New View EDU Episode 6: Full Transcript

New View EDU Episode 6: Schools for Exploration and Improvisation

Read the full transcript of Episode 6 of the NAIS New View EDU podcast, in which hosts Tim Fish and Lisa Kay Solomon explore the idea that complexity deserves an improvised response, and opportunities might reveal themselves if we apply the principles of improvisation to leading our school communities. The guest is Rob Poynton, author, co-founder of the online learning space Yellow, and associate fellow at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University. Leading from the insight that improvisation is actually a discipline with its own set of guidelines and practices, Rob shares the deliberate process behind making choices that set the stage for deeper learning and relationship-building in a classroom.

Lisa Kay Solomon: Complexity deserves an improvised response. That's one of my favorite insights from today's New View EDU guest, Rob Poynton. Rob is the author of several books, including "Do Improvise, Do Pause." He's the co-founder of the online learning space Yellow and an associate fellow at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

Today's conversation with Rob will focus on leadership practices related to complexity and resilience and why, especially now, we all need to spend a little more time pausing. Rob, thank you so much for being here with us. 

Rob Poynton: It's a pleasure, Lisa. 

Lisa Kay Solomon: Well, Tim and I are very excited to talk to you about all of your work, huge range.
And I know Tim has really been steeped in complexity and has a lot of questions for you.

Tim Fish: I sure do, and Rob, thank you so much on behalf of all the NAIS member schools. I just want to say thank you for spending some time with us today. And I am so excited to jump in and to engage in some conversations with you. One of the things, as I've been studying your career and the work you've been doing, one of the things that has really amazed me is how you have spent so much time working with individuals and organizations who are navigating complexity and uncertainty. And I'm curious, as we look at this moment and we particularly look at schools, what kinds of patterns have you seen and what kind of advice do you have for individual leaders and teachers and others who are in the midst of continuing to have to navigate all kinds of new complexity that we've never seen before?

Rob Poynton: Uh, yeah, I think the key for me would be that, the word new that you just used there, Tim. So it's true. There's new complexity that we're facing now with its particularities and its specific features. But I think that the recent events, the pandemic in particular, simply brought to light what in my view has always been the case: That—that life is a kind of unpredictable and intrinsically complex business. Not just complicated, but complex. So in a way, I think that the current circumstances forced this into sharp focus, which I think is uh, a kind of benefit. And I think that it's a real challenge.

I think education in general is, is absolutely central to, to changing the way that we think about the world in general. I think we've enjoyed three or 400 years of enormous success, particularly materially, but in many realms of life. And we've done that predominantly through a worldview, which is about manipulation, control, standardization, and regularity, and those things I think have been extremely useful and beneficial, but are coming to the end of their useful life. It's not that they cease to be relevant, but they're no longer the whole story. And so I think that kind of, there's an invitation now for us to lean in more to the kind of messy, chaotic, organic part of us, which is always there. And when it comes to responding and adapting to change and complexity, we're actually incredibly skilled already.

That's why I emphasize this point about new complexity. We're really good at dealing with complexity, but sometimes we're not aware of how well we deal with it, because we deal with it so well. And we often don't have language for it. We often don't give it the credit it deserves. We might regard improvisation for example, which is—a lot of my work has drawn on that as a discipline, I use that word discipline, very advisedly. And improvisation in the general discourse tends to be a pejorative. It's what you do when everything else fails. It stops what you do when you've run out of road. And I think that's simply not true. I don't think it's ever been true. And so I think part of my work is trying to rescue that from the, from the pejorative.

And so therefore the simple advice I'd give people in those roles you enumerated, it would be to allow themselves to kind of notice where they're responding or adapting or flexing to pay attention to that, to notice the level of skill they have, to notice the level of need and requirement that is always present, whether it's in a teaching situation or a difficult conversation with a parent perhaps, or trying to come up with new ideas as a team, and to start to explore and invite that more into your conscious work.

Tim Fish: Yeah, I love that notion of inviting it more into your conscious work. Because for me, that's one—one of the things that "Do Improvise" has really been showing me, is this idea of improvisation as a practice. And as a practice that you, that you bring forward earlier, in fact, as a constant sort of reminder, this idea of do less for me, in particular, and to, to sort of step back in the pause is so key to, I think how we can look at that, look at the world. And so for me, you know, as we take this notion of improvising in complexity and in complex situations. I'm so curious about how you have applied that discipline of improvisation to whenever you have this notion of the offer.

Rob Poynton: Yeah. Um, I'll choose an example from, from recent work. So uh, somebody mentioned in the introduction, my response to the pandemic has been to set up an online learning space called Yellow, and we run small groups and occasionally have gatherings of, of everybody who's involved in any capacity. And kind of where I noticed this cropping up is when I kind of think, "Okay. So we're going to invite everybody." So how do we, you know, I notice myself thinking, how do we know who's going to show up? Do we have to chase them? And I can feel the spectre of lots of bureaucratic and administrative work looming. And my sort of  basic assumption is that this is a good thing we're doing, so it'd be great if lots of people came. So I can immediately let go of both of those and kind of go well, let's just make it a gracious and tantalizing invitation and let's work whoever shows up. And if there's a small number of people who show up, great. We get to have a really intimate, deep conversation. And if there's a large number of people that show up, great, this has been really popular. We can do all sorts of things with the large group. And along the way, I've saved myself the trouble of having to either police or cajole or check who's coming. 

Um, the other interesting thing is that when I might be talking, say to the guests who might be coming to participate or lead that session, I say, oh, by the way, I can't control or guarantee who's going to turn up. And of course that gives me a sense of how comfortable that guest is going to be with that way of working. And so if they say, oh gosh, that's not going to work for me because I need at least 20 people, then it's a piece of data for me to kind of go, well, I don't need to kind of help this person along, or maybe I've chosen the wrong kind of person in the first place and is there still time to change?

So I think the thing that's sort of interesting for me is just because I've been working with these ideas for decades now, doesn't mean I've got it down. Right. And this is where it's practice. So that—the episode I'm describing was in the last few months, you know, so you kind of go, come on, Rob, you're a bit slow on the uptake. Haven't you learned this yet? And I think no, because these are lessons that I have to learn over and over again. And I think that that kind of practice based learning, which is not applicable to everything, but based on simple rules of thumb is, is kind of super simple. And that takes us back to that quote that Lisa's fond of, of, of this idea of why does the complex world deserve or require, even, an improvised response?

And it's because it's so much work to try and anticipate every eventuality. So there's gotta be a better way, a way that's more sustainable for you. That's more life-giving, that's more—that holds more possibility, that creates more trust between the people involved, you know? Uh, so that'd be a contemporary example for me.

Lisa Kay Solomon: Rob, I love that example because I think it really models those two words that you talked about that I think are so important for leaders right now, which is a discipline of practice. And this idea that it is not a script, it is not a blueprint, it is a stance towards navigating complexity in a way that is still agency filled and filled with opportunity to learn.

So the stance of a learner. And I want to actually pull another quote that I think is so relevant to what you just shared, and want to dive into it a little bit more, where you say in "Do Improvise:" "A practice-based approach moves us away from unattainable ideals of perfection or fixed goals, and allows us to become more compassionate, particularly to ourselves. The emphasis shifts from trying to avoid mistakes, to learning from them. Instead of, quote, is it right? We start to ask, does it help?" And I think about that, Rob, particularly in the context of this year, there was no quote unquote, right. It was constantly changing. So this discipline of asking ourselves, does it help? And how do I know that it helps? And, you know, explicitly the three practices that I've picked up from your work that have been invaluable to my life, I was saying earlier, not just to my professional life, but my whole life, my posture towards my family, towards my community, were these three questions that you put out, one of which you talked about earlier, the how can I notice more?

So how can I pay attention to the context around me? What can I let go of, so if I'm looking for right answers, how can I get more comfortable understanding that they may not be there? How can I let go of my own ego? And the third is how can I use everything? And so I'd love for you to just talk about these questions in the context of discipline and practice.

Rob Poynton: It was kind of news to me, you know, when I first started working with improv that it was based on discipline. Um, in fact, it took somebody else to, to point that out to me that this is based on, on discipline. And by discipline, I don't mean control. I mean a kind of rigorous —it's systematic actually, but it's, it's it's a very simple system.

So those three pieces of code, if you will, those three questions are iterative. You—this is where the complexity comes in. So you can always ask those in infinitely changing circumstances. You know, what am I noticing? What am I not noticing? What else could I notice? Well, what could I let go of, all those levels of scale that you're, that you're talking about. So the discipline is to keep asking yourself those questions. So these skills and practices, what they do is they build a capacity, a capacity to respond and a capacity, as you said, to retain agency and thus to retain a certain mood or constructive attitude, or sense of possibility in the face of difficulty or change, or error. You know, so if you take that last piece of practice, use everything, one of my favorite ways to think about that is to reframe any shortage, shortcoming, error, or mistake as an offer. And this is really important. It's not about being Pollyannaish and saying, oh, it's all lovely,  it's not about that at all. It's about being much more pragmatic and saying, okay, this has just been canceled or we don't have the budget or there's no time.

How can we use the fact that there is no time? Now, this is not necessarily a problem solving approach. In other words, it will help you solve problems, but it may help you solve a different problem. I'm not suggesting that just by thinking this way, you can solve the fact that there's no budget or there's no time, but you may still be able to salvage some learning or benefit from the situation which may help you in the future, may help somebody else, or may take you in a different direction completely, and thus, make the problem that you were facing no longer so important or relevant. So it's very, very fruitful. One of my favorite examples, I'm sitting here in my house in rural Spain. And when we built  house here in Spain, it was about 20 years ago.

And I think I assumed it wouldn't really be very much about improvisation because that's not what you do with houses. They cost a lot of money. They're a physical structure, they're governed by legal constraints, as well as the laws of physics and all the rest. So you want them to stand up and hold up, keep the water out and the, and the warmth in or whatever it is.

Um, and yet, what I noticed was that as we were working on this and I worked very closely with the craftsmen who were building it, you realize that a creative,  the possibility of responding or adapting creatively, which is another form of saying improvising, is actually a necessary skill because there's a shortfall in materials, or the weather changes, or permissions aren't given in time, or there's an accident.

And what I thought was even more interesting when I dwelt on it was I realized there was two different ways in which this body of practice kind of helps. So one is to solve problems. But more interesting than just solving problems was the creation of, or the—the taking of opportunities that you wouldn't have seen otherwise. So departing from the plan by saying so just out there, there's this small patch of raised garden, wonderful view of the Gredos mountains. And that came about because one day I was standing on the scaffolding, because this house is on a hill. So the land slopes away. And I said, it'll be a shame when this scaffolding comes down. We aren't going to have this view anymore. And so that led to a conversation with the builders about, okay, what could we build in its stead?

So I won't go on about that story, but just, just the, you know, if you adopt this attitude, yes, you can use it to solve problems that you're facing, but you can also open up avenues of possibility that you wouldn't have noticed existed if you'd stuck to what you expected. So it's not just corrective, it's creative. 

Tim Fish: I agree a hundred percent: when you're building a house, you think that would be the one place where you would not want to improvise because of all the reasons you gave. And I think people often think the same thing about school. That schools should be a place where there's a, there's a very well structured curriculum, that the, the, what the students do minute by minute is time on task and incredibly well programmed and organized. And through that sort of approach, we're going to construct the house of an educated child. And yet anyone who's spent any time in school knows that the magic comes in the messiness.

And in the, in the ability to improvise and to sort of work with the students and where they are, this notion that we teach students, not curriculum. 

Rob Poynton: That, to me, goes to the core of a very big question, which is not just what you think schools are for, but what's education for? What's it for and who, who is it for?

If it were a house, we want to be able to build standard units that are exactly the same, where time on task, all those things have been completed.  But if what we want is each child to flourish, each person to allow their individuality and, and, and personality and possibility to flourish, then that kind of standardized approach carries risks, funnily enough. Cause behind the fear of, oh, well, if it's, you know, if, if it's all too loose, then, then there's no, no quality. You kind of go, yeah, but if it's all too tight, there's no quality either because there's uniformity and that's in no way appropriate for every child.

So I think that, you know, for me, there's a very big idea here in a wonderful book called "A Guide for the Perplexed," by Fritz Schumacher, which was written in the 1970s where he talks about two fundamental kinds of problems, and he calls them convergent problems and divergent problems. And the convergent problems are, how do you make a vehicle go through the air efficiently, sometimes called the wind tunnel effect. And there is an ideal solution, a designer like Lisa would tell you kind of, you know what that is, and, and you kind of approach that as technology gets better and you never quite manage because there's friction and air resistance and those things, but, but it's why cars look increasingly similar these days.

But the other kind of problem, a divergent problem, Schumacher uses education as an example of that. And he says that there's an intrinsic tension between discipline and control, on the one hand, so time on task, rigor, all that kind of stuff, and sort of freedom, creativity, which can spill over into chaos and anarchy, if you like, at the extreme. And that there's no magical midpoint that each circumstance, each school, each class, each child, there's going to be a kind of moving target. There's going to be a, a constant ebb and flow. Uh, each set of circumstances are going to need sensitivity to kind of respond appropriately.

So yes, we have to have discipline and rigor up to a point, and we have to have freedom and creativity, and we need to pay attention to what's needed now, here, in this circumstance.

Lisa Kay Solomon: It's such a great example, Rob. And I just think it really demonstrates the power of improvisational practices as a leadership stance, as a posture, as a mindset, and also as a set of guidelines for creating the conditions to be able to do that, that those two go hand in hand. That you are paying attention to what the situation needs at that moment, because of that mix of discipline and freedom.

I want to talk a little bit more about conditions, environments in which we allow ourselves to do that. One of the things that strikes me about improv and the learning I've done with you, Rob, over the years, is really making sure that we are setting and creating a safe place to be able to experience the complexity in a way that allows us to learn and not freeze up.

And a lot of that is setting the guidelines around expectations. A lot of that is how we welcome people into the conversation. And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you think about creating learning spaces that allow others to join with that generative discovery, a willingness to take risk type of mindset.

Rob Poynton: Yeah. I mean, I think about this a lot. Uh, I mean, arguably it's, it's actually, what I do, is spend my whole time thinking about this. So there's a lot I could say. Um, but let me just tick off a few kind of important thoughts and then maybe I'll explore some in a bit more depth. 

So beginnings matter. And of course there are lots of beginnings: beginning of the school year, but there's the beginning of the day, beginning of the class, beginning of the conversation and, and beginnings matter because they they define a realm of possibility.

So just to be very practical. For example, if I, in the days, when we used to work together physically and I were preparing a workshop, you know, I would be in the room before people came in. I would think very carefully about where I am in the room and which way I'm facing when people come in. And I'll talk about what, what I might do. But that's not to say this is the right thing to do with, again, be sensitive to your context, your circumstances, but for me, I wouldn't want to be confrontational. So I wouldn't be standing by the door facing people, even if I was greeting them and smiling at them as they come in, that was too direct. But I wouldn't be hiding away, buried in my notes either. I'd sort of be loosely available, a bit oblique, probably moving around. 

So the beginnings matter and within beginnings, I'd say kind of the  physicality matters in surprising and powerful ways. Then the other thing I think people possibly can skip over is is mood. Mood and tone. And this is a very sort of subtle business perhaps, but, but one of the programs I'm involved with at Oxford, arguably our job is all about creating a mood and tone, and so. Uh, kind of welcoming, open, like you say, safe, how do —how do you do that?

There's lots of different, different ways and it depends who you're, who you're working with, but whatever your kind of choices are to think carefully about what mood or tone do I want? For me, that would go all the way down to things like how I dress, what shoes I wear. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it would make me feel different and that will make people feel different being with me. Uh, it'll inform my choices around the kinds of materials I use, you know, is this an audience that needs to be impressed by formality and precision? And if so, I might use slides. Or is that actually just going to bore them stupid? And should I scribble on a whiteboard or should I use post-it notes, or Lego, or get them to tear things out of magazines. So thinking about the mood you want to create and then embodying that is really, really important. 

I think remembering that, as a colleague said to me once, there's nothing as terrifying to a human being as another human being. That we're all deep down inside kind of scared and nervous and apprehensive and that's okay. And it's understandable. I remember really well, the moment in Oxford, actually, where I learnt how powerful that was when I could just see on people's faces, they're in this room with this strange guy being asked to do weird stuff from the theater, and we haven't yet begun. And I just realized they were kind of massively apprehensive, and I could name that, and I could say, you know, you're nervous and I can feel that. And that's okay. In fact, you're right to be nervous because, not because it's so difficult what we're going to do, but because you've never done it before. So how would you not be nervous? If you're not nervous, you're probably distracted or not paying attention. 

And so what you've done is used that as an offer of work with them to create a mood where, where they kind of go, oh, I feel this. And that's, he's, but he's just told me that's okay. So, now I'm still nervous. It doesn't stop them being nervous, but now they're kind of nervous and okay with being nervous. So I think kind of always remembering what it's like be on the other side of the equation, whatever that equation is. Whether it's teacher- pupil or somebody presenting to a board or whatever it is and to remember that, you know, we're fearful beings, but what we most want is to connect with each other. So any, and every way you can find to connect. 

I once spent 45 minutes working with a senior leader at a large German media organization. And she asked me to help her because she said she's always late. She just knows. It's just one of her weaknesses.She's always late to meetings, which is quite funny in a German executive, but she, she knew this about herself.

And so what that meant was that she was often coming into rooms where a meeting had already started. And so what we spent 45 minutes doing, is exploring ways to enter a room. And we were being playful with it. So I said, come in like the room's on fire. Come on. Come on, come into the room like this, something smells bad in there, or come into the room, like the opposite, like if something smells beautiful, or whatever it was.

But, but that, wasn't the point in itself, the point was to notice through acting into these different ways of coming into a room, which is something we all—well, used to do, anyway, uh, is to notice, oh, look, I can come in at a different pace. I can come in a different, in a different rhythm. I can use gesture, posture, position, all sorts of things before I've even said anything. And the feeling that it communicates is going to be very different and all of those things as well, will help to set the mood.  

So, yeah, those sorts of things are a lot, what I think about. How rooms are arranged. There was one group I was working with in Oxford where I felt that they, it's a small group, six, six, or so people. And we were meeting every day during the course of the leadership program. And they didn't feel to me that they were doing anything other than exchanging informed opinions. They weren't really talking from the heart. They weren't really connecting. They weren't really revealing anything of themselves. It's not that the objective was to get them to kind of—into massive personal disclosure, but all of this is preventing their learning because it was just exchanging set positions. You know, there's, in my view, no learning without change, without possibility. And that involves some element of, of risk. 

And so the first day, I took the tables out. And then they sort of—that shifted things a bit, but it still wasn't working the way I wanted. So the next day, what I did, six of them and one of me. So I put the chairs—I got into the room early and I sat the chairs uncomfortably close to each other in pairs. So if you sat in these two chairs, your knees would almost be touching.

And yet, the pairs were slightly too far apart. So you can, you were very definitely with this person and not with those two and they weren't with those two. And so as people can—oh, and then I sat with one chair off to one side and sort of supervisory sort of, you know, Uber chair, you know, and what was very interesting was that the people came in, somebody sat down, put their bag down next to the chair, immediately got up again, and they all came in and they didn't sit down and they stood in the middle of the room. And I said to them, "why do you think I've set the chairs like this?" And that was all we needed. We had a conversation about what was going on through the using of the space to provoke the conversation. Then we just put the chairs back in a circle and sat down. We didn't need all of that, but, and it wasn't that I knew that would happen. So what I was doing was using the physical space as an offer in order to provoke a different kind of response, and then paying close attention to what happened and working with it.

Tim Fish: You know what I—what's so interesting to me about that, Rob, is that this idea that beginnings matter and that setting the conditions really matter. Lisa, it reminds me so much of your work in "Moments of Impact." When you talk about how you really plan for a convening, where you're bringing people together to build understanding, or shape choices. Rob, what I also find so interesting as that connects is the notion that people, I think often would think that improv is about not doing any of those things. About just sort of taking whatever comes and just sort of doing it. But, but this sort of balance of preparation to set the right condition, to do the thinking ahead of time, to then create the space to, to convene the conversation. You know, it, when I looked at all the work around Yellow and the work you're doing with that community, one of the things I find so interesting based on what you were just saying is that on the surface, it seems like there is no structure and that, and that you decided to let anything happen, but yet the magic is in creating the right kind of structure to convene the community that you're trying to convene. And so the hard work is in fact in creating. It's what I often, when I talk, think about teaching and I talk with teachers about, about work. I talk about this notion of structured agency. That agency alone, just a free for all is not at all what we're looking for in school.

And yet too much structure removes the agency. And what we're looking for, and what great teachers are able to do, is walk the balance or to create the two elements of that. And to, to master them and to get ultimately to the—really the minimal amount of structure that you need to open the opportunity for students to, to really make their own journey.

Rob Poynton: Yeah. This, this is a really important point TIm, that you know, no structure and you spin off at the other end of the spectrum I was talking about earlier into chaos and anarchy, and that's not what we need. What we need is the right kind of structure, as you say, as little of it as possible, and for it to be as generative as possible. You know in improvisation, it's not true that we don't prepare. We don't plan in a detailed, detailed kind of micromanaging anticipatory way, but we do a huge amount of a different kind of preparation. We prepare for a territory, not a path, if you will.

So there's an event which was hugely informative when we came to start Yellow, which is—I've run for many years, which is a reading weekend. But it's very definitely not a book club. And so the, the pieces of structure that I hold are—they're very few—the people who come. So who's in the room. I get to choose that, that's often not the case in schooling, but, but, but it is important. Who's in the room. Who's there and why they come. 

The place, the physical place. So we use an old ramshackle, beautiful house set in wild nature in rural Spain. And then the kind of, the duration, the structure and time. So this event is only 72 hours long, and then the materials or start points you fit into it, which in this case is a series of books. And there's many stories I could tell about this, but one that's just kind of worth noting is a bit like the story I told of how I choose, you know, how we decided to organize the meetings in Yellow, is that the, the very first time I did this, I didn't know how to choose the books. So I used a principle which I later came across in Ronald Heifetz's work of giving the work back to the people. So I said to the people coming, will you choose the books? Choose three or four each. 

And two things happened as a result. One is now they're implicated in the choice of program, if you will. So they have a different relationship to it. Uh, but also you get a list of books that no one individual would ever compile. And that combination is kind of unique and different. So I'm getting them involved in, if you will, the designing of the class. So you, you kind of ask them to choose the books and then you have very few instructions, basically two, which is read between meals, talk over meals. And the books, you get a single copy of each one. So you're not reviewing literature. And so what happens then is the rest of it is all improvised, because the books provide a start point and somebody reads something and then and then comments on it, and somebody comments on the comment, or somebody contrasts it with something else they've read while they're sitting over lunch. And the rest of it kind of runs itself.

Lisa Kay Solomon: So, Rob, I want to pick up on a couple of threads that you've touched upon specifically for school leaders at this moment.

So we are intentionally bringing this podcast to life over the summer before the fall, before a new beginning. And this new beginning is happening after an extraordinary time, like no other. So I wonder if you could just share with school leaders, some thoughts about perhaps how they might think about this beginning as a way of setting conditions in a way that's new for where they want to go, not just to return to where they've been. And how they can think deeply, if I hear you, about what is fixed, like what are they really going to hold firm to? And what is loose, if you could maybe just share some thoughts about that. So, you know, imagine preparing for fall, right? And, and really thinking about this opportunity to welcome the community in a foundationally new way. 

Rob Poynton: I think it's easier to describe, in a way, what not to do. So pretending that you know exactly how this is going to unfold, exactly what the consequences, all of what's happened are, I think that's foolish. It may be very tempting, and there may be some of it that you need to do, because people need authority figures to speak with confidence. But you can do that without pretending that you're omniscient, which you're not. And by the way, everybody knows that. So it's not such a big kind of thing to reveal.

So I think tempering—kind of tempering your desire to pretend to certainty. And on the other hand, talking about this as possibility and invitation, and being clear about those things you feel are very important and are kind of —build on what Tim was saying earlier, which is like, what are the elements of structure that you're kind of really, really sure of and you think that are really kind of worth pursuing or, or, or sustaining, and what are those things that you want to question or challenge, and can you invite question and challenge around those, but in a spirit—in a constructive spirit, you know. So I think, I think it's, it's about, yes, tempering your, your, the desire to speak as if this this is all now completely under control and to, and to imbue it with a spirit of kind of possibility that, that uncertainty—so it's a fascinating thing. We talk about uncertainty as if it's noxious, but most of our lives, you know, possibility. Agency. Feeling that we have some say in what happens to us. Uh, all of these things involve a degree of uncertainty. So framing it in that constructive way, that the areas which we don't know are pregnant with possibility, not fraught with danger, you know.

And I think the invitational part of it as well is to say that we're in this together. And obviously it will depend on the circumstances, but the idea that this is a co-creation, that everybody involved: pupils, staff and teachers, but staff of other kinds, not just teachers, other, you know, other members of staff, parents, obviously the students themselves, and, and to kind of create whatever devices or mechanisms both communicate and signal, and actually enable that kind of co-creative action. And finding things that you can act upon that are kind of simple and easy and straightforward. And pleasing and satisfying. 

So that, that I think would be the way forward versus a kind of master plan. You know, I'm all seeing, here's how it's going to be. That's just going to set you up to fail. 

Lisa Kay Solomon: The one thing, Rob, that I've heard you talk about that really captures this is to really articulate the positive space with clarity and with an invitation. And to avoid outlining all the danger and the negative that ends us—ends up in a place of compliance.

And I have to believe for school leaders, that's an opportunity to co-create with their leadership team and unleash that generative spirit of possibility, versus having the attention being spent on what to avoid, and that gets us into that defensive posture.

Rob Poynton: Yeah. I mean, it's, I think it's really important. Sometimes we forget that the decisions or choices we make about where to put our attention have what I would call an energetic cost. And so if you choose to spend your time focusing on those things you shouldn't do, and that you have to avoid for compliance, and we all understand how important that is and you obviously can't, you know, you can't shirk that, but if all your energy, and if the mood that accompanies it goes on that, the energetic cost is... you know, we're all now so exhausted and tired and neurotic and paranoid that, that nobody's going to dare suggest something new or different, or let alone outlandish or, or playful or, or crazy.

And so all those things kind of then are—are lost and that's, that's a serious loss. Cause I think the other part of what we've got in society at large moving forward is, is we don't have the opportunity to go back. Neither practically, but not even theoretically, because, because the world is changing and, and it needs us to respond differently. And so even if we could, why would we want to do that? So we've got to be kind of inventive and generative. These are, these are kind of every single facet of society we face is kind of, you know, new and different and changing. And of course, if our education system isn't, it doesn't feel like that, if it feels kind of controlling and determined and closed, then the people in it, who happen to be younger people, students, you know, when they get out into the world, that's going to be what they've kind of... that's the diet they've sort of absorbed, you know? And so then it's a very big ask to say, now you're in businesses or companies or you're teachers yourselves. Now be generative and creative and all those kinds of things, you know?

So careful, however, tempting it is. You know, there are costs attached to safety. I know that sounds completely weird, but you know, there's a lovely quote from Keith Johnston, who's a guru in the improv theatre world, but this, this one is so deeply relevant to, to all walks of life, particularly teaching and education.

And he says, "Those few people who say yes, are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those people who say no are rewarded by the security they attain. Unfortunately, there are more no sayers than yes sayers." What I like about that, it puts each in its place because yes, there's a place for security. Of course there is. It's important. We've got to feel safe and secure, but it's not the whole story. If there's no room for adventure, for play for advancement, then we're in the land of no, and that world diminishes and becomes smaller. Whereas if we want some adventures—and by adventure, I understand change, growth, learning, possibility—then we've got to say yes to some things. So we have to find a balance. 

Tim Fish: You know, Rob, I, the, for me the theme that's been going through my head over the last 20 minutes or so, as I've been thinking about what you're saying and thinking about your work with Yellow learning and thinking about the structure of school, and the notion of that control, is the question for me, that's really resonating is: how do we make school more Yellow?

Because when I, when I've been reading everything that's on and have gone through, and I just love the way you structure it, and I love the way there's an invitation. I love the way you talk about how the document is always being edited, is always being refined. But the one consistent thing in my mind was that school is not particularly Yellow. School is almost when you talk about what Yellow is not, that's where I see a lot of the structures that exist in school today. And I think one of the things that has happened is that the pandemic has made it even more that way. And that we're looking. And I think as we, there's an awful lot of conversation in education right now about this concept of learning loss, and that students have lost a year of sort of basic skill acquisition, and the fear that many school leaders have is that in fact, to combat against that, we're in, we're going to go back into the classroom with sort of worksheets and teacher control, really teacher controlled content and traditional assessments, because we're going to try to rebuild the learning loss, right. To recover from the learning loss. And yet in so many ways, I think that's exactly not the approach we should be taking. And so I'm just curious about that notion of what happens, and if not in school, where you learn these things, these Yellow habits, then where would you learn them? 

Rob Poynton: Yeah. So gosh, there's a lot I could say there. 

So I'm conscious that in education, there are so many controlling elements around that are beyond the scope of teachers or leadership teams even to, to, to, to wrestle with, or to change. But I think one has to look at, if you take that example, you've just given. So, so we're calling it, learning loss.

All right. There's no loss without a gain somewhere else. Right? So let's acknowledge that there's been some loss there, but let's examine. So noticing more, you kind of go, well, what do we really mean by that? And what is it that's been lost? So basic skills, I don't know. Do we even know what has been lost? And is the loss what we think it is. And is it really a loss? So sort of really understand that properly. And then to ask ourselves, and even if that is significant, what's the upside gain of that? There's nothing in life there where there's not some other way of looking at it, you know? So toask ourselves where's the offer in the learning loss.

So perhaps we've discovered there are things we've been doing forever that actually weren't of much use or utility, or that didn't happen the—the way that we thought they did. Perhaps we've discovered that in the vacuum, other things become possible. Let's ask about what, what, you know, what was gained or what was—as well as what was kind of lost, or what could be gained.

And how do you make schools more Yellow? I think you need some courage. There's no doubt about that. I think you need to sort of create boundaries within which there can be freedom. That's one of the ways you make it possible to experiment, is you kind of bound the experiment, right? So, so where can you find a context or a space or a place where there's more license to be a bit more, a bit more unstructured, a bit more playful, a bit more open. Yeah, it's very interesting. When we started Yellow, I used to kind of wander around saying that the only thing that matters is the people who come, and actually I stopped saying that because it's not true.

It does matter who comes. It matters what they bring, in this sort of adult learning environment. But actually, we could have exactly the same people in Yellow and make it disastrous by not doing the things that we need to do, by not holding that boundary lightly, by not being clear about the things that matter, by not preparing properly, by not being open, by not being willing to change ourselves.
So I think that won't be possible all over the place, but you need to find kind of contexts where you can experiment with different ways of doing things. 

Lisa Kay Solomon: So Rob, we decided to start New View EDU as a way of giving school leaders inspiration for asking different kinds of questions that they might not get in their everyday. And you've certainly given us so many to think about, and we also wanted to offer new practices that they could practice. And so I want to end our conversation today by asking about an area that I know you've been focusing on a lot, these last few years, which is the practice of pause, the practice of valuing pause, and seeing pause as a regenerative opportunity versus one that you feel guilty about, or that takes you away from your work.

So particularly as school leaders have an opportunity to actually have some space in their calendar, some time to pause, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the power of pause and the opportunities for leaders to bring that into their leadership practice. 

Rob Poynton: Yeah. So I think the first thing to say is that pause is not the opposite of action.

It's part of action. So pausing is not stopping. It's not surrendering. Pauses enable people to act more effectively, more quickly. If you never pause, pause will be forced upon you. And sadly, often this is biological. It happens in the form of burnout. It happens in the form of anxiety attacks. So all living organisms need to pause, which by the way, machines don't. Machines run really well at constant speed.

And in some ways we've created a world where we, we sort of end up treating ourselves as if we were machines, and we're —and we're not. The other thing I'd say is that pauses are like yeast. You don't need very much. So you can make a big, heavy dough rise and make it airy with a very little bit of yeast.

Which, by the way, you know, yeast is alive. And a single cell of yeast has more component parts in it than a Boeing 747. So they're very complex things. But that little bit of yeast will make a big difference to the dough. And it's the same with pause. You know,  you don't need to, if you pause for five minutes at the end of the day and take five minutes for yourself before you leave the office, if you're in the office, or before you go back to domestic life, if you're working at home. Or if you pause for a few seconds in the middle of a speech.

Like that. Three seconds. I just counted to three. It changes how the conversation feels. So you can use pauses to leaven things, lighten, to help things breathe and give space. But the thing I really like about pause, and the reason I ended up writing a book about it, is because they —pauses exist at that end of the spectrum, but they exist at the sabbatical year end of the spectrum as well, or the Bill Gates Think Week point on the spectrum. And what I like about this is it—is that my invitation to people is to think about how and where they pause, and whether it's working for them, and how or where they might pause in a different way. And when people say to me, Oh, but I'm so busy, I kind of go, "Great. Take a minute before every time you get in the car, before you start the—start the engine. Even if you're already late, another minute, frankly, not gonna make any difference. Or maybe once a year, take a week to set the normal things aside to give, find some time for yourself and to see what surfaces in yourself."

And certainly apropos that, you know, the fall or coming school academic year, you know, to now take some time to think deeply about what matters for my place of work, for my students, my school, my colleagues, what matters most, what's the opportunity here? What's important to me? What do I feel I want for myself? And to allow those thoughts to come unbidden, that's not the same as sitting down and planning. So opening up to what's—what wants to come, and paying attention—back to the improv practices now—noticing what's going in on yourself and what excites and animates you about what's coming up on,  on what's, what's difficult or discouraging.

So yeah, it's, it's, it's a way also, I think, to... how you use pauses sort of shape your experience of time. And so the invitation really is to become more of a, kind of an artist with how you use time, rather than a machine. And to leaven your time with whatever kind of pauses seem to be interesting or thoughtful for you. And you can try some stuff out that doesn't work. Let it, let it go and try something else and see how that works instead. So you can be playful with it. 

Tim Fish: Rob, that is... that's exactly what I know that I needed to hear, and I know many of our school leaders really need to hear. You know, we're at a moment where pause is something we need to take.

And there's so many things there that I am going to hold onto. One is the notion that pause is not the opposite of action, but part of action, and that pausing is different from stopping. I often talk about a mountain metaphor, and around innovation and around schools moving forward, progress as a mountain journey.

And I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, who—we were talking about this moment. And he said, slowing down is not sitting down on the mountain journey, and that in fact, we need to absolutely take the care and the time to pause and to reflect and to move on. But progress is still very much in our future. And I think our school leaders certainly believe that. You know, I also will take away from this, the notion of the invitation to invite others into a community of improvisation. And to plan for that, and also allow it to, to, to find its own way, that we don't need the answer to every single little question and we don't need to over structure.

We just need to create the conditions for our schools to do what they do so well. And so I just want to thank you for bringing your time and your thoughts to this conversation. It has been incredible, and I think it's something that many, many of our leaders are gonna be thinking about as they plan for the next year and plan for beyond.

Lisa Kay Solomon: Rob, thank you so much for being with us today. So much to chew on, to sleep on, to think about, to play with, and I'm really grateful for your time and wisdom. 

Rob Poynton: Well, thank you for inviting me, and uh, I hope some of it's kind of useful and thought-provoking.