Tapping into “Your Most Unhappy Customers”

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Bill Gates

I read the above quote and it really struck a nerve.  I know student voice is extremely important in schools, and many have made strides to make this more of a reality.  Where I struggle is when we bring students together, are we bringing the voices of students that are doing well, or are we bringing the struggling student who maybe hates the entire experience?

Many times, these student voice “events” (student voice should be much more than an event) often are for the students who have completed the work and that we know will catch up on any missed “work ” in school.  Are we sending kids with divergent ideas or the ones who are sometimes the most compliant?  Obviously, it should not be one or the other, but when we bring students together to listen to their voice, we have to ensure that the voices have diversity in many aspects.


Another idea that I heard from Andrea Gillespie from Ontario (#TLDSBLearns) was the notion of “Student Exit Surveys”.  She had shared with me via Twitter that when students dropout, they are given an exit survey to gather information, and what she had said to me was the number one reason students left school was that they felt they had no connection with an adult in the building.  Imagine being in place where no one seemed to care if you were there?  I wouldn’t want to be there either.  This process should be something we do for students that dropout and graduate.  It should also be something that is done for students while they are in schools (many organizations do this) to improve the experience for students while they are in school. 

Student voice is so crucial for the change process so many  schools are going through; in fact, it is the most important aspect.  If we aren’t changing it for them, why are we doing this work?  Let’s just make sure we give all students multiple opportunities to share their thoughts while discussing and acting upon this feedback.

(Please share any ways that you tap into student voice in your school or organization in the comments. Links welcomed and appreciated!)

Promoting Divergent Thinking

I still smile when I remember the first administrative position I ever had and the interview that got me the position.  Archie Lillico, a great friend, mentor, leader, and all around human being, was hiring for a new assistant principal and I surprisingly received an opportunity for an interview.  Not knowing Archie at the time, I remember going into the interview and it quickly turned into an argument, where he started challenging me and then I started challenging back.  It was nothing like I had ever experienced before and I chalked it up to a learning experience and really never thought twice about actually getting the job.

A few days later, in what I thought was a simple courtesy, Archie called me and offered me the job.  My jaw hit the floor at the surprise and I remember wondering if this would work.  We obviously had disagreed on things already, and that was only the interview!  I accepted the position, and I remember having one of my first conversations with Archie soon after.  What he had told me is that as the principal, he was not looking for someone to agree with him, but for someone to be able to challenge his thinking yet support him at the same time.  His focus was on helping kids, not solely on being right.  You could often hear us arguing in the office, and then walk out soon after with smiles on our face.  I understood what he expected from me, and he understood that I thought different.  In fact, that was probably one of the reasons that he hired me and I still am close with him to this day.

What he had taught me early on in my career is that hiring your clone might be good for your ego, but not necessarily for your organization.  Encouraging divergent thinking in your organization is not usually about going from one extreme to another, but mostly about finding a better middle.  This lesson was something that I carried on when I hired my own assistant principal later, knowing that she had different viewpoints than I did, while also being willing to challenge me.  This is commonplace in Parkland School Division and part of the reason I have grown so much in the district. If we are truly about being successful as individuals, we need people to both support and challenge us.  It is important to know that people are in your corner, but being in your corner doesn’t mean always agreeing with you.

If we want innovative organizations, we can’t just challenge the “status quo”, but we need to be able to challenge one another.

Understanding and Immersing Ourselves in How We (Can) Learn

To Innovate, disrupt your routine.

Choice is critically important in learning.  If a student feels more comfortable and accelerates their learning with a device, it would not make much sense to force them to use a pencil and paper.  This is NOT saying just give a kid device because it will be better for their learning. If we do not think differently about our practices in education, there is no doubt a myriad of other options for kids on a device than there is on a piece of paper.  The focus is on (as always) what’s best for learners. We should not limit the opportunities for our kids, nor our adults.

This same choice is also important for adults.  I have watched adult learners in sessions have a mobile device, laptop, and pencil and paper, and choose the latter of the three for the majority of the time.  This reminds me that this same notion is true for our students. It is not about using devices all of the time, but having access which really makes a difference.

This all being said, there is a “but” about to happen.  As educators, we should not only understand what students are learning, but we should understand how they can learn.  In fact, as some information can change over time, understanding how we learn is more important in many cases than the “what”.   We shouldn’t just have a basic understanding of what we are learning, but more importantly, we should understand how we learn.

As a leader from any position, the best way to help people see there are new and better opportunities for teaching and learning, we have to first put ourselves in a place of discomfort, which helps us to focus from the viewpoint of a learner, as opposed to a teacher.  If we truly want to become “master” educators, we must continuously strive to become “master” learners. There is no endpoint to this process.

I was deeply influenced by a video that was shared on the “Harvard Business Review” simply titled, “To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine.  In it, author Frank Barrett talks about the importance of disruption in thinking, and shares the story of an airline dealing with a great deal of complaints on their customer service.  What they did (which is normal for both business and educational organizations) is had a retreat on how to create a better experience for their customers.  Yet what they did during that retreat was where their routine was truly challenged. While they were in meetings on the first day, the Vice-President of marketing took out the beds of their hotel rooms and replaced them with airline seats, which they had to sleep in that night.  Needless to say, they came up with some “radical innovations” on how they would change the seating on an airplane to become more comfortable for their customers.  Their “discomfort” in experiencing what their customers had shared, led them to a new understanding.

When professional learning opportunities are happening in our schools, do we put people in this place of discomfort.  One of the things that I have suggested for these times is making them paperless.  Not providing “handouts” to staff almost encourages using a mode of learning that we grew up with and many know inside out. By sometimes forcing our hand, we are more likely to use devices than the more traditional medium.  Some may be disappointed in this approach, and I always suggest you teach them how to print for themselves.  This is not saying we shouldn’t honour our adult learners, but as educators we have to not only understand, but immerse ourselves in new learning opportunities.

Even with digital tools, I have seen perpetuating the “old” over the “new” in our approach. I have watched administrators encourage the use of something like Google Apps for Education by sending out a Word document. Does that make any sense?  If we want people to try different opportunities for learning, we need to model them as leaders.

If we are not willing to disrupt the way we have always done things in our own learning, we will not see much change in the classroom.

Protecting or Ignoring?

Kids are learning a distorted view of the digital world “that reflects the fears of adults rather than the aspirations of youth.” Alia Wong

There is this notion that ignoring social media in schools is a way of protecting our kids from the dangers of the web. Blocking sites like YouTube shields our kids from the inappropriate content they may find, and blocking kids from services like Twitter or Instagram will preserve them from online bullying. The reality of this mindset is that by ignoring we are protecting. It’s kind of like saying, we do not want kids to get in an accident in a car so we won’t teach them to drive. It doesn’t make much sense.

If we are really protecting our kids, we would teach, not ignore. In a world where being “googled” is more the norm than the exception, not guiding our students seems almost like the opposite of protecting. It seems like we are saying, “not our problem”.

Not good enough.

Never mind the power we have to connect, learn, and help kids create opportunities for themselves.  In a great article by Alia Wong titled, “Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web” (you should read the whole thing), the author quotes Danah Boyd on the need to educate on the intricacies of the web:

“Teens will not become critical contributors to this [Internet] ecosystem simply because they were born in an age when these technologies were pervasive.

Neither teens nor adults are monolithic, and there is no magical relation between skills and age. Whether in school or in informal settings, youth need opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge to engage with temporary technology effectively and meaningfully. Becoming literate in a networked age requires hard work, regardless of age.” Danah Boyd

Am I saying that there are not dangers out there? Absolutely not. But helping our kids learn to navigate the messiness and complexities of our world is more likely to protect our students than pretending the Internet doesn’t exist in the first place.

(If you want to explore further, check out this in depth document on “Digital Citizenship in Education” created by Katia Hildebrandt and Alec Couros for Saskatchewan Education, that offers a “roadmap for building appropriate school division policies and school-specific digital citizenship guidelines and procedures” as well as several ideas on implementation for digital citizenship education.)

The smartest people ask for help.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 8.21.07 PMYears ago, I remember getting a message from a principal that I had a great respect for, and is honestly one of the best leaders that I know. He had asked me to call him and so later that evening I did, and I remember that he asked me for some advice on things that he was dealing with in his school. I was actually a bit taken back because I had never thought that he would be in a situation where he would need my advice, but that was just a reminder to me that I had received over and over again.

The smartest people ask for help.

This is something that I have struggled with both personally and professionally, and sometimes overlapping. When I am feeling overwhelmed with work, I often bury my head down and just try to “work harder” out of it. This can leave me in a place, where my good friend Michelle King will say “only giving the ones you love your leftovers”. It is the same when I struggle personally, as I often feel comfortable sharing struggles in front of a large group, it is harder for me to share those same struggles with people on an individual basis. When in a large forum it is something that people can relate to and they connect with, but often when you share it in a small setting, it is now something that you have to deal with and face. This has often led me dealing with my own anxiety in a way that is counterproductive. Yet to the people that are closest to me I have always said that strength is not necessarily doing everything on your own, but strength comes in being comfortable in sharing vulnerability and being able to reach out.

This idea is something that we need to teach our kids as it seems that growing up is constantly becoming more complicated. There are times that I see all of the opportunities that kids have now in such a connected world and am envious, but there are also times that I think about my own maturity as a kid and how I am not sure I could have dealt with the complexity of it all. The default from many is to hide kids from much of what exists in the world, but that is a short term solution that does not prepare them for the world in front of them. We can encourage them to always be able to ask for help, but if we are not willing to model this ourselves, we exhibit the idea that this is more out of weakness than strength.

Whether it is personal, professional, or both, I truly believe that the smartest (and often strongest) people are always willing to ask for help.

Innovation is About a Way of Thinking

The below tweet from Edutopia was shared over and over again through social networks yesterday, because of the power of the idea.

This is a great idea in theory, and obviously one that educators should think about, but often I hear that there is no money to make this happen in schools.  How are we to provide this type of opportunity in organizations where resources are scarce? Where does theory become reality?

To make this happen, it is not about thinking outside of the box, but being innovative inside of it.

If we start with the question, “If we know that educators observing the practice of one another will improve practice, how do we provide opportunities for this on a regular basis?”

Brainstorming ideas (or some variation of it), or even the process of “brainwriting“, might lead to ideas that are not necessarily tied to money, but a shift in thinking.  For example, could we not simply have administrators (principals and superintendents included) take time with classrooms to provide coverage for teachers to be in the classrooms of others.  Not only would this provide the opportunity for other teachers to learn from one another in real-time, it would also strengthen relationships between students and administrators, while also creating (hopefully) an empathy from the administrator that would have the opportunities to teach students, and understand their classroom.

Now this idea might not be innovative to many schools that do this same thing already, but honestly, some schools have never thought about it.  Innovation is something that changes over time to become consistent practice.  If the innovative idea (new and better) does not become the normal practice, it probably was not very innovative in the first place.

The point of sharing this example was to provide the reality that although resources are helpful, it is our thinking that will create meaningful change in schools, not any one technology.  The tools that were once considered “innovative”, will always eventually collect dust in the corner of our rooms.  Innovation will always be about a way of thinking, not the “stuff”.

It’s Not About “All of the Time”, but About Having Access

Discussing initiatives such as BYOD or 1-to-1 technology initiatives, there is often a lot of fear about “balance”.  First of all, the notion of “balance” is something that I truly believe should not be determined for anyone other than yourself.  What is “balance” to one, might look significantly different to someone else.  When we talk about kids having “balance”, do we imply something unique to them, or our own belief on what “balance” is?

Secondly, the notion that a student will always use a device because they have one, is not necessarily a reality.  Kids still do physical education, go outside, and do many of the same things that I did in school, even with pencil and paper.  Providing a device doesn’t mean the student will be using it all of the time, but could have access all of the time.  This is a pretty powerful concept.  When I was in school, if I wanted to learn more about a certain country or animal, I would wait until we had “library time” to be able to further explore this concept, unless that was the week the teacher brought resources into the classroom on that topic.  Even when those resources were provided, they were limited. With a device at your fingertips, the possibilities are endless.  It does not dismiss the books that are available, but it can complement them.

It is not that we have access to find information, but to also create it.  Often ideas will come to me, and having a device in my pocket allows me to share my thoughts to different applications that I have access to on any other device.  I do not have to worry about guarding a piece of paper with my life, or having my stuff somewhere else. In fact, this blog post came from writing a few notes from my phone on Google Docs, and then accessing them from my computer.  Even with paper, I was not able to do this, not only because of the lack of access, but it was not something I was in the habit of doing because of how I struggled with organizational skills with paper as a kid.  The access has changed everything.

So when we look at a kid that struggles with writing with paper and pencil, but accelerates using technology (or honestly vice versa), we have to look at what “access” creates. If the goal is to read and write, providing access to different options and opportunities, will ensure that more of our students learn a way that works best for them, not necessarily us.

Strength in Weakness

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.” Malcolm Gladwell

Personally, I struggled throughout most of my time in school.  Although my early years I did very well, by the time I was in grade seven, I disconnected from the process of school, and honestly do not know if I would have actually stuck it out if it wasn’t for my love of sports.  If I wanted to play basketball and football, I would have to stick it out in school.  

I am also not one of those educators that grew up wanting to be a teacher.  I only decided after my fourth year of university that I wanted to become a teacher.  I loved kids but it was not my first choice as a profession.  Any way that I could avoid school, I would, whether that was missing classes or simply downloading the notes off of a website at the time.  I still have dreams about missing final exams and failing courses that I had no idea that I was actually taking.  This experience, I believe, gives me a certain empathy for the student that hates school, or gets sent to the office, because I was that same kid. Why would I recreate the same experiences for someone that I struggled with myself?

Yet sometimes, I have watched teachers that mastered school struggle with teaching students.  I remember one math teacher who was a genius in the subject, struggle to reach students.  You could see him wondering why kids just didn’t understand the toughest problems, as it became second nature.  His ability and interest in the subject was so advanced, that he would often struggle to understand why others didn’t have the same ability.  

In the context of change, are we more likely to hire an educator that breezed through school and loved the way it was created, or someone who struggled?  If want school to look different, someone who aced school might actually be the person that struggles with changing a structure they accelerated in, whereas someone who struggled, just might be the person who wants to challenge the way we have always done it.  I am not about absolutes, but these decisions are not as simple as the person with the best grades, is going to be the best for the position. Thomas Friedman challenges this idea in the article, “How to Get a Job at Google”:

Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

Don’t get him wrong, Bock begins, “Good grades certainly don’t hurt.” Many jobs at Google require math, computing and coding skills, so if your good grades truly reflect skills in those areas that you can apply, it would be an advantage. But Google has its eyes on much more.

When administrators look for strengths in what sometimes might be perceived as weakness in their educators, we create an environment where educators do the same for their students. But we might need to also realize that sometimes our greatest strengths might be the thing that is holding us back.  What works and comes natural to an individual might not work for others, and in an organization that should be so learner focused, we really have to try to understand things from the viewpoint of those that we serve, not only the ideas that have been shaped from our own experiences.


Why are we doing that again?

Years ago, there was a practice in my school division where all administrators were provided a BlackBerry, when cellular phones just started to become the norm.  The thought process behind this was that if there was an emergency, this would be a great way to connect with the leaders in the building quickly.  At the time though, people probably hesitated at the idea of carrying a phone with them all of the time.  Why would you want to be contacted when you were not at work?  Obviously there would have been reluctance, yet this became standard practice.

Fast forward to today, where this is still happening in many school districts.  Money is spent on providing the phone that works best for the organization, not necessarily the individual.  As the world has become more personalized, many administrators are carrying around their “work” phone and then the phone they actually want for themselves.  So instead of saying there was no chance they would carry one phone, some are now carrying two.  Yet why is this happening? Is there some underlying “best practice” here, or just what we have always done?

This might not only be a poor stewardship of resources, but it might also be bad for learning in schools.  If we have a device that is provided for us, do we see learning as personalized or something that is provided for us as well?  That is why the notion of having “fresh eyes” is so crucial to what we do in learning and leadership.  If we just accept, this is the way it is, then we are not being the critical thinkers that we want our students to be.  It is not only important to know “how” to do things, but to ask “why”.  If we aren’t willing to question the processes and systems of our organizations, why would we challenge teaching and learning in our classrooms?

What things do you wonder about in your own organization?