What is the Traditional Breaking Point of Leaders’ Thinking?

What is the point at which people are not willing to look beyond the horizon?

Next week at the annual NAIS conference (#NAISAC), John Gulla and are are giving a three-hour workshop with the primary goal of pushing education leaders’ thinking beyond their current horizons.  We will have between 85-100 leaders from something like 60 schools, 26+ states, and at least five countries in the room.  John says that he has visited more than 200 schools in the last couple of years, and every one of them has tried to impress on him that they are “innovative”. His honest view is that almost none of them are; they are not pushing their thinking enough to keep up with the changes in education and what is required of us in the predictable future.

Today I tweeted that John and I want to push these leaders a bit beyond their breaking point. Thought leader Gary Gruber just responded: “What is the traditional breaking point?”  My answer: “That point at which people throw up their hands out of fear, discomfort, or uncertainty of what is over that horizon.”

Every single indicator we can find screams that almost all schools are not on a trajectory of change that intersects the future needs of our students, and therefore the future sustainability of our schools.  For many schools, the wolf is not at the door today, so leaders ignore these signs; they incorrectly assume that the past is a good indicator of the future.

Horizons change. It is only those who think that the ocean goes on forever who fall into the trap that the horizon always looks the same.  We are going to learn a TON next week in those three hours: all of those smart people with diverse viewpoints, sharing ideas and “next horizons”.  I will have a lot to share with you!

Next Fall: Bulgaria!

If you think you have it tough as a teacher, administrator, or parent…

imgresI just committed to partner with an education NGO in Bulgaria, and to keynote and workshop a conference for about 1,000 teachers, parents, and students in Sofia in November.  It is a long way to go, and I am pretty sure I am going to absorb a large discount off of my normal speaker’s honorarium.  Why?

Here is what I learned today:  Bulgaria, a country with about 6 million people, is still, of course, heavily influenced by their decades under the heel of the former Soviet system.  Their students rank in the bottom third of PISA testing. Teachers make about $300 a month, and most are over 50 years old.  They have had 23 Ministers of Education in 25 years, and the system is largely controlled by the government.  Right now they don’t exactly have a government; the last group resigned and new elections have not yet been held. Teachers lecture from the front. In the classroom, kids are quiet a lot of the time.

And yet there is a growing understanding that the old model of education is busted, and the new generation has to compete in a world for which they are not being prepared.  And really bad things happen to a person if you are not prepared to succeed in a place like Bulgaria.  You might not starve (not sure about that), but life can be pretty grim in the former Soviet bloc nations. I know; I was there before “former” was part of the label.

imgresI told the two women who are organizing the event that I believe in knowing I will win before tackling a problem; the key lesson of the Art of War. With something approaching tears, they told me that they will win, that the schools will change.  With that kind of pitch, who is going to say no?  Not me.

My Russian is only slightly better than my Bulgarian, which is none, so I will present through a simultaneous translator, which I have done in the past, but that was usually while making toasts over vodka late at night, not in front of 1,000 people.  And lord only knows what we will do the workshops on.  They want to do an #EdJourney-like survey of consumer and educator wants and needs between now and then…if the can raise some money.

But what if the country is at that tipping point, perhaps where Poland was five or ten years ago, when they are ready to make some significant changes?  What if I might be a part of that, not just at one conference, but repeatedly?  In a country this size, like our friends in New Zealand, they all know each other, and that has some real benefits when it comes time for change to actually accelerate.

Besides, as we used to say at match point in the fifth set…this is why we play the game!  Stay tuned.

What Oroville Dam Tells Us About the Rate of Change

imgresThe pictures of water exploding through the eroding spillway of Oroville Dam is an opportunity for us to think about the nature of time, and the inevitable forces that control our collective destinies. It is a chance to back away for a moment of learning from the human-centric view of our world that governs most of our lives. At a time when the rate of changes created by human institutions is rising exponentially, we need to understand how REAL disruptive change actually takes place.

As a former geologist, we know that the landforms around us did not take shape through even, linear, gradual change.  The vast majority of changes take place in what, in human terms, are large, episodic, catastrophic events: really big earthquakes that displace enormous pieces of the earth’s crust be many meters; enormous floods; landslides that bring down entire mountainsides; volcanic explosions like Mt. St. Helens that changed an entire region in a second.  Yosemite Valley was carved in a single ice age, a blink in the eye of geologic time. The soils that nurture most of the food we eat, that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, can be blown away in a few years of Dust Bowl winds.

imagesIn the middle of the last century, environmentalists railed against the building of the Glen Canyon dam, and eco-terrorists dreamt of blowing it away.  In 1983, heavy snowfall and rapid melting in the Rockies filled Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam, forcing release of water through emergency spillways, much like what is happening this week at Oroville Dam.  The spillway pipes started to erode.  There was nothing anyone could do to stop the erosion, so they let the water flow at record levels…the only way to hope to save the dam itself.  Luckily the rate of melting slowed, and the dam did not fail.  It could just as easily have turned out otherwise: the explosive release of trillions of gallons of water in an epic flood that would have wiped out cities, towns, and huge chunks of three states and Mexico.

Events like this will happen; it might be later this week at Oroville, or that dam might hold for centuries.  But ten thousand years?  Not a chance.  Things happen that are beyond our control, or at least beyond our ability to see and react in time.  We built an enormous dam we thought would last forever, but it is a relatively small spillway that can start a cascade of failure. For years, the weakness in the emergency spillway at Oroville has been noted…and ignored. We can blame that mistake on our government, but our government pays attention to the things that we tell them to. After the disaster we will point fingers and say that “they” should have known better. Well, we did know better, but we were not collectively paying enough attention to the touch-points of true disruptive change.

We THINK we are sweating the big stuff in our increasingly divisive socio-political landscape, but we are not. While we are fighting about building a wall (and I don’t for a second diminish the real human, social, and economic impacts such a wall would create), it is the Hurricane Katrinas and Sandys, the lost nuclear material, the Ebola outbreaks and Fukoshima-region tsunamis, the Oroville Dams, the melting Greenland ice caps that will mark the major disruptions in the human continuum.  We have the ability to significantly control many of them; we just choose to ignore them and hope they won’t happen.  But that is not the nature of change. It does happen. Reenforced concrete lasts a long time…until it doesn’t. That failure happens in an instant, but the lead-up to the failure is often something we see happening and choose to ignore.

That is the lesson I hope we learn from the pictures of the spillway at Oroville dam. Real disruption happens very quickly. We can often predict what will happen more accurately then when it will happen. But just hoping that real change will be slow and manageable, is really quite naïve.

Keep an Eye on Transformation at Vista Unified Schools

Keep an eye on Vista Unified School District in California.  You may want to add it to your list of visits for your teachers and administrators to see how learning is dramatically changing, even in schools with very significant challenges.

I have written extensively about Vista Innovation and Design Academy, and the dramatic positive changes there in just the last two years under the leadership of Supt. Devin Vodicka and his team.  Then last fall, the district won one of the ten coveted XQ America super-schools awards for Vista High School.  Yesterday, at the EdTech Teacher Innovation Summit I sat in on a workshop given by a team from Rancho Minerva Middle School, which, like VIDA, serves a population of mostly low income students. In the last four years they have:

  • Adopted a 1:1 laptop and tablet program.
  • Built a student-centered personalized learning approach using a range of tools and classroom approaches, including individual student and teacher playlists.
  • Gotten rid of many textbooks and are building curriculum with open educational resources.
  • Created a mentoring program where every student meets individually with a staff member at least once a week.
  • Created a “swat” team of students to help teachers and other students learn to use technologies, and to partner with teachers in developing their curricula.
  • Found 85 minutes a day for teacher team collaboration.

Like other schools I have worked with and visited that started these shifts from a place of low student engagement and performance, the student results have been very positive.  And like other schools that adopt a deeper learning model, the teachers say that “they have never worked this hard and would not want to work anywhere else; this is why I got into teaching!”  What impresses me is that, given good leadership and a strong, collective vision, these changes, even in schools with significant initial challenges, are happening in just a few years.  That is light-speed in “school-time”. The models are out there!

New Post on TranscendEd.org: When Trajectories of Change Cross

A growing number of those I consider “leading edge” educators are joining an interesting new collaborative, Transcend Education, to share ideas and resources where appropriate on our work with specific schools and districts.  It gives all of us an extended set of muscles to help you, the transformational educator, achieve your goals.

I have agreed to periodically share some of my current thinking as a guest blogger on their site, so you might want to bookmark it. I think this is a very high-quality, growing group, and one to follow.  In my first post with Transcend today, I extended my previous comments on the ideas of trajectory.  I included some of my thinking that will be expanded upon in my new book, Moving the Rock, which is now in final editing stage:

Just think about this: in one generation, our elementary-level learning goals at some schools have shifted from typing on a keyboard to using computer-aided design software to program a 3D printing machine to build a prosthetic hand.  That is a very steep change curve—and it is the steepness of this curve that demands that we fundamentally change our concept of “school.”

The rate of change in much of our society has exceeded our ability to adapt in real time, which requires a new set of approaches to finding, sharing, filtering, and synthesizing information.  This is the bold new frontier of learning!

 

How to Assess School Progress Toward Deeper Learning

I work with schools and districts that are in the early stages of transforming to a range of deeper learning models.  My thinking on something has been a little bit stuck.  How might a school or district, early in the transformation from a traditional to a deeper learning model, self-assess their progress?  In those early years, what measures are helpful, for teachers to report to principals, principals to superintendents or heads of school, and then on to boards?  How do we know our organization is actually shifting, that we are getting closer to our North Star than we were before?

I reached out to the rapidly-growing Transcend Education “Yellow Hat” community that I have joined, and quickly was connected with Justin Ballou, a 12-year veteran of performance-based learning at Campbell High School in Litchfield, N.H.  In about five minutes, Justin helped crystallize my thinking with a simple reporting structure based around three pillars:

Character: a qualitative assessment of the internal growth of the organization towards achieving a new set of goals. Elements might include:

  • What is the level of buy-in from people in key positions of leadership?
  • How many pilot projects are running?
  • How many teachers attended professional development, shared with their peers, and demonstrated evidence of change in their classrooms?

Culture: a qualitative assessment of communication and buy-in from the broader community. Some elements might include:

  • What community events were created to showcase progress towards our goals?
  • How did feedback from these events change over time?
  • How many people (parents, grandparents, community members) attended a school-based event, clicked on an information item on the website, or responded with feedback?

Academics: quantitative assessment of student performance.  Some elements might include:

  • Graduation rates.
  • Performance on standardized tests.
  • College application or admission statistics.
  • Evidence of social and emotional growth.

What really clicked with me from talking with Justin was this: people often consider qualitative assessment to be “fuzzy”, when we know this is not the case.  Ultimately, of course, we want to see evidence of increased student performance, but in the first few years of a major transoformation we probably don’t have good metrics for what we think is most important to measure, and we likely don’t even know exactly what is most important to measure. Some measures of our progress and success can be benchmarked against other schools; others might be unique to our own school and are best measured against our own past performance.  As Justin said, we have to use the kind of assessments that a start-up company would use, not the kind that General Electric uses.  “If you rely on metrics too early”, said Justin, “you end up measuring things you might not really value”, which of course is what schools have been doing for years.  In the first few years, as we decide on long-term quantitative assessments, we should focus on the character and culture of the community, because those are indicators we are building a solid foundation of growth towards our deeper learning goals.

Feel free to reach out to Justin if you are interested in how these measures manifest, particularly at the classroom level. He speaks to, and consults with, other schools!

 

More Examples of the Radically Differentiating Education Marketplace

In a major new three-hour workshop that I will co-present with John Gulla of the EE Ford Foundation at the annual NAIS Conference (Wed., March 1, 1-4 PM; sign up for the workshop before it is full!), we will look at what is inevitable in the transformation of “schools” over the next 20+ years.  One inescapable conclusion, based on current trend lines: the dramatic differentiation of the K-12 education marketplace.  As John has frequently shared, two decades ago, the vast majority (probably in excess of 90%) of students, were educated in one of three types of systems: free public schools, parochial schools that cost $X, or independent schools that cost roughly $2X.

That marketplace has already radically fragmented, with at least the following choices for families:

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 7.45.13 AM

This value-based market sorting will continue to increase, as schools seek to attract consumers who have the option to send their students to schools that meet their individual needs.  In just the last 24 hour, I:

  • Spoke with a veteran, now retired, public school superintendent with two grandsons who attend “a hugely rigorous” Stanford Online high school, which they love.
  • Got a Tweet about Inquiry Hub Secondary, a public high school in B.C., Canada, where students take regular classes AND have big chunks of time each day to create and pursue passion-based projects.
  • Learned about nXU, a new collaboration between public and private school education leaders in New York City that will combine a summer experience with a 10-month follow-up for 9th graders.

The idea that “schools” in 20 years will be largely structured as they are today is already busted.  All of my work over the last several years, and that I will be sharing more when my new book, Moving The Rock, comes out in September, points in this direction.  The rate of change in education, as in most of the rest of the world is approaching vertical, and beyond vertical there is nothing left but a step-function break with the past. Preparing for this new marketplace reality provides schools the best opportunity to succeed in a VUCA world. Hoping it does not happen is pretty much a guaranteed plan for extinction.

You Just Have to Visit Design 39 Campus to Fully “Get It”

imgresIf you work at a K-8 school and want to transform to a deeper learning experience for your students, I simply do not know of a better example to visit than Design 39 Campus in Poway Unified District, CA.  If you have read my posts in the past, you know I follow D39C closely; I tagged along on one of their very frequent tours today with friends from Hillbrook School in Los Gatos.  You can learn a lot from D39C by visiting their website, looking at the resources and videos they post, but every time I go on a tour with a group of teachers and administrators, they tell me that you cannot understand the breadth of what they have accomplished without visiting.

In a nutshell, D39C, a public school, in a union district, with no advantages other than being a new school (now three years old), has reinvented the school operating system around students and learning. Period. Anything that contributes to that gets amplified and anything that does not gets tossed out.  They have more time to collaborate, fewer silos, more engaged kids, more student ownership of learning, more design, and more passion-centrism than any other school I have visited.  And they do it with class sizes of 26-35, and with fewer financial resources than most other schools in the country.

Look, learn, and come visit if you want to see what “it” looks like!

 

A Few Paragraphs of the Inevitable

I may have the chance to keynote a major international conference later this year, and, sitting in my chair at home this morning, my opening to what will be a highly diverse group of attendees began to form itself. I thought I would share:

I’m not a techie, but I am going to talk about the rise of radical new educational technologies. I’m not a classroom teacher but I am going to talk about the pedagogy of deeper learning.  I’m not a college president but I am going to talk about the responsibility our colleges have in preparing teachers to teach, and in accepting students for admission based on what we actually value in civil society, which is not how well they do on a bubble test.  I’m not a marketing and advertising consultant, but I am going to talk about how every school in the world over the next 20 years will come to know what it means to promote a solid value proposition to consumers in a rapidly expanding marketplace.

I am a student, a learner who passionately understands how great learning transforms the individual.  I am a parent who deeply cares about how great education can lift our children, and how misguided education can deeply harm them.  I am a “getting older” member of a species that is struggling, and perhaps demonstrably failing, to adapt to the rate of change in the world around us. I am a member of my community, a piece in the puzzle of civil society rooted in a centuries-old tradition of liberal thought, discourse, and reason. 

At times, maybe even most of the time, the challenge of changing our system of education seems overly daunting, the urge to walk away or kick the can down the road to someone else the only real option.  Changing massive social institutions like education takes a force that is greater than the inertia that has frozen it in place, and that force does not come from one idea, one person, one group, one government.  It comes from a shifting set of environmental conditions and responses to those conditions, which is what is happening in education today, whether you, I, or we like it or not.

Human institutions have never withstood the pressure between what we have today and what we need to succeed tomorrow.  Change is inevitable, and dramatic change, revolutions like those of agriculture, industry, and information happen despite radical dislocations that leave many by the wayside of history.  A similar tsunami is forming in education. The trajectory will be close to vertical, if not beyond vertical, which can only be a quantum step function, something none of us have seen in our professional lifetimes.  The great news is that we see it coming and we do, in fact, know what the next genus of “education” will look like. We just have to paddle with the wave.

Not coincidentally, that aligns pretty well with the intro for my new book, which is on target to come out in September!

 

A Brilliant Start on How To Teach Real/Fake News Literacy

Many of us have been struggling over how to teach our students, and ourselves, about a new world of widespread fake news. I have argued that the skills of filtering real and fake news must become a large element of what we call “literacy”, every bit as important, and perhaps more so, than our traditional knowledge of Hemingway or Hugo.

An ex-student of mine, Vanessa Otero, now a well-respected attorney in the Denver area, took up this challenge, created a matrix by which to plot news sources, and has published her thinking behind the graphic, which has been viewed more than 3 million times in the last few weeks:

image1

At first blush one might think that the news sources are based on Vanessa’s subjective opinion; that would be wrong. In her blog post she outlines an entire sequence of filters that govern these placements. It is still one person’s thinking, but it is the first prototype of what could become a sophisticated “taxonomy of news”.

How can you use this work in school?  The power of this work is not in the relative placement of each news organization; we would all argue some of those placements…and that IS the point.  If I were running a school, I would require that all students, in some  humanities class, have the opportunity to engage in this discussion. The unit would start with a blank canvas, just the categories on both axes, and a discussion of what those categories mean. Then teams of students would research news sources, place those sources, and defend those placements, leading a discussion, not a debate, amongst their classmates.

If you are interested in more, connect with Vanessa; she is the kind of creative thinker with whom you want your teachers and students to partner in this new age of fast-moving learning targets!