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.

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 a 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 tough decisions instead of trying to please everyone.   In the end, real leaders take action, and their ability to be catalysts for change is not defined by a title or position. They are defined by the example they set.

The key goal for any change initiative is sustainability which 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 toward 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.  

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.

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

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Design Empowers Learning

All one has to do is look around and see the amazing changes that are taking place in workspaces across the world.  I have always been enamored with what Google and Pixar have done to improve working conditions for their employees. An article from Hongkiat provides some insight on why these changes have been made:
"Thanks to corporate giants like Google and Pixar that have demonstrated tremendous success despite their unconventional workplaces, more people are embracing the idea that creative work environment helps stimulate minds and inspire innovation. From simply ditching the crisp white walls for graphical wallpapers to a total overhaul of the office layout, we are all trying to break the mold and introduce a unique working environment to the team, and hopefully inspire some genius ideas along the way."
Make sure you check out some of the other amazing designs that are featured in that Honkiat post. What we are seeing are some exciting changes by organizations. To get better results they incorporate elements that foster creativity, collaboration, flexibility, and communication. This is not only a great concept that has become a reality in the real world, but it also makes sense. Who wants to go to a job all day and sit in a hard chair at a desk in a suffocating cubicle while being rained on by effervescing light? Not my idea of a perfect job and I bet many of you reading this post feel that same way.  As expectations related to producing better outcomes change, businesses have capitalized on a design trend that has led to improved results.

Now with all this being said let’s take a look at our schools.  What does a school look like? Well a school silly. This was not a trick question, but a stark reminder of an issue that really needs more attention.  Do kids really want to sit at uncomfortable desks aligned in rows with loads of artificial light? If you think so then I challenge you do take the place of one of your students not just for a day, but an entire week.  Sit in that uncomfortable chair until your back and neck are killing you and then ask yourself why we do this to kids. Design issues extend well beyond that of classroom. The internal structure of most schools does very little to reflect real-world skill sets and expectations. 

Things need to change if we are serious about student learning and emerging research supports this. The Huffington Post summarizes a study by Barrett et. al (2012)
"The yearlong study by the University of Salford's School of the Built Environment and British architecture firm Nightingale Associates examined 751 students in 34 classrooms across seven primary schools for the 2011-2012 academic year. Students were assessed at the beginning and end of the year for academic performance in math, reading and writing, and classrooms were rated on environmental qualities like classroom orientation, natural light, acoustics, temperature, air quality and color. The researchers found that classroom architecture and design significantly affected academic performance: Environmental factors studied affected 73 percent of the changes in student scores."
These findings also suggested that the architecture and design of a classroom could have a 25% impact (positive of negative) on a student’s academic performance.  With this being said schools must be more proactive by putting in the time, effort, and resources to create classroom and school environments that are much more conducive to learning. When making decisions about classroom and school environment take the following into consideration:
  • Furniture
  • Lighting
  • Technology for learning
  • Temperature
  • Layout to support essential skills
  • Acoustics
  • Colors

For a great example of all these elements in action take a look at Clark Hall. I was fortunate to get a tour of this amazing space that was built next to the high school with former Gahanna Principal Dwight Carter. Clark Hall epitomizes the types of learning spaces that are not only possible, but also ones that will help students achieve the type of results applicable to the real world. 

Clark Hall 

Other districts are embracing design changes in their buildings.  As part of the Albemarle County Schools (VA) commitment to their students they have developed the Seven Pathways to Life Long Learner Competencies, which clearly emphasizes the importance of design principals and thinking.  Check out how teacher Michael Thornton is creating space for risk in that district.

How might you change the structure and function of your classrooms and buildings to better support learning? Where are areas of opportunity?

P.S.Barrett, Y. Zhang, J. Moffat and K. Kobbacy (2012). "An holistic, multi-level 
     analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils' learning."        
     Building and Environment.