Transforming the Teacher-Student Relationship

In the past we thought our role of teachers was to transmit knowledge. Now we see it’s to understand children.
— Ms. Cheng, founder of Anji Play

In the Presencing Institute’s framing on the transformation of education, the role of the teacher shifts from transmitter of knowledge to co-creator of knowledge. Paulo Freire has referred to the transmitter approach as the “banking model of education”, in which teachers “deposit” knowledge into students. In the next evolutionary phase of this relationship, the teacher becomes more like a coach. But in the search for co-creative relationship, examples are hard to come by. It’s a stage in which the barrier between teacher and student dissolves, and both become learner and teacher.

When I visited Anji County, China in May 2018, observed the Anji Play model in action and listened to the teachers present their work, it seemed that this approach to teaching was not only present: it was nuanced and deeply embodied in practice. In this experimental and interactive article, I’m excited to share with you a brief introduction to Anji Play and to then present an example that was shared with me during my visit. In doing so, I hope to take you on a journey into the constantly unfolding process that happens when a teacher sees her role as someone engaged in the continual process of becoming an expert observer of children.

When we force our categories and definitions on kids, when we struggle to get them to think like adults, we are robbing them of a crucial moment for building their minds.

Over the past two decades in Anji County, China, a primarily rural area known for the production of bamboo and office chairs, a passionate and charismatic educator named Ms. Cheng has developed a radical approach to education based on a single, simple principle: trust children to take control of their own learning.

The Anji Play model has spread from a single kindergarten to 130 schools across the district, and is being held up as a model for early childhood education across China, as well as in a growing number of countries around the world. In a 2016 article on Medium, Jesse Coffino, Ms. Cheng’s primary translator and the person who co-leads (with his colleague Dr. Chelsea Bailey) the expansion of the Anji Play model outside of China, describes a typical day at an Anji school.

On any given day in Anji County, the children build bridges with ladders and planks. They run across oil drums and construct environments out of bricks and lumber and rope. Their teachers observe this risky, self-initiated play and use their smart phones to film the action. After lunch the kids gather to watch videos of their play and talk about what they were doing [in the Anji Play method, this is called “play sharing”]. Later in the afternoon they draw what they did that day, often as complex storyboards, schematics and invented symbolic writing systems because that’s how they have chosen to describe their experience [these are called “play stories”].

Anji Play kindergartens have no set lesson plans. The Anji Play curriculum arises on a daily basis from the problems, needs and questions that emerge from children’s play. Teachers are trained not to intervene in children’s play, but instead, to observe children. “My instructions to new teachers, and to visitors,” Ms. Cheng says with a smile, “are simple. Hands down. Mouth closed. Ears and eyes open.”

Asking children about their experience of play elevates it into an activity with profound possibility for shared learning – for both the children and the teacher. For this to happen, however, the teacher first has to trust in children’s knowledge and capacity to take the reins of their own learning. This involves a commitment to suspend habitual assumptions, redirect their attention to what they observe and to inquire deeply into children’s experiences of the world (a process that maps well onto the co-sensing phase of the U process).

What is so significant about this process, you may ask. In his Medium article, Jesse provides the context:

For the last century Western theories of education have maintained that children develop in a linear fashion, advancing from one milestone to the next. They insist that the unsophisticated thinking of the child can be guided by experienced teachers towards the ideals of adult rationality and academic learning. Priorities become learning faster, learning more, directing kids to outcomes, managing behavior and avoiding the challenges of true risk.

However there is a growing body of research showing that babies and young children engage in highly sophisticated thinking. “Babies have many, many more neural connections being formed, many more synapses being formed, than we adults do,” UC Berkeley professor of psychology Alison Gopnik told Mother Jones. “So it’s as if early on, we have this brain that is really designed for learning, a brain that’s very flexible and plastic and responds a lot to experiences. And then later on, as we get older, we have a brain that’s more sort of a lean, mean machine, really designed to do things well, but not nearly as flexible, not nearly as good at learning something new.”

The research of Gopnik and other experts in the field of childhood development show that babies and young children engage in genius-like thinking: seeing the multitude possibilities of everything they encounter, and then making novel, creative use of them. As babies explore and understand their environments they create complex causal maps: if I hit the drum with a stick this is the sound it makes; if I pull the doggy’s hair this is how doggy responds; if I stack a sandbag on a plank on a barrel I can walk across it without it wobbling.

As adults we see the world defined and categorized: a chair is a chair, a pencil is a pencil, 1+1=2. But for little kids, these objects and concepts do not have fixed meaning; they can be anything. The joy of play is figuring out their qualities and uses and the possible relationships between them. So when we force our categories and definitions on kids, when we struggle to get them to think like adults, we are robbing them of a crucial moment for building their minds. [emphasis mine]

When I visited Anji Play in May 2018, a teacher named Zhou Li (pronounced ‘Jolie’) shared a video that she took of her five year old students playing outside on a rainy day. Her intention in presenting the video was to show an example of the surprising ways children think differently than adults, and why, therefore, it is important for her as a teacher to cultivate a practice of observation, suspending assumptions and inquiring deeply into children’s experiences.

Below, I’ve presented this example in the way she presented it to me and a small group of foreign visitors. “This was one of hundreds examples I could have chosen,” she said. “And this is the status quo for Anji teachers – in our cell phones, hard drives, or in our hearts, there are numerous instances we want to share of children engaged in play.”

As a way of experiencing what it means to step into the role of teacher-as-expert observer, I invite you to follow the steps below. The scene you’re about to watch took place in an outdoor play area at an Anji school, just a few days before Zhou Li presented the video.

“The first time you watch,” Zhou Li suggested to our group, “pay attention to your first impressions. I had my first reaction as I was taking the video, which I will share after. For now, just write down your first impression, your immediate reaction to what you see.”

Before you press play, take a pen and paper. As you watch the video, make note of your own first impressions.

“My first reaction as I filmed this”, Zhou Li said, “was that it looks like they’re having fun. It looks like they’re excited about this play with water and tubes.”

But next, she begins to think what else might be taking place. “I’m asking myself, what is the learning that’s taking place.”

One method that Anji Play teachers learn for suspending and seeing beyond their initial impressions is to simply observe and describe to themselves the physical motions they’re seeing. Go ahead now and watch the video a second time. Take notes on the physical motions you see. Just describe what you can directly observe.

“In my second viewing,” Zhou Li said, “I noticed they were going up and down, round and around, with their motions.” She asked us what we saw in the video. Some of us commented that we noticed the direction the children were facing, their proximity to each other and that their movements were periodic.

Zhou Li then invited us to watch the video a third time. “In the final viewing,” she said, “we’re going to look at what we can see in terms of the children’s problem solving, and what we see as teachers in terms of any kind of hypothesis generation or falsification that’s taking place.  

Go ahead now and watch the video a final time. Take notes on any kind of hypothesis generation you think the children might be engaged in. For example, Zhou Li thought their hypothesis could be: “if I shake it up and down, water will move up and down. If I shake it back and forth it will move back and forth. If I move it in a circle, the water will move in a circle.” Try to put yourself into the experience of the child. Use your direct observation. Use what you see in the video to form your hypotheses.

Zhou Li then shared what happened after the children came back inside from play. Instead of going straight to play sharing (when they talk about what happened during play) as sometimes happens, which she thought might interrupt their processing of their play, she asked them to go directly into making their play stories.

“You guys may be somewhat surprised when you see what they drew,” she said.

First, she showed the story made by the boy in the video. What he described was initially similar to what Zhou Li had guessed, and similar to what all of us in the room had guessed. “Today we played a game of throwing around the water,” he said about his story. “I discovered something. I found that if you move the water back and forth and whoever is following the water, when it’s moved in a direct line, the water follows in a direct line; if it’s done in a circle, the water moves in a circle. Then he added: “So the water is ‘loose’”. Zhou Li asked him what ‘loose’ means. He was not able to express it, but Zhou Li gathered that loose seemed to mean it separates.

Zhou Li then showed us the story made by the girl. “What we’re going to see is something none of us thought of in our hypotheses,” Zhou Li said. 

The young girl said ‘when I was playing it was a lot of fun but I have a question: how come when I threw the water it turned into water ‘pearls’’? The boy playing with the teakettle in the background, throwing it around had a similar reflection. He asked in his description, “why, when I throw the water does it turn into an arc?”

At this point in her presentation, Zhou Li turned off the projector and turned to face our group. Then she delivered her punch line:

I really wanted to share this example with everyone today; these play stories and this video, because for me there was a moment of epiphany here. It doesn’t matter if it was the girl and boy playing with the pipe, or the boy playing with the water kettle, or another child in the ditch playing with water. When I inquired into their experience, what they were focused on was not the direction of the water but this phenomenon of the droplets.

After seeing the children’s documentation, I went back and reviewed the video another time. What you can see is the children are – if you’re looking carefully, if you’re looking at the details – that they are focused on this phenomenon of the water in the air, the droplets. If you look at the physical manifestation of their play – if you look closely – what you’re seeing for instance from the direction of their eyes is that they’re not focused on the end of that tube. They’re focused on what’s going on in the air.

So what I’m sharing with you today is, well, an act of reflection. Through this reflection, I was able to see where my observation has limits. If I were to have gone that day directly from the play to the play sharing [talking about play] without this intermediary step of the play story I might have misled the children during play sharing toward my subjective opinion of what their focus was in their play [emphasis mine].

This is the key point. Zhou Li is saying, in effect, that her role as a teacher is to create the conditions in which children can take control of their own learning. She sees the ways in which her assumptions might, unintentionally, direct children toward her interests rather than their own. By acknowledging her limits and using a method that helped her navigate around them, she took herself out of the center of the learning process and allowed the children’s interest to shape the curriculum.

As it turned out, this phenomenon of the droplets captivated the children’s attention and became a subject of inquiry for days. When a topic arises in play and catches children’s interest for an extended time, Anji teachers post the topic and play stories on the wall of their classroom along with the evolving stories and hypotheses the children are working through. In this way, the walls of the classroom become a visual record of children’s investigations. This investigation can last for days or even months, depending on the children’s interest.

When Zhou Li shared this story with us, it had been three days since the video was filmed. “I wasn’t in the classroom earlier today, she said, but I learned from the other teacher that the children were still today engaged in a conversation, exploration and an investigation of this question of the water droplets in the air. The hypothesis they have developed is that because there is wind in the air, water becomes droplets. But because there is less wind on the ground, it does not become droplets.”

Zhou Li then showed drawings the children had made and spoken about in subsequent days to further their hypotheses.

  • One child suggested: “the water got broken up. When it breaks up it is droplets. When it’s not broken up it is water.”

  • Another child said that it’s because of the wind that water becomes droplets. When it’s blown by the wind it breaks apart, breaks into pieces, but when it hits the ground, when it falls it kind of explodes into sheets of water.

  • Another child said that because the mouth of the tube is round, when the water comes out of the tube it becomes droplets which are also round, but when it hits the ground the ground is hard and flat, and because it’s hard it becomes these flower shapes or sheets of water.

“So it seems,” Zhou Li reflected, “like the [third] child was thinking about the relationship between the shape of water and the shape of the medium it was in contact with. That it takes the shape of the medium it comes in contact with.”

On the wall in her classroom, Zhou Li set up a title that says “Why does the water become droplets when it goes into the air?” She put the children’s play stories under that heading so that over the course of the year, if other students encountered the same question or were exploring the same subject matter, they could have their thinking included under the subheading on the wall.

What’s significant here is that this entire inquiry hinged on the teacher’s belief that knowledge emerges from her children (not from her expertise), her capacity to recognize when her assumptions might stand in the way of children’s real interests and her skill to create the conditions for children to pursue their true interests.

“In conclusion,” Zhou Li said, “I have a lot to think about. In addition to sharing with everybody today about the children’s observations, I’m also seeing these aspects around observation, documentation and sharing that I have to continue to improve on in my own practice. 

As our group applauded and Zhou Li humbly walked offstage, I thought about the distinction we make between teacher and learner. I wondered where to draw the line in this example? Or had Zhou Li, perhaps, created the conditions for her students and within herself such that there was no line at all?

Anji Play

I'm just back from a week in Anji County, China, where 130 kindergartens are organized around one simple, radical principle: trust children. 

 A kindergartener at an Anji Play school jumps from a structure the children built during play

A kindergartener at an Anji Play school jumps from a structure the children built during play

At these Anji Play schools, children are offered expansive, minimally structured environments for self-determined play. On a given day, you see them walking on barrels, building (and sometimes jumping from) large wooden structures, and painting on walls. You see and immediately feel the true joy in their play. Their play looks risky at times, and it is. The element risk makes what the teachers at Anji Play do - or don't do - even more remarkable. Teachers observe but they don’t intervene. They trust each child to determine his or her own capacity for risk and engagement. They stand nearby, observing attentively, most of the time using their phones to record videos of children’s play. 

Once play is finished, the teachers use these videos as the basis for “play sharing” in the classrooms. Children talk about what they experienced during play, problems that arose, how they tried to solve them, what they learned and want to explore further during the next day’s play. Teachers are trained to suspend their assumptions, to ask open questions and not project their own interpretations onto the children’s experiences. What happens, frequently, is that the children make sense of their play in ways that are far more complex, surprising, and sophisticated than the adults would have assumed.

 Play sharing at an Anji Play school

Play sharing at an Anji Play school

In this way, the curriculum at an Anji Play school is not pre-determined; rather, it emerges from the children’s play and the subsequent reflections sessions, day by day, week by week, over the course of a year.

Below are a few more photos from this remarkable approach to education, which has been going on now for 17 years. For a brief history and overview of the program, have a look at Anji Play CEO Jesse Coffino's excellent introduction.

In the months ahead, I’ll be writing and working on videos in order to share in more detail what’s happening here, and why anyone interested in innovative approaches to learning and leadership — regardless of the context — would do well to learn from what’s happening in Anji. 

On Changing Others

In a u.lab “office hours” session earlier today, a few participants asked a question that I’ve heard variations of many times: how do I get people who are stubborn, closed-minded, or who don’t share my views to open up?

I understand the impulse. But we need to think about this differently.

First, it’s not possible to change another person. You might coerce or persuade them. But ultimately, each person makes a choice whether to change or not.

More to the point, while Theory U is a social technology for opening up, it’s an approach based in deep listening. If you feel someone in your life is stubborn or closed-minded, try to understand what deeply matters to them. Work on suspending your own judgment. Inquire into what they believe and why. Notice whether you can do this with an open mind and open heart.

To be sure, closed-mindedness, which can breed fear, ignorance, and hatred is a serious problem in the world today. Look no further than the refugee crisis. As journalist Patrick Kingsley writes in his excellent book The New Odyssey, “In a way, the refugee crisis is something of a misnomer. There is a crisis, but it’s one caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than by the refugees themselves.”

There is a time for confrontation and conflict with people whose views may need to be questioned. But our job as Theory U practitioners, as I heard Otto say recently, is to be literate on multiple levels of responding, to respond and act as the situation requires of us, and not to be stuck in just one way of operating.

Forced Migration

Human Flow, a new documentary by Ai WeiWei, the Chinese dissident artist, cites a statistic from the U.N. that over 65 million people around the world have been forced from their homes to escape famine, climate change and war in the greatest human displacement since World War II. The text that accompanies the film's trailer asks: will our global society emerge from fear, isolation, and self-interest and choose a path of openness, freedom, and respect for humanity?

I think a more significant question is: how will our global society do this? Or, more precisely, how might more individuals, groups, and larger communities learn to open in the face of disruptive new realities, rather than closing down? And where do we already see examples, in the words of my friend Chris Corrigan, of meaningful large scale hope?

The forced migration crisis, of course, is just one massive symptom of even deeper, more complex and larger scale challenges. To address the root causes of forced migration, we need to look at (amongst other proximate causes) war and famine. To address war and famine, increasingly we need to look at the impacts of climate change. To address climate change, we need to change the dominant economic paradigm. If we hope to make progress changing the dominant economic paradigm, we need to accelerate a shift in awareness — basically, re-aligning the (often unexamined) mental models we as individuals and larger stakeholder groups hold onto, with the deeply interdependent environmental and social realities we actually live in.

Given this, it’s hard to think of a more significant moral, ethical, or economic imperative for our generation than addressing the root causes of forced migration, and to do so in a way that embodies openness, compassion and love for those who are already experiencing the greatest suffering.

Where might we begin? As individuals with some relative privilege and leverage to influence change, we want to have an impact on issues that are global and systemic, but what’s the first step toward creating more openness in the world? I find it's helpful to think look at this question from four different perspectives:

  • What inner shifts are needed within myself?
  • What measurable, concrete actions might I take to make a difference?
  • What types of conversations do I need to have, and relationships I need to develop, across boundaries?
  • What are the systemic changes needed for our institutions, communities, and broader societies to respond to this emerging reality from places of openness, freedom and respect for humanity?

These are topics and questions I will continue to explore - and would like to shape much of my work around, in the weeks, months and years ahead.

The Iceberg Model, Listening and the News

The past six weeks, in and around the U.S., our news cycles have careened from one disaster to the next. Toward the end of August, Houston experienced catastrophic flooding. Hurricane Harvey was a “1,000 year flood event” and Houston’s third “1-in-500 year” flood in three years. Soon after, Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean and Florida. Then came Maria: a natural disaster that, due to the callous response of the U.S. Government, is transforming into a man-made disaster. Mexico City was rocked by a major earthquake. Unprecedented fires have recently ripped through Northern California. The list goes on. In Las Vegas, the latest mass shooting left nearly 60 people dead. Meanwhile, Trump escalated the risk of nuclear war with North Korea, threatened to dismantle the Iran Agreement, pushed to strip healthcare from millions of Americans, threatened the free speech of news networks and attacked black athletes who are protesting systemic oppression.

If you’re working directly in one of these places, or with an organization that’s helping, there may be direct ways of applying the principles and practices of Theory U. But what about those of us who aren’t directly impacted and don’t have direct leverage to create change? What can we do?

Here is a simple practice you can do daily. It applies the Iceberg Model (Leading From the Emerging Future) and the Four Levels of Listening (Theory U).

Bring to mind the Iceberg Model, a framework for looking beneath the day-to-day crisis symptoms we often hear about in the news, to the deeper structures and paradigms of thought that give rise to them. As you read, watch or listen to the news, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What information in this story is about the symptoms of a deeper problem? Write down your observations that point to a symptoms-level story or analysis.
  • What information points to deeper structural causes that give rise to those symptoms? A structure is a pattern of relationships that have to do with ways of coordinating and organizing, within organizations and across organizations. Write these down as well.
  • What paradigms of thought can I identify? Consider the various stakeholders in this story (subjects, commentators, the reporter). Inquire into their deeper beliefs. What is the worldview underlying what they say and do?
  • Whose voice(s) am I not hearing? What other voices would need to be heard in order to have all key viewpoints represented?

Now, take a moment and turn your awareness and attention back on yourself. How have you been attending to this story? Consider the following possibilities:

  • Am I just looking to confirm what I already believe? This is what we call Level 1 listening (downloading).
  • Am I looking or listening for information that might challenge my beliefs? This is Level 2 listening (factual).
  • Am I attempting to understand the situation from someone else’s point of view? This means going beyond just an intellectual understanding and allowing myself to sense into what it feels like to be that person. This is Level 3 listening (empathic).
  • Could I tune into what’s next? Could I sense what’s wanting to emerge? What patterns am I starting to become aware of? What am I feeling moved to do? This is Level 4 listening (generative).

Practice reading the news in this way, looking deeply at the information, and looking reflectively at your own quality of attention.This is one small way of bringing the iceberg model and levels of listening into your daily routine. What happens as a result?

Beginning Again

There is a famous quote attributed to E.M Forester: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Writing has always been my gateway into my own mind. I don't really know what I think until I see what I wrote. And yet, over the past ten years, I've scarcely written at all. Meanwhile, these days I find myself increasingly addicted to twitter, looking on as our society careens from one global-attention-grabbing crisis to the next, absorbed in the soundbite opinions of people I already I agree with, rarely inquiring deeply into what's really going on in the world, and what's really going on in my mind.

It's time for that to change.

What I hope to offer here is a different lens on what's happening in the world right now: one informed by cutting edge work on human development, meaning, belonging, and especially, by a framework that aims to explain how profound change takes place in human social systems (Theory U).

Though there are tens of thousands of Theory U practitioners worldwide, to my knowledge, there is no place online where someone who knows the work is trying to make sense of significant global events, and the leadership responses to them, through this lens. My intention here is to explore how this body of work might be helpful for understanding what's going on today, and possible ways to respond that could bring about a better future.

My aspiration is to write 60 posts before the end of 2017 - and to see what I think after that. If there are topics you think I should explore, blind spots I'm not considering, or if you simply want to be in touch, please let me know.

Today, I'm beginning again.

The Art of Social and Emotional Learning in Mexico

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Bring to mind an experience you’ve had with a fruit. Visualize its color and texture. What is its consistency, its smell, its flavor?

Pause for a moment. Really connect with that experience.

How do you feel now? What memories are coming to mind? Who were you with when you had this fruit? Where were you?

These are the types of questions that begin a process called generative mediation, one that is working its way into the educational discourse across Mexico. A facilitator places a piece of art in the front of a room. A group of participants observe the art, and the effect it has on them. With a skilled facilitator, the conversation can move rather quickly away from the art itself and toward the experience that the art evokes within the participants themselves. Difficult emotions or subjects are often shared and talked about in an environment free of judgment, where anything one wants to express is heard, is valid, is welcome.

Last week, Otto and I participated in a gathering of 400 educators in Mexico City called Dialogos to hear how this disarmingly simple pedagogy, which is called dia, is creating new types of learning environments in diverse contexts around Mexico. It's shifting the way teachers relate to students in schools, how young people in Mayan communities reconnect to their own wisdom, and how inmates in some of Mexico City’s maximum security prisons relate to each other and themselves.

In the weeks ahead, I'll take you inside some of these places to see the process in action.

For now, you may still be wondering what happens after you visualize the fruit. Here’s how that exercise continued. We sat in groups of three or four at small round tables. After those first reflective questions, the facilitator showed us this art work:

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She then asked, what’s happening here? We took a few minutes to share our observations of the painting. Next, she asked us the following questions:

  • What do you discover when you visit a new market in a new place?
  • In a word, what does the experience in a market remind you of?
  • What difference is there between a supermarket and a market?
  • What is it that nourishes you?

Underlying the dia methodology is the idea is that art can serve as a vehicle for personal and social transformation. Art opens up a space of possibility where new insights about the world, about each other, and about ourselves are possible.

At Dialogos, 20 mediators shared ten-minute stories about how they are using this methodology. Elizabeth (below) talked about her work with young people in prison. For the first time, they told her, they are feeling seen for their humanity rather than for what they've done. Hector, a teacher working in a community beset by violence, started incorporating the methodology into his classes. It opened up a space for his students to talk about what they see when they're outside of school: gun violence, drug overdoses, and more. This opened a new kind of space for dialogue amongst students, teachers, and parents.

Elizabeth, dia mediator, talking about her work in prisons
Elizabeth, dia mediator, talking about her work in prisons
Hector, dia mediator, talking about his work in schools
Hector, dia mediator, talking about his work in schools

In the posts and stories that follow, I’ll get into detail by sharing stories from around Mexico City and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Welcome Home

Earlier today I landed in Boston on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt. The plane parked at the gate and the passengers stood and gathered luggage, as usual. Then the cabin crew announced there would be a passport check "on the plane". A few moments passed and nothing happened. Then the people ahead of me began to walk forward. I grabbed my bag and looked ahead. No officers in sight. I stepped off the plane onto the jetway. There, at the end of the tunnel, I saw two bulky, bearded Customs and Border Patrol officers. One wore a bullet proof vest and had a passenger's passport in his hand. He looked serious as he flipped the pages. His partner's attention was fixed on the line of us disembarking from the plane. I walked past him, and he looked past me. I then looked over my shoulder to see whose passport was being inspected and saw a short, well-dressed, brown-skinned woman. She was staring at her shoes. Her two children, a teenage boy in a baseball hat and younger girl, stood by her side. There appeared to be no purpose to the check other than its obvious effects: intimidation and humiliation. Probably 95% of the passengers on the flight were white.

I walked slow toward actual passport control and soon the family caught up to me. I heard the mother say to her kids "brace yourselves". I turned to her and said it seemed they were the only ones on the plane who were stopped. "We're just lucky," she replied, shaking her head. Then she added: "Maybe it's because my son got off the plane first, and I was in the back, and he told them he wasn't sure where his mom was."

What else could she say?

Moments later, as I stood in line waiting for a passport stamp, I heard a woman shouting. A different woman, middle-aged, black, speaking with a Caribbean accent, was being led away - directly from the arrivals area, past passport control to somewhere downstairs. She was cursing loudly at the four white male CBP officers who surrounded and led her away.

I had my passport stamped by a woman named Thai who had gentle eyes. "Welcome home," she said.

Jaipur Rugs

N.K. Chaudhary has been called "the Gandhi of the rug industry". Earlier this year in Atlanta he met Nipun Mehta, whose life and work is a testament to the spirit of Gandhi's message. Not surprisingly, they had an instant connection. Nipun was on his way from Atlanta to Costa Rica for our Global Wellbeing Lab, and perhaps for this reason, the conversation turned to Theory U.

N.K. learned about Theory U a few years ago and had been looking for ways to apply it in his company Jaipur Rugs. Nipun offered to introduce N.K. to Otto. Less than a month later, the two met at MIT along with N.K.'s daughter-in-law Mahika, who happens to live in Boston.

I was not able to attend the meeting, but in subsequent emails, both Otto and Mahika expressed excitement about the possibility of working together. A number of ideas emerged. One was to send a team to India to document the Jaipur Rugs story, which Otto saw as potentially a living example of Theory U. Another was for Jaipur Rugs to form a company hub and take u.lab together in September in order to apply Theory U directly to Jaipur Rugs' current organizational challenges.

Mahika and I met in early June to discuss how some or all of this might work. We quickly agreed it would be great for someone to film an interview with N.K., drawing him out on his personal leadership journey. As we spoke about u.lab and how to bring it into the company, I kept thinking of the u.lab Scotland model and how important the pre-course kickoff workshop in Edinburgh had been for creating a shared sense of possibility amongst interested Scottish participants and hub hosts. I suggested we do something like that for Jaipur Rugs. And while I'm always sort of looking for an excuse to go to India, I wasn't necessarily thinking I would run such a workshop...

Or maybe I was.

Whatever the real truth may be...last week, I boarded a flight from Shanghai to Delhi, and Delhi to Jaipur, to spend four days learning more about Jaipur Rugs' work and to host a workshop for 20 people in the company who were interested in learning more about Theory U and the u.lab MOOC in September.

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When I landed in Jaipur, Swati was waiting for me. Program Manager for the Jaipur Rugs Foundation, Swati had organized my visit and would join me throughout. She greeted me outside baggage claim with a quiet, knowing smile and inquisitive, laser-focused quality of attention that made me feel I was re-uniting with an old, dear friend.

Other than a brief email exchange and seeing her in one of Jaipur Rugs' impressively-produced videos, I didn't know much about Swati before I arrived. I had assumed most people in the organization would only have a general understanding Theory U. So you can imagine my surprise when, on our car ride from the airport to the hotel, Swati told me she had received Theory UfromN.K. two years earlier, had read and carefully studied all 500+ pages, and that it had a profound influence on her life and work.

We spent our first few hours talking in the lobby of the Royal Orchid hotel. Swati asked about my life and my story, and I asked more about hers. She had completed a Masters in Finance from ICFAI Business School in Hyderabad in 2013. A serious practitioner of meditation with an interest in human development and education, she had been drawn to the city of Jaipur ever since she was young. In her current role, she spends extensive time in the villages working on various women's empowerment and grassroots leadership programs. As she described what she does, it was clear this is far more than just a job for her - it's really her Work.

Swati had a few questions about Theory U. She wanted to know whether we could talk about them, and I said sure. "So tell me," she asked, "what is your understanding of the Higher Self?" I must have then straightened up in my chair.Her knowing smile returned. That's where you want to begin? I thought, impressed and slightly intimidated.

Already, my assumptions of what I'd come to do were shifting. I realized this Jaipur Rugs collaboration might be something richer and deeper than I had expected.

I suggested to Swati that we not finalize the workshop schedule until the end of Day 2, to allow for new ideas and needs to arise during our sensing journeys. I didn't realize at the time how prescient that comment would be. The original plan for my visit was as follows:

  • Arrival day: tour of the city
  • Day 1: tour of the company, overview of current challenges, conversation and interview with N.K.
  • Day 2: visit two villages to meet weavers, local branch managers, and Bunkar Sakhis ('weaver's friends' - local leaders who play a key role in various weavers' empowerment programs at the village level)
  • Day 3: Theory U / u.lab kickoff workshop for 20 leaders from Jaipur Rugs company and foundation

Day 1 - Office Visit

The first day started as planned. Swati gave me a tour of the company headquarters, which includes two buildings that house the central offices for various departments such as HR and sales; a packaging center and a showroom for finished rugs; numerous creative departments where product design and digital marketing take place; and much more.

As we walked past the HR department, I noticed a curious sign above the door:

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I asked Swati what that meant, and she suggested I include that in my questions for N.K.

After the tour, I met N.K for the first time. He is a deeply humble person. Grinning ear to ear, he expressed his profound gratitude for my visit, calling it a "gift from god" - which surely spoke more to his humility, love, and appreciation than anything I had to offer. He told me about his struggles, running a business for 38 years that always aspired to put people before profit, and how for 33 years people in the carpet industry had misunderstood him, questioned his understanding of business, and doubted whether his business model could survive.

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After the financial crisis in 2008, and especially over the past five years, the criticism started to subside - and N.K. had attracted the interest of academics and others who took a renewed interest in what he was doing. It was around that time he also realized the need to bring more of a certain type of person into the company. "You saw the sign above the HR room?" he asked. "I realized there is one thing only that matters: the purity of a person's intention. That is who I have began to look for. Not only in Jaipur Rugs - but also in our supply chain partners."

It was a fascinating conversation - one that we returned to later in the afternoon in his office. That conversation was filmed and will be available during the September 2016 u.lab 1x course - so be sure to keep an eye out for it.

[UPDATE: October 13th, 2016] The interview is available here:

https://vimeo.com/187206852

The morning concluded with Swati giving a short but poignant presentation on current organizational challenges, and how she and N.K. believe Theory U could be of help. Some of the current challenges include:

  • The need to reconnect and listen in a new way to the company's two "front-lines" - the weavers and the customers.
  • How to create a culture of trust, where people go beyond being nice and feel safe to speak hard truths to each other.
  • As it grows, how to maintain the culture of curiosity and humility that the company was founded on. Jaipur Rugs hires standout graduates from top MBA programs in India, who come from cities and often don't feel they have anything to learn from those in the villages.
  • Lack of inspiration: some people in sales see their job as just selling a product. They talk only about the rug, not the company's deeper values, the stories of the human beings behind the products, and the families whose lives are changed through the business. They aren't inspired because they don't know why they are working in Jaipur Rugs.

After lunch on Day 1, plans suddenly took a new turn.

Swati had told me the day before that she wanted to get beyond an intellectual knowledge of Theory U and understand how it's applied in practice. Back in the conference room, she and Kavita Chaudhary, N.K.'s daughter and Design team lead, were outlining the plan for visiting the villages the following day. As Swati describe the schedule, it occurred to me: why not use this moment, which was essentially learning journey preparation, to lead them through the Theory U approach to learning journeys? Why wait until my scheduled workshop to be helpful? I offered this suggestion, and they were eager to do it.

I started by saying the key difference between a field visit and a learning journey is how you prepare, how you pay attention during the journey, and the reflection you do afterwards. I asked Kavita and Swati to take a pen and paper and suggested we each write down what intentions and assumptions we each had about tomorrow's journey. After five minutes or so, we took turns sharing.

At one point, Swati shared a deep assumption about the motivation weavers have for participating in the foundation's programs. I pointed out that this is exactly why we do this exercise. The real purpose of a learning journey is not only to learn something new about the world out there, but also to explore the ways in which we listen and pay attention during the visit. Are we only confirming conscious or unconscious beliefs we already had? Are we listening for something that might disprove what we hold true? Are we empathizing with those we meet? Are we pay attention to emerging future possibilities - that which is possible, but not quite there yet?

After just a few minutes of journaling, sharing, and framing, something noticeably shifted in the room. It felt as though we were no longer just three individuals going out on a trip to see Jaipur Rugs' work. There was a deeper sense of purpose. So much so, that then this happened:

I offhandedly mentioned that it would have been great to take workshop participants on this type of journey before the actual a workshop begins. Doing so gives people a shared experience, surfaces new information, and deepens the relationships between them.

Kavita jumped on the idea.

Before I could finish my explanation she said: "So why don't we take all 20 people with us tomorrow?" I started saying no, it's too late, I don't think...but I noticed she was serious and that I was responding mostly out of an uh-oh-am-I-prepared-to-facilitate-this-for-20-people sort of fear. I decided I should just keep quiet. Within minutes, it was no longer a question of if we should do this, but how.

We briefed N.K. on the idea and he loved it.

By 5:30pm that afternoon, twelve of the workshop participants were sitting quietly in the conference room, waiting to know why they were there. I walked in alongside N.K. and felt twelve sets of eyes upon me. I hadn't met any of these people before and I imagined they must have been thinking, who does this guy think he is coming in from abroad, asking me to drop everything and go out to the villages tomorrow? 

But they were good sports. In fact, most of them seemed enthusiastic about the opportunity. After N.K. and Swati introduced me, I asked about everyone's previous experience going to visit weavers. Some had spent quite a lot of time in the villages. Some had only been once. One had never been at all. I briefed the group on learning journeys, explained the levels of listening, and walked them through the same journaling exercise I'd done earlier with Kavita and Swati.

As we shared intentions and assumptions, a pattern started to emerge. One of the group members named it directly. He said, with a surprised smile, "You know, when I think about it, not only do I assume the weavers will give the same answers they've given before. I'm assuming they will even anticipate my questions!" Although we only took about 20 minutes to prepare, it was enough to set the tone and generate some collective excitement for the next day's journey.

Day 2 - Learning Journey

The following morning, two cars were waiting at the Jaipur Rugs office. We decided to go together to the same village and then split into smaller groups upon arrival. Each group would spend 45 minutes visiting a different weaver, then we would come back together and share what we had seen, heard, and what had challenged our assumptions.

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There were many powerful moments during the journey. My group visited a remarkable woman (pictured below, right) in her home, where she shared a story that left us all in awe.

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She had visited the doctor a few years earlier. A mammogram showed cysts near her lower intestines. This eventually led to a cancer diagnosis. The doctor prescribed surgery. She cursed out the doctor, saying no way. Eventually she gave in. But after surgery, recovery was slow and the hospital staff was unhelpful. She needed a blood transfusion but nobody from the hospital would go to the blood bank - so she packed up her catheter bag, stuffed it in her sari, and walked there on her own.

Immediately after she was released from the hospital, she demanded her supervisor (Harfoolji, who we'll meet below) return her loom. He wanted her to rest so kept making excuses - your orders will come but they're stuck at headquarters...Every day as he passed her house on his way into work, she stopped and asked for her loom and orders. Harfoolji started taking a different route to work. Eventually, she got her loom back and created a carpet of her own design, inspired by the images she remembered from her mammogram and that of a sunflower, which told the story of her journey through illness and recovery.

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After listening to this story, we reconvened with the whole group and crowded into a tiny room to listen to Harfoolji, the local branch manager, tell us about his life and journey. He recalled the way N.K. had his seen potential in a way he himself had not seen. N.K. had given him increasing responsibility, and insisted he learn to ride a motorbike so he could work in multiple villages. N.K. believed in him unconditionally. His area of responsibility grew from overseeing four looms to overseeing 128, and he had been recognized as a leader in the company. As Harfoolji finished his story, he paused, and it was silent in the room. Tears began to fill his eyes. "I just don't know..." he said, "how, in my life, I can ever repay such generosity."

And yet, as the conversation continued, it became clear he already had. To his left sat a young woman, Premji, the local Bunkar Sakhi. Mentoring her with the same kind of support he had received from N.K., she had grown into her own confidence. The seed N.K. had planted in one person was being passed down to subsequent people throughout the organization. It was a story I would hear time and again during my visit.

Before we left, I asked if anyone wanted to share what stood out or surprised them about the visit? Sitting next to Harfoolji, one of our group members cleared his throat. "I have worked with Harfoolji almost every day for six months. He shared things today that I never knew." Others in our group had similar experiences with the people they spoke with during the learning journey.

We left the village around 2pm and travelled an hour before stopping for lunch. The heat, late lunch, and intensity of the morning was starting to wear on the group. We had planned one more village visit for the afternoon. I asked whether people still wanted to go, and the majority did.

We visited Manpura, which had a different energy from the previous village. The weavers, all women, were dressed in bright colors and all seemed to speak with the same bold confidence. When work stopped at 5pm, many of them attended a Jaipur Rugs-supported school where they were learning basic English.

At 6pm, school ended and games began.

By the end of the day, it was late and we didn't have the energy for a proper debrief. We decided to build it into the workshop the following morning.

Day 3 - Workshop

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There were three main intentions for the workshop: a basic introduction to the Theory U framework, a deeper dive into Theory U practices, and an introduction to how u.lab could be used to address current Jaipur Rugs challenges.

Twelve of the 16 people in attendance had been together for the learning journey. N.K. opened the morning with introductory remarks about Theory U. We then moved into a debrief of the previous day. There was a common feeling that the learning journey had surfaced new information from the weavers - which was significant since that is one of the company's current challenges. I asked what made that possible and people said it was because they practiced identifying intentions and assumptions, and when possible, suspending them. I inquired into moments when people experienced a shift in their quality of listening. Someone in the marketing department said: "I felt myself listening at deeper levels in the emotional moments - when the weavers and branch managers shared their journey and their struggles."

After the debrief, Swati presented the current company challenges. Many in the room had only joined the company recently so it was an opportunity for them to connect with some of these challenges for the first time.

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The rest of the day was mostly experiential. We used different reflective and dialogue practices to help people connect more deeply with each other and themselves. In the morning we went on dialogue walks, continuing the practice of paying attention to our attention. Returning from the dialogue walk, a pair approached me and one of them said: "We've worked together in the same department for months, but never realized some of the things we have in common."

In the afternoon, we did a 3D mapping exercise. Working in pairs, one person creates a 3D model of a current personal or professional challenge, reflects on it from four different directions using a set of questions about what's wanting to end and what's emerging, then changes the sculpture to better reflect the emerging future. The level of artistry and attention people brought to their sculptures was stunning - some of the most beautiful work I've seen in this exercise. And the insights that emerged were quite significant for many people.

As the day came to close, I introduced u.lab. I shared that many times, as was the case in Scotland, people first use the course for their own personal and professional leadership challenges, and then take it a second time to apply it to organizational challenges. It had been a full two days and participants said they needed some time to process everything before deciding exact next steps. But the intention to continue the work together was clear.

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With N.K., Swati, and Kavita, there is a core team committed to bringing U-based work into the heart of the company. With the workshop participants, there is a group with an experiential understanding of the U methods and tools, an interest in learning more, and a basic understanding of how the u.lab might support them. Indeed, this felt like the beginning of a journey, the details of which will only emerge as it unfolds. In the weeks and months ahead, we'll share more about how the Jaipur Rugs story evolves - through videos, storytelling, and other forms of media.

"In three years," N.K. told me on the final day, smiling, "I think Jaipur Rugs can be a beautiful case of how to apply Theory U in a company."

The photos in this post are a mix of my own and those taken by Vinay Joshi of Jaipur Rugs.

Visiting the Xi'an u.lab Hub

 

Yesterday, I visited a u.lab hub in Xi'an, China. The city is one of the "Four Great Ancient Capitals of China" and is also home of the Terracotta Warriors.

The hub in Xi'an has 500 members. A smaller subset is currently meeting monthly, for nine months, to take a deep dive through the U process using the u.lab Massive Open Online Course as a guide. Each meeting involves a two day immersion during which the group completes a week of the course together. This week is their fifth meeting in 2016, and when I arrived they were reviewing the videos from Week 4 and just beginning to watch videos from Week 5.

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Origins The origins of the Xi'an hub date back to February 20, 2015, when Hui Zhang presented a case during a u.lab coaching circle.

A coaching circle is a group of 5-6 u.lab participants who meet weekly to apply Theory U to a leadership challenge one of them is currently facing. Members take turn presenting a case and that week Hui Zhang's opportunity had come.

She explained her intention: she wanted to create a new type of book club where people do more than just read together. She envisioned a platform outside the traditional workplace for people to form connections, apply new practices, and have deeper conversations. Although her intention was clear, she was struggling to identify how to move into action.

The following day, a member of the coaching circle reached out and encouraged her to quickly write a business plan. She did, and two weeks later the club held its first activity. Word spread quickly around Xi'an. In its first year, the club hosted more than 50 offline activities, completed five books, attracted a membership of more than 500 people in Xi'an who stay connected through WeChat, and engaged a smaller core group of about 40 people who meet for the offline activities.

At the beginning, Hui Zhang struggled keep pace with demand. She was still figuring out the business model and didn't know where money would come from. "I realized you just have to keep walking," she said, "and the resources will eventually show up. Today, people no longer talk about it as her club, but as our club. "I'm just one of the people now. It's not about me. I'm just here to serve whatever is needed."

In March 2016, Hui Zhang decided to facilitate the u.lab experience for members of the club who, like her, were interested in developing new business models for their own initiatives. Twelve people joined. Below are a few observations I wrote down during my visit explaining how they operate when they meet to take u.lab together.

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Space There was nothing remarkable about the space itself. A room on a top floor of a local office. A dozen chairs, a projector, speakers, and a few light snacks. It could have been taking place anywhere (which is exactly the point of a u.lab hub). The small air conditioning unit was no match for the stifling heat and humidity outside. So rather than natural light and a view of the city, which is normally ideal, we settled instead for the relative cool offered by a black-out curtain. In this case, the curtain was a good choice.

Business Model Looking around the room, I noticed everyone had a printed blue booklet with the transcripts for the week's videos (all translated into Chinese). Later on, when Hui Zhang was telling me the story of how she created this hub, she mentioned the printing and its associated costs. I asked where she got the money, at which point she gave me an overview of the hub's business model.

To join, a participant pays 3,000 RMB (about $450 US dollars). Some of the fees cover her direct costs. A percentage is given to a local children's charity. In addition, by joining the hub, participants must commit to developing and prototyping a business model during the course that will generate 3000 RMB in revenue - effectively meaning the hub experience pays for itself.

Hosting Process The group had met the night before for a dialogue session, and it was clear that many of them were still moved by the experience. I had planned to join them Saturday night, but upon landing in Xi'an, I learned their 17th floor apartment had lost power and the elevator wasn't working. They suggested I meet them the following morning, and looking down at my oversized luggage and camera bag, I agreed that would be best.

The Sunday morning session was scheduled to last from 9am-noon. Because I was visiting, each person took a few moments at the beginning to introduce him or herself. There were ten women and two men. One was an HR professional, another IT manager, a mechanical engineer; one of the men was a radio show host. A young woman owned a local coffee shop. After each person had a chance to check-in, Hui Zhang and her co-host introduced the theme of Week 5. Hui Zhang had the week's videos pre-loaded onto her computer. Rather than clicking through each page of the course on XuetangX (the Chinese partner of edX) they had a far simpler process:

  1. Project a video onto the wall
  2. After the video, form groups of 2-3 and share what stood out, surprised, or inspired you
  3. Return to the larger group to share key insights

They started with a guided meditation practice from Week 4, which was filmed at Walden Pond, just outside of Boston. They also watched a video on presencing and absencing, the TED talk by Brene Brown, and few videos that introduce the principles and practices of crystallizing.

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In some instances, one of the facilitators would offer opening or concluding remarks to put the main concepts of the video into a local context. For example, discussing the shift from presencing to crystallizing, one of the facilitators emphasized the importance of staying connected to the "big Me" (who is my Self/ what should I do) and the "big It"  (what is my Work/ what does the bigger field want me to do). "This means we need to learn to see what China needs us to do," he said, "and what Xi'an needs us to do, rather than just paying attention to our own individual needs." He summarized by saying, with a big smile, that we should aspire to "use the big Me to do the big It!"

Watching them interact with the material and each other drove home for me how important good quality hosting is to the hub experience. A good host doesn't have a personal agenda. He or she mainly holds space for others. A good host also helps bring the course material down to earth by helping put the ideas we present in the videos into language and a context that makes sense locally.

Why take u.lab together? From my short time with the Xi'an hub, at least three compelling reasons stood out for taking the course together. Those were:

  1. Relationships
  2. Accountability for action
  3. Engagement

Through the quality of conversation they had in small groups and the bigger circle, I could see these people really valued the relationships they had formed with each other. This was underscored during the check-in when one participant said: "During the time we have been doing this workshop [u.lab] together, I've felt that we are each streams flowing into a river. We've learned to trust each other."

There is also a deeper accountability for moving into action. Even though the hub is only five weeks into u.lab, three new organizations are already emerging from this twelve-person group: the Shaanxi Province Non-Violent Communication Community, The Institute for Questions, and another iteration on the reading club.

Finally, engagement: as the main producer of the u.lab videos, I've watched them all countless times. And yet, sitting amongst a group of people who were intently watching, I also found myself paying attention to the content in new ways. Perhaps it's similar to practicing a sport, yoga, or meditation with others rather than alone: you're pulled into a different space by the collective attention that others are simultaneously applying to the task at hand.

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Are you hosting a hub? What were the origins? Why are you doing it? What difference does it make to your u.lab experience? What model of organizing are you using? Have you found an innovative business model?

Leave a comment below. I'd love to hear your insights.

 

Buying Time in China

Last night, I went to dinner with some friends at an upscale restaurant in Shanghai that specializes in Beijing Duck. My friend's wife made the arrangement and he was delighted: it's always difficult to get a table. We arrived before his wife and were taken to private dining room #608 (by my count there were no more than twelve private rooms, but that's neither here nor there). We opened the door to find a carefully-set table for four, with one seat already occupied. A man in his 30's, quietly scrolling through his phone, looked up with a hint of surprise. I assumed he was joining us. I was about to introduce myself, but after a few quick words with my friend, he shuffled awkwardly out of the room.

Assuming it was just a mistake - perhaps he was waiting for friends in the wrong room - I didn't think much of it. But once my friend's wife arrived I learned the real reason he had been there. It turns out, using a new app, she had hired him to queue at the restaurant on our behalf. He waited for three hours to secure our table and earned $12. In exchange, we got to eat at a fancy restaurant. I couldn't believe it.

The app's use apparently isn't limited to restaurants. People here in China use it to avoid massive queues at hospitals, where to see a good pediatrician might require half a day's wait. The app looks something like uber (of course). The interface is a map, but rather than nearby cars it displays tiny red stick figures who are nearby and ready to wait for you. There were 36 people available when I looked at the app - which in a city of 18 million didn't seem so many.

This, for better or worse, is the future.

 

Welcome

The first time I heard the term MOOC, I was in the passenger seat of a Smart Car driving along the Charles River toward Cambridge, and my colleague Otto Scharmer was asking whether I might be interested in creating one. That was November 2013.

Two and a half years, 75,000 enrolled participants, and two runs of the course later, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some reflections and insights into how we've created - and continue to create - u.lab courses.

My intention here, and what interests me most, is to explore what I don't yet know. Years ago, I studied with a creative writing professor who was fond of the E.M. Forester quote: "How do I know what I think till I see what I wrote?"

Welcome, and let's see what we can learn together.