Friday, April 25, 2014

Important Tests: Part of Quest or Cause to Obsess?

If I asked you which of two students, a college senior or a third grader, was more obsessed about an important test that loomed on their educational horizon, what would you guess?

I listened in on two conversations recently: One was eavesdropping and the other was watching a colleague work with some third graders. On my flight into Pittsburgh, I overheard a college senior tell his seat mate that he was flying home to take the MCAT exam. He thought it would be a good idea to get a solid night's sleep in his own bed, be around the support of his family, and have a home cooked meal. The test was obviously important to him. He did not seem overly stressed, just wanting to do his best for this important step on his quest to go to medical school. His attitude seemed entirely appropriate and right-sized.

The next day a colleague was talking with a group of third graders about their experiences of school in a district in Ohio. She was asking general questions about why it was important to do well in school, why paying attention was important, and why they thought teachers wanted them to be successful. These third graders kept coming back with the same answer no matter what the question: "To do well on the OAA."  "To pass the OAA." "The OAA." "OAA." In a word they were obsessed. Third graders. Our own Q-Team in the building had made a dozen "We Will Rock the OAA" type posters and were planning and OAA pep-rally. Does this seem appropriate or right-sized to you?

I wanted to hear that it's important to do well in school so that you can become a doctor or a lawyer or a baker or a candlestick maker or whatever you want to be. That paying attention was important because you can't learn if you don't pay attention. I wanted to hear that their teachers want to them to be successful because they know their teachers care about them. After 30 years in education am I that naive?

How did we get to a place where a roomful of 8 year olds think the entire purpose of school is to do well on a state standardized test? How did we make that the goal of education? Aren't tests, as the student on the plane seemed to know, a means to the end of a young person's aspiration? Isn't there a way to have students take the test seriously without obsessing? What have we done to make elementary students think the test itself is the end, the purpose, the telos of the third grade?

Sadly, I am not naive and I know the answer to this. We have made students think the test is the goal of education because we have made teachers think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making schools think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making districts think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making the stakes-based-on-test-scores so high for schools and districts. At the highest levels of our state and federal education accountability systems those tests, given on one day, the primary measure of how a school will be judged as successful or not.  Even though those tests do almost nothing to measure curiosity, creativity, collaboration, technical proficiency, or interpersonal skills--some of the very qualities it actually takes to be a successful person in the modern world. Nor do they measure the Self-Worth, Engagement, or Purpose than we know leads appropriately to the the academic motivation that sees tests as a means to an end.  Prior to the test, teachers spend a lot of time and energy talking about the importance of the test. After the test, schools play games and go on field trips and watch movies.

We have done this.  And we can change it.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I have heard Dr. Russell Quaglia speak any number of times. He is always motivational and inspirational whether one-on-one or with our QISA staff or in a hall filled with thousands of people. His closing keynote at ASCD 2014 was no exception. His passion for student voice and for trying to make schools a better place for all kids is fueled by a deeply held conviction that students are the potential, not the problem, in education. Their experiences, their insights, their judgements, their decisions and actions, when partnered with ours, can significantly change the educational landscape.  Let's be honest, 20 years of "Ed Reform" with only the adults at the steering wheel have gotten us exactly the results we are getting. They are good, but it's past time to take it to the next level.

While Russ inarguably has a fiery and dynamic speaking style, part of what roused the attendees at ASCD 14 instantly to their sustained standing ovation was the data he shared with them from over one million students. Over the years QISA has surveyed hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world and have spoken in focus groups to thousands upon thousands more. We have worked alongside students whose ideas for improving their school have been both innovative and practical. They have pointed out the insanity of punishing a student with ten unexcused absences with an out of school suspension, of dress code policies that do not allow for ripped knees, but do allow shorts when it gets hot, and of students who listened to an iPod during study hall being sent to an in school suspension room where they are allowed to listen to an iPod. They have engaged in projects that have brought healthier food into their school cafeteria and better people flow to the cafeteria lines. They have worked with teachers to make classes more engaging and figured out ways to help students struggling with transitions into their school.

What Russ Quaglia did at ASCD, what he established QISA and the Aspirations Academies Trust to do, and what, indeed, he has spent his life doing, is to amplify the voice of students. Russ is a megaphone. For many years his call to the cause of student voice sounded to many like catering at best or pandering at worst. To some it still does (see the last 2 paragraphs) and that's because often student solutions are counter-intuitive to adults. But now it is increasingly apparent that we need students to be our active partners and not just the passive recipients of our well meaning efforts. Are you ready to listen, learn, and lead?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Thinking Pink

The first general session keynoter at the ASCD conference I referenced last week was Daniel Pink. Mr. Pink has written a number of best-selling books that might be considered business books, but have a broad appeal because the topics are broadly human. Education has been one of those crossover fields for his work, which is why he was asked to speak to 9000 educators is L.A.

A Whole New Mind, for example, is about the importance of combining linear, logical left brain thinking with intuitive, creative right brain thinking given the current set of economic, political, and global challenges. There are obvious implication for school systems that prepare those new, whole minds.  Drive is about how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are far more motivating than the carrot and stick, no matter how big the stick or how many carrots are offered. Again the target audience is business managers who need to motivate employees, but the implications for teachers who need to motivate students are inescapably present.

His most recent book, To Sell is Human, is also about motivation and was the basis of his ASCD talk. The key paradigm shift in business has been from a world in which sellers had an advantage for knowing more about their products than consumers--hence: Buyer Beware--to a world in which consumers have as much information about products as the sellers from whom they purchase. He calls this information parity and the same phenomenon exists in education.  We hear it all the time in focus groups as students wonder out loud why they need to go to school and sit in classes to learn information that can easily be learned anywhere at any time online.

This shift requires a new approach for anyone who is trying to convince anyone else to "buy" what they are "selling"--whether it's a washing machine, an opinion, or that doing your math homework will help you be a successful person. I will leave it to your reading of the book to learn about that ABC approach, but the A stands for "Attunement". Or if we can let go of the A, which sets up a great mnemonic, what can be called "Perspective Taking".

Mr. Pink's point is that a key to motivating our students in a world with information parity is that we need to become adept at taking on their point of view, of seeing what our classrooms look like from their side of the desk. Indeed, this is the core of QISA's work and what we believe is the game changer in the school change effort. It is what My Voice and iKnow My Class surveys are all about. It is why we conduct hundreds of student focus groups every year. It is the driving force behind our MAAP. It is why we insist that our Demonstration Sites give students a seat at the table where meaningful decisions are made. It is why student voice has become a movement in education such that it is becoming a key component in teacher evaluations.

Do students have a voice in your school? Are you prepared to listen and attune yourself to their point of view? According to Pink you need to consider what students think if you want to motivate them.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Educational Entrepreneur: The Sequel

Last week's blog was about a middle school student who had been caught hacking into other students' iPads--at their request and for a $1 fee--to change preference settings so that students could download games that were prohibited. I initiated a game of "You Be the Administrator" and asked what you would do if you were the principal or assistant principal charged with dealing with this student. I guess no one wanted to play. :)

Here's what really happened: The student was disciplined, made to give the money back, and had to serve detention. In addition, his parents were alerted to his wayward behavior. I have no idea how his parents reacted. I don't fault the administration for responding in this way. Rules are rules. And middle school students need structure and boundaries and to learn that their actions have consequences.

I do bemoan that alongside that corrective action there was not some praise for initiative and entrepreneurship and technical proficiency. No follow-up in the form of having this student channel those positive qualities into something more constructive. No invitation to attend a faculty meeting to teach the teachers a few cool things he knows about iPads that he undoubtedly knows that they may not. Are discipline and praise mutually exclusive?

Two weeks ago at the ASCD Conference in L.A. (more about that next week), Sir Ken Robinson told a story about his interview with Paul McCartney for his book The Element. During the interview, Sir Ken asked Sir Paul if his music teacher at the Liverpool Institute, where he and George Harrison attended secondary school together, ever seemed to recognize his or George's talent. The answer was no. In his keynote, Sir Ken quipped that it was fair to say that that a music teacher had half the Beatles in her classroom and somehow missed it.

If I may be so bold, I think Sir Ken's story and mine are similar. I have no idea if that student with a knack for hacking will become the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. But 6 decades have passed since Paul and George sang in front of a music teacher in Liverpool and schools seem no closer to inspiring creatively gifted students to pursue their aspirations now than they did then.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Educational Entrepreneur

Have you seen this TED Talk by Cameron Herold on how schools should be doing much more to support students who are entrepreneurial?

It's worth the full 22 minutes. At about 2:22 Herold says:

If we can teach our kids to become we teach the ones who have science gifts to go on in science, what if we saw the ones who had entrepreneurial traits and taught them to be entrepreneurs? We could actually have all these kids spreading businesses instead of waiting for government handouts. What we do is we sit and teach our kids all the things they shouldn't do: Don't hit; don't bite; don't swear.

So here is something I came across recently:

In a middle school that implemented a 1-1 student to device program this year, there are clear restrictions placed on apps and various kinds of access. The district's IT department has made sure all the iPads are appropriately password protected for certain levels of access, that students couldn't download apps without going through proper channels, etc., etc. You know the drill.

Now let's play "You Be the Administrator": 

You see a student playing Angry Birds on his iPad. This app is forbidden. You lean on the student pretty hard to find out how he was able to download the game. Under the bright light of your interrogation, the student gives up one of his classmates who--for a tidy sum of $1--will change profile settings for any student who seeks his services.  What do you do? Your answer may depend on whether you spent the 22 minutes on Herold's video or not, but post your answers in the comments section.  The story continues next week!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Learning Agility

Five posts ago I referenced a Thomas Friedman article from the New York Times about how to get hired at Google. I recently came across this post by Gary Burnison that says Mr. Friedman didn't mention that those same 5 traits can get you a job anywhere! In particular Mr. Burnison's article talks about the importance of Learning Agility.

First can I just say I love the term. "Learning Agility" captures so much so succinctly. According the Korn/Ferry Institute's paper, learning agility is "the willingness and ability to learn from experience and then apply those lessons to succeed in new situations." Factors that contribute to being an agile learner include:
  1. Mental Agility — ability to examine problems in unique and unusual ways
  2. Self-awareness — extent to which an individual knows his or her true strengths and weaknesses
  3. People Agility — skilled communicator who can work with diverse types of people
  4. Change Agility — likes to experiment and comfortable with change
  5. Results Agility — delivers results in challenging first-time situations
No doubt the traditional disciplines lend themselves to developing mental agility. But to develop the other four, the learning environment must be rich in the 8 Conditions. Belonging and Heroes are necessary for people agility and self-awareness. Sense of Accomplishment also makes an important contribution to self-awareness as a student's effort and perseverance are noted and celebrated. Curiosity & Creativity supports change agility and Spirit of Adventure fosters both change and results agility in so far as they benefit from experimentation and the courage to act in first time situations. And Leadership & Responsibility and Confidence to Take Action are all about delivering results.

Notice, too, the importance to learning agility of the ability to "learn from experience" and to "apply".  These are not things that can done reading textbooks or even, perhaps, in a classroom.  If we are to develop the skills necessary to be life-long, hireable-by-anyone learners, then the traditional approaches must give way to much more flexible ones rooted in student voice and our students' real world experiences.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Principal Concern

I really don't know how they do it. Four schools this week in two different states. Four principals. Two high schools, two middle schools. I don't know how these people are standing up. I am not saying that to flatter them or fawn over the role or further their esteem in others' eyes. This is a genuine, honest to goodness intellectual curiosity: I have no idea how principals are doing the job anymore. In my humble estimation, the principalship has become an undoable job. It's a wonder any one lasts a year in the job, never mind the national average of 3-4 years.

In each school I was in, the combination of planned meetings requiring energy and attention (which included attendance at Aspirations Team meetings), and the unscheduled or scheduled at the last minute meetings, which also needed the principal's energy and attention, would have overwhelmed all but the most competent of jugglers. And yet these incredibly busy people found time to sit with student teams and listen to their ideas about how to improve school and worked alongside staff as they sought to improve the 8 Conditions in their buildings. As undoubtedly they considered the email inbox they were going to return to, the bus duties they had yet to find coverage for, the after school meeting at central office about making up for school closings due to weather, the impending testing season, and the parent meeting they had that evening, they sat and listened and participated and gave every indication to every one present that this was every bit as important as everything else.

John, Margaret, Steven, and Judy, you were my Heroes this week. Your energy propels me. I have just one question: When do you sleep????