This week on the podcast we’re wondering, what’s the best that could happen?
Are you familiar with this quote: “The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’”? Its credited to the Navy’s Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. The computer science pioneer also noted “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’
Well, not author Debbie Miller. She wants to create space for possibilities.
In her newest book; “What’s the Best That Could happen?” Debbie encourages us to tune into that “thing” that doesn’t feel right and then investigate it and see what kind of questions it leads us to.
In What’s the Best That Could Happen, she both models for us how to ask those questions of ourselves and leads us on a personal journey of her own inquiry answering questions about her teaching.
Below is a full transcript of our conversation.
Debbie Miller: I think the thing that really got me going is, I just happened upon Warren Burger's book, A More Beautiful Question, and I began to think about how he's talking about how he did these studies about, what is it about these people that are making all these changes and he did that study of designers and inventors and other people that had made changes in the world. And I just saw the link to education because he talks about how we're always doing the same things we always do and that this was true in the business world. And I began to think, yeah, it kind of feels like it's also true in the field of education.
And so, it got me thinking, what might that look like and what about beautiful questions as a teacher? What might that look like and could that in fact affect change? And so, I decided to just try it out. And I started to think about things I had truly been wondering about, which might sound kind of odd because I've been teaching for a million years and I work in so many teachers' classrooms and yet, there's still opportunities for change, to look at things in new ways. And so I decided to challenge myself just to see what that would be like and the questions were based on things that I was wondering about, but also in my work with teachers, what were some of the things that they worried about or that they were talking about or that they were just trying to figure out. And so, also working with teachers to try to come together to figure things out.
So these were things that are questions that we knew the answer to, that would be silly, but they were truly things that we thought would make a change, would make a difference in our day-to-day teaching lives.
Brett: How then, as educators, do we start in pushing back on that old adage of, we've always done it this way?
Debbie Miller: You know, I hear that a lot and I think one of the reasons that we hear it so much is that it's just kind of a pad answer. I'm always trying to help us to think beyond that. And so, yeah, we've always done it that way, but what if we tried it this way? What if we took something ... Tom Newkirk talks about how, what if we take something that we really know and see it in a new way? And so, to challenge teachers to think about that and then let's give it a try. This isn't about coming up with a perfect answer, it's about trying to see something anew, figuring things out, and knowing that there's always opportunity for change and to do better, really.
And so that's how I challenge myself and teachers, once they're kind of in the grips of that, it's what gets us up in the morning. It's about figuring out new things. So I think it's part of being a professional and when teachers start to see themselves in that way, it makes all the difference. So we get away from that question, "But we've always done it that way." Well, yeah, but let's try it this way because this is so much cooler. We're engaged now. Where before it can kind of get boring. My grandmother always said, "If you're bored, you're boring." So, if we're feeling bored, let's think about it.
Brett: Yep. We don't want to be boring.
Debbie Miller: No!
Debbie Miller: That's the worst. Exactly.
Brett: Well, you're right. It's important that when we're doing this work that we stop and examine that "it doesn't feel right" moment. Why is that so important?
Debbie Miller: Well, I think it's important because we have to trust ourselves. Just like Warren Burger talked about how we're, in the introduction, how we kind of are doing things on the autopilot, but then there are times when it just goes, that just does not feel right, and then that right there can lead us to thinking about a beautiful question like, why doesn't it feel right, how might it be different, what more can we learn about this? And so, I think it's that "doesn't feel right" is the first clue to, "Okay, this might be something I want to dig in to, I want to delve in to more."
Brett: So, how do you take that reflection then and turn it into a question?
Debbie Miller: Just thinking about one of the chapters in the book, there's a chapter about, what if we made work time our priority? For me, I was always, not always, but many times when I was designing lessons, I would do the mini lesson and then I would plan the work time and then the share. Somehow, on occasion, it just didn't feel right that I'm always the one teaching first. It felt a little bit all about me. And so, it just didn't feel right. What if kids started out and what if then the mini lesson could go somewhere else? And so I kept thinking about different ways that that might look and then that's what turned into a question about, what if work time is our priority? So I was making the mini lesson our priority when in fact that doesn't feel right. But that took me a lot of years to understand that.
Brett: Debbie, how do questions lead us to opportunities and a willingness to change?
Debbie Miller: Well, I think anytime that we're thinking about something new, we're thinking about a question, it starts to take over. Once you have it in your mind, you're thinking about it at school, you're thinking about it at home, you're thinking about it in the car and when you wake up in the morning. And so I think it gives us energy. It just helps us when we're thinking about something like that, we're kind of laser focusing in on something, it's exciting and it's fun and you get to come up with different theories.
In this book he talks about, don't rush it. Once you're going somewhere, think about all the different possibilities. Try things out to figure things out. And so, I think it's really energizing thinking about a question. Learning is fun and sometimes we get caught up in all the drudgery and all the things we have to do that we forget that it's fun.
Brett: Well, in many ways, you model your learning for us as you write and as you go through this entire journey. Talk about your journey and the process, because this book is amazing. You teach us how to ask these question and to sort of reflect upon it, but then you take us on the journey of the questions that you asked of yourself.
Debbie Miller: This isn't a book about me telling about a lot of answers. It's about being vulnerable, really, and really trying to figure something out in an honest, authentic kind of way. I think it starts out with something that doesn't feel right and then you ... I just think it's about jumping in and seeing what we can learn with children. And I will often ask them. It's no secret to them what it is that I'm trying to figure out. I want them to be a part of it too. The process is just trying to think about, so what do I understand today that I didn't understand yesterday and to just keep building on it til it finally comes to some conclusion.
And not that it's finished now, there's always more thinking to our figuring out, but it's just that messy kind of process and trusting that it's going to be messy and knowing that on day three and four and five and six and we still don't have it, of course we won't, it's messy. And so it's just sticking with it. I would do some reflect in my notebook and then new ideas would come from writing. Not any fancy writing, but just jotting in my notebook. So, it's that kind of thing I think. It's just sticking with it really.
Brett: While the book is organized by your questions, for your journey you invite readers to ask their own questions on their own.
Debbie Miller: Right. Because that's the heart of it. That's the whole reason. Because, I guess for me, I understand that just because I've done it, I understand the power. I guess I know the power of that and so I want that for teachers to because I know how fun it is and I know that it can change the way we view ourselves. When there was that quote in the introduction about, a child must have some version of, "Yes, I imagine I can do this." Well, I think the same is true for teachers. So once we start to assume some autonomy and assume ownership, questions are a great way to do that.
And whether you do it on your own or whether you do it with a colleague, it makes us richer and it makes teaching more powerful and more fun. I think it's a gift we give ourselves to do that and to go through that process, that messy process, that is asking questions for sure.
Brett: Well, I'd like to ask you ... I don't want to give too much of the book away and you touched on earlier one of the questions that you ask. But there were two questions that jumped out at me that I wanted to ask you about that are essentially your chapter titles. So, the first one I was wondering about is, this is the question in the book ... What if we owned the units that we are asked to teach? What did you learn there?
Debbie Miller: Man, I learned so much. The thing about that question is that in many schools and districts where I work, teachers are given units and the assumption is, you're going to do this unit and it's all planned out. And I think the intent that they're wanting to be helpful. And what I try to do, when given a unit or working with a teacher in a unit, is to think about, let's look at this because there's usually something good and maybe more than something in a unit. But we want to think about, are these goals right for the kids that are in front of us?
And so, I like to make the assumption, really, that when we're given a unit, the authors of the unit certainly hope that we're going to adapt it because they don't even know our children. And so it's kind of crazy to think that we're just going to go down lockstep and do the unit. And so the first thing is to think about, are these the right goals for my kids? So, to help teachers, that's what I did with teachers, and they really showed me that what we need to do is look and see, are these the right goals for my kids this year? And not that they'll even be the same next year.
A unit changes and so to look at that, to look at ... Oftentime, units that we're given don't include what children will read or what they will write or there's nothing really an end. You just are done with the lessons and then you're done. But what do we want for kids at the end? What do we want them to be able to know and do? So, I think that's why we go in and try to figure out to adapt the units, not to just not do them. Sometimes that's the inclination. "Well, I'm just not going to do that because that unit just doesn't fit." But how can we make it work for kids and how can we adapt it for them and think about them as children, but real human beings who want to get excited about something and engaged and learn?
Brett: In chapter three you ask, what if our classroom environment and routines offered choice? What did you discover there?
Debbie Miller: One teacher, we were talking all about agency and choice and how that worked together. And so one teacher, after lunch, we had talked all morning, said, "Well, yeah, this is all great, but what about the sticky notes?" He just went that all the kids were like bugging him for sticky notes and he was doling them out and we began to think about, so why are we doing that? We're not giving kids choices. So we're giving you two, but what if you have more than two questions and it just got into this big conversation about, way beyond sticky notes, but that's what began the whole idea of controlling things and that when we're talking about developing a sense of agency within children, it can start there. It can start with, "I trust you to take whatever you need." Whether it's sticky notes or pencils or ... That's part of learning.
And so to go through routines like that and even where you sit, we do so much over-scaffolding for children, I think to make it easy for them, but then they're not developing that sense of agency. Like, "I'm the kind of kid who can figure things out." So, building choice within there, giving them access and choice, and just sending them off. We don't have to dole out things. We want them to be part of the figuring out. So, to ask them to join in with us is part of that.
Brett: Well, I'm gonna end of this: The book is visually stunning.
Debbie Miller: I know. Thank you, Heinemann. Yeah, it is.
Brett: It's a beautiful book. It's in color. Just, walk us through a little bit about the design of this book because you were influential in how this book came together with that design element.
Debbie Miller: Well, I just wanted to show the brilliance of children. I think that's what it does. It's not only children, because they're beautiful in and of themselves, but it's what they can do and the work that they can do that's highlighted here and I think we learn to expect the unexpected when we trust kids and ask them to do their own figuring out, developing that sense of agency within them. So there are lots of examples of not only kids, but the brilliance in their work really all across the board. And so, I talk about that and just giving kids time and trusting them and just seeing what they can do and just thinking, just keep thinking in my mind, "What's the best that could happen?"
Sometimes we always think, "What's the worst that can happen?" They're going to do this and that's going to happen, but if we shift it, what's the best that could happen, and just send them off, we can always fix it if it doesn't work, but you can't fix it if you over-scaffold. And so, just keeping that in mind if I'm trying to decide, will that work, will that work? Let's try it. What's the best that could happen for kids?
Keep in the conversation going in the What's the Best That Could Happen? Facebook group!
Now through August 31st, use promo code MILLER on online orders of What's the Best That Could Happen? for 30% off the list price. The code also applies to Debbie's other book No More Independent Reading Without Support.
This promo code cannot be used on other orders. This discount applies only to online orders shipping within the U.S. via Ground shipping only. Orders must be placed by 11:59 PM EST on August 31st.
Debbie Miller is a teacher, author, and literacy consultant. She taught in the Denver Public Schools for thirty years and now works extensively with schools and districts on long-range planning and development of literacy programs. Debbie is the author or co-author of many resources for teachers, including Reading with Meaning, No More Independent Reading Without Support, and the forthcoming What's the Best That Could Happen?
Follow Debbie on Twitter @millerread