Thursday, December 10, 2015

Do You Do LCD? (Learner-Centered Design)

Think about the last time you did some unit planning.  What was that experience like?  If it was anything like mine, it was often on a Sunday afternoon in front of a television, with a computer on my lap, a textbook on the coffee table, after a weekend of swimming lessons for the kids, yard work, and the other things that make up Life 101.  It was always almost always a solitary activity, and the lessons, tasks, and activities that I created were usually my own, based on the content I felt was important for the kids to know, and my own experiences in learning and teaching.  An introductory lesson with vocabulary and questions, some videos that I thought might be exciting, questions from the textbook and a few worksheets, a quiz or two, a lab that brought together a few of the concepts, and some sort of culminating assessment.  All of these interspersed with interesting anecdotes and analogies (interesting for me, at least) that I thought would have helped the concepts resonate with the students long enough so they might be able to parrot them back to me on my chapter test.

(Note: it is not lost on me that I just referred to my unit assessment as my 'chapter test'--I am not proud to say that in my career, there were too many occasions where my 'units' involved whatever might have been covered in a particular chapter, with a smattering of whatever creative bits that I could muster.)

But what if there was another way to plan our units?

As opposed to starting with the material that we need to cover and using our experiences and opinions to guide us, what if we began the design of every unit and task with our learner in mind?  As obvious as 'start with the learner' sounds, when it comes to unit planning, sometimes 'just get it done' can trump 'start with the learner'.  But what if we looked at a model that might guide us through our lesson planning in a different, learner-centered way?

Human-centered design is an empathy-based, creative problem-solving process which starts by determining the issues that face the end user in a particular situation and ends with iterative solutions that help the end user successfully navigate these issues.  This method has been successfully used by design leaders such as IDEO and the Stanford D-School to solve numerous problems across a variety of disciplines, including education! IDEO has created a "how to" manual called "Design Thinking For Educators" to guide teachers through this process, and the D-School has created an engaging design challenge activity called "The Wallet Project" where learners experience human-centered design in a 'learn by doing' environment.  Here is a brief video summary, just to whet your appetite (I highly recommend that you try this activity with your staff and have them try it with their students).

At the School District #73 Professional Development day that took place on Monday in Kamloops, a group of highly enthusiastic educators from our four rural schools did The Wallet Project to immerse themselves in the experience of designing and creating something based on a set of wants and needs of a client.  And while the group was designing a wallet, the wallet was symbolic of a unit plan:  how could we design a unit plan in a learner-centered way by adapting the process of designing a product in a human-centered way?

The wallet challenge requires participants to use a number of activities to create something that reflects the needs of their client  These activities can be summarized into different phases:
  • Planning for design, which includes a team developing probing questions and interviewing the client so that they can seek to understand what it is that the client truly wants and to empathize with their current reality.
  • Creating a prototype, which involves using the feedback given from the client to develop a number of iterations, and then presenting these prototypes to the client for further feedback to get closer and closer to a product that could meet their needs.
  • Building, testing, presenting and reflecting, which has the group actually create a product that is presented to the client to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about whether that product has met (or maybe exceeded!) their needs, followed up by a reflection on what might have been done differently.
The engagement of the group was extraordinary:  as the wallet activity requires a number of supplies (think 'Dollar Store') that were located on a central table, this group of calm, good-natured professionals turned into a raging, mosh pit of wallet designers, fighting for every last piece of duct tape and tube of glitter glue to create a product that would delight their client.  People were yelling "We need more time!", and "who wants to trade red duct tape for scissors?"

After each phase, the group was asked to reflect on how the user-focus felt, on how this user-centered approach might be reflected in a learner-centered approach to their own unit and lesson designs. The participants were also asked to reflect on which of the competencies from the new competency-based curriculum they were having to demonstrate by doing this activity in 'learn by doing fashion'.  What we found was that frequently, for a variety of different reasons, unit planning for many people often looked like the solitary, 'Sunday afternoon' experience that I described at the beginning of this post.

So how could we adapt the concept of human-centered design and the wallet project to help us be learner-centered designers with our units?  If we consider the three parts to the wallet exercise from above, I think there are a few tweaks that we could make to the process to make students our 'clients', and create units that not only require deep learning from our students, but units that exceed their expectations and :
  • Planning for design
    • What if we did some pre-investigation and loading before we started a unit with our students?  For example, if we were doing a unit on reptiles in biology, we could ask students questions prior to developing the unit in an informal (but highly informative) session like the interview in the wallet exercise.  Questions like
      • What are your experiences with reptiles?
      • Which reptiles are you interested in?
      • What are the most interesting things about reptiles for you?
      • Which reptiles would you like to know more about?
      • Which ones might you consider having as a pet?  Which ones would you never have as a pet?  Why?
      • Which ones might the average person be afraid of?  Why might they be afraid of them?
      • Do these 'scary' reptiles have any features about them that might be helpful?
  • Creating a prototype
    • As a result of the answers to these questions from our students, we could begin to develop an outline of a project.  Using something like our draft School District #73 unit Planning Template as a planning tool (which we are running through focus groups as we speak to see whether it 'delights' our teachers) we decide that we are going to have small groups of students create a comic book (which could be hand drawn or computer generated) about the scariest reptile that they were interested in so they could work through a driving question "How can we develop a comic that makes a reptile less scary?".
    • We create our own mini-comic book to actually try the project ourselves so we can experience the competencies that students will need to demonstrate, the content that students will need to do their project, the challenges students might have, and what scaffolding might be needed to create a product that was both visually appealing and loaded with the science of reptiles that we need students to deeply learn.
    • Because we know we can't do this on our own, we take this idea  and our comic book prototype to a small but focused group of our colleagues and two students over a sandwich at lunch using the High Tech High tuning protocol to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about how to make this project awesome, right from launch to presentation of learning.  (PS. You will be stunned at what these teams will come up with to help you--I promise).
  • Building, testing, presenting and reflecting
    • Armed with our tuned project and prototype, we launch into the unit, designing and adapting our lessons according to the needs of our students as they progress through the project.  There will be certain checkpoints that need to be hit and certain pieces of content that need to be covered.  However, in stark contrast to a more traditional, stand and deliver lesson with questions, worksheets, and tests, students will be asking you for the content (and if you don't believe me, watch this - a video testimonial of one of the teachers who changed to a problem-based approach).
    • We constantly facilitate, coach, cheerlead, encourage, and guide students towards the finished product, and a presentation of their learning (POL) to a public audience that shows not only that product, but the process and multiple iterations as a result of the feedback that made the project the best that it could be.
    • Then we and our students reflect together on how the project went, from launch to POL, so that we can make it better in the future.
Sound like a lot of work?  In the initial, preparatory stages, yes.  But in a more traditional approach, we are doing a great deal of work anyhow, aren't we?  Aren't we lecturing in front of classes? Creating powerpoints with notes?  Finding videos for kids to watch?  Creating worksheets and selecting questions at the end of the chapter?  Coming up with good summative examinations? That seems to be a lot of work too.  

Perhaps a more salient question to consider would be this: in a more traditional approach who is doing the lion's share of the meaningful work?  The creating, curating, and critical thinking about what is important.  Trying to determine the identities of the learners in the class so they might find meaning and make connections, to create activities that engage the learner, and to present them in a cohesive and interesting manner.  In a traditional approach, it is the TEACHER that is getting better at these vital skills, while students can often passively determine whether they wish to be involved or not. 


In a learner-centered, inquiry, PBL-style approach, there is a lot of work, but the teacher and the students are doing the meaningful work together.  Students are selecting which reptile is important to them, and what features make it a reptile (as oppposed to say, a mammal).  They are having to discover the features that they think might scare people, and might have to do some cross-curricular research into a phobia or find interviews with people who find snakes scary on the internet.  They are heading to the art room to try and get the best supplies, and scouring YouTube to learn how best to draw cartoons.  They are giving and getting feedback from their peers about the positive features that they have selected about their reptiles, their artwork, and curating the best bits of all of it so they can make a presentation for a real audience.  The list goes on and on, and they will keep going because you have taken the time to design something that will delight them.

Learner-centered design.  Might be something worth trying.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Helping Our Students Stand Out - What is Our "Value-Added"?

Over the past several months, I have found myself using business terms to describe different facets of our current education system.  Terms like UX and UI to describe the user-experience that our students and parents have with us and the user-interface that they interact with when searching us online.  Or ROI, our return on investment when considering different topics and formats for professional development.  And while mixing business and education can often cause a certain level of discomfort for some, I think there is much for us to learn from the business world when it comes to being insatiably curious about the needs of our clients, our students and parents, at the center of what we do each day.

Right now, the term that is at the forefront of my thinking is "value-added".  Wikipedia summarizes "value added" as 'extra' features of an product, service, or person that goes beyond the standard expectations, and provides something 'more', even if the cost is higher.  Bearing this in mind, the question that keeps bouncing around in my head is this:

"What is the "value-added" piece that we can give to our students in the K-12 system in British Columbia that will make the difference for them in the future?"

Right now, I find it difficult to give a satisfactory answer to this question.  Consider the following:

Take a moment and think back to when you applied for your first job.  Not your first teaching job, or job in your chosen profession.  I mean your first job ever, the one you got when you had spots on your face, your feet were too big for the rest of your body, and mom or dad had to pick you up after your shift because you weren't yet old enough to drive a car.

I applied for my first job in the tenth grade.  I grew up in a small town in northern British Columbia, where the job options for a teen were few and far between. So when an opportunity game up at a local gas station to be a cashier and cook for the summer, I jumped at the chance to try and earn a little extra cash to pay for my extra-curricular sports.  As you can imagine, the employer required a resume and cover letter as part of the application process, and they would select a few promising candidates for an interview.

Unfortunately, this posed a few minor challenges for me.

Specifically, I had never written a cover letter, I had a nothing to put in my resume, and I most certainly had never had any sort of an interview with an adult that I had not previously met.  But paying for volleyball camp was important to me, so I was prepared to give the application my best shot.  I found a Consumer Education textbook that my older brother had forgotten to return to the school library with a couple of sample resumes in it, and began my attempt to document the salient bits of my life to that point according to the sections set out by the experts at Nelson Publishing.

Name, Address, Phone Number....ok, got that.

Experience?  Seeing as this would be my first job--pretty tough to expand on this section.  Let's move on.

Education?  Hmmm. Well, I had been in the K-12 system for a few years, just like any other kid.  I felt like I was a pretty good student--but how was I supposed to make that evident? I guess I could staple my June report card to my resume, but that too was a bit of a problem:  when I looked at it, it said things like "Course: Science 10; Grade: B; Work Habit: G; Comment: Have a great summer!". Even in Grade 10, I remember thinking that a comment like that didn't tell my prospective employer much about me.

Skills?  Uh, well, I could hit a volleyball pretty hard, but I was guessing that wasn't going to help me cook chicken or give correct change.  I did take woodwork in Grade 9, but the miniature shark paperweight that I made out of cedar using some hand tools and sandpaper didn't seem to bring any real-world skills to the table.  I had a "B" in math, but sometimes I struggled with the homework and got an "S" for my work habit grade as a result.  It wasn't for lack of effort on my part: my father often worked in the evenings, so I didn't have someone to help me at home when I had questions about the problems that I couldn't solve. I assumed that math was going to be seen as pretty important for this job, considering I would likely be required to give correct change and count cash at the end of the night.  And while I was really good at that sort of math, I wasn't great at logarithms. Yet all my report card told my employer was that I didn't have a good work ethic, which I thought was unfair.  Who used stupid logarithms anyway?

No experience.  The same education as anyone else.  And I could sand the heck out of a piece of cedar.  According to the "value added" piece that I brought to the table, I felt as though I was qualified to pursue a career at a pencil sharpening factory.

As a young person, I remember being really frustrated:  I did all my chores, helped my dad get firewood for us in the fall, read every night before bed, was a solid student who tried hard, and played every sport my father could afford so I could stay healthy and active.  Wasn't I a good kid?  I didn't get into trouble, I did all the right things at home, and yet I didn't have anything to show for it to get me even the most basic of jobs.  All I wanted to do was to take my stupid shark and throw it with some gasoline on a big pile of logarithms and light it on fire.  In terms of value-added, I felt like I was doing all I could as a young person to make myself valuable, but my schooling wasn't really helping me when I needed it most.  The content that I had learned in English, Socials, Math and Science wasn't getting me through the door of a prospective employer--I was beating my head on the mail slot.  And if you are waiting for the happy ending, forget it, I didn't get the job:  someone else got to pump gas and make chicken.  No volleyball camp for me.

While that was in the mid-80s, I wonder how many of our students today leave the K-12 system feeling this way?  Even worse, how many students leave university with similar prospects, along with the a $27000 kick in the pants in the form of a student loan to contend with (the average student loan debt in Canada, as calculated by the Canadian Federation of Students last year--mine was closer to $50000).  A recent Newsweek article called "Millenial College Graduates:  Young, Educated, Jobless", paints a similar picture for young people in the US.  Anthony Carnevale, a Director and Professor for Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, says that a high school diploma is not enough anymore: "They (millenials) are the first generation who needs to have a college degree and experience to compete, before they even enter the workplace.".

Ahhhh...wait a minute.  Let's repeat that last bit.  " degree and experience, BEFORE they even enter the workplace.".  Now we have something that we can work with.  While we may not be able to give students a college degree from K-12, we can start to think of the kind of experiences that we can give our students during their time in our elementary and secondary schools that will prepare them to be contributing members of society.  Yong Zhao calls this idea "Out of the Basement-Ready", which I believe could be the real 'value added' piece for us going forward in elementary and secondary schools.  And with the new competency-based curriculum that is coming to classrooms here in BC over the next eighteen months, the opportunity for us to catapult our students forward in to the future with authentic, 'value added' skills that are above and beyond the content that has been so much of a focus of the past has never been greater.

Just imagine how excited an employer would be if they had a young person who came to a job interview able to tangibly demonstrate transferable skills through experiences that they had already had in the K-12 system?  Imagine the quality of an interview of a typical student from a PBL-focused school such as Manor New Tech, as described by their Principal here (zip forward to 3m30s to hear his description of their students, or watch the whole thing and be amazed):

200 presentations of their learning by time they graduate!  Do you think these students feel comfortable communicating?  Speaking to adults?  Curating their work?  Defending their position? Do you think these students would have dozens of artifacts to choose from to represent their identity in a positive way?  And dozens of experiences that would make a resume leap off of your desk?

Most importantly, would you hire them to pump gas, count cash, and make chicken?

I would guess that these students learned a similar amount of content to what I learned and what our students in BC learn during their time in the K-12 system.  But in terms of the "value-added" pieces that will prepare them for a changing future, well, these from Manor New Tech students would have a huge leg up, because they would have already developed and demonstrated skills in areas such as
  • communication
  • critical thinking
  • creative thinking
  • positive personal and cultural identity
  • personal awareness and responsibility
  • social responsibility
Which, by the way, happen to be the very competencies that the new curriculum in BC is calling for us to focus upon in our elementary and secondary schools.  And there are so many ways that we can help students develop these skills at every level through their Kindergarten to Grade 12 journey. Things like:
Just to name a few ideas.

Over the next few months in our district, we will be sending another team to High Tech High to discover, learn more about and implement problem-based tasks that require students to demonstrate our competencies in each of our classrooms.  In order to increase the capacity of our educators and educators across BC to observe and scale these effective tasks, Kamloops will be hosting an Instructional Rounds Institute on April 10th-14th with Harvard Professors Dr. Stefanie Reinhorn and Dr. Sarah Fiarman.  And in the fall, we will look to host a PBL institute to further cement these effective practices across our district.  We must get moving.

My daughters are currently in kindergarten and the second grade, and I could not be more excited about the opportunity that we have in BC to truly give our students a real leg up as they move through our system.  However, we must make the most of this opportunity, because that is all it is--an opportunity.  But if we use the new curriculum coming out in BC as a vehicle to teach and require students to demonstrate these competencies and constantly focus on the learning that must take place beyond the content through ideas such as inquiry-based and problem-based learning, we will truly have created a "value-added" learning environment for our clients across British Columbia.

Monday, November 2, 2015

You Have No Grit

No grit? Ouch. That hurts, doesn't it?

Maybe the person who said that to you tries to couch it a bit, and says, something like "Well, maybe not you, but educators...they have no grit.  And they certainly have no sense of reality."  Ouch again. You are an educator, and you feel like you have grit, and not just a little bit.  Reality?  They have NO idea about your reality.  Come walk a mile in my shoes, fella.  "Why is this person stereotyping me?", you think.

Have you heard these types of statements about 'kids these days'?  I have, and continue to hear things like this wherever I go, almost regardless of the crowd that I happen to be chatting with.

"Kids these days have no grit."
"Kids have too much screen time"
"Kids never walk to school anymore"
"Kids don't want to pay attention in class"
"Kids today have no sense of reality--they live in a dream world."

I won't lie, there was a point in my teaching career when I made these types of comments:  that was a long time ago, and I don't make them anymore because I realize that I was being condescending and, more importantly, I was being hypocritical.  In education, we can often be quick to point our fingers at kids, but I feel like we need to have a quick peek in the mirror, especially when it comes to the piece about 'reality'.  To do this, let's consider the five "Kids..." statements above with the finger pointed the other way---right back in our own noses.

As adults, do we have grit?  Let's take an example such as implementing technology. How many times have you heard "we need to go slow with this stuff", and "we need to make this really easy for people", and "we really need to honor that people are going to find this difficult and respect them as learners". Why do we feel that kids, who so clearly have less skills and experience than we do, need to experience (and enjoy?) more challenging things than we do as adults? How many times have you been introducing something like a Google Doc, only to hear people holler "This isn't working!  I need some help over here." and roll their eyes, only to wander over and click one link for them, and have them say something like "Well, that wasn't working a minute ago.".  Technology aside, it seems that we have to "be strategic" when we are introducing new concepts, ideas or pedagogies to us as educators because "people struggle with change".  And heaven forbid we actually move forward with something new and it doesn't work perfectly in the early stages--the chorus of comments such as "I knew this was a bad idea", or "I told you this wouldn't work" will be deafening.  If a panel of students were watching a group of us learn about a new application or piece of software, would they consider us to be "gritty"?

As adults, do we limit our screen time?  While there are those of us who don't watch TV, who don't play on their iPad at night, who don't look at their phones first thing in the morning, who don't text and drive, and who don't have a 'date night' with their spouse that looks suspiciously like two adults in sweatpants with their laptops open in front of this week's episode of 'Shark Tank', there are many of us that DO spend this much time in front of a screen, not to mention the few (or several?) hours per day that we spend on our computers at work!  I am not too proud to admit that I am starting to look at progressive contact lenses because my eyes are on a screen for much of the day.  A typical student spends no where near this amount of time in front of a screen that many of us might as educators, and even if they wanted to, most of them have to 'power down' in the places where it would be most helpful and relevant to be 'powered up'--schools!

As adults, do we walk to school?  Seriously.  I don't even get out of my vehicle to get a coffee: I go through the drive-thru at Starbucks so often that my daughter actually said "Dad, I think you are going to turn into a Grande Dark Roast.".  Let's not even get started on adult levels of physical activity:  I used to be able to dunk a basketball, and now I would pop an Achilles tendon even trying to touch the net.  And the best part is, as adults we have no excuse, we should know better: we know that we should be modeling healthy eating and physical activity, and yet the actual number of us who consistently demonstrate these sorts of positive and healthy behaviors does not even remotely garner us the credibility to judge kids on their levels of health and fitness.

As adults. do we 'pay attention in class'?  Are you always 'locked in' at a faculty or district meeting?  At a professional development day?  At a conference?  Do you check your email, text a friend seated at another table, do marking or prep, or just self-regulate during these 'classes'?  Especially if the format is "sit 'n' git", where someone is standing at the front and lecturing you without creating a task that allows you to interact with your colleagues and the content that you are working on?  I will be the first to admit, I am not.  If there is a task that requires me to engage with my colleagues my tech is tossed to the side, but if there isn't, well....I am addicted to my devices.

As adults, do we truly have a sense of reality?  Maybe.  In fact, let's pretend we do.  Let's pretend that we know the skills that students will need to be successful in 2030 and beyond, and we are well down the road in creating literate, critically-thinking problem-seekers who can collaborate with others all over the globe to solve issues before they become issues. And let's pretend that our experiences that we have gained over our thirty, forty or fifty plus years on this earth have allowed us to determine each of the parameters and pitfalls that will confront our Utopian, idealistic children.  And let's also pretend that the 'realities' of our past are the same realities that our children will face in the future (which we know is complete absurdity, but let's continue to delude ourselves).  Even if we pretend that our reality paints a remotely accurate picture of the future, my question is:

Do we want the next generation that is going to be taking care of us in the future to be doubting themselves right out of the gate, and thinking their ideas are 'impossible' because we have never done them?

Do we want our imposed 'realities' to take the multi-colored and animated vision that our children have and turn it into monochrome, black and white? Coming back to our initial "Kids..." statement, how is bestowing our view of 'reality' about our students' ideas promoting 'grit'? I myself have created, prototyped, tested, iterated and launched exactly ZERO things or ideas, so I don't know that I am particularly qualified to limit the thoughts of our youth with my 'realities'.

In her amazing TED talk to a large group of adults called "What Adults Can Learn From Kids", teenager Adora Svitak says

"Maybe you have had grand plans before, but stopped yourself, thinking "That's impossible," or "That costs too much," or "That won't benefit me."  For better or for worse, we kids aren't hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things.  Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, such as my wish that no one went hungry, or that everything were free.

How many of you still dream like that, and believe in the possibilities?  Sometimes, a knowledge of history and past failures of Utopian ideals can be a burden....we kids still dream about perfection. And that's a good thing, because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first."

Things such as grit, moderation of screen time, health and exercise, and attentiveness are things that are issues with some of our youth...just as there are issues in these areas with some of our adults.  As adults, not only do we have to recognize ourselves as role models and demonstrate the things that we expect from kids such as grit and healthy choices, we must also recognize that there is much to learn from our youth and what they model through their actions, specifically when it comes to dreaming of new ideas without the the 'experiential baggage' acquired from a vastly different era.

Call me Polyanna, but perhaps we can re-jig the "Kids.."statements to things like...

"Kids these days have a tremendous amount of grit when they are given tasks that challenge and engage them."
"Kids will use  technology to learn about things that are important to them at almost any hour of the day"
"Kids walk to school as much as we walk to work"
"Kids pay attention to things that are important, just like we do"

and maybe most importantly,

"Kids have no sense of reality--they live in a dream world.  Let's help them dream as long as they can."

Take 20 minutes to watch Adora, and perhaps even show it at a faculty meeting--it will spark all sorts of interesting discussion.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Do You Give 'Brain Candy'?

Opportunities for brain candy
Being an educator is an exciting and fulfilling profession:  each day brings different challenges as well as opportunities to make a significant difference in the lives of learners.  But like any profession, there seems to be a nearly endless amount of minutia that is part of what we do each day.  Whether it is taking attendance, marking labs, assigning lockers, or doing budgets, there is a litany of 'stuff' that we must attend to in order for our system to run in a reasonably smooth and orderly fashion.  Speaking from experience, it is very easy to become consumed with these technical, managerial bits of education whether you are a teacher, principal, or member of district staff.  And here's the bad news: that is not going to change.  No matter how hard we try or wish it to happen, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to tell our teachers and administrators "Starting tomorrow, you will no longer have to deal with 'day-to-day operations'!".

Ouch. So what can we do?

I think we can give educators 'brain candy'.  As much brain candy as we can possibly muster, in fact.

In our school district, we typically have between ten and twenty faculty meetings per year. Ten team leader meetings per year.  Thirty collaboration periods per year.  Six professional development days. Dozens of in-service offerings.  And then numerous, random, formal and informal meetings dotted on the calendar at various times during the year (which are not included in the image above).   I would postulate that each of these are opportunities to give our teachers and leaders brain candy.

But what is this 'brain candy'?

Last week, I was watching a documentary called "San Francisco, 2.0", a polarizing reflection by a San Franciscan describing the changes to her city as a result of the exploding technology industry that has taken over The City by The Bay.  And while the show was fascinating enough, the piece of it that was of particular interest to me was the first few minutes, where the viewer got to get a look inside some of the most innovative companies (both of the established and 'start-up' variety) in the world.  A few things jumped out at me in these companies that augmented what I had already been reading about think tanks and innovative environments:

  1. People were working together in groups
  2. They were doing something they felt was meaningful
  3. They were trying to solve a real problem
  4. They were relaxed, and working in comfortable environment
  5. They were optimistic--they felt they could make a difference

When interviewed, the employees were almost crackling with energy!  They were so excited to be working with others on a project team on something that was important to them.  Yes, you know what I am going to say:  it was like they had eaten 'brain candy'.

Working on VNPS
Early last week, I got to 'eat' some brain candy:  At an after school professional development session set up by our Math Coordinator Amanda Russett, I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Peter Lilljedahl and a group of other educators to learn more about the uses of vertical, non-permanent surfaces (yes, this could be a whiteboard) and their significant, positive impact on learning.  And guess who'd believe it...

  • We were working in groups (random, in this case, and randomized for every task we did), and we were relaxed.  
  • We were working on a method for students to learn math in a more effective manner, which is a topic that is highly relevant for educators in the K-12 system. 
  • We were very comfortable--we were standing up together, able to move, fidget, write, chat, stretch and self-regulate the whole time.  There were some snacks and coffee within arms reach as well. 
  • We were hugely optimistic--we were 'learning by doing', and experiencing success ourselves with Peter's ideas and techniques, and could immediately see their application in any learning setting.   
And next thing you know, an hour had passed in the blink of an eye, and we were still going.  And going.  And going. And for those who judge activities in a slightly more 'millenial' fashion?  Not one person looked at or picked up their cell phone the entire time.

Brain candy.

Later last week, along with our staff at the Henry Grube Education Center, I was charged with the task of taking a group of more than 100 teachers and administrators through an exercise that would get their hands on the exciting new competency based curriculum being unveiled in BC in 2016.  So how could we make this 'brain candy' for the participants?  We could have handed out a paper copy of the document, or had people look through it on their devices to see what had changed from the last document.  However, we felt that would have been like 'brain Brussels sprouts' (with all due respect to those few people who like those things--ugh).

But instead we...

  1. Had a key address from our Superintendent saying how excited he was for the day.
  2. Sat people comfortable chairs at round tables, in groups, and had food and beverages available to them within arms' reach
  3. Started with an interactive warm up competition by Tech Coordinator Tracy Poelzer where groups had to come up with a sexy name for the new curriculum and vote a winner using Socrative (I believe the winner was "50 Shades of Learning".)
  4. Began the presentation by showing a fun video (Jeff Gordon's Pepsi Max 'Test Drive'), a clip that has a great deal of symbolism in terms of our new curriculum, someone who was 'ready to take our new curriculum for a spin', and someone who was a bit of a 'nervous passenger'.
  5. Groups working on VNPS - productive, messy and fun!
  6. Did a jigsaw, where each group member had to go out and become an expert on one part of the curriculum and then bring back their knowledge to the group in the form of an 'elevator speech'.
  7. Had vertical, non-permanent spaces for people to write their ideas about how they might do this in their own school.
  8. Had them work on collaborative document as a large group to crowd-source ideas (see the screencast here) on what excited them about the new curriculum, what concerned them, and what they felt they needed to implement this curriculum in an effective way going forward.
  9. Finished with another online Kahoot where groups were quizzed on the parts of the new curriculum plan.
And we did this on a Friday afternoon!  Friday afternoon is a great time, by the way--people are less encumbered with thoughts of "what do I have to do tomorrow".  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive for a number of reasons:

  • the content- about the curriculum document itself, the competencies, and some implementation ideas for back at our own schools
  • the learning beyond the content, and  actually experiencing the competencies as they are written in the new curriculum
  • the format - getting to interact with peers in a fun, comfortable environment around a task that was important, and that would make an immediate difference to their classrooms and learning situations.
For my money, it was brain candy at every level.  

There will always be minutia in education--it is part of the job we do.  However, if we can take every opportunity we have available to feed ourselves and our educators 'brain candy' in terms of meaningful collaborative work that solves real problems, I believe we can make the technical managerial bits in our busy days more manageable, and focus on the things that make a difference for us and for the students we serve.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Get Hungry For Feedback

Today was the first day of school for students and teachers across British Columbia, and no matter if it is your 'first' first day of school as a student, parent or educator or your twentieth, it is always exciting an exciting day.  The halls are noisy as students who haven't seen each other for 8 weeks re-connect to talk about their summer holidays.  Parents are dropping kids off and playfully pretending they are relieved that summer is over while concurrently shaking their heads in wonderment as to where the time has gone as they watch their children grow right before their eyes. Teachers are buzzing about, attending to last minute details, printing class lists, and making sure their rooms are ready to go. Administrators are putting out spot fires--giving directions to classrooms, finding keys for new teachers, meeting with parents, and smiling the entire time.  It is exciting, semi-organized chaos.  And before you know it, in the blink of an eye, it's done.

So how did it go?

As tempting as can be to 'just move on' to Day Two, October, Christmas Break, and the month of AprilMayJune, I am realizing more and more how important it is to get immediate feedback on 'how things went' as quickly as we possibly can so that we can make adjustments for our school community.  But do we actually take the time to do this?

Over the last few months, I have seen a notable increase in the number of 'pop-up'-style surveys coming my way from websites that I search or online tools that I use.  There are nights that I will be tapping away on Google Drive, and a little box will appear asking me if I want to 'rate my experience' when I use different Google applications.  With 'Back to School' sales and online shopping, it seems as though I can't click on a page without some window showing up saying something like "Take our survey and receive an additional 20% off of your next purchase", or "Help us make this experience better for you AND be entered into a draw for a $1000 shopping spree" or some other enticement-based feedback mechanism to lure me in to giving my opinion on a particular product.  Every once in a while I provide some feedback, but most times I click "No thanks" and move on.

Right now, businesses worldwide are not hungry for feedback--they are starving.  Companies have long since realized that if they are not hyper-sensitive and responsive to the experience that their customers are having, those customers quickly move on.  And in a worst-case scenario, those customers don't just move on, they tell future customers about their negative experience through websites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp, or the litany of other online review sites. (Note: if you are curious about the impact of online reviews, read a few articles like this to see how online reviews influence us as consumers).  As a result, when companies wonder about something such as why their website is not being accessed as much by their customers, their marketing departments and R & D people don't typically sit with each other and try to guess why that might be occurring.  And they certainly don't make sweeping changes to the services they offer based on speculation.  They scratch and claw to get real-time, authentic data from their clients.  And because it is so difficult to access large numbers of their end-users, they use mechanisms like online surveys with completion incentives to get this feedback so that they can quickly pivot and make required changes.

So what does this have to do with education?  Well, in many ways, it doesn't.  I say that because when we are in schools with students, we do not have the same challenges that private businesses have in accessing their 'end users'.  We are so fortunate to have our 'end-users' are sitting right in front of us for over a thousand hours per year: they are our students. Or that show up at 3:00 each day to pick up their children, come to parent teacher evenings, and attend sports events and concerts: they are our parents.  And don't forget the 'end-users' who come to our offices, faculty meetings and professional development sessions dozens of times: they are our educators.

And they are all right there in front of us, every single day of the school year.

In the context of Day One, we have an glowing opportunity to ask questions such as:

  • "How did registration go for you this year, and how could we have made it better?" 
  • "How did your first class go, and what could we have done differently?"
  • "What was your experience like during our first faculty meeting, and how can we change it?".

so that we can make our own real-time changes that make the experiences for our students, parents, and faculty even better in our schools. 

As busy as we are, I believe that we need to ensure that we do three things when it comes to getting and utilizing feedback:
  1. We need to ensure that after any meeting, day, or event that we feel is important, we set aside a block of time to reflect on the process.  
  2. We need to ensure that we are hungry for authentic feedback from what IDEO calls "extremes and mainstreams", people who we might not think to ask for feedback along with those that seem obvious.
  3. We need to take this feedback, and apply it by making a prototype that we can test out with actual users (even using something like the High Tech High Tuning Protocol) with time built in prior to our next use so we can make any necessary adjustments.
As much as these three things may take some time and planning, I believe that if we do them well, we can instantly make the experiences that we create in our schools better.  And by empowering our students, parents and staff (aka. our 'end-users') in the process, we are modeling a culture that is nimble, innovative, and responsive to our school community.

All by truly 'getting hungry for feedback'.

Monday, August 17, 2015

What Are The EXPERIENCES You Create?

In British Columbia, we are still basking in the sun of summer holidays, but in a very short couple of weeks, administrators will be locked in and lining up the schedule for start-up, teachers will be preparing for their new classes, and students and their parents will be getting ready for a new school year.  It's a very exciting time! 

For a number of our students and parents, this September will have represent some sort of 'first' in their educational journey.  A student may be moving from elementary school to a middle school or high school and having their first day with their peers in a new setting.  Alternatively, for a variety of reasons, the student may be moving to a different school in their district, or moving to an entirely new district altogether as their family has relocated to a new community.  Perhaps it is that most momentous of occasions, the first day that the little learner is ever going to school as a fresh and new kindergarten student (which my wife and I will be experiencing with our second child next month). Or it could simply just be the first day of another school year for a student as they move their way through the K-12 system.

Each of these 'firsts' is incredibly important, as are the 'firsts' that are going to happen for our students throughout the year...first impressions, first day activities, first assemblies, lessons, assignments, quizzes, report cards: the list is of 'firsts' is endless.  As providers in the education system, it is my belief that how we approach these 'firsts' is pivotal.  And it is also my belief that by asking ourselves a very targeted question, we can begin to articulate co-developed values that allow us to approach these 'firsts' in a consistent, student-centered, and innovative way that truly values our students and parents and costs us very little!  The targeted question is this:

"How can we make the EXPERIENCE that our __________ (students/parents) have when they ___________ (walk into our building/register at our school/go to our website, etc) SO POSITIVE that they want to communicate this experience with others?".

Whenever I think about this question, I remember an example of an experience that my daughter and I had last summer at one of my favorite hotels, The Four Seasons in Vancouver.  

I am not much of a camper.  I did a great deal of camping as a child, but for right now, if I am going to be out of my house for an evening, typically I would choose a hotel over a campsite.   Don't judge me, I am just telling it like it is.  Last year, my daughter had a great year in kindergarten, so I told her that I would take her on a date in Vancouver, which would include a trip to the aquarium, a dinner wherever she wanted, and a night at a downtown hotel, and as much swimming at the pool as she wanted.  We were both excited.  

I made a reservation at the Four Seasons, and let them know that my five year old daughter would be with me.  When we showed up at the hotel...

  • we were welcomed as Mr. and Miss Birk, and the concierge made a point of asking my daughter whether this was her first visit to the city and to the Four Seasons, and what she hoped to do during her visit.  Paige was enchanted. 
  • we went up to the room, and on the beds were two bathrobes laid out on the bed, one for Dad, and a miniature one for Paige, complete with a chocolate, moose-shaped lollipop on it.  Paige immediately put on her robe, and asked if we could just stay in!  
  • we left the room and walked back to the lobby, the concierge called 'Miss Birk' over and asked if she enjoyed her moose-lollipop, and asked us what our plans were.  I said we were off to the aquarium, and without my asking, offered to call us a taxi.  He then asked if we had dinner plans, and Paige said she would like to go to Earl's Restaurant.  The concierge asked us what time, and then made a second call to the closest Earl's and made our reservation for us before we left for our outing.  

I could go on and on, because the service only got better that night and the following day.  And to top it all off, we received an email 24 hours after our visit asking if everything was to our satisfaction, and was there anything they could have improved on to make our visit even more enjoyable.  

The point is this--our EXPERIENCE was so amazing and felt so personalized that when anyone asks Paige or I about where we would stay in Vancouver, we don't just say "The Four Seasons", we tell the whole story of the service we received to anyone who will listen--we are instant, authentic advertising!  And while it is likely that there are 'nicer' hotels downtown, and there are certainly more expensive ones, because of the experience that we had, we tell our story for The Four Seasons and get absolutely nothing in return!  

Coming back to the context of schools, in my last post, I gave a starting definition of something that Simon Breakspear and I are working on-- 'frugal innovation in education'.

"frugal innovation is the co-creation of iterations of solutions to educational issues that contravene our co-developed values while embracing the 'immovable' parameters that impact our day-to-day operations"

By considering each of the different experiences that our students and parents have each day with our schools, we are actually beginning the process of frugal innovation.  From my last post, the initial steps to frugal innovation include
  • developing a process to co-create their values with each of these partner groups
  • determining basic rules for innovative solutions (sounds contrary, but actually essential)
  • creating diverse and eclectic groups of thinkers within the greater school community
So how could we apply this to experiences in our schools?  We could begin by using the question stem posed above as the basis for a design challenge, and use an example like our websites for our students and parents.  It might look like this...

"How can we make the EXPERIENCE that our students and parents have when interact with our website so positive that they want to communicate this experience to others?".

I just think of how many other questions this type of challenge triggers for me:   How best might we answer this question?  Who should we have involved?  Who can we learn from?  Who are people that we have not thought of that might be able to help us with this challenge?  What would a process look like if we had a group of these different people together?  What might the norms or rules for innovation be? How can we best collect the information about this challenge from this diverse and eclectic group?  

And those are just a few questions in the first part of the process! 

It sounds like a lot of work, but think of the upside.  Imagine creating a website for your school that your parents and students raved about.  A website that was so dynamic and packed with stuff for students and parents that all of their questions were answered, their expectations were met, and when they were chatting with other parents or community members at the local Starbucks over coffee, they were telling them how informative and user-friendly your website was for them.

Now take that design challenge question and substitute 'website' for 'registration day', 'parent teacher interviews', or 'report cards' for your parents or students.  How could you think about those things in a different way?  A human-centered way?

Or, if you are a teacher, take that design challenge and make it into something like this:

"How can I make EXPERIENCE that my students have when they first walk into my classroom so positive that they want to communicate this experience to their fellow students, parents, and friends?".

Or, if you are an administrator, perhaps a challenge such as this is important:

"How can we make EXPERIENCE that our teachers have when they leave our first faculty meeting so positive that they want to communicate this experience to others?".

There are so many experiences that we can create that can truly transform the culture of our schools, but because there is no more time in our day, and no influx of money coming to education, being innovative in our approach to the 'firsts' for our students, parents and teachers can be a continuous challenge.  But we HAVE to get started, because we owe it to our students and our parents to take an innovative approach to all aspects of our schools for our learners.  And because we must embrace the parameters that we work with each day, the mindset of frugal innovation is one that we must adopt. And if the moral imperative is not enough, the ability for our students and parents to rapidly amplify their story about their 'firsts' and experiences through social media makes one thing absolutely certain:    

Whether our students or parents have an experience at our school that is positive OR negative, they WILL communicate that experience to others.

So, what are the the "Four Seasons"-style experiences that you can create in your school?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Getting Started With Frugal Innovation

When I first created my blog page, I included the header message:

"It's education.  There is no more money.  There is no more time: there are only 24 hours in the day.  It's also the greatest job in the world, so let's get on with it.".

After five years of blogging and reflection, I believe in this statement even more today. Regardless of the increasing cost pressures due to things such as tech purchases, infrastructure upgrades and professional development requirements, there has been no sudden, magic influx of money. And with an ever expanding number of initiatives being introduced along with the concurrent pressures to produce students that are creative, collaborative and resilient contributors to society now and in the future, the time that we can dedicate to any one program to improve student and educator learning has actually decreased--we seem to be cramming more and more in to our 24 hour day.  "Do more with less!", we groan together in unison.

Several years ago, I was listening to Douglas Reeves speak at the Effective Schools Conference in Phoenix.  He asked the audience to make a list of all of the initiatives that they had been working on in their schools or districts over the last five years, or what we were planning to work on in the upcoming year.  I proudly wrote down a dozen or so initiatives that I felt were going on at our school, and then added a few that I was interested in investigating for the future.  Many of the participants around me had similar lists, and some were much longer!

He then asked us how many initiatives we had STOPPED doing in the last five years.  A nervous smattering of laughter rippled through the audience, and everyone quickly got the point:  we never seem to stop doing anything, we just keep going.

Bearing this overriding philosophy in education, of course our plates are full!  We keep going back to the educational buffet table and filling our plates without actually removing anything that is already there.  We wonder why we have no money for new initiatives when we continue to spend resources on programs that may (or may not) be having the desired impact that we envisioned when they began.  Yet how many times have we actually turned over all of the stones in our schools and districts to see whether there are some things that we, well...just need to scrap.

Over the past few months, I have seen an incredible proliferation of the term 'innovation' in tweets and blog posts across my learning network.  Teachers, administrators, schools and districts are beginning to dedicate time and resources to becoming 'more innovative', even if we don't quite know what being 'more innovative' is actually going to look like.  Even with my new position as "District Principal of Innovation" for our school district, a number of my colleagues have asked me "So what exactly will you be doing for us in the school district?".  Many believe that my job will revolve around technology.  Many others feel that I should be helping to transform classrooms into '21st century' (groan...we are 15 years in...) learning spaces, or that I should investigate and then facilitate professional development on new apps or gadgets that make life better in the classroom.  Not that these ideas are bad ones, however, I think I have a bit of a different answer for them. This answer is based in some ideas that one might call 'frugal innovation' in education.

Along with friend and colleague Simon Breakspear, I have been kicking around this idea of frugal innovation for the past few months.  While frugal innovation is a term that is often used in fields outside of education, and there have been a number of books about the concept, it can be adapted to education with a definition such as this:

"frugal innovation is the co-creation of iterations of solutions to educational issues that contravene our co-developed values while embracing the 'immovable' parameters that impact our day-to-day operations"

As a result of this line of thinking, I believe that my new job will be to work with educators, administrators, students, parents and their local school community to

  • develop a process to co-create their values with each of these partner groups
  • determine basic rules for innovative solutions (sounds contrary, but actually essential)
  • create diverse and eclectic groups of thinkers within the greater school community
  • harness and increase the capacity of these groups to solve problems by developing mindsets such as those in the Field Guide to Human Centered Design from IDEO, such as creative confidence, learning from failure, empathy, embracing ambiguity, optimism, and iteration
  • determine the parameters which contravene these co-developed values
  • decide which parameters are truly 'immovable', and which ones are instead constructs that we have created on our own and can actually change (or let go of, as Douglas Reeves pointed out)
  • make, reflect upon, and share solutions that not only work within but embrace these parameters
  • continue to iterate, and not to lock in to any one solution to the point that it obscures ideas that can be gleaned from other solutions
Frugal innovation is going to be my focus for the foreseeable future in my new position.  In the next few weeks, I am going to be tapping in to the talents of other educators in my PLN to develop tasks and activities for workshops in each of these areas.  It will be both exciting and daunting all at the same time, but I know that there is no more money in education, and there certainly is no more time in the day.  But I truly believe educators have the greatest job on earth, so it's time to get on with it and embrace the parameters that confront our educational values.  

It's time to get started with frugal innovation in education.