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Less But Better

LessButBetter

I was first exposed to Greg McKeown’s notion of “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” in reading his article for the Harvard Business Review a couple of years ago.  McKeown argued that too much success can be a catalyst for failure.  He outlined the clarity paradox in four phases:

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

It is an interesting observation that we need to continue to ask what is essential and to eliminate the rest.  It is a principle, albeit often with limited success, that I have tried to apply to my professional life and to the work of our school district.

Over the holidays, I read McKeown’s expanded argument in his book Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The book resonated differently with me now than it did then, as I thought about his notion (borrowed from Dieter Rams) of “less but better” in the context of the curricular shifts currently being proposed in British Columbia.

The general discussion around the redesign in British Columbia’s K-12 education is that over time we have created curriculum that has become bloated with outcomes. References are often made to the dozens (in some cases more than 100) discrete outcomes students need to learn in a particular discipline, in a particular grade.  The Draft Curriculum (currently posted for K-9) aligns with the notion of Essentialism that McKeown forwards in his book, “it is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy.”  I hear the worry, if we reduce curricular outcomes for students, are we not asking less of them?  Instead, as McKeown argues with Essentialism, it is about asking what is essential and allowing students to go deeper and flourish rather than simply cover topics.

I like the idea of reframing McKeown’s questions around schools and learning, looking at what is already covered in schools to ask tough questions about whether we should continue:

By applying tougher criteria we can tap into our brain’s sophisticated search engine. If we search for “a good opportunity,” then we will find scores of pages for us to think about and work through. Instead, we can conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” Naturally there won’t be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for our absolute highest point of contribution.

In some ways, school systems and curriculum may be the victims of their own success — the kind of success that can lead to failure.  Over the last several decades we have crammed more and more “stuff” into schools. As schools have become more successful with this, they have taken more on which has led to diffused efforts.  Perhaps stepping back and looking at what is essential is a very good exercise.

Regardless of whether one finds McKeown’s thesis as one that links to schools and curriculum redesign, his article and book offer a good challenge for us as we look at how we live our lives as successful and/or very succesful people in our world.

Personally, I think our schools and our lives could often use a good dose of less but better.

top3

Welcome to my final blog post of 2014, and what has become an annual tradition — My “Top 3″ lists for the year. Previous Top 3 lists for 2013 (here) 2012 (here), 2011 (here) and 2010 (here). Hopefully, you will find a link or video or some other information you may not have seen over the past 12 months. The “Top 3″ is more about starting discussions and sharing than ranking and sorting.

Top 3 “Culture of Yes” Blog Posts which have generated the most traffic this year:

1.  Teacher

2.  Trying to Understand the Fencing Phenomenon

3.  Taking Back Halloween

Top 3 “Culture of Yes” Blog Posts I have started and really want to finish:

1.  How and Why High School Sports are Dying

2.  What Schools Can Learn from the Transformation in Public Libraries

3.  Early Academic Specialization

Top 3 regularly used Edu words that show you are from BC:

1.  “networks” like the Network of Inquiry and Innovation

2.  “competencies” like the Core Competencies that are part of the draft curriculum

3.  “principles” like the First Peoples Principles of Learning

Top 3 TEDx Videos from WestVancouverED (that you may not have seen):

1.  Getting Beyond “No” – Judy Halbert

2.  The Creative Destruction of Education – Punit Dhillon

3.  The Power of ummmm . . .  – Kath Murdoch

Top 3 Education Stories people will be talking about in BC in 2015:

1.  Communicating Student Learning, – or what most people call report cards, will continue to be a growing topic with more BC districts looking for alternatives, particularly at the pre-Grade 8 level

2.  The Graduation Program DRAFT curriculum was posted for K-9 and despite being very different from past models, was met with general support. There will likely be far more debate on this as the focus shifts to Grades 10 to 12, and the traditional schooling model of senior grades is challenged.

3.  Aboriginal Education — What separates the changes in education in BC from most other jurisdictions in the world is that BC is embracing Aboriginal principles in its changes. The First Peoples Principles of Learning (PDF) are reflected in so much of the current BC work.

Top 3 BC Superintendent Bloggers I didn’t tell you about last year:

1.  Monica Pamer - Superintendent of Schools, Richmond

2.  Kevin Kaardal – Superintendent of Schools, Burnaby

3.  Mark Thiessen - Superintendent of Schools, Cariboo Chilcotin

Top 3 Thinkers from outside British Columbia who are currently influencing work in BC:

1.  Yong Zhao (you will likely hear much more about him in 2015)

2.  Dean Shareski (you won’t see him as a keynote at a big conference, but he is connected to the powerful digital network in BC)

3.  Stuart Shanker (Mr. Self-Reg himself)

Top 3 Videos that have a link between school, sports and overcoming adversity:

1.E360 – Catching Kayla, is one of the most powerful stories I have ever seen

2.  High School Basketball Player Passes Ball  (okay, so it is from 2013, but I didn’t see it until this year)

3.  One handed player gets a shot at college basketball

Top 3 Things I am going to stop doing because they seem hypocritical:

1.  Sitting in on a session of 500 people for professional development, and listening to someone speak about the need for personalization

2.  Accepting comments that suggest there is some debate whether technology is part of the future for modern learners

3.   Giving my kids ‘high-fives’ when they get a happy-face sticker on their worksheets (okay, that doesn’t really happen now)

Top 3 Non-education people I started following on Twitter:

1.  Stephen Colbert

2.  Chris Rock

3.  Tweet of God

Top 3 BCers I started following on Twitter:

1.  Paul Bae /You Suck Sir  — if you follow him on Twitter, do yourself a favour and subscribe to his blog!

2.  Keith Baldrey —  he gets Twitter and the mix of professional / personal and serious / funny

3.  Roberto Luongo — I know he is not really from BC anymore, but he is one of the few athletes I follow

Top 3 Things I learned from my blog this year:

1.  The digital community is an incredibly caring community that will rally around people they barely know

2.  Commenting is down but reading is up

3.  I’m getting more comfortable and more at ease with being more personal

Thanks to everyone who continue with me on this journey and the many new people who have engaged with me this year. I continue to love the opportunity blogging gives me to work out ideas, challenge ideas and serve as a living portfolio. I look forward to another great year together in 2015.

Chris Kennedy

The Smart Story

smart

Earlier this fall I shared a post Does Smart Still Matter? That was the script I had built for a TEDx Talk answering the question “What is Smart?”  It was slightly different from the previous TEDx talks I had given as I was limited to five minutes and given the topic. There were four of us speaking at the TEDx WestVancouverED event who were given the same task.  Here is my final video:

 

 

And here are links to the others who each “smartly” took on the same challenge:

 Personal Development Consultant Erica Nasby

Librarian Shannon Ozirny

Actor Josh Blacker

But, I want to share the story of how my talk came to be.  My love of writing is something I always shared with my Dad. He was a high school English teacher for more than 30 years with almost all of those at Killarney Secondary in Vancouver.  I did share a little bit about my Dad in an earlier post this year - Teacher. For my entire life he had been my editor-in-chief. He would always work with me through my high school and university essays. When I took a part-time assignment at the Richmond News, as a weekly columnist, my editor-in-chief came with me. He would regularly challenge me to take a clear stance, to not be vague and encouraged rich, concrete language. He was a lover of language and we would often debate the use of individual words in an 800-word column.

It became clear this past spring that my Dad’s latest health challenge, a battle with cancer, was not going to be one he would win, and about the same time that Craig Cantlie asked if I would tackle the “What is Smart?” question at the September TEDx WestVancouverED event.

So, like I had done hundreds of times before, I took the question to my Dad.  I actually wasn’t sure if I should. He was having many ups and downs health wise and having more trouble concentrating. He didn’t seem to be that interested when I first prodded him with the question. So I left it.  When I returned the next day, my Mom said my Dad had been up much of the night working on my question. So, it was out off to the back porch to sit with my Dad. I had a piece of paper and a pencil to scribble notes. Everytime I saw him, I would have that paper and pencil, waiting for those moments when the conversation would turn to ‘smart’.

This time became one of our final great conversations. My Dad was becoming weaker. But, whenever he had the energy, we would come back to talking about ‘smart’.  Pretty much every good line in my presentation was my Dad’s.  He said, “Smart is a deceptive idea if you are trying to advance a conversation” and “It gets in the way of advancing conversations.”

He was struggling with his voice and had trouble concentrating for long periods of time, but ‘smart’ was an ongoing dialogue. “It is greasy” he said, “it is a really slippery word.” At the kitchen table I remember he said, “It is a swear word – like McDonald’s.”  Growing up in our house we had a series of less conventional words that were off-limits including many of the large corporate, fast-food restaurant chains.

Our final discussion of the word focussed on how we often just throw around words because we like how they sound, without any common idea what they mean — like love, patriotism and smart.

It was quite a final project for us. I have never had to deal with someone so close to me dying. When I started talking to my Dad in June about ‘smart’ I liked the idea it was for an event in September, it gave us something to look forward to together — not too far in advance that it didn’t seem real, but something we could plan for.

My Dad died on August 3rd, but it was pretty special that we did have this final project. My September 27th ‘smart’ talk was not one of my best. I was upset that I didn’t do a better job of delivering the words my Dad had so carefully helped to sculpt with me. It was, however, very special to have that moment speaking and to be able to go back and watch the talk — the final essay of all the hundreds we had worked on together.

Thanks, Dad.

supportThis is a follow-up post to my recent post regarding Board Governance – Some Small Things That Can Make a Big Difference. This post picks up on a couple of other areas that recently retired Board Chair, Cindy Dekker, and myself shared with trustees and senior staff colleagues at the BCSTA’s Fall Academy. We looked at little things superintendents can do to support Boards and small things Boards can do to support superintendents and district senior staff. In support of the Boards I spoke about:

How Superintendent Supports the Board

Regular Briefings on District Issues and Topics – These are briefing meetings or trustee workshops (different Boards have different names for the meetings). We regularly schedule time for the superintendent and members of the District Leadership Team to in-service trustees on issues and topics. These are not decision-making sessions; rather, these meetings are an occasion to ensure trustees have a like understanding on any particular topic. While the meetings can occur anytime during the year, we do reserve time prior to public Board meetings for these important sessions.

Clear Processes – Nothing can be less helpful than a muddy process. For trustees to make a thoughtful, informed decision there must be a clear process and inclusive of the community. This is an area where the superintendent can provide important guidance. As an example, say a teacher, parent, trustee or community member wants to start a new program in the district. We have a very clear Choice Consultative Committee process to guide us through and to ensure the good ideas are thought through, planned and come to fruition.

Orientation – Trustee orientation is built into policy in our school district. Elections are held in November, and the period up to spring break is taken to focus on orientation for all trustees. Again, it is important for all trustees to have a like understanding of all information. So, we have built a “101” series, like a set of first-year university introductory courses. Each week, trustees will work with staff on learning an understanding a different aspect of the organization. Areas include: working with the superintendent, budget and finance, human resources and bargaining, curriculum and provincial learning directions, Aboriginal education, Student Support Services, International Programs and Facilities.

Share Information with All Trustees – When a trustee asks the superintendent a general question via email, I respond to all trustees. It is symbolic about how we work together. If it is a question for one trustee, it is likely a question for all.

Media and Emergencies – We are clear about who will be the spokesperson for different issues and also ensure we have consistency and clarity in our messaging to staff and the community. In our context, the superintendent is most often the spokesperson and will loop in the Board Chair on any emerging and media topics.

Ensure Profile for the Trustees – West Vancouver is a community with an outstanding public education system and with strong independent schools. It is crucial the public education story stays front and centre in our community. The superintendent can work to ensure that the important work and leadership of trustees are highlighted at community events and in local newspapers.

 

In the area of Board support for superintendents, Cindy spoke about:

Board Supports Superintendent

 

Respectful of Staff Time and Work/Family Balance – Our Board has been very respectful to the fact that most staff in district leadership positions have young families. If the superintendent needs to attend an event with trustees, there are no expectations that senior staff must attend as well. Trustees and staff look at the calendar of community events and share responsibilities — not, all trying to attend all events. Also, the Board has moved to a mix of daytime/evening committee and Board meetings to allow for a better balance regarding work commitments.

Referring operations issues to the Superintendent – Often, when a trustee receives an email that is individually addressed to them, all trustees will have received the same email, as has the superintendent and others. When an issue comes in that is clearly operational, by policy, trustees immediately include the superintendent and a plan is made as to who is the most appropriate person to respond.

Saying “Thank You” to Staff –  From Board highlights of staff accomplishments, to a staff Christmas party (more than 200 staff members attended a district party in early December), to an annual retirement gathering, the Board continually works to acknowledge all staff — teachers, administrators and support staff, because this makes a huge difference in fostering the family type climate and culture in our schools and district. Our Board Chair will regularly write dozens of notes and send regular emails recognizing the work of staff.

Sharing concerns immediately with a Look to Problem-solving Together – When there is a problem or concern, one can either look to someone to blame, or work together to find a solution. In my eight years in West Vancouver, the latter has been the focus. Whether it is a tricky issue like budget reductions, or the process of specialty programs, or facility initiatives that have multiple stakeholders, trustees have worked with staff to find problem-solving solutions.

Being the eyes and ears in the community – We are always checking for tone and themes because trustees have a unique position in the community and district. They can be in a supermarket, on a soccer field, walking on the seawall, but they often receive ongoing and often unsolicited feedback about how we are doing in our schools. And, it is tricky to know what to do with this information. Again, in my eight years with the district, the trustees have not looked  to draw immediate conclusions from what they hear, but do share the information with the superintendent, not necessarily out of a need for action, but to assist the superintendent in their job — clear information is always a good thing.

Again, it is important to give a similar caveat that I gave in my earlier post on Board governance. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the Board’s work, but is intended to highlight some small things that can make a big difference. It is also important to reaffirm there are many ‘right ways’ to go about Board governance and the model we have built is one.

Finally, our model is an ongoing work in progress as we continually look to be better.

 

governancepictureAt this fall’s BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA) Fall Academy, recently retired Board Chair for West Vancouver Schools, Cindy Dekker, and I did a presentation on Authentic Leadership Through Ethical Governance.  The presentation for trustees and district staff broke out into three main areas: small things Boards can do that can make a big difference, key ways a superintendent can support the Board, and key ways the Board can support the superintendent.

As always, the West Vancouver School District’s story is the product of the history of community and district, and speaks to the many people who are involved. It is also important to note, Boards do have many more responsibilities, but this presentation was intended to give insights into strategies and approaches we have found successful over our last eight years working together in Board/District Leadership positions.

All presentation slides are included at the end of this post, but I would like to expand on Some Small Things That Can Make a Big Difference. Cindy and I spoke to six specific areas:

Some Little Things that Matter

Board Work Plan/Calendar – Our Board Work Plan serves as a check sheet for the work that needs to be accomplished. While it is far from an exhaustive list of the work done by the Board, as people move out of and into new roles, it helps to provide continuity. The Board Chair and I review (at least, twice per month) the Board Work Plan to ensure all items that need to come to the Board in any given month have been covered and that we are on track with our ‘regular’ work. By March, we are finalizing the calendar for the following year. From briefing meetings to committee schedules and community liaison meetings, the earlier we can have an established calendar the more respectful we can be to staff and Board members to allow them to plan their professional and personal schedules.

Regular Chair/Superintendent Meetings – While there are always texts and emails, we block out time to meet regularly, usually weekly.  The Board Chair would have her “Superintendent” list, and I would have my “Board Chair” list of items to review. While we attend many events together, regularly committing time to meet has been a very effective process.

Clear Delineation of Policies (Board) and Procedures (Superintendent) – In 2006, the Board worked with Leroy Sloan to update the Policies and Administrative Procedures in the district. The Board has 18 policies and by-laws that speak to their role in governance. The Administrative Procedures Manual, which is the responsibility of the superintendent, has more than 100-plus procedures that speak to the district’s daily operations. Of course, there are linkages between the two books and crossover between the work of the Board and the work of the superintendent, but this model does help to reaffirm roles in the organization.

Clear Superintendent Evaluation Process – Our Board uses the framework from the BCSTA for the Superintendent Performance Planning Review.  As a superintendent, having a clear view of the process is very important. With our model of policies and procedures, I have been given a high level of responsibility and, thus, should be held by the Board to a high level of accountability. In our district, all of our education staff participate in a growth plan model; our principals and vice-principals work with district staff on their growth plans and all teachers have growth plans they share with principals and colleagues. I meet with our Board three times each year to review my growth plan. I have three areas of focus — the first is from the role description that is in policy, another is based on the district’s strategic plan, and the third area of focus is personal-professional growth. I have previously blogged about my growth plan and shared it publicly here.

Strategic Planning – The Strategic Planning Process is written into policy in West Vancouver. Following a period of orientation, our Board engages in a strategic planning process. Looking ahead, this will likely be from March to June of 2015 with the goal of having a final document ready to share in the fall of 2015. There are many different models for strategic planning; the Board in West Vancouver has worked with Malcolm Weinstein, the last three terms, to support their work of building a high level of direction for the district.  Recent examples are available for 2009-11 and 2012-15 (PDF documents).

A Culture of Growth and Support – We are in the learning business and the more we can model that, the better. No matter how strong results might be, there are always opportunities to be better. The Board dedicates time at each of their meetings for school highlights. Each school has an opportunity to make a presentation during the course of the school year. Very often, this includes the sharing of new ideas and innovative approaches that are having an impact at schools. Recent highlights have included reports on outdoor learning spaces, libraries being converted to learning commons and approaches to communicating student learning that move beyond traditional report cards. Where people go, and what people talk about, speak to what organizations value — while the Board in West Vancouver places a focus on student learning, there is always a quest to find new ways to meet the needs of modern learners.

Likely, the reaction of many Board members and superintendents to this list is “nothing new there” and these, and many other little things, help Boards ensure they are high functioning. It is often these ‘little things’ that can make a huge difference. As Cindy and I both said in the presentation, “If you show us a district that is going strong, we are pretty sure you will find a Board and superintendent who are in sync and committed to doing what it takes to work together for students.”

Our full slide show is available here (if you are receiving this post via email you may need to view by going to the website):

They Will Grow Up

Grow_Up

I share this as a reminder that all kids grow-up, even those who have driven us a little crazy in their teenage years.

We don’t often receive a lot of feedback from students, particularly those who were not overly successful in school.  So, that makes notes like this one (received last week) all the better.  This is from a former student at a school at which I was the principal about 10 years ago.  I share this with his permission:

Mr Kennedy,

I want to start off by thanking you for never putting up with my garbage in high school, and putting me in my place when I needed it. In spring of 2003, I came back to Vancouver for a visit and to re-enrol at Riverside in anticipation my family would be moving back to BC from Alberta. I was being a loud mouth as usual, and you came by and said “if it was up to me I wouldn’t have you back at my school.” Those words caught me off guard, until that point in my life I never thought the things I did affected anyone, and that was when a change began in my life. I was still a pain in the ass throughout high school, and I am positive that no one thought I would make much out of my life.

After graduation, I had a daughter at the age of 20, I was following the plan people assumed I would. In 2007, those words you spoke, along with a few from [another teacher], motivated me to prove everyone wrong. Although my idea of success was extremely skewed, I attained my goal that year of making $100,000, and was driven to exceed that goal the next year. By mid 2008, I had a talk with a mom who questioned my motives, and after a deep conversation, she helped focus my goals, and told me the best way to prove to someone was to change the world, and leave a legacy.

In 2009 I changed my focus, I switched industries and got into finance, quickly becoming one of the youngest Managers at TD Canada Trust. I began travelling the world every year for 2 months organizing charity events, and building orphanages and even starting a volunteer agency in Kenya. Kenya was my first trip, and before I left I received news confirming that my daughter was not biologically mine. Not of our anger, but out of determination to prove that I was not affected by the genes of my daughter, I built Madison House orphanage in Kenya. Since then I have travelled to over 40 countries, and helped raise nearly $200,000 for orphans in over 20 of those countries.

I am writing you because I want to thank you. Those words still ring in my head when I feel like I need to accomplish a task and have little or no motivation. Last June I made the decision to attend post-secondary school to get a degree, and eventually into law school. I was granted acceptance into BCIT’s full-time program and currently sit in the top 3% of the business department. I have a 90% average across all 7 full-time classes, and on Friday i was contacted by the University of Geneva in Switzerland in regards to my application.

I want you to know none of this would have been possible without you. I was a young punk, who cared about no one else but himself, but as time went on, I learned that I was never actually an extrovert as people assumed. I have always been an introvert with tendency of an extrovert to deal with my self-consciousness.

Regardless of our past disagreements, I want you to know, that you helped shape my future, my decision-making process, my outlook, and my ability to step back and make choices in my life. So one more time thank you Mr. Kennedy, and I can only pray you continue to move, shape, and teach kids like you have done with me.

Warmest Regards,

There is a lot in there and good reminders for me as a parent and educator.  Sometimes, even in a ‘culture of yes’, a strong “No” is an important message.

And, as Stuart Shanker regularly reminds us — there is no such thing as bad kids.

Affiliation and Ignite

Ignite-The-Fire-Within

The idea of affiliation in education is shifting.  While we still connect to traditional structures by role (unions, associations, etc.) and by where we work (schools, districts, etc.) the digital world is challenging these traditional associations as being paramount and this may be necessary to build the coalition to bring about the shifts many are looking for in our education system.  I am convinced that we need a third point of reference to bring about education transformation.

In the BC context, transformation will never take hold if it is seen to belong to the Ministry of Education, the BC Teachers Federation, the BC Superintendents, BC Principals, or any one district.  We do need another space where people from all groups can come together and work together.  What does this look like?  For a couple of decades we have seen the power of how the Network of Performance Based Schools in BC has been an amazing influence over what happens in classrooms.  The group is not seen as being owned by anyone or any group — the group belongs to the group and it is guided by the work.  Somehow, we need something similar given the larger shifts currently happening in education in BC.

And, I am thinking about this idea of affiliation because of my participation this past week in Ignite Your Passion for Discovery — the brain child of Dean Shareski. Last Wednesday night about eighty-five people, passionate about education, gathered at Relish GastroPub & Bar from 7 to 10 pm to talk about passion in education. There were 14 presenters who had exactly five minutes (20 slides/15 seconds each ) to share their passion.  In between presentations there were exchanges for great networking.  You could walk around the room, and it had a greater sense of community and was more connected than any staff meeting I have ever been a part of.  Almost everyone knew each other from Twitter  — some had met in person, but for many it was a first meeting.  This is the new world of affiliation — people connected not by role, not by location, but by passion.  It is these types of coalitions that are going to bring about shifts and change in education.  People were inspired and also reminded they are not alone — others are trying to do similar things.  The digital space is still so young, but what I saw were people picking up their digital relationships face-to-face and then were almost eager to get home and continue digitally; the digital and the face-to-face interactions had each enhanced the quality, depth and care of the connections.

Our profession will not be mandated into meeting the needs of modern learners but the power of networks and new thinking around affiliation can help diffuse the work.

I had the real pleasure of being one of the speakers last Wednesday.  I have shared by slides and the video of my presentation below.  This will give you a sense of the event.  My presentation is based on a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago about swimming.

Slides (thanks to Bob Frid who took many of the amazing photos I used):

 

Video (thanks Craig Cantlie for videoing the event):

I had recently attended a conference – the kind where a ballroom of people listen to a keynote for an hour – and do that over and over.  Comparing the two events I know which was more influential in moving the conversation forward.  We need to find new ways to affiliate – more Ignites, more TEDx Events, more EdCamps.  The future of changing education is through networks.

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