Ideas, Influence, Impact

Posts tagged ‘leadership’

The 5 Shifts of Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) is a transformative educational approach for classrooms and systems that is emerging across the country. It has its deepest roots—and greatest success—in the state of New Hampshire, as its legislature and state department of education have worked to significantly change how education occurs in the state. CBE also has strong roots in Iowa and Kentucky; it is growing in numerous other states through the work of the CCSSO’s Innovation Learning Network (ILN) and several organizations, such as iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks.

At its core, competency-based education can be defined by five major shifts in how an educational system operates:

  • Learner agency
  • Learner experience (commonly known as curriculum)
  • Learner facilitation/support (teacher instruction)
  • Learner evidence (assessment)
  • Learner environment (both the culture and the physical space).

Please note that I intentionally reworded some common educational terms, such as using learner experience instead of curriculum. The reason is that a CBE system is built on the learner. It is not just learner-centered; it is learner-driven. A CBE system is built to fully support the passion, purpose and needs of each and every learner. The learner works to reach his or her potential in all aspects of life, college, and career readiness. Therefore, I have chosen to rebrand some common educational terms to make sure the “learner” is always at the forefront of the work we need to do.

If you are interested in adopting CBE in your school or district, these are the five shifts you will need to make in order to truly transform your educational system. You cannot change your educational system merely by changing the terms you use to describe it. There are a myriad of details that need to be addressed in overhauling a system. These shifts provide a conceptual framework to address those details.

Learner agency focuses on making sure the student has a voice and choice in his/her educational journey. They are involved in setting their goals, setting their learning objectives, setting their assessment levels and setting the pace of their progress.

Learner experience means that a curriculum is not just the content standards given to the students; it is also the context that a student brings to the content.

Learner facilitation and support flips the model of teacher as sage on the stage and cements the role of guide on the side.

Learner evidence revamps the entire notion of assessment of learning to assessment for learning.

And learner environment refocuses the culture to ensure that students have a significant presence in the ownership and direction of their learning.

This framework is designed to focus on the learner foremost, and to build an educational system that supports the learner completely. It was developed based on my experiences implementing competency-based education in my school district, as well as several publications from iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks. I curated the information and attempted to conceptualize it into a framework that can be easily understood by educators and community stakeholders so there can be action taken instead of confusion and inertia.

You can use this general overview of the five shifts to begin formulating a framework for transformation in your school or district. In future blog posts, I will address each shift in greater detail.

* This blog post first appeared on the Educause/NGLC blog site on May 2, 2017.


Leadership: Flawed and Forgiven

As leaders in classrooms, buildings and districts return to a new school year, we are faced with the same daily demands from students, parents, and stakeholders.  We are expected to give our best every day, to be innovative, to be responsive and more.  And we meet those standards on most days.  And yet, with any innovative, responsive, and thoughtful leader, we make mistakes.

As reflective leaders, we can obsess on those mistakes.  And many times, our stakeholders obsess on them as well.  The truth is – we must remember – we tried.  We are flawed human beings, and we can grow every day from our mistakes.  In fact, we SHOULD grow from our mistakes.

As the pressure may grow and people focus on your mistakes, make sure you focus on what you can learn from those mistakes.  Let the noise of our errors remain outside of you, and let the growth happen within.

We are not perfect.  We are flawed – and we are forgiven.

Relax. It is You . . . And Them

When Collins-Maxwell began a 1:1 iPad initiative for all students in grades 6-12 in the fall of 2012, one of the largest concerns among teachers, parents, and board members was the management of the device.  Teachers were worried that students would be off-task in class, refusing to do the assigned work.  Parents felt that students would bring the devices home and fill them full of games, songs, and inappropriate pictures.  Board members felt that teachers would not know how to manage the new technology in classes AND that parents would be frustrated that taxpayer dollars were spent on devices so kids could listen to Pandora while playing Angry Birds.

Yes, it all happened.  Everything we feared would come true did to some degree.  We had students that got off task in class and missed the assignments or the lecture or the project.  We had students download music in the hallways between classes so they could listen to it in the next period.  We had students at home not doing the work they didn’t do in class because they were playing games, or on Facebook, or tweeting, or listening.  Yes, it all happened.

But not for every student.  And not for every teacher.

We had our students who followed the rules to the letter.  They never downloaded anything that was not teacher approved.  They never got on the iPad in class unless there was a reason explained by the teacher.  And they certainly did not use the iPad at home inappropriately.  It was only used for schoolwork, and then charged for the next day.

And we had teachers that had no problems with students off task.  Here is the success of the management of iPads.  We had teachers treat the iPad like any other tool in the classroom.  For the past few years, we have allowed cell phones in school for student use.  Many students have used them to take photos of problems on the board, use calculator functions, or text answers to an online poll.  The teachers who have used cell phones in this manner in the class were the same ones who had little problems with the iPads.  They realized the iPads were tools to help students learn, so they worked to see the iPads as supports for learning.  Now, those teachers did not feel the need to use the iPads every day, just to use them.  They used the iPads only when it suited the learning.  When the iPads were not in use, they were turned off and put under the desks or set aside in the classroom.  Those teachers who saw the iPads as possible improvements to learning also knew when they would be impediments to learning, so they created clear rules for engagement in using the iPads.

Other teachers who were not as comfortable with iPads struggled to see how to use them in their classrooms.  Therefore, they used them for artificial purposes thinking the administration wanted the iPads to be used a lot in classes.  The truth was the administration never gave a clear expectation for how often the iPad was to be used in a class.  We wanted it to be a natural extension of support for learning.  For some teachers, that was a good idea.  For others, they felt like they were not using it enough and that would be a disappointment to the administration.  When those teachers tried to integrate the iPad into a learning activity that did not suit it, problems occurred.  Or if the teachers tried to ignore how to use the iPads in class, then the students had them out and engaged in off-task behaviors.  Interestingly, by not addressing the iPad as a tool that may or may not support learning in specific instances, the teachers inadvertently allowed the iPad to become a bigger obstacle to learning in every instance.

From the various viewpoints of the teachers implementing iPads in their classrooms, the administration began to notice a unique paradigm: there were some that were truly trying to manage the iPad while others were trying to lead learning with the iPad.  It became clear to the administration that those teachers who used the iPads to lead – or support – learning were more successful in using the iPads.  Those that tried to manage the devices seemed to have more struggles with students.  The administration also noticed that learning tasks began to change.  Many teachers found that using iPads to do the same type of work before their introduction caused more problems and off-task behavior.  When teachers changed the learning target or asked students for their input in how to use the iPads, there was greater student engagement, higher quality learning, and greater teacher satisfaction.

In all, we also worked to tighten our security of the iPads to limit downloads, added some consequences for how to use the devices, and supported parents to better understand how to use the iPads at home.  But our greatest discovery in managing iPads was learning to not manage them, and instead lead learning – where appropriate – with them.  Now, teachers and students are making better decisions about how iPads support student learning.  Our philosophy to technology – and not the iPads themselves – are helping our students be better prepared for the 21st century of learning, earning, and living!

Rainbows and Reflections (#ASCD13)

The 2013 ASCD Annual Conference ( was a highlight of my career for many wonderful reasons.

1. I presented at my first national conference!  It was on personalized learning and competency-based education efforts in my school district and my state.  I was lucky to have my 6-12 principal, Josh Griffith, there with me to present.  It was great to connect with other educators passionate about this work and willing to share their questions and answers with me.

2. Two teachers from my district gave their first presentation at a national conference.  It was great to know that the passion and knowledge they share every day with their students was also shared with educators who can impact thousands of other students because of their message.

3. The individual presentations that I attended such as Design Thinking, Socratic Seminars, and Off the Clock (competency-based education) truly stretched my thinking.  All presenters demonstrated a passion for improving the educational system as well as specific strategies for supporting all learners in the system.

4. The session with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was informative and entertaining.  She explained to us her video game project, iCivics, as well as shared stories from her groundbreaking life.  Justice O’Connor had me thinking and chuckling at the same time.  She is an incredible woman, a great legal mind, and a late-in-life comic!

5. Finally, the general session with Dr. Maya Angelou will be an experience I hope I never forget.  Confined to a wheelchair with one eye going bad, Dr. Angelou energized the crowd, bringing fits of laughter and moments of tears.  She reminded all of us that we are “rainbows in the clouds” – sometimes in situations we may know, but many times in situations where we had no idea we made an imprint.  She shared stories from her life about the rainbows that guided her, supported her and nurtured her.  In turn, she applauded us for being rainbows to students, to parents, to community members and to educators both in the next classroom and around the world.  I am rarely speechless, yet Dr. Angelou said all that could – and should – be said for us.

I am a better educator now for having attending the 2013 ASCD Annual Conference.  I hope I can remain inspired by what I heard, saw, and felt.  I know my rainbow is needed!

Are You a Water Carrier?

“A leader is not an administrator who loves to run others, but one who carries water for his people so that they can get on with their jobs.”

I love this quote, because it resonates with my core belief of my leadership style.  I want desperately for people to live their best lives, their fullest experiences, their grandest dreams.  And while I may sound a bit like Oprah, I am sincere in that I want people to know their full capacity for living, giving, and learning.  I want people to know what their passion and purpose is, and who follow their purposes fueled by their passions to do more, to be more.  I want people to truly “get on with their jobs” not because I said so, but because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Administrators spend too much time telling people what to do.  They need to ask instead.  They need to trust, and they need to guide.  They DO NOT need to rule over the people.  There is no king or dictator in my vision of leadership.  There is only the water carrier, and the path-clearer.  The journeys are long and difficult and treacherous.  People need a leader who nourishes them and nurtures them and nudges them.

I am reminded of so many readings and teaching about servant leadership.  To some, it seems an odd concept – the servant leading the master.  But, in reality, the servant has great influence to move the master, great insight to guide the master, and great intellect to know his place.  The servant can seem like a follower and actually be the leader.  In either case, he can be the water carrier.  He can let people do their work knowing it will get done.

Grab a pail.  Be the leader you are meant to be.

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