marianne muegenburg cothern bonsai

marianne muegenburg cothern


Those familiar with the fine art of bonsai know that when it is potted, it is meant to be planted off center–to leave room both for aesthetic and philosophical reasons (click here for more on that).  I’ve been thinking about how this technique applies to education.

Where do we leave empty space for other connections, inquiry, questions, and beauty to come to fruition?

I recently received feedback from the wonderful participants of Europe’s very first Learning2 conference hosted by ASM. First a big thanks to Brandon Hoover for curating those reflections and surveys, they matter to L2 Leaders.

One common thread from the participants was how much they enjoyed the collaborative activities in the session.  Please feel free to check out the three hour workshop slide deck available here.  While planning that session, I tried my best to use “The Bonsai Principle”–that is, I wanted participants to be able to take the resources in their own direction.  I wanted my prompts to facilitate an exploration of blogging, and to be a catalyst for inquiry into how it galvanizes school communities near and far.  I would estimate that for that three-hour workshop, I didn’t speak for more than 30 minutes in total.  I did that so that teachers could have more 1:1 time with me where needed, so those hesitant to ask questions in front of the entire group wouldn’t hold back.  But really, I did that because we all need time to tinker. 

We all need time to let our roots go where they need to go in our own pot of a context.

Kit Rooted



How do we make more room for other ideas to sprout?

I think about this all the time in my own classroom and whenever I’m in a meeting.  I try to keep the pace of my lessons in time that feels hopefully ‘roomy’ to my students, rather than claustrophobic.  I’m sure I don’t succeed in that aspiration all the time, but I am more and more mindful of it.

I start 98% of my lessons with either DEAR (drop everything and read) or DEAD (drop everything and doodle) time (I blogged about that in greater detail here).  I do this because I believe as an English teacher, it is my responsibility to let healthy habits find their way into the ‘soil’ of a student’s schedule.  I also recognize that our system’s approach of rushing students from lesson to lesson to lesson to lesson isn’t ideal.  We need time to shift gear.  Students also need time to exchange pleasantries with one another.  Teachers do this all the time at the start of a meeting…yet many of us feel we need to ‘stop the chatter’ at the start of our lesson.  If we need it, they need it. 

Get out of your own way.

Six years ago, I was very fortunate to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.  The advice given to me by my project directors again and again and again was: “We can’t tell you what to do, or how to do it, just go and listen.” At the time I found that advice irritating.  What I soon came to realize however is that, in my work to establish a youth center in my small village–I did need to wait, listen, look and see.  Anytime I set out to checklist, schedule, and force my own ideas onto the community, I crashed and burned.  It was only by making room for others to come forward and want to work with me that I made progress.  By opening up to invitations, we end up in some pretty incredible places. Here’s an example of that, me receiving my first invite to lunch with the local imam:


For me, that was a huge ‘Tipping Point Moment’ as alluded to by Valerie Koch. I realized that my service there was not to implement my agenda, but to find out from the community where the agenda could go, and what it might be.

Was the last meeting you attended an example of a flexible or forced agenda?

As we reflect on our bonsai trees at the end of the academic year, are we pruning back to allow more space for our students, or are we thinking only of what is best for ourselves, the teacher?  When we assign homework, is it truly for the benefit of the learning, or is it simply trying to save time for the instructor?

How many of us have experienced days like this on campus?



Here are Five ways to apply “The Bonsai Principle” to your context:

  1. DaVinci Day
  2. Genius Hour
  3. Poke the Box
  4. Tackle one of John Spencer’s design challenges:

5. Get AMPed, Shekou Int. School Style:

But what if, instead of doing that only for our students, teachers put on their ‘maker’ mindset too? What if we made sure that all stakeholders at school had space to let their roots explore?

Couldn’t more PD days look like this one, via Sally Nicholas?


When have you had the room to grow? What happened as a result?




Many thanks to Flickr for their bank of powerful Creative Commons Images

marianne muegenburg cothern