How to Overcome the Groundhog Day Effect

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Last week I was sitting with my daughter. She felt like she was in a rut. She was wanting to do something different but instead finding herself doing the same things over and over. As we talked about her predicament, the movie “Groundhog Day” showed up in my head.

Groundhog Day is a wonderful fantasy-comedy. It place in the town of Punxsutawney, home to Phil, a legendary rodent who is ceremoniously removed from his burrow February 2nd  each year and called on to “forecast” either a long winter or early spring. Phil Connors, the protagonist (the outrageous and gifted Bill Murray) is a jaded and self-absorbed weatherman who is assigned to cover the event however much he despises the whole ordeal. When he wakes up the next day and discovers that he will be reliving Groundhog Day again and again and again. He is caught in an endless time loop. He tries to escape by doing everything from drinking and reckless driving to suicide to no avail. More on the ending in a bit.

Groundhog Day is a metaphor for lots of things. In the land of the matrix we can look at it as metaphor for what we do when we spend our time trying to avoid and escape unwanted thoughts and feelings we can’t control. We don’t want the frustration or pain that we experience and we have an urge to immediately seek relief. Seeking relief is natural and very useful. We take an aspirin to relieve a headache. We complain to others to lessen our feelings of frustration. We put off doing something because we “don’t feel like doing it”.  The fun begins when seeking relief takes center stage and you find yourself doing less of what you want and more of what you don’t want. We can get into a loop like Phil where we spend our time avoiding and escaping and then each day feels more like the ones before that.

Everyone experiences their own version of Groundhog Day from time to time. A great place to witness this effect is in schools. Schools are built on routine and the time spent there can be spent moving toward learning and teaching and it can also be spent moving away from the inevitable frustrations of growing and changing. Some combination of both are needed in the long run. When I see students engaging in away loops ( pulling out cellphones in class, asking to go to the nurse, coming in late, complaints of boredom, procrastinating, etc. ), I know they are looking for relief by doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different. If we as educators also go looking for relief we can end up joining them with our own complaints, frustrations, threats and even passive resignation.


So how do you get out of the loop?  We can go back to the Phil Connors and look at what he discovered. The first thing Phil began to differently was to notice from his own experience that what he was doing wasn’t working. He was still stuck.

The next thing he noticed was that someone was important to him, namely his TV producer, Rita. He then had to figure out how to move toward relationship. His first attempts were done to move him out his own misery which just increased his misery. Slowly he learned how to make moves because they felt good and they brought him closer to people. It became less about him and more about others. He came up with new moves that brought him closer to the satisfaction of connecting. The misery was still there but became less important and just something he could take with him on the way to who was important to him. Phil’s willingness to do something different while still having his misery is what took him out of the loop.

So we can notice when we are in our own loops of frustration or fear and burrowing more and more into them. That is okay. It is just what humans do. We can also notice who and what is important to us. Doing that gives us a choice. We can keep looping or try something new. Then we can look and see if  works to keep us moving toward our important people and

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The Power of Small Nudges in the Classroom and Beyond

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How do you make the right thing easy to do? That is the question any seasoned educator asks in their quest to help students grow, thrive and succeed. I ask myself this question every day as a way of guiding my own actions and responses. Plans and strategy are great tools but there is that pesky thing called reality that doesn’t bend to my will.

Students have the same problem as teachers. Knowing what to do or what needs to be done are not the same things as doing them. So how do you get to where you want to go with a student or a group of students?

The answer, of course, can only be discovered in the moment. And we can begin with some nudging to make the right thing easy to do. I came across an article by Sarah Sparks entitled “Small ‘Nudges’ Can Push Students in the Right Direction”. Sarah is a kindred spirit and you should check out what she has to say along with her wonderful examples. She describes them as no-cost opportunities for decision making. For myself, the matrix is hands down the best nudging tool I have ever come across.

Nudges are in-the-moment opportunities that allow people to make decisions. They don’t look like a big deal but they pay big dividends down the road. In our elusive search for the quick fix or the destination we may miss the many opportunities along the way to “nudge things along”. Destinations are important but when stuff gets in the way we can’t time travel to the future or rewind to the past.

Enter the matrix or what is known as the “workability point of view”.  All you need to do is simply notice what is going on. No force. No coercion. Just being aware in the moment, perhaps in the presence of feeling stuck and where you want to be heading. That is the way nudges weave their magic. Slowly. In-the-moment. Patiently. Repeated.

I use the diagram and language of the matrix to build in “noticing nudges”:

Student: “I’m tired”

Teacher: ” Cool, you just noticed feeling tired. What would you like to do now?”

Or a “nudgy” dialogue:

Student: “I don’t want to be here”

Teacher: “Oh, so the thought ‘I don’t want to be here’ just showed up in you. where are you right now?”

Student: “Here I guess”

Teacher: “So now that you’re here, what can you do to keep moving toward your education ?”


Later scenarios may be:

Teacher: “Hey, I noticed that you just wrote a great opening paragraph. Way to take that tired feeling with you!”

Teacher: “Hey, I am noticing some restlessness in our group today. Let’s use the matrix to sort out what’s going on and maybe make some changes”

Student: “Hey, I am noticing that instead of freaking out about my grades I can use the matrix to help me keep going”.

Students: “I notice that when I listen to the teacher and look at her, she smiles at me. I like that feeling and I also understand things better”.

Student: “I felt like quitting school. I use the matrix to remind myself that graduation is important to me. I am showing up each day and my grades are going up”.

The best kind of noticing is student-driven noticing of course. Regular matrix use (i.e. “noticing-in-the-moment nudges) builds this up over time so students can learn to nudge themselves. When students experience the value nudging brings they go on and use it. Nudging leads to decisions and then action. The more opportunities students have to practice and experience making decisions and their consequences, the more they move toward who and what is important. Rather than have the nudging come from outside of them, they can provide their own nudging. Once a student starts stringing a whole bunch of nudges together, there is no telling where they will take off too.

With the group or what we call the prosocial matrix, there can be whole groups of students noticing and nudging each other. Recently, a group of students noticed that they didn’t like the lunches at their school. I nudged them by suggesting they use the matrix. They noticed that complaining was a move away from their being upset and that nothing was happening. They nudged each other to come up with ideas. A few volunteers later they managed to get the attention of the administration with a petition they crafted.

A meeting was set. More nudging came from staff who volunteered to help them prepare their presentation. The students noticed the urge to prepare and nudged each other to practice. The student-led presentation panel was ready and the school officials were impressed and responsive. Nudging gave them a voice and they experienced the satisfaction of coming together as a group and accomplishing something they could not do individually, the power of a group to change things for the better. There is more nudging that will be done but they are on their way.

So yes, a little nudging can get things started and get all of us moving toward empowerment, satisfaction, and success.




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Difficulties are Inevitable but Struggling is Optional

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In my last post ( 10-23-17 ), I spoke of the stuff that gets in the way of learning. Well just about anything can get in the way but we are especially vulnerable to yucky thoughts feelings and memories.

Let’s take an up close and personal look at one of the more popular unwanted visitors. We may start off wanting to make a difference with students or other important people AND we also experience self-doubt about our efforts as in, “Do I have the right stuff for this situation?”. The next thing we know we may be second-guessing ourselves. This is our minds going to war with our self-doubt. Battle stations and alarms clang and before you know it we are stopped dead in our tracks and moving to the safety of doing something less ambitious. We change the activity, stop dead in our tracks or throw up our hands in frustration. Ah, relief!

The mind has won the battle but lost in the end. Self-doubt may be vanquished in the moment but he or she will be back with a vengeance before too long. The more we try to avoid and escape the more harried and harassed we may become. Our students do the same thing and of course, we could dance together and really head for misery.

There is a way out of the struggle. To do that we have to do something counterintuitive, something our verbal mind resists. If we have the matrix diagram handy (or if we can imagine it in front of us ) we can notice the feeling of struggling, of the familiar scramble inside the hamster wheel of avoidance or rigidly held rules. At the moment of noticing we step back and notice something else. We now have a choice to continue our mad dash from our misery or accept what is there and choose an action. It will be something that allows us to keep working to make a difference, something that lifts our eyes up that we can go and try out. Self-doubt becomes a part of what shows up on the way to trying to make a difference since our minds really don’t know what will happen next. Who and what is important is out there.


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The Stuff that Gets in the Way of Learning

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As teachers and students gather each day, they experience a wide range of issues and challenges. By this time of the school year, everyone has gotten to know each other. Procedures have been laid out, assessments have been given, and classes are on their way. We all want to settle into predictability and the truth is that along with our routines comes a fair amount of uncertainty. The stuff we didn’t ask and don’t bargain for.

I call it the stuff that gets in the way. 

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