Sunday, March 18, 2018

Teachers are the Driving Force of Change

During virtually every keynote, presentation, or workshop that I give, the topic of change is very much a part of it.  Leading the effort to uproot the status quo and prepare kids for anything as opposed to something is easier said than done.  As Tom Murray and I state in Learning Transformed, "To prepare students for their world of work tomorrow, we must transform their learning today." Great progress is being made in classrooms and schools across the world.  As technology has continued to evolve at an exponential rate we have seen passionate educators begin to embrace and implement innovative strategies to better meet the needs of learners today. 

As a result, isolated pockets of excellence have emerged in virtually every school.  Don't get me wrong, this is great.  I am all for progress and a move from business as usual to unusual in pursuit of learning that will prepare kids with the critical competencies to excel in a disruptive world.  However, we cannot be satisfied with just a few pockets as every student deserves an amazing learning experience.   Change at scale is a collective effort where we must leverage the unique assets embedded in every position and at all levels.  As the saying goes, there is no "I" in team.

Now granted, building and district leaders play a huge role in supporting change and ensuring success.  Their role is to build on these successes while removing obstacles, establishing a shared vision, developing parameters for accountability around growth, evaluating if efficacy has been achieved, and reflecting on the entire process.  Reflection could very well be the most important aspect of the change process as there will either be validation or the identification of needed elements to ensure success.  Since there is always room for improvement in the education profession these leaders need to take action on the broader issues to improve the culture of learning at scale. 

The most important group, however, rarely gets the credit they rightfully deserve.  The most impactful change doesn't come from people with a title, power, or authoritative position in education. It happens at the ground level with our teachers as it is they who have to implement ideas for the direct betterment of students.  Think about this for a second.  If it weren't for our teachers embracing broader ideas and putting them into practice would any change in schools actually occur?  The simple answer is no.  

When I think back to all of the success that we had at my school it wasn't because of me or the fact that I was the principal.  Sure, I played my part as described previously in this post, but my role in the bigger picture was a small one.  It was because my teachers believed we could be better for our learners and as a result, they embraced innovative ideas.  This brings me to a critical point.  We must celebrate the invaluable leadership of our teachers while also working tirelessly to create the conditions where they are empowered to be the change that is needed.

Never say you are "just a teacher." Let your actions, not a role, define you. The change our schools need at scale can only be ushered in by our teachers. If you are in a typical administrative position to make that happen then become a beacon of support, not a roadblock to progress.  We need bold administrators to enlighten others who are unwilling or scared to embrace innovative ideas that go against the status quo. Only by working together can both groups transform learning for all kids now and well into the future. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Change the Narrative

No matter our level of digital proficiency, educators grapple with the rough-and-tumble pace that professional connectivity demands in our new age.  A change of thinking is in order if we are to face a hyperlinked world of education.  We facilitate learning and lead schools today, preparing our digitally and socially savvy students for success as adults in a future where many of their jobs haven't been created yet. To do this successfully we have to take a critical lens to our work and determine what can be done differently.  

In these changing times, opening the door to sharing and the transparency it brings in a digital age may make you pause. Let's be honest. The old-school one-way messaging behavior for leading a school doesn't jibe with our engaged, digital communication environment. A paradigm shift is in play. It is important to recognize and lean into it: Our community of stakeholders wants us to engage with them-starting with our students and ending with the world beyond our school. In this ever-evolving world of digital communication, a world where information arrives at our digital doorstep without being invited, we have to reset traditional thinking. Our stakeholders' lives are now about exchange powered by inbound social and digital forces. As outlined in BrandED, a new educator mindset is in order: one that calls for the clear, connective, engaging concept of storytelling to build trust and powerful relationships. The bottom line is that if you don't tell your story someone else will. 

Image credit:

In today's engaging, digitally empowered school setting, questions arise as to whether schools are best suited for educating their learners. We have to do a better job of communicating what we do and showing how we do it. We must be part of the exchange. It gives us the best chance at connecting with current and potential stakeholders in order to win support for schools. Today's educators who embrace the power of storytelling don't need to be humble. In the noisy digital world, educators must proudly use stories of their classrooms and schools to convey a consistent message about who they are, how results are achieved, what they stand for. The importance of embracing a brandED mindset to become the storyteller-in-chief can't be overstated. 

I cannot overstate the importance of telling good stories to develop a new narrative in the education space.  Science has shown how storytelling impacts the brain and aids in getting importance message across to diverse audiences.  An article by Jonathan Gottschall in Fast Company sums it up well:
"Humans live in a storm of stories. We live in stories all day long, and dream in stories all night long. We communicate through stories and learn from them. We collapse gratefully into stories after a long day at work. Without personal life stories to organize our experience, our own lives would lack coherence and meaning."
Today's schools exist in a digital town square where people meet daily. School value is one of the most discussed topics online. People, both with and without children, search the Internet and consult online real estate sites to find data about their prospective local school. Educators need to be cognizant of this fact and leverage the inherent power of their work to create a narrative that conveys value that speaks in an authentic voice to an audience. Adopting this strategy to benefit kids helps you attain a synthesizing view, preparing you to communicate with the varied segments of stakeholders who will research, observe, and engage with your work online on a daily basis. Today's digital world is driven by mobile content in short form and long form, in text and video just waiting to be taken advantage of. 

When adapted by all educators, the message of all the positive that takes place in classrooms on a daily basis becomes a beacon - the touchstone of why we act the way we do as a school, why we teach and learn the way we do, and how success is measured by so much more beyond a test score. Beyond the emotional connectivity, strategic thinking about messages shared enables educators to set measurable goals that ensure long-term trust. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. 

Change begins with each and every one of us. Together let's use our collective voices to change the narrative to one that clearly depicts all the amazing work that happens in classrooms, schools, and districts across the globe.  

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Learning Transformed Course

The reaction to Learning Transformed has been truly humbling.  Tom Murray and I have watched many book studies and Twitter chats unfold since the release of the book in June of 2017.  We have also had the honor of co-presenting workshops across the United States. All of these experiences empowered us to think about and then create a deep learning experience that could be easily accessible to all educators across the globe.  As a result, an online course was created with the help of Participate. Anyone can register HERE.

Below you will see how the course is structured as well as learner outcomes.  The content is aligned to well over 100 research studies in addition to what successfully implemented innovative practices actually look like in action. The key to change is not telling, but showing how ideas can transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  We can't stop here.  The most important aspect of this course is pushing learners to not only reflect on their own practice but to also develop focused plans to take action through constructivist learning theory.   

Course Description

The Learning Transformed course is designed to support your classroom, district or school's transformation efforts! The current speed of technological and innovative breakthroughs has led to the coming age of workplace automation, dramatically altering the world of work that our students will enter. With all that is known about how students learn and the predictions regarding the world that our students will face tomorrow, a one size fits all approach to teaching and learning is educational malpractice. 

Built on the foundation of leadership and school culture, a redesigned learning experience fundamentally shifts the teaching and learning paradigm to one that's personal. It alters the use of authentic assessments, how technology is leveraged, the spaces in which the learning occurs, the way educators grow professionally, how schools collaborate with the community, and the sustainability of the system as a whole. The authors will dissect an approach to unlocking tomorrow's schools so that today's modern learners leave ready to create new industries, find new cures, and solve world problems.

Although not a required reading, the content for this course expands upon the book, Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow's Schools, Today. Throughout the course, participants will be encouraged to reflect and share their learning using the hashtag #LT8keys on Twitter and/or LinkedIn.

The course is structured in a way for all educators to take a critical lens to their practice in order to improve the learning culture in a classroom, building, district, or organization. Each module is designed to support your learning through self-assessment, content delivered by us, independent readings to extend learning, videos that showcase innovative practices in action, opportunities to reflect, and application to practice. Tasks in each module are listed further down.  Directly below are the nine modules that participants will work through asynchronously. 

  1. Vision for Change
  2. Creating a Culture of Innovation
  3. Redesigning the Learning Experience
  4. Return on Instruction
  5. Designing Learner-Centered Spaces
  6. Making Professional Learning Personal
  7. Leveraging Technology 
  8. Collaborating and Engaging with the Community
  9. Leading the Charge

Driving Question

How can classroom, school, and district leaders transform the student learning experience to one that better prepares them for their future?

Course Objectives

Participants will:

  • Self-assess current beliefs and established practices to develop a call to action.
  • Learn from Tom and Eric as to how research-based and evidence-driven practices can transform the learning culture in your classroom, school, or district.
  • Explore and reflect on video content and innovative practices in action from educators currently leading these change efforts.
  • Complete activities to support your individual, school, or district's transformation.
  • Actively apply what has been learned to initiate sustainable change and achieve efficacy.

Course Module Activities Include:

  • Self-assessment
  • Content delivery from Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger
  • Independent readings
  • Video case studies
  • Podcasts
  • Reflection questions
  • Action items for completion that align with your specific role and context

Learning Hours

20 hours.

What You'll Get

Learners will receive:

  • Digital badge
  • Guided lessons from Tom and Eric
  • Access to Tom and Eric when using #LT8Keys on social media
  • Activities to guide transformation and reflection
  • Articles and videos to spur conversation and push thinking
  • 50 additional tools and resources to drive innovative change 

We hope you enjoy this course and encourage you to take the time to reflect and dive in to support your school, district, organization, or classroom's transformation. Your brain might hurt at the conclusion of this journey, but rest assured you will be equipped with the ideas, strategies, and tools to transform learning for every student. Together, we can do this. You are part of the solution. Register today!

Consult with your local school or district as to how this course can be used to satisfy continuing education and professional learning hour requirements.  In addition to the digital badge awarded at the end of the course, once all requirements have been met we can also send a signed certificate of completion. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Empowering Learners to Think with Performance Tasks

Pedagogy has been at the forefront of my thinking and work as of late.  Decades of solid research have laid the foundation for current studies that bring to light how we can improve teaching, learning, and leadership.  As Tom Murray and I highlighted in Learning Transformed, this research has been taken to heart by schools across the world as they have transformed learning while improving results in the process. It is important not to lose sight of what has been found to work.  With all of the great ideas that educators are exposed to thanks to social media and live events, it is essential that we pause to reflect on what it takes to move from what sounds good in theory to successful implementation into practice.  Ideas shouldn't just seem right. They must lead push learners to think while providing validation of improvement through evidence. 

During my work as a principal, I wanted to transform the learning culture of my school.  For so long my students, like many others across the world, just did school. Learning, or at least what we referred to it as was more or less a monotonous task consisting of the same types of activities and assessments that occurred over and over again.  We weren't consistently getting our students to think deeply or authentically apply what they had learned.  Getting in classrooms more, taking a critical lens to our work, and working towards a Return on Instruction (ROI) helped us take the needed steps to raise the learning bar while expecting more from our students. We began by improving the level of questioning across the board.  From there, our focus was on the development of performance tasks that took into account objectives, learning targets, and curriculum alignment.  

Performance tasks afford students an opportunity to actively apply what they have learned and create a product to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to standards. Jay McTighe describes performance tasks as follows:
A performance task is any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product or performance that serve as evidence of learning. Unlike a selected-response item (e.g., multiple-choice or matching) that asks students to select from given alternatives, a performance task presents a situation that calls for learners to apply their learning in context.
Learning in highly successful schools enables students to know what to do when they don't know what to do. This is also referred to as cognitive flexibility, the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts and to think about multiple ideas simultaneously. To gain that competence, students need to acquire depth of knowledge and a rich set of skills and then be taught how to apply their skills/knowledge to unpredictable situations in the world beyond school.  This is critical if we are to prepare students for the new world of work adequately.  

By using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a guide, educators can begin to develop performance tasks that push learners to show that they understand while applying what has been learned in relevant contexts. McTighe identifies seven characteristics to consider during development:

  1. Performance tasks call for the application of knowledge and skills, not just recall or recognition.
  2. Performance tasks are open-ended and typically do not yield a single, correct answer.
  3. Performance tasks establish novel and authentic contexts for performance.
  4. Performance tasks provide evidence of understanding via transfer.
  5. Performance tasks are multi-faceted.
  6. Performance tasks can integrate two or more subjects as well as 21st-century skills.
  7. Performances on open-ended tasks are evaluated with established criteria and rubrics.

The GRASPS model (Wiggins & McTighe, 2004) can greatly assist educators in the construction of quality performance tasks. The GRASP acronym stands for the following: Goals, Role, Audience, Situation, Products or Performances, and Standards.

It is important to remember that the two critical elements in any quality performance task is evidence of learning and relevant application.  As we began progressing through our digital transformation at New Milford High School, technology became a vital component of performance tasks.  To see some examples, take a look at this post.  

The Independent OpenCourseWare Study (IOCS) that we created is another excellent example. It allowed students to fully utilize OCW to pursue learning that focused on their passions, interests, and career aspirations.  They could select offerings from such schools as the MIT Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford, applying their learning to earn high school credit. Students combined their creativity with their newfound knowledge to synthesize a unique product that demonstrated and implemented the new knowledge and skills they gained from the OCW. The aim was for students to produce an actual product, whether it was the demonstration of a new skill, the creation of a physical model, the designing and conducting of an experiment, the formulation of a theory, or some other creative way to show what they've learned. 

If it's easy, then it probably isn't learning.  Performance tasks push students to think more deeply about their learning while developing a greater sense of relevance beyond the classroom.  

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2004).  Understanding by Design Professional Development  Workbook. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Scaffolding Questions to Develop Deeper Understanding

Over the past couple of months, I have been working with a variety of schools and districts in the role of a coach.  Most of this work is focused on digital pedagogy so naturally, I am focused on observing and collecting evidence to get a handle on both the level of instruction and the learning that is taking place.  To allow educators to critically reflect on their practice I take many pictures of what I see, especially the types of learning activities with which students are engaged.  After numerous visits, we all debrief and discuss the good practices that were observed, but also areas needing improvement.

The message that I try to convey is that technology should not be separate from sound instructional design, but instead serve as a ubiquitous entity that supports or enhances curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  There are five main areas that are critical components of sound instructional design that I tend to focus on during debriefing conversations: level of questioning, authentic or interdisciplinary contexts, rigorous performance tasks, innovative assessments, and improved feedback. Of these five components, questioning techniques are something teachers and administrators can work to improve in every lesson. 

Here is what I struggle with based on what I actually see in practice.  In many cases, the "wow" factor of technology is placed ahead of getting kids to think deeply or authentically applying their learning.  Take tools like Kahoot and Quizizz.  There are no inherent issues with the tools themselves, educators just have to be more mindful of how they are being used.  Many of these tools add either a fun or competitive factor to the process of answering low-level, multiple-choice questions. Now I am not saying that foundational knowledge is not important. It is in many cases. However, if this the only way tools like this are utilized then we are missing a golden opportunity to challenge our learners to think deeply about concepts.

While conducting some coaching visits at Wells Elementary School recently, I saw Ms. Mican using Quizizz.  At first glance, all I saw were student responses to knowledge-based questions on the interactive whiteboard to check for understanding.  What I saw next really made me smile.  With the students sitting on the floor around the IWB Ms. Mican displayed the Quizziz results and then had the kids explain why they answered the way they did.  This is a great example of scaffolding and building on the content.  As I said previously, foundational knowledge provides a bridge to higher-level thinking and application.  They key is to make sure when using response-based technologies that the level of questioning is addressed through scaffolding techniques. The same can be said in regard to any type of activity without technology.

Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Questioning is an integral component of this process. NSEAD provides this synopsis on the importance of good questioning techniques. Check out the link in the previous sentence it contains a wealth of information to improve the level of questioning in any class. 
Historically, teachers have asked questions to check what has been learned and understood, to help them gauge whether to further review previous learning, increase or decrease the challenge, and assess whether students are ready to move forward and learn new information (factual checks - ie 'Closed' questions). This can be structured as a simple 'teacher versus the class' approach (Bat and Ball), where the teacher asks a question and accepts an answer from a volunteer, or selects/conscripts a specific student to answer. These approaches are implicit in any pedagogy, but teachers need a range of 'Open' questioning strategies to address different learning needs and situations. Teachers must also pitch questions effectively to raise the thinking challenge, target specific students or groups within the class.
The Rigor Relevance Framework provides all educators with guidance to scaffold questions.  It is an action-oriented continuum that describes putting knowledge to use by giving teachers a way to develop both instruction and assessment and gives students a way to project learning goals. This framework, based on traditional elements of education yet encouraging movement from the acquisition of knowledge to the application of knowledge, charts learning along the two dimensions of higher standards and student performance

Below is a breakdown of the four quadrants:

  • Quad A - Students gather and store bits of knowledge and information. Students are primarily expected to remember or understand this knowledge.
  • Quad B - Students use acquired knowledge to solve problems, design solutions, and complete work. The highest level of application is to apply knowledge to new and unpredictable situations.
  • Quad C - Students extend and refine their acquired knowledge to be able to use that knowledge automatically and routinely to analyze and solve problems and create solutions.
  • Quad D - Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.

Below you will see how questions can be scaffolded according to each quadrant of the Rigor Relevance Framework.

With and without technology it is important to empower our learners to think. Scaffolding questions enhance learning and aids in the mastery of concepts by systematically building on knowledge and relevance. The ultimate goal is to develop competent thinkers and doers who can not only use knowledge in new ways but also construct their own.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

To Improve Outcomes, We Need to Take a Critical Lens to Instructional Design

No one can deny the fact that we are seeing some pretty exciting changes to teaching, learning, and leadership.  Advances in research, brain science, and technology are opening up new and better pathways to reach learners like never before.  This excitement in some cases is leading to change with supporting evidence of improvement. In other cases, money is being dumped on the latest tool, program, idea, or professional development without ensuring that instructional design is up to par in the first place.  Pedagogy trumps technology.  It also goes without saying that a solid pedagogical foundation should be in place prior to implementing any innovative idea.

Let's start by looking at practice from a general lens.  To transform learning, we must also transform teaching.  When looking at the image below where does your practice or that of your teachers lie? What immediate changes can be made to improve learning for your students tomorrow? 

Now let's turn our focus to some more specific elements of instruction. It is important to take a critical lens to our work to ensure efficacy if the goal is to improve learning.  With that being said it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure shifts to instructional design are occurring that result in better student outcomes. This is why a Return on Instruction (ROI) as described in Learning Transformed is so important both with and without technology.
"When integrating technology and innovative ideas there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes."
The key to future-proofing education is to get kids to think. If it is easy, then it probably isn't learning. Challenging learners through complex problem solving and activities that involve critical thinking is extremely important, but they also must be afforded opportunities to apply their learning in relevant ways.  This does not have to be an arduous process that takes up a great deal of time.  Below are five areas to look at when implementing any digital tool or innovative idea to determine whether or not improvements to pedagogy are changing. Each area is followed by a question or two as a means to help self-assess where you are and if improvements can be made. 

  • Level of questioning: Are students being asked questions at the higher levels of knowledge taxonomy? Do students have the opportunity to develop and then answer their own higher-order questions?
  • Authentic and/or interdisciplinary context: Is there a connection to help students see why this learning is important and how it can be used outside of school?
  • Rigorous performance tasks: Are students afforded an opportunity to actively apply what they have learned and create a product to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to standards?
  • Innovative assessment - Is assessment changing to provide critical information about what students know or don't? Are alternative forms of assessment being implemented such as portfolios to illustrate growth over time?
  • Improved Feedback - Is feedback timely, aligned to standards, specific, and does it provide details on advancement towards a learning goal?

Improving outcomes relies on aligning instruction to solid research, ensuring that pedagogical shifts are occurring, holding ourselves (and others) accountable for growth, and showcasing evidence of improvement.  By taking a critical lens to our practice we can determine where we are, but more importantly where we actually want and need to be for our learners. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Lost Art of Listening

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and knew with certainty that he or she was not listening? Of course, you have.  It is fairly easy to tell when someone is not engaged in a conversation either through lack of eye contact, facial expressions, or the loathed phrase "What did you just say?"  The chances are that the shoe has been on the other foot and you have been guilty of the same behavior.  People know when we are distracted and not actually "present". We must rediscover the lost art of listening.

You would be hard-pressed to find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Communication is vital in accomplishing tasks and getting things done, passing on important information, acquiring information, developing a shared vision, reaching decisions through consensus, building relationships, and moving people to embrace change. For many people, communication is viewed through a lens that focuses on why and how information or targeted messages are delivered.  However, the most effective communicators are those people who listen intently.

By improving our listening skills, we can become better communicators in our respective positions while simultaneously building better relationships with students, colleagues, and other stakeholders.  Below are some solid tips from Ed Brodow that can help you become a better listener:

  • Develop the desire to listen. You must accept the fact that listening to others is your strongest weapon. Given the opportunity, the other person will tell you everything you need to know. If this doesn't create desire, I don't know what will.
  • Always let the other person do most of the talking. This is a simple matter of mathematics. I suggest a 70/30 rule. You listen 70% of the time and you talk 30% of the time.
  • Don't interrupt.  There is always the temptation to interrupt so you can tell the other person something you think is vitally important. It isn't, so don't. When you are about to speak, ask yourself if it is really necessary.
  • Learn active listening.  It's not enough that you're listening to someone - you want to be sure that they know you're listening. Active listening is the art of communicating to the other person that you're hearing their every word.
  • Ask for clarification if needed.  This will clear up any misunderstanding you have.
  • Get used to 'listening' for nonverbal messages - body language.  The other person may be communicating with you via body language. You need to decode the message.
  • Ask a question...then shut up.  This is a foolproof way to listen. Think of yourself as an interviewer - Barbara Walters! She listens and questions - so should you.

In addition to the great tips above, I would add that we must work harder to let other people know that we are actually listening.  The use of eye contact and facial expressions followed up by either additional questions or a synthesis of what was heard conveys to others that you are actually present. If the conversation is happening over the phone or through a digital medium, consider following up with a short summary as to what you heard. The final tip is probably the most important.  The best way to illustrate that you have really listened is to take action in some way so that the other person, or people, know that they were actually heard. The action could be moving an idea forward or explaining your decision to go in another direction.  There are always the times when people just want to vent and be listened to. In these cases, the most important thing you can do is show you care. 

In the digital age, we are all trying so hard to be heard, but are we making the time to listen and reflect?  As I discussed at length in Digital Leadership, social media ushered in a new era of communication and collaboration.  Traditional hurdles such as time, distance, and money have been overcome as more and more tools are available that allow people to share resources, ideas, opinions, and feedback.  For all of us who routinely leverage social media for these purposes, we are a vibrant part of a globally connected community committed to improving professional practice as well as our own lives.  Being able to share information and ideas like never before is exhilarating, but are we taking the time to really listen to what others are sharing? 

The art of listening can be extended to the social media space.  This applies to all of us and I know personally it is an area that I can improve upon.  Consider engaging others in conversations about their ideas and questions by commenting on blog posts or responding to updates on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.  This means more to people than you will ever know, especially if that person doesn't have a large social media following.  It shows that you care and are actually listening in digital spaces. If someone reaches out to you in this space with a question or comment, take the time to reply back. 

As Aristotle once said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Make improved listening a habit to move more ideas forward and build positive relationships in the process. 

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.