10 THINGS I LEARNED AT UVA

I recently visited the Darden School of Business associated with the University of Virginia (UVA), and it was an amazing time of learning. The trip was for the Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE), which helps build leadership capacity in order to successfully turn around low performing schools.

Since I had the privilege of visiting UVA, I wanted to share some of the things I learned.* Below you’ll find a list of ten strategies, ideas, or people with whom I had the pleasure of meeting.

1. The importance of feedback. A principal who attended UVA with me had a great epiphany: creating a protocol, agenda, etc. and then asking for feedback isn’t as powerful as receiving feedback from people who are helping you create the product in real time. Too often we ask for feedback when it’s too late.

2. Creating urgency. Everyone talks about the importance of communication, which is absolutely true. What isn’t discussed as often is the importance of urgency. To create positive change, leaders must first explain why the change is imperative.

3. Asking “Why?” over and over (and over again). The great consultants deftly facilitate understanding by asking “why?” many times.

  • Consultant: The students in subgroup X didn’t do well on this common formative assessment question. Why?
  • Teacher: Because they weren’t listening.
  • C: Why?
  • T: Because they didn’t care about what I was teaching.
  • C: Why?
  • T: Because they’re not interested.
  • C: Why?
  • T: (Pause.) Because the lesson wasn’t interesting to them.
  • C: Why?
  • T: (Pause again.) Because I didn’t make it interesting.
  • C: How could you make it more interesting?
  • T: I suppose I could include information in my instruction that applies directly to their lives.
  • C: Is there anything else you could do?
  • T: I could talk less during the input portion of my lesson and provide the students with something more engaging during the structured and guided practice portions. 

Asking “why? over and over is necessary if you’re going to get anywhere close to the root cause of an issue.

4. The 25 Cent Rule. This is from Tonya Kales. Imagine you have two quarters, three dimes, four nickels, and five pennies. Now take no more than five minutes to write the top ten to fifteen things you can do at your school to increase student learning. Now take your two quarters and place them by the two top things on your list. Then take your three dimes and place them beside the next three most important items. Do the same thing for the four nickels and five pennies. The quarters represent your “big rocks,” the things that give you the biggest bang for your buck regarding student learning. The pennies are placed next to the lower priority tasks, and unfortunately those tasks are where we often spend the most time.

5. Clarity regarding measurement of data. This is also from Tonya Kales. Let’s say you want to lose weight; what’s the best way to measure success? A scale? Clothing size? BMI? Food journal? Pictures? Exercise journal? Calories? What if you’re heavier on the scale due to muscle gain, but you look better? What if you’re cutting the calories, but the food you’re eating isn’t healthy? What if you have an impeccable food journal, but you’re not seeing any results? And what if a group of people are trying to lose weight, but they’re using all these different metrics to determine success? This would make success difficult to determine, huh?

6. Martin N. Davidson. I want to be this guy when I grow up. I ordered his book on Amazon after attending a few of his sessions. You can find the book here.

7. The Consultancy Protocol. You have a presenter, timer, and consultant(s). The presenter shares a problem of practice, and the consultant(s) ask questions or make statements that help the presenter arrive at her or his own conclusion. Answers and opinions are not provided to the presenter. It’s pretty powerful. Some of the effective questions or statements that could be said are:

  • Tell are more about…
  • Have you considered…?
  • What do you think (a person) would say about…?
  • It appears you are operating with an assumption that…
  • This leadership challenge raises a couple of questions for me…

8. The importance of everyone getting good at the same thing (or at least pulling in the right direction). Oftentimes, we think we need to be perfect in order to be effective. All we really need is a team moving (ever so slightly) in the right direction. Of course, having only a few initiatives that everyone does well is the goal, and when a district has coherence and alignment, it’s easier for the central office to provide support because everyone’s doing the same high leverage things. It makes things simple, and simple is beautiful. However, it all starts with pulling in the right direction.

9. The importance of one’s environment while learning. The UVA campus is inspiring. Location can be an important factor in student success.

10. Chalkboards are awesome and are undervalued in K-12 education. Long live the chalkboards! The UVA classrooms had at least three chalkboards at the front of each room, which had the ability to be moved up and down by the presenters. This definitely added to an aesthetically pleasing learning experience.

*When educators attend conferences, academies, or encounter unique people or experiences, it’s important they share what they learned with others. 

MACRO FROM THE MICRO

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

Oftentimes in education, for both student learning and professional development, our primary concern is to comprehensively learn (i.e. memorize) all steps or pieces within a domain. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, learning everything possible about a subject is extremely time consuming and difficult.

In Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans, he explains a principle used by chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin called “learning the macro from the micro.” This approach avoids the common way of learning by focusing on a single component (the micro) in order to learn and understand the whole (macro). Ferriss explains how Waitzkin once taught him chess:

“For instance, when Josh gave me a beginner’s tutorial on chess, he didn’t start with opening moves. Memorizing openings is natural, and nearly everyone does it, but Josh likens it to stealing the test answers from a teacher. You’re not learning principles or strategies, — you’re merely learning a few tricks that will help you beat your novice friends. Instead, Josh took me in reverse… The board was empty, except for three pieces in an endgame scenario: king and pawn against king. Through the micro, position of reduced complexity, he was able to focus me on the macro: principles like the power of empty space, opposition, and setting an opponent up for zugzwang (a situation where any move he makes will destroy his position.”

This is a much more elegant way of learning a new domain. If, as a lead learner, you can break a new teaching strategy into its most basic components, determine the portion that’s the fulcrum, and then learn and practice that specific skill, you’re on your way to learning the whole. Let’s look at some examples:

  • There are different types of direct instruction. One is called Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), which my district adheres to. There are various components to creating a lesson plan, one of which is structured practice. If the teacher can just focus on this portion of the lesson and become a master at providing structured practice, then she’ll eventually learn how to provide better input (instruction) and guided practice, which both respectively precede and follow structured practice.
  • Learning how to formatively assess while teaching helps an educator in many other domains. For example, if a teacher begins using in-the-moment data to guide instruction, then the teacher is learning a new way to lesson plan. (Detailed planning can’t be done ahead of time anymore because planning is simply guessing.) The teacher is forced to learn how to teach the same topic multiple ways during the same lesson–which means differentiation is learned and incorporated on the fly as well.
  • Focusing on one app within Google Suite will teach the user how to use all the G Suite apps. If a teacher tells herself, “I’m going to just focus on learning Google Docs this month–nothing more,” then that person will become not just proficient at using Docs in the classroom, but she’ll also learn transferable skills such as sharing a file within the Google ecosystem, saving files within Google Drive, effective collaboration via cloud-based products with students and adults, and a better understanding of how technology–in general–can be blended with instruction. In order to use technology successfully, one must begin with the micro; this is what has the power to accelerate pedagogy.
  • Breaking up one’s own learning helps break up learning for students. The practice of getting really good at the micro in our own personal and professional learning will help us as we not only chunk lessons for students, but also choose what we’ll teach students. Developing a comprehensive lesson on the American Revolution is great. Do you know what might be better? Focusing on a founding father or mother’s life as that person experiences 1776. Becoming an expert on Alexander Hamilton or Abigail Adams gives students something they can master while at the same time providing handles to better understand the macro in which that historical figure lived.

What’s the “fulcrum” in each of the above examples? Learning structured practice (fulcrum) makes one better at direct instruction. Formatively assessing students “on the fly” (fulcrum) revolutionizes lesson planning because you may never be able to create a detailed lesson plan far in advance ever again. Mastering Google Docs (fulcrum) will help you understand how 1:1 devices can be effectively blended within instruction. Breaking up your own learning by focusing on the micro (fulcrum) will help you identify opportunities to introduce the micro to students.

Yoda Strong

The 1:1 deployment is the least of your worries, Steve. There’s a human infrastructure fraught with God knows how many messy human problems that must be fixed. You have an educational vision that runs through your fingers like sand when you attempt to describe it. There’s the lack of belief in your own ability to lead, which is added to the understanding that there are more questions than you have answers. You want to play your part in enhancing student learning, but what is you part? Can you be effective?

These thoughts plague me as I ascend the stairs from the underground parking lot and enter Skywalker Ranch’s lobby. I cross the foyer and open one of the double doors to the courtyard. It’s warm in the sun and refreshing in the shade. I walk to my right where the morning light shines through the leaves and dapples an elegant water fountain. I sit on the fountain’s ledge.

Deep breaths. There’s a lot to process. The stakes are high when the learning of young people hangs in the balance. The complexity is daunting, and the correct path is unclear.

I look at the courtyard. Japanese maples and manicured shrubs grace the space. The trickling fountain adds to the effect. Water aside, all I can hear is nothing. This is startling. I fight the urge to dive my hand into my pocket and pull out my phone. Instead, I take off my backpack and lay it beside me. I could grab my laptop–it’s easily accessible in the bag. The WiFi must reach the courtyard.

In the middle of the space stands a statue of Yoda. A circular bush and lavender flowers wrap around the circumference of his podium. His three-fingered hands rest upon a walking stick. His implacable stare is directed toward stairs that lead to the roundabout that greets ranch visitors. I remember the selfie I already took with Yoda; this tempts me to once again reach for my phone.

I resist and lie on the ledge, rest my head on the bag, and close my eyes. The thoughts return… the complexity of how students learn best. The demands of myself and others.

Tap, tap, tap.

I open my eyes. The noise violation is startling in the stillness of this sanctuary. I’m ready to shoot an annoyed glance at someone, but I’m alone. The tapping sounded close. No matter. I shut my eyes and continue thinking.

Tap, tap, tap.

I open my eyes once again. I’m still alone. I’m about to close my eyes when I notice something strange: Yoda’s head is turned toward me. I sit up straight and look around. Is someone playing a joke? Am I being filmed? That’s got to be it–I’m going to be on a television show of people trying to sleep in the courtyard at Skywalker Ranch.

Tap, tap, tap.

Yoda is doing it–he’s tapping his metal walking stick on the metal podium and his stare is leveled at me. He then breaks his feet off the podium and cuts through the circular bush and flowers. The metal “tink” of his stick and three-toed feet on the pavers echos throughout the courtyard until he scurries up the ledge and sits to my left. He rests his walking stick beside him and folds his hands.

“Know me you do,” he says.

“Know you, um… yes. Am I being filmed right now?”

“Filmed?” He lets out a short guffaw. “And why would anyone want to film you?”

He has a point. I shake my head and then place my face in my hands. “This isn’t happening,” I say. “I must be dreaming.”

“Troubled you are,” Yoda says, a hint of a smile on his lips.

“Well, yes,” I say. “I’m talking to a statue. I’m worried this is a hoax or I’m crazy.”

Yoda lets out another laugh. “Worried you were before I came alive.”

He’s right. There’s a lot of concern–I guess you can say it’s worry. I look at Yoda. His face is kind. Childhood memories rush back. Against my better judgement, I decide to bite.

“There are many paths to take for helping students learn,” I say, “and I’m not always certain which one is best.”

“Fearful you should not be. Many paths there are, but take the fork you must and not look back.”

I nod. “I’ve tried this, it’s difficult to not look back.”

“Try?” Yoda says. “Try this you have? Take the path and then done it is. Do or do not. There is no try.”

“OK, I’ll just do. Does that take care of the fear?”

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear. Success? The highest test scores? A Jedi craves not these things. More important things there are. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

“Sure, but tests are important,” I say.

Yoda’s sigh shakes me more than his words. “That is why you fail. Tests there will always be. Ever present are homework, Accelerated Reader, and grades. Easily these forces flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the path of these things, forever will they dominate your destiny, consume you they will. A teacher’s strength flows from the students. What makes them curious? What makes them engaged? Set your mind on these things you must.”

The significance of what he just said is slow to come; that’s why I keep pushing back. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. It just seems even though things are always changing in education, nothing changes.”

“Patience you must have.”

“But school districts have taken so long to get things right. I feel like they’re finally on the cusp of something great, and it’s important we make the right decisions as soon as possible. We’re ready for change.”

“Ready you are? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is ready. Do not look to the future–to the horizon. Never your mind is on where you are. Hmm? What you are doing? Hmph. A dark place you find yourself if the future you seek. Only seek knowledge, light your way it will.”

He’s right. Thinking about everything that must be accomplished in the future is only leading me to grief. I realize my thinking isn’t helping.

“So what should I do?”

“Awww, a question you finally ask,” Yoda says. “The beginning of the path this is. Get you started I will.” Yoda closes his eyes and breathes the Marin County air. “Programs. Interventions. Theories. A Jedi minds not these things. Curiosity in the student you must build. The right technical tools for the job you must discover. Then the fork you must take.”

Build curiosity in students. Use the right tools. Take the fork. I think about these things. “I can try this.”

Yoda is looking at me with one eyebrow raised. “Action you must take. You must do. Or do not. There is no try.”

“Yes, I will take action. How do I take this back to my school district? What if people don’t listen?”

“Truths to which we cling depend on our point of view. People’s minds you may change–but many you will not. Always pass on what you have learned, but focus on the perception of others you must not. A person will find only what he or she brings into a staff meeting. Do you think Yoda stops teaching just because an adult doesn’t want to hear? A teacher Yoda is. The students Yoda cares for. Not the opinions of adults.” Yoda shakes his head.

“Your words make sense, Yoda.” I believe this, even though I’m not certain I’ve grasped everything he’s shared. “No matter the size of the obstacle, I will build curiosity in students, use the right tools, and take the fork.”

“Yes, remember, size of the obstacle matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size? Hmm? And well you should not. For my ally is student engagement, and a powerful ally it is.”

“Yoda, thank you.”

“Strong are the naysayers in education. Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.”

I lie my head on my backpack once again and fall asleep. I awake to the noise of people entering the courtyard with lunches in hand. Yoda is once again a statue, standing on his podium and gazing at the stairs leading to the roundabout.

I grab my backpack and walk up the stairs. The golden grass of the Marin hills dances briefly in the wind. Those hills go on and on…

I look just ahead of me. It’s time to get to work.

7 things teachers can learn from the book THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is full of wisdom for those attempting to spread an idea, which makes it perfect for teachers. Here are seven takeaways from this small but helpful book.

  1. Once a mind is made up, it’s difficult–if impossible–to change it. This means whether you’re teaching an adult or a kid, you need to make the impression right off the bat that what you have to share has value. It’s much better to provide a hook at the beginning of the lesson that intrigues your students rather than starting dry and building a favorable opinion throughout the lesson.
  2. Find a category in which you can be first. In other words, find your teaching niche–something about which you deeply care–and be the go-to person for that area.
  3. “There are no facts. There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Everything else is an illusion.” As a teacher or administrator, you will drift through your day among people who believe their perceptions are reality. The truth is, perceptions are relative. When you think your lesson plan is great and the person’s in the classroom next door is bad, all you’re saying is that you have the ability to perceive what a good lesson plan is better than the other teacher. On a related note, data is real, but the way you interpret it is contingent on your perceptions. Are we just seeing what we want to see opposed to what we should see? And what should we see?
  4. Don’t think that explaining good taste will win anyone over. New Coke was number one in taste according to research, but no one bought it. Instead, people bought the soft drink that tasted the worst based on research: Coca-Cola Classic. Lesson: Explaining facts to people is usually pointless. You have to go about persuasion in other ways.
  5. “The target is not the market.” Whether you’re teaching a sixth grade class or a room full of adults, you need to tell a story that can encompass more than your group. For example, Marlboro ostensibly sold cigarettes to cowboys, but there were very few cowboys who purchased them. Many different people (who smoked) bought Marlboro cigarettes.
  6. When designing lessons or selling your idea of best practices, use ideas already installed in the brain. Own the concepts people believe about you, your school, your philosophy, etc. Be transparent about what’s obvious and go from there. Many times beginning a message by admitting a problem opens people’s eyes.
  7. Hype can be seen from a mile away; real revolutions sneak up on us quickly.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is a great read in its entirety, and you can finish it in an afternoon. I highly recommend it.

Crowdsourcing in education

It’s not easy setting up a 1:1 environment across a whole school district–even if it’s a small school district. Some of the necessary steps include purchasing devices and carts, configuring devices, running cable, installing access points, constructing a system for damaged computers, troubleshooting, and much more.

The good thing about all these tasks is they result in outcomes that clearly show whether or not the objective was met. The devices are either purchased and configured or they’re not. The cable and access points are either installed or they’re not. Being able to pick up and fix damaged computers occurs or it doesn’t. The effects are tangible and easily quantified.

This isn’t the case when you want teachers to use devices in their classrooms. There’s no magic number of PD sessions necessary to win over a teacher’s affection for web based programs. There’s no special place or time in which PD sessions can be held that will foster the effects you’re seeking. One-size-fits-all approaches are obviously useless, and so are many of the consultants who promise to build ‘capacity’.

You can create a perfect technological infrastructure, but you can’t make people use it–this is true. So what do you do?

You find individuals who see value in the technological possibilities at each school site. You then pay those people as much as possible (even if it’s a measly stipend) to serve in two functions:

  1. Provide communication to each school regarding everything from device maintenance to instructional best practices.

  2. Teach teachers how to blend student learning.

Those are straightforward objectives and wonderful ways to start this portion of the deployment. Here’s something that’s very important to remember:

As these technology leaders perform their duties, they will naturally develop niches about which they’re passionate. Some will geek out over Google products. Others will become cliff divers and explore the new programs that are continually being created. Some will discover tricks and tools of which you’re not aware and begin sharing the information with colleagues. When this happens, your 1:1 deployment is finally getting started.

This is because no school or district can have one all-knowing sage who is an expert at every technological tool. Even one tech/instructional coach with no family who sleeps, eats, and breaths edtech can’t keep up and master every product out there. Because of this, it’s extremely important for the instructional leaders at each school site to build their niches and be the go-to person for that particular specialty. That way when teachers have questions, they can be guided to the answer by someone who has a depth of knowledge concerning the pertinent hardware or software.

Crowdsourcing is accomplished in many fields, and education is no different. If anything, crowdsourcing can be done most effectively when learning is the objective. The internet makes this possible, of course, but so does the disparate skill sets and interests all teachers possess.

Purchasing 1:1 devices is straightforward. Building up leaders isn’t, and that’s why people are the best investment.

We’re all technology specialists

I’m a ‘technology specialist’ in a school district, and I think the job title conjures a lot of different emotions within educators. Some teachers hear technology and feel anxiety. Others feel indifference. Some teachers are excited about the burgeoning web based tools available and want to share the latest, greatest software programs they’ve discovered.

My role has different titles depending on the school district. Sometimes it’s ‘Teacher on Special Assignment’ (TOSA). Other times it’s ‘technology coach’, ‘instructional coach’, or even ‘Chief Technology Officer’ (CTO). Whatever the name, the main purpose should be the same:

The point of a technology specialist within a school district is to diminish while teachers’ technological expertise increases. 

My position isn’t temporary, but I think it won’t be necessary forever. The same goes for all the other tech specialists out there. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • As teachers learn, they don’t need as many official or ‘district-sponsored’ professional development sessions because they’ll all learn how to learn about technology on their own.
  • Web based programs are making it easier to create teacher accounts and populate classes with students. Eventually, it’ll be possible for most software platforms to be populated by teachers and students (ex: Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Google Classroom, Front Row, etc.).

It’s possible that at some point, all teachers in my school district will be able to manage their own students’ accounts, use the programs effectively by blending their instruction, and answer each others’ questions. Heck, maybe they’ll even put on professional development sessions for each other during prep periods, PLC sessions, or after school. Meanwhile, I can transition back into the classroom, knowing that I used my time as a technology specialist effectively so the ultimate result occurred: All teachers have become technology specialists. 

Dream big

Listening to a recent Tim Ferriss podcast got me thinking about an interesting reality: Every generation has a major profession toward which smart young people gravitate. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was space rockets. In the late ’70s and ’80s, it was Wall Street. In the ’90s and ’00s, it was tech startups. Today, they build apps.

Is building an app a noble venture for a young person? There’s no doubt that some apps are changing the world. Navigation, communication, purchasing, and learning have all advanced by a large margin–I’d argue for the better–because of ingenuity on the mobile platform. But it’s important to put the present in perspective and question whether we’re inspiring our young people to solve today’s most pressing problems. I mean, someone who goes to Wall Street instead of NASA isn’t doing anything wrong, but choosing to further our knowledge of the world is so important and heroic.

As educators, we must show students the good and bad in this world. They must know the good so that they can marvel and fall in love with learning. They must know the bad so that they cultivate the desire to fix what they can. The 21st century is presenting some perplexing problems that children today must fix when they’re adults. Teaching them to dream big is imperative.