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:

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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.

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.

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.