5 Ways to Transform a School – and 5 Ways to Fail

If your school isn’t currently in the throws of significant change,  you should be worried.  Every school and educator that plans on being relevant a decade from now should really probably be having some tough conversations.  Even if you have figured out the what and why questions it can be daunting to figure out exactly how to move forward.  What does great look like?  How will we know when we are there?  The simple answer is that you are never there, greatness is not a place, its a journey, a process, a disposition and a mindset.  From several years of experience in radical change environments, I can now begin to reflect on five essential conditions that can lead to an organisation that learns, grows, and improves. There are others that I have yet to learn for sure, but this is a good start.

Think Strategically

This might be plainly obvious to you but without a solid strategic plan that clearly describes the way things will be when you have achieved your goals then you should proceed with great caution.  Schools are far too complex for the wait-and-see approach.  You need a good mission that defines a vision of radical change.  If you are in the process of strategic planning and your vision looks anywhere like the school you went to, then you should be worried.  This is a good way to fail at transforming a school.

Build a Collaborative Culture

“Culture eats strategy for lunch”  or does it?

There is so much packed into this idea and that is what makes it so powerful.  It would be easy to bore anyone to death talking about the benefits of collaboration, so you need to see for yourself.  Think of it this way.

Individual experts working to solve complex problems are consistently outperformed by groups, draw conclusions contradictory to those held  by other experts in the same field, and overestimate the reliability of their own conclusions (Surowiecki, 2004).

credit: wonderferret, Flickr

This sounds nice, but the reality is that we are mostly really bad at working together.  You’re team is only as good as its facilitator and most team leaders haven’t been properly trained to facilitate collaborative groups. However, it is probably an absolute truth that inspiring teachers and other community members to share ideas, make meaning together, support and lead each other, and solve complex problems together is an essential condition to becoming a 21st century school (there I said it).

To succeed at this one you will need to commit to establishing and nurturing a program with good street cred, such as Adaptive Schools (now Think Collaborative) or Critical Friends, or both.  Its not a gimmick and everyone at your institution needs to be trained, not just a few favorites.  It is easy to fail at this by making collaboration something only leaders do, or by asking people to do it without proper training.  If it becomes a clique it will fail. If the extension into the classroom is not made explicit it will fail.

Get Everyone Mobile Technology They Want to Use

credit: capmac.org

The school of the future will be student-driven.  Don’t ruin this by forcing everyone at your school to use the same technology.  Let people bring what they want as long as its productive.  This will go a long way to empowering and motivating users.  If you aren’t thinking about Bring-Your-Own-Technology yet,  I would Google it.  One-size-fits-all is a 20th century paradigm whose time has passed.  This goes for teachers and admin as well.  If you do this, don’t go with the old BYOD model where you take their computer and lock it down so tight in the name of security that they can’t innovate with it.  This is a great way to maintain the status quo.

Implement a Cloud-Based Productivity Suite (aka Google Apps for Education)

There are other systems out there, but why?  Unless you are wary of the Eye of Sauron,  this is the single most transformative tool in the known Universe.  I can’t imagine being at a school, let alone a job, without it.  Office 365 works, but it falls short of the Google ecosystem that now works on all mobile devices really well.  A tried-and-true pitfall, or at least a speed bump, is to continue to offer ample server storage so that users can safely create and save MS Office documents, email them as attachments to everyone, and then email another one when something changes in it.

The reason this is so critical is that it dramatically increases productivity and the ability of teams to know what is going on.

Develop Teacher Leadership

We are all leaders.  We lead children, we lead tribes, we lead ourselves.  Teaching teachers how to be better leaders is essential to making lasting change happen.  Some schools are afraid of confident teachers.  This is a mistake.  Teachers who innovate and lead will not only impact their own classrooms but will inspire their colleagues to do the same.   With all the tools above in place, teachers will soar and take their school to unseen heights.  A foundation of trust and respect with dedication to a mission is essential to success.  Leaving teacher leaders to flail, undermining their ideas, providing inadequate feedback, and/or supporting the wrong teacher leaders are all  strategies best avoided.

What am I missing?  What other ideas are out there to help us turn the ship without running it into an iceberg?

I Used to Think…

Recently I was challenged to answer a key question about my work as an educator. It doesn’t seem like much of a challenge at first, but when I actually tried to do it I found it much more difficult. During his workshop titled Diamonds to Rockpiles at NESA, Douglas Reeves laid out very clearly the notion that to truly achieve success with student learning or improvement initiatives, we must frequently ask this question about our beliefs:  I used to think….But now I think.   One could easily confuse this with growth-mindset thinking, which is something that I’ve been challenging myself with every since reading Dweck’s book.  I’ve written a post about that here.

Now, however, I have to put the thoughts in writing.  I have to walk the walk and talk the talk if I am going to make a difference. This one is going to be about creativity.

I used to think that creativity was mostly original work, that it needed to come from an authentic place within the creator. I didn’t use the word originality because I find too many circular references with that one. Now I think that creativity is mostly derivative. Why the change? I surmise that the digital age has spurred much more derivative work, speeding up the cycle and enhancing our understanding of it.

Transform Learning with Great Questions

We often hear others describe 1-to-1 computing in schools as simply an access model.  We hear it rationalised as a way to give students access to information, to the vast riches of the World Wide Web while learning to deter its evils.  Why, then, are there so many examples out there of schools expecting 1-to-1 to transform their schools?  Technology does not transform schools, but it is nearly impossible to transform a school without it.  As we near the end of an era in our 19th century schools, where a culture of work and rote learning prevailed while thinking was avoided, where talent was admired and creativity shunned, and where collaboration was confused with group work, schools everywhere are finally beginning to accept without question that access to information technology for learning is not optional.

Too often, however, I’m reminded how many of these schools are still aiming way off the mark.  It’s easy to tell if you are working in or leading one of these schools.  If you ever find yourself saying or confronted with the following phrase “transform learning with technology” then you are at one of these schools.  You are on the wrong path and you need to break out the map.  In the schools I’ve worked at that were moving from good to great, I can attest that it didn’t happen because of technology or tech integration, nor did it happen in spite of it.  Schools are transformed by great teachers sharing great ideas that inspire kids to learn.  This can be achieved in any number of ways, but without useful technologies in both students’ and teachers’ hands it will likely be incredibly painful.

One of my favorite insights is from Sugata Mitra in his TED Talk titled “Build a School in the Cloud” in which he ponders what makes the best teachers in the digital age.  He concludes that the best teachers are like grandmothers, who ask great questions and offer plenty of encouragement.   He talks about learning as a self-organising phenomenon where its not about making learning happen but rather letting learning happen with the simple formula of great questions+broadband+collaboration+encouragement.

Ultimately,  you will transform a school by getting back to the big questions and inspiring a sense of wonder, not by buying more shiny, sleek tablets.  Layering a 1-to-1 program on a school without inquiry may lead merely to digitisation of traditional practices.  I am reminded of the SAMR model, which though I support in its objectives, seems to muddy things a bit.  The apex of the model is ‘redefention’, but it starts out with ‘substitution’. Though it’s intentions are anything but, it supports the misguided approach many leaders take to slather a school with technology and watch as the innovation bubbles up from substitution all the way to redefinition.

SAMR Model

The hazy line in the middle between augmentation and modification is what worries me as it seems to suggest some sort of mystical crossing, over  which there is no clear path.  Indeed there is not.  In most industries we have seen the transformation happen within competitors who redefine the field and push the established players into radical do-or-die overhauls. Schools are no different.

In fact, adherence to the the model can actually undermine the very sort of visionary, begin-with-the-end-in-mind principles that  guide most successful reform efforts. Surely we’re not leaving transformation to chance are we? Augmenting a classroom with tablets or laptops may make sense in many ways but it is not transformation and should not be counted on to cause it.

I submit a revised version of the model that looks more like this.

A different view showing how the levels of the SAMR model actually represent different objectives.

A different view showing how the levels of the SAMR model actually represent different objectives. Creative Commons License
Modified SAMR by Kevin Crouch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.unity.net.au/allansportfolio/edublog/?p=836

Clearly,  the modification must come from the mission, the curriculum and the people, not the technology.  It must have student in mind first and foremost.  In fact, I believe it is possible to modify and redefine a classroom without digital technologies, but that would be silly and irresponsible with the embarrassment of riches out there for networked learners.

As this school in Singapore can attest,  significantly improving learning at an already high-performing school can be done with little more than smartphones and an inquiry program.  So, as Mitra’s Himalayan inspiration might say, Get on with it then!

Do you have examples of this from your own classroom or school?


Big Data

After attending a workshop on the Horizon Report at ISTE over the summer I woke up to the notion that one of the key trends rolling our way is Big Data.  I, like many of my colleagues, had fallen into the trap of believing several comfortable fallacies about data and schools.

  1. Schools are different than other institutions, and the nature of our relationship with kids means that we should be suspicious of relying too heavily on data for decision making.
  2. Schools  and the learning that happens within are too complex to be measured in any reliable way with datasets.
  3. Getting useful data would require standardising everything, putting kids on computers all day, and sidelining teachers.

Big Data Book cover

These are many of the same arguments that teachers and school leaders use to  limit growth and retain the status quo in an era of dramatic change. Look around you, there are few pursuits left that haven’t been improved or at least heavily impacted by Big Data.  Are these three things just weak excuses or do they truly hold up?

I didn’t come up with this on my own.  No, I decided to dive into a highly recommended text on the topic.Yes, we do have to be careful how we collect data and what we do with it,  and teachers will always serve as indispensable to the academic and human development of children.  However,  the underlying premise of Big Data is too eye opening to ignore:  Human beings lack the innate tools to make sense out of  complex behaviors, learning being one of these.  We rely on crude assumptions, weak relationships, and wishful thinking to make decisions based on terribly incomplete datasets.  Only when the dataset gets so big as to mask the individual points does it reveal reliable correlations from which we may draw reasonably accurate and unbiased conclusions.

Reflecting on Effect Size

I recently came across a reference to the book Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie in Grant Wiggins’ blog in which he lists the teaching techniques with the greatest effect size on student learning in relation to a research meta-analysis done by Hattie.  I couldn’t help but notice some of the stand-outs.

  • Student self-assessment/self-grading
  • Providing formative assessments
  • Classroom discussion
  • Feedback
  • Reciprocal teaching
  • Concept mapping
  • Cooperative vs individualistic learning
  • Cooperative vs competitive learning

What strikes me the most is that many of these are strategies that we regularly reference when talking about how to improve classroom instruction with technology.  Self assessment is the big one, with eportfolios the natural example of ways to enhance traditional self-assessment.  Each of them, however lends itself nicely to technology enhancement, usually by facilitating the process in ways never before possible.

I’d love to take some time to expand on each of these by gathering research on the impact of technology on their effectiveness.  Have any of you collected technology-related research on these?

Thinking Differently About Tech PD

For many years I’ve worked with integration and coordination teams that offered technology professional development as a one-shot one-day-a-week one-size-fits-all workshop.  If someone wasn’t able to make it, well, they had to come find us.  Last year sometime, I think it was after reading the first paragraph of the fine book Differentiated Professional Development in a Professional Learning Community, I realized that this was just plain silly.

As tech trainers, teachers are our students, and we must model the type of differentiated teaching and learning we would expect for our kids.  Even more importantly,  adult learners are smart enough to know that they aren’t being differentiated for and will quickly lose interest or worse if they feel their time is not being used efficiently.

Thus, after many months of collaborative planning, drafting, and re-drafting we came up this program to better meet the needs of our diverse group of teachers at AISC:

  • Have all teachers take a survey with delicate but firm language that we agonized over. Require only the skills that are necessary to function with our core tools first.
  • Process responses and develop a technology learning plan for each teacher.
  • Invite groups of teachers to short (20 min) sessions for each of the skills at the level they indicated a need for. These are mostly after school, but we’ll leave no teacher behind.  Skills are taught at stations in various spots in our Collaboration and Inquiry Center (otherwise known as a 21st century library).
  • Offer the “basics” first, then the “beyond the basics” immediately after for any teachers who wish to stay.
  • Give teachers who attended the trainings a link to post a badge to their G+ page for some digital footprint augmentation.
  • Offer teachers a printed certificate.
  • Take attendance.
So far the feedback has been great with teachers generally loving the format.  Yes, its a lot more work for us as a tech team, but when everybody has been trained up and feels proud and confident, it should make for much more productive conversations about technology in the future.
I would love to know if anyone has tried anything similar and what feedback you got from it.  What have we left out?  How can we make this even better?

Is a Growth Mindset the Answer?


Search for Growth Mindset

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In two days at ISTE 2013 I’ve already experienced countless inspirational moments, heard dozens of fantastic quotes, and left presentations feeling renewed, invigorated, and empowered. One theme that seems oddly absent from this conference, however, is the idea of a growth mindset and student motivation.

I do not mean to be cynical, only to provide iste conference planners and future keynoters with some useful feedback. After having read Carol Dweck’s book and reading through Larry Ferlazzos work (he’s also written a book on this) it’s increasingly obvious that educators will not improve student performance with all their initiatives and expensive IT investments unless they recognise this key belief and take steps to adopt a growth mindset program in their school. The logic behind this assertion is simple:

Assumption1: The problems we face in life are getting more and more complex and challenging.
Assumption2: The way to address these problems in schools is becoming more and more complex and challenging (think interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-based learning)
Fact1: Individuals with a fixed mindset show significantly (shockingly even) LESS aptitude for success as work gets more challenging.
Fact2: Individuals with a growth mindset show significantly MORE aptitude for success as work gets more challenging.

If you follow this logic, you might conclude that schools and their students who foster a growth mindset are well-positioned for success, while the other is not.  This may be true both in spite of and because of the move toward 21st century learning that policy makers, administrators, and other educational leaders are promoting.  Don’t get me wrong, I am firmly in that camp and feel we aren’t moving fast enough to transform learning.  Could it be, however, that we’re missing an essential step in the process?  Are we forgetting the essential component of transforming ourselves from fixed mindset educators to growth mindset learners?

“IF, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even it it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively”

― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Do you know whether you have predominantly a growth or a fixed mindset?  Do you know how to tell?  You will find that you are probably not entirely one or the other.  In some areas of life and work you are probably growth-minded, while in others you are fixed.  Dweck outlines these qualities as such.

Fixed mindset people:

Believe talent is fixed and that if they fail at something it is because they don’t have that talent and cannot develop it.
Do not seek feedback or share their work because negative feedback can be catastrophic.
React to failure in a destructive manner,  often becoming depressed and giving up.

Growth mindset people:

Believe talent can be developed and that if they fail at something it is because they did not try hard enough.
Actively seek feedback and convert that feedback into stimulus and guidance for further improvement.
React to failure in a constructive manner,  trying harder to overcome it and be successful in the future.

After reading Carol’s book I realized that I am decidedly more fixed in my personal interactions with family and friends.  I am growth-minded in my hobbies and pursuits such as with golf, photography, and home-brewing.  I enter contests and tournaments, actively seek feedback, and handle it pretty well when the feedback is not praise.  In my professional life, I’ve overcome a fixed mindset earlier in my career by starting this blog, presenting at conferences, and actively seeking feedback from my peers.  Of course, I have much growing left to do.  If I thought I was perfect, or even good enough, I would be decidedly fixed in my mindset.

Overcoming the fixed mindset is tough and takes training on its own; it’s not as easy as just recognising your mindset and changing it.   This alone speaks to the difficulties of school reform. For great masses of teachers to radically change their thinking they will will have to first work on their mindsets.  Is this even possible you ask?   I hope it is yet I cannot be sure.  What I can be sure of, however, is that very little substantive change will happen without it.

Have you done any work with your school or students on mindsets?  If you have, I’d love to learn about it.

A Week with Tim and Sarah

We have been extremely blessed to have Tim Rylands and Sarah Neild at our school for the last five days, including a mind-blowing PD day.  The banquet Tim has laid out is far too much for us to digest fully anytime soon, which leaves us with a deep well of shared experience to tap for semesters to come.  With nothing to disclose and nothing to gain from it, I write this post to express a sincere gratitude for being able to spend this time with these professionals at this school.  Briefly, here are three of the many reasons why the message Tim and Sarah share is so important.

Invisible Technology
You’ve asked the question, you’ve mulled the answers, and yet you still need to know how to deemphasize the technology at your school and set your sights on the transformation that needs to happen.  Tim barely shares a slide or a strategy that doesn’t involve something analog, manipulative, or social.  Tim’s use of technology is never for the sake of the technology itself and always in support of something more meaningful and enduring.

Divergent Thinking
There is a perception out there, and probably not without good reason, that throwing technology at our students reinforces binary, right or wrong, conformist thinking.  Like any application of technology, edtech can indeed do this dangerously well in the hands of educators who may not know any better.  It can, however, equally as powerfully help free our minds, spur creative thinking, and enhance the sharing and growth of new ideas.   Tim’s strategies show us at least a few ways to get the better half of educational technology to facilitate rather than hinder this key 21st century learning outcome.

It’s (almost) all Free
You don’t have to spend big bucks on software to make a big splash with your investment in technology.   Tim and Sarah share scores of amazing free apps that teachers and students can innovate with at their leisure.  In most instances these are simple one or two lesson tools that often don’t even require a sign-up.  There’s no ROI, no buy-in, no critical mass necessary to use any of them.  The only thing needed is an adventurous spirit and a mind wide open to the endless possibilities they offer.   Especially if you don’t foresee a visit from Tim to your school anytime soon, put yourself on his mailing list or subscribe to his RSS feed for a steady “drip” of inspirational ideas.

Is Creativity Really the Goal?

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about creativity lately, partly due to its prominence in the buzz cloud, and partly due to my irrational fear that school is killing the creativity of my daughter.  Thank you, Ken Robinson.  At the age of five now she has been coloring inside the lines for 2 years, using an iPad for 3 years and watching Pixar movies for 4, yet neither of those habits has killed her creativity as far as I can tell.  I’m still a little worried about the ban on curly legs on her letters.  This all raises a serious question: to have creative students, don’t we need creative teachers?

Sir Ken describes creativity as “the greatest gift of human intelligence; the more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet it’s challenges”.  If this is true, then why is it so often seen as an aberration, a wayward trend, or perhaps just a curiosity?  Is it because the school system that created our legions of teachers truly did an effective job of killing their creativity?

This got me to thinking about the ISTE Nets and related initiatives that include creativity as an equal partner in a united front of 21st century fluencies that all kids must learn to be successful.  I now think that these are misleading.  If Sir Ken is right, and I believe he is, creativity should be a giant bubble encompassing all the worlds skills.  The way he describes creativity, it would easily engulf the entire information fluency cycle,  swallow whole the critical thinking and problem solving duo, snack on communication and collaboration, gulp down a glass of technology operations, and then sit staring at digital citizenship like a foreign dessert.

Creativity is the entire process of conceiving of new ideas (new to you or to the world, doesn’t matter), finding ways to think critically about and elaborate on them without losing interest,  share and collaborate with peers to form and refine a vision of a product, system, or other synthesis that expresses these ideas, and follow-through to bring these to fruition with a communication plan that keeps the ideas alive.  There, that’s it, no need to break all those NETS down into cryptic techno-speak.  Just let kids pursue this cycle as a primary mode of learning and you’ll cover all of them.

To teach in this way, however, requires educators to be creative as well.  After all, it isn’t easy to run a classroom with 20-30 kids all creating their own ideas and neatly place the blocks on top of a vertically-aligned curriculum.  Organizing kids by date of manufacture, and moving them from processing plant to processing plant is the apotheosis of creativity.  The very fundamentals of schooling need to change for teachers to truly foster creativity and innovation in all students.

Building Capacity for 1:1 Learning

Offering professional development for digital-age learning is not an easy task, perhaps that’s why a lot of schools don’t pay for it. I think it has to do with the overwhelming scope and the nebulous nature of the skill set. You cannot possibly train everyone in a school to teach effectively in a 1:1 environment in a few PD days. Learning this skill set can seem a lot like re-learning how to teach; if it didn’t it wouldn’t be transformative. Yes, a lot of it is just good teaching, and many teachers quickly warm up to it, but you can’t underestimate the number of deeply held assumptions that are challenged when computers are introduced into the classroom.  These assumptions are holdovers from 19th & 20th century teacher-centered classrooms that were probably never true then but somehow are seen today by many as untouchable.

Here are a few them.

  • As a teacher I must remain in full control of the class the whole time.
  • I need to know how to solve any problem that arises with a students’ computer.
  • Computers make kids and learning less social, however silent reading time is important.
  • Everybody should be doing exactly the same activity or I am not in control.
  • Kids need to put pen to paper to exercise their mind properly.
  • Students should not be able to see each others’ work.
  • Group work wastes students’ time as one student always does all the work.

To me, addressing these assumptions, envisioning the changes in learning, and building capacity for problem-solving and innovation in a dynamic environment are the areas of greatest leverage in the quest for professional development leading up to a 1:1 initiative.  The problem is that teachers cannot challenge these assumptions unless they have computers available to them anytime anywhere to put them to the test.

Getting teachers interested in digital tools is not usually a show-stopper – there are always a number of techies out there that have a few favorites; however, when it comes down to challenging assumptions and coaching teachers through 21st century instructional design, that’s where it gets a little dicey. Teachers here are hungry for change and many teachers, but not all, can’t get computers in their classrooms fast enough.

Below are a few of the strategies I’ve used to begin challenging these assumptions and get the viral nature of transformation going.

  • Promote laptop cart use and ensure integrators work with all teachers on occasion.
  • Provide weekly opportunities for formal and informal tech training and conversations
  • Create a social tech group to look at ways of evolving communications
  • Pilot 1:1 initiatives in as many areas of school as possible, but let teachers ask for them.
  • Allow students to bring in their own devices and open up the WiFi network
  • Move to the cloud as much as possible so all school-related material is available at home.
  • Give teachers admin rights on their laptops to encourage innovation.
  • Build a solid digital citizenship program
  • Offer online courses for teachers that give them authentic, interactive 21st century learning opportunities.
  • Require a minimum competence around our learning management tool, in this case, Moodle.
  • Model and promote 21st century modes of work and collaboration by moving away from MS Office and toward tools such as Google Docs.
  • Get teachers involved in Global Collaborative Projects that are well-designed and reliable, and that don’t require teachers to design their own projects. Remember, global projects are just projects, but good ones are difficult to design.
  • Purchase a wide variety web 2.0 tools and accounts as possible and widely promote their use to faculty and parents.
  • Bring in embedded PD opportunities that support other curriculum initiative but promote technology.
It takes a lot more than this to transform a teaching and learning, but it’s a start.  Ultimately, with a few positive experiences under the wing of an experienced technology coach, these assumptions will begin to melt away and the positive energy will build around 21st century teaching and learning.