Category: What I’m Reading

Does Your School have an “Avoid at All Costs” List?

A few weeks back, I shared the story of Carl, a principal friend of mine who was frustrated with the pockets of innovation in his building.

While he knew that good work was happening at all grade levels and in all subject areas in his school, that work was inconsistent.  Some teachers were running with technology integration but ignoring a school-wide reading program.  Others had made PBIS work on their teams or in their classrooms, but did little to integrate the 4Cs into their day-to-day instruction.

My push back to Carl was simple:  Pockets of innovation are almost always evidence of a lack of focus in a school building.  Carl’s faculty wasn’t being resistant by letting important school-wide initiatives fall by the wayside. They just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to make several different significant changes at one time and had decided to prioritize some practices while tabling others.

That’s a survival strategy, y’all.

So what can YOU do to avoid falling into the same trap?  Start by stealing an idea from Warren Buffet and developing an Avoid at All Cost list!

Here’s how:

1).  Make a list of 25 things that your school is currently working on — or that you anticipate working on over the next few years.

Include everything that matters to you and/or your district.  Are you rolling out new devices?  Has your state mandated new diagnostic testing for students in specific grade levels?  Are the NGSS science standards pushing their way into conversations in your district?  Is your school tinkering with intervention or enrichment periods?  Write it all down.  And then have your teachers review it to be sure you haven’t inadvertently missed anything.

2). Circle the five most important items that you find on your current list of projects, programs and priorities.  

Are some of the projects, programs and priorities listed in step one more important than others?  Why?  How do you know?  Which ones are valued by classroom teachers?  Which will have the most direct benefit on student learning?  Are some mandates that can’t be ignored?  Do some have the support of the communities that you serve?  Is your school uniquely suited to implement some initiatives over others?  Structure conversations — within learning teams, during leadership meetings, with parents and students — to get feedback about your five priorities.

3). Invest EVERYTHING into moving forward on your five most important priorities.

Now truly invest in your priorities.  Every purchase that you make should have a direct connection to one of your five priorities.  Every scheduling decision that you make should be tied to one of your five priorities.  Every faculty meeting that you have, every professional development session that you provide, and every message that you share with your parents, teachers and students should focus on one of your five priorities.  Practice what Doug Reeves calls lifeguard leadership and keep your attention on the things that really matter.

4). Turn the remaining 20 items that you have been working on into an Avoid at All Costs list.

The real mistake that schools make when trying to drive change is focusing on too many different projects all at the same time.  That makes every single one of the remaining items on the list you generated in step one a potential pitfall.  Sure, they matter — but when everything becomes a priority, nothing gets done.

So make it clear to everyone in your school community that those items are to be avoided at all costs until the five priorities you settled on in step two have become a part of the fabric of your school.  No matter how much potential you see in the remaining 20 items brainstormed in your original list, you have to push them completely aside if you are truly setting priorities.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you?  

The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward isn’t just identifying a small handful of priorities.  The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward is identifying a small handful of priorities AND actively pushing against everything else that threatens to draw your collective time and attention away from the things that matter most.  Developing an Avoid at All Costs list can help you to do just that.

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Related Radical Reads:

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

School Leadership is a lot Like Lifeguarding

How Clear is YOUR Vision?

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Poking through my feed reader this morning, I stumbled across a Mindshift KQED article that I think every educator ought to read.

Titled How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty, it makes a simple argument:  Instruction centered on facts that have already been settled fails today’s students.  “Without insight into the holes in our knowledge,” author Linda Flanagan writes, “students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.”

Slide - Scientific Discovery

I worry about that argument because I’m held accountable for teaching a massive curriculum that is slam-packed full of settled facts.

While I believe in the importance of developing students who are willing to grope and probe and poke their way through moments of uncertainty — who are as comfortable NOT knowing as they are with having the right answers — the simple truth is that facilitating experiences that allow students to wrestle with uncertainty takes time that I just don’t have.  If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

And THAT’s what drives me nuts about being a classroom teacher in today’s world.

There’s a constant tension between what we SAY we want our students to know and be able to do and what we LIST as priorities in our mandated pacing guides.  Almost twenty years into the 21st Century, we continue give lip service to the importance of things like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, but we create no real space for that kind of content in our school, district and/or state curricula guides.  Worse yet, we do nothing to assess those skills.  Instead, we are still holding students and schools accountable for nothing more than the mastery of settled facts.

That has to change.  Plain and simple.

#truDATchat

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Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Bulldozing the Forests

The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness

Yesterday, I had the chance to do some brainstorming about Design Thinking with John Spencer — a thinker and a friend that I greatly admire.  During the course of the conversation, I asked John why he thought that Design Thinking should play a role in modern classrooms.  His answer was a huge a-ha moment for me:

“Design thinking builds grit by giving a lot of slack.  We have this idea that perseverance comes form a buckle down and get it done mentality.  Design Thinking says you develop perseverance through tons of iterations and freedom to make mistakes and time to make revisions and improvements.”

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  John’s right:  We DO define grit as the ability to “buckle down and get it done,” don’t we?  

I’m not sure if that definition is a result of our compulsive obsession with bootstraps, our one-time belief that hard work is the Golden Ticket to Heaven, or the fact that we’ve been told time and again that instruction in our schools isn’t all that ‘rigorous’, but defining grit as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences is a poisonous myth that harms students because it suggests that learning has to be painful in order to be meaningful.

Worse yet, defining grittiness as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences provides built in excuses for educators who are unwilling to rethink their learning spaces and for policymakers who are unwilling to rethink the relevance of our required  curriculum.   Instead of working to improve our own practices, we peddle the notion that surviving bad lessons is a rite of intellectual passage.   “Sure, school is going to be boring,” we argue, “but it will be GOOD for you. It will teach you to work hard even when you AREN’T having fun — and I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t always about having fun!”

#sheeshchat

What if we believed that ALL learning should be fundamentally joyful?

Could students still learn to persist even if they were studying concepts that moved them in deep and meaningful ways?  Is it possible to demonstrate grittiness while constantly iterating on an idea that has the potential to change the world for the better? Aren’t people driven by passion MORE persistent than people who are driven by intimidation?

THAT’s Design Thinking in a nutshell, y’all.  It is built on the notion that people — regardless of who they are or what they know — can identify problems that are worth solving, propose and prototype solutions that are worth trying, and systematically improve on their thinking from one revision to the next.  Design Thinking sends the message that no final product is perfect and that dedicated learners are always ready to improve  everything that they create.

That sounds a heck of a lot like grittiness to me.

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Related Radical Reads:

How Gritty Are Today’s Learners?

Will You Be Relentless?

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action

 

 

Want to Drive Change? Stop Planning and Start Acting.

I read a really interesting Matt Mullenweg article this week detailing one of Apple’s greatest strengths as a brand:  Their willingness to ship first and polish products later.

Mullenweg points out that every game-changing Apple device — including the iPod, iPad and iPhone — was panned by reviewers when it was initially released.  And in many cases, reviewers were right:  The earliest versions of many of Apple’s most successful products were far from perfect.  Sometimes, that imperfection was a result of flawed product design or important features that the company hadn’t anticipated.  Other times, that imperfection was a result of an inability to access required component parts at costs that could make each individual product affordable.

But perfection wasn’t the goal for Apple.  Usage was — and usage matters WAY more than perfection when you are trying to drive change.  As Mullenweg explains:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world…

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.”

You can see the implications for education, can’t you?  

All too often, we spend MONTHS — or even YEARS — polishing ideas instead of pushing them out into our buildings or our classrooms.  We get bogged down in committees who meet monthly to study and to research and to brainstorm and to build consensus and to raise awareness and to prepare — and all that happens BEFORE an idea is ever even introduced to a faculty.  Every change effort — think starting a 1:1 initiative or designing a school-wide remediation or enrichment period or integrating the 4 Cs into our instruction or moving to a project-based curriculum — becomes a long-term goal dependent on extensive planning and preparation instead of taking any kind of action.

But here’s the hitch:  When every change effort is seen as a long term goal, nothing ever changes.  Worse yet, when every change effort is seen as a long-term goal, your willingness to change direction when something isn’t working drops because you are completely and totally invested in a bad idea.

Mullenweg — who also happens to be the founding developer behind WordPress, open-source software that powers over twenty percent of the web — has a simple rule for pacing change projects:  He argues that if you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of anything that you “ship,” then you waited too long to get started.

So whether you are a superintendent, a principal or a classroom teacher, let Mullenweg’s “be embarrassed” rule drive your thinking this year.  Quit concentrating on developing the perfect initiative, project or lesson and start committing to an act first, polish later orientation to change.  Doing so gives you a better chance of developing something that you can be proud of.

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Related Radical Reads:

Hitting Home Runs 50 Feet at a Time

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

Am I Failing the Introverts in My Classroom?

If you’ve ever met me in person, this might catch you by surprise:  I am an introvert.

That doesn’t mean I can’t stand in front of a group of people and deliver a good presentation.  That also doesn’t mean that I can’t be playful and loud and gregarious.  In fact, I’m pretty good at all of that stuff.  Gimme an audience and a microphone and I’ll make someone laugh, that’s for sure.  Need proof?  Then ask me to sing The Canadian National Anthem or the Devil Went Down to Georgia someday.  I’ll belt both out at the top of my lungs no matter where we happen to be standing.

But I learn best when I’m lost in my own thoughts.  

Writing and reading aren’t just personal passions — they are the moments in my life when I’m left alone to reflect and recharge.  Stop by the booth in the back of the dirty McDonalds where I spend entirely too much time and I’ll nod and smile from behind my screen, but please don’t sit down and start a conversation.  It will feel like an interruption to me — and interruptions destroy my intellectual flow.  That might come across as selfish, but it is the truth.

Now, I’m not saying that I CAN’T learn with others.

I actually dig moments where I can connect with thinkers that I enjoy and admire.  I recognize their expertise and appreciate their feedback.  They are a source of challenge and inspiration and they tend to drive my thinking in new directions.  But those moments can also leave me feeling more than a little overwhelmed — not because I’m socially awkward or nervous or full of anxiety, but because I know that I will leave with tons of new ideas that I’ll need to wrestle with before I can move forward.

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that despite seeing myself as an introvert, I’m pretty sure that my classroom prioritizes extroverts.  There are constant opportunities for checking in with partners.  Group conversations are the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  Projects are always done in pairs — and they happen all the time.  My lessons are fast-paced and full of energy and there’s few moments set aside for genuine introspection.

A part of that is my response to implicit suggestions that being “college and career ready” means being extroverted.  Read through research and you are likely to see report after report about the importance of teamwork in the modern workplace.  Rumor has it that companies aren’t looking for folks who learn best when they are buried inside their own minds.  Instead, they are looking for folks who can collaborate on complex problems —  driving innovation by building on and challenging the ideas of one another.

A part of that is my response to the notion that I’m trying to reach “the connected generation.”  Sometimes I feel like I am competing with a thousand sources of enertainment that rest a few clicks away for today’s kids.  If every lesson isn’t filled with heaping doses of whiz-bang, I figure I’m going to lose an audience that has learned to hit the reset button the moment something doesn’t go their way.  Pauses are interruptions to the impatient, aren’t they?

And a part of that is my response to trying to teach a ridiculous curriculum.  With a thousand objectives to get through in 180 days, I pack action into every moment of every single school day.  That’s not because I don’t see any value in sitting with thoughts.  Heck — I’m sitting with my own thoughts right now.  It’s because I feel a very real pressure to cover everything that’s mentioned in North Carolina’s science standards — and that turns every school year into a full court press.

That’s all a failure for some of my students, isn’t it?

Michael Godsey — author of When Schools Overlook Introverts — certainly thinks so.  He writes:

It seems that such efforts have, for the most part, struggled to effect much change in the educational world. The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts.

In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.

He also writes:

I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.

So what’s the solution?  

I’m not sure.  The simple truth is that finding space for introspection in days that are straight slammed and in schools that prioritize action over reflection won’t be easy to do.  But I can promise to stop judging the “quiet kids” in my classroom.  Intead of seeing them as disengaged, I’m going to force myself to remember that learning doesn’t have to be loud and messy to be meaningful.

#trudatchat