Saturday, 5 April 2014

Kids Say the Darndest Things

I remember when I was in kindergarten my teacher told my parents that I was a good student, but I dreamed too much. I remember other times in school where I was corrected to be more on task.

When I was in ninth grade my writing teacher would give students a topic, and then we had forty minutes to write a paper on the topic. I found myself sitting there and thinking of all the possibilities, and soon time would be up. I later learned that my ninth grade teacher conferred with my previous teacher to inquire why I had been recommended for the advanced writing class.

My previous teacher told my ninth grade writing teacher that I was not a speed writer, but rather a "thoughtful writer." When I heard about this conversation between my two teachers, I was struck by what I suddenly learned about myself as a learner. I learned that I was a thoughtful writer who needed time to think through a number of possibilities before making my choices. This was a critical turning point in my own learning, but that phase of my education could have destroyed my interest in writing forever.

About 15 years into my career as an educator I was given a going-away party as I was preparing to move to another school district. One of my gifts from my colleagues was a small handcrafted wooden box that had "wisdom" carved into the top. The box had a secret compartment that slid out, and there was a round metal piece that had "dream" carved into it. That gift has resonated with me forever. How do we find wisdom through our dreams? And how do we help students realize their dreams and passions to find their purpose and wisdom?

Sometimes I think we become so overly concerned about failure that we lose the dream and may also rob the dreams from our colleagues and students. Thomas Edison is a perfect example of a person who was willing to fail thousands of times, but eventually discovered the light bulb. I've written about this before, but we really need to recognize failure as an important part of the learning process. Having said this, we also need to remove some of the threats in schools that make students obsessed about right answers.

The world is complex, and we are not preparing students for a successful future when they believe there is only one way of doing things and only one right answer. In short, we're preparing students to be successful in our version of school, but we are not preparing them to be successful in life. Many students quickly learn to play a "safe game" so that they don't fail. I think we want students to dream and think big, so that they can have unimaginable opportunities in their lives.

Last year a friend told me about a book by Susan Cain called QUIET. It's a highly acclaimed book about introspective and reflective thinkers, how they function, and how they are understood and misunderstood. It turns out that a third to a half of all people are of this type, and yet the world sometimes expects them to be something different. I found much of who I am in this book, and once again powerfully learned about myself as a learner and how I can most effectively make my personal and professional contributions.

As you can see, I've been thinking a lot lately about dreams, how we know ourselves as learners, and how each of us fit into this world. While I am as research-based in my thinking on education as almost anyone, I think it is also important to keep alive the conversation about dreams. In many respects, research tells us what has been and dreams tell us what might be. I believe all of us educators need to dream more, and I believe we need to encourage students to dream more. It's in recognizing our dreams that we find our passion. In finding our passion, everything becomes possible.

Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech resonated for millions of people, and this dream continues to be a vital force in the world. Sometimes we sit back and say we'll believe it when we see it, but I think we need to further develop the skill Walt Disney recommended: "If you can dream it, you can do it."

As we look at ways to create better schools, we need to keep asking kids what excites and challenges them. We need to empower kids in their learning and encourage them to be advocates for their learning and the ways that they learn. We need to allow kids to pursue projects that demonstrate their learning in ways that fully engage them. All of this is frequently referenced as personalized learning, but essentially it's about all of us adults knowing who our students are as individuals, learners, and dreamers, and inviting our students to be passionate collaborators and co-designers in their learning with us.

There is clearly foundational knowledge that needs to be learned for students to be successful, and I am not abdicating that educators need to abandon many successful practices that are known to be effective. I am simply saying that there are ways for kids to be invited into the learning process that becomes more student-focused.

All over the world, I see a lot of educators running around with ideas about school reform. Meanwhile I keep thinking of a TV show ages ago where a guy named Art Linkletter would interview kids, and he would frequently comment that "Kids say the darndest things." As I continue to review all of the new educational ideas, I keep wondering "What would the kids say?".

As many of you know, I am an advocate for Professional Learning Communities where teachers support and challenge each other for improved teaching and learning. I am also a strong advocate for student voice and the power of students to help us create the dream schools where ALL students can flourish. I think we're doing a pretty good job on the teaching side of things, and I'm seeking more on the learner side. I guess I am looking for that era in schools where "kids say the darndest things," and their magnificently wild ideas and unique ways of presenting them become exciting new possibilities and even realities.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Envisioning the Whole Elephant

Creating a systemic approach to 21st century learning has frequently been like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man finds a different part of the elephant and thinks that is the elephant, but in fact it is only a part. Much of what has been written and discussed about 21st century learning are only parts, and sometimes the parts have unfortunately appeared as heated advocacy and debate. Therefore it is now invigorating to have a systemic model that best serves a holistic approach to student learning.

An important systemic model has emerged through a research paper by Michigan State University faculty members Kristen Kereluik, Punya Mishra, Chris Fahnoe, and Laura Terry that is entitled "What Knowledge is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning," and is a brilliant synthesis of key research studies on 21st century learning. In addition to receiving a distinguished award and publication in the Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, the results of this research will also be a featured keynote at the ISTE Conference in summer of 2014.

This 21st century learning model has three main categories for student learning: Foundational Knowledge (to know), Meta Knowledge (to act), and Humanistic Knowledge (to value). Each main category has three sub-categories that articulate direction and intent.

The three sub-categories of Foundational Knowledge include: Digital/Information Literacy, Core Content Knowledge, and Cross-Disciplinary Knowledge. Within each of these it becomes important to identify what is of most worth for learning (as opposed to voluminous learning for the sake of learning) and to also look at ways to pursue authentic learning that establishes relevance and integration. There has sometimes been a struggle for dominance within these three sub-categories in schools, and this approach recognizes purposeful balance.

The three sub-categories of Meta Knowledge include: creativity and innovation, problem solving and critical thinking, and communication and collaboration. These are the critical processes necessary for developing high levels of foundational knowledge. These skills involve processes for effectively working "in the box" and also "out of the box,"so that learning is an act of production and creation. There has been justified criticism of education that it has become too much about learning and not enough about doing. This meta knowledge level is very much focused on active and engaged doing.

Finally the three sub-categories of Humanistic Knowledge include: life/job skills, ethical/emotional awareness, and cultural competence. These attributes focus on empowerment of the learner through awareness of self, as well as development of social and global context. Humanistic knowledge is sometimes an area that is slighted in schools, and this model suggests that success in life is interconnected with a humanistic perspective. There have been many brilliant people throughout history who have done horrible things, and this area of emphasis says that we need to pay attention to quality of life and to recognize our interdependence in the world.

In many ways this research shows that "nothing has changed" and also shows that "everything has changed." I have seen schools that have had a dominant focus on one or two sub-categories of Foundational Knowledge, and not recognized the important skills of Meta Knowledge. I have seen schools that have largely ignored Humanistic Knowledge. There are a multitude of variations that lack focus, coherence, and direction, and yet there are also pockets of excellence almost everywhere. The challenge is bringing it all together in ways that are purposeful, universally understood, and that allow people their creative modes of expression.

Ultimately it's important to understand the distinctions within Foundational Knowledge, Meta Knowledge, and Humanistic Knowledge, so that a well-rounded, comprehensive, liberal arts education is made possible in the education of the whole child for ALL children.

For staff at schools who are serious about developing a systemic approach to 21st century learning, I suggest looking at Appendix B in the research study to see all of the descriptors identified for the main categories and sub-categories. This could be an excellent source of conversation and self-assessment for identifying where to celebrate and where there is work that could lead to meaningful strategic planning and long-range goal setting.

For people who would like to read the full research study, here's the link:

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


When I was in college, my dorm mate and I had a bi-monthly contest. When classes were finished on a Friday afternoon, we would hitchhike in different directions to see who could go out the furthest and still make it back in time for Monday morning classes. As part of this contest, we agreed to bring back some piece of evidence (e.g., often a matchbook) of the furthest place we went. Whoever made it out the furthest was the winner. This hurling ourselves into the unknown called on us to be resourceful in ways that were often new to us. We called these adventures "freeforming."

After the first semester of freeforming, I came up with a new idea on how to consistently get out further than my dorm mate. Near our college was a small airport for private airplanes. On Friday afternoon I would ask a pilot walking out to his plane if it was okay to hitch a ride with him. Nine times out of ten they were glad to have some company. Every other week I was flying in a single engine or twin engine plane across state borders. I would usually spend the full day on Saturday exploring the place where we landed. I went to museums, concerts, libraries, parties, and all kinds of events that were associated with the people I met. These experiences expanded my perceptions and understanding of the world.

On Sunday I would usually try to figure out how to get back to school. Most of the time I made it back for my Monday morning classes, but not always. Freeforming started out as a contest, but finally and simply became a grand adventure. After my first year at college I moved into a house and lost contact with my dorm mate. I've somewhat regretted that I never had the opportunity to tell him how I was getting out so much further than him every other weekend. Nevertheless there were only three rules to freeforming -- leave after last class on Friday, make it back for first class on Monday, and no purchases for transportation.

Years later I traveled Vietnam, China, and Thailand for 30 days with a friend. Our agreement was that we would try to get as far "off the grid" as possible in order to see places not frequently seen by tourists and to dig deep into the cultures of the three countries. The adventure was incredible. We listened to what people told us, often with much language difficulty, and we met people and went to places that are indelibly now a part of who we are.

As I've thought about this freeforming, I've thought that this is also an important metaphor for education and life. Unfortunately in education the destination is frequently known and defined by the teacher and school, and the student tries to learn the "game" to get a good grade. This game ultimately becomes about compliance, and not about discovery and adventure. I know there are certain essentials to a good education, but what if education had few rules (for students and teachers) and actually encouraged everyone to collaborate, communicate, and think creatively and critically in ways that aren't exclusively pre-determined?

It always seems odd to me that a 21st century skill is creative thinking, and schools quickly jump to identify the "performance rubric" for what quality creative thinking looks like. If it's great creative thinking, perhaps it is beyond a rubric. When Picasso helped to invent cubism, there was probably not a rubric at the time that would have accepted cubism as art. If we want to explore the world fully and deeply, to be open to experiences that we cannot predict, to draw on all of our inner resources and resourcefulness, and to potentially create solutions in the world that are original and profound, we need to find a way to loosen the reigns on what we see as education and learning.

Jay Mctighe and Grant Wiggins talk about "enduring understandings" in education that are at a high level of cognition and understanding. Perhaps that is enough. Maybe the work of education is creating the conditions for kids to function in the world like real mathematicians, historians, writers, scientists, artists, etc.. Maybe it's about helping kids to authentically experience the adventure of learning and life, and to help them find their way now and then through freeforming.

I know this is a frightening concept to systems that aspire to high levels of control and accountability, but we do not live in a mechanistic world. We live in a humanistic world that is full of ambiguities and moral choices. Isn't that even more reason to create an education system that encourages all of us to pursue deep and full experiences of different areas of learning and life?

I remember once talking to a high school senior who had just finished an amazing independently developed service learning project that hugely benefitted a community. I asked her what her "walk away" would be from high school as a result of this project experience. She said, "I now know how to identify needs in the world, I know how to develop a project that is based on clear goals, I know how to build a team, and I know how to execute a plan so that it produces positive results. I can go anywhere in the world and do this at any time." When I heard this, I didn't want to tell her what maybe she should have done or to even grade her. I just wanted to cheer her on. She was freeforming, and she was on fire!

Monday, 23 September 2013

7 Characteristics of Quality School Culture

I've been thinking a lot about school culture because I know how tough and daunting school can sometimes feel. Rather than thinking about how to make everyone happy, I've been framing it more as how a group of people can come together through genuine shared excitement for how to do great things for kids and learning. Here are some of my "starting points" for a topic that I believe deserves continual inquiry, reflection, and support.

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to school culture since culture is contextual and personal, and it is important to always remember that school culture is about the quality of one's community and what the community is able to accomplish together.

Therefore an important entry into culture is RESPECT. I believe most people in a school are genuinely interested in doing good things for kids, willingly work hard, and want to experience success at what they do. Respect needs to be expressed for the work of the past, present, and future to build trust and a strong school tradition.

I think it is a good practice to look at change or new directions as "standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before." This acknowledges and respects the work of those in the past. I think it is good practice to be open to learn from everyone who is presently around you, and not have learning be predominately determined by status or power. Finally, I think it is good practice to continue to respect ourselves and others as we try new ideas and fail. Failure is vastly under-rated, and we can all increase our learning exponentially if we become more accepting of failure. All of this is about how we respect ourselves and others, so that we create a strong culture for learning and growth.

A second important component of school culture is a compelling VISION for what the school aspires to be for kids. There are many vision statements that are flat and corporate-sounding. Vision statements may be developed collaboratively or a leader may share a vision that touches the hearts and minds of a school community. In short, the vision should not feel like another routine, but rather should feel like a calling. When members of a school community rally behind a vision, the possibilities are limitless.

Third, it is important to understand how people are genuinely motivated and inspired in their work. A lot of research has emerged on what motivates people to do great work, but Daniel Pink has perhaps done the best job of synthesizing three main themes: AUTONOMY, MASTERY, and PURPOSE.

Once there is a compelling Vision, people want to experience autonomy and self-direction in realizing the vision. If the culture becomes too prescriptive or too tight, then people will experience compliance and frustration. People also need the time, support, and feedback to develop mastery. Jumping on and off different tracks does not allow opportunity for people to develop and experience mastery. Therefore a sense of continuity and progress are essential. People naturally seek purpose in their lives, and purpose emerges when people see how they connect to the whole. Part of purpose is feeling valued. Another part of purpose is experiencing encouragement to create, invent, explore, discover, fail, and to collaborate with other adventurous souls. There is a feeling of exhilaration and worth when members of a school community experience genuine autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

While all of these components are essential to school culture, it is important to also create a school environment where DIVERSITY is pursued and recognized as a strength. Diversity provides different perspectives, and allows opportunity for ideas to mash in ways that create new possibilities. While all schools are challenged by various types of politics and personal ambitions, there needs to be a way for members to proactively monitor and modulate this so that there is a continual "flow" of diverse ideas and talents.

For diversity to flourish, there needs to be trust that it is okay to have a different perspective, to share it openly, and to potentially debate it. Agreements may need to be established, but it is important that everyone feel their "voice" is valued and has been heard. In a culture of fear, voices go underground because of a belief that diverse perspectives are not valued. This then leads to a continual tug-of-war for power by various players. While diversity can be a challenging experience, it is always worth it when viewed through the lens of deeper levels of understanding and willing collaboration for new possibilities. Native Americans refer to "original medicine" as the value of all members of the tribe to collectively bring forward healing and a promising future.

A final component to school culture is CELEBRATION. To be great at anything requires tremendous dedication and effort. Sometimes the struggle to build mastery can feel overwhelming. Sometimes one can have doubts about the vision or one's own part in the vision, and yet one continues forward in good faith. To help a school culture move through complicated and difficult times, it is important to "shine the light" on what is working and to celebrate small and large victories. Taking time to celebrate is also a way for a school to show it genuinely cares about its members and to signal that everyone is in this together. There is also an ebb and flow to the school year, and finding ways to celebrate during "heavy times" or "long stretches" can be a way to re-gain momentum and collegiality.

I believe these seven characteristics of RESPECT, VISION, AUTONOMY, MASTERY, PURPOSE, DIVERSITY, and CELEBRATION are essential to quality school culture. Rather than looking to a person or group of persons as responsible for these characteristics, I believe it is everyone's responsibility to contribute to positive and productive school culture. These characteristics are as much for a community of students as they are for educators and parents. I would encourage everyone to think of a time in their lives when the culture of a particular place was inspiring. Reflect on what made that place and time so special, and start a conversation with those around you as to how you can collectively create a school culture that makes every day an exciting and purposeful adventure.

The journey starts with a single step . . .

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Aligned Impact for Student Learning, Staff Learning, and School Improvement

There is significant and compelling research on what works and doesn't work for student learning, staff learning, and school improvement.

One problem is that these three areas of development are often treated in isolation and are frequently not aligned for optimum performance in schools. Why is there such dramatic separation around conversations about student learning targets and assessment, conversations around needs and expectations for staff learning and performance, and conversations around school improvement benchmarks?

A second problem is that schools often try to serve different and contradictory masters, and therefore it is essential to clarify the main purpose for the school so as to establish unity of purpose and effort. Is a school focused on student learning and growth or is a school focused on achievement and proving itself as one of the leading schools in the world?

To be a leading school in the world requires a school to establish compatible benchmarks with other schools, so as to establish appropriate comparisons. Does this striving to exceed compatible benchmarks of other schools take a school off its main mission of what it values and sees as most important? Does the continual attention on compatible benchmarks start to make a school more like other schools where the contextual uniqueness of a school and perhaps a higher vision become compromised or lost? Is there perhaps greater educational value for "like-minded schools" to create networks and alliances for learning and sharing, rather than competition fields for rankings?

How does a school reconcile a major goal of learning and another major goal of achievement? Some will say that all of this is not an either-or situation, but what really is the priority? Do educators feel divided or confused about their real purpose? Remember when a data point of technology prowess was the number of computers in a school per student? This was simply a data point about inventory, but had no deeper meaning about learning. Comparisons are often full of superficial data points that mean nothing without deeper probing for context and meaning.

A third problem is a lack of genuine inter-communication across stakeholder groups (e.g., students, teachers, administrators, classified staff, parents, Board) so as to create a school culture that has multiple and genuine opportunities for input and deep understanding for the direction of the school. Perhaps the typical structure of how schools are organized is inherently flawed. We have all seen how teachers develop agendas for their classrooms and teams, how administrators engage in identifying agreements on current and future agendas, and how school Boards may have their own agendas on what constitutes a successful school. Meanwhile students and parents have their own ideas about what school should be. The problem with this structure is that it creates agenda competition and distrust across stakeholder groups.

If a school is focused on 1-3 robust and long-term goals that it believes can substantively advance student learning for all students, perhaps there needs to be greater attention to the structure that coherently supports the advancement of these goals. Research would suggest that rather than layers of stakeholders in a school talking among themselves and cementing separate agendas, there is value in an integrated team of students, parents, teachers, administrators, classified staff and Board members who are fully cognizant of the directions of the school and who can engage in meaningful and transparent conversations about implementation from different perspectives.

It is fairly common practice for schools to pull together diverse ad hoc committees for different topics, but building a guiding coalition of diverse stakeholders who are committed to the development and accomplishment of long-term strategic objectives and who find the ways to productively extend the conversation among all other stakeholders is a way to bring a school together for a common purpose and enhance school culture. The execution of this requires strong leadership and facilitation, but the learning, trust, and thoughtful decision-making and actions that can emerge from this process outweigh the challenges.

Sometimes a diverse guiding coalition can be perceived as an "inside or elite group" with everyone else as outsiders. Therefore it is important to also provide avenues for other members of the school community to have a voice and to also be responsible for contributing to thoughtful ideas and school directions. A high functioning school is an inclusive environment that embraces diversity as a strength, rather than creating conditions where people seek each other out because of similar beliefs, similar job roles, or similar backgrounds.

We have all seen examples of different "point persons" being the messengers for different agendas and how these messages can feel like they are being hammered out to everyone in the school. A more integrated and interactive structure potentially offers improved opportunities for a school to truly clarify and communicate the brand of education that it believes is most important and that can have the best success in aligning student learning, staff learning, and school improvement.

A guiding coalition needs to have the interests of the whole school in mind and heart, and not diverge into private agendas. While the concept of a guiding coalition is not a new idea, there are a multitude of examples where there are guiding coalitions in schools and then there are also different individuals or strata that continue to have their private conversations and plans about what will really take place.

While some people would argue that a diverse guiding coalition with different perspectives is not efficient, I would argue that it is not effective to have isolated conversations by different groups of people who will be impacted by how decisions are made, interpreted, and implemented. Stratified structures are like the the story of the blind men who each experience their separate parts of the elephant and believe it is the whole elephant.

If we believe in the concept that "it takes a village to educate a child" and that all of us are responsible for quality education, then it is incumbent on us to figure out how to best build the village (not a bunch of competing villages) and ensure success for ALL of our kids.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Where is the World in World-Class Education?

It is interesting to note that a multitude of school mission and vision statements make reference to some notion of world-class education, and then provide a random list of justifications for how it is pursuing this. It is similarly interesting to note how 21st century learning skills frequently lack a transformative purpose, even though numerous rationales are given about how the world has changed and is continuing to change. Finally, it is interesting to note that even international schools may have no clear focus on what it means to provide a global education.

If we believe the world has changed, how are we supporting education that fully engages students in this changed world? More importantly, what are the intentional habits of mind or dispositions that are being cultivated in students and staff that offer ongoing learning and growth to meet the demands of an ever-changing world? In order for any school to become world-class, for 21st century learning to have purpose, and for international education to have focus, there needs to be greater clarity around the transformative aspects of what it means to live, learn, and work in the world. To be prepared for the future means to be globally competent.

Global competence is inclusive of college readiness and work readiness. To reverse the focus to college and work is to miss the point, to significantly limit student learning and contributions, and to lose focus on the transformation that is needed in the world. Howard Gardner, author of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, has said:

“The world will not be saved by high test scores. . . . Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st we have seen all too well the incredible world-defying blunders committed by the so-called best and brightest. The disastrous Vietnam war, the unforeseen consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the financial meltdowns of 2001 and 2008—educational and financial elites bear much of the blame for these lamentable events. What is needed more than ever is a laser-like focus on the kinds of human beings that we are raising and the kinds of societies—indeed, in a global era, the kind of world society that we are fashioning.”

The good news is that there are many schools, countries, and organizations in the world that are focusing on developing global competences for students. These are systems that deeply understand that success increasingly requires the ability to compete, connect, and collaborate on an international scale. These are systems that know their students will need to be active and collaborative inventors of their future. Unfortunately a significant number of college graduates in the United States are now unemployed because they have been trained in a traditional rite of passage model that is no longer relevant.

There are schools and countries around the world that do not yet fully understand that the well-being of their students and economies, and the interdependent well-being of the world, is linked to everyone’s ability to develop globally competent students. Global competence is inclusive of the needs and issues of one’s school, community, country, and world. Therefore the urgency to develop globally competent students is now.

The most important step forward is for schools to systemically design what it means to develop globally competent students, and to put these plans at the forefront of their actions. Here are a few starting points to consider:
  1. How are globally competent students identified in your school’s vision, mission, and/or strategic areas of focus? 
  2. What is your operating definition for globally competent students? 
  3. How will you promote ongoing inquiry and discourse throughout your school on what it means to develop globally competent students? 
  4. How will leadership actively support systems that enhance global competence for all students? 
  5. How will global competence become a prominent focus within the school’s curriculum and assessments in ways that are enduring, substantive, authentic, and transferrable? 
  6. What is your graduate profile for a globally competent student, and how will this support backward design through all the other grade levels? 
  7. How will students be empowered in their own areas of inquiry, connection, and action in the world?
  8. What kinds of strategic partnerships with other schools and organizations could powerfully benefit global competence for your students?
There are many excellent resources on global competence, but a place to start is with "Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World:"

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Clarifying the Shifts in 21st Century Learning

It seems like everyone is talking about 21st century learning, but clarity on the distinctions between education in the past and education in the present is often muddled. Many people are also annoyed by the description of 21st century learning since we are more than a decade into the 21st century. As long as education settles on a bloated list of content and skills in predictable approaches to teaching and learning, it will always be outdated. Instead the conversation needs to shift to core areas of learning for success now, and dispositions for learning that will prepare students for success in the future. Given this, here are a few of the distinctions between what education has been and what education needs to be:
  1. Previous emphasis on what and how the teacher is teaching, and current emphasis on what students are really learning
  2. Previous emphasis on the student as a passive recipient, and current emphasis on the student as an active co-designer in learning
  3. Previous emphasis on the teacher as disseminator of prescribed content, and current emphasis on teacher as a facilitator of "big ideas" and transferrable concepts
  4. Previous emphasis on a one-size fits all "standardized" approach to learning, and current emphasis on differentiated and personalized learning to meet the needs of all students
  5. Previous emphasis on learning as an individual experience, and current emphasis on self-directed and collaborative learning
  6. Previous emphasis on a narrow definition of communication as usually limited to writing and sometimes speaking, and current emphasis on a full range of communication, artistic, and media approaches
  7. Previous emphasis on textbooks, and current emphasis on multiple resources (including primary sources) of study that make fuller use of technology and digital tools
  8. Previous emphasis on prescribed activities and worksheets, and current emphasis on students as critical and creative thinkers in their own learning
  9. Previous emphasis on summative testing, and current emphasis on formative types of assessment to better ensure learning progress and also including student self-assessment within the learning process
  10. Previous emphasis on right-wrong answers and singular approaches for obtaining answers, and current emphasis on problem-based learning that demonstrates greater complexity of thinking and learning
  11. Previous emphasis on grades, and current emphasis on growth, learning, and goal-setting
  12. Previous emphasis on decontextualized learning, and current emphasis on authentic learning within real world contexts
  13. Previous emphasis on a nationalistic brand of education, and current emphasis on an engaged global and multicultural approach to education
  14. Previous emphasis on a defined and set curriculum, and current emphasis on curriculum being collaboratively shaped by student interests, talents, curiosities, and passions
  15. Previous emphasis of the school as the exclusive place for learning, and current emphasis of the 24/7 world as an "open space" for learning (with technology as a key facilitative learning tool)
  16. Previous emphasis of time as the determiner for teaching, and current emphasis on flexibility of time to appropriately support the learning of the learner
  17. Previous emphasis of teachers working in isolation, and current emphasis on teachers in Professional Learning Communities or teams to understand and improve student learning
  18. Previous emphasis on students meeting adult expectations, and current emphasis on students discovering and developing their own unique identity and authentic voice
If we aren't aware of the shifts between the past and current needs of education, then we'll likely get caught in how we've always done things. Each shift requires awareness and development of new beliefs, dispositions, and skills. Each shift requires continual inquiry as to how to most powerfully support learning for all students for success today and for tomorrow. A compelling school vision provides urgency and coherence for these various approaches to be realized.

These are not simply switches that are turned off and on, but rather require evolution of beliefs, dispositions, and skills by educators through active dialogue and engagement in these approaches. In the end, we know that culture always trumps strategy, and therefore helping all stakeholders to understand the "why" for changes and also offering varied and ongoing support for success are essential. It is the cultivation of a school-wide culture that embraces change, innovation, and ongoing research and development that will lead to bolder opportunities for students. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Strategic Thinking and Planning

After serving as a school and district consultant in the U.S. and internationally for strategic planning, I've had opportunity to experience what makes strategic planning work and fail. One of my Superintendent friends adamantly believes strategic planning is a waste of time, and I think many of his arguments are valid.

I am guided, however, by the wisdom of baseball's Yogi Berra who once said: "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."

Let's start with why strategic planning fails. From my research and experience, here are the top 10 reasons why strategic planning fails (in no particular prioritized order because any one of them can take you out):
  1. Lack of a compelling vision or direction
  2. Lack of stakeholder involvement and/or understanding of the why, how, and what of the plan
  3. Lack of a "focused strategic plan" with clear targets
  4. Lack of leadership (including distributed leadership) and accountability
  5. Lack of resources to implement the plan (e.g., people, time, supplies/equipment, training)
  6. Lack of ongoing PLC/teams development in implementing the plan with reasonable timelines
  7. Lack of organizational stability
  8. Lack of flexibility to monitor and adjust
  9. Lack of understanding for context and culture
  10. Lack of organizational learning on how to implement successful change
So what are potential entry points for effective strategic planning?

Learning to Think Strategically

Before a school can pursue effective strategic planning, it needs to develop understanding and skill in how to think strategically. Many ideas that come forward as strategic are actually tactical or "thin solutions," and not leveraged and robust opportunities.

Creating a Culture of Strategic Thinking

A school or district needs to look at how it will "create a culture of strategic thinking." Not only does this culture piece translate well for organizational needs and issues, but strategic thinking also translates well for teachers and students in classrooms. When everyone is focused on how to most elegantly leverage learning, hearts and minds race with possibilities.

For strategic thinking to accelerate, look at what promotes strategic thinking and what hinders strategic thinking. Find ways to accentuate the boosters and find ways to reduce the barriers. Everyone needs to pursue this within their own sphere of influence, and also wisely advocate for how strategic thinking can be further enhanced across the sacred domains and silos of a school and district.

Don't focus on answers. Focus on questions. What is the school we want to create for our kids? What would this look like, sound like, feel like? How would this be different from what we have now? Why do we think this might be better? What might be some good first steps? What might be our biggest challenges and opportunities? In short, begin to tap into the innate interests of educators to create a better future for kids. Dare to dream big.

Building Capacity for Strategic Thinking

Here are some other ways to build capacity for thinking strategically:
  1. Create opportunities for long range visioning throughout the school
  2. Support conscious and intentional culture shifts -- find ways to honor and respect the past, build enthusiasm for a desirable future, and continue to shine the light on what is going well in the transition between the past and the future
  3. Build collaborative and distributed leadership engaged in regular focused strategic thinking
  4. Establish structures that support a learning organization -- research and development, Professional Learning Communities, connected learning networks, environments within the school that naturally and comfortably support conversations and brief or extended interactions
  5. Pursue backward design -- develop graduate profiles, and plan backwards from high school to elementary on how to coherently support success for the realization of the graduate profile
  6. Use school accreditation for deep and honest review, reflection, and renewal
  7. Encourage innovations throughout the school that address strategic objectives
  8. Think 21st century -- environmental scans, scenario planning, 21st century learning standards, connect with "like-minded" people and places throughout the world so as to mobilize and energize the school 
  9. Create visual models for people to discuss the vision and future directions, so as to build understanding for the "big picture" and to reduce confusion and a sense of fragmentation
  10. Empower people and students as strategic thinkers, and celebrate both successes and failures
Strategic Planning

The Schooling by Design model created by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins is a complementary strategic planning model to the Understanding by Design model that is frequently used by classroom teachers in the development of units of learning. Both of these models are also complementary to the model used by Professional Learning Communities: 1) What do we want students to know, understand, and be able to do?, 2) How will we know when students are learning it?, 3) What will we do to optimize learning for all students (those who already get it, those in the middle, and those who struggle)?

It is helpful to have a strategic planning model that mirrors the design of curriculum units and the work of teams of teachers. These complementary models become known as how the school thinks and takes action. The main caution I have about this is when plans become overly complex and detailed, and then lose sight that life and learning happen. Therefore these need to be boldly and simply designed to communicate purposefully and also to be appropriately flexible in the process.

I remember organizational developer Marilyn Ferguson repeatedly saying: "The map is not the territory." It is important for everyone to know that plans need to be understood, appropriately supported, implemented, reviewed, revised, and sometimes abandoned.

The Apollo 11 moon flight was off a straight course more than 90% of the time, but its destination was clear. Continual monitoring and adjusting allowed the mission to arrive at its desired destination. A clear vision and direction with flexibility is the key.

Improving the Quality of Professional Learning

One of the most interesting reports on effectiveness of school systems around the world was the 2007 McKinsey Report on "How the World's Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top." Three main themes emerged from this study:
  1. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers
  2. The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction
  3. High performance requires every child to succeed
In short, improvement for student learning is contingent on improvement of staff learning and performance. It is ironic that something so important in the research is often treated casually and erratically by schools. It would seem that something as important as professional learning would be near the top of school agendas and operations. 

At Singapore American School, we had cycles of improvement for almost everything. We noticed, however, that we didn't have a cycle to systematically review our approaches to professional learning. The trick in schools is how to best conduct a comprehensive review, but also do this in a way that is as efficient as possible so as to not distract staff from their main purpose of working with kids. The following is the process we implemented over a semester of time (fall of 2012) that identified commendations and recommendations:
  1. Initial input from the Superintendent on Institutional Commitments and professional learning
  2. Administrator interviews by division regarding current status of professional learning related to seven standards identified by Learning Forward
  3. A cross-divisional teacher research team studied the research on the professional learning standards, and identified opportunities within each of the standards through use of a google doc
  4. Each administrative leadership team member identified areas of inquiry regarding professional learning through use of a google doc
  5. Input and feedback was collected from the various departments related to quality of professional learning (e.g., Office of Learning, Educational Technology, Finance, HR), including review of SMART goals where applicable
  6. Review of schoolwide policies, procedures, artifacts, and practices as it related to professional learning
  7. Inquiry with K-12 coaches on ways to further optimize coaching for professional learning
  8. Review of best practices in professional learning through team participation at the 2012 Learning Forward Conference
  9. Synthesis of all input (for areas above) emerged as themes in a preliminary draft of commendations and recommendations
At the completion of the internal review process, an external review process was then initiated. This external review process involved Joellen Killion from Learning Forward, and included the following approaches:
  1. A Learning Forward survey (i.e., SAI2) was administered with all staff, which checked effectiveness of 50 best practice criteria aligned to seven professional learning standards
  2. Joellen Killion participated in a four-day on-site review of evidence and stakeholder sessions to determine levels of professional learning practice at SAS
  3. A 15-point Learning Forward audit of professional learning was used by Joellen Killion to further synthesize and confirm the validity of the internal review commendations and recommendations, and to make revisions where appropriate
  4. Joellen Killion facilitated feedback sessions on the revised commendations and recommendations with the cross-divisional research team, coaches, departments, division principals, and the Superintendent, and this further refined the statements of commendation and recommendation
  5. An administrative leadership team session was conducted on the final commendations and recommendations, which provided opportunity for dialogue and questions to develop deeper levels of understanding and action
  6. An 18-month action plan timeline was collaboratively developed to operationalize the various components of the recommendations, and a new board policy was developed to provide added support for these directions
A simple and yet significant development from the review process was enhanced organizational clarity around the definition, principles, and standards of professional learning for Singapore American School. 

Definition of Professional Learning:
The term of professional learning means a comprehensive, differentiated, and sustained approach to improving teachers' and administrators' effectiveness in optimizing student learning.

Principles of Professional Learning -- The Principles of Professional Learning are intended to guide the thoughts, words, and actions of leaders, designers, and participants in pursuit of quality professional learning:
  1. Effective professional learning is fundamental to improved student learning
  2. All educators have an obligation to improve their practice
  3. Successful leaders create and sustain a culture of learning and innovation
  4. Improving student learning and professional practice requires ongoing systemic and organizational change
  5. Professional Learning Communities can solve even their most complex problems by tapping into internal expertise
  6. All professional learning meets the research-based criteria of professional learning as recognized by Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning
  7. All professional learning aligns with the SAS Institutional Commitments and strategic directions of the school
  8. Professional learning achieves its results for optimizing student learning when it provides adult learners different learning designs and support for implementation
Standards of Professional Learning (adopted from Learning Forward):
  1. Learning Communities -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment.
  2. Leadership -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning. 
  3. Resources -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires prioritizing, monitoring, and coordinating resources for educator learning.
  4. Data -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students uses a variety of sources and types of student, educator, and system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning.
  5. Learning Designs -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes.
  6. Implementation -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students applies research on change and sustains support for implementation of professional learning for long-term change. 
  7. Outcomes -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards. 
At the end of each year, one of the highest ratings from faculty at SAS is professional learning. Hopefully these review findings will lead to further improvements within professional learning and practice, which can then translate into improved learning opportunities for all students. In the end, however, it's one thing to develop review findings and recommendations and it is all together another thing to effectively act on recommendations. This is when the effectiveness of leadership and teams are tested. 

Re-thinking Curriculum

What are the real issues that compromise U.S. and school curriculum?

Scenario #1: An Over-Crowded Curriculum
Robert Marzano has told us that it would take about 16 years for teachers to merely cover the U.S. standards recommended by the various national subject area organizations for a K-12 education of students. This obviously does not provide time for depth of learning or application. 

Scenario #2: Passion and Advocacy for Different Subject Areas
Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins offer the solution to identify what is most important within the curriculum, and I believe this is something most curriculum directors try to do in collaboration with teachers. The problem with this, however, is that usually the great teachers who want to be on curriculum writing teams are passionate about their subject areas and may not be ready to "lean the curriculum." This becomes further complicated on the high school level when courses may be recommended and designed by great teachers who have a passion for specialized areas of personal interest. 

Scenario #3: Lack of Curricular Balance
When passionate educators see particular subject areas as more important than others and there is not overall agreement on a sense of balance or proportion, then what remains is advocacy. Also national standards within different subject areas frequently advocate for their own allocations of time, resources, and facilities, and cumulatively this is not possible. The job of a curriculum director is to seek a sense of balance or proportion across the subject areas, but the fact is that curriculum is frequently a collaborative venture on a multi-year curriculum cycle. Therefore this sense of balance is not always simultaneously pursued across subject areas as new curriculum is being developed or upgraded. 

Scenario #4: A Reductionist Curriculum
Because schools and districts function within systems, there is often a belief that detailed content and skills need to be identified so that they can be consistently delivered by different teachers, so that learning results can be accurately determined, and so that teacher evaluations can be appropriately applied.

What is the fundamental problem with all four of these scenarios? The foremost problem is the asking of the wrong leading question: What are the real issues that compromise U.S. and school curriculum? The fundamental problem here is that the student is not dynamically a part of any of these conversations. Instead, the curriculum is being planned for the student as though learning occurs in a logical, concrete, and sequential manner. 

If we believe, however, that deep and profound learning is messy and requires a willingness to venture into the unfamiliar or unknown, then curriculum design needs to be approached differently. What are the starting points?

1. How do we really know each learner? What are his/her areas of passion, interest, talent, curiosity? What are his/her areas of prior knowledge and readiness for learning? What is his/her learning profile? Do we see these questions as token markers within differentiated instruction, or are we genuinely interested and curious about our learners and what is important to them?

2. What are the big ideas or concepts that are most important for students to understand in a K-12 education? How can we collectively "see the forest for the trees" in these big ideas and concepts, and how is this unpacked and deeply understood by educators? Do we error on the side of over-simplification of what is truly complex because we believe a lock-step education outweighs the value of density and inquiry?

3. What if complexity was further reinforced through appropriately challenging levels of problem-based and project-based learning where knowledge and skills are inherent within authentic work? In this way long curriculum lists of knowledge and skills could be replaced by robust problems and projects that fully engage students in real life learning and applications of learning. 

4. How do we authentically invite students to be co-designers in their own learning so that students and teachers are fully engaged in a journey of inquiry and discovery together?

5. What are various ways that students can demonstrate their understanding of big ideas and concepts in ways that are not necessarily sequential or according to "pacing guidelines?" How can students further apply their learning to different real life situations and connect with others in the world?

6. How can learning become more about dispositions for learning, so that the student becomes increasingly self-aware of his/her own goal-setting and progress?  And how can assessments become more internally driven by students than externally driven?

In short, how can the entire system of education become more respectful of the learner in creating a trusting, inviting, asynchronous, and collaborative environment where learning is authentic, exciting, and meaningful for them?  For curriculum, I believe we need to meet our students in the middle. As educators, we bring forward those essential areas of learning that also create openings and opportunities for new and unplanned areas of learning. As educators, we engage in this enterprise because we believe our students are also our teachers. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Importance of Student Voice

I was recently approached by a high school student who asked, "In order for student voices to be heard, should student evaluations of teachers be mandatory and used in the teacher’s performance review? Furthermore, is there a way to make sure that student feedback is fair and valid?"

If we truly believe in the value of students to be co-designers in learning and empowered in their learning, shouldn't we also value their important feedback? If we do value student feedback, then how can we make this meaningful and constructive?
Many schools in the U.S. and internationally are addressing this "controversial issue" with no consensus on a particular approach to pursue. Some schools advocate for student feedback as a "weighted component" on teacher evaluation with other components, some schools provide opportunity for student feedback that is exclusively reviewed by the teacher, and some schools provide opportunity for the teacher to verbally reflect on "themes" within student feedback with one's supervisor. Many schools simply ignore student feedback as too complicated and untrustworthy.
The most significant recent research on teacher evaluation was initiated in 2009 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and resulted in a 2011 report known as Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). One of the five variables valued by the MET report was "student perceptions of the classroom instructional environment" in which a field-tested instrument (i.e., Tripod Survey) was used. A finding of the MET report was that there is a significant interdependent relationship among student achievement, classroom observations and feedback by supervisors, and student feedback.
The challenge in all of this, however, is to be clear about the purpose of teacher evaluation so as to guide appropriate selection of tools and processes, and to also understand that contextual needs in one system may be very different for another system. Finally, quality implementation of the right tools and processes is everything. Anything less than quality implementation can have confusing and damaging results.

The downside of ineffective implementation of student feedback can lead to the following:
* students may not appreciate demanding teachers until years later, and may provide premature responses
* students may not be "trained" in how to provide constructive feedback, whereupon responses can be personally and professionally hurtful
* teachers may feel that popularity is most important, and consequently adjust teaching to "win" students
* students may use their own grades to determine how they view their teachers, and perhaps not always take personal responsibility
* a culture of evaluation and judgment may become more prevalent than a culture of mutual respect, trust, and support
Having said this, the quality of the student-teacher relationship is essential to quality teaching and learning. I believe quality feedback is key to growth and improved performance, whether the feedback is as a student, teacher, or administrator. Rather than a "weighted" component on teacher evaluation, I would suggest the following approach for student feedback: 
  • Allow all students throughout the school to provide anonymous survey responses using a few standard questions for their teachers (with appropriate accommodations for elementary students) and perhaps a few questions of particular interest to the teacher, which then becomes a conversation between the teacher and supervisor. This conversation would not be about specific comments, but rather about any predominant themes: What pleased you most from your students' responses? What surprised you? Are there any changes or adjustments you intend to make as a result of this feedback? 
The supervisor's evaluation of this component is then based on the teacher's reflective ability to respond to "themes" within student feedback, and the supervisor can also serve as a prompt for any areas deserving further consideration. When effectively implemented, this approach would ensure that student feedback is purposefully heard and valued and that the professional relationship of the teacher and supervisor has further information for reflection and consideration. 

In line with the MET report, I think some kind of triangulation of qualitative and quantitative data that utilizes student feedback (with teacher reflection), teacher and/or Professional Learning Community evidence of student learning and growth (with teacher reflection), and supervisor feedback from classroom observations (with teacher reflection) would help to provide a balanced and multi-dimensional approach for more intentionally and comprehensively understanding teaching and learning. There's certainly considerable development needed in each of these areas, but can be worthy if the focus is on creating a learning-focused school in a trusting and mutually supportive environment where everyone is vested in each other's growth and success.

Education is a lifelong calling, and it is value-added when there are meaningful processes to help all of us as educators to grow, to build on our relationships, and to continuously reflect and act on ways to improve the quality of learning and opportunities for all students.