I learned a long time ago that for educational leaders like secondary school principals, effectively engaging an audience, such as teachers, requires striking a delicate balance among establishing collaborative time, providing opportunities for periodic movement, and displaying a dose of humor. This year, I tried a new activity with my staff at my educational service agency as a part of our annual kickoff meeting that accomplished all of the above and more. It involved stacking rocks.

There are countless explanations for rock stacking. Mankind has been stacking rocks, sometimes called “cairns,” for centuries. They serve as memorials, trail markers, and spiritual symbols. Sometimes they don’t serve any useful purpose other than an exercise in balance and creativity. I used stacking as a kickoff activity in order to make a point.

What’s in Your Bucket? 

Prior to the meeting, staff were asked to bring a rock, which they were instructed to place in a bucket in the center of each table. The group was then divided into smaller teams of eight to 10 people. While the size of the group is not the most critical component, it is important to have a diversity of talent and experience to ensure robust conversation and creativity. Also, dividing the staff after depositing their rock ensured that no one could “rig” the system. Since my office and social media feeds are filled with stacked rocks, I believed it probable that someone would catch on and bring in a flat, easily stackable rock. The exercise works best if the teams struggle a bit.

Next, teams were instructed to appoint a project manager whose responsibility was to ensure that the team followed instructions and paid attention to the time available. Eventually this person also served as the spokesperson for the team. Teams were then given 10 minutes to create a stack using all of the rocks. As an added criterion, only two rocks were allowed to be touching the table.

Over the next 10 minutes, teams experienced varying degrees of success. Some accomplished the task quickly, and some struggled to develop a stacking strategy on which the entire team could agree. Others experienced failure as their stack came tumbling down.

A ‘Geo Tour’

After the 10 minutes had expired, everyone was invited to go on a three-minute “geo tour,” in which participants could meander between tables to view each of the teams’ creations. Finally, each team was asked to brainstorm an analogy between their personal or professional life and either 1) the experience of stacking rocks or 2 ) the stack itself. 

A few of the analogies went as follows:

  • “Do the best you can with what you are given.” 
  • “A strong foundation is critical.” 
  • “It is important to plan for the unexpected (such as a falling stack).” 
  • “No matter what our piece of the work is, we need to remember balance.” 
  • “Sometimes mistakes can be avoided by observing others.” 
  • “Students come in all shapes and sizes, with different needs and skills, and as educators it is our job to find the right content and instructional balance so that they can all be contributing members of their classroom.”

The outcome at this point in the activity was everything I had hoped for. Groups made up of staff members with diverse backgrounds collaborated, created, and engaged in problem solving and experienced success and failure just as students in a classroom would. However, that was not the end of this exercise.

As an educational service agency, my staff works with students, teachers, and administrators from 29 member districts and serves as the liaison between the state’s Department of Public Instruction and local school districts. As such, a majority of the “work” centers on implementing a variety of state or federal mandates and initiatives.

William Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Accordingly, the theme for the kickoff meeting and for the year was “lighting the fire.” Staff were asked to think about the pail where they placed their rocks as the mind of a child or the culture of a school. I reminded them that we fill pails every day by doing what we need to do to meet standards, satisfy requirements of state and federal programs, and implement new mandates.

I went on to suggest that the teamwork, problem solving, and creativity they experienced as they stacked their rocks should be a reminder that there is more to the process of learning than filling pails. 

“What are the things that truly spark creativity, passion, or intellectual curiosity?” I asked the staff. “The things that light the fire in a student’s mind, an educator’s heart, or the culture of an entire school community are probably not on a list of required readings, in a core curriculum, or among state mandates.” I then asked that they spend some part of every single day doing something for kids, for educators, or for themselves that sparks creativity, passion, and curiosity. 

Michael Haynes is the agency administrator for Cooperative Educational Service Agency 10 in Chippewa Falls, WI. The agency provides service and leadership for 29 member districts and others statewide.