Sunday, August 21, 2016

Disruptive Innovation

Education is ripe for disruptive change leading to innovative practices that improve learning outcomes for our students. What might have worked in the past will not necessarily have the same impact today, as the world has changed dramatically in a short period of time.  It’s safe to say that the seismic shifts we are witnessing as a result of technological advances will continue to reshape our world in ways that we could never have imagined.  Disruption has become commonplace in the new world and organizations have moved from adaptation to evolution in order to not only survive, but more importantly thrive.

We can learn many lessons from the past about change and disruptive leadership as certain organizations have embraced innovative ideas while changing the way in which they learn. Let’s take a walk down memory lane to see firsthand some powerful examples of disruptive innovation in action. Remember the days when many of us had a Blockbuster video card? If you didn’t have one you couldn’t rent a VHS tape of your favorite movie. If you did, the joy of watching the latest released movie was often squashed upon our arrival to the store as all the copies were quickly rented out. This didn’t change much when we saw the shift from VHS to DVD. So where is Blockbuster today? 

Many of you know the answer to this question already and know that Netflix caused the demise of Blockbuster. Netflix was willing to innovate and change the way they learned. No brick and mortar stores, DVD’s by mail, and eventually streaming video. Blockbuster never really knew what hit them until it was too late. The innovative ideas embraced and employed by Netflix were much more consumer friendly. They also aligned nicely with the technological changes that were occurring. The stubbornness and shortsightedness of Blockbuster along with their unwillingness to move away from business as usual resulted in their ultimate demise.




Let’s look at another example. How many of us had a Blackberry as our first smartphone? I sure did and many members of my Personal Learning Network (PLN) still make fun of me for it as I held on a bit longer than most. Well, the story of Blackberry ended just about the same way as Blockbuster. Apple and Steve Jobs disrupted the smartphone business with the iPhone. Not only did the iPhone decimate Blackberry and forever knock it off the pedestal as the gold standard device, but it also sparked the smartphone wars.  Virtually every touchscreen smartphone device today has come to us thanks to the iPhone. This is another example of a willingness to innovate resulting in a fundamental change to learning.

Here is one final example that is unfolding right before our eyes. The taxicab industry has been steadfast in their opposition to change. Any attempts to innovate now are futile as Uber seized on an industry that was not very consumer friendly. Uber owns no physical cars, yet is now valued at around 68 billion dollars. Anyone can get a ride using a consumer-friendly app to hail a ride for a fraction of the cost of a cab. In some cities you can even order food, helicopters, and jets. Don't think for a minute that Uber is waiting around for the next disrupter to come along and eradicate their business model. They truly understand the nature of disruptive innovation and change and are committed to being ahead of the curve.  They are doing so by investing in driverless cars. Their commitment to embracing innovative ideas and relentless pursuit of learning will keep them relevant for a long time.

There are powerful lessons schools can learn from the above stories of disruptive innovation.  In many ways I see similarities between schools and our education system to Blockbuster, Blackberry, and the taxicab industry. Even though there has been incremental change resulting in some isolated pockets of excellence in schools across the world, system change has been hard to come by. By employing disruptive strategies we can begin the process of creating a more relevant learning culture for our students. If we don't, history has already provided a glimpse as to what might happen. 


Innovation, in an educational context, is creating, implementing, and sustaining transformative ideas that instill awe to improve learning.

Disruptive innovation compels educators to go against the flow, challenge the status quo, take on the resistance, and shift our thinking in a more growth-oriented way.  Disruptive leadership will lead to disruptive innovation. If we hang on to the same type of thinking we will continue to get the same old results…or worse. This is why digital leadership is so important in a time of rapid change. There is time to go down the path less traveled and create systems of excellence that will be embraced by our learners and in turn better prepare them for their future. Think differently. Learn differently. Disrupt the system as we know it by embracing a business as unusual model. Let’s create a new normal.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Against the Flow Leadership

Change is uncomfortable for virtually everyone. I am the first person who will say that the process is not easy or absent of difficult challenges. The challenge of change becomes even more difficult when the main adversary is always right in front of us – our mindset.  Our complex brains often work against our best intentions at times. This is Maslow’s hierarchy at play in a nutshell.  Instead of taking risks, we revert back to playing it safe. As fear takes hold we forget everything and run.  The fail-safe that we are made to think is protecting in nature actually holds us back from following through on implementing innovative ideas that can improve professional practice.

Human nature compels us in many cases to take the easiest possible path to success. In fact, structures are often put in place so that it is difficult to deviate from a prescribed path. It is easy to go with the flow if success has been defined for us. In my opinion that is the case in education. Educators and stakeholders alike have been brainwashed into thinking that a successful school or district is one who achieves through quantitative measures. Institutional practices that have historically been implemented and sustained for the sole purpose of preserving the status quo have become a detriment. Past practice might be the single most negative factor perpetuated by fixed mindsets. We can do better. We need to do better.


Image credit: https://www.cairnway.net/

We must reflect on past practice in order to improve current practice. As a leader, going against the flow is about using fear as a catalyst to face everything and rise. Instead of enabling the status quo to dictate the learning culture of a school, critical reflection is employed to disrupt professional practice in order to grow and improve.  This requires asking some difficult questions that will pave the way for change that is desperately needed in some schools. Asking these questions can provide a clear case for disruptive change that can lead to the embracement of innovative ideas and a fundamental shift in learning. 

Leaders who choose to go against the flow ask these critical questions about their school culture:

  • How well are we meeting the needs of today’s learner?  This question is a start, however it doesn’t really matter much what we think. The question should be asked to our students in the form of how well are we meeting their needs.
  • Are we more concerned about learning or traditional grading practices? 
  • Does homework improve learner outcomes?
  • How does the current process of observation and evaluation of staff ensure accountability while improving instruction and leadership?
  • How does this particular policy positively impact student learning? If it doesn’t, then why is precious time spent on developing and enforcing it?
  • How do we know that our investments in educational technology are actually improving student learning and achievement? What supporting evidence do we have?
  • Do we hold ourselves accountable for implementing ideas and strategies learned through professional development?

These are tough questions that not only enable us to reflect, but to also be honest about what isn’t working in education. There are broken aspects of school culture that cannot be ignored any longer such as grading, homework, professional development, ineffective technology integration, outdated policies, observation/evaluation, and a culture that is not adequately preparing students for their future. As a principal, the questions above were used to implement needed changes that led to results

This is not the case in all schools, as great progress has been made across the globe to provide more relevant ways to empower learners and educators alike. However, the questions above force us to reflect more holistically to begin the process of meaningful change. We must resist the temptation as leaders to go down the path of least resistance. It is time to go against the flow and usher in new ideas for the betterment of students and us. 

What questions above most resonate with you and why? What driving questions would you add?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Making is a Process

No two makerspaces should be exactly alike, because no two school communities are exactly alike. Properly planning your makerspace will ensure that you uncover themes that are unique and meaningful to your school.  It will ensure that your space is vibrant and relevant, as well as one that is sustainable into the future. “ – Laura Fleming, author of Worlds of Making

When we created our makerspace at New Milford High School many years ago we never fully realized the positive impact it would have on our learners. In a time where wood shop, metal shop, and agriculture were cut for the mere reason that the content was deemed non-essential or could not be tested something had to change. This was the reality for many schools in the Northeast. In our particular case not having trade-based courses was devastating as one third of our population was classified special needs. For all intensive purposes most of these students could care less about the curriculum, Common Core Standards, or standardized tests (i.e. PARCC).  The creation and evolution of our makerspace solved this problem.

The premise was simple; allow students to utilize guided inquiry in an informal learning environment that was facilitated by the use of real-world tools to do real-world work. Students were not only able to actively explore their passions, but also learn from failure as well as trial and error.  Our students thrived in an environment where the word “fail” really stood for first attempt in learning. There was no clearer evidence of this as when students were using old computer parts to design and create an entirely new operating system from scratch.

The makerspace was less about the latest technological gadget and more about the process of tinkering, inventing, creating, and making to learn. This is probably the single most important lesson I learned from Laura Fleming, the teacher librarian extraordinaire who was the original architect of our makerspace.  I say original architect as after the space was initially established she empowered the students to chart its course going forward. Success rested in her ability to focus on her role as a facilitator or coach as opposed to someone who knew who to use all the stuff.  She was the quintessential guide to possibilities who unlocked the learning potential of our students.  

In a time when we tend to focus on the next big thing in technology we learned that planning was key and that a focus on learning and pedagogy would help us to achieve better learning outcomes for our students. This was true for many of our change efforts including BYOD, blended learning, and virtual learning. The makerspace was no different. We meticulously planned with our students a vision for how the space would foster powerful learning experiences grounded in rigor, relevance, and relationships. Maker activities naturally align themselves to Quad D work as outlined by the Rigor Relevance Framework. It is through these hands-on activities that students employ a range of higher-order thinking skills to solve real-world, unpredictable problems that have more than one solution. Through this engaging process students also readily make connections to a range of other disciplines. 

Planning is key. Many people take the approach of ordering equipment and materials before taking time to plan out the space (same can be said with 1:1 initiatives). This should be the last step. Talk to your students, watch them, and understand their needs, wants, and interests first. Assess existing curricula, programs, and offerings within your school community Consider global trends and best practices, which will then help you to develop themes.  After considering these important steps a systematic approach to ordering technology and other items will help to create a makerspace that best meets the needs of your learners.




Process is everything. I try to emulate this when I conduct hands-on makersapce workshops.  The key takeaway that I want educators to leave with is a focus on open-ended exploration.  There is no better prompt than make something that does something. It is simple, yet so powerful in that educators (or in your case students) have to work collaboratively to come up with a creative solution to solve a problem. Take a look at this video from a workshop I recently conducted (also below). In addition to set materials that I provided, I encouraged attendees to utilize anything else they could find. The results were nothing less than spectacular.


The most important aspect of a makerspaces is that it can spark your student’s natural desire to learn.  I think we can all agree this should be the intended outcome when leading the maker movement. With a careful attention to planning and design thinking your makerspace can transform the learning culture of your school like ours did.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Word Cloud Tools: Raising the Bar

Word clouds, or tag clouds as they are sometimes called, bring words to life in a visual way.  They constitute graphical representations of word frequency that give greater prominence to words that appear more often. These words can be taken from an analyzed text or added manually.  The more a word appears or is imputed, the larger it will be in the cloud. Best of all word cloud generators are easy to use and there are a variety of display features that can be used for aesthetic appeal.

For years word clouds have been fan favorites of teachers and administrators alike. These early web tools burst on the scene to provide new avenues to engage students and stakeholders.  Over the years these tools have been used to increase student engagement.  From a pedagogical sense they can be used as part of an anticipatory set or as a means to review prior learning, check for understanding, and close a lesson. They can also be used more broadly as part of a larger student project to assist with making their learning more visible.


Image credit: http://www.christoy.net/

Even though words clouds are used as a pedagogical strategy in class their true power lies in their ability to communicate ideas at a glance. They can be used to highlight successes and achievements as well as articulate how stakeholders feel about our schools and districts. There are many other benefits of using word clouds in general.  They are relatively easy to comprehend, can provide clarity on overreaching ideas, and are easy to share across digital networks. It is no wonder that these tools have been embraced in education and business.

Popular word cloud generators include Wordle and Tagxedo. Even though these are extremely popular there are some apparent downsides. Let’s analyze the description of Wordle:
Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. 
Herein lies the problem with tools like this. For starters they are openly referred to as toys. The second issue stems from the fact that the cloud itself is created in a relatively low-level way when it comes to thinking. All one has to do is input words and paste text to create a cloud. My issue with Wordle and Tagxedo is that little to no critical thought is aligned to what could be a powerful way to aid in conceptual mastery. This is not to say that word clouds can’t be used to support higher order thinking skills. The key here is to begin to look beyond traditional tools and begin to integrate those that allow students and stakeholders alike to respond to open ended questions.

Enter Mentimeter and AnswerGarden. Both tools can be used for formative assessment.  Responses to an open-ended question of your choice can be used to create a word cloud.  Each is simple to use and will only take minutes to set up. With Answer Garden all responses form a growing word cloud, which can be exported to Wordle or Tagxedo if you wish. You can even set up an administrator password to remove inappropriate responses. When setting up Mentimeter there are seven different question types to choose from, one of which is a means to have answers curated into a colorful word cloud. It even has a profanity filter. 

With all the tech tools integrated in schools we need to also be more mindful of the questions to which we ask our learners to respond. Let’s move away from the use of toys to support low-level learning and begin to integrate the power of word clouds to support high-level learning.