Sunday, July 15, 2018

Listen. Reflect. Decide.

Conversations on effective leadership are varied although they focus more or less on the same general points, yet in different contexts. One saying revolves around the notion that the buck stops with the leader. This is true in the case of important decisions that have to be made because that is just the nature of certain positions.  Gathering input from a variety of stakeholder groups is vital if the goal is to initiate and sustain transformative change. Abusing authority, not listening, or going at it alone will not lead to embracement of new ideas and strategies to move a learning culture forward.

I remember as a principal in 2010 my pursuit of a tool that I wanted to purchase to improve communications with parents and students.  A focus on growth in this area was central to our overall goal of building better relationships.  Even though I had been using Twitter for over a year by this time to do just this, the embracement by my staff as a whole just wasn’t where I wanted it to be. This new tool seemed like the perfect solution to help scale efforts to accomplish this goal.  The premise was simple.  My staff would be able to streamline communications with parents and students alike, and there would be an expectation to use the service each day.  I was so excited about the possibilities and couldn’t wait to present it to my staff and get their approval. 

Now I am not going to get into the nitty-gritty about the functionality of the tool. That is not the point of this post. What I want to discuss is how my staff reacted.  I thought this was a slam dunk going into the meeting.  In my mind, the majority was going to celebrate the fact that I was investing in a tool that would significantly support them all.  Then reality slapped me right in the face. I would say that at least half of them were entirely against the adoption of this tool. I’m not going to lie.  I was a bit uneasy with some of the adverse reactions that were shared.  Instead of reacting myself, I listened and took notes focusing on legitimate concerns.  A few of the gripes were ridiculous, but many of the comments were valid.

Instead of just listening and then making the decision to move forward because I thought it was best, I wrapped up the meeting by telling my staff that I would reflect on the conversation we had as a group.  It was also reiterated that I appreciated their feedback. If you truly listen to anyone you then take the time to reflect on what was said. I went back to my notes from the meeting and compared the concerns my staff raised to the positives that I saw.  It was a tough decision. In the end, it came down to making a decision that would best serve everyone, including parents and students.



In the end, I decided that adopting a communications tool for all my staff to use daily was not in the best interests of the school. Upon reflection, I saw validity in many of their points as well as alternatives to still achieve the outlined goal.  To successfully lead change across schools, districts, and systems we must not rush to judgment if the situation does not require it. Getting into the habit of listening, reflecting, and then deciding goes a long way towards creating a culture of trust and empowerment. By improving our listening skills, we can become better communicators in our respective positions while simultaneously building better relationships with students, colleagues, and other stakeholders. Taking the time to reflect before, and even after, decisions lead to improved performance. How one indicates is a personal decision, but it is something that must become a part of routine practice across all aspects of leadership.

There is nothing easy about leading change.  Sometimes it requires taking a deep breath or gaining the perspective of others to avoid making a rash decision. Always keep in mind that leadership is not about what is best for one person, but instead the collective. When it comes to leadership.....Listen intently, spend time reflecting, then make the best decision.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Practical Way to Increase Access to Mobile Technology Regardless of Age

More and more schools are either installing or improving WiFi networks in schools. We still have a long way to go in many places, but the increase in access provides kids with an array of innovative learning opportunities that continue to evolve.  With a pedagogy first, technology second if appropriate, approach to instructional design, educators can begin to support and enhance lessons with an array of tools. Sites like Common Sense Education and edshelf make it easy to find the right alignment to the right instructional strategy.  However, if a well-designed assessment is in place, then the natural course of action is to allow learners to select the best tool for the task. 

Even though the cost of mobile devices has gone down, considerable purchasing challenges persist. With that being said I do want to share a pretty cool and practical idea I stumbled upon during one of my coaching visits with Wells Elementary School.  As I was conducting some learning walks with the admin team I noticed some kindergarten students in Deborah Weckerly’s class engaged in blended learning activities using smartphones. As a successful Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) campus, I wouldn’t have been surprised if in fact some of the students were learning with devices that they had brought in from home. Knowing though that it is never safe to assume, I asked Deborah if the kids were using their own devices. She laughed and said no in a way that affirmed the apparent observation that these students were kindergarteners. I was then left wondering why I even assumed that they might have brought devices to school.

Since the kids weren’t bringing in the devices, I inquired as to how they made it into the classroom. Deborah then showed me a basket that had at least five devices in it at the time but held a total of eight or so when full. She then explained that over the years she had asked her family and friends to donate older smartphones for use in her class instead of trading them in for cash or towards an upgrade.  I thought this was a genius idea!  She now had enough devices connected to the district’s secure WiFi network to support individual or station-rotation blended learning. 



For many learning activities, it’s not the device that matters but instead what learners can do with access to an array of interactives accessible on the Web. I can relate to this as well.  As my wife was preparing to upgrade her iPhone, she asked me if I wanted to as well. I thought about this briefly until settling on just inheriting her older 6 Plus. For what I use my smartphone for all I needed was a right amount of storage and the ability to access the Internet for the few apps that I depend on regularly. 

Innovative educators like Deborah Weckerly are always looking for ways to improve the learning experience for kids.  Regardless of your position, think about reaching out to your family and friends to acquire mobile devices before they are ready to upgrade.  These tools can then be used as part of pedagogically sound blended learning or used to support BYOT initiatives where students forget to bring their device or do not have one of their own. In the end, it is essential to always look for ways to improve access and ensure equity so that all learners are provided with a relevant and challenging learning experience. 

For more mobile learning resources check out this Pinterest board

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Are You Driven by “What If” or Held Back by “Yeah But”?

Imagine if only everything went as planned in life.  If this was the case, I am not sure that there would be any lengthy discussion on a growth vs. fixed mindset.  As we are all acutely aware, even if you diligently take into account many potential variables, things might not still work out.  When this happens, it is not only frustrating, but it also impacts our psyche resulting in apprehension to try something new or different in the future.  The saying what gets planned gets done still holds water to some extent. However, the outcome might be impacted in a way that motivation to continue to innovate is tempered or even drowned.

Planning aside, there is another inhibitory element lurking in every organizational culture including education, and that is excuses.  We all face challenges in the professional workplace such as not enough time, lack of funds, socioeconomics, limited support, too many initiatives or mandates, lack of collaboration, naysayers, and antagonists, to list a few. Now I am not saying that anything contained in the previous sentence is not a legit challenge. They most certainly are, and we have to work even harder and more diligently to find workable solutions to overcome them. My concern is when challenges that will always be present in some form or another morph into excuses. It is excuses that hold us back

So why is it a part of human nature to make excuses? I like this summary provided by Forever Conscious:
There are times when we may find ourselves in the midst of a life crisis, experiencing issues with employment or with money, with health, or relationships. No matter what the situation, using it as an “excuse” can only last so long. Eventually, these excuses become habits and patterns that may forever hold us back if we don’t address them. The most common reason we use excuses, however, is when there is some programming in our subconscious mind that makes us feel that we are not good enough, or not smart enough, or not talented enough to have what it is we want. It is through this line of thinking that we start viewing these external situations or events as excuses for why we can’t do what we want to do.
What struck me about the summary above is that if we continue to make excuses, they can become a habit.  This can prohibit us from developing a growth mindset and instead keep it in a perpetually fixed state.  To overcome this potential trap, we must either find or further expand our purpose as it relates to what we do.  In the words of comedian Michael Junior, “When you know your why, your what has more impact, because you are walking in or towards your purpose.” 



With a firm grasp on our purpose, it is easier to approach challenges with a “what if” attitude instead of “yeah but” disposition. The former is what epitomizes a growth mindset and provides the needed motivation to move innovative change forward even if the desired outcome is not guaranteed.  Think about how important this shift in thinking is when it comes to helping our learners find success. All kids have greatness hidden inside of them. It is the calling of all educators to help them find and unleash it. A “what if” approach looks beyond any challenges to assist kids that need it the most.  It also helps to unlock our potential and hidden talents. 

Celebrate where you are and what you have accomplished, but never become complacent. The pursuit of being where you ultimately need and want to be is a never-ending journey. We need to focus on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts” to help get our learners and ourselves to the desired destination. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Backchanneling: The Why, How, and What (Best Tool)

As I wrote previously, digital tools can support and enhance discussion among learners and adults.  As a supplement to traditional discussion strategies technology can serve as a catalyst to increase engagement by getting more people actively involved during lessons.  It can also take conversations to new levels of interactivity and expression.  Below are some of the ways I highlighted that digital discussion represents an improvement over traditional pathways:
  • Allows creativity in responses (video, images, online research citations)
  • Provides an avenue for open reflection
  • Affords more people an opportunity to answer and ask questions
  • Better meets the needs of shy and introverted students
  • Can extend conversations and learning beyond the traditional school day 
  • Welcomes participation from others beyond the physical location
  • Can be used to show parents and stakeholders the learning that is taking place
  • Works to create a culture grounded in trust and responsibility
Backchanneling is a conventional digital discussion strategy that has gained popularity since the rise of social media.  So why and how should one incorporate backchanneling during workshops, presentations, faculty meetings, after hours, or in classrooms? Backchannel Chat has some good answers to both of these questions below:   
A backchannel is a conversation that takes place alongside an activity or event. Backchannels or back-channeling is common at conferences where attendees use tools like Twitter to discuss the various presentations in near real time. This gives the audience a real voice and helps to include and engage the audience in ways not seen before. 
In an educational context, a backchannel can provide quiet students with a place to ask questions without speaking up. A backchannel is a place that teachers can share supporting resources such as video's, links and photos. Teachers can ask questions and watch the response of students to determine if they understand the concepts being discussed. Students can search the backchannel for notes and resources without having to scribble personal notes on paper.



With the why and how in place the final step is to focus on what tool is best to use to facilitate a backchannel.  In many cases, especially during conferences, presentations, and workshops, Twitter is the preferred medium for this.  The issue with Twitter though is that not everyone might be signed up to are comfortable with using this tool. In the case of classrooms, this issue is prevalent as well as the fact that some schools still block Twitter while age restrictions can prohibit younger learners from leveraging the benefits of a backchannel. So, what is the right tool that is free, accessible with an Internet connection, can work on any device, and is easy to set up?

In the past TodaysMeet served as the de facto tool to use to set up and facilitate an active backchannel in all contexts.  However, like many tools, we have come to love this one no longer exists.  The lesson learned here is never fall in love with a specific tool, but instead, focus on an improved learning experience our outcome that is provided. In this case, it is the backchannel experience.  After trying out many different tools I have settled on Padlet as my recommended application for backchanneling. Say what?

I know what many of you are thinking. Isn’t Padlet a tool for sharing responses in a digital Post-It note format? This is in fact how many of us have come to know and use the tool predominantly in the past. You can still use it this way, but as I was setting up a Padlet for one of my recent presentations, I stumbled upon the backchannel feature. When this option is enabled your board becomes a real-time, threaded conversation just like you would have seen in TodaysMeet. Once your board is set up create a shortened link with, share out with your audience, and in a snap, you have a backchannel set up. Other tools that can be used include Mentimeter and Tozzl.

Whatever tool you decide on keep in mind the improved outcome you are attempting to facilitate with backchanneling. Whether it be asking questions, enhanced collaboration, reflection, or more transparent engagement the key is putting the goal front and center and selecting a tool last.