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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

There is an absolute rhythm to a school-year. It was more pronounced for me when I was in a school, but I still see it here in the Board Office. There is the excitement of September as students and staff come back fresh off of vacation. There is the reality of late October as interim reports hit in high school. In December – it is a double hit: Christmas Concerts and first-term reports. Then in the new year you can feel this build up towards spring break and then we return in April and the weather (is usually) better, we begin to look for ways to pull the year’s learning together, celebrate achievements and keep and eye on next year.

Of course, during all 10 months (and really all 12 months) we are always asking people to think differently, to push innovation and look for new and better ways of supporting our learners.  I have been wondering if there are specific times of year that people are more curious, more open and more engaged in these conversations.

With only anecdotal data, here are the four key times I find that people want to talk about innovation:

October – By October, the school year has started, and classes are settled.  In high school, it is in October that teachers and departments already need to look ahead to what they might want to offer the following year and begin the approval process.  We are comfortable in what we are doing in October but not to the heaviness of November.

Mid-February – I find January to Spring Break to be the sweet spot for moving ideas forward in schools.  I think students are the most focused during this term.  There seem to be fewer distractions than the first and third term for everyone.  If I was to differentiate this period to the other ones, I see this one as the time when people try new things with their practice.  The other times people are often looking ahead to what they might do next term or next year – in this window of time, people are implementing new ideas – taking what they learned from conferences, workshops or colleagues and trying it in their class.  I would love to see if my hypothesis is true that the most “new stuff” in classes happens in the middle of February.

May –  May feels a bit like October when it comes to innovation.  People are looking at next year but they are not into the field trip / track meet / graduation ceremonies of June.  It seems to definitely be the time when people have one eye on this year and one on next year.  It is the season of teacher postings, administrative changes and also a time when people look at what they might want to do differently.

Last Week of June / First Week of July – I get more emails about new ideas at this time of year than at any other point.  I often say that everyone has some “thinking time” at this point in the year.  School – regardless of your role – is all-consuming so it is finally once report cards are in and classes are being dismissed and before “summer holidays” really kick-in that people have some time to think about what they might want to do differently or put together and email about a proposal they have been ruminating on for a while .

I am sure all jobs have a rhythm.  I do find the seasons in school to be very pronounced.  I see a lot of if it X month, you can be sure that Y will happen.  As we look to move our schools and our system, we need to be conscious of this and look for the windows when people are ready to talk about doing things differently.  I am curious if what I see with the times of year are consistent with others.

 

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dotsIf education in British Columbia made news over the last few years, it was almost exclusively around the ongoing labour issues.  With new contracts in place now for teachers and support staff, there is more of an opportunity for other education stories to hit the mainstream news – whether that is television, radio or newspapers.  There have been quite a few recent stories, that might at first glance appear to be unrelated, but are all very much connected and part of a larger story – one of quite a shift happening in education, both in BC and around the world.  For regular readers of this and other educator’s blogs, this might almost seem passé, the shifts happening have been well covered inside the profession, but now, in between stories of hospital wait-times and transit plans, there is some space for some important education issues to be part of a larger public dialogue.

My broad sweeping generalization about the current changes in education around curriculum, reporting, innovation, and related topics is that students and families who are engaged and part of the change are excited, and as one moves out from them to the broader community, there is increased concern, skepticism and distrust.  While families in a class that has moved away from using letter grades in elementary school to more descriptive feedback may appreciate the way the reporting support improved learning, those at a distance may see this a edu mumble-jumble and a lowering of standards in the system.

I want to take three recent stories – read in isolation they are interesting – but collectively tell a larger story, and open up a large, rich and important conversation.

From January 29th, Tamsyn Burgmann of The Globe and Mail, wrote a story on a forum hosted by the BC Ministry of Education  and included all key educational partners and a number of International experts, including internationally known scholar, author, and speaker Yong Zhao, who is extensively referenced in the quote below:

The province should revolutionize the system by shifting the teaching emphasis to nurture every child’s individual passion and talents. The concept is called personalized learning, and gives both students and teachers more space to explore their diverse abilities.

“To be creative, to be entrepreneurial, you cannot skip the basics,” Dr. Zhou told the room. “But the basics should come after we have a passion. Sometimes we do the basics and we have killed people’s interest.”

His call for innovation comes at the same time B.C. teachers are administering the standardized Foundation Skills Assessment tests to children in Grades 4 and 7, and as the province’s education minister announced a new education strategy.

Minister Peter Fassbender told the forum the government is partnering with educators to identify several schools throughout the province to pilot programs that swap the focus to individualized learning. 

Work around personalized learning is well underway in West Vancouver, with teachers and schools focusing in inquiry, student passion projects, unique community partnerships and other initiatives give students real world learning experiences.

A week later, Tracy Sherlock of the Vancouver Sun wrote about reporting in the age of social media:

Report cards are entering the social media age as new software called FreshGrade allows real-time sharing and reporting on student progress.

Tracy Cramer, a kindergarten teacher at Richard Bullpit Elementary School in Langley, has been using FreshGrade  since the beginning of this school year and says she loves it because it makes communicating with parents so easy and it makes doing her students’ report cards relatively painless.

“Teachers get anxious around this time because of report cards. But I have all my evidence there … so I just have to go in and add a few comments and my report cards are done,” Cramer said.

She says the program gives the kids — even in kindergarten — ownership of their work.

“They will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’” Cramer said. “I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.”

And at the same time, a number of local news outlets picked up on a petition started by a parent in North Saanich to take a look at the state of math instruction – calling for a back-to-basics approach.  The CBC was one of those outlets to pick up the story:

A North Saanich parent has started a petition against new math learning methods currently being adopted as part of the province’s revamped curricula for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Tara Houle launched the petition, which calls for the return of traditional learning like rote memorization of multiplication tables. So far the petition has gathered more than 500 signatures.

“What I find is the biggest challenge is at the elementary level where we have a lot of math concepts being introduced to kids at a very young age,” said Houle. “It completely overwhelms their minds.”

Houle wants kids to develop a strong foundation of math skills before trying to learn “higher-order concepts.”

She believes new learning methods don’t stand up to research that supports explicit, direct instruction and memorization, adding that the U.K. and Australia had abandoned the new methods since adopting them.

Three different stories yet all linked. Part of the challenge with change in education is that one cannot change one part, without changing other parts as well.  If you alter the curriculum, you need to change assessment.  And if you modify assessment in K-12, you need to be sure it aligns with post-secondary admissions.  And if you are moving individual parts, you need to develop new models to lead the way on what the future of learning can look like.  And while you are doing all of this, you have to continue to ensure you have some social licence – some acceptance and approval from stakeholders and the broader community.

And on these three  items – what do I think?  I think encouraging innovation is a good thing and networking teachers and schools together is the right way to do it – so much better than a top-down approach.  I think assessment is changing and has been changing for many years.  My crystal ball says that we will be less reliant on letter grades in five years and that is a good thing.  And I think the math conversation is not a black / white dialouge.  There are fundamentals that all students absolutely need and they must be able to apply these concepts.  A return to the math teaching of a generation ago is not the answer – just ask how many parents had a good experience with math growing up but math teaching is a healthy discussion as it helps parents better understand what they can do to support their children at home.

But, as I said, the shifts are not just about these three issues – they are broader and it is heartening to see the media bringing these issues forward so we can have the rich discussions about teaching and learning for now and into the future.

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Groundhog Day

The 1993 Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, is a guilty pleasure of mine.  I have probably seen it a half-dozen times.  The movie features Murray as a self-centered meteorologist in a perpetual time-loop reliving February 2nd and the coverage of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Murray tries various ways to break the loop, but regardless of whatever he tries, he finds himself waking up on to the radio alarm flashing the date of February 2nd and playing I Got You Babe by Sonny & Cher.

Over the course of the movie, as Murray lives the day over and  learns more about how the day unfolds, he takes better advantage of this knowledge to improve himself and help as many people as possible around the town.  The movie’s ‘feel good’ ending sees the loop broken when he awakes on February 3rd having won the heart of leading lady, Andie MacDowell.

So, just what does this have to do with education?

Sometimes I feel a bit like we are stuck in the Groundhog Day loop. The scene plays out something like this: we wake up the Tuesday morning after Labour Day with I Got You Babe playing in the background, and travel through the excitement of September, the gray and toil of November, the budget angst of March and the celebration and excitement of June only to go to sleep on June 30th, waking up on the Tuesday after Labour Day to do it all over again. And we treat our work a bit like Murray treats the day — we try to do last year over, hopefully a little better, hopefully a little smarter for the experience.  We try to see the problems before they happen and to be better at our craft.

The challenge, unlike in the movie where all the characters are the same and it is only Murray that is different, is that our world and our students’ world are rapidly changing. So, simply repeating last year a little better is not good enough.  And, as easy as it seems to try to do last year over again, and next year just slightly better, this simply does not recognize the dramatic shifts that are occurring in our world.  Not only do we have to do last year over better (a focus on improvement), we also have to try to do it differently to meet the changing needs of our students (a focus on innovation).  I am reminded of something I have heard at several professional learning events — we want to teach for 25 years, not for one year, repeated 25 times.

As we put the final wraps on another school year, I am beginning to think about how next year will be both better and different, and I Got You Babe will not be the first song I hear as I head back to school in September.

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I am often asked “just what is the Culture of Yes?”  Although the ‘culture’ continues to evolve, it is still the belief system as I set out to define in my address on my first day as Superintendent:

It is the “culture of yes”, we have and will continue to foster — one that embraces new ideas and new ways to look at learning and organize learning; a “culture of yes” that supports innovation and creativity for both learners and teachers, knowing this is how we will continue to evolve.  It is a “culture of yes” that touches on the passions we entered the profession with, and that may have sometimes been lost along the way, but hopefully, found again.

It was interesting to see Seth Godin, who I have often referenced, take up a similar theme in his recent post, On Behalf of Yes:

Yes, it’s okay to ship your work.

Yes, you’re capable of making a difference.

Yes, it’s important.

Yes, you can ignore that critic.

Yes, your bravery is worth it.

Yes, we believe in you.

Yes, you can do even better.

Yes.

Yes is an opportunity and yes is an obligation. The closer we get to people who are confronting the resistance on their way to making a ruckus, the more they let us in, the greater our obligation is to focus on the yes.

There will always be a surplus of people eager to criticize, nitpick or recommend caution. Your job, at least right now, is to reinforce the power of the yes.

Seth’s blog brings to mind a story I recently heard regarding innovation and education in England.  The government proposed to their education system they could apply to have any rules, laws, etc. suspended in the name of innovation (there is currently a similar initiative in BC).  Those who wanted to ‘not comply’ had to make application to the government with the appropriate rationale.  The project’s one major finding was over 80% of applications received were unnecessary. Why? Because the rules that hundreds of educators had applied to have suspended didn’t actually exist.  I think this general challenge is also true in British Columbia — we believe we are more restricted by laws, rules and legislation than we actually are (possibly by rules that don’t exist, as well) thereby justifying the belief that innovation is not possible and we continue to accept the Status Quo.

In education, more than any other profession, we need to continue to promote YES; “yes” for the teacher embracing formative assessment discouraged by the parent who claims this is not how they were assessed in school; “yes” for the school that cannot re-imagine their programs in their current, highly successful system; “yes” for the people to take the risk knowing the road to change is long and challenging.

And, it is certainly nice to know there are others pushing  for YES.

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This is an updated version of a previous post and is published in the September 2012 Issue of School Administrator.

It’s impossible to attend an education event today without someone on stage passionately calling out for more innovation. It’s probably the most widely used word in my blog posts as well.

Discussions about innovation permeate much of what I have been addressing in our school district. The innovation label applies to all manner of things — ideas, methods, programs — and pretty much anything that differs from current practice.

Yet the challenge is that, for every new program we add to the K-12 system, we also must shed an existing program. As it is, the general public and the educators point out that we are trying to do too much, to cover too much ground. In many U.S. jurisdictions and in British Columbia where I reside, in order to provide a competitive slate, we try to meet the expectations of parents by offering a curriculum jammed full of options. At the same time, we struggle to address the standards established by our ministries of education. Putting the two together, we create a curriculum too full, one bursting at the seams.

Unfortunately, we are better at initiating programs than we are at ending them, even when they have outgrown their usefulness.

The Test of Time
In the resulting litmus test, it has become apparent that some ideas, interventions, courses or programs have a shelf life after which effectiveness disintegrates. The world is constantly changing, and we need to reflect that process of ongoing change in all that we do.

This is particularly true of initiatives intended to encourage the use of technology and digital literacy. I’ve watched a steady evolution away from the “learning with technology” approach toward a broad-based integration of information technologies into our learning systems. We no longer need to teach K-12 students  how to use computers, but we find our curricula so overburdened that it is difficult to make room for programs that would encourage that integration.

The problem is that we are much better at starting initiatives than ending them. Even when existing programs no longer connect with students, we often protect them because our investment of resources, in one way or another, into some of these programs dissuades us from abandoning them. On the other hand, holding on to these programs limits the development of new programs and learning experiences for students.

It’s something of a Catch 22 because we know new innovations need time to take root and grow. We have tried running all the courses from the previous year along with the new ones proposed (to the same students), but sign-up is fragmented, and many courses are cancelled because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop.

The Solution?
So what’s the answer? Well, I believe we need to take a cue from the private
sector, which fully understands that it is necessary to let go of the old and make room for the new. When innovations no longer work, they are abandoned, or the company goes under. The concept provides us with a direction forward.

A case in point: Diane Nelson, who nurtures our school district’s sports academy programs, proposed and launched a field hockey academy.
It didn’t work out; so, instead of trying to force the field hockey academy to work, she dropped the idea and now has started a baseball academy, which drew sufficiently high registration to launch this fall. She knew to walk away from one and to reinvest in another, continuing the search to find programs to
meet the needs of our students and their families.

When someone says that our kids should be doing more “X,” it is usually
difficult to disagree, whether that might be financial literacy, cross-curricular
experiences, physical activity, workplace experience, self-directed
inquiry or some other wonderful, innovative program. To keep on adding
“X” will eventually work against us, covering more superficially, and preventing students from digging deeper in their learning.

When courses disappear or school rituals retire, it should not be seen
as negative. It represents progress. Many ideas have a shelf life. So, while
we are really good at celebrating all the new notions in education today,
we shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the need to cull innovations
along the way.

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“Innovation” is all the rage, and it is probably the most used word in my blog posts as well.  However, there are a lot of new ideas and methods that become wrapped up under the innovation label.  A particular challenge is that, for everything new we add to the K-12 system, we also need to determine what will come out. Currently, we are  trying to address a jammed-full curriculum, and adding new items without withdrawing other items only exacerbates the challenge.

The first thing we have come to realize is some interventions, ideas, courses, or programs have a shelf life.  It is not that they were wrong decisions, the world changes and our programs need to reflect that change.  I think this is also true with a number of initiatives intended to encourage technology and support digital literacy.  As the use of technology becomes less “learning with technology” and more “learning,” the special initiatives — whether built around one-to-one programs for specific student cohorts, or some distributive learning programs — need to be recognized for the role they have played in moving education forward and then we need to move on.  Of course, we are so much better at starting initiatives than we are at ending them, even when it is time.

This is not failure. When new research is being considered, and when new ideas are being proposed, stopping (before again moving forward) ensures the new innovations have an opportunity to grow. We have tried running all the courses we had last year along with the new ones proposed, to the same students, and sign-up is fragmented, often with many courses being cancelled because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop.  We also can and do protect existing programs, even if they no longer connect with students in the same way they had before, thereby limiting the opportunities for new programs to develop.  It’s a bit of a Catch-22, and it becomes further complicated as teachers have favourite courses they want to teach, and resources invested, but may no longer be a good match for what kids need and want.

In the private sector, where the free market rules, it seems to be much easier to abandon innovations that no longer work.  I give full credit to one of the most creative district principals I know. Diane Nelson, who nurtures our sports academy programs, proposed a field hockey academy, and it didn’t work.  So, instead of trying to force it to work, she moved on, and now she has a baseball academy set for the fall that is highly subscribed.  She knew to walk away from the one, and to reinvest in the other, continuing the search to find programs to meet the needs and wants of our students and their families.

When courses disappear, or school rituals retire, it should not be seen as negative. In many ways, it is progress.  Great ideas have a shelf life, and is often from where other ideas do develop and grow.  So, while we are really good at celebrating all the “new” we are starting in education right now, we shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the need to cull along the way to make a place for the better.

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Title Image credit: markshivers.com

Improvement and innovation need not be an either/or proposition.  While most of the education debate is either around improving our current system, or creating a new one, Valerie Hannon, from the Innovation Unit, in her presentation around Balancing Strategic Priorities, argued for a split screen approach — an approach focussed on improving the system of today while simultaneously designing the system of tomorrow.

Hannon argues that almost all jurisdictions have a range of innovative initiatives, often focused around student ownership, and very often spurred by learning technologies.  At the same time, given the current reality, school improvement must continue.  The challenge, she argues, is the innovator’s and evaluator’s dilemma (slide below) — eventually, the current wave of education results trails off, and we must jump into the next education growth curve.

Clearly, what rings true in so many jurisdictions across North America, is the improvement in literacy and graduation rates over the last 20 years, but we are finding it challenging to move beyond a certain point.  In British Columbia, despite all efforts over the past 10 years, graduation rates have plateaued at around 80%. It is evident, we cannot just ‘do more of the same’, we need to look at doing some things differently.

The need then, is for innovation to overlap with a new wave and not just more of the same wave.

In her presentation, Hannon quoted John Kao, “The most important characteristic of an innovative firm is that it has an explicit system of innovation which pervades the whole organisation, which is visible, known about, generates a stream of new ideas, and is seen as vital to creating new value”. It is what I often try to describe as a Culture of Yes, supporting creativity and innovations for learners and teachers.

The perspective of the two curves, of improvement and innovation, resonates with West Vancouver’s story.  We continue to perform at very high levels, but still look to improve.  Whether it is numeracy, literacy or a host of other skills, we continue our search to improve.  This is our absolute responsibility for all students in our schools right now.  At the same time, we explore and consider the education systems we will need for the future, ones that further embrace flexibility, choice and offer greater personalization of learning.

In essence, school improvement is tantamount to the important transformation work that occurs on the split screen.

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