Thursday, 18 February 2021

Thinking through Thinking Environments

I've known about Nancy Kline's Thinking Environments (TEs) for quite a lot of years, spanning back to my first learning technologist role in a further education college in 2010.  I have experienced both the traditional physical TE circle (I think this was during an Advanced Practitioner teacher development day) and the increasingly online versions.  From that initial experience the concept has lingered with me ever since, and have now found a purpose and opportunity to develop and facilitate them myself.  Casting back, I'm pretty sure I had Lou Mycroft, who to me is an 'OG' in all things TEs.  I just want to to take a moment to credit Lou.  As she continually inspires me and others through her passion and practice for this unique and highly important values-based approach.  Here is Lou and Kay Sidebottom's grounding publication 'Creating Spaces to Think in Further Education and Training (Thinking Environment)', which I have been referring to recently.  More valuable information and support is available on Lou's website in the Thinking Environment section:

Not forgetting the touchconsulting Ltd online module '#APConnect: Using the Thinking Environment' which had it's inaugural launch earlier this month.  After many years of crossing paths me and Lou finally got to work together.  And it was on this online module as part of my role as a Digital Design Lead for the Advanced Practitioners (#APConnect) Year 3 programme.

Swiftly moving on, last Summer in August 2020, I was ruminating about a teaching and learning coach role with a digital technology specialism.  As part of this process it inspired research and revisiting the coaching skillset.  I collected ideas and approaches as part of a presentation for an interview.  Following this, I started to think of ways I could use this material in my current role at Nottingham Trent University (NTU).  See this is another reason why I have always strongly believed that interview prep is never wasted, as it can be repurposed and help you to realise further potential that you wouldn't have otherwise conceive.

Anyhow, I wrestled with these ideas for sometime in an effort to trial or embed somewhere.  As always, overthinking and stressing it convoluted my vision.  Being aware of the Ideas Room (link above and more details at the bottom) for some time and the positive reputation it has been building, but had not participated in one.  One Wednesday night I chose to join one in an effort to get some clarity on my ideas and thinking.  Afterwards, this was the result (more responses in the thread):

Attended my first #IdeasRoom tonight. Well, I feel energised, empowered, supported and fresh with clarity and direction (odd for a Wednesday night) - thanks @JFletcherSaxon and @adaptcomms for your time. @LouMycroft, a legend as usual! Thank you all and to new connections. #JoyFE

To keep it succinct (a key principle in a TE) the clarity I gained was to narrow down and explore TEs as way to offer group/peer coaching.  Where before I was looking at a very broad mix of approaches and was it something I wanted to do versus what was needed.  It was feeling a bit like I have lots of essential ingredients but no recipe at hand.  Following my Tweet a colleague at NTU, Kate Cuthbert from the Centre for Academic Development and Quality saw my response and excitedly wanted to know more about it.  From thereon we met and discussed the concept along with her other colleague Laura Stinson through a series of TEs, both to experience it and to develop our thinking and wider questions.  With a view to offering a pilot to colleagues (different themes and ideas) and perhaps for students.  We then grew our circle by inviting a buddy along to one of the next gatherings, to see what it was like with more people and more contributions to facilitate.  I invited two colleagues of mine, one of which was Rebecca Peat who is an esteemed coach and thought she would love to get involved - later to learn that she is a fan of the TEs.  She has been very keen and supportive of it since.  At the start of 2021 with the third lockdown looming over and many home-schooling again.  We decided to postpone our pilot project with plans to pick it back up to perhaps offer as a taster session for NTU's annual Festival of Learning conference that takes place in the Summer.

However, I had developed my own personal vision of exploring TEs in my department Organisational Development.  To transform meeting structures, embed in project/strategy kick offs/initiations and in consultation processes.  As well as potential peer coaching spaces for people to discuss their digital practices, anxieties and problems to help them develop possibilities and solutions towards their goals.  Furthermore and most importantly creating a space to enable a greater sense of connectedness across colleagues that is beyond a pleasantry exchange.  It's important now more than ever!

So my current position is that I am now looking to trial a TE in an informal social setting within my department, as a different and meaningful way to check in with people.  Below is a PowerPoint I created (4 visual slides - a starter for ten) that I sent to my seniors.  Briefly introducing the concept to help them get a flavour of what a TE is, the why and the potential benefits, within our context.  It is more based on the Ideas Room adaptation, but not excluding the other TE types.

I wholeheartedly love the principles and benefits of TEs and they work for me personally as I'm a deep reflector and thinker.  Plus they support me when my brain and ideas often operate like a lightning display and could strike anywhere anytime!  I'm by no means an expert in TEs, like many educators I am still learning to embed the 10 components and facilitate them.  Most of all I'm still practising succinctness!  Many times have I been given a countdown by facilitators!  It's not that I want to talk loads, I just don't know how/where to stop. 😂  An educator never stops learning...

My advice before jumping in and doing any TEs is:

  • Read up on Lou's work above, as per her website she has "been a Thinking Environment practitioner (coach, facilitator, consultant) since 1996".  Complement this by carrying out additional wider reading and find and watch any recordings of TEs in action
  • Attend and experience the Ideas Room (link above - EDIT: view this brilliant blog post and short animated video on how Ideas Room works by Marsida Horeshka) which I highly recommend to get a better feel of how the 10 components are applied and how the facilitation structure works.  It’s free, occurs every Wednesday 8pm-9pm via Zoom.  There are no prerequisites, just turn up and share an idea or listen.  The overall theme is set within teaching and assessing in further, adult/community and sometimes higher education
  • Practise with a small group to build up confidence and competence in the structure and facilitation
  • Contact Lou if you need some specific guidance - she offers services and support
  • Reach out to the community for further advice and collaboration using the hashtags #ThinkingEnvironment and #APConnect.  I'm confident you'll get responses

I'll update on the progress and impact I have made with TEs in a future blog post!


Lou kindly Tweeted the following.

Love ❤️ Love ❤️ Love ❤️ Definitely tweet of the day for me. The #ThinkingEnvironment is utterly transforming of cultures, relationships and above all trust. Always here @_Daniel_Scott but you’re doing great. 😘