Category Archives: Embodying Visionary Leadership

We Need to See beyond The “Tool”

I have ensured that I never say, “Technology is just a tool”, because I know the power it can have when used in meaningful ways.  Don’t believe me? Watch as this boy hears for the first time and see how technology will transform his life from here on out.

Does technology seem like just a “tool” to the boy who spent his life with a stammer and then had a teacher give him an iPod that empowered him to speak in front of his classmates?  (By the way, he ended up getting his own show.)

Or just a tool to Martha Payne, the young blogger who raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to feed children in Malawi?

Or even the girl who had an author she admired comment on her blog without even trying?

Or so many other stories of people having incredible new opportunities that technology afforded them.

Yes, any technology is a “tool” if we are going to argue over semantics.  But I rarely hear people talking about referring a pencil or a pen as a “tool” because we know that the ability to read and write is transformational to lives.  But with new technologies, we can go a lot further than we have ever imagined.  That is why I have been so focused on the idea of the “Innovator’s Mindset” recently;  if we think differently about what these “tools” can afford our students, we can help them create opportunities that we could not have even imagined or had to access to when we were kids.

To create “different”, and ultimately “better”, we need to think different.

Sometimes I feel that when we say “technology is just a tool” as educators, we forget that our roles are much more than teaching a curriculum, but to not only help transform the lives of our students, but to help them create a better world.  I believe that we need to inspire our kids to do something better, and ultimately, what they do, will inspire right us back.  That takes a lot more than what any curriculum offers.  That is why I become a teacher.

Technology will never replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of a great teacher can be transformational.  

There is so much more we can do now with and for our students; we need to embrace that.



What Our Fear Actually Inhibits


Sitting with a principal whom I have the utmost respect for, we talked about how she embraced technology now, which was quite different about how she was in the past.  What she said to me, really stuck out to me.  She told me that it was not that she didn’t see the value of technology, but that she didn’t understand it that well, so it was easy to dismiss it.  I was so appreciative of her honesty, but what I know of her, is that not one person was held back in her tenure as principal because of her fear of the unknown.  She is the type of principal that empowers her people and gets out of their way.  This is not always the case though.

Often we look at our own fear of what we don’t know, and realize deep down that it is often holding us back.  It is easy to dismiss many aspects of learning, but it is also easy to say something is “stupid” when you have never used it.  I used to say that about Twitter, about blogging, about mobile phones, and so on.  I know better now.  How could I make an adequate judgment of something that I had never used or tried?

Working with a student recently, he was telling me how he didn’t see how blogging would be helpful to him and that he saw it as a useless task.  I asked him if he had ever blogged, to which he said he hadn’t.  I then told him that I could give him a million reasons why it was awesome, but I asked him to give it a legitimate try for a month and then he could tell me what he really thought.  But I emphasized that he really had to try and give it a valiant effort.  He happily accepted and I look forward to hearing what he thinks after he jumps in. Blogging is not for everyone and he might hate it, but he will know from experience, not from simply dismissing the unknown.  We can learn a lot from this kid.

Here’s the thing…when we dismiss something because of our fear of the unknown as educators, we don’t just lose out ourselves, but those that we serve lose out as well.  Teachers impact students, principals impact teachers and students, and superintendents can impact everyone.  When our fear holds us back, it often holds others back as well.  Fear often has the power to kill innovation.

One of my favourite quotes on this topic is from Michael Jordan who says, “limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.” What I love about this quote is that limits and fears are used synonymously. Our fears limit us to do less, but in education,we are not the only ones that lose out.

5 Critical Questions for the Innovative Educator

Technology is a crucial part of what is happening in the classroom, and whenever a new hardware or software comes out, educators are thinking, “How could we use this in the classroom?” Although we should have different ways and options to reach all students, we far too often start thinking about the “stuff” instead of what our students need. For learning to be “student-centred”, then our questions should often focus on the student experience in the classroom.

Here are some questions that can help us create new and better opportunities for our students in their learning:

1. Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?

In my experience teaching professional learning opportunities, one of the hardest audiences that we can teach are educators. They have truly high expectations of their own learning, not only because they create those same environments for their own classroom, but their time is limited. Educators always have things that they could be doing, so if the professional learning is not engaging and meaningful, we often start thinking about all of the other things that we could be doing with our time to help our students.

These high expectations are something we need to tap into for our students. If we asked this question and started to empathize with the experience our students have in the classroom, it would really help us think about learning from their point of view. For example, if worksheets were handed out in a professional learning opportunity, some teachers would be bored to tears, yet do we do the same thing to our students? That type of learning is not about what is better for kids, but what is easy for teachers. We have to try and think about the experience from our student’s perspective.

2. What is best for this student?

When I think about my experience in school, I had some amazing teachers, but I don’t know if I really understood the way that I learned most effectively. I remember later on in school and university, that I would write notes from my teacher and go over them later (which would never actually happen) not because that is what worked for me, but that is what every other student did. Again, this was more about the teacher than the student. It is important to not only think about the perspective from the class as a whole, but to know each student and what works for them.

How do they learn best? What are some ways that they can show their learning? For example, if a student is trying to share their understanding of any curriculum objective, is writing it down every time the only way they can show what they understand? Could they create a video, share a podcast, create a visual, or something else? There are different ways that kids can learn so it is important that we not only know that, but they know it as well.

3. What is this student’s passion?

When I was in school, I remember constantly being asked to read novel after novel, even though it was not something that I found interesting. I know it important that in school we are exposed to different things, but I was never once asked to read any non-fiction in school, even though that is what I was interested in most. It was near impossible to get me read to a novel, but at any point in a day, I would head off to the library and read every Sports Illustrated that I could get my hands on, cover-to-cover. This is something that should have been tapped into in my school experience.

Relationships are the foundation of every great school, so we need to learn more about our students and what they love, and tap into them, One of the best experiences that I have ever had in school as an educator was “Identity Day”, where kids would share things that they loved outside of school in a type of display or presentation. There was such an enthusiasm to share their interests, and it is important that from this knowledge, we help to create better experience for our students that taps into these passions.

4. What are some way that we can create a true learning community? 

I remember once hearing someone say, “Why is it that when kids leave school, they have a ton of energy, and teachers are tired? Why is not the other way around?” The reality is, we often create experiences that students become dependent upon the teacher for learning. What would be beneficial for not only our students and ourselves, is if we can have them tap into the expertise of one another, not just the teacher. Things such as blogging, edmodo, google apps, and using twitter hashtags in the classroom, help us to open our students learn from one another. We need to embrace the idea that everyone in our classroom is a teacher and a learner, and tap into this community, especially in a world where we can learn so much from networks.

5. How did this work for our students?

At the end of the year, I would always ask for feedback from my students on my teaching. This would really help improve my teaching for the next set of students, but did nothing for the kids that were in my classroom that year. Getting feedback often throughout the year, not just in the form of grades, but through conversations, both open and anonymous to ensure our students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, helps us to reflect on how we are serving our students that in currently in the classroom. Reflection is a crucial part of becoming a better educator and learner, and should be a process that we embrace as teachers so that we can also see the benefits of reflection in learning for our students.

Again, to create new and better opportunities for our students, it is important that we empathize with the experience of our students and try to understand what it is like to be a learner in our classroom. Teachers need to be experts in learning first, before they can be truly effective teaching. Just because a pencil or a computer works for us in our learning, doesn’t mean that it works for each student. We have to remember that each kid is different and unique, and the more we know about them as learners, the better they will do. But it is also important that through this experience, it is not only teachers that understand how their students learn, but the students themselves. After their time with us, if they have a deep understanding of how they learn, they will be able to continuously grow after our time with them. That is a true measure of teacher effectiveness.

Before You Move Onto the Next Big Thing…

Often after presentations, I will hear things like, “This is really cool, but what’s the next big thing in education?”

My response?

Shouldn’t we become great at what we are doing now first?

The problem with continuously focusing on the future is that we are often neglecting the present.  The next cool “app” often leads us to going a mile-wide and an inch-deep.  We want our students to have meaningful learning, yet we often want to implement every new thing we hear about or see, that we never really become great at anything.

While we are fixated on things like “school in 2030″, just remember that there are kids in your building that need you to knock it out the park right now.  Just like we want our students to have deep and powerful learning experiences, we have to learn how to create these  same opportunities for ourselves. That takes dedication and long-term commitment, which are the same things we are hoping to develop in our kids.

8 Characteristics of the “Innovator’s Mindset”

Recently I explored the notion of the “Innovator’s Mindset”, and have thought a lot about this idea.  As I look to write on the topic of “Leading Innovative Change” within schools, we are looking to develop educators as innovators.  To be innovative, you have to look at yourself as an innovator first, and to create schools that embody this mindset as a “culture”, we must develop this in individuals first.

Building upon Carol Dweck’s work, I have been looking at the traits of the “Innovator’s Mindset”, which would be summarized as follows:

Belief that abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed leading to the creation of new and better ideas.

To develop students as “innovators” in their pursuits, we must embody this as educators.  As I continue to research and look at different processes where innovation excel, such as design thinking, there are several characteristics that seem common amongst these themes.  Here they are below and why they are important for educators:

  1. Empathetic - To create new and better ways of doing things, we need to first understand who we are creating them for.  As educators, innovation starts with the question, “what is best for this child.”  For us to create something better for our students, we have to understand their experiences and this is why it is imperative that we not only talk about new ways of learning, but immerse ourselves in these opportunities.  This way we can understand what works and what does not work from the perspective of a learner, not a teacher.  If anything, teachers have to a deep understanding of learning before they can become effective in teaching.  We need to put ourselves in our student’s shoes before we can create better opportunities for them in our classrooms.
  2. Problem Finders - As Ewan McIntosh talks about, it is important that we teach our kids how to ask good questions instead of simply asking for answers. All innovation starts from a question not an answer.  The invention of the home computer started with the focus of, “How do we bring the experience of a powerful computer into the homes of families?” Many capstone projects developed by students in their classrooms start with first finding, and then solving problems both locally and globally.  How often do we as educators immerse ourselves in a similar process?  If want to be innovative, we need to look at questions first.
  3. Risk-Takers – Many would argue that “best-practice” is the enemy of innovation.  To be truly innovative, you sometimes have to go off the beaten path.  The reality of this is, that for some kids, the “tried-and-true” methods will still work, but others, you will need to try something different.  In a time where many kids are totally checking out of school, is “best practice” truly “best”, or just “most well known”?
  4. Networked – Steven Johnson has a powerful quote on the importance of networks where he states, “chance favours the connected mind.”  Innovation does not happen in isolation, as it is often ideas that are being shared amongst many that lead to new and better ideas being developed.  The best educators have always created networks to learn from others and create new and powerful ideas.  Now though, many have taken the opportunity to take networks to a whole different level through the use of social media to share and develop new ideas.  Isolation is the enemy of innovation.  Networks are crucial if we are going to develop the “Innovator’s Mindset”.
  5. Observant – A practice normal amongst those that would be considered “innovative” is that they constantly look around their world and create connections.  It is normal to have a notebook or use their mobile device to record ideas or thoughts around them and link them to their own ideas.  In education, we often look to solutions to come from “education”, but when organizations around the world share their practices and ideas, we have to tap into their diverse expertise and learn from them as well.  Wisdom is all around us, we just have to look for it.
  6. Creators – So many people have great ideas, yet they never come to fruition.  Innovation is a combination of ideas and hard work.  Conversation is crucial to the process of innovation, but without action, ideas simply fade away and/or die.  What you create with what you have learned is imperative in this process.
  7. Resilient – Things do not always work on the first try, so what are the tweaks or revamping that is needed?  To simply try something and give up as soon as it fails never leads to innovation only a definitive end.  This is something great teachers model daily in their teaching, as they turn good ideas into great ones.
  8. Reflective – What worked? What didn’t?  What could we do next time?  If we started again, what would we do differently?  What can we build upon?  It is important that in education and innovation, we sit down and reflect on our process.  This last point is definitely lacking in many aspects of education as we are always “trying to get through the curriculum”, yet reflection is probably the most important part of education as the connections we make on our own is where deep learning happens.

For educators to embody this, it is imperative that leaders create a culture where this types of characteristics are not only accepted, but encouraged.  It is also imperative that at both the leadership and whole organization level, these characteristics are embodied.  To many, being “innovative” is no more than a buzzword, but if we truly have innovative students, we need to embody the “Innovator’s Mindset” at all levels.

Why We Don’t Truly Embrace Failure

Although it seems to be cliche and commonplace in education to talk about innovation and the importance of “failure” in the process, this thought process seems to be misguided and focusing on the wrong aspect of the process.  Advocates of the importance of “failure” will often point to stories such as that of James Dyson, the inventor of the Dyson Vacuum who, “spent 15 years creating 5,126 versions that failed before he made one that worked.”  Yet the reality of this story is that no one would even mention James Dyson if it wasn’t for that one success at the end.  How many other vacuum inventors can you name and, especially,  how many of the other vacuum inventors that never successfully got a vacuum on the market can you name?

The part of this process that is imperative is resiliency and grit.  Resiliency, in this case, being the ability to come back after a defeat or unsuccessful attempt, and grit meaning a “resolve or strength of character.”  These are characteristics that are important in the innovative process as we need to continuously develop new and better ways to serve our students.

For example, I was recently talking to a learning coach that shared her frustration about working with another teacher who basically tried one process with a student and it didn’t work. When her learning coach asked her whether she tried anything else, the teacher had told her she hadn’t.  The learning coach was obviously frustrated that this was a “one and done” situation.  Later, our group conversation turned to focus on the notion of failure and how it is important that educators “embrace” and be okay with it.  I immediately jumped in and asked the learning coach, “Do you consider the process you described earlier as a failure?”, to which she quickly said “yes”.  I then asked, “and were you okay with that?”, to which she emphatically said, “NO!”  Trying out different things and figuring out alternative options for our students are all part of the “innovator’s mindset“, but accepting failure, especially when it comes to our kids, is not something I, or others, will ever embrace.

When I first started teaching, I remember famously saying to a student, you are going to learn the way I teach.  I could not have been more wrong in my thought process with this student.  A great teacher adjusts to the learner, not the other way around.  This is where resiliency and grit are not only “nice”, but necessary.  Not accepting failure is important to be successful in serving our kids.  What works for one, might not work for another, and as leaders, we need to develop a culture that focuses on doing whatever we can to ensure that we are successful in serving our students.  This “napkin drawing” by comedian Demetri Martin, beautifully outlines this process.

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Success is messy, as is learning.  Although I love this picture, the one thing that needs to be pointed out is that on both sides of the drawing, the endpoint of the arrow is pointing in the same direction.  Towards a better way in the end.  Yet in many educational institutions, their “line” would not look like either.  It would simply be a plateau where we have done the same things over and over again; no better no worse.  We all know what a “flat line” means in the medical profession.  Schools can’t mirror that or we might face the same outcome.

Who is the leading thinker in education?


Recently I was having a conversation with educators and they asked me the question,  “who is the leading thinker in education right now?”

I thought a lot about it and I couldn’t come up with one name.

In fact, quite the opposite.  I could come up with too many to name just a few.  They range from researchers, science teachers, speakers, kindergarten teachers, math teachers, principals, vice principals, grade 4 teachers, and more.  There is no end to the list of who we can learn from now.

There are so many educators that are both in and out of schools, that are influencing my thinking now.  It is hard to say that one person is influencing me more than another because it depends upon what we are talking about, what facet of school is being discussed, so on and so forth.  There are so many different elements of school that no one person could be an expert on all of them.  Really, there is no need.

In the past, “leading thinkers” were those that wrote books, that were used as the guide to providing great opportunities for education.  A lot of what was shared in the past was by names such as Dewey and Papert, who had research  that is as relevant today as it was when it was written.  We have always looked to “researchers” more than we have looked to each other. This is probably partly due to “prophet in your own land” thinking, but also because it was hard to get a glimpse into what was happening in each other’s classroom.  Now with blogs, Twitter, and a myriad of other publishing tools, we are getting amazing information from anywhere and everywhere.  Whether you have 10 followers on twitter or 100,000, the “active research” that is being shared by educators that is real-time, is invaluable to what we do in schools.

Is it always top quality information? Nope.  But neither were some of the books that I have read in the past.  We have to start seeing past “names” and looking at the information is being shared.

We can learn from anyone, whether they teach currently or not, and make it applicable to what we do in schools.  That’s the power of the web.  But I hope we are at the time that we quit focusing on only looking for “names” and start realizing the power that we have to learn from one another.

“Ensuring Equity”

A question and concern that I often hear in my travels is “what about the kids that don’t have devices in school?”

These educators want to create “equity” among students and don’t want students to feel left out if they don’t have access to technology.  Interestingly enough, one of the goals of the Ministry of Education in Ontario is on the notion of “ensuring equity”:

All children and students will be inspired to reach their full potential, with access to rich learning experiences that begin at birth and continue to adulthood.

What I love about this is that it is focusing on ensuring high standards for what we provide our students.  There are many students that do not have access to devices or the Internet at home which means it is MORE IMPORTANT to provide these things for them at school.  We would never take a library away from a school because students don’t have books at home.  In fact, we would do the exact opposite.  We would provide more opportunities for kids to read rich resources.  So not finding ways to provide devices and access to the biggest library in the world (which happens to fit in your pocket) to our kids, in my opinion, is unacceptable.

If we are to ensure equity for our students, let’s make sure we do it at the highest levels possible.