Archive for Leadership

Student Directed Learning

Credit: Max Pixel

What is student-directed learning? Academic leaders use the term freely. Do we agree on its meaning? A group of us gathered at the Academic Leaders Retreat to discuss this question. The group included University Prep, Urban School, Christchurch School, York School, Lake Washington Girls Middle School, Evergreen School, Synapse School, One Schoolhouse, and The Berkeley School.

A common principle underlies our interest in this concept. Why does some of the best learning take place in student clubs? Students show greater engagement, work harder, and learn more when they control aspects of their learning environment. Daniel Pink wrote that autonomy, mastery, and purpose fuel motivation. Some students need more control than in the typical teacher-led classroom to feel “drive.” Making learning decisions is a critical skill in our fast-moving world.

Where have schools witnessed students design their own learning? We shared the purest examples from our school. UPrep has two student-led courses, Social Entrepreneurship and Feminism: Effects of Sexism and Advocacy. For each, students propose, design, execute, and evaluate the courses, in consultation with a faculty advisor but with no full-time teacher. When class meets, the students independently decide whether to focus on long-term goals, immediate tasks, or reflections.

The UPrep Community Service program encourages students to become “service captains.” They share the inspiration for a new community service activity, and then faculty and staff then step in to identify a community partner, arrange dates, and acquire materials. In the Student Produced Works course, students direct a play, create a painting, compose music, design a dance, and more. In the LaunchPad program, all seniors design an independent, community-based project around a personal interest to end the final year in the school.

During our discussion, academic leaders from other schools shared similar examples such as intensive clubs, internships, independent research, and very project-based courses.

Must students direct all aspects of the learning experience in order to gain the engagement benefits? Not at all! As Larry Rosenstock has said about the school he founded, we do not need more High Tech Highs. We need more different kinds of schools. Only the very rare school is ready to organize entirely around student-directed learning. Many schools want students to lead some aspects of the educational program. Most schools want students to make choices within their educational program.

Students benefit from opportunities to express “choice and voice.” Even a choice between two options is better than no choice at all. Teachers and schools that genuinely listen to student voice and adjust program in response support student engagement. Students may make decisions in discrete parts of the learning process, such as setting learning objectives, designing lesson activities, defining assessment methods, or connecting concepts learned to contemporary topics. Students may have choice at some times and not others. They may share the inspiration for new programs or activities that adults then carry out.

Our schools do not all have to become High Tech High in order to support student-directed learning. Better to start small, learn from experience, respond to local context, and then scale up. Schools are providing different opportunities for students to direct their own learning, creating schools that better inspire and prepare students for the future.

When Inspiration Catches On

Darren Donaldson, math teacher at Tuxedo Park School, is visiting Maru-a-Pula School this summer to teach for six weeks and experience Botswana. For many visitors, the story would pause there, but Darren decided to make a remarkable contribution to the school as part of his visit. Darren started an appeal to support orphan scholars at Maru-a-Pula, and this effort has raised over $6,000 so far! The school has for years provided scholarships to Orphans and Vulnerable Children, with over 30 enrolled at any given time.

What inspired Darren to take this step? Maru-a-Pula students and staff visited the school last year as part of a United States marimba band tour. This included a concert at Tuxedo Park School, an event for both sharing music and cultural exchange. It is rare not to find inspiration in the uplifting rhythms and melodies, energetic performers, and cultural story of Maru-a-Pula and its marimba band.

Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band visits Tuxedo Park School
Source: Tuxedo Park School

How did a music group from a small school in Botswana find its way to Tuxedo Park? Sue Heywood, resident of Tuxedo Park, organized the concert. A former resident of Botswana, she and her husband found the school through longtime Tuxedo resident Andy Jackson. Andy supported the school by serving and running the American Friends of Maru-a-Pula for several decades. Andy discovered the school through associate Ned Hall, who founded AFMAP in 1974. It was a true gift that Andy got to welcome the school to Tuxedo Park before passing away last year.

This is how inspiration catches on. From 1974 to 2017, one person after the next experienced the school, felt inspired to learn more, and created opportunities for others. We wish Darren the best for his upcoming trip to Maru-a-Pula and know that his association with the school will inspire others in turn.

The Metreon’s Lessons for Innovators

San Francisco MetreonOriginally published on the NAIS Annual Conference Online Community.

I experienced an inspirational story of innovation at the NAIS Annual Conference last week that filled me with optimism about the future of educational change in our schools. Doris Korda and Scott Looney (Hawken School) described an alternative high school program built around entrepreneurship and then unveiled an ambitious new project to reinvent the high school transcript and convince colleges to learn how to use it. I left feeling that we are indeed experiencing a moment of significant transition in independent schools that will help more students fully realize their potential. Then, I walked across the street to the Metreon.

Moscone Center’s giant, floor-to-ceiling east windows face the Metreon. You are forgiven if you think that it is just a Target, but the giant company only recently arrived. In 1999, Sony opened the Metreon in order to reinvent the urban mall as an entertainment/education center. It was a bold, unique pilot project. Original tenants included the first Sony Store, the first Microsoft store, an educational exhibit titled “The Way Things Work,” and a theme park-esque food court and play area based on the Sendak book, Where the Wild Things Are. The architecture was modern, and technology was everywhere. Kids danced on an interactive game projected on the floor, and kiosks sold the latest tech gadgets.

Despite much fanfare, the project stumbled out of the gate. Within a year, some stores left and were replaced. In 2006, Sony sold the building to Westfield, and in 2012, the mall company remodeled the space into a more recognizable form. An upscale, international food court and the aforementioned Target swallowed up the spaces formerly devoted to technology showcase stores, and the Wild Things gave way to a plainer, rentable, event space. Only the multiplex movie theater on the top floor and two of the food court options survived to this day. The building exterior now features red bulls-eyes, marking Target’s current experiment in downtown retail spaces.

Where did the Metreon go wrong, and what lessons can schools take away for their own innovative projects? Though my expertise lies in schools, not urban retail, I can see likely reasons. Sony invested huge dollars, $85 million according to SFGate, in the high stakes gamble. This must have led to massive pressure for the project to bear financial results right away. Successful innovations start small, with low-cost, low-risk pilots, to protect the innovation in its early stages and allow it to flounder, improve, and mature.

The financial model was apparently flawed from the start. In 1999, showcase stores did not make money (at least not until Apple Stores broke through). The added entertainment value of educational exhibits and storybook restaurants work in venues that charge admission, such as theme parks and museums. While design for innovation must welcome creative ideas, it’s equally important to confront practical realities later in the process and have a viable business model.

Sony attempted to change deeply embedded cultural habits of people wholesale and quickly. Even if Sony had protected the innovation longer, and the project was based on a better financial model, people’s shopping and entertainment habits still would not have changed in a short time. Successful innovations take a more personal, and longer-term approach to cultural change.

Will Hawken’s entrepreneurship program last? Will the mastery transcript consortium redefine the college application? We have learned a lot about innovation in education in recent years. I suspect that they have a better chance than that mall across the street.

Sources

Metreon’s shattered dreams (SFGate)

San Francisco Metreon 2.0: ‘Mall Of The Future’ Gets A Face Lift (Huffington Post)

“What happened to the “Where the Wild Things Are” interactive play space that used to be in the Sony Metreon in San Francisco?” (Quora)

What’s Your Story?

The NAIS community is running a project in which you post a photo of everyday objects that tell a story about your life. This is part of the run-up to the Annual Conference, which takes place this Thursday and Friday in San Francisco. While the photos speak for themselves, I thought I would elaborate here.

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I sticker my laptop as a reminder to not take myself too seriously when working with youth. This year, my stickers refer to sense of place: local organizations KEXP, Fuel Coffee, and the Seattle Sounders, the flag of the Cascadia bioregionalism movement, the Botswana crest, and two U Prep logos.

The Celtics and native orcas mugs also refer to sense of place, Boston being the city of my youth, and the orcas a reference to the art and culture of native Northwest tribes.

Even though I use computers a lot, pen and paper remain a great way to visually develop an idea.

These four books have had a strong effect on my thinking at different times in my career: Future Wise and Raising Race Questions in recent times as we plan strategic innovations here at school, Multimedia: From Wagner To Virtual Reality when I first began to explore multimedia educational software in the 1990’s, and Long Walk To Freedom, my travel book one vacation while living in Botswana.

The Independent Curriculum Group recently sent me this hat, a good reminder about the power of curricular freedom and student engagement in independent schools.

The graduate rubber duck is a Catlin Gabel tradition, and I happened to end up with one of these several Junes ago. It reminds me of the students we are cultivating to reach their full potential here.

What’s your story?

Say “Yes” As Often As Possible

Yes
Some years ago, I discovered that it’s my job to say “yes” as often as possible. A school administrator is a gatekeeper whose support teachers seek for permission to try a new idea or change a policy. I used to think that my role was to evaluate a new idea and decide whether to support it. Now, I start from the assumption that we can do it and proceed from there. Saying “yes” imbues teacher leaders with confidence and trust and lays the groundwork for school innovation.

Do I shun responsibility by saying “yes?” Hardly. For one, if a teacher or program director brings forth an idea that lies far outside the mission and norms of the school, then I say so. However, the message is not that I personally disapprove of the idea but rather that it does not have a strong chance of success given the nature of the school. Most people take such feedback well. If they persist with their idea despite such feedback, then either they are right, or their idea will ultimately not pass muster with others.

If a person like me does not pass judgment on an idea, then do all ideas get approved, leading to organizational chaos? Not at all. Rather, I fulfill my role to design and lead institutional processes that thoroughly consider, refine, and approve ideas. When groups of people, working from considered norms, review ideas, then the process is higher quality and more inclusive. Groups possess more collective wisdom than individuals, and any one person possesses personal preferences and blind spots.
Two kinds of institutional processes, natural and structured, may be used to consider an idea. Natural processes include trial, error, and correction, similar to what design thinkers call “iteration.” A person with authority can simply say, “Why not? It seems like you have thoughtfully considered this idea. Go ahead and try it, and let’s see what happens.” This works well when the barriers to entry are low. Starting small is another common design thinking strategy, designed to keep barriers low until an idea begins to show value.
Structured institutional processes usually take the form of a committee. Effective committees include thoughtful members committed to the school mission.Clear norms are essential, so that all participants are operating from common principles. Cultivating teacher leaders through training and practice develops a strong pool of candidate committee members. Administrators in the room must share their opinions only sparingly or else risk making decisions de facto by influencing the decisions of teacher leaders.

“Yes” is a powerful motivator and “no” a powerful demotivator. If the success of a school depends on the collective ingenuity and hard work of everyone involved, then collective motivation helps … a lot. It is practically impossible for a single or group of administrators to come up with all of the good ideas that will help an organization succeed. I have seen many good institutions stagnate due to overly directive leadership and faculty discord. On the bright side, a motivated, confident faculty becomes a wellspring of thoughtful, strategic ideas, the foundation for a culture of innovation.
According to a popular refrain, leadership comes in four styles: autocratic, consultative, consensus, and delegation. Saying “yes” means that one makes autocratic decisions only infrequently or for minor matters that may also be defined as tasks. “Yes” means that we are going to use more inclusive decision-making methods when people come to us with ideas. Perhaps we will solicit a lot of input and then decide whether to support the idea. Or perhaps send the idea to a consensus-based decision-making group. Or perhaps the individual who brought the idea will decide how far to pursue it.
The response, “yes, and” has become a popular way to support free and open sharing of ideas in conversation. “Yes, and” is certainly preferable to saying “yes, but.” However, why not just say, “yes” and stop there? Even when well-intentioned, adding “and” to a colleagues’s idea partially appropriates it. The person has only just expressed a thought, and we’re already improving on it? Better to respect the person’s thoughtfulness and trust later peer processes to further develop it. Say “yes,” as often as possible and design systems processes to support school innovation.
Photo credit: Kai Friis on Flickr

How I Became the Dot Voting Guy

$(KGrHqRHJCoE9!OfDVrRBP,KkTcg0w--60_35Dot voting is widespread. Who knows how long it’s been around? I use dot voting regularly to democratize decision making, and its use has spread within our school. Amusingly, some at school now associate me with dot voting!

Visual facilitation techniques can help break up conventional meeting dynamics. The typical committee operates in whole group discussion most of the time. Roles become ingrained, and some participants have more influence in discussions and decisions than others. One well-placed comment can redirect an entire discussion and potentially sway a decision. Those who hold contrary viewpoints do not always feel comfortable openly disagreeing and causing conflict.

Dot voting is deceptively simple. Since participants receive equal numbers of dots, they have equal influence on the decision. If you distribute a limited number of dots, then people must make choices and indicate priorities. Dots are anonymous, so a person can normally vote their conscience without worrying about what others may think, as long as no one else is watching over their shoulder! The resulting voting patterns can be extremely revealing about the distribution of opinion within a group.

Here are some examples from the past year.

Determining Department Head Goals For the Year

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Favorite Ideas From Summer Faculty Reads

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Dots With Our School Mascot, the Puma!

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Poster Session Favorite Ideas

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Identifying Student Supports Using Mini Dots
from a colleague’s meeting

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See Gamestorming for more meeting facilitation games.

I would like to thank our main office staff for stocking an entire plastic bin of sticky dots.

Library Leadership Summit

There’s a “new vibrancy” in information sciences today, stated Mike Eisenberg, dean emeritus of the UW Information School. Insights came aplenty at this weekend’s School Library Journal Leadership Summit. The portion I attended this morning included a keynote presentation by Marnie Webb and leadership panel facilitated by Eisenberg. The presentations spoke to librarian advocacy, “extreme” listening, and librarians as technology leaders. I am proud that our library staff do all of this and more, playing a central role in the life of the school. Here are some of my thoughts from this morning.

Complexity as a Response To Uncertainty

Lol_question_mark“There’s a man in our backyard. He’s carrying a leash and playing with our dog.” We felt unnerved. Our younger son was home alone, and now a stranger was in the backyard. We had been robbed before, and our parental instincts kicked in. Was the guy casing our house? Stealing the dog?

As the man left the house, we soon calmed down, and our minds ran through possible explanations. None seemed to fit. If the man was coming to case the house, why did he carry a leash? If he came with a leash, why didn’t he leave with the dog? Was he a pet lover? Isn’t it a little forward to enter a backyard? Why didn’t he ring the doorbell? The issue felt unresolved, and that felt uncomfortable. We wanted at least a reasonable theory, yet none of the possible explanations we came up with seemed to fit.

We arrived home, and everything seemed calm: happy kid, happy dog, lingering questions. We took the dog for a walk, and that’s when the neighbor across the street solved the mystery. “Did you son leave the gate open? Your dog came across the street to play with us, so I walked him back to your house. Your cars were gone, and it didn’t appear that anyone was home. The dog kept following me when I tried to walk out, so I played with the dog until she got tired!” Our son hadn’t recognized the neighbor from his view at the upstairs window and had kept quiet out of concern.

Why didn’t we think of this as a possible explanation? Too many factors were involved: the open gate, the wandering dog, the friendly neighbor, the empty driveway, the view from above. We had not considered this possibility, because too many different factors were involved. The situation was too complex for us to come up with this possible scenario, particularly when we were mindful of the safety of our child.

Being human, we seek to make meaning of the world around us. Since the world is very complex and our senses relatively limited, we tend toward simple explanations. Countless factors shape real-world phenomena such as climate change, crime, wars, immigration, health, and economics. Yet, oversimplification abounds. Politicians cast blame on single factors in search of votes. Companies appeal to simple explanations to sell products. Friends and colleagues cast regional issues as linear problems with single-variable causes. Social media speaks in sound bites.

Education is particularly prone to oversimplification. The “success” of Singapore and Finland. The “failure” of our educational system. “Good” and “bad” schools. In education, concrete evidence is scarce and armchair theories abound. Common sense and a good gut instinct are essential within an environment where scientific analysis produces far more questions than answers. Education’s research-practice divide exists in part because research explores far more variables than an educator could possibly incorporate into a class period with a roomful of students.

I often find myself playing the role of “complexifier.” When I hear an explanation framed in simple terms, I note the other factors potentially involved. We walk a delicate balance between action and inquiry. On the one hand, the events of each school day demand action. On the other hand, we must continue to ask questions and identify contributing factors.

Our neighbor’s good deed reminds us that responsible practice requires us to continue to function within uncertainty. While sometimes uncomfortable, we should neither oversimplify nor become paralyzed when we cannot explain what we observe. If we stay curious, use our senses, and speak with others, we may build a deeper understanding over time and improve our practice.

Image by WOLF LΔMBERT (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Teacher Leadership

By reputation, teaching offers few advancement opportunities. Schools don’t normally have many management positions, and only a few teachers transform into school administrators. At University Prep, however, we believe in the value of broadly distributing teacher leadership, both to enhance the educational experience and provide avenues for professional growth. We provide many opportunities for teachers to assume leadership roles.

Department heads are the school’s instructional leaders. They supervise and mentor teachers, collaborate in hiring and staffing processes, and develop the instructional culture of the school. Department heads receive a reduced course load and a stipend to support their work.

Class deans oversee student progress and needs within each grade level. They collaborate with the Student Services Team to identify and support students with socio-emotional or academic needs. Class deans receive a reduced course load to support their work.

Ad-hoc committees explore emergent school issues and recommend next steps. Recent ad-hoc committees have studied teacher feedback, extra help, mindfulness, narrative reports, computer science, and laptop programs. Teachers often initiate and lead ad-hoc committees.

Strategic planning includes teachers in board-led committee work on the long-term future of the school, particularly the direction of the educational program.

Curriculum proposals are initiated by teachers and then discussed in departments before moving to administrative bodies for approval.

School programs such as outdoor trips, Global Link, community service, ski bus, and middle school assemblies and socials depend on teacher leadership and participation. Some teachers receive a reduced course load in order to lead these programs.

Student clubs each have a faculty advisor. The advisor experience is very rich in the more active clubs such as National Honor Society, Students of Service, Mock Trial, Debate Club, Science Olympiad, and Multicultural Student Alliance.

Change of Pace Days depart from the regular class schedule to focus on contemporary issues such as social justice and community service. Teachers propose topics, facilitate workshops, and tap their professional networks to enrich the student experience.

Conferences: Teachers share their work at national and regional conferences, including the NAIS Annual Conference, People of Color Conference, NWAIS Educators Conference, National Arts Education Association national conference, Washington State Council for Social Studies annual conference. Teachers are well-supported to attend conferences and visit schools, expanding their exposure to new ideas and developing their professional networks.

Accreditation teams: We support teachers in serving on NWAIS accreditation visiting teams, an incredibly rich experience for understanding school program design and our peer northwest schools.

Career advancement: A number of our department heads who assume significant leadership responsibilities subsequently take jobs in school administration, both at University Prep and elsewhere.

Book Review: Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice

inside the black boxHere is a very brief review of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education. I so appreciate that Larry Cuban continues to publish productively on the history of education and school change. Through his blog, book forwards, and latest book, Cuban explores the most confounding quality of school reform: the more policymakers change, the more classroom practice stays the same. Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice summarizes Cuban’s past work comparing national education policy to his direct observations of classroom practice. In this way, Cuban explodes myths about the effects of federal and state education initiatives on the student experience in schools. Cuban also spends a chapter exploring parallels to the evolution of the training and evaluation of medical practice.

Central to the argument is the idea of the multi-layered curriculum. Federal education policy is interpreted by states. State education standards are interpreted by districts. District initiatives are monitored by schools. Teachers interpret the curriculum as they teach. Students interpret the curriculum that they receive. Finally, assessments reveal only a partial picture of what students have actually learned. Cuban explains that these many layers have so diluted the original intent of education policy that classroom practice has remained fairly immune to change over decades. He also points out that much national and state education policy has been alarmingly simply in its theory of school change, for example that school accountability to student test scores would necessarily cause improvement in teaching practice, or that adding thousands of computing devices would necessarily improve student learning.

Education is not just complicated, however. It is complex. Cuban explains that complex systems involve humans making varying decisions and lack central command. Interdependencies and interactions exist among many different actors, often with conflicting objectives and methods. Top-down directives and simplified change theories fail to cause actual change in complex systems. Rather, Cuban argues, education policymakers would do better to empower and support teachers as professionals, change agents, and experts. School reform must address all layers of the multi-layered curriculum in order to have any chance of causing actual change on the ground.

Ironically, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice does not get very far into the classroom beyond confirming that it remains little affected by decades of large scale education reform. Other books and studies help complete the inquiry. For example, David Perkins and Project Zero studied classrooms in depth to determine when moments of understanding were achieved and created a model for effective classroom instruction based on that. Jack Schneider examined four changes to education practice that did in fact take root in the classroom and identified key factors in penetrating the black box of classroom practice. Together, these studies help identify key aspects of each layer that affects classroom practice and ultimately may help educators navigate the complex, shifting worlds of education policy.