Monday, August 17, 2015

What Are The EXPERIENCES You Create?

In British Columbia, we are still basking in the sun of summer holidays, but in a very short couple of weeks, administrators will be locked in and lining up the schedule for start-up, teachers will be preparing for their new classes, and students and their parents will be getting ready for a new school year.  It's a very exciting time! 

For a number of our students and parents, this September will have represent some sort of 'first' in their educational journey.  A student may be moving from elementary school to a middle school or high school and having their first day with their peers in a new setting.  Alternatively, for a variety of reasons, the student may be moving to a different school in their district, or moving to an entirely new district altogether as their family has relocated to a new community.  Perhaps it is that most momentous of occasions, the first day that the little learner is ever going to school as a fresh and new kindergarten student (which my wife and I will be experiencing with our second child next month). Or it could simply just be the first day of another school year for a student as they move their way through the K-12 system.


Each of these 'firsts' is incredibly important, as are the 'firsts' that are going to happen for our students throughout the year...first impressions, first day activities, first assemblies, lessons, assignments, quizzes, report cards: the list is of 'firsts' is endless.  As providers in the education system, it is my belief that how we approach these 'firsts' is pivotal.  And it is also my belief that by asking ourselves a very targeted question, we can begin to articulate co-developed values that allow us to approach these 'firsts' in a consistent, student-centered, and innovative way that truly values our students and parents and costs us very little!  The targeted question is this:

"How can we make the EXPERIENCE that our __________ (students/parents) have when they ___________ (walk into our building/register at our school/go to our website, etc) SO POSITIVE that they want to communicate this experience with others?".

Whenever I think about this question, I remember an example of an experience that my daughter and I had last summer at one of my favorite hotels, The Four Seasons in Vancouver.  

I am not much of a camper.  I did a great deal of camping as a child, but for right now, if I am going to be out of my house for an evening, typically I would choose a hotel over a campsite.   Don't judge me, I am just telling it like it is.  Last year, my daughter had a great year in kindergarten, so I told her that I would take her on a date in Vancouver, which would include a trip to the aquarium, a dinner wherever she wanted, and a night at a downtown hotel, and as much swimming at the pool as she wanted.  We were both excited.  

I made a reservation at the Four Seasons, and let them know that my five year old daughter would be with me.  When we showed up at the hotel...

  • we were welcomed as Mr. and Miss Birk, and the concierge made a point of asking my daughter whether this was her first visit to the city and to the Four Seasons, and what she hoped to do during her visit.  Paige was enchanted. 
  • we went up to the room, and on the beds were two bathrobes laid out on the bed, one for Dad, and a miniature one for Paige, complete with a chocolate, moose-shaped lollipop on it.  Paige immediately put on her robe, and asked if we could just stay in!  
  • we left the room and walked back to the lobby, the concierge called 'Miss Birk' over and asked if she enjoyed her moose-lollipop, and asked us what our plans were.  I said we were off to the aquarium, and without my asking, offered to call us a taxi.  He then asked if we had dinner plans, and Paige said she would like to go to Earl's Restaurant.  The concierge asked us what time, and then made a second call to the closest Earl's and made our reservation for us before we left for our outing.  

I could go on and on, because the service only got better that night and the following day.  And to top it all off, we received an email 24 hours after our visit asking if everything was to our satisfaction, and was there anything they could have improved on to make our visit even more enjoyable.  

The point is this--our EXPERIENCE was so amazing and felt so personalized that when anyone asks Paige or I about where we would stay in Vancouver, we don't just say "The Four Seasons", we tell the whole story of the service we received to anyone who will listen--we are instant, authentic advertising!  And while it is likely that there are 'nicer' hotels downtown, and there are certainly more expensive ones, because of the experience that we had, we tell our story for The Four Seasons and get absolutely nothing in return!  

Coming back to the context of schools, in my last post, I gave a starting definition of something that Simon Breakspear and I are working on-- 'frugal innovation in education'.

"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"

By considering each of the different experiences that our students and parents have each day with our schools, we are actually beginning the process of frugal innovation.  From my last post, the initial steps to frugal innovation include
  • developing a process to co-create their values with each of these partner groups
  • determining basic rules for innovative solutions (sounds contrary, but actually essential)
  • creating diverse and eclectic groups of thinkers within the greater school community
So how could we apply this to experiences in our schools?  We could begin by using the question stem posed above as the basis for a design challenge, and use an example like our websites for our students and parents.  It might look like this...

"How can we make EXPERIENCE that our students and parents have when interact with our website so positive that they want to communicate this experience to others?".

I just think of how many other questions this type of challenge triggers for me:   How best might we answer this question?  Who should we have involved?  Who can we learn from?  Who are people that we have not thought of that might be able to help us with this challenge?  What would a process look like if we had a group of these different people together?  What might the norms or rules for innovation be? How can we best collect the information about this challenge from this diverse and eclectic group?  

And those are just a few questions in the first part of the process! 

It sounds like a lot of work, but think of the upside.  Imagine creating a website for your school that your parents and students raved about.  A website that was so dynamic and packed with stuff for students and parents that all of their questions were answered, their expectations were met, and when they were chatting with other parents or community members at the local Starbucks over coffee, they were telling them how informative and user-friendly your website was for them.

Now take that design challenge question and substitute 'website' for 'registration day', 'parent teacher interviews', or 'report cards' for your parents or students.  How could you think about those things in a different way?  A human-centered way?

Or, if you are a teacher, take that design challenge and make it into something like this:

"How can I make EXPERIENCE that my students have when they first walk into my classroom so positive that they want to communicate this experience to their fellow students, parents, and friends?".

Or, if you are an administrator, perhaps a challenge such as this is important:

"How can we make EXPERIENCE that our teachers have when they leave our first faculty meeting so positive that they want to communicate this experience to others?".

There are so many experiences that we can create that can truly transform the culture of our schools, but because there is no more time in our day, and no influx of money coming to education, being innovative in our approach to the 'firsts' for our students, parents and teachers can be a continuous challenge.  But we HAVE to get started, because we owe it to our students and our parents to take an innovative approach to all aspects of our schools for our learners.  And because we must embrace the parameters that we work with each day, the mindset of frugal innovation is one that we must adopt. And if the moral imperative is not enough, the ability for our students and parents to rapidly amplify their story about their 'firsts' and experiences through social media makes one thing absolutely certain:    

Whether our students or parents have an experience at our school that is positive OR negative, they WILL communicate that experience to others.

So, what are the the "Four Seasons"-style experiences that you can create in your school?


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 one might call 'frugal innovation' in education.

Along with friend and colleague Simon Breakspear, I have been kicking around this 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.