How do we make our schools amazing places for learners?

amazingOn this blog, we’ve previously looked at how an analysis of our district assessment and evaluation efforts resulted in identifying challenges we need to address to move our digital transformation work forward. One of our focus areas this year is to more clearly articulate a vision – to answer the audacious question, How do we make our schools amazing places for learners? Certainly there are lots of amazing things going on in our schools already! How do we make “amazing” systemic?

Because of this focus, I was drawn to watch Will Richardson’s recent TEDx talk, The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools. In this post, I’ll briefly share Richardson’s questions and his proposed process to a solution followed by my thoughts on applying his ideas in my own practice as a school leader.

Richardson’s Thoughts

The question: How do we make our schools amazing places for learners?

Richardson poses this and several additional ambitious yet actionable questions about the current state of our educational system:

  • Why is there a disconnect between what we believe about the conditions for powerful learning and what we practice in our schools? Why do we continue on the path that creates a disconnect between what we believe and what we practice?
  • Why does the learning students do on their own look so different from the way they learn in school? How might we rebuild schools for real-world learning?

A path to a solution

Richardson believes we already know how to make schools amazing places for learners. He asks whether we have the courage to take the following actions:

  1. Assemble educators, parents and policymakers to articulate beliefs about how kids learn best. These beliefs should be articulated and publicly shared as in the examples of Lakes Grammar School, Melville Senior High School and Science Leadership Academy.
  2. Align teaching and learning practices in the classroom to the articulated beliefs. Richardson briefly shares three schools where alignment is evident: The Mosaic Collective, Northern Beaches Christian School, and Science Leadership Academy.

My Reactions

Applying the solution in practice

As practitioners, we know this two-step path is easier said than done, but it is a valid approach to bring about systemic change. As I reflect on the two-step solution and how it applies in my own practice, three considerations surface:

    1. Leadership is critical. Making systems amazing places for learners requires leadership at the top of the organization to not only have a clear destination in mind, (to “get it”) but the skills and influence to build consensus among all stakeholders about what they believe about teaching and learning. Without engaged leadership, change will continue to be limited to pockets of classrooms and teachers. Last spring, I visited one of our elementary parent organizations to engage them in an activity to uncover their beliefs about learning. The process was productive and the results were valuable and interesting. I am looking forward to repeating this process with parents and educators this coming spring and sharing it out on this blog.
    2. Listening to learner voice is critical. We can learn a lot from the “end user.” As beliefs and values are articulated, leaders must be certain to engage the voices of students. Over the past several years, our district leadership has scheduled regular conversations with diverse groups of students, K-12. This year, our focus has been on better understanding how learners learn, collaborate and communicate inside and outside of school. We plan future conversations around a design challenge, schools of the future, and their thoughts on the inquiry, What does the future of learning look like to me?
    3. Aligning classroom practices and beliefs is the most challenging work. While it may be enough of a challenge to gain consensus on a set of beliefs and values, the heavy lifting comes with bridging the gap between the vision and actual practice – developing and implementing action plans for change. While we haven’t reached this step yet, I anticipate we will explore major shifts in instruction and operations such as (1) use of time, (2) systems of assessment and evaluation, (3) student-centered instructional strategies, (4) use of technology, (5) changing roles of teachers and learners, and (6) new learning from our Innovate Salisbury project. Additional complexity will come to the process from the prioritization of the articulated changes and shifting our use of professional learning time to best prepare our staff for the implementation of the action plans.

Be sure to take 15 minutes to watch the full talk, The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools. I’m sure Richardson’s powerful ideas will prompt some new thinking for you as they did for me. We can make “amazing” systemic!

How are your schools already amazing places for learning? How are you making “amazing” a reality in every classroom throughout the system? If you’re not the top leadership in your school or district, how do you lead up? (More on leading up in a future post…)


3 Key Components of Digital Transformation – Pt. 3: Evaluate it

evaluationTwo weeks ago, we started to explore the key components behind a successful digital transformation. In Pt. 1, we focused on the foundation of every digital transformation – Lead it. Last week in Pt. 2 we emphasized professional learning as a key piece of Support it. In this third and final week, we’ll explore facets of Evaluate it. As mentioned in Pt. 1, while these components are presented in a linear fashion, the process of digital transformation is recursive and never ending. The challenge of digital transformation is balancing and addressing all three components simultaneously on some level – Lead it. Support it. Evaluate it.

Evaluate it.

There are many reasons you will want to evaluate your digital transformation: to understand how and where teaching and learning are evolving, to determine if the financial investment is paying off, to measure progress toward meeting project goals, and to support shifting action plans with data. To best support your efforts to evaluate your transformation, you’ll want to focus on two areas: (1)  adopting an evaluation framework or process; (2) using the results to move your transformation to the next level.

Your evaluation framework

As a result of monitoring our digital transformation for several years, we developed a framework to help guide us through the process of evaluation and assessment. Our framework includes the following:

  • What are the goals of the transformation? Goals are too often overlooked! What are you working for? What changes in teaching and learning do you want to see in the classroom? Clearly identify these so everyone is clear on where the work is heading.
  • Who is your audience?  Decide who needs to know about the progress of your digital transformation. Community, school board, teachers, parents, taxpayers? This is important to know since it will guide you in your data collection, analysis and reporting.
  • What data will you collect? When answering this question, think about your goals and the data sources that will be most helpful in demonstrating progress. We’ve used a variety of tools to collect a robust sample of data throughout the school year: classroom walkthrough protocol; parent, student and teacher surveys; stories of teaching and learning; honor roll and GPA data; and commercial tools such as the Apple Educational Technology Profile, Apple Educational Leadership Profile and BrightBytes Clarity survey.
  • How will you analyze the data? Ideally, analysis of the data, especially if you have lots of it, should be a collaborative effort. The group should aim to identify strengths and challenges. We have started working with principals to use a data protocol for data analysis and engaging conversations with building leadership teams.
  • How will you share the results? Think about your audience. Will you share at faculty meetings (teachers), school board meetings (school board) and/or on a public web site (community, parents and taxpayers). We have shared the results of our assessment/evaluation at the building level, at school board meetings and on the web.

What’s next?

The most valuable outcome of an evaluation is a snapshot of the transformation at a particular moment in time. The snapshot is what helps determine the evolution of the transformation and how to navigate the changing landscape of “college and career readiness.” As a result of our careful assessment and evaluation, here’s “What’s next?” for us:

  1. Action Research – We want to see more transformational learning opportunities in our classrooms (as defined by SAMR). The questions driving our inquiry are (1) What are the critical factors of success for our teachers who are creating transformational learning experiences?; (2) What factors of success can district and school leaders foster? We have interviewed teachers and will be reporting out on this project in December. We foresee this action research having significant implications for our work in the first area presented in this series, Lead it.
  2. Innovate Salisbury – Thinking long term, we know that we need to explore the “uncommon dots” in education – those ways of “doing” teaching and learning that are not yet common in schools and classrooms – and embedding relevant and appropriate innovations into our vision for teaching and learning. We are currently working with a group of 15 teachers to explore the “uncommon dots.” This exploration will result in a more clearly defined vision for our classrooms in 2020 and the outcomes for our ongoing digital transformation.

For me, there are two important takeaways on the component of evaluation in a digital transformation:

  • Every digital transformation should have clearly defined goals and a plan to document progress toward those goals. Taken together, clear goals and a plan for evaluation are the rudder of an effective digital transformation.
  • Evaluation and assessment require a significant investment of human resources, particularly in the area of time. However, the data collected and results shared will be invaluable in informing the short-term and long-term vision of the initiative.

How has the evaluation/assessment process informed your school/district digital transformation – long-term and short-term? What process have you followed? What have you learned from evaluating your initiative? What are your next steps?

3 Key Components of Digital Transformation – Pt. 2: Support it

supportsLast week we started to explore the key components behind a successful digital transformation. In Pt. 1, we learned some ideas about the first key component – Lead it. In this week’s post we’ll focus on the second component – Support it.

Support it.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  ~Alvin Toffler

Simply providing a digital device for students and staff does not a transformation make. To reach the goal of transforming teaching and learning through digital tools, teachers (and students) will need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. They’ll need to be supported to turn vision into reality. Without regular professional development for teachers and leaders, and rethinking human and financial resources, it is impossible to yield an effective transformation.

Professional Development for Teachers

Be prepared to provide a variety of learning opportunities that align with the goals of your initiative. Just like our students, teachers are at different places in the journey and should be supported wherever they happen to be.

Here’s what we’ve done and are currently doing for our teachers:

  • Build a common language around technology and pedagogy – In the early days of our transformation, professional development took the form of a cohort model over three years, with approximately a third of the teaching staff each year receiving professional development to build common language around both technology and pedagogy.
  • Provide differentiated PD opportunities through choice – Our current goals focus on developing transformational learning opportunities with technology as defined by the SAMR framework and Webb’s Depths of Knowledge. To reach this goal, we are supporting our teachers’ learning by providing a variety of differentiated opportunities through weekly team/grade level meetings, department meetings, Summer Academy and attendance at conferences such as PETE&C, ISTE, the Bucks-Lehigh EduSummit and various Edcamps.
  • Don’t forget the innovative teacher leaders – We are also providing opportunities for our most innovative educators, the Innovate Salisbury Team, to produce their own instructional innovations in areas such as genius hour/20% time, makerspaces and project-based learning.

Professional Development for Leaders

In the first post in this series, we focused on the importance of leadership in the digital transformation process. Your leaders need to be supported, too!

In Salisbury, the leadership team participates in their own professional learning. The team meets monthly in a lunch and learn format. Past topics have included

  • The SAMR framework – As we have implemented our walkthrough protocol focused on SAMR and Webb’s Depths of Knowledge, we have had to “norm the group,” making sure that we have a common understanding of levels of technology use and rigor.
  • Webb’s Depths of Knowledge – Administrators were led through a series of activities to develop a rich understanding of rigor and the Webb’s hierarchy in preparation for leading professional development for teachers. On last year’s opening day, every administrator was responsible for leading a session to introduce the full staff to Webb’s Depths of Knowledge.
  • Transitioning to PA Core – The administrative team participated in various book studies including ASCD’s series on Common Core. This new learning was valuable for administrators to engage teachers in conversations as curriculum was rewritten or updated, depending on content area.
  • Numerous technology tools – Through the years the leadership team has received professional development on the various software tools used by our students and teachers. One of the most memorable, though, was an impromptu professional learning session on Twitter which occurred in the middle of winter. As a leadership team we took good advantage of a 2-hr cold weather delay!

Rethinking Resources

We want our teachers and students to be creative and innovative, designing new products and processes that have value. How can we use your human and financial resources in ways that will more effectively support your digital transformation? How can we model creativity and innovation?

As a result of asking these questions several years ago, we discovered some innovative ways of using our computer technicians and librarians to support our professional development and digital transformation.

  • Computer technicians were hired with expertise in software applications in addition to computer repair.
  • The changing role of the librarian was documented in an updated job description.
  • A new administrative position was created, Supervisor of Instructional Practice, to coordinate the support mechanisms of the digital transformation.

These varied job roles came together in the formation of a support group (we call it TLC, representing technicians, librarians and coaches) to best identify and support the professional learning needs within each school.

For me, there are two important takeaways on the component of support in a digital transformation:

  • Frequent opportunities for professional learning keep your digital transformation goals at the forefront with everyone in the organization focused on transformational learning, professionally and for our students.
  • While everyone needs a common language around technology and pedagogy, effective supports meet teachers and leaders where they are and challenge them to embrace a growth mindset for continuous improvement. Building and district leaders must work collaboratively to ensure the individual and collective needs of teachers and leaders are being met.

In what ways have supports been critical in your school’s digital transformation? How have you approached supporting your teachers and leaders in innovative ways? What additional components of support would you add to this list, such as instructional or technology coaches?

3 Key Components of Digital Transformation – Pt. 1: Lead it

leadership3This coming week I’ll have the opportunity to share the story of our digital transformation in the Salisbury Township School District with an audience of school leaders just beginning their journey. While our work has been documented in detail on (and previously and in our published iBook, I want to prepare a simple message for the audience – one that broadly describes the phases of our journey and inspires the listeners to action.

The simple message of our digital transformation is this: Lead it. Support it. Evaluate it. I will share thoughts and details about each component in a series of three blog posts. In this first post, I’ll focus on Lead it. (While I’m presenting the phases in a linear manner, think of them as cyclical. You’re never really finished!)

Lead it.

The deeper I get into the work of digital transformation (and it’s been almost a decade), the more I see evidence of the importance and value of effective leadership. Digital transformations cannot be successful without leadership on multiple levels – district, school board, building, teacher and student.

District Leadership

If you don’t have district leaders – Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, Director of Curriculum, Director of Technology – who understand the power and potential of digital learning, transformation will be limited to isolated classrooms.

In 2006, our schools had very limited access to technology, and both teaching and learning were rooted in 20th century models. Since then, our vision for teaching and learning and the goals of our digital transformation have largely been driven and coordinated by district level leadership. Today, we have increased access to technology (1:1, grades K-12) and increased use of progressive teaching and learning models. For a glimpse into student learning, instructional design and curriculum design, check out our iBook.

School Board Leadership

Be prepared to invest the time and energy into sharing your vision and goals, and educating the school board around the need for change. They are the gatekeepers of human and financial resources.

Our board meets as a committee of the whole for Curriculum & Technology Committee meetings once a month. Early on, we frequently engaged our board members in conversations about the need to change the way we teach and learn. We reinforced this need through presentations from teachers and students who were embracing the change process. Over many years, board members developed a rich understanding of the vision and need for change. When it came time to provide the human and financial resources, the decision was not a difficult one since the board had witnessed the benefits and understood the need. Today, we continue to have Curriculum & Technology Committee meetings in our school buildings with students and teachers regularly and publicly sharing their work. As our digital transformation develops, the board continues to play an important role, endorsing the vision and providing the resources to support its implementation.

Building Leadership

Principals can make or break the transformation through the manner in which they establish expectations and create opportunities for conversations focused on improving practices in teaching and learning with digital tools.

In line with our digital transformation goals, building principals recently used a data protocol to analyze data from our walkthrough protocol. Building principals then took the data protocol and initial data analysis back to their school leadership teams for further discussion and action planning. Through building leadership, the incremental, day-to-day work of transforming our classrooms is being monitored and adjusted through regular conversation about practice.

Teacher Leadership

Pioneering innovators and those who are naturally intrinsically motivated to tinker and experiment with new ideas, tools and pedagogy will provide valuable inertia as you implement and refine your vision for teaching and learning.

This year we have created the Innovate Salisbury team. Consisting of 15 teachers who have either demonstrated innovative practices in their classroom or an inclination to try something different, the Innovate Salisbury team is working to identify “uncommon dots” in education that could potentially become part of our vision for teaching and learning in 2020. Through the leadership and voice of this group of teachers, we will be reimagining the classrooms for tomorrow.

Student Leadership

Even though students are our “customers” and have valuable insights into how they best learn both inside and outside of school, we too often leave their voices out of our digital transformation efforts.

As we focus on redefining teaching and learning this year, we are actively engaging the voice of our students. Lynn Fuini-Hetten, our Assistant Superintendent, along with our building principals and I have been meeting regularly with students. For our first meeting this year, we asked students to describe how they learn best, inside and outside of school, and how they collaborate. For our future meetings with students, we will work on a STEM-oriented Lego design challenge and engage students in conversation around what the future of learning looks like to them.

For me, there are two important takeaways on the topic of leadership and digital transformation:

  • Take leadership out of a digital transformation and you miss the foundation on which everything else is built.
  • The traditional notion of leadership – people with titles – is no longer valid. For digital transformations to be successful, leadership must be developed and distributed at all levels of the system – district, school board, building, teacher and student.

What role has leadership played in your digital transformation? Which area is a strength? Which area needs more development? Are there areas of leadership you would add to this list?

4 Ways to Move Compliance to the Side of Your Plate

complianceI’m enjoying reading the latest book from Lyle Kirtman and Michael Fullan: Leadership: Key Competencies for Whole-System Change. There are many ideas in this book that will challenge the thinking of most readers. Take for instance the title of Chapter 4 — Moving Compliance to the Side of Your Plate. Too many of us leaders are focused on managerial compliance to the detriment of the future of American public education and our organizations.

Maybe it’s because we are task oriented creatures and enjoy the feeling of checking items off a list. Compliance tasks are sometimes easy, often mindless and occasionally uselessly complicated. Take for example the new system of teacher evaluation. Here in Pennsylvania, we have a very complex system/formula that takes hours for principals to track the data and complete the calculations for an entire staff. Does it actually have any impact on what goes on in the classroom – what is best for our students and their growth and achievement? What are the results of this commitment of time, energy and human resources? Where is the evidence that this commitment of time is moving our organizations ahead? It’s too easy for us to dedicate our time to these kinds of compliance tasks and avoid the high-impact work. As Kirtman and Fullan share, “Filling out forms, documenting activities, gathering evidence, writing reports, and drafting updates take away time from the work of creating innovative environments.” (p. 60)

How is a leader to move compliance to the side so as to focus on the high-impact work? Here are 4 ways I’ve learned to make room for the high-priority work of growing our schools:

    1. Setting goals. Earlier this year I shared a blog post called SMART goals are DUMB. In the post I argued that the traditional SMART goal setting process keeps us too comfortable when we really need to be working at the edge. Goals should be dream-driven, uplifting, method-friendly and behavior-triggered. Set audacious goals, goals that will surely push you past the realm of compliance. After setting a few audacious goals, build in some accountability and share them with your school community. Focusing on big goals will compel you to devote less time to compliance and provide clarity to the larger vision for your organization.
    2. Tracking and prioritizing tasks. Now that you’ve identified those audacious goals, you’ll have to stay focused to make progress. You’ll need to have a system to track and prioritize your tasks. I use Evernote and a system called The Secret Weapon, based on the Getting Things Done principles of David Allen. I swear by it, but others find it overwhelming. With this system, I have a good handle on everything I’m responsible for, both short-term and long-term. Having a clear picture of what needs to get done allows me to prioritize the tasks of significance over the tasks of mere importance and urgency.  Tracking tasks allows me to prioritize the high-impact work and minimize the tasks associated with compliance. Once I prioritize the significant tasks, I book time on the calendar. What gets scheduled, gets done.
    3. Audit the compliance tasks. There will be compliance tasks on your organized list. The trick is to address the compliance tasks that actually matter. Ask how these tasks support your organization. Since they’re compliance tasks, they will likely not benefit the organization in any significant way nor support your goals. Ask yourself, “What is the minimum we have to do to remain compliant?” This almost always means never participating in any new pilot efforts run by bureaucrats. Not only will your energy be better spent on your strategic goals, but usually pilots end up changing regulations and enforcement anyway. Your time will be wasted as a result of changing state and federal initiatives. Best to wait until the dust settles, and then do only what you need to do to remain compliant.
    4. Reflect.Take an inquiry stance toward your leadership. Be thoughtful; not reactive. Clearly identify the work of significance. What is the high-leverage work that will move the organization forward and improve the opportunities for learners? Put the bulk of your efforts into these tasks.

As public school leaders, we live in a world of increasing compliance. Despite this fact, we ultimately have control and can choose to not be consumed by mundane, deflating management tasks. As leaders, we’d be wise to ponder this from the research of Kirtman and Fullan:

High-performing leaders were not rule followers and not overly compliant. This did not mean that high-performing leaders broke any laws. It does mean, however, that the best leaders focus on results first and put less personal effort into ensuring that rules and compliance tasks are followed. They usually delegate the more transactional compliance tasks to others and have good systems to make sure the compliance work is completed. One way of describing it is that they are prepared to get a grade of C on compliance as long as they get an A on learning. (pg. 16-17)

Now that you have four strategies for moving compliance to the side of your plate, will you? Where will you get your A? Remember, there is choice in compliance.

What other ways can you share for managing the reality of compliance?