Tag Archives: innovation

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.

Innovation Doesn’t Happen Behind Closed Doors

Whether you are starting off as a new administrator, or you have been in the role for awhile, it is important that you “make your mark” and bring your own style to a position.  Just like your teachers want to make an impact with their students, you want to make an impact with your school community.  Doing something “awesome” is important as administrators should feel that they are contributing to the growth of the school, not simply the management of it.

In my own experience, it is easy to lock yourself in a room, work on some great ideas, and come out with something (you believe to be) new and amazing.  Yet closing yourself off and focusing on being “innovative” often leaves you with great ideas that will get nowhere, because you have not created the relationships needed for people to feel safe trying something new.  If you don’t spend time in the classroom and see what the inner-workings are of what learning looks like every day, your ideas can become great in theory, but unattainable in practice.  It is important to recognize that innovation is a human endeavour, and if you are going to put too much time into something, it should always be people, not stuff.

So what is a great step to help move this forward?  Move your office into a classroom.

Administrators have a lot of managerial duties that they have to get through in a day.  It can honestly be overwhelming.  That being said, it is rare that we don’t have access to an untethered device that we can go sit in a classroom and be a “fly on the wall”.  This helps not only with visibility of students, but will give you a great perspective of what teaching and learning looks like, and what hurdles teachers have to jump through in a day to be successful.  Is the technology working?  Does the classroom have seating that is conducive to different types of learning styles?  Does Wifi work?

Many teachers accept their classroom “as is” and do the best with what they have and they don’t say anything.  This does not make those boundaries acceptable.  By simply spending an hour catching up on emails from a classroom, you will learn a lot more about your school than you would spending an hour in your office.  You don’t have to do this all of the time, but you should do it often.

This isn’t “no office day”.  Although I love the intent behind that initiative, I find the idea of having a solitary day to go spend time in classrooms is not enough.  This should be a weekly process, if not more.  The time you spend just sitting in a classroom builds a comfort and trust level with staff who eventually don’t even know you are there.  That’s kind of the point.  If you don’t have time to go into a classroom, your priorities might be out of order.

Through this process, you might not get as much done, but you will build relationships with teachers in this process that will lead them going over-and-above for you, which in the long run, will not only save you time, but creating better opportunities for your entire school community.

Believe me, the investment is worth it.

Reminders from the #GAFESummit

I had the great honour of keynoting the largest #GAFESummit to date in Ottawa this past weekend.  It was a great experience, and I loved meeting so many amazing educators. Not only was it a massive conference, but it was also the first English and French Google Summit.  When I was first asked to speak, I was told that I would have to do some of the keynote in French.  Since I do not speak the language, I was extremely hesitant.  But as I thought about it, I said to myself, “If I am constantly asking people to push themselves out of their comfort zones, I need to model this myself”, and then I agreed.  Although I was all for it, I was extremely nervous to not only do this, but in front of so many people (over 1200).

With the amazing support of Lise Galuga, we created my presentation together.  I took all of the text on my slides and translated it to French.  Although I used Google Translate to help me at first, I soon realized that it was not accurate at all.  Lise went through every slide and did the proper translations.  We then created a google document that I had my main points of each slide, and she prepared a corresponding French tweet for all of it so that it could be “live tweeted” in both languages.

The final part (and the hardest for me) was to learn how to open the conference in French.

I wrote down what I wanted to say, and also added a joke that Lise suggested (which got huge applause!).  So Lise took what I wanted to say, and translated it properly for me.  Here is the translation:

“Bienvenue au premier Sommet bilingue de l’équipe EdTechTeam. Bien que je ne parle pas souvent le français, je tenais à accueillir les francophones – en français!

Un des objectifs que je souligne souvent est celui d’être un apprenant la vie durant, et je tiens à modéliser cet idéal moi-même. Entre vous et moi, si Stephen Harper est capable, alors j’ai pensé que je devrais l’essayer moi aussi.”

Since I had taken French up until grade 12 (I don’t want to tell you how many years ago that was), I recognized some of the words.  Yet listening to Google Translate did not help.  So Lise and I connected the night before over a Google Hangout, and she listened to me speak, and spelled things phonetically for me.  Here is the text spelled phonetically that helped me say it in front of the audience:

“Bienvenue o prumyay Sommeh bee-lang de l’équipe EdTechTeam. Bien que je ne parle pas souvent le français, je teneh a adressay la paroll o frawn-co-fun preyzawn aujourd’hui!

Uh day zobjectif que je suelinge souvent eh suhlwee (celui) d’être uh napprenant la vee durant, ay je teneh a modaylizay set e-day-al (ideal) moi-maym. Entre vou zay moi, si Stephen Harper eh cap-pab-bla (capable), alors j’ai pensay que je devreh less-say-ay (l’essayer) moi aussi.”

Not all of it is phonetic, only the parts I struggled with.  Lise tailored the learning to me so that I was successful, but she did it with me on Google Hangouts.

Then the day arrives, and I am extremely nervous. I am introduced, go onto the stage, and say the first sentence. HUGE APPLAUSE!  That I was willing to try and do something that was meaningful to the audience meant everything!

Second sentence. HUGE APPLAUSE!

Third sentence. HUGE APPLAUSE!

Fourth sentence. Huge laughter?

I told a joke and they loved it!  I successfully told a joke in a second language.  I was buzzing the rest of the talk and I was humbled by receiving a standing ovation from the audience.  What an amazing feeling.

So from this experience, I either learned or relearned some important lessons.

1. Educators are extremely receptive to others learning. For those that are so nervous to try something new and “put themselves out there”, what I have learned over and over again, is that educators will support someone is going outside of their comfort zone.  Maybe that it is because they do this every day with their students, or that they empathize that they have felt that way themselves, educators are extremely understanding of someone trying something new.  I know my French was not perfect, but wow, did that audience make me feel like it was.

2. What is now easy for us, might be tough for others. Twitter, blogging, google docs, and other technologies are second nature for me, just like speaking French is for others.  I can easily get frustrated by someone who doesn’t get it, but I was reminded that I was once at the point where I didn’t understand any of these things.  All people arrive at different places at different times, so always show patience and gratitude for the effort.

3. The biggest power of technology is not the technology, but it is the people. I used Google Translate for everything and I thought it was awesome, only because I didn’t know any better.  When I connected with Lise through Google Docs, Hangouts, email, etc., she helped me more than any technology I could use, but it was through technology that I could get that help in the first place.  She spent hours helping me and we only met the day of the summit.  As many times as these things happen, it is always mind blowing.

4. When you find someone that believes in you, you start to believe in yourself. The first night I had a Google Hangout with Lise, I tried my French, and it was terrible. I knew it, and I said, “maybe you should get someone else.”. She said, “No, you are going to be amazing. Trust me.” I did. That made me go on and keep working and after the talk yesterday, I was buzzing. I would not have got there if she wouldn’t have shown that she believed in me. We (educators) need this as much as our students.

I just want to thank everyone in Ottawa for being so warm to someone who was nowhere near perfect, but tried.  It was an amazing feeling.  I especially want to thank Lise Galuga for reminding me how teachers, no matter who the student is, can always make a huge impact on the lives of others.

8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader

“Why are we okay that management hasn’t seen innovation in a 100 or 50 years, but we demand innovation in every other aspect of our lives?” Jamie Notter

As we continue to look at teachers, students, and learning becoming more “innovative”, it is important that leadership changes.  As administrators often set the tone for their district or their building, if they are saying the same, it is not likely that things are going to change in the classroom.  Leadership needs to not only “think” different, but they need to “act” different.

For leaders to be effective in changing a school or an organization, they need to change themselves first.  It is way too easy to go a leadership conference and get ideas of things that you are going to do with your staff.  What is important is changing your own practice first.  So along the lines of what is happening within “pockets” of classrooms around the world, leaders must embody the characteristics that they seek.  As my good friend Jimmy Casas says, “what we model is what we get.”

So with that being said, here are some of the characteristics that I have seen in some of the most innovative leaders that I have encountered.

  1. Visionary – When I listen to some superintendents, the vision they share is inspiring and you can tell they see a new vision of school.  Yet what is important about these visionary leaders is that they can take this “powerful vision” and break it down to what it looks like in the classroom.  To create a culture of “innovation”, it takes small steps forward towards a greater vision, not a gigantic leap to the top of the summit.  Innovative leaders help people continuously grow with small steps that build both confidence and competence, so they are more willing to become more innovative themselves.
  2. Empathetic – Along the lines of design thinking, new ideas start with understanding the people they are created for.  When I first became a principal, I did not try to mirror the ideas of the principals before me, but I thought, “If I was a teacher in this school, what would I expect of my principal?”  That trickled down to trying to empathize with being a student in the school, and a parent in the community.  For example, as a teacher, I hated meetings that seemed to go nowhere and went too long.  So to respect the time of others, meetings became shorter and we spent more time learning, than we did on things that could have been simply emailed.  Is having a shorter meeting innovative? No.  But trying to put yourself in the place of those that you serve is where innovation begins.
  3. Models Learning – One of the superintendents that I have the great respect for is Chris Kennedy of West Vancouver.  He has shared his ideas that leaders need to be “elbows deep in learning with their schools”, and I think that is imperative to creating new and better ideas.  It is simple to fall into the trap of doing things that have always been done, or simply going with what you know.  This limits everyone.  If we want to do better things for students, we have to become the “guinea pigs” ourselves and immerse ourselves into new learning opportunities.  We rarely create something different until we experience something different.
  4. Open Risk Taker – This building upon the previous point.  The term “risk-taker” has become quite cliche in our work, as leaders often promote it, but rarely model it.  People are less likely to take risks in doing something different unless they see those above them in the hierarchical structure do the same thing.  If leaders want people to try new things, they have to openly show, that they are willing to do the same.
  5. Networked – Networks are imperative to growth and innovation.  It is easy to think you are doing something amazing when you are not looking beyond the walls of your school.  Great leaders have always created networks, but now this is not limited to face-to-face interactions.  It is also not as limited for those who live in rural areas.  Anyone willing to connect is now able to connect. It is simply a choice.  We can no longer be limited to the ideas in our own school. We need to connect with others outside and choose what works for our organization and remix it to be applicable.
  6. Observant – Great ideas often spark other great ideas.  Things like “Genius Hour” and “Innovation Week”, that have become synonymous with school, were probably sparked by seeing things outside of schools and modifying them to meet the needs of kids.  The power of the Internet is that we have access to so much information, not only from schools, but from outside organizations.  Although a business solution might not necessarily work “as is” for a school, if we learn to connect ideas and reshape them, it could become something pretty amazing.  What I am hoping to see one day is that although we can take great ideas from outside companies like Google, our practices in schools will become so innovative that people will look at borrowing from education.
  7. Team Builder – The least innovative organizations often seem to surround themselves with like-minded people.  Innovation often comes from conflict and disagreement, not in an adversarial way, but in a way that promotes divergent thinking. The idea is not to go with the idea of one person over another, but to actually create a better idea that is often in the middle of the two ideas shared.  If a leader is going to be innovative, surrounding yourself with people that mirror your personality is not the way to get there.
  8. Always Focused on Relationships – Innovation has become such a huge focus of schools, they we often forget that it is ultimately a human endeavour.  I don’t see a smartphone as something that is innovative, but it’s the thinking behind creating a smartphone where the innovation happens.  It is easy to lock yourself in an office, connect with people on Twitter, and appear from your room with some great idea or new thing.  The problem is that if you are want to become an “innovative leader” it is not only about you creating new and better ideas, but your staff.  If you have lost focus on the people in the building, new ideas might appear, but they might not be embraced.  Spending time with people and building solid relationships with them often leads to them going miles beyond what is expected and move away from “what has always been done”.  When people know they are valued and safe in trying new things, they are more likely to do something better.  This is at the core of an innovative school.

Ultimately, an innovative leader should try to create new ideas, but it is more important that they create a culture of innovation.  We often talk about empowering people and then getting out of their way, but what is often missed in the process is removing some of those barriers that they will encounter along the way.  This why it is so important to spend time in the classrooms, see what teaching and learning looks like, and then help to create a better tomorrow for our students and educators.  Again though, at the heart of innovation is people, not stuff.  If we always keep that at the forefront of our work, we are more likely to create an innovative culture.

Isolation Is the Enemy of Innovation

 

In my last post, I wrote about the transformational power that we have in our hands through technology, and how we need to look past the “tool” and the opportunities that we can provide.  On the post, Kelly Christopherson, who is as thoughtful of an educator that you will ever connect with, shared a great comment:

From personal experience of having a child with speech and learning disabilities, the story is with the person not the tools. It’s a lived experience over many years of growing, trying, failing and trying again, going beyond what anyone expected because of the incredible human spirit within a little girl that wouldn’t allow failure or setbacks to deter her. So, I get the message in the videos but it’s only a small piece of an incredible human story. It’s about the people and the continued desire to go on, the “never-give-up”. Yes, we need to foster an innovative mindset but it’s about the human element, not the tool. Unfortunately, if we only believe that teachers can be transformational now that they have tools, we’re selling short the transformational power of great teachers of the past. Sometimes, when we say that technology allows us to be transformational, we miss the incredible opportunity to see people as a whole with unlimited possibilities with or without the technology and enter transformational moments at any time. Great teachers see transformational moments and enter into those moments as learners with their students, technology aided or not…Kids have been doing inspiring things for a long time and inspiring others as they do. In order to do some of that, they will use the tools of their generation, the tools available to them, as it has always been.

I couldn’t agree more with Kelly’s comments (read them in their entirety).  Great teachers have been “innovators” long before any of the current technologies existed in our world.  It was always about doing something better with what was available, to help kids.  Kelly’s wisdom shows the importance of teaching in the future, but remembering the power of the past.

What I think is different now, and where the technology really gives us an opportunity to be more innovative than ever, is the ability to use the technology to connect with one another.  As Kelly stated, it is about “people”, but now we have the opportunity to go beyond the “stuff” and tap into one another, more so than ever.

For example. I remember growing up in a small town, and then teaching in a small rural area for the first part of my teaching career, I had some great mentor teachers, but was limited to their knowledge.  I often wonder if I looked to them for guidance, who did they have the opportunity to look to for themselves?  Large centres have always been seen as the “hubs” of innovation, not because of their access to stuff, but because of their access to one another.  Many teachers did not have that, where as now, it is easy to connect with people across the world.  I do truly believe that isolation is now a choice that educators makeand isolation is often the enemy of innovation.

So have teachers always been innovative? Absolutely.  In large groups though?  I am not sure of that.  Now, we have the chance to move away from “pockets” and move to a “culture” of innovation, but as Kelly reminded me, innovation is a human endeavour. Now though, we just have more of an opportunity to accelerate the opportunities for our kids.

What “Digital” Accelerates #LeadershipDay14

This post is my contribution to Leadership Day 2014.

 

The term is thrown around in circles often and it is something that I have focused on in my work with students.  What I concluded around the term was “the opportunity to use technologies to make a significant impact on the lives of others.”  In schools, we have focused on the notion of “digital citizenship” for years, but the term seems to be very neutral.  In reality, if I live in a city, I am a citizen in that area.  Is talking about the mere existence of “being online” enough for our students?  Are we really setting high expectations or as educators, have we set a rather low bar for what our students do online because we are unsure of the space and how to use it ourselves?  And really, is it “digital citizenship” anymore in a world where every single student in our school has grown up in a world with Internet?

Not settling for the “status quo”, many administrators have jumped into the space to experiment, themselves, on how social media can make an impact in the work that they do in schools.  Starting off as “citizens” in the space, many educators have played around with technologies to see how it could impact learning and relationships amongst both peers and students.  The transition for many though, has gone into the leadership space, where they are sharing some of their learning in an open space to focus on making an impact on the lives of not only those students in their school and classroom, but helping teachers help students across the world. Although “Digital Leadership” has been a quote that has been used often in this type of work, the main components of leadership have not changed, but only amplified and accelerated.  From experimenting myself and observing others, I have seen how “digital” has made a significant impact on not only the notion of leadership, but also the work that is underway in schools.

Accelerating Innovation

Innovation can simply be defined as doing things “better and different”, yet it is often used to replace the term (mistakenly) for technology.  Innovation and technology are not necessarily synonymous although some organizations simply replace the word “edtech” with “innovation” in job titles, without really changing job descriptions.  Innovation is a human endeavour and is really more about a way of thinking than it is about the “stuff”.  Yet, the way we use technology now can really accelerate the process of innovation in schools and districts.

Two key components that are necessary to innovation are networks and remix.  Great teachers have done this for years without social media, but with the ability to now connect with people all over the world, innovation can definitely be amplified. Networks are crucial to innovation, because they increase the ability to learn and share ideas with people.  Concentrations of people in a specific area (known as “spikes”) already exist in our world.  In North America, if you want to be a movie star, where do you go? If you want to become a country singer, where do you go? If you answered “Hollywood” and “Nashville” (in that order), you have identified a “spike”.

So where do “spikes” exist in education?  Until now, there has been no real place since schools are all over the world.  But with the thoughtful use of social media by educators all over the world, “spikes” have been created through a ton of teachers connecting through mediums such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.  These types of networks are crucial to this accelerated growth and though often people complain that they can become an “echo chamber”, the changes and iterations to many ideas are really creating some great ideas that are impacting education.  Things such as “Genius Hour”, which gives students the time to explore and create based on their own passions (paraphrased), are going viral, and although there are many that would suggest this type of learning should be the norm for the majority of time in our schools, implementing some of these ideas in small steps, are usually crucial to major changes.

As Chris Kennedy stated in his recent #LeadershipDay14 post, “you cannot microwave change”, that being said, change can happen a lot quicker now than it has before.  This social sharing through these vast networks has been the spark for many great ideas.

That is where remix comes in.

Again, great teachers have always done this, but now, they just have a greater opportunity and community to tap into.  Finding the idea is one thing, but making it applicable and work for your community, situation, and more importantly, your students’ needs, is where this is crucial.  Seeing Josh Stumpenhorst share the idea of “Innovation Day” in Illinois, I watched as Jesse McLean made it into “Innovation Week” within Parkland School Division in Alberta.  Remixes and iterations of this day/week, have been shared, remixed, and made applicable to kids of all ages all over the world.

The network is where the information has been found, but the ability to remix it for your own context is where innovation happens.  This becomes a massive game of “telephone” where the idea starts off one way, but by the time it ends up in a specific spot, it could look totally different.

A Flattened Organization

This used to be done in our schools through an administrator seeing a great practice in a classroom, having the teacher share it in a staff meeting, and then others implement it in a way that they have seen makes sense for their students.  It worked, but it was a much slower process and often relied on teachers being empowered to shared by their administrators.  What “digital” provides is often an instant look into the classroom without waiting for those “once-in-awhile” meetings.

I remember in my first year of leadership, one of my mentor principals had shared how she believed that she was a better teacher now as a principal, because she saw teachers “teach” all of the time through visiting their classroom.  I made this something that I implemented often in my work as an administrator, but my instructional leadership alone could only go so far.  I wanted other teachers to see what I saw.

Having teachers watch other teachers in action is probably the best professional development any educator could get, but the reality is that because of time, space, and funds, this opportunity is often limited.  What I wanted to see was the teachers creating this visibility into their classrooms through the use of social spaces.  Instead of waiting for the meeting, a teacher can simply blog, create a video, or even tweet ideas of things that are happening in their classrooms.

This “visible learning” shared by the teacher, shows that learning and leadership can come from anywhere within your school.  Many leaders have challenged this idea with the reasoning that teachers should “just talk to each other” and that digital shouldn’t replace that.  From what I have seen, it has actually been the opposite.  Conversations are often initiated from these “quick shares” that go on in the staff room, or after school.  I have seen greater face-to-face connections because of this sharing, not only at the school level, but at the district level as well.  It also shows that anyone can learn from anyone, the kindergarten teacher can make an impact on the principal, and vice-versa.

When we truly flatten our organizations this way, it makes us all better, because we not only better appreciate one another, but we tap into the “wisdom of the room”.  We can do a lot more together than we ever could do apart.

Empowering Voice

There are many things wrong in the world of education today.  Initiatives are often changed and it seems politicians are more concerned with “making a name” than “making a difference”.  Traditional media has also hurt education in many ways by focusing on the bad stories that come out of school, rather than the good.  It is not the idea that as educators we need to speak up now more than ever; education has always been in need of good public relations.  It is just now the opportunities to share our voice are numerous, and we need to take advantage.

Through the constant sharing of not only what happens in school, but the way things are changing, we have the ability to not only connect on a global scale, but also locally.  When I grew up, the sole concern of my parents was safety, but with a mass sharing of knowledge, comes a higher expectation from the public.  The more we are informed, the more we expect.  It is human nature for not only education, but for all organizations.  This, in my opinion, is so positive to what we are trying to do with schools.

School websites have often shared things such as sporting events or concerts at schools, but they have not focused on conversations with our community.  As many schools are trying to move forward in a much different time than many of us grew up in, it is essential that we not only share what is happening in our schools, but engage in true, two-way conversations with our communities.  The more parents are brought into the learning that is happening in the classroom, the more likely their children will be successful.  We have an opportunity to not only share our voice as educators, but we have many more avenues to hear the voices of our community, and more importantly, our students.

For example, Leyden High Schools, located in a suburb of Chicago, has recently turned over their Twitter account to an individual student in their school, one week at a time (found at twitter.com/LeydenPride).  You are able to hear the experience of students in the school from their viewpoint, not the view of a school that is trying to “brand” it’s message.  What this school has displayed (on several occasions) is that a school is defined by the experience the students have, and that they should not only engage them in conversation, but empower their kids to share their voice openly.  They are not focusing on developing the “leaders for tomorrow”, but by empowering student voice right now, they are developing the leaders of today.  Any great leader knows that their legacy is not defined by creating followers, but by developing leaders.

Empowering our teachers to share their voice and open the doors to what they do in the classroom, also gives our community a new perspective on what it is to be an educator, and how we are willing to go above and beyond for our kids.  There are bad teachers in schools.  You will find this to be true in any profession.  Yet those teachers are in the minority, while the stories that were shared about them, through the media, were in the majority.  What has changed is that many of our great educators are changing the narrative by sharing the incredible work that they are doing with students.

Unfortunately, there is still the mindset in many organizations that administrators need to “control” the story that is sent out about their schools.  The feeling is that with every blog post, tweet, website, etc., approval must be obtained before it is shared.  This is not leadership.  Our job is to not control talent, but to unleash it.  If you hired the teacher to work with children in a classroom, shouldn’t we be able to trust them to send out a tweet?

A teacher sharing their voice publicly, is often deemed risky.  Although there are pitfalls and negatives that can happen, the positive far outweigh the negatives.  As leaders, we can not simply ask our teachers to take a risk and share their voice with others, but model it ourselves.  Often we promote that our staff “take risks”, but unless they are willing to see their leader “put themselves out there”, they feel it is not a chance that they are willing to take.  Through these stories from our schools, we make a connection with people that “data and numbers” simply cannot convey.  Stories from the classroom, are the ones that touch the hearts of our communities and other educators, and often lead to meaningful change.

Our voice as an education community is more important now than ever.  How are you as a leader empowering others to share their voice?

Concluding Thoughts

The main components of leadership have not changed in the past few years because of the “digital revolution”, nor will they change in the future.  Perhaps we just have a better understanding of the definition of “leadership” and how it differs from “management” (although both are crucial components to successfully leading an organization).  The difference digital makes is that we can accelerate, amplify, and empower in a way that we couldn’t before.  Great leaders take advantage of every opportunity in front of them, so that they can empower those that they serve.  Cale Birk, a principal in Kamloops, BC, recently said that “better is not easier”; as leaders, we shouldn’t be looking for an easy way out.  This work is tough, but the most important element is not necessarily where we are, but that we are moving forward.

It is pretty easy to say “do this”, but it is much better and more valuable to say “let’s do this together”.  If we can show that as leaders we are willing to embrace change, and jump in to many of these new opportunities for learning with our communities, the impact we can make not only with our staff, but more importantly, our students, could be monumental.

A Different Perspective?

Summer is a great time for reflection and throwing ideas around, so here is something that has been floating around in my brain.

The other night on the ESPY Awards, when Stuart Scott was awarded the “Jimmy V Perseverance” award (an amazing speech that you really should watch) for his fight against cancer, his friend Robin Roberts came up to the stage and talked about a new initiative in the hopes to cure cancer.  Although she mentioned it very briefly, my interest was piqued considerably when she talked about the idea of bringing in people outside of the profession to give new ideas to think about curing cancer.  My interest was piqued considerably at the idea that people outside of a profession look at solving a problem.  In education, many of us have spent many years looking at the same problems that the system we are in created; a different perspective on things could be helpful.

I will admit that one of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people say that people outside of education shouldn’t speak at education conferences because they do not know what it is like to be in the classroom.  The same “growth mindset” that many of us preach seems pretty closed when we hear sentiments like this.  I myself have been guilty of saying, “what would they know, they’ve never had to teach”, yet still love when hearing a student’s perspective about school, when they also have never taught.  We can learn from anyone about anything, and what is important is that we learn to make connections to what we do in the education system.  If you go to many conferences, many of the same ideas shared by educators are ones that are often reiterated from others but with a different perspective or “twist” to the story.  Many people are wanting some vastly different ideas.

Now there is a difference between having a non-educator talk about how to solve problems in the classroom, as opposed to hearing someone’s story from outside of the education realm.  A doctor doesn’t know what it is like to have 30 kids in a classroom, no more than I know what it is like to remove someone’s appendix.  It is important to understand that in any profession we respect that experience often trumps research.  I am not looking for Bill Gates to give me ideas on how to run a school.  I would however be interested to know what Bill Gates has done in his own work to create change and make what he does better.  I would also like to know about the changes that have happened in the music industry, and how people in that field have created an environment where they thrive.  How did Uber come about and what are traditional taxi services doing to change the way they do business? The Edmonton Humane Society has totally changed my perspective on how an animal shelter should look like (it is an amazingly beautiful place and looks a lot different from the small cage that I got my first dog Kobe from), and their outreach to the community through their Twitter account has been engaging and powerful.  How did they get to that point and why did they change?

The thing that education has in common with many other fields is that change has been thrust upon them because of the ease of access to information and the easy ability to connect with one another.  Schools aren’t the only organization that is having to look at drastic change.  Many industries are facing similar challenges. What can we learn from them about what they have done and how can we make it applicable to the challenges we are facing?  Creating those connections to both ideas and people could be extremely valuable to the field of education.

So the idea that has been floating around in my head has been hosting an “innovator summit”. This would have people from different fields that are looking at creating, and have created change in their respective fields.  How did they do it?  What worked? What didn’t?  What could we learn from each other?  This would also include people from the field of education who have been successful in creating valuable changes in their own organizations.  There is a lot that different industries could learn from us and apply to their own work.  Truthfully, if anyone should look at hosting a conference where we can learn from one another, shouldn’t it be the field of education?

I have been tossing this idea around in my head.  Perhaps having an “Ignite” style day with short talks, but with the opportunity for conversations with other people.  Maybe even an “Edcamp” type conference.  The idea is definitely in its infancy.  The one thing that I know I would NOT want is people from different fields coming in to tell educators how schools should be.  I have seen that before and it has been a lot of “how to” on getting students to do better at tests, and behaving, etc.  Are we focusing on “doing things better”, or “doing better things”?  Those are two uniquely different ideas and my hope is that we are moving to the latter.

Maybe this has been done before.  Maybe it hasn’t.  It is pretty hard to have an original idea in today’s world but I would sure love some feedback and thoughts on what this could look like or if this is even something that would be beneficial in our work to help our students.

Thoughts?

5 Characteristics of an Innovative Organization

As the year has wrapped up for most North American schools, I look back at my year and realize how blessed I am to not only be able to travel the world and share my experience with others, but also the opportunity to still work with Parkland School Division on a part-time basis.  I think that this allows me to still “do the work” in schools while also having the ability to share it with others as well.  The balance that this has created to both see other organizations and share my work, and vice-versa, has been immeasurable for my learning.

From what I have learned about Parkland School Division, I believe it is a world-class organization, that is not just talking about newer opportunities for learning for our students, but is creating powerful learning environments for our entire community.  We still teach the curriculum and we still have to “follow the rules”, but we try to be innovative within the parameters that are provided.  The content that we have to teach is often decided for us, but the way that we teach, and more importantly our students learn, is where the magic truly happens.

So how did this happen?  Well to be honest, we still have a lot of work to do, but that will always be the case.  We are a “learning organization” which, by the nature of the term alone, means that we are focused on continuous growth as a district.  It is not only that we have leaders that model themselves as learners, but it is done as at the organizational level as a whole.  This growth as a group has led to the development of individuals.

Looking back, here are five things that have really stuck out to me this year and have helped us to grow.

1.  Promotion and modelling of risk-taking.

The term “risk-taking” is one of those “buzzwords” that drives many people crazy.  An “innovative environment” will always promote this, but it does not mean that it is happening.  It is only when the leaders of organization model the risk-taking that they talk about, does it happen en masse in schools.  I have watched our superintendent Tim Monds, try many different things in his own learning that have been displayed openly to others in Parkland School Division.  It started with things such as using Twitter, more focus on cloud tools such as Evernote and Google Apps for Education, and more recently, sharing his monthly message through YouTube videos.   His understanding and willingness to try different ways of learn and sharing has trickled down to others.  You can see that more educators are trying different things, and then implementing their learning with their students.

It is not only that our leaders have jumped in and shared their learning, but they have flattened the organization and learned from others as well.  I will see many of our superintendents attend events such as “Innovation Week” to see what is happening in our schools, so that they can either share their learning with others, or act as connectors.  It would be easy to “lead from above”, but it is more important to get involved and “lead by example”.  This is something I have seen often from our administrators at every level.

2.  Competitive-Collaboration.

Collaboration is talked a lot about in schools as an “essential trait”, but there are many people that thrive off the notion of competition.  To me, it is not one or the other, but a combination of both that really push our organization forward.  “Competitive-Collaboration” is something that I believe will really push us to the next level.

For example, if we are looking at other school divisions around the world and we see some really amazing things going on, we want those same opportunities for our students.  To build a “world-class organization”, you have to look at what is happening outside your organization, not just locally.  Because of this drive, we have implemented a lot of what we have learned from others, and remixed it to make it applicable to our own students.  The other element of this notion is that we are more than willing to share what we have learned with others as if our works helps kids, no matter where they live, that is to everyone’s benefit.  The more we share, the more others become opening to sharing with us. The balance of being able to both push and help each other will get us to become a better organization a lot quicker.

3.  Proud of where we are, but know we have a way to go.

Parkland School Division has been a place that has spent a lot of time recognizing what both are students and educators have done while giving them an opportunity to showcase this to others around the world (ie. 184 Days of Learning).  With that being said, our schools continuously push to get to the next level.  When you get to a point where you think you have arrived, that is usually when you become irrelevant, and become the school equivalent of “Blockbuster Video”.

Many organizations simply take the word “innovation” and used it to replace the word “technology” but innovation and technology are not necessarily synonymous.  A telephone would be a technology yet would not be considered “innovative” as this point in time, yet at one point it was a great example.  Innovation, in short, means “different and better”; it is not innovative if it does not have these two elements.  The notion of “innovative thinking” is one that we have focused on, and I have seen that our teachers are continuously questioning their own practice and trying to do things both different and better.

We can always appreciate our growth as both individuals and an organization, but we cannot simply pat ourselves on the back and quit doing the work.  When you serve kids, our focus needs to be to get better every day.

4. The focus on sharing.

One of my favourite videos is Dean Shareski’s “Moral Imperative”, where he talks about the need for teachers to share.  This is a video that many of our staff have watched, and have learned a great deal from, and the willingness to share has helped ideas to go “viral”.  Whether it is a focus on inclusion, health and wellness, technology, Identity Day, or almost anything, you will find it shared through blogs and twitter, so that these ideas are not kep in isolation within a classroom or a school, or even as a district.

Scott Johnston, a great friend, thinker, leader, and new Associate Superintendent, talked about the importance that we move to a place see themselves as not only part of a school, but that we are all a part of Parkland School Division.  When we see every kid in every school as one of our own, “sharing” becomes vital to our success.

5. Relationships, relationships, relationships.

No matter what we have learned about, what new initiative or technology there is, a focus on relationships has been the cornerstone and foundation of what has happened in Parkland School Division.  Without a strong focus on relationships first, nothing else happens.  Our “bosses” have focused on this from day one, and it is rare that any conversation that we have not start off checking in on individuals “personally”.   I have always been asked about my family, and I have always felt comfortable sharing because Parkland, in many aspects, has become like a family to me.

When I first came to the school division, this focus on relationships was something that was new to me and I didn’t really understand.  Now I could not understand how we could get anything done without it.  I am more apt to go the extra mile for someone when I know that my leaders care about me personally, then if they didn’t.  When the top levels model this, it (again) trickles down to every level.  The mind and body can not do much when the heart is not there.  This focus on relationships has helped me to focus on always serving the “whole person” as opposed to just focusing on my “job”.

As people get some time to rest up and head into another school year, I look back and realize how proud I am to be part of an organization that is more than just about “school” but about growth and development of people.  It is written in our “vision”:

Parkland School Division is a place where exploration, creativity and imagination make learning exciting and where all learners aspire to reach their dreams.

If you notice the term “learners” is in place of where many organizations use the term “students”.  To me, this vision and focus on the notion of “learners” says that we are all in this together, and we get better as a whole when we do whatever we can help ourselves and each other grow as individuals.

May I…?

My good friend A.J. Juliani has a new book coming out soon and I was honoured to have been asked to write the foreword.  Here is my “unedited” version of that piece in honour of his book coming out this week.

Est-que je peux aller aux toilettes?

Out of everything that I learned in taking French classes for eight out of my twelve years in my K-12 schooling, this is the one phrase that I will always remember.

Translated it says, “May I go to the bathroom?”

When I think about that question, that was easily the question that I asked most in my time as a student in school, whether it was English or French.  If you think about it, if school is to spark the curiosity that we hope for ourselves and our future generation, shouldn’t our questions start with “why” or “how”, not “may I”?  That last question is not about thinking deeply or exploring passions, but it is about compliance.  How many times do you now ask someone else permission to go to the bathroom?  What a weird thing to think about.

Yet we wonder why we see articles like the one in Newsweek in 2010 about a “Creativity Crisis”.  According to the Newsweek article, 1500 CEO’s were asked what the most important “leadership competency” was that they would look for and “creativity” came in as a clear number one.  In the same article though, schools were listed as one of the reasons that children were not creative and stated that within schools, “there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.”

A question that has always driven my own thinking is do people become creative because of school, but in spite of it?

As most students, I walked out of school having no idea what I wanted to do.  What we were told over and over again was that university and college was a way to a better life, and without having any dream of other than being an NBA basketball player (which was not happening), I started on the costly endeavour of going to university without having any idea of what I loved.  It is a very costly way to “find yourself” and is more so now when careers are harder to obtain more than ever.  Unfortunately after six years of university, I still had no idea of what I loved, only what I was about to do.  My post-secondary education was more of a checklist to the next stage of my life, than a way to explore my passions.  Luckily years into my career, I found my niche and I couldn’t imagine doing anything different now, but how different is my story from others?  Years and years of time, thousands and thousands of dollars, and I luckily felt that I found my passion in my third decade on this earth.

I am grateful that I found my passion and every day I leave my house, it is with a spring in my step, but I was a lucky one.  As someone who has a career in education, one of my beliefs is to do everything that I can in our schools that students can find their passion during their time in classrooms.  How could I have known what I love if I did not have an opportunity to explore different passions without the help of my teachers?  School should be a place not where answers go to die, but questions come to life.

So how do we make this happen within the confines of a system that was built to enhance and mirror industrialism?  First off, educators need to start seeing themselves as innovators.  We can talk about the constraints of testing, curriculum, poor leadership, and a million other things, but that is pointing the finger away from what we can do ourselves.  We ask our students to solve problems all of the time, and we need to model this ourselves.  If you think the system doesn’t work for your students, then let’s start to think different.  A.J. does a nice job debunking the myths of a non-traditional classroom but it is up to you to implement them.

Next, we have to start looking what the world looks like outside of schools and bring that into our classrooms.  As much as I hate to say it, Google has a bigger “research and development” budget than any school I know, and when they are openly sharing some of the ways that they not only engage their employees, but also create environments where innovation flourishes. We should pay attention.  What great organizations do is develop their people as thinkers, leaders, and “intrapreneurs” who constantly push innovation from within.  Can you imagine what your classroom could look like if we adopted that same mindset as educators?

As I read this book and the ideas that A.J. has shared, I felt my head nodding emphatically thinking, “I wish I went to school now.”  Not only is it more engaging, but it has the potential to be so much better.  In a world that the only constant will be change, how do we get students to think of themselves as innovators not only in the future, but today.  As any good book on the notion of innovation will often lead to more questions, and A.J. has written something that will push your learning long after, while also giving great ideas and a framework to really push your own learning ahead.

Nothing different will happen with your students until something different happens for your first. Hopefully the “why” and “how” will become the common question starter for our students, as opposed to “may I”, no matter the language.

Choosing Not to Know

I had two administrators approach me yesterday and start a conversation.

One told me about how their IT department had closed all social media in their school and about how their fear that if they were to open it.  The fear shared was that their would be so many more issues of cyberbullying, inappropriate content shared, amongst other things.

The other told me about how their school district has all social media sites open to their students and have very few issues.  In fact, he had shared that since the network was opened, the issues lessened because of their focus on teaching digital citizenship.

Huh.

The question that came to my mind was, are these districts talking to one another?  My other thought was, do the districts that have things opened even try to talk to the ones that are open?  Seriously, people have open networks and have very few issues yet so many others with closed networks talk about the fear of what could be if schools decided to open their network.

Does looking only within our own organizations and focusing on the “fear factor” really help our students?  I am guessing you can figure out what I think.

If you are interested, here is a simple rubrics to start a conversation on this topic: Is Your School’s DIgital Citizenship Practice a Pass or Fail?