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super-model

This post is a copy of a column that is published in the most recent edition (available here) of Education Discovered Magazine.

A short decade ago, schools were banning YouTube videos and forbidding students from bringing cellphones to class. Teachers were primarily viewed as content providers. Students were tested on how well they knew their facts.

Today there are movements under way to remove standardized testing. Schools are embracing bring-your-own-device policies. The Internet is a standard classroom tool and teachers are focused more on teaching kids how to learn, not what.

Change is happening right under our noses. We’re in the midst of it every day as we move to modernize the Canadian education system, improve our classrooms, and nurture the next generation of learners. But are we actually transforming education? Will we witness a disruptive moment similar to Uber in the taxi industry or Netflix in the movie rental business?

I’m not so sure. I’m not even sure we should be chasing it.

There’s something comforting about the notion of schools as community gathering places where we meet face-to-face and make strong personal connections that have always been deeply rooted in education. Schools, by their very nature, will always need to balance tradition and new ways of thinking. Our transformation has to be slower because we have to be sure we’re bringing everybody along with us: administrators, teachers, students and parents alike.

One way to facilitate change is to model the system we are trying to create. I blog because I know it’s hard to do. It’s difficult to find time and you need to be brave enough to leave your innermost thoughts out there for scrutiny.

Students face the same challenges when we ask them to create digital portfolios; teachers when we expect them to develop class websites or start sending tweets. It’s easier to say we need to change things in the classroom if we’re also making changes ourselves.

Ask yourself if your school board is modelling the same modern experience you wish to see portrayed in your schools. Is the business office side collaborating with the education side? Have you introduced technology like Skype to conduct meetings? Are you still working in silos?

At West Vancouver Schools, we make a point of integrating business and education. When we hold a learning showcase, our Human Resources Director, Facilities Director and Secretary Treasurer are just as engaged as our Directors of Instruction, and they believe they should be. Our office spaces have shifted to an open concept model with furniture that facilitates sharing.

Sometimes there’s this belief out there that educators are not onside with change. I would argue it’s the exact opposite: teachers get into teaching to excite kids about learning and help them connect that learning to life outside the school building. What better time to be doing that than right here, right now?

Our culture of learning in Canada is constantly shifting. Continue to support teachers, encourage them to follow their passions and step outside of their comfort zones. Most importantly, foster change by being willing to change yourself.

 

 

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ComputerVSPaper-640x229I have an anti-technology bias.

There I said it.  I am working on it.

This is probably a strange statement to see coming from me.  I have hundreds of blog posts that might suggest just the opposite.  I have been a regular cheerleader for the power of digital tools in the classroom.  I have hundreds of emails coming and going each day and get jittery when my iPhone battery falls to 20%.

Maybe it is age, maybe it is complacency, or maybe it is easier to just fit in with the crowd – but too often recently I have taken a jaded, and sometimes cynical view of technology, and that needs to change.

My friend and colleague Dean Shareski made a great presentation early in the summer at a conference hosted by the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association where he argued that sometimes actually it is about the technology.  A regular line in most of my talks over the last few years, and one that gets repeated over and over again by many others is “it is not about the technology”.  And Dean is right, it is kind of about the technology sometimes.  And just like I know I am about to be mightily disrespected when someone starts a sentence with “No disrespect intended” many of the awesome examples shared after someone says, “it is not about the technology” really wouldn’t happen without the technology.

The distinction being made is that the goal is the learning and the technology is there to support the learning.  It is an argument that Michael Fullan has been making for a number of years focused on the right and wrong system drivers.  I think we can let people off the hook when we too casually say “it is not about the technology” – because sometimes it is about the technology.  Whether it is new portfolios, connecting with students across the world or getting feedback from a public audience, to some degree, it is about the technology.

Another interesting point that Dean made was that all the talk about technology disrupting communities – the same could be said for books and newspapers in previous generations.  With books and newspapers, people no longer had to connect face-to-face to receive information.  There are many photos like this one circulating on the internet that we romanticize as the good ol’ days:

reading

While at the same time when we see a family like this, we shake our heads and wonder why they can’t just be “present” with each other:

Family using cell phones at home. Children, parents. Technology.

And if Dean hadn’t done enough to make me come to grips with my growing anti-technology bias Pokémon Go came along and I felt like an old man wanting to yell at the neighbourhood kids to get off his lawn and stop making so much noise.  I went out for a walk at 10 PM and the community was full of mostly young people searching for Pokémon.  I was shaking my head – great –  another example of kids wasting time on their phones.  It took me until the following day to actually realize how awesome this was.  Young people were out walking, exploring, connecting and having fun.  If they had clipped a treasure map out of the local newspaper I would have thought it was awesome.  But there was my bias on display.

I have been reading a lot from Peter Diamandis, Clay Shirky and others lately to challenge my complacency.  Their thinking have helped me get back on course.  I am an unapologetic believer that the future is exciting, and that technology plays an important role in opening up amazing opportunities for our schools and beyond.  And so I will spend a little less time shaking my head at those on their Smart Phones, or playing the latest online game.

It is easy to slip into a “glass is half empty” mindset.

I know, everything in moderation – but sometimes it is about the technology and there is a lot to be excited about.

 

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remix

Growing up, I rarely bought albums from individual artists. Why buy albums from Shaggy, Seal and Weezer when I could get one album with “Boombastic”, “Kiss from a Rose” and “Buddy Holly” along with 14 other great hits in one collection?  I loved that some musical experts would take the best hits from a number of artists and package them together.  Before we had iTunes we had compilation albums.

I was talking with a colleague about George Couros’ new book The Innovator’s Mindset and she said, “He doesn’t really say anything new, he just pulls together what everyone is saying.”  YES.  Exactly.  And that is why I like it so much.  I could find much of what is in Couros’ book the on web – embedded in websites and blogs across the internet.  But he did the hard work for me and pulled together a collection of some of the very best thinking across the continent and clarifies for those of us who think we are already doing the next thing, that there are many others on related journeys.

The book serves as reassurance and also a pep talk for those of us on the innovation journey. Above all, the book models the power of network.  While we can get hung up in the tools – be it Facebook, Twitter, blogs – there is no doubt this book and this narrative don’t happen without Couros’ ability to build and sustain a powerful learning network.  I read and interacted with this book differently than any other paper book I have owned.  I followed the conversation on Twitter, saw the reaction on Facebook and clicked to learn more on Couros’ blog about the key themes of the book.

The book that was the model of networking gave me new people to follow in my network.  It was a networked book about networking in education (knowing George a little I am sure he would appreciate that it was like a coffee table book about coffee tables).   The questions at the end of each chapter like “How might you create an environment that fosters risk-taking?”  are great discussion starters.

So like my Now! cassette tape (which I still have), Couros has done a great job of pulling together thinking from very different contexts into a common narrative and forcefully making the case that we need to continue to challenge the status quo – and know as we are doing it there are many others doing the same.

Couros’ book is a great summer read and also would be a solid choice for a school book club.  Two other books I have just ordered for summer reading based on recommendations from colleagues are The Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, and The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett.  I think it is always good to read both inside and outside of education.  Curious to know what are on others summer reading lists.

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leader

I attend a lot of Superintendent events where there are discussions on the digital transitions of districts.  These discussions  are often about how “we” need to change, and far too often these conversations are being held in very traditional ways.  One is left often believing that the changes are about other people and not really about those leading the system.

This past week I was meeting with colleagues from across the continent and leading a conversation around digital leadership for superintendents. What was impressive is that in some very simple ways, Superintendents are finding ways to lead digitally.  I do think the questions about whether digital leaders have to lead digitally is really rhetorical.  We are part of a learning system, we need to be learners ourselves.

So, what are some easy entry points for Superintendents?

Model

There are so many ways to model the power of the digital tools.  There are big steps like investing in a regular blog, medium-sized steps like starting social media accounts and small steps like collaboratively building a meeting agenda in a shared document.  I was interested to hear from one superintendent that co-constructs her Board agenda through a collaborative Google doc.

Engage

More and more district leaders are finding voice and connections through social media.  While some still use these platforms as a one way communication channel and worry about the push-back from constituents others are finding the power of building connections and relationships in social media and that the interactions are not a waste of time but really an investment.

Explore

I loved to hear of the variety of tools that Superintendents use to make their work easier, more engaging and connect with students, staff and community. To highlight just two, one Superintendent spoke of his work with VoiceBo – an app that acts as a voice recorder.  When visiting various classrooms he will often times use the app with the students where he records and shares their voices.   As he said, “what students don’t want to share and have the superintendent record what they are doing.”  Another tool that was new to me was Slack – a tool that a number of school districts are doing to better connect and cut down on the email clutter.

Attend

As I have written before, where leaders spend their time matters.

I have argued that digital literacy is really just becoming literacy.  It is implied that digital is just part of the large expected meaning of literacy.  The same line of thinking needs to hold true for digital leadership.  For those who hold leadership positions in education, really being a digital leader is just being a leader.  We need to be continuing to upgrade our skills and be pushed to use the tools and engage with the mindset we expect of our students and teachers.

This really takes two parts – superintendents need to be in classes where teachers are pushing new ways to engage digitally and they also need to attend professional events that allow them to learn from and with colleagues on the paths other schools and districts are taking on the digital journey.

I have been very hard on traditional conferences in my blog posts.  There are some major events I refuse to attend now since they continue to perpetuate learning about the new things in the same old ways.  What was great about the Superintendent Digital Transition Symposium was that is modeled many of the new ways we are trying to engage.  There were some traditional lecture presentations, but there were also student discussions, gallery walks, hands-on activities, chances to engage digitally and choice in how, where and with who we learned.  If we are going to come together face-to-face there needs to be value added over traditional conferences.  This event is one of the few that I have attended that has started to realize this.

Conclusions

I am reminded when I connect with other districts, that if I am looking for a district leading the way thinking about digital engagement there is almost always a Superintendent trying to figure it out for herself how she can lead digitally.  I am also reminded that slowly the word digital is disappearing in front of the word leadership – in the very new future it will just be leadership and digital will just be one of the expectations when we use the word leader.

 

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Multi Ethnic People Holding The Word Blogging

If five years ago I looked into my crystal ball, I would have said that in 2016, all staff and students would have blogs.  These would be spaces of reflection and also for portfolios.  I would have said that they would be text based, but increasingly have video content.  I would have said that we would be increasingly wired to comment on each other’s work and have gained skills in giving public, constructive feedback and commentary.

While blogging isn’t dead, its fate in the schools of 2016 is not what I envisioned.  It seems like a lot of people have tried blogging, and while some continue the internet is littered with abandoned education blogs.    I would like to agree with fellow educational blogger Martin Weller that “the future of blogging is blogging.”

I have written several times about my experiences during the 2010 Winter Olympics. During the Games I worked with a group of students who served as student reporters covering the action through their blogs.  It was defining for me in my thinking.  I saw students producing content for the real-world, getting immediate feedback and saw the quality of their writing improve as they felt the pressure of writing for a public audience.

My colleague Gary Kern, who joined me on the Olympic project, was the architect of our work in West Vancouver that saw every student get a blog.  And led by Cari Wilson, we got students, classes and schools blogging across the district.  We had blog challenges, and we had adults highlighting student blogs, and we grew the community.

So here is a (somewhat random) collection of things that has happened in the last five years which has led away from all blogging, both for students and the adults in our district:

  • we have moved to collaborative spaces like Google Docs that allow multiple thinking outside the blog format
  • instead of seeing blogs as “home base” for videos, photos etc. we have seen the growth of Instagram and YouTube and sustained presence of Facebook and Twitter which are often used as blogs – social media engagement is fragmented across various platforms.
  • once everyone started writing, people began to comment less and less on other people’s writing
  • the theory was that adults would model how to comment on blogs and then kids would learn and follow – unfortunately adults have been terrible models . . . one only has to look at the number of news sites that have shut comments off because of the immature and often hateful commentary
  • some of our blogging tools we used were cumbersome and have not adapted as quickly as our other digital tools
  • it is hard to sustain momentum – with ‘Hour of Code’, robotics, FreshGrade, Google Docs, there are a lot of digital tools and initiatives looking for our attention

Dean Shareski tweeted, “Blogs are like rock and roll and jazz. A one time popular genre, now a niche.”  Maybe.  We had the boost from the outside this past week working with George Couros, and at least for now, some of the excitement is back.

I no longer say things like ”Everyone needs to have a blog” but I still would hope that people would see the powerful value of owning a digital space of their own.

I love blogging.  It gives me a voice.  It is a place for me to work through ideas.  It is a portfolio. It is my home base.  The jury is still out if others see it the same.

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best

I have given several Ignite Presentations. I really like the format – one is forced to be clear, direct and succinct in the presentation. I also enjoy that it gives one the chance to be provocative with the intention to stimulate discussion.

My most recent one I gave this at C21 Canada’s national session with Superintendents was entitled, “They Used to Be Our Best Teachers”.

This was a chance (some provocatively) to reflect on the work of the last decade.  It is actually quite amazing how much has changed.  Our classrooms do look very different from only ten years ago.  It has been an interesting journey.  The case for change in our community has been made in a system that is regarded as one of the very finest in the world.  We had to challenge the “why change” argument.  And while we saw the changes in professions from journalism to health care and demise of businesses like Blockbuster Video and Kodak – it was really about embracing the notion that you don’t have to be sick to get better.

And we have learned a lot.  In retrospect, we should have focused more of our conversation of the last decade around the simple question – is it good for kids?  Too often, especially early on, we got in black and white debates like – should we use inquiry?  do we need computers in the classroom?  Of course these really were not the right questions.  And many of us also felt a sense of loss as teaching changed.  I loved being the content expert at the front of the room, and when people said I should be the “guide at the side” I felt a loss.  And I know others did as well and sometimes this loss presented itself as opposition.

And more recently, we have got help in the transformation.  New curriculum in British Columbia has made us all look at our practice in the classroom, changes in International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Programs have signaled the spread of the changes, and all partner groups in BC have found common ground in their efforts around curriculum, assessment and related matters.

What is so exciting now is that we are often celebrating teachers who were our best teachers “the old way” and now are our finest “the new way” – of course in the end teaching is such a human undertaking.  And while notions of change and transformation are not static, and the movement has been far more messy and less linear than I might have thought, and there is always the possibility that a system snaps-back, it is exciting to see how far we have come.

The real conclusion of this Ignite Talk is not what we need to do, but a celebration of what we have done and the directions we are going.

I know sharing a presentation without the audio and video often loses its context, but here is a copy of the slides (if you are viewing this via email you may need to open your browser to see the slides):

One of the great takeaways from the event was the consistent threads that ran through the presentations from Superintendents across Canada.  While we all in very different contexts, the system goals we are trying to accomplish are far more similar than they are different.  And while education falls under provincial jurisdiction, there sure seems to be some great opportunities for national conversations about the future of learning and schooling.

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out thereI am often told that in the type of job I hold, it is better to say nothing. I am told it is a no-win situation, if you communicate, no matter how positive the message there will be some who take issue to what you say, how you say it, or twist your words and use them against you. And I have experienced all of that.

I do think it is our job to be out there.  And while the most important messages that parents receive from the system are from their child’s teacher, and the next most important are usually from the school’s principal, it is also important for superintendents to communicate directly to families.

In the digital world, this message can take many forms and often needs to come in multiple forms to reach people.  I know this blog is just one way to connect to our community.

This past week, I sent out the following back-to-school email to all the parents in our school district:

Our schools were open last week, preparing classes, planning activities and taking some time to reflect on the past and the future of education. We enjoyed welcoming all our new and returning families today, and hope that you’ve had an enjoyable summer break.

Over the summer, I heard many remark on how good it will be to get back to a ‘normal’ school year. And while I understand where that’s coming from, in light of the challenges we faced a year ago, this year in West Vancouver Schools, I’m asking our teachers, students and parents to challenge the validity of normal. As I wrote about in my blog, The Culture of Yes, normal is about average, and as many who work, learn and teach in our district already know, West Vancouver Schools is an exceptional place.

On Thursday last week, as we do every year, we launched the new school year by inviting all staff to attend an Opening Day morning event, followed by an afternoon of professional development. We were so privileged this year to hear from one of the world’s foremost experts in education, Dr. Yong Zhao. His ideas are inspiring, especially in light of the move towards the new curriculum.

Dr. Zhao spoke passionately about the evidence that shows all schools need to move away from educating for the average, to educating the individual. Rather than fixing ‘deficits’, we need to help children become great, achieve their autonomy and enhance their potential.

Fortunately, this work has been underway for some time in the district, with our work on project-based learning, inquiry, self-regulation and digital literacy. The curriculum doesn’t teach – teachers do that. A litany of specific education outcomes does not guarantee success, student motivation, passion and talent contribute to that outcome.
We are, I am proud to say, making sure that our students not only understand the facts – which are widely available in the digital age – but also understand how to interpret them and use them creatively to solve the right problems.

We are teaching kids to take on a world that is far different than it is today. It is critical to instill the creativity, confidence, compassion and resilience that young people need to embrace those changes.

Along with the Board of Trustees and my colleagues at West Vancouver Schools, we wish you a successful and pleasant year ahead!

I never know how many people read these emails that I send out, but I know from those who respond that there is definitely some engagement.  I always get some very kind responses, appreciative of the information and always some that take issue with the topic – that is what happens when you put yourself out there.  Whether the concern is about the role of technology in schools and more broadly in society or whether personal experiences in schools are reflective of what I am saying – the engagement is encouraging.

This past time I was struck by two particular responses – one from a mother in Italy who wrote:

My son started just yesterday his school year and is absolutely thrilled about West Vancouver school, new friends and the programs that can be accessed.  I look forward to hearing about you and any news you will forward to me

and from a father from Germany who wrote in part:

I am very proud that my son is taking part in this terms school program to learn, how different countries estimate the importance of educational background in complete different ways. In Germany we have nowadays a huge discussion about inclusion on the one hand and reduction of school years. What we do not have, and it hurts me to say it this clear, is a discussion about elite in the most positive meaning of the word, about investment in the most precious „resource“ we have — our children and their education.

What a great reminder that we are really communicating for a global audience.  I sometimes get stuck in my thinking that my messages are going out to the people within a few mile radius, in my mind who have always been here, and with whom I already have a largely shared experience.  Of course this is not true.

In our schools which have students from around the world, coming from a range of systems and experiences, messaging with them is not only a nice thing, but the right thing.  The revised curriculum conversation in British Columbia may be covered on our local 6:00 news, but we need to reach all of our families and engage them in our conversation.  And whether one lives around the block or on the other side of the world, continually coming back to messages of what we are doing and where we are going are crucial.

Some good first week reminders for me.

I do think with the power of the tools we have, we need to take up the opportunity to communicate more than just when we are thinking about closing schools because of snow.

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