When I saw Ken Robinson’s cleverly animated video about how schools kill creativity in 2007 , I knew that my teaching career would never be the same. It was the tail end of the No Child Left Behind epoch when schools had become barren deserts of accountability and pedantic threats about performance.
When Covid hit in 2020, I knew that my administrative career would be changed forever, not only because I had to re-design the logistics of learning, but because the stuff we put into place and the impact it had on culture would not be reversible for a long time.
The Vulnerable Leader
I sat with my new teacher leader team, without anytime to talk about norms, feelings, or Myers-Briggs results, and put them to work. I felt like a lieutenant in a WWI trench handing rifles to 16 year old new recruits and sending them over the top. I knew they weren’t prepared but we were in crisis. For the first time in my 18 years as an administrator, I didn’t know how anything was going to work. I’d dealt with tragic deaths, trauma, bomb threats, riots (yes riots), but beneath all of that was a solid foundation of a school that served as a baseline. Now the baseline was dissolving. I could no longer pretend that I had any answers to anything and people depended on me to know. So, I turned to them, and said things like, “I can no longer solve the problems that I don’t know exist yet. You are going to have to be comfortable with this uncertainty without panicking our team or our students.” They saw a side of me that Principals aren’t supposed to show. We aren’t supposed to shrug and say “I don’t know.”
We all act like we are supposed to be honest and open and all the conferences we go to talk about the power of collaboration and distributed leadership, etc. but it’s all superficial stuff. This vulnerability went to my core. It wasn’t just assigning some committee on literacy. It was running the bloody school. Strangely, it felt liberating. I was forced to reconsider the principle that my job was to remove obstacles so people could focus on teaching and learning. I could no longer stay true to that core belief because there were too many obstacles. Simply, too many. I imagined how hard the same experience must have been for teachers that had to make the same choices whether or not to reveal their vulnerable selves to their students. This reveal didn’t mean I had given up or was asking them to save the day. Quite the contrary. I knew the battles that had to be fought. I just needed help.
Sir Ken ignited the passion within me that schools had to do something drastic, and now that moment has arrived, accelerated by a pandemic. Virtual learning, outdoor and experiential education, redesigned timetables, creativity. All of it has become turbo charged in an environment of chaos. The one and only thing I’ve learned from the loathsome President of my native country is that there’s all kinds of opportunity in chaos. Right now it is in abundant supply. So, rather than feeling like Sir Ken and his legions are pushing cement blocks up the mountain of stagnancy and consistent IB scores, we are really and truly at the precipice of the change he wanted to see in the world.
God Bless, Sir Ken and thank you for your gifts to the world. I will miss you.
A small gathering of people, heads bowed, sit on makeshift benches in the open air of a small town in the American West, surrounded by the rubble of what used to be their church. A powerful nation, wounded by a brazen and public act of violence that crumbles two symbols of its economy, impulsively reacts with rage and violence.
There’s nothing like crisis to expose us for who we are and what we value (and don’t). It’s cathartic, like a near death experience. (Which unfortunately is what this can be).
In schools, we like to think we’re ready because we plan (fires, cobras yes that’s a thing, earthquake, gas leak, military coup, invader, etc.). I’ll never forget the time in Switzerland when the local fire department made me enter a simulated smoky room tent and follow recorded screams to the other side with a fire extinguisher in my hand as I tried to spray a burning stove. My heart was beating out of my chest, my tie nearly caught fire, and no plan in the world was going to help. It was terrifying (and awesome).
So forget about the neat lines of elementary kids quietly walking down stairs in rows to the pre-planned fire drill on a sunny day out through the cafeteria and lining up on the football pitch. This ‘stuff’ is for real.
Remember how dysfunctional your communications were before the pandemic? I bet that got sorted fast. Remember those needy and at risk students before the lockdown? Are they worse than ever? Possibly. Remember how much difficulty the science department had collaborating when they were in person? How’s that working out now through a screen?
All of those things that we either ignored but knew could be problems, hoped to get to later but never had the time and wished would fix themselves, are now screaming at us like one huge virtual siren. Similarly, so is the great stuff. I bet those popular pep rallies are better than ever on Zoom!!
Economics pundits are recording with fascination how the work universe is re-sorting itself. Visionary businesses like Amazon and Netflix are gobbling up the opportunity while the insecure or unprepared are suffering. (Maybe we didn’t need all that oil after all). Same goes for us.
If your organization over-promised and underdelivered before the crisis, you’re probably in trouble now. If you didn’t properly support or train your teachers before the crisis, you’re in trouble. If you didn’t build trust with your parent community before March, you’re really in trouble. If you didn’t build a culture of transparency and respect and yes, love, before, then the current shutdown for you might extend well beyond when things open up again.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, these current times are leadership gold. They are providing a clear path to us about not only what is really important about learning, but what we are made of as institutions and what cannot wait for the next accreditation cycle.
Of course, a lot of schools and businesses might pick up right where they left off. There may be socially distanced parties, unveiling of statues built for lower elementary and Pre-K teachers, and an increase in community building. But things might just drift back to the way they were.
Don’t let that happen. Even if things were good.
This is the greatest scorecard of all time. It’s better than accreditation, a PhD from Bath, and a Klingenstein Fellowship rolled into one. It’s the mirror, looking straight at our unshaven and unkempt faces, telling us exactly who we are and what is our potential.
There is a moment in the morning when everything feels right. The sun peaks through the trees making the world outside a beautiful shade of gold. There is stillness.
That feeling of calm fades when I start up my laptop. First, I check the school closure facebook groups to see what questions people are struggling with and what new resources and ideas are out there to help. Next, I read through the questions that have been generated on the listservs. There are more questions than answers.
Everything is happening at light speed these days. I have repeatedly heard the phrase from school leaders and teachers, “I am working harder than I have ever worked in my life.”
We are currently living in a time of rapid, iterative cycles of ideation and prototyping. Educators have been plunged into uncharted territory when it comes to teaching and student learning. We are forced to not just grapple with questions we have been asking for years, but to find answers to those questions. Now.
“How do I best communicate learning?”
“How do I give timely and meaningful feedback for learning to all of my students?”
“What is the value of letter grades and percentages when it comes to communicating learning? Are grades and percentages still important?”
“How do I ensure that all students are learning?”
“If an assessment practice works in person but doesn’t work virtually, what information does that tell me?”
“What is the value of having students sit in a room to take an exam if we don’t think there is a good alternative to demonstrate that learning and cancel exams?”
“Have we given students enough voice and choice to keep them motivated and engaged in the learning process without a teacher available every minute to hold students accountable for their learning?”
The time is now. Whether we are ready for it or not. How might we start shifting our “crowd sourced sharing economy” of resources to improve our teaching practice and our students’ learning experiences whether learning virtually or in a brick and mortar building?
We have been presented with a lot of problems that must be answered. Now. Every teacher and school leader is tackling multiple problems on a daily basis. Everyone is testing out ideas. Everyone is getting feedback directly and indirectly. Teachers are getting data from students and school leaders are getting data from teaching faculty. How are we using these data to refine and improve our practices and when we do, how we are sharing our learning with others?
People are working harder than they ever have to ensure learning continues for students. We can not let the stress overshadow the innovation that is occurring. Now. Each teacher and school leader is overcoming immense obstacles. Each teacher and school leader is having to embrace the idea that what he/she is doing is definitely incomplete and possibly incorrect. It is an uncomfortable place to be. We are in the place where learning happens. Now. This learning will be formative.
Each person is rapidly learning new skills and strategies. Some people might not have the time to stop and reflect on all that they have accomplished to date. Some people might not realize they are innovating. Some people might not realize the contribution they are making to the field of teaching and learning. Now.
My friend said, “I can never go back to the way I used to teach.” Think about that statement for a minute. How has your teaching and leadership practice changed? What is important when you think about student learning? How might we share our rapid cycles of learning so we keep doing what’s best for our students?
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.
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 work my way through the first months of changes in my life from “not working in a school” for the first time in a decade and a half, I am the first to feel ruffled feathers by this question as I most recently left a position of “Director of Digital Learning.”
Shouldn’t I know? I always just assumed Edtech offered a net benefit because it did and does for me…but absent the need to feed the status quo, I’m free to follow my questions wherever the answers lead me.
I think it’s important to say from the outset that I am a supporter of digital learning- at least as I understand it. I have endless anecdotes from my own (tech) classes and coaching about students who (I think/they claimed) benefited greatly from exposure to technology in one form or another whether assistive, academic, etc.. What I am not so sure of is the correlations between Edtech and digital learning being made today as much of the Edtech that gets talked about and implemented in the majority of schools I would term “digital teaching”, not digital learning.
What I hope to come to a better understanding of in this space, is whether or not we’ve all allowed ourselves to slide into believing something about technology as it’s used in schools as to be something it’s really not. So since we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience, that’s what this column and perhaps 2-3 posts after it are about- reflecting on over a decade and a half in the classroom and a handful of years at the end as a leadership team member at an international school.
Interestingly to note, some of the struggles I had as a teacher, a coach and integrationist became clearer once privy to the inner sanctum banter of a school leadership team. No question there are schools with cutting edge technology initiatives and fantastically capable and enthusiastic staff leading them, but unfortunately I think it’s safe to say there is more often than not a dearth of accountable leadership for digital anything in less ambitiously “21st century” schools. This lack of focus results in friction losses at the interfaces, poor infrastructure provisioning, lack of management and mentoring of IT staff, etc., the list goes on…
At one point I was fortunate to be at a school that employed digital learning integration support and even put a “tech” person on the leadership team, but even still, there was much less team support for digital learning initiatives as there were for traditional “teaching and learning” shibboleths. And it makes sense, as even the best generalist administrators are not well versed in any kind of depth of insight regarding technology integration. That’s okay– it’s just important to point out because there is a lot of decision making going on and diagnosing of issues happening with very little training or experience behind it.
Why this matters is because digital learning, digital teaching, edtech and IT, etc., are all thrown around interchangeably and they are not the same. A digital “Kleenex” if you will. There is an “Edtechochamber” of tech industry types, evangelists and a small percentage of heavily tech invested coaches, admin and teachers who support the use of “Edtech” and everything gets megaphoned together.
It’s repeated in a lot of school marketing as all having to do with improving student learning. Combined like this, marketed with fervor, one presumes that there is true “game changing” technology being implemented and integrated, but a curious thing is- you don’t often see any data supporting these claims about Edtech’s ROI, or certainly not ROI in terms of student achievement/learning for which it’s being claimed to be in the service of.
So my question is simple:
Where is the evidence that Edtech, (regardless of what it’s called) provides a net benefit for student learning?
I would so love to see a deluge of studies come forward that I have simply missed. I want to see the data that shows that the kind of integration that’s being done in classrooms today around the world is a net benefit for “student learning”. Anecdotes on a small number of classrooms in a school/district or stats on improved teacher efficiency, (Gaining time doesn’t mean the teachers repurpose the time on students of course!) aren’t what I’m looking for.
If we can’t measure the positive effects of “Edtech” on student learning, (or maybe we shouldn’t if it’s digital teaching, not digital learning?) then what exactly are we doing to students in schools with technology? How do we know? I’m not convinced we’re getting what we think we’re getting, and I am open to hearing about what I have not yet seen.
In order to ask and wonder “What is needed next as we grapple with which types of digital learning positively impact students and how and when they should be integrated?”, my next posts will summarize my review of Sonny Magana’s 2017 book (that leans heavily on Hattie’s Visible Learning research) laying out what he calls the “T3 Framework for Innovation in Education”.
On his research, Magana says “I’ve been researching the “Wicked Problem” of low-impact technology use in schools for four decades and have recently discovered a sequence of learning strategies that unlock students’ limitless learning capacity. I call it the T3 Framework for Innovation. The T3 strategy sequence was shown to reliably double student learning and achievement.” As well, Magana invites readers “…to learn how to work less and teach better…” and finally, to “Rock and Roll!”
“Who wants meatloaf? Does anyone want meatloaf? Katia, do you want meatloaf?”
“No, I want salad,” she says, looking disinterested.
“Last chance for meatloaf,” the veteran social studies teacher of 27 years repeats. She sighs, typing in the last two names. “Okay,” she says, “the meatloaf is really good. The rest of you are going to regret this.”
And so our day begins.
I’ve been trying to kill the lunch count since I started over a year ago. For a school with a 21st century mission, we shouldn’t have time for chicken sandwiches and lunch counts. My entry plan included a daily bulletin packed with more important information than you could shake a stick. There had to be more efficient ways to determine if the children wanted eggplant parmesan or rice so we could get on with saving the planet.
But of course, any leader worth his or her salt should know what not to overlook. Or dismiss.
Of all the systems changes and trends and grinding turnover, the lunch count, as inane and arcane as it seemed, had been in place since the school started in 1960. It had become, literally, an immovable feast. It was more than meatloaf. It was a time to connect, to slow down, to savor a few seconds of the day to think about the basic human need for nourishment. It was wellness before such a word became chic. It set the tone for the day.
Reading the report from the last accreditation was like dusting of an Egyptian papyrus. None of the names, initiatives, or projects were familiar. Everything had changed. And this was only five years ago.
Flipping through the report, all I could think about was all of the hard work that had gone for naught. All of the curriculum teams, the MAP benchmarks, the advisory programs, the new systems that were already defunct. Everything had drifted away like an ancient civilization.
It made me think about how much the constant reinvention and starting over held schools back. New Heads bringing new strategic plans and visions. New teachers coming and going with their suitcase curriculum. New boards bringing new priorities. And new IT personnel. Don’t get me started on what that does to school culture.
Disruption seems like so much fun. It’s creative. It’s trendy. It’s liberating. But it’s routine that anchors us so that these things can happen. You don’t just start chipping away at the foundation. That’s literally destabilizing to the entire structure.
This is not an argument for status quo. There are a lot of horrible practices out there that continue just because “we’ve always done it that way.” This is not an anti change argument. It’s a call for recognizing the simple but important routines that must be preserved so that the organization can move forward rather than constantly starting from scratch.
So, if something works and isn’t breaking the culture, then why don’t we have the discipline to honor it and put our attention somewhere else? I’ve been in this business for 24 years and I still spend far too many minutes of my life on attendance policies. “Ritualize the mundane, make room for the brilliant,” is one of my favorite quotes.
So, yes, the lunch count drives me mad. It makes me think I’m in a one room school house in Saskatchewan in the 1800s.
But it’s going to stay because it is an important constant, a cultural cornerstone of a small school that, in spite of its growth spurts, needs to keep it roots strong so it can reach for the sky.
I’ll have the meatloaf, thank you. And of course, mashed potatoes.
Often in leadership, it is difficult to keep those important connections that once motivated us to work in education. Meetings, software, cloud platforms, and numerous other tasks can easily overwhelm a schedule and make it difficult to connect with students in a meaningful way.
Here are some ideas and strategies I use to keep student connections strong.
Walk and Engage
Every day I plan a route to walk through the campus. While I walk, I make it a point to engage with students. I like to approach them, and often surprise them, and ask them what they are doing, what they are working on, what is “ridiculous” in math class, etc.
If they are playing games I put away the adult hat and ask them about the game. I want to know if it is challenging, does it teach anything, is it just a distraction, do they think they are addicted to playing, and so on.
Occasionally there is a comment or revelation that allows me to interject an idea or opportunity into their field of view. This casual approach helps me spot trends in the student community, get new ideas, and find students who might be looking for some additional non-academic opportunities.
Join a Club
To be honest, I normally start clubs, but it is a better strategy to join a club. As an administrator, weekly club meetings can be tough to facilitate. As a member and mentor, club meetings are manageable.
Joining a club as a novice who knows nothing is great. Students get to instruct the adult and take a few cheap shots when you make a mistake. All in good fun, but it really helps build the relationship when the equal footing is found.
Build a Student Support Team for Everything
It does not matter if you are an administrator in IT, college counseling, the library, etc. You can build a student support team. Identify students who have free periods, free time, and an interest in what your department is doing. Train these students to work with you and your team, and give them some space to make suggests. Eventually, they will be managing projects.
I have started supported teams from US Grade Level 5 and seen growth and success. Children can do amazing things, even if they refuse to do their homework.
Maintaining a solid foundation in any profession is important. Many in education chose that path because of the benefits of working with children. If you lose that foundation, you will lose your joy, and when that happens cafeteria food will taste much worse than it is.
Not every problem has a solution. Maybe a better way to express that idea is not every problem has a solution within its current construct.
Sometimes, the rules, the structure, and/or the environment are opposed to the solution. Trying and trying again will be an endless cycle; and gains will be replaced by more and more losses.
If you cannot win the game, you need to change the game you are playing.
Finding the Correct Question(s) to Ask
Recently I was reading a comment thread about a housing situation. The situation was ridiculous. I could not think of a single country or job situation where this type of agreement would be acceptable. In fact, it seemed illegal, and more like a scam than a contractual housing issue.
The person in the situation was asking, “What can I do to manage my financial loss in this situation?”
That was the wrong question to ask. This person was focusing on the result of a bad contract. The question they should be asking is, “How can I get out of this contract?”
The contract is/was the issue. If you beat the financial loss with a loophole, another jab will come from another direction. How do I know this? Because the contract is a scam. The scammer needs the scam. The scammer will not take a loss.
In another recent situation, I had 100s of devices start to fail. The software just stopped working. Initially, I was trying to fix the devices. That seems normal, but my choice was wrong.
I only attempted to fix the problem for about 45 minutes. Then I took a step back and asked myself, “What causes 100s of stable devices to systematically fail?”
There was pressure to keep trying to fix each device. I resisted. I knew that if I fixed them, they would fail again. I knew this, because a system wide failure is not created by something on one device. It had to be external.
The problem was external. It took two weeks of paperwork and the support of a two external companies to correct the issue. There was no way for me to solve the problem. The problem was unsolvable within my environment. I had to change the process, and the entire workflow, to bring everything back online.
Avoid Being Locked Into the Past
Many people get locked into a process or workflow. They get so locked in, they never look-up, the never reflect, and they always want to carry their environment with them into the future.
When this happens they spend all their time trying to make their past work in the present.
Technology can be fascinating. It is one of the only areas of the human experience where older solutions are often actually better and more evolved than current solutions. People who are locked in on a process are not always wrong. Their older solution is better compared to the new solution.
The problem is, technology solutions are often abandoned. Developers stop developing. Companies stop supporting. Licensing stops being available. Eventually, the solution does not work unless you bring the entire version of the past into the present. The software. The hardware. Everything. Not only is this not practical, eventually everyone involved is alienated except the “time-traveler”.
I have seen a school running a version of PowerSchool too old to be viable outside of the school’s local network. It was so old, it could not be upgraded using new releases from PowerSchool. So old that PowerSchool would not provide support. And, so old that it eventually did not meet data security standards for any of the other partners the school was using.
This particular implementation had amazing features. It was customized beyond normal limits. It was also something that no parent or student wanted to use anymore. The largest user groups wanted a change, and the only solution was a completely new information system. That also means the school had to hire a new department of people. Those who kept their system living well beyond its life were too entrenched to change.
Reflecting on decisions on a regular basis, and having critical input from others, will prevent these scenarios. And this type of complete rebuild scenario is common. It is far too common, and it is destructive.
A Bad Deal, is a Bad Deal
Education is often seen as an industry that does not follow common business strategy. In many cases, this is true and unavoidable. Schools do not get to choose perfect children. Schools work with students, and sometimes at great cost, to help them grow and develop.
However, the business processes, procurement planning, and infrastructural systems do not need to operate irresponsibly for educational goals to be achieved. Planning to be inefficient, and being content to lose, is not a benefit to any child.
I have seen many bad deals, bad contracts, and predatory vendor relationships. These situations create unsolvable problems. The game is rigged. The school is often getting a poor value with a low to zero return on investment.
I had the unfortunate luck of managing a bad printing contract for a school. The school had made a deal with a third-party for Xerox solutions. Xerox has their own sales force and service, so why would anyone need a third party?
The contractor not only could not manage the hardware, they had no idea how the software worked, they were not aware of all the requirements needed for an Apple Computer environment, and they did not understand the accounting system connected to the service.
What was my solution? Remove the contractor. Instead of trying to fix the printers, I spent every moment collecting evidence and documenting breaches of the contract. I eventually made a strong case, and the school switched to a direct partner relationship.
There was no win-win. The contract was bad. The situation was impossible.
No matter how much we want something to work, or be a solution, there is a point in the process where we need to step back. We need to ask, is this worth it? Is there a better way? Are we driving the process, or is it driving us?
I was speaking to a friend recently about an argument he had with a teacher. The teacher was adamant that if they could not use one particular app, their classes would come to a halt, and learning would immediately be suspended until further notice.
Obviously, I cannot think of a single application or subscription that is that critical to learning. I am not referring to a complete environment like Google Apps for Education. I am referring to people getting angry, and going into a panic, over a single application or service.
Schools and teachers need to be aware that being a fanboy or fangirl will not be rewarded. In fact, the odds are that being too connected to a particular solution will more than likely lead to a lack of resources and very real disappointment.
There are 43 services listed that have been cancelled, even though many were used by numerous people. Google Wave was hugely popular with schools, and then one day, Google closed it down with very little notice.
In 2017, the popular library service RefMe was bought by a competitor and shutdown. This service had a popular paid version, and customers still lost access to the product they wanted.
The fact is many of these companies are funded by venture capital. If they do not meet their required metrics, they lose their funding and are quickly shutdown or sold. Often when companies are sold, the services they provide are shutdown. The intellectual property and user data is more valuable than the actual application.
Where does all this leave a person who has built their entire practice around a single service or product? Desperate and angry.
A Basket of Solutions
A basket of currencies is an interesting model to reflect on when setting asset management policies. A basket of currencies helps set a value, so that if one currency happens to plummet in value, the value of the target currency is not impacted significantly.
Applying this to educational technology asset management, schools would:
Make a requirement that departments have a defined set of resources they are using
Complete a regular review of those resources
Develop a process to allow teachers to regularly propose and pilot new resources
The influx of a few new solutions will buffer the school against big changes made by products and services they are using. Thus, not allowing a single company’s decisions to shift the learning, purchasing, or culture of the school.
In addition, there must be an annual expectation that technology will change and training will happen. Having a culture where people expect stagnation is dangerous in a technology driven environment that is based on companies constantly cannibalizing one another.
Brands Do Not Care About Learning
I have been recommending Apple laptops for many years. However, after the recent round of Apple changes to their base laptops, I am no longer recommending Apple without a discussion about the current downside of the new designs; and a review of the briefly held negative status of the Macbook Pro published by Consumer Reports.
The truth is, there are many options now that are better for many types of schools and users. Apple changed. They changed to meet their market. They did not make decisions to improve learning at K-12 organizations. Apple chose to make more money.
This holds true for all the big players in educational technology. Their decisions are focused on growth and profit. They want to take as much of the market as possible. Sometimes that means creating innovative new features, and sometimes it means making a cheaper product to increase margins.
Hardware is normally purchased in cycles of 3-5 years. That means, every year 2 or year 4, a platform review should occur. The practice of always buying the same brand without a critical analysis of that brand is the equivalent of letting the brand dictate the options available for teachers and students.
Schools should make good choices and be able to adjust to the market. Teachers should be aware that change is always on the horizon, and using technology is an agnostic endeavor.
Buy into the school. Buy into the curriculum. Buy into people and ideas. Do not sellout to software, services, and nicely branded machines.
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