Sunday, February 19, 2017

Agency: Important for Students and Educators

There is a great deal of talk and focus on the need to improve student agency in our schools and rightfully so (see my post on this topic HERE).  Empowerment and ownership need and should be associated with learning to increase relevancy, value, meaning, and outcomes.  The desire to increase agency in the form of voice, choice, and advocacy should be viewed as just as important for educators (teachers and administrators) as it is for students.  For sustainable change and innovative practices to take hold let’s evaluate the level of educator agency in our schools. 


Image credit: www.peoplematters.in

Voice

Educators, both teachers and administrators, should have a say in many elements that influence a school’s learning culture.  When we don’t listen to the ideas and concerns of others people will shut down and withdraw. This results in a negative impact on motivation, respect, enthusiasm and a willingness to innovate.  In terms of communication, the aspect of listening is just as important in leading and sustaining change as the use of verbal and non-verbal strategies.  Educator voice can be cultivated using the following strategies:
  • Flipped staff meetingsEveryone who plans a meeting works terribly hard to develop and then get through an agenda.  This results in a death-by-meeting scenario and is a main reason why most people hate meetings. Consider developing a meeting agenda using Google Docs. The added bonus here is that other documents, images, and videos can be embedded, which really creates a more dynamic agenda.  Complete this a week prior and then send out to your staff where they can add comments and content to the agenda.  Then during the actual meeting focus on one or two very important goals such as the following: How do we improve learning for our students? Have a back channel established and monitored using a tool like TodaysMeet to take educator voice to the next level.  Creating a trusting environment where staff can respond under the cover of anonymity amplifies voice even more.   
  • Planning professional learningHow many of us dreaded professional development (PD) days? Historically PD has always been something that was done to us, not something that we wanted to engage in.  The best way to change the paradigm here is to afford educators opportunities to use their voice and ideas to plan powerful learning experiences.  This could consist of speaker recommendations, workshop topics, hosting your own event, or even the development of an unconference.  Just as we want students to own their learning the same should apply to adults. 
  • Comment box – This strategy has been used in the hospitality business for ages.  Some people just want their concerns to be heard, but acting on certain concerns can be empowering on many levels.  Consider having some of your talented students create a wood box do this the traditional way and then leave it in the faculty room.  If digital leadership is your thing, set up a few tools (Padlet, TodaysMeet, Tackk) and allow anonymous comments to be posted.  Establish some ground rules prior such as including a solution to go along with the identified problem, as you don’t want this to turn into a gripe session.  The comment box should also be used as an opportunity to provide compliments and positive reinforcement.

Choice

In the classroom, agency empowers a shift where students can choose the right tool for the right task to demonstrate conceptual understanding and mastery. Various pathways to personalize learning and make it more personal are also emphasized.  Educators should have more choice over how they learn themselves. They should also have choice over resources that they, the experts who work with students the most on a day to day basis, feel are valuable to support and enhance learning.  Below are some ideas on how to promote educator choice:
  • Micro-credentials – The use of digital badges, otherwise known as micro-credentials, can afford educators choice over what they want to learn about as well as the specific time that they want to learn a new skill or pedagogical technique.  Accountability for learning is ensured through a vetting process and the badge represents the successful achievement of a learning goal. Thanks to the leadership of Laura Fleming we implemented a micro-credential system to acknowledge the informal learning of our teachers and administrators.  You can visit her site HERE and begin to earn your own badges through choice or work to implement your own system.
  • Genius Hour - Genius hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.  It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.  This concept can be applied for educators as well.  As principal I created the Professional Growth Period (PGP) where in lieu of a non-instructional duty my staff were given 2-3 forty-eight minute periods per week to follow their learning passions.  A learning portfolio was required as part of this process and presented at the end of year evaluation conference. You can learn more about the PGP process HERE
  • Distributive budgeting – Distributive leadership conveys the importance of a shared, collective and extended leadership practice that builds the capacity for change and improvement. This can be applied to the budgeting process when it comes time to purchase learning tools, resources, and services (PD providers). The choice factor honors the expertise found in our classrooms and schools and can serve as a great catalyst for sustainable change. 

Advocacy

Educators need to be put in a position where they can actively advocate for system improvements without the fear of repercussion.  It is important to understand that there is no perfect teacher, classroom, administrator, school, district, or system. In education, we must focus on areas where our data tells us we can improve, but also continue to push the envelope by embracing innovative ideas and an edupreneurial mindset (learn more about this concept in my book BrandED). Advocacy educators consider voice and support for a cause to bring about needed change.  Let’s face it, even with progress in schools there still are many areas that need improvement. Forums should be established where advocates for grading, homework, schedule, curriculum, budget, and professional development reform can not only be heard, but also offer recommendations for improvement.  These need to be safe places where open dialogue is encouraged and action results. 

These are my thoughts on improving educator agency in our schools to compliment student agency. When looking at the three essential elements (voice, choice, advocacy) what examples would you add?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Is Technology Being Integrated Effectively?

In many cases, there seems to be a tendency to water down expectations when it comes to integrating technology.  During a recent presentation on digital pedagogy for deeper learning I asked attendees to discuss then share out on TodaysMeet how they were effectively integrating technology in their classroom, school, or district.  There was an emphasis on describing in detail what effective use of technology meant to them.  As the results poured in there were a few consistent responses that stood out. Most attendees flat out stated that they or their schools/districts were not effectively integrating technology. Others confessed that they weren’t sure what effective use constituted.  Many of the remaining responses centered on just a listing of tools that were being used as a measure of effectiveness. 

The question about effective use provides a great opportunity for all of us to critically reflect upon the current role technology plays in education.  There is a great deal of potential in the numerous tools now available to support or enhance learning, but we must be mindful of how they are being used. Take Kahoot for example. This tool is used in so many classrooms across the world to get students more engaged and add a level of fun and excitement to the learning process. However, most of the time the questions that students are asked to answer in a Kahoot are focused on the lowest cognitive domains and mostly multiple choice.  I have nothing against Kahoot and think it is a great tool that has a great deal of promise. My issue is how this tool, and many others, are utilized in the classroom. 

The burden of responsibility here lies with both teachers and administrators. In many cases the engagement factor is emphasized over learning outcomes and actual evidence of improvement aligned to standards. I get that this is not the end all be all, but nevertheless it is important. It goes without saying that effective technology integration should inform instruction and provide feedback as to the level of conceptual mastery students demonstrate. Then there is the unfortunate practice of putting the cart before the horse where acquiring technology and getting it into classrooms takes precedence over improving instructional design.  In either case, for technology to ever live up to the lofty, and at times baseless, expectations that have been established we must take a more critical look at pedagogy. 

For many educators SAMR is the preferred model often associated with technology integration. It’s a catchy model and does have some value mostly in the form of what we shouldn’t be doing (substitution). Take a close look at the tech-centric language used in each category and ask yourself what does the SAMR model really tell you about the level of student learning? This is why I love the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to ensure that technology is integrated effectively.  It provides a common language, constitutes the lens through which to examine all aspects of a learning culture (curriculum, instruction, assessment), and helps to create a culture around a common vision. 

Technology should be integrated in a way that increases engagement through relevance. As students are utilizing technology are they just applying it in one discipline? I am not saying this is a bad thing, but we must eventually move beyond this typical comfort zone when it comes to tool use. When integrating technology does the task allow students:

  • to make connections across various disciplines and content areas?
  • to solve real-world predictable problems?
  • to solve real-world unpredictable problems?

The other aspect of this framework is the most important.  Are students working, thinking, or both? Successful technology integration is totally dependent on the level of questioning that is asked of our students.  This is why I always say that pedagogy trumps technology.  Think about the formative and summative assessments you either use or see in your respective role. Are students demonstrating high levels of cognitive thought? How do you know whether students have learned or not when integrating technology? What does the feedback loop look like? These are extremely important questions to ask as a teacher or administrator to determine the level of effectiveness. Check out this example to see how all the pieces (rigor, relevance, tech, assessment) come together to create a powerful learning experience).



The overall goal when integrating technology should be to provide opportunities for students to work and think. Another key strategy for successful integration is to use technology when appropriate. Technology will not improve every lesson or project, thus a focus on pedagogy first, technology second if appropriate with help ensure success. Many aspects of the Rigor Relevance Framework can be used to guide you in developing better questions as part of good pedagogy including:

  • anticipatory set/do-now
  • review of prior learning
  • checking for understanding (formative and summative)
  • closure

The most important aspects of pedagogy are assessment and feedback.  If technology (and innovation in general) is going to have a positive impact on learning, let’s ensure these areas are improved first. Then going forward always lend a critical eye to how technology is being used to address standards and inform instruction.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Ideas That Power Lasting Change

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has them. Some are good and extremely creative while others are not realistic or applicable to a certain situation.  As social media continues to evolve, there now seems to be an endless sea of ideas as to how education should change and what educators should do to improve professional practice. I will go as far to say that just having an idea is not good enough. It doesn’t take much effort to develop a sound bite that sounds great in theory, but if it is challenging to implement in practice, especially at scale, then we need to reconsider the relevancy of that idea.  

We all struggle with a tug-of-war of sorts when it comes to ideas.  In many situations we are asked to either implement or embrace the ideas of others, particularly those who we are accountable to or so-called experts in the field. This can be problematic at times if the groundwork explaining the what, why, when, and how has not been clearly articulated.  Then there are those that we develop on our own.  Throughout my career and even up to this point, ideas are constantly flowing through my mind.  There tends to be a bias towards the ones that we come up with, which throws another wrench into the process of moving an idea into actionable change.  

Being open to new ideas is extremely important in these disruptive times.  If we continue to employ the same type of thinking, then the chances are we will probably have to settle for the same old results…. or worse.  Great ideas are the seeds of change. Many of them don’t have the opportunity to germinate because of our fixed mindsets. For the most part nobody likes change. This is just how our brains are wired, unfortunately for many of us. I can tell you that this was the case for me early in my administrative career.  It is important not to fall victim to idea voodoo.


Don’t let idea voodoo cloud your vision as to what is possible.  Embracing a growth mindset can put you in a better position to lead change in your classroom, school, district, or organization.  This is only half the battle though. Don’t assume that just because you are open to new ideas that everyone else is.  This is where the hard, and at times frustrating, work comes in. The real challenge of change is getting the resistance to embrace and implement your idea(s). So what makes a great idea that others will embrace and take some calculated risk to implement? Great ideas are:

Innovative
Doable
Energizing
Aligned
Sustainable

Innovative: here are so many words associated with innovation.  Some popular ones include new, change, transformation, improvement, better, and success. Innovation to me, in an educational context, is creating, implementing, and sustaining transformative ideas that instill awe to improve learning. Fresh Ideas are needed that take into account dramatic changes in society, technology, and learner needs.  New is not necessarily better. That is why innovative ideas must focus on improving existing culture.

Doable: This goes without saying.  Great ideas consider financial resources, time, and mandates. Doable ideas can be associated with lofty goals, but a meticulous effort on articulating the what, why, when, and how must occur to overcome fixed mindsets and an entrenched status quo. 

Energizing: If an idea doesn’t inspire or motivate someone to embrace different and better then it might just be a crumby idea. Great ideas should be energizing and create a buzz. When people believe that a change will lead to improved outcomes embracement is more likely. Initially this might not be the case. Coming up with great ideas is a start, but the differentiator is how the idea is rolled out. Energizing ideas bring an increased joy to learning and professional practice. They are also presented in ways that motivate and inspire.

Aligned: Great ideas should complement and then enhance what is already in place. This includes curriculum, standards, mandated assessments, and other elements associated with school/district culture.  They should also be aligned to research, evidence, and professional development. Take a critical lens to all ideas to ensure efficacy. 

Sustainable: If an idea fizzles out then it probably didn’t meet any or all criteria listed above. Great ideas lead to changes that become embedded into school culture and professional practice. They withstand the test of time and thus become the new normal way of doing business. 

Just because an idea sounds good doesn’t mean that it will lead to an improvement. It is time to weed out the bad and so-so ideas while striving to make good ideas great. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Learning is Not Linear

I think, for the most part, everyone strives for success.  We want to be successful in our professional as well as our personal lives.  I strived to be the best possible principal for my students, staff, and community.  Whether I was successful is a matter of perspective. My evaluations seemed to support the fact that I might have been.  I was far from perfect, but always strived for constant improvement. When I reflect upon what was accomplished during my time leading New Milford High School I think many observers would consider my leadership a success based on what we all accomplished together.  Our digital transformation, backed by evidence of improved learner outcomes, has been well documented.  In the eyes of many this is success. 

As I have transitioned into my new role over the past two years as a Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education, I continue to set the bar high for myself. Again, whether I am successful is open for debate. Some observers might see the publishing of books as an indicator of success. Others could equate keynotes in the same manner.  No matter what someone’s view of success is, I can tell you one thing for certain – it is not a linear process. No one goes from point A to B by following a predetermined path or script. The question then becomes why does school, for the most part, focus on a linear transition that manifests itself in the form of curriculum? This is just one example that flies in the face of unleashing the talents of our students while teaching them what success really is. 



Success results from a series of experiences that include constructing then applying new knowledge, failure, persistence, commitment, perseverance, adaptation, evolution, and most of all reflection. There are so many images out there that illustrate the concept of success being like an iceberg.  In the eyes of many people, success is only what you see or a final product.  The reality is that success really is a unique combination of behaviors, skills, and mindset shifts. The recipe is different for everyone as well as the criteria used to determine success. The fact remains though that the path to success is always convoluted. 


Image credit: Sylvia Duckworth

Learning and success are intimately intertwined.  You can’t be successful if you don’t learn. You learn to eventually experience some sort of success in life. Learning, like success, is anything but a linear process.  As such we need to be more mindful of the experiences and structures in our schools if the goal, which it should be, is to prepare students to succeed in their future.  This includes the new world of work where in a few short years many of the jobs that exist today won’t.  If we continue to prescribe students to a one-size-fits-all approach in classrooms that have remained relatively unchanged we are in a sense forcing them down a linear path. Instead of a focus on learn to do, schools need to shift their practices and create a culture where students do to learn.

Students learn differently and have hidden talents that we must unleash. This is why I love the maker movement and makerspaces in particular.  Nothing, in my opinion, illustrates to kids the many pathways to success than learning with their hands through trial and error, open-ended exploration, and authentic problem solving.  Education needs some disruptive innovation.  We must lend a critical eye to our pedagogy, especially the way we assess and provide feedback to students. It is time for us to work harder to upend the status quo by redefining success in learning. Are you with me?