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Book review – Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today

SheningerMurrayThis post is a review of Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today by Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray. Disclaimer: both are friends of mine so keep that in mind as you read below. My short recommendation? There is lots of value in this book and a great deal of information that validates what we know about good leadership and strong school organizations.

What I liked about the book

Eric and Tom list eight ‘keys’ to intentionally designing tomorrow’s schools. They are:

  1. Leadership and school culture lay the foundation
  2. The learning experience must be redesigned and made personal
  3. Decisions must be grounded in evidence and driven by a Return on Instruction (ROI)
  4. Learning spaces must become learner-centered
  5. Professional learning must be relevant, engaging, ongoing, and made personal
  6. Technology must be leveraged and used as an accelerant for student learning
  7. Community collaboration and engagement must be woven into the fabric of a school’s culture
  8. Schools that transform learning are built to last as financial, political, and pedagogical sustainability ensure long-term success

It’s hard to argue with any of these. All are critically-important components of robust, future-ready schools and each gets substantial coverage in their respective book chapters. Tom and Eric back these up with a variety of research studies to support the importance of each one. And they write in an engaging way that keeps readers rolling along. All of this is good.

There are strong emphases throughout the book on building trust, fostering relationships, empowering others, the intentionality of the work, the importance of communication, and recognizing our power as change agents. This is all good too!

I thought Chapters 4 (learning spaces) and 5 (professional learning) were especially strong. Chapter 4 gave me a lot to think about and there are numerous ideas in Chapter 5 for taking educators’ learning in some new directions, particularly pages 152-155 where Eric and Tom describe some ways to move from hours- to outcomes-based ‘accountability’ for educator learning.

Finally, Tom and Eric have chosen to profile some great leaders and organizations throughout the book and also have selected some resonant quotes. My favorite is probably the quote from Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis: ‘In the absence of knowledge, people make up their own.’

Some minor quibbles

There are some things that I wish were framed a little differently in the book. For instance, in Chapter 1, Eric and Tom say that ‘great leaders help others see the value of change by clearly articulating a compelling why and working to build support throughout consensus’ (p. 34). I wish they spent more time here talking about a visioning process that was less leader-centric and focused more on educators, students, and parents figuring out together what their why is instead of simply being sold their why by the leader. If we want shared understandings and commitments within organizations, I believe that process needs to be more communal rather than leader-driven. I’ve seen too many schools where the leader has a robust vision but never can ‘build support’ with the staff because she’s the only one that really owns it and is trying to then sell it to everyone else. Tom and Eric do talk a bit more about shared visioning on page 36 when they quote Kouzes & Posner, but that section doesn’t articulate what a ground-up process could look like.

In Chapter 2, Eric and Tom do a nice job of articulating ways that technology can enhance student learning. But the chapter sometimes feels a little technology-centric. There are numerous ways to give students access to deeper learning, greater student agency, and more authentic work opportunities that don’t involve learning technologies. Even though I’m an educational technology advocate, I would have liked some more discussion of project- and inquiry-based learning, performance assessments, community-based service learning, Harkness circles, and the wide variety of other non-technological possibilities that still result in robust learning. There is mention of a few of these things but I think in general these could have been fleshed out more. I did greatly appreciate the emphasis on equity in this chapter. Chapter 3 is similar. Tom and Eric discuss the concept of return on instruction but the chapter is framed dominantly within a lens of technology infusion. We need classrooms to move beyond factual recall and procedural regurgitation, and I know that Eric and Tom agree with that notion. But I think that non-technological learning and pedagogy could get some more attention in this chapter too. Although Tom and Eric state directly in Chapter 5 that ‘professional learning must focus on student outcomes through improved pedagogy – not on tools’ (p. 146), I think that idea gets lost in Chapter 3 amidst all of the technology discussions. 

The book closes on the idea of sustainable change. That’s an incredibly important topic and also is incredibly difficult to accomplish. There is a great deal of discussion in the chapter about what needs to be done, and I think Eric and Tom rightly identify numerous issues and tasks. They also do a nice job in this chapter of staying positive and encouraging people to recognize that great leadership is within their grasp. However, there is barely a mention in this chapter of one of the biggest barriers to organizational sustainability of change initiatives, which is leadership turnover. When superintendents, principals, and/or school boards turn over fairly frequently, teachers and communities get whipsawed by new innovations and new directions because those new leaders rarely continue the innovation pathways of their predecessors. Some discussion in this chapter of how to actually navigate that concern would have been helpful beyond the couple of sentences on political sustainability that merely acknowledge the issue.

Finally, there are large chunks of several chapters that feel like long lists of leadership ideas that have been thrown together (see, e.g., Chapters 1 and 7). It’s not that the ideas or items are wrong or incorrect, it’s just hard to see how they all fit together. Tom and Eric do a great job of citing research in their book, but it would be helpful to have some research-based frameworks and mental models that tie the list items together. For instance, if there’s a three-page list of ten leadership ideas, why these specific ten and not others and how do they interact together to create a coherent whole? If there are two solid pages of bullet points, maybe those could be tied together into some kind of model that illustrates the connectivity of the disparate parts. Otherwise, we’re left to question where all of these ideas came from and how they’re supposed to work together.

All of these are minor quibbles and choices have to be made in any book about what to focus on and what to leave out. It’s Eric and Tom’s book, not mine, and they’ve done a nice job of presenting their arguments, their reasoning, a variety of resources, and numerous action steps that can be taken.

Questions I have after reading this book

  • How do we flesh out in more concrete detail – and with specific action steps – some of the ideas articulated in this book?
  • How do we navigate the twin challenges of leadership turnover and initiative fatigue due to successive leaders wanting to ‘put their stamp on’ the organization?
  • Much of the book is based on the research about good leadership. We’ve known for a long time much of what’s in the book, but those research-based leadership practices aren’t showing up in administrators’ actual practices. How can we as educational leadership researchers do a better job of translating our scholarship into actionable ideas and behaviors in the field?
  • How can schools do a better job of treating parents as authentic partners and co-designers in the learning of their children, not just passive recipients of whatever narrow boxes we educators try to put them into?
  • How can we foster the creation of ground-up visions for student learning and educational experiences rather than individual or oligarchic visions that then get sold to the rest of the community? And how can we involve students as substantive partners in that work?

Rating

I liked this book a lot, and I’m glad I have friends who make me smarter. I marked it up all over the place. I give it 5 highlighters (out of 5).

Highlighter5

Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network

Yesterday I blogged an update on the 7-day Innovation Academy that we are conducting for 72 school leaders in North Dakota. Today I thought I’d share that we are about to launch a new initiative in Virginia.

The first round of the Virginia Is for Learners Innovation Network will launch in March and run through December of this year. Applications are rolling in from Virginia school districts right now. Up to 20 lead innovation teams will be accepted. We will spend 6 days all together on site, plus Amos Fodchuk and his coaches from Advanced Learning Partnerships will be facilitating both regional meetups across the state and ongoing coaching with each participating district.

I’m very excited to be working with Amos and Pam Moran, Executive Director of the Virginia School Consortium for Learning (and former superintendent of Albemarle County (VA) Schools), on this initiative. Other key players include Gena Keller, Acting Deputy Superintendent for the Virginia Department of Education, and Ted Dintersmith, who once again is lending his generous support to building leadership capacity for future-ready learning, teaching, and schooling in yet another state.

The goal is to eventually have about 60 of Virginia’s school districts participate in the Innovation Network (20 per year x 3 years). Unlike any other Innovation Academy that I’ve helped conduct, this one has a significant ongoing coaching component that I’m super enthused about. I can’t wait to work with Amos and his team to support our participants over the course of the initiative. Plus I’m a Virginia kid so it will be great to be back in my home state multiple times this year…

Stay tuned for more information. The adventure continues!

Update: North Dakota Innovation Academy

Back in October I blogged that CASTLE and I were launching a 7-day Innovation Academy for school leaders in North Dakota. Generously supported by Ted Dintersmith and in cooperation with the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, the goal was to kick off a three-year investment in leadership capacity-building across the state for future-ready learning, teaching, and schooling. I thought it might be time for a quick update…

We are three days into the Innovation Academy, with Day 4 coming up in February. We have 72 participants representing 14 school districts. Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

  • Day 1 – the big picture; relevance gaps between schools and the needs of society and our graduates; new demands related to college and career readiness; the impacts of automation on the economy and workforce preparation; computers that can see, hear, move, think, and do; new literacies, including multimedia and transmedia
  • Day 2 – what does it mean to be a connected learner?; connected learning audit (personal analysis of our analog and digital learning connections); our connectedness outside of school; connected learning in schools (lots of examples!), crowdsourced learning and resource production
  • Day 3 – student agency and deeper learning, with a strong emphasis on project- and inquiry-based learning; school models that foster deeper learning and student engagement; innovation leaders across the state presented what they’re doing in a PBL showcase
  • Day 4 [coming up in a few weeks!] – rich technology infusion (with a focus on the 4 Shifts Protocol) and blended learning models; translating 21st century vision statements and frameworks into concrete, day-to-day classroom implementation; innovation leaders across the state will be presenting again in a tech integration showcase

As we go along, we not only are highlighting what’s possible but also trying to connect participants to educators in the state who already are doing this work. This allows them to see innovations in action without having to drive too far. We also have an ongoing book study where we discuss a couple of chapters of Ted’s book, What School Could Be, each time we meet.

Things have gone very well so far. Here are our ongoing evaluation results:

Our Innovation Academy participants have been amazing. They have dived right in and are doing a fantastic job of wresting with difficult and challenging concepts. It’s not easy to rethink school but they are giving it all they can. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with during the last two days of the Academy, which is when we begin action planning for next year (and beyond)…

The adventure continues!

[Learn more about my Innovation Academies – including all evalution results – by clicking here!]

Podcast – How to take our leadership and teaching to new levels

I recently had the good fortune to talk with Aaron Maurer, an amazing Iowa educator who I’m proud to call friend. Aaron also received one of ISTE’s 2018 Making It Happen Awards! Aaron invited me to participate in his Coffee for the Brain podcast and the end result is below.

Happy listening!

If you want deeper learning…

Deep eye… you must have deeper teaching.

You can’t get to deeper learning with worksheets and end-of-chapter review questions.

You can’t get to deeper learning with self-paced adaptive learning modules that emphasize facts and procedures.

You can’t get to deeper learning with multiple-choice software and apps.

You can’t get to deeper learning without actually changing day-to-day lessons and units.

You can’t get to deeper learning without shifting toward critical thinking, problem-solving, student agency, and authentic work.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your teacher observation and evaluation rubrics.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your classroom walkthrough templates.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your hiring criteria and interview protocols.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing what you ask PLCs to focus on.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your professional learning structures.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your budget.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing the types of concrete ‘look fors’ and ‘think abouts’ that you prioritize as a school leadership team.

You can’t get to deeper learning with replicative, shallow instruction and status quo leadership behaviors.

You can’t get to deeper learning without taking risks.

Your new 21st century learning framework is awesome. How are you going to ensure it’s more than just lip service?

Image credit: deep eye, carlosdiazwa

Be proud of your pockets of innovation. AND…

PocketsEvery school system has pockets of innovation. Those three forward-thinking teachers in the elementary school, that one grade-level team in the middle school, the department that’s really trying to do something different at the high school, that amazing principal over there, and so on. As school leaders we’re proud of – and point to – that cutting-edge work and rightfully so.

But we also have to recognize that pockets of innovation mean that inequities exist. What if you’re a student that doesn’t have one of those forward-thinking elementary teachers, who isn’t on that middle school team, who has nominal exposure to that innovative high school department, or who doesn’t attend that principal’s building? You’re out of luck.

We always will have educators who are ahead of others. That’s inevitable. What’s not inevitable is our lack of a plan to scale desired innovations. What’s not inevitable is our lack of a guaranteed viable curriculum that strives for every student to accomplish more than mastery of factual recall and procedural regurgitation. If we want our pockets of innovation to ever be more than just pockets, we have to intentionally and purposefully scaffold and design and support to move the entire system to something greater. We also have to be smart about the design choices that we make. For instance, that intervention / remediation / extension time block that you created in your school schedule? During that time, who suffers through low-level thinking work in order to ‘catch up’ and who’s building robots or rockets? The very mechanisms that we create to close achievement gaps often intensify life success gaps.

Who in your schools gets to become future-ready and who doesn’t? Are you remedying traditional inequities or exacerbating them? What’s your plan to scale your innovations so that every student has opportunities to be prepared for life success, not just a few?

Image credit: Pockets, Astera Schneeweisz

Most educators do not have ‘change fatigue’

Will Richardson said:

As schools and classrooms, why do we exist today? What do we believe? What are our values? What are our deepest commitments to the children we serve? And do we live all of that?

Without coherent, clearly communicated answers to those questions, no serious change will survive. And, importantly, there will be nothing to judge the next “new thing” against.

I know “change fatigue” is real. But that’s not what most people are tired of. What they’re tired of is incoherence, of flailing away at change that isn’t driven by a belief system everyone is committed to living.

via https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6473548129395318784

Nicely said, Will…

It’s 2018, not 1918. Basic skills are not enough.

NYC Schools Opening (U.S. Library of Congress)Here is a quote from Kentucky Education Commissioner, Dr. Wayne Lewis (who is a friend of mine). The context is a statewide conversation about higher education standards for Kentucky high school graduates.

On Tuesday, Lewis said the current system already penalizes students by not actually preparing them for success.

“When we give them a diploma without ensuring that they have basic skills and they go to post-secondary education and they hit a brick wall – when they get into those English and math gateway courses, when they don’t have the necessary basic skills or preparation to get a job and take care of themselves,” he said. “Those kids are held accountable right now.”

Compare this with the following quote from Dr. Marc Tucker, outgoing CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy:

The jobs that were lost to globalization are not coming back. They are being automated. American manufacturing is actually doing very well, but much of the manufacturing work that was done by people a few years ago is now being done by machines. The same thing is true of mining and steel making. The jobs of gas station attendants were automated years ago. The jobs of retail clerks are ebbing fast. Even the jobs in Amazon’s warehouses are being automated. AI-powered systems are doing legal research, diagnosing cancer, writing music, serving as network newscasters, and doing surgery.

The thing that unites the “left behind,” whether they are rural whites in communities with boarded-up storefronts and peeling paint on their homes or urban African-Americans without jobs or any prospect of getting them, is lack of the kind of education and skills that employers are willing to pay decent wages for. . . . The difference between the young people that Facebook is hiring at $140,000 per year for their first jobs and the UBER drivers in the same cities for $10 an hour is their education and skill levels.

With due respect to Wayne, I think Tucker is right. Basic skills aren’t enough these days for many/most American high school graduates to succeed in postsecondary and/or ‘get a job and take care of themselves.’ Basic skills are necessary but insufficient. If we don’t frame future readiness and life success as more than basic skills, we’re doing our students and graduates a grave disservice. As Tucker notes,

What unites the first phase of globalization with the second phase of globalization is the fact that, whether the work is manufacturing or services, whether it is highly skilled or low-skill work, the employer can look for people with the requisite skills anywhere. Whatever your skill level, you are now in competition with people all over the world who have similar skills and who are willing to work for less.

That is bad news for Americans because we charge a lot for our labor. That is especially true for our low-skill and semi-skilled people – people who have basic literacy, but little more. Many nations that were largely illiterate in the 1970s have now built education systems that are capable of producing levels of basic literacy equal to those in the United States, and those newly literate people are now competing directly with the workers in the United States who have only basic literacy, which is roughly half of our workforce. The cruel fact is that our low- and semi-skilled workers – roughly half of our workforce – are very high priced in the global market for labor. That is why their real wages have not gone up in decades. They are a commodity, and the price they charge at the minimum wage level for that commodity is more than they are worth on the global market.

Neither state nor federal policymakers can change that fact. And it is that fact, not unfair trade practices, that is leading ultimately to the kind of anger and despair that is corroding our politics. I refer here not only to the anger and despair of rural and urban working-class whites, but also to the despair of inner-city African-Americans and many Latinos who are also trapped by the dynamics I have just described.

We must have a bigger vision for our graduates than basic skills. And we need to stop using this term as if it were enough.

SIDE NOTE: While we’re at it, we also know that 3rd grade retention is one of the dumbest things we can do in school. As a researcher and former university educational leadership faculty member, Wayne should know better than this.

Image credit: N.Y. schools opening, Library of Congress

Leadership challenges for Tony Sinanis

Tony Sinanis asked a few of us to send him some (relatively quick) leadership challenges for his district’s school administrators. Here are the three I came up with today:

Tony Sinanis Leadership Challenges

What three would you submit?