Writing as a way to process our experience

Despite over a decade of enthusiasm for blogging I realise that writing is not for everyone – but reflecting on our craft should be.

Writing about my reflections forces me to make sense of my ideas. When writing with an audience in mind I have to communicate my thinking in a cogent way.

Writing is a reflective catharsis.

Developing a blog post quickly became a key method for processing my classroom and leadership experience. It filters ideas and tensions, encourages critical thinking and archives my experiences. Despite writing less these days on my blog, writing is still a vital part of the way I reflect on my professional experience and adopt the attitude of dialogue.

Every week I share a little email newsletter with 3 paragraphs about ideas I am exploring or experiences in schools I have had. With over 50 issues now and hundreds of subscribers it has been another successful medium for my thinking.

Sharing reflections on a blog or in a newsletter is not just about the end result. It is not just about the published piece or the ensuing reactions and conversations. The true value is in process it takes to allow people to catch a glimpse of your thinking.

Photo by Park Troopers

from The Curious Creative


Learning Networks and Professional Growth

Professional growth is not only about finding like minded people. Our professional learning networks can be built in this way, adding people from similar backgrounds or roles to our Twitter network. But that might just confirm the bias we already have.

I see great value in the exposure to alternative thinking. We gain access to perspectives that differ from our own and that may be in obvious opposition. Our social learning networks provide easy access to thinking and development from beyond the domain of education. I have deliberately built connections with practitioners in a wide variety of fields not just education.

Yes, your professional learning network should help you tap into the expertise and ideas of fellow educators. But I think the real value emerges as your network matures and you build connections far beyond the walled garden of education.

These connections challenge us to think critically about our work and what we think we know. The dissonance instigated by diversity of thought and alternative viewpoints can be a springboard to empathy.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson

from The Curious Creative

The Biggest Mistake I Made in Math Class

This post is coming from a place of both passion and a little embarrassment. I was reminded of my mistake once again the last few weeks as I worked with a student in an intervention group. If you’re a regular reader, then you know that I seek personal growth constantly. You would know that I…
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from Beyond Traditional Math

Responsive Leadership – leading from the back to the front


I recently stumbled upon a new label for the behaviours we associate with leadership. In this short clip Nipun Mehta explains a “different paradigm of leadership, which he calls “laddership””.

After rolling the idea around a little I thought I would share some thoughts on how it relates to my experience of leadership and development in schools and beyond.

Laddership refers to the role of the leader. The ladder being like the leader. So that others may climb rungs we might create and reach new heights above us. It reminds me of servant leadership.

This way of thinking is placed in contrast to the “lead from the front” type of ideology, that some might consider to be a traditional leadership paradigm.

In education we can be lulled into thinking that leadership only occurs at the upper echelons of a school administration or in those roles with “leader” in them. The career path is set out in front of many aspiring young leaders and it often only looks like a pyramid. This reflects the typical paradigm of a hierarchy in schools and school systems.

My teaching experience was similar. I was tapped on the shoulder for middle leadership within my first year out of university and the steps up were pretty clear. Maybe you have been presented with a similar direction: “If you want to be a leader follow this traditional path.”

The idea of a ladder for others to progress sits well with me. I now know that such an idea is relevant to anyone aspiring to lead. There are different ways to lead, and many different paths to help others rise above you. Education needs to offer more paths through leadership and not just those that point upwards.

Ultimately we need to put energy into redefining leadership in schools so that more educators understand the impact they can have on others.

I started a blog that shared my ideas, my thinking and my classroom experiences. That helped me understand the impact I could have on others. I realised I could lead in a different way – fast forward a decade and I still keep that idea at the heart of my work. I am leading by creating the conditions for others to progress and develop. It might not say Principal or Headteacher on the office door (I don’t actually have an office door) but I know my work is leadership.

Leadership can be defined in multiple ways depending on the sector or domain it sits within. But also defining leadership within a sector has great contextual dependency too. Education is no different.

The leadership that needs to be shown in the emergency services during the bushfire seasons, here in Australia, is very different to the leadership needed at a K-12 school to develop an innovative culture.

In our attempts to seek out the fundemental truths about leadership perhaps we polarise our thinking too much. We might covet the entrepreneurial mindset in schools and look to business for ideas on development, but we should never forego the intimate understanding of the educational context we work in. Cookie cutters are not a leadership tool.

When we setup Laddership Vs Leadership and suggest a shifting of paradigms, or systems of thought, we create these false dichotomies. So although the idea of creating ladders resonates, I think it is unrealistic to set up competing concepts in this way – a choice we have to make, a move we have to make.

In the Design of Business Roger Martin explains a series of ideas related to design thinking and leadership, for example: exploration Vs exploitation; analysis Vs intuition; originality Vs mastery. You can see the others in the image I have added. But the choice is not “either or”. Creative problem solving requires a range and mixture of different thinking modes at different times. It reminds me to consider the balance of different types of thinking rather than such polarised choices.

Adaptive and responsive leadership perhaps describes this best. In certain situations in schools a “lead from the front” style of leadership is the most appropriate. When there is high urgency for change or important processes that need to be modelled and established. Or when we are attempting to shift ingrained habits and behaviours to something different, maybe “follow me” works best.

That same leadership approach should adapt and respond to the context it is in. As Nipun Mehta explains, shifting to the back and allowing others to push ahead and lead the way. Developmental work in schools often needs people to buy in and have ownership. These are good opportunities for intentional and thoughtful design leadership. The best possible conditions for progress and development are (co)created.

When I am working with teams I am attempting to create these conditions. I use a range of protocols that help establish the expectations for the time together. One of them is about how we each need to take responsibility to balance our participation in the session.

Step up and step back is a protocol about session participation but it also has a strong likeness to the idea of responsive leadership. You don’t have to make a solitary choice, you don’t need to operate under a fixed ideaology. Adapt, change and respond to what is in front of you. Increase your awareness of this balancing act.

Nelson Mandela refers to a balance:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

I have presented similar ideas in the past about teaching and learning. Perhaps the true art of leadership is in the complex balancing act between these paradigms. It is not in the extremes.

  • Strike a balance
  • Respond and adapt to what is in front of you
  • Step up and step back
  • Leverage your empathy

The leaders I work with every week wrestle with the tension and complexity of real situations. These constantly demand both the subtle art of nudging others to move ahead, with pointing the direction and inviting others to follow.

In my experience leadership is as much about creating the conditions for others to develop as it is helping to direct that progress.

Photo by Daryan Shamkhali

from The Curious Creative

What’s the Point of Expanded Form?

OK, I’m going back in time to tell you something totally ridiculous that I actually said to another teacher. It was because of my inexperience and my inability to understand math at a deep level during my second year of teaching.  I was frustrated that my students weren’t understanding what expanded form (that 145 is…
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from Beyond Traditional Math

Subtracting Decimals Is Not Scary!

Something about that decimal point really freaks kids out. So here we go back again to misconceptions and misunderstandings… I’m working with a student right now who was taught procedurally how to subtract decimals, but gets all mixed up when regrouping.  The VERY BEST way to intervene with any student is to determine where the…
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from Beyond Traditional Math

Real World Examples For Teaching Fractions on a Number Line

Number lines go wrong in SO many ways. Let us count the ways: Students struggle to read number lines when labels are missing on the tick marks. When drawing number lines students do not evenly space the tick marks. Students count the tick marks instead of the spaces and are often off by one increment….
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from Beyond Traditional Math