Sunday, October 4, 2015

Uncommon Learning

The world today is changing at a fast pace. We are seeing advances in technology at a frenetic rate, which is having a powerful impact on our learners. It is not that our students are actually learning differently per se, but the environment in which they are learning is dramatically different. The engaging aspects of technology today and ubiquitous access to information provide constant engagement to learners of all ages. They have embraced this digital world as it provides consistent relevance and meaning through an array of interactive experiences. 

As a result, the job of schools and educators has become exponentially more difficult as a natural disconnect results when students enter their school buildings. This disconnect manifests itself, as the school environment is the exact opposite of this engaging world of which our learners are now a part. If students cannot learn the way we now teach or in the conditions that are prevalent, maybe we need to teach the way they learn and create a school environment that more closely aligns with their world.

Order your copy HERE

This book, Uncommon Learning, provides a process for schools to initiate sustainable change resulting in a transformation of the learning culture to one that works better and resonates with our students. It lays out the elements necessary for establishing innovative initiatives that will support and enhance learning while increasing relevance to personalize both the school and learning experience for all students. Uncommon learning refers to initiatives and pedagogical techniques that are not present in scale in a typical school or district. If present they are more likely to be isolated practices that have not become systematically embedded as part of school or district culture. 

These initiatives allow students to use real-world tools to do real-world work, focus on developing skills sets that society demands, respond to student interests, empower students to be owners of their learning, and focus on ways to create an environment that is more reflective of the current digital world. They take advantage of an emphasis on deeper learning that new national and state standards provide while allowing students to demonstrate mastery in ways that not only prove attainment, but also afford them the ability to acquire and apply skill sets necessary in today’s digital world. New standards are not seen as impediments, but rather opportunities for students to demonstrate conceptual mastery in more authentic ways. In this book I present successful uncommon learning initiatives that I helped implement as a school principal as well as examples from other schools across the country. I also pull on leadership strategies presented in the best-selling book Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times (2014).

Within a framework of uncommon learning initiatives, this book focuses on four key areas that are embedded within each chapter:
  • Culture
  • Relevance
  • Personalization
  • Sustainability
As Dr. Bill Daggett says, culture trumps strategy. Without the right culture in place it is difficult, if not impossible, to implement school or district initiatives at scale that personalize and individualize the learning experience for students while imparting relevance in the process. A culture needs to be built first where an initial shared vision is created around these focus areas. This book will assist you in not only developing a vision but also a specific plan for action that when implemented and subsequently monitored, will lead to the proliferation of uncommon learning practices.

The whole premise of uncommon learning is to increase relevance, add context, acquire then apply essential skills, construct new knowledge, and enhance critical literacies. Regardless of what standards you are accountable for, uncommon learning initiatives with and without technology can be integrated seamlessly to foster deeper learning. The book focuses on the following innovative practices:
  • Digital learning across the curriculum: Today’s learner yearns to use real-world tools to do real-world work. Effective digital learning environments focus on learning outcomes as opposed to the tools themselves. This chapter will address the basic tenet that the role of technology is to support learning, not drive instruction. The concepts of digital learning will be presented and discussed. Practitioner vignettes providing details on pedagogy, learning activities, and assessment will appear here and throughout subsequent chapters.
  • Makerspaces: These spaces provide cost-effective ways for any school to transform a dull or underutilized space into a vibrant learning environment. These spaces compel students to create, tinker, invent, problem solve, collaborate, and think to learn. Makerspaces can be created on any budget and motivate students to learn on their own time. They also become supplemental learning spaces for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related classes and courses. 
  • Blended and virtual learning: Traditional schooling, as dictated by brick-and-mortar buildings and mainstay pedagogical techniques, no longer meet the diverse learning needs of all students. This chapter will address how schools easily implement both blended and virtual learning opportunities to personalize and individualize instruction with technology. It also will discuss the flipped classroom approach. This new pedagogical technique continues to be implemented across the globe. Pulling from practitioner examples, this chapter will look at many variations of the flipped classroom with an emphasis on how educators themselves can create short, interactive learning experiences that provide more time for the application of concepts during class. 
  • Bring your own device (BYOD): Many students now possess a powerful learning tool in the form of mobile technology. This chapter will address the potential challenges and advantages of implementing a BYOD initiative. Issues such as equity, infrastructure, policy development, digital responsibility, pedagogy, and tools will be discussed. The end result is creating an environment that empowers students to use the tools they possess as mobile learning devices to enhance learning, increase productivity, develop positive digital footprints, and conduct better research.
  • Digital badges and micro-credentials: Digital badges are beginning to be embraced as a means to acknowledge a particular skill, accomplishment, or quality associated with learning. This chapter will look at how schools have begun to integrate digital badges to acknowledge the informal learning of teachers and formal learning of students. 
  • Academies and smaller learning communities: These programs represent a bold vision and direction based on student interests, national and global need, and intangible skills sets necessary for success. This chapter will examine how schools can create their own unique academy programs on a limited budget to expand course offerings, form mutually beneficial partnerships, and provide authentic learning experiences that students yearn for. 
  • Connected learning: Educators today can learn anytime, from anywhere, with anyone they choose. This paradigm shift eliminates the notion of schools being silos of information and educators feeling that they reside on isolated learning islands. Connected learning shatters the construct of traditional learning options such as conferences and workshops as the only viable means for professional growth. This chapter will provide a foundation for innovative learning using social media to form Personal Learning Networks (PLN's) that will continuously support uncommon learning.
Schools have traditionally been designed to work well for adults, but the conventional school design hasn't always served our learners. Sustaining these outdated practices will not transform schools.  Students today need to be empowered to take ownership of their learning in relevant and meaningful ways to prepare them for a constantly evolving world.  It is my hope that this book will show readers how to cultivate shared ownership, respect, and trust, creating a school learning culture that students value and to which they want to belong in the digital age. 

Readers will be exposed to a variety of successful strategies and initiatives implemented at schools with a focus on the purposeful integration of technology, a redefinition of learning spaces, personalized learning, and the whole child.  I hope you enjoy my latest book and am proud that it has been endorsed by Dan Pink, Robert Marzano, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Governor Bob Wise, Todd Whitaker, Andy Hargreaves, George Couros, Sue Gendron, Vicki Davis, Josh Stumpenhorst, Bill Daggett, Baruti Kafele, Dave Burgess, JoAnn Bartoletti, Yong Zhao, Tom Vander Ark, and Greg Toppo.

The motivation and the majority of the content for this book can be seen in my TEDx talk below.

Order your copy of Uncommon Learning today!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Leadership is a Choice

I remember back to my days as an elementary student. Boy did I have a warped sense of what leadership really was. Back then at recess leaders (on the playground that is) were perceived as those who had the most athletic ability. It was these individuals who were always in a position to select the kickball teams or control the organization of literally every activity.  This was not only accepted, but also embraced by every kid.  Herein lies the problem though. Social hierarchy determined how the teams would be organized. One by one kids were picked based on how well he/she could kick a ball.  This always left a feeling of dread among those kids who were picked last every time.  In this example I, like many of my fellow classmates, made the conscious decision not to step up and lead.

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Maybe the example above is not the best one to articulate my view of leadership, but then again maybe it is. Upon reflection it has taught me a great deal about what leadership is and most importantly what it isn’t. We first have to look at the underlying methodologies of how society determines or anoints leaders.  There are many assumptions when it comes to leadership. One that is regularly portrayed is that leadership is somehow an inherent trait that is either passed down from generations or bestowed upon someone. There is no leadership gene that I am aware of and monarchies have for the most part become a thing of the past. Another prevalent assumption is that leaders are granted power and influence through their titles or positions. In some cases they might have power, but this begs the question as to whether having power is really a characteristic of our most effective and influential leaders.

We need to move past preconceived notions as to who qualifies as a leader. There is no ownership of leadership. It has very little to do with titles and positions, especially in the context of education.  Do not accept the notion that all leaders are born or appointed to a position of power.  Leadership is a choice and something that Stephen Covey has written about extensively.  
"Most of the great cultural shifts — the ones that have built great organizations that sustain long-term growth, prosperity and contribution to the world — started with the choice of one person. Regardless of their position, these people first changed themselves from the inside out. Their character, competence, initiative and positive energy — in short, their moral authority — inspired and lifted others. They possessed an anchored sense of identity, discovered their strengths and talents, and used them to meet needs and produce results. People noticed. They were given more responsibility. They magnified the new responsibility and again produced results. More and more people sat up and noticed. Top people wanted to learn of their ideas — how they accomplished so much. The culture was drawn to their vision and to them."
The most influential and impactful leaders I know are those who:

  • Model expectations
  • Talk less and do more
  • Not only create a shared vision, but implement it as well
  • Believe in taking calculated risks
  • Do not fear failure
  • Always work on building positive relationships with others
  • Collaborate for the greater common good
  • Constantly learn
  • Help others see the value in change
  • Focus on solutions as opposed to excuses

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Everyone has the ability to lead and our schools need more educators to embrace this challenge. Never underestimate your own unique talents and abilities that can help shape the future of our schools to create a better learning culture that students deserve. Some of our best leaders are right under our nose – our teachers and students.  Great leaders not only understand this, but also help these key stakeholders make the choice to lead. 

Also check out this article - How to Be a Leader When You Are Not the Leader

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Have Fun With Change

I have written a great deal about implementing change successfully over the years. One must realize that change is really hard and a commitment to see the process through is vital if the end goal is cultural transformation that endures over time.  Success lies in a leader’s ability to make difficult decisions when needed. Leadership is not a popularity contest.  True leaders make the tough decisions instead of trying to please everyone.   In the end, real leaders take action and their ability to be catalysts for change are not defined by a title or position. They are defined by the example they set.

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The key goal for any change initiative is sustainability that results in an improved learning culture. This requires a mindset shift and many other important elements. The bottom line though is the fact that change is hard for both the initiator and those beings asked to embrace the new initiative.  A simple solution, make change fun.

Dr. Angeline Lim and Dianne Conway discuss the importance of instilling fun into the change process:
"Nearly every day, leaders must initiate and/or help to sustain some sort of change in others. This can be hard work! Often, leaders are taught to "overcome" the dark side of change such as resistance, pain, and the high probability of failure. Infusing fun into a change process helps to create a positive environment for change that contributes to its success."
If you really want people to embrace change and get excited during the process add some fun factor. Take a look below to see what I mean.

So the next time you are faced with implementing the always challenging change process consider how you might positively influence behaviors, mindset, attitudes, and opinions through fun. This is not only an opportunity to be creative, but it can also go a long way towards building positive relationships with key stakeholders.  For some more specific ideas make sure you read the article by Lim and Conway titled Five Ways to Use Fun For  (a) Change. You might just have some fun yourself thinking about how you will help others embrace change in the future.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why Personalize

How we best learn has been a hot topic for many years. As most would agree experiences that are relevant, practical to our needs, meaningful, and applicable drive learning.  The ability to acquire and construct new knowledge, then apply it in ways to solve complex problems, is at the heart of what education has been tasked with accomplishing. This lofty goal has fallen way short of expectations as our education system has changed very little over the past 100 years.  As a result of mostly the one-size fits all approach, students enter an environment where not only their needs are not met, but there is very little motivation to learn. With this stark reality in place, changes in schools and instruction are definitely needed to better meet the needs of all learners.

Now don’t get me wrong, significant progress has been made over the years with the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson regarding differentiated instruction. Wikipedia provides a very concise summary of this approach:
"A framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing different students with different avenues to learning (often in the same classroom) in terms of: acquiring content; processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability."
Is differentiation enough and why has it not been incorporated at scale? Time might be one issue as well as a lack of resources to implement this approach consistently.  Another factor is the apparent lack of focus on what students are really passionate about and aligning this to their learning interests. Personalized learning builds on the important foundation that differentiation provides by factoring in the individual interests and preferences aligned to specific student needs.  Wikipedia provides this synopsis:
"Personalized learning is the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum, and learning environments by learners or for learners in order to meet their different learning needs and aspirations. Typically technology is used to facilitate personalized learning environments."
The concept of personalized learning continues to evolve.  Be sure to check out the working definition and critical questions to consider compiled by Education Week.  As the definition continues to evolve so does the potential in schools to embrace this uncommon learning strategy. When implemented with purpose and in a pedagogically sound way, technology can not only support, but also greatly enhance learning for all students in appropriate situations. Personalized learning represents a movement from the “what” to the “who” as a means to facilitate student ownership of the learning process.  

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This shift not only results in a refined focus, but also some important benefits such as:
  • Knowledge and how it is used
  • Authentic, relevant, real world contexts
  • Building on diverse strengths/needs of all students
  • Fostering independence and self-directed learning
  • Ownership of learning
  • Different ways to facilitate learning
  • Use of tech to support and enhance learning
A more personalized approach to learning can result in increased relevance and value for students leading to better outcomes and results.  Advances in technology now allow educators to personalize learning through both blended and virtual pathways.  For many students these changes can definitely enhance and improve their learning experience.  However, personalized learning and technology for that matter do not represent a silver bullet to all the woes that our education system currently has. When implemented correctly and appropriately aligned to deeper learning outcomes this approach can lead to deeper engagement and demonstration of what students know and can do.

For a more comprehensive guide on personalized learning click HERE.

What are your thoughts on personalized learning? Is it just another catchy fad or a legitimate approach to move schools forward through?