Ideas, Influence, Impact

I am trying hard to imagine the reaction to a newspaper headline or the top story on the evening news that says, “BREAKING NEWS: Boeing Builds Plane Mid-Flight!”.  I wonder if the world would herald the respected company for its innovative new construction process or ridicule it for brazen disregard for engineering and aerodynamics.  Would stocks soar or plummet?

For me, I personally would feel unsafe getting into a plane that was being built while in flight.  I was recently traveling and during my layover, the plane of which I had just gotten off needed a mechanical issue addressed before I got back on it to continue to my destination.  Please be clear, the plane did not stop because of the mechanical concern; rather, it was just a part of its flight routine.  I boarded the plane a few minutes later, and I made it home safely and on time.

I share this story because I am extremely frustrated with educational leaders that use the term “building the plane while flying it”
in reference to any number of changes or reforms in which they are involved or leading.   I am not sure why we gravitate to this phrase, but we use it a lot.  In one week, I heard it seven times.  And it needs to stop.

Good grief.  Tell me, would we get onto an airplane knowing that it was going to be rebuilt in the midst of the flight?  Would we deem the company credible?  Would we consider ourselves sane?  I think the answer is “no” to all those questions, yet why do we use this phrase to discuss the improvements we are making to our educational systems?

In education, we deserve a better phrase than this to describe the intense work we are doing with continuous school improvement.  We need to use a phrase that speaks to the integrity and intensity of our work.  We need a phrase that conjures an image of professional competence, not willful neglect or ignorance.  We need a phrase that accurately describes the hard work we do daily.

But, please, until we find that phrase, can we at least stop telling parents, students, legislators and community stakeholders that we are “building the plane as we fly it”?  I am never taking that flight with you as long as you are, nor are many others.

iNACOL 2014

It was an extraordinary opportunity to attend the 2014 iNACOL Symposium.  I was able to learn so much about competency-based education, personalized learning and blended instruction.  Throughout this conference, one key them continued to arise – “change the mindset”.  Session after session spoke about the need to change the mindset of teachers, of administrators, of parents, of community members and of policymakers.  For our system to truly be transformed, each of these groups need to think differently about what is learning and how we develop a system that fully supports it.

Every group, that is, except students.  Students were lauded as willing and able and excited to learn in a new system, a new ecosystem.  Students are ready for this new system.  From this international conference, and from my interactions back home, I know there are teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and policy makers already with mindset to change the system.  In fact, they have not only the mind for it, they have the heart for it.  They have the fire for it.  And, with each day, we gain more skills for it.

From the WILL set to the SKILL set, we are ready.  We need to be.  My sons and daughters – and yours – need this transformed system of learning NOW.

MeasureYourLife

In his new book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen speaks about a company’s purpose, and how it must be deliberately conceived and chosen – and pursued.  It is what defines the company.  And in the book, Christensen defines a purpose into three components – likeness, commitment and metrics.

I have thought a lot about those three components of purpose, and how I would translate them into a transformed system of education.  In the personalized learning (competency-based education) system I dream of and work to put into practice, a new purpose is the foundation for this new system.

  • I am working hard to develop a clear likeness (or “essence” if you listen to me much) about what this system looks like, sounds like and feels like.
  • Further, I am contemplating the new commitments that will need to be made by students, teachers, administrators, and community members.
  • Finally, I am always intrigued – and perplexed – by the right type of metrics that should be used to maintain our purpose and check our progress.

There has been a lot of discussion about the purpose of a new personalized system of learning.  I hope these three components will illuminate the conversation and lead to some resolution.

Before you condemn me after only reading the title, let me state clearly that I am FULLY supportive of personalized learning.  I am working hard to support philosophies and practices in my district, in my state and across the country that address and support personalized earning.

But, I realize that my goal is not to personalize learning.  Learning has always been – and will always be – a personal process.  It’s kind of like breathing. I do not think there will be any “personalized breathing” reforms any time soon.

The real goal of educators, parents, and community stakeholders should be personalized education.  We really need to focus on how we make our system of learning (education) more open for personalized learning.  We need to build our system anew.

Our right will always be to have learning be personal; the goal is to make our system of education personal as well.

Leaving To Learn

I have recently finished the book, Leaving to Learn by Elliot Washor and Charles Nojkowski.  Its premise is that students that are potentially at-risk for dropping out of school would be better served if they could learn outside of school.  The entire book focuses on how schools could keep these students in school more if the schools would let them leave school more.  The whole notion is that students are not engaged in schools currently, but they are engaged in “real life”, so the students should spend more of their time out in the real world to be more engaged in learning.

It is an interesting premise, not only for those students who struggle in being engaged in schools, but for all students that attend public schools.  I read this book hoping not to solve our dropout problem, but to provide an opportunity to solve our engagement problem.  Even our best students in public education are not often fully engaged in their education.  They are the ones, who like the at-risk students, have figured out the rules of school, but unlike the at-risk students, they continue to play by the rules.

Public schools, in my opinion, are at a precarious crossroads in their existence.  They must continue to educate students to their full extent, yet grapple with the realization that their full extent is hindered by their current systemic practices.  A new system of learning is needed, and Leaving to Learn may just have a few answers.

As a proud supporter of competency-based education, I believe there are a lot of real life opportunities for learning for our students in our communities.  No, not the community college twenty miles away or the university in the other direction, but in our Main Street businesses and institutions.  If we look closely at our communities that are many, many opportunities for leadership and learning.  Our students can learn valuable skills and dispositions in finance, health care, agriculture, retail, computer science, advocacy, service and a myriad of other disciplines.  We can truly make the content more relevant and more engaging for more students.

Competency-based education can be, and should be, community-based education.  We should use the resources that surround and support the school to enhance the learning mission of the school.  I do not want our students to feel their only choice to learn is to leave; rather, I want them to connect with the community so they never have to leave this fertile place for learning opportunities.

Nothing like a bunch of acronyms in a title of an educational post, right?  Confusing to understand?  So, too, is the idea that in this day and age, those who are transforming their schools and districts into a competency-based learning system cannot find a single learning management system (LMS) or student information system (SIS) that will work to support competency-based education (CBE).  I have spent years as a member of the Iowa legislative task force on competency-based education and as a member of the state competency-based education collaborative looking for a program that will support the learning – and report the learning – in a CBE system.

It is disheartening to see Iowa’s three major SIS – Infinite Campus, PowerSchool, and JMC – unable to meet the needs of this growing interest – an interest that is growing both statewide and nationally.  From a service perspective, it would be nice to see more effort in this area.  From a business perspective, it is maddening to see a market not being addressed.

Currently, we are looking at hodge lodge systems – how to couple two or more systems together to meet our needs.  This is inefficient and not fully effective.  We need a system designed for CBE – now.  Even now, many LMS and SIS are stifling the work of teachers and district trying to implement standards-based grading and reporting.  I am well aware of the Herculean task it will be to develop a system that allows personalized learning and reporting, necessary in a CBE system.

I hope there is a system out there for K-12 districts.  I have expanded my focus  to higher education, too, in the hopes that a solution exists.  If not, some company needs to get coding, because the need – and the market – is there.

If anyone knows of companies that will support competency education/learning, please let me know in the comments!

A Senior Gave Me An Answer

I was just at a high school football game, and I struck up a conversation with one of my senior students.  It started out as a usual “how are things going?” conversation, but by the end of it, I knew I had to write a blog post about it.  This senior of mine, who I’ve known since 6th grade, was telling my all about this model planes he builds.  Now, I remember somewhere a previous conversation about his radio control, a damaged wing, and a few other pieces of information.  But, I guarantee you I had no idea that he built planes with wingspans of sixteen feet, made of balsa wood and plywood.  For twenty minutes, this senior told me about how he buys the plans for the planes, gets a sponsor for the materials, builds the planes, flies them, and then sells them.  His last project took two and a half years to build, and the plane will sell for over $15,000!

Throughout the conversation, I asked a lot of questions about funding, licensing, plans, and equipment.  He answered every question with no hesitation and a complete grasp of his work.  So, I asked if he was taking physics this year – seemed like a natural fit for a kid telling me about designing his own air tanks to provide compression and hydraulic lift.  He said no.  He was taking three biological science or agriculture science courses instead because they were easier.  I felt upset and ashamed in that moment.  Here was a student rattling off several science and mathematical concepts in a very eloquent and sequential fashion (English/LA, too!), and he did not think he could handle physics.

In a competency-based, personalized learning system, this senior would have demonstrated several competencies and would have been well on his way to a solid high school diploma.  He clearly is demonstrating several criteria for college and career readiness.  But any scale or assessment, this senior is ready for his next step in life.  He gave me an answer to how CBE can and should look, and he gave me the passion to keep pushing our system forward.

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