Author Archives: George

The “Answer” is Not Always the Right Answer

I was listening to an interesting interview from CBC shared on Jordan Tinney’s blog discussing the use of “letter grades” in school.  This is an interesting topic because it is something that is so deeply rooted in tradition in our schools, and to change this, there will be a lot of challenging conversations.

In the podcast, one of the people calling in (at about 17 minutes), has an interesting comment:

“…these children will eventually graduate into a workplace where it doesn’t matter how hard you try, if you don’t have the right answer, you don’t have the right answer, and that’s all there is to it.”

This argument, that is often used about the “real world” and the workplace is not as simple as it seems.  Yes, people need to know information, but information changes and it is more important that we are able to think than simply know an answer.  Thomas Friedman has a great quote on what our “world” is looking for in his article about on “How To Get a Job at Google”:

“The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).” Thomas Friedman

The interesting thing about the article is that from Friedman’s research, “grades” or “test scores” are not a determining factor for success with the company:

Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.”

The culture at Google is known for many “soft skills” that cannot simply be graded, and are  more focused on a person’s ability to be able to think, lead, be creative, be flexible and adaptive (which are really tough to grade). According to Superintendent Chris Kennedy, the word “smart” doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

This is just not at Google.  Many organizations are focusing on people to think beyond the “answer” and go outside of the lines, to be honest, in fear of losing profits long term.

Here are two situations that I personally encountered where the “answer” wasn’t the right answer.

Just recently I was collecting stamps for a Starbucks specialty drink promotion over the Christmas break.  I was only needing one more to reach five and get a free drink, when I was informed that the promotion was over, and then they wouldn’t be handing out any more stickers.  When I said, “Aww that sucks..I already have four and just needed one more.” Immediately the barista went to her colleague, grabbed a stamp, and gave me the last sticker for a free drink.  She didn’t have to go to the manager, she just went to someone who had the stickers and gave me one.  That simple.

At Avis recently, they have a policy that if you bring the car back an hour after the designated time you are supposed to return the vehicle, the customer will be charged for an extra day.  Arriving late to the airport due to weather, I was 90 minutes late for my deadline, and without hesitation, the employee waved the fee although I had signed a contract stating the rules.  They didn’t have to talk to a supervisor or ask permission, they just knew what was best.

Now my circumstance with these two companies might not be the norm (although they have been with me).  Simply put in both cases the “answer” was not the “answer”, but was on a sliding scale dependent upon the circumstance.  Some facts are not “concrete” and change over time, but the ability to think is something that is needed consistently.

You might think that both of these cases were simply a matter of common sense, but in the past for many organizations, “common sense” was not allowed as it would lead to a loss of money.  If you look deeper though, it is only a short term loss.  Starbucks lost five dollars because they gave me a free drink when they didn’t have to and Avis lose fifty dollars by having an employee changing the “answer” on the fly, but long term they created loyalty because they were allowed to change what the “answer” was and think for themselves and do what is best in the situation.  Short term loss was worth long term gain.  More and more companies are understanding this and they need people that don’t simply know the answer, but can think for themselves and understand the best thing to do in any situation.

I like to think that both of these people that I encountered thought about the situation, put themselves in my situation, and thought about if the roles were reversed.  Barry Schwartz talked about how this type of empathy is crucial to “wisdom”:

“Most of us think about empathy as a “feeling” or an “emotion.” It is. To be empathetic is to be able to feel what the other person is feeling. But empathy is more than just a feeling. In order to be able to feel what another person is feeling, you need to be able to see the world as that other person sees it. This ability to take the perspective of another demands perception and imagination. Empathy thus reflects the integration of thinking and feeling.”

The “answer” is not always the right answer. The “real world” is expecting people to be able to think for themselves and not simply follow a manual, but to do what is best, sometimes in spite of what the answer tells you.

The Power of Branding (Book Review)

I am going to start off by saying that there is something about the term “Branding” in connection with schools that just throws me off.  I think in education, where our work is so “human”, the term “branding” just doesn’t sit well, although I do understand why people use it.  Sharing your story in schools though, is especially important today, not because it was not important before, but it is just easier to do so.

That being said, I decided to read the book “The Power of Branding; Telling Your School’s Story”, by Tony Sinanis and Joseph Sanfelippo, not necessarily because I was interested in “branding”, but I have known of both of the writer’s work in schools and how they were doing great things, and wanted to see what they shared.  I will have to admit that I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of the book, but right away, it was more than about “branding”, but was more about “leading with the heart” and building connections.  That caught my attention right away.

What I loved about the book was that it shared practical ways to “tell you story”, mostly through social media, but it focused on, more importantly, creating your story by simple things.  The authors shared simple things about knowing student’s names, celebrating birthdays in the community, and making their connections so personal.  In a topic that could have been so cold, they showed the importance of human connections.  I know a lot of people love the Simon Sinek quote saying, “people don’t buy what you do, but they buy why you do it.”  The one thing that I would add is that many people don’t buy “why” you do anything, until they “buy” you.  If you do not facilitate real connections amongst people, your story will not be as powerful or real, as opposed to making real connections first.  This book puts these connections out in the forefront.

The other element of this book that I loved was the focus on not simply telling a story, but making that story a reality.  It reminded me of the article, “Good Companies are StoryTellers. Great Companies are StoryDoers“.  Although it is a business article, the title applies deeply to education.  If you tell a “great story”, it will be meaningless if a student comes home and says that school sucks.  The most powerful “word of mouth” in education will always come from the mouths of our students. The authors understand this concept and share some great examples of schools and teachers that create great experiences for their students.

This is a short read that is great for school leaders and really surprised me.  If I could change one thing, it would be the title.  It does not talk about simply telling your story, but a lot about creating it, which is much more important. The book goes way deeper into the importance of relationships than the title would imply, which is part of the reason why I loved it so much.

If you are interested in the book, here is the link.

A Roadblock as an Opportunity #DigitalPortfolios

Digital Portfolios are becoming a “big thing” in education (as they should be), and people are starting to think about how this can change assessment practices.  Although it is a great idea, there are still a lot of districts and schools struggling with implementation at the student level.

So what is the biggest road block towards this initiative being successful?  In my own experience it is our own lack of experience that is holding our students back.  If we have never done this practice ourselves, “digital portfolios” become nothing more than digitized paper portfolios.  It quickly becomes a “digital dump” of our work where we simply add links to what we have done, with not much else added to the process.  A “digital” portfolio should be something more than a replication of what we could simply do offline.

If we are too really move forward with this type of initiative, it is imperative that time and support are given (this is true with everything) to make it happen.  This is not just showing us the possibilities of what a “digital portfolio” could  do (which many tech companies are trying to do right now), but to actually have the time to play and see the opportunities that a different type of platform gives us for areas like assessment, open reflection, developing a digital footprint, literacy, inquiry based learning, and a whole host of other things.  The real power is not in what we can currently do with digital portfolios, but what we can do in the future.  As digital tools tend to develop, so do the opportunities, as well as our thinking.  Digital portfolios are less of an endpoint and more of a beginning of what we can create for learning, but time is needed for support and play.

Many teachers have seen with the development of their own digital portfolios is the power of having their own “thinking” space, while also developing their own digital footprint.  What’s powerful about this process for teachers is that this is their own space.  This is crucial in the planning for student portfolios. So when we are moving forward with this process in our schools, we have to ask think about is this something students are making in school, for school purposes, or is this something that is being created to make an impact both during and after school.  If it is truly “their portfolio”, then shouldn’t students be able to have ownership over the majority of the content and who has the ability to see it?  I know that if someone were to decide for me what I put in my portfolio and who was allowed to see it, I probably wouldn’t put much effort into it  Wouldn’t students be any different?

One of the most important aspects of a digital portfolio is that it is (and should be) a very personal process.  If I am knowingly having other people look at what I am sharing, I should be able to have an enormous say in what I share and why I share it.  But I am not sure I would have come to this conclusion unless I created my own space.  The process has led me to be empathetic of what the learner would want from this process, and I would much rather do a portfolio than have a portfolio done to me.  And that is why I see the roadblock of many educators (although there are seeming more and more doing this themselves which is awesome!) not having done this process as more of an opportunity than a problem.  Doing something from the viewpoint of the learner will dramatically change this process of digital portfolios in schools, and if we put ourselves in the place of our students, I wonder how much different this opportunity will look for our students if we are to jump in first.

Just my thoughts…

Just in case you are looking to go deeper into the topic, here are some articles and resources that I have written on the topic of digital portfolios:

5 Reasons Your Portfolio Should Be Online

5 Reasons Your Portfolio Should Be A Blog

Our Digital Portfolio Project

Blog As Portfolio (Video)

Blog as Portfolio (Workshop)

Fresh Eyes

One of my favourite, non-education blog is “Marc and Angel Hack Life“.  It is filled with quick reads that are uplifting and sometimes give me the exact motivation I need to go on with whatever point I am at during life.  I love this story that they recently shared:

“Four monkeys were placed in a room that had a tall pole in the center.  Suspended from the top of that pole was a bunch of bananas.  One of the hungry monkeys started climbing the pole to get something to eat, but just as she reached out to grab a banana, she was sprayed with a torrent of cold water from a hose.  Squealing, she scampered back down the pole and abandoned her attempt to feed herself.  Each of the other three monkeys made similar attempts and each one was drenched with cold water.  After making several attempts, they all finally gave up.

The researchers then removed the water hose and one of the monkeys from the room and replaced her with a new monkey.  As the newcomer began to climb the pole, the other three grabbed her and pulled her down to the ground.  After trying to climb the pole several times and being dragged down by the others, she finally gave up and never attempted to climb the pole again.

The researchers continued to replace the original monkeys, one by one, and each time a new monkey was brought in the others would drag her down before she could reach the bananas.  In a short time, the room was filled with four monkeys who had never received a cold hosing.  None of them would climb the pole or allow other monkeys to climb the pole, and not one of them knew why.”

This is such a great story, especially for any school culture that thrives off of the idea, “but we have always done it this way.”

Recently speaking to a group of principals, one of the challenges that I shared with them was the idea of walking into their schools with “fresh eyes”, no matter how long they had been there for.  What this means is to take a step back, look at what you are doing in your school or even your own practice, and just ask the question, “why do we do this?”  This is not just for the practices that you may perceive as negative, but positive as well.  In fact, this might be especially the things that you may perceive as positives.  “Awards” used to be one of the things that I only thought positively about in schools, but after taking a step back and trying to look at it with “fresh eyes”, something didn’t seem right with the process and I have thought differently about it ever since.

And it is not just about looking at schools or classrooms with this perspective, but also your own habits that you have as well.  Jon Spencer has one of my favourite blogs because he constantly questions both old and new practices, organizationally and personally.  His open thinking helps me to look at my own beliefs and practices and take a step back from myself as well.

Through the process of stepping back and trying to understand “why”, it is crucial that we are willing to be persuaded into a new way of thinking.  I recently saw a tweet that suggested a very useful activity for schools where you would describe the last time someone changed your mind on something, and how they did it and what they said.  If you can’t come up with an example for yourself, what does this say?

One of the hardest things to do in education is to not change others, but to change ourselves.  If we are willing to take a step back and ask questions, just like we encourage our students to do, we might see something that we hadn’t before.

School vs. Learning

I have been thinking a lot about the “traditional” model of school and how people actually learn. If done the wrong way, school can actually go against what is needed for learning.  There are a lot of schools and classrooms that are doing amazing jobs at really promoting there students become learners as opposed to learning stuff.  

Here are some of the ways where school and learning can become divergent.

School promotes starting by looking for answers.  Learning promotes starting with questions.

School is about consuming.  Learning is about creating.

School is about finding information on something prescribed for you.  Learning is about exploring your passions and interests.

Schools teaches compliance.  Learning is about challenging perceived norms.

School is scheduled at certain times.  Learning can happen any time, all of the time.

School often isolates.  Learning is often social.

School is standardized.  Learning is personal.

School teaches us to obtain information from certain people.  Learning promotes that everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner.

School is about giving you information.  Learning is about making your own connections.

School is sequential.  Learning is random and non-linear.

School promotes surface-level thinking. Learning is about deep exploration.

I know that the statements above are not 100% true on either side of the spectrum, but what if you combined the statements to make something new?  Would schools become a place that is truly developing learners that are flexible and agile in a world that is constantly changing?  For example, take the statement:

School promotes starting by looking for answers.  Learning promotes starting with questions.

… and change it to this:

School promotes developing your own questions and finding answers.

What would school look like if we really focused on developing our own statements that focus on the power of developing learners?  I would love your thoughts on this.

Update:

Here is an image that Sylvia Duckworth created to correspond with the post.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 4.44.10 PM

Student-Driven Schools

The term “data-driven” is one that keeps coming up in conversations on education continuously, and I will have to admit, the way I am hearing it being used often bothers me.  The best teachers have always been data-driven, just not necessarily seeing students as numbers or as a set of scores.  Too many correlate the word “data” to “numbers”, but there is so much more to any child’s story.

Numbers and grades are such a small part of the  conversation when we are talking about our students, yet we often use that the argument that the “real world” still sorts people with numbers.  When Thomas Friedman spoke to the person in charge of hiring for Google, “numbers” seemed to be a small part of the equation in their hiring practices:

Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams.

As a principal, I never looked at grades as an indicator for someone to become a successful teacher and a part of the decision making process in hiring someone.  In fact, I have seen teachers with excellent grades in university struggle significantly because school worked for them, so change and flexibility could be a challenge in a system that needs to change.  Grades are not always the narrative on whether a teacher is strong or not, but some of the best teachers that I have ever met really struggled in school, so they work hard to provide different learning opportunities for their students that are going through the same process.  Would a teacher who struggled in school have more empathy for a student going through the same struggles?

So why are numbers so important to education?  If I was to take a guess, it wouldn’t be because numbers are the most important, but that they are the easiest to collect.  As humans, we tend to like to sort and rank to show accountability to our public, but through this process, we have seemed to be the least accountable to the people that matter the most; our students.  Throwing a multiple choice test through a “scantron” to mark is a lot quicker than having a conversation with a student, but does not accurately assess their understanding of a topic, but more on their ability to do a multiple choice test on the subject.

For a few years now, we have been moving towards digital portfolios as providing a lot more of the “data” in our schools.  They are more of a story and tell you a lot about what a child is understanding as well as their growth over time.  Elisa Carlson recently shared a post on Surrey School’s initiative to really change assessment in their schools and provide a “window” into learning.  Elisa explains why this is so important for education to move forward:

The district, as part of this CSL project, is undertaking this inquiry – Making Learning Visible – to explore whether digital documentation of student learning could become a new standard. Our teachers are at the front edge of transforming education through their practice. They are the champions. These teachers believe there is a better way to communicate student learning that aligns with our understanding and research. The district is taking steps to explore what is possible. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We are creating a new model, because, truly, now is the time.

Although portfolios are a great way to capture the story, there is and has been so much “data” being collected by teachers every day that is essential to the success of each one of our student’s.  The best data is always obtained by starting with the question, “What is best for this child?”  Every conversation in education needs to start with that question.  But sometimes the data being collected by a teacher has nothing to do with “school” and everything to do with a child’s well being.  Sometimes the worst thing we can do to a child is give them a test when their world is crumbling around them.

If we were “student-driven”, the number that we needed to collect for the sake of a score would not be primary over any student’s needs, yet our system has put many teachers in between a rock and a hard place.  Should teachers, who go to school every day and care for so many kids, ever be put in a place where there students needs for growth become secondary to what our system says it needs?

I am not saying numbers don’t have a place in school and the work that we do.  Again, they are a part, although a small part, of the story.  There is so much more to our kids than a number and the data we collect everyday is essential to seeing our students become successful.  I am reminded of this quote which puts into perspective why we teach:

“No school teacher has EVER had a former student return to say a standardized test changed his or her life.” Joe Martin

When our schools become so number-driven that we focus more on a grade than we do on the kids standing in front of us, we, and more importantly our kids, are in big trouble.

Love and Innovation

Maybe it is because it is close to Christmas, and maybe it is because my dad has been on my mind so much lately, but I just needed to write the reflection below.

I love the “30 for 30″ series on ESPN, because they share powerful sport stories that go way beyond a game, and really touch the heart.  I don’t know if it was from “The Guru of Go” about Paul Westhead and the death of Hank Gathers, or if it was “Survive and Advance” about Jim Valvano, his NC State team, and ultimately his battle with cancer, but I heard about the importance of “love” in bringing people together and overcoming so many obstacles.  It made me think a lot about the term “love” and it’s role in schools and “innovation”.  Not “love” in the terms of relationships with a spouse, but that feeling of being truly cared for and caring for others.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the battle people are going through in their own lives, and how that impacts their work.  I love this quote attributed to Will Smith on the subject:

“Never underestimate the pain of a person, because in all honesty, everyone is struggling. Some people are better at hiding it than others.”

There are people that show up every single day, with a smile on their face and not only do great things, but lift others up as well.  This year I have seen one friend openly share their battle with depression, and another friend share that their spouse may have cancer, yet in both cases, not only did they both seemingly have a smile on their face, but they also lifted others up to become better.  Sometimes when people face the most adversity, the easier it is for them to show love to others.

I have also seen others openly struggle and show up every day.  I remember one teacher going through a very tough personal time, and although they did everything they could for their students, you could see the hurt in their heart.  The pain was there, but it was not enough to keep her away from helping others.  Maybe it was part of their calling, but maybe it is often the unconditional love from her students that kept her going each day.

I have been known to have my heart on my sleeve, and I remember when I lost my dog Shaq this year, having to speak to a large group of teachers the next day.  As tough as it was to talk to a large audience, I was honest with them, shared my loss, and when I was finished, I not only received a warm applause (that is the best way I can describe it) from them, but so many hugs from strangers.  It might not be “love” in the sense that we know it, but it was “love” in the way I felt it.  It not only made my work easier that day, but it pushed me to be better.  In a time when educators are asked to do so much every single day, and in many cases so much “extra” stuff that we never planned, feeling and giving love is crucial.

I was reminded of this quote today:

“Every single employee is someone’s son or daughter. Like a parent, a leader of a company is responsible for their precious lives.” Simon Sinek

Maybe I am being overly sentimental because of the time of the year, and maybe I am just exhausted (I am), but when people know they are cared and loved, they are going to go so much further and push themselves to do better things for kids.  That feeling of safety and belonging is crucial for innovation. Maybe I am way off base on my use of the term.

But then I see this…

Then I think of my good friend Tony who not only loves his job, but loves his school and his community, and from what I can tell, loves his students. Then you see what they share in return.

Maybe “love” is the wrong word.  Maybe it is something else. But in a time that educators are so often asked to go above and beyond what they are expected to do, especially in a job that can be so emotionally wearing, I think of the word “love” and the place it has in schools.  For our students, for our colleagues, and for ourselves.

In a profession that is so inherently human, there has to be something more than showing up and  “learning” every day.

To inspire meaningful change, you have to make a connection to the heart, before you make a connection to the mind.

Blog Launch Party (Reflections)

I was recently invited to speak to Mrs. Holden’s Class where they had their “Blog Launch Party“.  I spoke to them for a few minutes about my journey into blogging and the impact it has had on my learning and the opportunities that it has created.  It has been amazing what I have learned in the last four years through the process and I was honoured to share it with the class.

What happened after I talked to them was that all of the students commented on to each other’s blogs and they all learned from each other in the process.  It was a great way to get them excited and then rolling into the project.  Such a great idea (again) from Mrs. Holden’s class.

We even talked about my visit to the St. Louis Zoo since their class connected with them this year, so we sent them this selfie:

Hey @stlzoo…I was just with some of your fans here in #psd70. They wanted to say hi!

A photo posted by George Couros (@gcouros) on

Within minutes, the St. Louis Zoo, responded back and sent them a message from one of their friends:

It was a great activity and a great opportunity to learn from and with a class.  Thanks Mrs. Holden’s class for a great afternoon!

(If you have the opportunity to comment on some of the student blogs, they are listed on the right of the classroom blog.)

What do we lose?

 

“We must never assume that an appeal to the masses represents illiteracy. In fact, it implies a high degree of literacy. And in the new century, that increasingly means visual media.” Stephen Apkon

Greystone Centennial Middle School is hosting their fifth “Innovation Week” (if you want to learn more, connect with Jesse McLean on Twitter), where students suggest things they want to learn, create, make, during the week, and have time to explore and develop.  In the last week before holidays, it is amazing how engaged the learning is within the school.  It is a pretty powerful experience for students and it is a glimpse in what school could look like all of the time, not just  a couple of weeks.  From the work that is happening at the school, I know the experience has shaped and reshaped the learning that is happening year round.

As I walked around looking at what the students were doing, I saw one student using a program that I had never seen before called “Blender” in which he was designing a prototype for a car.  It kind of blew me away to see what he was doing and how he was doing it, because I guessed that no one showed him how to use the software before.  When I asked him how he learned to use it, he just simply replied with one word; “YouTube”.

I was quickly reminded of this Will Richardson quote:

I don’t disagree that a lot of professional development monies are wasted. And truth be told, teachers should be responsible for their own PD now. Kids wouldn’t wait for a blogging workshop. Adults shouldn’t either.

The student wanted to learn about the program, so he went and learned about the program.  This is not in this case, but in so many, whether it is learning how to play an instrument, do a dance, or build something new.  There is a ton of learning opportunities out there, they just might not all be related to the curriculum.  Is our job to teach students how to learn a curriculum, or our students how to learn?  Maybe it is more a combination of both, but more importantly, it is the latter.

I then started to think about how so many schools have blocked sites like YouTube because of all the “distractions” that are on the site.  I admit, I can get lost surfing the web and it is easy to get sucked into something totally different than what you first started looking for, but we lose so much when we take such a robust platform full of information away from our kids.

“Among the more than three billion videos watched each day on sites such as YouTube, there is undoubtedly a lot of garbage. But in what medium is there not?” Stephen Apkon

(As I wrote the above paragraph, I thought about how we have so many books in a library that are simply there for the pleasure of the reading, yet we wouldn’t pull out every novel and replace it with non-fiction, because we see reading is directly correlated to learning, whether it is for the purpose of school or not.  Is there a parallel to the videos we consume as well?)

I know that video sites can become a distraction, not only for kids, but adults as well.  It is rare that there are only positives with any form of technology and I wonder what we lose when we block sites like YouTube (and a myriad of other sites that have a lot to do with learning and maybe not so much to do with school), not only from the perspective of preparing kids for the world we all live in,  but also for the powerful learning that can take place. I can guarantee that if I looked hard enough today, I could have found a student using it and being totally off-task from what they were working on. It is obvious that still exists. But if we looked at sites like YouTube as a library filled with knowledge that we still have to teach our students to navigate, would schools still thinking about banning it from their students?

Sometimes it’s you…

Change is hard.

There is a lot going on not only in education, but the world, that can wear down on people. Doing the things we want to do and the things we actually do can be far apart.  Sometimes people can wear on us because they don’t agree with the direction we are going and can be easy to blame others.

But sometimes we need to step back and realize that a lot of times, it’s not them, it’s us. More specifically, it is me.  Life can be tough and it is easy to get worn down, and I have noticed that sometimes it is easy to sit back and focus on what others are doing that isn’t quite making the grade, but many of us tend to look at how we have been “wronged” as opposed to what we can do better ourselves.

This quote cannot be shared enough:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

When it is shared though, we often think about it in the context of others, not ourselves.  If we to look deeper into the quote, we often our fighting our own battles and have to not be so hard on ourselves, but also realize that we all have room to grow.

As this time of year can be so busy and overwhelming, so it is important to not be so tough on everyone else, but to also take care ourselves.