Everything I know about Ed Leadership, I learned from Netflix.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, is BAD ASS. First he fronted the attack that took down Blockbuster and its clones, now he has network television firmly in his sights. On its debut weekend, 670 000 people “binge-watched” all 13 episodes of “House of Cards” Season 2. That represents 2% of all Netflix subscribers. In another coup, Hastings signed a deal with Marvel Entertainment in late 2013 to air three new original shows based on Marvel characters on Netflix.  He has led the creation of a streaming platform that mixes Netflix original content and studio features.

Netflix has created the ultimate win – win – win. Viewers get to choose both when and what to watch, studios get royalties as well as audience and Netflix gets paid. A content platform also leaves room for growth and innovation. Educational leaders could learn a thing or two from the Netflix story.

Professional development in education is broken. Caught in “activity traps”, PD sessions that reach a miniscule percentage of the system rule the day. Any other industry that behaved in such a manner would be ripe for disruption. Instead of trying to improve current processes, we need to ask new questions and investigate new possibilities. What if the central level of a school board served as a platform a la Netflix? Imagine if the goal was to find excellence in the field and support its scaling? Rather than pushing PD out to the system, ideas from the field would be solicited through targeted design questions and openness to on-going projects.

The goal is to create a network that is simultaneously tight and loose. The values of the board represent the tight portion of the network. The loose part stems from the fact that specific areas or hubs are empowered to generate ideas. Central would use its resources to support the scaling of proven ideas. Prototype and test ideas that have contextual value and then work to make them repeatable. People are now empowered to be agents of change within their system.

Netflix is successful because it has a vision. It has created a platform for content, and has left the content creation to those who do it best. It has offered people choice and a measure of self-determination. Netflix is constantly evolving and has proven to be a truly disruptive innovation.

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An “Army of Davids”

I love educators. I am the product of two educators. I married an educator. Most of my closest friends are educators. I don’t like formal education though. It’s really complicated and I really like simplicity. Please allow me to explain. Picture it, a homeowner needs to move a piano from a main floor living room to his newly redecorated second floor study. The piano has wheels so it is easily slid over to the staircase by our eager participant. After this early success, the homeowner is full of eagerness and begins to problem solve when faced with the staircase. Undaunted by the gravity of trying to move a piano up the staircase by himself, the homeowner measures, sketches and plots out ideas. On paper, these plans seem like they might work but in practice they all fail.  The homeowner tries out dozens of methods to get that piano up the stairs and is frustrated by the lack of success. Eventually, the homeowner gives up and decides to leave the piano in the living room. He tries to justify his decision and eventually convinces himself that it probably belonged in the living room in the first place. Hopefully at this point, you are asking the same questions that I have. Why didn’t he just ask for help? Wouldn’t a team of people have had a greater chance of success? Well, duh?!? Of course they would.

Not the most subtle of metaphors, I recognize, but you get the gist. Formal education too often acts like our hapless homeowner. Individuals or very small teams seek to tackle system level problems without engaging the wider community of educators within their respective system. System leaders are often left frustrated when PD plans do not take root or when a new program quickly stalls. In their book “Decisive”, Chip and Dan Heath describe major enemies to good decision making. Chief amoung these enemies is what they call “Narrow-Framing” which is limiting the number of possibilities when making a decision. Our homeowner is guilty of narrow-framing because he never considered the possibility of involving others in his efforts to move the piano. Education leaders are WONDERFUL people who care deeply about kids BUT they are notorious narrow-framers. Decisions are made a by small group of people and the status quo (with a few minor tweaks) rules the day. We want co-construction at the classroom level but it often doesn’t transfer to a system level. Rather than giving up in frustration like our homeowner who chose to go it alone, education leaders must make greater use of the genius in the system to create meaningful change.

In his book, “Citizenville” Gavin Newson (current Lt. Governor of California) equates government to a vending machine. Taxpayers put money into the machine and the machine dishes out services. The relationship is one of transaction and not participation. He argues that government should serve as platform for participation in order to progress. He uses examples from his previous administration as Mayor of San Francisco and that of Michael Bloomberg in New York as examples. These two mayors allowed for the creation open API’s for developers to use city data to create web apps to  support citizen needs. Recognizing the inherent deficits of knowledge within their own teams, they created a platform for others to supply the necessary ideas and know-how. This is a winning proposition for everyone. The civic leaders get the services that they need, citizens get an opportunity to participate and shine a light on their particular skills and the larger population benefits from faster and more efficient innovative practice. Newsom describes it in the video below:

This kind of stakeholder participation is happening in the private sector as well. “My Starbucks Idea” is site where Starbucks customers are able to suggest product or service ideas for system wide adoption. Once an idea reaches a certain threshold of user support, it gets considered for adoption by Starbucks. The infographic below highlights the success of this platform:

static-starbucks-final-withstar

If organizations as large as Starbucks, San Francisco and New York (to name just three from a long list) can find create participatory platforms, why couldn’t a school board? The actual teaching and learning side of our education system can most certainly be turned into a participatory platform as well. Why not open up wicked education problems to crowdsourced solutions? Ask design or inquiry questions and allow the field to suggest solutions ala OPENIdeo.  We can’t keep trying to push that piano up the stairs by ourselves, its exhausting, wasteful and quite silly. Even if only a handful of people participate in the early rounds of this open system, that’s still more than we would have had. My Starbucks idea has seen the amount of adopted ideas rise from 25 to 75 in five years. This success is not just limited to the actual ideas, it also extends to those who voted to support them. Over 2 million people have voted on the site since it was created. These voters might not offer ideas BUT they are engaged in a platform that genuinely values their input. Regardless of the number of workable ideas that we might get from the education equivalent, we begin to interact with our system in new ways. It moves from a expert to novice or transactional relationship to one of co-learning and co-construction. Newsom calls this an “Army of Davids”. Engaging many people in solving problems can create avenues that were previously never considered or even conceived.  It operationalizes the adage, “many hands make light work”. Rather than acting the hapless homeowner, we need to follow the lead of our young leader in this “Lead India” video:

In a connected world, there is no excuse for the lack of wider participation in decision-making. There are countless FREE tools that we can use to foster this participatory platform. We have expertise in the field that we haven’t even come close to utilizing. It is the ultimate win-win. New ideas are generated and people feel valued. We create powerful and virtuous feedback loops. It’s not about thinking outside of the box, its really about creating new ones. We can plan and plot all we want about moving a piano up the stairs on our own but it will only move once we approach it from a brand new perspective.

 

Look deep into the crystal ball…

Innovation is an overplayed word. It has been misused, overused and misunderstood. True innovation though is sexy, smart and seductive. I know that it should go without saying, but real innovation is also truly forward looking. It can be frustratingly incremental at times while at other times it seems to leap forward in the blink of an eye. The incremental piece gets overlooked and we forget that great products are often paradoxically “overnight sensations that were years in the making.” When a truly brilliant idea finally comes to fruition as a usable product, it is the result of some carefully placed and forward thinking early bets by the creators.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both approached an important fork in the tech road; Jobs moved down the path of the “post PC” movement while Gates took the PC path. In the words of Frost (kinda), “(Jobs) took the path less travelled by and that has made all the difference.” Jobs looked into the crystal ball and began to position Apple towards eventual explosive growth. Incremental choices were made  that would ultimately converge into true disruption. Apple’s unveiling of the 5s and the 5c iPhones was an underwhelming event for some. I see it a bit differently. Two things really standout: the Fingerprint Security Ring and the 64Bit chip. The fingerprint security potentially could open up all kinds of integration. Think about the options for purchasing that come from the security of fingerprint level security. The 64bit chip also creates crazy speed and multi-tasking options for the phone. The shift towards mobile moves even faster now. The other key piece to consider is iOS7. It seems to me that the devices are being designed to showcase the operating system. The tech is the peripheral while the operating system takes on even greater importance. These seemingly incremental additions have to potential to eventually to lead to Apple’s next big thing.

Innovation is dependent on an overarching vision that is supported by smaller, integrated and forward thinking bets about the future. It is all about positioning hunches.  The vision of the future might be a bit fuzzy but there is a gut feeling about the correct direction.  At the outset of the creative process, rarely is the final product conceptualized or clearly pictured. Instead there is an understanding of needs, trends and possibilities for change. I have always been a proponent of the coaching adage, “practice makes permanent.” Just like the muscle memory that comes from repeated physical action, there is also institutional memory. This type of memory can be powerful or highly corrosive. In the right environment, the repeated practice creates powerful innovation and productivity. P&G, Apple, Google, Facebook, and numerous other companies are so successful because of the reflective positioning that creates the right institutional memory. Repeatedly bad positioning leads to the type of institutional memory that creates companies like ENRON! Each and every decision that an organization makes adds fuel to a feedback loop (picture the old cartoon image of the snowball rolling down a snowy hill).

In education, we are very much rooted in the now. Decisions are made based on test scores and other accumulated data. Analyzing this data is obviously important BUT it must be used wisely. Test scores are trailing indicators, good glimpses into “what was” that really need to be rethought before trying to use them to project what might be. We need to start being bolder with our interpretations of the data.  We need to use that data to start making important small bets now with an eye towards reaching a grander vision. Just like Steve Jobs aligned Apple with an eye towards the post-PC world, we need to start aligning all decisions towards a post-SCHOOL version of education. Instead of perpetuating and propping up the status quo of bureaucratic education, we have to start positioning our system to handle an “anytime and anyplace” version of education. Decentralization of education is underway and no one has a perfect vision of what the final product will look like. Our goal is to start making the decisions now that allow the learning to bloom. If we don’t, we risk irrelevance and obsolescence.

We have to take a glimpse into the crystal ball and try to make sense of the blurry future staring back at us. Let’s start the positioning of those small bets and hunches in order to create something powerful and self-perpetuating.

Are you up to the challenge?

As we approach the start of the new school year, I would like to issue a few challenges. These requests are targeted at the key stakeholders in our public education system: board officials, administrators, teaching staff, parents and students.  These are some “double dog dare you” type of challenges, so make sure that you properly warm-up before starting!

To senior and central staff:

I challenge you to start thinking like designers. Work to  break down the compartmentalization of education and start designing an empowering and integrated vision. Follow a human-centred design model based on HCD (HEAR – CREATE-DELIVER). The deliver part you have down, the hear and create, not so much! Hear those in the field, don’t narrow frame the idea gathering by staying in the central echo chamber. Social media tools can aggregate ideas fast enough that the sample size of” brainstormers” can be radically bigger than in days past.

To the adminstrators:

I challenge you embrace inquiry. Open yourselves up to learning in new ways; empower your staff and students to direct the learning and school direction in new ways. Be strong enough to support the process even during potential rough patches. Provide your teachers with a shield that will allow them to experiment with emerging curriculum from the primary grades right up to senior. Be the vanguard of new ideas and not necessarily the CREATOR of them. Commit to a mission and vision that are based on collaborative inquiry and then get busy funding initiatives that support that mission. Don’t get lost in the sea of disjointed crap that gets thrown at you daily. Remain focused on the power of developing life-long learners.

To the teachers:

I challenge you to let go. We became teachers because we want to see kids succeed. It hurts us at our core when they don’t. We want to control the learning process (although we call it guiding) because we don’t want the them to fail. The by-product of this helicoptering is that it interferes with them becoming life-long learners. Learn right along with the kids and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. They need us to model learning skills just as much as they need us to model paragraph building or addition and subtraction.

To the parents:

I challenge you to let teachers teach. Research shows that parents can help their kids succeed in school best by:

  • Having high expectations
  • Talking to your kids about school
  • Building good attitudes and work habits
  • Reading to your children in any language

To read the full report, visit People for Education. Get involved in the learning by supporting the school. This doesn’t mean blind support. It means questioning critically when necessary but ALWAYS assume positive intent from the outset. Attempting to empathize with the school can go a long way towards resolution.

To the students:

Take control of your learning. Do not just “do school”, embrace learning. You do not have to be perfect but you do have to persevere. Be tough-minded and fight through the difficult times during the school year. Don’t shutdown because of bad experiences; fight through them. You cannot leave your future in the hands of others. Learn from anyone and everyone. You won’t always like what someone says or does but there is always something that you can learn. Remember sometimes, you learn more by seeing what NOT to do. You can do it; if you can breath, then you can learn. TAKE CHARGE!!!

I leave you with the following pep talk from our friends at NIKE. Now get to work dammit!

No more waiting, find your Greatness!

My 7 year old son is an insanely passionate baseball fan. Like many boys in the city of Toronto, he loves Jose Bautista (the Blue Jays star rightfielder).  Despite going to games and seeing him play live, Bautista seemed like a distant, almost mythical being to Liam. He seemed like a TV character rather than a real person. Two seasons ago, we started to follow Bautista on Twitter. We added a whole slew of other MLB players as well. Liam was fascinated by seeing what they had to say on a daily basis.  During that season, Bautista got hurt. Nothing major (unlike last year’s season-ending wrist injury) but Liam was VERY concerned. We tweeted Bautista expressing our concern and wishing him the best on a speedy recovery. Something very cool happened next, Bautista responded. It was just a quick thanks but Liam was overjoyed. His hero did not seem so far away at all. A connection was made and Bautista became real to Liam rather than mythical. Rather than admiring from afar, Liam had connected.

This is the power of connective technology; moving from the ASPIRATIONAL to the ACTUALIZED. Change has long been in the hands of those at the top of linear and hierarchical organizations. One way communication modes like TV served to cement this reality. It is time that we stop simply aspiring to change schools or aspiring to create 21C programs and time to acting on our best intentions.

Watch the two commercials below; both are related to the London 2012 Olympics but with different approaches. What stands out?

VISA:

NIKE:

Right from the Gold filter to the glory shots of Phelps, the Visa commercial puts the athlete on a pedestal. He is beyond our reach; his greatness is to be aspired to rather than to be achieved by the everyday person. The implied message is that Michael Phelps is great and you are not.

Nike on the other hand sticks a huge middle finger up in the direction of the whole contrived modern Olympic experience. The company still makes use of celebrities but FAR less than in days gone by. Nike espouses the belief that if you can breath, then you are an athlete. Greatness is not something only to aspire to, it is something to reach out and grab. It is tangible, real and achievable.

It is time to stop aspiring for school change and it is time to do it. Mistakes will happen but we must learn from them, recalibrate and move forward. No more fear and no more excuses because our students deserve more from us. This year, I implore the teachers out there to try something new as often as possible. Administrators, start making the macro level changes necessary to allow the community members to succeed in this new era.

We can all find our greatness, rather than admire someone else’s!

Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.

I am really loving the new Apple campaign. “Designed by Apple” continues with the experience over product theme. For those unfamiliar, take a look:

The video is beautiful. I love the overall feel but a couple of parts really standout. The narrator asks three probing questions, 1) “Who will this help?” 2) “Will it make a difference?” and 3) “Does this deserve to exist?”. These are fundamentally human-centred questions. The goal of these questions is to find answers that make life better for the user. At the heart of any human-centred venture lies empathy.  An empathetic experience revolves around the users’ needs and not around tools of the trade. I have been in education for 14 years now and I have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of education. The good has been the kid centred, the bad has largely been programs before people experiences and the ugly has been coping with thoughtless process.

Public education naturally and rightfully brings with it a high level of accountability. This accountability also presents constraints. Austerity measures sound good but rarely work. Rather than embracing the austere, we should embrace purposeful program design. It’s not about cutting, it’s about purposeful usage. Constraints can breed creativity for the hopeful and austerity for the fearful. Canadian baseball writer Jonah Keri wrote a terrific book about the Tampa Rays called “The Extra 2%”. The Rays are saddled with the worst home field in MLB, poor attendance and limited revenue. By embracing these constraints and by charting out a holistic organizational design, the Rays win each and every year. They draft, sign and develop players to fit the model. They also leverage every possible angle within their control to move the team forward. In the face of constraints, they win.

As educators in a public system, we have to similarly embrace the constraints of our system. We must DESIGN programs, processes, PD sessions and classroom experiences. There are too many things in the system that “just are” but probably shouldn’t be. EVERYTHING in our system should be purposefully designed and be subject  to Apple’s three core questions: Who will this help? Will it make life better? Does this deserve to exist?

Stop and think for a moment about all of the board or ministry initiatives that you have seen come and go as an educator. What did they have in common? Now think about those that have lasted, endured and evolved. What do they have in common? The ones that have lasted are the ones that empathized with the intended users. They were designed with people in mind. The failures were those that put the product ahead of the people. To get a better idea, try to picture a Sony Store and an Apple Store. The Sony Store places HEAVY emphasis on the product. It is a really static environment that focuses on the specs rather than the usages. The Apple Store is buzzing with life and activity. People are using the products, having fun and becoming devotees. Apple wins on two fronts: they build elegant products AND experiences.

My point is:  EDUCATION = SONY STORE.

A strength of our profession is the ability to empathize with kids. This is clear to anyone who might walk into our best classrooms. As a system though, we do a pretty lousy job of empathizing with our larger community. This is not done with mal intent but rather out of a sense of being stuck. Structures, traditions, conventions and   the general status quo are powerful institutional forces. We put centrally created products and programs first and people second. This is evident from start to finish in program creation:programs largely lack consultation (even though the connective technology exists to remedy this), they are vetted centrally and DELIVERED in an expert to novice learning model. This simply cannot continue. Older teachers are burnt out from living this cycle year after year and for the younger teachers, this model is simply incongruent with the rest of their life. Growing up in a connected era has created ingrained expectations and habits. Sharing, curation and co-creation are a natural ways of life. We will be wasting ridiculous amounts of tax payer dollars if we continue with our program creation and delivery model because these teachers will ignore it all and do what comes naturally; share and create with peers both in person and via social media.

Change has to come for both reasons of utility and principle. For sheer utilitarian purposes, we must make better use of constrained funding and on the principles side, it is simply the right thing to do. We must empathize and design for our kids and teachers to reach their fullest potential.

The wicked, wicked problem of 21C

Design theorist Horst Rittel described wicked problems as being large, open ended and requiring a social response. These problems are so wicked because nobody owns the problem entirely nor has a clear idea of a solution. Think about climate change as an example. It affects all of us, we all have contributed to varying degrees, different stakeholders have vastly different opinions, there is no clear solution and change will most definitely have to come from a large scale societal response. There are numerous piecemeal efforts aimed at solving this problem but no overarching or integrated plan has yet been hatched; thus the wickedness of the problem.

The reformation of public education in these early days of 21C is a most wicked problem as well. We know that a change is necessary but we are not quite sure what the change needs to be. We recognize that there is a problem but we aren’t quite sure exactly what the problem is let alone how best to solve it. Solutions are pushed forward daily but they are patchwork at best and often contradictory which leads to headaches and confusion. Abe Simpson poetically captures my own confusion:

TCDSB_Moving_Forward_-_SlideRocket

 

To solve the wicked problem of transitioning effectively to a pedagogy of 21C learning, we MUST adopt a design mentality. Design thinking is a mindset that looks to find elegant solutions to wicked problems. At the root of design thinking is the belief that something may be and working towards reaching out to it. Like science, design thinking requires exploration and experimentation. The difference lies in its focus. While science focus on discovered reality, design thinking is based on invented choice.

Charles Owen spells out the key aspects of design thinking as: inventiveness, human centred focus, adaptive to emerging realities, belief in multifunctionality, systemic vision, ability to tell stories, looking for win-win situations, and self-governing practicality. I want to narrow the focus down to system vision, human centred focus, adaptivity, thinking win-win and story-telling.

Education is by its vary nature subject to a variety of stakeholders. To solve the wicked problem of 21c transition, a social response is required. We must engage all stakeholders from the outset. We must realize that we will be working with competing interests and ideas from the outset. Design thinkers engage stakeholders through Charettes. These are  intensive brainstorming or collaborative sessions brining all stakeholders together. The goal is to share, critique and invent in a manner that accelerates the development of large-scale projects.

According to Jeanne Liedtka, Charettes:

  1. involve everyone from the start who might build, use, sell, approve, or block the project
  2. work concurrently and cross-functionally
  3. work in short feedback loops
  4. work in detail

The most important requirement is that a coherent overall design must emerge. The process starts with the end in mind. Conversations need to start with possibilities and work towards something that can be acted upon. Since so much of the process involves a variety of stakeholders with a heavy focus on what could be, story-telling becomes vital. The ability to paint a picture and persuade is vital for designers. The vision must be articulated with patterns explained and uncovered. We must help others visualize the final product and guide them to acceptance. We must place great value on simplicity and elegance.

There will be constraints and roadblocks along the way but as the found of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad pointed out “Regard every problem as a possibility.”

Over the next few posts, I will sharing my thoughts for designing a 21C plan. I will be using my board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board as the guinea pig. I highly recommend the book “Rotman on Design”. It is a compilation of design thinking articles from Rotman Magazine and has been HUGELY influential on my thinking.

Rotman-on-Design

 

David Kelley from the masterclass design firm IDEO provides a great synopsis:

 

Got Purpose?

Before this school year, I knew Montessori but not Reggio. As part of an inquiry group, my school team made  visits to Bishop Strachan ( a private girls’ school), The Dr. Eric Jackman U of T Lab School and St. Anthony C.S (part of the TCDSB). Each of these schools had Reggio Emilio inspired early learning programs.  Conversations with the teachers, administrators and early learning educators from these schools revealed a common denominator for success: INTENTIONALITY. Every action, item and routine is done for a specific purpose from the obviously important to the seemingly insignificant. No busy work, no black-line masters, and no dust collectors in any of these learning spaces. The learning from these purposeful environments has been powerful.

This was my first year as an administrator after 13 years in the classroom. No matter what was happening in the school, I made sure that I toured all three floors of our school right after morning announcements and after lunch recess. You LEARN a lot about your space through these informal walkabouts. After doing these tours, visiting classes daily and meeting regularly with staff, some impediments to change really became obvious. People really get caught up in the “flow” of school. Traditions and entrenched cultures can really become an anchor. The established ways of doing things become hard to break for people and we get caught up with maintaining our concepts of “school” rather than on learning. This negative feedback loop is not unique to schools. We see the same dangers in politics, sports and family life. We spend too much time propping up a lot of tired systems and conventions rather than doing what we should be doing. We lose sight of the forest for the trees (pretty sure that’s how that idiom is supposed to be used!). I believe that this happens because we lose sight of purpose and our actions become scattershot rather than intentional.

I LOVE this video. The ultimate case for design thinking. Intentions are not shaped by existing circumstances or settings. Instead, everything becomes built around intention and purpose. This philosophy gets us away from “doing school” and streamlines our processes to a razor sharp focus. Identify core values in order to shape clear mission and then relentlessly pursue implementation. Resource expenditures, classroom design, guest speakers, methods of communication et al must be consistent with mission. Look at the best sports franchises. There is a reason why they are consistently great. They have organizational values and they intentionally put them into action. When they deviate, they evaluate and refocus. The means to operationalize the values will most definitely change as time goes on but the values remain the same.

How many classrooms, schools or boards operate that way?

I am neither naive nor stupid. I recognize that the competing interests of the various stakeholders in the education machine make this focus difficult ( notice that I use the word difficult and not impossible), not to mention the sheer size of some boards. This difficulty becomes more daunting when we view the system from a bird’s eye view. A slumping batter in baseball will most assuredly become stuck deeper if he tries too hard to get it all back at once. The most likely way back to success is through razor sharp focus on each pitch. We can’t reorient a whole system from the top. Impossible in days past and even more so in our ever connected and flattened modern landscape.  School and system leaders have a huge role in uncovering values and mission. They also have the responsibility to create the structures that will allow mission and values to take flight. This is done through empowering rather than imposing.

Sandy Lima is a Grade 1 teacher at my school. She is passionate and completely kid focussed. She was a reluctant participant in our collaborative inquiry project. As we continued to meet as a group and visit schools, she began to radically change her practice. She let go of her traditional view of the role of teacher and opened herself up to a more emerging curriculum stance. This was powerful and people noticed. The more she talked, the more people at our school listened. More teachers began to become intrigued by inquiry to the point where three new teachers joined our group and our Grade 8 team began to adopt Project Based Learning. Her actions impacted our school. Because of her passion, she was asked to be a presenter at our board’s Ministry of Education Review. The culminating exhibition for the Grade 8 PBL work was a Food Symposium at our school. Our Associate Director of Education, Superintendent of 21C, three AICT teachers and a SWS teacher were kind enough to attend and interact with our team. This event was transformative for the kids, the educators and our school. It all came about from a passionate teacher and a system that decided that it was important for a light to be shone upon her.

Every part of this anecdote was kid centred and mission specific. Our school staked out a mission of “Empowering life-long learning and faith-inspired global outlook.” As a school leader, I had a role in shaping this mission but there is NO way that I could put it into action without collaborative support. Belief and buy-in come from successful action. We cut away the nonsense of school and get intensely focussed on the learning. Mistakes were made by all along the way but that’s OK. We learned and we grew, not just in capacity but in numbers supporting the mission.

We must be more intentional in our actions. Sport is a wonderful distraction but it is far from paramount importance. If a sports franchise can effectively deploy purposeful action, we must do the same in education where the stakes are infinitely higher. Our kids deserve our best. No more scattershot approaches to learning. It’s OK to change  course if that’s what the learning and evidence tell us but it is not OK to keep changing course based on whim or bureaucratic dictates. It is not OK to let the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approach fester. Intentional action is not the same as imposed action. As leaders, we must have a sense of mission and find the people who are doing the best job of putting mission into action.

We need to simplify, we need to perfect and we need to start over again when necessary. We just can’t lose focus on the why of it all.

Kid President

Love this kid and I love the messaging of Soul Pancake overall. Let’s get up and “stop being boring”. No excuses for not making a difference because in the words of Kid President, “you’re gooder than that!” Kid President for president!

Don’t patronize me!

Raising the level of teacher and/or student engagement is an ever popular topic. Many question how best to raise the level of engagement. I wonder though, should we even be asking that question? or more practically, maybe the question itself IS the problem.

Engagement can be a pretty one-sided venture. Depending on how you approach it, engagement could be viewed as a static activity whereby an individual is investing emotional energy into a fully formulated or prepackaged vision. When a canned board or ministry program is released to the education community, the goal is to engage the teachers and the learners. Success in this case is measured by how willing the participants are to get with the program and put it to work. Is this what we really want? Sounds kind of patronizing to me. Not to be trite or hyperbolic but doesn’t the “no taxation without representation” refrain of the pre-American Revolution times come to mind? You want my engagement but not my involvement in constructing the program or its implementation. Gee, thanks!

Rather than addressing the level of engagement, I think that we need to reflect on the level of participation. Many parts of our lived experience are so entrenched because there were no other options at the time of their creation. Educational programming has been top down in delivery and creation for so long because that made it easier to get the product to market. Connecting large numbers of people to contribute to an idea was either cost and/or location prohibitive. We see this model being chipped away daily thanks to the  rise of connective technology. Rolling out a program without larger participation is no longer done out necessity, now it is a matter of choice. I am by no means suggesting that we run education referendum style where every decision or idea requires the consent or contribution of the entire education community. I do believe though that creation of policy and programs must become much more participatory in nature.

As an administrator, I believe it to be a fool’s mission to drop an idea on a staff without some form of participatory decision making. It doesn’t have to be the whole staff but using your School Improvement Team as key partners in the creation of policy is hugely important. It lifts moral since it doesn’t feel imposed but it also becomes a “smarter” venture because more ideas and viewpoints were added to the puzzle. This is not a difficult proposition because it is done within a single school. The challenge comes when you try to scale this type of participation to a system level. Connective technology makes this type of large scale participation possible. The doubters will claim that the level of participation will likely be low. SO WHAT? I am an administrator in the Toronto Catholic District School Board. We have approximately 9000 staff directly involved in learning (teachers, support staff and P/VP’s). Even if an open challenge initiative was to receive response from 1% of that population, that’s 90 people. Ninety new views, ideas or even idea fragments added to the pool of innovation. A slick campaign that combines substantive issues, good presentation design and heavy celebration of success is bound to attract more users with each iterative attempt.

21C is about opening up traditionally closed structures. It is about approaching problems from new and broad-based perspectives. It would be hypocritical to preach collaboration as a new world virtue to our students without doing it ourselves. This small example of a Twitter conversation has HUGE potential for student learning. An enlightened and open educator, Ms. Heidi Siwak puts out this amazing invitation and another amazing teacher Stepan Pruchnicky directs it to myself and the TCDSB SEF Lead Jan Murphy based on his knowledge of a collaborative inquiry of which we are a part. Sandra Mustacato from AICT joins and hopefully carries this on to her circle.

Twitter___Interactions

OpenIDEO scales this idea to a worldwide reach. IDEO partners with various NGOs, companies and non-profits to open large scale social problems to proposed solutions from the global community. The process is an intricate but accessible one, far beyond just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. Ideas are put through a rigorous design process to reach a workable solution based on communal decision making.

E-waste is a global problem that should be open to a global response. The goal is not have people engage with a ready made solution rather the goal is for large scale participation. Education has always been a complex entity. We must start to harness the collective energy and ideas of our learning community. I truly believe that if we want 21C fluencies to take root and eventually bloom, we must cultivate a participatory culture. It is time to move way beyond engagement and think participation.

So what am I good for?

I have encountered a few teachers and some administrators who have come to question their role in this ever-evolving “thing” known as 21st Century Learning. Questioning long held notions of role can be simultaneously liberating and bone chillingly scary. Liberating if open to new possibilities and jarring if attached to traditional roles either through ideological bent or trepidation about lacking the know-how to adapt.

We all have to realize that the days of being the content expert in the room have been squashed by Google. The new possibilities though are pretty damn exciting if one is ready for it. First let me put any pessimists to rest, technology will NEVER replace a teacher. Khan might be able to accelerate content acquisition or support differentiation but the really cool elements of being a teacher are irreplaceable. The need to inspire, design and provide meaty feedback are the roles that teachers and administrators need to embrace. These three core elements of inspiration, design and feedback have always been my favourite part of the job anyways. It is empowering to know that 21C learning requires me to do more of what I like and a lot less of what I don’t.

Inspiration and real honest-to-goodness feedback are important topics but I will leave them for another post. Of the big three identified in this post, design is apple of my eye right now. Think about your best vacation, the one that was seamless from beginning to end. Flight, accommodations, sites and experience flowing perfectly from element to next; creating the ultimate positive feedback loop. The experience was most likely the product of thoughtful design. The kind of design that makes a building remarkable or an experience memorable. The best stores strive for this kind of design experience as well with Apple as a stand-out. Tim Brown from IDEO is one of the foremost design thinkers in the world. Take a look at this clip from his 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose:

Now its time for some critical reflection. Do our schools or even our classrooms offer the same kind of integrated design? In pockets of a school maybe but definitely not widespread. Quest to Learn Public School in NYC offers its students a school designed around gaming principles. The goal is not stuff content into video games and place game consoles in the classrooms. The goal is to take the design principles of games and apply them to an educational context.

The result is a school designed around the principles of:

  • Student engagement and student immersion in their learning through authentic and challenging problems.
  • The creation of a “need to know” learning model where knowledge creation becomes crucial and all of the knowledge to solve a problem might not be available or evident at the outset.
  • A “just in time” or emerging curriculum based around challenges and student inquiry.

These design principles have created a context that creates:

  • A need for students to share new understandings and knowledge.
  • Opportunities to share knowledge with a larger audience.
  • Export their expertise to an context outside of school.

This is hugely empowering for teachers, administrators and students. Designing an environment that maximizes authentic learning is far more at the core of the teaching vocation than delivering content. Give yourself permission to let go of the baggage holding you back. You have value beyond knowledge of the Great Lakes and Capital Cities of Canada. Embrace the tools and ideas that make the mundane move faster so that you can get on with being an educator that changes lives.

 

Bring on the boring…

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”
― Clay ShirkyHere Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization

Profound statement from a terrific thinker. Two of my favourite brands, Apple and Nike, have infused this philosophy into their product ethos. The everyday usage of the product trumps the celebrity endorsement or the specs.  The products themselves are elegant but the messaging targets the practical- to enhance the quality of one’s life.

Take a look at how Apple totally de-emphasizes the product while  instead featuring the utility:

There are no product close-ups with no mention of product features. The entire APPLE universe is built upon connectivity and integration. Each product works  neatly together in unison with the others.

Nike takes a similar tact by avoiding the shoe all together. Eschewing the star-studded campaigns of the best, the “Find Your Greatness” movement focuses on use and empowerment:

Nike has embraced social media as a core method of product promotion in a more holistic manner than most companies. Connecting with customers is not a tacky add-on but rather a core value. The Nike Fuel Band is another example of leading edge technology being integrated seamlessly into a product line with a focus of connection and empowerment.

Nike and Apple provide a wonderful model for technology use in education. We need to: 1) focus on the wide open outcomes potentially created by the tool  2) create an integrated experience that ties technology intimately into every facet of the school ecosystem in an authentic manner 3)  focus on the ability of tech to connect people in more diverse ways and 4) emphasize the ability that technology has to improve the quality of the experience by all in the system. I believe that the fastest way to engage the believers and encourage the nervous is through a consistent focus on the experience and problem-solving nature rather than the specs, apps or platform.

Let’s make the tech boring and the experience vibrant.

Channelling Jeff Bliss

We want student engagement. We want creative critical thinkers who can collaborate and communicate. We want our native digital consumers to start being responsible users and creators. We also want to “fix” education and align it with the “real world”. How you ask? Don’t know but…I like where the video below is going. Opening it up competition style to our kids could be a powerful way of gathering ideas and promoting constructive use of digital tools.

I would love to see a HUGE call out to our kids to submit their ideas for their ideal education system presented in a digital format. I love aggregating ideas from diverse sectors but I also love accountability and ownership. Kids have awesome ideas and lots of opinions. They can share constructively or destructively depending on the context. The “godfather” of Project neXt @vpwetz got me thinking about the format for kids sharing ideas after an open Twitter call for comments on the Jeff Bliss video explosion.

Twitter : Kerr_StJohnVP: I Only Have One Thing to Say ...

  I share @vpwetz’s empathy for Bliss’ position but I also share his concerns about HOW it was expressed.  For those who may not have seen it, here goes:

Rather than through an illicit (and brutally vertical) recording, let’s provide a forum for our kids to submit their ideas. Let them know that it is OK to challenge authority and to be critical if it is done in a constructive manner. We might get 10 or we might get 10 000 but guaranteed we will get something usable. We have to be open to hearing the good, the bad and the ugly that will come from our students. Curious to hear people’s thoughts and/or experiences with similar projects?

Planning the improbable

The human brain is wired to interpret events in a narrative fashion. Events unfold and the brain seeks patterns and pieces things together to make meaning. In his book, “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that this property of the brain leads us to believe that history unfolds linearly. If “a” is a currently the accepted mode of thinking, we will likely go along believing that “a” will continue with its dominance. We see this in sports when a team looks a dynasty in the making and all prognosticators will groupthink and pick that team to win before the season starts.

Taleb’s book contends that life is largely shaped by black swan events rather than by straight lines or consistent timelines.  As Taleb says, “History does not crawl, it jumps.”  A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences. For example, the Chicago Bulls were a seemingly unstoppable dynasty with no end in sight until out of the blue, Michael Jordan decided to retire (for the first time) in the prime of his career to play baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. In his absence, a mini-dynasty for the Houston Rockets sprung up, only to be curtailed by the return of Jordan almost two seasons later. In both cases, an improbable act radically altered the NBA landscape.

There are countless examples from countless disciplines and aspects of life highlighting the power of black swans. We don’t see these highly improbable events coming because of the manner in which our brain is hardwired. We place way too much emphasis on past events as a predictor of things to come. After the Cold War was officially dead and buried during the Clinton era, Francis Fukuyama famously stated that: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Great line for selling books but the rapid rise of China and 9/11 radically undermined his sweeping statement.

Black swans don’t necessarily have to be improbable or unforeseen. I believe that we can manufacture them (kinda). Predicting the unpredictable is a tautology but we can set the framework and create the circumstances that might create educational black swans. Any successful organization, be it business, sports, technology or any other sort is able to create the conditions for success. These conditions allow for flexibility, rapid iteration, disruptive innovation, systems learning and creative resource management. While Steve Jobs was most definitely an unmatched visionary, he was not a psychic. There was no way that he could have predicted the iPod or the iPad back in the day but he was able to design the conditions that would allow for such a disruptive device to happen.

In education, we need to start doing a better job of creating the conditions that will foster black swans from our students, teachers, administrators and system leaders. Connective technology will help us to extend our reach and aid in greater knowledge creation. Approaching professional and student learning from an inquiry stance creates a mindset that is open to possibilities. We need to start thinking less about definitive outcomes and a lot more about positive structures.

The educational landscape will most definitely not remain status quo in the coming years. Do we know exactly what it will look like in the near or distant future? Not really to the first and no to the second. We need to stop trying to create packaged or canned views of the future and start fostering a love of learning and a desire to be life-long learners. This will allow our students and us as educators to be adaptive and flexible enough to meet whatever conditions we are to face. That’s why I love the quote in the feature image to this post. When we build connections and look to share more regularly, we impact others and the ripples keep growing.

I can, not I’m told.

Change be scary. It can be so scary because of the potential for extremes. A plan could be an extreme failure or an extreme success. Both realities can be equally scary. Education change is scary because it will require many of us to “let go”. This is concerning for some because they worry about students not learning in a non-traditional model while others are concerned because it is SO hard to let go and give up control. I can empathize with both camps and with  those who lie somewhere in between.

We are a “wild west” period right now where change is scattershot and seemingly a moving target. Acceptable one day and repudiated the next. Some ideas seem to be enacted or considered simply for the sake of change rather than for the benefits of student learning; making change all the scarier. Change is worth the trouble if helps the kids. “Help” means many things to many people. I believe that “help” happens when we make changes or enact programs that empower students to take charge of their learning. Figuring out how to do this kind of change can be confounding.

I consider myself to be an “ideas guy” who is learning to get better on the operations side. I am a massive media consumer who pays attention to EVERYTHING which can lead to me paying attention to nothing! I crave frameworks and mental maps to help me coordinate ideas and make meaning. Those serendipitous moments when the right idea hits you at just the right moment are magic. At Connect 2013, I attended Chris Kennedy’s (@chrkennedy) session where he presented the three pillars that the West Vancouver School District is building programming around. Their focus is on 1) Inquiry 2) Self-Regulation  and 3) Digital Access. EXACTLY the simplification  that needed the focus our team at St. John. Empowering students to become life-long learners above all else is an identified priority but how do we operationalize such a broad concept? Thanks to Mr. Kennedy and WVSB, we have that foundation to put ideas into action.

Lightning struck again quickly when I came across Kiran Bir Sethi’s TEDed talk regarding student empowerment. Through the mantra of  “I can”, her Riverside school in India designed a program for students to blur the lines between school and the real world. Students were given the chance to enact real change through a Project Based Learning on steroids kind of program.  The goal was to turn learning over to the students through a three part plan:

1) AWARENESS: see the change  2) ENABLE: be changed and 2) EMPOWER: lead the change. The end goal is to create a student body that is more competent and less scared. As Marianne Williamson  so timelessly and beautifully stated “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond Measure….And as we let our own light shine, We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, Our presences automatically liberate other.” Empowering students to take charge of their learning, one student, one class or one school at a time has that ability to liberate others.

When our students start taking action because “they can” and not because “they are told”, good change has taken root.

Video: A History of Technology in Education

Fun video from SMART, it’s a little  commercial but still effective. I think that its really interesting how the technology at each stage served as an extension of the teacher until the current period. This was most apparent in the “computer age” animation.  The screens were simply reproducing what was going on at the front of the room. The teacher was still the centrepiece and the technology was simply a tool to provide passive content.

It is only in the final “interactive age” that things become more decentralized. The students are using the technology in a much more self-directed manner. The goal is interaction and not content delivery.

Flattening Educational Hierarchies: 5 Pillars for the New World

In this RSA Animates -ish video, Don Tapscott stakes out his case for the macro level changes occurring around the world as a result of collaborative technology.

Tapscott, besides being a good Canadian, is always full of really thought-provoking ideas. He is exactly the type of hopeful person that I wrote about yesterday. He is a person of game-changing vision.

Tom Friedman of the NY Times wrote about the flattening of hierarchies in his book, “The World is Flat”. It is only recently though that we are really starting to see this idea being put into action. From Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement to the Quebec Student protests, we are seeing people “self-organize”. Social media and collaborative technology have aided movements to turn ideas into action.

Tapscott highlights five key pillars of that are being ushered in by the information age:

  • collaboration
  • openness
  • sharing
  • interdependence
  • integrity
These pillars will have profound impact on education as well.I really believe that the education system in Ontario has the integrity part covered but we need massive development in the other four pillars.

We are infected by a silo mentality on the institutionalized side of education. There may be some sharing within a school but very rarely (if ever) does inter-school sharing of ideas occur.   The openness and interdependence pillars are the most lacking. Ideas are too often hidden or hoarded within schools or even within individual classrooms. As Steven Johnson points out, ideas usually begin as half formed hunches that only really come to fruition when connected to another idea. In other words, great ideas can only occur by sharing. It is only through openness and collaboration fostered by interdependence that we will see growth in system level sharing.
In education right now, we are seeing the “self-organization” movement occurring in full effect. There are SO many education blogs, lesson sites, wikis and organizations that are working to connect educators and spread ideas. Sadly, the various boards are lagging FAR behind. This self-organization of educators is to be commended. Technology is binding educators and ideas together. Most of these educators are doing this on their own and not for profit. This allows educators to do their own  relevant professional development. If the boards don’t step up their game, they will be largely reduced to governance and infrastructure. Real learning for teachers will occur completely outside of the system.
We have to take a culture before tools perspective before real change can occur. The boards are doing a good job of bringing tech into the schools but that alone will not solve the problem. A sustained focus on collaborative ideals must occur first. We must build interdependence and put a premium on collaboration. As a school leader, this will be one of my top priorities. There is no magic in the social media platform or the technological tool. The magic is in the ideas and the people. Remember, we’re all in this together!

Optimism sucks! Be Hopeful.Be Fearless.

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”
― Cornell West

Like Dr. West, I too am a prisoner of hope. I have a really hard time with optimism. It is too shallow and thin of a concept. The hopeful person acknowledges that there are problems in the world and does not hide from them. The hopeful person decides to fight the problems rather than pretending that they are not so bad. I see optimism as an empty smile or an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. Rather than rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty fixing a problem, the optimist takes a passive approach.

My biggest problem with optimism is that it leads to incrementalism. The change agenda is slow and plodding with a complete lack of bold action. As Dr. West says, hope is based on visions of new possibilities. The incrementalist approach brought on by optimism also leads to low expectations. The hopeful person sets audacious goals and fights hard to achieve them.

So what does this have to do with education?

I really believe that we must have high expectations for our system, our boards, our leaders and ourselves. If we want education to move into the 21st Century, then we have to be bold and fearless. We have to map out a real vision for progress and not just a piecemeal or retread plan packaged as a vision. The best way to craft such a vision is collaboratively. When we are supported, we are more confident. When we are engaged and involved, we are more passionate. If we want big change, we need a larger pool of ideas from which to draw. Take bold action to incorporate collaborative technology into our system.

The video in the header is from the Case Foundation started by Steve and Jean Case (early builders of AOL). The goal of the foundation is to spark innovation and collaboration around the world. The plan that they set out for collaboration and innovation is bold yet attainable. Please take their pledge seriously. Real change comes from a collective and hopeful vision.

Please click on their logo to view the Case Foundation site:

BE BOLD. BE HOPEFUL. BE FEARLESS. Remember, we are all in this together!

Put down your Haterade and stop judging!

Clay Shirky is an author and media expert out of New York University. He specializes in a subject near and dear to my heart, technology as a tool to create and empower networks. I am most intrigued by Shirky’s concept of “cognitive surplus”. Essentially, cognitive surplus is the free time that is afforded to people as a result of our modern society. We don’t have to spend all of our time finding ways to survive like our ancestors.

The 35+ age cohort spent the majority of their youthful free time watching T.V. The net generation has used their free time in a much more creative manner. We (as in adults and educators) are VERY quick to dismiss much of this work as nonsense. Be honest, how many times have you described a student’s time online as a waste of time?

Shirky uses the site lolcats as a cognitive surplus case study. This lovely site is a repository for funny cat pictures that have been digitally annotated or altered as seen here:

As silly as this picture may be, it is still a creative act. It was then shared with a larger audience helping to create community.  Creative acts like this are gateways to more productive and powerful online activities. Wikipedia represents one of those higher forms of collaborative action. Rather than spending countless hours viewing a one way medium like T.V, the digital youth are creating and curating content. They are creating audiences of their own, rather than being a Nielson statistic.

There is a powerful message here for teachers. We have to facilitate purposeful connections for our students and most importantly, we have to stop judging! Am I tempted to call lolcats a waste of time? Sure, but I really believe that any creative act is better than nothing. At least it is a starting point for something more.  The goal is not to criticize but to guide. The more authentic opportunities for collaboration that we provide for our students, the more Wikipedia type ventures we foster. If we don’t provide rich and collaborative digital activites, lolcats and the like will be the extent of our students digitally creative acts. So, repeat after me, “I solemnly swear to bite my tongue and no longer describe my students online time as a waste. I will provide rich collaborative opportunities to guide them towards more productive and powerful creative acts.” 

Strong Culture each day keeps the Echo Chamber Away…

Creating networks of educators is a passion of mine. Bringing partial ideas and hunches together to formulate grander ideas and designs has the potential to be game-changing for education. As passionate as I may be about creating networks, I am not blind to the potential drawbacks. The pitfall that concerns me the most is the “echo chamber” effect. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people can be inspirational but it can also be stunting. When we enter the echo chamber, we are bombarded with information that reenforces our own hypotheses even when they may be unsubstantiated. Instead of being critical thinkers, we fall prey to a sycophancy of supporting ideas.

In a recent Financial Post article, David Weinberger, author of the book “Too Big to Know” states, ” There is evidence that people, when given a wide field of beliefs and opinions and sources to deal with, will gravitate towards ones that reinforce their existing beliefs, becoming more convinced and more extreme, so we end up with a more polarized society instead of a more open one.” This can happen in a school setting as well. Simply connecting with another educator or group of educators does lead to improved student results or professional knowledge.

A strong culture of critical thinking and inquiry must be developed in order to maximize the benefits of collective action. We MUST be open to the dissenting point of view if we really want to generate any idea of consequence. We must also make sure that we collaborate with people outside of our particular division, department or grade level. If great ideas come from connecting hunches, then we are more likely to create great educational ideas when we they are product of a variety of perspectives. If a math department is looking to improve the problem solving skills of a cohort of students, chances are they will experience little success if they stay within the math gene pool. Engaging the help of the English department or the Art department may provide that missing link to true inspiration.

In the “Big Think” talk in the header, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the value of realizing that the whole world does not view things the way that you do. Talking with people from other professions wakes you up to the variety of experiences and mental frameworks in the world. Gladwell uses the metaphor of the “terrible two’s” to highlight this scenario. Children become rebellious and challenging at two because they recognize that their mind is separate from their parents. Each of them has their own viewpoint. Educators must recognize that we all have our own unique mindset and being cognizant of these differences can be leveraged to great effect.

School administrators must pay close attention to school culture and develop it with great care and patience. Creating a culture of critical thinking and respect for diverse opinions will generate powerful and fully actualized ideas. If attention is not paid to developing such a culture, no change can occur because we will be caught in the echo chamber.