Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Human-Centered School Improvement Plans

Six years ago, I wrote my fifth blog post ever:  it was called "School Improvement Plans Suck! (And why they don't have to).  And while I look back and shake my head at the lack of subtlety in title that I chose, upon reflection I realize that I was expressing my own frustration with the plans that I had created when I was a Principal.  Despite the hard work and absolute best of intentions by all parties involved, many of the plans that I submitted were created by myself and a small team of teachers, approved by a small group of parents, read by a small fraction of our school community and usually led to small, incremental gains in the improvement of student achievement.

Big effort.  Small gains.  Or, as my friends from Texas might say: “A lot of hat...not much cattle.”. So, in the spirit of design thinking, I tried to reframe the issue in a way that might promote different thought as a design challenge.  

“How can we create a plan for learning that delights our school community?”

To me, when someone is ‘delighted’, they are beyond ‘satisfied’ with the experience that they have just had: they are shaking their head in wonderment, with a smile on their face and a tear in their eye.  The experience has been so rich that they want to share the memories with others, both with friends and people that they might not know so well.  So rich that they hope to do it again but wonder if it could ever be replicated.  I like the word ‘delight’.  

I do not know many ‘delightful’ school plans, so I began to think of the experiences in education and schools that do actually delight people to see if I could find some common threads that could be pulled into the planning experience.  One experience came to mind for me:  it was when I was at a Parent Advisory Council meeting at my former school, and four of our students came to present to the parents about “Operation Guatemala”.  The PAC had helped to sponsor our students to go to Guatemala, and the students wanted to report back and to express their gratitude for being afforded such a unique opportunity.  Operation Guatemala was a two week trip to a small, mountainous community in Guatemala led by a group of 12 of our students and a sponsor teacher. The purpose of the trip was to build homes for families who were unable to build homes for themselves.  
The Sa-Hali Operation Guatemala Team
The students showed pictures of the area, the people they met, the children they played with, and the work that they did to build small, one-room, cinder-block homes for a number of families.  And then they began to talk about one family in particular who was so thankful for what they did.  The young father was not able to work because he had a severely broken leg and required surgery; an operation that they could not afford.  As a result, the mother and their young child were making braided jewelry to sell in the village to try to make ends meet, however, they were not making ends meet.  The family was so thankful for the work done by our students because the house that was built would give the family a tiny bit of a leg up in their very difficult life.  Our students could not believe the joy they brought to this family.  So touched were our students by this family that Operation Guatemala decided they would raise the money here at home for the father’s surgery and send it to the family.  

I looked around at the participants at the PAC meeting.  Everyone was crying. They could not believe the impact that this group of students had made.  The experience went so far beyond the expectations of the our students and the Parent Advisory Council that people spoke about it for weeks afterwards.  They shared their memories with others, both with friends and with those they didn’t know so well.  This was the type of experience that we want in schools:  one that delights the participants.

The main thread that I pulled from this experience?  The students of Operation Guatemala were solving a meaningful, real-life problem, and the learning that these students was far beyond any content that they could have covered in a classroom.  

Real-life, and learning beyond the content.

And then it hit me. A plan that uses parts of human-centered design. That solves a real-life problem. And that involves those who the solution will impact in the creation of the plan.

The Community Improvement Plan.

What if our school improvement plans were not just focused on improving student achievement? Instead, what if our plans were about improving student achievement through solving a real-life problem in the community? Through making our community a better place for everyone.

Here’s how it could look.

In the Spring of a school year, students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members come together to brainstorm around a question such as “How can we create a plan for learning that delights our school community?”.  People would brainstorm about issues in the community; issues that are lofty, that stretch us, but things that, were they to be solved, they would make a significant impact in the community.  Perhaps the group comes up with the following challenge:

“How can our school ensure the local food bank is full for the summer?”

Maybe they choose this issue because they felt that the food bank was full at Christmas, but was often near-empty during the summer months, even though the demand for food was still just as high. They would then start to come up with ideas and questions about how each student, each class, each teacher, and each administrator would be involved along with members of the community.  People would have to begin to think about things such as ‘What’s involved in making sure the food bank is full?’ , ‘Who could help us?’, ‘What is the capacity of the food bank?’, ‘How could we gather interest?’, ‘Where would we get food?’, and ‘How would it be transported?’, just to name a few things.  

These ideas would be taken back to the staff so that they could not only look at how best their classrooms would be involved, they could start to look at some of the teaching and learning that could be gleaned from filling the local food bank.  What is the math involved in filling a food bank? The science behind nutritious foods and foods that last a long time?  The language arts involved in effective methods of communication to seek help from volunteers and to promote the project? The media arts and technology involved to document the learning that would take place?  The possibilities would be endless, as would the opportunities to engage students, teachers and the community in something meaningful.

Once the framework of the plan was developed, the school would want to get some outside eyes on the plan.  Using something like the High Tech High Tuning Protocol, a small team could meet with another partner school (or in our District, their Family of Schools) to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about different aspects of the plan, including key knowledge that students and teachers would need, and how best it could be launched to capture the imagination of the larger school community.  Kids need to be a part of this--if we want them to get excited, we have to test out whether our ‘cool ideas’ are ‘sick’ (or whatever term our kids use today to say that something is awesome).

The Launch:
Once the school had iterated as a result of the feedback, the opening ‘kick-off assembly’ of the year would be totally geared to getting students and teachers excited about helping their community.  Presentations from the community, engaging and interactive videos showing the importance of every person in the community having food, statistics that highlight the issue--whatever our students and educators felt would start everyone off on the right foot to solve the issue.

Scaffolding and Sustained Inquiry:
Over the course of the year, classes would constantly re-visit the question through each of the content areas to work through the steps to solve their piece of issue.  Project-leaders and teams would be in each class to help teachers co-create the steps, supports, and products that would be the benchmarks for their part the project.  There would be critique of each of the pieces, and iteration as a result, while archivists were constantly taking pictures and videos to show the process and progress that each of the classes were making toward the overarching goal.

The Presentation of Learning to the Community/Celebration:
As the school came closer to finishing the project for the year, they would begin to work on how best to share their learning with the community.  Using the authentic products and artifacts collected by class archivists, the school would begin to coalesce the events over the course of the year into something that truly reflected the learning that had taken place and the progress that the school had made toward achieving their goal.  Perhaps the school would have their presentation of learning at the food bank and invite the community and local media to see presentations from each of the classes.  In those presentations, each class would talk about what they learned from doing this project, including the math, the science, the language arts, and the content areas. But they would also talk about the other competencies that they had developed (like the ones in the new and exciting BC Ed Plan curriculum).  There could be an unveiling of the shelves of the food bank, filled to the brim prior to the summer.  Or maybe they are not full, but partially filled, and the school talks about the challenges that they had, and things that they would do differently in the future.  

Now these are just ideas, and I know that others will have better ones about how they could create a Community Improvement Plan.  But I think of the positives as a result of a plan that works with the community to solve a community issue:

  • the students would feel like they have done something meaningful and that they have learned content areas in a real-life, hands-on context.
  • the staff would feels as though they have done something that has made a difference.  Even for people that think such a plan might be a crazy idea, no one can deny that helping the community is a good thing.  A really good thing.
  • the community would be ecstatic--a large group would have taken a real run at a community issue.  They also would have gotten a true window into the learning that has taken place in the school.

In our district, we have more than 40 schools.  Imagine if each of our 40 schools created a plan that was targeted to improve student learning through solving a community issue?  Imagine how the community would feel about school plans?  

And more importantly, imagine the difference that our schools would make to the community.

That is a community that I want to be a part of, and this idea is something that I am going to examine in our district.

If you have thoughts about this, please comment: I would love to hear about them.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Failure: Can You Pivot?

Last Spring, I was presenting at a breakout session at the Canadian Association of Principals Conference at Whistler.  One of the things that I try to do with my presentations is to make them as interactive as possible, regardless of the size of the group.  Whether it is through co-creating a 'getting to know each other' Google presentation, crowd-sourcing with the group using a collaborative document, using literacy strategies have participants engage with each other after watching short video clips, or simply having them do the infamous Fenway Five (you have to come to one of my sessions if you want to know more about that one), my goal is to have educators experience and use tools they can immediately take home to their own learning situation.  And for my colleagues at Whistler, I was primed, and ready to go.

Participants filed in.  They sat down, pulled out devices, opened up laptops, and began merrily creating their own individual slides on our online, shared presentation for the day.  They were adding pictures of themselves from Google, playing with fonts, and laughing at what others had put up.  I gave the one-minute warning to let people know that we were about to begin, and happened.

Yes, the only room in the entire conference that suddenly 'black boxed' (meaning no one's wifi or 4G on any device worked, including phones) was mine.  Three minutes before the presentation started, everything was great.  30 seconds after, the whole place crashed.  Tech people from the hotel raced in and surrounded my laptop like paramedics trying to give CPR to an unconscious heart attack victim. They tried one network, and another, then their own networks on their phones.  And then they looked at me with sadness in their eyes, slowly looked down at the floor, and shook their heads.  The CPR didn't work, and the heart attack guessed it:  it was me, standing in front of 80 people with one hour and twenty-two minutes left in my allotted time to present on how to be an engaging administrator using online tools.


Sitting in the front row was educational luminary, Simon Breakspear.  Much to my chagrin, he had a huge smile on his face as he shouted one word for all to hear.


He was right.  The horse was dead--stop beating it and take a different tack.  Get nimble.  Get agile.  And most of all, get going, because there are 80 people here waiting for you to engage them.

So, I quickly tried to salvage the pieces of the presentation that I could: I grabbed some screenshots that I had taken from past presentations that captured the essence of the online interactive bits, and I used activities that I had done at faculty meetings in the past to model things that administrators could do if they wanted something low-tech, but still required high participation.  In the end, the presentation was not exactly an oil painting, but the gracious participants told me that they got a number of things they could use in their own faculty meetings.  Not a total loss.

I won't lie, I was pretty frustrated afterward.  Friends who were presenting at the same time in the two rooms adjacent to me were shocked--their wifi was perfect!  I was irritated with the wifi, and irritated even more with myself that I hadn't made my presentation 'wifi proof' (how many of us still feel we have to do this?).  So, I went back to my room and made a series of changes to my presentation to capture the same points, but in a way that wasn't so 'wifi dependent'.  And as I was tidying it up and bouncing the alterations off of a colleague who was with me, he said something about my new iteration:

"It's better. Way better."

I presented two more times, and he was right, the sessions were better!  (Of course at this point, the hotel had now given me my own dedicated, lightning fast and bulletproof wifi channel for my presentation, which I ended up using about one-third as much as I would have on the first day).  The feedback that I collected from the participants was positive--they had gotten five or six practical strategies that they could immediately use with their own schools and faculties.  Mission accomplished.  My 'pivot' was successful.

In my work around innovation, I have become fascinated with how people or organizations change when things don't go exactly as planned, or how they pivot when they have an 'epic failure'.   I believe that we don't share enough stories like this.  I think we often feel like admitting our mistakes somehow makes us appear weak or incompetent.  Yet what I am finding right now is I have become an "iteration junkie":  I am not nearly as interested in failure (or success, for that matter) as I am to hear about how someone overcame a challenge, embraced a parameter, or gathered and used feedback to make their product or service better.

In creating the conditions for innovation, it is vital that leaders are open and honest about some of their epic fails.  First and foremost, on an emotional level, I have found that as time passes, most of our epic fails turn into raucous stories at the pub or punch lines at retirement dinners.  More importantly, from a leadership perspective, when leaders can not only talk about these failures, but they can show how they and their organization changed as a result of what they have learned, those failures are not failures at all, they become examples of innovation through iteration.

I saw a poster once that said "I don't mind learning from my mistakes, I just don't want to earn a Ph.D.", and I agree, I don't want to be so reckless that 'epic failure' becomes the norm. But being able to take some of those 'epic fails' and pivot as a result is a way that we can truly lead innovation in our classrooms and our schools.

Can you pivot?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

I Want A Doctor To Use Google

This past week, I was fortunate enough to be in Vancouver to attend FISA 2016, the education conference for independent schools across British Columbia.  Although my work is in the public system, I was keenly interested to learn from a number of the speakers in the lineup, including Daniel Pink, Yong Zhao, and Dr. Charles Fadel from Harvard.  There were a number of pieces that resonated with me from each of the speakers, but a couple of shots in particular hit me squarely between the eyes, especially in light of my work in helping to implement BC's new competency-based curriculum across our district.

Last year, I got into a spirited conversation with a colleague about "kids these days": she was expressing her frustration with the new curriculum.  She felt like that by focusing on what she saw as some of the broader, more ethereal concepts like personal identity and creative thinking, we were losing the rigor of the content standards that our current curriculum requires students to learn. "Whether kids like it or not, there are some facts that they just need to know!".  Without trying to be too obtuse, I asked her "So which facts are the ones that kids 'need to know'?".  And moreover, given the diversity of our schools, our learners and their individual backgrounds, I asked her how we were supposed to determine which facts were 'the right ones'.  Exasperated, she laughed and said:

"I just never want to be sitting in my doctor's office and have him need to look something up on Google!"

And while I know that she was using this specific example to make a general statement that students can't simply depend on Google, I have thought about our conversation for a long time since. As a point of interest, I have subsequently asked numerous doctors (including specialists such as a radiologist and an internalist) if they had ever used Google (or some sort of search engine/online tool/connection) to help them in their job as a physician.  And while I am certainly not Gallup, I can say without equivocation that every one of them said 'yes'.  And usually not just 'yes', more often it was 'absolutely!'.

During his compelling talk that took the FISA audience into the future of artificial intelliegence and curriculum re-design, Charles Fadel made a statement that underscored my thoughts.  He said:

"Would you rather take the chance that your oncologist has read the ten thousand plus articles on your particular cancer, or would you rather that they are working with an AI assistant that actually has read and summarized the knowledge from those ten thousand articles?"

In the outstanding video "Future Learning" (please take 12 minutes to watch it), Sugata Mitra talks about a curriculum that he would write to best prepare students in K-12 for life beyond 2030.  It only had three parts:  reading comprehension, search and retrieval skills, and the ability to believe, and therefore 'avoid doctrine'.

In the context of Charles Fadel's question, I want my doctor to have incredible reading and comprehension skills, to be able to have outstanding search and retrieval skills to enable he or she to be as informed with current research and techniques as is humanly and 'inhumanly' (with technology) possible, and to be able to avoid doctrine and believe, so they are able to determine what is real, and what is nonsense, as Sugata Mitra says.

So, would you want your doctor to use Google?  I would.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Teaching Fab Lab

"We need more risk-takers!"

"We need to build a culture that not only accepts failure, it rewards it."

"I just want people to take a few chances around here.  You know, to try some new things."

In my position as District Principal of Innovation, I am constantly hearing these sorts of expressions from educators throughout the system about their students, their colleagues, and the organizations where they work.  If you spend a even a few minutes on social media, you will find tweets, Facebook links, LinkedIn posts and blogs talking about the importance of developing a mindset of "failing fast and often", "doing then knowing", or "iterate, iterate, and then iterate".  Are you puffing your chest out about having a Learning Commons?  Be careful, someone might walk by you and whisper "That is so 2010.". People are talking about maker spaces, hacker spaces, green screen rooms, and think tanks.   And let's be real, in my visits to schools and districts in British Columbia, I have yet to hear someone say "we need to be less innovative".

But what are we actually doing to develop and scale innovative practices?  Make no mistake, we would be hard-pressed to find a school or district that doesn't have exciting and interesting things happening, at least in small pockets. But we often are so tunneled into the day-to-day goings-on in our districts, in our schools, and in our classrooms that if someone were to ask us about an innovation at a neighboring school or nearby district, we most likely would be unable to answer.

And I get it!  Everyone is busy.  Coordinating schedules can be challenging.  Releasing people to be able to visit other schools is expensive, and sending them to other districts even more so.

In his book The Business Model Innovation Factory, Saul Kaplan talks about creating "the adjacent possible", a place in an organization where new ideas and service models can be live-tested in a real environment with actual clients.  This 'adjacent possible' environment still has the benefits of being a part of the larger organization, and is able to take advantage of the infrastructure and economies of scale that the company has to offer, but it is able to test out radically different models and ideas in a low-risk, high-reality setting with the goal of informing future practice.  It is a recipe for success, and without it, companies who focus solely on their current business model tend to fail miserably, or "get Netflixed", as Blockbuster Video found out.  Those who have their current model and think about new models by creating "the adjacent possible" are the organizations that will remain nimble, responsive and relevant as the needs of their clients change.

Just like the needs of our students are changing.

As a result, I believe we must to create the "adjacent possible" in education. In every school and district.  We could call it "The Teaching Fab Lab".  And it would be right down the hallway.

Any teacher in the school could book into the Fab Lab, and once in there, they would be free to test out new and interesting teaching practices, knowing that they might work, and knowing they might not.  Maybe for a day.  Maybe for a week.  Or longer.  And fellow educators would not have to take release days and travel hundreds of miles to see the inquiry process in action, or Project-Based Learning, or genius hour, or whatever was on display in the Fab Lab.  They could just wander down the hall and have a look!  They could ask their administrator or another teacher to watch their class for a few minutes or a period, and even jump in an co-teach for a bit with the Fab Lab host, just to get a feel for the activity.

Naysayers might be jumping up and down right now yelling "People can't just teach however they want!", or "But what if it doesn't work?", or "We can't waste time, we have too much content to cover!".  I guess so, but I am thinking that we could respond by saying things like

"We need more risk-takers!"

"We need to build a culture that not only accepts failure, it rewards it."

"I just want people to take a few chances around here.  You know, to try some new things."

I am going to do some more digging into this.  If you have examples of these in your schools or districts, please comment so I can come and visit!