Are you human? You should read this book.

There are currently 12 books occupying space on or in the little 2-drawer nightstand beside my bed. Everything from Getting Things Done by David Allen (on stress free productivity) to The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (exactly as it sounds). Most of these books are in some state of “about to be read, partly read or nearly read”. At some point I’ll decide that I’ve soaked up what I can get from the pages of one of these books, and it’ll migrate to the bookshelf in the office downstairs, or often, onto a colleagues desk.

One of these books that has taken up residence on the nightstand, and doesn’t show any signs of going anywhere, is the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Hands down, the most important and influential book I’ve ever read. 

Interchangeably called “A language of life”, “language of the heart” and “compassionate communication” , Non Violent Communication (hereafter NVC) is based in the premise that ALL human behaviour is driven by the underlying desire (conscious or unconscious) to meet the individuals needs. But not the kind of needs that we’re used to talking about, like “I need to go on that vacation” or “I need that promotion”, or “I need you to stop running around the house and go to bed!” (me to the 4-year old recently). Those “needs” are actually just strategies to meet the underyling needs. In the case of the vacation, the need might be to relax and celebrate with loved ones. The promotion might be a strategy to meet a need for recognition, contribution or a sense of meaning. Getting the 4-year old into bed meets a pretty real need to get some rest myself.

The problem with mistaking strategies for needs, of course, is that those strategies often bump up against the strategies of the people around us, who are also trying to meet their underlying needs. My 4-year old is getting his play & movement needs met. He’s not actually trying to exhaust his parents (not yet, I hope, anyway).

The power of NVC to transform conflict has been demonstrated in some of the hottest conflict zones on the planet, from Rwanda, to the streets of major cities rife with gangs, to the inside of federal prisons.  Deepak Chopra calls NVC “the missing element in what we do”. Jack Canfield (author and founder of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) “cannot recommend it highly enough.”

It’s a book that will fundamentally change your point of view, as it has mine, but it won’t be easy. Though simple in theory, the practical application of NVC concepts into your daily life, a life likely filled with subtle and unknowing violence, is incredibly hard. Just knowing that the 4-year old is trying to meet needs that are different from my own is a good start, but then what the hell do you do with that? Thankfully Dr. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication provides as much “how”, as it does why.

Hands down, the best 20$ and a few hours of reading time that you’ll spend on yourself…probably ever. Grab a copy.

Scarcity; Why Having Too Little Means So Much

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a book review. Probably because I have a 3 1/2 year old and a 6-month old, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for reading (for pleasure, anyway). And writing open letters has kept my blogging brain busy.

Luckily we managed to sneak away for a week in Mexico recently, and as usual a vacation offered up the chance to catch up on the reading list. First up, Scarcity; Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

If you’re only interested in the “read or don’t read” commentary, this one is a must read. Part behavioural economics, part cognitive psychology and all useful, I found it to be a compelling read filled with insightful commentary on the human condition and the pervasiveness (and consequences!) of a scarcity mindset.

From time management to finances, depression to poverty, this book takes a wide ranging look at why having too little means so much, for organizations and for individuals. The authors don’t only point out the impacts of scarcity (particularly on our cognitive bandwidth), but offer up useful and practical tips to work within it. Why are we so much more productive as a deadline is looming? Why does poverty persist? Why are sugar cane farmers in India smarter after the harvest than before? The emerging science of scarcity explains all of these phenomena (and more), and the authors, through a combination of stories and experiments, do an excellent job of conveying this to the reader.

So grab a copy and find some time in your scarcity-filled day to read it!
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Every single moment.

What better time to reflect a bit on the journey of parenthood than on Mother’s Day? My wife and I are 2.5 years into raising a wonderful little person, and are due to welcome our second into the world in September. It’s quite the trip, this parenthood thing, especially considering that between my wife (an elementary teacher) and myself (someone who works with youth with addictions), we’ve got some pretty strong ideas about parenthood and rearing little people. Combine that with a relatively keen interest in brain development and neuroscience, and you get a perfect storm of theory meets practice, laboratory meets the real world.

Did you know that a newborn’s brain is 25% of of it’s adult weight? And by the age of 3 it will have produced billions of new cells and hundreds of trillions of connections? The growth of young people’s brains is absolutely incredible, and fundamental to developing so many important life skills…from counting to 10 and singing the ABC’s, to learning how to regulate emotions and share toys. And how does this learning happen? We teach them, of course.

Every single moment, we’re teaching our children something. We’re teaching them to love…or hate. We’re teaching them to judge or accept. We’re teaching them to laugh or cry.

Every single moment, our children learn how to handle frustration or get overwhelmed. How to comfort someone who’s sad, or ignore them. How to use their imagination or play angry birds.

Our children learn from us whether they can trust people, or whether they need to fear them.

We teach them whether the world is full of possibility and wonder, or disappointment and scepticism.

Sometimes I hear people lamenting the “coming generation”. They’re lazy. Entitled. Disrespectful. They lack work ethic and social skills. And so I ask, “who taught them to be this way?”. Or perhaps, “who didn’t teach them something better?”.

If you interact with children, be it through your job or as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or neighbour… the single best thing that I can think of for you to do is become familiar with even the basics of brain development. From “serve and return” to the effects of “toxic stress”, knowing how young brains develop, and what they need to develop effectively, might just be the most important and powerful gift that you can give to the young people in your life.

Take 4 minutes and watch this great video, compliments of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. And remember…children will become what we are. So let’s be what we want them to be.









Publicly funded private schools. Rationalize this.

There was an interesting twitter-storm on my feed today. Entirely to do with education in Alberta, which is a welcome change from all the political manoeuvring that’s been going on lately.

First, you should really watch this video for some context.

The debate that’s raging around private schools seems to be about the inequity that exists between private schools, that enjoy both provincial funding (70% of their counterparts), and charge tuition (up to $18,000 in the case of the Webber Academy), and their solely publicly funded counterparts.

Proponents argue that private schools are more efficient than public schools, providing better education for less of the taxpayer’s money. They also might argue that parents are paying their fair share of taxes to support the general education system, and are choosing to use discretionary spending dollars towards their children’s education, which arguably is better spent than buying a Porsche or something.

People opposed to this system of publicly subsidizing private schools argue that it creates a hugely unequal system where the wealthier families, already privileged members of society, are given even more privilege. And given the vast discrepancy between the schools featured in the above video, it’s hard not to agree.

I’m going to lightly touch on the issue of publicly funded religious schools in this province as well, being a guy that went K-12 in a small-town Alberta Catholic school. Religion aside, funding two streams of the same educational curriculum is ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great education. But I lived in a town of 1500 people with two K-12 systems. There were 3 students in my Physics 30 class. Three. Not a good use of the taxpayer’s dollars, any which way you slice it. Had both schools been bursting at the seams and being given the same funding for the same number of students, then it’s less of an issue. But we wouldn’t dream of building two hospitals a few blocks apart, would we?

Back to the issue of private schools. I have no problem with the idea in a general sense, so long as they’re truly private. I’m having a tough time subsidizing ANY school that has a 450-seat state of the art theatre when every public school uses the gymnasium. An easy solution would be to set a base amount of funding that goes to schools (public, separate, private, charter, whatever) on a per-student basis. If a school chooses to charge tuition, great. They just have to give back the taxpayer’s money on a dollar for dollar basis. That money then gets re-allocated into the worst performing schools in the province, or the poorest postal codes.

Students who attend private schools are already so far up the opportunity ladder from their poorer counterparts that the last thing they need is a boost from the taxpayer.



ConnectED: Hope for Education

I had the distinct pleasure recently of joining many passionate and dedicated teachers from across the country at the annual ConnectED conference, hosted at the Calgary Science School.

The ConnectED event takes an unconventional approach to connecting educators and engaging them in leading conversations about the future of the industry. In lieu of expensive keynotes and stand n’ deliver lectures from “experts”, the ConnectED event embraces the wisdom of practitioners, encouraging great dialogue and connection through hands-on conversations and practical applications of theory.

I ran an “unworkshop” on Systems, and instead of standing in front and talking at the participants, I introduced some theory on systems change, then we sat down in small groups and mapped out some relevant systems. It was truly inspiring to listen in on the conversations, which ranged from reporting student success via outcomes to changing teacher training programs to better match the realities of the profession. There were no shortages of great ideas, deep insight and passion for changing the system.

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Because I love the work of Dr. Alex Bruton (my partner in Givyup) and his Sketchpads, I created the Systems Sketchpad 1.0, which we used to map out some systems and identify levers for change.

Feel free to use this!

Feel free to use this!

I walked away from the ConnectED event with a new-found appreciation for the passion and insight that many of our educators bring to their work, and hope that our educational system can shift to better meet the needs of teachers, learners and communities.

I’m looking forward to ConnectED 2014…assuming I’ll be invited back! And I’m going to have to work on the “deer in the headlights” terror that my session invoked…

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Structured (dys)Function

Do you remember H1N1? In 2009/10 it caused 17,000 deaths across the world. Vaccines were rushed to market and inoculations en-masse took place. And at my place of employment we instituted a standing agenda item called the “Health Minute” at our twice-monthly leadership meetings.

Despite H1N1 petering out, the “Health Minute” persisted. It was a chance to go around the table and tell the other folks (supervisors, managers and executives) how healthy your team was. Needless to say, it quickly became redundant (given the absence of a pandemic), yet managed to persist as a standing agenda item for nearly 4 years (despite some minor grumblings that I’d throw out every now and again to revisit the usefulness of said agenda item).

What’s this all about? I think it’s a fundamental mis-alignment between function and structure.

Function is about performing a task or solving a problem. Pretend that you have a river to cross. How many different ways can you get across? Swim? Buy a boat? Build a bridge? All different structures, or mechanisms to perform the function of crossing the river. Swimming is the cheapest, building a bridge the most expensive. Depending on your needs (now and in the future), you may chose one or the other.

What we often stop doing is assessing our structures to see if they still function effectively in solving our problems or performing our tasks. Much like the “Health Minute”, a lot of our institutions mistakenly embrace structures AS IF they will naturally continue to function as they historically have, despite changes in the context of the very problem.

On Saturday, I’m running an “unworkshop” at ConnectEd, a gathering of teachers at the Calgary Science School. We’re going to be talking about changing systems, and probably a lot about function and structure.

Here’s one of my favorite TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson, about the structures of education and how they no longer function the way we need them to.

I encourage you to take a few minutes and think about the structures that you’ve built in your life, and what the function of those structures ought to be. Anything mismatched? Any “Health Minutes” in your life? Structures that have developed to function in a context that no longer exists? Do you find yourself doing something out of habit, but it no longer serves the same purpose it once did? If so, it might be time to do a little renovating.

You’ll be happy to know that the “Health Minute” will soon be gone. Until the next pandemic, of course.

Relationship is an action.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of facilitating a workshop at the Calgary City Teacher’s Convention. The workshop was The Resilient Classroom, and the conversation that flowed around the room for 3 hours was awesome, and a little frightening.

Working with teenage addicts, I all to often get to see the dark side of being a youth these days, and the challenges that some of our young people face. I’ve always assumed that I get to work with the anomalies, the kids who’ve been severely traumatized, abused, neglected, bullied, etc. After spending the morning with a bunch of teachers I realized that what I see in treatment is but the tip of the iceberg.

Teachers were describing kids being diagnosed with anxiety disorders at the age of 8. SERIOUSLY? What is there to be anxious about at the age of 8?

Not just anxiety, but isolation, depression, bullying, anger, ADD/ADHD, promiscuity…the list of challenges our young people face appeared to be endless and universal, with different areas of the city experiencing slightly different challenges based on the demographics of the families that lived there.

We talked an awful lot about the importance of belonging. How and why do students belong in their school and classroom? Do they belong because they score well on tests? Because they can memorize some facts and regurgitate them to the teacher? Because they do as they’re told and never challenge the establishment?

We came up with 6 ideas to implement the idea of “belonging” into the classroom. The first of these ideas is that relationship is an action, not a feeling. We tend to assume that students will feel a sense of belonging to their school, regardless of what we do to foster or discourage it. Because nothing screams “you belong” more than a building full of cliques, standardized testing and the opportunity to feel inadequate when you don’t know the answer to the out-dated question.

Of course relationship is an action… why else do we go on dates with someone while falling in love? Love is an emotion, relationship is a set of interactions. And how can you possibly feel like you belong to something, if you don’t have a relationship with it?

And how exactly do you foster a strong relationship with your students? I don’t know, because I’m not you, nor am I one of your students. But here’s a few things to think about:

  1. Authenticity. Be real. It’s ok. Talk about real issues, set aside your “expert” hat for a few minutes everyday and connect with a couple of students in a human way. 
  2. Share space and time. And by this, I mean really SHARE the space. Sit down for lunch together.
  3. Invite participation. Yes, students are forced to be in your classroom. Being forced to do anything sucks, whether you’re 14 or 40. The least you can do is invite them to be a part of creating a shared vision of what your time together is going to look like.

A pretty common theme among the young people that I work with is that they “hate school”. I’m sure if I polled their teachers over the years, there’d be some pretty strong feelings about the young person and their effort/attitude/behavior as well. Underlying it though, is a sense that they don’t “belong” in the school. I’m not the only one who believes this, and thankfully more and more schools are looking at this idea. For the first 10-days of the 90-day treatment program, all we do is invite belonging….by building relationship.

Which leaves me with a final thought to wrap up this blog post. I’ll tackle the other 5 ideas to create belonging in the classroom soon.

Does a child need to belong, in order to be loved? Or be loved in order to belong?