In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by data strategist, David Furlow, to discuss moving forward from the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve : 00:53 Looking forward. This is a time when all of us need to be thinking about the future and looking forward. Today, I’m excited to have joining me on this call, David Furlow. He’s a data strategist with the ACS international schools. I’ve had the privilege over the last couple of years of working with David several times, both in London and in Doha. And I was recently listening in to a international heads of schools conference call, and David was on that call and he raised some interesting questions for those international school leaders to to ponder and I immediately dropped him a note and ask him if you would join me here and he’s agreed so welcome, David.
David: 01:46 Thank you very much, Steve. It’s really a pleasure to be here. I’ve always enjoyed our work together and I was pleasantly surprised when you sent me that note.
Steve : 01:54 Well, David, you made a statement that I thought might be a good spot for us to jump in here. You said that this time is a clear meaning of the statement not wanting to waste a crisis when I explore a little bit what you mean by that phrase?
David: 02:12 Well, I think, you know, certainly when it’s something like a pandemic and a health crisis, we have the first duty and
responsibility, you know, keeping faith with our students and our parents to go for health and safety. But when we get beyond that, and we think beyond student wellness and parent wellness and teacher wellness, when we’ve created a safe space, then the next thing to think about is not so much what’s impossible, but what is becoming possible and to try to look for openings there. So in a crisis, people are de-routinized and their normal patterns of behavior are disrupted. And that leaves an opening for new things to come about and new ways of thinking and doing and being. So that’s really what I meant by that is we have an opportunity now that, you know, thankfully doesn’t come along very often, but at the same time, it is an opportunity to make something new and hopefully something sustainable.
Steve : 03:08 David, you shared a couple of at least, initial questions that school leaders should be exploring with with staffs and that they resonated with me because I’ve been seeing this as a extremely important time for leaders to be facilitating these conversations. Getting people, first, listening to each other, sharing their experiences, finding the common elements within their experiences and where they can move ahead with those. You want to go into one of those first couple of questions suggested that the heads consider?
David: 03:48 Yeah, we try to keep people focused on positive attributes of the experience because, you know, usually if you – we asked folks to do a retrospective analysis, like what things did we get from going to distance learning overnight? So, you know, we were in the state where we had everybody on campus and then suddenly the rules changed and everybody had to be online and distance learning, and that was traumatic. But we asked people to reflect on what we had realized with distance learning that we had never done before, and that we would value enough not to want to lose it if everything went back to, you know, fully normal, the way things were before. What would we keep from that experience? And then the second question we asked was about what things did we miss from before the pandemic and before we went to totally online learning that we had not yet figured out how to either reinvent or replace with something else? And then finally we asked the question, what was consistently good through both parts of the experience and therefore we could consider it to have consistency or to be reliable so that we would have sort of a foundation for the future going forward?
Steve : 05:02 I’m wondering if you got an example back on that first question as to something people found that they wanted to keep. There’s one that’s ringing in my head was, I had a teacher who’s in her 45th year of teaching and she excitedly talked to me about using Flipgrid with her second grade kids. And she had said to me, if somebody had asked me six months ago about showing me Flipgrid, I would have told them to flip. And now she was saying, put me back in the classroom, and I’m going to be having Flipgrid with my by second grade kids. So a crisis led her to a kind of small discovery there that she wants to keep.
David: 05:44 Well, I’ve had a lot of comments like that. And actually the way that we’ve been gathering this material in our own community is to use a tool called Mural. And in the retrospective, we let people post sticky notes. And I can’t tell you how many sticky notes have been about increased teacher flexibility being one of the main things and surprisingly, things like one on one, not one to one relationships beause we really discourage people from having one-to-one online meetings, but detailed knowledge of a student’s understanding of something that’s coming about by increased focus on communications in an online classroom type of experience. And it’s more collegial, like teachers working with students as coworkers in a way. And that point you were making about new tools is really fascinating because over the years, we’ve all heard, you know, people say about teachers, especially the ones with 45 years of experience, they don’t try anything new, you know? They’re doing the thing that works for them and they’re stuck in their ways.
David: 06:46 And I think it’s really interesting that so many people that we might’ve thought that about, who said to us, you know, “hey, we’ve got this new tool” and it could have been any of the tools that you mentioned and their reaction might be, I’m not going to do that because I’m really good at what I do. I’ve been doing it this way for a long time. And I don’t need technology because it’s much better to be human – human contact. And you know, in the missing column, we consistently see loss of human contact. But to the compliment to the dedication, the spirit of teachers, they flip the whole argument around and they start by saying, I need to have contact with my students. How can I do it? Oh, there’s a technical tool? Where’s the manual? So, you know, they go to a completely different part of the spectrum and start embracing the challenge of learning something new. And that’s really a wonderful thing to see. Teachers as learners, emergency learners.
Steve : 07:33 I’m wondering if in that example that you just gave there, if that’s a connection to your second question about the piece that people were were missing and they still need to work on. And I’m wondering if that student relationship fits in there. And one of the things that I’ve been pondering with people is what does it look like if you have to start the year with a new group of kids that you don’t have relationships with, compared to what happened this year is, people kind of had a solid chunk of the year where they built those relationships and then they were able to pick this up. I just wrote recently, our school leaders thinking about how do you orchestrate new staff coming to the school who may make their first meeting with their colleagues that they’re going to be working with in an online fashion compared to being there for those three days of everybody being together to start the school year.
David: 08:41 And you know, so much of that is about if you go through the notes that people have left for us during this exercise, there’s so many things about the loss of contact and the loss of like being able to look over someone’s shoulder and give them rapid feedback, kind of care of the community and the spontaneity, that sort of stuff. And you think to yourself, there’s a couple of things like what you’re talking about with transitions. When a new kid arrives at school. Now, normally, we’re an international school. We have high mobility. One of the main things that we concentrate on is making sure the students get into the accelerated pace immediately. And we try to make it comfortable and make social connections. And, you know, in talking to students, we’re hearing consistently, I really miss all the accidental things that happen.
David: 09:26 We used to, you know, I’d be in the lunch room when I have to sit with someone I never met before, I’d meet them, we’d have something in common, something would happen socially or something would happen academically or sports and extracurriculars. And all those things have been, all those mechanisms and rituals and structural encounters are gone and we haven’t replaced them and it’s an interesting challenge to think about how we might do that and how we layer those things into learning experiences or project based learning or social events. So there’s quite a bit there to work with, but, you know, it’s just as difficult with those rituals to say, can we reinvent that or is it going to happen in a different way? A good example of that is something like graduation. You can look all over the world and see all the different approaches that we’re taking.
Steve : 10:18 It almost sounds a little silly, but it really clammers out at me. A number of schools in the States did a drive by parades for kids. So the teachers all got in their cars and they drove through the community, hoking and blowing their horns while the kids sat down and waved as their teachers drove by. And so many parents wrote about the impact that had on their kids, the connection that it made, and then it dawned on me, like, why couldn’t we do that anyway? Did we really need a pandemic to say, we really need to come up with a way of showing the kids how special they are to us.
David: 10:59 And what you just said is, to me, that’s the model that needs to take place in our thinking, is to say abstract, what that provided. So state what you miss, mourn than the loss of what you miss. There’s such an important emotional element to that. Mourn than the loss, and in mourning, express what you think you’ve lost. And in that expression, you’re going to find the abstraction that you are going to put into the hopper to try to invent the future that includes that abstraction. And it may be similar, it might be that you’re enacting the physical sequence of events, or it might be that you’re just creating the emotions again. But the thing that you’re challenging yourself and your colleagues and the people that are involved in the experience with you, to create something new that carries something valuable from the past. And that’s a wonderful challenge. If you can take joy in that, despite the negative news and the frankly appalling tragedies that are going around all over the place. But that’s a part of living, isn’t it? To do that?
Steve : 11:53 Another one that’s jumping out at me – for years, for years, I’ve been frustrated with grading and reporting having to occur by the calendar. So, I meet a teacher who’s getting a test ready, and she tells me the kids are ready for the test. If you know the kids aren’t ready for the test, what are you giving the test for? Well, Tuesday’s the end of the marking period and I have to have my grades in Friday you know, before I go home. And I just used to really struggle with know, aren’t we at the level with technology now where every time it was appropriate to give parents feedback on where the kids were at, they could get it?
Steve : 12:46 So you might get biology feedback on Monday, and it may be six or seven days later that you get feedback from algebra because that was the time that the unit assessment was done and the teacher had the information. And interestingly, I found a school that did their parent teacher, student conferences in Zoom meetings. And they were so impressed with the partnership and collaboration, that they know that that is now going to be a fixed part of their practice, moving forward. We don’t have to have all the parent conferences on one day when we closed the school and mom or dad are out of town this week, so the whole idea that teachers could be relaxed and have a schedule structured with parents and kids to be doing this over some extended period of time. But it was a discovery and people know they want the parent support, they want the communication, they want to engage the kids. That is the piece they want. And it’s kinda like they accidentally discovered how to get more of what they wanted.
David: 13:43 Well, we have the, you know, we have a couple of points relevant to that in the everyday experience. You know, people think, well is learning worth the same amount of money in class learning? And you kind of wonder what you’re paying for. Are you paying for the time you spend in a class, whether it’s, you know, if you’re bored out of your mind in a class, is that valuable? Probably some people are thinking of it as childcare, that’s to be expected. But I mean, from my point of view, if I do what I was doing before and say I mourn something, and then the abstract level, I say, well, geez, what I want is I want to see a kid who’s engaged in their learning and that learning is relevant to their future and they’re happy, you know, and ideally they’re learning skills that are for the future. So agile skills are really good. I had a parent this morning in one of these sessions saying, you know, you guys don’t let kids chat in Zoom and the kids really need to chat. So, of course you probably know that they’ve set up a completely alternative systems so they can collaborate while you’re talking.
David: 14:52 So I think the kids are showing the way. They’re resilient. They’re like water. They flow toward the making their lives, livable.
Steve : 15:05 That’s cool.
David: 15:05 You know, they also need encouragement to stay relevant but that’s up to us as it always has been to mentor and to lead and to set examples and to model curiosity and inquiry, and, you know, to get to the point where every kid knows where they are, where they’re trying to go and has a couple of strategies for trying to get there. And what am I going to show when I get there that tells me and the teacher that I’ve achieved what I was trying to achieve in terms of understanding. So, you know, that thing about the test is, the test is not ready for the kids.
Steve : 15:41 [laughter] There’s a way that I’ve been processing this and wonder if this fits. A dilemma that I think we need to be exploring is, there are kids for whom this four month of going virtual advanced their learning rather dramatically. And so I think we need to figure out what that was and how do we keep it. And then there were kids for whom this didn’t work and we got to figure that out. And the part that I’m scared of is meeting at some not real good place that sit in the middle. In other words, that some suggestion that we’ve got to take away, something that was there that worked for one group in order to give the other group what the other group needs. My question, making sense?
Steve : 16:29 Yeah, the zero sum analysis, that would be problematic. So there, again, we need to think of what resources are available. Now, in the scenario that we’re in right now where the pandemic waves are coming and going and we could easily see ourselves catapulted back and forth between out of school and in school or we may have to do that for density reasons that we’re basically saying, you know, only half of the kids will fit in the space safely, so when we’re looking at those scenarios, we need to be good at transitions. And the characteristics that you’re talking about right now, tell me that we need to make a soft transition for those kids into the other mode. Now, whether that involves coaching from their peers who Excel in the other dimension, or making sure that every student collaborates with every other student at some point during the year, or if it’s some specific ritual that we have, that that says, you know, you used to use social grease in the classroom to be feeling confident.
David: 17:24 And this is really about the building of competence. So if you’re on your own, we’ve had lots of kids say no more distractions. Those kids that are making noise and, you know, pulling on someone’s hair or throwing spitballs or whatever, those kids are not keeping me from doing stuff. And there’s kids going, “I want to go to school. I want to see my friends.” And there’s other kids saying “I’m getting so much work done, I’m learning so much.” So then you kind of say, okay, well, it was ever thus to differentiate the kids on the basis of where are they getting that confidence. Because that’s really the labor that takes you from, I’m not engaged to I’m engaged, I’m confident I’m getting something I want and I feel good about it, you know?
Steve : 18:03 Another real simplistic one – I’ve met middle school guidance counselors who are getting much more interaction with kids because all the kid has to do is hit a button and say, I’d like to connect. And for some kids, that’s totally different than walking down the hall, past the office to go to the counselor’s office. But there’s another kid who needs to see the counselor in the hall and you know what I’m saying? So how do we create – it seems like we shouldn’t have to have one of these worlds or the other that we can create this space to maximize everybody’s success.
David: 18:41 Well, you could really do experience design on what you’re talking about. And, you know, it’s a beautiful thing to sit down and try to optimize the aspects of anonymity that helped you to ask for assistance when you need it. And the aspects of credit that make you feel good when you’ve done something well, but here, we’re going to have the same issue that you’ve heard a million times, where will I find the time? So then, then you kind of have to make, this is some kind of joyous teamwork exercise. I talked with a teacher in Bolivia last night and she had invited students to come in and do an agile exercise to design the school that they’re going to two years from now. What’s in that school, how does it work, what tools do you need, you know? And the kind of thinking that comes out of that says, well, I don’t really have a class anymore.
David: 19:31 I’m in a bunch of different learning groups. And, you know, we have, each of us has a council of kind of like learning mentors and advisors that we can go to. And if one of them is not available, we can go to another one. There’s always somebody who’s available. And we’ve got content oriented specialists in that group. So we’ve got, you know, a math expert, we’ve got a language and literature type of expert, but we also have a psychologist or motivational person. And we have a, someone who knows about the pragmatics of vocational looking stuff, or thinking about future, thinking about jobs or thinking about universities and that sort of thing. So it becomes more like, you know, we talk all the time about bubbles as if they’re protective things, but we don’t talk about bubbles as if they’re supportive things. And maybe that’s another aspect of it. You know, we can use the metaphor more than once, and maybe that will give us some more balance going forward.
Steve : 20:24 David, you wrote a little bit about our desire for normal comfort and how do we deal with that desire for normal comfort at the same time that we’re looking at what I would call the world of the possibles here?
David: 20:41 You know, I think that sort of process of abstraction is really useful. One of the first things is, you definitely have to acknowledge that emotional loss of what’s happened because normal is not coming back. It isn’t going to be like it was. And, you know, facing that fact is really difficult. And it’s so difficult in some cultures that they’re spreading the pandemic because they refuse to change their behavior and that’s because of the downstream effects of it are too far away for the feedback to be immediate. But, you know, we’ve got to let go of that. We’ve got to move forward. And as we’re moving forward into some new pattern, which is going to involve a lot more flexibility than we had before, I think it’s key that we give up the idea that it’s just a habit and, you know, we’re valuing what we’re getting from the experience, but we’re willing to adapt it and keep in mind the value rather than just the structure.
David: 21:38 So I think when we, when we have the idea that we can’t go back to normal, we have to think about where we are going. And that enables us to think about inventing a new future. And therefore, we’re looking forward, we’re not looking backward. And we’re also not looking as educators, we’re not just being tactical, we’re being strategic, we’re looking ahead, we’re looking forward to what we want in the future. And we’re using, hopefully we’re using the sense of being able to write the story of how we got to the future. So another exercise we’ve been doing a lot, and this seems to work really well is to say, put yourself in January of 2021. What is it that has made you arrive at a place where you were amazed at the progress that has been made and the new world that is emerging?
David: 22:23 What is it that is keeping you feeling really hopeful and positive at that point? And tell us how you got there. Or even farther in the future, especially with the kids two years from now, where are you, how did you get there? What was it that happened? What’s the story? Give us a couple of bullet points. Now, if you start the other way and you say my goal is X, then you tend to see the obstacles to getting there and it’s far away. And if you start in the imaginary and you write the story backwards, maybe there’s a little bit more ability to overcome the obstacles that are often in the foreground and to think of “yes, and” situations as opposed to “yeah, but” situations and that’s another thing we’ve been doing in terms of trying to plan the future, embrace the constraints.
David: 23:10 Okay, we always said small classes were good. Now we can only have small classes. So small classes are good and we’re going to use that by what and that – you know, so it’s that kind of like, thinking positively and I’m not reducing it to simple optimism because I don’t think that optimism at the moment is it’s not going to be that helpful. Things are not going – they’re not going swimmingly. Things aren’t looking like, you don’t have to do anything. It looks like to make the future good, you have to do something. And that means defining what you know, good is for you and your colleagues, especially in an educational environment and then acting to make those things real. What a moment, such a disruption has occurred and you can be thankful about that beause this is disruptive and violent and tragic, but at the same time, you still can’t waste that crisis.
David: 24:04 You have to make hope emerge and the whole past will be based on something that you really value. So we’re in the fortunate position of having tried to imagine the future for a long time. I know you have and you know, I know that we have frequently encountered a lot of inertia, but at the moment the inertia is in the direction of what can I do? What can I do as opposed to, what can I not do? So, you know, it’s, it’s tough to keep it that way beause the rules change overnight. We talked to people in China who closed their schools down on less than 36 hours notice and did distance learning pretty effectively and then came back to school and had their summer term, finished the term in school and had their summer term lined up for summer school to make up for lost time.
David: 24:49 And at 10:30 on the night before they started, they got a call from the government saying, we’re shutting down, you’re back on distance learning. Who’s resilient enough to deal with that. And I hear a lot of professionals saying we have to plan these things and you know, but the fact of it is we have to plan the scenarios, but we can’t plan the triggers or the pivots. So we have to be really ready to go and competent that we can handle those situations. The kids, some of them are traumatized by that and some of them are traumatized by other things, recognizing that social emotional care is the first priority.
Steve : 25:26 I circled that you use the words, our need to be kind and gentle.
David: 25:31 Yeah.
Steve : 25:32 It’s kind of kind and gentle, yet shining the light in the direction that we need to go.
David: 25:42 And purposeful and intentional. As we always have said, intentionality is a good thing because it allows you to, so think about efficacy. Are you getting, are you going in the – is it the right direction? Are you effective at going in that direction? One thing that, you know, and it’s interesting to think about things like standardized assessments, things like math, there’s in some quarters, people say, Oh, don’t do those because it’s not authentic. The kids are at home and you can’t be sure they’re answering the questions. But then on the other hand, that sort of points to the culture that we’ve got, which is we’re thinking of an assessment that’s meant to be formative as a summitive assessment. And we really want to know the thing that you were talking about before, which students have really excelled during distance learning. They did way better than we thought they would have if they were in class. So, you know, by not doing that, we could lose that milestone and that’s a difficult thing. To some extent, it’s a teaching moment for stuff like that, but we’ll see what happens in the fall because it’s quite likley that many people will still be in the same situation.
Steve : 26:46 Yeah, or in a blended that it gives them even more intriguing questions to answer. Well David, I really appreciate you spending this time with me and I will look forward to that next conversation.
David: 27:08 Great. Thank you, Steve.
Steve [Outro]: 27:10 Thanks again for listening, you can subscribe to Steve Barkley, ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.