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:


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!

Another Great Tool for Bringing Your School’s Future to Life

I apologize for largely ignoring by blogging duties for the last month or more.  I have been nose-down in a semi-final draft of my new book, which is on schedule to be published by Jossey-Bass in September.  Now that is turned in, I will try to be a more regular writer in this space!

Next week at the Chandler School in Pasadena, we am going to use a new tool, a template created by Mt. Vernon Institute for Innovation to help bring our ideas about the future to life. It is critical that schools get the order of innovation right; we can’t effectively change what we are doing unless we know what we want those changes to bring about.  So we use tools like “What if?” and “How might we?” and writing headlines for the future, and the Four Futures protocol developed by the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto.


MVIFI’s new “Future Frame” template promises to add to this trove of thinking: what would a web page, or a series of pages, about just one program or grade level, or about your whole school-of-the-future look like?  What images would you see in this crystal ball? What headlines and blog posts?  Imagine: next week with about 70 people in the room, and people working in un-siloed pairs and small groups, we might end up with 20-30 “paintings” of that future…with about 40 minutes of work.

Once we know where we want to go, it is a lot easier to get there.  We will let you know how it goes!


Super-fan Nerd Predicts Stanford Win

screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-8-47-28-amStanford Cardinal super-fan Cliff (am sure someone knows his last name, but I don’t) is a gnomish old guy who reportedly made a fortune in Silicon Valley, retired, and for years has shown up at Stanford sporting events all over the country. Last week before the national NCAA semi-final women’s volleyball match between the Cardinal and the University of Minnesota, Cliff came up to a couple of us and said “I know we are going to win the championship, and here is how I know”.

He held out his hand, on which was written in pen the number 71217. Cliff told us that before the men’s soccer final match (that Stanford won) the previous week, he had calculated the number of minutes and seconds that the soccer team had held opponents scoreless prior to the final, and then had added 90 minutes, with the sense that if Stanford could hold the other team scoreless for the match, they would win the national title.  That total time worked out to 712 minutes and 17 seconds.  He wrote the number on his hand…and Stanford went on to win that final by holding Wake Forest scoreless and winning on penalty kicks.

Cliff then said that he realized the number had special meaning for the women’s volleyball team as well, so he did not wash it off.  We looked and could not figure it out, which I guess is why some people make a fortune in Silicon Valley and others don’t.

Stanford won it’s 7th national volleyball title last Saturday, on 12/17.  71217.  Proud to be a member of Stanford’s Nerd Nation!

Brushfires of Innovation at Columbus Academy, Ohio

If you walk around schools, if you ask the right questions, if you stop and listen to teachers and students, if you look at how spaces are arranged and used, you can tell a lot about a school in a short period of time.  I am in freezing Columbus, OH for the NCAA volleyball Final Four (Stanford is going to the finals!!), and was so happy to be spur-of-the-moment invited to spend some time at Columbus Academy on their last day before the holiday break.

CA is a highly-respected preK-12 independent school that is well on its way towards shaking up traditional learning systems.  Here are just a few things I saw and heard, artifacts of a school that is pushing traditional comfort zones and ready, in my opinion, to start asking some of those big questions around what it means to be a leader in education in the future:

  • Makerspaces that are integrated into the daily life of students.  Innovation is not about img_2972having a 3D printer or a room with some tools in which students spend an hour a few times a week.  We want to see the ideas of student-centered design and making percolate across the curriculum.
  • A “skunk works” program, where students were offered open-ended funding of $200 to develop personal drones…and then some students partnered to pool stipends, and one group asked if they could build an electric skateboard instead, which is now sitting on display for others to see…and the ball gets rolling as part of student culture.
  • A 5th grade classroom with kids on the floor, and others on “study bikes”; and a teacher who tries to have her students at their desks no more than 30% of the time all year.
  • A female senior student leader of the robotics team who, on her own, started and runs a program for middle school girls to get them engaged in STEM before they get to high school.  40% of 9th graders who elect to take a popular intro programming course are girls, and girls make up at least half of the varsity robotics team.
  • Annual teachers-teach-the teachers professional development days where faculty who have received PD during the year are expected to lead workshops for their colleagues.
  • img_2968Open spaces where students not only can hang out and work, but do hang out and work together in small groups.

Perhaps most of all, I was impressed with leaders at the school who recognize the difference between starting pilots and changing a system, who are not willing to rest on the easy laurels of strong admissions demand and enviable college matriculation stats.  As we finished my visit around the lunch table, we agreed that for school leaders the question should not be “what have you done for me lately”, but “what are you going to do for me 10 years from now” to ensure that a strong school today is a leading school in the future.

Video of My Talk: A Night of Inquiry, Innovation, and Impact

In October I was honored to participate in An Evening of Inquiry, Innovation, and Impact at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta.  Thanks to Mt. Vernon Institute of Innovation for hosting this intimate conversation-in-the-round, and to my co-presenters on the evening, Kawai Lai, Glen Whitman, Kaleb Rashad, Tod Martin, and Joyelle Harris.  Feel free to share!

Explosion of Deeper Learning at Underserved Neighborhood School: Bayside STEAM Academy

And people wondered why the low income school with the mascot of a big wave with fists had a lot of trouble with fighting during recess…

img_2959The new mascot is the green sea turtle that live in the shallow, southernmost reaches of San Diego Bay just a few steps from the newly renamed and rebranded Bayside STEAM Academy, a public K-6 school that is rapidly transforming itself from a low performing place of bored students and stale curriculum into a vibrant learning community.  Bayside is a public neighborhood school in a largely Latino, severely underserved community that, until this year, was the lowest performing school in the South Bay Union School District.  Like other schools that have pulled themselves into a dramatic transformation, Bayside STEAM decided to “change to ready, shoot, aim” instead of waiting any longer, says principal Kevin Coordt.

img_2964I visited Bayside to see their AR sandbox, which may be the first built and deployed in an elementary school in the country.  This remarkable invention by scientists at the University of California, Davis, cost less than $2000 to make and all of the plans and software are open source and free.  (Check out video link to the AR Sandbox to see this amazing learning tool in action!) As an ex-geologist and oceanographer, I was blown away that the work we did by hand a few decades ago can be simulated in real time by a bunch of kids who can build and change landforms, oceans, and the flow of water and rain by moving sand around and doing some simple coding.

But the sandbox is just one element of the transformation at Bayside.  Like other schools, they restructured their school day to include passion driven electives offered by teachers who get to select areas of personal interest.  These 8-week electives include everything from making musical instruments out of trash to studying the art of Georgia O-Keefe and Matisse.  One class has built working mini-submersible ROV’s out of PVC, tiny motors, and Arduino units that can submerge, maneuver, and test water for temperature, salinity and other environmental indicators.  Their students entered an Arduino competition, and despite academic test scores that lag way behind almost every other school in the competition, their teams took first and second place.  “Our kids know how to fail, try something else, and try again:, says Coordt, “because that is what we are doing every day.

In addition to having built the AR Sandbox, teacher Michael Moran is building on the students’ new understanding of landforms to map the area around the school using borrowed surveying equipment, to understand how and where some parts flood during high tides and rainstorms.  Then the students are selecting plant types that will thrive in different slope and drainage conditions.

img_2965Coordt says that the impact of their new emphasis on design, making, and STEAM has already percolated across the school amongst teachers, students and parents.  Attendance is up, referrals for discipline are down, and the school’s 79% increase in year-to-year performance on standardized test scores is one of the highest increases of any school in the county. Parents report that their students now don’t want to miss a day of school.

Are you finding it hard to shift your schedule, let go of classroom time that you know is ineffective, engage students who sit and are bored much of the day, elevate engagement and deeper learning practices, fire up your faculty, or raise test scores?  Connect with Kevin and his team and learn how they are doing it in real time in a school that for years had been tagged with that perpetual assumption of low performance in a poor community.