Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Meaning of Words

Jargon in education is nothing new. Luckily there are so many resources available to make sense of it as it applies to our professional practice.  Just check the Dictionary of Educational Jargon to get some clarity, then have some fun with the Educational Jargon Generator. Words are always flying around in education circles. Whether it is in person at events and workshops or in social media spaces, I routinely see conversations play out where educators take a certain stance on the meaning of specific words. Now mind you, I am speaking about education buzzwords and am not discounting the negative meaning of words outside this realm. From my lens, I see a great deal of time and energy spent on debating the negative aspects of words that other educators value. 

Certain words jump right out at me such as grit, innovation, branding, mindset, future-ready, deeper learning, and personalization. Each day various people chime in, stating their disapproval of such words when an article focusing on its merits arises. Does the meaning in someone’s opinion really matter or is it more about the outcome as it pertains to the learning culture of our schools? Do our students feel the same way about these words as the adults who spend energy discounting them?  Maybe I am off base with my thinking here, but I try to find the value in many of the words listed above as I can see how they can relate to a positive school culture.

One word that I want to talk about is rigor. It is this word, after all, that motivated me to write this post. I have seen many people I respect get pretty fired up about the term. Taken out of an educational context, the word rigor can imply being rigid, inflexible, strict, unyielding, etc.  With these descriptions, it is no wonder many people dislike the word. I, for one, don't see it this way, especially when using the term throughout my presentations and work. 

I see rigor as a way of framing lessons and learning outcomes at the high end of knowledge taxonomy. Rigorous learning empowers students to develop, have the competence to think in complex ways, and apply their knowledge and skills. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skills to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. This is my view of rigor. The definition below pretty much sums it up:
Rigor: A concept either describing an assignment that challenges students to use critical thinking skills or a learning environment that is challenging but supportive and engaging.
Rigorous lessons and learning activities ask students to compose, create, design, invent, predict, research, summarize, defend, compare, and justify to demonstrate conceptual mastery and standards attainment. Rigor is quite simply levels of thinking, including 

  • Scaffolding for thinking
  • Planning for thinking
  • Assessing thinking
  • Recognizing the level of thinking students demonstrate
  • Managing the teaching/learning level for the desired thinking level

Rigor is NOT:

  • More or harder worksheets
  • AP or honors courses
  • The higher-level book in reading
  • More work
  • More homework

Rigorous learning is for all students (check out the Rigor Relevance Framework). The perception that rigor only applies to a certain group is near-sighted at best. Herein lies another point of confusion with the word. After all, all students not only deserve but also should be made to feel that they can handle higher expectations.  

Not being flexible with the meaning of educational words and terms seems to be a bit hypocritical. In the case of this post, taking the opposing side of terms that others find value in seems a bit rigid, strict, and unyielding. Words in education are what you make of them. Try to have an open mind and the inherent value might provide more context for your own work and goals, but more importantly, that of your students. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Growing Potential of Micro-Credentials

There is a great deal of talk these days about micro-credentials and digital badging as a means to acknowledge professional learning of educators. While many organizations are trying to seize an opportunity to monetize this space for their own benefit, a pioneer in micro-credentials created a free platform for any educator to use over three years ago. In Uncommon Learning, I provide insight into Laura Fleming’s pioneering work in this area with the simple premise of acknowledging the informal learning that many educators now engage in on a daily basis. 

Micro-credentials can be used to guide, motivate, and validate informal learning. Check out what Mozilla has created with its Open Badges platform. Acknowledging the informal learning of educators had been a long-neglected area in schools, and Ms. Fleming felt she could make a big impact there. She felt that a digital badge-based system would allow participating educators to learn and earn badges anytime and anywhere. Educators could then use those badges to build and communicate their own reputations to their colleagues and to senior staff, capturing a complete picture of their own professional development for others to see. 

Worlds of Learning provides a framework that allows any educator to earn micro-credentials for free through learning about a range of technology tools and applications and then putting what they learn into practice in their own teaching. The platform developed by Laura Fleming in 2013 has been designed so that its resources will help to prepare educators to fully leverage the potential for mastering digital-age skills as embodied in the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for Teachers as well as assisting them to achieve the seamless integration of technology as addressed by the Common Core State Standards. 

As technology convergence and integration continue to increase generally in our society, it is paramount that teachers possess the skills and behaviors of digital-age professionals. Educators should be comfortable teaching, working, and learning in an increasingly connected global digital society. The real aim of educational technology should be to modernize pedagogy and to shape the education of the future. Registered users on the Worlds of Learning site can take the tools presented on the platform and integrate them seamlessly into meaningful learning that addresses the standards in their respective content areas for free.

Laura has streamlined the user experience on the platform as much as possible. Teachers (or indeed anyone who wants to join) simply register on the platform. Members can then choose to learn about a tool from among the (growing) selection of badges she has on the site. Her badges include those for mastering tools like Buncee, Padlet, and ThingLink, as well as a variety of other web-based tools. 

To learn about each tool, Laura provides a deliberately brief description of what the tool is. She also includes a very short screencast that provides an overview of how to use each tool and a brief written description of how the tool can be used and how the tool can be integrated effectively into the curriculum through the Common Core. Educators can earn the badge by then assimilating what they’ve learned into their own instruction in some way. Users submit “proof” to her that they have done so. Their evidence might consist of a web link to a page or site that demonstrates what they have done, a lesson plan, a video of classroom practice, or even a text description of how they or their students have used the tool. Upon receiving documentation, she issues a digital badge for their learning. 

Educators want to create their own professional learning paths, they want to learn anytime and anywhere, and they want to receive appropriate and authoritative credit for their informal learning. Laura believes that the success of this platform rests on the fact that educators can take control of their own learning and that they can therefore learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it.  I, for one, could not be more proud of what Laura created and that this resource is free for anyone to use. Those organizations pirating her work for profit and claiming it to be their own should, at the very least, give her the proper credit that she deserves.

So what are your thoughts about using micro-credentials as a way to guide, motivate, and validate both the formal and informal learning of educators?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Future-Focused Leadership

In my last guest post, I outlined the ways in which the Every Student Succeeds Act, recently signed into law, gives us a unique chance to create the indicators of achievement that will mean and matter to us—indicators catered to the unique DNA of our states, districts, and schools. In my post, I called members of school boards and instructional and school leaders to action: we have the chance—the obligation—to voice our own frustrations and actually have them heard, respected, and applied to the process of overhauling the system and focusing on what matters most: the students. 

What does it mean to overhaul the system in this way? The work of Superintendent Guy Sconzo of Humble Independent School District in Humble, Texas, is a powerful example of creating a future-focused system. Over the past 15 years, Dr. Sconzo has developed and implemented strategies that fulfill the district’s mission of teaching well-rounded students—not to the standardized test. These are his six guiding principles:

  1. Commit to the Whole Child: Understand why your priority is the whole child. Communicate this commitment calmly, clearly, and continually to all of your audiences.
  2. Create a Culture of Trust: Start with a conversation. Invite ideas and insights from the school board, district, and community members. Remind your teachers that you believe they are far more capable than teaching to a test. Encourage them to find creative ways to teach students to be successful in life. Craft a plan, test out multiple ideas, and be willing to throw out ideas that don’t work and adapt those that do. Overhaul your evaluation system and push it to apply new indicators that measure the development of the whole child.
  3. Win Over the Skeptics by Personalizing the Conversation: A test score says very little about a person’s talents and capabilities. Where generalized conversations fail, personal ones can often prevail. Ask the doubters, “Can your own children, nieces and nephews, or other children you know be accurately summed up in a standardized test score?”
  4. Be Flexible and Embrace Trial and Error in the Effort to Find New Metrics: How do we measure a student’s interpersonal skills? How do we measure their ability to think creatively? Many fundamental skills are difficult but essential to quantify. But we must also accept—and communicate—that there are characteristics of a person that simply cannot be quantified—and honest messaging on this topic is critical. Where you cannot quantify output, find ways to quantify input. The goal is exposure to creative thinking and its process and fostering a well-rounded child who can connect the dots from one discipline to another. Creative confidence and experience is necessary for success in whatever career or interest a student pursues, whether it be science, business, a technical vocation, or another field.  
  5. Stay Calm During Testing Time: Pressure is contagious. Districts and communities can generate a rush of anxiety at testing time. Model a calm demeanor and resolve in keeping testing in perspective. Remind teachers and students that you are evaluating them on much more than a test. Reiterate your belief that everyone—teachers and students alike—is much more dynamic, interesting, intelligent, and capable than what bubbles on a paper might attempt to suggest.
  6. Accept Challenges: Creating a new paradigm of instruction and learning is a massive undertaking. Innovating within the confines of the testing system is one thing; this is entirely different. This is breaking out of a narrow system and building something new. Dramatic change elicits fear in many. Acknowledge and respect people’s fears, and continually communicate why such change is needed. In order for this effort to gain traction—in your classrooms, schools, districts, states and throughout the country—laser focus, deliberate effort, and enormous patience must precede it.
(For more on Humble ISD’s approach to 21st-century teaching and learning, read Success Beyond the Test: Preparing Students for Success in Real Life.) 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What My Parents Taught Me About Leadership

One of the best parts about blogging for me is that my parents read each and every post.  My father takes a look at the content only, while my mom is my chief proofreader. During my early years of blogging I always posted each post to my personal Facebook page and emailed my parents a live link. It was at this time my mom got sick of all of the spelling and grammatical errors so she emphatically stated that I must send her each post to proof before posting.  The early lesson for me here was that it is always good to have another set of eyes look over your blog posts before you make them public.

Image credit:

This however is not the purpose or point of my post.  In one sense I want to thank my parents for all that they have done for my and my brothers over the years. Knowing that I have their attention with each post, it makes some sense to use this medium to convey my heartfelt admiration for their job as parents. On the other hand, I really want to focus on what my parents taught me about leadership throughout my 41 years of life.  After a recent keynote presentation I was reflecting on the fact that I hadn’t spoken to them upon returning from Turkey a few days earlier.  It must have been the perfect storm of just finishing talking about leadership and guilt that provided the motivation for this post.

Here is some context before I detail what I learned about leadership from my parents.  I grew up in a very rural area of Northwestern NJ. Growing up here led to a great appreciation of the outdoors and participation in many different sports.  My father was an elementary school principal at Alpha Public School and Hatchery Hill School for a total of 30 years.  I have always been proud of following in my father’s footsteps.  Once I became a principal myself I only hoped to be a fraction of the leader he was.  My mom was an elementary teacher for 27 years, the last 18 spent teaching at Francis A. Desmares School in Flemington, NJ.  Her passion for always finding the best in all of her students still sticks with me to this day even in my new role.

As a child I never truly understood many of the decisions and actions of my parents.  What I now know is that they influenced my development into a leader in more ways that I could ever write about.  Below are possibly the ten most important leadership lessons that I learned from my parents:

  • Celebrate what matters: You would not have known it in my household, but both my parents were award-winning educators.  I only found out about this at both of their retirement dinners.  My father even testified to congress on a few occasions. To them their success was a testament to the people they worked with and most importantly their students.  They taught me that it was extremely important to celebrate the work of others and what goes on in schools. This is why I empower other leaders to become the storyteller-in-chief.
  • Organization and time management: As kids my brothers and I were empowered to take responsibility over our learning.  To this end my parents ensured that we studied and managed our time appropriately. Not only did these lessons save me in college, they also positively impacted my productivity as a principal.
  • Timeliness – Unless I missed something, my parents were never late to work.  Being present and on time for my job as well as at meetings and events really sends a positive message.  
  • Money Matters – My dad was all over me even as a young adult about creating a personal budget in order to manage my finances. I learned more about money management and budgeting from him than I did any course I ever took.  This knowledge was then applied as a principal when I had to create and present an annual budget for my school. In my opinion this was one of my strengths.
  • Putting students first – During our childhood my mom put her career on hold in order to stay home with me and my brothers. She encouraged my wife to do the same stating that you will never get this time back. This lesson taught me to always put my students first and to create a school culture that did the same. In education we have the unique opportunity to positively impact the life of a child every day. This is an opportunity not to be squandered. Everything we do in education is for our students.
  • Modeling – I often talk about the need for leaders to model the expectations that they have for others. My parents imparted this lesson to me from birth. Their example and actions were always impacted to teach me to be a better student and person. It was their modeling of the importance of character and integrity that probably had the most impact on me. Don't ask others to do things that your yourself are not willing to do. Most importantly, be a leader of action.
  • Shared sacrifice – Nothing epitomizes servant leadership than shared sacrifice. It was apparent that my parents were only concerned with our well-being. They never splurged on expensive cars, elaborate trips, or a large home. Instead, they put all their effort and finances into our education and trying their best to teach us how to be good people.  As leaders we must make certain sacrifices in order to initiate and sustain change.  It is also understood that our main role is to serve our key stakeholders if transformation is the ultimate goal. Sacrifice also involves making difficult decisions. Remember that leadership is not a popularity contest.
  • Work Hard for Everything – My parents didn’t give me or my brother’s any handouts besides our college education, which they sacrificed greatly for. The expectation was to commit to a goal, follow-through, and learn from mistakes. This lesson helped me to be more motivated intrinsically to succeed as opposed to extrinsically. I have seen the most impact in this area by taking control of my learning through the formation of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). I live by this Chinese proverb, "The person who says it can't be done shouldn't interrupt the person doing it." Work hard and success typically follows.
  • There is nothing more important than family – At every family wedding my father does a toast. In his short speech he says that there is nothing more important than family. Leaders understand that their school or district is a family. From a professional perspective nothing else is more important and this is why we do the work we do.
  • Empathy – All throughout my childhood my parents taught me how to be empathetic. They did not tolerate the use of hurtful language or bullying of any kind. Their kindness and generosity to others and us is still apparent to this day.  This lesson taught me to identify and understand the situation, feelings, and motives of others before rushing to judgment, decision, or regrettable action.  Am I still working on this – definitely!

This is a much longer post than what I typically write, which shows you how much I have learned about leadership not from a book, class, or my Personal Learning Network, but from my parents. I could go on and on. However, a fitting close to this post is quite simply a thank you. Thank you mom and dad for all you did and continue to do to teach me what leadership is all about. I love both of you so much!

What have your parents or family members taught you about leadership? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comments below.