Shut-up and listen!

It’s time that all education “experts” just shut-up and listen.  Too much talk, too much hubris, too many ideas and not nearly enough listening plague progress in education. New ideas from researchers and thinkers are valuable. The problem is not with the creators or interpreters of knowledge but rather with those in public education who are responsible for putting ideas into action.

@SEFleadTCDSB pointed me in the direction of this TEDx talk from Ernesto Sirolli; more than 15 minutes long but WELL worth the time commitment.

If we want change, we have to listen. We have to think like designers and less like consultants. Designers ooze empathy. They first seek to authentically understand the user’s particular problem. Solutions are grown and adapted according to circumstance. They are not forced solutions based on “best practice”. Consultants push canned solutions to nebulous and generalized circumstance. Their type of ABC’s is more akin to the sales version of “Always Be Closing”. Selling ideas trumps growing a meaningful program.

Sirolli’s talk teaches us the power of listening. Assuming the role of expert, precludes one from immersing in context and situation. There are certain universal truths in education but they only work if we are sensitive to time, need and context. Force feeding an idea doesn’t just get you nowhere, it sets the process further back.

Toyota has a good saying, if you want understand problems of practice, “Go to the Gemba” or the factory floor – the source. If we want to affect meaningful change, it’s time to shut-up and listen.

Are you up to the challenge?

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

To senior and central staff:

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

To the adminstrators:

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

To the teachers:

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

To the parents:

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

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

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

To the students:

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

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

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:

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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.

The wicked, wicked problem of 21C

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

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

TCDSB_Moving_Forward_-_SlideRocket

 

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

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

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

According to Jeanne Liedtka, Charettes:

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

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

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

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

Rotman-on-Design

 

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

 

So what am I good for?

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

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

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

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

The result is a school designed around the principles of:

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

These design principles have created a context that creates:

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

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