Category Archives: Embodying Visionary Leadership

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?

In a world that is extremely digital, we need humanity more than ever.

This is just going to be all over the place so I apologize in advance but this is writing to learn more than writing to share my learning.

Our world is awesome.

Technology allows us to do things that we could never do before.  We can video chat with people around the world simply, for a much cheaper rate than we could have called them years ago.  I have memories of my dad that I can relive over and over again, even after his passing. Every time we press “tweet” or “publish” it gets around the world instantly.  There is a power in our hands and in our pockets that we could not have imagined.  But with every step forward, we sometimes lose things along the way.

I can now call pretty much any services I have and I can get to anything I want through an automated machine that is often much quicker than any person I could talk to, yet when I get on the line, every single time, I press “0” immediately.  For all that technology gives us, I still want to talk to a person.

I love that I can do online banking, but I also love the interactions that I can still have in the bank.  That choice matters to me.  One time though, I distinctly remember going into the bank to make a deposit and being asked if I was interested in a tax-free savings account, followed by RRSP’s, and so on.  I saw the teller was not looking at mean and reading off their computer a list of questions that were suggested based on my financial situation. In my conversation with a person, I had been reduced to an algorithm.  When I actually called them out on this, they were embarrassed not only because of me saying something, but because their company put them in the situation in the first place. This example is crucial to the work that we do in education.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, relationships will be the most important thing we do in schools.

I am guessing that some parents feel this same way when they call schools to report of the absence of their child.  Yes, the technology makes it convenient, but sometimes a person needs to talk, and sometimes they need to be heard.  The “tech” sometimes leaves them lacking the piece of mind that they needed from that phone call.  It is not simply about what is convenient, but sometimes what is needed.

Although I think technology is so crucial to our roles today, I think the more digital we are the more “human” our schools and leadership needs to become.  Sharing our stories and connecting through social media brings a lot in creating a human connection, but I still love the teacher that welcomes kids to their classroom every morning and has a conversation with them, or the principal who stands in the middle of the hallway to have conversations with kids about almost everything except for school.  Although things like supervision might seem like an “add-on” to our day, I started to look at it as an investment into people.  Talk to someone for ten minutes and take a sincere interest in their lives, and that ten minutes will come back to you exponentially.

There is something that we lose sometimes in our interactions on social media.  Many people (and rightfully so) do not share many aspects of their lives through what they share online.  For me, I share with people that the safest “guideline” to follow on social media is that you would not say anything online that you would not say to a group of kids.  Yet that doesn’t mean that people share their lives openly online, but what they are comfortable with other people that they may consider “strangers”.  You might not see the whole picture and there is so much more to a person than what they share online.

With a world that is increasingly digital, our “humanness” is more crucial than ever.  I am reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s speech in the “Great Dictator” in 1940, and how some elements of that speech from that movie made years ago are as relevant as ever.

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind.

We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery ,we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.

So with all the talk of technology, we just need to remember that there is so much more to schools and some of the best things in “20th Century Education” are just as relevant today.  If you are a school that does not focus on building relationships, you are on a faster road to irrelevance than one that doesn’t use technology.  In a world where information is easy to access and I can always find better content online than I can in school, the refocus on relationships is more crucial now than ever.

Embrace technology; it will provide people opportunities that we could have dreamed of when we were kids.  But just remember that people will always be the most important part of the education system.  As soon as we reduce everyone to a number or an avatar, we will have lost more than we could have ever gained.

3 Ways Social Media Can Improve School Culture

I was having a great conversation the other day with a good friend, and she was sharing how many boards aren’t really worried about “social media” because they are needing to actually focus on improving their culture first.  I thought a lot about what she said, and to be honest, if you cannot have conversations with people in your own organization, Twitter is going to be the last thing in your mind.  That being said, I have seen a lot of school organizations use social media to actually improve their culture significantly.  It is not the only way, but if used in powerful ways, it definitely can have an overall impact on your school or district.

Here are three ways that I have seen an impact (although I encourage you to look at some of the responses on this tweet when I asked the question).

1.  Increased Visibility

In large boards (especially), it is tough for directors, superintendents, principals, etc., to actually physically be in all places at all times.  Visibility is an important part of leadership, and I love when I see leaders in schools or in classrooms, but social media actually allows you to not only see leaders in a different light, but also see their thought process.  Through tweets, blog posts, and more(Superintendent Chris Smeaton is a great example of this, although I could have chosen from a large lists of administrators), you get to see visible thinking of leaders, but also other aspects of their lives that make them more “human”.  If you are a superintendent, and you walked into one of your schools, and many of your teachers had no idea who you are, isn’t that kind of a problem?  Social media, used effectively, can help increase this visibility.

2.  Increased Accessibility

Now being more connected can have both a positive and negative impact on a person.  If you are connected to your device 24/7, that might be great for your school, but bad for your personal life (and health).  We have to be able to shut off.  That being said, when teachers can tap into one another and learn from each other,it not only improves learning, but it also builds relationships.  I have watched in my own school division, the difference in the past few years with the increased use of social media, a greater connection between staff from different schools when seeing each other in person, because the accessibility to one another online doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, but can enhance them.  Teachers that connected online, have ended up meeting face-to-face to plan EdCamps, Innovation Week, and talk about a whole host of other things to help improve learning.  The accessibility to not only ideas, but one another, improves learning and relationships.  They are not mutually exclusive.

3. A Flattened Organization

I really believe in the idea in schools that everyone’s a teacher and everyone’s a learner, and that these roles are interchangeable throughout any and all days.  Watching great schools, I have seen superintendents learn from teachers, teachers learn from parents, principals learn from students, and any other combination you can think of within a school community.  As Chris Anderson would call this “crowd-accelerated innovation”, and it is so important to embrace this notion of learning from anyone and everyone, if we are going to improve the culture of our school’s.  When you work for an organization and you know that no matter what role you play, that your voice is valued, don’t you think that would have a significant impact on culture?

Concluding Thoughts

If you are looking at improve school culture, open learning is essential to our environments.  I don’t want to only know what the decisions are that are made, but about the people who are making them, and their thoughts behind these decisions.  That openness is crucial.  Only in an organization where voices are not only heard, but also valued, will you ever see significant improvements in school culture, and with the tools that we are provided in our world today, that pace of culture change can be significantly faster than it was without this same technology.

Learning in the 21st century: What does it mean to you? #peel21st

I was informed by my good friend and education colleague Jason Richea, that Peel School Board in Ontario was doing a “blog hop” on the question, “Learning in the 21st century: What does it mean to you?”, so I decided to jump in and share my thoughts.  If you want to see more of these posts, please check out Jim Cash’s blog with thoughts from others.  To not bias my thoughts, I wanted to write before I read them, although Jason said it has to be limited to 100 words(ish).  Here goes…

Education, even when I first started, seemed to be a lot more about the teacher, and a lot less about the learner.  With developments in technology, especially the Internet, this practice has to change more now than ever.  In our time, we have to realize that there is so much access to information, that we need to really empower the learner to not only take in information, but become flexible and adaptable to they create something new from it.  From the sharing of ideas, comes new and better learning and creations. We have moved from a time where it is not simply about engagement, but about empowerment.

The real power now though in learning is not simply in websites, books, videos, or whatever else you can consume, but it is more about the access to each other.  As educators, if schools are to be truly a place of learning, than the focus can’t simply be the stuff, but more importantly, the opportunities to learn anytime, anywhere, anyplace, and most importantly (and we often leave this out), from almost anyone.  That’s the true power in learning today.

What’s the distraction from learning?

One of the things many people hear about devices in the classroom, is how easily they can become a distraction.

Does this exist?  Absolutely.

But this is not just for students, but also teachers.  If teachers are bored in their professional learning opportunities, do they refrain from doing other things on their phone?  Some do, but many do not.  If I am not engaged or empowered, there are so many other things I can be doing.

What if we thought about this differently though? 

What if I was talking about something in the classroom, a student was excited about it, and then googled more information to learn about the topic, and I ask them to put their phone away and listen to me, what is the distraction from learning?  It’s not the device, it’s me.  Is this what kills a kid’s love of learning?

Should “school” ever distract kids from learning?  I hope not but this is something we really need to think about moving forward.

Questioning Forward

I had the honour of addressing the Trillium Lakes District School Board in Ontario recently, and I was amazed by the culture of learning they have created.  They were an enthusiastic group and seemed to just want to keep pushing themselves to get better and better.  These days are awesome for me as an educator because I feel I really grow through the process even though I am the one “delivering” the workshop.

I was inspired in listening to Andrea Gillespie, one of their superintendents, the night before, and the board’s vision of constantly moving forward and growing as a learning organization.  You could tell by her stories that this was not just something they said, but something they lived.  The feeling I got was that they were not a board that felt they had “arrived” because they know that great organizations never stagnate.  Education will always have a target just out of reach because of the consistency of of change, and instead of being frustrated by this notion, they build upon it.  It is not that they aren’t a great organization, if anything, quite the opposite.  Growth is continuous as is learning and this is something that they are aware of and embrace.  It was refreshing.

One of the ways they keep this momentum moving forward is by starting their professional learning opportunities by stating the following:

“We are a board questioning our way forward.”

EEK!  I love this!

This sets quite the tone and embraces the notion of the innovator’s mindset of constantly learning and creating better opportunities for students.  This phrase really struck me and is something that we need to embrace in our work.

When I thought about it deeply., there is a difference between saying, “we need to ask questions” and “questioning our way forward.”  Often, when I hear questions, they are more like statements about how this won’t work disguised as questions.  For example, I will hear things like this:

“This is great, but what about standardized tests?”

or…

“You showed me some really great stuff, but when we are going to find time for this?”

Both of the above are questions, but seemingly leading to a dead end.  What if we tweaked these questions to ask the same thing but to find solutions instead of looking for problems?

“How do we move forward with these initiatives while still ensuring that our students are doing well on standardized tests?”

or

“What are some suggestions you have to create time to make this happen?”

Again, both questions but they are not dwelling on problems but instead looking for solutions. Simple tweaks that make a world of difference.

Questions are so crucial to our growth, but I think we need to focus on phrasing them in a way to find ways to move forward, not to stand still.  In education, stagnation is the equivalent of moving backwards and in a world where change is the only constant, asking questions to move forward is something we need to not only teach our kids, but embrace ourselves.

 

Leadership Framework Series: Setting Directions #ONTEdLeaders

 

Spending a lot of time in Ontario, I have been going through the Ontario Leadership Framework with a fine tooth comb (here is a cleaned up Google Document that I have been using to go over each leadership strand) and although there are some areas I would change (“building relationship and developing people” should have been the first leadership strand in my opinion, as everything starts with relationships and knowing your people), the overall document is really strong.  

Most “frameworks” have some pretty generic standards could be met as a principal 30 years ago when things were different in terms of what we knew about learning and the access that we had to one another.  This document though, has statements that really stick out to me because it has some points that ensure a high quality leader in our world today.  You can not simply do the same thing that was done in 1985 and expect to be effective as a leader today.  

To learn more about this framework, I wanted to really go through each “leadership strand”, pick out a few key points that really stuck out to me as “forward thinking”, and break it down deeper.  If we are going to be effective moving forward, we need to be reflective in our practice.

Over the next few blog posts, I will be going over each strand, and trying to take an in-depth look into some of the ideas that really stuck out to me.  I really encourage others that are either interested in going into leadership (no matter what area you are located), or are currently in leadership positions, try the same process.

The five strands that I will be looking at are the following:

  1. Setting Directions
  2. Building Relationships and Developing People
  3. Developing the Organization
  4. Leading the Instructional Program
  5. Securing Accountability

Today I will be focusing on “Setting Directions”.

Setting Directions

Here is the summary of the standard:

“The principal builds a shared vision, fosters the acceptance of group goals and sets and communicates high performance expectations.”

Building and communicating a vision is crucial to leadership and important in the success of a school.  Communication is not simply through words, but also through actions taken in your work.  For example, if you want to create a culture that “takes risks”, as a leader, you need to model taking risks.  It is also important that any vision that is developed together with a staff has high expectations (as stated in the document), but it is important that those goals are broken down into smaller goals that are achievable to build confidence and competence towards getting toward a larger vision.  People do not start by jumping from the bottom of the mountain to the top; they have to get to different summits along the way that they are able to see as reachable and attainable.  Once you get to one summit, you become more confident in your ability to get to the next.

What I think is really important that in leadership today, that a vision is truly created together.  There are many leaders that develop a vision with their staff, but really know what they want to happen the minute they walk into the building.  If you go through the process of taking valuable time for people to help build a “collaborative vision”, it is important that the process is actually collaborative.  If there are things that you would like to achieve in the school and they are “non-negotiables” in your mind, be transparent about this.  All people may not like “top-down” initiatives, but personally, I hate “top down” initiatives where we pretend my input actually mattered in creating the direction.  People see right through that process.  Yet if you have initiatives that you see as vital, it is still important that you are open to suggestions and modifying plans based on feedback of the people you serve.  This goes to the idea that the “smartest person in the room, is the room”, and if you aren’t open to feedback as a leader, you are not a leader, you are a boss.

Creativity and Innovation

It is great to see a document where “creativity and innovation” are considered an important part of what we do as leaders.  It is outlined in this statement:

“ensures creativity, innovation and the use of appropriate technologies to achieve excellence”

My concern with this statement is that it is easy to read that “creativity and innovation” are synonymous with the word “technology”.  It isn’t, although technology can be a huge and important part in the process.  For example, it is important to realize that the iPhone isn’t the innovation, but the thinking that created it in the first place.  This innovation and creation of ideas can come in many areas such as health literacy, assessment, and technology.  Again, it is the thinking behind it that is important.

How technology does support these areas, is the openness to ideas and learning from others, that is accelerated through the use of technology.  Being able to connect with others sparks ideas that may not have come to a person from scratch.  Networks are crucial to innovation, and they can either spark the invention of a new idea, or the iteration of another.  How are you using technology to foster these connections amongst your staff, and helping them building relationships both in and out of your school community?  That, in my opinion, is where technology really fosters the innovation process.

Where does your vision come from?

One of my favourite parts of the first strand is having an understanding of what is happening in the world, and building a “vision” based on that understanding.  This outlined in the following knowledge descriptor:

The principal has knowledge and understanding of local, national and global trends.”

There is a word that is left out of this statement, and I appreciate that it is.  Often in a sentence like this, the word “education” would appear somewhere, which I think is limiting.  Educators need to look not only within education to develop and create a high quality programming, but look outside as well.  For example, if you look outside of education, you can see many organizations moving away from a “factory model” or work, and now creating more flexible learning environments.  This is not all organizations, but many of them, and we need to pay attention.  Again, to get this access, we need to be connected.

Can we have leaders in our schools that have no idea what a “Ted Talk” is?  Or know the big “researchers” in education but know nothing about any educators outside their own school?  What do we lose as a school when we have leaders that have no idea what is going on outside of them?  It is important that we start to understand the shifts not only in schools, but in the world, and from that learning, we bridge connections that are relevant to our community.  Schools can not be in a perpetual state of ‘catch up”, but with a visionary leader, they should be ahead of the curve.

Leader as change agent

In the world, the only constant is change. That’s it.  With that being said, visionary leaders understand that part of their job is to help people embrace change as outlined in the leadership framework:

“…leading change, creativity and innovation.”

The thing that we have to alway realize that when we are leading change, is that sharing “data” is not enough.  People have to experience something and create an emotional connection if you are truly going to embrace sustainable change.  Saying, “you need to change because of these results” is not enough and often takes away the autonomy of teachers on the ground.  Numbers tell a part of the story, but only a small part.  To change the story, it is essential that people become part of the story.  It is not enough to minimize kids as numbers and think that the people focused endeavour of education can simply related to numerical data.  To embrace change we need to create something more.  Innovation and education is and always will be a human endeavour.

Concluding Thoughts

People do not follow a leader that has no vision of where they are going.  “Setting direction” is imperative to our journey but there is no singular line that will get you to a point.  We have to be understanding that different people take different pathways to get to that vision, and we have to be comfortable with that.  The other key takeaway from this framework is the focus on helping move people from their point “A” to their point “B”.  We need to differentiate learning for adults as we do for our students, and when we value the people that we serve, they will move a lot faster, than if they do not feel valued at all.  Any organizational vision can only happen when people can come together and make that vision a reality.  Otherwise, it is only a flashy “vision statement” that is only words with no actions.

“Visibility Creates Accountability”

Often when I am doing workshops on social media in education, I start off the day asking how many people are on Twitter in the room.  More and more hands are going up in education, and people are starting to see it.

Without any prompting or even teaching how to use Twitter, throughout the day, I ask if people signed up during the day and usually several hands go up.

So why is that?

I think a lot of it has to do with the beginning of the day and seeing how many other educators are using Twitter and raising their hands.  Those hands create both a pressure and curiosity in educators that they want to check it out for themselves.  As I discussed this yesterday in my workshop, one of the participants summarized it up in a single tweet:

I loved that thought. So simple yet so powerful.

The more we start showing what is happening in classrooms, and the more visible it becomes, the more I hope it sparks that feeling of both pressure and curiosity in educators to keep pushing themselves to embrace improving their practice.

4 Reasons Why “Innovation” in Education is Different Today

I have been extremely thankful of the feedback and comments that I have received on the ideas I have written about on innovation in education.  Sharing my thoughts openly, has helped me to shape my thoughts about the topic and why it is important in education.  I really think in education it is more than a “buzzword” now, but we are still struggling to understand what it means for most schools.  The wrong approach is assuming that “innovation” is simply a substitute for the word “technology”; education technology leads have become “innovation officers”.  The title has changed but has the approach?  In some cases it totally has, while others it is not the case.  To me, it is about learning new ideas and creating something new and better for kids.  Sometimes it is invention (a totally new idea) and sometimes it is iteration (remix of an old idea), but it is always better.  That is key to “innovation”.

One of the most important thoughts that has shaped my thinking was from Kelly Christopherson who really pushed the idea that there have been “innovative teachers” long before our present time in schools, and I would totally agree. I remember one of my teachers discussing world wars, and instead of just teaching us about the past, he actually immersed us in activity where every single decision we made either lead to peace or conflict.  That sparked my love for history but it immersed me into a much deeper appreciation for learning.  There was no use of technology, no Internet, but just a better way of teaching and learning that I had not experienced as a student.

So why is innovation in education moving to the forefront?  There are a few reasons that I can think of but I would love for your thoughts as well.

1. Access to one another. - The power of social media is not in the sharing of information but the connection to one another.  For innovation to happen in any field, it is important that there are places where people can connect easily one another, often referred to as “spikes”.  A “spike” is a congregation of people coming together that are in a similar field, like Silicon Valley for startups, Nashville for country singers, and so on.  Social media has provided that “spike” for different fields (specifically in this case education) where we can come together to share ideas and build upon the ideas that we bring to one another.  For innovation to happen culturally in education, a “spike” is essential.  People drive innovation. Always.

2. Unlimited access to ideas. – In university, every book I read was on the topic of education.  My guess is that many of the same books I read in my courses were similar to the ones that other students were reading in different programs.  Now though, we do not only have access to practicing teachers and educational thought leaders (who are not only researchers, but are present in every aspect of the field), but we also have access to a huge amount of people outside education at our fingertips.  Those ideas can be reshaped and applied to education in much easier way than a time when that access was limited. We need to take advantage.

3. Schools as a whole need to get better.  – One of my favourite quotes on change from William Pollard is, “Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change is inevitable.”  With the world outside changing, schools need to help our students become leader in a world that expect a lot of different things from when I was a kid.  It is not that there aren’t great things already happening in schools.  For example, relationships will be the most important thing in schools yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but that is only a foundation of our institutions.  If the world is asking for people to be innovative and think differently, schools can no longer shape students to all think the same.

4. Schools can see what other schools are doing. - This is not meant to put schools into competition with one another, but it is in a hope that we do simultaneously and push one another.  Other than the occasional face-to-face interactions educators had with each other, it was hard to really hear about what was happening in other schools.  Now with so many educators sharing what is happening, there is (and should be) a pressure to do create better learning opportunities for our students.  From what I have seen, the majority of schools are not trying to contain this and make it exclusive to their students, but to share and collaborate with others to help students, no matter where they attend.  We will always serve a diverse community of learners and the more we can help each student, the better we all are.

As Kelly reminded me, innovation is not isolated to what we do in our schools today.  We just now have more of an opportunity to move it from “pockets of innovation” to a “culture”.  The access and tools are there, we just need to embrace them.

Which team are we on?

 

Through a Twitter conversation, someone brought up an interesting analogy on how administrators should be the “offensive line for their staff”, blocking distractions and unnecessary “stuff” that takes away from great teaching and learning.  I loved the analogy, and really thought about how administrators need to be seen as those that do whatever they can to ensure teachers are successful so that their students can amazing learning opportunities.

Yet from many conversations and observations, it seems the opposite.  With technology, teachers seems to be jumping through hoops, having decisions made for them without their input on experience being utilized.  It seems that the “offensive line” concept is not protecting teachers, but sometimes blocking them from great opportunities.

For example, if you want teachers to use social media, how would a 50 page document sharing the guidelines actually help them?  With every page that is turned, you lose teachers who just see that it is not worth it to go through all of the roadblocks to even start.  Or the computer that takes “only two minutes” to log on because of network protocols. Yet two minutes, times 30 kids, can be an eternity, especially if one of those computers doesn’t work as expected.

With every page, every policy, every filter, many teachers just choose to do what they have always done and do not see it is worth the time to do something new.  We encourage “risk-taking” yet we have created such a risk averse culture in education.  We can say “take risks” all we want, but actions will always be louder than words.

So if administrators are the “offensive live”, we need to make sure that we are blocking for the right team.  Otherwise, we can only blame ourselves for not moving forward.