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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Contained in this message is something that strikes at the essence of our outdated approach to learning systems.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.

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!

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

Welcome back for the 2020 school year! [a letter from your local superintendent and school board]

Dear students, educators, and families,

Welcome back for the 2020 school year! We are incredibly delighted to have our children and educators back in school again, particularly after such a challenging spring and summer. We couldn’t be more excited to see your kids’ smiling faces back in our classrooms!

As you know, some things will be different this fall. We wanted to share a few things for us all to think about over the next few months…

First, some of our children and families probably will become very ill. The coronavirus can reside in young children at high rates and may even spread more efficiently than across adults. Recent news stories about outbreaks at summer camps in Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin, and Missouri show us that children are not immune from the virus. Asymptomatic children not only may infect other students, they also may go home and spread it further to the possibly-vulnerable adults around them. A school in Indiana reopened and had to immediately send students home again after a student tested positive on the very first day. Hawaii is seeing a surge in the number of infected children. And so on across the country… Thank you for being willing to send your children to school despite these risks. We are so appreciative!

Second, some of our educators probably will become very ill too. Dozens of principals in the Bay Area had to quarantine after an in-person planning meeting over the summer. Hundreds of teachers in Gwinnett County, Georgia already have tested positive for the coronavirus after just a few days of returning to school for pre-planning. Symptoms can be mild but often are quite horrific (and could mean weeks on a ventilator). Even if victims recover, effects of the virus can linger for months on end. Medical experts are in agreement that neither students nor educators should come back to school unless community transmission rates have dropped substantially. That drop has not occurred in our community. Indeed, coronavirus cases in our community are higher than in the spring and have doubled across the nation. However, our President, U.S. Secretary of Education, and Governor have reminded us that you need to get back to work so we are grateful for the bravery of our teachers and support staff. Please give them a big thank you the next time you see them!

Third, some of our infected kids and teachers probably are going to die. Children are dying from the virus, and of course adults are dying too. Death rates increase as people get older. About 1 in 4 of our teachers is at risk of serious illness or death if they are infected, due to either their age or pre-existing health conditions. Contact tracing is taking 7 to 10 days in many areas, which also means that identifying and tracking down who is infected and who isn’t may take us a while. Please be patient with us, particularly since we haven’t decided what our decision triggers are for keeping our schools open or closed. And, just in case, please also start preparing your children now to say goodbye to some of their classmates and teachers this year. Our amazing school counselors are available to you and we encourage everyone to practice appropriate social distancing measures at funerals and memorial services in our community. Safety first!

Fourth, due to anticipated teacher resignations, retirements, illnesses, and deaths which will cause a number of instructor vacancies, we are experiencing a substitute teacher shortage. If any of you are interested in being a sub, we would love to have you sign up. We always welcome parents in our schools and classrooms!

Fifth, per your request, we are providing remote learning options for some of you that will be taught by local teachers. However, we simply do not have enough student seats or teaching spots to accommodate everyone. We know that many parents are worried about student ‘learning loss’ after this spring, so we are pleased to announce that we have purchased self-paced online courses from several major corporations for those of you keeping your children at home. Your children can move along at their own pace and will have a few opportunities to interact with an instructor from somewhere else in the country. It’s a win all around!

Sixth, assuming that we can get enough personal protective equipment (PPE), school may look a lot like this:

Thank you for helping us with these new restrictions and guidelines. We are doing everything that we can to keep your children safe!

Finally, for those of you who are considering participating in a ‘pandemic pod’ with other families or sending your students to the private school down the road, please don’t. We need everyone’s support (and money) for the public schools during this challenging time.

Thank you for all that you do to support our local schools and the success of your children. Looking forward to seeing you at Back-To-School Night in a few weeks!

Yours truly,

Your Local Superintendent and School Board

“Just following orders” isn’t good leadership

Just following orders

 

Every leadership program discusses “What hill are you willing to die on? What decisions are worth losing your job for?”

We haven’t done the necessary work to contain the coronavirus. Other areas that have opened too early have seen large waves of new cases. And we now have growing evidence that young children are powerful virus spreaders.

What could possibly be a bigger hill than keeping your children, families, educators, and community safe during a deadly global pandemic? What hill would you possibly pick instead?

“Just following orders” isn’t good leadership.

Coronavirus Chronicles 043 – Bunche Middle School

I am talking with schools to see how they’re responding in the wake of this global pandemic. I invite you to join me for the Coronavirus Chronicles, a series of check-ins with educators all over.

Episode 043 is below. Thank you, Jose Gonzalez and Darleen Perez, for sharing how Bunche Middle School in Compton, California is adapting to our new challenges and opportunities. It was SO MUCH FUN hearing about your remote learning project with your students!

See the complete list of episodes, which also are available as a podcast channel on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you and your school(s) would like to be featured in the Coronavirus Chronicles series, please get in touch. 

Other conversation series that may be of interest are below. Check them out!

Conversation series with educators during the pandemic

A conversation with Katie Martin

As always, Katie Martin has been doing a lot of wonderful work this summer around deeper learning and student engagement. I thought it might be fun for the two of us to just get together and chat. I tweeted an invitation to her and she kindly took me up on the offer.

Katie Martin Twitter exchange

Two days later we made that conversation happen and the result is below. As you can imagine, our discussion was wide-ranging and SUPER fun. I am sharing it here in case you’d like to join us. Hope it’s useful to you.

Happy viewing!

4 Shifts Video Series: Looking for some pilot schools or districts

Harnessing Technology for Deeper LearningI have a new 4 Shifts Video Series. I am trying to replicate – as best as I can virtually while sitting in my office chair! – a half-day workshop with me around the 4 Shifts Protocol.

The series consists of 7 self-paced modules and includes 38 videos, 7 lesson redesign opportunities, 6 additional instructional redesign scenarios, and other suggestions, strategies, and resources. The modules are intentionally designed to be granular, allowing for busy educators to work on them when convenient. The vast majority of individual videos and activities are 7 minutes or less. Estimated time for completion of the entire set of activities is about 3.5 hours total.

The 4 Shifts Video Series overview page has more information and describes further what I’m trying to make happen. The overview page includes an outline of the whole series and also has a few example videos. My goal is to help educators and school systems design for higher student engagement, whether they’re face-to-face, blended, or wholly online this coming school year. This video series will be a complement to the other professional learning supports that Julie Graber and I are providing.

I am looking for a handful of pilot schools or districts that will find 4 to 5 educators each to give me feedback on some key questions I provide. In exchange for the feedback, I’ll provide the series to the entire school or district for free. If this is of interest to you, please get in touch. First come, first serve!