Note to Principals: Stop Spending Money on Technology.

Did y’all see this bit in yesterday’s #edtech Smartbrief?  

It details the plight of the Decatur County Schools, who are facing huge cuts in Federal eRate funding in the next five years.  The results, according to Larry Clark — principal at Jones Wheat Elementary School — will be devastating.  “Technology is the up and going thing for our kids to learn and the best way for them to learn,” argues Clark, “and they really, really enjoy the technology aspect.”

Can you spot my beef with Clark’s thinking?  

Perhaps most importantly, technology is NOT “the best way” for our kids to learn.  The best way for kids to learn is through powerful studies of real-world causes that leave them motivated to master core outcomes and expectations while taking action in their communities.  The best way for kids to learn is through studies of topics that have deeply personal meaning and that leave them challenged.

The best way for kids to learn is through constant conversations with peers, with kids in other classes and in other countries, and with supportive and caring adults who recognize misconceptions and can point out new avenues for continued study.  The best way for kids to learn is by providing learning experiences that are customized and targeted towards the strengths and weaknesses of individuals instead of whole groups.

I think what I’m trying to say is principals and superintendents should STOP spending money on technology.

Instead, principals and superintendents should commit themselves to spending money creating classrooms that are dynamic and outward facing and differentiated and personalized and committed to developing kids who can imagine and innovate and experiment and act.

Can technology support efforts to integrate these kinds of core behaviors into the work that we do in our schools?  Absolutely.  In fact the best lessons in my room — whether we are microlending, raising awareness about sugars in foods, or fighting back against bullying — are almost always supported by technology.

But the best lessons depend FIRST on schools and systems that develop clarity around just what meaningful teaching and learning experiences look like in action.

Technology is, after all, just a tool.  It’s not a learning outcome.


Author’s note:  Much of this thinking was inspired by a conversation that I had this week with Ron Rizzo — a new friend who also happens to be the Interim Director of the Charter School Office at Ferris State University.  #goodfella


Related Radical Reads:

Technology is a Tool, Not a Learning Outcome

More on Technology is a Tool, Not a Learning Outcome

Does YOUR School have Technology Vision Statements?


How ARE Principals Spending their Time?

In yet another example of the beauty of Twitter as an information stream, I stumbled across this research report yesterday detailing the results of a pretty comprehensive survey of the ways that principals in Ontario spend their time at work.  It was originally shared by Justin Tarte.

I figured that an infographic detailing the percentage of time principals spend on individual tasks during the average work week would make for a nice follow-up to my bit on instructional leadership in schools.

Here’s what I whipped up:


My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

If you have followed the Radical for any length of time, you know that I can ruffle feathers with the best of them.  I’ve scrapped with everyone from graphic novel fans and librarians to lovers of bad technology over the years — and while those conversations are almost always uncomfortable, they inevitably lead to new learning for everyone involved.


The first professional tussle that I ever started happened about 7 years ago at a panel discussion on school leadership.

Surrounded by superintendents and super experienced building principals, I spent the better part of the discussion listening to my fellow panelists wax poetic about the importance of providing instructional leadership to their faculties.

When the mic finally came to me, I pushed back at the notion that principals are truly the instructional leaders of any school.  “How can you REALLY be the instructional leaders,” I argued, “when no one has ever seen you teach?!”

The room — which was full of nothing but school leaders — exploded.  Speaker after speaker uncorked on me, reminding me that THEY were principals and that research said that PRINCIPALS WERE THE INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERS OF THE SCHOOL.  One woman literally had spittle flying from her mouth as she shouted, “Who are YOU to tell ME that I’m not an instructional leader?!  What do YOU know about MY role in the schoolhouse?”

The entire scene felt like a cheap and dirty power grab to me.  Convinced that all authority rested in the hands of a building’s principal, these folks had decided that they were automatically the experts on everything in their buildings.  “I’m the instructional leader, dammit!” they thought.  “You HAVE to do what I say.”

But the truth is that despite working for some remarkable principals over the past 22 years, I’ve never turned to them for help with my instruction — and they never volunteered any instructional strategies that challenged my practice in a positive way.  Instead, I have always turned to my peers for that kind of professional challenge because I know that my peers are wrestling with instruction on a daily basis.  The expertise that I need to change my teaching rests in the hearts and minds of other practitioners — not my principals.

And my experience isn’t unique.  In fact, results from the 2006 and 2008 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey — which are shockingly not available online anymore — showed that less than half of the teachers in our state see the principal as “the person who most often provides instructional leadership in our schools.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m NOT questioning whether or not principals play an important role in leading their schools.

In fact, I am convinced that the best way to ensure that a school is successful by any metric is to spend a TON of cash identifying, hiring and compensating thoughtful, intelligent, reflective folks to the principalship.

That’s because good principals inspire their teachers, provide direction for faculties, introduce new challenge to the work being done in their building, shield their staffs from distractions that can derail forward progress, and handle everything from broken toilets to broken relationships between teachers and students each and every day

It’s an ALMOST impossible — and COMPLETELY thankless — job.  That’s why I’ve never even considered pursuing a degree in school administration.  It’s also why I am consistently thankful for people who are willing to tackle such an immense and important role.

But when principals grab titles like “instructional leader” or “lead learner,” they inadvertently cheapen the expertise of the classroom teachers and students in their schools and reinforce the hierarchies that make schools such dysfunctional places.

The truth is that principals who HAVE the respect of their teachers NEVER think of themselves by their titles. It’s not “I’m the instructional leader”, “I’m the principal” or “I’m the lead learner” for them. It’s “we’re doing something cool here together. How can we help each other to get better at what we are doing?”

My advice to principals who want to be influential, then, is simple: Check your title at the door and start actively modeling the kinds of reflective practices that define learners and learning; increasing your own knowledge base so that you can support and challenge everyone in your building; and proving that everyone — regardless of position — can improve.

Be a leader of instructors.  Be a leader of learners.  But don’t use false titles to suggest that your role in the teaching/learning transaction is somehow more important than the role played by the teachers and learners in your building.

Any of this make sense?  More importantly, any of this make you mad?  What push back do you have for me?

(If you want to read more, my good friends Tony Sinanis and Pernille Ripp have been thinking about principals, leadership and titles lately too.)


Related Radical Reads:

What do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Will $75,000 REALLY Change Your Principal’s Leadership Skills?

Three Lessons Principals Can Learn from Sherpas


Is Your Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

One of the most embarrassing moments that I’ve ever had as a classroom teacher was the day that a seventh grade science teacher in my school stopped by my room to completely ream my learning team.  

“I’m SICK of it!” she shouted.  “Every year, you guys send us students that know different things.  It makes teaching completely impossible.  Could you PLEASE start teaching the same content in your classrooms?!”

Once she’d left, we sheepishly realized that she was right.  We HADN’T done a good job at working together to define outcomes that were essential for EVERY kid on our hallway to learn.  Instead, we each made choices about the content to introduce to the kids in our classrooms individually based on our experience with the curriculum, our interests and our personal expertise.

The result was nothing short of a professional disaster.  While I spent a ton of time teaching students about ecosystems and interdependence between species, another colleague spent a ton of time teaching students about the solar system.  That means the kids on our hallway left sixth grade learning VASTLY different things.  My kids were experts at the impact that humans have on the environment while his kids were experts on the origins of the universe.

The result HAD to be frustrating for the teachers in seventh grade, who were constantly reteaching content to small groups of kids who hadn’t been exposed to the same things even though they went to the same school.

That’s when I started to push for our learning team to develop unit overview sheets that defined a small handful of essential learning targets that EVERY child would learn, regardless of who their teacher was.

Here’s a sample of what we created:

Energy Unit Overview Sheet

Our unit overview sheets were initially designed to make sure that every student in our grade level had access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum by providing teachers with boundaries for their instructional choices.  Whatever we chose to teach on a day-to-day basis, our promise — to each other, to our students, and to the teachers at the next grade level — was that every kid would leave our classes having mastered the outcomes detailed on our unit overview sheets.

Our unit overview sheets also provided guidance for all of our collaborative decisions.  What lessons would we share with one another?  Lessons connected to the objectives listed on our unit overview sheets.  What were we going to assess together?  The objectives on our unit overview sheet.  Which objectives were we going to provide enrichment and remediation for?  The ones listed on our unit overview sheets.  Using our unit overview sheets to prioritize instructional objectives ended up simplifying — and provided clarity for — the work we were doing together in our weekly PLC meetings.

But we soon realized that our unit overview sheets did far more than align our instructional choices and provide clarity for our collaborative work.  

Because we chose to write our essential learning targets in student friendly language, we were able to use our unit overview sheets to support (1). efforts to integrate student self assessment in the classroom and (2). efforts to communicate with stakeholders working beyond the classroom.  Not only do our students have a better sense for what they are expected to master during the course of a unit of study — and a tangible tool for tracking their own progress towards mastery — our parents, our specialists, our principals, and our special education teachers now have a clearly defined sense for what we are trying to accomplish.

Are you interested in developing unit overview sheets to guide the instructional choices of your learning team?  These handouts might help:

Identifying Essential Learning Targets

Converting Learning Targets into Student Friendly Language

And here are a few additional samples of what unit overview sheets can look like:

Atoms Unit Overview Sheet (Eighth Grade)

K-2 Unit Overview Sheet

Any of this look useful to you?


Related Radical Reads:

My Middle Schoolers Actually LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets

Writing Student-Friendly Learning Goals

Another Student Involved Assessment Experiment


I’m Going #toplessin2015! You in?

I’ll admit it:  I’m a sucker for a good New Year’s Resolution.

I make one every year.  And while I rarely actually follow through on my resolutions, crafting one in the first week of the new year matters to me.  It forces me into some deliberate reflection about what is going well — and what needs to change — in both my personal and professional life.

That reflection matters, y’all.  We live in a world that moves a thousand miles an hour.  Sitting still and thinking carefully — about who we are and who we want to be — rarely happens.  Instead, we sprint through every day, struggling to keep up and missing out on the moments that make life truly worth living.

So I woke up early this morning and spent some time alone.  I looked back at the successes and the struggles that I had in all aspects of my life looking for trends and patterns that I could use to identify a small change worth making to improve on who I am.

My resolution for this year might surprise you:  I’ve decided that If I want to be a better husband, father, friend, author, teacher and professonal developer, I need to go topless in 2015.

Now I know what you are thinking:  We’d ALL like to see Bill go topless more often.  When he is with us, he always seems to be completely consumed by the phones, computers and tablets littering his workspace.  In fact, the entire top of his desk is nothing more than an uncomfortably big, fat, hairy distraction waiting to happen.

Whether he’s banging out a few emails on his laptop, checking his Twitterstream on his iPad, or playing Two Dots on his phone, we NEVER feel like we have his complete attention.  His insistence on bringing gadgets to every meeting, every after school function, every social event and every meal means we are never completely connected with him — and if he would just commit to leaving those devices behind when he was spending time with the actual human beings in his life, he’d be more powerful AND more personable.

If a topless Bill means that his desk — and his mind — will be cleared of distractions when we are with him, then WE WANT A TOPLESS BILL!

That IS what you were thinking, right?!


Wouldn’t the world be a better place if EVERYONE went topless in 2015?  No longer would we feel disconnected from — or disrespected by — the people we work and live with who check out the moment they sit behind a screen.  Maybe eye contact would make a comeback — and maybe we’d learn a thing or two about our peers through their body language.  Maybe relationships would be stronger — built on simple conversations that just can’t happen when people are too busy “checking their stream” or “building their brand” or “finishing up one last thing” to be fully present.

Heck, this might be far fetched, but MAYBE we’d learn to REALLY laugh out loud again, instead of LOLing and ROTFLing our way through 140 character conversations carried out in “social spaces” while we are willfully ignoring the people who are actually in the same rooms as we are.


Going topless isn’t my idea.  I stumbled across it in this Fast Company article.  But it is something that I’m committed to trying because I really DO feel disconnected from the people that I am the closest to — and I find that I struggle to be fully present when my devices are close by.

So my promise to you is this:  Every time that you see me this year, I will be completely and totally and absolutely topless.

I’m not bringing a single device to a single meeting.  Any table that I sit at will be absent of distractions.  You will have my complete attention.  I will laugh with you, talk with you, argue with you, agree with you, and let you know through my actions that you are just as important to me as anyone living behind the screens that have so frequently sucked me in.

And if you bring your gadgets, you’d better not put them on the tabletop.  Otherwise, I’m calling you on it.