K-12: Where Net Gen'ers and Economic Vitality Meet

As I began thinking about what I would say to Leadership Iowa's 2010-2011 Leadership Class tomorrow morning, I did my usual and processed through writing. Never wanting a piece of writing to go without an audience, I figured I'd share my thoughts with the blogosphere. 

Let's start by looking at some recent headlines and quotes:

Des Moines Register: Need more start-ups "The state needs to drive its economy through innovation”

Institutional America has knocked the start out of us “We need to get back to being great at starting things in our country.”

Entrepreneurship requires changes in education “If we want entrepreneurs, we have to train them”

Educating the Net Generation “The Net Generation has grown up with information technology. The aptitudes, attitudes, expectations, and learning styles of Net Gen students reflect the environment in which they were raised—one that is decidedly different.”

The K-12 world stands directly in the middle of these two issues. The children in our classrooms today are fundamentally different than generations of the past, and our economy is crying out for creators and innovators. We have to step up and embrace the challenge before us. By leveraging the traits of the Net Generation and changing the core focus of our schools from content knowledge to skills and dispositions of the 21st century, we in the K-12 world are poised to raise up that generation of creators and innovators that will breathe new life into our economy.

Children come to us in kindergarten naturally curious, as intrinsically motivated learners, and by 3rd grade we have institutionalized the spark and drive right out of them. Walk into any kindergarten classroom, and you’ll see a teacher working very hard to get kids to stop talking, to sit down, to raise their hands. Walk into a secondary school classroom, and you’ll see a teacher working very hard to achieve exactly the opposite goal. There’s no question that we have to change the way we do business in schools.

We have a long ways to go, but there are many examples of the kind of educational innovation happening in schools in our state right now. As a lifelong Iowan, I’m still in awe of the phenomenon, but Iowa is leading the charge in 21st century educational reform. To prove my point, consider this tweet from an educator watching what's happening in Iowa schools from the outside:

There are a variety of reasons for this, but I would point to some of these as illustrative examples:

·       Public-private partnerships: You’ve heard about VREP and its remarkable efforts to connect students with virtual reality technology. There is great input coming from the private sector that is informing new ways of defining "life, work, and post-secondary ready."

·      Distinct efforts to think beyond K-12: We now talk about PK-14, PK-16, and even PK-20 education. Our middle and high schools are part of the Project Lead the Way initiative that provides a clear gateway to technology in middle school—we’ve even made it our fifth core course—and an articulated pre-engineering sequence in the high school that ensures our students are ready to step into a higher education engineering setting without missing a beat.

·      The Iowa Core: With its statewide focus on rigor and relevance; deep conceptual and procedural knowledge; Universal Constructs (creativity, collaboration, complex communication, flexibility and adaptability, productivity and accountability, and critical thinking); creating school administrators who are instructional leaders; and more—the Iowa Core has been a powerful catalyst for statewide change.

·      Widespread technology integration: You’re probably all aware of the 1:1 wildfire, but it’s more than that. Putting a computer in the hands of a student doesn’t change a school. Successful 1:1 schools have embraced a transformational integration of technology that focuses on how technology can make the impossible possible.

·      Virtual, open source, and hybrid learning opportunities: In times of declining resources, ramped-up expectations, and world-flattening technologies, we have to think beyond classroom walls and district lines. There are federal and state supported, as well as school district-driven efforts to share content, teachers, and learning spaces to do just this.

·      New modes of learning: Recognizing that today’s learners are wired to think in a world that is multi-sensory with massive input, there are new and unique genres of curriculum. Gaming and interactive media are making serious headway in the education world. You don’t have to look beyond Inanimate Alice and the burgeoning Athena Project to understand what I’m talking about here.

I could go on and on—and I’m sure I overlooked some stellar examples, but my point is this: pushing forward existing K-12 reform efforts, creating even more of them, and sparking systemic reform that will move us beyond district-specific islands of excellence are critical to our future economic viability.


My Comments to the Board on Technology Integration

During paradigm shifts we work to improve the old paradigm while simultaneously creating the new paradigm that will eventually render much of the old paradigm irrelevant. (Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

It’s almost 2011. We’ve been talking about educating for the 21st century for more than a decade now. We have to begin to make clear and consistent steps that put a little walk behind our talk.

CASTLE Director, Scott McLeod illustrates what this alignment of talk and walk might look like in his November 22nd blogpost, “If we were really serious about educational technology.”

We’ll have to become committed to teaching digital citizenship to our students, teachers, parents, and community—rather than ignoring reality by blocking access. We’ll have to teach our students to become and commit ourselves to being savvy, critical consumers of the masses of information and gadgets vying for our attention.

We’ll have to become committed to universal access for our students, and that commitment may have to come in the form of a line item in the budget for technology and a public Board position that values technology in budget allocation.

We’ll have to embrace our commitment to lifelong learning in a way we’ve never done before, because I can almost guarantee you the tables will be turned. At times, we adults will be learning at the feet of our students.

And we’ll have to do all this because the world has truly changed. Our primary concern used to be about whether or not our students knew the right content, but now content is readily available anytime, anyplace. I have more computing power on my iPhone than the entire world had in 1950.

We’ll have to embrace a new way of doing business. We’ll have to be committed to integrating technology in a way that transforms learning, not just laying new tech applications over existing practices.

We’ll have to embrace a new mission of ensuring our students have deep conceptual understanding and possess transferrable skills sets, rather than being concerned that they know the capitals of all fifty states. Today I could learn nearly everything I learned in school through YouTube and iTunesU.

In the end, we’re talking about thinking differently. In edu-jargon, we’d be talking about a paradigm shift. The tricky thing about educational paradigm shifts is that we can’t stop and retool. Essentially, we have to rebuild the plane while it’s still flying—with 2000 W-SR kids on board.

It’s truly an exciting time to be in education, and we have a golden opportunity rising just west of here in that beautiful new middle school. Instead of painstakingly retrofitting and retooling an outdated infrastructure to support a new model of learning, we’re building it from the ground up.

Technology decisions are among the hardest to make, because the reality is always that what you purchase today will be improved upon tomorrow, but it is time to start making technology decisions for next year. We are committed to due diligence in determining what’s best—both long and short term—for the district—as well as balancing instructional needs with fiscal realities. 


Consensus: Timing is Everything

All the talk about reform; educational transformation; and change, in general, has propelled me into many conversations about consensus lately. Many people tout the importance of consensus building. Some even view it as a do-or-die step in the process of bringing about true and lasting change.

Picture from http://bit.ly/eH3REZ
After much introspection, I suppose I am one of those people. I know nothing can actually get done without group solidarity. I understand that the true power of transformation rests with the teachers who are the doers so often overlooked in a world of loud thinkers.

But here’s the catch…

I think we are often ill-timed with our consensus-building efforts. And, as usual, timing is everything. I propose that the right time to engage in consensus building is AFTER a vision is established.

As school leaders, we often start with some dissonance—an experience, a question, a problem—that causes us to think that perhaps our current way of doing business isn’t working anymore.

At this point, it seems many default to our tendency toward systemic ad hocracy and form a committee to study, recommend, or just fruitlessly toil. We tend to default to consensus building at this point, but I propose that aiming for consensus at this stage, at best, just promotes the status quo and, at worst,  derails positive change efforts.

Vision is leader-initiated with consensus built. That means that the process of consensus building comes AFTER the development of a vision for change. Keep in mind that I use the term leader to describe a function, not a position. I recognize that a school’s strongest leaders are more often than not those without formal leadership titles.

Furthermore, I don’t propose for a vision to be developed in isolation. It should be informed by wide input, which is qualitatively different than consensus. Input comes BEFORE vision development. Consensus comes AFTER vision development.


Reflections on Our Current Reality

I believe we are truly at a time where a critical mass of energy and ideas from many different sectors have converged. There is great input coming from the private sector that is informing new ways of defining "life, work, and post-secondary ready." There are myriad examples of what I would call serendipitous innovation happening in schools and districts, and Iowa is leading the way in many of them. All of these things are happening at the grassroots level and without (and in spite of) structure or systems, though I would be remiss not to acknowledge the power of the Iowa Core to provide a common language and common understanding in Iowa.

There is a new generation occupying classrooms and administrative offices--and we are unwilling to accept the status quo. Policymakers have begun to understand the critical nature of our schools to economic vitality and forward-progress and appear willing to loosen and redefine policies that have long stood in the way of educational transformation. 

So, as John Carver would say, we are at a "printing press moment." It is truly just a matter of time before something big happens to radically change the way we do business in education. I, for one, intend to be a part of that something big. I have a bent toward systems thinking and systems change, and I believe right now we can capitalize on existing and emerging innovations in different strands of the system to truly bring about widespread and lasting change.

There are already siloed efforts underway in Iowa to develop an open-source high school; a gaming platform for learning; competency and mastery-based assessments; virtual reality applications in schools; an interdisciplinary, project-based pathway through secondary school; and more.

From my clearest vantage point, this is where we are now. The important question is: Where do we go from here?

An effort to connect these efforts around a common vision and scale them up would be timely and powerful. If you read my Ender’s Game blog post, you know that I was part of a diverse group that met over the summer to consider how we might do just this. Consider the Guiding Principles we developed as a framework for such progress: 
  • Iowa [and the US] needs a flexible, learning-focused educational system that is not bound by time and place.
  • High quality learning involves problem solving, risk-taking, and self-discovery.
  • Students must become civically engaged, culturally competent producers of knowledge.
  • Existing and emerging technologies are key factors in the transformation of teaching and learning. 
  • Change requires action. The time to act is now. 
Act now. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” What can you do today? 


Cranium as School Reform Model

I spend a lot of time thinking about how I'd like things to be in schools. It's a rare moment when I can successfully get these thoughts from my head into any tangible form. Yesterday I experienced a period of flow in which it occurred to me that the perfect framework for this model in my head is the game Cranium.

I was eventually joined in this moment by our Junior High Principal, Steve Kwikkel. We seized the post-it notes and proceeded to make it impossible for my family to play Cranium in the near future. It's pretty complex, so I won't even bother trying to explain it. Just enjoy the visual. I had to share it.

We're Counting on You

I spent this morning with pre-service teachers at the University of Northern Iowa in Rick Vanderwall’s English Methods course. I was invited to talk about curriculum matters—Iowa Core, Common Core—you know, the typical things people would think I’d be able to talk about. Of course I did address these things, but I had an alternate, maybe even subversive, agenda. To be certain this message came across clearly, I want to reiterate it to the blogosphere.  

Here’s my message:

Students, we’re counting on you. We’re counting on you to be change agents. We’re counting on you to step into our schools, fresh with ideas and full of Pollyanna idealism. We’re counting on you to be stronger than the urge—that can be so overwhelming in that first year—to pick up the textbook or the laminated lesson plans. We’re counting on you to put those theories into action in new and novel ways. 

We’re counting on you to be more than islands of excellence. We’re counting on you to leave your door open and model the way. We’re counting on you to believe you are more than the nervous neophyte you may feel you are. We’re counting on you to enter into our collaborative conversations and persistently question. Leadership is about function, not position, and we’re counting on you to be leaders. 


Professional Development 2010-2011

This year's professional development schedule is now (tentatively, as always) set. It was approved by the Teacher Quality-Professional Development Team yesterday. We are committed to designing and delivering professional development that:
~ models effective instructional practices
~ meets individuals where they are and provides support to move toward our goals
~ capitalizes on our internal expertise
~ is action-focused and immediately usable to impact student learning
Our professional development activities are based on these commitments and two clear themes that emerged in the time I’ve spent this year in your classrooms and talking to many of you. These themes align with our district goals and represent our collective needs with multiple pathways into and out of the learning to support individual needs.
I heard loud and clear that we need support for meaningful technology integration. This includes opportunities to learn about a variety of tools that can enhance teaching and learning. With this in mind, we will be spending two of our professional development days focused on this using an unconference format.   
An unconference is a participant-driven conference centered around a particular topic or purpose. Our topic will be Technology: Ideas Worth Sharing. We will identify WSR teachers who are using technology to enhance (student and adult) learning. We will start with a TED Talk-style, five-minute overview from each presenter. Each presenter will be assigned a room to offer additional coaching for those who would like to learn more. You will all “vote with your feet” and spend the remainder of the time in a small group where you can learn by doing. 
Secondly, I heard a distinct call for time and opportunity for teacher collaboration. This includes the need to develop a shared understanding of meaningful collaboration, as well as gather our collective wisdom to inform systemic and structural changes to allow for meaningful collaboration in the future.
In an inquiry-based exploration, we will PLC about PLCs, framing our inquiry around the essential question: What does my PLC look like, sound like, and feel like? Through reading, discussion, and opportunities to interact with members of high-functioning PLCs in other districts, we will seek deep understanding of what a PLC looks like, sounds like, and feels like at WSR, as well as inform structure, tools, and processes for the 2011-2012 school year.
As always, comment, email, call, or swing by. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 


Keeping it Real in 7th Grade Math

One of the slipperiest slopes school leaders fall down is the one that leaves us out of touch with the realities of the classroom. The kind of out-of-touch that allows us to forget what it’s like to teach 5 of 7 periods with a team meeting, advisory, study hall supervision, and middle school student crises in between. The kind of out-of-touch that causes us to miss out on rich conversations about students and teaching over packed lunches in a colleague’s classroom. The kind of out of touch that left me completely drained at the end of the day Friday.

In an attempt to remain as close to in-touch as I possibly can, I have committed to teaching one day each month. I taught 7th grade math on Friday. Thanks, Mr. Souhrada, for trusting me with your students and your content. I learned a great deal. I hope the students learned a few things too.

Relationships matter.

As I stood in the hall outside my temporary classroom home before the first period of the day, I immediately recalled why relationships matter. The students had no idea who I was, but in their ego-centric, adolescent angst-ridden way they needed to connect. They engaged me in conversations about the contents of their lockers, their yet-unfinished homework, and their meticulous fashion choices. These students needed to trust that I was interested in them as people. I would not have been able to engage them in the hard work of learning without their trust that I had their interests in mind.

This is true for adults too. I’ll admit to the blogosphere that I heard the words “team planning” and “lunch,” as “time to check voicemails and emails in my office.” I am so grateful for the detailed sub notes that directed me to the team room during team planning time and to Mr. McMillan’s room for lunch. I now better understand the importance of having time to talk to colleagues in both structured and unstructured settings. I gained valuable lessons about students, teachers, and my work that I could not have learned in any other way.

Content knowledge matters.

I was an 11th and 12th grade Language Arts teacher for the first eight years of my career. While maybe not polar opposites, middle school math is certainly in a different hemisphere. I specifically requested to be entrusted to teach, but this expectation was overwhelming. I came face-to-face with the chasm between talking the talk and walking the walk. For years I have worked in professional development settings with math teachers. I can impressively sling phrases like “deep conceptual and procedural knowledge” and “teaching for understanding” at timely opportunities.  

When I had to figure out how to engage students in meaningful learning about solving equations with variables on both sides of the problem and applying strategies to organize information from a math problem to create a mathematical model, I choked. I did what I so often criticize others for doing—I defaulted to re-creating the educational experiences I had—or at least I tried to. Thankfully, my trusted PLN (on Twitter) called me on this and saved me from myself.  I have no question the quality of my teaching was seriously sub-standard that day, but I learned about high quality math instruction at a depth I would not have otherwise.

Good teaching is universal.

This was the realization that got me through the day. While there are some content-specific nuances, there is much about good teaching that is universal. Connect to the real world. Connect to the students. Meet the students wherever they are. Ask questions, rather than provide answers. And, lastly, allow yourself to join in on the fun of being a kid. We adults have a lot to learn from them. And I have a lot to learn from the classrooms around me. 

Next month I teach elementary physical education. I'm already nervous...


News Flash: This is Complex Change

Hang on, folks. We are in a world of complex change. We feel very little certainty about the future, and there is very little agreement about where we are going. By definition, this is complex change. It is, understandably, a little unnerving.

Let me assure you, once again, that we are the people we’ve been waiting for. Together we will bring clarity and certainty to our future. Be reflective. Be open to change. Be committed to becoming the very best we can become. Our kids are counting on us. 


Moving Beyond "In Spite of”

While it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to bring a speaker as well-respected as Mike Schmoker to the district, what’s most important is what we do from here. That work begins today. We can’t look to anyone but ourselves to effectively prepare our students to meet the challenges they will face in life, work, and post-secondary pursuits.

There were two points from the morning keynote that resounded with me: quality teaching makes all the difference and effective teacher teams plan, teach, assess, and improve together. My opportunities to reflect with all of you Friday afternoon have left the phrase “in spite of” nagging at me all weekend.

First, quality teaching makes all the difference. It’s easy to default to a position that blames the problems in our classrooms on factors outside the classroom. We can say some children come to us under-prepared. We can point to the less-than-supportive, sometimes-damaging home environments in which some of our children live. We can balk at what the teachers who had these students before us neglected to teach.

We can blame a system that forces us to work in isolation, creating (in the best scenarios) islands of disconnected excellence. We can blame policies, practices, and biases that place undue emphasis on test scores. We can blame higher education, saying their slow evolution holds back our own. You could each add your own list of crippling outside factors to mine.

At the end of the day, none of this blaming does any good. In fact, the reality is that great teachers still get great results—in spite of all these factors. We have to push every outside factor out of our minds and put every ounce of our collective and individual energy into what we can control.

Secondly, effective teacher teams ensure both what and how we teach are of the highest quality, resulting in high quality student learning. These teams plan lessons and units together. They teach these lessons and units together. They assess their impact and adjust instruction accordingly—together. They look closely at examples of student work to move their focus beyond instructional intentions to get real about instructional results. They make adjustments to increase the likelihood that our outcomes match our intentions. This process is happening in isolated pockets, but it should be the norm. All teachers should have a team to support continuous improvement. 

I can point to examples of excellent teachers. I can point to examples of highly functional teams. Unfortunately, they all exist in spite of a system that doesn’t support them. They exist in spite of a lack of time and opportunity. They exist in spite of meaningful and informed support from school leaders--myself included. It’s time that we move beyond a system in which good things happen in spite of. It’s time that we create a system in which these things can thrive. Now is the time to change the system that relegates our work to “in spite of” conditions. Let's work together to create and capitalize upon teacher collaboration time to ensure the best possible learning experiences for our students. 


Our Opportunity: Learning with Dr. Schmoker

With just a week before our September 17 professional development day, I’d like to provide some background information and context to set the stage for what promises to be an exciting day of meaningful shared learning. This day is a collaborative effort among the Cedar Falls, Denver, Clarksville, Independence, Janesville, Tripoli, and Waverly-Shell Rock School Districts that will bring together more than 800 area educators here in our district.
The morning session will be an interactive presentation from Dr. Mike Schmoker entitled The Opportunity: From “Brutal Facts” to the Best Schools we’ve Ever Had. Dr. Schmoker will provide a reality check about schools, effective teaching and learning, and reform efforts. He will further clarify what it means to work as a professional learning community to improve student learning. This is an important opportunity for us to begin to move from a vision for teacher collaboration to action that develops and supports a professional learning community.

We say we value time for teachers to talk to each other about evidence of student learning. We say we want all our teachers to be members of highly functional teams that engage in ongoing cycles of questioning to promote deep team learning. We say we need a structure that allows teachers to collaborate on a regular basis in a way that facilitates both common learning and individualization. We say that we are the people we’ve been waiting for, that there are steps we can take right now to move closer to our vision.

Next Friday will be our first district-wide opportunity to define what those steps look like. Throughout the day you will have opportunities to process individually, as well as with your colleagues within and beyond our district. Remember, the time to act is now; come ready to think, collaborate, and learn!


My Wellness Hypocrisy

I met with the chairs of my district’s Wellness Committee yesterday, and ever since I have been thinking about what I can do as a school leader to support a healthy school community. Unfortunately, I have come to the stark realization that I am part of the problem. I’ll grab my scarlet H, plaster it on my chest, and get real about my own wellness hypocrisy.

See, I am the person who had to hedge an excuse for a box of decadent cake balls from the local Bosnian bakery sitting on my desk when a reporter came to talk to me about healthy school meals.

I am the person who brought sinfully sweet gourmet cupcakes to celebrate a colleague’s birthday last week. I enjoyed every crumb and didn’t even think about tagging a “sometimes food” disclaimer.

I am the person who lived two blocks from work for six years…and drove there every day, all the while advocating for physical education and health literacy.

Like all seismic cultural shifts, creating a distinct and shared culture of wellness in our district relies on individual people making individual decisions day in and day out to act in accordance with our professed beliefs. Once our “walk” matches our “talk” we have successfully shifted the culture.

So today—and every day after—I will take deliberate steps to match my walk with my talk. Now that I’ve donned my scarlet H, you can all hold me accountable as I strive to model a life of wellness. I also urge each of you to think about the decisions you can make today to model a healthy lifestyle for your colleagues and your students. 


Creating a Vision for Collaboration

A team from Waverly-Shell Rock attended a Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) at Work Institute just last week. The ideas were nothing new or Earth-shattering, but they were incredibly compelling.

Our team came away from the event committed to articulating a clear and solid vision for collaboration in our district. We developed four guiding principles to both operationally define the overused term PLC at W-SR and to provide a means to monitor our progress as we work to implement collaborative learning time for teachers. 

Our Guiding Principles: 

Time for teachers to talk to each other about evidence of student learning is critical. (learning focus)

All W-SR teachers should be members of highly functional teams that engage in ongoing cycles of questioning to promote deep team learning. (functional teams)

We need a structure that allows teachers to collaborate on a regular basis in a way that facilitates both common learning and individualization. (differentiation)

We are the people we’ve been waiting for. The time to act is now. There are steps each of us can take today. (action)

W-SR staff: You heard these from your colleagues today. This is your chance to respond. What do you think? Feel free to post comments here, email thoughts directly to me or your building-level representatives, or stop by my office and talk.

PD Promises

There’s something exhilarating about starting another school year. New faces; new challenges; and, most of all, new opportunities. I feel this sense of exhilaration in a heightened way, as I kick off a new year in a new district. It’s great to be a Go-Hawk!

I decided to extend the new year theme and introduced myself to our teachers today through my new year’s resolutions. I’ll be the first to admit that professional development has some hypocritical tendencies. Sometimes our “walk” strays a bit from our “talk.” So today, I make the following PD promises:

I promise to keep learning at the forefront.

It’s so easy to get distracted by the latest feel-good program or initiative that we sometimes forget that what really matters is the quality of our students’ learning. We must be clear about what we want to students to learn, and we must be sure that our outcomes match that intent.

I promise to value and capitalize upon the expertise in each person.

While I haven’t yet met all of our teachers, I’ve seen overwhelming evidence in those I have met that we are a group of knowledgeable, highly capable educators. However, we can’t just close our doors and do the right thing. Our growth and success depends upon a culture of collaboration and mutual responsibility.

I promise to meet people where they are.

I want to get to know every one of our teachers. They each have unique and critical roles to play in our collective work. I will make time to be in their classrooms. I want to know their strengths and passions. I want to understand their immediate questions and help them find timely answers.

I promise to act.

We spend too much time admiring our problems in education. There is a lot of talk—and not nearly enough action. We can’t wait for other people to save us from ourselves. I haven’t been the first, nor will I be the last person to say it, but we are the ones we have been waiting for. It’s true. There are steps each of us can take every day to make steadfast progress toward our goals. 


Part II: Sorry, but I'm over that topic now

I know the last blog post promised (at least) two parts. Sorry, but I'm over that topic now. At one point I had more to say, then work and life got in the way and kept me from committing those thoughts to public memory. Frankly, I just don't want to revisit the topic at this point. I have other ideas to write about now.

It was going to be some reflective/introspective self-dialogue about how much of the past year I devoted to talking in comparison to how much time I spent putting my abundant words into action. I can respond to that prompt in just two words: NOT ENOUGH. I publicly commit to spending more time doing and less time talking this year.


Reflecting Forward: A Blog in (at least) Two Parts

Reflecting is about careful consideration--often in the context of a past experience. The approach of a new school year is an obvious time for reflection with the intent of welcoming the new year deliberately and thoughtfully. I invite you in to my new year's reflection, which will have (at least) two parts.The first is a simple re-visiting of the "Welcome Back" address I gave my faculty last year at the beginning of the year. Consider the holistic message and overlook the contextual details. I'll get back to you with more soon...

Welcome back. This is the day I’ve been looking forward to all summer. In the midst of the crises and catastrophes that occupied most of my summer, I had one steadfast and immediate response to queries—“I am just ready to get the students and teachers back in the building and focus on what we do best.”

No matter what the headlines or critics say, I have been around long enough to know that what we do is all about the kids who sit in our classrooms every day. I believe with everything I am that—given the chance to put our focus back there—we will do more than anyone ever thought possible. That’s just the way we roll.

We are at a major crossroads today—and people are watching. They’re watching—waiting for us to fail—or hoping that we’ll be able to pull this all off and validate their support. Either way, they are watching like they’ve never watched before. It has never been more important for us to pull together, stand united, and to reach within and outside of these four walls to collaboratively achieve our goals.

In the hours I spent thinking about what I should say to all of you this morning, I came up with a phrase and an analogy. Let’s start with the analogy—of course best illustrated by a Super Bowl commercial.

In the end, that’s what we’ve got to do. Deconstruct this existing plane and construct an entire new, revolutionary plane—and do it all while the plane is still flying. We don’t have time to stop and re-tool—we have kids on board who are depending on our ability to keep this thing flying while we transform it. Unfortunately, we’re not going to know exactly what to do at every step of this process. In fact, if we’re doing this right, we will create problems and questions—that’s where the opportunities for progress lie.

We have entered the world of complex change—which by definition means there is little certainty and little agreement about where it is we are going. While complex change can be overwhelming and intimidating, I feel confident when I look around this room that you are up to the challenge in front of us. Your passion, your knowledge, and your unrelenting commitment will be critical as we navigate this complex change, increasing both certainty and agreement about where it is we are going.

Earlier I referenced a resounding phrase as I contemplated what to say to you today. As most of you know, I am pursuing a doctorate in Educational Leadership. In one of my courses this summer I was introduced to the concept of “transformation leaders,” which emerged from a meta-analysis of 30 years of research on effective leadership. I share this concept with you today in the context of my firm belief that the educational system needs us—each and every one of us operating as a collective unit—to be transformation leaders.

It’s easy to criticize the current state of education. We are failing children of poverty and children with disabilities. Even our most advantaged and supported children are not able to compete with their global counterparts. Many say our educational system is broken. I agree that our system is facing a crisis, but I would offer that our educational system is functioning quite well—it is getting precisely the results it was designed to get. Our job must be to disturb the system enough to stimulate systemic change that will produce the results our children so desperately need and deserve.

Transformation leaders share some common characteristics.

• They break with the past. What if we no longer measured learning based on Carnegie Units? What if we developed a system that measures mastery of essential concepts and skills?

• They operate outside of existing paradigms. What if we didn’t have grade levels? What if we developed a fluid system that follows children and their needs, rather than forcing them into a system that exists based on arbitrary factors like having a birthday between September 15th of one year and September 14th of the next year?

• They are willing to challenge prevailing norms and values. What if we thought differently about children with significant disabilities and educated them in an inclusive environment with their peers, providing them full membership rights to our learning community?

• They find solutions that are unbounded, emergent, and complex. What if we upset the entire apple cart and created a 21st Century learning environment driven by innovations instead of forcing our innovations to fit a 20th Century learning environment?

My challenge for each and every one of you this year is this: Be a transformation leader. I will commit to support you in your innovation –as you must commit to support each other and to implement practices based on evidence, logic, and moral imperative. Don’t let existing systems limit your innovations. Rather, innovate! And let our collective innovations change the system. 


Pragmatism is Not the Answer, Part II: Tech Integration

Photo courtesy of gadgetophilia.com

For Leadership Day 2010 I decided to default to one of my soapboxes. Those of you who have made a habit of reading my rants will recognize some recycled parts of an old blog post. However, when I think about the message I most want to communicate about technology integration, it is this message—Pragmatism is not the answer.

For the sake of this discussion, I will define pragmatism to mean: A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems. (Thanks to answers.com for that definition) It's a straightforward If-Then mentality. In the tech-evangelical world, I would say it means some iteration of ”If I buy the latest and greatest technology, students will experience high quality learning.” 

I spend a lot of time thinking about our addiction to pragmatic answers to our highly-complex educational questions. We are so concerned with fast, practical results that we’ve forgotten that real, substantive, lasting change happens as a result of changing the underlying belief systems of the individuals who comprise your school.

This is even relevant in the sometimes-pompous world of tech-integrationists. We focus on the hardware, the software, or the product—missing the boat entirely. We count the number of laptops, iPods, iPads, and netbooks, and we neglect to assess or highlight the qualitative difference in students’ learning experiences. We focus too much on getting the technology into the hands of the teachers and students and not enough time fostering the belief systems that will allow the teachers and students to innovate with the technology they have.

Or, when proclaiming the positive results of a technology initiative, we focus on all the wrong things. We talk about the laptops, not the learning. We talk about the cool products students have made, not the deep conceptual and procedural knowledge they have attained as a result.

While I am absolutely a fan of meaningful technology integration, simply buying technology for your students will not transform your school. It’s just not that simple. We consistently neglect to consider and challenge our most fundamental attitudes and beliefs—the forces that drive every action we take and every decision we make in terms of how to use technology for learning.

So, think around your building and answer these questions: What are our shared values? What are the core beliefs that drive our actions in conscious and unconscious ways?

Do we believe that educational systems must be designed for students, rather than adults? Are we willing to throw away our treasured traditions and take the risk of letting the students show us where to go?

Do we really believe all kids can learn? Do we believe every single student is worth our utmost effort? Are we relentless in our efforts to connect with students and push them to their full potential?

Do we believe that the best kind of learning occurs when students are deeply engaged in a struggle to understand important concepts? Do we believe that conceptual understanding and skill fluency are more important than knowledge?

A fundamental change in belief system must accompany technology integration in order for us to see the system-shattering results we want to see. In my mind, it’s a chicken-egg deal. I don’t care if you purchase the laptops for every student first and then change the belief system—or vice versa.

My major word of caution is not to neglect the hard work of challenging and changing attitudes and beliefs. Participate and engage others in experiences that provide cognitive dissonance and force us to question our biases and assumptions. Changes in values and beliefs will result in incremental changes in behavior that will get us to the lasting and systemic results we want. 


What Ender Taught me about Educational Change

I was invited by John Carver to engage in a conversation about the future of education a couple of weeks ago. I’ve had many of these conversations before, but this one was different—most noticeable in the fact that I am still churning yet today. Typically, I find myself deconstructing the system and talking around the most troubling education questions with a bunch of other education types. The effect of that narrow audience is that we never get outside of the paradigms of education. See, most educators know nothing else. They went from being students in an educational system—one that typically served them fairly well—to being the pillars of the same system. We struggle to “think outside the box” because the box has framed our entire lives. What was different about that meeting was that that it was a heterogeneous group—with great thinkers from the private sector as well—and one of these great thinkers threw the curveball that eventually provoked a eureka moment for me.

At one point in the meeting, Christian Renaud got up and started a list of recommended reads on one of the white boards. It was an unassuming move that most in the room probably didn’t give a second thought. However, when he wrote Ender’s Game on the board, I was knocked off balance for a minute. I guess you might even say that I was pushed out of the box. I know this book well—even taught it when I was a classroom teacher—but I had no idea what it had to do with the questions with which we were wrestling. Determined to square this dissonance, I downloaded the audio version and listened to it during my drive to Des Moines the next morning—this time allowing myself to be engaged by Orson Scott Card’s work from a different angle.

What I learned from two hours with Ender

Optimal learning happens when students experience “just right” challenge. This is a widely-studied, well-supported fact. If you need the evidence, start by looking at the research base behind problem-based mathematics instruction. If you need more, look to the work of Fred Newmann and Bruce King in their study of Authentic Intellectual Work. Navigating through complex problems that have value beyond the four walls of the classroom—beyond the expectations of the teacher—forces students to develop complex procedural knowledge. And, if well-designed and delivered, valuable metacognitive knowledge and deep conceptual knowledge of important stuff.  Throughout the book, Ender is constantly put in situations that force him to navigate his way through carefully constructed challenges that force him to develop needed skills and knowledge.

For an example of a “just right” challenge take a look at the “Give Me Shelter” project viewable through Edutopia’s Anatomy of a Project series. We need to create an educational system that consistently puts students in situations where they are facing "just-right" challenges. 

We must understand our students. Creating the situations in which “just right” challenges can occur requires that we know our students in deep and distinct ways. We must understand how each and every one of them thinks. We must understand their individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning trajectories in order to know which challenges will help them develop their strengths and chisel away at their weaknesses—all the while developing important concepts and skills. Further, we have to attend to their affective development. We need to foster the dispositions and belief systems that allow our students to develop confidence, perseverance, and openness. Ender is constantly observed for signs of growth and areas of deficiency. I don’t propose installing monitors in children’s brains like they do in Ender’s Game. However, I do propose that we develop valid tools and processes that allow us to monitor an individual student’s growth and development to ensure he or she is consistently facing “just right” challenges that do in fact lead to the development of important skills and knowledge. 

The system must transform—in real time—to match the growth of the individual student. Currently, we depend on what I can only call an arbitrary system of grouping children by age and moving them along at essentially the same pace—presuming 180 days of school constitute a recognizable unit of growth or development. Ender’s game constantly changes to match the difficulty and context of the task he faces to the level of proficiency he demonstrates. I have sketchy ideas of what this looks like, sounds like, and feels like in action. I’ll be sharing these ideas with the group when we meet again Friday, and I will share them with all of you in the near future.


My Response to the Fordham Report

The second issue raised in the July 21st Des Moines Register Article is about the quality of the Iowa Core. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently published the results of a study in which they examined the English/language arts and mathematics content standards of each state and compared them to the Common Core Standards in terms of rigor and clarity. You can find the full report here. The short version is that Iowa gets an F for English/language arts and a C for mathematics.

The Iowa Core literacy essential concepts and skills are faulted for being broad, vague, repetitive, and arranged by grade span. The report characterizes the literacy Iowa Core as "only general statements that are repeated almost verbatim across spans" (p. 125). The report points out "some weaknesses in the development and prioritization of arithmetic" in the Iowa Core mathematics essential concepts and skills. Additionally, high school mathematics is characterized as "unusually presented" and "missing much of the essential content" (p. 129). Both literacy and mathematics receive low ratings for rigor. 

I don't intend to argue against the content of the report, the measurements used in the analysis, or even the validity of its conclusions. What I will say is that any comparison of the Iowa Core to the Common Core is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Iowa Core is not standards and benchmarks and has never pretended to be. The Iowa Core is a continuous improvement process that is about what we teach and how we teachIt is a roadmap toward systemic change in Iowa schools. 

With that said, the Iowa Core is what it is--for better or worse--because of deliberate decisions, not because of oversight, of its developers. Once again, I would like to provide some perspective on the Iowa Core. 

The fact that the Iowa Core essential concepts and skills are organized broadly by grade spans allows for maximum flexibility at the local level, while at the same time ensuring that each and every student is ultimately held to the same high expectations. This allows us to hang on to our local control philosophy that says those of us closest to the students in our classrooms know best about what they need right here, right now to achieve at high levels. At the same time, it also allows for standardization of outcomes across the state. 

The repetitive nature of the essential concepts and skills underscores a belief that deep learning occurs in what can best be characterized as a spiral. Students engage in learning experiences that develop the same conceptual and/or procedural knowledge in depth over time through increasingly complex content or through increasingly complex iterations of the skill or concept. I'll paraphrase Daniel Pink and say that mastery of complex skills and concepts is an asymptote. It can never actually be attained--the target moves as we grow and develop. 

Iowa has had a sharp focus on rigor. We, as a state system, have engaged in thorough and intense study of our content, instruction, and assessment through the lens of rigor--as defined by Bloom's Taxonomy. We have highly successful statewide initiatives, such as Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW), Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI), and more that inspect and respect cognitive complexity. Our newest round of teacher and administrator evaluation certification teaches evaluators how to identify and coach for rigor and dimensions of knowledge through the Southern Regional Education Board's Revised Bloom's Taxonomy. If this respect for rigor has not been appropriately communicated through our Iowa Core, I'll be happy to get to work on addressing the problem. 

In the meantime, I'm going to continue to hold my head high as an Iowa educator and keep working to support high quality learning for each and every child in our state. 


Iowa Core and Common Core Adoption

The July 21st article in the Des Moines Register, Group faults Iowa for standards for math, English created more than a little stir among my Iowa colleagues, and I want to take a moment to respond from my perspective. Some background on my perspective: 
  • I was one of the original writing team members for the Model Core Curriculum back in 2005
  • I have served on a variety of work teams and committees in the ongoing development of the work of the Iowa Core--one of which is a team that was convened just this month to look critically at the content of the Common Core, the relationship between the Iowa Core and the Common Core, and make recommendations to the State Board of Education (BOE) regarding Common Core adoption
Disclaimer: The opinion I am going to share is my own. It is not necessarily shared by the Iowa Department of Education or anyone else. 

There really are two separate issues to be addressed in the article: Iowa's adoption of the Common Core and the Fordham Institute's analysis of the Iowa Core. I will just address one of these issues in this posting-for the sake of brevity. 

On the issue of Common Core adoption: 

By the time you read this, I anticipate the BOE will have adopted the Common Core. While I do understand and appreciate the reactions of some of my colleagues who feel as if the train has just jumped the tracks (again, as many of you who have been around much longer than I have might add), let me contextual this. 

The Iowa Core is broad. It addresses six different outcomes, only one of which is content alignment--or aligning what we teach with the Essential Concepts and Skills of the Iowa Core. Presumably, the adoption of the Common Core will have the largest impact on this work. All the good work already happening with effective instruction, leadership, assessment, community engagement, and professional development remains on track. And, I believe much of the work districts have already done in the world of content alignment will still be relevant in the post Common Core adoption world. 

Further, I have to say that, though I have been a staunch advocate of the Iowa Core, it is not perfect. After an in-depth review of the English/Language Arts portion of the Common Core, I would also admit that it's not perfect. Nothing is. Keep in mind that the rules of adoption allow a state to add 15% to the Common Core. Iowa will be doing so. I can say definitively that the result will be something that is better than either Iowa Core or Common Core alone, and this is good for the students of Iowa. 

I will close by reminding you that the Iowa Core is a continuous improvement process. It is not an event--or even a series of events. Progress requires change, and I, for one, see the adoption of the Common Core with Iowa's 15% addition as a good thing.