Sunday, March 31, 2019

Feedback Should Be a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

Feedback can bring people together in the pursuit of a shared goal. Criticism, on the other hand, can drive people apart. In many situations going with the former is the better course of action.  Below is a piece I pulled from an article titled Using Neuroscience to Make Feedback Work and Feel Better that explains why it matters so much:
Feedback isn’t just a ritual of the modern workplace. It’s the means by which organisms, across a variety of life-forms and time periods, have adapted to survive. To University of Sheffield cognitive scientist Tom Stafford, feedback is the essence of intelligence. “Thanks to feedback we can become more than simple programs with simple reflexes, and develop more complex responses to the environment,” he writes. “Feedback allows animals like us to follow a purpose.” It’s no coincidence the words organism and organization share a Latin root. Just as feedback enables the former to flourish, so it does for the latter.
The feedback process matters.

Nobody likes to be just talked at regardless of the age group of the person being spoken to.  Even though there are most certainly cases that necessitate this, context matters.  Lately, I have been thinking about how we give feedback to our learners, colleagues, and those who we supervise.  Maybe give is the wrong word to use here. The prevailing notion is that one person speaks while the other(s) listens intently and reflects on the advice given.  Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions with an effective feedback loop.  In many cases, feedback is seen as something that is given to another person.  It becomes even more complicated when it is viewed as something that must be delivered. 

When there is a focus on delivery, we run the risk of focusing more on what is said as opposed to a process that fosters reflection and ultimately questions from the receiver.  Often, we settle on what the feedback is in terms of what people have done well, or not, through our own lens.  So much time is then given to mapping out what the feedback is that we want to share with the other person that it becomes more about us than the person or people we are trying to help.  When done this way it can be construed as criticism as opposed to a catalyst for growth. 

If the purpose is to help others grow, then a mentality of delivering the message or advice has to be rethought.  Feedback should be a dialogue, not a monologue. A conversational approach can lead to high value and actual changes to practice. Below are some specific reasons why the conversation is such an integral part of the feedback loop:

  • The receiver sees that it is more about him/her than the giver.
  • Imparts a greater sense of trust on behalf of the receiver resulting in a more powerful relationship with the giver.
  • Creates the space for open reflection based on what was shared.
  • Opens the door for discussion on action steps to be taken.
  • Provides the receiver with an opportunity to present his/her own perspective on the feedback given.  This can result in the sharing of evidence or more context that the giver might not have been aware of when initially providing the feedback.
  • A conversational approach can motivate people to seek out feedback. Research suggests that asking for it can help organizations tilt culture toward continuous improvement.

Delivering feedback in the form of a monologue is an outdated process that can be improved whether you are working with kids or adults.  Instead of preparing how you are going to “deliver” the message think about creating the conditions where the receiver will value the recommendations.  A conversation that incorporates the art of listening will go a long way to creating a culture where feedback is not only acted upon but asked for regularly. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

To Follow is to Lead

If you think you’re leading, and no one is following you, then you’re only taking a walk.” - Afghan Proverb

If we follow someone that person is a leader then right? We are all meant to believe that the role of a leader is to empower others to follow to create and sustain successful systems.  In many ways, I am not here to challenge this notion. This notion has been ingrained in our minds since the beginning of time.  I am sure we all remember the age-old saying “follow the leader.” What is important to consider is why do we choose to follow others and how does that impact our own ability to get others to follow us when there is a shared belief in a cause, vision, or mission? 

Throughout time the most impactful leaders across an array of organizations and roles have compelled others to change through a variety of actions. Leadership is about action, not title, position, or power. However, the type of actions we take can determine the willingness of others to follow and help support change. These actions can be broken down into two main categories: directive or empowering. There is a considerable difference here with the former eliciting more of a forced behavior while the latter compels people to embrace the role of follower.  The role of leaders is not to tell others what to do, but to take them where they need to be.  

It is important to note that at one point or another every leader was once a follower.  Very few, if any, people were just anointed into a leadership position without first being motivated and inspired by someone else.  Gwen Moran provides a fascinating take on this point in an article titled 5 Ways Being a Good Follower Makes You a Better Leader:
Followers can “make or break” the leader influencing if and how goals are accomplished. Good followers support and aid the leader when he or she is doing the right thing and stand up to the leader–having the courage to let the leader know when he or she is doing something wrong or headed in the wrong direction. Being a good follower doesn’t make you a “sheep,” The truth is that most of us are in followership roles in our regular lives.
She goes on to discuss how being a follower provides the opportunity to develop specific skills that will make someone a better leader including awareness, diplomacy, courage, collaboration, and critical thinking. Outcomes are dispositions and competencies are some of the many qualities that are found in the best leaders of any organization. As I continue to reflect on this topic, I am reminded of one of the most impactful videos I have ever seen that illustrates how important the art of following Take a few minutes and watch “Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy” below.

The most important lesson here is that it was a lone nut as the first follower who transformed the shirtless dancing guy into a leader. Never underestimate the power of following. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Pedagogy of Blended Learning

Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. - Eric Sheninger

I remember back in 2012 when we began to implement blended learning strategies at my former high school.  At the time the flipped approach was all the rage and best suited for the resources we had and the age group of our kids. The goal was to make the learning experience more personal for our students while better meeting their individual needs in the process.  In our case, this meant better using time during the school day to transfer the balance of power from instruction (teacher-centered) to learning (student-centered).  A great deal has changed since 2012 when it comes to blended learning. As technology has evolved so have many of the opportunities inherent in this strategy.  

Image credit:

As I work with more and more schools on blended learning, there is always a focus first and foremost on ensuring that sound pedagogical design serves as a foundation. Herein lies the impetus of the work at Wells Elementary school the past two years. For the purposes of this post, I am going to highlight strategies, elements, models, and supports (tools). Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive or indicative of a be-all or end-all approach.  Since my items are (or should) be common knowledge, there won’t be much elaboration.  Hyperlinks will be used in the cases where I feel additional context and information is beneficial. 


Below I identify some strategies that are widely accepted when it comes to sound pedagogy.  As you either create or evaluate blended activities are these included in some form or another?  If not, think about where there is an opportunity for growth. 
  • Small-group instruction while the rest of the class is engaged in other activities
  • Checking for understanding
  • Differentiation 
  • Assessment (formative and summative)
  • Feedback


The real power of pedagogically-sound blended activities is to empower kids to take more ownership over their learning while making the experience more personal in school. Many of these elements require increasing student agency, incorporating flexible learning spaces, and creating tasks that involve the purposeful use of technology to collaborate, communicate, and create. You will also notice that some are interchangeable. For example, many quality blended activities allow students a certain level of choice over their learning path. Keep in mind that one element might support or enhance another.


There are many mainstream models out there that can be used to blend effectively. HERE are a list and description of 12 that are very popular. In theory, these sound great but implementing them into practice is an entirely different animal. Below are some of the most popular models I see being actively utilized with a high level of efficacy in schools.
Below are some images to provide more insight as to what each of these looks like in practice. 

Station Rotation

Choice Board w/ individual learning targets


Flipped classroom


There is no shortage of tools available that can be used as part of the models listed above when a sound pedagogical foundation is in place. The key is not to get caught up in the blended instruction piece and move towards blended learning.  Popular tools that I have seen effectively utilized by kids include Go Formative, Flipgrid, Edpuzzle, and PlayPosit. These are all fantastic options that can be aligned with the strategies listed above. If you are looking to spread your wings, check out this list crowdsourced by Tom Murray. When it comes to differentiation and summative assessment I recommend the integration of adaptive learning tools. Yes, there is a cost to these. However, learners can be pushed based on ability level and the data gleaned can be used during small group to provide targeted instruction. 

It is important to remember that technology only has to be a small component of an effective blended learning activity when considering the strategies, elements, and models listed above. Autonomy is emphasized to better democratize the experience where learners explore and demonstrate high levels of understanding related to concepts and constructing new knowledge.  As for the technology part, when it is all said and done it’s what the kids do with tech to learn in ways that they couldn’t without it. Blended makes this a reality. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

12 Leadership Fundamentals

Leadership is leadership.  The same essential qualities and characteristics that exemplify what great leaders do have pretty much stayed the same.  What has changed are the tools, research, and societal shifts that impact the work.  Leadership is both an art and a science with the goal of moving the masses towards achieving a common goal.  Even though I have written extensively on the topic over the years, I am always on the lookout for more insight that can help others, including myself, excel in the role. Recently I came across the image below titled the Art of Leadersheep by it-agile. Not only does it align with what we know about effective leadership, but it also reminds us to keep our focus on the important stuff.

Using the image above as I springboard, I am going to try to add a little more context to the fundamentals highlighted.

Create a strong vision

A vision can undoubtedly change the culture of any organization if it is shared and co-created, but the real work and testament to great leadership is moving from the visioning process by developing a strategic plan to turn vision into reality. Whereas developing a shared vision is an attribute linked to all great leaders, the best leaders ensure that a strategic plan is formed and then meticulously implemented.  A vision has to result in a plan, which provides a focus for the change initiative.  The plan then has to be monitored and evaluated if the desired outcome is sustainable change that leads to transformation. 

Set the direction

When a ship sets sail a course is plotted, and different elements are used to arrive at the desired destination.  Leaders set the direction by developing achievable and practical goals that are clearly communicated. You will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator. If people are unclear where they are, or should be headed, the chances of success or limited. 

Set boundaries

Leaders know that a free for all will not necessitate needed change. Boundaries need to be established to keep everyone in tune with the vision and agreed upon course of action.  The best way to accomplish this is to set some norms and stick to them. Just make sure these are not too restrictive as you want your people to be open to taking risks. Boundaries are crucial to establishing and sustaining relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, no real learning or change will occur.

Forget carrots & sticks 

If you have not read Drive by Dan Pink, I suggest you do.  The problem with extrinsic rewards is that people will always expect them, and they rarely result in sustained changes to culture.  As Pink revealed, the keys unlocking and sustaining intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Great leaders help others see the value in the work and change in terms of how it will help to improve their practice. 

Be a teacher

The best leaders are the best teachers according to research by Sydney Finkelstein who spent ten years studying the difference between world-class and typical people in leadership positions. She found that the stars emphasized ongoing, intensive one-on-one tutoring of the people who worked for and with them, either in person or virtually, in the course of daily work. This personalized approach is what we see from highly effective teachers who work tirelessly to meet the needs of all their students. Finklestein shares the following, “The best leaders routinely spent time in the trenches with employees, passing on technical skills, general tactics, business principles, and life lessons. Their teaching was informal and organic, flowing out of the tasks at hand. And it had an unmistakable impact: Their teams and organizations were some of the highest-performing in their sectors.

Admit mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. However, by not admitting or owning up to this fact, a culture of trust is hard to come by.  Being human means that you will screw up once in a while. Own your mistakes, but don’t let them own you. One final thought. Don’t dwell on the mistake. Remember what you learned from it.

Lead by example

Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do or have not done yourself. Leadership is about action - not position, title or power. When it is all said and done effective leaders, don’t tell others what to do, but instead take them to where they need to be. You get what you model. 

Encourage leadership at all levels

One woman or man does not sustain change.  Think about this for a second. Have you ever seen a leader personally implement the vision or every idea he or she comes up with? Sure, an individual can begin the process, but it takes a collective effort to make change stick.  Building capacity through delegation and trust empowers others to be an active part of the process. Leadership is a team sport.

Address the elephant in the room

The elephant can come in many shapes and sizes. In some cases, it is the 5% of the people in the system that give you 95% of the problems.  In other situations, it can be an unpopular decision, lack of resources, or dwindling support. Regardless of what the issue is, the most effective leaders don’t shy away from addressing them. Leadership is not a popularity contest. 

Improve the system

Leaders sink or swim based on how well they can help their organization find and sustain success.  It is a calling and a responsibility to move a culture forward in a way that achieves better results. The best leaders are all about ensuring efficacy in any idea, strategy, decision, or program. They also embrace accountability as part of the process.

Rise Above Fear

We are all afraid of something.  However, we cannot let it stop us from improving professional practice.  Fear of the unknown or failure holds us back from moving forward with change.  I love this quote from Zig Ziglar, “F-E-A-R has two meanings: 'Forget Everything and Run' or 'Face Everything and Rise.' The choice is yours.” Life is all about choices.  We can ill afford to allow fear to hold our learners and us back from what’s possible.  It is essential to understand that if we fear the risk, then we will never reap the reward that taking the risk provides.  When trying something new or different the chances are good that you will fail.  If and when you do, learn from the experience and use the power of reflection to improve practice or yourself. By letting go of some of your fear you will be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Be prepared for a long journey

Leadership is not a race or event. It is a process. Meaningful change rarely happens quickly.  Transforming culture takes time, so patience is a virtue here. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a sense of urgency with some aspects. The fact of the matter is that results and achievement success system-wide take time. Set expectations and goals knowing full well that they might not fully materialize for a few years.  

What fundamentals would you add to this list?

Leading is not easy and being effective at it is easier said than done. You don’t have to be perfect nor always on your game.  You do, however, have to help others achieve a common goal that gets results.  Are you up for the challenge?

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Innovation is More Than an Idea or Tool

What makes something innovative? There is no shortage of debate on this topic in the least bit. From articles to blog posts to books, that subject has been covered in great detail. One can look at numerous companies and develop his or her conclusions.  Take Uber and Airbnb for example. Each in their own right came up with a new and different idea aligned to technology with the goal of creating something that consumers would embrace while making money in the process. Not only did both of these companies disrupt their respective industries, but both have evidence in the form of users and revenue to validate that their solutions were genuinely innovative. The convergence of an idea, tool and strategy have led to ultimate success for both Uber and Airbnb.

In education, there is always an affinity to jump on board the latest tool or idea and automatically stamp the word innovation on it. Now, this isn’t to say that everything in both of these categories is representative of a better means to accomplish a task or to improve professional practice.  The key is the criteria that are used to make such a determination or claim.  Let’s first begin by evaluating the efficacy of both using the following questions:

  • How are kids learning with technology in ways that they couldn’t without it?
  • What observable evidence is there that an idea or strategy represents a fundamental improvement over what has been done traditionally in the past?

I, for one, don’t shy away from the fact that both research and evidence should be part of the conversation.  A mix of qualitative and quantitative measures goes a long way to validating whether or not something is actually innovative.  A push for efficacy benefits everyone who is championing better approaches to improve student learning and professional practice.  Whether to innovate or not should be driven by a challenge or problem that can be overcome in a way that leads to a better outcome.  Achievement can undoubtedly fall into one of these categories, but there is so much more to learning and kids than a score. When it comes to innovation, I see digital leadership and blended learning as two of many ideas, concepts, or strategies where there is research and evidence to support these innovative practices.  

Recently during a coaching visit at Sandshore Elementary School, a part of the Mt. Olive Township School District in NJ, I saw one of the best examples of innovation in practice.  As I was in a second-grade classroom, I saw an odd-looking contraption that I had never seen in a school before, but I also heard a voice coming from it. When I inquired as to what it was, Nicole Musarra, the principal, told me that it was a VGo robotic telepresence for a student who was unable to attend school for health reasons.  Below is a description of the device from the company:
For some students, attending school isn’t possible. 
Injuries, extended illnesses, immune deficiencies, and other physical challenges prevent a student from physically being able to attend school. School districts try to accommodate these special needs by working providing online courses, in-home tutors, special busing, video conferencing and more. But these are expensive and very limiting since students miss out on the classroom experience and social life that comes with attending school.  Now, they can participate in classroom discussions and share in the social aspects of locker-side chats, lunch period and moving from class to class.  VGo gets the student back to the traditional schooling environment by providing a physical device that replicates the student while away from school.  It is operated in real-time by the student (not the teacher or an aid), so they feel empowered with their independence.   VGo enables students to:
  • Receive the same instruction as their peers
  • Move around/between classrooms independently
  • Socialize with friends in the hallways and at lunch
  • Participate in a full school day with their classmates

It was purely amazing to see and hear this student be part of the class even though she wasn’t there physically. As the kids in class rotated from small group to stations so did the student who was at home. In addition to full participation during the lesson, the VGo device was able to move throughout the building so the student could go to gym, lunch, and move about the hallway with her peers. I learned that the kids in school would often dress up the robotic device to add a more humanistic element to it. The only limitation was that the VGo was limited in movement and functionality based on an available WiFi signal. This meant that the homebound student couldn’t go outside to recess. However, I suggested to the principal that hotspots be installed on the outside of the building to solve this challenge in the future. 

The VGo device is a prime example of what innovation really looks like in terms of how it improves what the student is to do.  Without the device, the learning experience, and more importantly the relationships it helps to create, would not be possible. The example above checks all the boxes when it comes to the two questions I posed earlier in the post as well as a fundamental improvement in terms of outcomes. Innovation should not be a buzz word nor something that is thrown around in an attempt to add credence to an idea or strategy.  In addition to the most commonly associated words “new” and “better,” a third term should always follow – RESULT. The key to scaling innovation, in my opinion, is not just to tell how we are, or that we should be, pursuing innovative methods, but actually show the impact in terms of improvements to learning outcomes and professional practice.