Author Archives: Grant

Check Out Incredible Curriculum Spiral via Ross School

Rhetorical question for all educators: do you have or wish you had a really well-scaffolded curriculum?

To be honest, I would have thought by now most schools could answer that integrated curriculum maps and tight alignment amongst subjects and grade levels were well in our rearview mirrors; that faculty who work in the same school but in different hallways had a good idea of what each were doing; that opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and cross-subject project work were as easy to find and pick as proverbial low-hanging fruit.

Unfortunately, that is still not the case at many schools, and even if your school has a good curriculum map, you REALLY might want to check out this mind-blowing tool I ran across yesterday. Thanks to a mention in Bold Moves for Schools (Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock), I found the Ross School and the Ross Learning System and “Spiral”, which you pretty much just have to play with to believe and understand.

The Spiral is the interactive visual manifestation of a preK-12 interdisciplinary curriculum “with a focus on sustainability and a systems thinking perspective…designed to prepare learners to address the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly complex, globally connected future.” The entire school curriculum integrates all subjects, aligned to their evolution through global and human history.

I have not even connected with Ross School yet, but I will, and will learn and share more, but I wanted to get this out there.

Great Job Posting for Innovation Leader

A you know I rarely advocate for one school, but you also know the high esteem I hold for the remarkable leadership of Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta.  So when they asked that I share a job opening opportunity, I am happy to do so.  If you think of yourself as an innovator, creator, designer, teacher, facilitator, risk-taker, and you want to work with some of the best, check out this job opening for Director of the iDiploma program at Mt. Vernon.

Teaching the Death of Compromise

The tempest that is Washington D.C. these days provides a puzzle for educators: is it an opportunity for learning, or just too fractious to even touch?  What is our role in helping our students to make sense of something, when much of it does not make sense from many traditional perspectives?  Are we, as educators and adults equipped to help our students understand and benefit from critical lessons that don’t fit standard templates?

The vote today to change the rules of the U.S. Senate requires teachers and parents to think about our roles as educators of the next generation, and it is not a question of party or political viewpoint.  We witnessed what is likely a significant tipping point in the history of our country, one we will look back on decades from now, not unlike the run-up to both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the beating of peaceful protestors on a bridge in Selma, the dramatic erosion of the American middle class, or the shooting of students at Kent State and ask “how could they have let that happen?”

This week the Senate invoked the so-called nuclear option; the majority voted to change their own rules in order to win one vote.  The rules they changed have kept the Senate a place of relative civility for more than two centuries, because, in the words of several senators who voted for the change against their own principals, “we have had to reach out and work with those with whom we don’t always agree”.  The rules have forced at least some degree of compromise, a word that, perhaps more than any other describes the great strength of the American Experiment.  It is compromise, codified in our principles as far back as Magna Carta, that often separates democracy from dictators.

Who unilaterally changes the rules of the game when they don’t win? Most frequently it is bullies, spoiled children, autocrats, oligarchs, and dictators.  In school or at home we would never countenance such a solution amongst our children.  The idea that changing the rules to win because, at this moment, I can, and that somehow that is the right thing to do, runs contrary to everything mature adults know about how human social groups work best.

This is not a partisan issue.  The Republicans decry the moment when the Democrats changed the rules on lower court judicial nominations, pointing to it as precedent for invoking the nuclear option on Supreme Court nominees.  Both of these decisions are wrong for the same reason.  There are no innocents who have not been part of this slippery slope at the bottom of which we have now arrived.  Earlier this week, as Democrats, who were on the current losing end rightly railed against the rules change, a few of the more grown up Republicans said that this was a “dark day” in the senate, that every future member would come to regret this decision, that it was the wrong thing to do. And then they voted with the partisan majority to do something that they knew to be wrong.  Democrats did the same thing a few years ago.

This vote, like others of truly historic moment, did not come about just this week.  It is the result of more than two decades of increasingly partisan divides in our state and national governing bodies, where compromise has become first rare and then nearly extinct.  It will leave a bitter legacy, where accusations and feuds override discourse and reason.  It represents the triumph of the ends over the means in one of the great social systems to have evolved out of centuries of human enlightenment.

I have written and spoken extensively about how systems evolve, and about how the system of education is acting much more like a natural ecosystem than a system engineered for a specific, predictable purpose.  Natural ecosystems are subject to natural selection, a process which creates winners and losers. Some individuals and species are better adapted for the prevailing conditions and live; others are less so and they die.  We tend to place a positive value on this process; we tend to see evolution as “good”; that the “better” succeed.  This kind of value judgement is ridiculous; nature has no such system of values. This week, the evolution of our political system favored those with narrow, short-term, childish natures, and killed part of the system that has thrived in the past: compromise, collaboration, maturity, and respect for the long-term future.

How can we as educators—parents, teachers, coaches, mentors—make sense of this for our children?  What precedent do we have? Do we ignore it as inappropriate discussion for the classroom or the dinner table?  Can we have discussions about it as an opportunity for learning, or has the partisanship in our  system grown so cancerous that it has fatally infected our learning systems as well?

I have been thinking and researching a great deal about what educators, parents, students and community stakeholders can do to transform education in spite of, not with permission from, contrary forces of adult self-interest; it is the central theme of my new book, Moving the Rock. This unfortunate turn of American history gives us a chance to practice empowerment. We can either use this opportunity to teach our students how to make better decisions than the senate made this week, or we must own a piece of similar mistakes that those students might make in the future.

I know what I would do if I were a teacher, but I am not sure if that is what is right for others.  Each must decide.

A List of Not-So-Quirky School Metrics

If you don’t follow me on Twitter (what??), or missed it this morning, I posted another article on the Transcend Education site.  This was a re-boot from my archives that surprised me when I read it.  In 2012, Keith Evans and I came up with a list of what were then somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and definitely outside of the mainstream “metrics” by which we might measure innovation in schools.  In the last five years, many of these ideas are, if not commonly used as standard measures, are certainly mainstream elements of thinking and practice at many forward-leaning schools.

Take a look at The List in the article, and share any other slightly quirky ways you think we might want to assess how our schools are doing on the arc of change.

The Test That EVERY School Must Take

There is surely one thing that unites all educators: we are responsible for both the well-being and learning progress of our students when they are in our charge.  The role that testing plays in schools has correctly become an enormous point of controversy as we question just what are we testing and what the results mean.  Those controversies focus on academic progress and performance.  There is another test that all schools should undertake, because failing on this test means that we might offset all of the tremendous work by our teachers and the students themselves, condemning students to a lifetime of underachievement and health problems despite our very best efforts and intentions.  The test is for lead in the school’s water supply.

imgres-1We live in a time when scientific facts are questioned, and I am sure there some who might even question the science behind the relationship between lead consumption and long-term cognitive and physical health.  Let’s ignore that level of rejectionist ideology.  While there is not complete agreement on what levels of lead in drinking water are “acceptable”, authoritative research suggests that the answer lies somewhere between zero and incredibly small amounts.

As in the article I posted last week on the demise of coral reefs, I argue that when the potential risks of NOT acting are enormous, we should always err on the side of action. The vast majority of research suggests that lead is a remarkably insidious toxin, and practical experience proves that construction standards during much of the last century allowed the use of materials and practices that introduced lead into some parts of our water distribution system.

What are we to do? Is dealing with this potential threat to our students and teachers the responsibility of the federal government?  The water company? Your city or state?  The school board?  The thesis of my new book, Moving the Rock: How WE Will Change Education (due out in August), is that there are some powerful things we can do to transform education that do not require permission from, or empowerment by, the powers and forces that have created decades of inertia in the first place. I did not include a chapter on lead poisoning, but perhaps I should have.  In a time when the federal government may slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, or when local or state agencies may be tied up with political or resource backlogs, waiting for help from the government may be a really bad idea.

Testing for lead in your school’s water is not simple. You can buy a test kit for under $10 and send that water to a lab, but some quick research suggests that those results may not be reliable or tell you much.  It will cost a bit more in time and effort to find a respected, reliable laboratory to perform a suite of tests.  But put that cost and time in context. Look at what you spend in time and money every day at your school advancing the mission of well-being and learning for our students, and compare that to the piddling cost of testing for a chemical that could be permanently moving both of those needles in the other direction every day.

If you do find lead in your water, solutions will depend on the source of the contamination.  Short term solutions include using bottled water until you identify the sources of the problem.  Some solutions may lie on your own campus; others, as we have seen, can require enormous and wide-spread changes to water resourcing and public infrastructure.  Like the dying coral reefs, the solutions may be so daunting as to cause us to hide our heads and defer to hope instead of action.

As educators, we don’t have that luxury. Even if there is a chance that a test will tell us something we really do not want to hear, we are bound by our moral code to take the test, share the results, and then become part of the solution.  Until you can tell your community that have something like 99.9% confidence that your students are not exposed to an avoidable toxin every day, this is a test we just have to take.

New Short Video: “Why, What, How, and Inevitable Future of Education…in 45 Minutes”

I was recently honored to give a short presentation and host a dinner discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. with a group of business officers of independent schools, hosted by First American Education Finance.  The theme  was “The Why, What, How and Inevitable Future of Education…in 45 Minutes”. The “how” and the “future” are primary points of focus of my new book, Moving the Rock, which is coming out this summer.

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Here is the link to the summary video and topics, as well as links to some additional cited resources you can use to help launch these critical discussions at your school.

The Problem is Not Climate Change; the Problem is Irrational Thinking

I rarely use this space to discuss themes that might be interpreted as political.  If the reader interprets this post as political, they are missing the point.  This post is about history, knowledge, what we do with knowledge, and the utterly unique role that education plays in that sequence.

imgres-1In the last week I read two articles about scientific research on coral reefs. One reported that enormous swaths of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died in the last three years.  The other reports on a group of scientists who predict that 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050 due to rapidly increasing ocean water temperatures throughout the tropics.  I am specifically NOT citing a link to either of these articles because they were in newspapers and I did not read, nor would I be able to authoritatively discern, if the research cited in the articles was of such quality as to be considered “fact”.  I am not a marine biologist or a climatologist. There are likely scientists and others who disagree with both the rate of reef die-off and the causes.

I was, back in the day, a marine geologist, and recall well working with and learning from older oceanographers who researched global warming.  Way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the best research and computer projections indicated that our planet would warm substantially over the coming century.  The predictions included melting of ice across Antartica, Greenland, and in mountain glaciers, rising sea levels, changes in average weather and rainfall patterns, and warming sea temperatures. Those predictions have proven both right and wrong. The planet has warmed, with almost all of the projected impacts, only it has all happened much faster than we predicted.  The vast majority of scientists and lay people around the world agree that this rapid warming is caused by the parallel increase in human-induced, carbon-based air pollution.

imagesCoral reefs are not just pretty places to visit.  They are very much that; I have visited and studied some of the prettiest in the world, but threats to beauty are not existential.  Coral reefs are one of the two most diverse, productive ecosystems on the planet (the other are the terrestrial equivalent, rain forests). They are incubator, breeding ground, nursery, and home to enormous webs of life that support the marine food chain, including humans.  Losing 90% of coral reefs in thirty years is a global crisis that is already in motion. Hundreds of millions of people rely on food that is supported by living coral reefs.  That is a simple fact.

Here is where education comes in. Research can be wrong.  We and our students need to have the capacity and mindset to look at research that suggests a global calamity within our lifetimes. What if the die off is slower?  What if only 50% of reefs are dead by 2050? Is that a good thing? We have proven throughout human history that we can change our planet, but we can’t change the laws of physics and nature. As educators, it is our moral duty to help students understand the impacts of messing with the laws of physics and nature.

imgres-2We have arrived at a place in America where somehow the burden of proof is on scientists to prove at a level of 100% that they are right about a future that is almost apocalyptically bad for virtually every human being. Any rational, well-educated person would take the opposite view: that you err on the side of caution; that if there is even a fair chance that something really horrible is going to happen, and you can do something about it, you do it.  The bigger the chance it will happen, and the worse the possible outcome, the more vigorously you pursue potential solutions. Then-vice president Dick Cheney, a person with whom I disagreed on almost everything he he ever said, used this logic with his famous “1%” doctrine: That if there were a 1% chance that terrorists were going to acquire a nuclear weapon, then any action to stop them was justified. T

The doctrine applies: Loss of 90% of coral reefs is the equivalent of dozens of nuclear weapons exploding in slow motion.  I hate to even think it, but the long-term pain and suffering that will result from loss of 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be vastly greater than a nuclear attack on a major American city. No one on the planet is immune from the changes in store when 90% of coral reefs die in a period of 30 or 40 or even 100 years.

Let me be clear: we did not wake up this week and realize the coral reefs are dying at horrendous rates. We have predicted and known it for decades.  If you are an educator, you need to help your students understand the relationship between history, knowledge, and their futures.   As educators we want our students to be problem solvers.  Well, this is a perfect example of finding the right problem to solve.  THE PROBLEM IS NOT CLIMATE CHANGE.  THE PROBLEM IS THAT, NEARLY UNIQUELY IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, A SEGMENT OF THE AMERICAN POPULATION DOES NOT BELIEVE IN SCIENCE THAT HAS PROVEN TRUE OVER DECADES. That is a problem that educators and students can and must solve.

If you are upset with me because I wrote about something that you think is political, or because I suggested that to disagree with my premise indicates irrationality or a lack of education, then I apologize for your discomfort.  You may stop following my blog; or please post a comment that points out the flaws in my logic; or denounce me.  Any discomfort among us does not measure up when it comes to problems of this magnitude.

Nothing Like Seeing Deeper Learning in Action

NOTHING is as effective in transforming schools as seeing “it” in action.

IMG_3086I spent Monday with a visiting team of elementary school teachers from Albermarle County in Virginia as theytoured four elementary schools in Cajon Valley USD, just east of San Diego. Albermarle Supt. and national edu-leader Pam Moran sent the team out to look at deeper learning in action as they develop a plan to gut an existing school and re-build it for the future. As I have written previously, Cajon Valley is a highly diverse district of about 17,000 students. School demographics range from largely Caucasian upper-middle class, to highly underserved with some of the densest concentrations of immigrant, refugee, and ESL students in the country.

Now in his 4th year at Cajon Valley, Supt. David Miyashiro and his team have made changes that others think are impossible.  In classroom after classroom, with student-teacher ratios ranging from 28-38 to 1, we found focused, engaged students learning in highly differentiated modalities.  Since they became a 1:1 laptop district, teachers have begun to adopt a completely new relationship to their classroom. Students down to the level of kindergarten clearly have and take responsibility for their own learning.  Teachers spend vastly less time talking to whole classes at a time, and much more working with small break-out groups for short periods.

IMG_3080Students are not required to sit at their desks. In almost every room we visited, students were grouped and sprawled where they wanted and needed to be, on the floor, on couches or pillow, under tables.  But we did not see a single student doing nothing; they were all on task.  We asked students repeatedly some version of “what are you doing; why; and how do you know if you are being successful?” Every student had a good answer appropriate to age and grade level, even students for whom English is pretty new ground.

I had two big takeaways from the day:

IMG_3089First: I was overwhelmed by the calmness in these classes. I did not see any students bouncing around, noisily bothering others…and these are little kids! Some of this is due to the personalized routines that largely have students working at their own pace on their computers. But they are not glued to computers all day; much of the work is in collaborative teams, and I frankly was amazed at how well all the students were working with very little teacher direction. These students are not constantly asking the teacher “should I do…?” or “what should I do next…?”

Second, I asked David his response to those who say “this system is like an aircraft carrier and just takes sooo long to change…”. He said, essentially, “you can change what you imagine and believe you can change”.  And the district is proof.  They have no advantages in terms of money, demographics, or facilities. They have HUGE advantages when it comes to leadership, vision, communication, and growing community support of what is taking place in these schools.  And ALL of those are within the control of every educator and community in America.

The Albermarle teachers’ heads were spinning with ideas and confirmation of some of their own initiatives, and I am sure that is only increasing as they visit other schools this week, including a tour I will help lead at Design 39 Campus on Friday.  Yes, it is an expense to fly a dozen people across the country for a week, but it is a small expense compared to what we spend in our schools every day, and a uniquely powerful investment if we really do want to turn these aircraft carriers around.

Two Big Takeaways From Week Focusing on Innovation

I have two big takeaways from a fast-paced, roiling week of interaction with hundreds of education colleagues in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore this week.  The first is a powerful reinforcement of a paragraph early in the introduction for my upcoming book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education (Josey-Bass Education; coming out this summer):

My head hurts every time I see another article, vodcast, or TED talk preaching that education must change. That train has already left the station! All of the arguments about why education must change can be summarized in less than a sentence, a simple paraphrase of the godfather of modern education, John Dewey, more than a century ago: the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate and we have to prepare our students for that future, not for the past.  We desperately need to move beyond the discussion of “why” education must change.

I have a great deal of respect for Sir Ken Robinson, and what he has done over the last two decades to elevate awareness that schools must change. And he continues to be an entertaining and witty speaker. But it borders on tragic that an audience of 5,000 educators perches on a talk that is, or by rights should be, long in their rearview mirror.  Partly this is due to the turnover in teachers; young teachers are still being prepared by our colleges of education for an outdated learning model, so when they hear Sir Ken for the first time, their natural reaction is “Yes!”.  There is no such excuse for those of use longer in tooth.

About my second big takeaway I am far more salubrious.  Pushed in large part by true, transformational innovation in some public, charter, and independent schools, the National Association of Independent Schools dramatically elevated their focus this year on how schools can effectively transform…and those sessions were packed.  In my talk to 60 business officers on Tuesday night in D.C., I commented on the dramatic change in just a few years about how fluent those “non-academic” administrators are on the language and need for substantive change.  In my three-hour workshop on Wednesday with 90 edu-leaders from 30 states and six countries, there was a palpable recognition of the problem and thirst for getting to work.

In listening and speaking with dozens of educators from many schools, I came away with two big points that are driving success at successfully innovating schools:

  • They realize that innovation is not a thing, it is a process.  It is not the bits and pieces, the isolated good ideas being tried here and there in a school.  Those are great, but they will not lead to sustainable transformation.  Successful innovation is the glue that hold those pieces together.  Yes, schools are “people” places, but if you do not have an operating system in place that allows those people to reinvent their respective roles in service of their students, your school will not transform.
  • They are radically inclusive in the processes that create and nurture innovation culture.  Innovation is not something handed down from a board, principal, head of school, or superintendent.  It includes and is done by “we”.

There is tremendous agreement and understanding about the need to change that did not exist ten years ago.  There is a less-pervasive, but very rapidly spreading agreement about “how” schools can transform, the steps, activities, and relationships that lead through the messiness of change to a better place.  We have reason to be optimistic.  But to quote from the last paragraph of the introduction in my new book:

I can’t count the times over the last five years that I wished some smart marketing team had never suggested the slogan “Just Do It” to Nike, Inc.  It is the perfect call to action for all of us who have a stake in great education. But who wants to risk a copyright lawsuit from one of the biggest companies on the planet? So, alternately, and with complete respect, I remind us of that morning in September of 2001, after two planes had slammed into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, that on a fourth plane, United Flight 93, passenger Todd Beamer courageously asked his seat mates “Are you ready?  OK. Let’s roll”.  The first entry in Wikipedia under the topic “let’s roll” says that it is a “colloquial catchphrase that has been used extensively as a command to move and start an activity, attack, mission, or project.”  Well, it is time to stop pushing the education rock back and forth, to stop inactive talk, to stop obsessing over the fine points of disagreement, and to stop pointing fingers of blame about why schools are failing to serve all of our students.  This is our responsibility, our critical mission, not someone else’s, and we can’t shrug it off.  It is time to roll.

 

Major Education Game Changer Launches: The Mastery Transcript Consortium

Two years ago, Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, told me about an idea they had to dramatically enhance high school student assessment and how that might revolutionize the outdated drivers of college admissions.  He asked if I thought it would attract support from like-minded school leaders. I told him, simply, “get the first ten schools into your group and you will fundamentally change our system of education.”  Two short years later, with the official launch this week of the Mastery Transcript Consortium and 55 independent schools already on board, they are well on their way.  You REALLY need to know about this!

The MTC is “a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.”

Simply, the MTC will design, test, construct, disseminate and help schools prepare for a new set of assessment options that measure what we actually value in student learning.  As I was granted some informal access to the genesis of the group, I was able to focus on the MTC in a chapter in my new book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education, coming out in September:

There is an enormous, rigid dam that stresses students, constrains and frustrates teachers, frightens parents, and kills innovation at most schools. At school after school, district after district, I hear a variation on the same anxious theme: “We can be innovative in elementary and middle schools, but our parents are afraid of changes in the high school because it might jeopardize their kids’ chances at college admissions.”  The twin blocks in this dam, how colleges admit students, and how college admissions in turn drive K-12 student assessment, particularly in high school, kill innovation in schools, even where entire communities want that innovation to explode.  We, the community of school stakeholders, have been complicit in erecting and preserving these blocks, and we have total control over them. We built the dam; we preserve the dam; and we can bust it wide open with no permission from anyone and no threat other than to our own fear of change. The dam is rotten to its core, needing just a stick or two of well-placed dynamite to breach it forever.  Why? Because just about everyone–educators, parents, students, college professors, university presidents and admissions officers, and employers—knows and agrees that the system is wrong and is only getting worse.

One of the most powerful elements of the MTC design to date is the input they received from colleges in advance of launching the initiative. In discussion with directors of admissions and college presidents, Scott and his team found a receptive audience “if you can give us something that we can initially scan in two minutes”.  It is also more than serendipitous that this effort was launched the same year that dozens of colleges and universities signed on to the “Turning the Tide” manifesto that refocuses college admissions on depth, interest, and passion, and away from multiple advanced placement courses, grade point average, and shallow community service experiences.

Another powerful argument for the MTC lies in what we know about the health and wellness trends amongst high school and college students. I go into some detail about this in my book, based both on data collated by the MTC team, and from a number of other research-based sources.  We know that current forms of assessment lead to elevated risks of an enormous range of negative lifestyle and health issues amongst our students and, as Scott emotionally put it to a group of school leaders last year: “We just have to stop doing this to our kids”.

“The mastery transcript is about acknowledging that we live in a changed world,” says Scott. “The MTC believes that the tools of the past may no longer work for students, teachers, colleges and our society at large. We believe it’s time for a change.”  With the overwhelming response to date, it appears that Scott’s timing could not have been better.  I predict that within a year or two school membership will be in the hundreds; this is a club that you absolutely want to join, and many of us eagerly await the day when a fully designed transcript of student mastery will be available to every public and private school in America.