Sunday, January 28, 2018

To Fail Forward You Need to Believe in Yourself

"Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." - Henry A. Ford

I was never one to embrace the mindset that failing at anything was good for you.  For the most part, my educational experiences kept me in a box where success was determined by the destination, not the journey.  Grades and marks were the main indicators of how well I did and with a few exceptions, the learning process focused on a linear path.  As I have grown as a professional and learner, the one thing I now believe in without a doubt is that success and learning follow a similar path, which is anything but linear and often a convoluted process.  It is important that we as adults understand this if we are to transform learning in an effort to improve education for students at scale.  

Failing forward is the ability to reflect on unintended consequences in pursuit of goals and ultimately achieve success.  It requires a mindset rooted in determination, self-efficacy, patience, resilience, creativity, big-picture thinking, and accountability.  Above all else, you need to believe in yourself and your own unique abilities.  Quite often I speak on the need for the profession of education to redefine success and learning.  When doing so I point to the acronym that many people now use for the word FAIL: First Attempt in Learning. So, what does this really look like in the context of transformative learning, innovation, and success?  Look no further than famous failures throughout the course of history who persevered after many failed attempts to succeed.

Now there are numerous famous people who have failed forward. One of the stories that I like to share most often is that of Henry Ford. Not only is his story inspiring, but the quote at the beginning of this post is one of the most powerful quotes related to learning that I can think of. I read a great summary about Ford on the Intellectual Ventures blog. He was an amazing entrepreneur and as history has shown he optimized transportation forever changing the automobile industry. Even though he succeeded, Ford experienced numerous failures. From the lessons learned he was able to fail forward to eventually develop an automobile manufacturing process that was cost efficient, produced reliable vehicles, and paid workers well all while creating a loyal culture.

The Intellectual Ventures post goes on to summarize the two main failures that Ford experienced:
The capital was difficult to attain and in the late 1800s, no one had established a standard business model for the automobile industry. Ford convinced William H. Murphy, a Detroit businessman, to back his automobile production. The Detroit Automobile Company resulted from this union, but problems arose shortly after its creation. In 1901, a year and a half after the company began operations, Murphy and the shareholders got restless. Ford wanted to create the perfect automobile design, but the board saw little results. Soon after, they dissolved the company. 
Ford recalibrated his efforts after his first failure. He realized that his previous automobile design depended on serving numerous consumer needs. He convinced Murphy to give him a second chance. However, their second venture, the Henry Ford Company, stumbled from the start. Ford felt that Murphy pressured him to prepare the automobile for production and set unrealistic expectations from the beginning. Shortly after Murphy brought in an outside manager to supervise Ford's process, Ford left the company, and everyone wrote him off. 
These two failures could have been career-ending, but Ford continued. Several years after the second parting with Murphy, Ford met Alexander Malcomson, a coal magnate with a risk-taking spirit like Ford. Malcomson gave Ford full control over his production, and the company introduced the Model A in 1904. 
For Henry Ford, failure did not hinder innovation but served as the impetus to hone his vision for a technology that would ultimately transform the world. 
The story of Henry Ford is so empowering, as he did not let failure inhibit his resolve to succeed. Each failed attempt to revolutionize the automobile industry provided the vital learning lessons he needed to create something amazing. The story is the same for virtually every other famous person who did not succeed at first.  You must have a desire to change. Then you have to follow through with the process of change, which will not always go the way you would like. Ultimately, we must believe in our abilities to transform ideas into actions that produce a better, more successful result.  History has taught us that we should never doubt the difference one person can make with the right attitude and commitment to be the change. Those who fail forward change the world. 

Achieving success in the real world is rarely easy.  It is a convoluted process fraught with obstacles and unforeseen challenges.  That same goes for learning.  If it is easy, then it probably isn't learning. Our learners also need to see the value of failing forward.  The transition from Quad A learning to B, C, and eventually D as outlined in the Rigor Relevance Framework helps to give students a deeper understanding of concepts through authentic application. Quad D learning sees failure as being an iterative component of the learning process. Take a look at the image below that illustrates the power of Quad D learning to push students towards deeper thinking and application.

It is not what students ultimately know that really matters, but what they actually understand. When students are able to solve complex problems, even though they might experience setbacks along the way, critical competencies are developed that will prove invaluable in the future. This is key if we are to groom the next generation of inventors, thinkers, and entrepreneurs poised to succeed in the new world of work. 

Whether it is success in the real world of the classroom, failing forward requires an unwavering belief in our abilities as well as getting students to believe in theirs.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Bridging Connections to Empower Learners

The other day I was working from home, which is a rarity for me these days.  I huddled in my home office and focused my attention on email, writing a blog post, tweaking some presentations, and updating the digital handouts that all participants get during one of my keynotes or workshops.  Always joining me on these work from home days is my beloved dog, Roxie.  Like usual she was perched on top of the couch sleeping. Her snoring not only brought a smile to my face but also made me jealous that she doesn’t have a care in the world and enjoys the life of a pampered pet. 

Later in the day I moved from my desk and joined Roxie on the couch. Before I knew it I apparently dozed off. I will be the first one to admit that I love naps and inherited this quality from my father. He is always taking an afternoon nap no matter where he is.  I realized I had fallen asleep when my son, Nick, awakened me as he returned home from school. Now I was enjoying one of those deep sleep naps so I was a tad bit annoyed that he interrupted this moment of pure joy. My annoyance with him was short lived as he had woken me up to share a current project that he completed in school.

My 7th-grade son stood above me and in his hands was a bridge that he had built as part of an engineering project. As he provided details on how he went about constructing it, I could see how proud he was of his creation.  In my opinion, Nick was beaming as his bridge ranked the 5th best out of a class of 28 students.  Typically, it is my daughter who comes home from school and consistently engages my wife and me in conversations about how awesome her day of learning was. This is not the case with my son so I relished the opportunity to dive deep into his learning experiences in this particular class.

My son's bridge

My son is fortunate to have engineering every day as a 7th grader.  Throughout the year he has brought home innovative projects that he has created and each has sparked a conversation about why this type of learning is important and how it will benefit him in the real world.  The result of these discussions illustrates how impactful the daily experiences are for him. He has been empowered to own his own learning by actively applying what he has learned in this class while making connections to math, history, and science.  Conceptual mastery translates into what he has been able to effectively build with his hands.  There are also language arts connections as the students are encouraged to write and speak about the engineering principals behind their designs.  This is learning at its finest. 

My son is an empowered learner in engineering as many elements are bridged together to facilitate REAL (relevant, engaging, authentic, lasting) learning.  Pulling from my son’s experience as well as what we know about sound pedagogy, the following elements work together to empower learners:

  • Interdisciplinary connections
  • Authentic contexts
  • Choice
  • Practical application
  • Creation of a product that demonstrates conceptual mastery  
  • Meaningful feedback

As Tom Murray and I state in Learning Transformed, to prepare students for the world of tomorrow we must transform their learning today.  The shift is not as difficult as one might surmise.  As you think about developing or evaluating lessons, learning activities, projects, and performance task ask yourself if the six elements above are integrated.  If they are then the chances are that your students will not only be empowered but also develop a greater appreciation for learning. Happy learners are empowered learners when the right connections and elements are bridged together. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Five Components of Good Feedback

Everyone needs feedback in order to improve.  You would be hard-pressed to identify any profession where it isn’t a central component to success.  As I have written in the past, there is nothing more vital to our professional roles than good feedback that paints a picture not only of what we are doing well but areas where we can either become much better or outright improve. It helps us to develop both goals and objectives that guide our work in our respective roles.  For the most part, everyone wants good feedback so that they can become better.  Jon Windust looked at some research that supports and illustrates how feedback positively impacts performance:
"The researchers found that professionals receiving detailed feedback on a monthly basis outperformed all other groups involved in the study. Those receiving detailed monthly feedback improved performance on their key complaint measure by an impressive 46% relative to the control group over the course of the study."
It is important to make the distinction between feedback and criticism. Feedback is information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement. Criticism, on the other hand, is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. With growth being the end goal, it is important that feedback is delivered in a way that moves others to reflect on their work and take the necessary steps to get better.  

Feedback is not about the person giving it. It is all about the person who is receiving the feedback. What I mean by this is that we have to ensure that the way in which it is articulated resonates with the person who is receiving it.  Recently I posted this on social media:
Feedback stings when it is not: 
1. Delivered with sincerity
2. Grounded in practicality
3. Given in a timely manner
The above statement emphasizes the fact that we need to emphasize the “who” just as much as the “what” when it’s time to provide meaningful feedback for growth.  Here are five components of feedback to consider in order for the process to be beneficial to both the deliverer and receiver. 

Positive Delivery

How you deliver any type of feedback will determine whether or not it is acted upon.  The words that are used as well as body language can have an impact on how the message is received. Feedback shouldn’t just focus on areas of improvement.  Consider integrating a few admirable elements that you observed and tie this into a much broader plan for growth. Reinforcing good work and practice helps in establishing a trusting relationship that will strengthen the feedback loop over time. Positive delivery also paves the way for the recipient to respond or ask questions to what you have said creating a positive feedback loop.

Practical and specific

The goal of feedback is to help someone right away.  It should be focused on strategies that can be implemented immediately to help improve professional practice or learning.  When I conducted post-conferences with my teachers I always integrated connections to research that supported my recommendations.  This simple strategy went a long way to illustrate that the feedback was not only practical but also proven to have an impact.  Aligning to learning criteria, standards, skills, or competencies can provide the specificity that many people yearn for when it comes to feedback.


If the main goal is to use feedback as a catalyst for improvement then why delay it?  This is one of the reasons why I don’t really like final exams.  Students rarely receive good feedback that informs their learning as they are typically given these exams at the end of the school year and are then graded up until the last minute.  Delaying feedback allows small problems to potentially fester into larger ones. The bottom line is that the more time that goes by the feedback that could have really made an impact will not be valued as much, if at all.


If delivery of feedback is grounded in the first three points then consistency creates a culture committed to support, growth, empathy, and relationship building.  This reason alone drove our learning walk process in my former school. Not only did we get into classrooms every day as administrators, but we also made the point to always provide non-evaluative feedback that helped to prepare our teachers for their numerous unannounced observations down the road. The use of student portfolios is another great strategy to provide consistent feedback aligned to standards and learning targets. More feedback is always better than less.

Use the right medium

Technology has impacted the way in which feedback is delivered.  Even though it is easy to shoot off an email or text, these pathways might not always be the most effective depending on the situation or recipient.  So much can get lost in translation when there is no eye contact, hearing of voices, or observations of body language.  I am a huge proponent that there is no replacement for face-to-face communication when it comes to someone’s performance.  Phone calls, live video, or establishing a time to meet on site can go a long way to ensuring that the message has its intended impact. Pause and think about the feedback you are going to give and the best medium to deliver it. 

It also goes without saying that prior to giving any type of feedback be sure your information is accurate and that the means of delivery reeks of sincerity.  Sometimes criticism is disguised as feedback.  As you think about how you give feedback, where have you found success? What components of good feedback would you add that I did not include above? Thanks in advance for providing me valuable feedback as a writer.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Stories Link Us Together

I absolutely love hearing and telling stories.  There is so much magic in them and a good story can captivate an audience.  When I work with schools, especially in a coaching role, I routinely ask educators to share with me how they are empowering students to own their learning or ways in which they are transforming teaching, learning, and leadership.  Practical examples loaded with evidence are not only inspiring but can be used to motivate others to take a critical lens to their practice and improve on it. When administrators share stories of how they are closing achievement gaps or successfully implementing innovative practices, I immediately ask how they are messaging this to their stakeholders.  

With an array of social media tools at our disposal, every educator should aspire to be the storyteller-in-chief. Now more than ever the field of education needs to hear more powerful stories that showcase all the good that is being accomplished in schools, both with and without technology.  Perception can be a morale killer as often what people assume is happening within the walls of schools is the furthest thing from the truth.  The bottom line is that if you don’t tell your story then someone else will. Don’t fall victim to “perception is reality”. Provide stakeholders with REALITY by sharing all the awesomeness in your classroom, school, district, or organization. This is something that I speak to at length in BrandED. No matter what anyone says you can never overshare how you are positively impacting the lives of kids. 

The other day I delivered a morning presentation to a large group of K-12. Afterwards, I met with smaller groups of teacher leaders and administrators in a quainter setting as a means to reflect on what I presented earlier.  It was a great opportunity to really roll up our sleeves in an effort to discuss in more detail logical next steps in their quest for meaningful change.  During the end of one of the conversations, I was asked to tell my story about how I went from basically a Luddite to a visionary principal, to a transformational guru (her words, not mine). She really wanted to know the journey and steps I took to not only lead innovative change, but also my transition from a principal to a speaker.  

Once I started drinking the Twitter Kool-Aid back in 2009 I quickly learned the error of my ways. Basically, I was a control freak who had an inherent fear of technology and did not trust what my students would do with it if they had greater access.  Thus, I worked with my district to write the policies to block social media and ran around my school taking devices from students.  The stories I accessed on Twitter inspired me to be better. Each day I read about districts, schools, and educators finding success with technology and innovative practices.  This invaluable link to work across the globe became a catalyst for change that I could never have imagined. These stories motivated me to make needed changes at the individual level.  From there I collaborated with my staff, students, and other stakeholders to scale change efforts in an attempt to improve learning outcomes while creating a school that worked better for our learners. 

Over the course of five years from 2009 – 2014 we worked tirelessly to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  We weren’t always successful, but in the end, we succeeded more than we failed. Even though we garnered a great deal of attention for our digital initiatives, we also engaged in the hard work of increasing achievement, providing more authentic learning opportunities through the creation of our academies, improving grading practices, and ameliorating homework practices.  In an effort to improve professional learning opportunities for staff, a genius hour model was implemented as well as the creation of our own conference. As I noted during my narration, we were not the highest achieving or most innovative school. In my opinion, we were better than most at showing and sharing how we achieved success. 

I shared daily our stories of success, both large and small.  Whether it was short tweets, pictures on Instagram, videos on YouTube, or more detailed descriptions on my blog, the overall focus was to showcase efficacy in our work.  The stories that we shared resonated near and far.  This got the attention of media outlets in the New York City area and across the country.  Before I knew it, I was being asked to present at local and national conferences.  Each of these opportunities gave me yet another chance to tell the story of our school.  Eventually, I had to make a decision as it was nearing a point where I was going to be out of my building more than what was fair.  Thus, I decided to leave the principalship and grow into my new role as a Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).  

Well, that is my story that I shared when asked.  As I reflect back on my transformative journey and my current work I am always reminded how stories link us with our communities.  Local stakeholders feel more connected to a school when they know about all the efforts to improve learning while preparing their children to succeed in the bold new world.  This is a great way to build relationships through trust. Transparency is an educator’s best friend in the digital age. Communities of practice also become linked as we continuously share and learn together.  This, after all, is what being a connected educator is all about.  

Your work and practice are your story. Be proud of the impact you are having and use the many tools available to promote all that is good in education.  In the end, you will only create stronger links with your community and other educators across the world.