Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Teaching Fab Lab

"We need more risk-takers!"

"We need to build a culture that not only accepts failure, it rewards it."

"I just want people to take a few chances around here.  You know, to try some new things."

In my position as District Principal of Innovation, I am constantly hearing these sorts of expressions from educators throughout the system about their students, their colleagues, and the organizations where they work.  If you spend a even a few minutes on social media, you will find tweets, Facebook links, LinkedIn posts and blogs talking about the importance of developing a mindset of "failing fast and often", "doing then knowing", or "iterate, iterate, and then iterate".  Are you puffing your chest out about having a Learning Commons?  Be careful, someone might walk by you and whisper "That is so 2010.". People are talking about maker spaces, hacker spaces, green screen rooms, and think tanks.   And let's be real, in my visits to schools and districts in British Columbia, I have yet to hear someone say "we need to be less innovative".

But what are we actually doing to develop and scale innovative practices?  Make no mistake, we would be hard-pressed to find a school or district that doesn't have exciting and interesting things happening, at least in small pockets. But we often are so tunneled into the day-to-day goings-on in our districts, in our schools, and in our classrooms that if someone were to ask us about an innovation at a neighboring school or nearby district, we most likely would be unable to answer.

And I get it!  Everyone is busy.  Coordinating schedules can be challenging.  Releasing people to be able to visit other schools is expensive, and sending them to other districts even more so.

In his book The Business Model Innovation Factory, Saul Kaplan talks about creating "the adjacent possible", a place in an organization where new ideas and service models can be live-tested in a real environment with actual clients.  This 'adjacent possible' environment still has the benefits of being a part of the larger organization, and is able to take advantage of the infrastructure and economies of scale that the company has to offer, but it is able to test out radically different models and ideas in a low-risk, high-reality setting with the goal of informing future practice.  It is a recipe for success, and without it, companies who focus solely on their current business model tend to fail miserably, or "get Netflixed", as Blockbuster Video found out.  Those who have their current model and think about new models by creating "the adjacent possible" are the organizations that will remain nimble, responsive and relevant as the needs of their clients change.

Just like the needs of our students are changing.

As a result, I believe we must to create the "adjacent possible" in education. In every school and district.  We could call it "The Teaching Fab Lab".  And it would be right down the hallway.

Any teacher in the school could book into the Fab Lab, and once in there, they would be free to test out new and interesting teaching practices, knowing that they might work, and knowing they might not.  Maybe for a day.  Maybe for a week.  Or longer.  And fellow educators would not have to take release days and travel hundreds of miles to see the inquiry process in action, or Project-Based Learning, or genius hour, or whatever was on display in the Fab Lab.  They could just wander down the hall and have a look!  They could ask their administrator or another teacher to watch their class for a few minutes or a period, and even jump in an co-teach for a bit with the Fab Lab host, just to get a feel for the activity.

Naysayers might be jumping up and down right now yelling "People can't just teach however they want!", or "But what if it doesn't work?", or "We can't waste time, we have too much content to cover!".  I guess so, but I am thinking that we could respond by saying things like

"We need more risk-takers!"

"We need to build a culture that not only accepts failure, it rewards it."

"I just want people to take a few chances around here.  You know, to try some new things."

I am going to do some more digging into this.  If you have examples of these in your schools or districts, please comment so I can come and visit!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Learning Can't Wait

The more I think about new initiatives and changing education, the more I believe that Dan Weiden got it right.

In August of 1988, when there would have been a high degree of likelihood that I was sporting acid wash jeans and a styled perm, the aforementioned Mr. Weiden coined a phrase in his work as a Portland advertising executive.  You might have heard of it...

"Just Do It"

From that point forward, the words "Just Do It" became not only the key branding phrase for Nike, but a part of the English lexicon forever more.  When you close your eyes and say those words, you can probably envision the font in which the phrase was written and the little black Swoosh right below it.  How many t-shirts did we own with those three words emblazoned somewhere on the front or back?

I believe that now more than ever in education, we need to adopt a "Just Do It" philosophy.   For a variety of reasons too numerous to list, we seem to be suffering from an insatiable desire to ensure that any new initiative, program, or philosophy that we are even thinking about trying is both foolproof and battle-tested to a level of imperviability that rivals kevlar or kryptonite.  We feel like we need to find the correct timing in the future for us to unveil a new idea so that we maximize the 'wow factor' and minimize negative exposure.  Or that we must determine the exact point at which the percentage of supporters is likely to outweigh the naysayers by a wide enough margin.  Or to discover the moment during the year when people have the correct mix of enthusiasm, energy, and separation between writing report cards, submitting improvement plans, doing budgets, getting ready for standardized tests, holidays, and the last full moon. And please make sure it falls in the correct block during the rotation, because we have hit period four three times in the last four months.

My point?  People are always busy--in fact, we can't even say we are busy anymore, we have to out-do each other with our descriptors of busy.  Wildly busy.  Crazy busy.  INSANELY busy. It seems the more bleary-eyed, disheveled and haggard that we can look while doing our work and the closer we can get to the lunatic fringe of frenetic activity, the greater status we feel we have with our colleagues.  Schools are busy places; they should be.  Schools and classrooms should be thriving, and filled with meaningful and significant events that are rich for students and educators alike--they should be insanely busy.  Budgets always need to be managed, staffing needs to be done, exams need to be administered, and there are always projects to finish and deadlines to meet.  And when we throw all of this stuff into our Google Calendars, one fact becomes clear and immutable:  there is no perfect time to start anything.

But there is one other clear and immutable fact, and it comes from Saul Kaplan (@skap5), founder and "Chief Catalyst" (love that) at the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, RI.  He said something that resonated with me (especially as a father of two young children in the school system) when I was at the BIF Conference last September:

A decade is a terrible thing to waste.

Wow.  How right is that.  He and his team at the Business Innovation Factory pleaded with the organizations they work with to "get off of the white board and on to the real world".  To "go from napkin-sketch to prototype". To "stop studying it and just do it".

A couple of years ago, I was having lunch with colleague and friend Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy), the highly-regarded and forward-thinking Superintendent of the West Vancouver School District. One of the things that I always have admired about Chris is the fact that he still gets into classrooms and teaches students about digital literacy and future skills.  So I asked him "How do you do it?  How do you find the time to get into classrooms when you are the Superintendent?".  He looked at me and said "I want to be in classrooms with students, so I make time for it.  It's a choice.".


But let's quickly dispense with the false dichotomies that inevitably will follow.  So does that mean that we should do everything?  No.

Say 'yes' to everything?  Nope.

Chase after every initiative?  No, that would be inefficient, irresponsible, unsustainable, and make us INSANELY busy.

We have to work within the box that we live, and manage the parameters that we have.  There is likely no more money (my next post will be about how to create money out of thin air, BTW).  There are only 24 hours in the day.  These are obstacles that we can't push to the side--we must embrace them! (Sounds a lot like 'Frugal Innovation')

But Chris's comment underscores something that is paramount for me:  we must choose what we want to do and DO it.  And I believe that we help ourselves to do this by following four steps.
What will students say, do  and write?

  1. Co-create a vision for your learner (this could be a student, teacher, support staff member, administrator, or even a parent in the community)
  2. Co-define what they would be saying, doing, or producing when they are demonstrating this vision (as in this image from an improvement plan that gets right down to specifics.)
  3. Determine your learner's current reality through observations by a team of educators that provide specific, descriptive, and non-judgmental feedback relative to your vision using a network-based approach like Instructional Rounds (and come to the Rounds Institute in Kamloops in April with dozens of other fantastic educators!)
  4. Co-design potential solutions knowing that while they might not be perfect and they might not work the way you thought you would, that you will learn about the learning taking place in your building, regardless.
  5. Follow what Saul Kaplan says: "get off of the white board and on to the real world", "go from napkin-sketch to prototype", and to "stop studying it and just do it".

Because learning can't wait, our students can't wait, and neither can we.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Do You Do LCD? (Learner-Centered Design)

Think about the last time you did some unit planning.  What was that experience like?  If it was anything like mine, it was often on a Sunday afternoon in front of a television, with a computer on my lap, a textbook on the coffee table, after a weekend of swimming lessons for the kids, yard work, and the other things that make up Life 101.  It was always almost always a solitary activity, and the lessons, tasks, and activities that I created were usually my own, based on the content I felt was important for the kids to know, and my own experiences in learning and teaching.  An introductory lesson with vocabulary and questions, some videos that I thought might be exciting, questions from the textbook and a few worksheets, a quiz or two, a lab that brought together a few of the concepts, and some sort of culminating assessment.  All of these interspersed with interesting anecdotes and analogies (interesting for me, at least) that I thought would have helped the concepts resonate with the students long enough so they might be able to parrot them back to me on my chapter test.

(Note: it is not lost on me that I just referred to my unit assessment as my 'chapter test'--I am not proud to say that in my career, there were too many occasions where my 'units' involved whatever might have been covered in a particular chapter, with a smattering of whatever creative bits that I could muster.)

But what if there was another way to plan our units?

As opposed to starting with the material that we need to cover and using our experiences and opinions to guide us, what if we began the design of every unit and task with our learner in mind?  As obvious as 'start with the learner' sounds, when it comes to unit planning, sometimes 'just get it done' can trump 'start with the learner'.  But what if we looked at a model that might guide us through our lesson planning in a different, learner-centered way?

Human-centered design is an empathy-based, creative problem-solving process which starts by determining the issues that face the end user in a particular situation and ends with iterative solutions that help the end user successfully navigate these issues.  This method has been successfully used by design leaders such as IDEO and the Stanford D-School to solve numerous problems across a variety of disciplines, including education! IDEO has created a "how to" manual called "Design Thinking For Educators" to guide teachers through this process, and the D-School has created an engaging design challenge activity called "The Wallet Project" where learners experience human-centered design in a 'learn by doing' environment.  Here is a brief video summary, just to whet your appetite (I highly recommend that you try this activity with your staff and have them try it with their students).

At the School District #73 Professional Development day that took place on Monday in Kamloops, a group of highly enthusiastic educators from our four rural schools did The Wallet Project to immerse themselves in the experience of designing and creating something based on a set of wants and needs of a client.  And while the group was designing a wallet, the wallet was symbolic of a unit plan:  how could we design a unit plan in a learner-centered way by adapting the process of designing a product in a human-centered way?

The wallet challenge requires participants to use a number of activities to create something that reflects the needs of their client  These activities can be summarized into different phases:
  • Planning for design, which includes a team developing probing questions and interviewing the client so that they can seek to understand what it is that the client truly wants and to empathize with their current reality.
  • Creating a prototype, which involves using the feedback given from the client to develop a number of iterations, and then presenting these prototypes to the client for further feedback to get closer and closer to a product that could meet their needs.
  • Building, testing, presenting and reflecting, which has the group actually create a product that is presented to the client to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about whether that product has met (or maybe exceeded!) their needs, followed up by a reflection on what might have been done differently.
The engagement of the group was extraordinary:  as the wallet activity requires a number of supplies (think 'Dollar Store') that were located on a central table, this group of calm, good-natured professionals turned into a raging, mosh pit of wallet designers, fighting for every last piece of duct tape and tube of glitter glue to create a product that would delight their client.  People were yelling "We need more time!", and "who wants to trade red duct tape for scissors?"

After each phase, the group was asked to reflect on how the user-focus felt, on how this user-centered approach might be reflected in a learner-centered approach to their own unit and lesson designs. The participants were also asked to reflect on which of the competencies from the new competency-based curriculum they were having to demonstrate by doing this activity in 'learn by doing fashion'.  What we found was that frequently, for a variety of different reasons, unit planning for many people often looked like the solitary, 'Sunday afternoon' experience that I described at the beginning of this post.

So how could we adapt the concept of human-centered design and the wallet project to help us be learner-centered designers with our units?  If we consider the three parts to the wallet exercise from above, I think there are a few tweaks that we could make to the process to make students our 'clients', and create units that not only require deep learning from our students, but units that exceed their expectations and :
  • Planning for design
    • What if we did some pre-investigation and loading before we started a unit with our students?  For example, if we were doing a unit on reptiles in biology, we could ask students questions prior to developing the unit in an informal (but highly informative) session like the interview in the wallet exercise.  Questions like
      • What are your experiences with reptiles?
      • Which reptiles are you interested in?
      • What are the most interesting things about reptiles for you?
      • Which reptiles would you like to know more about?
      • Which ones might you consider having as a pet?  Which ones would you never have as a pet?  Why?
      • Which ones might the average person be afraid of?  Why might they be afraid of them?
      • Do these 'scary' reptiles have any features about them that might be helpful?
  • Creating a prototype
    • As a result of the answers to these questions from our students, we could begin to develop an outline of a project.  Using something like our draft School District #73 unit Planning Template as a planning tool (which we are running through focus groups as we speak to see whether it 'delights' our teachers) we decide that we are going to have small groups of students create a comic book (which could be hand drawn or computer generated) about the scariest reptile that they were interested in so they could work through a driving question "How can we develop a comic that makes a reptile less scary?".
    • We create our own mini-comic book to actually try the project ourselves so we can experience the competencies that students will need to demonstrate, the content that students will need to do their project, the challenges students might have, and what scaffolding might be needed to create a product that was both visually appealing and loaded with the science of reptiles that we need students to deeply learn.
    • Because we know we can't do this on our own, we take this idea  and our comic book prototype to a small but focused group of our colleagues and two students over a sandwich at lunch using the High Tech High tuning protocol to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about how to make this project awesome, right from launch to presentation of learning.  (PS. You will be stunned at what these teams will come up with to help you--I promise).
  • Building, testing, presenting and reflecting
    • Armed with our tuned project and prototype, we launch into the unit, designing and adapting our lessons according to the needs of our students as they progress through the project.  There will be certain checkpoints that need to be hit and certain pieces of content that need to be covered.  However, in stark contrast to a more traditional, stand and deliver lesson with questions, worksheets, and tests, students will be asking you for the content (and if you don't believe me, watch this - a video testimonial of one of the teachers who changed to a problem-based approach).
    • We constantly facilitate, coach, cheerlead, encourage, and guide students towards the finished product, and a presentation of their learning (POL) to a public audience that shows not only that product, but the process and multiple iterations as a result of the feedback that made the project the best that it could be.
    • Then we and our students reflect together on how the project went, from launch to POL, so that we can make it better in the future.
Sound like a lot of work?  In the initial, preparatory stages, yes.  But in a more traditional approach, we are doing a great deal of work anyhow, aren't we?  Aren't we lecturing in front of classes? Creating powerpoints with notes?  Finding videos for kids to watch?  Creating worksheets and selecting questions at the end of the chapter?  Coming up with good summative examinations? That seems to be a lot of work too.  

Perhaps a more salient question to consider would be this: in a more traditional approach who is doing the lion's share of the meaningful work?  The creating, curating, and critical thinking about what is important.  Trying to determine the identities of the learners in the class so they might find meaning and make connections, to create activities that engage the learner, and to present them in a cohesive and interesting manner.  In a traditional approach, it is the TEACHER that is getting better at these vital skills, while students can often passively determine whether they wish to be involved or not. 


In a learner-centered, inquiry, PBL-style approach, there is a lot of work, but the teacher and the students are doing the meaningful work together.  Students are selecting which reptile is important to them, and what features make it a reptile (as oppposed to say, a mammal).  They are having to discover the features that they think might scare people, and might have to do some cross-curricular research into a phobia or find interviews with people who find snakes scary on the internet.  They are heading to the art room to try and get the best supplies, and scouring YouTube to learn how best to draw cartoons.  They are giving and getting feedback from their peers about the positive features that they have selected about their reptiles, their artwork, and curating the best bits of all of it so they can make a presentation for a real audience.  The list goes on and on, and they will keep going because you have taken the time to design something that will delight them.

Learner-centered design.  Might be something worth trying.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Helping Our Students Stand Out - What is Our "Value-Added"?

Over the past several months, I have found myself using business terms to describe different facets of our current education system.  Terms like UX and UI to describe the user-experience that our students and parents have with us and the user-interface that they interact with when searching us online.  Or ROI, our return on investment when considering different topics and formats for professional development.  And while mixing business and education can often cause a certain level of discomfort for some, I think there is much for us to learn from the business world when it comes to being insatiably curious about the needs of our clients, our students and parents, at the center of what we do each day.

Right now, the term that is at the forefront of my thinking is "value-added".  Wikipedia summarizes "value added" as 'extra' features of an product, service, or person that goes beyond the standard expectations, and provides something 'more', even if the cost is higher.  Bearing this in mind, the question that keeps bouncing around in my head is this:

"What is the "value-added" piece that we can give to our students in the K-12 system in British Columbia that will make the difference for them in the future?"

Right now, I find it difficult to give a satisfactory answer to this question.  Consider the following:

Take a moment and think back to when you applied for your first job.  Not your first teaching job, or job in your chosen profession.  I mean your first job ever, the one you got when you had spots on your face, your feet were too big for the rest of your body, and mom or dad had to pick you up after your shift because you weren't yet old enough to drive a car.

I applied for my first job in the tenth grade.  I grew up in a small town in northern British Columbia, where the job options for a teen were few and far between. So when an opportunity game up at a local gas station to be a cashier and cook for the summer, I jumped at the chance to try and earn a little extra cash to pay for my extra-curricular sports.  As you can imagine, the employer required a resume and cover letter as part of the application process, and they would select a few promising candidates for an interview.

Unfortunately, this posed a few minor challenges for me.

Specifically, I had never written a cover letter, I had a nothing to put in my resume, and I most certainly had never had any sort of an interview with an adult that I had not previously met.  But paying for volleyball camp was important to me, so I was prepared to give the application my best shot.  I found a Consumer Education textbook that my older brother had forgotten to return to the school library with a couple of sample resumes in it, and began my attempt to document the salient bits of my life to that point according to the sections set out by the experts at Nelson Publishing.

Name, Address, Phone Number....ok, got that.

Experience?  Seeing as this would be my first job--pretty tough to expand on this section.  Let's move on.

Education?  Hmmm. Well, I had been in the K-12 system for a few years, just like any other kid.  I felt like I was a pretty good student--but how was I supposed to make that evident? I guess I could staple my June report card to my resume, but that too was a bit of a problem:  when I looked at it, it said things like "Course: Science 10; Grade: B; Work Habit: G; Comment: Have a great summer!". Even in Grade 10, I remember thinking that a comment like that didn't tell my prospective employer much about me.

Skills?  Uh, well, I could hit a volleyball pretty hard, but I was guessing that wasn't going to help me cook chicken or give correct change.  I did take woodwork in Grade 9, but the miniature shark paperweight that I made out of cedar using some hand tools and sandpaper didn't seem to bring any real-world skills to the table.  I had a "B" in math, but sometimes I struggled with the homework and got an "S" for my work habit grade as a result.  It wasn't for lack of effort on my part: my father often worked in the evenings, so I didn't have someone to help me at home when I had questions about the problems that I couldn't solve. I assumed that math was going to be seen as pretty important for this job, considering I would likely be required to give correct change and count cash at the end of the night.  And while I was really good at that sort of math, I wasn't great at logarithms. Yet all my report card told my employer was that I didn't have a good work ethic, which I thought was unfair.  Who used stupid logarithms anyway?

No experience.  The same education as anyone else.  And I could sand the heck out of a piece of cedar.  According to the "value added" piece that I brought to the table, I felt as though I was qualified to pursue a career at a pencil sharpening factory.

As a young person, I remember being really frustrated:  I did all my chores, helped my dad get firewood for us in the fall, read every night before bed, was a solid student who tried hard, and played every sport my father could afford so I could stay healthy and active.  Wasn't I a good kid?  I didn't get into trouble, I did all the right things at home, and yet I didn't have anything to show for it to get me even the most basic of jobs.  All I wanted to do was to take my stupid shark and throw it with some gasoline on a big pile of logarithms and light it on fire.  In terms of value-added, I felt like I was doing all I could as a young person to make myself valuable, but my schooling wasn't really helping me when I needed it most.  The content that I had learned in English, Socials, Math and Science wasn't getting me through the door of a prospective employer--I was beating my head on the mail slot.  And if you are waiting for the happy ending, forget it, I didn't get the job:  someone else got to pump gas and make chicken.  No volleyball camp for me.

While that was in the mid-80s, I wonder how many of our students today leave the K-12 system feeling this way?  Even worse, how many students leave university with similar prospects, along with the a $27000 kick in the pants in the form of a student loan to contend with (the average student loan debt in Canada, as calculated by the Canadian Federation of Students last year--mine was closer to $50000).  A recent Newsweek article called "Millenial College Graduates:  Young, Educated, Jobless", paints a similar picture for young people in the US.  Anthony Carnevale, a Director and Professor for Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, says that a high school diploma is not enough anymore: "They (millenials) are the first generation who needs to have a college degree and experience to compete, before they even enter the workplace.".

Ahhhh...wait a minute.  Let's repeat that last bit.  "...college degree and experience, BEFORE they even enter the workplace.".  Now we have something that we can work with.  While we may not be able to give students a college degree from K-12, we can start to think of the kind of experiences that we can give our students during their time in our elementary and secondary schools that will prepare them to be contributing members of society.  Yong Zhao calls this idea "Out of the Basement-Ready", which I believe could be the real 'value added' piece for us going forward in elementary and secondary schools.  And with the new competency-based curriculum that is coming to classrooms here in BC over the next eighteen months, the opportunity for us to catapult our students forward in to the future with authentic, 'value added' skills that are above and beyond the content that has been so much of a focus of the past has never been greater.

Just imagine how excited an employer would be if they had a young person who came to a job interview able to tangibly demonstrate transferable skills through experiences that they had already had in the K-12 system?  Imagine the quality of an interview of a typical student from a PBL-focused school such as Manor New Tech, as described by their Principal here (zip forward to 3m30s to hear his description of their students, or watch the whole thing and be amazed):

200 presentations of their learning by time they graduate!  Do you think these students feel comfortable communicating?  Speaking to adults?  Curating their work?  Defending their position? Do you think these students would have dozens of artifacts to choose from to represent their identity in a positive way?  And dozens of experiences that would make a resume leap off of your desk?

Most importantly, would you hire them to pump gas, count cash, and make chicken?

I would guess that these students learned a similar amount of content to what I learned and what our students in BC learn during their time in the K-12 system.  But in terms of the "value-added" pieces that will prepare them for a changing future, well, these from Manor New Tech students would have a huge leg up, because they would have already developed and demonstrated skills in areas such as
  • communication
  • critical thinking
  • creative thinking
  • positive personal and cultural identity
  • personal awareness and responsibility
  • social responsibility
Which, by the way, happen to be the very competencies that the new curriculum in BC is calling for us to focus upon in our elementary and secondary schools.  And there are so many ways that we can help students develop these skills at every level through their Kindergarten to Grade 12 journey. Things like:
Just to name a few ideas.

Over the next few months in our district, we will be sending another team to High Tech High to discover, learn more about and implement problem-based tasks that require students to demonstrate our competencies in each of our classrooms.  In order to increase the capacity of our educators and educators across BC to observe and scale these effective tasks, Kamloops will be hosting an Instructional Rounds Institute on April 10th-14th with Harvard Professors Dr. Stefanie Reinhorn and Dr. Sarah Fiarman.  And in the fall, we will look to host a PBL institute to further cement these effective practices across our district.  We must get moving.

My daughters are currently in kindergarten and the second grade, and I could not be more excited about the opportunity that we have in BC to truly give our students a real leg up as they move through our system.  However, we must make the most of this opportunity, because that is all it is--an opportunity.  But if we use the new curriculum coming out in BC as a vehicle to teach and require students to demonstrate these competencies and constantly focus on the learning that must take place beyond the content through ideas such as inquiry-based and problem-based learning, we will truly have created a "value-added" learning environment for our clients across British Columbia.