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.

Advertisements

A Healthy Disregard for the Impossible

Wired UK editor delivers this powerful talk at INK 2012 which highlights the power of disregarding “impossible”. Examples include Elon Musk and his private enterprise SPACEX; the traditional locus of control is rapidly disappearing. People now have the opportunity to push a change agenda by leveraging connective tech. Public educators are you listening???

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.

 

My Man “Kid President”

More words of hope and wisdom from my pint sized hero, Kid President. “Things that we should say more often” is a powerful message. What are some of the things that we should say more of at school?

Rebels kinda without a cause.

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. (Mr. Dumby, Act III)”
― Oscar WildeLady Windermere’s Fan

I just came back from the ECOO (Educational Computing Organization of Ontario) Conference in Niagara Falls. The Conference was extremely well-organized, smoothly run and respectful of the needs of participants. I cannot thank Co-Chairs Doug Peterson and Cyndie Jacobs enough for their passion for students and their empathy for the attendees. You don’t need to be a psychic though to see that a big BUT is coming. While I loved the conference as a whole, the peacocking of some presenters gave me pause for thought.

As an attendee at a conference, there are certain happenings that I take for granted. There will be at least one inspiring keynote. The sales pitches will come in thick and heavy in the vendors’ hall. There will be corporate presenters or their proxies desperately trying to pitch their wares through “education sessions”. There will be the “what were they thinking?” sessions. There will be the REAL educators who care about kids, society and progress. Finally and sadly, there will be the presenters who purport to be kid-centric but sadly come off as self-centred or career chasing. ECOO13 provided all of the above.

My default position is to question the status quo, regardless of topic. While often skeptical, I do my level best to listen and discern. I associate more with the left of the spectrum but remain ultimately pragmatic in my decision-making. I strive to be an Integrative Thinker like those chronicled by my intellectual hero Roger Martin in the Opposable Mind. If you spend too much time hanging out at the poles or the far ends of the spectrum, you cast yourself as an ideologue and not an agent of change. Pardon my harsh judgement (or not if you choose) but ideologues are quite often pedantic blowhards who are too afraid of tackling systems level reform. It is easier to act like a rebel than to behave in a rebellious manner. My problem with these vitriolic types is that they make things difficult for those striving for bigger things. As I mentioned in my previous post, irreverence can be a powerful tool  if used strategically. If overused and misdirected, it can also be like pissing in the wind. I attended a few sessions, (one in particular) where the presenter cared far more about being heard than about teaching and learning. Nothing new was presented but the presenter revelled in “correctness”. The presenter had it right and the establishment had it wrong. Maybe true but the message was lost on me. The only thing that I remember from the session was the hubris of the presenter. Now seems like the perfect time for some wisdom from resident Good ol’ Boy Dr. Phil, “do you want to get better, or do you want to be right?”.  Do we want to change the current educational reality for the better or do we want to feel righteous about operating outside of the system? This presenter along with several others were way more concerned about broadcasting their worldview than about creating change (a charge that I might be guilty of from time to time as well!!!).

Change is about others, not yourself. 21C is about providing expanded and relevant options for students. It is not about tearing down one set of education elites, only to be replaced by a new one. I attended two kindergarten sessions that were so clearly about kids. Student work was prominent and student voice was apparent. The Superintendent for Curriculum and Accountability in the TCDSB, Dan Koenig, recently pointed me in the direction of a powerful book – Mother Teresa CEO. The book lays out the leadership principles employed by Mother Teresa to develop her organization and fulfill her vocation. The vitriolic “expert” presenters would do well to read this book, especially the chapter about embracing doubt. Doubt is a powerful ally. It keeps you grounded. It keeps you humble. It keeps you people centred. Most importantly it prevents you from becoming “an expert”. There are a lot of experts out there. On any given Sunday you can find them in full punditry commenting on the NFL, you can find them daily offering opinions on the political system and you can find them critiquing the creative efforts of artists. Experts are experts because they don’t actually do anything. They may have at one time but no longer. They are comfortable operating outside of the system not out of choice but often because they were no longer useful (think fired coach).

I would love to chalk all this up to the impetuousness of youth but sadly my targets were not faculty fresh. I admire the passion but it needs to be refocused to the kids. It must always be about them, not us. Politicians on the far right are dangerous but so are those on the far left. Educators who are stuck in the past are dangerous but so are those thumbing their nose at past or current practice just for the sake of it.

My overall conference experience was wonderful. There was powerful dialogue and sincere collaboration throughout many aspects of the week. I only ask that when given the opportunity to present, that one carefully reflects on motive before proceeding.

I want to thank Doug (king of the #FF) Peterson, Cyndie Jacobs and the organizing team of ECOO once again for a great experience. I learned a lot from the good and the bad.

 

Coding: The 5th C?

Code.org is a movement aimed at bringing coding to everyone. Demystifying coding is key to enticing a new cohort of coders. Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication and now a 5th C of coding? Coding presents the ultimate real world problem solving format whereby students get timely and regular feedback. Stay tuned as #tcdsb21c continues to investigate methods for integration.

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.

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.

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!

Did you put the new coversheet on your TPS Report?

Picture it, a small room filled with a team of educators. Its late September or early October. EQAO IIR’s, CAT/4 scores and other forms of student achievement data are strewn across a table. Highlighters, pencils and possibly a few laptops are being furiously engaged to find the “magic bullet”.  The room is filled with equal parts apathy, cynicism, excitement, hope and a bit of fear.   The educators around this table are an interesting cross-section of the staff. There are the keeners who love to be involved, the vets who know where all the bodies are buried, the career minded and the true believers. You guessed it folks, it’s School Improvement Planning time! It’s time to make use of trailing indicators of student achievement to plot out the future of the school! It’s a quant’s happiest time of the year.

I am an education geek, which should come as no surprise. I have always loved the idea of school planning and its potential. I have great difficulties with what the process has become rather than with the process itself. We have some very talented and well-intentioned board leaders who see the best in the process. They work tirelessly to try and breath life into this dead horse. They see the potential for change in the process but sadly in schools, it has become an accountability piece to be completed for sign-off by a supervisory officer and then put out to pasture. As Pasi Sahlberg says, “Accountability is what’s left when responsibility has been subtracted.” While there are always exceptions, most schools cling to narrowly defined goals that sound good but have little potential for change. The goals are framed in the lens of a system that has long valued improvement FAR more than innovation.

Ontario’s school planning process is old school business. It places emphasis on the analyzing and less on the doing. As the private sector moves away from static business plans and models to a lean mentality, education must follow suit. If we don’t, then we are simply doing school rather than making improvements. I think that SMART goals by nature are nonsense and become even sillier when put into practice. It rings of acrostic poetry at its finest! As a wise man has consistently reminded me, education is a messy business. The speed of innovation in this era makes things even messier. In 2009 Clay Shirky put it best:

screen-shot-2009-10-18-at-9-32-46-am

It is time to stop planning and to start designing.  IKEA is a perfectly designed ecosystem from its entrance to its exit. It provides an experience that engages more than it infuriates. It is designed around a set of core values that  inform all planning. The general design shapes any strategic planning. Education runs directly opposite to this premise. This is why education fails prey to fad programs. Ad hoc or shifting plans that are not grounded in a deeper design or philosophy are like a house built on a sand.

I love Duke basketball (which gives some reason to hate me!!!). Coach K is a genius at creating culture and established values. Year in and year out Duke wins. They don’t always win the whole thing but they are always in the reckoning. Improvement planning for Duke might include a goal like a 3% increase in FG% a la SMART BUT it would be part of a larger design structure rather than an isolated and inconsequential goal. Winning programs win because of culture and design. They have a program that weathers storms. Alex Ferguson thrived for 26 years at Manchester United because of a designed structure and culture. He did not bend to fads or silly trends. Core values ruled the day. He changed with the times but he did not bend to them.

School Improvement Planning in its current construction is simply another example of “doing school”. I am so amazed by the number of things that we just because we have to do them. This is dangerous business since we risk alienated staff, students and parents while wasting HUGE amounts of money. We risk “TPS Form” madness:

I have seem incremental improvements in this area but by and large public education still has its feet stuck in the mud. I strongly believe that the best way to improve planning is to craft REAL and ACTIONABLE mission, vision and value statements. Mission statements are the “me” statements. They are about what the school or the system stand for while the vision is about “them”. Vision is about what we will do to support our stakeholders. Mission and vision must be supported by strong values. Once these have been established, we can get busy creating a culture and designing the necessary functions for success.

Design incorporates context, relevancy and authenticity. Planning alone is pure accountability for accountability’s sake. Design and strategy will lead to success. Planning alone will leave us wandering in the desert looking for the promised land.

What is design thinking?

Many of my recent posts have been about Design Thinking. Stanford d School is the best in the business in educating design thinkers. This video gives a good overview of design thinking and its disruptive possibilities.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Stratosphere – Michael Fullan

Michael Fullan’s new book “Stratosphere” takes a critical look at 21st Century Learning. Specific attention is paid to the relationship between technology and pedagogy. The book title “Stratosphere” refers to the relationship of technology, pedagogy and change knowledge. This book provides and very nuanced perspective of 21st Century Learning. Far from advocating the independent learning power of platforms like Khan Academy as a panacea for education, Fullan presents the dangers that students face without the guiding hand of a teacher.

I really appreciate Fullan’s framework for effective ed tech. If schools are going to reap the benefit of what technology has to offer, the tech needs to be:

  1. Irresistibly engaging for students and teachers.
  2. Elegantly efficient and easy to use.
  3. Technologically ubiquitous 24/7/
  4. Steeped in real-life problem solving.

The goal is to move away from marvelling at tech specifications towards reliable and real integration of technology. Tech with a focus and not simply tech for tech’s sake. It must help students to link curriculum to real life problem solving situations.

Most importantly, Fullan deals with the new role of teachers in the 21st Century. Rather than being pushers of content, teachers must form partnerships with students. Teachers have a huge role to play in this new era of education as change agents. Technology and independent learning alone cannot provide these change conditions. Fullan quotes John Hattie when discussing the fundamental role of teachers, “to evaluate the effect of their teaching on students’ learning and achievement.” A partnership rather than the sage on the stage.

This is a powerful book that anyone involved in education must read. It comes in at roughly 80 pages. I purchased my copy from Pearson online. It is a critical, nuanced and valuable perspective on this new era of learning.

Don’t let Cloud Education get Hijacked!

One of my favourite aspects of the NFL is that it can serve as an analogy for almost anything. Seemingly each year, some great coach comes up with an innovative new system or scheme – the West Coast offense, the zone blitz, the Wildcat offense or the new 3-3-5 defense. As soon as a team achieves success with a certain style of play, everyone jumps on board. The NFL is the ultimate “copycat” league. The new trend of adoption of Ed Teach is perfectly analogous to this copycat mentality.

One of my concerns is that the for-profit companies are jumping on board the “Ed Tech Train” with great zeal. The text book companies are starting to offer prepackaged and multi-layered programs online instead of in print. Rather than revolutionizing education, they are simply repacking their programs to a digital format. This will prove successful in the short-term because of the fuzziness of this transition time. Boards will want to give their communities something digital.  The big education companies will copy the success of the upstarts and the true ed revolutionaries. The results will sadly dilute the whole movement.

As educators, we must make use of digital tools and not digital programs. As I write I can hear John Lennon singing, “You say you want a revolution” and that revolution will only happen through connecting communities of educators and learners.  Cloud education is an agent of change if it allows for free movement of ideas. Teachers working in specific communities now have the opportunity to connect with teachers in similar communities. Ideas no longer have to stay within a school, board, city, province or even country. We can tear down traditional barriers and rapidly connect ideas.

Boards do not need to make huge investments in for-profit companies, they need to make investment in their constituents. Build infrastructure, build  a culture of collaboration, invest in capacity build, encourage innovation and invest in digital tools that facilitate connections and home grown lesson creation. Buying a digital textbook series is simply a lateral move. This new age of online learning should be empowering to educators and not simply a method to move the status quo to a new platform.

In the header video, Tiffany Shlain, makes reference to power of the “The Declaration of Interdependence“. This short film is a crowdsourced creation, translation and reading of this declaration. As educators, we should likewise make such a declaration. We are dependent on each other. We can make use of the digital tools out their to share ideas, craft lessons and work collaboratively.

Cloud education should empower communities of learners, not provide a new market for textbook companies.

Being a tourist in your own Education System

Last summer my wife’s aunt and uncle visited us from Cape Town, South Africa. Her uncle wanted to visit all of the major Toronto landmarks. We took the red double-decker sightseeing bus all around the city. I saw parts of my own city that I had never really paid attention to before. Being a tourist in your own city can be  a very enlightening experience.

Taking that tourist approach to your own education system can be equally enlightening. I found this video on Edutopia from the OECD Education Everywhere series about education in Ontario. The video focused on Unionville High School (part of the northern Toronto suburb of Markham ).  Markham is an extremely diverse city with a very large Chinese and south Asian population.

The video paid specific attention to the role of the “Student Success” teacher and the larger Student Success team. The team meets weekly and focuses on coordinating supports for the transition of new Canadian students. The goal is to provide supports for the whole child and not only the academic side.

Additional information and perspectives can be found in this OECD document:

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7X-Dkl-q6IfdWZDVFVRNnVHamM/preview