An “Army of Davids”

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

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

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

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

static-starbucks-final-withstar

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

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

 

Look deep into the crystal ball…

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Things that connect…

Don’t love Facebook but I love this video. Creates a great context for connective ability of tech. We need this mindset for education.