Sunday, May 20, 2018

Digital Leadership is Not Optional

Leadership has less to do with position than it does disposition.” – John Maxwell

I am currently working on a new edition of Digital Leadership for Corwin and I am very excited, as it will be in color. There are many changes I intend to make, but the most significant will be creating a book that is more “evergreen,” a book with less focus on tools and more on the dispositions of digital leaders.  I would love your feedback after reading this post. What would you like to see emphasized in this new edition? What should be removed? 

A great deal has changed since Digital Leadership was published in 2014.  For starters, I have now been going on four years since transitioning from high school principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).  Society is now in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which was in its infancy as I began writing this book.  Personalized and blended learning pathways were proclaimed to be the future of education. More and more schools have gone 1:1 thanks to the cost-effectiveness of the Chromebook and cloud-based tools.  Makerspaces have moved from fringe initiatives to vibrant components of school culture.  Emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, open education resources (OER), coding, and adaptive learning tools are moving more into the mainstream in some schools.  Twitter chats have increased from a handful to now hundreds happening on a weekly basis.  

What I have described above only accounts for a small subset of the changes we have seen since 2014. Change isn’t coming; it is already on our doorstep and about to knock down the front door.  The need for digital leadership now is more urgent than a few years ago.  Our learners will need to thrive and survive in a world that is almost impossible to predict thanks to exponential advances in technology.  Automation and robotics are already disrupting the world of work, as we know it.  The Internet of Things (IoT) impacts virtually all of us. Have you heard of it? Perhaps not, but once you know what it is you can see how it connects to your life. Wikipedia defines IoT as a network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these objects to connect and exchange data. How are we preparing learners for this world? How are we adapting and evolving? 

Expectations are also changing in a knowledge and information-based society where information can easily be accessed from virtually anywhere.  The World Wide Web has transformed how we access, consume, create, and share information.  From a growth perspective, the Personal Learning Network (PLN) concept has dramatically impacted countless educators across the globe. People crave more than a drive-by event, traditional school professional development day, or mandated training that does not have an authentic outlet that caters to their interests.  As educators lust for knowledge, parents and other stakeholders desire more information about schools and how the needs of learners are being met.  Engagement using a multifaceted, two-way approach seems to be a no-brainer at a time when email has lost some luster.  Providing pertinent information in a timely fashion helps to build powerful relationships and is a more substantial component of working smarter, not harder.

There is so much more than I can say, but to sum it all up digital leadership in our classrooms, schools, districts, and organizations is needed now more than ever.  Research has shown how crucial digital leadership is to organizations.  Here is a little bit that Josh Bersin shared in an article titled Digital Leadership is Not an Optional Part of Being a CEO:
Culture is key. Success is mostly dependent on people sharing information with each other, partnering, and continuously educating themselves. This can happen when you build a collective, transparent, and profoundly shared culture. CEOs who are digital leaders are continuously reinforcing the culture, communicating values, and aligning people around the culture whenever something goes wrong.
The importance outlined above extends well beyond the private sector and into the field of education.  As times change, so must the practice of leaders to establish a culture of learning that is relevant, research-based, and rooted in relationships.  Digital leadership is all about people and how their collective actions aligned with new thinking, ideas, and tools can help to build cultures primed for success.  

Definitions of digital leadership vary and have pretty much become a semantic issue.  Leadership is leadership ladies and gentlemen. The same general tenets that embody all great leaders we have come to respect and admire over time still apply. With this being said, I am slightly biased towards my definition created years ago that aligns well with Josh Bersin’s thinking.
Digital leadership is a strategic mindset and set of behaviors that leverage resources to create a meaningful, transparent, and engaging school culture.
The digital before leadership implies how mindsets and behaviours must change to harness current and emerging resources to set the stage for improving outcomes and professional practice.  The Pillars of Digital Leadership provide a focus that can move us from talk to implementation and eventually evidence of improved outcomes.  These guiding elements are embedded throughout all school cultures, which compel us in many cases to do what we already do better.  I hope to flesh out each of these pillars more than I did the first time while also including many more strategies to aid in practical implementation. As for other significant inclusions, efficacy will be a substantial component of this edition as it was reasonably absent the first go around. 

I now turn to all of you.  Even though I think I know where I want to go with this edition the fact is that I am not writing a book for me – I am writing it for all of you!  Please use the comment section below to share your insights and ideas on what should be included as well as de-emphasized.  I am also looking to add great images that align to each of the seven pillars with credit. Thanks in advance!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Finding Comfort in Growth

"Comfort is the enemy of progress." - Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman

Have you ever been complacent when it comes to undertaking or performing a task? Of course, you have, as this is just a part of human nature.  In our personal lives, complacency can result if we are happy or content with where we are. Maybe we don’t change our work out routines because we have gotten used to doing the same thing day in and day out.  I know I love using the elliptical for cardio, but rarely use any setting beside manual. Or perhaps our diet doesn’t change as we have an affinity for the same types of foods, which might or might not be that good for us.  So, what’s my point with all of this? It is hard to grow and improve if one is complacent.  This is why we must always be open to finding comfort in growth.  If we don’t, then things might very well never change. 

The issue described above is not just prevalent in our personal lives. Complacency plagues many organizations as well.  When we are in a state of relative comfort with our professional practice, it is often difficult to move beyond that zone of stability and dare I say, “easy” sailing.  If it isn’t broke, then why fix it, right? Maybe we aren’t pushed to take on new projects or embrace innovative ideas.  Or perhaps there is no external accountability to improve really. Herein lies the inherent challenge of taking on the status quo in districts, schools, and organizations.  

There are many lenses through which we can take a more in-depth look to gain more context on the impact complacency has on growth and improvement. Take test scores for example.  If a district or school traditionally has high achievement and continues to do so the rule of thumb is that no significant change is needed. Just because a school or educator might be “good” at something doesn’t equate to the fact that change isn’t required in other areas.  It is also important to realize that someone else can view one’s perception of something being good in an entirely different light.  Growth in all aspects of school culture is something that has to be the standard.  It begins with getting out of actual and perceived comfort zones to truly start the process of improving school culture. 

In a recent article Joani Junkala shares some great thoughts on the importance of stepping outside our comfort zones.
Stepping out of our comfort zone requires us to step outside of ourselves. If we are going to strive for progress, whether professionally or personally, we have to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. This isn’t easy for everyone. For someone like me, who is a self-prescribed introvert, this can be difficult. Stepping out of our comfort zone requires extra effort, energy, and sometimes forced experiences. It requires us to set aside our fear and be vulnerable. We have to be willing to try something new, different, difficult, or even something that’s never been done before. We have to put ourselves out there — trusting in ourselves and trusting others with our most vulnerable self. It’s a frightening thought. What if we get it wrong? What if we look silly? Will it be worth it in the end? Will I stand alone? What if I fail? Oh but, what if I succeed and evolve?
Change begins with each and every one of us and spreads from there. Finding comfort in growth and ultimately improvement begins with being honest with ourselves.  Let me be blunt for a minute.  The truth is that there is no perfect lesson, project, classroom, school, district, teacher, or administrator.  There is, however, the opportunity every day to get better.  This is not to say that great things are not happening in education. They most definitely are. My point is that we can never let complacency detract us from continually pursuing a path to where our learners need us to be.  

Are you comfortable where you are at professionally? What about your school, district, or organization? Where are opportunities for growth? By consistently reflecting on these questions a continual path to improvement can be paved.  Questions lay the path forward. Actions are what get you to where you want to be. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Tic Tack Toe in the Blended Classroom

The other day I was conducting some learning walks with the administrative team at Wells Elementary School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD). Throughout the school year, I have been assisting them with digital pedagogy as it relates to blended learning and the use of flex spaces.  The primary goal has been to take a critical lens to instructional design with a focus on increasing the level of questioning, imparting relevance through authentic contexts and interdisciplinary connections, creating rigorous performance tasks, innovating assessment, and improving learner feedback. I cannot overstate the importance of getting the instructional design right first before throwing technology into the mix.  

A secondary goal has been facilitating a transition from blended instruction to blended learning. This is not to say that the former is bad or ineffective, but it can be depending on whether or not the technology is just a direct substitute for low-level tasks or use is more passive as opposed to active. With this aside, there is a difference between the two, and it all has to with how the technology is being used and by whom.  Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. Herein lies the key to the practical use of flex spaces in education. The dynamic combination of pedagogically-sound blended learning and choice in either seating or moving around in flex spaces results in an environment where all kids can flourish and want to learn. 

Over the course of the year, I have seen some much growth and improvement since the work began in August.  My visits to this school have been inspiring as I have seen the future of education in the present.  This is one of the main reasons that my daughter loves being a student here. Unlike our learning walks in the past, the teachers at Wells Elementary did not know I was going to be in the building on this particular day.  The idea was to see if the goals for digital pedagogy and blended learning in flex spaces were well on their way to being accomplished. 

I saw so many activities that warmed my heart where kids were authentically engaged in meaningful learning. However, stepping into Zaina Hussein’s 4th-grade classroom provided a perfect example of how the entire Wells community has evolved together to deliver fantastic learning opportunities for kids.  As we walked in a Tic Tac Toe grid was displayed on the interactive whiteboard.  Word on the street is that she “borrowed” this idea from Kendre Millburn, my daughter’s 5th-grade science teacher.  If you are not familiar with this type of learning activity here is a description from the IRIS Center out of Vanderbilt University:
Tic-tac-toe sometimes referred to as Think-tac-toe, is a method of offering students choices in the type of products they complete to demonstrate their knowledge. As in a traditional tic-tac-toe game, students are presented with a nine-cell table of options. The teacher should make sure that all options address the key concept or skill being learned. There are several variations on this method: 1. Students choose three product options that form a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line. 2. Students choose one product choice from each row or from each column (without forming a straight line). 3. The teacher can create two or more versions to address the different readiness levels. To learn how to create an acnhor activity using a Tic Tack Toe board click HERE.
I loved this activity for so many reasons. It incorporated choice, formative assessment, purposeful use of technology, and differentiation. All learners had to complete the middle box with the gold star emoji.  The flame icons represented activities that were more difficult.  

I was so mesmerized by the structure of the lesson and the engagement of the learners that I almost missed what possibly could have been the best part of the class – an opportunity to reflect.  Costa & Kallick (2008) share why reflection is a critical component of the learning process:
Reflection has many facets. For example, reflecting on work enhances its meaning. Reflecting on experiences encourages insight and complex learning. We foster our growth when we control our learning, so some reflection is best done alone. Reflection is also enhanced, however, when we ponder our learning with others. 
Reflection involves linking a current experience to previous learnings (a process called scaffolding). Reflection also involves drawing forth cognitive and emotional information from several sources: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. To reflect, we must act upon and process the information, synthesizing and evaluating the data. In the end, reflecting also means applying what we've learned to contexts beyond the original situations in which we learned something.

It is important to understand the convergence of so many elements present in the examples above that align with sound instructional design and real blended learning.  Learners had a certain amount of control over path, pace, and place thanks to using flex spaces and the Tic Tac Toe activity that incorporated blended elements.  Student agency was also evident.  This is a hallmark of a well-structured blended learning activity, which is why I was so pleased to see choice (Tic Tac Toe activity, flex seating) and voice (reflection) incorporated.  

Over the course of the school year, I have seen so many exemplary blended learning activities implemented by Wells Elementary teachers across all grade levels during my time there as an instructional and leadership coach.  I cannot commend their progress and success enough, but I would be remiss if I did not add how helpful the entire administrative team has been.  They all have provided unwavering support to their teachers while also learning alongside them. When an entire school believes in different and better, takes collective action, grows together, and has the evidence to show improvement the result is efficacy. 

Follow the learning adventures at Wells Elementary on Twitter at #ExploreWells