Tag Archives: leadership

“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

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

Irresponsible fearmongering

Pokemon Go

Three days after the launch of Pokemon Go here in the United States, a central office administrator told me that his superintendent had emailed the entire district leadership team, warning them about the game because “six teenagers already had been killed by wandering into traffic while playing the game.” The administrator with whom I spoke said that he was concerned and also curious about what I thought.

A five-second Google search shows that the superintendent’s email is completely false. Some other funky, mostly harmless stuff has happened – as well as many positive stories too – but six teenagers killed in traffic is not one of them. There are a number of Pokemon Go hoaxes floating around and, of course, the usual handwringing, freaking out, and alarmism that accompany the launch of any new technology popular with young people.

I gently explained all of this to the administrator, and he was quick to note that this was not the first time that the superintendent had been alarmist regarding youth and technology. We had a good conversation and he walked away feeling more relaxed and informed.

The larger issue is our obligation as school leaders to avoid irresponsible fearmongering. Our messages and behaviors influence our educators and communities. They usually trust the information that we send them as principals and superintendents. I am pretty certain that we have a deep obligation to at least do some basic fact-checking instead of disseminating easily-disproven falsehoods. Otherwise we contribute to the fear and anxiety that already exist regarding youth and technology and impede our own technology integration efforts.

If we wish to facilitate digitally-rich learning spaces so that our students can use learning technologies in interesting and instructionally powerful ways, we can’t keep weighing down the fearful side of the balance scale…

Digital Leadership Daily now has over 1,000 subscribers

Digital Leadership Daily Photo

I’m pleased to note that Digital Leadership Daily is now reaching over 1,000 daily subscribers via its SMS, Facebook, and Twitter channels.

Fifteen months ago I decided to send out one high-quality technology leadership resource per day through this new dissemination channel. I figured that it was a good way to reach folks without overwhelming them. As I said when I introduced the service, I don’t think it can get any easier to learn than this…

I’ve had numerous busy school leaders tell me that Digital Leadership Daily is serving their learning needs well. It exposes them to new authors, gives them something to think about (and pass along to others) each morning, and comes to them directly rather than them having to seek it out.

Have you signed up yourself? If not, now is a good time! Know an administrator or teacher leader who might benefit from Digital Leadership Daily? I bet you do!

Innovation academies help build shared understanding, capacity, and commitment

Johnston CSD Compass

This year I’ve had the incredible privilege of working with the Johnston (IA), Emmetsburg (IA), and Prior Lake-Savage (MN) school districts in an Innovation Academy format. I thought that I’d share what that work has looked like in Johnston as we’ve progressed through the school months.

At the core of the Johnston Innovation Academy has been five full days – each about a month apart – of in-depth work with over forty district, building, and teacher leaders. Day 1 was all about the big picture. As I said to participants on that first day, if we’re going to really prepare students and graduates for the world outside of schools, it’s imperative that we truly understand what that world looks like and how it works. The focus of Day 1 was on exposure to the societal contexts surrounding school, including new literacies, economic and workforce trends, and how technology is transforming everyday life. Day 2 focused on the overarching concept of connectedness. We analyzed and strengthened our own personal and professional networks (both digital and analog), saw how connectedness is transforming both group interaction and individual relationships, and examined a number of connected learning initiatives for students and teachers.

On Day 3 we dove into rich, robust learning that focuses on deeper thinking and student agency. We looked at ‘gold standard’ project-based learning in depth and also evaluated a variety of school curricular and time models that facilitate greater learning ownership and active, hands-on work by students. On Day 4 we pulled in the trudacot discussion protocol to see what rich technology infusion looks like within the context of deeper learning and also studied numerous schools’ blended learning models. The end of Day 4 and all of Day 5 were about action planning: How do we take what we’ve learned and discussed and apply it forward?

One key to the success of the Academy has been the regular attendance of every participant. In many districts, administrators and teachers rarely sit side-by-side for multiple days of focused, cohesive learning. Having 40+ educators go through the same five days of in-depth learning allows for shared understandings, capacity-building, and commitments. Another critical component has been Johnston’s intentional alignment of its Academy with other district transformation initiatives. For example, Johnston has an Executive Director of Teaching, Learning, and Innovation who is able to help the superintendent move the Academy work forward in between meetups and also align it with that of other groups. Johnston also has a unifying vision and mission (expressed in the form of a compass), has sent teachers and administrators to visit several innovative schools to bring new ideas and practices back home, and has held multiple community roundtables to gather input from parents, business leaders, and other stakeholders (which, unsurprisingly, have confirmed the directions in which Johnston is heading). All of these work together to feed Johnston’s intentionality, focus, and alignment. As you might expect, we’ve had an incredible year together and I’m looking forward to seeing where they take things over the next couple of years.

What is your intentional, focused, structured, long term approach to initiate greater innovation?

2016 Johnston Innovation Academy Evaluation Results

See more details at: Investing in leadership capacity: The amazing, wonderful District 59

What we choose not to do matters

Seth Godin said:

most of the stuff that goes wrong, much of the organizational breakdown, the unfixed problems and the help not given, ends up happening because the system lets it happen. It happens because a boss isn’t focusing, or priorities are confused, or people in a meeting somewhere couldn’t find the guts to challenge the status quo.

What we choose not to do matters.

via http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/05/the-other-kind-of-evi.html

Don’t underestimate Kelly Tenkely

Anastasis 02

It would be very easy to underestimate Kelly Tenkely. She’s young, she’s hip, she’s got a style sense that I’ll never have even if I live four lifetimes. It would be very easy to say, “Who is this woman?” and dismiss her out of hand.

But before you do, read her blog post on what’s sacred in education. And remember that most of the structures that you have in place in your school are a result of institutional inertia and deliberate choices, not legal requirements. And then read it again.

What could you do differently? Are you even trying?

Image credit: Anastasis Academy

Personalizing every student’s level of success

Milkmachinefreelibrary

The Van Meter Schools have long been an incubator for innovation. Van Meter was one of our earliest districts to implement a 1-to-1 student computing initiative and also was one of the first districts in Iowa to be named an Apple Distinguished School.

More recently, Van Meter has been diving deeply into project-based learning, standards-based grading, competency-based education, and flexible, modular schedules in which students can exercise some choice and determine how much time they need to spend on their various learning endeavors. Van Meter’s work in the area of student competencies is especially impressive. Eventually, the district hopes to identify a comprehensive, interdisciplinary set of standards that all high school students need – plus an additional 6 to 10 competencies or dispositions – and these will become the district’s graduation requirements. Students will be able to take multiple pathways to get there, including projects, traditional coursework, online classes, and anything else that feeds into the district’s profile of a graduate. The hope is that most students will be able to complete these by junior year and then will be able to spend their senior year taking college classes, getting professional certifications, diving deeper into areas of interest and passion, and engaging in internships and service learning projects.

Teachers are in on the action too and rarely participate in whole-school learning contexts. Instead, classroom educators take a competency-based approach to their own professional learning and, through identification of the skills that they have and need, are able to personalize their professional growth. A badging system to track teachers’ professional learning is in the works.

What I like about Van Meter is that, in the words of Superintendent Deron Durflinger, they “often have a willingness to take risks and try things that other districts wait for. If folks out there are doing cool stuff, we’re not going to hold back on trying it out.” This orientation toward risk-taking allows Van Meter to live at the cutting edge of leading educational innovation movements and to iterate quickly toward new opportunities. Initiatives that many other districts consider to be organizational stretches are thought of by Van Meter as just part of how it does business.

Van Meter also has framed its work appropriately. Instead of each initiative being a stand-alone, disconnected program within a traditional school setup, everything that Van Meter does is woven together and oriented toward the ultimate goal of personalizing student learning. For instance, when asked what they are most excited about, administrators will say that at the top of their list are the types of questions that teachers are asking about how to better help individual students and their educators’ willingness to reexamine and alter current practices as needed.

The district is in the process of building a new school that will create different and varied kinds of learning spaces for students. I am sure that this new building will be amazing. But the district’s long-term impacts on students will be a result of its ongoing willingness to reorient its instructional practices and its organizational support systems that facilitate more robust forms of learning and teaching.

Is your district leading for innovation?

Image credit: Free library made from a milk vending machine, Van Meter Schools

Rethinking learning time in Clear Lake

ClearLakeMiddleSchool07

Clear Lake Middle School (CLMS) knew where it wanted to go. It just needed to put some new structures in place to get there…

Teacher learning. Many organizations have ‘20 percent time’ initiatives, which give employees time and permission to learn and work on new topics of their choosing as long as they have potential benefit to the organization. CLMS took that idea and ran with it, substituting ‘teacher genius hour’ for some of its traditional professional development. Today teachers are investigating a variety of interest-based professional learning topics, including essential questions in the classroom, rethinking grading in math class, flipped classrooms, screencasting, and gamification. All of these filter back into educators’ classrooms and improve student learning experiences.

Student learning. Last year CLMS began implementing P3BL blocks, which emphasize passion, projects, and problems. Every day the 6th graders get a 42-minute block and the 7th and 8th graders get an 84-minute block. Sometimes teachers create the projects, sometimes students do. Example student projects include ‘upcycling’ and repurposing of old furniture, working with media and marketing companies to create an advertising campaign that sells Clear Lake to outsiders and airs on television stations and billboards, and a ‘Shark Tank’ initiative in which students pitch innovative product ideas that improve people’s lives and their community. Students also are involved in a number of projects with the local fire service, including an awareness campaign that teaches local citizens about fire and carbon monoxide safety, creating maps of rural water sources in the county that can be used to refill fire trucks, and mapping local business building layouts that then get uploaded to the fire department’s Active 911 app.

Makerspace. This year CLMS also has implemented a makerspace called the Sandbox. Different challenges are set up for the students, who have 10 days to complete them. Hours are flexible, supervision is minimal (as are discipline issues). Students work on projects when they can, often logging time as early as 6:45am and as late as 5:30pm. Nearly a third of the school signed up for Round 3 of the challenges. The school’s Sandy Awards in May will honor the best designs of the year. And in early February the school’s Sandbox specialists (students, of course) will be hosting visually- and hearing-impaired peers to introduce them to some making/tinkering projects.

As teachers and students drive more of their own learning, the impacts on CLMS have been substantial. Energy and enthusiasm are high. Students who previously struggled with the traditional school model are finding their niches of expertise and success. A school that used to work for a few students now gives all of its students a chance to shine and have a voice.

How could you shake up your school day to create time for student (and staff) inquiry?

Image credit: Clear Lake Middle School

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