Bias Toward Action in Education Innovation

I love ideas but I confess that I still have a bias toward action in education. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech entitled, “The Man in the Arena” at the Sorbonne. In that speech, he said the following words that have since gained widespread attention:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’ve often thought about this quote in terms of my role in education. As much as I’m drawn to the world of ideas, and part of me would be content spending the rest of my life reading great books, there is another part that is not content analyzing and critiquing education. I want to pull up my sleeves and do something that matters. I want to help people explore the possibilities and then do something with this new perspective. Design rich and engaging learning experiences. Pursue promising practices and innovations. Solve important problems. Create new schools and learning communities. Help shape high-impact learning communities of purpose and possibility. This is why I consider myself an applied scholar.

James Bryant Conant was quoted as saying that, “a scholar’s work must have relevance.” I agree. The work of a scholar is intended to contribute to something good in the world. Of course, some researchers are doing work that has yet to reveal obvious applications in the real world (and those can have a huge payoff down the road for society), but I continue to think that our task is to do work that is relevant in the world. Contribute research, ideas, models, and frameworks that help people solve important problems; gain new perspectives; explore promising possibilities; and/or create products and services that benefit others.

This is why I might take the time to critique the modern education ecosystem, but I hope that frequent readers see that the majority of my writing is not a critique as much as it is an invitation to look at old problems with new eyes, to consider options previously overlooked, to revisit that which compels us and informs our work in education, and to pursue values-infused innovation that matters.

We need plenty of critique today. It serves as a source of feedback. It is part of evaluating what is working and what is not. It helps us to lead from a place of depth, a sense of mission and purpose. Without it we will find ourselves unable to make progress. We would perpetually repeat the same mistakes, often unaware that we are even making the mistakes.

Yet, postmodern tendencies in the contemporary world can lead us to think that our job is done once we’ve engaged in a thorough critique, once we’ve deconstructed the system and commented on the rubble that we’ve left in our path. This isn’t enough. In a space like education, I’m not even sure that it is responsible. If we deconstruct, then I consider it our responsibility to at least contribute in small ways to reconstruct or to construct something in its place.

As a kid, I used to love taking things apart. I would save up my money to buy something like a radio or remote control car. It usually didn’t last a month before I would take it apart, piece by piece. There was something wonderfully rewarding about doing this. Yet, sometimes they would just stay that way, deconstructed and no longer functional. When I managed to put it back together, thinking about the purpose of the different pieces, and then it worked, that was far more invigorating for me. Or, the first time that I ordered the individual parts and built a computer from scratch…you would have  thought that I’d just built a space shuttle. As I dabbled with computer hardware for fun in my younger years, taking things apart was not nearly as rewarding as building something new or fixing something that did not work.

I suppose that I think about education in a similar way. It doesn’t take that much to tear down the system, to point out its many flaws and limitations. That is good and important work. Yet, my respect goes to the person who steps into the education arena, whose “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”, who might come up short but doesn’t given up, who “spends himself in a worthy cause”, who approaches the possibilities and opportunities in education with passion, conviction, and courage. I consider it an honor to step into that arena, and I’m just as honored to have the opportunity to share the stories of others in the arena, people doing incredible work in the education space.

Should We Stop Expanding K-12 Blended & Virtual Schools?

April, 2016 – The National Education Policy Center released a report on the performance of existing k-12 blended and virtual schools in the United States. When looking at adequate yearly progress (or an alternative standard) for these blended and online schools as a group, the researchers found that the group consistently performed well below their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They found a higher teacher to student ratio as well. Based upon these and a few other analyses, they made the following recommendations. I’ve included them with a bit of commentary. You can review the entire report here but following are their recommendations and my thoughts.

Policymakers slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor outcomes have been identified and addressed.

First, the report itself recognizes the limitations of how they are measuring the performance of students in these blended and virtual schools, and the limited data. Second, allow me to give a little insight into how some of this testing works for virtual schools. These test numbers for virtual schools are typically coming from a single day event where they make virtual school students travel to a site for this exam. Anecdotally, I know one instance where technical glitches with the computer lab were such that students were supposed to start their test at 9:00 AM and they didn’t actually get started until 1:00 PM. The students are not used to these sorts of tests. These virtual schools do not teach to the test (something that I consider a strength). And again, this is a single day in the school year in a context and format that is completely unfamiliar to the students. If anything, this just says that the virtual schools are not playing hoop jumping game of school as well as others, but I am suspect about assuming that it says too much of substance  about student performance for the entire virtual school ecosystem.

With that said, I agree that we need better measures, but we need to be flexible and open about how we assess student growth and development. Virtual schools should not be penalized because they do not fit the narrow boxes set up for traditional brick and mortar schools.

Additional, we need to consider more holistic affordances and limitations in schools. This might seem like an extreme example but, are we calling for limiting traditional brick and mortar school enrollment until they fully address the incredibly troubling issues with school violence, expansive bullying or related issues? If schools are doing well with AYP, are we okay with all this other stuff? While there are many reasons why families choose virtual schools, you might be surprised how many were related to justifiable concerns about such issues. I’ve met countless parents who were at their wits end trying to find a solution in the school or an alternative that did little more than address some of the most basic and fundamental physical, emotional and social needs of their kids; and people in the brick and mortar schools were not helping. These are real and important issues, and we don’t want to exacerbate the problem. So, do we really want to limit access to one of the only reasonable options for some of these kids to have a physically and emotionally safe learning environment? Of course, there are many other solid and viable reasons for virtual schooling, but I contend that we need to consider these issues with the larger context and situation in mind.

We don’t pay enough attention to how policy sets individuals and schools up for failure. I contend that we need to completely revisit how we go about measuring the quality of schools and student learning and that we create an approach that recognizes different curricular goals and standards for different schools, virtual and otherwise.

Oversight authorities specify and enforce sanctions for virtual schools and blended schools if they fail to demonstrate that they are doing a good job with their students.

Again, before we start throwing out sanctions that usually make it even harder for schools to improve quality, how about revisiting the way the measure success in the first place? This is good cause to pause and reflect about the entire AYP enterprise and how we do it now. And in an online course, there are an incredible number of data points that they didn’t even consider for this review of the health of virtual schools. Some of the lessons can give 20x the detail that we have of student behaviors and learning than in almost any brick and mortar school, yet none of that data was mined (because it wasn’t available to the researchers).

This is a classic problem with innovations. People try to measure them with old methods or standards. That often doesn’t work. We need new methods for new models.

Policymakers require virtual schools and blended schools to devote more resources to instruction, particularly by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers.

We don’t have the data to mandate this. This is largely driven by the student to teacher ratio, but it doesn’t consider other ratios. Should we also require a certain ration of adaptive learning software to students in brick and mortar classes? There are things done online for virtual students that are not done for the brick and mortar students. Besides, we have research to indicate that student to teacher ratio needs vary by context and the type of learning activity. This is too premature, especially until we find better ways to more broadly monitor learning and engagement for learners in any type of school.

State agencies ensure that virtual schools and blended schools fully report data related to the population of students they serve and the teachers they employ.

“Mom, can you tell Billy to share his candy with me?!” Okay. I get it. The researchers want access to more data. They want to policymakers to make it easier for them to write these sorts of reports and conduct additional research. This will, in their view, allow for greater accountability and better schools for all. They want everyone to play by the rules that benefit them the most in this pursuit. Perhaps this is valuable. Perhaps not.

State and federal policymakers promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools and blended schools. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents an opportunity for those states with a growing virtual and blended school sector to improve upon their accountability systems for reporting data on school performance measures.

Yes. Now this is where I think that they have hit on the most important point. It might not even take the research and report that they wrote to get at this one. The entire system needs better ways to measure outcomes, and we need to do it in a way that blends accountability and an encouragement of educational innovation. People do not tend to think that way. We have a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to familiar systems even if they have massive problems while having a far higher standard for innovations. I’m all for careful review and scrutiny. Let’s just do it equally for all and in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily inhibit innovation.

In the end, what we need the most are solid, data-driven and research-informed online teaching and learning practices. We do indeed need more research in this area, and we need to do it in a way that brackets our assumptions about what school should look like, how it should take place, and an openness to a much broader range of outcomes, potential benefits, and potential limitations.  Right now we reward schools that play the policy and regulation games the best or that have the best zip codes and that isn’t going to be adequate for our progress in education.


10 Tips to Nurturing Educator Talent in your School

In part three of my webinar series on talent management for school leaders, I took participants through ten tips to nurturing educator talent that I’ve garnered from my own leadership along with insights gathered from some of the more impactful and innovative schools that I’ve visited over the years. I offer them below for your consideration.

Relentless Mission Talk & Shared Vocabulary

In part one of my webinar, I started with mission and vision talk because that is where everything begins. The best person for one school will not be the best person for another. It depends upon the mission of the school as well as the context. That is the first key task in talent management, getting the right people on the team, people who live and breathe your school’s distinct mission, vision, and philosophy.

Yet, when you look at great schools, it doesn’t stop with hiring practices. Part of investing in and nurturing top talent in your school is working hard at keeping the mission, vision and philosophy alive and central to who you are and what you do. That means embedding it into everything, being relentless about it. It means having a shared vocabulary that supports the mission, vision and philosophy and nurturing the intentional use of it.

When people visit your school and wonder if they’ve stepped into a strange cult, then you might be on the right track. Of course, I don’t mean that completely literally, but I’m referring to this idea that people continue to have their own ideas and opinions, but they have a strong alignment with what matters most in the school. Like a best friend, you start finding yourself able to finish each other’s sentences (even if you don’t actually do it). You have a shared understanding of certain words and approaches so that you don’t have to waste precious energy redefining and re-defending everything (even when outsiders are not sure what you are talking about). This takes intentionality and investment in nurturing a certain culture, but once it is developed, it amplifies the impact and distinctiveness of your school community, not to mention cultivating a strong sense of loyalty and belonging among team members.

Quarterly measurable goals (team & individual)

It doesn’t have to be quarterly. It could be more often too. Yet, it can’t just be those painful and largely unproductive annual evaluations. A year is too long. We will see much more growth and progress if we are setting short-term goals and having a time for reflection and feedback that is frequent.

The Google approach is a promising option. As I understand it, this involves 1 to 3 team or unit quarterly goals (which could be the entire school if you are a small staff). In addition, each individual can have 1 to 3 quarterly goals that feed into the larger team goals.

Consider using something like the SMART goal system. The goal should be specific and measurable. It should the worthy and challenging, but measurable and realistic. It should also be time-bound.

Persistent Feedback Loops  (as it relates to individual and team goals)

Goals are good but then we need feedback on our progress. Are we on track, on target, going off target or something else? People in pursuit of excellence tend to crave feedback because they know it is key to getting better. If you are building this into the culture and it is a standard part of the interactions among teachers and others, then you’ve won half of the battle. You’ve made huge strides toward a high-impact culture, especially if people heed the insights from the feedback and make adjustments accordingly.

If people are nervous about feedback, then that might be a sign that we need to do it more often, so often that it becomes more familiar, less frightening, and more fundamental to how you do things. Of course, we also want feedback to be about getting better, not just beating people down. This means building trust, respect and making it about growth and learning.

Best people on biggest opportunities, not biggest problems. (ala Jim Collins)

As Jim Collins notes, you want to beware of wearing out your best people by always giving them the biggest problems. Give them a chance to invest time in promising opportunities that resonate with their gifts and passions as well. Also, money matters to most people, but we underestimate the power of meaning in our work. That is a huge part of helping people stay engaged and growing. As such, take the time to find out how the other person sees a project. Do they look at it as a problem or opportunity? You might be giving them a great opportunity, but they might not see it that way.

Significant investment in self-initiated and group agreed upon high-quality professional development.

When I’ve visited many high-impact organizations, they don’t tend to cut corners when it comes to professional development. I went to one school that paid for a skilled teacher to leave for a full year to get her MA in English at Harvard (the school was 1000 miles away) and then return (for a minimum of 3 years) to help build a world-class writing across the curriculum program for the school. Now that is investing in top talent for the sake of the school. The principal found outside funding to cover the costs.

Another school paid for all new teachers to go on a cross-country trip and attend an immersive 2-week training that cost them about $4500-5000 per person as part of their orientation and professional development. It made sure they were grounded in a key brain-based learning philosophy that they wanted to permeate the school. Was there a local graduate course that taught brain-based learning? Probably so. Yet, they were committed to the best training they could find.

In the end, this is the key. These great schools look for learning opportunities with the best minds they can find. Who are the 5-10 best minds or most skilled people in the world in this area? How can we observe them or learn from them? Then invest in bringing them to the school, reading their work, connecting via online technologies or something else. In the world of Skype and Google Hangouts, this is easier than ever for individual and group learning. It is also inspiring to many people to connect with some people.

Don’t forget experiential learning. Consider finding ways for people to get away and go observe great teachers and schools in action elsewhere. These field trips can be quite powerful and high-quality learning opportunities and they often cost far less than a course or conference.

Growth & personal development is a non-negotiable part of the culture.

This is another consistent trait. If we want to invest in top talent, we want to create a true culture of learning among the teachers. I mean, how are we ever going to have a great school if the people designing the learning experiences or nurturing the students do not embody traits like curiosity and a love of learning? This must be a non-negotiable that everyone embraces and encourages of one another. We read and discuss ideas together. We independently pursue new knowledge and skills. We thirst for getting better and/or learning new things.

You know that you have a culture of learning when more learning is seen as a reward. In some schools, teachers groan about professional development because they see it as irrelevant and a chore. Yet, in these impactful schools, a teacher “reward” might be two sub days and the money to go visit other high-impact schools. It is like in a video game. Your reward for winning one level is that you get to go to the next level. Now that is a sign of an engaging environment and it is possible among teachers (and students) in a school. Embed it in the rituals and practices and see what happens.

As this is part of the culture, we will see people peer mentoring, engaging in observations of one another, encouraging each other, setting up peer accountability and more. You know that you have a strong learning culture among teachers when peers hold one another accountable and that isn’t just the job of an isolated leader.

Communicate how they are an asset.

I can live in my head so much that I admit this is not a current strength. I can forget to do this and have to be quite intentional about making it a priority. Yet, this is powerful. You can have highly competent people who don’t reach their potential because they don’t have high levels of confidence. Yet, you can help nurture that by pointing out, in objective ways, how they are an asset, how they are contributing to important parts of the school. Do it sincerely and often. Do it in writing, in person, and in front of others (except when that is de-motivating for certain personalities).

Mandatory show and tell.

When people do go away to learn something, pursue new knowledge through a formal degree, go visit another school, take a class, go to a conference or something else; set up time for them to share what they learned and maybe lead a discussion with peers. This is a great way to spread the learning but also to further build that culture of learning.

Give them a voice.

We want people who have a voice and sense of agency. Invite the community into the decisions. This builds community, generates great ideas, and gives people a growing sense of agency and ownership; which is a key to engagement.

Be deeply invested in their optimal impact, even if that leads them elsewhere.

I believe that the mission of individual schools is important but there is a broader educational ecosystem that matters too. If you do all of the above, you will be helping people to grow and develop in amazing ways. This may well mean that they discover gifts and abilities that make them great leaders in other schools. This is a good thing. Invest in them while they are there and then genuinely desire the best for them and for their gifts to be best utilized, even when that means their moving on. In the end, you will have a strong connection that will likely benefit your school in unexpected ways after they leave. Who knows? In the future, they might end up sending you more top talent.

Other Ideas

Of course, there are many professional development ideas as well, but the 10 ideas above are what I considered to be key areas. If you are looking for other professional development ideas, please see the following article on 20 Ideas for Professional Development in the Digital Age.

20 Ideas for Professional Development in the Digital Age


Teaching Academically Struggling Learners to Hack the School System

There are dozens of reasons why students struggle academically. When I talk to people about helping struggling students, many strategies focus upon helping them get with the system. Yet quite a few students find success because they also know how to hack the system. As such, maybe we should start teaching struggling students how to hack the school system. Consider the following ways to do that.

Study the Schooling System

Countless students spend 12+ years in an education system that they never actually get to study or understand. If I were taking a job in a company within a new industry and I knew that I would be there for even 6 months to a year, I would work like crazy to understand the ins and outs of that company and the industry. The better you know the organization and industry, the more you understand how to hack it, how to get the most out of it, how to leverage your creative powers to shape it in ways that help you achieve important goals. This is a useful way to move toward greater agency. You are not just shaped by the system. If you how the know how, you can help shape it.

What is “Smart”?

I’ve met too many struggling students who erroneously labeled themselves as not smart, lacking the raw intelligence to be successful. We don’t have to ignore or disregard the role of genetics, but it is helpful for these students to understand that there is much more nuance to the discussion and that they have far more capacity than they realize. We all work with the genetic hand that we are dealt, but we don’t know the limits of our ability an potential impact. With the right perspective, mindset, knowledge and skill, we can each do some incredible things.

Mind Hacking

Building upon the last idea, one of the most powerful ways to hack the system is to learn how to hack our own minds. By getting to know the research about mindsets, cognitive load, memory, feedback systems, double loop learning, deliberate practice, mastery and the like, we will find ourselves better able to design study strategies and independent learning strategies that are more productive. With practice, we can learn how to design strategies that help us find success even when there is a less-than-helpful teacher/instructor or course design.

Test Taking

I don’t like tests but if you opt to stay in the legacy system, you are wise to learn how to hack them. Students striving to perform well on standardized tests and the families supporting them will go through great efforts (not to mention spending a good deal of money) teaching people about test-taking strategies. Some of strategies are just setting you up for your best and apply to much of life. Get plenty of rest. Eat a good breakfast that includes plenty of protein. Read the directions carefully. Review your answers. Stay confident. Review the questions first and then learn to skim and scan for the answers instead of reading lengthy sections. Practice finding the “right” information quickly in a body of text. Find out whether there is a penalty for guessing and act accordingly.

What you know matters, but in this sense, traditional schooling and test-taking are both games more than real-world environments. So, people who find success in the game learn the rules, learn how to push right up to the rules, figure out how to use them to their advantage, and refine their skills within the game. Of course, learning to play games is a powerful life skill, but beyond that, if one opts for staying with the traditional schooling context, why not clue students into the fact that the actual test-taking is just that, a game to be hacked (ethically, of course)? Unfortunately, test really have little to do with true learning and personal development, but again, it is a part of the system that holds many stoods back.

Speaking Up

Some teachers still limit discourse to the old school raise your hand and wait to be called up, but many do not. Or, even if they do so, there are ways to get called on and there are ways to discourage the teacher from calling on you. Some students figure this out and use it to their benefit. Learn how to speak up, how to be heard, and the important art and science of influence.


Questions can be powerful tools. Some students (and parents) learn that there is more room for negotiation than some might think. Certainly there are closed and stubborn teachers who like to call the shots and enforce rules and expectations even when they don’t actually have a good reason for them. Yet, most are reasonable human beings. If you can figure out what they want and need, there is room for negotiation on the scope of assignments along with many other aspects of the learning experience. Although one needs to handle it subtly and respectfully, ask students and they will give you plenty of examples where they were able to negotiate their way to getting a second chance on an assignment, getting a second review of their work, or making even inviting the teacher to reconsider the assigned grade.

I’m not talking about manipulation or lies. This is just the nature of many school settings and students who figure out these nuanced skills have an advantage in the game of school.

Exploring Your Options

Depending upon the area, many students today have a growing number of options available to them. There are virtual schools, various types of charters, homeschooling and unschooling options, private schools. There are schools that are teacher-dominated and others that give students ample voice and choice. Yes, there are financial restraints to some of these, but there are ways to through those challenges as well. What matters is that these students know that, more often than not, they have more options than they realize.

Too often struggling students feel stuck and without much power to get themselves unstuck. They can come to believe that they have simple either/or options, so let’s help them see that there are more choices and there is much more hope than they might have realized at first.

Learning Beyond School

Students struggling in school can be tempted to confuse learning with school. They are hopefully related, but learning is the broader umbrella under which schooling resides. There is so much more learning that happens beyond the walls of the formal classroom. Chances are that many of those struggling students are learning plenty outside of school, but they might not even think of it as learning. Learning can be valuable even when it is not recognized or documented by a school as learning. As such, we can help struggling students come to see that they are learners, likely very good ones. We can help them gain confidence and competence in these areas, and possibly eventually transfer those skills back to the classroom. However, even if they do not, we have helped them avoid the dangerous trap of believing that they are not good learners just because they happen to be struggling in one of life’s many domains of learning.

Goal Setting

There is very little goal setting that happens in some classrooms and schools. The goals are too often artificial things like percentages, grades and test scores. Or, they are all set by the teachers. This has value at times. Yet, by introducing students to how to set goals, how they work, and why they work, we are giving them a tool that may allow them to better take advantage of the school system to achieve things that are important to them. These can certainly relate to the formal goals of the curriculum, but students will be far more motivated if they get to set some of their goals…maybe even most of them.

Hacking the System

Perhaps you don’t think of these as school system hacks, but they are just that. These are strategies to help students discover how they can shape the system and how they can shape the outcomes of the learning inside and outside of school. They can learn to use the system to accomplish their goals, even if the system was not necessarily designed to originally achieve those goals. By doing this, we are giving student voice, choice, agency and ownership.