Sunday, July 2, 2017

Actions Change Things

Conferences are a hallmark of the summer season. Thousands of educators attend events around the United States to connect, learn, and grow.  For the past three years I have had the honor of attending and participating in the Model Schools Conference.  You can check out a video of my opening mini-keynote HERE. The goal of this event is to set the stage with the latest innovative practices improving school and to begin to lay the foundation for districts and schools to begin planning long-term, job-embedded professional growth opportunities that are anything but the drive-by variety.  

What separates this conference from all others is the fact that the program is built around district and school teams who have closed achievement gaps, bridged the digital divide, and implemented innovative practices aligned to research. The model schools and districts put on a display of evidence focusing on what works to create a learning experience driven by practitioner success in the field.  It doesn’t get much better than that. 

Regardless of the conference you attend, what you do afterwards is what truly matters.  Hopefully you are exposed to new ideas, evidence-based strategies, research, and tools that will push your thinking while motivating you to move outside your comfort zone. The experience should result in the construction of new knowledge that can be used as a catalyst for change.  Reflecting on what was learned typically comes next.  This is something that I see happening at every Model Schools Conference.  As the sessions end, you can walk around the conference center and always see district and school teams gathered in rooms or common spaces reflecting on their learning while mapping out a plan for action.

What must happen next is the most critical aspect of any conference or professional growth experience – you must ACT!  It is our individual, and most importantly our collective, actions that will help us to move from an old status quo to creating a new status quo.  As you begin to develop action plans that tackle both large and small changes pause to think deeply on the process involved.  The process of change results in action, but there are many key elements that must be considered if success is the goal. Consider current obstacles and challenges as you navigate the process that culminates with action to transform learning for all students.

Talk, opinions, and assumptions might be catchy and motivating, but quickly lose their luster not if, but when a lack of substance surfaces (which it always does eventually). The same could be said about presentations that just focus on tools.  Take a critical lens to the ideas and strategies that you are exposed to. Then ask a few questions to help establish a plan for action:

  • Why will this help transform practice and improve teaching, learning, and/or leadership?
  • Is the idea or strategy scalable? 
  • How will we sustain the effort and show efficacy?
  • What research and evidence can be aligned to support the actions to be taken?

Don’t get sucked into the rabbit hole of fluff.  Always pause to reflect on anything you are exposed to whether it is from a conference, workshop, keynote, presentation, book, article, video, blog, tweet, etc.  This definitely applies to anything you read or hear from me! We have isolated pockets of excellence in schools across the world, but every kid deserves excellence. More collective, meaningful action will help to scale effective practices while preparing students for the new world of work. Let’s get to work!


  1. I am going to take you up on this statement:

    "Always pause to reflect on anything you are exposed to whether it is from a conference, workshop, keynote, presentation, book, article, video, blog, tweet, etc. This definitely applies to anything you read or hear from me!"

    In the image that you are sharing you are talking about "The Change Process" and moving from an "old status quo" to a "new status quo". Then you give this question:

    "What research and evidence can be aligned to support the actions to be taken?"

    So if we are moving to a "new status quo", then is there a contradiction with it being based on evidence all of the time? For example, you often talk about the importance of social media in schools, but did you base that on "evidence" of it leading to something better in schools? And if so, what was that "evidence" based on?

    A lot of research shows that schools that have moved to a "1 to 1" environment show no improvement in grades, but is that what we are basing evidence on?

    Often when people talk about "evidence" in education, they are simply talking about increased test scores and grades. Is this what you mean when you use that term?

    Is there a balance between using "best practice" while also focusing on innovation in education? Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant stated to the effect of "best practice is often the enemy of innovation". Blockbuster didn't move forward with purchasing Netflix because their evidence had show that their model worked in the past. What do you believe the balance should be of going out and trying something new, while also using what we believe to be "tried and true" practices?

    Looking forward to your thoughts. Thanks for all of the work that you do to lead schools forward.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to provide a thoughtful comment George. I think we are probably going to agree to disagree on this one, but I am going to try my best to articulate my point. If we talk about embracing new and better ideas what actually substantiates this claim? How do we know something is new and better without evidence? The contradiction occurs if we can’t actually show improvement no? So let’s take the example of the image and apply it to using social media as leaders. I certainly have evidence that it led to something better in schools. Prior to using social media as a leader my school never received any mainstream news coverage on our practice. After CBS NYC learned through my Twitter account that we were using this tool in our core ELA classes they did a featured story. This led to a professional relationship being formed with a reporter. Over the next 4 years 13 more featured stories followed focusing on innovative practices on how teaching and learning were changing for the betterment of students. In this case we created a new status quo resulting from improving pedagogy and communication practices.

      Evidence can come in many forms. There is a great deal of focus on standardized test scores, but there is other quantitative and qualitative means (graduation/promotion rates, attendance rates, discipline referrals, perception surveys, facilities audits), improved observation/evaluation methodologies, walk-throughs, collection of artifacts (assessments, student work, projects, lessons, etc.), and portfolios (something you have written about extensively). With portfolios we can show growth over time aligned to standards and competencies, but how often do we actually see this? You hit the nail on the head with the research related to achievement and 1:1, but what has been uncovered in numerous studies is the fact that teaching, learning, and leadership are not changing so that the technology can help students mastery concepts better. Showcasing the many benefits of pedagogical change through good examples aligned to standards, concepts, and curriculum can go a long way to illustrating efficacy in our work.

      In my opinion we need to be careful with our words as efficacy matters. There is actually a great deal of peer-review research and evidence out there in support of new and better ideas being championed by many. Tom Murray and I unearthed 191 such citations in our book Learning Transformed. As you state, we need to be data-informed, not data driven. To move beyond just a focus on data as an indicator of school improvement other forms of evidence are needed in my opinion. Thanks for the push!

    2. I don't think we are agreeing to disagree here. If you look at your example of social media that you actually used, you did something first without the research to back it up in the first place. The evidence you had to prove your point came AFTER based on your willingness to try something new. You keep using the term "new and better" (which was not mentioned in my comment but was mentioned in my book on how we look at innovation so I am guessing that is why you are bringing it up) but you at first did something "new" and later determined it was "better" on your own. How did you know it would lead to "better" in the first place without actually doing it?

      In your own example, all of the evidence you used was based on your determination from the practice. Your point also proves that the idea of "better" can be contextual. There is no guarantee that if people did what you did (based on your evidence that you provided that it was "better") that they would garner the same results. Do you think the results would be the same in your area of New Jersey as they would be in a remote location in Northern Canada? Maybe they would, but maybe they wouldn't.

      This is what I was referring to earlier. Sometimes the "research" can come from others (many followed your lead based on your evidence of what it lead to), but sometimes we have to go out and try new things because we see that what we are doing in our own context is not working. I agree with you that if does not lead to "better" based on different types of evidence, then it is not worth it. That is simply change for the sake of change. I have said this often, that every thing we have deemed as "best practice" was once an innovation; it was someone seeing things weren't working in their own context and they created an idea that led to a better practice. You and I agree that determining the "better" has to be based on evidence but evidence can be so much more than grades. We also have to understand that "better" can mean different things in different contexts.

      I used the context of swapping junk food out of vending machines for healthy food. If kids refuse to eat it and go get a junk food fix somewhere else, then that did not lead to a "better" practice. It was change for the sake of change, which we both agree is not good. Yet sometimes the solutions have to come from what we have seen others do that has been successful, and sometimes they have to come from us creating our own solutions. As you have proven in your own comment, we can try new things and decide if it was "better" after the fact based on evidence. If we do not balance using what we have seen works from others, and creating our own solutions, we will just continuously spend time for others to solve our problems.

  2. Agree, but it still comes back to how in Education we can do a better job sharing evidence of result to validate ideas shared and connect to research (when possible). Eveything doesn't have to be connected to research, but showing a result with evidence of improvement makes sense. Would you agree?

    Innovation in general focuses on new and better ideas. It is probably one of the most prolific topics at conferences and events. I guess my point was how can we collectively push the conversation a bit further to show efficacy (in a variety of ways).

    1. Totally agree that evidence is important...I just don't think it is all about the test and scores. Too many people talk about "data" and "evidence" and they are really talking about grades.

      I guess innovation is so much of a topic at conferences because we have heard that schools are not working for our kids and people are trying to find a better way. You should watch this Ted Talk:


      Thanks for the conversation Eric! I appreciate all you do for education.

    2. Nice subtle inclusion of that so-so TED talk LOL. I am in 100% agreement with you that evidence is so much beyond test scores, but unfortunately this is a reality that educators must acknowledge and work to address. The next time I see you face to face I will share an example through a parent lens in relation to my own kids that illustrates the shortcomings of achievement data being the only indicator or learner growth and success.We need to move the evidence conversation beyond this singular view (see the other means I mentioned in a previous comment). You have really taken the lead on this conversation through your innovative work, especially with the portfolio push. I would like to see this scaled more for both students and educators aligned to standards. The same can be said with existing research. What better way to validate successful changes in practice if we can align supporting research after the fact (not just prior). Either way is ok in my view.

      If we can connect the dots with data and links to research thats great. However, we must also move the conversation to new thinking, something that you have done a fantastic job of over the years.

      Thanks again for the push and thoughtful dialogue. You reminded me that I need to do a better job engaging in deeper conversations on platforms such as this. Keep blazing a trail George.

  3. Thanks Eric and George, I enjoyed reading your conversation this morning. Great insight & reflection. I have had many conversations of this nature with principals, school board admin and Ministry of Ed agents. Your points of view help me to better understand the big picture, and ask the right questions to help guide principals that I work with.

    1. Open engagement serves to benefit so many more people. Constructive feedback and discussion greatly aid in the reflection process.