Sunday, November 19, 2017

School of Dreams

As many people know I am originally from the Northeastern part of the United States.  I was born and raised in New Jersey, where I also became a teacher and eventually a principal.  After meeting my wife in 2002, I moved to Staten Island, NY and resided there for thirteen years. To be honest, I never thought I would leave that area of the country as my wife, and I had such strong roots there. Things change, however.  The successful digital transformation at the school where I was principal attracted a great deal of attention from the mainstream media, schools locally and globally, and organizations, in part because we were able to show efficacy in our work.  It was at this time that I decided to take a calculated risk and attempt to help other schools scale their digital and innovative change efforts.

As I transitioned from principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) my work began to take me all over the country and the world.  I vividly remember the day when I was away working in Hawaii, and Staten Island got dumped with over a foot of snow.  Shortly after I returned home, my wife sat me down and gave me an ultimatum.  I either had to go back to being a principal so I could be home to shovel any and all snow in the future or we had to move somewhere else in the county where it was warm and didn’t snow at all.  My wife knew full well how much I love the work that I do so out came a map of the United States and the discussions as to where we would raise our family for the foreseeable future began.

During our discussions, I had to set my non-negotiables.  She wanted warmth and no snow while I needed a huge airport that was centrally located to cut my flight times and connections down.  There were only two realistic choices at this point, Dallas and Houston. Since Houston was a bit further south and we could get the exact home we wanted the decision was made.  One other factor that weighed heavily in our decision-making process was the school district that our children would attend.  The icing on the cake for me was that when it was all said and done taking into account our non-negotiables, we decided to build our home within the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD). 

CFISD is an amazing school district that is not only one of the highest achieving large districts in the state of Texas, but also firmly committed to scaling innovative practices to improve learning for all 120,000 students. For the past year and a half, my team and I at ICLE have been assisting the district with doing Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) K-12, incorporating blended learning, and aligning sound pedagogy to the use of flex spaces.  We have also used our Digital Practice Assessment (DPA) process to help them determine where they are at, but more importantly where they want to be for their learners. Now back to my story.

Shortly after arriving in the Houston area I was contacted by Cheryl Fisher, a local CFISD elementary principal.  She had been following me on Twitter and asked if I would be willing to visit her school and see how they were implementing blended learning across all grade levels.  What I saw just warmed my heart, but more on this later.  A little over a year later Cheryl was named the principal of Wells Elementary, a brand-new school right smack in the middle of the community where I lived.  I couldn’t control my excitement, but there was a challenge ahead in the form of my daughter, Isabella.



Bella, who was in 4th grade at the time, had a big decision to make. Stay in the other community school where she had made friends for two years or go to a brand-new school for her last year of elementary school. To be honest, she was leaning on staying put. I discussed this with Cheryl, and she said quite bluntly, “If your daughter decides to come to Wells she will love learning every day.” Well, I was already hooked, but Cheryl also made the time to meet with Bella and explain in detail the vision she had for the learning culture at Wells.  What followed was the waiting in anticipation of what Bella would decide to do. 

Well, my daughter, on her own without much pressure from my wife and I, decided to attend Wells Elementary. Every day I ask her how school was and literally tear up when she responds as the answer is always the same – “It was great Daddy.” My daughter is entirely in love with the school. As an educator and parent, this means so much more to me than her consistently being advanced proficient every year on all standardized tests.  Wells Elementary to me is a school of dreams because my daughter loves learning.  Here are some specifics as to why:
  • School-wide decision to have no homework.
  • Students K-5 are empowered to use their technology to support their education as part of BYOT. In addition to this, technology is used to support and enhance learning while providing authentic opportunities to explore concepts.
  • Strategic use of the station rotation blended learning model to maximize learning time and increase student agency.
  • Incorporation of flexible learning spaces throughout the building.
  • Portfolio-based assessment using Seesaw and Google Classroom to provide better feedback to students.
  • An entire staff that believes in the power of being connected and the importance of having a Personal Learning Network (PLN).
  • Systemic use of a variety of social media tools to communicate with stakeholders and keep them in the know.
I encourage you to check out this video where Cheryl and one of her teachers discuss the digital transformation at Wells Elementary.



It is important to know I am not just making the casual statements about using only my parent lens.  I am honored by the fact that I am the one who is engaged with Wells as part of ICLE’s partnership with CFISD to support the district with our Digital Leadership and Learning solutions.  As the job-embedded coach for the school, I have been working with the teachers and administrators and will continue to do so throughout the school year.  Even though there are some fantastic initiatives in place as mentioned above, the Wells community knows that there is room for improvement.  This is the case in any classroom, school, or district. Together we are working on the pedagogical shifts needed to support their bold vision and plan for innovative learning.  

All in all, this is a school of dreams in my opinion.  The fact that my daughter loves learning and is being prepared for her future means the world to my wife and me.  Thank you to all the educators at Wells and CFISD who are have brought so much joy to my daughter. With the compelling learning opportunities she is experiencing, I hope that she will be further motivated to follow her dreams, no matter what they are. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Pulse of a Learning Culture

What makes a great and successful learning culture?  If you were to ask the majority of stakeholders, they would typically say that a school or district that has high levels of achievement in the form of standardized test scores represents success.  Many parents will choose to move to an area and raise their kids there for this reason alone.  All one has to do is look at all the hoopla surrounding national and state rankings to see that this indeed is the case.  Parents and community members observe these scores as they have the power to positively or negatively impact real estate values.  No matter where your school or district lands in these rankings, there are always disgruntled people, unless you are number one.

Achievement is often viewed as the single most important outcome of a thriving learning culture that is preparing students for the demands of their next stage in life, whether it is grade level promotion or moving onward to college or a career.  However, those of us who work in education know that this is the furthest thing from the truth.  The playing field is not equal in many parts of the world.  Privilege is bestowed upon many by the zip code they live in or whether or not a privately funded education can be afforded.  Thus, in many cases achievement is directly tied to income. Even so, it can still be debated whether this equates to a thriving and prosperous learning culture. 


Image credit: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/10-reasons-why-learning-culture-crucial-your-jonathan-wood/

It doesn’t matter how successful the adults think a learning culture is. Quite frankly, it’s not about us.  Educators don’t work for administrators, central office, superintendents, heads of school, boards of education, or parents.  We work for kids!  Thus, the best way to get an accurate pulse of a particular learning culture is to engage students as to what they think about the educational experience they receive in school and then see how this compares with traditional metrics such as achievement and other forms of data.  I am not saying achievement doesn’t matter.  What I am saying is that the experiences that shape our learners and help them discover their true potential matter more.  Some of the best learning that any of us ever experienced wasn’t given a mark, score, or grade.  It was our ability to work through cognitive struggle, construct new knowledge, and authentically apply what we learned creatively that helped us develop a genuine appreciation for learning.

The bottom line is we need to cultivate competent learners in the digital age while putting them in a position to see the value of their education.  Engaging the number one stakeholder group – our students – in critical conversations about the education they are receiving provides us with an accurate pulse of a learning culture.  Just because a student achieves doesn’t automatically infer that he or she appreciates or values the educational experience or will be able to use what has been learned authentically.  With all this being said three guiding questions can be asked of students to determine where your learning culture is:

  • Why are you learning what you are learning?
  • How will you use what you are learning?
  • What is missing from your learning experience?

It is vital to continually put a critical lens to our work and look beyond what the majority of stakeholders see as the leading indicator for district or school success.  Powerful qualities such as leadership, empathy, integrity, resilience, humility, creativity, and persistence can’t be measured per se, but are so crucial to future success.  A thriving learning culture blends these elements to not only support the achievement of all learners but also to prepare them for their future.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Clean Slate

All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it. To make this goal a reality, we must change our thinking and believe in our abilities to improve learning for all kids.  It’s interesting that many of us are ready to embrace and celebrate the ideas of others openly, but we don’t necessarily believe in the ones that we either think of or develop on our own.  The best ideas in education come from practitioners in the trenches. It is these people after all who implement innovative practices and ultimately find success.  The challenge though is to begin believing in what you have to offer and not worry about what others think. 


Image credit: michaelwoodfitness.com

This is where mindset comes into play. The hallmarks of a growth mindset include embracing challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, seeing the effort as a path to mastery, learning from criticism, and finding lessons and inspiration in the success of others.  A mindset shift is the first step, but then we have to act. Change begins with all of us.  We must change ourselves first before we can expect others to follow suit.  

Recently I have been refining my latest keynote presentation on cultivating a transformational mindset amongst both learners and educators.  The six essential elements that comprise this mindset shift include competency-based, entrepreneurial, maker, empathetic, efficacy, and storyteller. Preparing students for the new world of work require us all to embrace a bold new vision and strategy for transforming learning today.  This might seem scary to some. Others might find it daunting or even unachievable considering the obstacles that lie ahead. It is natural to feel this way, but in the end, we have to think about the needs of those we serve – our students.

For some context, I encourage you to watch this short, yet powerful video.  It is all about the decisions and changes we don’t make that after time passes we come to regret.  If we shift our initial approach to a challenge or impending decision through a different process, we can overcome the potential roadblock that our mind manifests. A transformational mindset focuses on the “what ifs” as opposed to the “yeah buts” and shuts the door on potential regrets.



Changing outcomes begins with changing your mindset. Every day is a clean slate. Do the things you will regret not doing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Measuring Impact with the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA)

Note: This post is directly related to my work at the International Center for Leadership in Education

Efficacy has been on my mind a great deal as of late, and as a result, it has been reflected in my writing.  When I think back to the successful digital transformation and implementation of innovative practices at my former school when I was a principal the key driver for us was the ability to show, not just talk about, evidence of improvement.  By combining both quantitative and qualitative measures, we were able to articulate the why, how, and what, as well as the detailed process that went into each respective change effort.  The “secret sauce” in all of this was the strategic use of digital tools to proactively share the details of our efforts and resulting impact.  


Image credit: http://www.assafh.org/

During my tenure as a principal, I was always in search of tools and processes to help measure the impact of the changes we were implementing.  Unfortunately, nothing existed.  As I work with schools and districts on a weekly basis, I am often asked how they can determine the impact and effectiveness of the many innovative initiatives they have in place. Practices such as BYOD, 1:1, blended learning, personalized learning, classroom and school redesign, branding, makerspaces, professional learning, etc.  This need served as a call to action of sorts and catalyzed my current work.  As Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), I have worked with a fantastic team to develop services and tools to help districts, schools, and organizations across the world transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  One of these tools is the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA). 

The DPA creates the context for our work with leaders and teachers, providing authentic baseline data to support personalized professional learning. It begins by examining the strategies in place at each school or district that support student learning with technology in the areas of rigor, relevance, relationships, engagement, and overall culture. The process then moves to understanding the current leadership practices in place to successfully implement technology and innovative practices, aligned to the 7 Pillars of Digital Leadership & Learning (Student Learning, Learning Spaces & Environment, Professional Growth, Communication, Public Relations, Branding, and Opportunity). 


Through this proven model, our consultants can help schools and districts identify opportunities to begin their transformation or take their digital and innovation goals to the next level, leveraging the knowledge, experience, and practice of ICLE’s thought leadership. The DPA process consists of a combination of a self-reflection questionnaire rubric, on-site observations, and online inventories comprised of data and evidence collection. We then leverage evidence-based rubrics to observe leadership and instructional practices while collecting artifacts to provide evidence of effective digital learning and innovative professional practice. Once collected and analyzed, a detailed summary report outlining areas of success, focus opportunities, and recommended next steps will guide the professional learning partnership with ICLE, supporting the development of a strategic professional learning and implementation plan. 

Below is a summary of the DPA process:

Step 1: The Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire is completed by the district or school. This 18 question rubric asks school leaders to reflect on their perceptions for where their school falls on a continuum from not yet started to well developed. During this reflective process, it is expected that school leadership teams collect and document aligned evidence for each item.  This information is completed and archived in the Professional Learning Portal (PLP), a free digital platform developed by ICLE to support schools in data collection,  reflection and goal setting, to grow and improve. The baseline evidence shared is in the context of digital leadership and learning (including examples of data, lesson plans, unit plans, student work, PLC minutes, rigorous digital performance tasks, walk-through forms, assessments, sample observations/evaluations, portfolios, PD plans, social media accounts, pictures, videos, press releases, media coverage, partnerships, etc). 

Step 2: On-site observations and interviews are conducted by consultants to validate perceptions and evidence collected for the seven Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire, as well as targeted classroom observations of student learning, aligned to rigor, relevance and engagement. Additional data is collected and archived in the PLP during classroom observations. The idea is to engage school leaders in dialogue about their culture, student learning and digital integration, no matter where they are with their digital transformation. 

Step 3: The data and evidence are tightly aligned to ICLE’s research-based rubrics to provide a detailed view of where a district or school is with their digital transformation.The data and artifacts are analyzed, leading to a summary report that details the current state of practice at each school or in the district. 

Step 4: The DPA report is shared and discussed with the school leadership team. In partnership with ICLE, observations about the evidence collected are shared and discussed. During the strategic planning process, discussions focus on areas of strength and improvements to develop a tailored and personalized implementation plan.

Step 5: On-going professional learning is implemented and progress monitoring through the online Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire is documented to determine the efficacy of the digital transformation.

The DPA process has been created to support districts and schools looking for ways to measure and articulate the impact of technology and innovation on practice.  While data is valuable, it moves beyond this as the only metric for success by actually taking a lens to an array of strategies and practices that combine to create a thriving learning culture.  

The DPA doesn’t just look at technology and innovation. It also provides insight on all elements of school culture and student learning.  In addition to being informed by a broad body of research and driven by evidence, the DPA process is also aligned to the following:


We don’t know where we are and how effective change is until steps are taken to look critically at practice. We hope that through the DPA process we can help you develop, refine, measure, and then share amazing examples that illustrate how efficacy has been attained.  

If you are looking for a method of determining where you are and where you want your district or school to be in the digital age, please contact Matt Thouin at ICLE (MThouin@leadered.com).  He can arrange for an interactive and detailed look at the DPA rubrics and process as well as the PLP platform from the convenience of your home or office.  We look forward to supporting you on your journey toward systemwide digital transformation. If you have any questions for me, please leave them in the comments below.

Copyright © by International Center for Leadership in Education, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Efficacy in Digital Learning

As a principal, the buck stopped with me.  I was reminded of this by numerous superintendents during my tenure as a school leader.  However, when we began moving forward with our digital transformation one particular superintendent asked me point blank what evidence I had that actually supported our claims that new equated to better. This not only stopped me in my tracks, but that moment in time provided the grounding that my school and I really needed.  For change to really be embraced by all stakeholders it is critical that we just don’t tell and claim that improvement is occurring, but that we also show. 

Accountability matters and is a reality in our work.  We are accountable first and foremost to our learners. As a supporter of the purposeful use of technology and innovative practices, I had to illustrate how effective these strategies were at improving learning.  Statements and claims didn’t cut it and this was more than fair.  It was at this time where the term efficacy kept finding its way into the conversation and my head. In the real world of education efficacy matters and it is important that this is part of the larger conversation when it comes to digital. It is a word that, in my opinion, has to be a part of our daily vocabulary and practice. Simply put, efficacy is the degree to which desired outcomes and goals are achieved. Applying this concept to digital learning can go a long way to solidifying the use of technology as an established practice, not just a frill or add-on.

The journey to efficacy begins and ends with the intended goal in mind and a strong pedagogical foundation.  Adding technology or new ideas without this in place will more than likely not result in achieving efficacy.  The Rigor Relevance Framework provides schools and educators with a checks and balance system by providing a common language for all, creating a culture around a common vision, and establishing a critical lens through which to examine curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It represents a means to support innovative learning and digital practice as detailed in the description of Quad D learning:
Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.
Aligning digital to Quad D not only makes sense but also melds with a great deal of the conversation in digital and non-digital spaces as to why and how learning should change.  A framework like this emphasizes the importance of a strong pedagogical foundation while helping to move practice from isolated pockets of excellence to systemic elements that are scaled throughout the learning culture.  It also provides the means to evaluate and reflect in order to improve. 

Rigor Relevance Framework

Once an overall vision for digital learning is firmly in place you can begin to work on the structures and supports to ensure success.  This brings me back to efficacy.  The why is great, but the how and what have to be fleshed out.  Determining whether technology or innovative practices, in general, are effective matters.  Below I will highlight 5 key areas (essential questions, research, practicality, evidence/accountability, reflection)  that can put your classroom, school, district, or organization on a path to digital efficacy. 

Essential Questions

Questions provide context for where we want to go, how we’ll get there, and whether or not success is achieved.  Having more questions than answers is a natural part of the initial change process. Over time, however, concrete answers can illustrate that efficacy in digital learning has been achieved in some form or another.  Consider how you might respond to the questions below:

  • What evidence do we have to demonstrate the impact of technology on school culture?
  • How are we making learning relevant for our students?
  • How do we implement and support rigorous and relevant learning tasks that help students become Future Ready?
  • What is required to create spaces that model real-world environments and learning opportunities? 
  • What observable evidence can be used to measure the effect technology is having on student learning and achievement?
  • How can targeted feedback be provided to our teachers and students, so that technology can enhance learning?

Research

Research is prevalent in education for a reason.  It provides us all with a baseline as to what has been found to really work when it comes to student learning.  Now, there is good research and bad.  I get that. It is up to us as educators to sift through and then align the best and most practical studies out there to support the need to transform learning in the digital age. We can look to the past in order to inform current practice.  For example, so many of us are proponents of student ownership, project-based, and collaborative learning. Not only does digital support and enhance all of these, but research from Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, Papert, Bloom, and many others provide validation.  See the image below. For more on authorship learning click HERE.




One of the main reasons Tom Murray and I wrote Learning Transformed was to provide a sound research base that supports digital learning and the embracement of innovative practices.  The research of Linda Darling Hammond found that technology can have the most impact on our at-risk learners when it is used to support interactive learning, explore and create rather than to “drill and kill”, and constitutes the right blend of teachers and technology. This is just one of over 100 studies we highlight. Then there is the comprehensive analysis by John Hattie on effect size – a listing of the most effective instructional strategies that improve student learning outcomes all of which can be applied to digital learning. If efficacy is the goal, embracing a scholarly mindset to inform and influence our work, not drive it, is critical.

Practicality

All of what we do should align to the demands, and at times constraints, of the job.  This includes preparing students for success on standardized tests. If it’s not practical, the drive to implement new ideas and practices wanes or never materializes.  The creation of rigorous digital performance tasks that are aligned to standards and the scope and sequence found in the curriculum is just good practice. All good performance tasks include some form of assessment, either formative or summative, that provides the learner and educator with valuable information on standard and outcome attainment.  Again, this is just part of the job. 

The Rigor Relevance Framework assists in creating performance tasks that engage learners in critical thinking and problem solving while applying what they have learned in meaningful ways.  There is also natural alignment to incorporating student agency. This is exactly what so many of us are championing.  My colleague and good friend, Weston Kieschnick, has created a template that combines research and the practical aspect of performance task creation to assist you in creating your own.   Check it out HERE. You can use the template and go through the process of developing a rigorous digital performance task or just use it to inform as you design your own. 

Evidence and Accountability

As many of you know I do not shy away from openly discussing how important this area is. Just go back to my opening paragraph in this post for a refresher. Evidence and accountability are a part of every profession and quite frankly we need more of both in education to not only show efficacy in our work but to also scale needed change. Not everything has to or can be, measured. However, focusing on a Return on Instruction allows everyone to incorporate multiple measures, both qualitative and quantitative, to determine if improvement is in fact occurring. 

Reflection

When it is all said and done the most important thing we can all do is constantly reflect on our practice.  In terms of efficacy in digital learning consider these reflective questions from your particular lens:

  • Did my students learn? 
  • How do I know if my students learned? 
  • How do others know if my students learned? 
  • What can be done to improve? 
  • What point of view have I not considered?

Amazing things are happening in education, whether it be through digital learning or the implementation of innovative ideas.  We must always push ourselves to be better and strive for continuous improvement. The more we all push each other on the topic of efficacy, our collective goals we have for education, learning, and leadership can be achieved. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Achieving a Balance

When it comes to work, I have had to battle some internal conflicts over the years.   Early on in my career as a school administrator, and then again in my work in my current position as an ICLE Senior Fellow, I had to be put in place, thankfully, by those who care a great deal about me.  In the past, the challenge for me had always been putting too much focus on the job and not enough time and effort on my family or personal well-being.  I am going to try to speak about my battles with the work-life balance and attempt to offer up some sound advice for all of us that, at times, can be consumed with professional work.  My perspective always comes back to some sage advice that my mother gave my wife and me when we became parents, “You never get this time back so make the most of it.”


Image credit: http://www.saxonsgroup.com.au/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/work-life-balance.jpg

The work-life balance as I see it can be broken down into three main categories: professional, family, and personal.  The first two types are self-explanatory. Personal takes into account your lifestyle, health, friends, and anything else that contributes to your well-being.  When the demands of our jobs are factored in, finding a balance between these areas can pose quite the challenge.  Add the pressure that we all put on ourselves to perform at a high level and what results are a hole that at times is difficult to get out of. 

When it comes to my professional work, I allocate my time each day to ensure tasks get done.  Yes, I am a list guy.  For the most part, I write out all tasks that have to be completed the night before.  I did this as a principal and still to this day embrace this practice.  Having a schedule and sticking to it helped me be more productive.  It forced me to prioritize specific tasks while delegating others that had no real impact on student learning. However, I am not a slave to my list.  Things beyond my control can and do come up.  That's where flexibility and patience come into play. Both attributes are instrumental in helping us achieve professional success, but also in achieving a positive balance in life.

Let me share an example of what this looked like.  As high school principal, I conducted 2-3 unannounced observations a day.  The week before I would not only schedule these on my calendar, but I would also set time aside to write each up the same day so that I could conduct the post-conference with the teachers the very next day.  I not only committed to this schedule but also made it known to my secretary that I shouldn’t be bothered unless necessary. Some might think this is extreme, but this practice helped me to focus on getting my work done at school so that I could enjoy priceless time with my family at home each evening. The work-life balance starts here. I chose not to bring work home, period. Sometimes I would stay a bit later to get things done, but the weekends were off limits.  That was family time.

Social media posed another challenge to the balance.  Twitter was a considerable time zap early on, and then the use of other tools began to take a negative toll on my time. Once I got that under control my travel began to turn the tables in the wrong direction.  In both cases, my fantastic wife took the initiative to explain how each was negatively impacting our family.  As my father always says, “There is nothing more important in life than family.” Never take for granted what you have right in front of you.  Social media has had such an incredible impact on my professional and personal life as well as many of you that are reading this post.  The key here is not to let it drive a wedge between those who depend on us the most – our family.  

When it comes to social media and writing in general, I put time aside when I am either on the road or when my wife and kids are at school.  This small shift has had a magical effect.  When they are home, I am more present, both physically and emotionally.  We also commit to at least two family trips a year.  As far as travel is concerned, ICLE has been amazing, as they have encouraged me to scale back to achieve this balance.  I can’t explain how awesome it is to work for a company who actively promotes attaining and maintaining a work-life balance.  This has enabled me to be home more during the workweek and work towards eliminating weekend travel. As a cheer dad, this is crucial in the eyes of my daughter as all of her competitions are on weekends. 



So, what about the personal component of the work-life balance?  Here is where all of us need to be a bit selfish.  Our well-being is not only good for us on a personal level, but it has positive impacts on our professional work and family life.  As a high school principal, I had a lengthy commute from Staten Island, NY to New Milford, NJ.  Each morning I had to drive through the gauntlet, which was my term for the journey that took me over the Goethals Bridge and then through a good stretch of the NJ Turnpike. If I didn’t leave early enough, I would be stuck in traffic for hours.  Thus, I left my house each morning at 5:15 AM. 

Why that early you might ask?  This is where I began to add some balance to one of the three categories above.  On a personal level, I had to make the time to work out in the morning or else it just wouldn’t happen.  I would leave at this time to not only get my workout in but to also open the fitness center at 6:00 AM for students that wanted the same opportunity. Having a routine was nice.  With my crazy travel schedule, it is more difficult to be consistent. My rule of thumb now is a minimum of four days working out each week. If I do not achieve this, then I attempt to deprive myself of something I have grown to enjoy as of late – craft beer.  

Equally as important in the personal balance category is trying to eat healthily. As a principal, I had a fairly strict eating regime that was consistent.  Now that has all changed when I am not home.  I am genetically prone to high cholesterol and am currently on a statin to control it.  With this condition life on the road becomes even more of a challenge because it is virtually impossible to eat the way I want.  Just look at the calorie counts of many salads, and you know exactly what I am talking about.  Every change matters, no matter how small.  For me I get my salad dressing on the side, avoid fried foods and desserts, and eat smaller meals throughout the day.  

I really could go on and on about my ideas on achieving a balance, but that is not the reason for this post.  My hope is if you are dealing with some of the struggles that I have encountered this post might help you get a better handle on finding a balance that works for you, work, and your family.  Below is some general advice that applies to the three main categories outlined in this post:

  • Don’t let work get in the way of what’s most important – your family and personal well-being.  Establish a schedule that works for you and be “present” during family time.
  • Take care of yourself!  Try to make some small shifts to your diet and make the time to exercise a couple of times per week. Go to the doctor and get a check-up regularly. 
  • Scale back on the social media time.  I am one of the biggest proponents of PLN’s and engaging in chats is excellent for our professional growth. However, making the time for real, face-to-face conversations with our family over a meal is crucial to the balance.
  • Get outside!  Walks with the dog, family, or just on your own to reflect can be invigorating.
  • Make time for your friends and neighbors in your immediate area.  I have been doing this more and more when I am at home thanks to the push from my wife.  
  • Find or resurrect a hobby.

I hope you all will consider sharing how you go about achieving a balance in your life as well as some of the challenges you face.  Achieving a balance all comes down to the fact that we care for those who we love, depend on, work with, and who depend on us.  When it is all said and done, I want to succeed on a professional level, but achieving success as a dad, husband, and friend in the eyes of those I care about is what truly matters. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Why Learning and People Should Come First

I was recently working on my slide deck for a three-day workshop that will take participants on an immersive experience into digital leadership and learning.  My primary objective for all multiday workshops is to illustrate the vital role that technology can play in improving teaching, learning, and leadership.  Most of the first day is spent on emphasizing the importance of a pedagogy first, technology second mindset. The bottom line is that if we don’t get the instructional design right first, then the chances of technology improving learning outcomes is slim to none.  

Throughout my slide deck are numerous questions to get participants to reflect on their practice and think strategically about changes that they or their school(s) need to make.  After having attendees discuss in groups their responses to each question I have them report out their thoughts using a variety of tools. For the most part, my integration of technology into workshops is to foster greater collaboration, showcase how to increase engagement authentically, formatively assess, and creatively showcase what they have learned.   In some cases, I will directly train educators on how to use various tools, but learning to use the edtech tools is the easy part.  Integrating them to support high-level learning and having evidence to support this is the challenging work. 



Image credit: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu

As I line up my reflective questions, I also determine which tools I am going to have participants use to share out.  My favorite and most reliable tend to be TodaysMeet, Padlet, Mentimeter, and AnswerGarden.  For the first day of this particular workshop, I had also planned to use Tackk and ProConIt, two lesser-known tools that I have been using for the past couple of years.  As I went into both accounts, I was shocked to learn that Tackk had suddenly shut down on September 30 and when trying to access ProConIt an error message notified me that the site was not working.  A few days later I still have not been able to access ProConIt successfully.

Fortunately for me, I was able to swap out both tools for others that are similar.  The lesson learned is valuable for anyone using technology to support professional practice.  How would you manage if one day you walked into your classroom or school to discover that Google Classroom, Seesaw, or any other tool that was thoroughly embraced no longer existed? Technology comes and goes.  Sometimes it doesn’t work the way we want, in some cases, it fails to load, and then there is the chance that the tool ceases to exist.  

In the classroom, we must be mindful of what is most important – the quality of the learning and the interactions between people. Both of these outcomes should never be driven by a tool, device, or program.  It is sometimes hard not to get sucked in by all the potential benefits that come with technology.  Engagement is one of them. Yes, we want kids engaged. However, it is critical that engagement leads to evidence of learning.  This point comes back to my mantra of pedagogy first, technology second. Technology should never drive our work, but instead be used strategically to improve teaching, learning, and leadership. 

Technology is not a replacement for practice supported by research and what has been found to work consistently.  The ultimate failsafe is a well-designed lesson that gets kids to think while applying their learning in a meaningful way.  This is why using a tool like the Rigor Relevance Framework to develop a pedagogically-sound foundation first will help to ensure a quality learning experience with and without technology.  It is also important to understand that technology will not automatically lead to better results. We must be mindful of not only how it will improve the task(s) at hand, but also to not rely on it to the point that we can’t move beyond a tool or program if or when it ceases to exist or work.

The same advice applies to the tools that many of us use to connect, learn, and grow.  The Personal Learning Network (PLN) is fueled by the connections made thanks to a variety of social media tools, most notably Twitter. How would you manage or cope if Twitter tomorrow decided to shut its doors?  To be honest, I think many connected educators wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. My point here is not to place all of our eggs in just one tool or platform. 

Technology has enabled all of us to do some pretty amazing things when it comes to our professional practice and will continue to do so. Just be wary of losing focus on what truly matters. Without people, the tech doesn’t matter when it comes to learning. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Scaling Change to Create Schools Learners Need and Deserve

We live in exciting times although it is often difficult to keep up with how fast society is changing. Many of us can remember a world where there was no Internet or smartphones.  Now we not only have smart watches, but rumors are swirling that a global Wi-Fi network powered by commercial airliners is in the works that will provide people access virtually anywhere in the world.   We keep seeing major disruptions across the service sector. Up until a few years ago, there was no Uber or Airbnb. Now millions of people are hailing rides and booking rooms in ways that are more convenient and cost-efficient. With the exponential rate of change we are seeing, it is a bit exciting to think about what the future holds.

Education is beginning to experience some pretty exciting changes as well.  Across the globe, evolving technologies are being utilized to engage students in a variety of ways authentically.  Critical competencies such as creativity, collaboration, and communication are now easier to demonstrate through the use of numerous tools.  Classroom and school design are beginning to move away from what many of us experienced as students.   Flexible spaces, virtual learning options, and makerspaces are providing students with new opportunities to demonstrate what they know. Social media has flattened the world as educators have discovered how powerful this standard medium is in enabling the sharing of ideas, strategies, and resources regardless of time or place. Just like society, the future of education is bright.

Image credit: https://teachingdigitaltechnology.wordpress.com/

There is one caveat here though.  The pace of change in the education space has not matched that which we see across the world. Even though progress has and continues to be made, the paragraph above represents a small fraction of the education space. So, what gives? Why education needs to change has been discussed at length by authors and bloggers alike for years now.  If providing compelling reasons, research and opinions were enough I suppose education would look and feel a lot different at scale now.  We have also been exposed to all the many technology tools, programs, and pedagogical shifts that can support and enhance learning for students.  Some improvement claims are valid, while others tend to be on the fluffier side. With all this being said, change at scale still tends to be elusive. 

The conundrum painted above is not as perplexing as one might think.  I often go back to the work of Simon Sinek and his Golden Circle.  The "why" and "what" dominate conversations, writings, and presentations in my opinion.  I am not saying this is entirely a bad thing.  This is ideal for short-term satisfaction, but the "how" is the key to sustainability and scalability. In Learning Transformed, Tom Murray and I went to great lengths to unearth the why by presenting a vast research base to validate the ideas presented. The how is framed through the Innovative Practices in Action (IPA's) found in each chapter.  What often holds educators and schools back is taking great ideas and showing how they can be implemented under a variety of conditions and contexts. The video below provides a bit more insight into our thinking around this.



Change begins with you. Never forget that. The key, however, is to create a movement through collective actions that fundamentally improve learning for all.  Scalability matters if the goal is to build schools of the future by transforming teaching, learning, and leadership in the process.  Details on how this can and is being accomplished in the context of the real challenges educators and schools face on a daily basis can help move isolated pockets of excellence to scalable changes that influence all learners.  

Sunday, September 24, 2017

To Innovate or Not to Innovate

Innovation has been a hot topic of discussion for the past couple of years even though it is not a new or novel concept.  New ideas leading to improvements have been occurring since the beginning of time.  All one has to do is take a look at the evolution of the human species to see how important innovation has been leading to society as we now know it.   Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei could be considered the forefathers of modern innovators.  Their ideas and inventions paved the way for all who followed. The industrial revolution brought the topic to the forefront. Shortly after the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Alexander Graham Bell blazed a trail with some pretty amazing inventions that improved the lives of many.  

The rise of entrepreneurs in every facet of society, coupled with advances in technology, continue to push the conversation. With changes to current professions, entirely new occupations, and different expectations to succeed in a world that we have no idea what it will look like, the pressure is on to evolve or else.  Innovation has not trickled but instead flowed into the education space. It seems like everyone is talking about the need to innovate to improve education as a whole as well as learning for students. As a result, we have seen some pretty amazing changes in a short period in schools across the world. 


Image credit: http://oecdeducationtoday.blogspot.com/

I am all for innovation in education and played my part as a high school principal to usher in changes, both big and small, that led to evidence of improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership.  It is important, however, to pause and reflect on what we are trying to accomplish.  A recent Edutopia piece titled The ‘No' in ‘Innovate' really got me thinking about this topic.  The author challenges all of us with the notion that sometimes the best way to innovate is to say no. Innovation for many has become just another thing added to a long list of initiatives or expectations. 

Not all innovations are good for education when repeatedly packed on top of each other, and we can't assume that positive changes will always result.  It is also important to note that "saying" something is innovative and actually "showing" that it is are two different paradigms.  As the common saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.  A particular direction is needed to help align innovative change to the vision, mission, and culture of a respective school.  At the individual level, a basic need to support or enhance practice is at the core of a decision to innovate or not. It is important to consider both the short and long game as to what you hope to accomplish. 

So how does one decide to innovate or not?  To help with this decision consider the questions below. 

Why will it improve what you or your students do? 
How do you know it has led to an improvement? 
How do others determine if it has led to an improvement? 
What is needed to scale the effort(s)?

Innovation is a collective endeavor geared at not only individual but more importantly system improvement.  Research can be used to inform and influence the process but does not need to drive it.  What is important is to show how innovative practices can, and will, improve our work.  Evidence that illustrates efficacy helps move innovation from an isolated practice focusing on small pockets to scalable change that impacts an entire culture.  This is something Tom Murray and I showcase and discuss this extensively in Learning Transformed. Start small, but think and plan for big.  

Innovate with a purpose, but make sure this mission extends well beyond an individual level.  In the end, it's not about how much you innovate in education, but the resulting impact of the changes on the collective. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Get Your SWOT On

Leaders often find and leverage tools, frameworks, and systems to support their own change, as well as that of their school or district.  There are many great options out there.  As a principal, I in particular, found success using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to integrate technology with purpose in order to improve student-learning outcomes.  This framework helped us to really focus on improving instruction first before throwing technology into the mix. This then became part of a set of strategies and competencies that guided our overall digital transformation efforts – The Pillars of Digital Leadership. My work now is focused on helping leaders, regardless of position, to leverage these resources to successfully implement and sustain needed change. 

Outside of education there are other tools and frameworks that can assist with various change efforts, many of which come from the business world. Business leaders know that assessing the status of an effort prior to the change process is crucial.  Building awareness is also a key element. As an innovative leader, you are reinventing the school culture through a different lens. As such, it is important to get a sense of the journey ahead by taking stock of where you are in the current moment. Prior to leading any new initiative, you can use an adapted version of a well-known business tool to take a snapshot of where you perceive the current culture to be in its current situation. Using this adapted tool may reveal important data and insight that helps you understand the status of your culture in order to successfully implement sustainable change. 


Image credit: hwww.business-to-you.com/swot-analysis/

In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I introduced the SWOT analysis.  I will elaborate on how this tool can be used to create or enhance a brand effort, but in all honesty, it can be used to tee up any new change initiative.  SWOT Analysis is a useful technique for understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and for identifying both the opportunities open to you and the threats you face. Adapted from BrandED, here is how you can use this tool to implement a positive brand presence.
Every business brand journey includes the use of this tool, an activity known as a SWOT analysis. In conducting a SWOT, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to brand success are stated and examined.  The SWOT activity is done in the very early stages of development of a mission so that the brand strategy can be assured of success (Armstrong & Kotler, 2015).  
Adapted for educators, a SWOT analysis is a chance to understand how you perceive your school community and can help you articulate a brand that addresses the current state of the organization. Especially interesting to leaders will be the opportunities for growth that are identified, which can be used as tangible measures of brand success, and the threats that are challenging the school. Making those threats a target and finding ways to see opportunities in those challenges can strengthen the school’s brand. A SWOT analysis can serve you well in your initial reflections about both your personal brand and your school’s. A SWOT process conducted with frankness yields valuable information about the current state of an organization and directs decision making. Once the analysis is complete, it forms a direction for leaders as they take on their personal brand, as they can more clearly see themselves serving the needs of the community.  
As business managers have found, putting yourself through your own SWOT analysis can even further inform the building of your own brand. Why do a personal SWOT? A SWOT analysis may goad you into real action as you advance your own brand in real time. Honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses and reflecting on any opportunities or threats that are present in your leadership style can help you assess your capacities before you build a professional brand that you own as the storyteller-in-chief. 
As you think about the changes you want to implement in your classroom, school, district, or organization take the time to conduct a SWOT analysis (see matrix below). This simple, yet effective process can help to identify potential pitfalls while building greater support for the effort. 


Image credit: www.thirstt.com


Cited sources

Armstrong, G., & Kotler, P. (2015). Marketing: An introduction (12th
     ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Learning from Airbnb To Create an Amazing Learner Experience

Over the past few years we have seen disruptive innovation take hold.  The entrepreneurial spirit, aided by advances in technology, has propelled the creation of new businesses that consumers are flocking to.  One of those businesses is Airbnb. I don’t want to assume that everyone knows what this company is all about so here is a summary from Wikipedia.
Airbnb is an online marketplace and hospitality service, enabling people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, home stays, hostel beds, or hotel rooms.  The company does not own any lodging; it is merely a broker and receives percentage service fees (commissions) from both guests and hosts in conjunction with every booking.  It has over 3,000,000 lodging listings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries, and the host sets the cost of lodging.
Image credit: https://airbnbreview.com

The concept is amazing as it benefits both the consumer and supplier while cutting costs.  However, the success of Airbnb as a company goes well beyond what many of us see or experience.  Their success as a disruptive innovator lies in the company culture that has been cultivated.  They greatly invest in their people, which as a strategy only has an upside. I recently read 3 Lessons From Airbnb on Creating an Amazing Employee Experience by Jacob Morgan. To lead off the piece he shares the following. 
Employee experience is a hallmark of a forward-thinking company that cares about its employees and wants to provide them with the resources to be successful.
Image credit: www.n3xtcon.com/blog/what-do-we-learn-from-the-story-of-airbnb

I encourage you to read the entire short piece.  In the article Morgan goes on to list and describe 3 important lessons that create a strong employee experience. Each in its own right is a pivotal component in building relationships. It all comes down to relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. Here is how those principles can be embraced in schools to improve the learner experience.

Involve students and staff

Student agency is the key to building powerful relationships with the most important stakeholder group in schools.  Affording students choice, allowing them to use their voice, and providing them the opportunity to advocate will empower them to better own their learning.  This type of involvement also leads to the creation of a better school culture beyond the classroom. We can’t forget the adults in this process. Educator agency is just as important.

Be authentic

Will the real you please step forward? That is what students and staff want to see.  Mike Robbins has a pretty good perceptive on the power of authenticity. He writes:
Authenticity is what gives us freedom to be ourselves and be comfortable with whom we are, and it’s also what gives us access to connecting with other people in a meaningful and genuine way.  This is true power of authenticity and when we embrace it, even though it can be uncomfortable and scary at times, we give ourselves and those around us one of the most important gifts of all — the real us.
Be true to yourself and others. When you fail (and you will), showcasing your vulnerable side will only help to strengthen the bonds with those you work with and for. Authenticity in leadership from your particular lens and position is critical in building a thriving learning culture. 

Continually evolve

If you want to make a difference then lead differently, learn differently, and act differently. Change begins with us.  Don’t expect others to change if you don’t first. Where it goes from there depends on the momentum that is built. The process of evolving as a whole is about overcoming fear, learning from mistakes, and challenging yourself to be better. When it comes to your school or district, the system will only evolve if you continue to push the envelope.

Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything. In doing so the learning experience for our kids should be nothing less than amazing.  If this is the goal then the work culture has to be equally as amazing for the adults. This is what I have learned from Airbnb.