Thursday, June 30, 2016

Want Innovation? Start with the Teachers in Your School Instead of Experts on the Outside

"The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage" Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Besides the fact that there is little really innovative and new about them, the real problem with the heavy-handed reform strategies and tactics imposed from above, like the imposition of the Common Core, Merit Pay, or value-added teacher evaluations, is that their development and implementation failed and continues to fail to be collaborative endeavors. As Isaacson points out, the birth of an innovation is usually a group effort between those who have the vision and the engineers. In each of these examples, the true "teaching and learning engineers" in the individual schools are left out of the innovation loop. Sure, token teachers are often asked to serve on the committees, but there are also "experts," researchers, and politicians too, who often take so much control of the process, that the real engineers are left out.

I want to propose a new idea that follows more closely what Isaacson describes. I want to move innovation from meeting rooms, conference rooms, and think tanks totally outside the school. I want to move innovation back to the level of the school where the visionaries and teaching-learning engineers are. Engage in innovation at the school level, instead of searching for magic snake oil that might or might not exist out there somewhere. Engage staff at the school level in "innovation collaboration" and hackerism.

But I suspect the "experts" won't go away quietly. After all, too often their job is simply to sell their wares, which means marketing and creating a "need" where one did not exist before. In education, there's still this underlying belief that "experts" from the outside can walk into a school or district, conduct some professional development, provide some consulting services, and then collect their hefty professional fees, and "Presto!" innovation happens. They then move on to the next school district, like some medicine man, peddling their wares once again. In the end, this type of "imposition-of-innovation-from-above" (or outside) often leaves schools with mediocre results and a little less professional development money in their pockets. Politicians, school leaders, and teachers are guilty of taking on this medicine man role too, which is very often more about their own ambitions, prestige, and financial wealth than truly helping a school engage in innovation and ultimately help children.

Why do schools continue to engage in this "medicine man" style of professional development and innovation seeking? Besides the fact that is much easier seek innovation from without than try to engage your school or district in becoming innovative, I would also stress that the marketing of these medicine men, educating consultants, professional development experts is often more effective than their products or wares, but that is another blog post entirely.

Instead, if we truly want to innovate, I suggest we approach it the hacker and geek way. Let's involve the engineers a great deal more and the medicine men a little less. Let's engage in innovation at the school level with the teaching and learning "engineers" there. They are the ones who know everything about the "context" of that school. Very seldom will any neatly packaged product or "innovation" being sold by "experts" and educational entrepreneurs will work as advertised anyway. That's why many schools have these piles of educational materials sitting in their book rooms and media centers gathering dust. These all were "bottles of the latest elixir" promised to cure all that ailed that particular school at the time it was purchased.

Experts and professional development consultants can offer "sources of ideas," but their outside status places them in a position of not being able to fully understand that school's issues no matter how much "data" we feed to them. If they do claim to sell "research-based" wares, we should demand that they provide specific, independent, and valid research studies that examined the effectiveness of their product, not some vague or generic studies. If they can't provide them, send them packing. In education, we don't have a federal or state organization approving the effectiveness of these products, methods, or programs, so we have to take that on ourselves. Let's listen a little less to their very often unsubstantiated promises and engage our own teachers in our own schools with the task of solving the problems. Let's create cultures of innovation and hackerism in our schools that can make true and lasting innovation happen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Empowerment? Slippery Word for Leaders to Use and Practice

“Empower” is another slippery word, used with good intentions, but when we really break it down, it can have a very negative connotation." Mark A. Adams, Courageous Conflict: Leading with Integrity and Authenticity
If you watch any presentation on leadership, or lurk in any Twitter discussion regarding reform or change, chances are, your going to hear the word "empower" mentioned. It is a pet word of sorts. School administrators toss it around a great deal when talking about ideas such as continuous improvement, school change, or school improvement. But what does the word actually mean in these contexts?

As Mark Adams points out, "Empower is a slippery word" and I am quite positive school leaders use the word with good intentions, but very often, it can be used as a means to manipulate others to do something we want them to do. It those instances it takes on a slippery nature. As Adams points out, in these cases, we are nothing more than a father telling his child that he is "empowering that child to clean his room." That's a clear abuse of the word empowerment, and you can bet your staff will see through that in a minute.

In many school leadership situations, empowerment is more of a "giving permission." In these situations, the school leader is granting a staff "permission" to simply carryout his or her wishes. This type of empowerment does not lead staff to experiment, to innovate. They simply carry out the leadership program established from on high. There's no ownership; staff simply do as they are told or "given permission to do."

If you really want to empower, you have to relinquish your authority and trust others to act in your stead. You allow them to make decisions, and, because you empower them, you let go and allow them to act, not necessarily as you would have acted. They are acting because you have given them ownership of the situation, and your job now is to accept and support what they do.

Today, and for the coming school year, pay attention to how you use and employ "empowerment." Are you manipulating or truly trusting someone to act in your stead? There is really a difference.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How Federal Education Policy That Says 'If They Breathe Test'em' Has Deformed Kindergarten

If you really want to look for evidence of how federal initiatives like "Race to the Top" and "No Child Left Behind" have impacted schools, you only need to read the findings of this study: "Study Snapshot: Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?" In that study, it is very clear that our schools have increasingly short-changed and abused young students with their testing fetish. In this study, researchers compared kindergarten classrooms from 1998 to 2010. Here are some of findings that should make both educators and policymakers feel ashamed.

  • While academic instruction increased, time spent teaching the arts substantially decreased.
  • Students were increasing taught using textbooks and workbooks.
  • Amount of time students were given for play has decreased.
  • During the time period 1998 to 2010, kindergarten has increasingly become like first grade in 1998.
  • Kindergarten teachers are more likely to subject students to standardized testing in 2010.
  • These kinds of practices are more pronounced at schools serving predominantly low-income students.
As our federal government has increasingly become involved in public education, we've seen our schools deform the education system in all kinds of ways in order to "produce test scores." This is more evidence of that. Policymakers and educators are complicit in this transformation. 

(For a another summary of this study, check our NPR's "More Testing, Less Play: Study Finds Higher Expectations for Kindergartners." Though I would take issue with the idea of the practices as subjecting students to "HIGHER" expectations.)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When Strong Leadership Takes Advantage of Others and Setting Aside Our Ambitions

"We push for a strong leader to get us out of this mess, even if it means surrendering individual freedom to gain security." Margaret Wheatley,  Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time
When things are rough and uncertain, as Wheatley points out, people look for a strong leader. For many, any old "strong" leader will do. The individual talking the loudest and making the most promises, impossible or not, will do. The individual no one really likes, but because he demonstrates toughness, will do. Finally, the individual with the largest ego and a plan, even though it's clear it won't work, will do.

Whether it is our world, our communities, or our schools, when uncertainty and messiness rears its head, the search for a "strong" leader is common. And, if one appears, people are willing to sacrifice their own freedoms and creativity in order to avoid the messiness and uncertainty and obtain security. The flip side of this is the danger many school leaders face: that of becoming one of these leaders who preys on the fears and insecurities of others in pursuit of one's own ambitions. Thinking that one has all the right answers, and the plan, with emphasis on the "the," is perhaps more about egos than authentically leading others.

In times of messiness and uncertainty, leadership should embrace others as co-creators in finding solutions, not strong-arm them into accepting less freedom. This means not yelling the loudest, not offering plans that betray who we are internally, and not deceiving ourselves into believing that we're the answer to all people's problems. Ethically, offering authentic, wise, and compassionate leadership to those who are insecure is what is needed most in these times of uncertainty and insecurity. It is time to set aside our own ambitions and remember it is not always about us.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

School Leadership Is About Keeping Teachers Happy: Not Just Weeding Out the Bad

I agree wholeheartedly with Ken Robinson when he writes:
"Great teachers are the heart of great schools." Ken Robinson, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education
Too often there's this undying faith in educational leadership literature that if the right school leader is found, then the problems of the school will be resolved. There's the rhetoric that says, "If that school only had the right principal, then it could be saved." It is this search for a savior and messiah in education that is a misguided and a proverbial "wild goose chase," because in reality, if there are no great teachers, then nothing miraculous will ever happen.

I once had a conversation with the manager of a restaurant that I frequented. This restaurant was known for its long lines snaking all the way into the mall in which it was located. On some days, to eat there, it meant waiting sometimes as long as an hour or two before you could be seated. I asked this manager, "It's obvious your restaurant is a success. What is the secret?" He looked around for just a second, and quickly said, "I keep my cooks happy."

Over the years, this has always been behind my leadership practice. I do not see the teachers in my school as "expendable" and simply interchangeable parts. That managerial philosophy really has no place in education.

The truth is, great teachers aren't interchangeable. They are sometimes hard to come by. If you're lucky, you might be able to coach and build great teachers over time, but as fewer and fewer people enter teaching, this becomes more difficult as well.

Rather than seeing teachers as interchangeable parts, I see them as great "cooks" that we need to treasure and keep happy." This doesn't have anything to do with sacrificing what's good for students either. Too often today, if a school leader talks about keeping teachers happy, he is viewed with suspicion, as if in doing so, he is ignoring what's good for students. Why is this an either or proposition in the first place? Making sure your great teachers are supported and appreciated, and happy, while working with those who have not yet reached the level of greatness is school leadership.

What's important today in school leadership is realizing that school leaders with savior complexes rarely sustain great schools, because in reality, such personalities are more interested in themselves, and their own professional ambitions than they are with the success of anyone, students or teachers. These leaders see everything and everyone around them as interchangeable parts to be discarded if they somehow do not fit into their plans. Sadly, that's why their results often disappear once they moved on to their next "great" ambitious project.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Purpose of Education Is to Prepare Students for Life, It's That Simple!

"The core purpose of education is to prepare young people for life after school; helping them to build up the mental, emotional, social, and strategic resources to enjoy challenge and cope well with uncertainty and complexity." Ken Robinson, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education
Every time I hear education reform rhetoric calling for education reforms that "Prepare students for jobs of the 21st century," or reforms that "prepare them for jobs that don't exist yet," I can't help but ask: "What the heck does that look like? How can we prepare students for something we don't even know will come to pass?" These are really shortsighted and, if I may say, stupid ideas.

Education prophets and gurus have been spouting their prophecies and oracles since just before the turn of the century. I won't get into mentioning their names, but many of these have made fortunes peddling their prophecies of economic gloom and doom at education conferences and workshops worldwide, charging exorbitant speaking fees and selling books.

The truth is, "Is any of this blather rather productive? Is it really the role of schools to prepare students by training them for the jobs that currently exist, or will exist in the near future? My answer to that question is a loud and boisterous "NO."

Training students for existing jobs is setting them up for future failure because such jobs disappear according to the changing whims of corporations. Do we train students for jobs that we think are going to become important? My answer again is a resounding "Negative!" It is educational malpractice to be gambling with the lives of kids by teaching them what we think they will be doing 10 years or 20 years or 30 years from now. We aren't seers and haven't reliable crystal balls, so we can't play games with the lives of those we teach.

I agree with Ken Robinson. The core of our job as educators is to prepare them for "Life after school." It's really that simple. They don't need to be narrowly pigeonholed into existing jobs or jobs that "might" exist. They need the "mental, emotional, social and strategic resources" to live in a world that none of us really know about. Instead of rolling the dice with the lives of those we teach, we need to provide an education that allows them to face the unknown.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Welcoming Innovative Disruption: Embracing Those Who Ask the Tough Questions

"The people who ask questions that no one else is asking are the inventors and entrepreneurs and leaders who will create the next wave of innovative disruptions." Jensen, Bill. Disrupt! Think Epic. Be Epic.: 25 Successful Habits For An Extremely Disruptive World
Often, as we work within the education system, we are actually discouraged from asking tough questions. Questioning is often seen as disrespectful and not being a team-player. The teacher at the back of our staff meetings who begins to ask question after question on some new initiative the school is preparing to roll out, is seen as a "naysayer" and a "supporter of the status quo." These are sometimes apt labels for these individuals, but sometimes, the questions being asked need to be asked. They need to be listened to, and they need to be answered carefully.

Certainly, it is possible that the one asking the questions about our new initiative and project just want to sabotage our plans as school leaders. But can we really take that chance? Especially, if as Bill Jensen points out, that these are often the inventors, entrepreneurs, and leaders who create innovative disruptions that turn our schools and the educational system upside down?

As school leaders, those who ask tough questions might or might not have ulterior motives, but if we really want to be innovative, we perhaps need to listen rather than dismiss them. As Jensen points out, those who wish to be proactive "disrupters" of our organizations need to join in and "actively question every system, structure, and rule" placed before us. This is embracing the potential of "disruptive innovation in our schools."