Category Archives: Education Innovation Journey of Learning

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.

 

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.

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!

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.

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.

Conversation on Innovation with StartEdUp

For most of you who follow my blog, the conversation I had with Don Wettrick and Hunter Stone yesterday will likely be old hat.  That is because you are on the leading edge! Perhaps there are others at your school who are now ready to transform to a deeper learning system…so share!

Don and Hunter are key partners in StartEducationUp, which allows them to be both in the classroom, and sharing their work with other educators and schools. Check them out.

Growing School in Chicago Taps Into Deep Progressive Roots

imgresProgressive education is alive and well in Chicago, the home of John Dewey and the first laboratory school more than 100 years ago.  I found a budding example this week, spending two days with the leadership team at the young, rapidly-growing Bennett Day School, which, come August, will be expanding from a quaint four-classroom early childhood center to a second campus building that will grow over the next few years to at least 8th grade and probably beyond. It was powerful to spend time with this group as I heard stories of five year-olds asking the questions that led to in-depth projects, and three year-olds taking weeks to research, understand and build a pond…before riding the cross town bus to visit and wonder over a real pond in a park.

The school is founded in the deep progressive roots of Reggio Emilia, which is most commonly associated with just younger grade levels.  The very impressive team of both young and veteran teachers and administrators that have assembled to lead the growth of BDS are not only confident that they can expand that student-centered pedagogy to higher grades, they are building the roadmap to take them there.  They find elements in many of the school examples I have passed along through #EdJourney and since, and they are committed to breaking the boundaries of traditionalism that have ossified other schools.  Co-founder and lead academic Kate Cicchelli says that we find the core of real progressive learning in “what drives both a graduate student at Northwestern and a third grader. We see teachers and students as collaborators in learning; learning is a relationship, not a transaction.”

Bennett Day co-founder Cameron Smith describes his venture of passion as a “tax paying social enterprise”, which means that the capital to start and sustain the tuition-paying school through its start-up years has come from a group of investors dedicated to changing the face of education. At some point those investors will expect a return, but they know it will take time as the new campus is built out over the coming years and the student population growth fills the new classrooms. Cameron believes that one of the powerful advantages of a for-profit model is that the school will not rely on donations to make ends meet, and will not ask parents to make those donations.

Leadership team outside the new campus buildings.

Leadership team outside the new campus buildings.

We visited the new campus, workers rushing to finish the paint and carpet before opening day in August.  One of the workers had asked “where is the furniture going to go; where is the front of the classrooms?”, to which one of the teacher-leaders had to respond “there are no fronts to the classrooms, and the furniture will go where it needs to go.”  The campus building does not have a library where books will gather dust or a computer lab where technology will sit and wait for students to come.  It has big, light tinker labs where students will design and make, not as a separate course of study, but as part of their work all the time.

I plan to keep a close eye on BDS.  They are geographically positioned near the city center in a neighborhood that is showing every sign of explosive revitalization; Google just opened a huge new retrofitted office space a few blocks away and old buildings are being converted to new commercial and loft-style living.  BDS plans to study with and across this community, using their campus as a hub or portal of real-world learning, and they are bursting with great ideas about how to do this.  Stay tuned for more from them!

Schools Need Marketing to Survive, Thrive

Schools need students. That sounds trite, but until a very few years ago, this was not a concern for the vast majority of public schools. By far, the majority of students attended the public school closest to their home.  That has now changed, and changed substantially for many American families who have a large and increasing array of choices, including magnet, choice, charter, independent, faith-based, online, hybrid, and home school options.  The bottom line is that if school leaders, which includes teacher, administrators, and parents, don’t create and justify a strong value proposition, families will go elsewhere, and this is no longer the problem of just those schools that charge tuition. If you  think the logic does not apply to you and your school, private or public, you are wrong.

This week I visited Rios Elementary School in the Cajon Valley District of east San Diego County, an area that, forty years ago was called “the back country” of sage-covered granite hills and valleys.  Like much of America land values closer to downtown San Diego soared; brighter, newer neighborhoods for the middle and upper middle class who were willing to put up with long commutes sprung up, and along with them newer schools. Now the area has pockets of wealthier and pockets of poorer families. District-wide school choice followed, and families living near Rios voted with their cars and feet to send their kids to the newer, brighter schools. Enrollment at Rios dropped.

CkIuGwEUoAEfw9WSo Rios re-branded itself as a computer science magnet school. This post is not about the learning outcomes of the wonderful coding program that is engaging students and parents at Rios; it is about the need to engage those families in something that they value. Superintendent David Miyashiro and principal Maria Kehoe retained marketing consultant Howard Shen to work with the school to help build up enrollment. Simply, says Howard, “We have a great product here but people don’t know about it.”

I attended a day celebrating student successes in programming and making, proud parents and grandparents learning what has excited their kids all year.Maria had posters about the day printed and hung in small shops and restaurants around the neighborhood. Prospective families had a chance to see how the school differs from other options they have.   Unlike just a decade ago, schools, like all other consumer-driven organizations, have just a few variables upon which to build value and market share: cost, quality, market segment, and differentiated brand. Public schools can’t compete on cost, so they have to focus on the other three. Rios has chosen differentiated brand, and Maria understands that one of the new roles of a successful principal is as “brand champion.”

I happen to think the new approach to student learning that is taking root at Rios is a wonderful upgrade from a traditional, undifferentiated learning model, but what I think is not important. Rios, like so many other schools will survive and thrive based on what their consumers think, feel, and believe. Some schools will do well in this environment; others will not. Evolution is not always friendly, but it is inevitable.

The Thesis of My New Book; Making Great Progress!

I have been less regular with my blog posts and Twitter stream over the last couple of months. I have been working hard on my new book, including about 60 in-depth phone, video, and in-person interviews and regular writing hours every day.  I am happy to report that I am about 80% through the rough draft, with just two more chapters to write before I get serious about re-writing.

The thesis of the book is simple: This thing we call “school” is going to inevitably look VERY different in 20 years, yet K-12 education is like a huge rock with massive inertia; it has been stuck in roughly the same place for decades. We can either change the system intentionally or become irrelevant; I prefer the former. Simple physics tells us that we can’t overcome the force of inertia unless we apply a greater force. I have identified what I, and many others it turns out, think are about seven “levers” which, if we press hard enough, can overcome that inertia.  And here is the critical point: each of these levers does not require permission or empowerment from the powers that created and sustain the inertia in the first place: the political left and right, government, the publishing oligarchy, and self-interested groups of fearful adults.

I have found so many examples of how these “levers” are already working that I could write a book around each of them, but that is not my goal.  My goal is to help create change at scale.  My goal is to show what is already working in schools across the spectrum of geography and demography and to issue a set of utterly audacious, but very doable, challenges to educators and their communities of stakeholders; to put the ownership of education transformation where it belongs: on “us” to Just Do It.

Hopefully my publisher likes what I am working on and I can get this to you all in the not-too-distant future!