost learning’ narrative? How can we shift our focus to being on our students? After all they are the agents of their own learning. Learning is not something that is done to someone. We need to rethink our language to shift our thinking and give space for us to focus on what is important. I believe this to be empowering our students to believe they are capable of learning, that they can grow and achieve. Language that empowers and that instills a growth mindset can help us. Appreciative inquiry practices can help us to be builders upon the foundations we have. Most importantly, Listening to our students can help us help them.

The more important question is, how do we leverage this new and different learning? How do we reframe our own thinking? How do we make sure we look at the whole picture and not just the pieces of the puzzle to put things together with our students? This all requires us to step back, look from multiple perspectives and seek out opportunities to put things together in new and different ways.

  • We must celebrate what has been learned during this time – and there is a lot to celebrate if we are willing to look, listen and ‘unlearn to relearn’. We must be open to learn about their experiences.
  • We have to accept the specific type and nature of learning growth is not exactly what had been prescribed and intended. We need to harness opportunities here. Learn about where students are in their learning to leverage and build upon this.
  • We must model being responsive, adaptable, agile and open-minded and that will empower our students for the future.
  • We must believe in our students’ capacities. This is crucial to fostering a culture of learning and ensuring our students are never ‘lost’.
Interesting Reading

The Ridiculousness of Learning Loss by John Ewing

Students Respond to Adults’ Fixation on ‘Learning Loss’ by Larry Ferlazzo

Lost Learning Time Is Not the Crisis by Jen Roesch

Why there’s no such thing as lost learning by James Williams

Openhouse – Online Learning

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Openhouse Team as part of a Webinar recently, connecting a range of global voices – we discussed the challenges and changes over the past year in regards to online/distance learning. Also on the panel were Allan Shaw, Principal of The Knox School in Melbourne, Saloni Todi, a first year Hong Kong University student, and Yashovardhan Poddar, co founder of Openhouse,

Openhouse is a learning community based in India with a bold mission centred around nurturing a better society for all.

“Our mission is to build a better society by creating powerful communities. We believe visionaries are not born but nurtured. So by redefining how the world learns, we empower students to become thinkers and leaders. Changing society, one child at a time…..”


I was delighted to be part of this conversation, listen and learn from other perspectives, and explore how fostering a sense of community has helped support continued learning during this time. Grounding ourselves, and our students, in a shared learning community; one of acceptance, vulnerability and with a growth mindset have all been key. I loved learning about how this looked in different contexts and being inspired by these different voices. You can read more on the Openhouse blog – thanks Openhouse team!

An Open-Minded Attitude

Attitude is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. The power that it holds. The influence that it can wield. The impacts it has. This last year has been tough on everyone. It has demanded attention, in many respects, most of all towards our attitude; to examining our beliefs and values and our response to circumstances at any given moment. So finally, in a moment of quiet, I got to thinking more about attitude and the power it has to determine outcome.

The familiar range of reactions bubble to the surface when a group of students, young or old, are faced with a new task. There are those who approach the given task with confidence and a certain degree of nonchalance, ´This will be easy´ or ´No problem, I know how to solve this.’ Whilst there are those who tentatively step forward and quietly express they will ‘give it a try‘, or say, ´I think I can work it out‘, and others who simply declare ‘I´m no good at this.’, or are absolutely self-deprecating and poke fun at their own capabilities. All within a somewhat ‘typical’ range of reactions.

But which of these reactions actively impinge upon learning and become an unseen barrier to the learner making progress? What have we learned about the importance of attitude during the recent COVID 19 Pandemic? How has our attitude helped or hindered us transform as teachers? How can we develop resilience to navigate emotions and be an agent of our own attitude? These and many more questions are bubbling to the surface for me.

I shared the below image and statement during our back to school meeting in August to provoke thinking around how critical our mindset is in helping us navigate, be successful and thrive and how we need to support each other as a community during this marathon crisis period.

Three things I think I have learned about fostering an open-minded attitude during this past year are:

1. Acceptance enables us to be open-minded and embrace the circumstances we face.

This year has taught us all more than anything that many things are out of our control – we just have to accept and look forward, we cannot dwell. Accepting the bumps, the twists and turns and the nosedives are the only way to be able to keep an open mind and thrive.

2. ‘Self talk’ matters more than we realise.

‘Self talk’ helps and hinders us in equal measure. We are often our own harshest critic. However, a kind word to a colleague, to a student, to a friend can also help us to remember to be kinder to ourselves. Spreading gratitude and value can help us manage our own ‘self talk.’

3. Finding time to be mindful, is essential to being able to thrive.

We all have experiences that centre us, that help us feel refreshed, remind us of what is important and this can be anything from sport to cooking to reading. For me, being able to participate in a Mindfulness course with colleagues was a wonderful experience that not only fostered community during this difficult period but also helped me find practices that I can embed in my daily life to become more mindful.

Calm is a Superpower

I was privileged to be asked to participate in a podcast series with SkyGems Academy involving educational leaders from around the world reflecting on their experiences and the learning in their contexts during the COVID 19 pandemic. So interesting to hear from diverse school leaders, the different, and similar, challenges faced and the ways in which communities pulled together to navigate through the crisis.

Spring is in the Air: Time for another #ISMTeachMeet

My school community is filled with educators who come from a range of backgrounds and have a wide variety of expertise so it would be foolish for us not to take advantage of such a skilled and knowledgeable bunch of teachers and encourage a professional sharing practice.

John Jones, @mrjonesICT, and I first introduced the idea of a TeachMeet to the ISM teaching community well over a year ago. Our first session was met with a mixture of extreme caution, some resistance but mostly curiousity and enthusiasm.  We welcomed some risk-taking teachers to stand up and share their experiences, wisdom, learning and innovative ideas to colleagues. They led the way in ensuring that gradually TeachMeets are becoming part of our School community culture.

2013-10-09 15.58.57

Many teachers found it an enlightening experience to hear what fellow colleagues who they share their morning break with every day actually find useful, engaging tools to inspire learning in the classroom. Since then the #ISMTeachMeet has gained momentum and we have scheduled to have these school-wide at least once a term. Our Spring TeachMeet is lining up to have everything from Design Learning presented by Jen Rhodes @JenRhodes to using Pinterest & Smore to create and share revision guides by Michael Cotgrave @Miclaaa.

Now, my next thought is how about we create a StudentMeet for teachers and students! Why don’t we ask students to present for 2 or 5 minutes about the technology tools and learning practices that engage and inspire them in their everyday learning….. Wouldn’t it make sense to hear what they find successful? My next goal has been set!

Focusing on Focus Groups

Consistent policy and curriculum review, responsive actions to school culture and embedding meaningful and lasting practices are, of course, always at the forefront of school leadership. In a busy, dynamic school environment time can be one of the most critical barriers to implementing changes effectively. One of the most effective models I have experienced in order to facilitate change in policy or practice was that of introducing Focus groups as part of leading the Primary School team. Once key areas to focus upon had been selected from the school’s strategic plan this approach was most effective because:

– teachers selected an area of interest from these identified focus areas, therefore allowing them to develop and invest time into something they were particularly passionate about or interested in.

– all community members were involved, class teachers, specialists, assistants and support staff.

–  meetings were flexible – the group decided when to meet each week and how to facilitate this.

– each focus group set their own shared goals.

– a simple, clear structure for the focus groups was developed with teachers.

– regular reporting back time was scheduled into the 8 – 10 week period with a final date given for groups presentations.

– emphasis for focus groups was placed upon gathering, reviewing data and presenting proposals for change or solutions to problems.

– discussion and collaboration became more embedded practice in professional culture.

– teachers benefitted from working in smaller groups, giving individuals greater opportunity to share their own personal ideas and discuss at length with colleagues.

– final decisions could be made in the various ‘focus’ areas by the whole team. This followed the group presentations and feedback, ensuring decisions were shared with the whole team.

Using time productively and effectively made everyone feel like we were progressing forward and sharing the workload in doing so. Just as we would do in a classroom, breaking tasks down, differentiating, giving ownership and allowing individuals the space and time to select areas of interest and take control is always going to be the most powerful approach for everyone!