It’s what you focus on that matters: Make it the right thing!


IMG_4982“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” George Lucas


Harvard’s Graduate School of Education offers professional education programing opportunities throughout the year. I was fortunate to participate in Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership through The Principals’ Center last Summer and I often reflect on that experience and the learning I gained. The experience was so multifaceted, dense with information, and profound that it has taken some time to internalize, express, and put into action. Learning at that level was engaging, inspiring, and forced me to look at education and leadership through many lenses. The stories that educators and experts from across the country shared in discussions were an essential component and contributed greatly to shifting my paradigms.


One particular event that was planned, as part of the learning, was a high ropes course. The placement of this learning was purposeful in that it took place on the second day of the program. As a group, we had only one day to meet and greet, listen to an overview of the program for the week and get a general frame and focus for the learning ahead. The next day we were divided into smaller learning teams and off we went to meet our high ropes course facilitator (leader). Some of us, including myself, embarked upon this day with some trepidation and questioned if we would be able to fully participate in all the obstacle course tasks, particularly the high ropes traverse, 40 feet in the air. I personally wondered how this activity applied to our purpose ‘Improving Schools and Leadership’?  That purpose was very quickly revealed to me: what we as leaders focus on matters in the outcomes we seek to achieve!  

Leadership doesn’t manage the whole process, it focuses on the most critical step.

When our facilitator was teaching us the process and various roles for climbing and traversing the high ropes, we all played a critical part.  We created a safe environment, encouraged the hearts of those who questioned their ability (ME!). This activity purposefully put us in a position of challenge, rigor, and dissonance (elements of learning) that absolutely propelled us forward. The facilitator simply explained the process and different roles and then during each person’s accent, focused on the most critical step, which was the person holding the belay and locking system carabiners. She steadfastly stood in front of this person and never took her eyes off the handling of the belay and tension in the line as the person ascended the tree and crossed the wire. If the belayer was not ready to lock the line or if there was too much slack, the climber would fall.  She verbally guided, reminded, questioned and positively encouraged us in our role. All the other roles people played, holding the rope, making sure it wasn’t tangled and serving as backup, managed themselves supported by the leaders trust. What critical step are you focused on as a leader?

Leadership focuses on perceived limits, it sets a safe environment to overcome & grow.

As I reflect on the terrifying experience I had climbing and crossing the ropes (my heart was racing, my mouth was dry, my head was pounding in my ears), I was literally soaring beyond my own perceived limits. I was brought to that moment through careful scaffolding, teaching, and team building artfully executed by our facilitator. How we create these opportunities for people to face their own limits and learn through them is critical to the change process because it affect behaviors not just thoughts. Are you aware of your organization’s perceived limits?

Learning is enhanced when we focus on the team’s experiences and authentic application.

Experiencing the climb up the tree and being able to traverse the ropes to the other side was only made possible for me because of the group encouragement and informed feedback they were freely providing me from the ground. My thinking was literally frozen by fear and I couldn’t even remember to put one foot in front of the other! My team was centrally focused on my success and could only offer their words of encouragement and direction. The rest was up to me as an individual to accept, trust, internalize and act upon their words if I so chose. Learning communities have a soul purpose and that is to inform in order to change. The team as well as each individual acts in unison around a shared goal. I may have been the one on the rope putting in the effort to cross but everyone on the ground also felt a sense of urgency and accomplishment when we collectively achieved our common goal; to get each member across successfully.  It was my personal achievement as well as our team success! Deep learning, the kind that last you a lifetime, that is an enduring skill does not happen in isolation.

I am proud to say that many of us are still in touch and continue to challenge, share, learn and push our professional growth through blogs, twitter chats and voxer. I am grateful to my professional learning network and friends!

‘AUTHENTIC Learning’ Mindset




A week vacation skiing in Whistler with the family, suitcases full of clothes for 5, including bulky ski gear and a return home only to find that when I went downstairs to put the first load into the dryer…it breaks! F01 error code I learned, means panel control malfunction. So needless to say, I marched upstairs to my computer and what did I do? Yup, I Googled it!! I found a YouTube video of a 20 minute repair with a link to and ordered the part. Two hundred and seventy dollars later, I  waited a week for the part to come in and then took my tools and went to work. I didn’t lose any parts or screws and the best part was when I plugged it back in and pressed that sweet button, sending the dryer drum rolling again! SUCCESS is a sweet reward!

This exact situation demonstrates all the components necessary in what is called authentic learning. “Authentic learning is a relatively new term that describes learning through applying knowledge in real-life contexts and situations.” as defined by Audrey Rule of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. There are four components to authentic learning and if we take a look at my experience we can identify each:

Real-world problemssmelly clothes, a family of 5 and no means to wash them. I was naturally incentivized to save some money by not paying for a plumber and do it myself. The satisfaction came when I accomplished what I intended and it worked. Even if it didn’t work, I would still have had the sense of satisfaction.  

Inquiry and thinking skills…Research! This was not my first home project so I had some background on where to start my research for an answer and how to go about solving my problem. I was also confident in my skills and abilities based on my previous successes. I have to say that it is getting easier and more convenient for do-it-yourself projects because of the internet and access to information both textual and visual. I had some initial trials and errors when trying to find the right ratchet wrench size I needed for the bolt screws, analyzing how best to pull the dryer away from the wall without detaching the exhaust vent hose (didn’t want to attach that again) or the gas line, not to mention once I removed the cover from the machine I needed to figure out how to unhook each wiring component and dismount the old control board.

Discourse in a community of learners…My earlier projects involved hanging out with my friends at Lowes or Home Depot asking for explanations of how-to-do this or that and then I’d go home to read the directions that came with the kit or ‘fix’ it project. I would not have been able to successfully fix the dryer if I went into it with my own thinking. Why do we always put kids into learning situations with their limited life experience bank thinking they will be able to figure anything out on their own without access to information, conversations and a community of other learners. That’s not the real world. We have to remember the needs of a learner in the moment of their learning…provide the opportunity for them to communicate, collaborate, question, grapple with their problem.

Student-directed learning…Open-ended and choice driven are the key to student learning. I may not have had the choice of my dryer breaking but I did have a choice in how I would solve my problem. The situation was open-ended in that it provided opportunities for… “divergent thinking, heuristics-based learning, and exploring fuzzy, ill-defined, and ill-structured problems”. I said earlier that I didn’t lose any screws…well I didn’t lose any but I did have an extra one left over. I had to think on my feet and make a judgment call when one of the screws needed for securing the control panel to the metal interior plate didn’t want to go back in its place. I determined that it was secure enough without it and didn’t want to risk forcing it in or having it fall down the side of the dryer as I struggled to ‘make’ it fit.

We must start providing students with opportunities to experience learning in this way. We must start to build their confidence, background and repertoire of learning.

We must start thinking of students as drivers of their learning. Learning is finding the best ways to access and internalize information in order to create/apply it to something new.

Let them do it! Get out of their way!

Because they CAN!

Please read this article for more information on authentic learning.