Clarify Canvas Upgrade Questions

Enhance the quality of your thinking by applying these questions to your draft Clarify Canvas.

Transcript of video

Well, hey, it’s Simon, and in this training I want to talk about how we can continue to upgrade and refine the draft work we do in a Clarify Canvas. Well, as you know, I’m a huge fan of the Clarify Canvas. Hey, of course I am right. This is one of the most important tools I use in our community and when I’m coaching educational leadership teams. And as you know, the Clarify Canvas is just that it’s the easiest possible leadership habit to get into. If you want to improve your improvement thinking, don’t just kind of have a conversation. Don’t write long plans, print off in a four or a larger format, have it on the table, have some post-it notes, and learn to think into those squares with precision around impact, problem change and evidence. In 15, 20 minutes, you can often really get very close to capturing the ideas and seeing where you have clarity and where honestly, now that you’ve put it down on a page, you realise some more work needs to be done.

So what do you do as you start to move through those iterations of Clarify Canvases? What do you do when you want to move up from your first quick draught towards some really quality, robust thinking? Well, one of the things you might find useful in the toolkit is what we call our upgrading your Clarify Canvas questions. What you’ll see here is that this simple tool is designed with a set of questions you can use as a team or as a coach working with a team or even on your own, reflecting on your own work. But let’s be clear, none of this stuff is as fun on your own or as easy on your own compared to working collectively with colleagues. So what you can ask yourself is you can say, Hey, in my draught canvas here, where are there some boxes here that I need to upgrade?

You might say, look, it’s an okay answer. It’s definitely good enough thinking, but Simon, we really need to enhance the quality of the changes. It’s such a general kind of set of things we’ve put in there. Or we might say we don’t have almost anything robust around evidence here. What you can do is each time you come back to that clarified canvas, each time you’re looking at your canvas, you can start to say, well, let’s use some of these questions to refine up our work. So what we can have a look at today is, well, what’s under the hood here on this very, very simple tool. You’ll know at the headline of the clarified canvas, the only questions you really need to be able to answer these ones, what impact do we want to have? What problem are we trying to solve? What change or changes could we make that will result in improvement?

And what evidence might we use to judge whether or not we’ve been successful? So these are the headline questions. Don’t lose track of those, but if you do want to refine further, and the image here is if you want to take your quality of your thinking up to the next level. Well, what you want to do is to think about some of these questions. So have a look at your sheet. Hopefully you’ve got it in front of you or you’ve not just paused me here for a moment. Make sure you bring one up. And what you’ll see in the middle of the box is some upgrade questions about overall, I got to say these are the ones that I turn to the most because when I’m thinking about Clarify Canvas, I’m asking questions like, are our answers across the four boxes coherent? Do they speak to each other such that the, what’s a good way to think about it that the changes you’ve put here actually solve the problem you’ve outlined here, or that the evidence you’ve outlined here would tell us whether or not we’ve been on track or we’ve reached the impact you put here.

And what you can start to realise is that coherence is about the connections across all of these answers that the problems you’ve articulated here are standing in the way of already seeing that impact that you like, that the changes you’re going to implement here should result over a period of time. You can define in the emergence of that evidence, I’m sure you’re getting the point here. So asking some overall questions can be powerful, right? Are our answers across the four boxes coherent? What about can we simplify the language and remove jargon? So often when we’re writing one first, we’re borrowing other people’s thinking, and that’s fine. But have we defined the terms? Have we got rid of any unnecessarily sort of jargonistic concepts? Can we just really distil it down to the essential language? How can we reduce each box to the essential elements? This means have we really articulated the two or three parts of the problem?

And we don’t really need the eight things we wrote originally. When we think about the change box, we might ask, look, we’ve just got this list of stuff. What do we think are the two or three really essential active ingredients? And this last one sometimes is a really important one. If you’re working on an area that’s big, maybe you’re working on something like literacy or evidence-based practise, or you’re working on something like wellbeing, like big themes that matter. What you’ll find often is that your canvas, whilst a good effort, it’s kind of a thematic canvas. And within it, you might actually find that you need to break it down into some smaller additional canvases. It might break down into a set of canvases that are actionable projects you could work on. And I suppose visually that might look something like this, where you’ve got this beautiful canvas and it might be all in the same area and you realise, look, it’s too big.

There’s multiple improvement projects within this. I’m break them down and actually let it have three different smaller canvases rather than having this initial one that we’ve got. So let me say those overall questions are a great one for you to ask on a regular basis when you’re getting into your second or your third iteration of a canvas. Well, we can also, as we think about the simplification and pulling things down to the essential bits, work our way around the canvas. And you don’t have to do all of these in one time. It might be, Hey, look, we’ve got 15 minutes on the clock. Let’s just upgrade one section of this really important Clarify Canvas that we’re working on. And you might say, well, let’s upgrade the impact part of our Clarify Canvas. You say, okay, that’s great. Let’s pull out the refined question canvases here. Let’s just pull this out and now we’re going to be moving up here into the top left and we’re going to ask 1, 2, 3 or four of those questions and just see whether or not that stimulates a dialogue, generates some fresh thinking and allows us to sharpen up that box.

So we might want to sharpen up that impact box, and we might ask questions about, Hey, are we clear about what we’re really trying to accomplish?

Can of say, this is just deceptively hard to do sometimes we’ve got all this stuff and we’ve got people and we’ve got plans and we’ve got resources and we’ve got commitment. And we said, what are we in this improvement work? Are we clear about what we’re really trying to accomplish? Can we explain it in simple and tangible language? Is the desired impact clearly articulated a specific difference that we want to make? What do we actually want to make better than what is happening now? Have we articulated exactly who will experience this benefit? Why is it important? Why does it matter? Why should it be prioritised? Now these are good questions, by the way. Just sit in that impact box. Do we specifically know what we’re trying to do here? Oh, good conversations will come about from that. So other people might say, look, look, I think we need to get into the problem upgrade questions.

Nice one. Me too. I think you should get in there. And here we’re asking questions about do we really have the shared understanding of the nature of the problem? And who actually has this problem? Is it a problem that is mostly about, for example, things like teacher knowledge, teacher practise, teacher collaboration? Is it something to do with student mindset, student beliefs, student knowledge? Is it something to do with parents and caregivers? Is it to do with programs and resources? Is it to do with leadership? What is it to do with? And we’re going looking for the deeper reasons. We’re going at a deeper level to make sure we’re clear about the nature of the problem, the evidence that supports it, that we are clear, that we’ve got to the root causes, and we’re not just sitting around symptom descriptions. Is there any logical sequence? If we’ve got a set of problems to deal with, we might say, yeah, there’s some problems here, but I think there’s an order and a sequence to dealing with these.

We’d have to deal with some of the problems around our professional practise. We think before we can get to solving the problems around the student beliefs and mindset. Okay, we think we’ve got an idea here. So learn to sit in the problem definition. Learn to sit in framing and reframing the problem or the problems until you feel like you’ve really got to the essence of what you’re trying to solve. Well, the third area you might want to use our upgrade questions on around our changes. Now of course, in the Clarify Canvas, we use the word changes because we don’t yet know whether these changes are going to lead to improvement, but what we want to do is to find changes that we think will solve the identified problem. What you’ll often find as you get into these questions on the left-hand side of the upgrade is you’ll start to get, I think, a little bit sharper about things like, are they going to solve the problem they drawn on quality research evidence?

Can we justify them from the evidence base? Are we clear about what we call the active ingredients, the things we think will make the most difference? We don’t want to just have a list of, oh, and there’s professional learning and time and resources and leadership. We’re going to throw everything at this problem. It’s not really precise, is it? What precision around what we think is going to make the difference? And I love these questions. I love working with teams on these questions, and I hope you do too. As you’re talking about it with your colleagues, what are the active ingredients? What about this one? Have we defined the minimum effective dose that is the minimum amount that we think could actually get to the change that we want? If you’re thinking about things like lesson observations or instructional coaching, or time for planning or demonstration lessons, those sorts of things.

As part of your improvement work, have you thought about how many of those and at what level would be needed for the practise change to occur? Well, we’ve only got time for two. Okay, you might only have time for two, but would two change? Change the practise would to solve the problem? No, it won’t. Okay. Well, we’re going to have to pause and to rethink. Are we actually being clear about the strategies, the active ingredients, the minimum effective dose? This is good stuff to talk about, and are we confident that this approach is a good fit for us? I’m a huge fan of two things. I love research evidence and I love contextual thinking, and I think you got to have both. I think you should base your changes here on the best available evidence if there is some available for the area you’re working on.

And secondly, once you’ve got an idea of what the research would suggest is the best approach, you’ve got to deeply understand your context and say, is this likely going to be a good fit for us? And are we able to check in about our organisational readiness and our contextual suitability to pull this off? Do we think this is a good fit for us? You’ll love these questions. So important, so important to get into this thinking about it. Well, the fourth and final area you might want to do some upgrading using our questions is about how we’ll judge whether or not we’ve been successful. I’ve said lots of times that the Clarify Canvas is not the place to have a full evaluation plan. And we do that a lot more in the lean monitoring part of our work, don’t we? But this is about saying, do we know what success would look like?

Have we got a sense of the metrics that matter that if we move them, we’re like, yeah, yeah, we’ve reached the destination, maybe not the final destination, but we’ve reached the point that yes, we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve in this outcome area. Have we been clear therefore about the level of positive change that we expect for whom and over what timeline? It’s super useful in an improvement project to be clear about not the never ending journey of improving learning, but we’re trying to improve reading or mathematics or behaviour or wellbeing or teacher professional knowledge or collaborative norms and practises, whatever it is you’re working on, we’re trying to move it by this much by about this time and we’ll be okay because this is the type of evidence that’ll give it a sense about whether or not we’ve made that desired progress. Maybe we have to collect that evidence or maybe we need to utilise data sets that are already available.

And this is the conversation. How will we know? How do we agree roughly what success is for this improvement project? Well, I hope you’re starting to see whether you’ve used these before or not, that these can be really powerful questions to drive the next level of thinking. So whether you use them on your own or with a colleague, whether you use them with a whole improvement team or whether you yourself are coaching and supporting, are the colleagues thinking about their work? These are a great way to upgrade our thinking. Remember, be kind to yourselves. Getting to clarity is hard work. It involves some cognitive heavy lifting, and the best way to do that is to put a timer on for 10 to 25 minutes to choose, one box to upgrade. Maybe just to use one or two of the upgrading questions you think are most salient and useful for your team. Answer those, lift the quality of that answer in that area, and then just walk away, come back

Again, and upgrade the next bit. Upgrading our thinking is an iterative process over time, but it requires us to both get down our best thinking at the moment, be challenged by good questions, upgrade and refine, and know that there’s probably even better answers, even more refined answers in our future if we’re willing to keep coming back and getting a little bit better each and every time. So why don’t you print off the upgrade questions for the Clarify Canvas. If you are a master and you’ve used the Clarify Canvas a lot, this might be a way to start to take your practise to the next level. If you are newer to the Clarify Canvas and just getting a feel for it, why don’t you use some of these additional upgrade questions to help enrich your early discussions and make some improvements to your first few iterations of your most important Clarify Canvases. Let me know how you go.

💡Did you find this tool helpful? This tool is a part of the Agile School Leadership program curriculum. Learn more about this program here.