Digging For Details Via Thoughtful Questioning

I was looking at a leaf yesterday.  It was the big, broad leaf of a hosta plant.  It had rained that morning.  The world was mostly dry by the time I got to the leaf (the part of the world that I was in anyway).  The leaf was in the shade.  As a result of being in the shade, it was still covered with water droplets.  The sun had not evaporated them.  Now I’m no science guy, but if I’m not mistaken, I think that it rains because water evaporates into the air.  Hard to imagine, but true (to the best of my knowledge).  I know what you’re thinking; it seems like magic, but water does transition between various forms.  One of those forms is gas or vapor.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one.  Water vapor’s molecules are spread out, and as a result, it doesn’t weigh much.  If I understand it right, water becomes vapor when it gets hot enough.  Believe it or not, when it does that, it actually floats up into the sky and meets more water vapor that’s gone through the transition already.

As if that’s not wild enough, all of that water vapor meets in the cold sky and its molecules slow down, connect, and form clouds.  Eventually those clouds get saturated with the water vapor.  The vapor molecules slow down again, they connect even more, the clouds buckle under the increasing weight and size of the water vapor transitioning back into liquid, they can’t hold it, and the liquid water falls back to the earth as rain.  Incredible…right?  Are you with me so far?  Do you know what this means?!  Neither do I!  But I do know what it reminds me of.  It reminds me of learning.

It’s raining somewhere right now, and that’s because a process has been happening for some time that’s prepared it to do so.  Nature doesn’t leave much to chance.  Our world is constructed of intricate and complex details.  Each detail matters uniquely to the intricate and complex outcomes it contributes to.  Essentially, everything happens for a reason.  If you think about it, things are happening right now that are contributing to an outcome which might be significant to you later on today, next week, or even in a month from now.

When you trace outcomes backward, you can often highlight many of the details that contributed to them.  Some are easier than others.  For example, I know that I have to lose fifteen to twenty pounds.  I know that it’s at least in part because I am magnetically drawn to Slurpee® machines at Seven Eleven.  This equals that.  Drinking large volumes of crystalized sugar water on a daily basis (and washing it down with bags of potato chips) makes me have to lose fifteen to twenty pounds.  Strategically planning my commutes based on where the local Seven Elevens are, is quite likely another contributing detail to the same outcome (sometimes I’m magnetically drawn to multiple Slurpee® machines).  Those are some pretty easy breadcrumbs to follow.  I can adjust the details in an effort to change the outcome to a more desirable one.  Details however, are not always as overtly connected to outcomes.  Sometime we have to pay closer attention than we are accustomed to, and even then, we aren’t always able to discern the pieces to any given puzzle.

Furthermore, even when we do see the details with clarity, we can’t always influence outcomes in ideal ways.  However, when we pay close enough attention to the details, we are more likely to know, and have some ability to guide what’s happening…as it is.  I believe that thoughtful questioning helps, in fact, I would argue that it might be our best shot.  Being an educator, educational leader, and a parent, I find that kind of exciting.  I need to be careful to not get to enthusiastic though.  Detail identification is a tricky ambition.  The details are often so intricate and complex that it’s often easy to be wrong, especially because in education, we’re working with people.  People, as you may have heard…are complicated.

I once heard a comparative anecdote featuring blueberries that laid it out pretty well.  Those of you in the blueberry business can fairly easily figure out where and when blueberries grow best.  You can narrow down soil nutrients, watering times, sun and shade ratios, and pretty well get at ways to produce consistently positive outcomes (when it comes to the blueberries).  Also, when unsavory blueberries make their way through the systems you have in place, you simply need not put them on the shelf.  You might even use them for jam, syrup, or ice cream flavoring.  Those of us in the people business are able to rely much less on generalization about what works.  We serve diverse populations of people, we are charged with moving each of them forward, and we are strictly prohibited from doing so in form of jam, syrup, or ice cream flavoring (which would be very Willie Wonka-ish).

The point is, we must pay attention to the details.  Give yourself a break when you get it wrong.  Keep working to get it right.  Educators, educational leaders, parents, and anyone else who is in the business of serving human beings as they learn and grow, must be attentive.  We have to realize that it’s all happening all the time.  We have to constantly ask ourselves what outcomes we’re looking to achive, then remind ourselves again and again.  Even before we get close to any particular ends that we’re aiming for, we should always be aiming.  We also have to be ready to shift and adapt at any given moment.  We should be every questioning, and the questions have to target the individual and collective goals we have in mind for our school communities.

Are the students we serve tired?…Are they hungry?…Do they feel valued?…Are their voices heard?…Do they have autonomy?…Are their unique interests and abilities considered as they progress along any given instructional pathway?  Are our teachers well supported?  How is their work-life balance?  In what ways do we communicate with our parent population?  Are we modeling our core values?  Are our core values congruent to those of our students’, faculties’, and other stakeholders’?

What questions do you ask yourself as you make decision and act them out?  How closely do you understand the detail of how things are unfolding in your district, your school, and/or your classroom?  Lately I’ve been thinking about what type of structures I can put in place with my students, their parents, and my faculty to perpetuate the asking of essential questions…maybe something digital?  We could keep and ongoing Google Doc, or open a regular Twitter chat.  Maybe one-on-one style meetings with key stakeholders would work.  How about an old-fashioned “essential question” box in the office, or casual/informal conversations.

I don’t know yet.  I can’t quite put my finger on the connection or how it will play out in real time.  What I do know is that, like rain and the water cycle, things are going to be happening during this upcoming school year.  I’m going to want to affect those things with positive momentum, enthusiasm, and forward progress.  One of my goals this summer is to consider possibilities for digging into the details that will help me do just that.  I’m looking for strategies and systems that might assist me and all of my partners in learning to stay ahead of the rain, to be ready for it, and to celebrate the positive aspects of the outcomes we are certain to achieve.  I’ll keep thinking about it and report back with reflections as those thoughts unfold.  Please let me know if you have any ideas!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

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