Sunday, November 11, 2018

3 Shifts to Make Learning Personal

In education, a lesson makes or breaks a learner’s experience in a classroom.  Planning takes time. I remember many nights and weekends that I spent countless hours developing a variety of activities that would keep my students engaged while also following the scope and sequence of the curriculum based on the standards that needed to be addressed.  When it is all said and done, it is more about the experience than the lesson, but the latter is necessary to create the former.  The key to strengthening learning and instruction consists of the right balance of two main components:

  1. Instruction (what the teacher does)
  2. Learning (what the student does)

Balance surely is important. There is a time for direct instruction, but many learners would tell you outright that this component of a lesson is not what they really crave or find meaningful. In Learning Transformed Tom Murray and I examined research and evidence to conclude that kids want a learning experience that is personal while educators want alignment with the real expectations placed on schools across the world.  Finding common ground in this area at times poses quite the challenge.  Any personalization necessitates a move from “what” to the “who” to emphasize ownership of learning.  Sounds simple enough right?  Getting everyone on board becomes the challenge.

Make the shift to personal learning goes right back to finding the right balance between instruction and learning.  Success in this area requires a shared vision, language, and expectations that not only make sense, but also jive with curriculum, standards, and assessment.  Enter the Rigor Relevance Framework.  Now I am not going to rehash the details of this tool as I have been writing about it for years, but I will provide an image of it below. The essence of the framework is quite simple as it allows for a lens for teachers and administrators to determine the level of thinking and relevant application that kids demonstrate while engaged in the process of learning. Instilling a purpose of learning while challenging all kids in the learning process is at the heart of a more personal approach.

Solid instruction should lead to great learning where kids are in the proverbial driver’s seat.  The Rigor Relevance Framework unearths three critical shifts in practice that can lead to personal learning experiences for kids.  As I love using images to articulate ideas and concepts, I will frame each shift with a question that will then be described in more detail using an associated image.

Shift 1: Are learners telling us what they know or showing that they actually understand?

Shift 2: Who is doing the work and thinking?

Shift 3: Who is asking the questions?

There is obviously more to consider when embracing and implementing the shifts listed above.  A personal learning experience doesn’t sacrifice higher-level thinking and application just for the sake of relevance and meaning.  Sound pedagogy lays the foundation with an added emphasis on scaffolding, innovative assessment, and improved feedback.   Student agency and technology both play a huge role throughout by empowering learners through choice, voice, and advocacy.  When these are combined to create effective blended learning activities in flexible spaces, the added elements of path, pace, and place further influence the personalization that will help kids flourish regardless of zip code or label.

However, it is the third shift that tells the tale as to whether a lesson or task supports rigorous and relevant learning to create a more personal experience for kids.  If kids see and understand the purpose while being challenged, then they will be asking the questions.  Better outcomes rely on transforming practice in a way that kids of the present and future can relate.  Making learning personal is a means to this end. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What Learners Really Need

A great deal has changed since I began writing this blog back in 2009. For starters, my primary device to connect on Twitter was a Blackberry.  I didn’t even have a Facebook page until a year later.  Additionally, my views on education regarding teaching, learning, and leadership were beginning to evolve in ways that would eventually help my school experience innovative success while also pushing my professional practice into a whole new dimension.  As my thinking shifted so did my views as to how education had to change to better prepare learners to survive and thrive in a disruptive world.  The same old thinking typically leads to the same old results, which does not benefit anyone.

When it comes to education, I now view it through two distinct lenses. On the one hand, there is my professional lens as I work with schools, districts, and organizations from all over the world. By looking at the rapid pace of change due in large part to advances in technology, past and present research on what actually works, and evidence of the impact that purposeful innovation can have on learning outcomes, has given me valuable insight on what learners genuinely need.  Then there is my parent lens. It is here where I try my best to look at the world through the eyes of my two children who are both in middle school. It is impossible to predict what type of career path they will pursue at this point, which is why it is essential that their education helps them to develop critical competencies needed for success in an unknown world. 

As I reflect more and more on this, I am always drawn to an image created by MMI independent educational consultancy. The premise of the image aligns with work that I help facilitate in that there has to be a focus on sound pedagogy while creating a culture that truly prepares learners with the qualities they need now and well into the future.  We call this Quad D learning based on the Rigor Relevance Framework. It is here where learners have the competence to think in complex ways and to readily apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, learners can use extensive knowledge and expertise to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. What I really like about the MMI image is not only how it aligns to Quad D learning, but also how it lists the qualities, outcomes, and dispositions that present and future learners really need.

Image credit and more info

I have taken the liberty of writing out each of the descriptions on the outermost part of the image.  The innermost circle represents knowledge taxonomy, the second key verbs, and the third sample activities that can be linked to each. As MMI explains, the categories on the periphery are added as an independent external wheel which can be applied to any section of the taxonomy.
Creative thinkers think creatively by generating and exploring ideas making original connections. They try different ways to tackle a problem, working with others to find imaginative solutions and outcomes that are of value. 
Reflective learners evaluate their strengths and limitations, setting themselves realistic goals with criteria for success. They monitor their performance and progress, inviting feedback from others and making changes to further their learning. 
Team workers work confidently with others, adapting to different contexts and taking responsibility for their own part. The listen to and take account of different views. They form collaborative relationships, resolving issues to reach agreed outcomes. 
Self-managers organize themselves, showing personal responsibility, initiative, creativity, and enterprise with a commitment to learning and self-improvement. They actively embrace change, responding positively to new priorities, coping with challenges and looking for opportunities. 
Effective participators actively engage with issues that affect them and those around them. They play a full part in the life of their school, college, workplace, or wider community by taking responsible action to bring improvements for others as well as themselves. 
Independent enquirers process and evaluate information in their investigations, planning what to do and how to go about it. They take informed and well-reasoned decisions, recognizing that others have different beliefs and attitudes.
As someone who has transitioned from the public to the private sector, I can tell you without hesitation that the qualities and outcomes listed above are critical to my current role. A strong case can also be made that our learners would benefit greatly if these were emphasized across the curriculum.  Standardized tests, standards, and curriculum do not hold anyone back from focusing on what kids really need. If it is important, then a way will be found. If not, then an excuse will be made. Our learners are relying on us to provide them with an education that will withstand the test of time.

Think about where you are with each of these, but more importantly where you want to be. How does learning in your classroom, school, or district help learners become creative thinkers, reflective learners, team workers, self-managers, effective participators, independent enquirers? Where is there an opportunity for growth?

It is also important to remember how these qualities and outcomes are just vital to you as well.  As you reflect think about where you can grow in these areas to benefit professionally and personally.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Art and Science of Leadership

Leadership is far from a science. Many would even argue that it is more of a form of art. Since effective leadership means different things to different people, I wanted to dive a little deeper into this debate to glean a better understanding as to what great leaders do. It consists of a convergence of art and science. Tanveer Nasser shares this perspective:
Unlike science, art allows for a more subjective interpretation of ideas or concepts; that there’s no need for a singular, fixed answer or definition to understand it. As many artists say about their work, it’s not so much what they wanted you to see as it is what you choose to perceive within their construct. 
There are also many scientific disciplines that have helped us to gain insights into what makes one individual a more effective leader than others. Thanks to discoveries in the fields of organizational psychology and neuroscience, we can gain a better understanding of what human traits or behaviors are best suited for leadership, and why they are of benefit to the organizations and teams these individuals lead. While science might not provide us with a clear definition of what leadership is, it has proved to be vital to not only improving how we perceive this function but also how those who lead serve others through these roles.

Whether you are more on the side of art or leadership is beside the point.  Effective leaders consider not only specific requirements of the position and research, but also many unique components such as culture, environment, and the community. It is hard to say definitively that there is one style or technique that works best when all the variables are taken into consideration. Case in point. You could be a great leader in one position but be horrible in another if the same strategies are employed in different conditions. 

By employing strategies that intersect between art and science, leaders can excel in their position regardless of title.  Below are five main focus areas. 


It is the people who drive change, not one person.  They are the most critical resource in any organization. Great leaders don’t tell others what to do, but instead, take them to where they need to be.  It is about making the time to empower others to be great even if they think they’re not.  The best leaders take the time to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of those who they serve to build a culture of success. Take care of your people and they, in turn, will take care of you. 


Leadership can seem like a juggling act with all of the mandates, directives, and goals at play.  Great leaders understand the importance of the long game and ensure that the day to day work is always aligned with the bigger picture.  They understand that putting an enormous amount of energy into short-term goals that might not positively impact culture is not a prudent way to achieve lofty goals.  Always remember that implementing and sustaining change is more of a marathon than a race.


Success in organizations is never the result of one person.  Great leaders celebrate the accomplishments of others above their own.  They are always quick to build others up as a way to share how their efforts have led to better outcomes.  As the old cliché goes, there is no “I” in team. Great leaders understand that they have to get the majority of their people moving in the same direction not because they have to, but because they want to. A focus on the collective can help to achieve this.


For the most part, there are no handouts in life.  Just because someone has a title, position, or power does not mean they are a leader or deserve your respect.  Leadership is about action, empathy, modeling, and selflessness.  One of the best ways to earn respect is not to ask others to do what you are not willing to do or have not done yourself.  You don’t have to be likable to earn this. 


There might not be a more critical focus than this one.  A person who possesses this quality is viewed as honest, moral, honorable, righteous, fair, and trustworthy.  In a recent article, Marcel Schwantes said this about integrity, “It holds intelligence and energy together, or everything crumbles.” He continues to go on by explaining that integrity is what makes it hard to question a person's decisions. His or her actions are open for everyone to see and you can rest assured that he or she will use good judgment. Integrity is the essence of great leadership. 

When it comes to effective leadership, and the qualities leaders possess, you don’t have to be on one side of the fence.  The key is to embrace both the artistic and scientific aspects while growing into the best leader for your respective organization, school, or district. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Meaningful Learning Begins and Ends with the Opportunities We Create

Learning hasn’t really changed, but the conditions that impact and influence it has. In Learning Transformed my co-author Tom Murray and I detailed eight keys backed by research and evidence that can facilitate a transformation of practice that will result in improved outcomes and better experiences for kids.  For change to occur, it is essential to continually evaluate where we are at in the process to eventually get to where we want to be, and our learners need us to be.  Ownership and empowerment result when meaningful opportunities are created for kids to explore, interact, design, and create in real-world contexts. How well are we developing critical competencies in our learners as depicted below?

Our beliefs, values, and experiences all work to shape our respective practice. When it comes to learning the emphasis has to be on what the kids do, not the adult. Therein lies the significant distinction between teaching and learning. It’s not that the former is bad per se, but ultimately kids should be actively engaged in the thinking and the work.  As we work to create powerful learning opportunities, it is important to reflect upon and update our belief system as needed. 

I recently shared what I believed in. Don Bartolo, in his book Closing the Teacher Gap, shares a list of beliefs that should be considered when creating learning opportunities for kids. I have merged his list (italicized), which I slightly tweaked, with some of mine, as there was overlap. Bartolo suggests engaging in the following exercise where you pick 3 of the items below that most resonate with you. 
  • Knowledge must be organized around key concepts and not learned in isolation as this promotes understanding. Relevant application to construct new knowledge matters.
  • Learners must receive feedback from more knowledgeable others as well as peers. It must be timely and specific.
  • Learners must be given the opportunity to connect current knowledge with new learning to build on what they know and can do.
  • Learners need to be working for a purpose and not ritual compliance. Real engagement means students are involved and invested in their work.
  • To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.
  • Young learners need to be immersed in all kinds of texts, fiction, and nonfiction.
  • Learners need time and opportunity to practice, use, and apply what they have learned. Mistakes and approximations are a part of learning.
  • Learner perceptions must be addressed directly. Understand what students are thinking, especially when beginning a new topic or unit.
  • Spaces and environments should be more reflective of the real world.
  • Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it still does.
  • Technology can be a game-changer with a solid pedagogical foundation.
  • All kids can learn.
  • Chase growth, no perfection.
So which of the above did you choose in your quest to transform learning? The key going forward is to reflect upon what you feel can help to create meaningful learning opportunities for students and decide what actions need to be taken on your part. It is important to note that we must also work to create powerful learning opportunities for ourselves. 

For more questions that can help guide you in the process of improving student and professional learning check out the free Learning Transformed Study Guide from ASCD.