Sunday, November 27, 2016

5 Tips to Strengthen Your School’s Identity

There are many lessons we can learn from the business world and adapt in ways that align with education. Take the concept of branding that Trish Rubin and I discuss in detail in BrandED. Since the advent of media, organizations across the globe have worked tirelessly to build a positive brand presence that resonates with potential consumers.  In short, it represents a promise that is woven into a combination of words, design, colors, music, video, logo, service, etc. The promise that companies promote is aligned to specific attributes with the goal of creating a memorable experience.  If this goal is met the likelihood increases that a consumer will purchase their product. Mega brands like Apple, McDonald’s, and Nike have long embraced this concept of branding and the result has been the creation of a clear identity.

When it comes to education, people line up on both sides of the branding debate. From a purely business sense, I would be against the concept myself. The purpose of school is not to sell and increase profits.  This is something that we can all agree on. However, a school’s identity is extremely important in the eyes of the beholder, which in this case are key stakeholder groups consisting of students, parents, community members, local businesses, and educators. The idea of a promise to educate all learners and prepare them for success in a rapidly changing world is an expectation that cannot be ignored.  If this can’t be promised, then why would stakeholders support our schools or trust their children to educate them?

Identity matters in a digital world.  Do you want this created for your school, or would you like to be proactive in developing one? This is where the concept of branding has value and significance for schools.  The overreaching goal of a brandED strategy is to develop and sustain positive relationships with all stakeholders. It is not about selling, but a consistent focus on sharing and telling your story. The bottom line is that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will and the result could be an identity that does not align with your school’s mission, vision, or values.  

Embracing these elements of brandED thinking by becoming the storyteller-in-chief can begin the process of developing a powerful school identity that resonates.  Strengthen your school’s identity with these simple tips:
  1. Amplify great work that takes place on a daily basis by consistently sharing using a multi-faceted approach that blends traditional (newsletters, email, phone, face-to-face) with digital-age tools (social media). With social media, tools make sure your account pages are up to date (website links, avatars, profile information, etc.). It is also wise to educate your stakeholders on social media tools and how you will be using them to increase engagement.
  2. Build trust through transparency.  The benefits here are numerous, including attracting families to move to your local district or, in the case of tuition (private, parochial, independent) schools, making a greater financial investment. It can also help when it comes to referendums, passing the school budget, and engaging alumni with the hopes of donating time, money, and resources.
  3. Focus on elements that align with a thriving school culture, such as innovative learning, student achievement, staff accomplishments, college/career readiness, partnerships, unique traditions, and extra-curricular activities.
  4. Empower others to be active sharers and avoid a gatekeeper mentality when it comes to sharing the story of your school.  Encourage different departments, student groups, parent organizations, and extra-curricular activities to maintain social media accounts.
  5. Regularly recognizing the work of educators and students in your school can be inspirational. The result can be greater levels of motivation and appreciation, which helps to develop a positive school culture. Develop a template to curate all the great work occurring on a monthly basis. The report can then be shared in its entirety or broken up into numerous blog posts.  
In an educational sense, the identity of your school (or even yourself) is not only determined by the work, but also by how the work is shared.  It stands for who you are.  Being cognizant of this fact allows you to be proactive in creating an identity that resonates with all stakeholders. Think about the identity that you, your students, and your staff want. By using the tips above, engaging stakeholders in two-way communications, and taking control of your public relations, in time, you will create an identity that truly depicts the amazing work taking place on a daily basis.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Keys for a Successful Digital Transformation

Nobody likes change, but the fact is that change is at our doorstep.  Changes in technology are quickly beginning to force the hands of schools and districts across the world. This poses some good news for students, as transformation efforts are under way to provide authentic learning experiences that provide relevance, value, and tangible skills in an unpredictable world. Even though changes are occurring, we need to be mindful of what is driving the work while looking past soft claims to ensure technology is actually improving learning and achievement.   It is important not to get sucked into the transformational aspects of the technology itself, but instead focus on the transformation of teaching, learning, and leadership.  

With every inch of progress we must constantly be reflective of where we are at and how to improve. We can ill afford to keep investing in the “stuff” through the played out scenario of putting the cart before the horse. Placing a device in the hands of all students and hoping for learning miracles to happen will always result in a let down.  I know this might rub technology aficionados the wrong way, but the fact remains that edtech has been over-promised and under delivered.  Any leader who has gone through a successful digital transformation realizes this.  The key is to be critical of the process in order to make sure investments pay off in terms of enhanced learner outcomes.  

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Many lessons can be learned from successful digital transformations, including the one that occurred at my former school. Whether going Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), 1:1, blended, or personalized learning take note of some key elements that are essential to success:


If the plumbing is not in place success will be hard to come by.  By infrastructure I am not talking about devices per say, but WiFi access and space design.  There is noting more frustrating for teachers and students alike when attempts are made to integrate technology with purpose only to have the WiFi not work or operate properly. Hand in hand with WiFi access is the capability to charge devices.  Make the initial investment to get this right the first time.


Pedagogy trumps technology. Do you have a framework in place to ensure successful integration?  It is critical to have a common vision, language and expectations for how technology will play a ubiquitous role in supporting and/or enhancing learning.  A growing number of schools and districts rely on the SAMR model.  My question for you to consider is what does SAMR actually tell you or your stakeholders about the level of student learning taking place? We found the answer to be not very much. SAMR does provide good guidance on what to avoid when it comes to technology integration (substitution) and provides an excellent bridge to the Rigor Relevance Framework. Consider the Rigor Relevance Framework, which is learner centric, to assist in effectively aligning technology to instruction, curriculum, and space redesign. Check out this example in relation to Gsuite.

Professional Learning

Investing in people will always be one of the foundation elements of a successful digital transformation. Relevant, job-embedded learning opportunities that move away from traditional drive-by approaches will help to sustain meaningful change.  Equal investments need to be made to support both teachers and administrators. After all, success is dependent on both groups having the knowledge, support, and skills to implement, evaluate, and continuously improve the digital transformation process. There is no substitute for quality face-to-face professional learning opportunities that blend an assessment of where you stand with digital practices, courses, job-embedded coaching, and active discussion.  


This element is critical in any type of change process.  It is not only about being open to change, but also being an intimate player in the process.  Thus, digital leadership goes without saying. It is about working smarter, not harder, in order to do what we already do better.  Digital leaders help to establish a collective vision, provide support, model expectations, ensure accountability, and constantly reflect in transparent ways in order to improve.  Technology is a ubiquitous component that supports the work they have always done but in a more effective and efficient manner.

Avoid Assumptions

Let’s begin with an example.  Students know how to use tech (assumption), but they don’t necessarily know how to use it to support their learning (reality). Students will be off task when they are afforded the opportunity to use technology (assumption), yet virtually all of us adults would go off task at times well before the digital age (reality).  So many assumptions are made when it comes to technology that reality plays second fiddle. Progress, and ultimately success, is contingent upon removing a myriad of barriers to change that arise as a result of our mindset. Assumptions and excuses will hold you back. Thanks to the Internet and Personal Learning Networks (PLN’s) we can learn firsthand from the reality inherent in digital transformation success across the globe.  


Success breeds success.  There is no greater motivator than the positive results of any change effort. Evidence of success goes a long way towards embracing change resulting in transformation. However, along the same lines of our infatuation with assumptions, a lack of evidence and connection to research tends to be accepted when talking about digital transformations. When integrating technology there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes. This can come in the form of data, improved observations/evaluations, artifacts, and portfolios. Too much money and time is at stake to just rely on broad claims and a lack of real evidence of success. 

Smart Budgeting 

Having developed a budget for a high school over the course of many years I can tell you that there was a great deal of wasted money year in and year out. Money can be freed up in any budget if we critically analyze how the expenditure will positively impact learning.  Once money is reallocated the next step is to ascertain the role that any technology purchase will play. The question we need to be asking when going through the budget process is how will this technology actually improve learning and achievement at scale?  If there is a challenge in answering this question then obviously you are not making a wise investment.  Do your research and plan accordingly.


Relationships are the glue that holds the change process together resulting in transformation.  These need to be built both internally and externally.  From a student perspective it is important to emphasize and follow through in ways to foster greater student agency in the learning culture.  You need to begin to say yes more than no as implemented ideas that come from students are the ultimate relationship builder.  From an adult stakeholder perspective it is critical to develop a positive brand presence that will result from a multi-faceted approach to communications and an evolution into the storyteller-in-chief.  Meet your stakeholders where they are at, engage them in two-way communications, and maintain a level of consistency. Over time powerful relationships will be established with all.

All in all we need to prepare students for their future, not ours.  We can ill afford to prepare them for a world that doesn’t exist.  We need to create schools of the future, today.  Even with progress in many schools and districts it is important to always be open to critical reflection and evaluation on not just where we are at, but more importantly where we want to be.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Facilitating Open Debate In and Out of School

As educators it is important that we model the expectations that we have for our students and each other.  To that end, it is vitally important that we continually look for ways to push our own thinking and leadership in order to improve professional practice.  In my role as a presenter this is key. I routinely ask all types of educators to be innovative and take risks. As I continue to grow in this area, I am always on the look out for new tools that I can integrate into my presentations to demonstrate these two points as well as to illustrate the pedagogical link that technology supports in our schools.  Often times I will double down and also make the connection of how certain tools can be used to support the work of administrators.

Recently I was tasked with delivering a two and a half hour keynote to 1700 educators in Missouri.  This posed quite the challenge thanks to the large size of the crowd and duration of the presentation.  As I went through my deck I looked for opportunities to build in numerous interactive activities where everyone in the audience would be able to respond.  Lately my tools of choice have been TodaysMeet, Answer Garden, and Mentimeter (my all time favorite).  Once all of the interactive components were added I noticed that I had more questions than different tools.  It was time to take a risk and learn a new tool.

Thanks to the assistance of my PLN I had a variety of new tools to choose from. I settled on ProConIt.  This is a very cool, yet powerful tool that has applications in the classroom and to strengthen relationships with stakeholders. With ProConIt your audience can discuss and debate any topic you develop. Unlike typical polling tools, you create something called a "Procon" by defining both the topic of discussion and the two sides of the issue you want to gather opinions on. ProConIt allows you to ask these questions and then invite students, stakeholders, or audience members to provide their thoughts. Essentially an open debate unfolds where everyone can participate. 

As others navigate the Procon, opinions up to 225 characters can be submitted on both sides of the issue. People can even evaluate comments that were previously submitted.  What then happens is the best opinions, either for or against, rise to the top. The needle at the top of the page tells you which way the issue is leaning while the specific arguments identify why.  Take a look at the results from a ProConIt I recently used during a recent keynote. The prompt was as follows: Do you feel gaming and the gamification of education can lead to better learner outcomes? Submit your opinion with a reason.

This is a great tool to use in the classroom and with stakeholders to facilitate open debate on issues relating to learning concepts, global problems, policy changes, new courses, referendums, technology purchases, proposed school schedule changes, and the list goes on and on.  The key to using this tool, especially with students, is for respondents to explain why they are for or against.  Shortened URL’s can also be included as a means to provide evidence to support a pro or con stance.  

Upon reflecting on my use of this tool yesterday, so many useful applications come to mind.  For starters, it is an incredible tool to use during presentations to engage attendees in a thoughtful dialogue.  However, the real value of this tool will be found in the hands of students, educators, and administrators. Think about the possibilities of using ProConIt as a powerful way to improve student agency in your school or to build consensus around major decisions with a better sampling of stakeholders.  How do you see yourself using ProConIt in your respective position? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Critical Thinking in the 21st Century and Beyond

One of my fondest memories of school was my science teacher, Mr. South. Having attended a K-8 consolidated school in rural NJ, we knew who all the teachers were.  However, Mr. South stood out.  I remember an elementary student seeing paper flyers with a caricature of Mr. South wearing one of his famous flannel shirts. As the years passed, he transitioned from flannel to a dress shirt, tie, and jeans.  He was stylish in the sense that he always got students and staff alike to talk about what he was wearing over the years.

There was a reason why everyone talked about Mr. South. He was an amazing teacher. Every student in the school could not wait to take his class.  Since our school was small, there was a chance you could even have him multiple times before moving up to the high school.  What separated Mr. South from his peers was his passion for helping students learn and love the sciences.  His lessons were light on direct instruction and heavy on authentic connections and application. He didn’t teach science. We learned science.

All of his classes were amazing.  He is the main reason I pursued a degree in science initially, before taking this passion to the field of education. There was one project in particular that has stuck with me to this day.  Instead of lecturing to us about Mars he had us actually create Mars in the classroom. Students were broken up into teacher-selected groups that had different tasks to complete. The specific task of each group played a larger part in the Martian project.  My partner and I were tasked with getting materials to Mars in order to create an infrastructure on the planet.  Through our research we came across a device called the mass driver.  We presented our finding to Mr. South and he gave us the tasks of creating 2 different working mass driver prototypes

During school and after school, my partner and I worked on developing these miniature prototypes that would actually propel mass.  This was certainly a frustrating experience, as we were never really asked to learn like this before.  Countless hours were spent outside of school working on this project. We even went to Mr. South’s house on weekends so that we could use the many different tools he had in his garage.  Through it all we owned our learning by being engaged in thoughtful work and made numerous connections to other disciplines. The process in itself was fraught with highs and lows, but in the end we developed the two working prototypes as assigned while learning with our hands.  

Over a period of a couple of weeks each group worked to complete their assigned tasks.  The final step was then to actually create Mars in the classroom and that is what Mr. South had us do. It was controlled learning chaos that involved tools, wood, paper mache, collaboration, communication, black lights, and so much more.  When thinking of makerspaces today, our learning experience in his class was one connected to the guiding principles of the maker movement.  Once the surface of Mars was completed each group set up stations throughout the planet to present their specific projects.  The culminating activity was a multi-night presentation to parents and the greater community where each group showed off a thriving community would hypothetically be created on Mars. 

This was by far one of the most powerful learning experiences I ever engaged in as a student.  Mr. South had us actively learn science instead of just taking notes and then a traditional assessment.  It was relevant, meaningful, and fun. Real-world predictable and unpredictable problems were tackled.  We developed the competence to think in complex ways and to apply knowledge and skills. Even when faced with perplexing unknowns, the pedagogy employed by Mr. South allowed us to use extensive knowledge and skills we didn’t know we had to create solutions and take action to further develop skills and knowledge. At ICLE this is what we call a Quad D learning activity.  

Many of the 21st Century skills that are emphasized today were evident in the project that took place in 1988.  It is not that this type of learning is new. Heck, everything we see and hear for the most part is not new.  What has changed is how technology provides a new avenue to actively integrate this type of learning in ways that many of us could never have imagined.  The key is to focus on project-based and authentic inquiry. Taking the example I presented from my schooling consider the following elements and the ubiquitous role technology should play:

  • Driving question or challenge
  • Need to know
  • Inquiry and innovation
  • 21st Century skills
  • Student agency
  • Feedback and revision
  • Publicly presented project

These elements, when aligned with sound pedagogy, can provide students with the types of learning opportunities that they will carry with them no matter what path they choose.