Friday, January 16, 2015

Coaching and the Tao of Arch Building

[This blog post is part of a series, Defining Vertical Learning.]

In 1994, I was getting a master’s degree in education at Boston University to become a teacher. For an assignment, a group of us had to write a formal lesson plan and then teach that lesson to the rest of our classmates. This is the first formal lesson I can remember writing.

The lesson we developed was based on an idea that I had while taking Physical Chemistry in my junior year at Carnegie Mellon. It is an idea that inspired me to become a teacher and inspired my thinking about vertical learning. I have held this lesson in my back pocket for the past twenty years, knowing that I would whip it out if I ever had to show someone what vertical learning looks like.

I’ve demoed this lesson a few times in workshops that I’ve run for teachers, and I talked about it in an long-ago blog post I wrote when I first coined the term vertical learning. But I’ve never developed the lesson further or published it in any form. The standard reasons for why I might have sat on the lesson instead of working on it and promoting it are fear of failure or fear of success. Because I am a vertical learner who drills down into things all the time, I generally know when I am avoiding something out of fear. It’s that damn hyper-sense of integrity I’ve developed. This wasn’t fear.

As a vertical learner, I am also constantly striving for alignment. When I am building an idea, I am usually juggling a bunch of moving parts and trying to fit them together into a cohesive framework. I wrote about the challenges of bringing multiple parts into alignment in my post, Circular Logic. If defining vertical learning is like building an arch, then this lesson represents a single stone in that arch. On its own, it’s a very nice stone, but it won’t generate the kinds of outcomes that I’m hoping to see. If I can’t define vertical learning, if I can’t help people visualize the big picture, if I don’t even have the vocabulary to help someone think about what a student is experiencing as they go through this lesson… then all anyone will see is a nice stone.

“Nice stone, dude.”

Arch building is daunting because, even when you’ve carved almost all of the stones and fitted them together, until the last stone is in place, the entire structure falls apart. If someone walks by at this point, all they’ll see is a pile of stones on the ground. They won’t see an arch; they won’t get what you are building.

“Nice pile of stones, dude.”

The more you think vertically, the more parts you want to bring into alignment. The more parts you want to bring into alignment, the more difficult and longer the arch-building process. But we strive to build arches because the results are so satisfying and the outcomes so powerful.

“Whoa! That’s an arch. It all hangs together, dude!”

I had held off on defining vertical learning and publishing this lesson because the task was so daunting. It was going to take me years of effort to complete, and until it was completed, no one would get it. They would see me working day after day, chiseling stones and fitting them together, with no understanding of what the final structure would look like. And I knew myself well enough to know that, without support and encouragement along the way, I might quit before finishing. Then where would I be?

Two years ago, I began working with my coach, Sarah. My primary reason for hiring a coach was to hone my communication skills. I wanted to get better at pitching my ideas. Not ideas as complex as vertical learning. Two- or three-stone ideas, not twenty-stone ideas. You might think that the role of a coach is to tell you to suck it up. You want to define vertical learning? Then get off your lazy ass! A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

But, no. Sarah’s approach to coaching is integrity and alignment. Know yourself. Know the who you want to create. Be true to that. There are times when my place gets a little messy. When the clutter starts building up, cleaning starts to feel daunting, and then I stop cleaning all together. I allow my place to fall into a terrible state until, with a Herculean effort, I finally suck it up and do a massive spring cleaning. But while my place is a mess, I lose that sense of peace, positive energy, and well-being that I talked about in my last post, and I feel the energy getting sucked right out of me.

The answer wasn’t just to suck it up or to break my cleaning down into smaller, more manageable chores that would feel less daunting. The answer was to drill down and figure out what works for me. If I didn’t let clutter build up, then I wouldn’t stop cleaning. Clutter starts to build up because I hate going to the dumpster. I force myself to go to the dumpster only when the kitchen garbage bag is overflowing, but then I don’t have the room or hands to carry the empty pizza box or the cardboard box filled with packing peanuts from Amazon with me. The solution was to introduce an evening stroll before bed to my routine. I don’t do it in the winter, but in the summer, it is awesome. I stroll at around 3 a.m., and it is dead quiet outside. I love the feel of the warm air as I walk around in my shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. I’ll carry one or two items to the dumpster, pick up my mail, bring in an item from the car (my car starts to get cluttered as my place gets cluttered), and decompress from the day. The stroll is joyous for me… something that I would want to keep doing even if I wasn’t de-cluttering. Putting that system in to place means that my place never gets too messy. I still do spring cleaning sometimes, but the task is no longer Herculean and I can actually enjoy it.

Another system that Sarah introduced was the practice of writing things down. I’m a writer at heart, but I keep a lot of things locked up in my head. Keeping so many things in my head creates cognitive load that prevents me from being in the moment and thinking at my best. When building an arch, not only did I feel like I had to create the arch in one go, I had to do it while holding up all of the individual stones at the same time. Writing things down enabled me to put stones down without worrying that I’d lose one. Then I could pick up the one or two stones that I was working on, and give them my full attention. Because I could pick up stones and set them aside whenever I wanted, I could work on my arch while I was in the shower or washing dishes. My brain was freed up because I wasn’t trying to store everything in memory, and when ideas were on paper, I found it easier to play with them.

I have tried to maintain a journal in the past, but I could never stick with it. I maintain a gratitude journal now, but that is a different kind of writing. When writing about vertical learning, I need to feel as though I’m writing to a potential audience, but in a format that reinforces that my thoughts are strictly works in progress. I think I have found the right system for me in this blog. Sarah suggested that I try blogging, but that isn’t really her main contribution as a coach. She helped me identify that I need to write things down, and then she encouraged me to find a system that aligned with who I am and how I write. If blogging hadn’t worked out, then I would have tried something else.

I am ready to write about my lesson now. I’m not sucking it up. I’m not using my drive to define vertical learning to overcome my fears. I have brought a number of systems online that have enabled me to work on individual stones in my spare time. These systems are aligned with who I am. As I’ve striven for alignment, I’ve looked for opportunities to define vertical learning through other projects that I’m working on. I can re-purpose some of those stones from those arches when I go to build my vertical learning arch. Two weeks ago, when I wrote Defining Vertical Learning, I recognized that I was finally ready. I had done enough pre-work (bringing myself into alignment and getting individual stones ready) that the idea of assembling the arch was no longer daunting. It was within striking distance. I hadn’t changed myself; I had taken steps to put myself in this position by understanding who I am and aligning everything around me.

When thinking about vertical learning, I have always said that drilling down and building up encourages you to develop skills and habits of mind that enable you to drill down further and build up higher. But Sarah gave me another way to look at it. If you can go and bring A-B-C into alignment, and then D-E-F and G-H-I into alignment, you are naturally going to start thinking about bringing A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L into alignment. I never thought that I’d be nearing the end of a twenty-five year odyssey because I started taking an evening stroll and writing random thoughts in a blog… but here I am.

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