Archive for Innovation

The Future of Digital Cultures

It’s week 3 of E-Learning and Digital Cultures, which of course means that I am ready to write about week 2! Thankfully, this MOOC is designed to allow for some time flexibility. Here are a few ideas and reflections from the week 2 videos and readings.

During week 2, the instructional team shared some utopian and dystopian views of what future culture might be like in a highly technological age. Interestingly, the two utopian views were both from technology companies, Corning and Microsoft. While both showed a variety of scenes from daily life, they placed a heavy emphasis on business life, particularly business travel. Curiously, the imagined future devices were themselves technically very advanced, but the social applications were very familiar from present-day life. People were shown going to business meetings, attending school, and making their way around the house in a way not at all different from the present day. My favorite: the kids’ school uniforms were straight out of San Francisco Catholic schools!

The two dystopian videos were alarming views of company or state control of society, in which technology is used to keep people captive. Sight is worth a view if you have a spare eight minutes. Wearable computing, video game culture, dating sites, corporate control, and personal greed all come together in this detailed, entertaining and frightening view of the future.

While I fully agree with the need for vigilance against political and corporate totalitarianism, I have too much faith in humanity to believe that these dystopian views will in fact become reality. I am reminded of the historical analysis in Hamlet’s Blackberry, in which William Powers demonstrates that humanity has not only survived but also shaped cultural change in response to past eras of rapid technological change. My favorite example: according to Powers, the telephone was first envisioned as a mass broadcast device. We would all pick up the phone to listen to messages sent from a central agency. Instead, people’s unstoppable desire to connect with each other transformed the telephone into a personal communication technology. Returning to the week 1 theme of determinism, personal agency is alive and well and shapes technologies at least as much as technologies shape people.

In the week 2 readings, Johnston addresses how the Internet is characterized by metaphors to help people understand it. However, metaphors such as “superhighway” oversimplify the true nature of the Internet, limiting people’s ability to fully appreciate its potential. While I appreciate this point of view, I equally feel that innovators constantly invent new Internet applications and thus stretch our collective understanding of what one can accomplish there. While the superhighway metaphor was all about transcending space and time, we have more recently developed new metaphors to reflect more recent applications of the Internet for social connectedness and knowledge creation.

In a self-referential moment, the course brings in two articles about the relevance of MOOCs, Shirky’s “Napster, Udacity and the Academy,” and Bady’s “Questioning Clay Shirky.” I lean toward the less revolutionary Bady, reminded that the more things appear to change in education, the more they stay the same. Channeling Cuban and Tyack, public education in the U.S. has proven remarkably resistant to change, the basic model surviving intact despite repeated waves of educational innovation. I don’t see much evidence to conclude that the most recent set of innovations will break this trend. Our society has a very firmly-held conception of what Cuban and Tyack call the “grammar of schooling,” or what people recognize as school-based education. As long as most MOOCs faithfully reproduce this grammar, they are likely to remain a pale echo of place-based schooling rather than a viable replacement. That people are taking free online classes does not mean that physical schools are now obsolete. At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if prestigious universities were offer a number of free courses to the world indefinitely, as an expression of some small measure of public purpose from these giant institutions?

I look forward to the week 3 content. Given the upcoming long weekend, I even have some hope that I will be able to get through it before the week is out!


Determinism in Academic Technology

Week 1 of E-learning and Digital Cultures has focused on technological determinism and its corollaries, social determinism and uses determinism. Technological determinism is the idea that technology itself causes personal and social change. The theory is reductive, simplifying the cause of complex social and cultural changes to a single factor. Expressed in different sub-forms, technological determinism insists that technological advancement is inevitable, affects all parts of society, and operates outside of our control. Technology gains anthropomorphic qualities.

Uses determinism takes a similarly reductive approach but give sole agency to people and their activities. People, not technology, cause social change and shape technology itself to their ends. Social determinism suggests that political and economic factors shape technology. One may see social determinism expressed in terms of digital divide and political power theories for the evolution of technology.

I find this perspective incredibly helpful in clarifying current debates in listserv discussions, education technology conferences, and faculty meetings. Technology is often portrayed monolithically, a single concept that can be described in one word. Technology determinists appear on opposite sides of the debate. Technology evangelists, particularly those who sell technology products, spread powerful messages that the evolution of information into digital form by itself transforms society. The world is now flat, we live in a technology revolution, and our future is impossible to predict–all because of undersea fiber-optic cables. Techno-critics portray technology as a false god, leading us to distraction and consumerism. Our society is in decline. For both techno-enthusiasts and techno-critics, neither individuals nor organizations or society have agency or can shape technology. Neither side of the debate rings true for me.

Most education technologists are uses determinists. In contrast to technological determinists, they assert that technology itself has no independent agency. It is “just a tool” that can be used for good or evil. They feel that master teachers can bend technology to their will, directing it entirely toward the service of teaching and learning. In this view, teachers should first identify learning objectives and then select the technology tools that will best support them in a straightforward, linear process. While this view is helpful to appropriately place technology within a school, it can also be used to control technology or keep it out of the classroom. It also does not do justice to the challenge of artfully using technology, which requires a nuanced understanding of how a technology-rich environment is different from a technology-poor environment.

Social determinists argue that countries and corporations use technology to control others, brainwashing us through media to further their ends, exacerbating the divide between haves and have-nots. In this view, although anyone can learn to program, CEOs rule. Twitter does not cause revolution; rather, governments flip a switch and cut it off when it suits them. In this view, technology companies are seen as having huge power to dictate school program through product features, terms of service, and licensing requirements.

Where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere among all three of these ideas. Social and cultural change is too complex to be affected only by single factors. The interaction of society and technology is multifaceted and changing. Individuals, societies, and technology all have some causal agency and are all affected by the others. We have the power to exert some control over our environment, while at the same time, our environment changes us to some extent.

Two extreme positions dominate much of the national debate on education technology. At one end, technology determinists argue that if only schools had more computers, the positive effects on education would emerge automatically. At the other end, both techno-critics and skeptical teachers argue for keeping technology at arm’s length, limiting its effect on the classroom as much as possible. School leaders can move such conversation to a more productive place by both acknowledging the partial validity of any deterministic viewpoint. Some truth exists to any of these perspectives. At the same time, any education discussion is incomplete without balance among the different determinist viewpoints.

Some leading education technologists focuses largely on positive uses determinism. Some have even written books to say so. Let’s take a look at three authors who explore uses determinism to different degrees. In Hamlet’s BlackberryWilliam Powers explores individual agency in a technology-rich world, suggesting that people have faced similar crises of technological change and information overload for all of human history. Powers’ explanation balances the different determinist views, accepting that new technologies have an effect on society, while in time, society responds and shapes technology to serve its ends. The key, Powers argues, is critical thinking and attention — building the discipline of mind to unplug, keep perspective, rediscover the self, and act intentionally in our busy world.

In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold also keys in on attention but advises that we build our mental discipline while using technology rather than by stepping away from it. He ascribes more agency than Powers to the individual and less to technology. Rheingold suggests simple techniques to pay attention to your use of technology, such as setting a timer to remind yourself to check your attentional focus, practicing meditation and yoga breathing techniques, and getting better at filtering useful from useless incoming information. He proposes that attention and mindfulness training become part of the required school curriculum, a 21st century literacy, if you will.

In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson takes attention mindfulness one step further, arguing that the very definition of focus is changing from an industrial-era concept of single-minded attention to an interactive, interpersonal kind of attention more appropriate for a highly connected age.

School leaders who understand the different determinist extremes may better navigate the hazardous waters of education technology change in schools.

A Brief History of Design Thinking

Each of the past two summers, I have participated in workshops on a method for program development called design thinking. You may have heard of it, as it has been the subject of workshop presentations at education conferences, articles in education publications, and faculty retreats. In this article, I recount the history of design thinking in independent schools as I understand it. Call it “Design Thinking: West Coast Edition,” if you will. I would love to hear your experiences as well. Then, in a second article, I plan to tell the story of design thinking here at U Prep, particularly the experience of applying design thinking theory to on-site practice.

Design thinking has its origins in the world of business, specifically product design. A better chair, shoe, or building design have been common subjects of design thinking over the years. IDEO‘s David Kelley is cited as the pioneer of design thinking. Concurrently with explorations of design thinking, independent schools were engaged in a process of “professionalization”, looking to learn from business practices such as employee expectations, employment, and evaluation. The Summer 2011 edition of Independent School featured the theme of “Developing a Professional Culture in School.”

Independent schools were perhaps also attracted to the prestige of a national leader in design thinking, Stanford University. The Institute of Design (a.k.a.,, and its offspring IDEO, reached out to schools as early as 2009 (12), and a number of independent school leaders visited and attended their workshops.

A smaller but also prominent school is also located along the Peninsula south of San Francisco, Nueva School. The school came into contact with the Stanford, found that these ideas resonated with its practices of experiential education, and decided to make design thinking a core feature of its instructional program. This led to the development of a dedicated space for prototype fabrication, hiring of a program director, and the integration of design thinking methods throughout the school’s curriculum. Nueva staff took design thinking one step further, adopting it as a process for learning environment design, and began to train its own staff as well as those from other schools. This led to several much-cited conference presentations, Nueva’s summer institute for design thinking, as well as its Innovative Learning Conference.

The 2012 NAIS Annual Conference featured workshops on design thinking (12). Architecture firms developed design thinking partnerships with educators (12). Mount Vernon Presbyterian School used a community-based design thinking workshop to inform the redesign of the school’s library and held a Design Thinking SummitRiverdale Country School and IDEO offered a free online course in design thinking and published an educator’s guide to design thinking. A number of schools began to try design thinking in classrooms and community projects (1, 2). Personally, I have been involved in the design thinking work of Santa Fe Leadership Center and Leading Is Learning. You may be interested in some upcoming Leading Is Learning events, a free webinar on Jan 30 (offered with Whipple Hill) and a design thinking event in June 2013 at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.

We have engaged with design thinking in a number of ways at University Prep. My next article will explore these efforts and investigate the differences between attending a workshop on design thinking and implementing it in school practice.

Qualities of School Technology Leaders

To become technologically sophisticated, a school must have at least one person employed who possesses high competency in three areas: education, technology, and leadership.

Mastery of education is essential so that a school’s technology program always serves the school’s educational mission. People who are experts in technology and leadership but not education may lead their schools down false paths, committing to technologies that do not ultimately serve the school, and perhaps alienating teachers and school administrators along the way.

Mastery of technology is essential in order to navigate the many technology offerings that purport to improve education, and in order to keep pace with this rapidly changing field. People who possess education and leadership skills but not technology may appear tentative or skeptical about adopting technology tools within a school.

Mastery of leadership is essential in order to guide a school through change processes and build support among the school’s leadership team. People who possess education and technology skills but not leadership may have great ideas but become frustrated when others do not adopt or support them.

This person’s position will depend strongly on how the school’s leadership team is designed — the relationships and distribution of responsibilities among the different school leaders. This person could be a technology director, academic technology director, division head, head of school, academic dean, dean of faculty, or director of innovation.

The school that lacks such a person will struggle with technology, for example by exhibiting marked inconsistencies in how technology is used or hardly adopting new technologies at all to support teaching and learning. School leadership would do well to identify whether the school already has someone who fulfills this role, whether an existing faculty or staff member could grow into this role, or whether the school should hire someone new to introduce this role.


You Say You Want a Revolution?

originally published in the Santa Fe Leadership Center Monthly Newsletter

You Say You Want A Revolution?

by Richard Kassissieh
Richard Kassissieh is the Director of Technology and Education Innovation at Catlin Gabel School in Portland Oregon. He is a member of Los Sabios, the SFLC advisory board, and will be a facilitator at the Innovative Leadership Seminar, Summer 2012.

I returned from last week’s NAIS Annual Conference abuzz with asense of potential and possibility for substantial educational change. If
you did not attend, innovation was the conference theme, and presenters from across the country shared many projects that featured student-centered instruction and 21st century learning. I felt more momentum for significant change in classroom instruction than ever before. Have independent schools begun a wholesale shift toward new models of teaching and learning?

In the same week, an article titled “Twilight of the Lecture” ran as the feature in Harvard Magazine (Lambert, 2012). In the article, a Harvard physics professor described his discovery that student independent and group work promotes learning better than lecture. For those interested in innovation and teaching and learning, this news may be discouraging. How can we be in the midst of a revolution in instruction if college instructors are just now considering an alternative to the lecture?

We have seen a parade of impressive, though small-scale, educational initiatives over the decades, such as global programs and Maker’s labs. However, over the same period of time, these changes have lived on the periphery of the instructional program at most institutions, while the core instructional model, informed by persistent educational beliefs, has remained unchanged. If a high school educator from 1950 were suddenly transported to the present, he would find today’s typical classroom very familiar. Can we do anything to give the latest wave of school program innovations more staying power, a greater chance to become part of the fabric of the school program?

Innovative practice necessarily starts small, as the most innovative teachers try out new ideas, take risks, and make mistakes. How does an institution scale the ideas generated by a small group of pioneers up to a whole school program? First, we must recognize that the exploratory spirit of the pioneers is either diminished or completely lost when others are asked to implement an idea they did not invent. The remainder of the faculty is unlikely to find the new ideas as inspirational and self-evident as do the pioneers who adopted them.

In one implementation strategy, the pioneers spread out to the departments and programs responsible for implementing the innovation (Carrigg, Honey, and Thorpe, 2005). These individuals may be able to sustain some of the pioneering spirit and original purposes of the innovation as widening circles of people implement the ideas.

Adopting a new form of teaching requires an experienced practitioner to feel like a beginner again. Some of the most critical thinkers in one’s faculty will be willing to become beginners if the new program is thoughtfully constructed, carefully explained, and critically evaluated. Providing substantial time for discussion and preparation will also help thoughtful practitioners feel ready for these new experiments. Teachers may also appreciate the flexibility to modify aspects of the new program to be responsive to their local context.

Second, we must organize other parts of the school to support the initiative. How many good ideas have we seen fail for lack of space, time, funds, professional development, parent communication, or teacher evaluation? The less-than-glamorous work of organizing support programs behind an innovation must be completed with careful attention. Support activities may include funding sources, classroom modifications, technology systems, and professional development days.

Third, attention to the innovative practice must be maintained to ensure a long life for the initiative. An official curriculum can lose much of its original design as it passes through the “multilayered curriculum” (Cuban, 2012). Teachers determine what is actually taught, students determine what is actually learned, and assessments determine how the effectiveness of the curriculum is measured. This requires the instructional leadership of the school, the pioneer group, and all of the teachers to continue to design, share, and assess their work on the initiative over the span of years.

Schools may make a strategic effort to sustain the most effective innovative projects. Teacher support, program alignment, and long-term attention can transform pilot projects into permanent programs.

Further reading:

Carrigg, Fred, Margaret Honey, and Ron Thorpe (2005). Moving From Successful Local Practice to Effective State Policy.

Scaling Up Success: Lessons From Technology-Based EducationalImprovement. 1-26.

Cuban, Larry (2012). The Multi-layered Curriculum: Why Change Is often Confused with Reform.

Kassissieh, Julia and Rhonda Barton (2009). The Top Priority: Teacher Learning.Principal Leadership.

Lambert, Craig (2012). Twilight of the Lecture. Harvard Magazine


Are Independent Schools Innovating?

The theme of innovation pervaded this year’s NAIS annual conference. Keynote speeches looked toward a different future, some schools shared innovative projects, and more responded enthusiastically and expressed the desire to participate. Does this mean that significant numbers of independent schools are substantially changing their educational programs, or not? Brad Rathgeber thinks so. Kevin Ruth says, “not so fast.”

How would we know whether school innovation, speaking broadly, is a movement or a fad? How high will adoption peak, and then how far will it fall? One way is to track stories about school innovation. However, this dialogue seems insufficiently complex to allow one to understand the mechanics or results of innovation. Many reports of innovative practice feel similar. A singular leader invents a brilliant idea, an unknown number of teachers embrace it, and students are transformed by the experience. The focus of the presentation is usually on the idea itself, and the argument for effectiveness is often circular and unsubstantiated.

Another approach is to find quantitative studies. These take years to develop, but as we have seen with studies of youth and social media, the results can be extremely compelling. I am not aware of significant quantitative studies of program innovation in independent schools. Are you?

A third is to gather the wisdom of others. Many colleagues have worked in our schools for decades and may speak authoritatively about whether schools are substantially different from before. Speaking personally, I hear them say that schools have changed significantly on the surface but the core values have remained pretty much the same. Thinking more broadly, some scholars suggest that secondary education in the U.S. has not changed for decades.

I would love to hear about rigorous study of independent school innovation, quantitative reports of broad trends, or other useful information on this topic. Specific information about this innovation trend will surely help us facilitate the best of it within our schools.

Innovative Leadership Seminar July 15-19

I am on the planning team for this seminar and will be leading one of the sessions. I hope you will join us!

Announcing A New Leadership Seminar:
Innovative Leadership
July 15-19, Hillbrook School, Los Gatos, CA
Registration is now open 

Join the Santa Fe Leadership Center and Hillbrook School for an exploration of innovation in school leadership. This highly interactive seminar is designed for school leaders who want to delve deeper into the concept of innovation, who want to increase their capacity to bring innovative practices to their schools, and who want to foster a culture of innovation and creativity in their communities.

Today, schools are challenged to prepare students for a rapidly changing world which requires rethinking and re-imagining school – from instruction, to physical space, to time, and spirit. To meet this challenge, school leaders must adapt ahead of the curve.  They must be innovative.

As a school leader, are you prepared to meet the changing needs of your school and your students? What does it mean to be innovative? What conditions must exist to foster a culture of innovation your school community?

Who should attend? Leaders at all points in their careers and serving in all different capacities are encourage to attend.

Enrollment is limited to 40 school leaders.   

Resident Teaching Program Director

Our friends at Hillbrook School (Los Gatos, CA) are launching a Center for Teaching Excellence. Check out this position announcement for one aspect of the program. If you are interested in internship programs, teacher development, and a part-time job, this may be for you!

Independent schools are increasingly focusing on beginning teacher training programs. Also check out the Catlin Gabel/Lewis and Clark teacher intern program and the Progressive Education Lab (Calhoun School and others).

CTE Resident Teacher Program Director Part-time position – .5 FTE

Hillbrook School seeks an experienced educator with expertise in teacher training and mentoring to serve as the founding Resident Teacher Program Director for the school’s newly created Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). The CTE, including the Resident Teacher Program, will be launched in Fall 2012. The Resident Teacher Program Director will be one of two leaders in the CTE and will report to the Head of School. Hillbrook is a co-educational, non-sectarian independent day school serving 315 students in grades JK-8.
The Resident Teacher Program Director will work closely with the Head of School, the Lower and Middle School Division Heads, and the faculty CTE Committee to implement a state-of-the-art teacher-training program for an inaugural cohort of four residents. The residents, who will be selected in Spring 2012, will be part of a two-year program in which they work closely with a different master teacher each year. The goal is to bring a second cohort of four residents to campus in 2013-2014 and to eventually grow the program to have 10-12 residents on campus.
Responsibilities will include coordinating schedules for residents and mentors, providing training and a cohesive course of study for residents, providing weekly support and coaching for residents, and providing regular support and training for mentors. In addition, the Director will be expected to seek out and nurture partnerships with local universities and educational organizations, such as Breakthrough Silicon Valley, and to work closely with the Director of Special Programs to ensure that conference and speaker programming supports the growth and training of the faculty.
The successful candidate must be an experienced leader with strong classroom experience and a clear understanding of teacher training and development. The candidate must have an entrepreneurial spirit and wholeheartedly embrace the mission of the school. In particular, the successful candidates should have:
• A masters degree or equivalent
• Experience with JK-8 curriculum development and pedagogies
• Extensive teaching experience at the JK-8 level
• Experience with teacher training and coaching, and an understanding of the important role of teacher leadership in schools
• Experience collaborating on the development of new programs
• A commitment to and experience with professional development for adults
• Strong speaking, writing, and organizational skills
• Outstanding interpersonal skills
• A collaborative yet clear and decisive leadership style
• An active sense of humor
Interested candidates are encouraged to visit the website to learn more about the school’s mission, program, and strategic vision (
All interested candidates are invited to send their resumes along with a cover letter and a statement of educational philosophy to:
Christine Thorpe
Assistant to the Head of School
300 Marchmont Drive
Los Gatos, CA 95032
408 356-6116

Lessons Learned from Progressive Education

The progressive-traditional education debate makes for provocative discussion, but in reality effective educators blend different educational theories to reach their students. Actual students in actual classrooms are not reduced to a single theory of education to the exclusion of others. Here is the first of at least two blog posts that describe aspects of different education models I have found valuable in my work in education.

Progressive education emphasizes student experience, construction of knowledge, thinking about learning, and the development of lifelong learning. Progressive educators worry that too many students have lost interest in the conventional curriculum, particularly at the high school level. Schools can design more engaging, effective programs that appeal to all learners.

I first started teaching directly after college in a teacher intern program at an independent boarding school. I taught two sections of ninth grade Biology and met daily with an experienced teacher mentor. I was pretty unprepared to teach but did my best to convey and assess the content. When I walked past the classroom next door, I was often captivated by the discussions in Bill Z.’s ecology class. Students developed questions about the campus pond and then designed independent research projects to answer those questions. Class time was spent at the pond, over lab equipment, or in group discussion. Students were highly engaged, defying the stereotype of the non-AP kid. I wondered whether I could make my classes this engaging.

I took my next teaching job in Botswana. The curriculum there was not progressive, tied to the U.K. O-level and A-level programs. However, the school itself was imbued with a strong social justice orientation, founded on non-racial principles during the height of apartheid South Africa. After school activities commenced at 2pm, and students were required to pursue sports, service, and clubs equally. I have not yet since seen a school with such a comprehensive commitment to community service. Global citizenship and cultural competency have since featured prominently among my educational values.

The Stanford University School of Education provided me with access to the study of experiential education, educational equity and school change theory. Nine months of intensive study with experienced professors and student peers helped me develop a comprehensive internal framework for my view of education. I wanted to design educational environments to enhance student experience, assess learning, and prepare students for a democratic society.

I took my next position at a San Francisco public charter school that had opened only the year before. Coming on board in the school’s second year was a real adventure in painting, lab construction, curriculum development, and building new information systems. Growing a school from one grade level to four required a ton of work and many long days. It also provided an opportunity to found a school on new assumptions about students and learning. I have never experienced a stronger commitment to success for all students, experimentation with teaching methods, and heterogeneous student groups. These principles of educational equity became permanently ingrained in my educational philosophy.

Becoming a technology director helped me further explore progressive educational methods using technology tools. I came to see so much potential for electronic tools to connect learners and prepare students to fully participate in a democratic society. Schools that feature students as content creators and teachers as facilitators came to feel so possible, if not likely. Expansive electronic information sources, online discussion forums, multimedia publishing, communication networks could be used to support full student participation and experiential learning.

My current school embraces the term “progressive” in both public-facing materials and internal discussions. We highlight so many examples of active student exploration of knowledge, reflection about one’s own learning, interdisciplinary study, 21st century themes, and school as community. Global education, urban studies, outdoor education, and sustainability all have a place in the curriculum and often dedicated staff. The school also has a tremendous arts program, truly an equal to the other departments and a statement about the vital importance of instruction for arts literacy, creativity, and discipline.

Progressive education has played a significant role in my education history, but it is not the only relevant theory of practice. In the next post, I will explore cognitive psychology and its effects on my conception of learning theory.