Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Getting Started With Frugal Innovation

When I first created my blog page, I included the header message:

"It's education.  There is no more money.  There is no more time: there are only 24 hours in the day.  It's also the greatest job in the world, so let's get on with it.".

After five years of blogging and reflection, I believe in this statement even more today. Regardless of the increasing cost pressures due to things such as tech purchases, infrastructure upgrades and professional development requirements, there has been no sudden, magic influx of money. And with an ever expanding number of initiatives being introduced along with the concurrent pressures to produce students that are creative, collaborative and resilient contributors to society now and in the future, the time that we can dedicate to any one program to improve student and educator learning has actually decreased--we seem to be cramming more and more in to our 24 hour day.  "Do more with less!", we groan together in unison.

Several years ago, I was listening to Douglas Reeves speak at the Effective Schools Conference in Phoenix.  He asked the audience to make a list of all of the initiatives that they had been working on in their schools or districts over the last five years, or what we were planning to work on in the upcoming year.  I proudly wrote down a dozen or so initiatives that I felt were going on at our school, and then added a few that I was interested in investigating for the future.  Many of the participants around me had similar lists, and some were much longer!

He then asked us how many initiatives we had STOPPED doing in the last five years.  A nervous smattering of laughter rippled through the audience, and everyone quickly got the point:  we never seem to stop doing anything, we just keep going.

Bearing this overriding philosophy in education, of course our plates are full!  We keep going back to the educational buffet table and filling our plates without actually removing anything that is already there.  We wonder why we have no money for new initiatives when we continue to spend resources on programs that may (or may not) be having the desired impact that we envisioned when they began.  Yet how many times have we actually turned over all of the stones in our schools and districts to see whether there are some things that we, well...just need to scrap.

Over the past few months, I have seen an incredible proliferation of the term 'innovation' in tweets and blog posts across my learning network.  Teachers, administrators, schools and districts are beginning to dedicate time and resources to becoming 'more innovative', even if we don't quite know what being 'more innovative' is actually going to look like.  Even with my new position as "District Principal of Innovation" for our school district, a number of my colleagues have asked me "So what exactly will you be doing for us in the school district?".  Many believe that my job will revolve around technology.  Many others feel that I should be helping to transform classrooms into '21st century' (groan...we are 15 years in...) learning spaces, or that I should investigate and then facilitate professional development on new apps or gadgets that make life better in the classroom.  Not that these ideas are bad ones, however, I think I have a bit of a different answer for them. This answer is based in some ideas that myself and a few of my colleagues are having around something that one might call 'frugal innovation' in education.

Along with friend and colleague Simon Breakspear, I have been kicking around the idea of frugal innovation for the past few months.  While frugal innovation is a term that is often used in fields outside of education, and there have been a number of books about the concept, it can be adapted to education with a definition such as this:

"frugal innovation is the co-creation of iterations of solutions to educational issues that contravene our co-developed values while embracing the 'immovable' parameters that impact our day-to-day operations"

As a result of this line of thinking, I believe that my new job will be to work with educators, administrators, students, parents and their local school community to

  • develop a process to co-create their values with each of these partner groups
  • determine basic rules for innovative solutions (sounds contrary, but actually essential)
  • create diverse and eclectic groups of thinkers within the greater school community
  • harness and increase the capacity of these groups to solve problems by developing mindsets such as those in the Field Guide to Human Centered Design from IDEO, such as creative confidence, learning from failure, empathy, embracing ambiguity, optimism, and iteration
  • determine the parameters which contravene these co-developed values
  • decide which parameters are truly 'immovable', and which ones are instead constructs that we have created on our own and can actually change (or let go of, as Douglas Reeves pointed out)
  • make, reflect upon, and share solutions that not only work within but embrace these parameters
  • continue to iterate, and not to lock in to any one solution to the point that it obscures ideas that can be gleaned from other solutions
Frugal innovation is going to be my focus for the foreseeable future in my new position.  In the next few weeks, I am going to be tapping in to the talents of other educators in my PLN to develop tasks and activities for workshops in each of these areas.  It will be both exciting and daunting all at the same time, but I know that there is no more money in education, and there certainly is no more time in the day.  But I truly believe educators have the greatest job on earth, so it's time to get on with it and embrace the parameters that confront our educational values.  

It's time to get started with frugal innovation in education.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Making Marking Meaningful

I haven't been a classroom teacher for a number of years, but there is one thing that is burned into my memory from my years of teaching Biology and Science--I hated marking.  I remember late nights in my living room with mounds of paper on one side of me and cups of coffee and red markers on the other, wading through virtually identical student responses to the stacks of assignments, quizzes, tests, and labs that I had given to each of my classes.  Tattooed into my brain are the steps in DNA replication, synthesis and decomposition reactions, terms like 'carbaminohemoglobin' (I still love that word) and a myriad of other trivial scientific factoids as a result of my marking thousands of assignments that asked for rote answers from students on topics that I had just taught them. Marking was dreadfully tedious.

But what if we approached marking in a way that made it much more enjoyable and meaningful for us?  More specifically, what if the assignments that we gave to kids highlighted the content through topics that we as teachers didn't know everything (or dare I say 'anything'?) about?  What if we used students as our researchers, as a team that was going to find out new and unique things that they would share with us and their peers that made all of us more knowledgeable?

At Sa-Hali, we have a large proportion of international students: we are a hub for the International Education Program here in the district.  Each year, we get students from every corner of the world coming to us, and not surprisingly, we have found that this can be quite stressful for those students and their parents, especially in the weeks leading up to their arrival at the school.   So bearing this issue in mind, and after a few informal conversations about our online presence for our international students and parents, our amazing language teacher Susanne Blohm decided to do her problem-based learning unit around the driving question of

"How can we use our website to make our international students feel comfortable coming to our school even before they get here?"

As adults, we often assume that we know what our students need, be they our local students or students from abroad.  And when presented with a question such as this, many of us would jump to a number of conclusions based on our own needs and biases, and more 'fixed' mindset in terms of what we have experienced in the past.  However, when kids are confronted with such a task, they have some distinct advantages over adults:  they have a student perspective, they don't have some of the experiences that adults have, and they are truly interested in finding out what other kids think, especially those from other countries.  In other words, they tend to be more curious researchers who are going to find out all sorts of things that we likely never would have considered.

So the students looked at our website and a variety of others through a student lens, and then interviewed our international students to understand what would have helped them and their parents feel more comfortable coming to our school.  They collected incredibly rich data.  Data that Ms. Blohm didn't know.  And data that, as Principal, I was keenly interested in discovering so that we can make our website speak for our school.

Oh, and by the way...
  • the students had to create and present their project in Spanish, as the PBL unit was for Ms. Blohm's Introductory Spanish class.  
  • by the very nature of the class, the students had little experience in Spanish, so they would need to find the relevant content of the course that would help them discover the best ways to communicate their ideas to a face-to-face audience in their Presentations of Learning and online international audience
  • the students had zero experience in web design
Ms. Blohm could have had her students do worksheets.  She could have used the textbook questions. She could have done grammar and spelling tests.  She could have done the same style of activities that I did in my science classes to 'cover content' that kids might never actually use.  And she too could have brewed up a pot of java to help her mark stacks of paper with identical answers until her eyes crossed late into the evening, learning absolutely nothing in the process other than how little she enjoyed marking.  And we aren't even talking about what the students would have (or have not) learned by a more traditional approach.

Instead, Ms. Blohm got to see a variety of different projects and methods of presentation, and she got to LEARN from her students:  the students gave her all sorts of different things that the international students would have liked to have seen, and then they created websites with all of these different elements.  Suddenly, Ms. Blohm was not having to do mundane marking, she was assessing something that was truly interesting:  she was getting a new perspective from her students and students from around the world.  The marking becomes so much more meaningful when the marker is learning something new.

As for the students, they developed skills as interviewers and researchers, as contributors to a group, as web designers, as content editors, as peer assessors, and as presenters to a live audience of other students, teachers, and parents, as well as real international students and parents when we link their work to our website in a "A day in the life of a Sa-Hali Student" section of our website this summer. Oh, and I almost forgot: the students also learned the Spanish content to best communicate their ideas on their websites.  And in reflecting with Susanne afterward, she said that without question, because the students were interested and had an authentic purpose for learning the Spanish content, they went light years farther than she would have expected an Intro Spanish student to go with a more traditional classroom approach.  In speaking to the students, the biggest issue they found was time--they wished they had MORE time to spend on it so they could have made their projects even better for the international students.

When is the last time you heard students wishing they could spend more time on worksheets?

In the last few months, I know that I have been extolling the virtues of designing lessons that require divergent thinking and outputs through PBL with our staff from the perspective of student learning. However, I believe if we want to make our assessment of students more meaningful and interesting from an educator's perspective, creating tasks for students that allow us to learn from their work is just one more reason why I believe PBL is an effective tool in engaging students and educators alike.

And if there is any way to make marking meaningful, I know our teachers would be all in for that.

*cross-posted at "The Sa-Hali Educational Sandbox"

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Age of the Shiny Object

"What would a school that was totally focused on student and teacher learning look like?"

I believe that this is a question that, as educators, we are often quick to answer.   We might talk about how the building might look, how the classrooms would be organized, the classes that would be offered, the resources and technology that would adorn each of the classrooms, and the teaching that would take place.  However, the more time I spend in my school and others, the more I realize that we would be better served by responding to this question with another question, which would be

"What is the type of learning that we want?"

Right now in education, we are in the age of the shiny object.  Tablets, smartboards, mini iPads, smartphones, document cameras, chromebooks--you name it, schools and districts seem to be in a pseudo-technological 'arms race' in which the ultimate goal seems to fall somewhere between student learning and the ability to espouse sound bites like "we have a 1:1 tablet program in our Grade 4 classrooms".

We are also in the age of flashy programs--PRTI, PBIS, AVID, STE(A)M, Assessment For Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, and Problem-Based Learning are just a few of the appetizers in the buffet of programs and initiatives that are available for schools to sample when they are hungry to go in a new direction.  "We do PLCs!" we shout with pride.

Some of our structures are changing as well.  We have maker spaces, learning commons, creative corners, collaborative zones, green rooms, whiteboards in washrooms, and spots to house a litany of supplies and tech tidbits that people can use.

We have even created new positions in districts to operationalize these technologies and programs in schools:   Directors of Instruction, District Technology Leaders, and even ones like my own upcoming new post as District Principal of Innovation are popping up in jurisdictions all across North America.  There are so many more of these types of jobs today that a colleague asked me "Is it even that innovative anymore to have someone in a district who is focused on innovation?".  A valid question!

But before we buy one bit of technology, send a single person to a conference, begin piloting a program, or create new spaces or positions, we need to ask the question "What is the type of learning that we want?", and clearly define what students and teachers would be saying, doing and writing when they are demonstrating this learning.

For example, if we want our learners to be 'collaborators in a digital age', we might jump to buy 30 tablets on a portable cart, using the "if we build it, they will come" mantra.  We might give the cart to a couple of eager teachers to use in their classes, and hope for digital collaboration to be a contagion that spreads through out the school.  And for a period of time, these teachers may use the tablets in their classes, but then come and say something like, "We are seeing some collaboration, but the kids are really having a hard time typing on the tablets, can we get keyboards?", or "The one cart is great, however, to get them to collaborate with another class, we need another class set.  Is there a way to get another one?".  And so the 'arms race' begins.

Another way we might approach this could be to look at this problem as a design challenge, and

  1. Frame a design question such as "How might we improve the collaborative capabilities of our students?", with thoughts of the impact that we want to have on student learning and applications beyond school. 
  2. Assemble a diverse group of students and staff members together to think about possible solutions to the problem.  Within this context, we might need to define 'collaborator' in terms of what students would be saying, doing and writing when they are effectively collaborating. Low tech and high tech possibilities might be a result of this conversation, and there may be some surprises, such as a student asking a question like "Why don't we just use our phones?  I don't have an iPad at home, so couldn't we just get kids to use what they have?" 
  3. Determine some of the constraints that exist in our particular context--funding, time for training, time 'away from the curriculum', lesson structure, sustainability, upkeep and maintenance might come out of this portion of the conversation.
  4. Interview sample students and teachers about their hopes, fears, and ambitions about becoming a collaborator, why it is important to them in their context, and what they might use to get better at collaboration.
  5. Do a task inventory through the lens of "Are the tasks students do requiring them to be collaborators?", and perhaps augment this with Instructional Rounds-style observations with specific and non-judgmental feedback.  
  6. As a result of the feedback garnered from observations, debrief during PLC collaborative time to do a root-cause analysis (such as "The 5 Whys" exercise) to determine the structures and antecedents to the observed successful teaching of collaboration
  7. Gather the brainstorm of the possible solutions, constraints, task inventory, and root-cause analysis together to determine which strategies/technologies could be high leverage given the constraints that exist (this might include PD sessions that focus on designing and implementing collaborative tasks augmented with technology that students have)
  8. Determine the collaborative technologies that fit within the constraints that were defined.
  9. Pilot two or three possible tech solutions, and get immediate specific feedback on whether they helped improve the collaborative capabilities of students.
  10. Re-assemble the group, and make a tech decision based on the information that you have collected.
  11. Be prepared to get more feedback on how things are going so we can quickly and nimbly iterate, and iterate some more.

As a result of a process like this, we would have a co-developed, focused and targeted plan for our purchase and the associated PD that meets the needs of our design question.

Wow.  This looks like a lot of work.  And truthfully, approaching something like a technology purchase SHOULD be a lot of work.  But for me, here is the thing:  there is no more money, and there are only 24 hours in the day.  Our resources are precious and often scarce, and as a result, we need to create realistic and sustainable solutions that honour the parameters within which we must work. And if the process to effectively utilize our scarce and precious resources to get the learning that we want for students takes a bit more time, it's what we have to do.  Not to mention, if we do this type of process enough, we get better and better at meeting design challenges in our schools and districts.

A shiny object is just that--an object.  And with the proliferation of technology, programs, and positions that seem to be leading us down a pathway toward innovation, we need to see past the sparkle and ensure that the objects that we pursue are those which truly reflect the learning that we want in our schools and our districts.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Faculty Meetings - Learning By Doing

Several weeks ago, a team of Sa-Hali teachers and myself went to San Diego to visit High Tech High.  A few weeks prior to the trip, we received a series of Next Level of Work plans from our Instructional Rounds observers in February that indicated that we needed to design and implement tasks that required resilience for our students.  A trip to a school that utilizes Project-Based Learning fit perfectly into our Next Level of Work, and as a result, we determined that we had four areas of focus for our trip to San Diego.  We wanted to follow up on our May Professional Development day that we had with High Tech High teachers Chris Wakefield and Anthony Conwright; to find projects and inspiration for projects that we could bring back to our setting; to observe Presentations of Learning, and; to ask as many questions as we could on behalf of our staff.

As I said in my previous post, it was hard to describe our experience at HTH.  Personally, one of the things I am trying to get better at avoiding is helping our staff avoid the dreaded "wet dog" syndrome: I know that my staff tends to cringe when I go away to a conference or PD session, because I tend to come home, stand in the middle of a faculty meeting, and "shake off" the new ideas like a Labrador Retriever coming out of a lake.  Not to mention, I could imagine little worse than simply sitting and listening to a group who had just returned from a trip to San Diego wax poetically about all the great things about a school other than our own.  Ugh.

With this thought in mind. I approached our HTH Exploratory Team with my usual "shortest question possible" (the idea I steal over and over again from the TED talk which has had a tremendous influence on me--Dan Meyer's 'Math Class Needs a Makeover').  My short question was "How do we help our staff experience what we observed at High Tech High?".  I have found that when you involve a group of people with the mindset of  "How would I learn this best?" around a short question, they tend to come up with tremendous ideas--and again, I was not disappointed.

Three of main themes that we observed at HTH were:

  • a relaxed, can-do, and collaborative environment attitude where educators help one another  
  • peer-editing and iteration based in 'warm' and 'cool' feedback
  • a selfless, 'service to others' mentality
  • everything with purpose
But how could we re-create these themes at a faculty meeting?  A couple of things fell in to place for us: first of all, our team of teachers that went to HTH were champing at the bit to get started on some projects in their classes, and secondly, we were in the process of co-developing our school improvement plan.  As a result, the faculty activities that we came up with for the April Staff Meeting (after Good News and a few logistics) came to look like this:

Part One:  
  • Each of HTH Exploratory Team member got 1-2 minutes to speak about their experience at HTH, with a picture-heavy slide show (co-developed with another school here in our district) up in the background to provide some visuals and help us describe what we saw
  • Three of the team members presented their ideas for projects to be completed between now and the end of the year.  Their projects were:
    • Students creating a collaborative kinetic sculpture to demonstrate the concepts of Physics 11 and 12.
    • Creating/redesigning a library space where 'everyone wants to go'.
    • Creating travel blog posts about the Maghreb region, a French-speaking region of Northern Africa in order to be able to apply and get a job at www.worldofwanderlust.com to travel the world and write blog posts.
  • The three project leaders asked the staff to be a part of a Project Tuning Protocol so that they could get new ideas and help to make their projects even better.
  • The three other team members (and myself) facilitated the Project Tune (listen in on one of the discussions here)
  • The staff members self-organized into three collaborative groups according to the project they felt they were interested in and/or would have something to contribute and 'tune' project for their colleague.
  • Each group reflected on the process of "Project Tuning".
Part Two:
Peer-editing our School Improvement Plan
In each activity, I saw rich dialogue.  I saw people laughing, smiling, and working hard.  I saw people digging in and really trying to give critical feedback to their peers through the project tune and the peer-editing because people needed the feedback.  I saw frustration, and people trying to figure our the best way to articulate their thoughts to each other, and to the potential student and community audiences that will be participating in the projects and viewing our School Improvement Plan. I also saw a couple of people that were sitting back at different points and taking everything in, and that too was good: people have different ways of processing, and we need to honor that.  However, because each staff member knew that they had a task to accomplish for someone else, each staff member got involved.

By doing this activity, our faculty members 
  • got to work with each other in a relaxed, non-threatening manner
  • did two different styles of peer-editing through the project tune and through the SIP analysis
  • helped each other and did peer-editing with a purpose--they did it because they wanted to help their colleagues -- people needed their feedback in the form of a second set of eyes.  
  • got to do a great deal of "Learning Beyond The Content" (my next post--stay tuned).
While I would have loved to have taken our entire staff to High Tech High in San Diego, it was just not possible.  And although we will continue to send exploratory teams to California as we travel the PBL journey that we have embarked upon, we need to keep our entire faculty engaged and involved along the way.  By determining the most important pieces that we observed and developing activities that would help our faculty experience what we observed in the spirit of "learning by doing", I hope we whet people's appetites even more for Project-Based Learning!

I would like to acknowledge the work of Jordan Backman, Susanne Blohm, Jen Cacaci, Tanya Cail, Cecile McVittie, and Kirk Smith, our HTH Exploratory Team.  The leadership they continue to show about PBL has been truly inspirational.

*cross posted at The Sa-Hali Educational Sandbox