To Transform Education, All Stakeholders Must Transform First

We are inundated daily with blogs, podcasts, tweets, books, keynotes, white papers, practitioners and pundits all touting the need for change in education. I would love nothing more than to see our entire educational system evolve into real 21st century models relevant to today’s students, the economy, and the world.

The common current rationale is that we are now in the perfect storm—educationally, politically, economically, culturally, technologically—for real change to occur. However, by now, I would expect change to be happening at a more rapid and dynamic pace.

After 30 years as an educator, my shoulder angel and devil are battling it out. My shoulder angel wants to believe, but my shoulder devil is struggling to find the confidence. It’s the old optimism vs. pessimism.

I agree that we are in unprecedented times, and it seems the time is riper than ever for real change. However, I think there are still too many barriers in the hearts, minds, and souls of all the stakeholders that may derail, or at least continue to delay change. Why is it taking so long for our schools to become what most of us agree they should be, as well as need to be? Education might be the most valiant of human endeavors.

But since it is also designed and implemented by those same humans, it may take all of us humans to change first in order to see systemic change.

Here is my take on the transformation that needs to take place within all of us in order to see external change.

Our Collective Need To Redefine School and Learning

As a culture, we tend to define school as something other than a place of learning. Ask most parents and students about what their expectations of school. You’ll get more responses about co-curricular and extracurricular activities than you will about learning. Don’t get me wrong. Those things have value. But why can’t our learning have equal or even more value? Why can’t the learning be so compelling and transformational that it’s all we talk about? Since it’s often not, we use the other things to do that for us. We cannot continue to design and base our schools on the extra. We have to make the learning the best part. We somehow need to establish with all stakeholders what our primary purpose is and what will take priority.


We have been asking our site leaders to be instructional leaders for years. Some have embraced, but some still have not. It seems to me that too many focus on everything but instruction. Some are not even interested in curriculum and instruction. Some were not teachers for very long. Some were not distinguished as a teacher at all. Some are also disconnected from professional development, technology, lifelong learning, and professional learning networks. Some need to practice and preach openness, accessibility, flexibility, bottom up approaches, democratization, and so much more. Site leaders need to be the living examples of fearlessness, risk taking, innovation, experimentation, early adopters, pioneers, and cage rattlers. Not enough of them embody this type of leadership.

School Boards

Local control of our schools is a grand idea in theory. Our communities should have the right to create the best and most unique schools. Ironically, too many of our schools don’t differ very much from one another. Some are just clones or duplicates of schools in their neighboring district. It seems some school board members may be there for the wrong reasons. Some are their for their own political career advancement, agendas, and pet projects. School board candidates need to be truly unselfish individuals who care about the kids in their community and want to work collectively to have something better, more innovative, and more relevant than ever before. Status quo people can run for church fundraising chair or local lodge leadership, but not for the people who have the fate of our future in their hands.

The Colleges & Universities

K-12 education, especially at the secondary level, takes its marching orders from the colleges and universities. Even though our college graduation, completion, and success rates are dismal, they dictate the requirements, expectations, and compliance items to our high schools. Less than half, in most cases far less, of our high school graduates go straight to a university. So why do we have the university dictate our curriculum? Ironically, a large percentage of our higher ed instructions are further behind than K-12. Their dominant instructional model is still lecture and note taking—truly the lowest form of learning for students. Since a K-12 education is the expected standard for all, then that should be the priority and be used to design a better system from within. Higher ed needs to listen, collaborate, and follow a whole lot more.


Teachers are obviously integral. There are many things that have worked against teachers that have been out of their control—class sizes, bureaucracy, weak leadership, funding, and initiative fatigue to name a few. However, there are things that are in their control, at least partially, that they need to lead. I don’t want to argue for or against teachers’ unions. That being said, it seems that weak, or even criminally negligent teachers, have been allowed to survive. Almost every school in America has a teacher or two that the entire staff knows is bad for kids. But somehow, we have learned to accept this. Instead, we need to collectively address those teachers. They need to get on board or get out. They give the profession a bad name, and we can’t afford that any longer. We need to redefine the role of a teacher and celebrate how wonderful it can be. If we do, maybe more will go into the profession and our change will actually transpire.


Some parents are aware that schools needs to change. They are aware that the world is rapidly changing and school should reflect that. However, too many parents want school to be like what they know and experienced. Saying things like ‘it worked for me’ in regards to homework, discipline, lack of student voice and choice, outdated pedagogy, etc. are not an answer to what our students need to be successful today and especially tomorrow. Parents need to also put learning, real learning, at their top of their school/education agendas. Parents need to become more informed about the new economy and globalized world in which our students are entering. Parents like to be involved and should be. But some need to become a lot more informed about why and how we can change.

Industry Professionals (Outside of Education)

I think it’s great that we have seen a resurgence in the connection and collaboration between private industry and education. It’s not only necessary, but very powerful. Industries have spoken out about the skills their current and future needs demand. And they are more involved than ever before in terms of advisory groups, grants, funding, collaboration, and partnerships. However, some are still both disconnected from the realities of school and from young people in general. They will often criticize youth publicly rather than defend them. Just like parents, they often will simultaneously speak about change while referencing which of the outdated practices in school worked for them. Those industry professionals who are dedicating their time, money, resources, and personnel to help support education need to be recognized and appreciated. Those who are not engaged are part of our larger problem.


It would be so easy to leave students off of this list. Indeed, they are really victims of a system that has not evolved as much as they have or even the world has. However, the potential for them to have an impact is incredible. Many students are dissatisfied with their school and educational experiences. However, like most of us, they need to turn complaining into advocacy. Remember the impact the students at Stoneman Douglas had across the country on the gun issue? Well, what if students organized and activated in the same way about their education? Students need to learn to intellectually demand what they want or need from their schools. And they need to do this to parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, community leaders, and anyone who may listen willingly or not. I think when the majority of students truly demand something better, the tipping point will occur. Indeed, students do have more educational options than ever before. They are also more savvy, connected, and capable than ever before. Apathy needs to be converted to advocacy.

Let’s Do This

I truly want my shoulder angel to win. I see lots of signs and reasons to be optimistic. But my experience with, as well as awareness of the challenges, often give my shoulder devil much to smile about. We are in this together. We all have roles. We have to transform ourselves and one another in order to transform the entire system. See you on the other side … of education that is.

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Students on Creating a Space For Students

MECA Challenge (@MECARising) is a program put on by STARTLAND, a Kansas City (KC) foundation focused on making KC the Most Entrepreneurial Community in America (MECA). Each monthly MECA challenge is held in a different creative and inspiring space—on January 16, 2020, it was held at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Art, an impressive museum housing original artworks and historical artifacts.

How do MECA challenges work? MECA has numerous partner districts throughout the KC metro area—these districts assemble representative students and allow them to participate in design challenges where students are asked to solve a problem and participate in pitching their ideas.

Introduction to the challenge for the day in the workroom. Image by Mason Pashia.

The event began with a small design sprint to get the creative wheels turning, designing a quick money-making concept off of a list of disparate words. This led to the challenge for the day, which was: “How might we create a teen space at the Nelson-Atkins that becomes an engaging and impactful attraction for youth in our community?”

The coolest part? It’s a real space that has been already set aside for a “teen space”. The museum then took the students to the other end of the museum to tour the vacant space—a former exhibition hall with display cases intact, coupled with a formerly administrative office with glass doors, walls and a small kitchenette. The students started scheming immediately, flexing spacial design skills they didn’t even know they had:

“I love this skylight — what about a terrarium!”

“We should tear down this wall, more open space.”

“Sliding doors? Cool!”

Students and mentors brainstorming in the space that will be redesigned. Image by Mason Pashia.
Students and mentors brainstorming in the space that will be redesigned. Image by Mason Pashia.

Upon returning to the workroom, students set to ideate—they had two hours to establish the problem, the solution and fit it all into a three-minute pitch deck, followed by a Q&A with the community judges (of which I was one). Each of the 10 teams was made up of between four to six students with one mentor from the KC community. They worked fast with sticky-notes, hand-drawn blueprints of the available space, pizza in hand and the sky as the limit.

Students and mentors collaborating and ideating on design ideas and best pitching practices. Image by Mason Pashia.
Students and mentors collaborating and ideating on design ideas and best pitching practices. Image by Mason Pashia.
Students and mentors collaborating and ideating on design ideas and best pitching practices. Image by Mason Pashia.

Some of the solutions? Mental health came up a lot. A majority of students were passionate about creating a safe space for real conversations created by and for teens—this manifested through quote walls, mindfulness programming, mental health expert lectures and a commitment to listening before speaking. Another idea was to create a hashtag that sourced community artwork from young people and showed the art on an electric picture frame near the front of the museum.

This idea began to touch on one of the primary obstacles: access. Students were not ignorant of the fact that getting to the museum may be difficult for many students and they continued to echo the sentiment that fine art museums made them feel “invited but not welcomed.” Many of their solutions sought to counteract this disconnect and sought to create a welcoming space that students would want to spend time in.

Some groups developed full programming concepts, ranging from a music studio to a teen run podcast, culinary arts in the kitchenette—even an engineering room. Technology and the potential for VR/AR were a consistent theme, however, more than gadgets the students simply wanted a space that they could claim as their own.

The students presented group by group, making a three-minute pitch to the room, on why their idea was the most creative and most effective for welcoming teens into the museum. They shared the spotlight effectively, navigating through well-designed slide decks with visual inspiration, maps of the available space and breakdowns of what purpose the available rooms might serve.

In the end, we had to choose a winner and we went with a group called #MyTruth. This group used the hashtag to begin to build a community of young people outside of the museum in order to reduce the friction of coming into the museum. Their emphasis on student work, anxiety-reducing surroundings and teen perspective, coupled with confident presentation skills made them the team to beat.

The focuses of MECA challenges have ranged from moonshot questions like “how would you redesign the school day?” to more tangible ones like ”redesign a room in this museum”, but the goal is always to proliferate student voice and to invest in the creativity and innovation of young people. It is an effective way to bring students and community together to act towards a common goal, learn a bit about mentoring and small businesses in KC and solve real-world problems.

Throughout the MECA challenge, the students continued to echo that what drives them crazy is when they feel ignored, not taken seriously or treated like the stereotypical teen. Many of the students painted a vivid image of a banner at a library with a teenager leaping, fist in the air—and dismissed this Breakfast Club-esque box as not representative of their experience.

It is key to have the stakeholders who will be impacted at the table—and, in many cases, those stakeholders are students. Their voice is essential to consider and one to continue welcoming, not just inviting, to the table.

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Designing, Assessing, and Implementing Educator Micro-credentials

By: Karen Cator

Ongoing professional learning opportunities are critical as teachers strive to continuously advance their ability to meet the needs of their students in an ever-changing world. One incentive for continuous learning is the recognition teachers receive, such as through credits or pay increases. As states, districts, professional organizations, and other entities develop systems and policies that include recognizing micro-credentials for educators, overarching guidance will ensure quality and consistency.

In early 2019, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) launched the Certification and Licensure Collective to engage with a wide range of stakeholders that support states to improve all parts of the system, including initial licensure, renewal, and license reciprocity to support teacher mobility. As part of the work focused on licensure renewal, CCSSO joined with national organizations, including Digital Promise, to explore ways states might move toward competency-based recognition of professional learning. After a year of collaborative development, we are excited to announce the release of the Design, Assessment, and Implementation Principles for Educator Micro-credentials.

Why did we collaboratively develop these principles?

The national organizations participating in the collective, including the National Education Association, Learning Forward, the American Institutes for Research, and others, participated in a facilitated conversation about the promise of, and barriers to, using micro-credentials for professional licensure renewal. Based on our prior research and feedback from the other organizations, the collective chose to outline principles to support the design, assessment, and implementation of educator micro-credentials. This resource provides that guidance for

  • designing rigorous, research-based educator micro-credential content;
  • maintaining criteria for assessing educator micro-credentials; and
  • ensuring the experience of earning micro-credentials is relevant and impactful for educators.

How should the principles be used?

The principles offer a starting point for micro-credential earners (educators working to build their competence and earn a micro-credential), issuers (organizations, institutes of higher education, and other content experts who develop, assess, and award micro-credentials), and those who recognize their value (school and district administrators, and state and district policymakers who give value to micro-credentials) to consider. These groups may use the principles differently.

  • Earners: If the micro-credentials you find do not meet these principles, they may not hold the same currency as those that do. Be selective!
  • Issuers: Use these principles to design and assess your micro-credential content. Create micro-credentials that are grounded in research and make sure those who assess submissions maintain the highest standards.
  • Recognizers: Feel confident endorsing the skills and competencies of micro-credential earners when the micro-credentials meet these design principles. By providing the suggested implementation support, you can make professional learning through micro-credentials even more meaningful.

How can I learn more?

Please share your thoughts and feedback about these principles by joining our Twitter chat on Feb. 5 at 3:30 pm ET. Use the hashtag #EducatorMCchat.

You can also learn more about how states and school districts are implementing educator micro-credential policies by visiting Digital Promise’s interactive Micro-credential Policy Map.

Explore educator micro-credentials that meet these guidelines at and

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Karen Cator is President and CEO at Digital Promise. Follow her on Twitter at @kcator

Getting Clearer: A Contribution Solution

By: Joanne McEachen and Matthew Kane

Educational equity bears tremendous importance in traditional systems of learning. Everywhere, we dedicate significant time and resources, and in some cases even professional roles, to creating an equitable academic experience. Ideology cries out, “School should be fair!” and we reply confidently, “We’ll make it happen.”

But our efforts in this case only cover the truth: whatever we’re doing, we’re wasting our time.

That doesn’t mean equity isn’t important. Spanning societal contexts and borders, it’s one of the greatest global problems of our day. If anything, equity demands more attention.

But why, given all of our effort, has equity proven so hard to achieve? We approach it with purpose and the best of intentions, and some students still are less likely to succeed.

It isn’t your fault—and it isn’t your students’. In the confines of traditional academic systems, equity is not only hard to achieve but by its very nature categorically impossible.

It’s time to stop wasting our time. The solution takes us outside traditional confines, to the meaning of equity, the purpose of learning, and—in the end—for ourselves and our learners, to promising futures that are filled with possibility.

Low Yields and Playing Fields

When addressing inequity, common logic is this:

Education is a game.

All students have to play.

So, we should level the playing field.

In turn, schools’ efforts are naturally focused on helping their students play the game better. We give students the same gear or equipment (e.g. 1:1 devices), we try to help them better understand the rules (e.g. teach to the test), and we give certain students extra coaching time as needed (e.g. tutoring, afterschool programs). Then we judge students on how well they play the game. And, ultimately, we fall short of the mark. Somehow, the logic is flawed.

When we really dig down to the root of inequity, the problem appears in a whole other light:

Education is a game.

All students have to play.

So, we should level the game.

Years of increasing inequity globally led us to believe—we’re playing the game wrong. But, in reality, we’re playing the wrong game.

So, what should we play?

The Name of the Game

Traditional academic systems measure traditional academic outcomes—the knowledge-based, show-me-on-a-bubble-test variety. Success in these systems, with little exception, comes down to what students know.

Luckily, we don’t live in a traditional world. As humans, we succeed on the strength of who we are, what we know and can do, and our relationships with others. That’s a much more complete—and more equitable—picture of success than our schools’.

The answer to increasing inequity globally is a focus on equitable academic outcomes—on lifelong, human, holistic outcomes that add real meaning to our lives and the world.

In an equitable system, four outcomes are the focus:

  • Self-Understanding
  • Knowledge
  • Competency
  • Connection

In our book, “Measuring Human Return: Understand and Assess What Really Matters for Deeper Learning,” we note that no matter who we are or where we are, these outcomes lead to well-being, success and fulfillment because they help us contribute in meaningful ways.

Contribution links learning with lifelong success. When rightly understood as the purpose of schools, it opens the door for educational systems that focus on what really matters for students, and where contributive learning is the name of the game.

Learn and Return

The case for contribution gains additional weight in a world that observes constant threats to well-being. Where crises subtract from our lives and from others’, what people need most is the power to add.

Right now, the value of school comes from what we “get out.” But when schools are committed to contributive learning, the value instead becomes what we give back—the value we add for other people and the world.

In those kinds of schools, outcomes like creativity and connection are measured, equitable practice, drives belonging and well-being, and, in a word, contribution is king.

Don’t try to level the playing field—change the game. Move away from traditional, inequitable learning to become a contributive school or school system committed to what matters most for your kids.

This blog is part of an ongoing Getting Smart series called Getting Clearer. The nature of this series and of our blog is to have a diverse set of voices and ideas to help us and our audience get clearer. Are there topics that you’re interested in #GettingClearer about?  Email [email protected] with “Getting Clearer” in the subject line.  For more from the series, see:

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Joanne McEachen is the CEO and Founder of The Learner First (@thelearnerfirst), an education consultancy based in Seattle, Wash. She serves on the executive team of Karanga (@karangaglobal) and is also co-founder and Global Measurement Director of the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (@NPDL). Follow her on Twitter @joannemceachen

Matthew Kane is Director of Research and Writing of The Learner First (@thelearnerfirst), an education consultancy based in Seattle, Washington, USA. He serves as senior project manager with the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (@NPDL) global partnership.

The BETT Experience: Space, Technology, and People

It was an amazing week at BETT 2020 held at ExCel London. It was my first time attending the event, and it definitely did not disappoint. There were endless opportunities for learning and exploring everywhere in the 40,000 square foot expo space. This year, the conference brought together more than 34,000 attendees from 146 countries. Throughout the week, there were over 380 speakers, 800 edtech companies, and 100+ startups present for attendees to learn from and network with.

The conference had six themes, chosen based on research and educators from around the world. The themes were: Empowering Teaching and Learning, Future Tech and Trends, Inclusion, Social Mobility and SEND, Innovation, Skills, and Wellbeing. Walking around the halls, it was easy to see which themes the different edtech companies and sessions were focused on.

There were many highlights throughout the week, captured by the BETT Committee. For my first BETT experience, there were three things that stuck out to me as I walked around each day: the space, the technology, and the people.

The Space

Navigating through the often enormous exhibit hall spaces at conferences and finding the right resources can be a challenge, especially one the size of BETT. However this year, six zones were created to reflect the top attendee requests for solutions in schools. Each day, I found it to be really easy to find what I was looking for without needing to refer to the program guide. The six zones were:

Learning Tech Zone: showcased innovative tools such as AI and coding, apps, e-books, and software.

Teaching Tech Zone: focused on pedagogy and provided resources such as Learning Management Systems (LMS), distance learning, and assessment services.

Management Solutions Zone: focused on schoolwide solutions and information about IT services, attendance platforms, security, and leadership.

The Education Show @ BETT: featured the Education Show Theatre where educators in K-12 could find many topics and speakers focused on the conference themes.

Equipment and Hardware Zone: showcased school furniture, monitors, innovative learning spaces, screens, and 3D printers.

Global Showcase Zone: featured 19 nations and opportunities for attendees to learn about different educational systems and explore global trends in education.

Within each of these zones, there were so many opportunities for hands-on learning, live demos, conversations, and even games. Also held within the expo space were 12 theatres with sessions occurring throughout the day. A popular one, The Arena, offered keynotes and discussions on some of the most challenging topics faced by educators including the future of learning and work, promoting accessibility, fostering global education, maintaining wellbeing, and exploring immersive technologies, each of which connected to the BETT conference themes. These theatres were quite popular and offered a variety of speakers from different backgrounds and experiences and were a great way to gather new ideas.

The Technology

For my professional development, especially when attending the largest edtech conference, I was interested in exploring what was new in Artificial Intelligence, Coding, and STEAM and also wanted to learn more about the accessibility tools that are being developed. There were some companies that had unbelievable new technologies and products at BETT.

Artificial Intelligence: Viewsonic had two new tools for the conference this year, one which I found to be quite impressive. MyViewBoard Sens uses artificial intelligence to help educators better understand student responses and reactions. The board can sense the mood of students, whether angry or happy for example, and can then give educators feedback on how they can improve the lesson. It can also be used to monitor the classroom environment.

There were a few other really impressive tools that I explored which use artificial intelligence. Roybi Robot has had quite a successful couple of months as it has rolled out its interactive language learning tutor which uses artificial intelligence to personalize the content that is being shared with children. The robot adapts based on the interactions, pace of learning, and child’s interests. I also had time to check out the Alpha Mini intelligent animated companion from UBTech Robotics and learn how the robot learns from animated interactions and can be customized with responses or make recommendations.

Coding: Robotix has several products that help students in K-12 to build skills in STEM and coding and is also including artificial intelligence in its products. I was able to test out the facial recognition with Phiro and explore binary coding while at the booth.

Even the BETT conference app was powered by artificial intelligence to create a more unique experience and schedule for the attendees.

Microsoft and Google had new updates and features being shared in their expansive expo space. Google made updates to the Chromebook hub, which means more apps available for students, especially when it comes to creativity with some of the tools available and new updates. It is definitely worth checking out WeVideo, Book Creator, Explain Everything, Soundtrap, Infinite Painter, and Squid. With Google’s licensing system, it is easy to provide these tools to students right away. Google also made updates to the Chromebook App Hub which makes it easier for educators to search for and share apps and also gives access to more tools for increased accessibility for students.

Adobe had a huge space for educators to explore all of the possibilities with Adobe for Education and an added bonus was taking photos in their giant Create EDU Classroom. Options for learning included the Adobe Creative Academy, the Lightning Learning Sessions, and the Giant Classroom Photo Booth. Adobe also had sessions in the Tech in Action booth, so learning really was everywhere!

Photo from Twitter: @benforta
Photo from Twitter: @SamRAdobe

STEAM: I noticed the Kano computer in the Microsoft Education space and finally had a chance to talk with the team on Saturday. The Kano enables students to build a computer and code it. Students can build sensors, code a galaxy with the Star Wars adventures, and so much more.

The People

Families: I found this to be quite different than other conferences that I have attended. Saturday was a time for families to attend the conference, and I saw many children joining in some of the activities on the North Hall. There were companies sharing active learning tools, augmented and virtual reality, coding blocks, robots, and more emerging technologies. It was really great to see families learning together about the different tools and their benefits and to see the children trying each of these technologies and having fun.

Active Learning

Educators and Educator Teams: I also noticed how different it was with the educators who attended and their interactions with the companies at each booth. I had a few conversations with some of the partners at the Microsoft booth, and they shared the same takeaways.

  • Marie Arturi, CEO and Founder of Buncee, said, “These educators are legitimately here to learn as a team.” Groups of schools brought several members of their government and representatives, as well as teachers, to learn together.
  • Charlie Miller, CEO and Founder of Flipgrid, noticed that, at BETT “there is a very organized effort by educators and the whole team, to learn about the technology and the impact for education.

For each of them, this was also their first BETT experience, and it was interesting to note that their immediate takeaways were totally in line with the mission of BETT. It reinforces the importance of educators working together to learn and explore new ideas and technologies that promote more personalized learning, empower students with choices, and prepare students with vital future-ready skills.

Overall, it was a great week at BETT. There are so many things that can be shared and the best advice I can offer to anyone, whether they attended or not, is to check out the #BETT2020 hashtag for some ideas and inspiration. And then, save the date for BETT 2021, happening from January 20-22!

The photos above are used with permission from Rachelle Dene Poth.

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February: Join Us in Exploring Agility in Learning

A new decade has dawned, and our recently published editorial calendar for 2020 is among the many changes we’re excited about at Getting Smart. We’ve divided each quarter of the year into overarching themes in order to guide our readers (and prospective writers) on a journey of exploration.

In the first quarter of 2020, we’re taking a closer look at where learning is happening. (Hint: this isn’t necessarily just about physical location.)

More specifically, in the upcoming month on the blog—February—we’re talking about agility.

  • We want to hear from educators and school leaders about the new and evolving learning models they’re employing, including their own iterative processes, lessons learned and any roadblocks with which they’re struggling.
  • Our team is curious about the approaches that are enabling instruction at an individualized pace. These may be tech-enabled or have old-school roots; for us, we’re just as interested in the concepts behind the approaches as we are in the recommended tools for their implementation.
  • We’d like to better understand the modes in which today’s students are most comfortable learning, including the kinds of spaces, delivery methods (such as hybrid and online programs), and curricular designs (competency-based education, personalized learning) that are producing the kind of educational environments where all kids can thrive.

Beyond this, we’d love to hear about the trends that our readers are seeing, including where learner-centered instruction is being initiated by educators, encouraged by emerging policies, or supported by regional or national organizations.

When considering this topic, what comes to mind for you? We recognize that ‘agility’ might not be a word many people easily associate with education, especially at the K-12 level; this is why we believe it’s important to highlight the ways in which instruction can be more flexible and responsive to the needs of today’s students. We look forward to hearing from you and to possibly sharing your perspective on our blog!

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Clayton Christensen on Being Intentional

Paddle boats on the Mississippi—that’s how Clayton Christensen started his well-considered answer the first time I interviewed him in public. I was nervous, I thought he had misunderstood the question, what could paddle boats have to do with education? But after a few twists and turns like the winding river, Clay’s story came around to a poignant lesson. I smiled, so did he.

Clay taught us to understand the world. The quiet, unassuming, always considered intellectual giant left us with a few tools that help us work and live better.

Most famous (and frequently misused) is Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. It’s not about breakthrough new products, it’s about innovations that make products and services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them available to a larger population.

With his graduate student Michael Horn, Christensen applied his theory of disruptive innovation to education in his 2008 book, Disrupting Class: How Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns arguing that innovations in technology will generate student-centric forms of digital learning, create customized learning for the individual, and provide innovative alternatives to traditional teaching and learning tools.

In a recent conversation, Michael Horn and I recalled the hours we spent reviewing the early drafts of Disrupting Class and arguing about whether and how Clay’s theories applied to a public delivery system. In the end, the book was overly optimistic about change mechanisms in K-12 education but prophetic about postsecondary learning where change (given more prevalent market forces) continues to accelerate.

Michael Horn went on to be founding Education Director of the Clayton Christensen Institute which, with Disrupting Class, accelerated and guided the historic shift from print to the digital and rapid adoption of blended learning in America in the last decade.

Christensen’s jobs to be done theory asked us to look beyond superficial categories of consumer choice to the real functional and emotional reasons that people make the choices they do. His institute explains, “People don’t simply buy products or services; they pull them into their lives to make progress.” Clay called this progress the “job” they are trying to get done—and understanding this opens a world of innovation possibilities.

Michael Horn and Bob Moesta used this jobs framework to identify the five reasons that people choose college. These insights will help a generation of young people make better-informed decisions about postsecondary studies and will help institutions support a better match.

Julia Freeland Fisher, the current Director of Education at the Christensen Institute, used the jobs to be done framework to explore how young people build social capital. In her book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks (and in a podcast interview), Fisher outlines show schools can improve student access to caring adults and mentors and how innovation can help.

Most useful to my own thinking was Christensen’s admonition to uncover the theories in use–the assumptions, both good and bad, that guide complex systems. In thousands of settings, Clay helped groups small and large develop a shared understanding of their world so that they could forge a common path forward.

On a Life Worth Living

Christensen lived a reflective life. Later in life, he shared his thinking about making a contribution.  Ten quotes from his book How Will You Measure Your Life? capture his life lessons:

On mission: “having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar…I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth.”

On learning: “if your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited

On humility: “you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too.”

On impact:  “Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”

On motivation: “the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.”

On leadership: “Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.”

On time: “People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”

On family: “If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems…You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.”

On principle: “it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time…You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.”

On measurement: “Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

If your life and work were impacted by Clay Christensen, we’d love to hear from you. Comment below and share so we can all take a moment to honor the work of such a powerful innovator, leader, and friend.

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What Educators Need to Effectively Teach About the Holocaust

By: Ivy Schamis

January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day designated by the United Nations to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism. As part of this annual memorial, the UN also asks for the development of educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where I’ve taught for the past 19 years, we began a Holocaust studies program six years ago. The topics have no simple answers, but the program allows students to raise many questions for discussion, including what is happening in our world today. In my Holocaust studies class on Valentine’s Day 2018, a former student came onto campus and ambushed my classroom. That day, the students were presenting research on hate groups that they might see on their soon-to-be college campuses. In the very classroom where we were teaching how to combat hate, the lessons of the Holocaust entered my room when bullets from an AR-15 blasted through the glass panel of the door, killing two beautiful souls, Nicholas Dworet and Helena Ramsay—in front of us and leaving four other students injured.

To this day, I continue to struggle with this reality and question how it came to be.

According to an annual FBI report, hate-crime violence has reached a 16-year high and hate crime incidents are still occurring at an alarming rate. With a rise in statistics, people are looking for ways to fight the hate that fuels this targeted violence. One way has been through a renewed push for Holocaust and genocide education. While only 12 out of 50 states have education mandates requiring schools to teach about these subjects, many teachers and school districts around the U.S. have taken it upon themselves to educate students on this topic. To us, #NeverAgain is about upholding the important lessons of the Holocaust.

This is a challenging effort coupled with the time and resource constraints teachers across the country already face. I have spoken to many educators at Holocaust education workshops and seminars, and they all stress how critical it is that they feel comfortable and proficient with the subject matter before they address it with their students. Because our classroom textbooks —and often our own knowledge on the history—is limited, we teachers need and depend on supplementary classroom resources and professional development from reliable external organizations.

Echoes & Reflections, which provides free professional development and classroom resources, has helped me become more confident and effective when teaching about the Holocaust. This organization partners with local museums, school districts, state education offices, and others to hold programs for teachers that provide an effective pedagogical framework, as well as the free multimedia classroom resources and standards-aligned lessons that we can bring to our students immediately.

I’ve seen time and again in my own classroom that students are able to make relevant connections to issues facing the world today, and perhaps most importantly, they have an increased belief and understanding that one person can make a difference against bias, antisemitism, racism, and hatred. Holocaust studies allow for a framework in which students learn multicultural values, civic responsibility, and how to respect and honor differences within their communities.

When students learn about the Holocaust, they begin to understand prejudices, discrimination and stereotyping. They examine justice, human rights, and ethical issues of fairness and peer pressure. Many of my students say that participating in a Holocaust studies class changed their lives. Many of them listen to survivor testimony through programs like Echoes & Reflections, long after they have finished the class, just to gain perspective and to stay inspired. Our students found their voice after listening to survivors. They can now examine the point of view of a victim and a bystander, and best of all, learn about the power of someone who takes a stand against an act of injustice or intolerance.

Holocaust education helps to create compassionate young adults, which is a vital step in preventing and combating the existence of hate in our world. 

As we honor the UN’s call to educate future generations, we must ensure that all teachers have the support they need to teach about the Holocaust effectively. They also need to receive the release time to attend professional development programs that will increase their confidence in the classroom. Now is the time to give our children a better future—there is so much to be learned.

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Ivy Schamis is a social studies teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. 

Show What You Know: A Parent’s Guide to the Global Shift to Competency

We inherited a system of education that has six big problems: it doesn’t focus on important skills, it’s boring, it doesn’t work for most learners, it’s inequitable, it doesn’t measure well, and it doesn’t communicate well.

These problems are most prevalent and vexing in high school—which should be a launchpad for life but is tedious torture for most teens.

We’re excited about all the global initiatives making progress on these problems. A few in the United States include the Kauffman-sponsored Real World Learning initiative in Kansas City,  schools supported by XQ and NGLC, and the new Whittle School & Studios. The solutions emerging from these initiatives are summarized below.

Portrait of success. The old goal was to accumulate enough required credits to graduate. Students would work through disconnected classes, which concluded with tests that valued content memorization. Now, leading schools work with their community to develop a shared vision of what they want for graduates, sometimes called a portrait of a graduate, that describes the skills required for contribution and citizenship in the Innovation Economy. They often include communication, collaboration, and creativity, and the building blocks of success including being self-directed and resilient. These skills can be developed across a wide range of projects not learned in isolation.

Real work, real feedback. When school is a series of worksheets—disconnected small chunks of easily corrected tasks, it can be boring, irrelevant and unproductive. The solution is real work and accurate and timely feedback. Building priority skills requires extended challenges—big, integrated projects—at least periodically. Some challenges will aim at priority outcomes, while others are more directed by student interest.

In new guidelines for competency-based learning, the Aurora Institute adds that “Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.”

Progress when ready. Lockstep learning doesn’t work for most children. Grouping students by age and pushing them through the same content leaves some learners lost while others are bored. Allowing learners to progress as they demonstrate mastery of important skills and concepts means they are always challenged appropriately and it avoids big gaps in preparation. (Video tutor and Khan Academy founder Sal Khan argues that passing students on without mastery is like a house built on a bad foundation, as it prevents students from moving into and applying advanced concepts.)

Equitable outcomes. Traditional systems lead to inequitable results—they may even exacerbate rather than close opportunity gaps. Smart schools and systems have a culture of inclusion and add time and support for students to help them catch up and keep up.

Better measures. Letter grades are often a weak indicator of what students know and can do. They are idiosyncratic by classroom, generally inflated (especially at college preparatory schools), and include a mixture of effort, achievement and a lot of random extra credit for attending and complying. Because grades are usually averaged over a semester or year, they disadvantage learners that come in behind but work hard to catch up. (Listen to this great Harvard podcast on all the problems with traditional grading).

Teachers in leading schools provide feedback against objective standards that are recognized by the community as reflecting quality work. Like a thoughtful work environment, good schools are a ‘no surprise’ zone; students know what is expected, and they know their work will be assessed. In fact, they can assess their own progress accurately.

Better communication. A traditional transcript lists courses passed and grades earned—not a very good indication of what graduates know and can actually do. It’s a weak certification of the learning that really matters to colleges and employers. Leading schools are extending or even replacing traditional transcripts with more robust descriptions of learner capabilities. More than 300 of the country’s best schools are working together in the Mastery Transcript Consortium to build a system that better enables young people to share their story of growth, contribution and capability. Transcripts are increasingly augmented by portfolios—a digital archive of personal bests.

Leading schools worldwide are addressing the six big problems by creating more interesting and authentic extended learning experiences, providing better and broader feedback on the skills that matter, providing extra time and support to students who need it, and equipping learners to better describe their capabilities. These changes are sometimes referred to as competency-based, mastery-based, or performance-based learning—terms that are used synonymously.

The principles described above are incorporated in new guidelines for competency education published by Aurora Institute, the leading advocate for the shift to more student-centered and competency-based learning.

Even the most innovative schools in the world are still working on solutions to these six problems. Tools and policies to develop these new practices are still in development. So, be patient and look for ways to be part of the solution. Help your school develop and phase in practices that benefit students and help them better describe who they are, and where they are headed.

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This blog was originally published on Forbes.

How a Focus on School Culture Can Save the Teaching Profession

By: Dr. Arun Ramanathan

By now, most of us have become familiar with the teacher shortage that is encumbering American public schools. Last year every state in the nation reported an inadequate supply of teachers in at least one subject, according to an analysis by Education Week. A more recent study by the Economic Policy Institute concluded that the shortage is even worse than we thought, and commitments to boost teacher recruitment efforts or diversify the teaching workforce fail to answer a key question:

Why are teachers leaving in droves and how do we inspire them to stay?

If you ask teachers, a common theme emerges—culture. Teachers feel suffocated yet neglected, overwhelmed yet understimulated. Professional development is generic and compliance-oriented when it should be job-embedded and empowering. Is it any wonder that so many teachers are seeking out other professional paths?

A pilot program that Pivot leads in Monterey, California offers a roadmap for keeping teachers engaged. In essence, we measured culture and then systematically explored strategies to improve it. The results of the program, documented in our new report, show that an intentionally designed culture focused on the genuine development of its professionals—a growth culture—can provide exactly the kind of job-embedded experience that the teaching profession needs.

Repairing Damaged Relationships

In their groundbreaking 2016 book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey showed how numerous successful companies had built strong internal cultures with three key ingredients: Home—a sense of community and trust; Edge—the challenge, development, and growth every employee needs to succeed; and Groove—the everyday practices, rituals, systems, and routines baked into the life of an organization.

Could these same ingredients be used to deepen engagement and commitment among teachers, administrators and staff? When we were approached to help redesign the culture within Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD), we decided to find out.

In MPUSD, there is a great need for high-quality, supportive schools: 70% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, 30% are English learners, and one out of every ten is experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Last year, student performance in the district was 36.5 points below the state standard for reading and 70.5 points below for math, and 11.6% of students were chronically absent. And, like many high poverty districts across the country, MPUSD has been through a painful carousel of leadership change.

When current Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh arrived in 2014, he was the seventh superintendent in ten years. As he put it, that constant leadership churn had “damaged relationships and ruined trust inside the district.” The district had a culture problem. Diffenbaugh was determined to address it and invited us to help him.

Starting with Growth Culture

We began by adopting the Growth Culture Indicator (GCI), a survey of 28 questions that measure the prevalence of those three key ingredients (home, edge and groove) – making MPUSD the first school district in the nation to provide the GCI survey to all employees. Not surprisingly, the survey found that the district’s teachers, principals and staff were hungry for more opportunities to grow, and for the trust and collaboration necessary for that development.

The results also showed one school that was clearly outpacing the others. Monte Vista Elementary staff rated their current edge state higher than most schools ranked their aspirational state, and boasted better academic results than comparable schools. The school’s principal, Joe Ashby, practiced a leadership approach that was aligned with growth culture principles.

For example, Ashby established distributive leadership teams of various stakeholders that met regularly to evaluate and make action-oriented decisions around culture, instruction, data, student learning, and more and then share their process and decisions with the whole school community, including students and families. Ashby also implemented consistent professional learning communities and staff development that focused on improving instruction, positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), and community engagement. Ashby was building a culture within his school where it was safe for both adults and students to take the kinds of risks and make the kinds of mistakes that lead to powerful growth.

Working on Cultivating Trust and Encouraging Vulnerability

Drawing upon the GCI survey results, Pivot worked closely with five teams of educators and staff from four schools and one district department, to develop a growth culture. While each team had its own priorities, a common theme was self-improvement—increased coworker and supervisor investment in job-embedded professional development, and training in how to give and receive constructive feedback.

Our first sessions were designed to build a sense of community and trust (home) by helping to cultivate a shared understanding of vulnerability and authenticity and identifying barriers to the expression of those values. The following sessions focused on improving edge by offering strategies for having difficult conversations, giving and receiving feedback, and setting personal and professional goals tied to individual and school improvement. Finally, we positioned the teams to move toward implementation, or groove, by facilitating the development of specific, daily, job-embedded practices to implement with their staff back at their sites.

Fifteen months after the pilot began, we conducted another survey to measure the impact of our efforts. Across the district, we saw improvement in employees’ perception of culture and a shrinking gap between experience and aspiration.

One team experienced a remarkable 61% culture improvement between the first and second surveys. They said the program helped them have more deliberate and open conversations that addressed a wider range of issues and challenges, and that the planning and facilitation of their team meetings became much more collaborative. One team member said that people in the department “no longer saw mistakes as the end of the world but rather a chance to learn and improve together.”

Superintendent Diffenbaugh plans to continue supporting the pilot group and is considering a second phase of the growth culture pilot with a different cohort. Ashby, the principal who had already been implementing growth culture, further developed his practices during the pilot. “It was one of the most impactful professional development programs of my whole 25-year career,” he told the Monterey Herald.

Healthier Adult Culture Means More Successful Students

Our results suggest that any district or school seeking to develop and maintain a strong and committed workforce would be wise to prioritize culture improvement, noting that creating a healthy adult culture can also produce significant gains in student achievement. In fact, researchers have argued that efforts to improve teacher effectiveness as a vehicle for increasing student achievement have overshadowed the importance of improving school culture and teacher job satisfaction as a means to the same end. There is also significant research that shows a strong connection between student and adult learning.

Those who are determined to improve the quality of public education would benefit from recognizing the tremendous potential of focusing on culture. Culture work is a path to support and grow the adults who are responsible for transforming our schools. Of course, there is no single program or step-by-step recipe that can solve the complex educational challenges faced by many schools. However, if there is one lever that has the potential to be the most transformational, a focus on culture with an adult development lens might just be it.

For a deeper look at growth culture and a more in-depth account of the pilot in Monterey Peninsula Unified, please read Pivot Learning’s report, “Growth Culture: A New Approach to School Improvement.”

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Dr. Arun Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning, an Oakland, California based nonprofit that annually works with over 100 high-need school districts in 16 states.