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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this is due to the turnover in teachers; young teachers are still being prepared by our colleges of education for an outdated learning model, so when they hear Sir Ken for the first time, their natural reaction is “Yes!”.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.


New Post on When Trajectories of Change Cross

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

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

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

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


How to Assess School Progress Toward Deeper Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!


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.

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.

Are Facts On the Road to Extinction?

Like many others, I am deeply concerned with the rapid spread of quasi-factual and nonsensical information spread across social and “journalistic” media as truth.  As educators, we simply must take on the challenge of learning and teaching how to separate truth from fiction and opinion.  In a recent post, journalist and commentator Dan Rather noted that:

The United States has risen to the most powerful and prosperous nation in human history based on facts, an educational system that taught them, a legal system that respected them, and a political system that made it all possible. That is the winning formula for the health and security of our nation, and the world.

He then cites the widely reported comments of CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes, who, said:

And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that often when people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

I could not agree more with Rather that our primary social systems, including education and the law, are grounded in respect for facts.  We may not always agree on what those facts are or the implication of accepting a set of facts as a basis for further decisions, but we have generally agreed that facts do exist.  It would seem to be virtually impossible to teach in an accredited school if we took the view that facts have become at best a variable, and at worst extinct.

I cannot suggest strongly enough that this is an appropriate and necessary conversation for teachers and their students.  This is not a political discussion, and the roles of fact and anti-fact should not be assigned to the political left or right.  The discussion should take place agnostic of who won what election. It is a discussion that goes straight to the core strengths of civil democracy.  It must be ongoing, overt, and respectful.  To ignore this discussion is, in my humble opinion, to abdicate one of education’s most critical and cherished roles.