Not evenly distributed

The future is already here,
it’s just not evenly distributed.

Sci-fi writer William Gibson

This undated photo shows electric vehicles being plugged into what we today would refer to as charging stations. Early in the 20th century auto makers dabbled with electric vehicles. They repeatedly came back to the enterprise, most notably with the Saturn EV, profiled in “Who killed the Electric Car.” In every instance, the future was there for all to see. It just wasn’t evenly distributed.

Any time a good idea dies in its infancy, we can look to two reasons: technology and mindset. The batteries were laughably short-lived and the network of charging infrastructure to make long-distance travel possible was non-existent. And yet, as recently as a few years ago, the situation was no different. Battery technology (including but not limited to longevity, size, weight and cost) kept the major manufacturers from jumping into the EV space, and since ICE vehicles were still selling, with pickups and SUVs being the most lucrative categories, Ford and GM stayed where the money was.

Then Tesla. And Fisker. And Rivian. Lordstown. Lucid. Et cetera. The small outfits that tolerated the the lack of profitability in order to realize the dream of sustainable EV production themselves created the technology and mindset that led to sustainable EV production. (Let’s ignore momentarily that profitability is a key component of sustainability.

There were missteps along the way. In their investor presentations, the Nikola Corporation famously rolled a semi down a hill in order to simulate what it would look like if their long-haul EV tractor had worked. Then CEO Trevor Milton was swiftly mocked and relieved of his duties, and both Ford and GM withdrew their interest and investment capital. Notwithstanding the technology that already existed, if Tesla, Fisker and others had not sufficiently changed consumer and investor mindset, would Nikola’s gag have put EVs back on the shelf for another generation?

Electric vehicles are no longer the future. They are the present. The name of the game now is adoption rate. As we look to the future, what are the trends that reflect an unevenly distributed future? Hybrid workplace, augmented and virtual reality, Internet of Things, decentralized finance. These are just a few of the trends that have made headway in recent years, most of which gained momentum (or at least mindshare) during the 2020 lockdown. Which glimpse of the future will you seize on, invest in, adopt into your professional practice?

Sometimes the future stares us in the face and we don’t know what we’re looking at. These police officers didn’t know what they were looking at. They saw an affront to law and order. They were actually looking at the future 16-term congressman from the state of Georgia, John Lewis. Future on the right, the past on the left—unevenly distributed.

If I had had the opportunity to meet Rep. John Lewis before his passing, I would have thanked him for bringing the future to us a little sooner than the country expected. He paid dearly for it.

What social trends do we see going on around us? What is as it should be and what is in dire need of change? Is the thing you see that makes you uncomfortable or makes you angry wrong, or is it the first glimpse of a future you have an opportunity to be a part of?

If you spend more than five minutes in the room with a self-proclaimed “educational innovator,” they will point out that the classroom of 2021 looks very much the same as it did in 1921. It’s one of our favorite zingers.

COVID-19 forces the world to adopt remote learning, and we learned two things from it: 1) It sucks and 2) It holds promise.

More than anything, we learned that regardless of where we are in our technology and our mindset, learning is nothing if not a deeply social enterprise. We NEED to connect with the people we learn from and learn with. And yet, as any introvert can tell you, not EVERYTHING needs to be done in groups of three framed around a “do now” and an “exit ticket.”

So, as schools reopen in the fall, or as those that have been open loosen restrictions, what should endure from our flirtation with virtual school? What does the future look like, its full distribution we’ve only begun to glimpse?

An English teacher colleague of mine has recently rekindled his love of teaching writing. He is far from stagnant in his practice, but neither does he chase every pedagogical whim for the sake of being “the innovative teacher.” He swings at pitches that he know will drive in runs.

When our school went virtual in the spring of 2020, he was forced to conduct writing consultations with students via a screen-shared Zoom call. This intimate setting allowed deep conversation, thoughtful inquiry and self-assessment, and frank conversations about one’s writing. Suffice it to say, this practice will endure the reopening of schools.

A math colleague began the practice of “breakout rooms of one.” She put her students alone in a breakout room during moments of reflection and assigned them a conversation with themselves. They had to speak out loud and they had to participate in both sides of the conversation. Although it took practice, students responded positively to the exercise. In particular, they like holding the responsibility of both formulating the question and finding the answer, of providing both the point and the counterpoint to a problem.

Which brings us to now. Nearly out of the pandemic, we probably spend more time looking to a more normalized future than thinking about our constrained past. Which of those constraints are worth holding on to? What should live on in your teaching practice? In the life of your school? What’s worth distributing now?

Reality is out of reach

There’s a Chinese proverb in which several blind men are summoned to court to answer the question, “What is an elephant?” As each man grabs a hold of one part of the elephant, the men in turn make their estimations:

“An elephant is a round pot.”

“An elephant is a thick tube.”

“An elephant is a large leaf.”

After some time the men begin arguing with one another about the nature of an elephant. Each of them is right, but only partially right. They only have access to one perspective of what is a very objective reality.

We can all agree that there is a thing called objective reality. In so far as our coaching practice is concerned, we have to acknowledge that we only see the portion of reality that we’re privy to. And that lot only represents a portion of the portion that our coachee/client/colleague is privy to. It’s a portion of a portion of reality.

The only remedy for this condition is curiosity. To stay curious in our coaching response keeps questions flowing, keeps options open, keeps the blind man running his hands down the elephant hide, searching for more information about the true form of the thing under examination.

Making Poetry and Politics

Right around the end of each school year I piece together a reading list for the summer, then I go to my school and public libraries and start clearing the shelves. COVID forced me to amass a summer reading list out of the books on my shelf at home. As a result, I managed to read several books that I have owned for months or decades. Some were better left on the shelf, but some have been a delight.

Even though schools and libraries are now open, I’m continuing the trend and recently picked up “The Buried Mirror” by Carlos Fuentes. Part history book, part Latin American polemic, I first read the book in its native Spanish (“El espejo enterrado”) in 1998. Some time later I bought the English version, put it on a shelf, and never looked at it again. Until now.

Fuentes opens the book with reflections on the relationship between Spain and the New World. Above all else, he characterizes the relationship as “a debate with ourselves.” In the process he evokes a W.B. Yeats quote:

And if out of our arguments with others we make politics, advised W.B. Yeats, out of our arguments with ourselves we make poetry.

Fuentes, p. 15

The original Yeats quotes is as follows:

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

Let’s not let slip the opportunity to quarrel with ourselves. Let’s, in every occasion possible, make poetry.

Two “business” books that have something to say that teachers need to hear

Soapbox moment: The term “business book” troubles me because the category unnecessarily creates a degree of separation from industries (such as education) that sorely need to learn what some of the world’s great thinkers are thinking. What if we called them “insight books.” Perhaps they would wind up in teachers’ stockings around the holidays. End of moment.

Now to the books.

The brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device. -David Allen

David Allen, Getting Things Done.

Reason why teachers should read it:

  1. Teachers fill a number of positions for which they receive no formal training (budget forecasting, project management, etc.). Aside from the obvious learning gaps this presents, teachers need superb organizational skills which are largely “solved” with a visit to the Container Store. David Allen’s productivity methodology, if part of the common PD profile for teachers, would allow teachers to free up their psychic RAM (the words of the author) so that they may do the “real work”–realizing the best educational outcomes for their kids.
  2. The premise itself behind the need for GTD productivity methodology (and recently reiterated by the author during his interview on the Simplify podcast). If we took this axiom with us to planning meetings, parent meetings, PLC meetings, I suspect the decisions we make around curriculum and assessment design would see significant changes.

Kerry Patterson, et al., Crucial Conversations

Reasons why teachers should read it:

  1. Two truths about schools: they are hierarchical and they are siloed. This combination makes change difficult. The change that most impacts schools is not of the technical or mechanical sort; it is deeply linked to individual teacher philosophy and identity. (“I’m a traditional/progressive/strict/caring teacher.”)
  2. Although a hierarchy exists in schools, real change happens laterally–between teachers. In order to grow and to grow others, we need to learn the currency of communication. Crucial Conversations equips the reader with the mindset and the tactical skills to enter into a conversation with respect and purpose. Respect keeps the conversation going, but purpose will lead to actual change.

Leading long-term change: Can the…ehem…USPS give us guidance?

When you think “United States Postal Service,” effective change management probably doesn’t come to mind.

It goes without saying that living through long-term change is difficult. With a field of vision several years in the distance, how do you keep your people interested, motivated, and believing that a) the change will come and b) that it will mean something?  The progress that you can see through the day-to-day lens of “doing work” often seems insignificant.  This leads believers to lose heart (or focus) and allows resistors to affirm their suspicions that the proposed change lacks meaning.  How then can we shepherd change in a way that gives hope to the hopeful and evidence to the skeptical?

I recently read a travel blog post that described a desert mystery that might “point the way.”

What big arrows can you lay down to point the way to the ultimate destination?  And what meaning can you make of those big concrete arrows?  We often see benchmarks as points along the way toward a place of meaning, as if the arrows pointing the way are themselves less meaningful.  Let’s never forget that the benchmarks we create as waypoints toward change can have enormous impact for your team or community as a source of inspiration, growth, and reflection.

Don’t simply fly over the arrows…go in for a landing and build something there.  Celebrate them and learn from them.