Archive for School change

Challenge Through Inquiry in Physics

“I have always been drawn to the idea of challenge for students.” Physics teacher Moses Rifkin has known for a long time how to assign difficult test questions. At the same time, he has increasingly come to feel that different challenges are needed to support all high school physics students in learning. Rifkin has begun to develop experiential learning challenges built around student inquiry.

Over a span of two years, Rifkin has noted which topics could be taught in an inquiry manner. This year, he dramatically reorganized the physics curriculum, inverting conventional unit structure. Instead of learning a concept and then applying it to a project, students first explore through observation, identify what they need to know, and then learn the relevant concepts. Students exhibit greater motivation to learn physics concepts that are situated within an applied context rather than the dry, hypothetical scenarios typical of textbook learning.

Early this fall, physics students completed three inquiry learning projects. In the first, students were challenged to design virtual robots that could stand up and move about, using the simulator SodaPlay. Students quickly learn that staying upright and walking involve complex, constantly changing forces! Through trial, error, and reflection, students develop creativity, thoughtfulness, and resiliency.

In the second project, students were asked to think about the traffic signal in front of the school. “Where can you be when the light turns yellow and stop in time? Where can you be when the light turns yellow and make it through before it turns red?” Through experimentation, student groups worked to identify the relevant variables and equations, calculated responses to the questions, and then created a presentation to explain it all.

The third project flipped the classic “egg drop” activity. Students were presented with only the basic parameters of the egg drop: “you will be raised 25 feet up in a crane lift. I will walk by below, unaware. You will determine when to drop an egg in order to hit me squarely in the head.” Students worked to identify helpful physics principles and apply them to answer the question, and (only) then did they attempt to drop the egg and hit their target!

Students had the option to present their work on a poster or through a video. One student has connected the study of physics to his passion for filmmaking and animation, producing professional quality videos for his groups’ projects.

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What is next for U Prep physics? Rifkin comments that these projects are more “open-roaded” than open-ended. Students learn how to apply conceptual study to real-world situations, but in reality these problems have a limited number of possible solutions. Rifkin would like to explore how to support students in to ask thoughtful questions and then design inquiry methods to study them, while still mastering foundational physics principles. This could make these projects truly open-ended, with a variety of possible outcomes.

School Start Times

The Seattle Times reports that Seattle Public School superintendent Larry Nyland will propose new start times for next year, based on the work of the bell times task force.

8:00 a.m.: Most elementary schools, three K-8 schools, Denny International Middle School
8:50 a.m.: All high schools, most middle schools, five K-8 schools
9:40 a.m.: 10 elementary schools, three K-8 schools

Currently, most high schools and middle schools start at 7:50 and elementary schools at 8:25 or 9:15. Three years ago, a district proposal to adjust start times was rescinded due to family objections. This time, all grades start later, some much later. According to the article, some families are balking over the potential inconvenience of the 9:40 start time proposed for some elementary and K-8 schools.

Research has suggested for years that adolescents are not physiologically prepared for an early start, and that learning may suffer as a result. Just ask high school teachers how much they prefer first period classes! One progressive, public high school starts at 8:40 most mornings, 10:10 on “late start” days. However, multiple factors influence bell times: athletics schedules, historical practice, traffic, parent work obligations, and busing. Three years ago, busing drove the proposal of new start times, so that the district could save funds by running the same buses on multiple morning and afternoon routes.

Let’s hope that the best interests of youth carry the day on this question.

 

Stanford’s Thoughts on the Future of Learning

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Stanford University held an event yesterday to share ideas about where teaching and learning are heading.

First in a series of events celebrating Stanford’s 125th anniversary, “Thinking Big About Learning” brings together Stanford professors and leaders talking about what they are doing and learning today in the humanities, computer science, medicine, education, behavioral science, neuroscience and more.

I watched the live broadcast and found that portions speak directly to our school’s strategic planning work on Next Generation Learning. I was also impressed at the similarities between trends in higher ed and secondary education. See below for a list of talks with time codes, so that you may jump directly to the desired presentation as you wish.

Opening Conversation

John Etchemendy, John Mitchell, Daniel Schwartz, and Caroline Winterer (00:00:00)

The Art & Science of Learning

Carol Dweck – Teaching a Growth Mindset (00:22:30)

Bruce McCandliss – The Neuroscience of Learning (00:38:00)

Jeremy Bailenson – Immersive Science, Learning in Virtual Reality (01:00:00)

Carl Wieman – Finding New Ways to Learn Science (01:15:05)

The Learning Landscape

Piya Sorcar – Overcoming Cultural Roadblocks to Education (01:48:00)

Linda Darling-Hammond – New Learning Landscape (02:03:10)

Esther Wojcicki – Empowering Students (02:19:38)

Travis Bristol – Reimagining the Classroom for Boys (02:35:25)

The Future of Learning

Scott Doorley – Learning in Context (02:46:25)

Philip Pizzo – Aging & Lifelong Learning (03:05:35)

Sebastian Thrun and Petra Dierkes-Thrun – Computer Science & Humanities (03:17:40)

What I Learned From My High School Transcript

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Over the last 22 years, I have worked in six schools, consulted with over a dozen, and visited many more. Yet, I continue to think a lot about my own secondary school experiences. My old school serves as a powerful reference point for my ongoing work.

With my son about to enter high school, and amidst University Prep’s ongoing strategic planning work, I recently became curious about the accuracy of my school memories. Did I correctly remember those experiences? In what ways was my high school similar to and different from contemporary practice? I requested a copy of my transcript to find out.

The results: some of my memories were accurate, others wildly off-base. Brain research suggests that memories are encoded within patterns of neural activity, which are reshaped every time that they are activated. Therefore, memories change and become less accurate as a result.

Number of Courses

I took only five classes most semesters. A few times, I took six. Today’s students regularly take six to seven classes per term. While they get to study more subjects, depth has been sacrificed as a result. In high school, I studied AP biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus without prior coursework. Today’s, AP science and math classes often have prerequisites, as teachers express that they can’t possibly cover the specified content in one school year.

Some subject requirements were minimal – one trimester of art during grades seven through nine? One semester of science in grades eight and nine? One semester of history in the ninth grade? World language study was required through high school. Science was not! These subject requirements seem unthinkable today.

Tracking

The “A” next to course names designates “advanced.” Tracking was a standard feature of the curriculum, and I took all of the advanced courses that I could. I vividly remember my upset at being placed in the lower math class in my first year. Through test performance and lobbying, I worked my way into the advanced track, where I remained and excelled. I felt the pernicious effects of track, a practice that has a common sense appeal and yet denigrates children and denies their potential.

Grades

I earned mostly B’s and only a few A’s. How did I get into Harvard? For one, grade distributions were wider then. An A reflected “unusual excellence” and was difficult to earn. My school defined B as “an honor grade,” which sounds a lot like today’s A. The A is now the most common grade in many secondary schools and colleges. I remember always scrapping to prepare for assessments and improve my performance. Perhaps that’s because there was always a higher level to aim for.

Non-transcript Experiences

Ethics class? SAT prep? A capella group? Senior woodcarving panel? These were all required and took place during class periods, and yet only the full courses are reflected in the transcript. Today’s transcript captures every academic experience.

Computer Science

In today’s “coding for everyone” climate, it’s ironic to remember that such courses were widely available in the 80’s. The computer had just become “personal” and coding was synonymous with computing. I took two semester computing classes, one in BASIC and the second in PASCAL. My school offered a sequence of four programming courses! In the 90’s and 00’s, technology skills instruction displaced programming, and only now is coding making a spirited comeback.

Electives and Student Choice

It is currently popular in education circles to bemoan content coverage and uphold student agency and choice. Well, it appears that at least one fairly conventional, independent school offered more course choices in the 80’s than most schools provide today. The small core curriculum left plenty of free space in student schedules for elective studies, and the faculty filled the catalog with a wide range of interesting offerings. Today, a long list of distribution requirements forces a certain diversity in student course selections but prevents them from fully pursuing their interests. In 1986-1987, my high school offered the following electives to juniors and seniors.

English: Shakespeare, English Writers, American Writers, Great Poets and Poems, The Hero as Rebel-Victim, Novel and Film, The Short Story, Modern American Literature, Creative Writing, English Composition, Writing—Expository, Narrative, Descriptive, Introduction to Philosophy, Classics in Translation, Readings In John Milton’s Paradise Lost

History: America At War, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Russia and the Soviet Union, Africa: Colonialism to Independence, Hitler’s Germany, The Vietnam War

Arts: Art History, Ceramics, Drawing, Furniture Making, Mechanical Drawing, Media, Music, Photography, Printmaking, Acting, Advanced Ceramics, Advanced Photography, Architectural History, Graphics, Sculpture

Other electives: Anthropology, Geology, BASIC Computer Programming, PASCAL Computer Programming, Advanced Computer Programming, APL Computer Programming, Astronomy, Business, Advanced French, Latin, and Spanish courses, German, Probability and Statistics, Psychology, Topics in Mathematics, Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, Math Analysis, Physics

Diversity and Social Justice

Neither the student body nor the faculty was particularly diverse, and yet some courses had a strong diversity and social justice angle. Invisible Man, African Independence, Civil Liberties, and other courses suggested a politically liberal, progressive tilt among at least some faculty members.

 

What courses did you take as a teenager? How does that course of study compare to your school today? Education literature suggests that U.S. schools have evolved little over the decades. While the current school reform agenda attempts to counter this trend, it is worth taking a look back to check the accuracy of our memories.

Summer Readings on School Change

The topic of school change is ever present and active. During this year’s opening faculty meetings, U Prep teachers discussed five books that describe the leading edge of school change. An overall theme emerged from the books. In the present era of rapid change in society and the failure of state standardized testing to improve education, educators are once again designing instruction with the student at the center of the learning experience. In this article, I highlight the related ideas from our five summer reading selections that most resonated with our teachers.

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The group that read 5 Minds for the Future (Howard Gardner) expressed particular interest in multidisciplinary, thematic inquiry. Most real-world questions that speak to student experience require multiple disciplines to fully address. As an example, the group speculated that the fine arts would be a particularly good subject to integrate with other academic subjects. They then questioned the value of the academic departments that we currently have. Would students be better served by multidisciplinary, thematically-based departments that focus on the higher-order skills we desire for our students? One can imagine departments along different lines than our current academic subjects: logic and reasoning, ethics, data analysis, and so on.

Both the #EdJourney (Grant Lichtman) and 5 Minds discussion groups addressed the value of experiential education. Echoing Dewey, the groups upheld the value of direct engagement, questioning, analysis, and presentation for student learning. In an age of ubiquitous access to information, students most need to learn to ask good questions and identify patterns in the world. When we invited three students to make the culminating presentation of our opening meetings, they spoke to the great value of the experience-based, study away programs that they attended last year.

These same two faculty groups considered the need to restructure the school day and calendar year to support experiential education and deep learning. Running five to seven class periods in a day, while a rational compromise among different interests, ultimately undermines depth and continuity of study. What schedule might better serve students? The books included a number of possible alternatives from schools across the country.

The concepts of agency, risk, challenge, and failure generated much teacher interest. As one colleague has wryly noted, “failure is not an option” at high-performing independent schools. To avoid failure, young adults may take the less risky route, focusing on more on completion and compliance than on intellectual engagement. The student who stays quiet in class in an effort to identify the “right answer” misses the opportunity for personal growth and advancement. Both Loving Learning (Tom Little and Katherine Ellison) and How Children Succeed (Paul Tough) tell the stories of students who set ambitious goals, exhibited optimism, developed resilience, and overcame obstacles. Real learning requires meaningful challenge within a supportive environment.

Listen to enough great stories of student learning, and one thread is sure to emerge: student agency. When students are the primary actor in their own play, they shape meaningful parts of their own education, rather than having education done to them. Student choice, student leadership, project-based learning, and other examples from Loving Learning and other books explain how schools may design opportunities for student agency and passion.

How may teachers effectively lead classroom conversations about race if both they and students feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped to navigate such topics? Each chapter of Raising Race Questions (Ali Michael) discusses a concept or skill essential to teacher cultural competency. The two faculty groups that read this book expressed the conviction to engage with the tough questions that come up in class discussion, whether expected or not. They identified the elements required to make this journey: development of positive racial identity, identification of “hidden” race dynamics in subject matter, teacher growth mindset, intersectionality, and norms for courageous conversations.

In a recent article, Brian Hart exposed the flawed design of most faculty professional development in independent schools. At U Prep, we align professional development and planning days around central themes, so that a teacher may build understanding of key concepts, and design and test methods of practice, over time and in collaboration with colleagues. The summer faculty reads carry forward last year’s professional development theme of Teaching for Understanding into this year’s strategic planning work on Next Generation Learning.

 

Book Review and Further Thoughts: From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse

schoolhouse2How much does educational research affect teacher practice? Not much, according to Jack Schneider, Holy Cross assistant professor and author of the new book From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. Schneider, an educational historian who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford, picks up the torch carried by Larry Cuban and David Tyack for years. As institutions, schools are extremely resistant to change, and reliable pathways for translating research conclusions into practice are largely absent. So, when education practice does change as a result of education research, the reasons are worth close examination!

In the book, Schneider describes a model for the transmission of research-based ideas into practice, based on his study of four innovations that made the leap: Bloom’s taxonomy, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the project method, and direct instruction. Schneider is clear to explain that these four ideas represent the exception, not the norm. Also, the components of Schneider’s model for success hardly comprise a recipe. They are necessary, but not always sufficient, qualities for successful adoption. As Schneider expresses, luck plays a role.

Schneider’s conditions for successful transmission include: the perceived significance of the idea to educators; philosophical compatibility of the idea with current philosophy; occupational realism—the compatibility of the idea with practical constraints of teaching; and transportability, whether the idea can be simply explained and passed on. The four case studies share these qualities. Additionally, Schneider cleverly analyzes four other, research-based ideas that failed to gain adoption but bear striking similarities to the four that did. This provides strong support for the idea that the four identified characteristics are necessary conditions for adoption.Note that the scholarly merit of the idea does not make the list of success factors! With a positive reaction from educators, and a little luck, some research-based ideas tend to find adoption.

While a wonderful historical analysis, the book does not purport to predict the success of current educational innovations or provide a playbook for the design of future innovations. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder how the model applies to other, common educational practices, particularly those that we emphasize at U Prep. How does Schneider’s model apply to formative assessment, for example? Do we find such educational practices attractive because they meet Schneider’s criteria for successful transmission from research to practice?

Formative Assessment

We define formative assessment as actionable feedback on student work that does not count for a student’s term grade. Graded or ungraded, it provides students with insight into their mastery of the content, as well as a sense of direction for what to study more (or better) before the summative assessment. Not counting formative assessment in the term grade allows students to focus on the process of learning and deemphasizes the idea that students have fixed ability.

Perceived significance: Moderate. Teachers I have met almost universally agree that providing feedback on student work is one of their core responsibilities. However, teachers often balk at the idea that grades for ongoing work would not count in a student’s term grade.

Philosophical compatibility: The core idea of formative assessment is relatively compatible with common teacher opinions about student work. It’s hard to argue against feedback, and it makes sense that a student’s first assessment should provide signposts for subsequent work instead of affecting their term grade, which should reflect mastery achieved.

Occupational realism: The simple version of formative assessment is highly compatible with existing teacher practice. Just don’t count the first assessment of a body of knowledge or set of skills, then count the second or subsequent ones. The fuller concept, however, requires more significant change. The ideas that formative assessment should be specific and actionable represent a more significant departure from traditional teacher practice.

Transportability: The basic concept of formative assessment can be easily distilled to a few simple ideas and shared with teachers. Departures from the strategy are easy to spot in syllabi and examples of assessed student work. Authors and organizations have created a substantial body of conceptual and practical guides to formative assessments for the consumption of educators.

It might provide insight to apply this model to other educational practices, such as differentiated instruction, 1:1 student device programs, and individual teacher improvement. While these four criteria do not reflect any law of nature, they provide a helpful dose of realism when leading school change, underscoring the strong effects of professional culture.

Recent articles by Jack Schneider

‘If only American teachers were smarter…’ Washington Post

Closing the gap … between the university and schoolhouse Phi Delta Kappan

The Role of Data in School Decision-Making

Analyzing student and faculty data has added a critical new dimension to discussions of specific dynamics in our school. Teacher observations, administrator experience, and student anecdotes are all essential for the continual improvement of our school program. In addition, the trends, correlations, and distributions within our data have made our decision-making conversations more specific and helped resolve conflicts among competing, anecdotal points of view.

We have recently had success analyzing student and faculty data to better understand specific dynamics in our school. Many of these analyses become more clear through data visualization. Key questions include:

How often do we grant students’ top course requests?

Will our course offerings continue to accommodate a growing student body?

Are the foundational skills of our students changing over time?

Do standardized test scores predict academic performance?

What elective courses should we offer next year?

Do electronic textbooks save families money?

Our analyses of standardized test scores were the most rigorous. We created longitudinal charts of score means and medians, examined subscore trends as well, and calculated correlations among different scores. To confirm validity, three different groups performed the tests: myself, our statistics students, and a psychometrician from ERB. The fascinating, consistent result? The gut feelings of our community members have consistently had some truth to them, but anecdotal opinion has a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify. Our data studies have both validated and identified the limits of anecdotal opinion. They have clarified the multiple facets of issues that people have reduced to simple statements.

Here are some examples of our data visualizations. Most are created in Excel using countif() and sumif() functions and chart tools. I apologize for obscuring much of the content for the sake of privacy. Instead of publishing it all publicly, I am presenting the full studies to the appropriate constituencies in our school community.

35 years of standardized test and GPA means

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Students’ initial thoughts about new elective courses

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Correlations among different standardized tests and GPA

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Longitudinal subscore analysis

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Print vs. Electronic Textbooks: Total Cost per Student

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Elective section enrollments

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The Smartest Kids In the World

Each summer, U Prep faculty members read a choice of three books to kick off the professional development theme for the following academic year. This year, our professional development theme is “Teaching for Understanding,” defined as curriculum design and teaching practices that lead students to acquire deep, enduring understanding of subject matter and skills. The first book, The Smartest Kids In the World, asks what the United States high school education system can learn from comparisons to three countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Written by a journalist, the book meets our summer reading criteria of readability, thoughtfulness, and connection to our professional development theme for the year.

book-photo-smartestSome authors, it seems, try to write a book from material that would have done just as well as a magazine article. The Smartest Kids In the World is no such book. Impressive in scope, Amanda Ripley explores and connects several topics worthy of a full volume. Ripley begins by explaining the origin of the PISA test, the basis for recent comparisons of student performance among different countries. In several subsequent chapters, she tells the stories of three American high school students who each study abroad for a year. The three stories weave in and out through chapters organized connected to principles from education research. Making specific connections between research and practices supports Ripley as she explores the implications of the three students’ experiences. The appendices provide information useful to parents, such as Ripley’s take on things to look for when you observe a school and what PISA reveals about beneficial parenting habits.

Ripley repeats her primary message throughout the book: national education reform is possible, because here are three countries that have made massive changes over relatively short periods of time. Finland rocketed up the standings by overhauling its teacher selection, preparation, and induction programs. Poland committed to rigor and student accountability in order to emerge from the damage wreaked by political instability. South Korea is portrayed as two systems: formal schooling that students largely ignore, plus night tutoring centers that do the real job of teaching students. Ripley, the journalist, observes, summarizes, and then concludes, lending support to her recommendations.

Ripley sees several lessons that the U.S. should learn from these three educational systems. High expectations are critical for both teachers and students. Ripley’s students find themselves behind as a result of moving from the U.S. to these countries. National testing enforces high standards, leading to rigorous study habits and high quality instruction. Each of these countries has a high-stakes, national exam toward which students are constantly working. Unlike in the U.S., the national exam has direct career implications for students, so that they have high motivation to work hard and succeed. High standards for teachers make it possible to uphold high standards for students. Finland’s teacher education programs have high entry requirements. In South Korea, a second, the most effective night tutors profit directly from these business ventures. Poland provided teachers with curricular freedom while implementing more rigorous standards.

Common Core notwithstanding, the U.S. education system is primarily directed by individual states. Can these reforms, found in other countries, work in the U.S.? Ripley finds such a state in Minnesota. This completes her argument: if three U.S. students find more rigor abroad, and a U.S. state can similarly improve, then this must be the way to go. At the same time, Ripley pulls no punches in her criticisms of the dominant mindset in U.S. education. Ripley repeatedly cites examples of a failure to commit to high standards, hold students individually accountable for their performance, and select the best teaching candidates and prepare them thoroughly for teaching.

Ripley’s argument passes the “common sense” test. High standards, teacher preparation, and accountability certainly makes a good formula for improvement in education systems. The book also serves as a useful introduction to international comparisons. As a New York Times best seller, this message has broad reach. However, her book is less useful for the purpose of making actual education reform in the U.S., as Ripley’s argument skirts a number of important additional questions required to reform education systems.

Let’s start with PISA, the foundation for these international comparisons. Does PISA predict future economic success for individuals? The path to employment in the U.S. is very different from other countries. For some industries, high school math preparation may lead directly to professional success, particularly in those professions in which accurate completion of tasks is most important. However, new, information-based industries have fueled more recent growth in the U.S. economy. Procedural, and even conceptual, mastery of high school curricula may not build the thinking skills that individuals require to be economically successful adults. Ripley does not extend her thesis to adults and their professional success.

With all of the education scholars that Ripley cites, her omission of Yong Zhao is particularly notable. Zhao also compares education systems in other countries and finds that some, like China, are actually looking to reduce their emphasis on rigor, performance, and long hours of study and emulate the U.S.’s focus on education options and creativity. While the two approaches reflect different conclusions from international comparisons, Ripley could strengthen her position by addressing Zhao’s work.

While Ripley supports her main points well with evidence, some minor points read as pure opinion. Her argument that students in other countries have gained strong conceptual mastery and critical thinking skills is not well-supported. Any standardized test is limited in its capacity to measure higher-order thinking skills such as making connections among different ideas, inventing new ideas, and identifying themes within and among disciplines. While the PISA may do a better job of assessing higher-order thinking than other tests, the format has unavoidable limitations. Ripley also does not address the subject area strengths in the U.S., for example literary analysis and writing, which typically do not receive as much attention in other countries.

U.S. education systems emphasize choice and student direction. Diverse elective course offerings are a hallmark of U.S. schools, allowing students to personalize their own education based on their interests. The emphasis on choice continues into college. Is this part of the reason why the United States has succeeded in generating dominant, new industries over time? In most other countries, students commit to a specific professional track early and subsequently lack the flexibility to shift disciplines as they learn more about themselves and as national economic needs change. Finally, Ripley’s suggestion that teacher kindness towards students undermines teaching effectiveness is suspect. While the U.S. system places the burden of motivation on individual students, and does not serve all students equally, it also offers many avenues for achievement and excellence. Many examples exist of benefits to students who have strong relationships with their teachers.

With The Smartest Kids In the World, Amanda Ripley makes an welcome contribution to popular education literature. Now the opportunity exists for U.S. education systems to give teaching higher status and support in order to achieve higher standards and student success that most would like to see.

Cultivating Innovative Leaders Slides

Here are the slides and bibliography from the School Leadership Summit presentation that Carla Silver and I made on March 28.

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Download the PDF

Join Us for Innovative Leadership

I will be co-leading this summer’s seminar on Innovative Leadership, offered by Santa Fe Leadership Center and Hillbrook School Center for Teaching Excellence. It would be great to see you there. This seminar is a great opportunity to engage deeply with ideas of innovation, risk, creativity, and school change, within a retreat setting, and along with 40 thoughtful colleagues from other schools. Seminar leaders include Carla Silver, Greg Bamford, Ryan Burke, and me. Guest presenters will include Jump AssociatesThe Grove Consulting, and Patricia Ryan Madson.

Innovative Leadership
June 23-27, 2013 :: Silicon Valley, CA

Flip.Shift. Disrupt.

  • Why innovate? What forces or compels us to innovate?
  • What are the qualities of innovators and how might I develop these qualities in my own leadership?
  • How can I develop a culture of innovation at my school?
  • What are sustaining and disruptive innovations on the horizon?
  • How do I implement innovations and manage the full spectrum of responses from my community?
  • How do I distinguish between sticky innovations and passing fads?

Learn more and register