A New Data Mindset

If a world of information surplus is changing the way think about learning, commerce, government and a great many other sectors, what is the impact of all this data on how we think?

Our brains are wired to function efficiently in data-poor environments. We see two potentially relatable events and we immediately attempt to draw comparisons and maybe even causal relationships between them.  We do this all the time; there is a flood in Florida, so it must be climate change. School literacy scores are falling so it must be the new literacy program or the screen time, or the lower pay for teachers.

Even if we guess right about a cause, what is the likelihood, in a reasonable, democratic society, that we would ever be able to make a meaningful change based on that assertion? Even more remotely, what is the likelihood that any change we make would have the desired effects and that we could prove that those effects are the result of that change?  We can keep chasing our tails in an increasingly complex world, or we can change our mindsets to be more open to inductive correlative thinking.

The artificially intelligent machines we are building now are programmed with mathematical correlation models using reams and reams of data that humans simply cannot process. They will make decisions based on the probabilities of success of any choice that is made and more often than not will be right.  Humans, on the other hand, attempt to do this using our gut and when the factors are known and the model is simple we can usually get it right. When it gets complex, we begin to lose all credibility.

Unfortunately, we are very far off in our ability to adopt this type of thinking, whether human or machine, in our education systems and most human teachers are highly suspicious of this.  It is time to at least begin to trust our data and let is speak to us.


A Complex Web of Emotions

Something that bears reminding from time to time is that our organizations, regardless of the complexity of our systems, are fundamentally human. At our leadership team meeting today our Head of School shared a learning hit from this blog that summarizes some key points from Edwin H. Friedman’s book ‘A Failure of Nerve’.  This book, which I have not read and am not really qualified to summarize, apparently calls us to action in recognizing, respecting, and leveraging emotion to lead and improve our communities.

A key takeaway from this discussion for me was that organizational complexity is not just about complex systems. Yes its true, complex systems that work are merely collections of many simple systems that work.  Likewise, organizational morale is made up of complex webs of human-human relations and their associated emotions. We aren’t just a bunch of cerebrums cognitively processing, we are a bunch of humans feeling as well, and if the emotions are not right, the cognitive output will not be right as well.  This has deep implications for our abilities to collaborate, create, and pursue meaningful change. This book is now on my list.

To Change a Culture

I am consistently drawn to and inspired by the work of Fullan, and I also follow Senge and Kotter who essentially all look at ways to build momentum for change through intrinsic motivation. Fullan’s approach is very concise and often written for educators,  making it highly accessible. What I connect with in their writing is the relationship between organizational change culture and how we as leaders practice what we believe.

Our organizational culture starts with our values which is represented in our rituals. If we seek a culture shift, we cannot do it through policy alone, especially if that shift is intended to build a culture of self-directed, intrinsically motivated learners. If we try to do it through policy, we contradict the very core values we claim to have and and want to see in our classrooms. We can only realize a culture shift by living the same core values we wish to see everywhere in our schools.

The implications for school leaders are that we must look at change very differently. We must set up the framework and trust our faculty to aim, achieve, and reflect in their own self-directed, intrinsically-motivated drive to personalize learning. There are quite a few different approaches to this, all of which require what Peter Senge calls the “enthusiasm and willingness to commit”. Without this you will wind up with negative feedback cycles that ultimately undermine any effort you make to change a culture.

At the AISC, we have recognized that this is a very long process that starts with a strategic plan and vision and continues with ongoing strategic conversations at all levels related to that mission. These happen in innovation and implementation teams around the school with teacher leaders who are trusted to pursue the end results of our plan with guidance from our school leaders. These teachers become leaders themselves, build a volunteer team, and face some of the same challenges that our school leaders face. The trick here is to make this a net positive experience for everyone involved through the acquisition of learning capabilities, leadership skills, credibility and influence among peers, and other personal and professional gains. This essentially creates a sanctioned ground-swell of interest in change that will hopefully turn the tide of culture.

The main driver here then is that the desire to transform learning that comes from within. Like anything else personal, which teaching most definitely is, nobody can force you to change beliefs, patterns, habits and values; that change must come from within each and every teacher. It must be intrinsic, just like the motivation to learn that we seek in each and every one of our learners.

Personalizing Learning in Stages

Today I had the honor of spending the day with my friend Kathleen McClaskey and actually attending one of her workshops. I was able to make it to the Digital Education Show in Dubai to catch this one as she rarely makes it over to my neck of the woods. The day helped illustrate much of what she and Bray write about in their book Make Learning Personal.

I learned a lot today, despite having read the book, and one of the things that jumped out at me the most was the stages of personalized learning.  So much is said about what personalized learning is or is not, but in many ways much of what we think it is makes more sense when we look at the stages.

Stages of Personalized Learning Environments by Kathleen McClaskey and Barbara Bray.

Schools that are doing a great job differentiating, giving students choice, offering some student-directed options are on their way to personalized learning but are really just in stage 1.  They are personalizing learning – to a degree – but there needs to be some locus of control movement toward the student.

Though personalized learning in its purest form is ultimately about honoring the potential of all learners and growing self-directed learners through transfer of ownership toward learner-driven environments, any steps in this direction are welcome.  On the way there teachers and students must first take the  challenging step of sharing ownership.  In this phase 2 stage, students begin to assume ownership over content, learning strategies, projects, assessment design, and self-assessment relative to competencies.

Stage 2 is already a leap for most schools and teachers, but it creates a safety zone that assures stakeholders that there is still oversight and progress toward established standards.

So, is your education “personalized” if you only reach stage two? I feel like the answer is yes, to a degree.  If you are committed,  stage 3 will not be as distant a leap as you once thought.

Innovation is Easier Than you Think

If not the hottest word to dominate educator speak these days, it certainly is in the top 5 and maybe even higher.  Innovation is something schools everywhere are feeling the pressure to do now more than ever.  In large,  diverse organisations like schools there is always plenty of innovation happening, but it’s not easy to pin it down and showcase it because the product of that innovation is the fleeting, ineffable process we call learning.

There are many who even debate the place innovation has in our schools, after all, why disrupt something that’s been working for thousands of years?  Can we really improve on the Socratic Seminar?  Yes we can,  and you’ve heard all reasons why we should and what the socio-technological forces at play that bring us this imperative.

If I were to call out the elephant in the room,  I would say that much of the rush to innovate in schools is an upstream plea by the dominant business discourse of the modern era which desperately needs well-educated and highly creative workers to propel the rapid development of new ideas to keep pace with competitors.  Is there anything wrong with that?  After all, the same race will bring us solutions to all the threats to our earth and its species, including us; or will it?

We must trust ourselves and our children to answer this question for us.

Trello for Organizations

When a friend of mine recommended Trello as a way to organize new features for our school’s app I was impressed. Dabbling, we extended it to managing our communications work and raised my eyebrows a hair. Little did I know you could pretty much manage everything (and I mean probably your whole complicated life) with it. To some, Trello is a project management tool, to others, a to-do list, and still to others a flexible database for almost any purpose. Either way, this is a tool that will either find a niche or boot a whole suite of other things out its that good.

In short, the way it works is that Trello has “boards” of “cards”. On each card you can store information about an issue, request, idea, or event to name a few possibilities. You can customize any number of “lists” that you want that will allow you to move cards through a process or categorize them in different ways. You can create an organization and add people to it to make sharing easier, and you can power-up with calendars that integrate with your own and other cool features. You can also email ideas to a list so it fits in with almost any workflow.  The free version is great but you can purchase Trello Gold for a small sum to get additional features and a larger file size allowance.

Trello Board

An Organization that Learns

If you could describe the optimal organization of any kind, what characteristics would stand out to you?  Is it its financial standing, its branding or its stated mission? At what height would you rank how it stays fluid, how it adapts to the forces that shape our society while staying true to its mission?  Any organized group of people that attains what Peter Senge describes as the “learning organization” creates a space where ideas are free to spread and infect others, where these ideas are seen not as a threat by leaders but are indeed the air it breathes.   Where some might find this a little unnerving, others see this as the only way to fuel the innovation needed to keep schools relevant and grow learners who truly live our schools’ missions.

At the American International School – Chennai,  our leaders embraced the idea of a school with innovation in its DNA.  This came about one year into our transformative Strategic Plan,  when the excitement of the planning and action teams had subsided and the risks of stalling became evident.  It was clear that we needed new mechanisms to create sustainable momentum toward our goals.  What if we could capture the passion, the free flow of ideas, and the visionary experience of that planning experience every year and build a culture of innovation at AISC?  Would that not resemble the adaptive, mission-driven school described above?  It was worth a shot and with that, the Teaching and Learning Committee (TLC) was born.

TLC framing inquiry at AISC

TLC framing inquiry at AISC

With a name that admittedly sounds like just another committee, the TLC does indeed retain some traits of the tried and true while emphasizing three key qualities that have made it so effective: ongoing teacher leadership development, focused strategic conversations, and a commitment to innovation to move ideas forward.

Ongoing Teacher Leadership

What does embedded PD look like where you are?  What do you mean when you say “teacher leaders”?  We grappled with this very question and ultimately rested on the idea that there are many different kinds of teacher leaders, but very few willing to do the difficult work of actually leading.  Identifying faculty who are willing to take risks,  stand out from their peers, and move ideas upward from the roots is step one,  but coaching them through the process is the most important piece.  Many teachers have the best of intentions but get lost in the mire of putting great ideas into action and inspiring and mobilizing their peers.  Every TLC meeting is designed to help our teacher leaders learn and apply useful leadership skills that they can use with their teams.

Focused Strategic Conversations

What happens after your strategic planning sessions are done and you roll up your sleeves to do the work?  Who is steering you through the many interpretations and incorporating the new ideas that arise along the way?  No organization can flourish anymore when strategic conversations happen only once every five years, or when only your leadership team is having them.  These are some of the most energizing moments your school will ever have, so why not have them more often, with more people?  The TLC at AISC serves this purpose.  We model and practice facilitating these conversations to keep the vision from faltering.  Each TLC member then facilitates similar conversations with their teams around focused problems or questions related to one of our end results.  These conversations help spread the vision among the faculty and staff by drawing attention to our end results and even generating new ones.

A Commitment to Innovation

Call it what it is.  Year one of the TLC was muddy without a clear understanding of how we defined the work of its members and their teams.  There was no better word to describe the many phases and functions of the teams that had formed than “innovation”.  Once we were able to explain how we bring new ideas to life in our school and move them through critical stages in their development, we gained an identity and credibility that was lacking before.  An innovation team is a group of committed self-selecting faculty who ask important questions about areas of learning that need improvement, vision, or breakthrough ideas.  This team – led by one or more members of the TLC – researches and develops action plans towards end results that will help keep the organization responsive and focused on its mission.

If you’d like to learn more about the structure of our TLC and how we describe the type of innovation we pursue,  I’ll be writing more in a follow-up post.







Reflecting on Visible Learning

I had the opportunity today to hear directly from the Visible Learning group, notably Shaun Hawthorne, about how to best interpret and use the data presented in Hattie’s book.

It is probably no secret to most educators these days what the areas with the biggest “effect size” are.  Its always good to have a refresher.  The strategies with the greatest impact in descending order are,

Student Expectations or Self-reported Grades 1.44
This probably requires the greatest shift in mindset for educators. The next time you give a test ask the kids how they are going to perform. They will probably be able to tell you to a fairly high degree of accuracy.  So then, why do we test them?  The main reason for a test is for the teacher to find out how well they managed the learning in the classroom.  Instead of this approach,  schools that have tried the student expectations model essentially let kids do much of the assessment themselves.  They end up setting goals and expectations that are higher than the teacher’s and are more likely to meet them.

Formative Evaluation or Assessment .90
Most of us know this is huge, but many of us think this is still #1 or that it is mostly for the student.  This is feedback from students and even colleagues about what is understood, what is working best as a teacher, and and what could be done better.

Classroom Discussion .82
The type of classroom discussion that works  best is collaborative, meaning that students are creating, building, and expanding knowledge together.  Where the teacher fits in is important, for if the students feel that what really matters is what the teacher wants from the discussion, then the impact is not as great.

Feedback .75
Effective feedback can almost double the speed of learning.   But its not simply the presence of feedback alone,  but the quality of the feedback that counts. Watch a great coach,  what type of feedback are they giving their start athletes?  They aren’t publicly embarrassing them.

Teacher-Student Relationships .72
This is not about being buddy-buddy with students, but about creating teaching and learning relationships where there is a culture in the classroom where its OK to make mistakes,  where its OK to fail, where the teacher cares about their learning and there is a great deal of trust.  My guess is that you must have this in place to do any of the other things in this list effectively. These other items then create a positive feedback loop into this.

Metacognitive Strategies .69
Thinking about thinking.  How often do we really allow students to do this.  We are too busy moving on to the next topic.  What I am doing right now in the blog is thinking about what I have learned and how to extend it.  There are many easy ways to do this but you must carve out the time.

What struck me most about the research is how old most of it is,  which challenges us to think differently about how we use this data.  Just because the data is old and focuses mainly on student test scores, does not mean that it is less important, however, we must look for new inputs that consider things other than academic achievement.  Shawn clearly indicates this at the beginning that Hattie’s biggest detractors are those looking for more guidance around soft skills and 21st century skills.



An Open Letter to Google: Classroom Needs a New Marketing Video

Dear Google,

I haven’t even used Google Classroom yet, and already I am highly skeptical.  The video you released to hype your new classroom “solution”, which you tout as a way to “give teachers more time to teach and students more time to learn” is an embarrassment.  Watching the video makes me wonder if anyone at Google actually knows the impact its products have had on educators and students worldwide. Even worse, it makes me wonder if Google wants to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.

Lets start at just ten seconds into the video. Here a young teacher teacher says

Screenshot 2014-05-08 21.04.52

Screen capture of Google Classroom marketing video.

“If a teacher is collecting and handing out papers, they are not maximizing the amount of time they are actually teaching.”

Simple right?  With one click of a button I can hand out a digital worksheet rather than have to ply up and down the rows handing out paper worksheets that it took me 10 minutes to print and copy front to back, collated, with a staple at 45 degrees in the upper left.  Brilliant!  Eureka!  Let’s all celebrate edutopia together!

Wait, what did you say?  Worksheet?  Actually, yes, if I were to make a Wordle of your video it would feature the words “worksheet”, “submit”, “assignment”, “teacher”, “maximize”, and “hand-out”, not necessarily in that order.  This might sell Chromebooks to schools who can’t see the iceberg beneath the waves, but it doesn’t improve schools or help our students become better equipped for a century that needed creative self-motivated learners yesterday.

“Everything I need for the class is in one place.  My worksheets are there my group work is there.”

Part of why I am writing this to you is because, in fact, there isn’t a tool out there that has had a bigger role in helping educators re-think teaching and learning than Google Apps for Education.  I can’t imagine where we would be without it.  I’ve been gushing about it since it was called Writely in 2005.  The Wordle for great schools, schools that have grown, in part, due to your Google Apps would feature the words “collaboration”, “formative”, “sharing”, “social”, “global”, “problem-solving”, “together”, and “student”, not necessarily in that order.

But its not just the script that is troubling.  The setting you chose to depict your Google Classroom hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages.  Eyes forward with laser focus on the teacher, fingers poised on the keyboard, trembling even, eager to record every word of the sage on the stage. Only the medium of note-taking and checking for understanding (I’m being optimistic) has changed; shiny new Chromebooks sit on every desk. Nevermind the expense of that notebook, this setting violates almost everything we now know about learning, the brain, and the future relevance of schools.

Screenshot 2014-05-08 21.10.15

I sincerely hope that this product delivers more than the tepid vision for learning conveyed in your launch video.  I know a great many schools that will get far more out of it than your pilot schools have, but I wonder if your education division is really paying attention to what’s going on in the world of education and what is coming.  Your token veteran in the video says it best.

Screenshot 2014-05-08 21.06.07

“You cannot stay in teaching and keep going to the old ways”

Google, there is nothing new about what you have shown us here.  All you have done is reinforce the old ways with even more rigid technologies. This woman’s quote might just as well be directed at you as much as a teacher handing out the same worksheet with paper, pencil, and textbook.

Now, I am not opposed to efficiency, and teachers truly do need a system to run a paperless classroom.  This is why we adopted Hapara Google Dashboard.  But substituting for paper is not the point, rather its one of the essential conditions for redefining the classroom to be more personalised, global, and collaborative.  Perhaps you should spend some time talking with passionate teachers out there who use your free services day in and day out to do these very things.


Kevin Crouch
IT Director
American International School – Chennai

5 Ways to Transform a School – and 5 Ways to Fail

If your school isn’t currently in the throws of significant change,  you should be worried.  Every school and educator that plans on being relevant a decade from now should really probably be having some tough conversations.  Even if you have figured out the what and why questions it can be daunting to figure out exactly how to move forward.  What does great look like?  How will we know when we are there?  The simple answer is that you are never there, greatness is not a place, its a journey, a process, a disposition and a mindset.  From several years of experience in radical change environments, I can now begin to reflect on five essential conditions that can lead to an organisation that learns, grows, and improves. There are others that I have yet to learn for sure, but this is a good start.

Think Strategically

This might be plainly obvious to you but without a solid strategic plan that clearly describes the way things will be when you have achieved your goals then you should proceed with great caution.  Schools are far too complex for the wait-and-see approach.  You need a good mission that defines a vision of radical change.  If you are in the process of strategic planning and your vision looks anywhere like the school you went to, then you should be worried.  This is a good way to fail at transforming a school.

Build a Collaborative Culture

“Culture eats strategy for lunch”  or does it?

There is so much packed into this idea and that is what makes it so powerful.  It would be easy to bore anyone to death talking about the benefits of collaboration, so you need to see for yourself.  Think of it this way.

Individual experts working to solve complex problems are consistently outperformed by groups, draw conclusions contradictory to those held  by other experts in the same field, and overestimate the reliability of their own conclusions (Surowiecki, 2004).

credit: wonderferret, Flickr

This sounds nice, but the reality is that we are mostly really bad at working together.  You’re team is only as good as its facilitator and most team leaders haven’t been properly trained to facilitate collaborative groups. However, it is probably an absolute truth that inspiring teachers and other community members to share ideas, make meaning together, support and lead each other, and solve complex problems together is an essential condition to becoming a 21st century school (there I said it).

To succeed at this one you will need to commit to establishing and nurturing a program with good street cred, such as Adaptive Schools (now Think Collaborative) or Critical Friends, or both.  Its not a gimmick and everyone at your institution needs to be trained, not just a few favorites.  It is easy to fail at this by making collaboration something only leaders do, or by asking people to do it without proper training.  If it becomes a clique it will fail. If the extension into the classroom is not made explicit it will fail.

Get Everyone Mobile Technology They Want to Use

credit: capmac.org

The school of the future will be student-driven.  Don’t ruin this by forcing everyone at your school to use the same technology.  Let people bring what they want as long as its productive.  This will go a long way to empowering and motivating users.  If you aren’t thinking about Bring-Your-Own-Technology yet,  I would Google it.  One-size-fits-all is a 20th century paradigm whose time has passed.  This goes for teachers and admin as well.  If you do this, don’t go with the old BYOD model where you take their computer and lock it down so tight in the name of security that they can’t innovate with it.  This is a great way to maintain the status quo.

Implement a Cloud-Based Productivity Suite (aka Google Apps for Education)

There are other systems out there, but why?  Unless you are wary of the Eye of Sauron,  this is the single most transformative tool in the known Universe.  I can’t imagine being at a school, let alone a job, without it.  Office 365 works, but it falls short of the Google ecosystem that now works on all mobile devices really well.  A tried-and-true pitfall, or at least a speed bump, is to continue to offer ample server storage so that users can safely create and save MS Office documents, email them as attachments to everyone, and then email another one when something changes in it.

The reason this is so critical is that it dramatically increases productivity and the ability of teams to know what is going on.

Develop Teacher Leadership

We are all leaders.  We lead children, we lead tribes, we lead ourselves.  Teaching teachers how to be better leaders is essential to making lasting change happen.  Some schools are afraid of confident teachers.  This is a mistake.  Teachers who innovate and lead will not only impact their own classrooms but will inspire their colleagues to do the same.   With all the tools above in place, teachers will soar and take their school to unseen heights.  A foundation of trust and respect with dedication to a mission is essential to success.  Leaving teacher leaders to flail, undermining their ideas, providing inadequate feedback, and/or supporting the wrong teacher leaders are all  strategies best avoided.

What am I missing?  What other ideas are out there to help us turn the ship without running it into an iceberg?