Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Assume You DON'T Know

We all know what people say about the phrase "I assume...", yet why do we seem to do it over and over again when it comes to most aspects of education?  And while we might not use the words "I assume...", I often wonder how many times in education we assume we know the reasons why...

  • students aren't doing well in a particular subject area ("kids don't work hard these days")
  • kids skip classes ("they just want to play on their iPhones")
  • parents don't come to parent-teacher conferences ("they just don't care")
  • high school report cards don't get picked up at the end of the year ("they already know what they are getting anyway")
  • people keep asking the same questions about information that is posted on our website ("they just don't read")
  • teachers don't use technology in their classrooms ("they need more projectors and wifi")
  • principals are never in classes ("they are too busy with paperwork")

...and the list goes on.  And often times, as a result of these assumptions, we sit around conference room tables, collectively wringing our hands either maligning the situation (bad) or expending enormous amounts of energy developing and implementing solutions based on these flawed assumptions (much worse).

In the Instructional Rounds program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the "The Ladder of Inference" (see below) is used to help learners understand how we tend to construct our beliefs about what we observe.  The instructors are also quick to point out that as observers (and human beings), we tend to 'go up the ladder' very quickly:  we make assumptions, draw conclusions and adopt beliefs from a small and discrete set of observations, rather than really 'digging deep' to get a rich perspective on a given situation.  

Speaking from experience, 'going up the ladder' is very easy to do.  Several years ago at my school, we had a particular intervention strategy set up for our students who were struggling in meeting the outcomes for their math and science courses.   We had staffed it, found a room for it, put it in the schedule, and were looking forward to our students experiencing success in two areas that we had found they often needed additional support.  But there was one tiny problem.

No one used it.

Of course, I quickly went up the ladder of inference.  I was disappointed in the teaching staff for not sending their students to get additional assistance.  "Our staff asked for additional support, and we are providing it, and they are not using it!" I whined to no one in particular.  I sat with our leadership group and collectively we fumed, brainstormed some different ideas and made a change to the referral process to make it easier to refer students.

And still no one used it.

So finally, I hauled in a couple of math teachers and science teachers and sat them down and said "We put this intervention strategy in and none of you are using it, yet we still have students that are struggling--why are you not using it?".  Expecting a set of excuses or some philosophical debate, I was ready with my arguments as to why this intervention strategy was worthwhile and important.  So what response did I get?  

"We would use it, but it's in the wrong block, and many of our kids can't access it.  Could you move it to Period 3?"

Oh.  Well, uh, sure we could.  

And then people used it.  We moved the block to where the end-user told us they could utilize it best. What a concept.

If I would have just involved the end-user in the creation of the solution, all of this could have been avoided.  I assumed I knew where the best placement of the block was in the timetable based on classes, loads, and paper-based information that I had.  But I made a big mistake, a mistake I see over and over again in education--we don't ask the end user about the experience that they wish to have and use that information to test out a solution.

Yesterday, Sarah Krasley said something that is continuing to resonate with me today in her blog about human-centered design, :  

"Product design is a fundamentally compassionate act.  After all, the best products come from designers who listen intently to the populations they serve and have empathy for the people who might use their product or service"

This had me thinking.  Considering Sarah's point, where are some spots where we could listen intently to those we serve and co-design empathy-based solutions for our end user?  A few quick ones came to mind, but the list could be endless:
  • school websites - What do our parents and students need from our website?  Our teachers? Our international students?
  • parent teacher conferences - What do parents truly want from these evenings?  Do they want to listen to what their teachers think are their strengths and weaknesses?  Or would they rather have a student-led conference and watch their student showcase what they have learned?
  • report cards - Do our report cards truly inform our students and parents in a way that makes a difference?
  • learning styles in the classroom - Are there better ways that we can tap into the individual needs of our students in their classrooms?
  • technology in the classroom - Are we asking students about the technology they use/want to use, or are we just using tech for the sake of tech?  Are we doing a digital photography course with cameras that students could never afford, or do we have a cell phone photography course because that is technology that many have or will have soon?
Regardless of the problem, if the design of the solution does not involve listening to and learning from the end user, we are making the assumption we know what they want, and missing an opportunity to make a lasting and effective solution.

My new mantra:  "Don't assume you know."  In fact, my new mantra could be "I assume I don't know":  at least I would go in to a situation with my eyes, ears and mind wide open rather than closed to new and different points of view.

Do you consistently involve your end users in co-creating solutions? Where are the spots in your learning situation where you could involve the end user?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Get Hungry For Feedback

Today was the first day of school for students and teachers across British Columbia, and no matter if it is your 'first' first day of school as a student, parent or educator or your twentieth, it is always exciting an exciting day.  The halls are noisy as students who haven't seen each other for 8 weeks re-connect to talk about their summer holidays.  Parents are dropping kids off and playfully pretending they are relieved that summer is over while concurrently shaking their heads in wonderment as to where the time has gone as they watch their children grow right before their eyes. Teachers are buzzing about, attending to last minute details, printing class lists, and making sure their rooms are ready to go. Administrators are putting out spot fires--giving directions to classrooms, finding keys for new teachers, meeting with parents, and smiling the entire time.  It is exciting, semi-organized chaos.  And before you know it, in the blink of an eye, it's done.

So how did it go?

As tempting as can be to 'just move on' to Day Two, October, Christmas Break, and the month of AprilMayJune, I am realizing more and more how important it is to get immediate feedback on 'how things went' as quickly as we possibly can so that we can make adjustments for our school community.  But do we actually take the time to do this?

Over the last few months, I have seen a notable increase in the number of 'pop-up'-style surveys coming my way from websites that I search or online tools that I use.  There are nights that I will be tapping away on Google Drive, and a little box will appear asking me if I want to 'rate my experience' when I use different Google applications.  With 'Back to School' sales and online shopping, it seems as though I can't click on a page without some window showing up saying something like "Take our survey and receive an additional 20% off of your next purchase", or "Help us make this experience better for you AND be entered into a draw for a $1000 shopping spree" or some other enticement-based feedback mechanism to lure me in to giving my opinion on a particular product.  Every once in a while I provide some feedback, but most times I click "No thanks" and move on.

Right now, businesses worldwide are not hungry for feedback--they are starving.  Companies have long since realized that if they are not hyper-sensitive and responsive to the experience that their customers are having, those customers quickly move on.  And in a worst-case scenario, those customers don't just move on, they tell future customers about their negative experience through websites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp, or the litany of other online review sites. (Note: if you are curious about the impact of online reviews, read a few articles like this to see how online reviews influence us as consumers).  As a result, when companies wonder about something such as why their website is not being accessed as much by their customers, their marketing departments and R & D people don't typically sit with each other and try to guess why that might be occurring.  And they certainly don't make sweeping changes to the services they offer based on speculation.  They scratch and claw to get real-time, authentic data from their clients.  And because it is so difficult to access large numbers of their end-users, they use mechanisms like online surveys with completion incentives to get this feedback so that they can quickly pivot and make required changes.

So what does this have to do with education?  Well, in many ways, it doesn't.  I say that because when we are in schools with students, we do not have the same challenges that private businesses have in accessing their 'end users'.  We are so fortunate to have our 'end-users' are sitting right in front of us for over a thousand hours per year: they are our students. Or that show up at 3:00 each day to pick up their children, come to parent teacher evenings, and attend sports events and concerts: they are our parents.  And don't forget the 'end-users' who come to our offices, faculty meetings and professional development sessions dozens of times: they are our educators.

And they are all right there in front of us, every single day of the school year.

In the context of Day One, we have an glowing opportunity to ask questions such as:

  • "How did registration go for you this year, and how could we have made it better?" 
  • "How did your first class go, and what could we have done differently?"
  • "What was your experience like during our first faculty meeting, and how can we change it?".

so that we can make our own real-time changes that make the experiences for our students, parents, and faculty even better in our schools. 

As busy as we are, I believe that we need to ensure that we do three things when it comes to getting and utilizing feedback:
  1. We need to ensure that after any meeting, day, or event that we feel is important, we set aside a block of time to reflect on the process.  
  2. We need to ensure that we are hungry for authentic feedback from what IDEO calls "extremes and mainstreams", people who we might not think to ask for feedback along with those that seem obvious.
  3. We need to take this feedback, and apply it by making a prototype that we can test out with actual users (even using something like the High Tech High Tuning Protocol) with time built in prior to our next use so we can make any necessary adjustments.
As much as these three things may take some time and planning, I believe that if we do them well, we can instantly make the experiences that we create in our schools better.  And by empowering our students, parents and staff (aka. our 'end-users') in the process, we are modeling a culture that is nimble, innovative, and responsive to our school community.

All by truly 'getting hungry for feedback'.

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.