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.

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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.

How do you REALLY know?

I really like to read. I don’t really read for pleasure; I read more for purpose. I need to know things. I can’t remember the last piece of fiction that I read. Reading is all about supplying me with the knowledge needed to put my ideas in action. Lately I have been reading more from the business world than from the educational world. This has really help to create a more nuanced framework for my educational beliefs.

One of the more influential books (currently in my rotation of 10 books or so) that I’m reading is “The Lean Start-up” by Eric Ries. The premise of the book is that traditional business plans make a lot of assumptions without evidence to validate them. Ries argues that start-ups need to adopt the scientific method and gain evidence about the viability of  a product rather making elaborate plans that are not field tested. Start-ups need to get an MVP, “Minimal Viable Product” to market for testing rather than waiting for “perfection”. Once the MVP is put to market the testing will yield data that lets the makers to know whether they should pivot (move in a new direction) or persevere (continue down the current path). The idea is to build, measure and learn. Ries contends that both large and small companies can benefit from a model such as this.

the-lean-startup_50291668aa9bb

The education correlation you ask? Right now we are in the “Wild West” period of 21C learning. It is a given that our education system needs to move in a direction to support a new modes of learning but no one is quite sure which path to follow or where this whole thing is going. As Eric Schmidt of Google has pointed out, on a daily basis we pump out as much content as accumulated from the beginning of time up to 2003. Within a year, it is estimated that we will be pushing out that much content EVERY 10 MINUTES. Acknowledging the need for new modes of learning is fundamental but we also need an idea of best practice as well.

When the dot.com bubble burst early in this millenium, it was largely because the companies were built on speculation and projections similar to a housing bubble. While today, we are seeing a new breed of digital companies rising. Facebook was able to get massive amounts of venture capital funding early on because of the rapid rate that users were flocking to their platform. It was based on numbers and an actual testable product rather than a plan on paper. While the Facebook of that time lacked many of the current features, there was enough there to test and develop. Many of the learning strategies that are being put forward as 21C solutions are much like the speculative companies of the dot.com days than field tested variety.

I worry that many school boards are rushing down the speculation path. Grand plans are great but without the validation of field testing, they can prove disastrous.  “Rolling out” a packaged solution looks great, sounds great and brings attention but is it effective? All visionaries view the world through their own particular lens. They start with unique perspectives and assumptions aimed at solving problems. The next step though is to get validation for those assumptions. As Ries points out, once the testing results start coming in, they either pivot or persevere.

Our school leaders must be responsible for gathering the ideas, the resources and the support structures necessary to get an MVP ready for testing. Perfection is not required. Launching a prepackaged concept of 21C learning on our teachers is an ideological anachronism. Rather than it being a new approach to learning, it becomes the same bureaucratic process with nicer packaging. We want our leaders to have unique perspectives but we need those closest to the students to do the testing. Without the requisite classroom testing, we are doomed to repeat the cycle of assembly line education.

Rereading my posts has led me to the conclusion that I do a kind of “observational comedy” schtick. I point out a lot without offering solutions. Allow me to step-out on a limb and offer a few solutions:

  • Expand the “Student Work Study Teacher ” (SWST) program. Ministry funds allow boards to assign a few teachers to work in host classrooms and observe student learning. Position papers are then written and submitted to the ministry. Cool premise but slow to make observations actionable. Rather than having Academic Information and Communication Technology teachers delivering workshops (that could easily be replaced by video modules) we need to make use of their skills and expertise by putting them in schools like SWST working with teachers and principals to test theories of 21C learning which can serve as the foundation for a board plan based on a board vision.
  • As controversial as the TDSB Afri-centric Schools may have been at first, I greatly admire the board for taking a chance and testing out a premise. Far from fading, these schools are expanding. Creating a test school is scary in an era of heightened public sector resource accountability but I believe that the potential rewards are well worth it. As part of an inquiry group, I was able to visit the Dr. Eric Jackman University of Toronto Lab School. New ideas are tested and observed by researchers. There is a consistent vision of education that binds ideas together in the school but there is a culture of innovation and improvement that research drives. I strongly believe that public education would greatly benefit from intra-board research schools. As a proud member of the TCDSB, I think that we would GREATLY benefit from a lab school mentality under the inquiry umbrella. Programs related inquiry, 21C and inclusion could be tested in a board specific context and reported to constituents as evidence and not ideas.
  • The Toronto Catholic District School Board 21C department has identified 8 teachers who have implemented 21C fluencies into regular practice. These teachers are being trained to help deliver 21C learning and serve as exemplars. This is a good start but the next step needs to be taken when real field testing is done and student progress is thoroughly evaluated.
  • Most importantly (and I believe easiest), our leaders need to increase transparency, openness and reach when communicating with constituents. Blogging regular about vision, successes and failures is highly engaging. I HATE reading canned statements on sites that are all edubabble and lacking substance (we are seeing some positive change in this area though – see TEACHINGNEXT as an example of what I am hoping to see more of). We need to start being radically open about what we are doing. Engaging stakeholders in the growth process is powerful.  I believe that this does not currently occur because many leaders wait to unveil the final product rather than create a participatory lead-up. Don’t wait to inform and engage stakeholders when you have a final product, get them on board early in the process. Humanize the whole thing.

As former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill remarked, “All politics is local.” I think that we need to apply this to 21C learning and bring the ideas for testing right down the people closest to the students, our teachers!

Cue inspirational music…

TCDSB Project Next

This summer I was part of an amazing team charged with developing a 21st century learning articulation for the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Under the name of Project Next, we set out to create a multimedia document that focused on developing a new mindset for educators.

The TCDSB is aligning resources with priorities in an exciting way. We now have a superintendent of 21st Century Learning who is leading our board forward with the full support of the Director and Associate Director of the board.

I will be sharing information about Project Next on this blog over the upcoming months and I would really appreciate feedback to help shape our board’s direction.

The video in the header is the Project Next perspective on Professional Learning. Enjoy and PLEASE offer suggestions.

TCDSB Area 1 Innovators Conference

I am very excited to be participating in tomorrow’s “TCDSB Area 1 Innovator’s Day” at Msgr. Percy Johnson CSS. I want to thank Loretta Notten (Area 1 Superintendent) and Marcello Mancuso (Msgr. Percy Johnson Vice-Principal) for offering me the opportunity to present.