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.

 

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A case for irreverence…

Really good comedians and social commentators know how to make people squirm (hello Borat!). They cut right to the heart of the matter with a well chosen and caustic barb. Ricky Gervais probably won’t be invited back to the Golden Globes any time soon but damn, wasn’t he amazing? The MTV Music Video Awards show is also famous for its legendary cringe-worthy moments as hosts push the truth to uncomfortable limits. Uncomfortable, biting, sarcastic, caustic, acid-tongued, and irreverent but also iconoclastic, envelope pushing, genre bending and culture changing.

The 21C Learning Movement in its most undiluted form can hold its own with the Chris Rocks, Sacha Baren Cohens and Ricky Gervais of the entertainment world. It is a take no prisoners movement that challenges established norms and conventions. It does not accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” It questions, pokes, prods and sometimes attacks traditional academic culture. I love to quote two of my favourite 21C iconoclasts when I want to stir up an audience. Quoting Ian Jukes when he describes a system producing, “highly educated, useless people” or Sugata Mitra stating that you don’t really need to know anything anymore, always leads to a few red faces and gaping jaws.

We need more of this irreverence in the education system. We have to stomach the possibility of losing a couple friends along the way to real change. The tyranny of niceness, bureaucracy and acquiescence is being stripped away in many areas of our society much to the betterment of said society. The potential of looking foolish on Colbert or The Daily Show plays heavy in the minds of many a politician. We need to bring a similar attitudinal sledgehammer to the ranks of academia. For every time that we chose to move slowly in implementation, we lose ground. (Remember moving quicker is not the same thing as being reckless!) Challenging for challenging’s sake is nonsense but there are some fights worth fighting. There are times when we need to cry foul and rock the boat. I have gotten myself in trouble for doing just that but I feel that it is worth it under the right circumstances. The world is changing fast and education is reacting slowly. We need to start asking, “why”.

I know that this is going to sound silly but I think that the biggest reason that we are moving so slowly is because we are focusing too much on education. Huh? you say! Let me break it down. We need to be “responsive and precise” with our teaching methods without doubt. Placing too heavy an emphasis on PD that is education only makes us blunt instruments rather than precise ones.  We get caught in the echo chamber of education thinking. Learning Goals, Success Criteria and Descriptive Feedback plus a whole host of other education tools have value. They are useless though if we do not stay current with trends from the rest of the world. A teacher has responsibility first and foremost to his or her students, system leaders though have to think bigger. As system leaders, we have to push the education stuff to the side just a bit from time to time and start learning more about how to scale, connect and grow ideas. I have learned more about being an educational leader from reading Clay Shirky, Clive Thompson, Alexis Ohanian, Howard Schultz, and Scott Belsky than I have from reading Fullan, Leithwood or Hattie.

There is a difference between being a smartass and being irreverent. A smartass pours gas on a fire just to watch it burn while the irreverent is dickish with a purpose. In the majority of cases that purpose is to accelerate change. I really feel like we need to embrace and amplify the irreverence of 21C. Change is a difficult process, we can either pull the bandaid off slowly under the guise of protection from harm or we can pull it off fast.

Transparency is not a dirty word.

At its best, Twitter is  a sanitized form of voyeurism – an intimate view into the world of others minus the creepy “peeping Tom” stuff. There are some schools in my board I know lots about and others, ZIP! It is not through my board’s central communications that I learn about these schools but rather through the Tweets of those dwelling within the walls of those schools. My Personal Learning Network relies more on Twitter than any other source. Technology is transforming our society into an “on demand culture”. Information must be accessible instantly or we move on to another source. I don’t believe in going all “grumpy old man” and criticizing this new-fangled thinking, rather I believe in leveraging it. My favourite old Irish story is about the town gossip who goes to confession because of all the rumours that she’s spread throughout the town. The old priest listens carefully and the gossip waits in baited breath for the penance. The priest tells her to go home and take a pillow and a knife to the roof of her house. The priest then tells her to  cut open the pillow, shake the feathers out of it, wait ten minutes and then go retrieve each and every feather. The gossip gasps and tells the priest that her given penance is impossible to carry out, “How can I possibly put the feathers back after they have spread out in so many directions?” The old priest points out that the feathers in the wind were irretrievable just like the rumours she spread. Just like the feathers in the wind, there’s no going back when it comes to demanding more transparency and access to information. As much as I hate this expression, “it is what it is.” I believe also “that it is because it needs to be.”

Schools have an obligation to protect the privacy of all members of the school community. No one has a right to know personal details but there is nothing stopping schools from sharing the learning in the school. We need to embrace the idea of the glass schoolhouse whereby community members know what’s going on within the school. We can talk all that we want about engagement but no measure or program will be successful if the community does not feel truly in the loop. I’m not talking about bake sales, BBQ’s or extra-curriculars. I’m talking about the teaching and learning. I have two kids in school, one in Grade 2 and the other in SK. The only thing that I know about the teaching and learning comes from the kids. Good luck getting a clear picture from a  seven and a four year old (she’s a December baby). This has to change. I’m not looking for specifics about individual kids, I want to know about the programs and the respective progress of those programs. I drive by a school on my way to work each day that still has information from May of last year on the sign in front of the school. There’s 10 grand well spent! We can’t ask for engagement without information. The disconnect between school and “the real world” continues to grow. Countless companies and organizations are embracing connective technology to draw the user into the product ecosystem while education continues to keep stakeholders at arm’s reach.

In my opinion, ALL education leaders MUST have an active digital presence. This presence humanizes our leaders and adds new depth to school community. My target is the educational leader, not the classroom teacher. Our leaders must model this practice and set the tone for transparent but respectful information sharing. If you are an educational leader without a digital presence, why? If it’s because of a lack of technological knowledge, get over yourself and go ask for help. If it’s because of an attitudinal disposition, get over yourself EVEN MORE. It is incumbent upon you to grow community to support student success. The more that we share, the more the knowledge base grows. Our job is to the serve the best interest of our students, point blank. Sharing is a major creative and developmental force throughout most areas of the economic and social world. Sadly, this is not the case in education.

Twitter ain’t rocket science people and neither is sharing!

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!

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.

Rebels with a cause.

I have always had a fondness for rebellious students. The kids who think differently and constantly push boundaries out of a sense of purpose. I both empathize with their motivations and admire their fortitude. In a small setting, these kids aren’t hard to find. They are your “Me to We” kids leading the cause for justice or they are your kids fighting against perceived injustices within the school. As an administrator, I have come to admire our teachers with similar rebellious inclinations. These are the teachers who love to ask “why?”. They do not accept “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” as an answer. These are the teachers who stir things up and can affect great change if properly connected.

My all-time favourite ad campaign is Apple’s “Think Different” from many moons ago. Thanks to YouTube, it is still around in all its glory:

We have a lot of educators in our system who think differently. These educators are constantly trying new things in order to advance student learning. Some of their plans and programs work while others don’t. Those who don’t like these educators will describe the programs that don’t work as failures while those with a more open attitude call it learning. It is only through guided experimentation that we find ideas of true merit. Clay Shirky puts it this way:

shirky usable

Finding these outliers and boundary pushers must become a system priority. Shining a light on the great work that they are doing will help the whole system to progress. I have a list of TCDSB (my board) educators on Twitter that I visit a few times each day. Quite honestly, I have learned more from these tweets about what’s going on in my board than from anything that comes from central office. This is not a criticism but rather the realities of our rapidly decentralizing world. My goal is not to find some magical solution or golden idea. Very rarely will you find an idea out there that fits perfectly into your particular context and quite frankly, that shouldn’t be your expectation. Guaranteed though that you will find usable pieces, practices to reflect upon, inspiration and possibly a new connection with whom to confer.

Our system leaders have to find these rebels and celebrate the hell out of their accomplishments. Yesterday, a superintendent for whom I have the greatest respect, gave me pause for thought when she told me that real change comes from where the “rubber hits the road” in our schools and not at the central level. I believe that there is a lot of truth to that if we assume that the role of senior and central staff will remain status quo. There are rebels who “think different” there as well. Building the connective framework to join thinkers together in an inviting and action-oriented manner is vital. Those at the system level can offer methods to support and scale the vibrant ideas gleaned from the community.  It is often said that constraints breed creativity. I could not agree more. We have budget constraints, political constraints, distance constraints and resource constraints. So let’s get creative by finding ideas from within rather than from the outside. It’s way cheaper and far more powerful. The power comes from the breadth of ideas and the potential for involvement, participation and engagement.  We have to actively look for our thinkers and doers. This is the embodiment of the collaboration that we strive for and how can we expect it from our kids if aren’t willing to do it ourselves.

The fly in the ointment.

I love books but when I am looking for a break from the denseness of text, I really enjoy slideshare.net as an alternative. I follow a bunch of different people from the fields of design, education and technology. One of my favourites is Norwegian digital designer, Helge Tenno. These are his slides from a TEDx presentation:

I love the sharing aspect of collective technology. The fact that ideas from one end of the world can be shared with the other in a blink of an eye fascinates me. Tenno’s presentation really forces us to remember though that “all that glitters is not gold.” The price to pay for this kind of sharing is the echo chamber. Rather than challenging the status quo, our online world has the potential to reenforce long-held beliefs if we are not careful. “If we only share what we like. What happens to the stuff that we don’t like?”; I invite the brave amoungst us to reflect on that hand grenade. To really move our education system forward, we have to avoid confirmation bias at all costs. Sharing is amazing if we have the ability to take those ideas and reflect upon them. Accepting them at face value can create massive group-think. Opening ourselves up to the cranks who bring up the dreaded “other side of the coin” has real value. Without a healthy respect for contrarian ideas, we will see ourselves degenerating into the MSNBC vs. Fox News dichotomy south of the border.

Tenno’s reference of  Kirby’s Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” is an important one. Ferguson points out, in his documentary, that of the top ten grossing films from each of the last ten years, 74% were either sequels or adaptations of books, comic books, other movies or video games. Pinterest, Scoop.it, Paper.li, and others are great curation options. They allow us to catalogue stuff that we like and share it with others. I use them and love them. There are countless other curation sites that our students use regularly. They have value but we have to instill a creator’s mentality into our kids as well. The ideas of others can be inspirational but only if we act upon them rather than letting them sit like a dust-collector on a shelf. This is true for all learners both the big ones and the little ones.

It becomes paramount that we create the right environment for creativity and innovation or we risk creating a generation of curators. David Kelley from IDEO does a great job of addressing this area in his recent TED talk:

The right classroom, school and system environment allows our kids to take the abundance of information available to them and do something with it. In order to reach this place of creative acceptance, we have to listen to those contrarians; those who can really tick us off. It is in those dissenting voices that we might find that missing fragment of an idea to really create something wonderful. I have to admit, I am not very good at this. I put the blinders on from time to time and really get got in the echo chamber.  Curious to know, how do others deal with the echo chamber and the potential of curation over creation?

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.

Open-sourcing Education

 

IDEO is a leading design firm that has entered into the field of social innovation. They are using design principles to solve MAJOR global issues, for example How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline? The site aggregates ideas from participants and follows a process leading to action. This open-source approach uses technology as a vehicle to CONNECT. Check out the video below for a quick overview:

We need a forum to connect these ideas. Its time to value the knowledge within the system and use technology to connect educators in a revolutionary and solutions based manner. What would the educational version look like?

Accelerating Global Change with Social Media

The downside of social media and the digital era has been discussed ad nauseam. The medium itself has never been a problem, rather it often serves as an accelerator or multiplier of existing predilections. For every elitist who slags the digital youth or inaneness of social media, along comes a signpost with the power of social media in full display.

I came across one such signpost this morning while skimming through Mashable. To celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday, PrezenceDigital created a four minute video that shows how Mandela hypothetically would have used Facebook, Pinterest, Foursquare and Instagram to fight Apartheid. We are only left to wonder how things would have played out if Mandela really had such tools at his disposal.

SOOOOOO next time we slag one of our students for wasting time online, remember that for every goofy online venture there is a powerful and life-changing activity taking place. Our job is to guide our students towards positive online activity rather than mock them for how they use it!

People are asked to commit to 67 minutes of service and share their story at www.mandelastory.com. The goal is to create another Mandela each day. Talk about tech becoming an accelerator of change!

Digital Literacy: Caricatures & Crap Detection

Last week I wrote a post about “the haters who just keep hating”. We all know those teachers and adults who label this generation shallow, stupid and epic wasters of time. One person went so far as to write the regrettably titled book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)” .  Sadly many educators view our Digital Youth as caricatures:

The new digital divide is not about access, it is about usage. As Christina Cupaiuolo writes in the article, “Connecting the Digital Divide to Digital Literacies”, the new paradigm is one of content creators and content consumers. Our job is not to be dismissive of our students and their online habits, it is to help focus those habits.

Jerry Springer and Maury Povich made careers out of reducing people into neat little stereotypes. There are many teachers doing the same to our students. Anthony Muhammad wrote a great book called “Transforming School Culture”.   Based on his research, he lists four categories of teachers. The most dangerous of these four are “the fundamentalists”. They resist change at all costs. They seize on difficulties to support their opposition and seek to recruit others to the side of “no”.  We all know educators out there who use the “time-wasting” mantra as a shield to slow down tech integration.

Do we call for limits on math education because some students use calculators to take shortcuts? Do we call for limits on teaching English because some students have bad grammar? OF COURSE NOT! Instead, we TEACH them to do better! We must take this same approach to digital literacy. The misuse of online time is a teachable moment, not a reason to slow down. We have to help students use their “cognitive surplus” effectively rather than beating them over the head with our own personal biases.

Howard Rheingold says it best,

If, like many others, you are concerned social media is making people and cultures shallow, I propose we teach more people how to swim and together explore the deeper end of the pool.

The problem with the fundamentalists is that they want to empty the pool! I don’t want to blame the technophobes for everything. We have to develop a culture of support so no one feels isolated or alone. We must shift the focus from the shiny new toys towards a culture of learning. Simply providing access is not enough, we must focus on digital literacy skills. We must  help our students become discerning consumers of content or as Rheingold says, teach them “crap detection”. The video in the header is a brief overview of Rheingold’s five part digital plan.

When it comes to digital literacy @hrheingold and Doug Belshaw @dajbelshaw are the best. They are definitely worth following.

Social Media & Authenticity: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

As I inch closer to my new role in school administration, issues like culture and collaboration occupy a prominent spot in my mind. These are issues that are best approached with a design mentality.  The more integrated the approach, the greater the likelihood of successful implementation. Many initiatives that are rolled out by school boards and local schools are done in a piecemeal fashion. A paint by numbers approach may include all the correct elements but it lacks the impact of the real thing.

Companies that can truly call themselves “social organizations” approach culture and collaboration from a true design perspective and the impact is stunning. Starbucks makes use of social media not just to promote products but to craft an experience. The phone app makes life easier for the customer, a rewards program encourages frequent usage and “My Starbucks Idea” allows consumer to become co-creator. The level of integration makes the customer feel like a partner and the experience becomes truly organic. A complicated process becomes simplified and elegant.

Too often we decry the lack of parental involvement in schools and chalk it up to parental indifference. This mentality would never fly in the private sector. When Starbucks started to lose its way, it lost customers. Coupled with the “Great Recession of 2008”, a juggernaut really stumbled. Howard Schultz did not throw up his arms and blame the customers for not buying his product. He rolled up his sleeves, got back in the game and got busy reengaging his base.Does the education system treat parents and students as co-creators or passive consumers? Profits are a great motivation for change but moral imperative is even more powerful.

School boards should strive to become social organizations. Social media gets a bad rap sometimes from an organizational perspective because it is regarded as primarily a marketing tool. As it stands right now, most boards are guilty of using social media as a marketing tool. Plans are created within the hierarchy and then shared with the stakeholders as done deal via some social media platform. This is reductionism at its best. A powerful tool is stripped of its power and simply becomes a more expedient newsletter. The goal should be co-creation and consultation during the development phase, not simply notification of a completed product.

Fast Company’s Co.Exist recently published an article about how three old school, non-profits have used social media to great effect. Goodwill, The United Way and Red Cross are hardly sexy brands but they are creating a big social media footprint. The strategy was to connect with the support base from a new perspective. Rather than simply soliciting donations , these companies are creating partnerships with potential donors. A community is being developed that can be a source of support in both the short and long term. They have created an affinity for their organization and people are much more willing to lend a hand. There is ABSOLUTELY no reason why school boards cannot do the same. People want to feel valued. A recent poll showed that people would be willing to take less pay for a job that made them feel valuable. Parents will make sacrifices if they feel valued. Volunteers teas and the like are wonderful but they do not create a sense of value. Real affinity comes from participation.

Below is a great infographic from Craig Newmark (Craig’s List Founder) showing the use of social media by public organizations.

Crafting Social Media Guidelines for your School

Social media represents the best and the worst of this digital generation. It can create strong collaborative cultures that serve to flatten traditionally hierarchies or it can become a marketing tool for businesses to shill their products.

In her book, “Get Bold”, Sandy Carter (IBM Vice President of Social Business) brings us the concept of a social business. Social business differs from social media in terms of the level of integration into the heart of the business. Social business should be a way of life that promotes openness within an organization and with its customers. We can adapt her concept of a social business to that of social organization in an educational concept. All schools must make use of the best aspects of social media to create an open environment that connects all stakeholders together to promote student success.

The darkside of social media means that schools must have a carefully crafted policy for social media integration. Steven Anderson, prolific blogger from “Blogging about the Web 2.0 Classroom” put together a comprehensive set of guidelines complete with resources to help both schools and boards create guidelines of their own. I have embedded this document into the image below: