What Makes a School Great?

Almost a month has past since the NAIS annual conference, and many of the ideas shared are still present in the back of my mind. The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great,” and outgoing president Pat Bassett asked us to come up with our list of 25 factors that make schools great. His list is quite impressive, and it was hard to come up with 25 of my own. Instead, as I read each one, I began to see some commonalities among them all.

Relationships: Whether the focus is on students, teachers, families, administrators or the greater community, the things that make a great school on Mr. Bassett’s list all depend on forging strong relationships.

Communication: To achieve all those factors, a school needs to have excellent communication among all constituents.

Values: Whatever the values are for a particular school,  a school needs to be purposeful in its endeavors and have that work shaped by its values.

It’s hard to come up with a list of 25, but if you click on the link above and look at Mr. Bassett’s, I think you’ll see these three things woven throughout. Maybe you’ll see more.

How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

All It Takes Is One Person

There were so many great ideas shared at the NAIS conference. Some were new, some validating, and some that challenged my own philosophy about education. While I need time to process and reflect, I also want to dive right in and push myself to try new things.

The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great” and the main keynote was Jim Collins, known prominently for his work “Good to Great.” He left the audience with 12 questions to ponder which I hope to do in the coming months. Rather than summarize his entire talk, which you can find here, I want to highlight something that stuck with me. He said that a great enterprise, be it a business or school had to pass three tests:

  1. Superior performance relative to your mission.
  2. Makes a distinctive impact on the world it touches. (If your school went away, would it leave an unfillable hole? Who would miss you truly and why?)
  3. Achieves lasting endurance, which means it’s great beyond any one leader. (Your school is not great if it cannot be great without you.)

Throughout the conference, I was reminded about these three things several people I heard speak. Here are two examples:

One of the general session speakers was Tererai Trent who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. Married at 11 and mother of three by 18, her biggest dream was to get an education. She earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary evaluation. With the strong belief that education is the way out of poverty and a way to stop the mistreatment of women, she wanted to start a school back in the village where she grew up. As of today, she has helped build 8 schools.

Another session I attended was led by Lee Hirsch who made the documentary “Bully.” You can see the positive impact the film has been making at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 page here.

Both these speakers set examples that pass the three tests mentioned by Jim Collins. Whether their intention was to impact one life or hundreds of thousands, their mission remained focused. It was clear to me that they let their projects become bigger than themselves, big enough to endure without them.

Both speakers did not do it alone. Tererai Trent, for example, received help from Oprah. Their dreams of change, however, were their own, and their belief that this change was achievable never seemed to wane.

The kids we teach are all dreamers. For lack of a better analogy, those dreams are like seeds. Maybe we play a role in planting some of those seeds. Maybe we don’t. Whether those dreams impact one person or many, part of our jobs as educators is to nourish those seeds and help them grow.

Innovation and Change

In education, when the words ‘innovation’ and ‘change’ are mentioned, many teachers roll their eyes. These words are almost seen as ‘bad words.’  There are several reasons for this:

1) The words are over used (the way the word ‘epic’ is used these days to describe every summer blockbuster coming…even worse is ‘most epic’).

2) In education, it isn’t easy to change or innovate.

3) The words don’t mean the same thing to different people.

I recently read Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner.

Near the beginning of the book, Wagner writes about a group of leaders at Olin College who were asked to discuss how to create environments that support innovators. A senior executive from IBM said, “It’s a lot easier to name the things that stifle innovation like rigid bureaucratic structures, isolation, and a high-stress work environment.”

Well, that could describe most work environments, especially schools.

Wagner describes innovation as the place where motivation, expertise, and creative thinking skills come together. With motivation being far more important than skill or expertise. In his previous book, The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner lists essential skills that students are going to need to be successful in the world. While these aren’t new things, and the seem like common sense, they are definitely things that schools do not emphasize enough, if at all. In that book, the 7 survival skills listed were:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

Collaboration by Networks and Leading by Influence

Agility and Adaptability

Initiative and Entrepreneurship

Effective Oral and Written Communication

Accessing and Analyzing Information

Curiosity and Imagination

Anyone looking at this list would say those are great things. They make perfect sense. But sadly, most students across the country are not getting opportunities to engage in learning that require them to use those skills. There’s still a lot of emphasis on getting the one right answer. As Wagner further explored innovation, he found that his list needed a few more skills:

perseverance

a willingness to experiment

take calculated risks and tolerate failure

have the capacity for ‘design thinking’

According to Wagner, these can all be learned. He makes a strong case about letting kids make mistakes so they can learn from them and develop resilience. He criticizes the “tiger mom” method that doesn’t allow play or have any room for failure, and he criticizes ‘helicopter’ parents that indulge and insulate their children from failure. “Neither kind is likely to produce innovators.”

So how can teachers create environments for innovation when their own working environment doesn’t promote that kind of independence? School change seems to happen at a glacial rate. Most don’t have the capacity for “design thinking.” That’s where you identify a problem, and you set about trying to solve it. First, you experiment. Consider this first experiment a prototype. It may fail at first, but the idea is to keep refining that solution, getting feedback, experimenting further with more trial and error, and eventually end up with something better, more efficient, and often more beautiful. Schools work on yearly calendars. Once the wheels on the bus get going in the fall, heaven forbid that one look at a problem during the school year and try to make it better. The time schools usually take to decide something new is at the end of each year. Why? Because changes during the school year can be too disruptive. But disruption is often the outcome of good innovation.

Innovation, in this sense isn’t simply about trying something new. It’s not about whimsy. Innovation should be purposeful. Being an Innovator requires one to challenge the status quo and constantly ask questions. Innovation is about looking at ways to simplify, make things more efficient, and make them more affordable.

Creating Innovators is a great book, with excellent stories and suggestions for parents and educators. There are many books about innovation, but this one appealed to me as it focused on how to foster these skills in our youth. Hopefully, I’ll write a little more about this book in the near future as Wagner provides ways to help foster innovation, and he also explores school change. Again, ‘change’ isn’t a bad word, if it is done with meaningful intent.

Speaking of change, I’ll leave with this quote:

“To know about change is to know about inertia, which is to say that sometimes the status quo needs a wakeup call. You can’t wait for success, you have to kick start it.”

(Fullan, 2009)

Are Disruptive Questions Necessary for Innovation?

“I don’t really see any innovative teaching around here.” That was something a parent said four years ago during a meeting regarding our school’s mission. Given that our school’s mission statement begins with, “Through innovative teaching…,” the comment made by that parent stuck with me, and innovation in education has been one of the areas that has become an interest of mine. I keep reading and hearing about the necessity of schools to change. Not just in terms big reform movements that we’re seeing across the nation, but in terms of fundamentally changing the way we teach to adapt to the way children learn today. Yet, the culture of schools is so deep – from the expectations of parents to the way we teach; from the way policies are set to the way schools are run – there is so much resistance to change. So often books are read and conferences are attended by teachers and school leaders, they come back excited and say, “…yeah I got some great nuggets out of that. I can’t wait to share them.” The new ideas are usually shared briefly if at all, and then everyone returns to the way things used to be done.

I just finished reading  The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Dyer, Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen (author of Disrupting Class). 

The book’s introduction claims that “a recent IBM poll of fifteen hundred CEOs identified creativity as the number-one ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The book emphasizes that to innovate, it requires courage. First, courage to challenge the status quo, and second, courage to take risks. It also states that innovators “have a passion for inquiry.” They are always asking questions. Asking why once isn’t enough. Continuing to probe until a novel (usually efficient and well-designed) solution emerges is what innovators do. Asking insightful ‘what if’ questions is just as important.

This book’s main claim is that innovation is not genetic. It can be developed. If so, how do we develop these in our students (challenging every child to be courageous and curious are part of my school’s mission). If most of the stakeholders in a child’s education aren’t developing these innovation skills themselves, then what chance do our students have? Without going into too much detail, the 5 skills according to this book are:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Networking
  5. Experimenting

I’ve heard from educational leaders and teachers from schools of all shapes and sizes that school culture is deep, and those who have challenge the status quo continue face an uphill climb. Most prefer to do what they’ve always done. I’m glad I work with colleagues that continue to ask good questions and have the courage to ask why. In the end it’s best for our students.

My favorite quote comes from the chapter on experimenting.

” I haven’t failed…I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

– Thomas Edison

I asked earlier in this post about how to develop these skills in students. In a couple of week’s, Tony Wagner has a new book that comes out: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I can’t wait.


Our All-School Service Learning Day

One of my favorite days of the school year is our all-school service learning day. For the past four years, our school has gone back to the same section of a park in Seattle (Seward Park) as stewards and spent the day pulling weeds, planting trees, learning about nature, and having fun.

Let me begin by saying: being in the cold unrelenting rain for four hours is not my idea of fun (some kids, though, had a blast!). Our service learning day is one of my favorite days because all the students work together with faculty, staff, and parents to make a small positive impact in our community. It requires hard work and team work. You only have to watch a second grade student trying to dig a hole with an adult-sized shovel to know whether or not effort was involved. Service learning is about connecting the learning that occurs in the classroom with real-world issues in the community.

My students define a community as a place where people live, work, play, and solve problems. In my class, we’ve explored a neighborhood community, colonial communities, scientific communities, and currently we’re looking at ancient Egyptian communities. Regardless of the structure or time period, that simple definition of a community holds true and what a great way to participate both as a school community and as members of our wonderful city.

There are a works of children’s fiction that are great for this day. The Lorax by Dr. Suess is an obvious one. Miss. Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is another. My favorite, though, and the one I chose today is called The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Inspired by those who advocated for the High Line in Manhattan to be reused as a park instead of demolition, the story tells of a little boy whose curiosity leads him to a little patch of garden on an elevated railroad track. He carefully tends to his garden realizing that his efforts inspire others to join him.

It’s always hard to know what kinds of learning spark passions in certain kids. If this school-wide project helps to ignite only one student to become a leader and make a positive impact on their community later in life, what’s a little cold rain? We live in Seattle after all.

Continuing to Learn

“When it feels like your brain hurts, you know you’re learning,” is something I say to my students from time to time.

I want to reflect and immediately share more on NAISAC12 and EdCampIS, but honestly, my brain is hurting a little bit. I have learned an immense amount and met so many incredibly passionate educators that I think I simply need some time to take it all in and process what I’ve learned.

For now, I couldn’t be happier with the success and energy of EdCampIS which wouldn’t have been possible with all of the participants, many of whom spent an extra day in Seattle to make this happen.

Thanks to one of my colleagues who helped organize the event, Jac de Haan, you can get a quick summary of the day through photos and quotes by checking out the main page of the edcampis website.