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 TL2020.org (and previously TL2014.org) 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?

What are you not teaching?

learningandtimeAs we work to reimagine our classrooms, I found this short video full of interesting questions from Reid Wilson:

  • What won’t we be teaching 10, 20, 30 years from now?
  • What don’t our students need to know to become successful global citizens?
  • What’s now dead in education? What do we take out? What gets cut?

Several good quotes:

  • Trying to cram everything into a limited amount of time is like trying to cram a bunch of seeds into a tiny garden. If too many seeds are spread throughout a limited area, they’ll be no space for anything to grow. If we give no space for seeds to grow they’ll suffocate themselves in competition for their limited resources. Learning and time are like this.
  • It’s time we start these conversations in our own schools around what gets taken out so we can make room for the how and the why.
  • Shying away from the questions and conversations will only lead to education’s inevitable suffocation. Take back your cup, and only fill it when something has been taken out. Stand up and ask What don’t we teach? What won’t we teach? What gets cut?

Are our students expected to meet too many standards? Who is having conversations around the important questions posed in this talk? Are these questions part of the conversation to transform education?

Transform, not reform – A transformational vision for education in the US

1This past September, the non-profit Convergence released A transformational vision for education in the US, the outcome of Education Reimagined, an initiative of Convergence dedicated to the realization of learner-centered education in the US.  Founded in 2009, Convergence has an interesting mission: to convene people with conflicting views to identify solutions for action around national issues. Other projects include economic mobility and poverty, long-term care, and nutrition and wellness. The hope of the education vision signatories is to fuel the national debate around transforming education.

After a careful reading of the document, I think the ideas contained therein can be a  basis for powerful conversations about transforming – not simply reforming – the education system in America. Time will tell, if word spreads and more stakeholders become engaged in the conversation, whether the work of this diverse group actually helps propel the conversation in the direction many of us practitioners believe it needs to go.

I appreciated a number of statements shared early in the document. To some, these may seem obvious and descriptive of current beliefs and values; to others, they may even be controversial:




The group’s vision for education is decidedly learner-centered, a paradigm shift from the current industrial-age model where too many decisions are made to satisfy the system instead of the end-user: “…learners are active participant in their learning as they gradually become owners of it, and learning itself is seen as an engaging and exciting process.” At one point, the vision is encapsulated in several sentences:


In an implementation of such a learner-centered vision (of which there are no known schools or districts fully implementing it but numerous implementing various components), all learning experiences facilitate the development of three domains: knowledge, skills and dispositions. While we’ve heard of these before, and we might even say that, as educators, we work to develop these now, the current system, with its draconian accountability system, focuses too much on the acquisition of knowledge at the expense of developing skills and dispositions. The domains are described as interdependent and equally important.

The vision is given more substance with brief descriptions of five “elements” that comprise the “design for learning:”

  • competency-based learning
  • personalized, relevant and contextualized learning
  • learner agency
  • socially embedded learning
  • open-walled learning

These design elements are not presented as a prescription nor blueprint. Language in the document suggests the need for there to be experimentation in implementation, clarifying the ways the elements work together and reinforce one another to create learning experiences reflective of the vision. While the elements are described as a “North Star” to guide innovation, I wondered why these five. Where did they come from? Are there any I’d add to the list?

The document concludes with a list of core system components that need to be considered as schools and districts move toward the learner-centered paradigm of education:

  • agreed domains and standards for knowledge, skills, and dispositions
  • adults in the system and shifting roles
  • technology
  • assessments
  • use of data
  • re-imagined spaces for learning
  • the role of a coordinated network of institutions, organizations, agencies, associations and federations, and businesses
  • resource allocation

Think about the complexities of transforming these elements, not just tinkering with them like we have been use to. Making the transformation of these elements even more challenging is the need to rethink other systems such as funding, governance and accountability.

While I finished the document with a sense of hope, I also realized how complex the current system is to change. Is our public education system so tightly intertwined with other systems that any change can only be seen as a dream? It’s because of this complexity that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to transformation. There will be some people that say the document is short on specifics and long on visionary mumbo jumbo. If we are interested in changing the system, in any way, we have to resist this thinking which is driven only by the need for quick, easy solutions. Transformation will take hard work to navigate its many, many complexities. This document provides an entry into the much-needed conversation.

Does the current education system (with its deeply entrenched systems such as pedagogy, funding, governance and accountability) have the wherewithal to become truly learner-centered, to be transformed? Do we have a choice? If leadership is a key piece in any transformation, do our school leaders have the necessary knowledge, skills and dispositions to drive the transformation? How would a school or district begin moving toward a learner-centered system? What’s your blueprint?


4 steps to deeper conversation

depthconversationLast month I shared a post on the lack of deep conversation, primarily on social media – mindlessly retweeting content and reading blog posts without connecting to the writer or ideas. At the time, I shared the hunch that a lot of surface level conversation is driven by a lack of focus, but I didn’t offer any suggestions on how we can get beyond the surface and dive deeper. After some thought and action, here are four steps to get beyond the surface conversation – both online and offline.

  1. Find a focus – Be a reflective practitioner. Think about your practice and identify the gaps, things you’d like to improve upon and learn. In my practice, we are focused on creating our vision for teaching and learning. One of the steps I’ve recently taken that has helped me get focused is to clean out the list of people I follow on Twitter. I was finding that there was far more distraction in my timeline than I needed. Spending 10 minutes scanning my timeline would frequently lead to nothing more than a waste of 10 minutes. I also tweaked my lists to more easily filter the people and organizations I want to connect with.
  2. Find a collaborator or two  – To engage in a conversation, you have to find people to talk with – be it face-to-face or online. My colleague, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, and I published a podcast on this topic earlier this year. When you find a collaborator, you find someone to help you problem-solve and provide you with feedback. You find someone to take the conversation deeper. While most of my conversations around a vision for teaching and learning have been with my two work colleagues, Lynn and Ross Cooper, more of our work will be moving online as we begin making connections and engaging with the thought leaders in the field. More to come on this exciting work!
  3. Take an inquiry stance – I’m all about questions. I end each blog post with a question because I want to prompt some inquiry in readers. I find that I am on a never-ending quest to find the right question and am always problematizing practice. It’s not easy. It can often be humbling. But it is important that we as practitioners take this inquiry stance if we are ever to change. While the first two steps – find a focus and find a collaborator – are important and cannot be bypassed, conversations take on a depth and substance when we approach them with an inquiry stance. Some people find questions threatening because questions mean there is something we don’t know, something that might be better. The fact is when we take an inquiry stance there will always be more questions, even when we think we’ve found a solution, when we’ve “arrived.” Those of us comfortable with inquiry embrace a growth mindset and therefore open the door for endless possibilities for deeper conversations.
  4. Embrace the growth mindset – During the inquiry process – where the deep conversations happen – we bump up against new ideas and thinking we didn’t know existed. It’s important for us to understand why we are connecting and having conversation — because we want to make something about our practice better. We don’t have the answers. But we are open to discovering answers by engaging in the inquiry process and deep conversations with those who might have pieces of the solution.  During these conversations, we may get push-back from our collaborators on our ideas. That’s OK, if we approach the conversation with a growth mindset. What we thought was “right” or the “best idea” might now seem not-so-great when we synthesize your thinking with new learning. Anything but a growth mindset shuts down any possibility for deeper conversation.

I will admit – deeper conversations happen easier offline than online for me. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it has to do a lot with #3 — take an inquiry stance. I think inquiry is the behavior that takes us from the surface to deeper levels of engagement. While I don’t have the answer, I know I’m open to listening and learning what you have to say.

What if we took an inquiry stance in our online life? Would we have deeper conversations? What if we were more aware of our mindset as we engage with others online? Are we engaging with those that might challenge our thinking and compel us to grow? Are we open to this?