Friday, December 18, 2015

The Loyal Opposition

One of my LinkedIn connections, Jeff DeGraff, is an innovation professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He recently developed an infograph, that while geared toward the business world, might have some applicability to education. One item in particular leapt out at me: Jeff's reference to enlisting "the loyal opposition" -- those people who don't think like you do.

Jeff's use of the "loyal opposition" also conjured up my political science classes, so I did a little digging. I found a great explanation in a law review article with the same title, by Heather K. Gerken, (J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale):
Loyal opposition is one of democracy’s grandest terms. Once used to shield the party out of power from accusations of treason, it now describes the institutionalization of opposition, most famously Great Britain’s elevation of the minority party leadership to a shadow cabinet. Termed the “greatest contribution of the nineteenth century to the art of government,” it is a stand-in for some of the best practices in democracy: making space for dissent, knitting outsiders into democracy’s fabric, attending to the institutional dimensions of integration. It perfectly captures one of the basic aims of democracy: maintaining an opposition that is loyal.
That may be all fine and well for governments, but how might that aid us in education?

First, it helps us avoid "groupthink," where everyone in the room is a like-minded thinker (or afraid to speak up if they disagree). As demonstrated in this clip from the Daily Show, the room essentially becomes an echo chamber, and not only does the group not consider alternatives, but it may in fact become more entrenched in its thinking.

Second, productive conflict drives innovation. Education needs discourse that examines diverse perspectives. Consider the example of Dr. Alice Stewart, who in the 1950s offered what she believed was compelling evidence that x-raying pregnant women significantly increased the rate of childhood cancer. It was not until she actively sought disconfirmation that the medical community accepted her findings many years later:

Margaret Heffernan's TED talk, "Dare to Disagree," demonstrates the importance of the loyal opposition. Dr. Stewart engaged a statistics expert to be her thinking partner, and his entire job was to create conflict around her theories. As Heffernan explains, only by not being able to prove Dr. Stewart was wrong, did he provide confidence that she was right.

It takes a safe space and collaborative mindsets to productively use conflict as thinking. You have to be prepared to think and be prepared to change your mind. It also takes purposefully creating a workplace that hires, cultivates, and encourages diversity in attitudes and mindsets. The upside is that building this authentic workplace will also drive innovation.

One protocol or method in which this productive conflict might be used with educational organizations or collaborative teams is structured debate. The premise is simply: members are randomly assigned to argue opposite points of view on a current topic. The conflict is not personal, but rather, provides a space where group members may explore all aspects of an issue. In this framework, both sides may be functioning as the loyal opposition to the other.

Another protocol might be pause, paraphrase, "and" from Adaptive Schools. When interacting with a colleague, I first listen to understand her perspective. When she is finished speaking, I pause, paraphrase her thoughts, and assuming she gives me a cue that my paraphrase is accurate, I offer my thinking beginning with "and I think" or "and I wonder." And is the key. I do not want to use the word "but" or "however" because both are dismissive and set up one side of the equation to be superior. With first seeking to understand her position, and then adding my thinking or wondering to her thoughts, we move the dialogue along. In the ideal situation, my colleague would use the same protocol when I spoke, and ultimately we arrive at a co-constructed understanding.

The protocol must be tight in order to protect the people involved, and that is where the word loyal is so important. Normally we avoid conflict like the plague because it taps into so many emotions and vulnerabilities. Using productive conflict with a loyal opposition -- one that has its eye on a win-win result -- creates more productive teams and nurtures innovation.

Join the Conversation...
How might we foster more loyal opposition in our organization?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Intersections and Disruptions

Every Friday he would come to his class dressed to represent a different occupation. The lesson that day was constructed and deconstructed through the lens of that occupation. For example: In what ways does a house painter use measurement? Why might a doctor need to know fractions? Why is probability important to astronauts?...Needless to say, student engagement and achievement were enhanced simultaneously. Students' attitudes changed as they now saw math as relevant to their life experiences and could appreciate firsthand and articulate "why they were learning it." [Sharratt & Harild, 2015, p. 32]
This excerpt from the book Good to Great to Innovate is one example of the concept of "intersections." If you think of each of our students on his or her own unique educational journey, intersections occur where there are connections between what we believe students need to know and be able to do and application of instruction to real life experiences:

Image result for intersection

Of course, the journey is likely not black and white nor linear, so it may end up looking more like this:

Merely dressing like a house painter to teach is not what the intersection is about. It is about the disruption of the stable patterns of "the core of educational practice." Richard Elmore (1996, p. 2) describes the core as
how teachers understand the nature of knowledge and the student's role in learning, and how these ideas about knowledge and learning are manifested in teaching and classwork. The "core" also includes structural arrangements of schools, such as the physical layout of classrooms, student grouping practices, teachers' responsibilities for groups of students, and relations among teachers in their work with students, as well as processes for assessing student learning and communicating it to students, teachers, parents, administrators, and other interested parties.
Elmore asserts that innovations in education rarely are aimed at the core, and therefore, rarely change the fundamental relationships between student, teacher, and knowledge:
[C]hanges are often not explicitly connected to fundamental changes in the way knowledge is constructed, nor to the division of responsibility between teacher and student, the way students and teachers interact with each other around knowledge, or any of a variety of other stable conditions in the core. Hence, changes in scheduling seldom translate into changes in the fundamental conditions of teaching and learning for students and teachers. Schools, then, might be "changing" all the time -- adopting this or that new structure or schedule or textbook series or tracking system -- and never change in any fundamental way what teachers and students actually do when they are together in classrooms. [Elmore, 1996, p. 3]
In other words, not all "innovative changes" are created equal.

One way in which Forest Hills is currently engaging in change to the core and constructing real-world intersections is the continued implementation of Robert Marzano's instructional framework. The design questions and elements of Domain 1 provide an infrastructure to disrupt the traditional core and provide intersections of relevance and practical application with students:

In year three of our implementation, we continue to grow our individual and collective capacities to be intentional, collaborative, and reflective.

Of course, as we start thinking differently about schools and schooling, it means we also have to rethink ourselves and our roles. Similar to a student's unique educational journey, our growth as educators is not linear; it is complex and time-consuming:
[T]eachers are more likely to learn from direct observation of practice and trial and error in their own classrooms than they are from abstract descriptions of new teaching; changing teacher practice even for committed teachers, takes a long time, and several cycles of trial and error; teachers have to feel that there is some compelling reason for them to practice differently, with the best direct evidence being that students learn better; and teachers need feedback from sources they trust about whether students are actually learning what they are taught. [Elmore, 1996, p. 24]
This emphasis on job-embedded, collaborative professional learning is also a focus for Forest Hills. It is it embodied within each school's learning communities and teams that target increasing educator effectiveness and results for all students. Each principal, in collaboration with his or her teacher-leaders, creates a comprehensive professional learning plan specific to the school's yearly improvement plan, with the ultimate goal of enhancing student learning. As a district we also implement a detailed learning plan for administrators, as well as a number of cross-school teacher teams.

However, the limited amount of government funding for professional learning continues to be challenging. We are extremely fortunate to enjoy community support through  our Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation, especially in grants from Destination: Innovation. But let's put funding aside for a moment. The bigger question is how do we cultivate more meaningful disruptions to the core that will increase the number of intersections for teachers and students to co-create teaching and learning? How do we fundamentally change what teachers and students actually do when they are together in learning environments?

Join the conversation...
How might you be rethinking schools and schooling? Yourself and your role? If you could make one fundamental change to the core, what might it be, and why?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Collective Identity In An Innovative Culture

Last week about 30 of us, including our superintendent and all principals, participated in professional learning with Carolyn McKanders and other Adaptive Schools facilitators. Just like classroom teachers, principals are loathe to be away from schools even when the professional learning is top-notch. However, we know that the greatest impact on student achievement occurs when we couple highly-effective teachers with a highly-effective school (Edmonds, 1979; Waters, et al., 2004; Marzano, 2007). I believe that our entire team found the learning to be valuable and immediately usable, and are looking forward to continuing the learning in a few weeks.

One of the many concepts and strategies that the Adaptive Schools learning focuses on is the concept of identity:
Human organizations and individuals can be adapted to a specific niche or can become adaptive, flexing to meet the challenges of a changing world. To be adaptive means to change form and clarify identity. Form can be the ways we structure our organizations and the ways in which we do our work. New challenges require new and increasingly flexible forms. Identity is about who we believe we are as an organization and as professionals.
This resonated with me. Not only does the 21st century education landscape require us to be more flexible, but it is a system within a larger "change-dependent economy and a culture that celebrates creativity and innovation" (Bridges, 2004, p. 79). Each of  us develops our own identity as an educator, but as we create flexible forms, who do we believe we are as our collective school district, and perhaps, who do we want to be?

Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn have written a new book entitled Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems, and if I had to pick two sentences out of it that sum up the frenetic pace of education today it would be these from page 20:
Even when the goals are the right ones, they may not be experienced as connected ideas by the users. People see them as discrete demands with little or no connection to each other or their daily work; scrambling to implement too many directions and lacking a coherent sense of how they connect results in paralysis and frustration.
Fullan & Quinn call this "fragmentation." I would argue that fragmentation does not lend itself to a clear identity for an organization. We need to first ground ourselves in connecting the dots through our core beliefs as expressed in our vision, mission, and guiding principles. And we need to keep connecting the dots over and over again to crystallize our collective identity.

What might be seen as discrete demands in our district? I'll just throw a few possibilities out there: school improvement, the instructional framework, professional learning communities, positive behavioral interventions and supports, response to instruction, and differentiation. What do these pieces have in common that binds them and us together? Here is my thinking:

  • they establish a norm of learning for all, regardless of age, position, or title
  • they guide us to make thoughtful, research-based decisions centered around students
  • they challenge us to change and adopt practices that help all students learn
  • they inspire us to partner with our community to build strong, supportive relationships
  • they encourage us to be creative and to benchmark our work against the best models in the world

In their book, Fullan & Quinn reference social psychologist Kurt Lewin's somewhat wry, but certainly famous quote: "If you want truly to understand something, try to change it." We have to be sure that we understand our collective identity as part of any innovation that we embark upon. Lewin reminds us that "motivation for change has to be generated before change can occur." We have to know who we are in order to decide where to go.

Join the conversation...
For how many of us might the concept of "fragmentation" resonate? How might we pull together a coherent message of who we are as part of articulating a coherent message of where we want to go? How might you describe our collective identity as a school district?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Past, Present, and Future

Once a history teacher, always a history teacher. But our past does not have to be our future.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were only 500 public high schools in 1870. At that time, state taxes were only levied to support elementary education, but our great state of Michigan played an important role in the expansion of public high schools. In 1874, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in the Kalamazoo Case that taxes could also be levied to support public high schools. Soon other states followed Michigan's lead and began establishing public-funded high schools.

Twenty years later, the Committee of Ten published its recommendations of academic core subjects
that it considered necessary for those few would go on to college as well as any other student enrolled. Thus, secondary education was designed from the beginning to be content-based. Historically, academic departments were formed because high school was viewed as "the people's college" (Tyack, 1974, p. 74).

To this very day, most 7-12 teachers are typically content specialists in one or two areas, and hired for their expertise and depth in content.  In that structure, secondary teachers spend their day teaching independently in a content area, and spend collaborative time within the content department (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). There is little to no intentional collaboration between teachers of different content areas, and I offer the idea that we do a disservice to both our adult and student learners if we let this continue.

When we organize teachers into such tight compartments, we are reinforcing the old message of the isolated and independent approach to teaching (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). We also impact opportunities for professional learning, collaboration, and instructional practices. (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). We know that the real world is not organized into neat categories. Our students will be learning and working in "messy" environments that will require boundary-crossing competencies in teamwork, communication, perspective, networks, critical thinking, global understanding, and project management, just to name a few.

Even within fairly rigid graduation requirements in Michigan, the content standards are beginning to encourage an interdisciplinary working relationship. For example, no longer is literacy the sole sphere of ELA teachers; social studies, math, and science teachers now have literacy expectations to support reading and writing across content areas. In addition, the rising number of STEM programs also incorporate interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Finally, when we see the new standards in social studies and science later this year, we know that critical thinking, inquiry, and problem-solving skills will be emphasized.

While educational reformers disagree in many areas, one area of general agreement is the need for new structures that allow for collaboration and distributed leadership (Siskin, 1991). Right now, the organizational structure of our secondary schools is inherently intertwined with content areas. This flies in the face of the learning sciences, which are inherently interdisciplinary (Bransford, et al., 2006). Today, as I spend time in an elementary school, I see a dramatic contrast. Our elementary colleagues are already living an interdisciplinary model. They have more flexible blocks of teaching and learning across and between content. There are no hourly bells that signal the start and stop of learning. Walk into any of our elementary classrooms and you will see kids joyfully focused on learning, not grades. You will also see a real love of learning. I used to ask why and when does this change for our kids; now I ask why do we let this change?

So, the question becomes, how do we create a system or structure at the secondary level that encourages and supports all of our learners -- educators and students alike -- to collaborate, learn, and grow? I recognize there are physiological and psychological changes that happen in adolescence that we cannot control, and that there are certain state legal requirements that may require some creativity on our part. But I refuse to accept that we cannot change our current approach to 7-12 teaching and learning to a model that is more beneficial for all. We already have some "small bets" in place across our district, but what else is possible?

Join the conversation...
If you could change just one thing in grades 7-12, what would it be and why? If you are an adult reading this, I also encourage you to ask a student that question, and post their response, too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

We Are The District

Peter Drucker is often credited with the phrase "culture eats strategy for breakfast." Ken Williams, who is coming in February 2016 to speak in Forest Hills, writes in his new book (Starting a Movement: Building Culture from Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities) that "culture eats structure for lunch." Regardless of the speaker (or the meal), the culture of an organization does have tremendous power, and change is not always easy.

One of the reasons it is difficult is that change is only one part rational; the rest is relational. Rationally speaking, if an expert with uncontroverted research-based evidence tells us why and how to engage in change, common sense dictates that each and everyone one of us will do it with fidelity, and lasting change will occur (Daly, 2010). Reality is quite different, because relationships matter. What our trusted colleagues think about the change matters to us.What we see and hear in the office, the copy room, the hallway, the staff meeting, or the lounge matters to us. We are the district.

So, how do we make a shift to an innovative culture that encourages and supports new ideas and creativity? I could give you piles of research that support such a shift, but that alone is not enough. Our capacity for change in shifting our culture depends just as much on our people (relational) as it does on the research (rational). For example, who do you think of as innovative, or even more importantly, as influential? Your answer to those questions will have as much or more of an impact on the success of a culture shift than any objective argument I could make. That is why a change in culture has to be both top-down and bottom-up. As Ken Williams so succinctly states: "Leaders strike the match for schoolwide culture change; staff fan the flames."

The difficulty in navigating culture shifts, especially toward innovation, exists in all organizations. Businesses deal with the same rational versus relational balance. In fact, Mauro Porcini, Pepsico's Chief Design Officer recently gave an interview to the Harvard Business Review about this very process. Porcini identified two must-haves before any shift can begin: first, the person or people at the top of the organization are willing to protect the new culture from outright rejection, and second, there must be some sort of external validation that it is the right direction to move toward.

Once those two pieces are in place, Porcini describes the actual cultural shift as an evolutionary process that has five overlapping phases:

  1. Denial: the organization as a whole sees no need for a new approach or new culture, but someone with influence and power understands the need and hires a leader who tries to introduce a new culture.
  2. Hidden Rejection: people at the top of the organization embrace the new approach but the full organization is not there yet. The leaders move forward and think things are working well but in reality they may not be. This is the phase where the culture change may die out.
  3. Occasional Leap of Faith: the leaders find some co-conspirators within the organization who understand the value of the change, even if it is not a deep understanding. The co-conspirators decide to work with the leaders, and build understanding about the value of the new culture.
  4. Quest for Confidence: the organization understands there is value in this new culture and tries to integrate it. There are bumps in the road, but confidence in the organization is being built.
  5. Holistic Awareness: everyone understands that the new culture makes sense for the organization. It is universal, and everyone modifies their approach to their work to embrace it.

As you can see, so much of the core cultural change is relational.

Through our professional learning communities (PLCs) in each school, we continue to build the relationships that serve as the foundation of change.As we consider our capacity for complex organizational change, it is those small groups upon whom change depends. Indeed, a  study by Moolenaar and Sleegers (2010) demonstrated that "teacher teams characterized by a common exchange of work-related information and discourse are the cornerstones of organizational climates in which teachers not only trust each other, but also have a 'can-do' attitude toward change and innovation, are willing to try new ideas and collectively develop new knowledge, and are continuously working to improve their instructional practice." We are the district.

We have an enormous talent pool in our teachers and other staff. There is no lack of creative, new ideas. Rather, as part of a successful culture change, our challenge may lie in creating a process that accurately evaluates ideas in order to decide which ones to pursue. Minimally, we would want ideas to align to our priorities, and also solve a problem or fulfill a real need. We also need to build a structure that ensures that everyone has access to the resources and expertise needed to actually implement innovative ideas.

Join the conversation...
Where might we be on the five-phase journey of change toward an innovative culture? What or where do you see opportunities for us to grow? What type of processes and systems do we need to cultivate and support the innovator in each one of us?

Monday, October 5, 2015

True Confessions

Part of my work as the Chief Innovation Officer is to research innovation strategies and structures that we might find useful in our district. One piece I recently read is an article by Erika Kessenger of Thought Ensemble, entitled Four Steps to a Creative, Innovative Culture. One of the steps she suggests is to detail what the organization's desired future state looks like and sounds like.  As I was giving that some thought, my eyes wandered to a Learning Forward graphic that I have on the wall:

The first phase in the iterative cycle is standards-based professional learning, as research shows it has a greater potential to change what educators know, are able to do, and believe.

Michigan adopted the Standards for Professional Learning in 2012:

Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students... 

  • occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment
  • requires skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning
  • requires prioritizing, monitoring, and coordinating resources for educator learning
  • uses a variety of sources and types of student, educator, and system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning
  • integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes
  • applies research on change and sustains support for implementation of professional learning for long-term change
  • aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards
These seven Standards have four things in common: a commitment to learning that benefits all students, a commitment to fully engage in learning, a commitment to collaborative inquiry, and a commitment to differentiated learning.

Even though standards-based professional learning is the first phase in the graphic, the arrows show that the cycle often works in reverse too. This is where some of my classroom experiences live, but in reflection, my students probably suffered from my lack of standards-based professional learning. Sure, I had evidence of student learning that demonstrated a deficiency, and I identified a change I wished to make. I also figured out what new skills I probably needed, and sought out training to acquire them. The problem for me, as you may have noticed in this example, is that it is full of "I" not "we"; I did not seek out a learning community, and I did not fully appreciate the difference job-embedded, standards-based professional learning could make. Without it, I did not focus on knowledge and beliefs; I sought out quick, skill-based training that was easy. Upon reflection, some of the changes I made that I thought lived deep in my professional practice were likely more superficial. Sometimes I did not live the cardinal rule I preached to my students: true learning is hard work and it takes time and practice.

Fortunately, I've come to appreciate Rick DuFour's advice to avoid the "seductive shortcuts," and strive toward this:

Due to the generosity of our community, we can now provide time and support for teachers to let things grow. Thanks to Destination: Innovation, teachers who are not achieving the student outcomes they want and have researched a desired change in practice may apply for a grant to obtain standards-based professional learning and practice assistance. All grant recipients now receive implementation support through myself and others in the Instruction Office. 

Even without a grant, "growing time" may be available. In 2014, all principals and one teacher representative from each school attended a three-day workshop on professional learning communities and their capacity to make change in teacher practice for student results. Since that time, the Instruction Office has continued to provide support to principals and their teacher professional learning communities, and in many of our schools principals are allotting time and resources for the lengthy and hard work.

Just how weighty is it? As Rick DuFour and Doug Reeves pointed out just a few days ago in an Education Week article:
While providing time for educators to collaborate in meaningful teams is a necessary condition for effective PLCs, it is far from sufficient. A professional learning community is not simply a meeting: It is an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recursive cycles of collective inquiry and action research in order to achieve better results for the students they serve.
This encapsulates the Learning Forward graphic I shared in the beginning of this post, and within it the Standards for Professional Learning. It is also incredibly similar to our 2015-16 District Professional Learning Goal, based in the Instructional Framework: We will use a cycle of collaborative intentional planning and reflective practice to increase our instructional expertise and deepen student learning.

My "wonder" now is how we move forward to grow an effective PLC for every teacher in our district. So, please join the conversation...
  • Might you be willing to throw open the doors of your PLC as a growth experience for other teachers? We would love to make an in-house video and use it as part of standards-based professional learning.
  • What professional learning might your PLC need to move forward in its goal of increasing student outcomes? 
  • How might we as a district create and sustain a culture committed to creativity and reflection to effect results for all students?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Space...The Final Frontier?

I've been giving a lot of thought over the last six months or so around how we create, make, repurpose, reimagine, and generally use space in our schools in to enhance student learning. At the beginning of my thinking, I sought out books to read, and one of the first I came across was make space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration: 

As soon as I read an excerpt online from David Kelley's introduction ("Regardless of whether it's a classroom or the offices of a billion-dollar company, space is something to think of as instrument for innovation and collaboration"), I knew I had to order it.

Once the book arrived and I began to dive into it, I realized it had potential beyond giving me some start-up ideas. While it is full of relatively inexpensive hacks for furniture, tools, walls, and overall design, it led me to think about how we might be able to enlist and engage our kids in crafting some of the ideas in the book. Over the summer, I began a conversation with one of our high school teachers around integrating some of the desk and table designs into his Bench Woods class, in order to create "collaborative furniture" for our own use. We are continuing those conversations in anticipation of the second semester start of the class, and I am thrilled at what our students may decide to produce.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of collaborative furniture and space design is commercially available. For example, we have a brand new Active Learning Center at Northern High School, made possible through a grant from Steelcase:

Designated for primary use by our district-wide STEM Academy, during non-STEM time the space is open to other staff and students as a collaborative learning space.

Somewhere in the middle between making your own space from the ground up and receiving a grant, many of our principals and teachers are bringing their imaginations together to create space with the desired effect of enhancing student learning. For example, Eastern High School is repurposing a classroom as its Innovation Room. Orchard View Elementary is doing the same and enlisting students to co-create a Learning Studio at the end of the 6th grade hallway. In Central Middle School, a portion of a conference room in the vicinity of the front office has been outfitted as a filming "booth" area for teachers to record themselves as they talk about their love for a recently-read book, which is then available for later viewing:

Directions for the talk as well as camera use are posted so that teachers are able to be self-sufficient.

These are just a few of what I am sure are many innovative uses of space in our district.

My current energy is directed at repurposing a classroom at Collins Elementary as our Center for Innovators Design Thinking Studio. I saw the space this week for the first time:

While we need to clear it out before we can see its full raw potential, I am thrilled on so many levels: How might we engage the Collins community of learners with design thinking? How might we use the space to bring in high school students and ask them to explore new possibilities in the secondary experience? How might we invite in our Destination: Innovation grant recipients to leverage their learning?

Finally, I am also mindful of Dr. Marzano's considerations within Design Question 6 of creating physical conditions that facilitate and support effective teaching and learning. What will be the primary patterns of movement? What do you want learners to see when they enter and leave the room? How much empty space needs to be set aside for later use? How will you organize storage and access to materials? What seating arrangements best encourage discussion and productive interaction? Can eye contact be made with each learner? All of these important questions and more will shape the learning environment in our Design Thinking Studio.

Join the conversation...
How are you intentionally using space to enhance student learning? What might be some ideas you have to create collaborative learning environments? Why is this an important topic for us to dialogue around?

As always, thanks for reading, thinking, and conversing.

(P.S. For those of you are sorely disappointed that this post is not about Star Trek, click here for a short treat.)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

FHPS Center for Innovators

Have you ever had the experience of looking for one thing, and stumbling upon a gem of another? I was thumbing through my Becoming a Learning System book for the first time in quite a while looking for a definition, and realized that the entire last chapter of the book is entitled “Innovations in Adult Learning.” I’ve been reading and re-reading it ever since.

Each chapter of the book ends with a set of reflective questions. At the end of chapter 24, these were included:
  • In what ways can we, as members of a leadership team, inspire innovation and creativity in our district and school community?
  • Where are pockets of innovation in our district and school communities? In what ways are we nurturing creative approaches?

I’m going to try to tackle that first bullet in this post, and invite you to join the conversation specifically around the second bullet at the end.

One of my goals as a leader is to be a good steward of people and ideas, to positively impact student learning. In order to achieve that goal, not only do I have to inspire innovation and creativity, but I have to nurture and incubate it as well. One of the ways in which that will be accomplished is through our new Center for Innovators.

First, the choice of the word “innovators” rather than “innovation” was quite purposeful; we want to be about people, not things. Second, while the Center will have an actual physical location in Collins Elementary this year, the use of the word “center” is also a metaphor for a point of focus on adult learning and professional growth.

More about the inner workings of the Center is found below; the most immediate need or demand of teachers is “how do I get help with my idea?”  Great question! We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible. Through the use of a short Google form or an email to me that just:
  1. names the teacher or team with the idea;
  2. briefly describes the idea;
  3. links the idea to a goal or problem of practice in your school improvement plan;
  4. gives a general indication of your current thinking around how the idea will deepen teacher learning to result in deeper student learning; and
  5. your current thought as to how your hypothesis might be best evaluated or monitored for impact during implementation,

you will have a thinking partner and nurturer to help the idea take form. Think of this initial contact as a rough outline that might precede the first draft of an essay. It’s just a way to get your current thinking down on paper so we can move forward.

Another way in which you might access support is through application for and receipt of a Destination: Innovation grant.  All grant recipients automatically receive support to measure the impact of grant dollars on the change in teacher practice and the resulting impact on student learning.

We want the Center for Innovators to be a hub – that focal point – for teachers and other stakeholders to engage in learning as they re-imagine how best to deliver education to all students. Leaders will work to cultivate and coordinate curriculum, communication, spaces, processes, tools, and systems, so that teachers and other stakeholders may create and cultivate learning experiences and environments that engage, motivate, and prepare all students for life, meaningful work, and civic responsibility.

Two of those systems are already in place. First, we will be intentional in our use of the Standards for Professional Learning to make sure we are engaging in professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students. Second, we will continue our integration of the Instructional Framework, and support teachers as they explore both the art and science of teaching.

We also have a plan to cultivate and coordinate curriculum, spaces, processes, and tools. As teams work to investigate educational challenges and opportunities, the Center will employ the methodology of design thinking when appropriate to promote the intentional design and development of learning experiences (curriculum), learning environments (spaces), and school programs and practices (processes and tools) that support school improvement goals and desired changes in teacher practice to deepen student learning.

The last piece, communication, will be an ongoing endeavor. In a district our size, it is doubtful that we can ever over-communicate. But, we need your help, and here is where the other bulleted inquiry comes into play.

Join the conversation…
Either by posting a comment below or sending me an email, please share with us where those pockets of innovation are located in our district. We know of many, but are confident that we don’t know of them all. Share the story of your team as innovators, or of a teaching team in your school. Or if you are a parent reading this, tell us the story of that teacher and that engaging lesson your learner can’t stop talking about. 

As Becoming a Learning System states, “creativity, flexibility, innovation, respect, and resilience can open doors for educators to a different, more democratic way of engaging students and inspiring them to learn” (Hirsch, Psencik & Brown, p. 220, 2014). Let us know how we might support that for all educators in our district.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Let's Be Independent...Together!

[The backstory: Hermey is an elf, and elves are supposed to make toys, period. Hermey tries to fit in, but he really wants to be a dentist. Feeling no support from his fellow elves to pursue his dream, Hermey strikes out on his own. Similarly, Rudolph, a red-nosed reindeer, desperately wants to fit in with his peers, but is mocked because his nose lights up. Feeling no love from his fellow reindeer, Rudolph strikes out on his own. The two self-proclaimed misfits meet in the forest, exchange some quick pleasantries, and then Hermey asks Rudolph, "what do you say we be independent, together?" Forging a working partnership that ultimately includes a prospector and an abominable snowman, together Hermey and Rudolph face down tough obstacles on a journey of collaboration, personal growth, and community learning.]

While my synopsis of the 1964 TV classic "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is tongue-in-cheek, it serves as a reminder to me of what can happen when people (or elves) want to break out of a routine or mold they feel constrained by, or when others approach a job with a new look or feel that may cause an initial reaction of fear in others. Sometimes tradition and existing structures, while well-meaning and productive, do not support change. But it also serves to remind me that no one really wants to go it alone; we want and need collaborative partners. We only go alone as a last resort.

Questions I am constantly posing to myself (and all of the other reindeer) include how might the traditional notion of how a teacher teaches, or how a student learns, constrain us? And how might the current structure of school and what it is supposed to "look like" prevent us from thinking differently? Moreover, how do we react when someone pitches a new idea that challenges what we know and are comfortable with? Do we shy away and leave them alone, or do we embrace the opportunity to collaborate and learn with them?

In the classic story, the community figured out that not only could it support Hermey's desire to become a dentist and still meets its goal of building toys, but it was rather efficient to have a dentist on hand. Similarly, Rudolph's red nose was a talent the community realized could be leveraged to help the team complete its mission in delivering those toys on schedule. Hermey and Rudolph were no longer viewed as misfits, and no longer had to be "independent, together." I submit that Hermey and Rudolph were innovators ahead of their time.

Join the conversation...
Everyone has the individual potential to be an innovator. What desires and talents lie within our teachers that need to be supported, so that they may in turn fulfill that part of our district mission to provide kids with learning opportunities "to acquire the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary to build meaningful and productive lives"? Another framing of that question might be how do we engage through our District Professional Learning Goal to break down barriers and "use a cycle of collaborative intentional planning and reflection to increase our instructional expertise and deepen student learning"? Regardless of how you frame the inquiry, what are your thoughts?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Design Thinking and the I.F.

If you're just hearing this phrase "design thinking," you may actually be familiar with it in a different form, like the engineering or inquiry cycles. It's been around for decades but has more recently made its way into education. If you want a relatively quick hit or refresher, watch this Nightline video demonstrating how the team at IDEO used design thinking in a one-week challenge to re-imagine a shopping cart:

I've been intrigued with design thinking since January when I had the chance to spend a morning at Steelcase. Since then I've read four or five books and countless articles, and picked the brains of some really interesting people who use it in their work. I participated in a 90-minute crash course with some of our teachers in June, and recently spent three days at the Henry Ford Learning Institute with other intrigued educators from across the globe. However, I still feel like I'm just scratching the surface.

Many thoughts from the HFLI experience continue to percolate in my mind. However, one keeps bubbling up: the natural alignment between design thinking and our Instructional Framework. I went back and re-read my first blog post, "Intentional-Collaborative-Reflective", and was struck by how much that lens aligns with my design thinking  experiences.

The shopping cart video is a great example of the premise that while the design thinking process is self-described by IDEO as "focused chaos," all of the stages or phases (empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, feedback, and reflection) are deeply intentional. It may be best summarized by the use of their phrase "one conversation at a time." All ideas, even the wild ones, are valued. The team is also very intentional in regard to trust. Through that trust, each team member feels able to ask or pose questions, embrace risk, and learn with and from each other.

Collaboration supports the foundation of design thinking. Each team member is equal even though members possess different job titles and outside responsibilities. Everyone engages in the hard work together, and there is the underlying belief that teamwork "beats the lone genius every time." The collaborative effort makes the hard work fun and deepens both individual and collective learning.

Finally, design thinkers must be reflective. There are iterative cycles of feedback with the user, to see what worked, what needs improving, questions, and "aha" ideas. After that comes a reflection on the entire experience -- reviewing all phases, identifying new insights, and processing learning. Of course, in the world of the design thinker, just like the teacher, the reflections feed forward and drive professional growth.

If you're curious about design thinking and want to learn more, Stanford's has some excellent K-12 resources, including a downloadable Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit. If you're in the market for a broader view, a good place to start is Tim Brown's book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.

Join the conversation...
Please share your thoughts. For example, if you're new to design thinking, what intrigues you or what questions do you have? If you have some experience with it, what insights might you offer?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

An Ecosystem for Innovation

In a district of over 10,000 students, more than 600 teachers, approximately 1,000 non-instructional staff, seventeen different schools, and a variety of other office/facility buildings, I have been pondering what must be in place for innovation to continue to take root and thrive. On the other side of that coin, what barriers or obstacles need to be removed, or impacts at least lessened? What boundaries exist that we must abide, but possibly can get creative with?

Based upon a chart I viewed in Daniel Isenberg's article "The Right Way to Plan an Innovation Tour," I began to sketch a Forest Hills ecosystem for innovation:

Depending on the scale of the innovation, the amount of complexity in play varies. Also, while my sketch shows separate bubbles that touch, the ecosystem is actually comprised of living and moving parts. The bubbles actually bleed into each other at many different points.

Human Capital
We are a talent-dependent organization, rich in human capital. We have many experienced teachers, the majority of which have been with us for most of their careers. Even though new hires make up a small percentage of our teaching corps, an innovative ecosystem needs those being hired to be "game-changers." So, one of our opportunities is to look at our hiring process to ensure it aligns with our goals and objectives. This work has begun, and a new structure for district-wide instructional interviews is in its trial run this summer. We are also committed to job-embedded, continuous professional learning for our teachers and principals, and a long-term mentoring/retention system for new hires is also being developed. Through these experiences, innovative changes to the instructional core may be implemented.

In addition, we have a multitude of non-instructional staff who support student learning: administrators, counselors, psychologists, social workers, therapists, media specialists, department directors, custodians, bus drivers, aides, interventionists, food service workers, office staff, computer technicians, analysts, coaches, and so on. How might we leverage the talent of all our human capital?

Networks are critical for innovation expansion. Our schools began or continued their PLC journeys last year. In addition, many of our teachers and principals belong to outside educational communities, through professional organizations or informal networking. It is not wholly impossible to innovate on one's own, but the odds of success are dramatically increased when collaboration is present. Another opportunity for us is to continue to find creative ways to use the time allotted to us in different ways. The collaborative opportunities through networking connect directly to the "Human Capital" bubble as well.

The policy "organism" in the innovation ecosystem has both boundaries and flexibility. For example, state law dictates what courses a high school student must pass in order to receive a diploma. However, there are options to accommodate certain situations. I would also argue that we have a duty to advocate for legislative change in areas we feel do not support the best interests of kids. Another example is that federal and state law requirements result in each school submitting an improvement plan with goals and strategies, but it is capable of being amended as needed. Finally, at the local level, the Instructional Framework provides scientific, research-based instructional strategies, but the "art" of teaching still belongs to each individual teacher.

Funding is sometimes the 800-pound gorilla in the ecosystem. While federal and state funding continues to challenge us, we are fortunate that we live in a generous community, with members who share time, talent, and treasure. Certainly, our Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation has the goal of funding exploration and experimentation in our classrooms beyond the budget provided by government entities. More specifically, Destination: Innovation sits within the FHPSF and raises funds for the "exploration of new learning methods, structures, and ideas. These funds will enrich teachers with essential resources -- such as time, training and technology -- so that they can deliver a new type of learning in a new way." Through an application process, teachers seek funding to change the relationship between teaching practices, content, and students to improve student learning and prepare our students for life beyond our schools. We must continue to seek funding opportunities every step of the way, and this certainly "oozes" into the community and educational partnerships in the "Support" bubble.

Some might suggest that the culture in each school, and across our district, is the critical component of the innovation ecosystem. Without leadership support, communication, transparency, and visible success stories, we will have fewer innovation attempts, and both sustainability and scalability are likely impossible. With those important cultural pieces in place, we have the opportunity to move from sporadic, little-known pockets of innovation to multiple, well-planned small bets, and ultimately to scaled-up and sustainable models that improve learning environments and experiences for more and more students.

At a district level, I welcome and embrace my leadership responsibility to be a strong steward of people and ideas. Across different levels and departments, we are collaborating to communicate often and with clear messages, and to be transparent in our work. We must commit to showcasing those teachers who are experimenting with new learning experiences and environments, not to set up competition among teachers but to show possibilities and support for creativity. Leadership support also happens within schools, from principals and teachers alike. We must capitalize on that "Human Capital" component.

Finally, there are those items that I have creatively labeled "Supports." The physical infrastructure (classrooms, media centers, office space, hallways, gyms, cafeterias, utilities, furniture, grounds, etc.) has the possibility to both support or inhibit innovation, depending on how we view it. We need to bring the experts at Building & Grounds (and our external consultants) into the discussion at the front end to see what is possible. In an organization as large as ours, those face-to-face dialogues are crucial. Similarly, the technical infrastructure presents the same capacities.  With collaborative intentional planning, technology can be a great supporter of innovation and innovators.

Looking outside of our organization, we also need to partner wth community businesses and groups, as well as other educational institutions or groups, to grow our innovation capacity. Our FHPSF is working with the Business Advisory Council to facilitate connections with teachers and content. We also have ongoing and budding relationships with post-secondary institutions such as GVSU and MSU. Central Woodlands has created a relationship with Bemis Elementary School in Troy around visible thinking, and I would push that we need to continue to expand our relationships with other K-12 schools.

In whatever we do, we also need to have well-structured monitoring and measuring systems to assess the impact of changes to the status quo, whether they are a result of internal moves or external partnerships. When we or others invest time, talent, and treasure in exploration and experimentation, we have a responsibility to be transparent about the processes and outcomes. In addition, if we want to reduce risk, it is imperative for scalability and sustainability.

Join the conversation...
What's missing from my sketch? What needs more elaboration? How else might we picture the ecosystem? Is an ecosystem even the right thinking structure?

Friday, July 17, 2015

"But I know it when I see it..."

Justice Potter Stewart wrote that famous line in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184, 197 (1964). He was good-naturedly musing about the Court's attempt to "define what may be indefinable," in that case, a legal definition of pornography that rises to a criminal level.

In a somewhat similar vein, I find it difficult to define "innovation" in a clear-cut manner. Like Justice Stewart, many of us may feel like we know it when we see it, but is it definable?

In thinking about this, I looked for where the word "innovation" originated. Much to my surprise, it is also grounded in the law:
"According to [Canadian historian Benoit] Godin, innovation is the most late-blooming incarnation of previously used terms like imitation and invention. When 'novation' first appeared in thirteenth century law texts as a term for renewing contracts, it wasn't a term for creation -- it referred to newness. In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeeeth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse -- popery. Godin cites an extreme case from 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating againt church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: 'My Sonne, feare though the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change' (cotation Godin's emphasis mine). In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true 'innovator' and sentenced to a life in prison and worse -- a life without ears." -- Emma Green, Innovation: The History of a Buzzword, in The Atlantic (June 20, 2013) 
Thankfully, innovation is no longer punished. But read any contemporary book or article on innovation, and the authors will  provide their own unique definition, varying from the simplistic to the sophisticated:
"The academic literature on innovation and creativity is rich with subtle distinctions between innovations and inventions, between different modes of creativity: artistic, scientific, technological. I have deliberately chosen the broadest possible phrasing -- good ideas -- to suggest the cross-disciplinary vantage point I am trying to occupy." -- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, p. 21 (2010)
"Incremental innovation is about significantly improving existing products, processes, or services. Disruptive or transformative innovation, on the other hand, is about creating a new or fundamentally different product or service that disrupts existing markets and displaces formerly dominant technologies." -- Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, p. 10 (2012)
One definition that has resonated with me lately, that builds upon Johnson's "good ideas," is as follows:
"Innovation is defined as something new that can be applied in a useful way. Unlike inventions that refer more directly to the creation of an idea or method, innovation refers to the use of the better idea or method. It builds on the notion of doing something different rather than just doing the same things better as we might consider in improvement planning." -- Lyn Sharratt & Gale Harild, Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the Route to Career Readiness, K-12+, p. xvi (2015)
In reflecting on whether innovation is capable of being defined, I now wonder if the quest is deeper: if it should be definable. Do we undermine its purpose by trying to define it? Is it better to just "know it when I see it"?

Join the conversation...
What do you think or wonder?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Am I talking about innovation, or something else? Yes.

Here in Forest Hills Public Schools, we are embarking on our third year of integration with Dr. Robert Marzano's The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction (2007). Those familiar with the framework will recognize Domains 2 through 4 in the title of this blog post, but what you may not realize is that they are the building blocks for successful innovation as well.

To facilitate this conversation, I have "invited" thoughts from a variety of innovators/educators.

"There are, of course, innovations that spring from a flash of genius. Most innovations, however, especially the successful ones, result from a conscious, purposeful search for innovation opportunities...." Peter Drucker

So, how good are we as educators in conscious, purposeful searches? Turns out, not so good. As Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack note in their book, Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice (2013, pp. 54-55), "[h]uman beings tend not to be particularly good at thinking through all possible angles when considering a problem. We tend to jump to action very quickly, and educators are no exception. Most people don't spend enough time trying to unpack their "problems of practice" and really understanding them prior to committing to a course of action."  Part of this may be due to a sense of having so little time, but when we look at the time we have, it is an effective use of it. Domain 2 (Planning and Preparing) is what makes or breaks Domain 1(Classroom Strategies and Behaviors).

One great example of this is the work that about 20 of our secondary ELA teachers did this past year. They spent the school year slowing down to learn a new innovative process for developing units and lessons and evaluating resources, The planning and preparation could then be leveraged as they looked at the content under the new Michigan State Standards and integrated it into their work.

"The future will likely be won by those who don't wait for light-bulb moments from a single genius, but rather develop highly collaborative win-win relationships that leverage the collective power of many." Kate Vitasek

The hard work of teachers in professional learning communities, focused on adult learning around curriculum, instruction, and assessment, is capable of leveraging this collective power. The devil is always in the details -- holding PLC time absolutely sacred, even when pushed by a principal to "just take a few minutes to discuss the new lunch schedule and let me know," or by a colleague who wants to vent about the new lunch schedule. This isn't to say the impact of the new lunch schedule may not be important, but the discussion does not belong in the PLC because it is not focused on collaborative adult learning. The interaction, sharing, and mentorship expected in Domain 4 (Collegiality and Professionalism) is the foundation of a highly-performing PLC.

Through this laser-like, collaborative focus, I am convinced teachers can transform their professional practice, and be innovators along the way. The power of a group of dedicated teacher-learners. working from the PLC platform, is certain to launch a group of teacher-innovators who help their students reach new heights.

"Innovation is something that comes when you're not under the gun. So it's important that, even if you don't have balance in your life, you have some time for reflection. So that you could say, 'Well, maybe I'm not working on the right thing.' Or, 'maybe I should have this new idea.'  The creative parts of one's mind are not on schedule." Eric Schmidt

If collaboration is good for the PLC soul, then reflection is good for the individual teacher soul. Domain 3 (Reflecting on Teaching) asks each teacher to evaluate their own effectiveness and develop a professional growth plan. Schmidt is right that many parts of our brain are not on the school schedule, and we need to make and take time for reflectionSome of the greatest "a-ha!" moments for teachers come after the school day, as they finally relax on a walk or write in a reflective journal. Heck, some even come the next morning, standing in the shower!

Now, take that reflection, and think about moving into the PLC for discussion, research, and learning. Who else might be wondering about how to implement the workshop model for reading and writing. or utilizing design thinking to teach students how to discover and frame problems? How might your principal support the learning? Through this reflective process, new ideas will be born.

Join the conversation...
What are some of your thoughts as you read this post? How else might innovation and the instructional framework be linked?