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Aligning the 10 building blocks for future ready schools

A growing number of schools are recognizing that they must start transitioning their learning environments toward deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and robust technology infusion. Making those transitions is complex work, however, and many school administrators and teachers aren’t exactly sure how to proceed beyond some vague ideas about doing things differently.

One of the themes of my InnEdCO Leadership Academy keynote this year is the idea that there are multiple paths to future ready schools. That said, as I work with educators around the world, I see future-oriented schools playing around with some, or all, of these building blocks:

  1. Project- and inquiry-based learning environments
  2. Authentic, real-world work
  3. Competency-based education and standards-based grading
  4. 1:1 computing initiatives
  5. Digital and online (and often open access) information resources
  6. Online communities of interest
  7. Adaptive software and data systems
  8. Alternative credentialing mechanisms
  9. Flexible scheduling
  10. Redesigned learning spaces

Much like children exploring with Legos, TinkerToys, and Lincoln Logs, schools are experimenting with various combinations of these components to see what interesting things might emerge. One school might dive deep into student inquiry and flexible scheduling to foster greater student motivation via passion projects. Another might focus on its 1:1 initiative, bandwidth upgrades, and the use of open educational resources to create new instructional opportunities. Yet another might work toward integration of its teaching staff into online, project-based learning communities of practice, with a goal of sparking more student-driven learning in its local classrooms. Variations in configurations and depth are what give innovative schools their unique identities.

Whatever the combinations look like, it is imperative that they be driven by shared understandings and commitments and be aligned with other school and district initiatives. Too many school organizations are guilty of implementing numerous disconnected change projects, none of which is deeply understood, seen as truly important by front-line staff, or implemented well. When done in combination and with fidelity – and when owned by those charged with front-line implementation, each of these building blocks can be a powerful lever for change. Each also can be disastrous if implemented poorly or in isolation.

Educators and policymakers need to be exposed to various school models to see how these building blocks can be used together to accomplish future ready schooling environments. As varied as innovative schools are, they share one aspect in common: they’re amazing places for student learning.

10 building blocks 001

[cross-posted at InnEdCO’s new Innovation in Colorado blog!]

Privileging an ideology of individualism

Audrey Watters said:

These new technologies, oriented towards consumers and consumption, privilege an ideology of individualism. In education technology, as in advertising, this is labeled “personalization.” The flaw of traditional education systems, we are told, is that they focus too much on the group, the class, the collective. So we see education being reframed as a technologically-enhanced series of choices – consumer choices. Technologies monitor and extract data in order to maximize “engagement” and entertainment.

I fear that new normal, what it might really mean for teaching, for learning, for scholarship.

via http://hackeducation.com/2017/05/24/new-normal

As a history major and former Social Studies teacher, I believe in the idea of common schools and education as a common good. We also know, however, that one-size-fits-all models don’t. How we balance collective societal good versus individual learning and life success needs is incredibly challenging. No easy answers here…

Where do we set the bar?

A few weeks ago we were talking about school ‘accountability’ in one of my classes. I mentioned that I didn’t think that most schools were yet producing ‘future ready’ graduates. If they were, we would see more school environments that immersed students in deeper learning, student agency, authentic work, and rich technology infusion opportunities.

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[Download this image]

There seems to be fairly wide agreement that schools that aren’t achieving minimum levels of proficiency on standardized tests of lower-level – or, for PARCC & SBAC fans, arguably mid-level – knowledge are ‘failing’ or should be ’turned around.’ But even broad, schoolwide success on most current assessments is still a pretty low floor for how we judge the efficacy and success of our schools. If we raised the bar up to preparation for true life readiness, wouldn’t most schools do pretty poorly on the four shifts noted above? (and other fronts, like information literacy and global awareness) When do we as a society care about and have a sense of urgency about that?

If we’re not irrelevant, what are we?

As I look across the presentations and workshops and keynotes that educational leadership faculty are sponsoring and facilitating, outside of a few isolated pockets I don’t see much evidence that we’re having wide-ranging and substantive conversations about the need for students to:

  • engage in deeper and higher-level learning instead of spending 80% to 85% of their time on regurgitation and recall of low-level knowledge items (that can be found via smartphone voice search in seconds);
  • possess greater agency and ownership of their own learning in order to foster engagement and self-directedness instead of being directed by teachers and schools toward control and compliance;
  • have opportunities to engage in authentic, meaningful learning activities instead of isolated, disconnected-from-the-real-world classroom assignments; or
  • utilize digital technologies in academic- and work-productive ways that go far beyond social uses or mere replication of analog instructional practices.

I rarely see or hear educational leadership faculty talking about the profile below of high school graduates, even though these student life skills are absolutely foundational to schools’ and policymakers’ current college and career readiness efforts:

College and career readiness

I rarely see or hear educational leadership faculty talking about these components of ‘future ready’ schools:

10 building blocks

We are preparing instructional leaders for P-12 schools but I rarely see or hear us talking about how to help preservice or practicing administrators understand how to (re)design school structures, curricula, units, lessons, and instructional activities to move in the directions noted above. [indeed, I have some doubts that most of us faculty would even know how] Even though social justice is a deeply held belief for most of us, we rarely discuss the intersections of that concept with changing workforce readiness needs or how the inequities of students’ digital access are extended and exacerbated when it comes to students’ digital usage. I don’t see most educational leadership faculty having broad and rich conversations about how technology has and will transform almost everything, what ‘college and career readiness’ or ‘personalized learning’ even mean these days, or what our roles are as faculty, parents, community members, and citizens to deal with all of this.

We do a great deal of research and teaching on interesting and important topics. We speak out against the marginalization of underserved and underrepresented groups. We talk a lot against federal and state policy. But we rarely foster ‘future ready’ policies, instructional and leadership practices, or school organizational redesigns. When we talk about student voice, it’s primarily within the frame of empowerment within local, not global, contexts. We talk marginally, if at all, about furthering students’ global awareness. And so on…

I really like my educational leadership faculty colleagues. They’re whip-smart, thoughtful, well-meaning, and kind and are engaged in some fascinating work. I learn lots every time I get to interact with them. So maybe ‘irrelevant’ is not the right word for what we do because it sounds too pejorative. But it sure seems like there are enormous, important, gaping holes in our conversations that we educational leadership faculty decline to fill year after year…

Is your school going to be the Thanksgiving turkey?

Roast turkey

Over at the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution website, Cristina Fonseca said:

unfortunately our minds are a limiting factor. Did we ever stop to think about how the world has changed in the past 10 years or how those changes have been so different from what happened in the previous decade? Everyone (and everything) is connected and everything possible has been digitized or is in the process of becoming digital. As a result, both good and bad knowledge spreads instantaneously, resulting in a shift in power from seller to buyer. We have knowledge about the products, the underlying tech, access to other customers and an always available megaphone called social media. We’ve heard about self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, robots and automation, and we still struggle to visualize what things will be like. We think in linear terms.

Let’s take a common example used to explain how we are programmed to think linearly. From the day a Thanksgiving turkey is born everything about its life indicates that things will only get better: it’s hatched in a safe environment, cared for, and fed daily. The same pattern repeats itself every single day and the moment the turkey has the most historical data to show that its life is likely to keep improving, things change. Thanksgiving comes and suddenly it’s not so good to be a turkey.

Is your school going to be the Thanksgiving turkey? What are you doing as a school leader to help your educators and community implement a bigger, faster vision of school as it needs to be?

Image credit: Roast Turkey, Slice of Chic

The best gift

Little blue gift box

The best gift that we can give our students is the gift of self-actualization. Every day, every hour, in every class and every school we should be asking ourselves, “Is this an environment in which our students are discovering and nurturing their interests, skills, and talents to become their best selves and make a positive difference in the world?”

Image credit: Little blue box, Shereen M

“I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work”

Basalt

A couple of months ago I keynoted a STEM conference in Syracuse, New York. I talked a lot about the power of student agency and tried to give numerous, concrete examples of student-directed project- and inquiry-based learning in practice. We discussed the idea that the global innovation economy is pushing the skill sets of creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving much deeper into the labor pool than ever before. I also shared that the research on motivation and engagement from Deci & Ryan, Hallie, and others shows quite clearly that autonomy and self-direction are fundamental human needs that we violate to the detriment of both our students and our proclaimed academic goals.

During one of our conversation periods a secondary science teacher said to me, “I tried giving my students some agency two years ago and it didn’t work.” I did my best to quash my initial reaction of dismay that students lacked more opportunities for autonomy in his classroom and instead asked some follow-up questions. He shared with me that he taught earth science, that there was a mandatory segment of the curriculum on rock identification that was a significant component of the state exam, and that every year students were less than enthused about the unit (to be charitable). Two years ago he apparently had tried to give his students some choice in terms of both how they learned the material and their final work products but apparently student disinterest in the unit topic and/or how he framed the work were enough to overcome his early attempts at giving his students some agency and it went miserably. So he shut it down, returned to a very traditional structure of presentation and examination, and now was very skeptical of claims by myself or others that giving kids some voice and choice in their learning could be productive.

I couldn’t help but feel sad for this teacher. He took a small risk and it didn’t go well so he retreated back to his age-old practices, frustrated and resentful of others who preached something different. Numerous questions and concerns flashed through my mind as we interacted, few of which could be addressed in that venue at that time.

As school leaders, we must provide much greater support to our teachers as we ask them to initiate new instructional practices and ’transform school.’ I hear repeatedly from principals and superintendents that they supposedly have given their educators permission to be risk-takers. But it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission. Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure. And we have to continually and critically interrogate our own internal culture, climate, messaging, reward systems, and other leadership practices that reinforce the status quo and mitigate our alleged ‘permission to take risks.’ During my short conversation with this teacher, it became clear that very few of these were in place in his school, which meant that from the start he was almost certain to fail. None of that was his fault, of course; it was the fault of the system in which he was embedded and the leaders of that system.

That science teacher in New York – the one who didn’t really know how to implement what he was trying and also didn’t have enough resilience to learn from his attempt and try again – represents countless other teachers all across the country. We have well-meaning educators everywhere who want to do right by kids and who want to innovate but lack the essential supports necessary to move their practice forward in ways that we are asking of them. Combine this lack of leadership and organizational support with compulsory topics of study (rock identification!) and compulsory exams (accountability!) that often don’t intersect with students’ interests or passions and it’s no wonder that we see so little innovation in our classrooms.

Dr. Richard Elmore, Gregory R. Anrig Research Professor at Harvard University, has written extensively about the concept of reciprocal accountability. Essentially, the idea is that for every increment of performance that school leaders and policymakers demand from teachers, they have at least an equal responsibility to provide them with the capacity to meet that expectation. We violate this capacity requirement daily in our school systems, piling mandate upon expectation upon wishful thinking without ever creating the concurrent support systems. Until we leaders take seriously our obligations of reciprocal accountability and capacity-building, we’re never going to see wide scale implementation of the changes so desperately needed in our classrooms and school systems.

Image credit: Basalt, David Ellis

The importance of watching and naming

Watching you

This past weekend our minister asked us to consider what it meant to be ‘present’ within a community. Among other actions, she articulated two concepts – watching and naming – that she thought were particularly important for members of a community who wish to be deeply involved and fully present.

Watching includes the acts of staying informed and of being a participant observer. Naming includes the willingness to label things as they really are. The example she used was the so-called ‘alt-right.’ She exhorted us to be vigilant against both hate and discrimination and to be aware of their existence in all of their numerous, varied, and often-hidden forms. She also reminded us that whoever controls the rhetoric controls the mindspace and that we need to call the alt-right for what it really is: a white nationalist movement based on bigotry and hatred.

I think that the concepts of watching and naming are relevant to educational contexts as well. Educators are losing political battles all across the country because they’re not able to influence the overall mindspace of policymakers or the general public. Whether it’s anti-union rhetorics or pro-voucher rhetorics or grade-level retention rhetorics or ‘no excuses’ discipline rhetorics or statistically-invalid ‘accountability’ rhetorics or any of several dozen other antithetical rhetorics, we see firsthand that the end result of educators’ inability to substantively impact high-level conversations is policy that harms children and schools. Despite the heroic efforts of bloggers and school advocates, many educators STILL continue to be unaware of how think tanks, private foundations, corporations, astroturf groups, and government actors work together – often behind the scenes – to formulate harmful laws, policies, and advocacy campaigns. Many educators are woefully ignorant of how state and national policy is made and/or feel completely helpless to positively impact policy conversations. We need more educators to follow educational reform conversations and to read more actively than an occasional mainstream news story and/or association newsletter (hint: social media can be a great way to accomplish these goals). We also need more educators who are willing to speak up – publicly and visibly – and name things for what they are. Right now fierce conversations are occurring around terms like ‘personalization’ and ‘pro-children’ and educators are losing.

Watching and naming are relevant concepts inside a school too. Are educators within your schools paying attention to transformational societal trends? Are they watching with a keen eye and critically interrogating the instructional practices that occur within their buildings and classrooms? Do they even see existing inequities? Are they willing to identify and call out outdated or ineffective school mindsets, structures, and processes?

How might you utilize the concepts of watching and naming to enhance your own policy and/or instructional work?

Image credit: I’m watching you…, Christine Krizsa

Schools are supposed to help students master the dominant information landscape of their time

Our new information landscape is digital bits in the ether instead of ink dots on paper. There is no foreseeable future in which we go back to analog. One of schools’ primary tasks is to help students master the dominant information landscape of their time. Schools are knowledge institutions preparing students to do knowledge work. So let’s be clear about what our new information landscape looks like:

Our new information landscape

The characteristics of our new information landscape listed on the right side have seismic implications for how we communicate, collaborate, connect, and create. These new characteristics are transforming every single information-oriented industry, upending business models, and destroying traditionally-dominant enterprises. Our new information landscape requires citizens and workers who are fluent with technology tools and online environments and is reshaping how we learn, interact, gain the attention of others, and engage in civic togetherness.

The schools that are doing a good job of preparing students for the right side of this chart are few and far between. Many are still arguing whether technology should even be in schools and/or are trying their best to lock down students’ access to digital environments as tightly as possible. We are hobbling our own children’s life success.

What are we waiting for? How many more children will we disadvantage? How many more generations of students are we going to turn out who are primarily prepared for the world of yesterday?

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Headwinds or tailwinds?

Against the wind | Vinoth Chandar, photographer

David Brooks said over at the New York Times:

The crucial social divide today is between those who feel the core trends of the global, information-age economy as tailwinds at their backs and those who feel them as headwinds in their face.

And that’s really it, isn’t it?

We have a majority of schools and leaders and educators and policymakers for whom the rapid changes around us feel like strong headwinds, negative forces that continually buffet them in the face. Technology that expands access to others… An ever-shifting, complex, hyperconnected information landscape… The ability to learn whatever we want at any time, in any place, on any path, at any pace… Global economic competition and cooperation… These are all seen as dilemmas. As problems that must be managed and minimized. As destructive challenges to retreat from, often because of a deep longing for a nostalgic yesteryear that was simpler, easier, and allegedly ‘better.’

And then we have the minority of schools and leaders and educators and policymakers for whom the rapid changes around us feel like tailwinds at their back, propelling them forward into unique opportunities to rethink education and do better by kids. These are places that are diving into the constructive complexities and emerging with new beliefs and new mindsets and new practices. They are finding ways to enable deeper thinking and greater student agency and more authentic work – and utilizing digital technologies all along the way to help facilitate and enhance these new forms of learning and teaching.

The headwinds people could learn a lot from the tailwinds people. They could garner ideas about how to pilot new initiatives. How to plant seeds of innovation and grow them in productive ways. How to move more quickly in order to be more relevant. How to empower children and youth and teachers in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. And so on…

Likewise, the tailwinds people could learn from the headwinds people. How to proceed thoughtfully. How to recognize the potential negatives and address rather than ignore them. How to validate the felt needs of communities without being dismissive. How not to get too far ahead of others who just aren’t there yet. And so on…

Ultimately the future lies with the tailwinds people, of course. ‘The future’ always wins. Whether we embrace the world around us or resist it with both heels dug in, the forces of technology, globalization, and learning possibility inevitably will carry the day. As I said in a long ago blog post

I think it is becoming increasingly clear that our current system of education is going to go away. There are simply too many societal pressures and alternative paradigms for it to continue to exist in its current form.

The only question, then, is: How long are we going to thrash around before we die?

Where do you fall? How do you and your educators and your schools and your communities view the changes around us? As headwinds or tailwinds? Or something else?

Image credit: Against the wind, Vinoth Chandar