Move Like a Cat: Challenging the System Every Day.

from George Couros – Only Schools Can End Schools

There are some education writers who always catch my attention. They are provocative and they give me ideas on what I can write about.

Two of these educators are George Couros and Greg Ashman.

In a recent post, George Couros wrote about institutional change and the school. He featured a quote that mentioned businesses like Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb and how these innovators have challenged or replaced institutions that believed they were secure in supporting the status quo.

Greg Ashman seems to come up with something challenging almost daily. Recently he wrote a biting critique of the 6C fad, 21st-century skills and the current belief that teaching collaboration beats out traditional content. I love the title – Can we add ‘move like a cat’ to the list of 21st century skills?

There may not be too much in common in the two articles, but both challenge complacency and that is a really important service that all educators need. Greg Ashman’s article, in particular, would be a wonderful opener at a principal’s meeting at my former school board! Greg, I would have added this video.

Funny, but are there ever workshops at education conferences on reforming the system? Is this a topic that is just a little too uncomfortable?

While these ideas are important for our growth as a profession, George Couros makes the point that the people who really need to hear this message are not even listening.

They are not listening to Greg Ashman’s challenge of the sacred cow that is the 6C’s – maybe better called the silly C’s?

My point is that these and other writers need to hold a central place in our discussions on how the education system needs to evolve. There should be a place for these discussions at education conferences and we need to realize we can do better and we need to challenge more.

We do not have to be slaves to alignment. Maybe we need to move a little like a cat!

The education hierarchy may not be interested in such talk, but neither were the owners of Block Buster.

So, let’s move.

4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation: A Response to George Couros

1. Are your professional learning opportunities mirroring what you want to see in the classroom?

2. Are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practices?

3. Is there transparency in your practice and learning? 

4. Is collaboration an ongoing norm or do individuals and teams work in silos?

George Couros 4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation

Wouldn’t it be great to be in a principal’s meeting where everyone, including the superintendents, were asked these four questions? What a rich conversation this would be!

School Boards love to be seen as being innovative. Mostly this is because while they truly value innovation, it is almost impossible to achieve.

In my last school board, we all had to have a school innovation plan. It used to be a school improvement plan, but innovation sounded so much better. Basically, we were all going to be innovative and we were going to make sure we were being innovative by June 1st at the latest.

It sounds silly and it certainly was. I think large organizations really value compliance over innovation any day because innovation is messy and is hard to regulate. Large school boards are not good at messy.

Compliance, however, means that there is alignment from the top to the bottom (school) of the organization. We are all moving in the same direction and that direction is very innovative.

George’s questions are great and we should be asking our school boards and school administrators these questions. They are really hard questions. Take the first one – does our professional development mirror what we want to see in the classroom? Maybe, but then principals would have to have autonomy over what professional learning is in the schools and that seldom happens. More often, the professional development plan is directed by the school board and the plan has to align with the greater goals of that board. Not a recipe for innovative practice.

One more question – are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practice? To examine this, we would need to look at a school board’s policies and procedures and see who they actually serve. Do they work to develop a more compliant culture or do they truly allow educators to innovate and take chances – another tough question.

I responded briefly to George’s post below. If you are an administrator, how would you do with these questions?

My response:

Really thoughtful post thanks for this. School boards love the idea of innovation, but it is really hard for them to practice this. By their very nature, they attempt to preserve what they have. This does not lead to innovative practices, but no school board will ever say they are not innovative. They may have ‘school innovation plans’ but they are hard-pressed to actually do very much that is innovative. I don’t think this is really the fault of the school board – how can a large organization or corporation really be innovative? This is a really big challenge

Social Media and Educators – When Will We Grow Up?

Doug Peterson has written a number of great posts over the past few days based on a wide-ranging Twitter conversation we had on the weekend.

Doug has summarized the conversation really well in the following posts:

Yeah, it can happen – Oct 11
The right to tweet – Oct 10
The “P” in PLN – Oct 9

This is a hard conversation to summarize as it went on for three days and had participation from at least ten different participants. The conversation is collected here in case you want to see it.

I also tried to summarize things in this blog post: Twitter, Educators, and Dissent – October 8

As the conversation evolved, we got closer to talking about free speech, social media and working for an institution. I don’t think anything was resolved, but it was very interesting and more than a little sad to read what people had to say.

To me, it shows that our ideas on social media are still evolving. It indicates that institutions have an incredible fear of social media and see it still as a threat. It also reminds me of the incredible power of institutions to suppress the actions of its members even if these actions are not clearly critical of the institution.

To be honest, it is amazing that we had any sort of conversation as some of the participants are still working for districts and these individuals clearly took a risk by getting involved. I totally understand why others decided to stay clear.

I wrote one comment on Doug’s post and I think this would be a good conversation to have openly on voicED Radio.

In preparing to write the comment, I took a look at an old disciplinary letter that I received. It had a chilling effect. It brought back all the old, bad emotions that swirled around during the last year and a half of employment for that district. Truly, writing about this stuff is more difficult than what I have written in the past about my mental health journey.

Still, this needs to be written about. Institutions should not be allowed to operate with impunity, nor should they be motivated by fear or the desire to sanction employees who challenge their way of thinking.

I hope these posts, discussions, and comments can open this conversation a little bit. It is way past time that we matured in our views regarding social media.

Here is my comment:

Hi Doug. Thanks for your posts over the past few days. Very interesting discussion. Reading the comments and your post again I think it is important to point out that disciplinary action is not a black and white thing. I think we are all looking for the smoking gun – the obvious tweet that is clearly over the line. It is not as simple as that and not everything can be resolved through a face to face conversation either.
When it comes to a violation of board policy leading to disciplinary action, it is the school board that defines what is appropriate and what is not. They are the ones holding all the cards and they determine what is appropriate. They issue the letter and add in that any further ‘violation’ will lead to further action including suspension without pay.
These are extremely effective actions because they do not need to define what a violation really is.
When you don’t have to clearly define the policy or the violation almost anything can be considered a violation. This effectively shuts down the person who receives the letter.
School Boards are well within their rights to do this and in Ontario at least, nothing can be done about this, especially if you are an administrator.
You do not have to say or tweet something critical of the board, you just have to do something they disagree with. None of this is obvious and none of this falls within the easily defined lines you mention above.
What is the result of all this? Basically, silence.

Response to George Couros: 4 Ways To Not Let Others Dim Your Light

One of the great things about walking all day is that you have lots of time to think. This latest post has been on my mind and I think after walking such a great distance, it is a good idea to put this out there.

Again, George Couros is an inspiration, but this is something that was on my mind throughout our West Highland Way trek. I would encourage you to read his entire post. He makes a great deal of sense and I just wish more people in senior administration would do more than just retweet his work and ponder what he is saying.

I hope that what George writes and what I am writing here will help people who are going through similar experiences. If this is you, read carefully what George writes and don’t let anyone ever dim your light!

The reality of our world is that people get threatened when other people shine their light on the world.  This bothers me even more so when it is educators doing it to educators, as our jobs are to empower those we serve, not try to bring them down.  If you are doing this to a colleague or peer, would you do it to a student? Would you do it to my daughter if she was in your classroom?  In education, this is unacceptable.

Here is my response to the post.

Thanks George, a very good post and excellent advice. There does come a time however when you need to consider leaving the system when those in positions of higher authority have made the decision to block you any way they can. I guess this come under #3 ‘move on and ignore’.

You are right to point out that it is strange that educators can treat other educators poorly, but my experience tells me that with a few notable exceptions, educators forget who they are (or were) the higher up the corporate eduladder they climb.

They can be very cruel and unforgiving to the point where on my case, they suspended me for three weeks without cause. While I was later vindicated and invited back into the professional fold, they never apologized which to me is inexcusable.

A year after my suspension, I retired from my board and I am much more at peace. I still have a great community of positive fellow educators that I work and correspond with, but I no longer have to suffer the negative soul destroying authoritarians who made my life so difficult.

Coming on to two years now after the suspension, it still rankles and this is something that could still be solved with a simple ‘sorry’.

How can we expect to make real progress in our education systems when the people at the top expect blind compliance. To forge a different path means that you could be punished with impunity.

That was the end of my comment today.

I don’t expect ever to hear from my former employers. It would be good if they took responsibility for their actions. It was shameful, but I have certainly moved on.

I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I have had the privilege of assisting my partner through major surgery and I have trekked more than 100 km through the Western Highlands with my daughter.

I have left the past behind and I love the exciting challenges that the future presents.

Thanks George and the West Highland Way for getting this post written – finally! Now on to more great positive adventures in the future.

Community Response to Five Ways to Damage a Good School

A week ago, after Doug Peterson’s suggestion, I came up with a brief survey to see if I could gain any more insight into actions that might damage a good school. No survey on Twitter is going to elicit much response. Even so, I have received 10 responses to my survey. The results are summarized here.

To be honest, I don’t know if we moved the discussion much beyond Greg Ashman’s original post. He is provocative and he comes up with excellent points to ponder on a regular basis. He has another post on education and non-conformity and I really want to read this and look for more writing prompts based on his thoughts!

There were a few suggestions that are certainly worth mentioning here from the survey. The one comment that dominates has to do with developing positive relations with staff, students and parents.

Build a community & relationships. If you don’t have positive relationships with your students, then nothing you do in class really matters. The same applies to admin. If you don’t take the time to build relationships with your staff, then it will be difficult to get staff buy in for positive changes.

I agree with this comment. If you do not engender positive relationships with the people you serve and work with, no infusion of educational technology or educational theory will make a wit of difference in your school.

In education, we all seem to love the newest fad or upcoming idea, whether it be social-emotional development, deeper learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning – the list goes on and on.

We often fail to see the enduring importance of developing and maintaining a respectful relationship with all the people in our buildings. It is almost as if developing a community of respect and caring is a second-tier idea that should be seen as a given and not worthy of discussion.

I don’t think this is the case and I do believe we need to reexamine how we treat the people we work with.

I have come to a number of schools where administrators didn’t seem to have a clue how to work in a constructive manner with their staff. This lack of ability needs to be addressed because failing to deal with an uncaring attitude can really damage staff members. I have often worked with gifted administrators who truly understood the importance of empowerment and I really think their contributions need to be recognized and celebrated.

I think one reason why the work of George Couros gets so much attention is that he really gets this. Throughout his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, George continually focusses on the importance of developing positive relationships with the people you work with. This is such an essential point it can’t be overemphasized. Everything needs to start with the promise that the administrator will honour and respect the people they work with. If this is the starting point, all manner of innovative and wonderful things can happen at a school.

As we enter another school year, let’s try to remain positive and keep in mind what truly makes for a wonderful school – a group of people who strive to respect, honour and empower every person in their building.

Response to George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

So what do you do if you feel you have outgrown your leadership to ensure that your own growth doesn’t stagnate?

George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

A terrific question and not an easy one to answer.

I find I get my best prompts from George Couros’ posts and this is a really good one. One pause first- it is really important when considering an answer to this question not to think that you are better than the leadership you need to get away from. I believe you have to do all three things that are mentioned in George’s post –  find mentorship outside your organization. (online and offline), disrupt your routine, and certainly, leave. I have done all three and have been very critical of my former employers since I have left working for a school board. While they have reacted poorly to my posts, I think it is important to understand their point of view.

It is extremely difficult, maybe impossible to be innovative when you represent a large district. Their role is to preserve and to protect – how can you be expected to be innovative and creative at the same time? Is this even possible? Maybe it isn’t and my criticism, therefore, has not been completely fair. So, maybe the best response is as George writes in this post – look elsewhere for your inspiration, disrupt the routine that is holding you down and most certainly leave and start over.

This can allow for an outpouring of creativity and I have found this to be the case. I believe I have continued to grow as an educator and especially as a blogger since I have left my district. I am no longer held down by institutional leadership and this has freed me up to question some of the practices we take for granted.

To allow yourself to become overly frustrated by a leadership structure that is no longer growing is not useful for anyone. The beauty of developing your own personal learning network is that you can free yourself up from institutional thinking and find inspiration from leaders and writers who are moving in a new direction.

Eventually, this may not be enough and you may leave a structure that is holding you down. This is not easy for educators to do, but it is important to consider if you are being stifled by leadership that is no longer growing.

You may also need to ask yourself – what will be the consequence for staying put?

 

 

Response to George Couros – Empowering or Stifling Voice?

As a blogger who tries to find something to post every week, I find lots of inspiration from the people I follow and read every day. I try to read something and comment when I can. George Couros is one of the best and I find I get lots of inspiration from his writing. Today’s post by George, Empowering or Stifling Voice? inspired me to make the comment below. If you read this post, please consider reading and commenting on what he has written – I think he really gets to the heart of the risks bloggers take when they go public with their ideas.

Thanks for this post George. I am sure I am one of those bloggers who makes errors each time I write. I find it a bit weird that people would make comments on a post that pick up on small errors – what is the point? Why try to bring someone down?
I remember meeting you at one of the BIT conferences in Niagara Falls. The encounter was so positive and friendly, you encouraged me as an educator and as a blogger. I really appreciated the positive nature of that encounter.
I think we always learn more from the positive encounters. The negative ones can be instructive, but criticism needs to be delivered with kindness for it to be effective.
I am now a retired educator which has allowed me to be more critical of established educational institutions than I could have been as a principal. I have received great support from people like Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley, and this encouragement has propelled me to write more. I sometimes feel like I am writing for an audience of two or three, but at least there is some audience out there that reads and comments on my posts.
What I do find bizarre and rather hurtful are the people who disagree with what I write but who respond by actually blocking me on Twitter.
To my knowledge, this has only happened once, but I truly don’t understand this behaviour.
If something you read upsets you, how does it help to block out that voice? How can you continue a conversation when you turn off the speaker?
Blogging is a risk. Everytime you hit the publish button you really don’t know what will happen next. People may like your writing, some will ‘unfollow’ you and I guess in rare cases you might be blocked.
As a blogger, what I would rather see would be a response. If you disagree with what is written, write back. It may take more time, but it shows more respect for the writer.
All that being said, positive comments are appreciated too!
Thank-you for being the inspiration for this piece of writing!
I hope your day goes better.

Is leadership an innovative endeavour? – Response to George Couros

In January, George Couros asked this question and answered it with a definite “yes”.

I totally agree with his answer and his caveat that it should be an innovative endeavor.

My concern is that the urge to innovate seems to dissipate the higher people reach up the leadership ladder. There is certainly more pressure to follow the company line and as this pressure increases, the ability to innovate declines.

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.

George Couros

As George Couros writes, the inability to think outside the conventional ‘box’ can lead torganizations like school boards to become irrelevant.

Almost as a response to this challenge, Larry Ferlazzo has written a good series on leadership –  Response: Support Curriculum Innovations by ‘Failing Forward’

This three-part series offers a whole variety of ideas and suggestions from some of the top education leaders in the United Staes on how to support innovation in schools. One suggestion from Mark Estrada, principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas is very interesting.

School leaders and teachers must develop a growth mindset as Keith Heggart describes in a recent article.

  • Teachers and administrators must model a growth mindset

  • Create space and time for new idea development

  • Build time for self-reflection

  • Administrators must provide positive formative feedback

We are all familiar with the concept of ‘growth mindset’, and we want our students and teachers to embrace this idea. We don’t, however, insist that a growth mindset be adopted by school and district leadership. In my opinion, after working for years as an administrator in a large Ontario school board, a growth mindset amongst our leadership is sorely lacking.

I would argue that what we experience in many schools and certainly at the district level is a preservation mindset. Keep everything moving, nudge forward a little, pick up the newest fad in education, but basically keep things the way they are and celebrate compliance as the gold standard.

Those who do not accept this as the standard operating procedure are not welcome at the table.

So, while I applaud writers like George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, and Mark Estrada who work hard to extend the reach of new ideas on leadership, I have to ask – who is reading these articles, and who is simply paying mouth service to ideas about innovation, change, and bold leadership?

If our education leaders are not overly concerned with real innovation, do they risk becoming irrelevant?

Innovation – the New Overused Word in Education

Last week I read a Twitter post from a  colleague who works for my former school board it read, ‘Education is the key to making innovation the new standard.’

First, how can innovation be the standard? Innovation should be on the outside edge – innovation should be challenging the norm and innovators by their very nature are critical of the status quo.

Yesterday, I took part in a good conversation on innovation during one of the #MADPD sessions – a really different way to deliver PD unfettered by the typical school board staff who usually are the deliverers of PD to our educators. We were all very good at congratulating each other on being ‘innovative’, but I think we were all missing the point.

Innovation within a system is almost impossible. What we call innovation is usually just cheerleading, especially what we see summarized in the 140 characters of Twitter. It’s a lot of ‘look at me’ and it’s really not very helpful.

I say this because true innovation unsettles the system. The primary goal of the system, or any large institution –  is to protect itself. Protection means maintaining the status quo. Innovation cannot be the ‘new standard’ because true innovation might very well call for the elimination of large education corporations like the one I worked for.

Let me be very clear. Being innovative in a system can cause a great deal of pain. The organization will do almost anything to protect itself. In my case, this resulted in a fair amount of what I call ‘institutionalized bullying’. I was seen as a pariah for some of the things I said and did and I actually retired early to avoid any further disciplinary action from my employers.

Without going into the grimy details of what happened to me, I was seen as a trouble maker because I refused to just be a cheerleader for the latest system-wide ‘innovation’.

Last year during a study on George Couros’ book, ‘The Innovator’s Mindset’ I took part in a great Voxer chat on topics connected to the book. At one point we got into a conversation on the consequences of being an innovator. I was really surprised by the number of educators who were able to admit that they too had been scapegoated by their board for working outside the norm. You could feel the hurt in their voices as they talked about what had happened to them and I realized my story was in no way unique.

So, when we have conversations about ‘jumping into the unknown’, we should really take a step back. It’s not fun to be an outrider when you work for an education corporation. You shouldn’t be congratulating yourself for being an innovator because no one really likes someone who truly thinks outside the box. If you do, you threaten the box.

So maybe we need more truth-telling on Twitter. Maybe less cheerleading and less ‘8 things you can do today to be an innovator’. Maybe we need more clear and honest criticism of a massive system that eats and spits out those who think differently.

 

Obstacles to Innovation in Education – reflection on George Couros

 

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This morning I read a great post by George Couros: Flipping the Script; 3 Obstacles to Innovation Viewed Differently.

It ended with this statement:

If we start looking at the challenges as a great way to get people to think differently about the “why, what, and how” of education, we are in a good spot. If we ignore these statements and running away from the challenges, we are actively doing what we don’t want to happen in our schools.

We need to start looking at the challenges as opportunities to create something new and vital in education.

I have always heard the traditional reasons for not making radical change – ‘we don’t have the time, we don’t have the money, we are not sure this will work.’

George does a great job at debunking these obstacles.  I would add one other great obstacle that is really stifling innovation – the impact our practices will have on test scores.

We are really afraid of making radical change because of these obstacles and I think test scores create the greatest barrier to change.  It works a little like this – ‘If we just keep doing what we are doing but we tweak just a few things, we will finally get the results we have to get.’

One big question – even if we get these ‘results’ how do we really know that we are providing an education for our students that will help them to be the innovative and independent thinkers that our society really needs right now.  I can’t help but think that we are really missing the big picture here.

Why not risk?  Why not innovate?

For example, what if we tried some of these ideas?

  • allow schools to develop local partnerships to fund initiatives in their schools
  • put professional development in the hands of individual schools, principals and teachers
  • do away with any meeting that does not allow for active participation and learning for those involved
  • invite the community into our schools and allow them to offer their expertise to our staff and students
  • finally get over the textbook and the ‘5 computers per class’ model.  Provide every student with a good computer and make sure it goes home every night.
  • ask people what they think and what they want – students, teachers, parents, school administrators – stop telling everyone what is ‘good’ for all of us

This is a provocative list and readers may immediately respond with the time, money, results, will it work paradigm.

We need the collective courage to start over and ask very challenging questions on what innovation should look like – the compliance model simply doesn’t work and begs to be thrown out.

Thanks to George Couros for asking these tough questions.