Sir Ken Robinson: A Brief In Memoriam [guest post]

Amidst the chaos of 2020 we lost a true leader in education in late August just as schools were trying to reopen. In the event that you might have missed it, I wanted to circle back and offer a brief tribute.

Like most of you that knew Sir Ken Robinson’s impact on education, I first learned about him through his wildly popular TED Talk in 2006. It was, of course, not the first impactful thing he said, nor the last. He was by then already declared a Knight by the Queen, so I assume the story before the TED talk was robust as a professor and leader of the arts. But, anytime something is viewed around 100 million times, it tends to define the person. So, of course, the relationship between schools and creativity, and the embedded story of a young dancer, is perhaps Sir Ken’s most defining message. If you have not watched it yet, as it is the starting place for so many others, I do of course recommend viewing. 

A different message of his, less well known, has always resonated most deeply with me though. It is a metaphor he liked to use about a garden and it shows up in a few different videos that do not have a million views. Articulated more fully in his book Creative Schools (chapter 2), this is a short clip of the essence of it (start at 1:30 where he speaks of changing metaphors … at around 6:00 he begins on the distinction with industrial agriculture):

 

 

Contained in this message is something that strikes at the essence of our outdated approach to learning systems. As America, Britain, and others grew and industrialized, we adopted elements of that mentality for our schools as well. While the factory model of school narrative is certainly overused and a bit misplaced (particularly by reformers and salesmen) the transition to large-scale institutions of learning certainly shared notions of efficiency tied up with our conception of mechanization, standardization, and competition. As Sir Ken says in the video above, perhaps the better comparison is not the factory as much as it is the monoculture-based industrial farm. 

I would have loved to see Sir Ken continue to explore and develop this idea further for it is something that our generation must confront. It is remarkable what was achieved by industrialization and, specifically, industrial farming. I grew up working on an industrial farm and was convinced of its efficacy. Billions have been lifted out of subsistence poverty and the American grocery store became the envy of the world. But, these industrial achievements came at a heavy cost. We burned oil and coal to power our machines and changed our climate. We cleared the forests endangering countless species. Our topsoil has suffered and now must be supplemented by lab-created chemicals. With pesticides and herbicides we poisoned our waters. We medicated our domestic animals and produced lower cost, but lower quality, meats that have been shown to have adverse health effects on the humans that consume them. I’ve personally been recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer and I can’t help but wonder what might have contributed. Sir Ken died of cancer as well. I wonder whether he might have asked similar questions.

In a comparable way, in America, our industrial schools have achieved much but at a high price. We have achieved near-universal basic literacy. Nearly nine out of ten students graduate high school. Yet, according to Gallup polling of students, more high school students are actively disengaged in school than are engaged. Our schools have shown a nearly complete inability to close achievement gaps or serve as a tool of desegregation. And, research has shown economic mobility, achieving higher standards of living than your parents, has declined as inequality in America continues to grow. This year, 2020, has shown with stark clarity the implications of these failures. Our society is dangerously scientifically illiterate. Racism continues to bring out America’s worst inclinations. A majority of us are economically vulnerable. And, perhaps most concerningly, we seem unable to share a common social purpose or work across differences to make any substantial progress. Like our farms, the dominant ideologies of our schools are good at many things but increasingly feel antiquated and ill-equipped to help us solve our modern challenges. 

In this way, Sir Ken Robinson was a critical voice that, in his humorous but insightful way, brought forward the loss of the full complexity of humanity we have sacrificed for standardization. He considered our approach to be Out of our Minds, in that we only sought to develop some of the potential each mind has to offer.  His passion and stories around dance and the arts were just one of those sacrifices that, upon reflection, a listener can’t help but regret. With a chuckle, Sir Ken was able to cut through the dominant narratives of education and insert a new notion that we might be capable of schools in which all children can flourish. Schools in which each child can find their Element

He offered a different mental model through a new metaphor.  “Human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it is an organic process.” A teacher’s role then is to prepare the soil, nurture it, and then let natural processes innate in each learner grow. In well prepared soil with the right conditions life of all forms flourishes. Our attempts to craft the standard educational system has worked very well for a few, but left many others for whom “the standard” was not a good fit to wither. In this sense our schools, our farms, and our society must be more organic. 

For me, and I think a great many others, Sir Ken pollinated a shift in paradigm. For the millions who watched his videos, read his books, or listened to speeches, he prepared the soil and created the conditions for us to grow our own new notions of how we might help learning flourish. The task of growing the complex, organic ecosystems in which all children might flourish then is left to us. Happily, Sir Ken, and many others, have helped to pollinate these ideas so widely that a global effort to grow these more organic models of school has inspired models of Creative Schools to bloom all across the planet. 

Sir Ken Robinson had a unique and irreplaceable ability to reach an audience and to open minds. His legacy is a challenge for us to be creative ourselves to empower students to engage the full range of their natural instincts to learn. 

Thank you, Sir Ken, for opening my mind and engaging my own natural instinct to learn, grow, and find a better way. We have lost many precious things in 2020 and we will dearly miss your presence, wit, and insights. But, you have left us a powerful metaphor from which to find our way to a better place. 

Guest Post by Justin Bathon. Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, University of Kentucky. Director, Center for Next Generation Leadership.


Vote for America

American flags[I only have one post about politics on this blog. It’s time for a second one…]

As America heads to the polls again, we must recognize that this election is not just a choice between different policies. Even though the majority of Americans are against most of what the GOP supports, this election is not just a choice between bigger government or smaller government or conservatism versus progressivism.

This election is a referendum on who we are as a people. On whether or not we’re going to preserve basic precepts of American democracy. On whether or not we’re going to restore fundamental human decency to our nation. Unfortunately, we must recognize that a vote for Republicans right now – or for any non-viable third party candidates (sorry) – is an affirmative vote for four more years of…

  • Voter suppression instead of assuring the Constitutional right of every American to vote
  • Nearly 1,000 dead Americans every day from the coronavirus (and no national plan or help in sight)
  • Trying to take away Americans’ health care (even during a deadly pandemic)
  • Trying to take away Americans’ food, housing, and employment supports (even during a deadly pandemic)
  • A sycophantic cult of personality instead of the rule of law
  • Presidential and First Family narcissism that sees no obligation to the rest of America
  • Non-stop, shameless lying and gaslighting (and dishonoring of the Presidency)
  • Conspiracy theories and outright lunacy instead of science, facts, and the truth
  • Using the power of the federal government – particularly the Department of Justice – to punish ‘enemies’ (like in tinpot dictatorships)
  • Amoral (and hypocritical) grabs for power at the cost of everything and anyone else (see, e.g., Merrick Garland and Amy Coney Barrett)
  • Ongoing obstruction of justice and outright refusals to cooperate with legitimate legal and governmental inquiries
  • Self-enrichment, self-dealing, and outright corruption at taxpayers’ expense
  • Gutting of government ethics enforcement
  • Nepotism and temporary (and sometimes illegal) appointments of key officials that result in governmental dysfunction
  • Appointment of Cabinet members who are antithetical to the mission of their own departments
  • A non-transparent federal government that destroys or hides public records and data and is unaccountable to the American people
  • White supremacy, racism, bigotry, and hate toward our family members and neighbors of color
  • Denial of ongoing racial injustice and attacks on social justice-oriented remedies and protections
  • Sexism, chauvinism, misogyny, and sexual harassment toward our female family members and neighbors
  • Attempts to deny women the basic right to choose what happens with their own bodies
  • Homophobia toward our LGBTQ family members and neighbors
  • Xenophobia, nationalism, and the denial of the humanity of others – particularly Black and Brown people – around the globe
  • The elevation of the interests of fundamental Christians over those of other faiths
  • Ongoing Presidential mockery of women, our military, our war dead, and people with disabilities
  • Russian election interference
  • Unrequited Russian bounties on American soldiers
  • Global warming and the denial of human-accelerated climate change (do you like hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires?)
  • Dirtier air, more polluted water, and the destruction of environmental protection laws (do you like mercury poisoning?)
  • Oil lobbyists over clean, renewable energy self-reliance
  • Drilling and mining in our beautiful and precious national parks
  • Gutting consumer protections and favoring corporate profits over people
  • Removing food safety protections (do you like diseased chicken?)
  • Attacks on the poor, increasing inequity, and favoring the interests of rich people over those of average Americans
  • Cozying up to dictators who commit human rights violations
  • Alienating our global allies
  • Continued erosion of America’s global reputation and prestige
  • False claims about ‘fake news’ and the destruction of citizens’ trust in professional journalism
  • Fake piety toward – and frequent Presidential denigration of – the people who serve in our nation’s armed forces (they are not ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’)
  • Simplistic patriotism that is more concerned with an athlete’s knee on the ground during our national anthem than a police officer’s knee on the neck that kills
  • Protecting military-style weaponry instead of the safety of our citizens
  • A Department of Education that favors the 10 percent of students in private schools over the 90 percent in public schools
  • Separating infants from their asylum-seeking mothers and caging small children
  • Gassing (and worse) of peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights
  • Armed White supremacist domestic terrorists (aka ‘militia’) in the streets that intimidate, harass, and injure others
  • Manipulation of the Constitutionally-required census
  • A political party that doesn’t even have a policy platform (it’s just whatever Trump wants)
  • The historical dominators over the historically-dominated
  • White people in red MAGA hats screaming vitriolic hate at the rest of America
  • The worst of America, not the best of America
  • Utter chaos and exhaustion

America has always been an imperfect nation. We have yet to live up to our espoused ideals of liberty, equality, freedom, democracy, and justice for all. But like in previous chapters of our history, we have a stark choice this fall: we can vote for America as it should be and the continual striving to be better and more inclusive, or we can vote for the dark forces of division, ugliness, and autocracy that have emerged once again.

The Democratic Party has numerous flaws right now. But I’d be willing to stack up that list against the one above any time. Sadly, over the past four years Republicans have shown us who they are right now. There seems to be no corner of America that they are not willing to erode and destroy. They currently favor a declining minority that is desperately and tyrannically attempting to hold onto power at the expense of the rest of us. They are more than willing to proudly support a President who spends his time golfing, watching Fox ‘News,’ rage tweeting lies and insults, and destroying our country. It’s time for us to vote out as many of them as we can, and force the once-proud party to confront its internal demons, cowardice, disrespect for the norms of democracy, and growing irrelevance to a younger, multicultural population and electorate (since they won’t do it themselves). We not only have to vote out Trump, we have to vote out every single enabler as well.

Our more-fragile-than-we-thought democracy deserves nothing less. Vote for America. And then talk with your family members and neighbors about how we move forward from here.


Books I read in September 2020

Parable of the SowerBooks I finished reading (or rereading) in September 2020…

Hope you’re reading something fun too!


Taking students seriously disrupts our comfort and threatens our sense of authority

Nicole Williams Beechum said:

We know from research that students can have more robust learning experiences when what happens in school is relevant to their lives, helps them connect to a larger purpose, and is grounded in a sense of belonging. This means that the system must be responsive to their goals, interests, and sense of self and community. If young people are not at the center of conversations about what constitutes success, we will not get school right.

We often show students that we don’t see them as experts about their own lives and astute observers of their surroundings. This is especially true when the conversation shifts to groups of students who have been marginalized by race, culture, language, family income, or disability. Insidious cultural beliefs seep in, and the “real experts” take over to tell students what is possible for their futures and then design policies, curricula, and professional development without their input.

I have had the humbling opportunity of deeply listening to students. What stands out is that when young people are able to take agency, feel affirmed (their lived experiences, families, histories, cultures, communities), and share power with adults, they thrive. My biggest fear is that we adults don’t actually want to hear what young people have to say. Taking them seriously disrupts our comfort and expertise – and threatens our sense of authority.

 


Dear Linda

The art of mathDear Linda,

Fifteen years ago you let a pigtailed 2nd grader walk down the hall and take 5th grade math.

We came to you as the principal of our elementary school in Minnesota and said, “She’s ready for something more.” You smiled at us, looked at the data, and said, “We’ll find a way to make it work.” And then you and your teachers did exactly that.

It didn’t matter that she had to miss time in other subjects; she made it up. It didn’t matter that she was a tiny sprite compared to those bigger kids. All that mattered was that she adored math and could keep up. Every day when it was math time for the fifth graders, she walked down the hall and joined them. She loved it so much. She had a math-themed birthday party that year!

The next year we did the same, but with sixth grade math. And then we moved.

Our new school district in Iowa didn’t quite know what to do with her. But inspired by what you had made possible, every year – somehow – we found a way to make it work. One year in elementary school the best we could do was a self-paced, ‘teach yourself’ model with occasional check-ins with the Gifted and Talented teacher. One year in middle school she had to take a boring, non-interactive online course. In high school she sometimes had to hop on a city bus (or two) to go take math classes at the local university. But she did it. She stayed three years ahead all the way through…

Fifteen years later I am proud to say that pigtailed 2nd grader graduated this past spring with a B.S./M.S. in Civil Engineering from Case Western. She was an officer in the Women in Science and Engineering Roundtable student group. She helped the university steel bridge team go to nationals for the first time. And two months ago she entered the world of work as a happy bridge designer in New York (and, yes, we miss her tremendously).

Linda, a decade and a half ago you were willing to think outside the box. You didn’t throw up unnecessary roadblocks. You didn’t force our kid to fit the system. You just found a way to take our 2nd grader where she was and move her forward instead of letting her stagnate in some arbitrary ‘grade level.’ Collectively you and your teachers just made it work. With a smile. And it made a huge difference for her.

We need more principals like you. We need more schools like yours. We need more pathways that personalize students’ learning and empower them for future life success. Every child deserves the opportunities that our pigtailed daughter had. Thank you for leading as school administrators should, not just for our 2nd grader but for all of the other students that walked your halls as well. We will be forever grateful.

Yours truly,

SCOTT

Image credit: The art of math or the math of art, Alan Levine


Teaching and leading for higher student engagement … even during a pandemic (aka How I spent my summer)

Harnessing Technology for Deeper LearningSome schools spent the summer engaged in magical thinking that everyone would be back in person this fall, just like before the pandemic. Others paid attention to the data and rising number of coronavirus cases and used their summers more wisely to design for better remote/hybrid learning and teaching than the mostly-low-level direct instruction, digital worksheets, and paper homework packets that we saw last spring. I was fortunate to work with numerous educators this summer on how to teach and lead for higher student engagement – even during a pandemic. I thought I would describe a little of that work below…

Redesigning lessons with Virginia teachers

This summer I worked with over 150 teachers in Virginia to redesign lessons and units for deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion. We used the 4 Shifts Protocol as the framing lens for our work together. We met virtually for 2 hours every day for 4 days. We used Days 1 and 2 to become familiar with the protocol by redesigning lessons that weren’t theirs (to reduce defensiveness). I modeled how to adopt an approach that focused on ideation, not judgment, and pointed out some key considerations and ‘think abouts’ for each section of the protocol. On Day 3 they brought their own lessons. I put them into virtual redesign triads. They helped each other shift their students’ learning in directions that they chose, using the skills they had gained during Days 1 and 2. Day 4 was more of an ‘office hours’ approach. Teachers popped in as desired and asked more individualized questions about their local contexts (e.g., how to handle scripted curricula, how to use the protocol as an instructional coach). Some of them brought additional lessons for us to hack at together. I did all of this twice, the first week with elementary educators and the second week with secondary teachers (so 8 days total).

Instructional leadership with Virginia administrators

I also had the wonderful opportunity this summer to work with school administrators from across Virginia. We met virtually for 90 minutes each day for a week. The setup was similar to what I just described with Virginia educators. On Monday and Tuesday, I introduced them to the 4 Shifts Protocol but we adopted more of an instructional leadership lens, not just a teaching lens. On Wednesday, we talked about some organizational strategies, leadership behaviors, and coaching techniques – again, more of an instructional leadership focus than just a pedagogical focus. On Thursday they brought lessons like the teachers did and we practiced instructional coaching with those lessons using the protocol. Friday was an ‘office hours’ approach again, and the leadership questions and ideas that they brought to those discussions were amazing. 

Innovative remote instruction with Texas administrators and building leadership teams

I worked with a school district in Texas at the beginning of the summer and was able to help kick off their annual, 2-day, in-district leadership institute. They asked me to do a short keynote highlighting some possibilities for hands-on, active student learning. I then facilitated 3 follow-up sessions over the next day and a half, working with elementary, middle, and high school administrators and their building leadership teams. I tried to connect some ideas from my keynote to the realities of pandemic-era remote instruction. I also showed and discussed multiple, concrete, age-specific examples with each group to illustrate how we can redesign instruction for higher student engagement, even during blended or online learning. All of this work was virtual.

Instructional leadership with Massachusetts administrators

I had an incredible experience with a school district in Massachusetts this summer. We spent a total of 3 weeks together, all virtual. During the first week all of the administrators in the district read Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning and engaged in a virtual book study. I dropped in each day to interact in their Canvas course shell and answer questions. During the second week we alternated between synchronous and asynchronous learning together. For instance, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of that week, we met together virtually in Zoom for a couple of hours of very robust conversation each day. I also created over a dozen mini-modules full of resources that they could explore in between each live meetup. The school leaders had lots of choice (because I’m trying to model, right?) and could investigate anything in the mini-modules that interested them. Some of the topics that they dove into were:

  • Workforce preparation and job automation
  • Skills development and college/career readiness
  • Educator staffing and the future of the teacher workforce
  • The integration of robots into day-to-day life
  • New literacies, including digital storytelling, AR/VR, and student multimedia / transmedia production
  • Instructional redesign for deeper learning, including additional leadership and coaching scenarios
  • Inquiry-based, project-based, and other high engagement learning strategies
  • The research behind deeper learning/teaching strategies and student achievement
  • Innovative scheduling
  • High-engagement remote learning
  • PBL during remote learning
  • Equity considerations during a pandemic

We also had a concurrent online discussion space in Canvas where they could share their reactions, concerns, and ideas for their local schools from the mini-modules. Those conversations were very active and impressive. 

All of that work continued into the third week, and the district also folded in some assistant principals, instructional coaches, media specialists, and other building-level teacher leaders. They are working to create a critical mass of people who might be ready to begin transforming day-to-day instruction. This was an incredibly unique 3-week experience for me. I was able to pilot and try a number of new virtual professional learning modalities with this district and had some absolutely phenomenal discussions with them. I get to work with them a little more this fall and absolutely can’t wait.

Book club with Solution Tree

Finally, Julie Graber and I conducted a 4-week book study around Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning for Solution Tree, our publisher. We met once a week for 4 weeks for 45 minutes a session. Although those were sparsely attended, all of the recordings are available on the Solution Tree website. Julie and I had some good discussions with our participants and were able to explain some of our thinking and approaches when we are engaged in instructional coaching.

Conclusion

In addition to all of the above, I also created my new self-paced 4 Shifts Video Series; had some good conversations with educators in Denver, Luxembourg, and Switzerland; continued my Coronavirus Chronicles interviews; recorded some additional episodes over at Silver Lining for Learning; and participated in a few podcasts! It was a busy but fun summer, and I really enjoyed working virtually with educators all across the planet on higher-engagement learning, teaching, and leadership.

As always, let me know how I can be of support to you and your community!


Reflecting on my work: Google Scholar v. Google Analytics

Just leaving these two tables here as I reflect on the impact of my work and where I choose to put it. The scale isn’t even close. And this doesn’t even factor in interactivity… (e.g., my 80 blog posts that have received at least 30 comments, including one that has received 618!)

Over 4.4 million page views and counting!

2020 09 07 Google Scholar

2020 09 07 Google Analytics


Books I read in August 2020

Kiln People, by David BrinBooks I finished reading (or rereading) in August 2020…

Hope you’re reading something fun too!


EcoMOD: Computational modeling and virtual worlds for 3rd grade ecosystems science

Chris Dede, esteemed faculty member at Harvard University and one of my co-hosts at Silver Lining for Learning, has a project that is a finalist for a STEM DIVE award. Check out the video below. Chris and his colleagues have created a very cool immersive virtual science environment, called EcoMOD: Computational modeling and virtual worlds for 3rd grade ecosystems science.

Please ‘like’ the video on YouTube and give EcoMOD a ‘vote’ during the People’s Choice Round!


Dear school leaders and policymakers: It didn’t have to be this way

Covid map 2020-08-05Dear school leaders and policymakers, 

It didn’t have to be this way.

You had all summer to watch the rising number of coronavirus cases all across the country.

You had all summer to educate yourself about the science.

You had all summer to read credible news sources and see the viral outbreaks that occurred everywhere that people gathered without appropriate protections.

You had all summer to encourage people to do the things necessary to slow down the viral spread (hint: it wasn’t going to restaurants and bars).

You had all summer to invest in the safety precautions necessary for schools to be safe (ventilation systems, personal protective equipment, rules and policies, etc.).

You had all summer to recognize that reopening schools this fall was magical thinking and instead invest heavily in your educators’ ability to do high-quality, high-engagement remote learning (unlike last spring).

You had all summer to help your community close family equity gaps regarding computing devices and Internet access.

You had all summer to fortify yourselves for the brave political conversations and gather allies.

You had all summer to engage in realistic messaging to your community.

You had all summer to be the leader that you were appointed / elected to be.

Now you’re asking your community and citizens for “grace during this difficult time.” Are you surprised that many folks aren’t willing to give it?

It’s never too late to lead. Are you finally going to do so?

 

P.S. If you did most or all of these things, THANK YOU.

 

Image credit: Covid ActNow