September 24, 2012

Field Research through Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence


I am very fortunate in my work with the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence that I am trusted to develop interesting and exciting projects that help define, inspire, and empower teaching excellence.  I brought together a strategic partnership with teacher John Hunter, filmmaker Chris Farina, and the Martin Institute in January 2012. Since then John Hunter and the film, World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements, and I have been working with teachers and presenting to various audiences all over the world to great warmth and enthusiasm for what excellent preparation for a dynamic, ambiguous, complex world looks like for our students.

I am also thrilled to have been the catalyst for sending Grant Lichtman on the road for almost 4 months of talking with teachers and school leaders about innovation, students' futures, teaching, learning, and other aspects of school transformation. Through funding granted by the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, Grant has left San Diego by car, making his way west, school by school, and then back home again just in time for winter break.

Grant is talking, viewing, and experiencing about 65 schools coast to coast. His interest, aligned with mine, aligned with those of the Martin Institute are in the area of innovating for teaching excellence, the process of innovation, and what gets in the way.  We believe his field research will be invaluable to quantifying a predictable and known process of innovating and managing school transformation.  I am enjoying talking to Grant on his evening drives to his next city and reading his wonderful blog posts. I will be interested in the answers to the more formal question that we have developed based on some initial work we have done in innovation a couple of summers ago.

Below are the link to Grant's second week of school visits. Amazing insights and a great view into other schools.

Experiential Learning at the College School in St. Louis

New Spaces Merge with New Directions at the Chicago Latin School

On the Front Lines of Our Learning Future: Maplewood Richmond Heights

Progressive Ideals at Francis W. Parker, Chicago

Tradition and Innovation:  Culver Academies

Diversity at Crossroads Prep, St. Louis

New City School:  Old School Values

Journey Reflections after Two Weeks

Solid Foundations for Innovation at Park Tudor, Indianapolis

May 31, 2012

Leaders Challenge The Status Quo

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Leaders challenge the status quo.  There are many things one can say that a leader does and should be, but this alone - challenging the status quo defines leadership.

Being a good manager, keeping things running, is not leadership. It is good management. Leaders reject more of the same as the best way.  Leaders look forward, question, wonder, suppose, read, research, investigate, create better.  Leaders connect with others over the future that is desired and possible.

Challenging the status quo involves many skills. The ability to see trends that are developing outside and inside the organization and forecasting their impact is exceptionally important.  Forecasting like this involves some degree of imaginative thinking and intuition. This skills is also greatly enhanced by pattern recognition and the deliberate study of other organizations and the ways in which they are addressing similar problems, even if they are not in the same industry as you.  For schools, knowing how other businesses are handling things like the deluge of information, or the greater amounts of information available to their customers that is creating an intensely competitive environment, or customer's expectations of co-creation and voice in your business are all important sources of improving your school. Peter Drucker called this matching of outside forces to the activities of your business "bringing the relevant outside in" and it is so important for any organization that wishes to be fiscally sound and relevant in the lives of their customers in the future.  

Fiscally sound and relevant are related. People don't pay for obsolete. There is a time mismatch, however, in which irrelevance shows up in the numbers.  Schools are feeling it now, even though they might be see it and name it.  As new methods/ways of learning are sought by customers -- hybrid learning, online learning, virtual learning, adaptive learning, personalized learning to name a few -- irrelevance becomes more pronounced. Waiting until it is pronounced is deadly as there is no time to rectify the lack of leadership and innovation. 

Oh yeah, serving customers...schools hate to think like that.  Challenging the status of quo of many schools' thinking they are creating a product, the graduate, and not offering a service is a great way to arrive at some new thinking and new considerations.

To support the process of challenging the status quo, a leader must be a good storyteller. He or she must be able to paint the picture of the future that is possible and the future that is awaiting if we do not take disruption, growth, innovation, and change seriously. He or she must tell the story in broad strokes and with important supporting details, offering specifics about each person's potential role in this new future. He or she must make the solid argument of why this story is true and not a fairy tale.  He or she must tell this story with empathy for those who fear its difficulty and compassion for what is lost if we don't take up the challenge of living into our full potential. The story must be true, well researched and well imagined. It must have heart and soul. And, it must have a pretty insistent and nuanced sales orientation that convinces people that this story of the future reveals the right things to do, the ethical choice. The leader must at once invite people on the journey while expecting their followership and support for the story.

Lastly, to challenge the status quo, the leader must have courage and conviction.  Saying that there is work, change, and growth needed means that you have disturbed the comfortable, predictable, cozy, habitual reality that people have worked hard to create and are attached to for many reasons.  The leader must have the courage to stay future-focused and insist on doing the right thing for the customers you serve and their futures. As soon as the leader shows any sign of bending or hedging on his or her insistence of living into the story of the future, others lose trust and seriousness.  What this inevitably means is that those who prefer comfort, predictability, habitual and known must be given the choice to follow with conviction and diligence, or leave. This always takes the courage of conviction.

If you, in whatever position you find yourself, are not challenging the status quo, you are not a leader.

If you are a leader and are challenging the status quo but you lack positional authority, be careful. You are setting yourself up to be the scapegoat for when things get tough, and when the name of the game is changing, growing, reconsidering, shifting, trying out new things, the going is always going to get tough because part of this process involves becoming dissatisfied with who we are now as a person, as a division, as a department, as an organization, and choosing to work hard to reach for new, better, more aligned and relevant positions, habits, and mindsets. Changing, learning, growing and reaching threatens people and inevitably causes them to grieve the loss of what has been and the comfort that a steady norm brings.  To be considered the person that is bringing on heartache, difficulty, and hardship without the real authority to do this results in becoming a target for people's anger, fears, and negativity.  And, if there is a negative person with authority that trumps yours, expect the negative leader to actively engage others to rid the environment of the person causing the disruption in the status quo. You are the scapegoat. The best thing to do is to find a way to lead with authority.


April 20, 2012

Innovation is Hard Work

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Improvement is not innovation.

Slightly changing things to make them more efficient, or even more effective is not innovation.

Getting better at what you already do is not innovation.

Innovation is doing something different than you are already doing. It takes time. It takes the courage to lead your way through the unknown.  It also take incredible thinking ability.

Innovation is the ultimate in critical thinking.

The skills of critical thinking are directly involved in innovation. They are so closely aligned that I wonder if institutions that are not innovating have a existential deficit in critical thinking ability? If one is not operating with strong critical thinking, what are they using:  rote actions? superficial thinking? Perhaps they are just paralyzed with fear.

Critical thinking and innovation involve:

Scanning the environment, looking at reality as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Using empathy to put oneself in others' roles and others' realities, like our students' or our parents'. Empathy is what allow us to consider a situation from a new angle and to be open to accepting a new idea.

Finding patterns and connecting the dots between them. Are you hearing the same ideas, the same reactions, the same frustrations from place to place?

Deconstructing a bigger picture of what we see into component parts, searching for unstated and unexplored assumptions, bias, stereotypes, underdeveloped aspects. It is in changing, switching, developing these component parts that a new approach, method or product is born.

Questioning deeply is the driving force of innovation and of critical thinking. One must learn to separate what you are seeing from what you are used to seeing or want to see. Learning to question what is before you, and why it is so, deepens one's ability to understand things at a fundamental and poignant level.

Generating scenarios and implications based on reorganizing component inputs in a situation requires the skills of analysis and synthesis over the span of time. To do this well, one needs to be able to imagine sequenced outcomes into the future. One also must be able to think clearly, detaching from one's own beliefs or biases.

Evaluating and deciding is the last step in critical thinking and innovation. After options are generated and a prediction of their outcomes is determined, imagined and evaluated best we can, we must decide. We must act.  Critical thinking moves us to a decision and action. Acting, too, is a result of thinking that connects or intellectual analysis with our role and responsibility in a situation. Not acting denies our responsibility to act. So working through discomfort and fear are necessary for us to fulfill our responsibility. We must think our way through the fear as much and as persistently as we think our way through to the right approach.

Innovation is not slow, steady improvement of the same old thing. It is more like busting the concrete rocks of automatic thinking and routine, habitual behavior. It is about seeing things in a new way and owning one's full responsibility.




April 5, 2012

Professional Development: What's the Point?


What is the point of professional development?  This is not just a cynical question. I think it is, perhaps, one of the most important questions a school can ask at any level or at any point. Let me explain and fill in with some context.

I have been working in the area of professional development / professional learning, or as I like to refer to it, adult learning, for the last ten years.  It is an important and active area of school life at this moment in time because we are having to rethink and redesign school to match a changed and continually changing world.  In order to shift the thinking and the programs in school, additional learning is always involved in order to create new ways of doing school.

Too often, however, professional development is an add-on or an after-thought that is not fully integrated and leveraged in service of the strategic objectives of the school. Schools have to show proof of continual development of the learning practices, so they do something like bring in a speaker or engage in a program to increase technology skills or some other sort of training. Learning becomes more of an isolated community event than an integral agent of change and growth.

Furthermore, it is worse because much of professional learning that we organize for ourselves is one size fits all. To be efficient in our use of time, emotional capital, money, space etc. we get the whole faculty together and present a topic.  We forget completely about the different strategic objective and journeys of the divisions and departments. We forget completely about the wide spectrum of interested and needs that our people populate. And, we forget completely about our people as individual learners with different learning styles, interests, and preferences. And, some schools forget that learning should be the catalyst and engine for a well-derived and well-communicated outcome and strategic direction.  Our teachers are no different than our students in that they really want to know:  why am I learning this? am I ever really going to use this again?


I recently completely two separate projects that I have reminded me of some common missteps in planning and offering professional development. One project included auditing a school's professional development philosophy and its previous three years of implementation. The other project was facilitating a dream session that started with the strategic direction of the school and worked backwards to sketch out what the connected, aligned, and flexible learning would look like if all their dreams were to come true.

What I learned, or remembered, from these two projects was these:

1) Interesting topics aside, faculty needs a sense of why learn this? why bother? why me, given what  and who I teach?

2) How is this learning connected to the strategic direction of the school? What is the strategic direction of the school?

3) Making the learning active and engagement and outcome oriented is preferred. Faculty prefer to work on projects, discussions, initiative as a way to learn.

The end result of poorly designed professional learning is that there is an overall lack of fully committing to the learning because there is no hard reason or learning goal to attach to, feel connected to and responsible for.  Better is to start by creating a shared understanding of the strategic direction of the school and draw connections to the overall direction of the school so therefore, each classroom must reflect the direction how? by when? The learning that can support that shift is the means by which the how is not only discovered but implemented.

March 21, 2012

What Does It Mean to Lead?

In planning a presentation to give this spring, I was recently in conversation with one of my favorite heads of school.  We were talking in a free form fashion about what does it mean to lead? My thinking partner shared his lastest insight, which he does not come to lightly but, I think, fights and wrangles pretty hard as the insights are trying to make their way to him: "Leading means managing the culture."

I was delighted our conversation so quickly hit upon this foundational idea. I agree wholeheartedly that leading means leading the culture which specifically means formulated a shared sense of where we are going as a institution and then leveraging our mission, our values, and our organizational mindset (the collective and each individual's) to get us there.

The way I think of culture is the habits, traditions, procedures, and attitudes of the people that work in the same place.  Because I am such an intuitive observer and thinker, cultural awareness leaps out at me if given any chance to observe people in their normal routine.  I like to observe in meetings large and small, to attend school functions and celebrations, to read school publications, and if I am lucky, to be close when there is conflict. How we manage conflict is a big tell in our cultural values.  Then, there are all the artifacts.  The notes of meetings, the job descriptions, professional expectations and evaluations processes and systems.  And, of course, there are our ceremonies which reflect our values.  I love to be getting to know a school who is trying to convince me of all the ways that they are about the whole child, or individual potential and mastery, or the pursuit of learning,  and then I attend graduation when 95% of the awards are for highest grade point averages.

Leading the culture is a comprehensive endeavor and it is not for the faint of heart.  Making sure all things align to mission, vision and values is hard work. And, that is not even the first step.  One starts by making sure that everyone understands and is living the mission, vision, and values.  If you take the time to start here at the very, very beginning, you might be surprised at what is not aligned, not understood, not shared, not considered important to all. Can every person at your school, board included, write down the mission statement? If they can't, how are they living it?  Too often in school many people are living private missions, private vision, and their own values. In my experience there is a commonplace tension between the assumption and value of autonomy that many schools are built on as well as the cultural identity of "family" that works against the aligned, high performance professional culture our schools strive for.

To lead means to deconstruct and reconstruct the culture -- habits, traditions, procedures, and attitudes of us all -- so that it provides the motivation, skills, and urgency we need to become the schools we desire to become.  Leading means busting through traditional "sacred cows, " questioning how they are related to the future we desire. Leading the culture inevitably means being willing to be more invested in making excellence in mission fulfillment our goal over being beloved.

It was a great conversation.  I love what I do!

Strategy as Leading

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The word strategy comes from the Greek stratos + agein meaning "to lead an army." I find this very fascinating because it situates the essential meaning of the word with the act of marshaling people's minds and hearts (the army) forward. This understanding of strategy is different than the one captured in the picture to the left:  a plan of action designated to achieve a particular goal which puts at its center the plan, the mechanics, the details -- not the leading.

So, thinking about these two different takes on strategy,  what does this mean for strategic thinking or strategic planning? I think it means everything! Strategic thinking or strategic planning is about leading. It is not about the plan, although the plan and its details are important; but, they are superfluous to the leading.  Strategy is about leading the army in one direction, toward one shared vision. Leading the army is about inspiring and unleashing their creativity and energy. It is about removing barriers in their thinking and therefore, their actions.

Don't get hung up on the details, and please don't wordsmith until the 11th hour!

Strategy or leading starts with imagining and claiming the future we want to create for our organization and then leading people to own, share, and create toward that future.  The intent is to make our understanding of that future so deep, so right, so aligned to the needs and threats apparent that we will not be satisfied until we get there.  For me, as I see our role as educators, once we have a sense of the future that best prepares our students for happy, productive lives in college, work life, and their civic engagement as global citizens, it then is our moral responsibility as the responsible adults to make that future a reality at our schools as soon as we can.  When we know better, we can do better.  One cannot un-know what you know. So, creating knowing about the future we must live into is the way forward. Leading toward that future is involves how will we get people to move in this, to live into this, to help make this desired future a reality.

The strategic plan is born from leading and relies upon leading, both positional leadership, project leadership, emotional leadership, and self-leadership. Shared leadership towards our shared vision of our future selves and our future institution.


March 12, 2012

We are the 1%: NAIS in Seattle

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It has been a week since I flew back from Seattle where I participated in the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference, along with 4500 other people.  There is one thing I heard in Seattle that I can't quite get off my mind.

This year's conference was particularly busy for me because I presented a three-hour workshop, a one-hour presentation, exhibited with the World Peace Game Foundation and the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, and attended the Unconference. I recently became the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence where I am leading our partnership with teacher John Hunter who created the World Peace Game and filmmaker Chris Farina who chronicled John's work in the amazing film, "World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements." We worked really hard to prepare for this year's conference and because of John's amazing keynote presentation, the hard work of arranging for John to visit schools, to develop opportunities to teach teachers in many cities, and to arrange for film screenings continues.

Unlike other years when I was a diligent session attendee, most of this conference I spent in the World Peace Game Foundation / Martin Institute booth showing off the World Peace Game that we brought and set up in Seattle. As people lingered and talked, I kept hearing the phrase, "We are the 1%!" Manning a booth put me in a great position to listen and ask questions. I engaged a number of people on this remark, asking them what they meant by it.  Everyone shared this sentiment that the people at the conference were the 1% that gets it; the 1% that is already innovating and growing. The context, of course, was that 99% of the rest is not innovating or getting it.  There was a sense that the 1% was the choir and the 99% were the ones that really needed the experience. There was also a sense that the 99% were lost causes, the hopeless many that didn't want to get it.

Thinking about this all last week, I began to feel very frustrated and worried for a couple of reasons. First, I do not like the us-them implications. There is a counter-productive categorization of 1% (us) and 99% (them).  I began to think about who goes to NAIS and how the decision of who goes is made at each school?  Should we send the choir or should we send a mix of innovators, those considering, and holdouts?  The experience at NAIS is so positive and so powerful, I like to think that being there could convert some that have been holding back their creativity and initiative.  How could we bring a mixed team of mindsets to the conference and put them in a learning situation that really made resisting emotionally and intellectually difficult?  One way would be to ask more people from our environments to present and to showcase the work of our school. Why would this work? You have to have something to showcase and you have to be aware of the milieu on a large scale to know the relevance of your own work.  Another way might be to create that role of covering the coverage and sharing the learning widely and objectively with the rest of the school. To me it is hard to engage in the material presented at the conference and not be affected by it.

I also began to think about the numbers 1% and 99%. Wow! If only 1% of us are innovating, we are in trouble from both a relevance standpoint and a sustainability standpoint.  I do not think 1% is enough to transform the teaching and learning in our schools so that they are preparing kids well.  How can the 1% create the contagion that we need and hope for in our schools? I think that more than 1% are probably doing innovative things, but what is the damage of our thinking of our colleagues as 1% or 99%?  The reality of this perception itself could be holding us back in some ways. What if instead we were to strive to create an entire 1% school, a school among the 1% of schools in the nation? That is exciting and that takes an institutional vision and effort.

The team that I attend the conference with tries to cover as many sessions as possible and we start a Google Doc for everyone to add their notes about the learning. This Doc is shared with the whole school and meeting time is set aside to talk about new questions and implications based on the conversation that a few experienced at NAIS.  The other great resource we use is Twitter with hashtags. More than once while I was in Seattle, someone back home instructed me to ask a question in the session I was attending or to find out more about a specific topic. This is possible at the school that I attended the conference with because they have developed a culture of learning and sharing. All of the teachers are on Twitter and were attentive to what we were tweeting out while at the conference. They are truly a community of learners.

How can we make the NAIS conference be more of the 99% attending and grooving on what is there? What would have to happen in our school environments?  Is there a way to share the conference virtually to those that can't attend, like I am thinking perhaps a NAISx situation like what TED does?

I felt bad getting to this post a full week after I had returned. My feeling was that talking about NAIS was not timely or relevant a full week out. Then, I realized that, too, was a problem!  The NAIS vibe and content should be relavent 50 weeks out; the conversation should continue strongly if we want that 1% to grow. Instead, what seems to happen is that we move on very quickly to the next thing and NAIS becomes a fun and fading memory.

What to do about the 1% and 99%?  Talk about it for sure.  If you had to realistically determine with evidence your school's percentages, what would they be? How can you influence them so that 99% are shaking, moving, innovating and leading, and only 1% are resisting and lagging?  That would be a great conversation. Also, how could 99% of people be affected by the NAIS Annual Conference? How can we leverage both in person attendance and technology to share the experience widely? How can our school be a 1% -er in the country? That is a great goal, even if it is in just one area. Lastly, how can we make 99% of the school year connected to the learning that is evident and shared at NAIS? Taking the program and situating a session topic to be investigated by some group on campus each week, in some format would be a good start.  The conference is a great resource. How can we get 99% return on our money spent participating there?



March 9, 2012

Moving from Why to How: Becoming an Entrepreneurial School

Thanks to the NAIS Annual Conference 2012 for creating this create Storify of our session about moving from Why Innovate to How Innovate. We had a terrific session full of engaged and sincere school leaders, administrators, board members, and teachers.  The questions were so on target and I think everyone appreciated the depth of information we provided (which is always pretty deep, almost to the point of overwhelming) as well as the opportunities we create to process the ideas with each other. My huge thanks go to Bo Adams, Grant Lichtman, and Lee Burns for presenting this workshop with me; it was great fun.

Follow this link to see our slides and shared resources.

February 27, 2012

Looking Forward to #NAISAC12

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As I prepare to head west for the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference in Seattle, I am struck by the appropriateness and importance of Seth Godin's blog post this morning:  Stop Stealing Dreams.  You can download Godin's 98 page manifesto from that site. I look forward to reading all 30,000 words on the long flight from Memphis to Seattle.

What is school for?  Seth Godin says he gets asked this question more than any other.  As the world has changed, how must school change so that we are preparing our students for the world they live in now and will live in as adults?  To answer the questions about shifting schools, however, we must back up and address Seth's question of what is school for? It used to be that school were knowledge factories, literally knowledge assembly lines were we sent age-grouped batched of children through to accumulate knowledge.  Now that knowledge is an abundant resources, what are schools for?

Somewhere along the way, many of our schools became hyper-focused on college prep.  We staked our worth and value based to the colleges our graduates were accepted to? Really? is this what schools are for? To get kids into exclusive and statistically competitive colleges?  Is that how we are preparing our students to be the leaders and thinkers of the next generation? We must really trust the outcomes and influence of those four years in college.

I am expecting NAIS to be a great forum to take on and discuss Seth's Godin's question of what is school for?  I believe school is for these things and knowing this we can design from there.

School is for teaching students:

to think
to question
to reflect
to research
to discern
to collaborate
to cooperate
to fail and adjust
to persist
to learn
to know themselves
to dream
to be happy
to act

I believe these are the skills that make one capable of doing anything.  My beliefs are influenced by the work of Arthur Costa and Bena Killick.  You can delve further into their 16 Habits of Mind here at The Institute for Habits of Mind. Click on the Habits of Mind visual to download the .pdf of all 16 habits of mind.

To me, it is simple. If we create learning environments that help children develop and practice using all of these things like thinking, questioning, and persisting, etc.. as refined expertises and habits, what else do they need for successful, productive, happy lives? What else did we need?

What I hope to hear at NAIS that more schools are rethinking the factory model and envisioning the school experience as an enriched community that supported children in becoming the future.

Follow me Jamie Baker   @jamiereverb

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February 13, 2012

The Physics of Change

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I have never taken physics and my interest in it is limited because of my lack of knowledge about it. However, I enjoy reading this physics blog:

Quantum Progress by John Burk

John is a 9th grade physics teacher at Westminster Schools in Atlanta.  He joins others at his school in sharing openly his thinking about teaching and learning in a dynamic and ever changing world. They take up subjects of everyday life at school, the journey as teachers, as learners, as parents, as colleagues in a big school. They write about their subject areas.

One of the most interesting things that John has blogged about is developing the Global Physics Department and having departmental meetings.  This to me was a brilliant use of social media and the blog space to connect with colleagues everywhere. The Global Physics Department is a brilliant example of our ability to break down walls and reach through silos, if we have the momentum to do so.

I also enjoyed, as a closeted Angry Birds player, the physics discussions of that game.  Reading about the trajectories etc. actually helped my game a lot.

I have to admit that when the blog gets really deep into the details of physics, I read really fast, but I do read them through. And, I LOVE the post of February 12, one that I could easily have skipped because it was pretty detailed in the physics area:  Heat and the work done by Friction.  What I realized, however, was that in cultivating change in an organization, whether it is from within a group or from the boundaries of a group, change occurs only with new energy. Turning up the heat, and there are many political and strategic alternatives and choices, is the way to influence change in the culture. Friction is also an important and necessary ingredient.

Even though we tend to think of friction as negative, the type of friction chosen does not always have to be negative.  It can be neutral and it can be positive. Thinking about that, it might be that friction is neutral; it is our reaction to it that is either positive or negative, and our reactions are our choices. I will have to think more about that.

Friction might be the use of deadlines when work was never demanded at a certain time before. Friction might be more open and transparent debate in a meeting. Friction might be pushing in not so subtle ways at the status quo like extending the hours of the time that we are asked to be on campus. Friction may be assigning a project to someone other than the person who did it last time. Friction is certainly introducing professional evaluations and assessments when there were none before.  Heat, energy, friction are all important tools in creating a new form and a new culture.

I was struck as I struggled to read about the formulas of energy and friction how what I do when I tour a school for the very first time is that I am getting a read on the energy and the momentum. Is it high or low? Is it purposeful or scattered? Is it shared? As I read about the physics of friction, I was thinking about the types of conversations I put myself in a position to hear and participate in when I am getting to know a new school. Do I hear debate? Do I hear inquiry? Do I hear and feel a sense of momentum, energy towards purpose? Do I feel energy being expended in defensive and guarding ways?

I loved making this connection re: the physics of change.  Without a influencer or change in energy, there is not change in a system.  I hear lots of leaders talk about their belief that change will just occur naturally, organically.  I just don't think that belief squares with the physics of organizational change.

Am I saying turning up the heat?  I think I probably am. The challenge, however, is to learn to think of the heat in positive, purposeful, professional and mission-driven ways and not as always a negative.  Heat, energy, movement. Action, reaction. Change. The problem is helping frame people's reactions and perceptions of heat and friction.  Lots to continue thinking about.

February 9, 2012

Encounter of the 6th Grade Kind: Ban Boring

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Remember this great scene from Ferris Buehler's Day Off?  Ben Stein droning on, "anyone? anyone?" about "Voodoo Economics. Voodoo Economics."  I think it was such a funny scene because who has not been there! Bored to death and under the gun to capture and remember all the boring stuff spewing from the teacher blah, blah, blah, blah. 


That was school. A thing to be endured. A necessary evil for success in this world. A large pursuit of mass memorizing and regurgitating.

I just don't understand why learning, of all things, has to be so boring. Learning should be an opening, a pursuit and journey that lead to more and more. Learning should be stimulating and exciting.

I had the great pleasure of visiting a 6th grade class this week to observe a chemical reaction experiment. The thing was, however, that I got detained and was late for all of the action.

So, when I arrived, the teacher asked a student to take me aside and "re-do the lesson. Walk Ms. Baker through the learning objectives and the thinking routine."  Huh?  This 6th student was going to be able to tell me the objectives of the learning and knew the thinking routine?  Well, the student didn't miss a beat and did exactly as his teacher asked.  He knew the purpose of the experiment. The larger ideas that it was illustrating. He knew the thinking routine by name: I saw, I think, I wonder.  He was able to show me all of the thoughts of the students in the class as they were all posted on a shared virtual bulletin board. He had looked at everyone else's work and was able to point out to me the patterns of belief and the points at which students have "diverging" thoughts.

In asking my host about learning this way, I was shocked at the depth of his understanding about the purpose of the thinking routines that his teacher used in order "to help us develop a conceptual understanding that is bigger than just this experiment."  He told me in no short order that being asked to record what he saw, thought, and wondered helped him remember and to think in a more deep way about the activity. And, he wanted me to know and felt no qualms in telling me, that being asked to think and reason makes learning so much more exciting and interesting.  "Before," he explained, "class was just so boring. I mean, the teacher is nice but it was just lecture, lecture, lecture, and my mind would just go other places." He went on to say that now he is able to connect to the learning better and because he is asked to think about and share his ideas about the material the teacher is presenting that "his mind doesn't wander so much."

Why does learning have to be so boring when there are a plethora of design options for presenting, engaging, and assessing the material?  What operating belief or assumption are we working on such that learning ends up boring?  What new operating belief or philosophical underpinning would lead us to learning that is stimulating and invigorating?

If class is boring, whose responsibility is that?  the students to endure or the adults to cure?

I think these questions are so fundamental and so important to the future of learning that every division and department of every school should engage them seriously, systematically, and deeply.  I am tired of hearing teachers say there is no way around being bored and boring in class because "that is just part of it."  I don't really believe in any subject at any time it has to be boring.  It just doesn't.

January 19, 2012

Innovation Saves

image source


"It won't happen to us."

"We do what we do well; we're fine."

"Yeah, we looked into that and it was going to take a lot of time and difficulty."

"We are the best. We have been doing what we do for a long time. We're top of the heap."

Kodak thought all of these things too. Now, they have squandered all of their innovative opportunities of the last 10 or so years and they've filed for bankruptcy.  They noticed all the disruptors all around them, and they kept on keeping on.

"But, we are a school. We're not like Kodak!" I know it makes you feel better to think that but schools are not immune.  Churches are not immune. Hospitals are not immune. Not-for-profits are not immune.  Just because your organization serves a noble purpose, a mission, does not mean that sustainability and relevance are not essential. They are essential because your customer has a choice.

Innovation is what would have saved Kodak. A disciplined, bold approach. Kodak needed to ask new question and reach beyond its current competence and comfort zone.

Are you asking new questions? Are you stretching beyond what is what you always do?  Is your division? Is your whole school?

Danger is everywhere. It's called disruption and if you don't get ahead of it, it will get the better of you and you will become a relic of the past, comfortable and ancillary, like Kodak.

January 18, 2012

Revisiting the 21 Things That Will Be Obsolete in Education by 2020

I love when the new year is on us in full force and we made vows to clean up and clear out.  At my house we start spring cleaning as soon as the holidays are over and the last child returns to college.  On of the areas that I have to declutter and rethink is the bulletin board right in front of my desk.  I collect things I like, things that make me smile, things that make me think and post them there on the bulletin board as a reminder.  Really, my bulletin board is an inspiration board.

One thing that has lived on my inspiration board since the start of 2010, is Shelly Blake-Plock's post about 21 Things That Will be Obsolete in Education in 2020.  If you haven't read this post, or even if you have not read it recently, I recommend reading it, printing it out, and holding it near.

Here are the basic 21 thing that Shelly talks about in his post:

1.   Desks
2.   Language Labs
3.   Computers
4.   Homework
5.   The Role of Standardized Tests in College Admissions
6.   Differentiated Instruction as the Sign of a Distinguished Teacher
7.   Fear of Wikipedia
8.   Paperbacks
9.   Attendance Offices
10. Lockers
11. IT Departments
12. Centralized Institutions
13. Organization of Educational Services by Grade
14. Education School Classes that Fail to Integrate Social Technology
15. Paid/Outsourced Professional Development
16. Current Curricular Norms
17. Parent-Teacher Conference Night
18. Typical Cafeteria Food
19. Outsourced Graphics Design and Webmastering
20. High School Algebra 1
21. Paper

I think this is a great list to revisit and to realize how much progress and conversation is still surrounding each of these items. I also think this is a great list to use in conversations in a a school environment and planning conversations.  Here are the questions I would use to frame the discussion around this list:

What does our school believe about this item (like #1 desks) and why?

What are we doing to investigate the possibilities around different approaches available with each item?

Do we know what our competitors ideas are around this item? How can we differentiate ourselves in this area and best support our mission?

Are their cost savings around innovating in this area?

Are teaching and learning enhanced and improved by innovating in this area?

Based on the many times I have lead conversations using this list, I assure you that the conversation and ideas generated from this list, and the "tells" you will get about your schools culture are great and valuable.

January 16, 2012

Leading Better in 2012

One of the blogs that I look forward to reading 4 or 5 times each week is the Leading Blog which is written by Michael McKinney.  Michael is an excellent curator of  ideas and tips that inform and improve leadership. He is exceptional at reading many books each month about leadership from the standpoint of leading self, leading others, and leading in context.  I would really be lost without his good work.

You can follow Michael McKinney on Twitter:  @LeadershipNow

You can also join Michael's community of leaders here.

Here is today's post on Michael's Leading Blog.  I like his posts because they challenge me to turn each idea inward and reflect on my own potential and my own leadership journey.  This list is a definition of leadership broken down into component mindsets and competencies. Leadership is not one of these, but all of these.  How to keep all of these areas fluid and growing is an example of the type of understanding and learning challenge Michael lays out and supports with his posts.

For 2012, I recommend subscribing to, interacting with, and enjoying Leadership Now.


12 Reasons You Will be A Better Leaders This Year
from Michael McKinney's Leading Blog


1. Because you are generous with information. You know it enables and values others. 

2. Because you eschew the trappings of power. You respect your position too much to let yourself  become self-absorbed and disconnected from those you serve. 

3. Because you know leadership isn’t about how well you are appreciated, but it’s about endlessly showing your appreciation of others. Leadership isn’t about how you feel, but how you make others feel. 

4. Because you are honored to lead, you genuinely respect and care for the people you serve. 

5. Because you avoid the trivial and stay focused on your core values and the vision they enable. You will always pay attention to what matters most and you communicate it tirelessly and with clarity. 

6. Because you are driven to produce and are accountable for it and expect the same from others. 

7. Because you take time to reflect to keep yourself aligned and to continually evaluate your impact. 

8. Because you exercise. You know that regular exercise not only makes you feel better physically and it has a profound impact on your cognitive abilities and mental health. 

9. Because you are curious, you are committed to being a lifelong learner and building a learning culture within your team and organization. You won’t rely on what worked for you in the past. 

10. Because you are humble enough to know that you don’t have all the answers and it doesn’t have to be your way and it is in fact, unhealthy for you to insist on it. 

11. Because you are committed to building others greater than yourself. You are validated not by your own knowledge and accomplishments but by those you help succeed. You are passionate about and energized by the people you serve. 

12. Because you know that you are setting an example for others to follow. Everything you do matters. You know it’s not about you. 

January 14, 2012

A New Chapter for Me

I have been so busy the last two months that I have truly, as one colleague put it, "neglected my blog." I agree that I have have neglected my blog. The lack of blogging is not the issue, but the symptom of too little time to read and think. My bedside table and my Kindle's Table of Contents are both overflowing. I use my blog to ruminate and to work out my thoughts about what I am in the process of learning or considering. Little input results in little output.

My main distraction has centered around many hours of thinking, talking, and designing that has resulted in an exciting and innovative new position for me.  In mid-November, I met teacher John Hunter and filmmaker Chris Farina and saw the film "World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements" among 150+ educators and colleagues in a community showing in Memphis. At our screening, which was sponsored for the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, there was about a five minute standing ovation, and tears.  I have since been to five or six additional screenings. Each time, exuberance, tears, and many AHA! moments for those ready to see it.

My reaction to seeing the film "World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements" was also very strong. In this film, I saw the physical and emotional representation of everything that I think is the optimal learning conditions and learning outcomes for children. That is, for children that we are really interested in preparing for the dynamic, interconnected, global, unpredictable world they will live and lead in. John Hunter has developed over the last 25+ years, the World Peace Game which gives his students a chance to engage in real world problem solving. He intentionally overwhelms them with complex, interconnecting, "wicked" issues that don't have binary, easy "yes or no" answers. Solving these types of issues, which the world is full of, demands well honed critical thinking and problem solving skills, the ability to learn on one's own quickly and deeply, the ability to team and collaborate, and empathy.  John Hunter's World Peace Game gives students guided and facilitated rehearsal in all of these skills. It gives them knowledge and information about issues that are already part of the world they live in and issues that will be their responsibility to solve. I was moved by the spontaneous compassion and responsibility we see John Hunter's students think and act from in the film. One sees a global awareness, global perspective, and global sense of stewardship being cultivated in John Hunter's students by the learning he has structured.

After seeing and ruminating on the film "World Peace," my thought, that has resulted in a whole new direction for my work, was that if more people could see this film and spend time thinking about it, the experience and new learning would be transformative.  Once one is moved and has learned something new, he or she cannot unknow it.  In fact, it is, then, his or her responsibility to act on the new that is known. New knowing is a responsibility to act, shift, change, grow.  I think it is essential to think this way because we are in a terrible gap, a gap where the world has changed dramatically and our schools and system of education has not changed to meet the new needs of a changed world. There is no fault involved here. Instead, lots of responsibility, challenge, and opportunity.

The talking, thinking, and designing has resulting in a new commitment and new opportunity for me. My new position, as of the first of 2012, is Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence.  The Martin Institute is a relatively young foundation in Memphis established by a generous gift from former Saks, Inc. CEO Brad Martin. The foundation is the expression of public purpose of Presbyterian Day School, a PK - 6th boys school serving 630 boys in Memphis.  The Martin Institute is dedicated to bringing world class professional development to teachers at public and private schools. In June the Martin Institute will be hosting its second summer conference. John Hunter will be their keynote speaker.

The first strategic partnership that I will be leading is with filmmaker Chris Farina and teacher John Hunter. Our hope is to bring the film "World Peace," the World Peace Game, and learning resources including Master Classes with John Hunter to as many communities as will have us around the world. Our hope is that the captivating story of possibility that the film shows and the deep conversations and sharing that can result from a shared understanding of the film and its many tangents will strongly influence others to create stimulating, engaging, bold, challenging learning environments where students encounter almost unsolvable issues and are intrinsically motivated to research, dig, talk, compare, share, team, try, fail, and try again to solve them.

If you have not seen John Hunter's TEDtalk, you can get a really good sense of his teaching philosophy and snippets of the film "World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements."