Category Archives: Governance and leadership

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.

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.

 

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!

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!

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.

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!

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.