The Capacity-Building Agenda, North and South


It is fascinating to be immersed in another culture and to have begun to understand its education and human services systems.  We see our own realities with fresh eyes and learn from colleagues on the same journey as they seek out promising practices to build capacity…one child at a time.

Stuart Shanker and I were in Perth, Western Australia for two weeks engaging with school and early childhood educators, social service agencies, Aboriginal and other community leaders.  We were there at the invitation of a remarkable organization, Western Australia Council of Social Service (WACOSS).  Their work is to develop an aligned, sustainable and coherent voice and action plan for the many agencies whose mission is to support those who have the greatest needs and whose voices are often most distant from places of influence. WACOSS is in the early stages of activating self-regulation theory (see as a common framework for their programs and initiatives.  Our visit involved teaching, learning and hearing others’ stories, many of which are remarkably similar to our own in BC and across Canada.  Here are three compass points in our common ground:

1) The better the start, the better the trajectory…Western Australia is increasingly paying attention to how they construct their early childhood initiatives, parent support programs and effective transition from home to school.  In some of the places we visited, accessibility and flow of programs and services was beautifully clear to the clients.  That’s the key and we can learn from the best of what our Australian friends are doing.  They have gone beyond the fairly typical program design, one that makes most sense to those who built it.  In WA, it was encouraging to see the goodness of fit for the parent and the child, especially those who already deal with multiple barriers as they navigate systems.  In BC, our StrongStart Centres are a big step in the right direction, but there is more to achieve.  Every step we take to be warm and welcoming, caring and compassionate is another support for the anxious family toward feeling safe and secure and beginning to see hope;

2) Smarter together rather than harder alone…In the human services sector in Western Australia, various agencies are aligning efforts to maximize the cumulative impact of their resources, ensuring a positive difference for their most vulnerable populations. That was apparent in many meetings and presentations where was excitement about activating self-regulation theory as a common touchstone for their programs. It was clear  that this wasn’t the first time these people had played well together in the same sandbox.  They are embracing emerging science around the human condition as they strive to make the biggest possible difference to the people and communities they serve.  An essential element of their commitment is the voice of the Aboriginal community in the collaborative planning.  There is a clear understanding that reconciliation includes acknowledging the past and building a shared future; and,

3) Evidence over ideology…In difficult times for social agency resourcing (both government and non-government), staff are engaged in reviews around the currency and research-based validity of their programs.  They are taking another look at  “old school” reward and punishment norms that used to be part of institutional culture. Caring, quality programs don’t extinguish hope by excluding those who struggle.   There are better ways to support individual growth, hence the WA interest in self-regulation.

Our experience in Western Australia was tremendously engaging, every day filled with exciting learning and great promise.  There are so many people doing fine work there, as is true of their contemporaries at home.  North and south, these professionals are more curious than certain.  They work scientifically, artfully and always with good heart to understand the human condition and to reframe individual and system responses to dysregulated kids and families.  Shame and blame don’t build capacity.  There is a better way.   



When Innovation Takes Hold…Anything is Possible

As part of my role in support of various self-regulation projects, I often receive notes and updates from places where the initiative is developing.  Almost always, those notes reinforce for me an essential truth about education: it is not the elegance, complexity or perfection of any innovation’s design that leads to its success; rather, it is the spirit of collaboration, flexibility and  hopefulness that moves the dial.  It is curiosity over certainty, and it embraces the notion that lifelong learning is for the adults too.  Whether we are talking about self-regulation, project-based learning, quality classroom assessment practices, incorporating the arts across the curriculum, addressing youth mental health…or any of the other complex and vital work being done in schools everywhere, the secret sauce of successful innovation is teamwork, trust and willingness to take risks.

Following is an example celebrating the work of collaborative, hopeful and flexible people, those curious and determined educators who commit to doing the right thing and doing it well.  The writer shares her comments (edited for brevity) in an update on the expansion of her district’s self-regulation work over the past 18 months from a small initial elementary school “First Wave” to an expansion that includes more elementary schools and the launch of a secondary school initiative.  She wrote:

The secondary cohort met last week.  The buzz in the room grows stronger each time this group comes together.  Collectively, they continue to be highly reflective, connecting the principles of self-regulation to the needs of their students, the kids they see every day.  One of the district staff’s Helping Teachers has become a “regular” at the sessions, linking research, highlighting classroom applications, providing rich learning experiences for all.  It is clear that S-R has become an essential part of who they are as educators.  There is no turning back for this group.

The original group (which started their project last year) is meeting next week.  I am not sure that any of the participants have experienced a professional learning journey that could rival the self-regulation odyssey.  As expected, they continue to take the lead in building capacity at their respective sites.  Several have received requests from neighbouring schools and a couple have been asked to provide in-service at schools that have not been involved in self-reg to date.  These teacher-leaders are powerful, authentic voices.

The new cohort will be attending the fourth session of the year within the next couple of weeks.  In the interim, they continue to receive support through regular site visits and informal networking opportunities.  The feedback, insights and themes that have emerged from these site visits will most certainly frame the work moving forward.  We have learned (and reminded ourselves) that differentiation is key.  Some schools are flying; in those places the school-based S-R group continues to grow and there is a comprehensive understanding of the principles, a recognition that direct teaching is essential, deep reflection of practice, and intentional exploration of data collection. At these schools the principal is actively involved in the work, group members self-identified and teachers are leading the charge.  We also recognize that there are some situations where more time is needed to develop the understandings and apply the principles to classroom practice.  These schools are well on their way.  Regardless of where schools fall along this continuum, it is universally understood that the work is more than simply “doing self-reg”, using some of the tools, some of the strategies and some of the language.  In the absence of a deeper understanding, any implementation would appear to be  the pursuit of the quick fix.  


An appreciation for the self-regulation framework and way of thinking never leaves you…I was at an in-service on differentiated instruction and the facilitator showed a clip of Captain Sully, the pilot who landed in the Hudson River.  He was being interviewed by Katie Couric (CBS at the time).  Take a look…it is all about the power and importance of self-regulation.  While the presenters were making a case for differentiated learning opportunities within a classroom, they were also highlighting the imperative around S-R. Talk about calm, focused and alert!!

Good people doing good work…together. It’s life long learning any way you look at it.

Self-Regulation – for individuals and for organizations too

Over the past few years and more and more frequently now, I have been fortunate to work with Dr. Stuart Shanker on a national and international self-regulation initiative (see  In sessions across various jurisdictions, we engage with groups in a learning journey that takes people and school systems to new understandings of how people function – from surviving to thriving – all based on the neuroscience foundations of self-regulation.  In exploring and engaging in self-regulation learning (a post-behaviourist construct), we begin to challenge long-held assumptions about learning, teaching and interacting, allowing us to apply what we have begun to understand in new ways, both personal and professional.  Of course, none of this process is linear.  It’s the same for all kinds of significant learning.  Think of it as a spiral of discovery.

Stuart and I were recently working with a group on a large, system-wide self-regulation project. We were discussing the self-reg framework we use to explain the 5 domains that make up our personal architecture and the six levels of energy/arousal that describe the expenditure and replenishment of energy.

I won’t unpack the framework in this blog post.  It has been referenced in previous blog posts and you can check on the self-reg website for a range of resources that will help with understanding both its complexity and its simplicity.

During the recent presentation, I began to think about the science of self-regulation as it applies to system health as well as to individuals. The framework isn’t new to me.  I know it well as one of the key resources as Stuart and I use and we often reference specific cases to illustrate various states, their causes and impacts. But I had always considered it in the context of our individual neurophysiology.  What became apparent to me was that this same framework can be equally descriptive and helpful to us in considering organizational health and efficacy.  Think about it.

System architecture has the same 5 domains we use to describe individual human make up: “Biological, Emotional, Cognitive, Social and Pro-Social.”  In systems work, we might think about labels like Human Resources/Talent, Culture, Skill, Teamwork, and Social Responsibility as equivalent (not perfect but adequate) to the five individual domains.  There is even a better match between individuals and systems when we look along the vertical axis at the self-regulation energy levels: Asleep, Drowsy, Hypo-alert, Calm/Focused/Alert, Hyper-alert and Flooded.

Systems behave in many of the same ways individuals do when it comes to the ability to “self-regulate.”  That is, they have a range of capacities allowing them to respond to and recover from stressors.  Like individuals who are dysregulated, there are consequences and costs to system functionality and health as a result of dysregulation.  And just like individuals, it is possible to get stuck in an unhealthy state – an unproductive and unsustainable “set point” – one is more and more difficult from which to recover.

In successful systems, appropriate resources are activated in response to stressors.  This occurs multiple times per day, to allow the system/organization to return to a healthier and more productive state; one that is calm, focused and alert.  Success in dealing with stressors begets further success. Conversely, organizations that are routinely over-stressed (hyper-alert or flooded)  or under-energized (hypo-alert or drowsy) find it difficult to return to a balanced state in expending and restoring energy to function positively and productively.  Just as success begets success, it is equally true that “dysfunction begets dysfunction” and systems can end up stuck in that self-fulfilling reality.

Self-regulation for individuals and for systems: it’s an interesting parallel and when we raised it briefly with session participants, there were a number of people for whom the connection made a great deal of sense.  They talked about having worked in systems that were “flooded” and therefore unable to deal thoughtfully, rationally, calmly and productively with emergent issues. Those places were constantly in crisis and basic survival became the priority.  There was no energy for much else.  Others referenced experiences where there was an “under-response” to matters of significance.  Their workplace/organization was sluggish and poorly attuned to signals requiring attention and action.  Those places have a feeling of lassitude and sense of resignation and hopelessness.  Of course, many others validated their workplace as an environment where there was skilful activation of strategies to promote a return to a positive set point in a timely manner.

None of us can avoid stressors and the related energy expenditure, either personally or in our organizations.  The good news is that we do have the potential and the knowledge (what we know influencing what we do) to respond to those stressors effectively.  Take another look at the self-regulation framework.  It makes sense from many angles.


The Gift of Hope* Some Assembly Required

In the weeks leading up to this Christmas season, I enjoyed several last visits to schools prior to my retirement at the end of December.  I was looking for something and, as often happens, we find what we are looking for…  In this case, it was gratifying to engage in positive dialogue that highlighted  the remarkable work of teachers, administrators, education assistants and other school staff - all the professionals who make the difference for kids every day. These people reminded me how fully  we now “get” what the secret sauce is for great schools: they are the places that manage to create the right mix of hope and skill, both of which are essential and neither of which is sufficient on its own.

In those school visits – and in your schools and mine – hope was evident in the clearly shared belief that each of our kids has the necessary curiosity, abilities and talents, either active or latent, to allow him or her to engage, to learn and to be successful. It wasn’t generalized or unfocused hope, though.  Colleagues shared stories of their efforts several layers beyond the obvious and the relentless positive energy and skill they commit to connecting with their most resistant students.  Our conversation included attention to establishing and maintaining social/emotional learning environments that are productive for kids and for adults.  We all work better in positive, safe and hopeful places and we know that where cynicism, anxiety or defeatism reign, failure isn’t far behind. The people I talked to aren’t willing to allow that toxin to invade their space.  They understand the life-changing role that education has for every student: for some it supports a move from good to great; for others it reinforces the importance of hard work/resilience/grit as crucial for success; and for another cohort, quality education takes a youngster from surviving to thriving.  These professionals “hope” for a better future for all children and they work together  to deliver it.

Skill was also front and center as a theme in the visits.  It is the other ingredient in the secret sauce.  Within a framework of hope and a positive school culture, educators are embracing and adopting the evolving art and science of good teaching, individualized learning and appropriate scaffolding of experiences so kids experience the right blend of high expectations and specific support.  A growing interest in neuroscience and all of the uptake of the self-regulation framework are indicators of professional practice that is constantly being refined.  Engagement in thoughtful dialogue around the EdPlan indicates that we are now well along the transition from a time when facts and factoids formed curricular essentials and memorization ruled the day.  Developing key competencies for life keeps learners (we are all learners) nimble.  Essential in combination with the curriculum transformation is our quest for better and more authentic ways to assess learning – light years beyond the old report card reward & punishment retrospective that served to archive for what was rather than to influence what could be.  Skilful educators are like professionals everywhere, constantly reviewing and refining their work and connecting with others to share emerging quality practice.

As I left the last of those schools, it was reassuring and energizing to see the best of our education communities and to anticipate what lies ahead for learning and for learners.  We get it right when hope and skill mix, resulting in the activation of all the art and science that are foundational to our profession.  Exciting times ahead!  Wonderful places to be.

Autumn leaves…spring cleaning…free throws!

Part way through the season of shorter days and longer nights, I am creating space to tidy up some blog topics that have been rattling around.  It’s kind of a neural spring cleaning of thoughts that form most clearly in the hour or so just ahead of dawn, not yet at full wakefulness, and before the grip of the daily schedule and the tyranny of the urgent.  These thoughts assemble into themes, sometimes emerging from books recently read and from dialogue and debate played out over time about educational challenges to be navigated, especially the ones that appear to be elegantly simple and remarkably complex all at once.  As educators, we know the joy of lifelong learning.  It’s in our nature, our DNA and our job description and now,  more and more of us write about it to express our wonder, our curiosity and our journey of exploration of teaching, learning and success.
For me, that journey was enhanced by reading The Talent Code, a book that has so many applications to our work. Among the many engaging stories that author Daniel Coyle uses to underscore the pivotal role of quality practice, there is one about Shaquille O’Neal and free throws and why his efforts in that part of his game were spectacularly flawed.  He would practice, and practice and practice, standing at the free throw line for hours on end, day and night, hoping for the breakthrough that never came.  His free throw history is legendary and his percentage was so woeful that opponents fouled him relentlessly, confident that they would get the ball back without surrendering many points.  There’s no doubt that O’Neal wanted to be successful and was willing to put in all the necessary effort to fix his faulty technique.  A career’s worth of score sheets bear witness to the fact that he never cracked the code.
So what does this have to do with learning and with efforts to accomplish more significant tasks?  Coyle explains that the science behind Shaquille O’Neal’s quest can inform our practice beyond the gym and the foul line.  His other examples, for the non-sports fans, are engaging and illustrative as well.  Whichever of Coyle’s stories attract us, it might cause reflection on some of our classroom and homework norms, many of which – just like free throw shooting practice – have long histories that might need a fresh look.   What was happening for Shaq was endless rote repetition.  It is similar to what can occur when learners are slavishly completing work sheets  (paper version or electronic) or other routinized tasks.  They fill up time and space, they feel like hard work, one might even have a sense of accomplishment or triumph in completing them all.  But the 50th worksheet question isn’t 10 times better than 5 questions at the same task level. It might be worse.  And the 50th free throw doesn’t promote greater success either, not if we are trying to develop skill and the ability to replicate that skill, in context and in the moment.
The Big Aristotle, as he was known,  would have been far better served to work on his free throw form by setting up from various places on the floor.  Free throws from 14, 16 and 18 feet, maybe from 12 feet and at the edge of the lane… Needing to be thoughtful and deliberate requires the brain to be engaged, to practice far more deeply, and therefore to embed and myelin–wrap the neural connections that lead to successful completion of the task.  That’s a far better recipe for success than repeating the same thing over and over without any changes in variables (including stressors) and without much new or fresh thought.  50 varied shots would have been better than 5000 of the regular routine.  I find this interesting albeit far too late for Shaq’s free throw percentage or for mine.  But it’s not too late for us to assess how we can “make it real” for kids in their learning.  Homework, or classwork to embed concepts has a much greater chance of sticking (myelin wrapping) if the neural processing provides a range of variables and challenges to take the learner deeper.
The concept of deep practice is one of the reasons that project–based learning and problem–based learning are attracting so much positive attention, student engagement and good results.  You can’t “rote” your way through novel and energizing challenges because your brain – the universe’s most complex computer -  is busily activating and strengthening its current competencies and while also making new synaptic connections.  Even more, when one brain has authentic opportunities to connect with other brains through teamwork on real, engaging and important problems and projects, the depth and quality of new learning is further enhanced.   Add the right mix of pressure and support that is part of the public nature of sharing learning and we have a greater likelihood of a successful mix.
What we understand about the brain, as we explore the rich nexus between neuroscience and education, is helping to revolutionize practice.  It also tells us why the best of current practice works.  It is evident when we watch expert coaches in the classroom, in the gym and in the studio.  They achieve success by going in a very different direction from the drill and repetition exercises that are based on volume rather than quality.  Skilled coaches activate and energize learners; they give them right-sized challenges that allow them to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct, starting with prior capacities in order to develop new ones.  They create appropriate stressors and provide in the moment feedback to help neural pathways build.  They know that 50 questions on the worksheet and 50 free throws at the end of practice are much about drill and not so much about skill.  Great teachers/great coaches make it real: Animated, Authentic and Active.  Good brain food.


Social/Emotional Learning: One of the New Basics

A few weeks ago, a teacher leader shared: “I never dreamed that the day would come when social emotional learning (SEL) would take its rightful place on the educational landscape and be treated with the importance it deserves.”  Recently, another educator said that the national focus on child/teen mental health is both “long overdue and just in time.”  It is clear from conversations like these and the work represented in schools and districts across our country that we are now attuned to the reality that the brain can’t learn, the mind can’t engage and the person can’t reach her full potential without conditions in place to promote optimal, or at least reasonable, functioning.  That is the journey we are on in our self-regulation work (see and it is reflected in the following note (edited for brevity) about the factors in play that support the development of professional skill/efficacy.  Those factors include:

- the essential role of post-secondary institutions that train, shape and credential the teachers of tomorrow;

- the importance of our teacher “apprenticeship” model, the series of practicum assignments in our K-12 schools; and,

- the school house “norms” and the lived mandate regarding what’s important, what’s valued, what matters.

My correspondent wrote (with a few of my edits for style & brevity):

“…many of our programmes for teachers have been inadequate in preparation for the real classroom they will enter as new professionals.  I always thought it was because the programmes/courses of study were focused on curriculum, but now I think it is because pre-service education has not  been fully attentive to considering the importance of ‘emotional functioning’ in a world where the teacher’s role far exceeds curriculum expert and classroom manager.  Today’s effective educator is attentive to and skilled at shaping and navigating the climate, culture and health of the individual learner and the group of children assembled together in a class.  In order to achieve this relatively new expectation, we also need to pay attention to the teacher’s emotional awareness and functioning.  Today, our work as reflective practitioners involves so much more than reviewing the achievement results and responding to academic/learning deficits.  Teachers consider the emotional climate – each child’s, the class’s and the teacher’s own social/emotional health.  We have to encourage each teacher to view/reflect and honour  the ‘whole teacher’, including their personal development of emotional, social, cognitive, communication style and their physical and general well-being. It is difficult to be a guide without having walked the trail first.   If we are concerned about the holistic development of the individual child , let’s also be attuned to awareness and holistic development of the individual teacher.  Self-reflection and attention to monitoring one’s own SEL will enable all of us in the profession to then make the time, take the time, notice and recognise the individual child within their classroom as a person and not just part of the group.  Through our self-regulation work and deeper study of this field, more and more professionals feel they have permission to ‘nurture the person within the teacher’ resulting in a transformation of individual teachers that has been quite remarkable…”

Interesting and important perspective.  As I read this teacher’s views, I was reminded that this isn’t a linear/sequenced series of steps (first, reframe the teacher training programs, then renovate practicum experiences, then reculture professional focus in schools…); rather it is a call for integrated action so that the educated citizen becomes such a person through scaffolded and supportive interactions and experiences that transcend the mastery of curricular outcomes.  Today’s learner is someone who has the confidence, skills, resilience, grit and adaptability to take on new challenges and succeed and fail gracefully, thoughtfully and productively.  All of that is much more likely to happen on a learning journey attuned to what individuals need in order to be successful.  It’s another way personalized learning comes to life.











Image credit: neuson / 123RF Stock Photo

Project-Based Learning: Backing a Winner

In late July, I attended the showcase finale for a new summer learning program in our district.  It is called “L.E.A.D.” (Learn, Experiment, Advance, Demonstrate).  This initiative was sparked by several BC educators’ visit to High Tech High, and then modeled on an initiative started in a neighbouring school district.  In brief, it gives students an engaging and very active opportunity to earn credit for learning they did not successfully complete during the regular school year.  Students who failed or minimally met requirements in two of their core subjects (English, Social Studies, Science or Math) during their Grade 8 or 9 year, were able to enrol in L.E.A.D. as an alternative to the regular remedial summer school option, one where the core outcomes of the curriculum are typically retaught in a concentrated/intensive block of time throughout most of July.  The L.E.A.D. program promised students the chance to engage in project-based learning in a way that would require them to master the same core outcomes but to do so via meaningful project work and teamwork, which would be presented as a culminating assessment activity.  

For me, the late July visit was fascinating and inspiring.   I had high expectations, knowing the amount of planning and teamwork by the teachers responsible for this first roll out of the new program.  However, the showcase far exceeded anything I might have imagined.  In fact, I had to remind myself several times that I was seeing and engaging in discussions about projects developed by kids who had failed core courses.  The experience felt more like a symposium for gifted learners – and of course it was. These kids activated their gifts: those skills and talents that emerged as a result of an environment infused with high expectations and relevance, resulting in engagement, accountability and a sense of pride. 

So what?  Project-based learning has such positive traction and is being activated in so many places because it promotes and accelerates the learner’s evolution as a reflective thinker.  In doing so, it engages the learner as a co-developer and constant refiner of an increasingly complex framework of understanding.  These kids are involved in a dynamic approach to learning: they explore real-world problems and challenges and produce something that is very public.  They take risks.  Their synapses are firing!  They invite comment, including rebuttal and affirmation, leading to modification or enhancement and further collaboration. Being active and engaged owners of their learning pathways requires and generates energy…the sweet spot for real learning to take place.

That’s what I saw in July and what I know is going on in many classrooms every day as we work to build learning journeys that are filled with engagement, relevance, challenge and collaboration.  Quality project-based learning gets results: kids working hard, learning well and being able to adapt what they have learned – including the content and the processes – to new situations…very much like the ones they will face every day in the world they will be inheriting.

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