Sunday, September 24, 2017

To Innovate or Not to Innovate

Innovation has been a hot topic of discussion for the past couple of years even though it is not a new or novel concept.  New ideas leading to improvements have been occurring since the beginning of time.  All one has to do is take a look at the evolution of the human species to see how important innovation has been leading to society as we now know it.   Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei could be considered the forefathers of modern innovators.  Their ideas and inventions paved the way for all who followed. The industrial revolution brought the topic to the forefront. Shortly after the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Alexander Graham Bell blazed a trail with some pretty amazing inventions that improved the lives of many.  

The rise of entrepreneurs in every facet of society, coupled with advances in technology, continue to push the conversation. With changes to current professions, entirely new occupations, and different expectations to succeed in a world that we have no idea what it will look like, the pressure is on to evolve or else.  Innovation has not trickled but instead flowed into the education space. It seems like everyone is talking about the need to innovate to improve education as a whole as well as learning for students. As a result, we have seen some pretty amazing changes in a short period in schools across the world. 

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I am all for innovation in education and played my part as a high school principal to usher in changes, both big and small, that led to evidence of improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership.  It is important, however, to pause and reflect on what we are trying to accomplish.  A recent Edutopia piece titled The ‘No' in ‘Innovate' really got me thinking about this topic.  The author challenges all of us with the notion that sometimes the best way to innovate is to say no. Innovation for many has become just another thing added to a long list of initiatives or expectations. 

Not all innovations are good for education when repeatedly packed on top of each other, and we can't assume that positive changes will always result.  It is also important to note that "saying" something is innovative and actually "showing" that it is are two different paradigms.  As the common saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.  A particular direction is needed to help align innovative change to the vision, mission, and culture of a respective school.  At the individual level, a basic need to support or enhance practice is at the core of a decision to innovate or not. It is important to consider both the short and long game as to what you hope to accomplish. 

So how does one decide to innovate or not?  To help with this decision consider the questions below. 

Why will it improve what you or your students do? 
How do you know it has led to an improvement? 
How do others determine if it has led to an improvement? 
What is needed to scale the effort(s)?

Innovation is a collective endeavor geared at not only individual but more importantly system improvement.  Research can be used to inform and influence the process but does not need to drive it.  What is important is to show how innovative practices can, and will, improve our work.  Evidence that illustrates efficacy helps move innovation from an isolated practice focusing on small pockets to scalable change that impacts an entire culture.  This is something Tom Murray and I showcase and discuss this extensively in Learning Transformed. Start small, but think and plan for big.  

Innovate with a purpose, but make sure this mission extends well beyond an individual level.  In the end, it's not about how much you innovate in education, but the resulting impact of the changes on the collective. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Get Your SWOT On

Leaders often find and leverage tools, frameworks, and systems to support their own change, as well as that of their school or district.  There are many great options out there.  As a principal, I in particular, found success using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to integrate technology with purpose in order to improve student-learning outcomes.  This framework helped us to really focus on improving instruction first before throwing technology into the mix. This then became part of a set of strategies and competencies that guided our overall digital transformation efforts – The Pillars of Digital Leadership. My work now is focused on helping leaders, regardless of position, to leverage these resources to successfully implement and sustain needed change. 

Outside of education there are other tools and frameworks that can assist with various change efforts, many of which come from the business world. Business leaders know that assessing the status of an effort prior to the change process is crucial.  Building awareness is also a key element. As an innovative leader, you are reinventing the school culture through a different lens. As such, it is important to get a sense of the journey ahead by taking stock of where you are in the current moment. Prior to leading any new initiative, you can use an adapted version of a well-known business tool to take a snapshot of where you perceive the current culture to be in its current situation. Using this adapted tool may reveal important data and insight that helps you understand the status of your culture in order to successfully implement sustainable change. 

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In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I introduced the SWOT analysis.  I will elaborate on how this tool can be used to create or enhance a brand effort, but in all honesty, it can be used to tee up any new change initiative.  SWOT Analysis is a useful technique for understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and for identifying both the opportunities open to you and the threats you face. Adapted from BrandED, here is how you can use this tool to implement a positive brand presence.
Every business brand journey includes the use of this tool, an activity known as a SWOT analysis. In conducting a SWOT, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to brand success are stated and examined.  The SWOT activity is done in the very early stages of development of a mission so that the brand strategy can be assured of success (Armstrong & Kotler, 2015).  
Adapted for educators, a SWOT analysis is a chance to understand how you perceive your school community and can help you articulate a brand that addresses the current state of the organization. Especially interesting to leaders will be the opportunities for growth that are identified, which can be used as tangible measures of brand success, and the threats that are challenging the school. Making those threats a target and finding ways to see opportunities in those challenges can strengthen the school’s brand. A SWOT analysis can serve you well in your initial reflections about both your personal brand and your school’s. A SWOT process conducted with frankness yields valuable information about the current state of an organization and directs decision making. Once the analysis is complete, it forms a direction for leaders as they take on their personal brand, as they can more clearly see themselves serving the needs of the community.  
As business managers have found, putting yourself through your own SWOT analysis can even further inform the building of your own brand. Why do a personal SWOT? A SWOT analysis may goad you into real action as you advance your own brand in real time. Honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses and reflecting on any opportunities or threats that are present in your leadership style can help you assess your capacities before you build a professional brand that you own as the storyteller-in-chief. 
As you think about the changes you want to implement in your classroom, school, district, or organization take the time to conduct a SWOT analysis (see matrix below). This simple, yet effective process can help to identify potential pitfalls while building greater support for the effort. 

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Cited sources

Armstrong, G., & Kotler, P. (2015). Marketing: An introduction (12th
     ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Learning from Airbnb To Create an Amazing Learner Experience

Over the past few years we have seen disruptive innovation take hold.  The entrepreneurial spirit, aided by advances in technology, has propelled the creation of new businesses that consumers are flocking to.  One of those businesses is Airbnb. I don’t want to assume that everyone knows what this company is all about so here is a summary from Wikipedia.
Airbnb is an online marketplace and hospitality service, enabling people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, home stays, hostel beds, or hotel rooms.  The company does not own any lodging; it is merely a broker and receives percentage service fees (commissions) from both guests and hosts in conjunction with every booking.  It has over 3,000,000 lodging listings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries, and the host sets the cost of lodging.
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The concept is amazing as it benefits both the consumer and supplier while cutting costs.  However, the success of Airbnb as a company goes well beyond what many of us see or experience.  Their success as a disruptive innovator lies in the company culture that has been cultivated.  They greatly invest in their people, which as a strategy only has an upside. I recently read 3 Lessons From Airbnb on Creating an Amazing Employee Experience by Jacob Morgan. To lead off the piece he shares the following. 
Employee experience is a hallmark of a forward-thinking company that cares about its employees and wants to provide them with the resources to be successful.
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I encourage you to read the entire short piece.  In the article Morgan goes on to list and describe 3 important lessons that create a strong employee experience. Each in its own right is a pivotal component in building relationships. It all comes down to relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. Here is how those principles can be embraced in schools to improve the learner experience.

Involve students and staff

Student agency is the key to building powerful relationships with the most important stakeholder group in schools.  Affording students choice, allowing them to use their voice, and providing them the opportunity to advocate will empower them to better own their learning.  This type of involvement also leads to the creation of a better school culture beyond the classroom. We can’t forget the adults in this process. Educator agency is just as important.

Be authentic

Will the real you please step forward? That is what students and staff want to see.  Mike Robbins has a pretty good perceptive on the power of authenticity. He writes:
Authenticity is what gives us freedom to be ourselves and be comfortable with whom we are, and it’s also what gives us access to connecting with other people in a meaningful and genuine way.  This is true power of authenticity and when we embrace it, even though it can be uncomfortable and scary at times, we give ourselves and those around us one of the most important gifts of all — the real us.
Be true to yourself and others. When you fail (and you will), showcasing your vulnerable side will only help to strengthen the bonds with those you work with and for. Authenticity in leadership from your particular lens and position is critical in building a thriving learning culture. 

Continually evolve

If you want to make a difference then lead differently, learn differently, and act differently. Change begins with us.  Don’t expect others to change if you don’t first. Where it goes from there depends on the momentum that is built. The process of evolving as a whole is about overcoming fear, learning from mistakes, and challenging yourself to be better. When it comes to your school or district, the system will only evolve if you continue to push the envelope.

Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything. In doing so the learning experience for our kids should be nothing less than amazing.  If this is the goal then the work culture has to be equally as amazing for the adults. This is what I have learned from Airbnb. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Humanity's Gift

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.― Dalai Lama

Typically, I am a very focused writer.  Each post, for the most part, contains ideas and strategies focusing on improving teaching, learning, and leadership.  I often talk about accountability, evidence, and efficacy. This post will not follow that recipe. Please excuse any grammatical mistakes. 

When I began writing this post my house was being pelted with a wind-driven rain from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey.  By the time I actually got around to posting this piece on my blog the Houston area is still drying out. This has now been the worst flood in the history of the United States.  Having road out Hurricane Sandy in New York City back in 2012 I can say that this experience was worse.  In just 57 hours Harvey went from basically nothing to a Category 4 hurricane, the strongest to hit Texas in close to 50 years. The flooding and damage in the areas where the storm hit is unimaginable.  

We received approximately 28 inches of rain in just two days. Things down here were worse than what people were seeing on the news. For a 24-hour period Saturday into Sunday, there were non-stop tornado warnings with a bunch touching down in our neighborhood making sleep difficult. My kids slept in the closet for two nights as they were scared to death. All roads in/out of our community were flooded, so we couldn’t get out if we wanted to. I was outside constantly draining my pool as the surrounding drains wouldn’t have been able to do anything with the water.  The pool could have flooded my entire house from the back.  On Monday morning the water was only a few feet from our house. I wasn't worried until then. We have a lake on the left side of our house as well as one in the front.  The lake across the street had spilled over and merged with another lake.  All I could do at that point was pray for the rain to stop. Click HERE is you want to see a video from the early stages of the storm. You can also view some storm picture on my Instagram account

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Late Monday afternoon a river began pouring into our section and the forecast wasn’t looking too good. Water levels kept rising. Since the water was only a few feet from our doors we decided to seal them using a method that one of our community members recommended on Facebook. One of our saving graces were the local Facebook pages in our community offering support, advice, and needed humor to take our minds off things.  The lake to the left of our house eventually breached.  We moved all important stuff to the second level. We had friends with boats who could get us out if needed. It was terrifying to know that no matter what you did it would not be enough if nature had its way.  

Monday night we planned for the worst. However, our prayers were answered Tuesday morning. Even though it was still raining the water began to recede. We had 33 inches of rain while south of us had over 40. We felt blessed and extremely lucky at the same time. Both airports were still closed at this time and flooding to the south of us had turned catastrophic. My hope was that the water had receded enough so I could get out of my community and help in any way I could. Finally, later that day I was able to begin to help those in need in my community. Thanks to my neighbor and his truck we made it to the grocery store to buy needed supplies for displaced families. As we were buying supplies people in line began to chip in. I began to shake and held back tears.  Humanity was beginning to rise to the occasion.

By Wednesday the water in the community I live in had receded for the most part. Our efforts were now focused on helping those around us who were not as fortunate. I teared up when I arrived at the local church with supplies and saw there was a line to drop off items. More people were volunteering across Harvey stricken areas than were needed. We saw (and are still seeing) people step up and work together regardless of race, ethnicity, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and whatever other conflicts arose in the past. Now that's humanity at its finest. Some people were surely wondering why I was posting so much about what I was specifically doing to help. It's pretty simple - my hope was that my small actions would inspire more people to take action and help. I told people on Facebook not to be proud of me for doing what was right. Be proud if a movement results. 

Shana White shared this on Facebook, "Our character is revealed to others by the fruit we produce. Adversity usually provides more character and transparency than comfortable times, but they both provide a true indication of who you are. What kind of fruit do others see from you?" Life can't always be about what we do for ourselves. It has to be equally about what we do for others. Will you step up?

Thursday was a physically exhausting day. It had been 6 days since the hurricane hit and many homes that took on water just had it recede. A bunch of us from my neighborhood drove 30 miles south to hard-hit Richmond, TX to help out the father of one of our neighbors. I in particular wasn't ready for the scale of the flooding. Watching it on TV and then seeing it in person are two different things. Mountains of debris littered the neighborhood. However, what you saw were people from all walks of life coming together to pitch in and save homes.

While I was there I kept getting email notifications that brought me to tears (again). Friends, former students, and neighbors had begun to send money to my PayPal account. This all started the a day before when a member of my PLN asked if he could send money for my supply runs. I never asked for any money to be sent and still haven't, but you cannot deny the human spirit.  I used some of the money to buy pizza for the entire neighborhood where we were helping. This was made possible thanks to the compassion of others. There is so much good in people. This is my big takeaway these past few days. I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring for me, but I do know countless more people near and far would rise to the occasion to help. 
There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”  ― John Holmes
By Friday I couldn’t believe it had already been a week since the storm hit. This was the longest seven day stretch of my life. After helping out my neighbors with a flooded home the day before I took to social media at night. Twitter was used to build awareness and share information about where donations were needed. Facebook had been a godsend in terms of identifying people who needed immediate help. I learned of a few families who lost everything. Thanks to some generous donations I was able to purchase gift cards for clothes/supplies and hand delivered them that morning. 

On my way back home I saw local CFISD schools doing a “fill the boat” fundraiser. It's always great to see students, teachers, and parents rallying together to support the needs of others. The rest of the day was spent working to save flooded homes. Many homes were still flooded and couldn’t be tended to and the majority of Texans don't have flood insurance, which makes the situation much worse. My neighbors and I formed our own little cleanup crew. We were able to hit two different locations. What was awesome to see was how local cleanup crews from across the greater Houston community formed. Social media was being used to organize and dispatch teams to specific addresses. I even learned of a new app called Zello that many were using to coordinate efforts. So many people took off work and time away from their families to help people, many of which they didn’t even know. It was a humbling experience to see many people use their privilege for good.   
"Remember that the happiest people aren’t those getting more, but those giving more”. - H. Jackson Brown
As I continue to write I cry, something I did quite often all last week.  My family was relatively safe throughout this ordeal, but the destruction just a bit south of us broke, and continues to break, my heart.  The local news showed non-stop destruction that was unfathomable.  It also brought to light the countless stories of heroism, bravery, relationship building, service, empathy, and unselfishness. Thankfully I was home for this ordeal.  I work with some incredible people at the International Center for Leadership in Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Even though my flights to the Northeast were cancelled I wasn’t going anywhere even if they weren’t.  I had the peace of mind to put work and travel on the back burner to be here for my family.  You can’t put a price tag on that.  

All week I was bombarded with texts, calls, emails, and social media posts from friends and family all over the world.  People I barely know or didn’t even know at all took the time to reach out. No one really knew what we were dealing with and how bad the flooding was in my community.  As I posted daily updates on my Facebook page more and more people offered prayers and support.  Through it all everyone asked what they could do to help or wished they were in a position to do more.  The fact of the matter is if you made the effort and took the time to reach out to anyone impacted by this storm then you did all you could do.

My wife and I can't thank many of you enough for all the thoughts and prayers that were sent our way. The days since the storm started have been excruciatingly long and nerve-raking, but the messages of hope and optimism helped us get through this even though the recovery effort has a long way to go. As all the messages of support flew in so many people asked what they could do. My response was simple – “You’ve already done something just by showing you care.”  Showing you care for anyone here in TX was all anyone could do from afar. One of humanity’s greatest gifts is empathy and showing others compassion, no matter where you are

It was refreshing in particular to see social media used for a greater purpose other than just pushing out ideas, articles, thoughts, and resources.  I developed a greater appreciation (and at times cynicism if we are being honest) for how Twitter in particular was used.   When you look at life through a completely different lens you see things that you never realized were right in front of you.  By putting work, personal issues, and politics aside just for a few minutes many people rose to the occasion.  They modeled the most enduring characteristics of humanity and helped countless people (including me) get through this horrific ordeal.  This might be the most important life lesson we can impart on our students and continue to learn ourselves.  

Life is a gift. Together we can learn to better appreciate this gift. We must use our various forms of privilege, including digital spaces, that many of us have not just during catastrophe’s like this, but also in other cases when we are compelled to do the right thing. There is more LOVE here than water. You can't go anywhere any not see it. Love conquers all including any differences we have that might seem insurmountable. This is humanity’s gift.