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.

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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)

Autonomy vs. Collaboration: Are they Exclusive of Each Other?

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I’m a huge fan of Daniel Pink, and his book Drive. If you haven’t read it yet, I repost a great animated summary at the end of this post. Using a lot of current research, Pink makes a case for autonomy being an integral part of motivation. The other two parts: mastery, and purpose.

I’m also a big fan of collaboration, and in todays world of sharing everything openly, its also really important. The summer issue of the Harvard Business Review is all about collaboration. In the book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Stephen Johnson, he makes a very clear point that great individual a-ha moments are rare and that it’s often the confluence of two or more ideas that lead to game changing innovations. There’s a great quick animation of this as well (posted below).

My personal answer to the question posed in the title of this post is, NO!

A large percentage of our faculty just finished a summer institute at our school that was organized by our school leaders. I can truly say, that I left feeling more excited, motivated, and inspired of the potential that our school has to continue growing. If the aim was to begin cultivating a community of professional learners with growth mindsets who are both autonomous AND collaborative, the institute was an incredible success. Another underlying principle is that everything we do promotes the same kind of purpose, relevance, and collaboration for students.

How was this done? By finding the strengths within each individual, yet creating a safe, trusting environment to share these. By making the purpose a clear and shared one. And by promoting mastery. It was hard work, but work everyone was so eager to do because it had meaning. It wasn’t busy work. Aside from that, the institute was run using a variety of effective models of instruction. That kind of modeling is key for inspiration and the transfer of effective teaching practices into the classroom.

If you’ve read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Things are Hard by the Heath Brothers, the way to do this is to find a way to motivate both our emotional and rational minds, and set a clear path for how this will be done. I sense the beginning of purposeful changes happening at our school this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.

What is the Point of Learning?

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a TEDx event at Eastside Prep. Several speakers really spoke not only about what’s wrong with much of our education system (that would be too easy to do). They also spoke of changes that would enhance learning – the real kind of learning where you take risks, sometimes fail, but persevere until you get it. The reward is intrinsic. The value and motivation comes from the learning itself. For example, changing the schedule to allow for longer deeper inquiry or assessment without grades. Honestly, if I was evaluated on a grading system rather than through goal setting, feedback, and reflection, I wouldn’t do it. So why do we do this with kids in middle, high, and even some elementary schools? I’m glad people are motivated to put on events TEDx events focused around education. There’s another TED education event in this area, TEDxOverlake (How People Learn,) happening on June 18.

This week, the videos of these talks were posted, and I wanted to highlight a couple of speakers that addressed the above in different but concrete and passionate ways. The first is by Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher called The Future of Education Without Coercion (you should also check out his blog, ThinkThankThunk.

The second is the talk by Dr. Tae whom I wrote about a few weeks back. His talk was titled: Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?

If you’ve read Daniel Pink’s Drive, read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, seen the movie Race to Nowhere, or heard Sir Ken Robinson speak or read his book The Element, a very similar theme emerges in all of them.

Meaningful Conversations

I am still digesting an incredible evening of ideas thoughtful discourse on public education from a diverse panel of advocates for public school and change at Seattle University (Part of their Conversations in Education series). Each made one articulate point after the other. While their views all differed slightly, they were all passionate, and there were clear common themes that came through. The panel included the following people: Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Tyrone Howard, Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, and Nicholas Hanauer.

The discussion was moderated by Joseph W. Scott (professor of Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Washington – and husband of one of my favorite profs at Seattle U.) He first asked each member to answer this question: Name the top two things on your list that you think is preventing achievement in public education.

Kati Haycock began and mentioned that we do not demand enough of our students. She also said we need to act on what we know. We know early childhood education makes a difference. Chester Finn mentioned that the state standards are too low, at least the Common Core curriculum seems to be better, he suggested, but warned that it only exists in math and reading and then reminded us again that the curricula is week. Tyrone Howard and Al Sharpton talked about the “New Racisim” which is saying to a child of color or poverty, “I understand your situation, so you don’t need to care as much, nor do I.” We need to become more comfortable talking about race and how education is not serving a significant part of the population. Denise Pope also agreed that our standards were too low, but particularly on authentic real-life skills. She mentioned that now we have doctors, who have aced every standardized test imaginable who cannot diagnose something because it doesn’t look “exactly like it does in the textbook!” She said there’s serious disengagement in school and kids are not healthy (both mentally and physically) – basically, she said (and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t record it), “The curriculum is extremely broad, but about an inch deep and kids cannot think for themselves, collaborate in healthy ways.” Nick Hanauer (whose children I have taught), talked about bureaucracy, politics, and the need to distribute money equitably.

They were then asked to name one remedy they thought would work. It basically came down to proper distribution of funds, and shave away layers of bureaucracy.

Kati said, you cannot teach from a textbook – you need people who know HOW to teach, and you need to talk honestly and act.

Chester said we need to look at governance and strip away layers and have more leadership at all levels – not something that is hierarchical.

Tyrone said, use data and get effective teachers on board, incentivize them to go out to needy areas, include parents in the discussion, identify teachers that aren’t doing their jobs, try to remediate, if that fails – they should choose another profession.

Denise really spoke to the need for a strong Social / Emotional curriculum, and that the work kids need to do should be authentic, like the work we do. How many timed tests have you done lately? It’s like if my boss gathered all of us and gave us a timed test and those who didn’t score above a certain amount were fired. Many kids face high stakes testing daily, and we’re sending the wrong message to them. She said, kids need to know the value of being wrong, receiving redemption and leraning from it.

Nick spoke about allocating funds strategically and equitably and supporting legislators that support education. He gave concrete examples, like supporting arts programs in schools, and subject specialists. He also talked about the need to support early childhood education and all day kindergarten programs in public education.

Rev Al said, to change the culture, we have to create the culture, and to do that we have to have active engagement.

Active community engagement was on everybody’s list.

That was just the first part of the evening. There were three, but I couldn’t possibly try to summarize it all in one post, so I’m going to leave it there for tonight. I went with four colleagues, and I know one more who went separately. I just wish we could have had more people there , parents, board members, other leaders. It was an incredible and inspiring evening full of people modeling what they believe, taking action, and engaging in meaningful conversation.

Kahn – Flipping the Classroom

Of the TED talks given last week, this is the one of the ones I was anticipating the most. Human interaction is crucial to learning, but that interaction is just part of it. Can a robot or youtube video do my job? Only if I stand in front of the class the whole time and lecture. Sure, listening is an action, but doing something more interactive like student-student or student-teacher is a much more valuable use of their time. I had a few colleagues come back from the NAIS conference recently and really liked Sal Kahn both as a speaker and what he had to say. It really shifts the paradigm of traditional schooling, but as an educator, it also makes sense in many ways. I still need to explore Kahn Academy’s website and materials more thoroughly, but after this talk, I’m convinced I really need to. Best of all, it’s all free!

CCL – Are Roman Numerals Obsolete

I’m not sure who still uses Roman numerals. I learned them when I was in elementary school. I remember seeing them at the end of movie credits growing up, but that’s long gone. They’re still on the clock tower that houses Big Ben in London, but I suppose one could tell the time on a clock without numbers anyway. I haven’t even worn a watch in the past 5 years. Where else are Roman numerals used. I also thought of using the word sestercentennial in the title of this post, but it’s my 250th post, not the 250th anniversary of my first post.

We’re going to start learning about Ancient Egypt in my class, and I was trying to figure out what exactly the objective would be when we learned about the Ancient Egyptian numerals. It led me to think about when a certain tradition or practice ends and is replaced by something else, in essence, change.

The world is changing rapidly, but is education keeping up? We just had a week off for mid-winter break, and it’s given me time to pause and reflect about a lot of things. This week also gave me the time to figure out how twitter worked, and how it could help me stay apprised and connected of what was going on in the world without cluttering my inbox or remembering to check the various blogs I like. With twitter, I was able to follow two of my colleagues (since they tweeted) among many others I didn’t know who were eager to share what they learned at the NAIS conference last week. Even though I was unable to attend this conference in person as I did last year, being able to follow it gave me the renewed energy and optimism that I had after last year’s event. I don’t know why I hesitated to use twitter. It took thousands of years for Ancient Egyptian numerals to be replaced, but these days, companies that were once on the cutting edge seem to fade before one even figures out how to use it.

The week before our break, our Head of School gave us an article to read titled, “Why a School Doesn’t Run – Or Change – Like a Business.” Written in 2000, many of its points hold true a decade later. The article mentions the difficulty of change for many reasons. The author mentions that while teaching “benefits from regular refreshers and occasional overhauls, it doesn’t demand the kind of continuous updating that, say, law or medicine or high technology do.” A decade ago, I would have agreed with him on this note, but change in education, however slow it may seem to some is inevitable. The difficulties still remain, and school leaders must approach change with clarity, focus, and continuity while respecting educators’ motivation and innovation. The change has to be clear and articulated well. Educators can support change if the ‘why, what, and how’ are addressed. They can support change if it doesn’t mean “do more,” but instead means try doing things differently. Finally, a very important thing he mentions is that educators need to know what won’t change, so they can rely on some continuity.

If the objective of learning about Roman Numerals provides kids with different ways of thinking about numbers, it’s good enough for me and should still be taught. I’m sure our Latin teacher can give me at least X number of other reasons why.

I was going to write about a few articles I read today: George Will had an interesting column about Teach for America. Daniel Pink had a column about detesting the question, “What’s your passion?” Both David Brooks and Paul Krugman have chimed in on what’s going on in Wisconsin as have many others, so I’ll spare boring you with my two cents. You can read the articles by clicking on the links. There’s a lot to write about, but the Oscars are about to start, and I’m sure I’ll have something to else to say soon enough.