Saturday, November 19, 2016

Cross Industry Innovation in K-12 Education

I don't like speeding tickets all that much.  In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find many people that do. The whole experience from the initial gasp when you see the red and blue lights in the rearview mirror right up until the moment you realize that you are not escaping with a stern warning is both maddening and embarrassing all at once.  Yes, I might have been going a bit quickly, but I was running late and the kids needed to be picked up, and I was only 10 m.p.h.....ok maybe 15 m.p.h. over the limit, officer.  Sigh...just give me the ticket.  Head shake on cue.

For years, we have used the same few methods to stop people from speeding--signs, stern warnings, photo radar, and of course, the threat of getting a fine for being a bit of a lead foot.  Yet despite efforts to change people's driving habits, in a study in 2008 of a thousand random drivers, 100% of them thought that it was fine to exceed the posted limit by 5 mph, and 36% felt that it was ok to drive at 20 mph over the limit.   Hmm.  Another head shake.

What if we took a different approach?  Typically, we lock ourselves into a traditional means of solving problems, where we try to take what we currently do and do it just a little bit better. Or we do what we have always done, but just a little bit differently.  "We'll find a faster horse!", we shout with vigor.  But what if we looked into other, completely different sectors to see if there were practices that we could borrow and apply to our own situation?  What if we decided that we weren't going to look for a 'faster horse', like bigger speed signs or more stringent ticket fines,  but rather would adopt a completely different approach that we could adapt from a different situation altogether?

What if it were FUN to obey the speed limit?  And a tiny bit of 'fun', even when we got caught?

Well, that sounds like a different approach.

In a new and thought-provoking book called "Cross-Industry Innovation -- Not Invented Here", Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven describe "The Speed Camera Lottery", created as part of The Fun Project by Volkswagen.  In Copenhagen, there was a particular section of road that was known to be a place where people ignored the posted speed signs.  In "The Speed Camera Lottery",  a speed camera was used to photograph and measure the speed of all of the drivers on this stretch of road.  Using a camera to photograph drivers in itself was not revolutionary, of course.  Nor was the fact that those drivers who were speeding were levied a fine for their traffic violation.  But what was truly unique was that the fines collected from the speeders were put into a pot, and those who were not speeding were out into a draw for the money that was collected!  "The Speed Camera Lottery" was born, drivers slowed down an average of 22% while having a totally speed enforcement experience.

Sometimes I feel as though I am annoying friends and colleagues with my constant questions around the "the delight factor", or absence thereof.  Too often we find reasons not to look for that unique 'something' in the experiences at our schools that makes them meaningful for our students, our parents, and our educators.  "When did we decide we have to be boring?", I often wonder, many times with regret when I ponder some of my lessons as a classroom teacher.  As a result, one of the pieces that our learning experience design team takes pride in is ensuring that we find an element of "surprise and delight" for the participants in the inservice or professional development days that we create so they remember the experience that we created.

Recently, one of our district schools came to our team with a project--they wanted us to create a learning experience that would immerse their teachers in project-based learning.   Typically, when such a request is made, professional development providers pull out a tried and true, one-day lesson template that they have in their lesson bank, modify a couple of bits to suit the age bracket that the teachers work with, and get ready to go.  While convenient for the PD provider, planning such as this often misses the mark for the educators for one simple reason--the PD provider doesn't take the time to do the research to find out who their audience is, and more importantly, how they learn best and what their current struggles with professional learning might be.  The result is an uneducated guess as to what the needs of the group might be and a subsequently ineffective inservice day.  Yes, I said 'uneducated'--simply focusing on the content of a PD day represents a small part of the equation, the real artistry is in the design of the learning experience.

Earlier this year, I visited Continuum, the internationally recognized design firm in Boston that created iconic items such as the Reebok Pump, the Swiffer, and numerous other product and service solutions across the globe.  Ken Gordon, colleague and friend at Continuum talked to me about 'pain points':  he said "You really need to turn up the 'emotional hearing aid' when you are listening to your clients.  You need to find the the pleasure points and the pain points.  Once you find those, that's the gold.  Pain points are opportunities."

Fortunately, much like Continuum and their focus on human-centred design, our team has adopted the process of Learner-Centred Design: the team is disciplined in considering the needs of the learner first.  Not only does the team spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know the wants, wishes and pain points of the group they are serving, they co-design a vision of the ideal, and go wild with ideas of a 'surprise and delight' factor that will make the day memorable.

During our process of educational ethnography (where we spend time interviewing the group we are designing for), we found out a few things about the school.  They were a fun-loving bunch who liked to be social, who liked competition, and who really needed hands on activities--they wanted to learn by doing.  But because the team was able to quickly develop a positive relationship with the school, we also found out something that was interesting:  one of the teachers we interviewed smiled and said "Sometimes we aren't always on task.".  The other teachers from the school agreed, "We are like our kids!  We might need to be held accountable.".  Ahhhh, the pain point.  Ken Gordon would be smiling.

So we now had our opportunity!  Much like the speeding ticket scenario in Copenhagen where they found a way to surprise and delight people in holding them accountable to the speed limit, we needed to find a way to surprise and delight the school in holding them accountable to learning about professional development.  One of our designers asked a key question that was phrased in just such a way to make us think differently.  She could have asked, "How can we hold people accountable?", but instead she said "Who is one person no one can say "no" to?".  Our project team laughed, and another one of the designers yelled "Grandma!".

The room got quiet, and suddenly we all began to smile.  Seniors!

So while we designed a professional development day that was immersive, hands-on, competitive, and had people learn the work by doing the work, we also surprised the staff by giving them the opportunity to connect to our local seniors community through the PBL design challenge that we had
created.  And by having them design something for an authentic (and loving) audience, the team found a way to hold people 'accountable' in a way that delighted rather than dictated.  No policy.  No rule.  Just Grandma.  And Grandpa.  And a lot of smiles and memories.

Schools don't have to be boring.  By choosing to get to know our school communities, and developing an understanding of their 'pain points' in a process that is so commonly used by industries outside of education, we can 'surprise and delight' the students, parents and teachers in our school communities.

And if it can be done with speeding tickets, it certainly can be done in our classrooms.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Are You Committed To Feedback?

In 1994, Proctor and Gamble approached Continuum, a design consulting firm, in search of a new cleaning product.  Together, they felt that the method of filling up a bucket with soap and water, soaking, squeezing, and mopping floors could be improved.  Continuum took an approach to this problem that was beautiful in it’s simplicity:  they went into people’s homes and watched them mop.  Amongst their observations, they found that people spent nearly as much time cleaning their mop as they did cleaning their floor!  By observing and developing empathy for the user and understanding their challenges, Continuum developed a prototype that was called “Fast Clean”, which evolved into the Swiffer that has become a mainstay in household cleaning around the world.

Proctor and Gamble could have chosen to make different modifications to their current selection of mops.  Their designers might have hypothesized that by creating a mop with a more ergonomically correct handle, they would have helped the average person by reducing the strain that mopping puts on on us when we are cleaning floors.  Or they could have assumed that a better spring-loaded squeezing mechanism would help people by more thoroughly wringing out the mop itself.  They might have guessed that a change in packaging and appearance to capture the attention of the shopper with a sleek, modern looking mop  would have boosted sales over their competitors.  But through observation and empathy for the end-user in human-centered design, Proctor and Gamble created something that is a now lexicon (“I just need to Swiffer the floor before our company comes over for dinner!”) and to date nets more than $500 million dollar per year in sales.

Not unlike Proctor and Gamble, with their suite of products they offer to consumers, schools have their current selection of classes, courses, educators, extracurricular activities, communication tools, services, and facilities that they provide to their school community. Collectively, these different points comprise the spaces where schools interact with their learner community.   IDEO uses the term “touch-point”, and considers “every product touch-point as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users.”  If we think of a learner in the community as the user that IDEO refers to, we too have opportunities in education:  we can take the different “touch-points” that we have with students, parents and teachers and turn them into experiences that “surprise, delight, and deliver benefit”.   But these points of contact are opportunities, and opportunities alone: how we choose to approach these opportunities in our schools is very much up to us.

So how do we get started on getting a better understanding of these interactions that take place with our school or district?  While there are dozens of face-to-face, personal experiences that take place each day, and even more examples of abstract experiences such as those that visitors get when they walk in through the front entrance of our school or read our newsletter, we need to have a narrower focus:  a useful way to start might be to consider three experiences that our each of our students, parents, and educators have with our school or district. But not just any three experiences, let’s pick three ‘high impact’ or “HI” experiences.   

For our purposes, let’s define a HI experience as one which has the potential to significantly impact the culture and/or learning environment of our school.  

In other words, if these HI experiences were exceptionally effective, and we ‘delighted’ this group with these experiences, the learning environment would change significantly for the better.  For example, while ensuring that our school grounds are neat and free of litter is important, it is unlikely that having a litter-free playground will result in a dramatic change to the learning in classrooms.  And although having a litter-free school property might be a challenge that would benefit from a Learner-Centered Design approach at some point, we must prioritize the learning environment first--as we know, with finite amounts of time and stretched budgets, we can only focus on what is truly going to make a difference to teaching and learning.  We can use the chart below to determine three HI experiences for students, for parents, and for educators.


HI Experience

Figure 1 Determining HI experiences.

For example, a school leader might choose to fill out the chart like this:


HI Experience
Classroom Learning
Communication of learning
Faculty meetings
Teacher Relationships
Parent-Teacher Conferences
Professional Development
Extracurricular Opportunities
Front Office
Collaboration Time
Figure 2 Sample of HI experiences.

Once we have brainstormed some ideas of HI experiences, it is important to stop and reflect:  if our school had a process that transformed each of these touch-points into experiences that were not just satisfactory, they were truly exceptional for these learner groups, would we believe that we were changing the school experience?  

A way to assess your responses to this question might be to examine each column in Figure 2 in a vertical fashion.  In the 'Educators' column, for example, if a newly hired teacher was talking to a veteran faculty member at your school, and your staff member told them that this school was known across the school district for its outstanding faculty meetings, engaging professional development opportunities, and meaningful collaboration time with colleagues, do you believe that new teacher would be excited to be a member of your staff?  Under 'Students', if a new student was moving to town, and when they came to your school for orientation, one of your current students told them “The learning we do in our classrooms is wicked, our teachers care about us SO much, and we have a sick sports program!”, do you think that new student would want to come to your school?  Conversely, do you think a parent’s ears might perk up when they overhear another parent in the Starbucks lineup say “Wow, last night I went to the worst Parent-Teacher interviews I have ever attended.  We couldn’t find his teachers, the front office told us we should have been more prepared, and when we finally got to the interviews, the teacher kept calling our son “Jack” instead of Jake.  The night was horrible.”  If the items that you listed in Figure 2 have the potential to elicit responses such as these, you likely are on the right track.  

But here's the rub: we likely will not be present when people are describing their take on our high-impact experiences. For example, while we might assume that the large turnout at Parent-Teacher conferences is a sign of success, attendance and satisfaction are two different things:  the experiences that people have at those Parent-Teacher conferences will fuel the conversations in the coffee shop, on the sidelines at the soccer game, and across social media channels. Our perception of an experience is one very small piece of the overall experience puzzle. Yet if we are not typically part of the conversations that our people are having about these HI experiences, what is our process for understanding their perspectives?   How do we demonstrate our commitment to ‘gathering intel’ and getting feedback?

In truth, I believe we do a lousy job of seeking feedback in education. And while we can speculate as to why we seek so little feedback about HI experiences and do even less with the input that we do actually collect, at the end of the day most of us are not truly committed to gathering and using feedback to improve the experience of school. And while some school leaders demonstrate their commitment to responding to what they hear from their communities, we can do better. Much better. To help us get started in assessing our current commitment to feedback, we can use something like the Learning Experience Inventory Tool below:

Uploaded by Awesome Screenshot Extension

Let's see an example of how we might have filled tool out considering our 'parent' group:
Uploaded by Awesome Screenshot Extension

If we de-construct the highlighted example and read it (roughly) from right to left--while we consider this particular experience to be one that has the potential to have significant impact, not only do we fail to collect feedback, we don't even have a feedback tool developed, and our current prediction of that user's experience would be fair at best? And what if we take out 'Parent Teacher Nights' and substitute 'Faculty Meetings' for our educators, or 'Classroom Experience' for students?


Unlike the example of Continuum going out to watch, listen, and be empathetic with those who were doing the mopping so they create a floor cleaning system that better met the needs of the end user, I realized that I wasn't collecting nearly enough feedback to created any sort of positive experience, never mind one that 'delighted' the people in my school.

If you use the Learning Experience Inventory tool to consider the experiences in your own school, you may discover the same thing that I did:

If you have an experience that you predicted would be 'HIGH' in terms of importance, but 'FAIR' or 'POOR' in terms of the experience you feel a group at your school would have AND you don't collect any feedback, then at best you have left the way that group will characterize this experience completely and totally to chance. At worst? Well, by continuing to approach this particular experience, you might not only be alienating this group by not understanding their experience and changing to better meet their needs, you might actually be inviting them to experience something that is going to be truly unsatisfying for them at your school.

As we start the school year, we must commit to understanding the experiences that students, parents, and educators are having in our schools and districts, especially in those High Impact areas. The question is, are we willing to do it? If we take this first step, we are beginning the process of Learner-Centered Design, and I believe that we can transform the school experience for our communities.

This post is based on an excerpt from "Re-Designing the School Experience", due to be published in 2017.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cracking The C.O.D.E of Teacher Learning

Professional Learning Communities.
Response To Intervention.
Instructional Rounds.
Flipped Learning.

Sigh.  Have you ever taken five minutes to jot down the initiatives that you have going in your school or district?  Or the ones that you have had going at some point in the past?  Or even those programs that, if you squinted, you might still see remnants of them--you know, the ones that no one can quite determine when they started or ended--they just seemed to fade into the background, much like the once-splashy posters on our Counselling Office billboards or the rotating messages on our electronic signs.  If you are anything like me, you likely find it difficult to recall and much harder to reconcile the amount of time and money each of us has spent chasing after the next 'holy grail'-like program that came our way when we know that the resources required to make them successful are so woefully scarce in supply.

Earlier this month, as a member of the Agile Schools Faculty, I had the chance to work along side Dr. Simon Breakspear at the summer Educational Leadership Academy (#ataleads16) put on by Jeff Johnson and the Alberta Teachers' Association in Edmonton.  It was both inspiring and challenging to take a deep dive into designing research-based, high-impact projects with classroom, school and district leaders for five intense, immersive and practical days.  During one of the early sessions, Simon asked each of the participants to do a "stock-take" (on this side of the Pacific, we would say "inventory") of the initiatives they had done or were currently doing in their schools.  Many generated lists similar to the one above, and even more created ones that were much longer.  But then Simon asked the group to examine their lists to determine which ones they felt were actually making a tangible difference to student learning in the classroom. After a number of people began ruefully shaking their heads, Simon said something that truly resonated with the entire group (including me):

But here's the thing: no one was saying that it was 'wrong' for schools and districts to look for promising new approaches to improving classroom practice, nor was anyone saying it was 'wrong' to attempt organize our time, efforts and resources around practices that are research-based and genuinely improve classroom practice and student learning.  But before we jump headlong into 'the next big thing', we need to have a laser-like focus on the actual impact that the initiative has on student learning and the type of learning that educators will need in order to help them effectively implement the initiative in a way that makes a visible difference at the classroom level.  As we know, the goal of an educational initiative is not to be 'doing' a program, it is to improve teaching and learning.  Does it matter if we have become a professional learning community if we don't see a change to teaching and learning in our classrooms?  Does it matter if we "do" Instructional Rounds in our schools if we continuously have the same problem of practice?  Nope.  Not a bit.

In preparation for the Education Leadership Academy, Simon and I spent a great deal of time pushing each other about the composite pieces that we felt were important for teacher learning.  Simon spoke from his experiences as a teacher and as a researcher in seeing and working with dozens of educational jurisdictions around the globe, who use a multitude of methods to engage teachers in professional learning.  I came at it from the point of view of a Principal who has attempted to implement the approaches listed in the "stock-take" at the beginning of this post with subsequent results that ranged from moderate success to complete and abject failure.  In the end, our thinking led us to a lens through which school leaders could look critically at their own "stock-take" of initiatives to determine whether those ideas had real potential to have a deep and lasting impact on the learning in their classrooms and with their educators.

We can determine whether the initiative can crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning.  

If the initiative, approach, or professional development is Connected, Observable, Developmental, and Embedded for teachers, it can significantly impact teaching and learning at the classroom level.

Uploaded by Awesome Screenshot Extension the classroom, learning, and to each other 
Do you enjoy being electrocuted?  Being immersed in water so cold that the ice in it doesn't melt? Having your clothes and skin torn by barbed wire?  Sounds like a barrel of monkeys, doesn't it?  So why do thousands of people around the globe voluntarily do these things to themselves in events like the Tough Mudder?  Doing something challenging with a group of like-minded people connects us to the task, but more importantly, it connects us to each other.  Learning is social, and while learning about new approaches to teaching and learning is not the same as being immersed in an ice bath, changing classroom practices can represent a significant shock to the system.  As a result, it is vital that the learning experiences that come from initiatives or pro-d connect our teachers to one another: we must create a supportive, encouraging, and laterally accountable environment (much like a Tough Mudder team) to deal with obstacles that they will encounter along the way.  

Earlier this year, I sat across from Dylan Wiliam at dinner after learning from him earlier in the day at a conference session.  He looked at me and said something that has resonated with me ever since.  He said "I don't know why Principals would spend one second trying to implement something that isn't proven by research to improve learning."  If there is no research to connect the initiative to improvement in student learning, he said, schools and districts don't have the money or time to waste on it.  Period.  I listened.  I learned.  While we all have ideas about what we think 'works' and 'doesn't
work' in classrooms, if there is no foundation of research to the initiative we are considering, Dylan is right, we don't have the time to bother.

Dr. Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes the importance of professional development being directly connected to the classroom.  In one of his "laws" of professional development, he says "the impact of professional development is inverse to the square of its distance from the classroom".  Professional development that requires educators to really chew on meaty instructional issues with each other and grapple with approaches in their own setting is professional development that is worth doing.  Inasmuch as there can be value to offsite professional development, the more connected that educators are to their own classroom situation when they are learning, the higher the likelihood that the initiative will make a visible difference in their own classroom. all of us, BY all of us
The products of any professional development that we do should be readily and plainly observable. When facilitating Instructional Rounds in schools, I ask educators to focus on what students are saying, doing, writing, and producing as a result of the tasks they have been assigned and the instruction they have been given.  But how often do we consider what our educators saying, doing, writing and producing at an inservice or conference that they are attending?  If educators are sitting passively in a large conference listening to a witty and charming 'edutainer' show pictures and YouTube clips while telling amusing anecdotes, what is the evidence that our educators have learned a single thing?  The age-old proclamation of "If you get one good thing out of a conference, it was a good conference" doesn't fly anymore:  with shrinking PD budgets and more demands on our time, the educational return on a $2000 investment needs to be better than that.  WAY better.  When we are considering any initiative, we should be able to clearly articulate what an observer would see in our classrooms as a result.  

But who is observing?  One of the saddest revelations that I had as a Principal happened when I was doing teacher observations.  Not because of what I was observing in the classroom, but because I was the only one who was doing the observing!  Far too often, the people who are doing the bulk of teacher observations are not teachers--this is wrong.   More of our professional development needs to be directly connected to the classroom, with teachers observing and working with other teachers.   And if we are to use the excuse that there isn't enough money, consider that $2000 conference bill to send one teacher to a conference to get "one good thing", as we have all done far too often in the past. That same $2000 is the cost of five or six release days--or 10 or 12 half days.  How much could be done by releasing four teachers for three half days to observe and work with other teachers? meets us where we are at
Would we ask a new swimmer to jump off of the high diving board?  A novice skier to head down a double-black diamond run?  Or would we tell someone that the only car they should buy is a new Mercedes Benz when we know they only have a $10000 budget?  While each of these scenarios seems absurd, imagine what it feels like for an educator to be asked to "do Project-Based Learning" in their classes, or to "welcome observers into their classroom" when they are used to being left on their own behind a closed classroom door to teach the way that they have found to be successful for themselves and their students.  While there may be a research-base to an educational initiative that supports a positive change in classroom practice, research does not automatically open classroom doors: having a colleague or a team come to observe their classroom can truly be a 'double-black diamond' moment for many educators.  And rightfully so!  In most cases, we have not taken them down a 'green run' with ideas like PBL or classroom observation.

Educational initiatives and professional development must provide multiple entry points for our educators, and provide the appropriate level of challenge at each level.  In his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "mee-hi, cheek-sent-me-hi" if you're curious) talks about the importance of "flow" when we are considering whether the activities we design allow participants to get into "the zone".  However, we must not only acknowledge the challenge level of the activity, we have to ensure a certain skill level of our educators so we help them move from a state of anxiety or boredom to a place where they are optimally engaged.

With something like classroom observation, we might create multiple entry points for our educators like this:

  • Level 1: examining sample classroom tasks to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of those tasks
  • Level 2: examining our own classroom tasks to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks
  • Level 3: video observation of sample classes to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of the tasks and activities in the lessons we see
  • Level 4: individual video observation of our own class to describe and reflect upon our own practices using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities
  • Level 5: small group/department video observation of our own classes to describe and reflect upon our own practices using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities
  • Level 6: external colleague/group live observations using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities across our school
Whether it is peer observation, formative assessment, collaboration, or any other approach or initiative, it needs to meet people where they are at and engage them to move forward. what we do, in our context
In what we do.
Every day. 
With the people that we have.
With the money that we have.
With the time that we have.

Education conferences and workshops can have tremendous value, as can visits to other schools, jurisdictions and countries:  having scholars and practitioners synthesize their research and experiences can save us huge amounts of time and effort.  There is no doubt that it is difficult to see what others are doing when we are in the 'trenches' of everyday school business!  It is important for us to 'get to the hilltops' to see what is possible for us from a different perspective: to understand new ideas, to be inspired, and to get outside of ourselves and our own learning situations.  However, before we leave our own schools and districts, we not only need to have a very clear vision of our own context, we need to imagine how we can re-combine the people and talents that exist in OUR contexts and in OUR classrooms given the information that we are learning about.   

As much as there is no more time, and there will never be more money, we DO have the time and the money that we currently spend on things that do not crack the C.O.D.E. of teacher learning. We just have to find them, name them, and file them in the appropriate place.

So, as each of us comes off of a refreshing and recharging summer filled with excitement and ideas about how we can impact student and educator learning, we need to ask ourselves one question before we jump at the next promising practice or idea that comes our way:

"Does this crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning?"

Friday, June 3, 2016

How Would You Rather Spend Your Time?

Over the last year, I have been using a model to help schools solve complex educational issues utilizing the existing capacities and resources that they already have at their disposal in their buildings.  The premise behind the model is simple "We have no more time, and there is no more money coming, but we have tons of unused capacity, so let's get on with it!". It has been an interesting and iterative process, and through the help of critical friends, I have slowly been able to tweak the model so that it guides problem-solving in a repeatable and sustainable fashion. As a result, we are starting to see a higher frequency of unique solutions to problems that we have in schools, and perhaps more importantly, I am seeing a broader development of capacity at all levels of our organization to co-design solutions.

The LCD process is one that requires thoughtful planning on the front end, a commitment to truly understanding the needs of the learner and co-creating with them throughout, and a thirst for feedback and willingness to tinker on the back end, regardless of how we feel the solution was received. In other words, it takes effort, and it takes time. And in my experience, the moment that you tell someone that a process such as this is going to take effort and time, they often tend to lose interest.

As a school principal, there were so many parts of my job that I liked, such as working with students, parents and teachers, solving challenging problems, collaborating with colleagues, learning new things and trying different ideas.  (These were the 'brain candy' activities that I described in a previous post.).  There were also parts of being a principal that were less enjoyable: dealing with complaints from students, teachers and parents, disappointing people with decisions that I had made, and having to work through issues that happened in the school that I might not have directly triggered, but certainly became my responsibility as the principal of the school.  The activities that I enjoyed were mostly 'proactive', and the ones that I enjoyed less were often 'reactive'.

When I deconstruct the types of situations that led me to be reactive, there were some common pieces that tended to surface:

  1. There were often issues around communication.  Often there was little or no communication about the issue, or the communication came at a time when it was too late to be usable or make a difference.
  2. There was an assumption or series of assumptions made.
  3. A decision was made independently of those who the decision would impact, often at the organizational level.
  4. There was little or no follow-up or attempt to proactively collect feedback to determine whether the solution was satisfactory--the "no-news is good news" philosophy.
As a result of one or a combination of all of these factors, the time that I spent on the back end of these sorts of issues in 'reaction mode' was not only unpleasant, it often protracted over days, or even weeks or months!   

When we create assumption-based solutions independently of those who the solution will impact, and then fail to collect feedback on how the solution worked, we have become "organization-centered".   For example, if after a sparsely attended Parent-Teacher conference night, we spend some front-end time (FET) considering the issue, choose to change the times of the interviews from evenings to mornings because we assume that parents would rather come to meet with teachers before work, we have taken an organization-centered (OC) approach to this problem.  This might be represented like this, with each block representing the amount of time we spend

Organization-Centric Solution

This can often be called "solution-itis", the affliction that we as educators contract when we move rapidly from problem to solution without involving the people in our school community in the process.  And while this approach takes much less time, and we might get lucky and hit a home-run by taking this sort of tack, the odds of creating a positive experience for people who are never involved in the solution are low, and the odds that we have developed any capacity for our community to help us solve future problems is zero.  And in terms of that 'reactive' time on the back end...well, get ready.  This situation could be represented this way.

Organization-Centric Solution
Back-end (Reactive) Time

In 2013, the Alberta Teachers' Association and the Canadian Association of Principals conducted 40 focus groups with 500 principals from across Canada over the span of two years, and created a document called the "Future of the Principalship in Canada".  This document listed five 'ways forward' to overcome the challenges that take place in schools.  One of these 'ways forward' was "to collaborate and build professional capacities in school staff."  A second was to "build family and community relationships" through "finding new ways to connect with parents and communities".

So what if we took an LCD approach, where we truly appreciate where our learner (student, parent, educator) is at, co-create a vision of what it is that we want, ideate together to great possible solutions, iterate when we test these ideas with those who will live with the solution, and then proliferate the idea to other situations once we determine what makes the best experience for our learner?  "We would like to...but who has time?", we hear.  Well, if we represent the LCD process with blocks of time, it could be represented this way.


which truthfully is much more time and effort than the organization-centric method.

Organization-Centric Solution

until you factor in the reactive piece....

Organization-Centric Solution
Back-end (Reactive) Time

But let's say that even with the back end time factored in, the LCD approach took longer, and even had some reactive time associated with it...

Learner-Centered Design/Solution/Feedback
Back-end (Reactive) Time

the question is, where would you rather spend your time?  For me, as I said above, the parts of my job that I enjoyed less were dealing with complaints from students, teachers and parents, disappointing people with decisions that I had made, and having to work through issues that happened in the school that I might not have directly triggered, but certainly became my responsibility as the principal of the school. Having these types of experiences are more probable if I choose to solve a significant school issue solely from the perspective of the organization, or with the needs of the organization placed before the needs of the learner.  The parts most enjoyed as a Principal were working with students, parents and teachers, solving challenging problems, collaborating with colleagues, learning new things and trying different ideas. These sound a lot more like the pieces that would occur when we take an approach of appreciate, co-create, ideate, iterate, and proliferate like that in the Learner-Centered Design process.  Not only are the odds much higher that the collective school community will come up with a better solution, by involving our community in the co-design process, we will have developed our collective capacity in a way that connects all of us to our school.

I am pretty sure I know how I want to spend my time.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Human-Centered Leadership

Imagine you have just moved into a new area, and on that first night in town, you and your wife and children are hungry for a meal. What better way to get acquainted with the new neighbourhood than to take the family for a bite and a walk around?  You pop open your laptop and search for restaurants that are in the vicinity, and find that there is only one within walking distance.  You click on the link to the local restaurant and while the site isn’t particularly flashy or eye-catching, you notice is that there is a barbecue buffet special on Saturday!  However, your perceptive thirteen year old daughter notices that the date for that special ended two years ago, and that the site hasn’t been updated. You decide to click on the “Menu” button to see some other choices, but the dreaded ‘404 - File Not Found’ screen pops up.   A bit puzzled, you decide to give the restaurant a call, but after several rings, an automated message asks you to enter the local of the employee you would like to speak to, or to leave a message after the tone so someone can get right back to you about reservations.  You hang up.
“I’m hungry!” groans your eleven year old boy, and you make the executive decision to walk to the restaurant.  After a pleasant ten minute walk, you arrive out front.  The restaurant is in an older building, and you notice there are a few weeds poking out of the sidewalk, and the one of the letters on the restaurant sign has fallen off.  However, the family is getting hungry and restless--they need to eat!  You walk in, and a sign says ‘Please Wait To Be Seated’, but there is no one at the desk to greet you.  After a minute or two, you peek around the corner and gently call “Hello?”, to which a voice responds with “I’ll be with you as quickly as I can.”.  A few moments later, a host comes around the corner and says “Sorry, we are SO short staffed in this place.  Do you have a reservation?”.  You inform the host that you tried to call, but there was no answer.  The host says “We ask that people leave a message so that we can put a reservation in, but I guess you didn’t do that.”  He looks at a reservation book and shrugs. “Well, we don’t have anything available for at least another hour.”  You notice that there is a large set of tables that are empty, and ask if you could sit there--the family is starving!  The host looks at you and says “Those people made a reservation, sorry. When you make a reservation, it makes it a lot easier for us to get you in.”.  Frustrated and hungry, you and the family head home so you can drive somewhere else to get something to eat.  “I don’t want to live here!” moans your daughter.

Now take this situation, and replace ‘local restaurant’ with ‘local school’.  Substitute the idea of your children being hungry for something to eat with their being excited and nervous to start a new school year.  Think about the angst involved in moving to a new area, and how you and your children would feel if you went to the website of their new, neighbourhood school and the pages were out of date and filled with dead links.  Or when you tried to call to get any information, you couldn’t get a person to help you on the other end.  And then when you finally decided to just show up at the new school with your children to register because you couldn’t figure out a better way, you were made to feel that it was inconvenient for the people that worked there that you came when you did.  All you wanted was to register your children, and in the end, your user experience was poor at best.

In the business world, creating a rich and positive UX (user experience) for a customer or clients is essential for successful enterprises. Yet UX can often be a distant afterthought for us when it comes to considering the experiences that our students, parents, and even educators have in our schools each day.  What makes this lack of attention to UX even more perplexing is the fact that we have virtually unlimited and direct access to input and feedback from our clients every day--they are in front of us in our classrooms, in the staff room, and in the parking lot of our schools each day.  As a lead digital marketer of a large multi-national corporation said to me at a recent business conference “I could only wish to have the access to our customers that schools have to their customers.”.

With the hustle and bustle of the everyday lives of educators, solving problems as quickly as possible is often the order of the day.  When an issue comes to us in our classrooms, schools, or districts, we want to ensure we handle it professionally and carefully, but also in a timely manner because we know there will be another issue cropping up shortly after!  And by our very nature we are helpers in education; we want to give our learners and our school community the assistance they need when they come to us with a problem.  Yet often times in the spirit of efficiency, we implement solutions without involving those who are having the problem:  our students and parents, and even our teachers and principals when we are in district leadership positions.  And while we might feel as though we are being more efficient, we can be missing out on a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with and empower the members of our school community.

When it comes to different approaches to solving problems, I believe the field of education can learn a great deal from the design sector: leading design firms such as IDEO and the Stanford D-School use a human-centered approach to spark new and creative solutions.  In IDEO’s Design Thinking method, they “consider every product touch-point as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users.” and actively collaborate with those who use that particular product or service. As working cooperatively with our partners in education is so vital to our success,  I believe adopting a collaborative, human-centered leadership style has enormous potential to help us ensure a more positive user experience for our partner groups and concurrently build their leadership capacity at every level.  I believe this can be done by following a few steps:

  1. Recruit a diverse, eclectic, problem-seeking team.  Considering the user-experience you are considering in your classroom, faculty meeting school or district, who are the people that you might assemble to ensure that you get a wide variety of ideas and perspectives?  For example, if you are considering communication from your classroom, collaborating with students and parents is key: they can provide you with authentic, personal experiences that they have had inside and outside of the class.  Not to mention, effective communication is important to any workplace, and parents may be able to bring new and fresh ideas from other sectors that are applicable to the school setting.

  1. Start with questions that promote divergent thinking. When approaching issues in our schools, we frequently begin by asking questions that can narrow our focus, such as “How can we make better parent-teacher conferences?”. By beginning with a vision of something that we have previously done, we can inadvertently limit conversation and constrain ourselves to making minor ‘tweaks’ to existing processes or structures.  When we have a think tank of problem-seekers with different experiences and skill sets, it is important to ask questions that elicit different reactions and spark new ideas:  the last thing we want to do is limit the creative capacity of the group!  A question that promotes divergent thinking such as “What is the experience that we want our parents to have when they are learning about their student’s progress?” starts a different conversation, and encourages the team to think about the end user before the end product.  It is vital at this stage to be an active listener and encourage each of our partners to speak--they are the true leaders in this process because they are the experts on describing their personal experiences.

  1. Co-create your MVP (minimally-viable product).   A common approach to teaching and learning can be “know then do”:  we often feel like we must preload learners with a requisite set of skills before they can be released to try them out in a more hands-on environment.  However, in doing this, we are attempting to anticipate each of the skills that a learner may need to solve a particular problem.  An alternative approach is to “do then know”.  If we co-create prototypes with our diverse group as early as possible in the design process and observe our end users trying these ‘minimally viable products’, we can better understand the strengths and flaws of our models.   As David Kelley, founder of IDEO said “If you want to improve a piece of software all you have to do is watch people using it and see when they grimace, and then you can fix that”.  With our parent conference example, if the group chose to try a model using fifteen-minute, student-led conferences featuring a presentation of learning, we would want to test this concept with a small number of students doing presentations to a few adults before we adopted the model.  By taking a “do then know” stance in co-creating and testing prototypes of our ideas, we can ‘walk a mile’ in the shoes of our students and parents, but we can cultivate a true sense of ownership over the iteration process.

  1. Be hungry for feedback.  When we encourage our end users try our prototypes, we create fertile ground for observation, and we need to harvest any feedback that we can get!  Sitting and watching a small group of our students and parents go through a process of fifteen minute, student-led conferences can tell us a multitude of things.  We can determine if the physical setting is right, whether the allotted time is sufficient, if the size of the audience is appropriate, and other observable salient details.  But we must also ensure that we take advantage of having our end users there in front of us: interviewing our kids and parents for warm feedback, cool feedback, and suggestions can provide us with rich insights that only they can provide.  We need to create an open and collaborative environment where they feel empowered to be specific and honest.  We also must demonstrate that we value their contributions by making the changes that result from their feedback. Try having one of them carry a video camera with them when they go through the process so you can see the experience through their eyes!

  1. Experience before product.  We can spend a great deal of time, effort and energy in creating multiple iterations of our minimally viable products.  We might tweak and test our student-led conferences six or seven times as a result of numerous observations, and think we have truly ‘nailed it’ on the final product. For example, perhaps we have created an amazing format for our student-led conferences that fits perfectly into our schedule for that particular day, but it only ‘works’ if we have a three minute transition between each conference.  However, the feedback from our test parents and students tells us that when they have tried the three minute transition, students are unable to do a proper breakdown and setup of their presentations.  Furthermore, parents with more than one child at the school would be late to their second presentation. While it can be very easy to “just go with it” and hope for the best, all of the positive work that we have done with our group to co-create the amazing student led-conferences can be quickly negated if clinging to a product (such as the time for transition) becomes more important than the experience of the user.  Iterations can occur at any time during the creative process, right up until the rollout when we think we have landed on that one ‘perfect’ solution.  And when these iterations do come up and make the product more user-friendly, it is vital to ensure that we are more committed to those who are using our product rather than the product itself.

  1. Make de-briefing a habit.  Once the experience for our users has occurred, it is not uncommon for us to simply move on to the next task:  schools are busy places, and as soon as we have crossed one item off of the ‘to do’ list, we know there will be two more to replace it.  But while the experience is fresh in people’s minds, get feedback, and lots of it!  Chat with people, use a brief survey, and bring a focus group in so that you and your team can get a true sense of what could be altered so that the experience is even better in the future.  Even if you feel the event has gone exceedingly well, there is still much to be learned from those who had the experience.  Make sure you re-visit the initial prototype: seeing the journey from the initial to the final product is a powerful reminder of the group's responsiveness to feedback.

Taking a human-centered, inquiry-based approach and involving end-users in co-creating positive user experiences in education has many benefits.  Not only will we come up with solutions that better suit the needs of our students, parents, and educators, we empower them to make a difference in the areas that truly matter--the experiences they have in our schools on a daily basis.  By having our partners work with us in diverse ‘think tank’-style groups, we develop their capacity as leaders in the design, feedback and iterative process. And perhaps most importantly, we build relationships with those that we serve by doing something meaningful that makes a difference. So whether it is parent-teacher conferences, elementary to high school transition for students, implementation of new grading software for teachers, or reviewing policy for administrators, when we adopt a more collaborative, human-centered leadership style, we can transform our classrooms, schools and districts to be truly responsive to the needs and experiences of our students, parents, and educators that learn in them.

*this article appeared in Education Canada Magazine, March 2016