Category Archives: Innovation in Education

Teaching the Death of Compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A List of Not-So-Quirky School Metrics

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing Like Seeing Deeper Learning in Action

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

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

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

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

I had two big takeaways from the day:

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

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

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

Two Big Takeaways From Week Focusing on Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Major Education Game Changer Launches: The Mastery Transcript Consortium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hill School is Breaking Some Traditional Independent School Paradigms

IMG_3057I am at The Hill School outside Philadelphia today and tomorrow; I have been working with the humanities departments this year on reimagining their program, offerings, and departmental structure.  But this post is not about the humanities; we are prototyping solutions later today and will have have a lot to report by the end of March.

In discussions and classroom visits today, I learned about the economics course that has test-piloted-busted some core assumptions about the student-teacher ratio.  Starting a year ago, an introduction econ class has a single principal faculty member who provides lectures to up to 48 students.  Eight students who took the class last year act as “TA’s” to this year’s cohort. Initially there was fear that parents would rebel against a class of this size with just one principal teacher, but that has not happened.  The students are working on a more self and group-directed basis, and there has been little pushback and a lot of positive feedback.

At lunch I spoke with a junior student who had just come back from “City Term” in New York City.  I asked her to think about what elements of that program might be applicable to Hill, nestled in historic, semi-rural Pottstown.  Len Miller, Hill’s Associate Headmaster, agreed that it would be invaluable for her to present some of her experiences, reflections, and ideas to a group of Hill faculty who have not had a similar experience themselves.

IMG_3058I visited a newly renovated space that houses Hill’s three-year engineering arc.  Students work in pairs and small groups to learn some basics of engineering, and then proceed through a series of design-build challenges.  It is not terribly tech-heavy: some desktop computers, small leg-style robotics kits, one laser cutter and one 3D printer.  There is one principal teacher handling more than 100 students, assisted by two other faculty members  a couple of periods a day, who are learning the program.  They anticipate by next year or the following year they will have 150 students in the program, which is enormous for a school of this size.

I asked the students what they liked about the class, what was different, and what elements might carry over to their other course work.  All of the responses were variations on a theme: “This class is different in that there is not one set answer; we like that we get to figure things out on our own; we are learning to think for ourselves, and that is a more important skill in the real world than learning something for a test.

I will challenge the humanities teams to import these lessons as they re-think their own programs and pedagogy. Chalk up The Hill School as another leader in re-thinking the industrial-era school paradigm, moving teachers out of their traditional roles, and allowing students to own more of their own learning.

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!

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!