Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Yes, If...

I'm reading a really cool book right now called The Imagineering Workout: Exercises to Shape Your Creative Muscles by the Disney Imagineers. I'm really interested in how we generate new ideas, and how we use our own ideas along with ideas that others generate to make to drive our learning and make our world better.

One of the early chapters focuses on the phrase "Yes, if..." The author, Martin A. Sklar, shared the "yes, if..." approach to analyzing projects as a way to visualize "what needed to be done to make the possible plausible... 'No, because' is the language of a deal killer. 'Yes, if...' is the is the approach of a deal maker." (p.8)

Do we speak the language of "Yes, if..."?

This really struck a chord with me. In education, I fear that our go-to response is too often "No, because..." rather than "Yes, if...", when really, we should be in the business of making the possible plausible. Isn't learning about taking risks, trying new things, and developing the skills to change the world? If not, what is it about?

I think that our tendency toward "No, because..." comes from our aversion to taking risks. It comes from a hostile educational culture that blames teachers too harshly for short-comings that are societal in nature and that fails to honor teachers' professionalism as they strive to meet the needs of students while being boxed-in by the needs of a system that continues to march in the wrong direction. "No, because..." comes from a belief that reworking education from the ground up is a task that is too large to accomplish. "No, because..." seems like the safest path, while in reality it ensures that we will never ascend beyond the mediocre.

What is the effect of "No, because..."?

Teachers are confronted daily with "No, because..." when they start to dream big about a new design for learning. Even small changes to the routine like scheduling a field trip, can become so mired in "No, because..." that it hardly seems worth it to fight the good fight.  Teachers can be afraid to push back against "No, because..." Pushing back can get you labeled as a trouble-maker. It can get you called down to the office. And now, it can affect your pay. "No, because..." is the language of the defeated.

Teachers themselves can become messengers of "No, because" as well. A popular story that explains this is the Story of the Five Gorillas. Institutional "knowledge" can convince anyone to not even ask for permission to do something because those around the person assert so firmly that the answer will be "no." Even the way that school leaders message priorities can prevent a teacher from asking the question. If all a leader seems to prioritize is student progress on standardized tests, then a teacher is less likely to explore other areas of student growth and more likely to forego learning designs that don't directly address that narrow measurement of educational success. Even the best education leaders at the building and district level have moments when "No, because..." is easier to explain than "Yes, if..."

Over time this can affect how teachers respond to students. Even great teachers in their worst moments can stamp out student motivation and crush student voice in favor of moving forward with the curriculum, covering the standards, and keeping up with the map. I cringe when I think of the times I said "No, because..." to students asking if we could explore an idea that wasn't in my lesson plan, or take time to try a project that might derail my already designed unit plan. What opportunities did I miss? How many kids did I lose? What amazing example of real-world learning did I fail to enable?

Is there room for "Yes, if..."?

On the other hand, all teachers have great "Yes, if..." stories to tell as well. We all remember the times when we asked for the green light to try something new and found not only permission, but support. We all tell stories of the great collaborations that happened because we stepped out and took a chance. We all can point to the administrators who empowered us to reach higher and teach better. Many of our proudest moments are when we helped our students bring their own ideas for learning to life, even though it meant changing our plans or shifting our routines.

In fact, I can say pretty confidently that the finest moments in my career as a teacher have been "Yes, if..." moments. They stand out because they mattered to me and to my learners. They stand out because I was far enough out on a limb that I had to own the results, and I put every bit of my talent and passion into them as a result.

My "Yes, if..." moments are the moments that began with "You know what would be cool?" and ended with students, years later, still talking to me about them. The defining characteristics of my "Yes, if..." moments are engaged learners, the thrill of the unknown, hard work, and a celebratory atmosphere. When someone asks me what great learning looks like, I point to "Yes, if..." examples for my response. Recently, I've seen the fingerprint of "Yes, if..." in the work of Be Brave 4 Education and in the rise of the Maker Movement in Education.

It seems to me that the power of "Yes, if..." comes from it's affirming approach to life and learning. "Yes, if..." is where growth happens. "Yes, if..." says "if you can dream it, you can do it, as long as you commit to doing it right." "Yes, if..." isn't a flippant response. It means digging in and putting your ideas to the test. "Yes, if..." is collaborative and real-world and personalized- all of the things that great learning is. "Yes, if..." is the language of the courageous.

A simple test...

So here is my question: Do we use the language of "Yes, if..." enough in education? 

If your response to that question begins with "No, because..." start over at the top of the page.

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