The Value of a Cold Shower

It’s conference time, and you’re off to the opening keynote. What are you expecting?

Do you want to be entertained, informed, inspired or provoked, or maybe all of the above? Are you looking for your current thinking to be affirmed, challenged, or dismissed?

So, which of those emotions will impact on you the most? Which of them is most likely to have an impact on what you do when you go back to your school or district, and most importantly, which is likely to cause you to not only reflect on what you are currently doing but potentially enable you to make significant change?

For me, I’ve always found speakers usually fall into one of two camps: “warm baths” or “cold showers.” We love the warm baths because they’re soothing and they just make us feel good (and don’t we deserve that?), whereas the cold shower really wakes you up, and shakes you into reality… into action.

How many cold showers have you taken lately?

The truth is for any workshop or conference you’re never quite sure what you’re in for, but when it turns out to be a “feel-good” speaker, you walk away happy with the world. It’s nice isn’t it?

You’re not sure the speaker had any idea about the reality you face every day in your school, but he or she left you feeling good about yourself and your world. And then later on when someone who couldn’t make the opening stops you in a break and asks what the opening speaker was like, you find it hard to recall anything worthwhile except their funny stories, their little bit of personal drama..and well, hmm you’re not sure what the point of it all was.

But the real question is, did their presentation have any substance at all? Was there anything useful that you could take away, something Seymour Papert used to say was for “Monday and Someday,” or was it really just an escape from the reality of your day to day routine?

You see, I think most of the events we attend simply add to the malaise that has infected our profession, and while we might articulate a case for being provoked and seeking new ideas, feedback from conference organizer surveys will tell us that in reality, most people seek entertainment and affirmation. Sad really.

Maybe it’s because we don’t get enough of either of those in our daily work, particularly for those in leadership positions, and for the most part, we are happy to seek out professional learning events that largely endorse our current thinking and practice?

Now I know all of this might sound a little harsh, but I can promise you in the light of a broad range of anonymous audience feedback from several large educational conferences that I have been involved in running, not too many educators record a delight at being provoked or challenged around their existing thinking or practice.

It is of real concern that so few leaders appear to be seeking new ideas that are outside their current “echo chamber” whether that happens to be on social media or not.

So when you roll up to a major national conference of several thousand leaders and the opening keynote grabs your emotions with a bit of comedy and stories of personal recovery that would do well on any reality show, you’ve got to ask why you went in the first place.

Maybe it’s my age, but I’m looking for conversations that really matter, that make me think, that move me to take action. I for one, am sick of the change pretenders, who fantasize about transformation; those speakers whose keynotes and workshops promise so much and deliver so little…but keep you entertained nonetheless. They fake concern, they fabricate bogus language, and worst of all they delude their audience into believing in quick, ‘drive-by’ solutions.

Sorry, but I just don’t have time for that anymore. To put it another way, as Will said in his post earlier this week, we think “live-by professional learning” is a much more effective alternative to “drive-by.”

So, here’s what you might like to reflect on over the Christmas break…in between families, friends and hopefully plenty of ‘your time’.

What will be the focus of your learning in 2018?

I know you, like me, have all sorts of priorities in your daily routine, along with the distractions of the accidental and incidental glimpses of social and mainstream media that continually catch your eye.

So here’s a  thought. Focus on having a focus, because a lack of it probably explains the lack of longevity for so many past change endeavors.

Ask yourself, what should be the professional learning priority of a learning professional?

As we move the high bar change agenda forward, it just seems to me that we desperately need focus, rather than fracture or distraction,  so that we can embed the fundamentals that will sustain the earlier work to date. It’s time to let go of those “drive-by” events and start “living-by” professional learning that is focused on the long game.

That means ignoring those distractions, the new shiny objects or buildings and get a hardened collective focus on learning, even more about how learning happens in the modern world. Focusing on the human side of school change that can make that a reality for your students through a deeper collective understanding of what you, your colleagues and your broader community mean by learning and in turn focus on the implications those beliefs have for practice.

Sounds easy? It’s not. Worthwhile? Absolutely. Perhaps some of the most important work you may ever do, and together with the growing global community of leaders focused on changing school, undoubtedly the most rewarding.

And unfortunately, this focus will mean the end of those entertaining, drama-filled, laugh a minute, feel-good keynotes because after all who needs someone to tell them they should feel good when you know that the work you are doing is the best you could possibly do, for you and most importantly, your students.

All the very best for the season. For me, 2018 can’t come soon enough!

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Bruce Dixon

Modern Learners and Change School co-founder Bruce Dixon has spent the bulk of his career developing programs that assist governments to make effective use of technology across their education sector. His strategic work has enabled governments to better manage large scale personal technology deployments, and ensure outcomes that drive both school improvement and ultimately transformation.

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