Creating a Culture of Learning: Inspiring Adults from a Leadership Perspective

Background:

I served as superintendent for three public school districts in Alabama; two were new school districts. My last school district was created from the ground up. In short, the town negotiated a separation agreement with the county school district in which the town is located and built a school. Many of the students came from the existing county school district where the students were zoned prior to the creation of the new city district and many students transferred from private schools or moved into the district because of the new school district. I share this background because it relates to my experience in working with a team to create a culture of learning. Every school and district has a culture. This post focuses on creating a culture of learning from the ground up. In future blog posts, I will go deeper about each of these components.

First, what is culture? I define culture as how a group’s values influence their behavior and interactions. More simply stated, how their values influence the manner in which they spend their time and their interactions with others in their environment. In some situations, creating culture is intentional and in other schools/districts it evolves in the absence of intentionality. Nevertheless, every environment has a culture – good, bad or somewhere in between.

What I am proposing is a culture of learning. It seems logical all schools should have a culture of learning. However, there are different definitions of learning, which leads to my first point discussed below.

Creating Beliefs, Mission and Vision:

We had to define what we meant by learning. We started by having conversations about learning. This continuous conversation with board members, city leaders, community members, parents and students was an opportunity to dialogue about what learning is and what it looks like. I believe most educators would say their school is about learning; however, many of us define learning differently. It is essential for the community, board, teachers, school leaders, staff, and students to have a common understanding about what learning is and is not. Some questions we discussed are as follows:

  • What do we want our children to learn?
  • How do children learn? Is learning about memorizing and taking tests or being actively engaged in their learning?
  • How will we know if our students are learning? How will we measure learning?
  • How does genuine engagement impact learning? How will we know students are genuinely engaged in their learning?
  • How do we view failure in the learning process?
  • Do we want our students to love learning?
  • Do we want our students to own their learning and if so, what does ownership look like?
  • Can learning happen any place and any time? Is learning outside of school just as important as learning in school?

We had constant conversations with our community the year prior to starting our new system. These questions oftentimes led to more questions and even deeper conversations. We hosted 11 neighborhood meetings and traveled throughout the community (we went to them) talking with parents, community members and future students about learning. In many instances, our goal was to cause people to think beyond what their children were currently experiencing as “learning”, which included discussing what the adults/parents had experienced as “learning” when they were in school.

This sort of reminds me of what I refer to as the Steve Jobs dilemma. Years ago, I had a bag phone in my car and then transitioned to a flip phone (now I am telling my age). I was not only satisfied with my bag phone, but I was thrilled when I purchased my bag phone. It was liberating to order a pizza or call home from my car, rather than having to stop and use a pay phone (I realize some of you did not possess a bag or flip phone and some of you have never seen a pay phone due to your age). A year or so later, I thought I had struck gold when I transitioned from a bag phone to a flip phone. All the while, Steve Jobs knew phones had the potential to do more. As a result, he and his team created the iPhone, which enables us to read email, use social media, take pictures, hotspot our laptops, use a variety of apps and as we know now “run” many aspects of our lives. It is hard to think back to the day before smart phones, but try to think back to this time. Steve Jobs had to create something not many of us could have imagined possible. We were so pleased with our bag/flip phones and could not see the possibilities of a different kind of phone/device.

I use this phone analogy because we face a similar dilemma when trying to transform schools from school-centered to learner-centered, in which a true culture of learning exists. We only know what we know, which tends to be based on our experiences and many of us attended school-centered, traditional schools where memorizing, taking tests, and superficial knowledge was how we “did” school. Our own school experiences can get in the way of us imagining what is possible within (and outside) our schools. Hence, it is our job as leaders to pose questions and cause people to think about what “could be” for our children. Causing people to imagine the possibilities is why there is real power in community/parent meetings, in which we talk about learning. These conversations can stir up a lot of emotion as people reflect on their own learning as well as their hopes and dreams for their children. Many of us are sentimental about our school experiences — a favorite teacher, being in a school play or the winning touchdown at a football game. While others have painful memories of school – feeling isolated, embarrassed, or bored. Just as bag/flip phones may have worked for a period of time for some of us, so did traditional schools. However, the world has changed, children have changed, and so must our schools.

All these community conversations led to creating a clear and compelling mission, vision and beliefs. This was essential, because it enabled our board, the community and those we were recruiting/employing to have a set of beliefs, which anchored our actions, a mission which captured what we were trying to accomplish and a vision as to what we aspired. The end result was important, but the process was also important. A set of beliefs, mission and vision could be posted in every classroom in a district, but if those in the learning environment (school leaders, teachers, and staff) don’t believe and live it, it is meaningless. If the beliefs, mission and vision are not intentionally and constantly discussed and incorporated into every aspect of district life, they will soon become just words on a wall.

Recruiting and Employing the Right People:

Once there was broad support and ownership of the beliefs, mission and vision, it was essential to recruit and employ people whose beliefs aligned with the district beliefs and were fully committed to achieving the mission. In other words, we wanted people to whom teaching is more than a job – – it’s a calling.

Within traditional schools, we talk a lot about test scores, compliance issues, data, strategies, etc. but do we really talk about learning? Do we ask ourselves and our colleagues how children learn and how can we inspire them to own their learning and become lifelong learners? Do we ask the question, do test scores really measure learning? I know many children who “do school” really well and by all the traditional measures are very successful, but are they lifelong learners? Is doing well on standardized tests enough? Do standardized tests actually measure profound learning and all types of knowledge or skill? How do we know we are preparing children to be lifelong learners? What does lifelong learning look like?

We also learned it was not enough for those whom we employed to want to do this, but we needed people who had the knowledge and skills to help us accomplish our mission or were fully committed to step out of their comfort zone and learn new strategies. It was hard work and we needed people who had the capacity to think in a different way and work collaboratively with other colleagues. This was essential for our leadership team and for teachers whom I also consider to be leaders.

As Jim Collins writes, it is about getting the right people on the bus and the right people in the right seats on the bus. We hosted a Teacher Recruitment Day. (Years later, I see things I would have changed. At the time, however, it was our attempt to challenge those in attendance to think about school in a different way.) Over 500 teachers attended our initial recruitment day for 54 positions. It was our opportunity to share our beliefs, mission and vision. We spoke from the heart and appealed to those who, like us, believed learners should be engaged in and have ownership of their learning. One of my fondest memories on this day was talking about early childhood education (my background) and the benefits of play. Early childhood teachers cheered in response to this comment. We also knew we struck a chord when several teachers left with tears in their eyes and were eager to submit their application packet. Their flame as to why they chose to go into teaching was reignited. Many of those in attendance would soon become part of something bigger than themselves as they embarked on a challenging, but transformational process of creating a learner-centered school/district.

We knew a traditional application process would not provide enough information for us to tap into their belief system. This is why we developed a comprehensive application packet/process, over which many of my former colleagues still lovingly tease me. They refer to this as the “dissertation”. Looking over this packet/process years later, I realize I have professionally grown in my understanding since then; I would change a few things (the joy of being a lifelong learner). However, it was our attempt to recruit people whose philosophy was consistent with our beliefs, mission and vision. Some who attended the recruitment day completed the packet and some did not. We were not disappointed with those who did not complete the packet because it enabled us to distinguish those who were committed and those who just wanted a job. I read every packet. This process/packet by no means was a perfect system, but it definitely helped. It gave us a sense of their understanding of teaching and learning, their adaptability, their openness, and their love of learning. It also sent a clear message to all those who applied as to the type of teachers/leaders we were seeking. We spent the next three months interviewing those whose beliefs seem to align with the district’s beliefs. As a side note, the Board employed 54 teachers and administrators at a board meeting, followed by a reception. We started out the gate celebrating our amazing teachers, whom we would eventually call lead learners (maybe this made up for some of the struggles yet to come).

We did lose some teachers at the end of each school year. Some we terminated after we attempted to help them grow and others chose to leave on their own. Either way, we did not judge them and acknowledged this way of teaching (designing experiences and facilitating learning), required a different set of skills and was really hard work. We sincerely wished them well and over time, our teachers became our best recruiters and interviewers. It was a true partnership.

Learning/Designing/Thinking Together:

Once our team was hired, this is where the real sweat and tears (literally) started. We learned together. We spent many days during the previous spring and summer creating a common language (which is why I will start using “lead learner” instead of “teacher” and “learner” instead of “student), designing projects, talking about assessing learning (dove in the deep end of competency-based learning), learning how to use various technology tools to increase learner engagement, designing “Patriot Camp”, which was a summer experience for our learners, and coming together as a family. We used various protocols to vet our work and gain consensus, which led to commitment. Not only did lead learners grow professionally, but they were also empowered to lead and influence.

Lead learners, especially once school started, would come to me and say, “Just tell me what to do.” Instead, I would have a conversation, starting with many questions. First to understand the situation and then help them come up with solutions consistent with the school/district culture we were trying to create. If they were stuck in the old mindset of their previous school culture, I might pose a suggestion by asking, “What if … or have you thought about…” all the while trying to get them to think through what was happening and take ownership of the situation by using our beliefs, mission and vision as their framework.

We created time during the school day to support lead learners as thinkers and designers. This was not an easy process because our lead learners were accustomed to a traditional approach when planning. (More on designing versus planning in upcoming blog posts). We typically think teachers are very collaborative, but this, too, was initially hard for some of our lead learners. On some occasions, our leadership team had to facilitate conversations until a culture of respectful candor and collaboration was established. There were many tears through this process.

Our leadership team also modeled our learning by constantly sharing about the books, articles and podcasts we were reading/listening to, giving examples of how we learned new strategies from lead learners, sharing interesting facts we acquired from our learners, etc. This included showing what we did not know and being vulnerable, especially with our lead learners. This allowed them to see we did not have all the answers and were stretching ourselves as learners too. We were also with our lead learners every step of the way. Over time, lead learners naturally began modeling their learning with students. It was then, we saw the culture evolving into a culture of learning. More on this in a future blog post…

The real temptation was to go back to what we knew – – a traditional or school-centered environment. It is mentally taxing and it takes longer to create a culture of learning versus compliance. However, if we truly wanted to create a culture of learning, we all had to be thinkers. Some lead learners would affectionately joke with me saying, “I am cursed now because I have to think about the “why” behind everything I do in my classroom. As hard as it was to make this transition, lead learners and school leaders (including me) were thinking about the why of what they were doing. We became thinkers, not just doers. It also gave lead learners (and all of us) an opportunity to experience what students were experiencing – the real struggle of letting go of how we previously “did school” and adopting a new way to thinking and designing.

Use Beliefs, Mission and Vision as our Filter:

As a leadership team and eventually through all conversations among lead learners, we used our beliefs as our filter for all decisions. In other words, when evaluating the potential purchase of specific software, we viewed it through the lens of our beliefs, mission and vision. We asked, “Is this software consistent with our beliefs? Does it further our mission? Does it support our efforts of making our vision a reality?” These were sometimes hard conversations. We had to challenge each other and sometimes talk more about what a specific belief actually meant. It is easy to generically assume, “Oh yes this helps children have ownership over their learning”, when after a deeper dive, it may actually accomplish the opposite. These conversations also helped us go deeper in our own understanding of the words we used in our belief, mission and vision. Having these conversations meant we had to have a flat hierarchy and a culture of candor.

Flat Hierarchy:

A flat hierarchy meant our focus was not on titles. We referred to each other by our first names when children were not present. This symbolized we were all in this together and it was what people contributed that mattered, not their title. As a related note, the title on my name badge was “lead learner” and not “superintendent.” I, too, was leading learning. (We discussed having learners call lead learners by their first names, but we felt this would be too much of a stretch for our community due to our southern culture.)

Our small central office staff (including my office) were actually located in the school, which enabled us to further develop meaningful and supportive relationships with lead learners and learners. As school leaders, we were quick to mop up vomit, direct bus/car traffic in the rain or serve food when the cafeteria lines were long. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with our lead learners every step of the way. One of my fond memories is my husband and a teacher in the dumpsters packing down the trash to make room for more trash after moving into our new school. These shared experiences created unity. We were becoming a team.

As a result of our alliance to creating a culture of learning and to each other, we developed an internal motto based on a song title, I Am Not Alone. We also began to exemplify our belief, “We believe all members of the school community should treat each other like family.” Working, eating, and spending what felt like 24/7 together helped us to start becoming not just a team, but a family. Our leadership team was not perfect, but I know lead learners saw our sincerity and most importantly they saw our actions backing up our words. This just unified us and strengthen our commitment even more.

Culture of Candor:

Developing the capacity to discuss situations without making or taking the exchange of ideas personal was essential to creating a culture of learning. This was initially very challenging. I think our southern culture contributes to this sometimes. We are accustomed to being polite. In other words, some interpreted sharing a different point of view or questioning something as being disrespectful or impolite. However, if our focus was on “getting it right, not being right”, which actually became our leadership team motto, we had to create a culture of candor. Again, it was crucial for our leadership team (including me) model this. I celebrated people who disagreed with me, especially when they were holding me accountable to our beliefs, mission, and vision. The more people saw our leadership focused on getting it right and not being right, the more our culture morphed into a culture of learning. For more about creating a culture of candor, click here.

Steadfastness: 

While sharing my learning (and there was so much learning on my part), I also had to show my confidence and resolve that we could do this – we could create a culture of learning based on our beliefs, mission and vision. Most days, I was physically and emotionally exhausted when I got home (typically late at night). I spent many days hugging crying lead learners who were exhausted from stepping out of their comfort zone and working so hard to achieve our mission. Especially during the first year, we all felt drained. However, we would constantly remind each other (sometimes after a good cry or venting session), “We’ve got this because we are all in this together.”

These mottos were not cleaver statements on stationary, part of a marketing campaign or a theme someone devised. They were created by our team as an outgrowth of our shared experiences and circumstances. They were organic in nature and symbolized our team work, dedication and resolve.

Modeling and Celebrating Failure: 

We talked about and modeled failure as a valuable part of the learning process. We were asking highly competent teachers who had previously taught in mostly traditional schools to step out of their comfort zone and be facilitators of learning. As mentioned earlier, there were many tears because this was such a challenge for each of us to constantly check ourselves from drifting back to what was previously our comfort zone of a traditional (school-centered school) culture.

The second day of school, I made a huge judgment error and switched the order of buses, which seemed logical at the time (long story). It was a very public mistake (children were very late getting home) and I quickly improved the schedule over the weekend (by day three of school). However, I used this internally (and many other mistakes I made) to show my vulnerability and how we should embrace our mistakes as learning opportunities. This story became lovingly known as the “Bus Debacle” and it was all on me. Lead learners started celebrating their mistakes and using this to support their learners. It was powerful to hear our learners, in turn, talk about how they learned from their failures. I never thought I would see the day failure was embraced as a valuable part of the learning process, but it was at our school. (This is also why competency-based learning is so important when you are trying to create a culture of learning. It is not about the grade, but about the learning and we learn from failure.)

Reframing Obstacles into Opportunities:

In the early days, there was a mixture of excitement, fear, anxiousness, hopefulness and unity. We had what we referred to as “mountain top moments”, which were special moments of celebrating learning or progress and “valley moments”, when things seemed bleak or overwhelming; sometimes we experienced these two extremes multiple times in the same day. It was not always easy due to some very challenging obstacles. We had more students than expected and we were significantly short teacher positions due to a state funding formula issue, which resulted in our class size numbers being very large and over capacity within our building. We also had limited funds and thus had to run double bus routes. This resulted in children arriving very early to school and staying very late, which also meant lead learners and staff had supervision duties early and late. However, we looked for ways to reframe these obstacles into opportunities and celebrated our approximations. We became very creative using space within the school; hallways became areas for research, art projects, small group work, and recording studios. More importantly, however, the world because our classroom. Lead learners and learners visited nearby neighborhoods, boarded school buses and traveled throughout the community, region, and state as well as improved our school campus. They partnered with the city and others community agencies to build picnic tables, create a butterfly garden, give input on a proposed multi-cultural center, sew backpacks (and pack with personal hygiene supplies) for a women’s shelter, partner with a local church to stock a food pantry for people in need, present to the city building commission about redesigning an interstate exit, etc.

Because most of our lead learners were so committed and becoming highly skilled at co-designing real projects with our learners, we started seeing children enjoy learning and take ownership of their learning, which fueled our desire to stay the course. These shared ordeals made our team grow closer and even more determined to press on in our quest to create a culture of learning.

We became empowered to blaze a trail for others. We also came to believe if we could do this in the midst of challenging circumstances, others could do this too. It became part of our story, one in which we shared with visitors. Having other educators visit our school (started averaging a group each week) and our lead learners sharing their learning journey through regional and state professional learning experiences, also affirmed our work and caused us to keep moving forward. The adage of what does not kill you makes you stronger definitely applied to us.

Developing Processes and Procedures:

As hard working and passionate as we were, passion was not enough. We had to be intentional about putting processes and procedures in place. We initially struggled in this area and, in some instances, floundered. We underestimated some of our challenges. For example, our older students were deeply “schooled” in the traditional school model of typically doing what adults instructed them to do without deep thinking or ownership of their learning. I think because our enthusiasm for lifelong learning was unleashed, we were naive in thinking our students/learners would be as excited as we were. I believe it takes time, especially for older students. They must know how much the adults in their lives care for them and be given opportunities to co-design learning experiences, which are relevant and meaningful to them. Stay tuned for more on this topic in a future blog post.

We also had some significant behavior issues due to having limited space, older students in close proximity with younger students (not a good result when a kindergarten hears an 8th grader use inappropriate language, witnesses a fight, etc.), and some inconsistent expectations and procedures. I claimed this as the leader. It was my job to foresee some things. But here again was an opportunity to embrace and learn from our failures, to collaborate and solve problems together, and for lead learners and learners to step up and lead.

We needed more structure and clearer procedures for our older students. However, we also had candid conversations about how “carrot and stick” approaches hindered learning. The ultimate goal was to have a culture of learning, a culture of respect where learners and lead learners do the right thing out of respect for others. I realize this is a tall order, but this was our focus. This was much easier in the younger communities (part of our common language was calling “grade levels” “communities”). In the older communities/grades, we had to put some traditional systems in place, while helping these learners develop their capacity to self-monitor their behavior. I have seen this in classrooms and in schools—not perfect because people are imperfect, but this needs to be our ultimate goal.

When people (learners or adults) were out of sync with the norms of the culture, others had conversations with them to help them identify obstacles and realign with the beliefs. It is about respect, seeing the best in people, modeling appropriate behavior and having compassionate conversations when people get off track. It is about having strong and loving relationships in which people (administrators, teachers and students) know they are valued for who they are and others are here to help them become the best version of themselves. Becoming the best version of yourself also became another one of our mottos and the theme of many of our coaching conversations with each other as adults and with learners.

I have seen this culture of respect in many classrooms and in some schools. It is not easy to create because our tendency is to tell children (and adults) what to do or not do, which gets a quicker result in most cases (compliance). Stopping to ask questions and talking it out, takes time. It takes longer in the beginning, but it has lasting results. It is worth the time initially to create this culture of respect through conversations.

Final Thoughts:

I have mentioned challenges we encountered in creating a culture of learning. It is a process — a journey, which requires constant attention and nurturing. It is easy to focus on what is wrong and tempting to want to settled for a “better” traditional (school-centered) learning environment. However, our children deserve more. It is our moral responsibility to prepare them for an ever-changing world. To be prepared for this world, we must help all children become the best version of themselves, which includes being life-long learners. I believe it is better to make mistakes in this messy, challenging, frustrating, exhilarating, life-changing, and transformative process of creating a culture of learning than to be content by maintaining the status quo of a school-centered environment. Our children are worth all the effort and tears.

For some of my readers, this may be too simplistic and for others, you might feel as if I am speaking a different language. I plan on going deeper on many of these topics in future blog posts. I don’t have all the answers and am still learning (because I am a lifelong learner), but my intent is to cause readers to think about creating a culture of learning.

Let me leave you with a question to ponder, “What can you do in your current situation to create a culture of learning?” Please share your thoughts and reactions by commenting below.

Stay tuned for Part II Creating a Culture of Learning: Inspiring Learners

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14 thoughts on “Creating a Culture of Learning: Inspiring Adults from a Leadership Perspective”

  1. I am inspired by your thought provoking questions in this blog post! They make me think about my own “why” and what it takes to raise children in today’s society. I love your brutal honestly about the messiness of it all! I can’t wait to read more. I do have one question for you…What advice do you have for someone (me) who wants their children to be successful after high school, but don’t feel their current educational model is preparing them for the real world?

    1. Julie,
      Thanks for reading my blog and for thinking with me about this important topic.

      That is a good (and challenging) question. I don’t know the specifics of what your children are experiencing in school, but I would consider talking with your children about what they are learning in school and then find ways to extend their learning outside of school so as to make it more authentic. Use every opportunity to talk with and extend their learning, including sharing your own sense of curiosity and learning with them.

      I wonder if you could also plant seeds with your children’s teachers about ways to make their school learning more authentic, including creating learning experiences outside of school. There is a lot of pressure on teachers to be solely focused on compliance issues and test scores. The more you can partner with them, the better.

      Thanks again for reading and taking the time to post a response! We are all in this together!

  2. It sounds like you have been around education long enough to see things cycle their way through the “trends” in Alabama education. After reading your beliefs I can see why you were instrumental in the school systems you assisted with throughout your career. I am a regular teacher in a small school where I wish things were focused more on the student.. You called it “learner -centered” and seem to put the student first in this type of “model.” Can you give me more teacher specifics on how to do this in my regular classroom with all the guidelines my district asks me to follow?

    1. Hey Shannon,
      Thanks for reading my blog and commenting. I think first focus on building a relationship with students. Students respond when they know how much you sincerely care about them as a person. This also helps you to tap into their interests. Once you know their interests, think about how you can create learning experiences that cause them to be genuinely engaged in their learning. Over time, students can even help you co-design their learning experiences. Keep reading my blog. I will share more about each of these suggestions.
      Thanks again for reading and commenting!
      Suzanne

  3. I am a teacher in Kansas and your perspective is what I needed. My school is trying do more of what you are suggesting. We are just starting to rethink traditional school. Thank you for being different. Can’t wait to read more of your writings.

  4. Thank you for inspiring me to be the best version of myself! Unfortunately, as you stated, “A set of beliefs, mission and vision could be posted in every classroom in a district, but if those in the learning environment (school leaders, teachers, and staff) don’t believe and live it, it is meaningless. If the beliefs, mission and vision are not intentionally and constantly discussed and incorporated into every aspect of district life, they will soon become just words on a wall.”

    1. Catherine,
      I learned so much from you. You led the way in implementing Project Based Learning (PBL). You became a true designer and incorporated the right amount of structure and accountability into each project. You also designed projects to have a real impact on others (my favorite was the backpack project for the homeless). I saw learners glow with excitement about what they were learning through projects with you. I learned what is possible from you and other talented and committed lead learners. You inspired me!
      And yes, we have to work toward our mission, live our beliefs, and aspire to our vision. We must keep our beliefs at the center of every conversation. They have to be in integral part of every aspect of our learning environment. If not, we lose our way.

  5. As a retired educator with 34 years, I went from hand written everything to technology driven most everything. Under the guidance of Dr. Freeman our system studied lesson designs for specific areas such as difficult to learn or hard to teach concepts. My example is on design flaws. I use a Lenovo laptop and it has flaws. The top has two stress cracks due to my onehanded carry and stress on weak points, one by the exhaust ports and one by the CD slot. We as teachers can design great lessons that after usage, can show flaws. If Lenovo can design a computer with flaws we teachers can do the same. Part of my issue is my mishandling of the computer (lesson learned) and a design flaw. Lessons should be constantly reviewed, tweaked or even scrapped and design a new one. Nothing is “perfect” in education as we know. If you think it is , look again. The key is review and revision looking for lesson flaws, different learners and or changing school climate. Education can not be static and great teachers are constantly working to improve lessons and themselves. Learning is forever.

    1. Bob,
      Working with you was all my pleasure! You challenged and inspired students to love history (including my daughter).

      Thank you for taking the time to share such a powerful analogy about lesson design. You are so right! Learning is forever and we must constantly redesign based on what we learn from implementing our design and the needs and interest of our students. It is also very powerful when teachers co-design with students. Like students, teachers are lifelong learners and when teachers think like designers, learning is transformative!
      Suzanne

    1. Thanks Gary,
      It was so good to connect with you via email. I am cheering on your efforts to transform learning! Our children deserve these types of learning environments!
      Suzanne

  6. Greetings from Carolina! I’m bored at work so I decided to check out your site on my iphone during lunch break. I love the knowledge you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m shocked at how fast your blog loaded on my mobile .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, good blog!

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