This past semester, visiting scholar Bilge Kalkavan and I chuckled over a metaphor of school as an amusement park. We hypothesized different booths, like those where you get to knock down clowns with a ball or toss rings around bottle necks, but organized like school instead of an amusement park. Would it work? And what might we learn from the way an amusement park actually does work?!
What can I help you with?
Well, I created a new amusement park for kids and it’s not going as well as I hoped.
You see, the first weekend the line at the entrance went way down the street! Everyone wanted to get in. But by Wednesday there were no lines, and by Friday hardly anyone was in our park. Then on the weekend, well, I can’t go on like this. [imploring look] I’ll go broke!
Perhaps you should tell me a bit about the amusement park.
Yes. Thank you. [wrings hands] I hired eight specialists to run eight different booths. Each booth is stock full of super cool information. Kids can learn about science and math, about history and geography. They do sports and learn languages. It’s fantastic.
It certainly sounds good. How does it work?
Oh, it’s very well organized. Every child who comes gets to hear all the same information. They visit all eight booths!
They all do the same thing?
Right. Really interesting lectures about all these cool subjects. And they get the same amount of time at each booth. It’s guaranteed! [knowing look] There’s a schedule, you see, and a clown who blows the horn according to the schedule, and then the kids all move from one booth to a different booth.
Ah, so they choose where to go.
No, no. We tell them exactly where to go. That way it is very orderly. Like I said, everybody hears all the same information, for the same amount of time.
[hesitating] Right. And what if they aren’t interested in a particular booth?
Well they should be interested. I hired experts in these specialties and they work very hard to share with the kids what they know.
How do they share?
That’s the beauty of my business plan. They all have a plan we created before we opened. They follow the plan. It’s all written down. They just have to tell it to the kids.
What if, well, what if the kids aren’t all interested in all eight things?
They should be interested. They are all important.
[coughing] To you.
Have you thought about what to do with the kids who already know a lot about one of these specialities? Or maybe those who really don’t know anything at all?
Well. of course the kids are different, but they do all have to learn the same thing. Our workers adjust. And we have this little game for them at the end, before they switch booths.
Game? Is it ….
They do this little exercise so we can see which kids understood everything and which ones didn’t.
… it is.
It is what?
A bit what I feared, perhaps. What do you do with the kids that didn’t understand so well?
Oh, they go on to the next booth with the rest of the kids. We have to stick to the schedule you know. It’s very organized.
You want my advice?
Well of course. [hands on hips] That’s what I’m here for. How do I get them to come back next week? How do I fill my new amusement park?
That’s a hard one, but I think I have an answer.
I think you have to make it required. Not just for the kids in your neighborhood, but in all neighborhoods. Everywhere, in fact.
Required. Yes, required. There will have to be lots of new amusement parks.
And they will all have to operate the same, more or less. Otherwise kids from one amusement park might want to switch to another one.
I see. So we all get some kids who come to our parks and learn at our booths.
And learn the same things. And follow your schedules. And play your games at the end.
So I turned 50 years old this past week and honestly, it feels pretty good. I was fabulously spoiled by my family and my friends, and by my students and colleagues, and it was such a great day that I think I’ll find a way to turn 50 again next year as well 🙂 The thing about milestone birthdays however, as much as they are great in so many ways, is that they do make you pause and reflect on your life up to that point. They make you take stock of your current reality, and think about the journey that has led you up to that day…the triumphs and joys and successes, the stumbles and mistakes that you’ve made along the way, and most importantly for me anyway, the lessons that you’ve learned that have shaped who you are.
Looking back, it’s funny to see how many lessons I had to learn the hard way, and over and over again until they finally sunk in, and how fortunate I am to have arrived at this half century mark to the life that I currently lead. Like most of us, I’ve pulled off some Houdini-like escape acts that could and should have derailed my life, but somehow it has managed to work out. It’s been fun over the past week to think back and reflect, and to get a little nostalgic, but the biggest take away for me throughout that reflective exercise is the realization that regardless of how old you are, every new gift of a day that you are graciously given is indeed a lesson. Everyday is an opportunity to learn, and to do better, and to find a way to bring joy to someone else’s life.
These daily lessons are often times not ones that you’re learning for the very first time, especially if you’ve lived for more than a few decades, but the ones that just cement some universal truths that help you become a better person for yourself and for others. This past week, for example, I was reminded of a couple of life lessons that have reconnected me back to what’s truly important in life…in my view anyway. I re-learned from a child last week that something as simple as a kind word and a small celebration can change their lives forever. I re-learned from from a colleague that a smile can change someone’s day for the better, and is often just what someone is needing at a particular moment. I learned again from my beautiful wife that you absolutely get back the energy that you give out to the world. I re-learned from my daughter that beauty is everywhere in the world, all around us all the time in the simple little things that we often take for granted. I learned from my brother that age is really just a number, and it’s what’s inside your mind and your heart that really, truly matters, and finally I learned again from a good friend of mine, who had a parent and hero pass away earlier in the week, that none of us are ever promised tomorrow, so live your life today.
An important lesson for all of us, regardless of how old you are, is the ability to recognize that life is made up of a string of single, individual days…little gifts of time that are presented to you to learn from, and grow from, and to embrace. It’s never too early to pass this sentiment on to our students, and even though they will need to go through their own journey, and make their mistakes over and over again until they finally sink in, we can still use our wisdom to give them some help along the way. At the very least, we can try our best to get them to see that every day is indeed a lesson, and an opportunity to become a better student, person, friend, and a better human being for our world if they only just embrace the here and now.
Anyway, turning 50 has been wonderful, and thank you to everyone for making it so special. I’m excited to continue learning and growing and doing better, and here’s to the next 50…bring it on! Have a fantastic week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week…
The fastest way of learning is little by little and day by day – Lewis Carroll
To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection. Jules Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912)
NOTE: I’ve heard it said that great writing is ‘clear thinking about mixed feelings,’ and I have a lot of them after working through Sonny Magana’s book and the research and marketing behind it. As an experiment, I published this post and then published a follow up post after I saw Magana speak about his book in person at the ELMLE conference in Budapest. I wanted to be open to changing my mind if I was misunderstanding him or his work etc., The follow-up post is here.
NOTE2: By the way, the title of this post is a “riff” off of Magana’s “rock and roll!” related storytelling/style; that at some level the genesis for the book started around a campfire hearing Eddie Van Halen for the first time as a young man learning guitar.
By the end, I hope readers will not only better understand the issues Magana addresses in his book, but also hope you will be more confident in making an informed judgement when hearing your own heads of school and principals offer solutions to the challenges of technology integration.
First, my conclusions:
Magana’s framework is itself sound— (I know, I created one largely identical to it a decade ago as an MYP IT teacher.), so one can argue it could be an improvement over SAMR, Triple E. TPACK, etc., but the problem is that for generalist teachers, it’s akin to putting a new stereo in your car to fix a faulty transmission. As “Julie’s” review of the book on Amazon.com explains perfectly: (click the review to open it in a new window to read)
Magana’s research partner, John Hattie, blurbs the book and seems to be saying the opposite, claiming that understanding why performance is so low is “critical”. I don’t get the sense that either Hattie or Magana understand very well what happens when you approach people and tell them “you’re doing it wrong,” especially without acknowledging/affirming first what they are up against that is completely outside their control.
Magana points to Hattie’s Visible Learning data which claims “computer technology” as having effects underneath the zone of desired effects for the past 50 years. If this type of research and technology integration has been his “life’s work”, the lack of explanation, pushback or questioning of Hattie’s data, methodology or vague categorization of what exactly Hattie supposedly measured with regard to “computer technology”, seems incongruent.
In a promotional piece on Magana’s website written about a school that implemented his T3 framework, the actual changes made to implement it could only have been done by Administrators, not teachers. The piece claims success came from the provision of tech training for teachers through a “Curriculum Camp” and allowing demand from teachers to drive tech choices/integration instead of top down decision making. This does not square with the claim that the problem with tech failure stems from “tell and practice” teaching methods. What this piece actually demonstrates is that technology sprayed into classrooms without adequate teacher training is going to result in low teacher efficacy with technology. You have to change the admin approaches first, not the other way around. Nowhere in Magana’s book are administrators asked to be responsible for these types of changes, yet they are front and center in the “success stories?”
For two former teachers and tech integrationists who’ve no doubt shared many of same experiences in schools, I draw different conclusions than Magana does about the root cause of low impact technology integration. I began writing about these realities in TIE back in June of 2019. I called some of the phenomena Trickledown Edtechonomics, the Edtechochamber and Kabuki Integration.
During the decade and a half plus years I taught, coached and lead Edtech programs in several schools and countries, I worked with administrative leadership who more often than not had a limited grasp of technology but could both micromanage and starve IT programs of attention simultaneously; no small feat. My hope in publishing this review is to offer my experience so you can make up your own minds what you think makes sense as the best next step to invest scarce time and resources in your own school. On to the review.
The studies the book is based on some consider “Pseudoscience”
One cannot review Magana’s book without first reviewing the material on which Magana bases it on, which is the work of Australian researcher, John Hattie.
There are many critics of Hattie’s work and it’s conclusions, but the core complaint is that the work is unscientific and his meta-methodology draws conclusions that simply cannot be drawn. Another is that Hattie’s work facilitates the rise of the guru, one who outlines how things could be and provides aspirational descriptions of a utopian future if we just do the work…often without any consideration of how the labor involved in the new work will be “paid for” and by whom.
The Role of Leadership, Teachers and Solutions in Technology Integration
Role of Leadership
Any school that believes the use of technology can improve instruction must find a way to provide training for teachers and opportunities for them to practice and prepare technology enhanced lessons.
If they can’t or don’t, then school administration should be held responsible for the failures and no one else. Otherwise, what does their “leadership” even mean? Who is hiring all these “tell and practice” teachers Magana and Hattie say are mucking everything up? Who is setting and directing the schedules that enable or disable the collaborative planning necessary to coordinate such “transformative education frameworks?” Who is controlling the PD budgets? The management of the IT department? The overall school culture?
It’s not teachers.
At best it is disheartening when you see leadership responsibilities foisted on teachers who have zero power to make the programmatic decisions that would enable and increase the possibility of success for technology integration.
Nearly everyone would agree that Edtech has been successful in getting kid’s parents connected to the school, making student assessments viewable online, enabling endless variations on digital teaching, made many forms of collaboration a breeze, survey data collection is now easily done, the list goes on. Edtech’s successes are in command and control, communication and collaboration among teachers, but this is largely digital teaching, not digital learning, and thus it’s not really aimed at student achievement. Magana does not address this or make any distinctions about what exactly he’s talking about when he talks about “computer technology.”
Schools have been successful with this kind of digital teaching, and I think that’s why more and more you’re seeing schools trying to commingle the success of command and control tech and sell it as part of “digital learning” that is benefiting students. It’s a very convenient conflagration for schools to make, sort of like digital “Kleenex”, but everything being lumped together makes real problem solving much more difficult.
Most schools have some kind of marketing for Information Technology, descriptions of their aim to provide 21st century, student centered learning and some even have a scope and sequence/curriculum for digital learning, a makerspace, etc.. On close inspection, a much smaller number of schools actually have an operational vision, processes, expertise and leadership to make it all function for powerful discovery and learning for students.
Underneath the high visibility, low impact provisioning for students is in large part I think the pernicious myth of the digital native. This nearly 20 year old, evidence free myth was started by Marc Prensky (another Corwin author) and I would argue one of the myth’s most significant effects was that it gave school administrators a rationale and cover for minimizing time and resources deployed to train staff and students on the devices they were pushing into classrooms.
Which has lead us to the reality of much of Edtech in the classroom, Kabuki Integration. This is when culture hasn’t changed because no skill-sets nor mindsets were changed: New boxes, old ideas. Magana calls it “technology rich and innovation poor”, I call it FOMO and virtue signaling over virtuosity. Whatever you call it, it is high concept performance art; the expensive hardware and software is all there, but the critical bits behind it all, the “mindware”, is largely missing. Without having done the work to create a functional digital culture, absent a user focus and the requisite socio-technical feedback and iteration processes, many of today’s Edtech implementations are the equivalent of giving teachers chainsaws:
It all depends on how teachers use it. We don’t buy a chain saw for every teacher. If we did, a few teachers would do brilliant work with the chain saws, a few others would cut off their thumbs, and the vast majority would just make a mess.” Dr. Gary Stager
So in a sense, Magana is right in that teachers would be better teachers if they were also better technologists, but what is interesting about Stager’s quote is that we in fact have given chainsaws to almost every teacher, many times with only the barest minimal of instruction/support in how to use it. The result? A mess. What else should we expect?
We’ve been steadily increasing the amount of operating systems, apps and hardware every teacher and student must know each year. Our orientations and PD include a tiny fraction of the training teachers eventually piece together on their own just to stay afloat, let alone innovate. In my last school we had over a half-dozen major software platforms staff needed to navigate and that didn’t even include any “learning” apps for lessons, etc., that was just for infrastructure, grades, curriculum, communications, storage, etc..
Why aren’t teachers efficacious at imparting digital learning skills even when they have integration support? Because the tech integration process into units/lessons, the functional integration system and mechanisms that connect a schools digital learning “aspirations” to actual classroom activity are often completely absent or inconsistent at best in all but the smallest percentage of schools, even the “better” schools. And this floundering is as at least as much or more the result of programming choices by administrators, as it is the way teachers teach, and Magana has nothing at all to say about this in his book.
There is no shame in being an “Average user” as without continual access to training and knowledge, without being told that it’s not worth pursuing a certain course of action because there’s a non-obvious roadblock that leads to negative results, without someone to tell them they should try procedure X in this specific step because “it just works better when you do it this way,” everyone struggles. Getting access to this kind of hard earned tech knowledge and skill is an enormous performance advantage and that’s why it’s such a shame that so much tech is rolled out with so little time devoted to coaching and integration support.
Also mentionable, in teachers defense, regarding the common refrain from the school community peanut gallery that “The kids are just sitting there on their devices watching/doing X instead of doing the work in class…” To suggest that a teachers inability to defeat the work of professional psychologists, behaviorists, gamification experts, and all the other people paid to make devices, games and social media addicting is somehow the fault of the teacher is at best irksome.
Magana is correct that we’re putting computers and other technology in a school system that was designed for a totally different epoch. In part, we’re still living under the legacy of the blackboard, the overhead projector and pencil and paper, technologies that required presentation bit by bit…which is why it had to be divided into curriculums, subjects, assignments…where children then had to be organized into age groups and rows because what could be taught was restricted by the conditions under which the knowledge was disseminated.
Today, knowledge dissemination is largely the reason “computer technology” is assigned to students to use in schools—most often it’s used as an efficient content delivery and assessment system; and it’s prescriptive, not imaginative. It does things to children; rather than empower them to do things that are important to them. Tech use in schools is largely about following rules and copyright, finding the right answers, consuming in the basic ways what you’ve been told to consume; it’s the way you process and turn in assignments. Magana is correct that schools generally remain at this type of “translational”, surface learning.
Magana’s recommendations are in sync with the feedback I’ve gotten from students over the years is that information technology has been the most beneficial to students as an autodidactic launching pad; enabling self determined, independent learning. Unfortunately, schools, leaders and teachers today are ill prepared, and often hostile towards this type of learning as it requires an entirely different approach to “School.” And no, you cannot single teachers out as the resistance, most I have worked with would love to loosen up how and what they teach, but parents, school leadership and even students often reject these “new teaching methods”.
As far as new ways of doing “School”, teachers largely do not seem to have the support systems necessary to re-conceptualize their educational roles and the requirements placed upon them. Whether it’s Magana’s framework or another, absent change at an administrative level that not only acknowledges the need for teacher training/support, but actually devotes adequate (ongoing) resources toward it; creating the culture, calendaring and communication systems to support the collaboration it requires, godspeed to you in “disrupting Education.”
Assuming the Status Quo in Schools Stays Pretty Much The Same (it’s a safe bet), What Might a Truly New Framework for Digital Learning Look Like?
So, if the computing “grammar” and ecosystem kids experience in school, its structure and constraints, stand in the way of the real possibilities computers and the internet represent for learning, what then?
Outside of the school environment, digital tools can offer an incredible breadth of experience in a tiny footprint, — IF and it’s a big IF, you know how to use IT yourself and have the ability and patience to guide others in how to use IT.
Assuming a person had the skills and patience, what might be possible?
What if you set schools aside completely, forgot about them as part of digital learning until the Magana’s and the Admins and the teachers of the world get their priorities and responsibilities worked out, and instead you focused on cultivating one of the most accurate (and uncontested) predictors of student achievement: parental involvement in their child’s education?
In other words, what if you were to design a system that was about learning with technology, not teaching with it; acting as the curator and coach of students’ and parents learning experiences together? e.g., A framework that includes dedicated “mindware development” for digital learning, rather than focusing on the process and devices and apps for digital teaching which is a different animal altogether?
This way you could imprint the better angels of what technology is useful for and ingrain the right types of “screentime” from the start. Young children would then have a useful tool that follows them through the rest of the their schooling, not a debilitating distraction as many children today seem to relate primarily with devices.
Perhaps technology is best learned as an autodidactic launchpad, not taught as the way to turn in assignments?
NOTE: This post is a follow on of my review of Sonny Magana’s book. The previous post entitled Not So Hot for Teacher?
A Fata Morgana is a mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. Early associations of the effect were said to resemble “fairy castles built in the air.”
A Fata Magana is a mirage suggested that by making tweaks to how they teach, teachers can disrupt all of the highly interdependent status quo fixtures of “Education” itself and double student achievement. Like the Fata Morgana, it is suggestive of fairy castles built in the air.
TLDR: Polymath believes his interpretation of Hattie’s meta study of technology’s effect size on student achievement afforded him insight into creating a framework that doubles student achievement while requiring far less teacher effort. This is purportedly achieved by combining “high probability teaching strategies” and tracking student emotions about their work solving “wicked problems” using whatever technology they deem appropriate. While there is no shortage of dramatic descriptive detail, Magana leaves out how the framework integrates within Education’s core subjects.
The first jolt of the process was the instant feeling of camaraderie and collegiality walking into an education conference with a hundred and fifty other people. Seeing all the smiles ostensibly all there to “educate better” it was hard to imagine being critical of anything or anyone in that initial moment. As humane and comforting as this feeling was, I noted this is also related to why it is so hard to maintain an independent voice in a school.
Sonny’s Session for Teachers
I went to Sonny’s presentation for teachers first. There were about ten of us. I was familiar with his sessions as I’d seen and read so much online already, nonetheless I was surprised just how exactly the session went like a copy of what I’d seen online. His message discipline was remarkable.
He has obviously read Dale Carnegie and made sure to have everyone introduce themselves upfront so he could immediately begin using our names. As in his writing, he comes off as a clearly intelligent practitioner, of…? His background is somewhat hard to parse; he told us he was a “researcher”, but didn’t let on that before that he spent seven and a half years in various sales roles for Promethean, a whiteboard company, and before that an unexplained three year gap on his profile, and before that a principal of a “Cyberschool”, and so on.
A “difficult” child in his own youth, he related that his career took the path it did after taking on kids who were failing in “the system” and helping them to succeed. Once you understand his “alt-school” background, it makes his approach towards traditional teachers and schools much more understandable. You can see why he formulated a framework that fit much better outside “the system,” given his previous roles had effectively allowed him free reign to design his courses and assessments as he pleased.
After hearing about his bona fides, he moved to the story of how he came to the seeds for the book. It all started when he was around a campfire in his teen years, strumming open chords on a guitar until for the very first time he heard…BLANG!!!!! Magana queues Eddie Van Halen’s song “Eruption” to play as if he did not know it would be coming on.
Magana uses Van Halen’s frenetic guitar to demonstrate his framework and how its three stages culminate in transcendant learning, as in the type exemplified by Mr. Van Halen. It was an effective demonstration of the core pillars of his framework and Magana would (effectively) come back to music concepts and clips again and again to explain and his work.
Beyond music analogies around the genesis of his thinking, Magana is less clear….How to lead the transcendent pursuit? How does each kid learn how to learn? Can it be generalized? All great questions and where those answers fit into a school’s curricular program is a mystery that Sonny does not speak to.
Sonny’s first session activity for teachers was to set the four tables off reading a couple pages of his book summary. Fair enough, but when he asked us to not only come back with three “things that made us think Aha!” from two pages of his writing but also at least one thing we’re going to implement in our own classes, the presumptuous/pretentious request immediately made eyeballs both dart and then roll slightly between teacher attendees.
While he waited for us to read, he noodled in the background on an acoustic guitar while his favorite classic rock jam band tunes played in the background. It was a bit much given only once briefly in about 15 minutes did he walk around among the tables, but even then he did not engage. Next, when we had finished, instead of just discussing the work as a group, he had us type our work into our digital tool of choice and send it to him on email, which seemed bizarrely overcomplicated until later you realize this was to goose the next step in his book promotion/sales process.
When we pulled back together, the responses were not what he was intending. I think with so much of his work being with public schools in the US, he was not at all used to the depth and experience that Tier 1 international school teachers who self select into a technology session possess.
In other words, things got awkward.
A 10th grade social studies teacher politely but firmly told him she was already aware of the strategies he referenced and used most them at different times with her classes; there was nothing new under the sun here. Sonny quickly moved on, and the rest of the responses were tepid at best.
Sonny then went in to describe the stages and reached the final goal of the T3 Framework, Social Entrepreneurship.
Sonny holds “Social entrepreneurship” as some kind of deep, universal human desire that all students will want to participate in at every opportunity if we would only just let them. Sonny’s framework also assumes that changing the world and making money doing it is viable in 6-8 different classes each day. Even if this was the only worthy goal for students (and it is not) I would argue there are not as many kids with the kind of endless creativity and drive Magana assumes. Not every student is Elon Musk, nor should they feel they need to be.
Magana came up to me during a break after the first session for teachers ended and asked about me. I was the most engaged in his sessions in some ways. I said I was a former teacher, involved in digital integration most recently who would really like to see a framework like his work, but that I was concerned that it had a lot of earth to move in terms of the status quo. Sonny interpreted that to mean I was talking about teachers and he did what I was wondering if he would do– he gently threw teachers as a whole under the bus.
Sonny said “You know, so many teachers, like we had today, say that they are doing the things in the framework, but they are not.” He then indicated he had to go, and later in the day he sent me an email with a copy of his Oxford Research paper as a gift to share with my colleagues. Not really a good look at a teaching conference. I felt relief that my initial judgements had born out.
Sonny’s Session for Administrators
I attended Magana’s session intended for Administrators on the final day of the conference. I was not surprised that his presentation to teachers and admin was nearly identical, but what was different was telling. Instead of Van Halen, he used the Beatles and US President Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech along with a stirring video montage to relate his framework as Education’s “moonshot”.
Again, as in the first, he glazed over the details on the studies; let’s just all assume Hattie’s massive meta-study is a stone tablet from on high. The rest of the presentation steps were generally the same, only without any reading activity and collection of emails for his marketing machine. It was less on explaining the framework and more on selling the whole package…the association with Hattie, the book, the classroom walkthrough Google form tool, the T3 Leadership Academy. Interestingly, none of the non-theoretical practical tools were beyond early iterative stages of a basic Google sheet and form.
I asked what he felt the top three or four things administrators would need to do to implement or encourage the implementation of the T3 framework. Here’s what he said:
Belief in collective efficacy.
Have to talk about it. You need a common language for transcendent learning
Common set of strategies to establish examples
Need to evaluate it
I thanked Sonny when it was over. I then took a seat, went into the initial blog post/book review, added a question mark in the title and let the rest stand.
This is the second in a series of four posts based on ongoing conversations with Bill Tihen.
Bill doesn’t hesitate to make a big claim now and again. I think it’s because he’s had a long history with schools, but is not working in one now. Perspective comes with distance, and so does the freedom to call things like you really see them.
So when Bill jotted his thoughts down after we got together last fall, he wrote:
“Learning needs to change, as much as possible, from an externally driven system pushed at students by the curriculum into an internally driven system in which work is pulled by students, based on their own needs and interests.”
As teachers, we are familiar with what Bill calls the push system, whether we’ve called it that ourselves or not. A curriculum is first pushed to us (perhaps by the State, or an adopted off-the-shelf curriculum, or the school’s administration, or all three), then we push the subjects and the content of those subjects to our students. We also push course requirements, assignments, grading systems, and due dates. For that matter, we push our viewpoints, directly or indirectly. And all of us, teachers and students, get rated in one form or another on how well we helped push the prescribed curriculum.
This system is so ubiquitous we tend not to see it. It is the water we swim in, it’s just how things are. So let’s point out three major practices that would have to change to decrease how hard we are pushing and increase the chance for students to do more pulling.
A standard set of subjects. If students were pulling learning in any significant way, it’s doubtful that their interests would happen to fall neatly into the core canon. Sometimes yes. Always, never. So how do we as teachers prepare for all that variety? How do administrators create a schedule? Would students miss out on “must-learns” in our current curriculum?
Assessment. If students are all learning different things, how does the way we test and report their learning change? What currently accepted standard practices are now maladapted? What happens to transcripts? Is it okay (or preferable) if learning is full of variety, with considerably less overlap between students than in our current curriculum?
Teacher education. If curriculum and assessment in a pull system are quite different from our current practices, then how must teacher education pivot? What does instruction look like in a pull system? How do we retrain teachers steeped in a culture of push? How do we refashion pre-service training to emphasize pull?
Once thinking along these lines, I’m sure we’ll discover many more practices to reconsider. I’m also sure the time spent thinking about them is worthwhile.
For a whole-school perspective on Bill’s quote in this blog – and the degree to which we could set up school as a pull system – listen to Rob Houben of Agora, Netherlands, on the Edufuturists #70 podcast.
Been There Done That: leadership of a smaller school
The 2003 – 04 school year found me finishing up a four-year stint as head of a small start up school in Grand Cayman. Having gone from 90 students to 300 during that period, I found myself wanting to make the leap from the challenges that came from counting success based on each individual new admission, to the relative stability of a larger school. In doing this, I was a bit caught off guard by the assumptions made during the interview process of what was involved in running a small school. There seemed to be a perception it was some sort of holiday in comparison to running a larger school. Throw in the location of the school I was coming from, well, let’s just say it seemed some people thought I had been doing nothing more than working on my tan.
The assumptions I’m speaking of were painfully obvious from the questions I received. While I was prepared for questions about my leadership style, educational philosophy, beliefs about the role of technology in learning, and the IB, and was certainly asked some of these, the majority of questioning seemed to pursue a different vain. It didn’t matter if I was being questioned by parents, board members, faculty, or even other heads, the most often asked questions were things like, “What makes you think you are ready for a larger school?” or, “What makes you think you can handle a school that is so much bigger than the one you are at?” My personal favorite went something like this, “Do you think you’re ready for the extra workload that comes with being head of a larger school?”
Answering these questions always required taking a deep breath and maintaining a level of diplomacy. I was seeking employment after all, and responding with some sarcastic crack wouldn’t do me any favors. Still, I felt like asking how familiar their current head was with the inner workings of the actual running of the school. When was the last time their head had fixed an over flowing toilet, or painted a hallway wall? Was their head one of the designated bus drivers for school trips? When was the last time they spent a weekend with two parents to build the play structure on the playground, laid the gravel in the parking lot, or applied bandages to hurt students? These were all things I was familiar with as head of a small school, and were of course happening while keeping the books, leading the curriculum review, overseeing the ordering of supplies, setting up and hosting parent events, leading the accreditation process, reading to students, and supervising the playground during recess, not to mention a long list of other tasks usually shared amongst a group of people in larger schools. To all of these things, I could easily raise my hand in the affirmative. Yep, been there, done that! I was aching to ask if their current head could say the same.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind being head of a small school is the best training ground there is for truly understanding the operations and inner workings of a school. I remember early on in my tenure at this smaller school a heavy rainfall revealed several leaks in the roof of the building. Buckets were set out at key locations to catch the chronic dripping. The first spell of dry days saw the only member of the maintenance staff and I on the rooftop with brooms and hot tar laying a new roof. The next time it rained, we waited anxiously to discover if our hard work had paid off and learning could continue in a dry environment. Similarly, a broken water pipe one year found me working side by side with the same maintenance guy mopping the floors, and then replacing a pipe that had rusted away.
Probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a school head occurred at this same school when Grand Cayman was hit by Hurricane Ivan, a category 5 hurricane, in 2004. The island was wiped out, and all schools on the island were shut down due to the level of damage. The maintenance guy and I stayed on the island, recruited a group of workers, and supervised the renovations and repairs to the school. This permitted me to engage in almost every aspect of the school as we worked for almost three months to get the school ready to welcome students back. I felt a sense of pride when those students returned to a warm and caring school environment. There was something else I felt as well, it was like I had a sense of every part of the school, what tools we had, where everything was stored, and what was needed to keep every part of the school running. I had a sense being head of the school meant understanding how every aspect of the school worked.
In my career so far, I’ve been head of four different schools. That school in Grand Cayman was the smallest. A school of 1800 was the largest. The other two were in between. Every school has required a different skill set, and I’ve learned the importance of being able to observe, listen, and adapt to what is needed. I can honestly say though the best education I every received in learning how a school runs was through serving as a small school head. It gave me the ability to understand, and appreciate the different roles we all play in providing a quality education for the students in our care and in running a successful school program.
So here we are at the very beginning of a brand new year, and even more exciting than that for me, the start of a brand new decade. I’m a little bit more inspired than usual honestly because there seems to be something in the air, a significant shift or tipping point that has finally begun to take hold in the world of education. It’s not necessarily new this paradigm shift, but certainly more widespread and ubiquitous these days I feel, and it’s resonating profoundly everywhere I look…in schools and conversations, and in research articles and conference themes across the globe.
I’m talking about a shift in what gets top billing and top priority when we look to prepare our children for the future of our world…a shift to an approach to teaching and learning that is delivered through a different lens, or under a different umbrella, which better emphasizes the skills that our children really need to go out into the world having mastered. The essential teachings that our world desperately craves right now. Themes like kindness, empathy, diversity, inclusion, environmental stewardship, creativity, and resilience…and a formative education and taught curriculum that is truly a little closer to the heart.
This year, when I ask my own kids each morning what their school schedule looks like for the day, the conversation goes something like this. Hey Gabby and Max (my 6th and 9th graders), what classes do you have today?. I hear back things like Math and Science and Social Studies and English and French, with some cool electives thrown in there as well, which are typically the classes that they tend to get really excited about. We’re so used to this structure of school, and this traditional approach to how we prepare our kids for the world when they graduate. You know how I’d really love that morning conversation to go? Something like this…Hey, what do you guys have in school today? Gabby will say, Oh, my first block is empathy, and then I have creativity, inclusion and diversity. What about you Max? Well Dad, I have environmental stewardship, kindness, and this afternoon I have a double block of resilience, which is a really tough class but it’s helping me become a better learner. Great, I’d say, see you at school and I can’t wait to hear all about it at dinner tonight.
It’s not that we have to give up teaching the important math and science concepts, or go away from languages and literacy, it’s just reframing and delivering the classes through a new lens. Teaching science and math with a focus on the environment and service learning for example, and teaching literacy skills through a lens of kindness and empathy, and even social studies through a lens of diversity. Of course we will need to change what we call the classes because language truly has power, and it would signify a purposeful shift in curriculum thinking, writing and delivery. Anyway, without going on too long I think you get what I’m saying, and honestly, these essential shifts are already happening in leading international and independent schools around the world, like ours, through strategic planning and curriculum review and implementation, and through non traditional course offerings and student opportunities that are more aligned to these essential needs, themes and skills.
Take a look at the upcoming AAIE conference for example, and see the themes that are being championed…panel discussions and conversations around cultures of dignity and inclusion and what’s really paramount for the future of education. Things like positive social change and health and well being and diversity and resiliency. These ideas and this narrative is being championed everywhere you look and to me it feels good. It feels like it’s finally time, which is why this year, and this decade feels different. There is something in the air and it smells sweet and it feels like real, transformative change is happening…it feels like the future of education is upon us. I’d like to end with some song lyrics taken from one of my favorite songs, “Closer to the Heart” by a Canadain band called, RUSH. These lyrics seem appropriate to this change in the air that I’m feeling, and even more poignant considering the Band’s drummer and lyricist, one of the greatest of all-time, Neil Peart passed away just the other day. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. Happy 2020 everyone…it’s going to be a great year!
Cybersecurity Part 2 will be featured in the Tie Magazine. After it is released, I will post the article on the blog.
I have been following a few online threads where schools are considering contracting penetration testers. For those who may not know, penetration testing (pentesting) is a security assessment, an analysis, and progression of simulated attacks on an application (web, mobile, or API) or network to check its security posture. The objective is to penetrate the application or networksecurity defenses by looking for vulnerabilities. These are usuallyweaknesses or flaws that an attacker could exploit to impact confidentiality, integrity, or availability. This goal is the same whether performing application pentesting or network pentesting. ~ https://cobalt.io/pentest
As a consultant, I am not opposed to K12 schools using consultants. However, I have seen some red flags out there from pentesting consultants. I want to highlight those issues, and also provide a method for K12 schools to get started on this process in an easy and low-cost manner.
Finding a Good Pentester
School: We are looking for someone to help test our security.
Pentester: Great. I can do that ( credentials and background presented).
School: What do you need?
Pentester: I need a list of (x,y,z). I need an office to work from. I need to interview…
What is wrong here?
Here is how this should go
School: We are looking for someone to help test our security.
Pentester: Great. I can do that ( credentials and background presented).
School: What do you need?
Pentester: I need a contract protecting me if I break into one or more of your services. I need a contact person to send my findings to. I need a timeline.
A pentester’s job is to find the weaknesses and to find a way to access your organization. If you provide access, not only is the job easier, but they could simply report an issue that is unlikely to occur. I witnessed a similar scenario where a firm was asking for the keys to break into the car.
There may be a point where you want a pentester to become a student and see what a student can do with the access provided. There may be a point where you want them to test spaces used by the public during events. If you provide and manage laptops, a good pentester will need one of the school’s laptops.
These are reasonable requests. Asking the school to literally give them a roadmap and set of targets is not reasonable.
Doing Your Own Testing
I have a list of standards schools should work towards to be secure. Some these do not always connect well to third party services, public-facing websites, etc.
Over the last few months, I have developed a checklist for pentesting K12 school websites and resources.
Subscription and Services Discovery
Can your subscriptions and services be easily discovered?
Files Exposed to the Public
Are there files publicly available that supposed to be private?
Calendars Exposed to the Public
Is calendar data that should be private, private?
Staff and/or Student Email Harvesting
Can your staff and/or student PII be used to create a database for phishing and spamming?
Portals and SIS
Are your portals and SIS properly secured and difficult to brute force attack?
Websites and Social Media
Are websites and social media properly secured; is the media being used legally and correctly?
Have cloud services been properly secured?
Is anyone sharing your content and do they have permission?
FTP, SSH, and Telnet
Are any of these protocols a threat to your school via publically accessible information?
Is your email domain blacklisted?
Email Header Check
Is there any data in your header that could be anonymous or lead to blacklisting?
Email Catch-All for Non Existent Emails
Is your email set up to catch any email that does not exist and alert someone?
Is your email system running services that would allow an attacker to use your email for a criminal act; send an email on someone’s behalf?
4xx and 5xx Error Check
Do the 4xx and 5xx pages on your public-facing services configured properly and supportive of trusted users?
Are any HTML Forms vulnerable to low-level URL based attacks? (Will also review CAPTCHA.)
I score these on a scale of 1-5 and document the issues/results. The next level is researching the solutions to correct the problems. Keep in mind, many solutions are in policies and procedures. This means issues need to be articulated for school leaders, teachers, students, and parents.
In other words, avoid jargon and lingo.
Doing as much due diligence as possible before contracting someone will not only save time and money, but it will also help to further educate the community.
If you do not know what is actually dangerous, then everything could be sold as dangerous.
2020 is an opportunity for schools to re-explore their relationship to digital citizenship. The growing erosion of our privacy as well as our amplified cohabitation with Artificial Intelligence (AI) present us with new challenges.
We are tracked 24/7 with digital ecosystem grids which have become seamless and frictionless parts of our daily routines. In (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism), Shoshana Zuboff describes this process of tracking. She calls the information that makes up these digital ecosystem grids “behavior surplus“. Behavior surplus is the personal data that we leave on our devices and give away daily based on a mutual agreement (user agreements) between the digital companies and us. These agreements (when is the last time you read a user agreement?) give permission for our behaviors online/offline to be tracked, collected, monitored and analyzed by companies and in some cases governments at will. The purpose of “surveillance capitalism” is to leverage this “behavior surplus” to mitigate the uncertainty of our desires and to better predict what we will do. This is then turned into a profitable commodity. The value of our “behavior surplus” is unprecedented and the raw material of human data is fueling the engines of innovation, economics, politics and power.
Over the past few years, AI has had a growing impact on our lives, more often than we realise. Daily, it seems we develop a growing dependency on this cohabitation with AI: be it our GPS, HomeAssistant, iRobot vacuum cleaner, Health Device, DatingApps, SmartWatch, or SmartTV. For our students, this seamless integration of AI into our lives often comes as a frictionless change. Tik Tok is a great example of this – a social media platform with sophisticated AI and unprecedented tracking algorithms, which in a short time added 1 billion users. Overnight, Tik Tok become a teen favorite and serious competition to Snapchat and Instagram. For many educators, new digital consumables are embraced with hesitancy but somehow often the convenience is enticing enough for us to succumb to the charm of the “smart” and “wifi“ ready products.
I have worked with groups of educators and students to build a series of lessons around ARTE’s Do Not Track in order to highlight the complexity and intricacies of how we are tracked. The different episodes are thoughtfully constructed with interactive components breaking down the erosion of privacy. I am surprised how often a percentage of students confidently express their indifference with this erosion of privacy and its implications. In some ways this makes sense. If the current privacy landscape is the sole point of reference, the current state of privacy is interpreted as normal. In comparison, educators interacting with ARTE’s Do Not Track respond with far more anxious discomfort as for many this erosion is compared to experiences where individuals felt greater control over their privacy. As we re-explore digital citizenship, we need to take these varying perspectives into consideration.
The fact is that most of our students are highly proficient digital consumers and not digital natives. The same goes for many educators in general. If we think of our own interactions with digital environments, it’s very likely that most of our time is focused on consumption.
We need to consider re-framing how we support educators and students in a school setting away from a sole focus on digital citizenship to a broader focus on digital fluency. This requires us to develop an approach where the focus is on developing purposeful connections to our digital ecosystems with the goal of becoming ethical digital creators of content.
The concept and idea behind digital fluency is built on the work of the DQ Institute and its well thought out DQ Framework and the 8 digital intelligences. Digital fluency is facilitating an approach where learning opportunities are constructed around the natural connections of our day to day lives with these 8 digital intelligences. The important aspect of this focus is not excluding other essential learning in the curriculum. To make this meaningful, digital fluency needs to have clear connection points to personal experience, ensure these connection points are purposeful, and build on the learning already taking place in a school’s curriculum.
The above graph is one sample of several surveys done with middle school students asking them what areas of the DQ Framework they would like to learn and focus on. Interestingly, there was a clear pattern across several groups for Digital Safety as the highest priority (from the DQ Competencies.)
An important aspect of this is allowing student voice to actively guide the design of these digital fluency connections. They are identifying valuable needs and ensuring this open communication is key to making this shift meaningful to them.
Here are some examples of what digital fluency could look like, and what some schools are already actively creating. One example is giving high school students a LinkedIn account and spending time supporting what it means to have a public profile and how to curate a positive digital footprint compared to a personal social media footprint. Other schools are creating blended courses for parents on how to understand the difference between the pedagogic use of digital devices in schools and the challenges of a more open ended environment of digital device use outside of school in the home. Another example is having students develop public service announcements regarding malware and then coaching younger students on how to identify phishing emails and how to manage an antivirus app. Another is walking through the architecture of effective password creation and developing sustainable strategies to ensure a solid level of security in the students personal lives as a podcast. Or having students coach their parents through the privacy and security settings of their favorite app and create a how-to help screencast.
It is through these activities that participants build on a set of dispositions, skills and knowledge where they feel a sense of autonomy in addressing the complexities, challenges and opportunities of the digital ecosystems we are so intimately connected to.
The new decade at our doorstep will be intrinsically connected to cohabitation with AI and a dilution of the autonomy we have with our privacy. Scaffolding digital fluency as an essential part of learning provides a guide for students to shift their energies away from being passive digital consumers. Digital fluency provides a mindset to better understand the importance of the ethical responsibilities of digital creation and the implications of the digital ecosystems which permeate our lives, both visible and invisible. Ignoring this will just amplify a society of passive digital consumers, while eroding our free will.
As I am about to embark on my last semester full of opportunities and exciting challenges here at Academia Cotopaxi, and since I went through an intense and rich process to look for a new position, I am now taking a step back to reflect on what I have learned from the fantastic educators, faculty, staff and board members, students and parents from the different school communities who took the time to chat with me throughout my hiring journey.
Since my last job search I have developed my motto (Care, Connect, Commit) that encapsulates my philosophy quite well. This time around, I had a chance to go deeper into those three key terms and here are my thoughts at the end of this journey.
Care about student-learning
This is the bottom line, the beginning and the end. I, we want students to grow. Academically, of course, but many other skills are also important since, as I wrote once before, what we really want and need in this world is good people who can support others, act ethically, and balance their lives. And as educators, we need to encourage and model that growth to support students getting there.
Care about social emotional well-being
We all know that student learning can happen when students feel safe and supported. During my recruitment process, I particularly enjoyed talking to counsellors to discuss their pivotal role in schools. In a presentation I did for one school, I even read this extract from Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead that summarises quite well what I believe in:
Teachers are some of our most important leaders. We know that we can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection.
But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do as teachers, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.
Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.
And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life (Brown) .
Care about teacher support
For students to feel encouraged to grow, teachers need to feel supported too. And this support needs to be differentiated. From regular classroom visits to improvement plans, from one-on-one regular meetings to targeted conversations to help gather work for some graduate research. Depending on strengths and areas of need.
As I am doing my classroom visits following Kim Marshall’s approach, I like to provide actionable feedback. How wonderful it is when a teacher invites me back to their classroom to show me the implementation of an idea that emerged from our follow-up conversation after a classroom visit. And I have also learned that to be able to do this well, I need to block my schedule with those unannounced visits and follow-up conversations so that they are part of my daily practice.
I also really enjoy when I invite a teacher to share a cool idea or strategy in a meeting for others to learn from it. « Instead of showing up to let everyone know how great we are, show up to find out how great everyone else is » (Sinek).
Care about relationships
A previous colleague used to say that « students don’t care how much you know until they know that you care ». This has been accredited to many people including Theodore Roosevelt and to American author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell. I truly believe in this statement and I witness its accuracy everyday. Educators who do the best are the ones who establish meaningful connections with students. There is no real recipe but students quickly notice and appreciate this caring attitude from their teachers and administrators.
Connect to lead curriculum
I see curriculum as a big puzzle and through its intricacies it is essential to often come back to basic but strong questions:
What do we teach?
How do we teach it?
How do we know that students learned it?
As we all review our curriculum on a regular basis in our schools, I really enjoy using the tool and protocol that we collaboratively created at Academia Cotopaxi to assess our assessment tasks. And now teachers use this tool and protocol in departments meetings. It is fun to take part and listen to those conversations and see how teachers are committed to constantly improve their assessment.
Connect to use data
When I was appointed IB Diploma Coordinator in Istanbul, about a decade ago, I was told that using data was becoming more and more important in education. This is obviously totally accurate as using data is crucial to set goals, plan, evaluate and review learning. And using data to advise students and parents is also powerful. For instance, a student with a 230 RIT score in the Math MAP test at the end of Grade 10 may very well struggle if they choose the IB MAA HL course. But I also believe that everyone can grow with the appropriate feedback and mindset and as educators we need to manoeuvre through this to maintain high and realistic expectations.
Connect to communicate
As we know that communication is often the root of many concerns, I strive to communicate with my teams as effectively as possible, with a weekly note for teachers, another one for students and another one for High School parents. Together with ad hoc, as needed emails and WhatsApp messages to parent reps. And I attempt to communicate with the external communities through some professional platforms and this blog. What did Barry Dequanne say at one of my Principal Training Center courses? Oh, that’s right: «communicate, communicate, communicate ».
Connect to collaborate
As Diane Sweeney and Ann T. Mausbach wrote in their book Leading Student-Centered Coaching some of the strongest athletes, politicians or leaders work with coaches. Everyone needs others to continue to get better, including educators. And when I talk about collaboration with my team, I love referring to this very clever Ted Talk by Matt Ridley, When ideas have sex. While collaboration may happen randomly, I feel it as a duty to create the time and space to allow colleagues to work with one other.
Committed to inclusivity
Since my first day as a student teacher in a state school in the United Kingdom, I have always worked with students with a variety of learning needs and I truly believe in the need to meet students where they are in order to support their growth. Furthermore, through my different interviews and conversations in my current school, I have found myself developing this idea that I really like since it not only reinforces inclusivity and but it also brings the idea of the school/parent partnership: there is a path for everyone and we will figure it out together. And using data to find this path is useful too (see above, Connect to use data)
Committed to community building
It is crucial to build a solid school community. One important element is to pause and celebrate students’ and teachers’ achievement in assemblies and staff meetings. And baking for the team from time to time to congratulate folks is never a bad idea.
Listening is also an essential part of community building and it is the first step towards understanding and, inshallah, resolving situations.
Committed to collaborative decision-making
In one site visits, I heard a candidate say that she believes that others often have better ideas than her. Not only does that shows humility, even vulnerability as Brene Brown puts it, but this also builds a community. Bringing others in the decision-making process, either formally through meetings or surveys, or less formally through conversations, will help bring more people onboard towards a possibly new idea generated by the team. And obviously, the decision will support student learning and the school’s mission, which are the final, key criteria.
Committed to quality hiring
This is also essential. In a highly competitive market, with more and more schools, I find myself hiring earlier and earlier. I use my connections with educators around the world, I spend time to listen, ask questions, seek to understand the candidate’s qualities and the possible fit and I check references. And when I hear from a reference check « if you don’t offer, I will do very soon », like I did recently, then this is a good sign to offer a position.
These are some conclusions I can draw from this hiring season. Verbalising and writing them down feels like an important step to get better. And, as I keep saying, I am learning everyday and those ideas will continue to mature with time.
For what’s worth…
I wish you all a fantastic new year.
Brown, Brené. Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Random House Large Print Publishing, 2019.