Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Posts of 2017

Another year of blogging has come and gone.  Consistency remains a challenge, but I have committed to writing at least one post a week.   I also discovered Grammarly a few months back and have fallen in love with this tool.  Since I am not a strong writer to begin with, this tool, along with the superb proofreading by my mom, has helped to get thoughts articulated more clearly.  As I reflect on my own growth and learning over the year I can definitely see how this has impacted my writing as well as my work with schools, districts, and organizations. Evidence, accountability, research, and efficacy were the most common themes woven into the majority of my writings, which resonated loudly with readers of this blog.  

Without further ado, here are my top posts from 2017:

Competencies vs. Skills

As the world continues to change at an exponential rate there needs to be more of a focus on preparing competent learners as opposed to those who are just skilled. Skills focus on the “what” in terms of the abilities a student needs to perform a specific task or activity. They don’t provide enough connection to the how. Competencies take this to the next level by translating skills into behaviors that demonstrate what has been learned and mastered in a competent fashion. Success in a digital world will rely on much more than skills.  It's time to shift our focus and energy on developing and assessing core and innovative competencies that will serve all students now and in the future. 

Is Technology Being Integrated Effectively?

The key word in the title above is effective as it means different things to different people. The question provides a great opportunity for all of us to critically reflect upon the current role technology plays in education.  Effective use should result in evidence of improved learning outcomes, alignment to standards, going well beyond just increases in engagement, informing instruction, and transforming assessment.  Taking a critical lens to why and how technology is being used in classrooms and schools will only help improve efficacy (more on this below).

A Pedagogical Shift Needed for Digital Success

This post represents a much deeper dive into the topic of effective use. The main focus is how educators can use the Rigor Relevance Framework to improve instructional design.  It provides a solid lens to look at the learning tasks that students are engaged in and redesigns them in ways that move away from telling us what they know and instead showing whether or not they actually understand. Pertinent examples are illustrated to show what rigorous digital performance tasks look like in practice. 

Efficacy in Digital Learning

In short, efficacy is the degree to which desired outcomes and goals are achieved. Applying this concept to digital learning and innovative ideas can go a long way to solidifying the use of technology as an established practice, not just a frill or add-on. This is just the beginning. When integrating technology there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes. In this post, I highlight 5 key areas that can put your classroom, school, district, or organization on a path to digital efficacy. These include essential questions, research, practicality, evidence/accountability, and reflection. To learn more about how efficacy can be achieved check out the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA).

10 Tips to Make Learning REAL

My first post of 2017 really resonated with readers. It encouraged educators and schools today to make learning REAL: relevant, engaging, authentic, and lasting. In addition to explaining why this is important, the how was mapped out through various practical tips and examples. 

Well, there you have it.  Thanks for reading and here’s to an amazing 2018!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What's Holding You Back?

If it's important you'll find a way. If it's not, you'll find an excuse.” - Ryan Blair

There are many iterations to the quote above, but all of them hammer home a very important point.  Excuses hold many of us back from achieving goals and success.  I have tackled this topic in the past but wanted to revisit it after watching a powerful video recently. This sparked me to search out some other perspectives on the subject. I love this thought from Caroline Madormo:
Tonight before bed, pull out your trusty journal and start making a list of all of the reasons that you haven’t been able to achieve your dreams. Think of every reason big and small, and then read over that list. As you read over your list, notice that these reasons on the page are keeping you from getting the results you want and need to move forward.
Next comes the tricky part. Take a deep breath and consider the fact that each and every reason you wrote down is actually an excuse. Don’t beat yourself up or make things worse than they are. We all do it. Simply go through your list and say to yourself, “I forgive myself for using this excuse. I am ready to go bigger.”
When we value something, there is more resolve to overcome obstacles and challenges to accomplish a specified goal.  Many times it is our mindset that holds us back.  When you really think about it the number one adversary that each of us faces on a daily basis rests between our shoulders. We think we can't do certain things due to physical or mental limitations.  In some cases this might be true, passion has a funny way of helping us overcome certain perceived limitations. When passion is combined with intrinsic motivation, the impossible suddenly becomes possible. 

I, for one, can think back to many instances in both my professional and personal life where excuses got the better of me.  Lately, I have been much better on this front as I have tried to foster more of a growth mindset.  My thinking was pushed even further when I watched the video below.  Take a few minutes to watch yourself and be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster as Cliff Devries shows all of us that excuses should not hold us back.

After watching and reflecting on this video, I am going to think twice about any excuse I might develop that prevents me from at least not trying to accomplish a goal or task. 

What's holding you back? 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Learning Walks

Successful change and consistent improvement rely on many interconnected factors. I mention this, as it is important to note that it isn’t one particular action or person that ultimately moves an idea or initiative into something that positively impacts school culture.  This applies to the success that my staff and I were able to be a part of during our digital transformation a few years back.  The focus might have been on digital, and I was the initial catalyst that got the ball rolling, but it was the collective action of my teachers, students, and other administrators who embraced different and better while showing evidence of improvement that resulted in improved outcomes.  

What many people also don’t realize is that even though all eyes were on the digital aspects of our transformation, it was the continuous focus on improving teaching and learning that ultimately led to results. I have routinely written and spoken about the concept of a Return on Instruction (ROI), which states that when integrating technology or implementing innovative ideas the result should be evidence of improved student learning outcomes. This makes sense on many fronts, as we are accountable first and foremost to our learners as well as our other stakeholders.  To help achieve an ROI we increased the number of formal observations and evaluations, collected learning artifacts (lesson plans, assessments, student work, etc.) and had staff create portfolios to show growth and changes to practice.  Additionally, my admin team and I conducted learning walks every day.

The process of learning walks or walk-throughs as many schools refer to them is to get a glimpse of what is happening in classrooms to then provide non-evaluative feedback for improvement.  They serve an integral role as “soft” accountability mechanisms to spark conversations and reflections on practice.  The more we observe and talk about practice the better equipped we are to make and lead change.  Another positive outcome of learning walks is the building of better relationships since the non-evaluative nature of the process focuses on meaningful growth around targeted look fors. We developed look fors that aligned to both our McREL observation/evaluation tool to prepare teachers for these in the future and the purposeful use of technology to improve student learning. 

It’s been a few years now since I left the principalship to pursue my new career as a Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).  In addition to keynote presentations and workshops I typically facilitate, I have also been engaged in job-embedded coaching with districts across the country.  One district, in particular, is the Downingtown Area School District (DASD) in Pennsylvania.  Their leadership team, comprised of building and district administrators as well as instructional coaches, has worked face to face with me on a deep dive into the Pillars of Digital Leadership.  They have also been completing job-embedded tasks after these sessions and completed a reflective questionnaire as part of ICLE’s Digital Practice Assessment (DPA) process.   Our collective goal is to create an immersive experience that moves beyond the typical one and done professional development.

Under the leadership of Matt Friedman and Jonathan Blow from Downingtown, coaching days with me were added so that we could all get into classrooms and conduct learning walks.  The inherent value of this exercise was to observe and collect evidence to determine instructional areas that needed the most focus.  After our first session, which was very successful based on the feedback received, they pushed me to think about targeted look fors that could be integrated into our next set of learning walks to support their digital transformation efforts across the district further.  Challenge accepted! 

Below are the look fors I developed that would later be integrated into a learning walk form:

  • Learning targets (objective/concept what are students expected to learn/do)
  • Standard alignment 
  • What are learners doing?
  • What is the teacher doing? (direct instruction, modeling, monitoring, facilitation, etc.)
  • Authentic context – Do the students know how their learning aligns to or how it can be applied to a real-world context? Do they understand why they are learning what they are and how they will use it?
  • Level of questioning (Rigor Relevance Framework – creating, evaluating, analyzing, applying, understanding, remembering)
  • Means of assessment (formative, summative)
  • Reflection - Is there an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning at some point?
  • Rigor Relevance Quad alignment (Which quad does the lesson or activity align to?)
  • Device Use (passive or active learning) - Passive (note taking, digital worksheet, consuming content) vs. Active (creating, applying, collaborating, synthesizing, etc.)
  • Student agency (voice, choice, advocacy) – Are students empowered to own their learning (blended/personalized/virtual learning options, they select tool to be used, etc.)
  • Use of classroom/school space (arrangement, furniture, choice, flexibility, comfort, lighting, temperature, mobility, acoustics, etc.) – Are desks in rows or arranged in a way to foster collaboration? Are there flexible/comfortable seating options? Does the room offer an appropriate level of stimulation? Would you want to learn in this space?

After sharing the areas of focus above, Jonathan created a Google Form for the Downingtown leaders to use as we all engaged in learning walks across the district.  You can access and download the form HERE if you wish.  The group conversations and reflection that ensued after the walks were conducted was terrific!  My role was to act as a facilitator to engage the group in critical discussions on what they saw. As you see from the form, the primary focus is on learning, not technology.  The two elements should go hand in hand, not treated as separate entities.  It is also important to note that not every lesson should or will incorporate technology. 

With any learning walk form or tool, there has to be a great deal of flexibility regarding how you use it. You would be hard pressed to see all of the look fors listed above as a learning walk is brief and only gives you a snapshot of what is (or isn’t) taking place. This is why I encouraged DASD leaders to take pictures of learning artifacts and ask questions of both the students and learners to develop a more holistic view.  Another way to use it would be to just focus on 3-4 look fors during a walking cycle. However, the most critical aspect of the learning walk process is what is done afterward to improve practice.  Collaborative discussion as a leadership team about what can be improved as well as timely feedback to teachers is both crucial for success.  

If you have any feedback on the look fors or the learning walk form please share in the comments below. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Blended Instruction vs Blended Learning

Schools continue to make investments in technology to engage students better, improve outcomes, and prepare all learners for the new world of work.  We are beginning to see more and more innovative uses of technology not just to personalize, but also to make the learning process more personal.  When a solid pedagogical foundation is in place, the stage is set to challenge students to demonstrate thinking and learning in ways that we could never have imagined a few short years ago. This, combined with relevance grounded in authentic contexts and applications, empowers students to own their learning. 

As I continue to think through the use of technology in schools I am always drawn back to this guiding question – How can students use technology in ways that they couldn’t without it?  To improve the learning experience for kids, we must continue to develop ways where technology becomes a ubiquitous component of our work, but also leads to a demonstrated improvement in practice.  Here is where the tool supports or enhances the pedagogical technique to aid in conceptual mastery, construct new knowledge, or demonstrate learning through the creation of a learning artifact. One such method that is rapidly gaining traction is blended learning. 

Blended learning is one of many strategies that can add a level of personalization while also making the experience a bit more personal with the right conditions.  However, there seems to be a bit of confusion as to what blended learning is or the conditions that have to be established for it to improve feedback, differentiate instruction and empower learners.  Based on what I have seen during my work in schools and through the sharing on social media, the majority of what educators are calling blended learning is blended instruction.  Here is the difference:
Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. 
For me at least, the distinction above brings a great deal of context to the discussion of how technology can improve learning for our students.  Now I am not saying it is bad practice when educators integrate tools such as Kahoot, Plickers, Socrative, Mentimeter, Padlet, and much more into their instruction.  As long as the level of questioning focuses on the higher levels of knowledge, technology and students can show what they understand that’s a good thing. However, this is not blended learning.  To see some of the many-blended learning models available click HERE.  If students genuinely own their learning, then they have to have some level of control over path, place, and pace while receiving more personalized feedback regarding standard and concept attainment. 

The image below outlines some critical considerations when incorporating blended learning in the classroom or school.

I have been very impressed by how Kirk Elementary and Wells Elementary in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) have been implementing blended learning on their campuses. In each case, the station rotation model has been the preferred strategy. I have observed students rotating through various stations that include teacher-directed, independent reading or practice using technology, formative assessment, flipped activity, and collaborative problem-solving.  In some cases, students have individual learning playlists to work through. Students rotate through the various stations, and this is typically triggered by music.  The use of mobile technology and flexible seating provides students choices as to where they will learn. In the example above technology is blended into their learning experience so that students have some control over path, pace, and place.

All in all, the significant shift that we should focus on is what the student is purposefully doing with the technology. Student agency is at the heart of effective blended learning. It is also important that it supports high-level learning, provides better means of assessment, and improves feedback. Blended instruction is a start, but blended learning is where our practice should move.

If you want to learn more check out Bold School by Weston Kieschnick.  

Sunday, December 3, 2017

To Move Forward We Need to Let Go

We can't be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don't have something better.”  ― C. JoyBell C.

There is nothing easy about change.  The process is fraught with many obstacles and challenges.  Once such challenge that I have yet to write about is that for many of us it is tough to let go of certain things. Our reluctance or inability to move forward when faced with a decision to remain the course or move into uncharted territory can stop the change process dead in its tracks before it even has a chance to begin.  Typically, there are many factors in play, but three common behaviors that keep many of us stuck in our ways include fear, mental habits, and stubbornness. During different points of my professional career, I had to come to grips with each of these factors and how they were paralyzing my role in the change process.  Once I was able to overcome them the next step was helping others to do the same.

We are all afraid of something.  However, we cannot let it stop us from improving professional practice.  Fear of the unknown or failure holds us back from moving forward with change.  I love this quote from Zig Ziglar, “F-E-A-R has two meanings: 'Forget Everything and Run' or 'Face Everything and Rise.' The choice is yours.” Life is all about choices.  We can ill afford to allow fear to hold our learners and us back from what’s possible.  It is essential to understand that if we fear the risk, then we will never reap the reward that taking the risk provides.  When trying something new or different the chances are good that you will fail.  If and when you do, learn from the experience and use the power of reflection to improve practice or yourself. By letting go of some of your fear you will be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Another issue many people face and have a difficulty overcoming is mental habits. As Jason Silva states in one of my favorite videos, “Once we create a comfort zone we rarely step outside that comfort zone.” When it comes to education, we see many practices that fall into this category, but more on these later.  The toughest adversary that many of us face rests between our shoulders in the form of our minds.  We often think we can’t do certain things or we have been lulled into a sense of complacency.  Without opening up the mind to new ideas and ways of doing things, change will never happen. Think about your mental habits that are holding you back from implementing innovative change. What do you need to let go of first to improve? How might you help your learners do the same within their context?

The last issue that plagues the change process is good old-fashioned stubbornness.  It is a trait that can destroy friendships, marriages, and professional relationships.  I don’t know if anyone knows for sure why people are stubborn, but my thinking is that both fear and mental habits play their part.  What are you holding on to that might not be in the best interests of your students or the people you work with? I believe this question can serve as a catalyst to begin the process of overcoming certain elements that negatively impact not only our practice but also the relationships we strive to create and support.  

Below is a list of five things that I believe need to be overcome if meaningful change and improvement in education is the goal. Each is influenced by fear, mental habits, and/or stubbornness in some way.

Status Quo

The status quo in schools is like a warm blanket on a frigid night – no one wants to get out from underneath it. When it has a tight grip on a school culture, any attempt at change is met with resistance or blatant inaction.  You can all but hear the whispers of this too shall pass, we’ll wait it out, they won’t hold us accountable, so I’m not changing, why risk it or everything is great because we have high test scores. Will you challenge the status quo to improve the educational experience for your learners?

Traditional Grading Practices and Homework

There is a great deal of research out there that supports changes to how educators grade and the use of homework. In light of what the research says and the negative impact on our learners, it has been difficult for educators and schools to let go of these two practices. We often assign homework and grade a certain way because that was either what was done to us as students or what we were taught to do during our teacher preparation programs. One of the most challenging initiatives I ever led as a principal was working with my staff to change how they graded. As our district took on homework. What will you do to improve these practices?

Drive-By Professional Development

In Learning Transformed Tom Murray and I highlight the research that illustrates how drive-by professional development has little, if any, impact on professional practice. The concept of development as a whole needs to change to a focus on professional learning that is research-based, job-embedded, practical and takes into account the real challenges educators face. On top of all this, follow-up and accountability are crucial if the goal is to scale the changes that are being supported by the investments in professional learning. How will you work to improve professional learning in your school or district?

Technology Avoidance or Low-Level Use

This is a two-part scenario.  On the one hand, some people loathe technology and fail to embrace how it can transform teaching, learning, and leadership. The fact is technology is here to stay.  The key is to develop ways to integrate it with purpose aligned to research-based pedagogical practices. On the other hand, some people are in love with the stuff and toys.  Technology has the potential to support and enhance learning in ways that we can never have imagined a few years ago. However, we must not fall victim to the engagement trap and use technology in ways that just support low-level learning.  How will you empower your kids to think and use technology to show that they understand while unlocking their potential?


Has someone wronged you, rubbed you the wrong way, or just irritated you for whatever reason? Get over it!  Please take a minute to read this article by Nancy Colier on the subject. As she states, “It’s not about the person who wronged you. It’s about who you want to be.” She continues to explain that the problem with grudges is that they don’t serve the purpose that they are there to serve. “They don’t make us feel better or heal our hurt. When it is all said and done we end up as proud owners of our grudges, but still without the experience of comfort that we ultimately crave, that we have craved since the original wounding.”  What grudges are you willing to let go of to move forward for the greater common good?

Once we better understand the causes of the adversity to change we can then begin to move forward. However, to do so, we must be willing to let go of practices and behaviors that are holding us, our schools, and most importantly our learners from opportunities for growth and improvement.

To move forward, we must be willing to let go.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

3 Simple (Yet Powerful) Leadership Lessons

There is no shortage of leadership advice available to anyone who wants some.  A quick Google search of the best lessons or advice in the topic will unveil a treasure trove of tips, strategies, and ideas that can help anyone become a better leader in a classroom, school, district, or organization. In my opinion, the best leadership lessons come from experience.  Below are some key lessons I learned either as a principal or from other leaders that I had had the pleasure of working with throughout my career.

Inspect what you expect.

There always seems to be an overemphasis on the vision aspect of change.  A focus on the why is a great start, but the clarity of purpose and intent has to translate into action.  What often happens is we get so wrapped up in the “fluff” that our focus on the how and actual evidence of improvement becomes a distant forethought. Real change relies on seeing the process through from vision to strategic plan and having accountability mechanisms in place to ensure efficacy.  As I have mentioned in the past, leadership is not telling others what they should do, but instead showing them how to do it.  This is why the concept of Return on Instruction (ROI) matters when it comes to technology and innovation.  Accountability is the linchpin in the change process. 

Don’t expect others to do what you are not willing to do (or haven’t done) yourself.

Everyone wants change, yet leading scalable efforts is a difficult task, to say the least.  Getting everyone to embrace different and better is often easier said than done.  Success in any change effort in a school or organization relies on the collective efforts of the majority.  The best way to be a catalyst for change is to model expectations at the onset.  Change begins with you. Opinions, research, and ideas provide the fuel, but the spark needed to ignite the process is one’s ability to act and then model expectations for others. 

Build relationships by seeing people for who they are.

It all comes down to relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning or change occurs. The ability to build powerful relationships with adults and our learners relies on our ability to be empathetic and not look through what is often a biased lens.  There is good in every person, no matter what we might see or hear.  Leadership is about bringing out the best in all and moving past mistakes to unleash potential.  At times, we must also swallow our pride for the sake of building a relationship.  We must believe in what others have to contribute to the greater good and not be so quick to write them off.  It is easy to knock people down. Building people up is at the heart of empathetic leadership

In the end, the best leadership lessons don’t necessarily come from a book, article, or speaker but instead from what we learn during and after an experience.  In the words of John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”  Always make time to reflect on your experiences and then share lessons learned to push the rest of us to improve our practice. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

School of Dreams

As many people know I am originally from the Northeastern part of the United States.  I was born and raised in New Jersey, where I also became a teacher and eventually a principal.  After meeting my wife in 2002, I moved to Staten Island, NY and resided there for thirteen years. To be honest, I never thought I would leave that area of the country as my wife, and I had such strong roots there. Things change, however.  The successful digital transformation at the school where I was principal attracted a great deal of attention from the mainstream media, schools locally and globally, and organizations, in part because we were able to show efficacy in our work.  It was at this time that I decided to take a calculated risk and attempt to help other schools scale their digital and innovative change efforts.

As I transitioned from principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) my work began to take me all over the country and the world.  I vividly remember the day when I was away working in Hawaii, and Staten Island got dumped with over a foot of snow.  Shortly after I returned home, my wife sat me down and gave me an ultimatum.  I either had to go back to being a principal so I could be home to shovel any and all snow in the future or we had to move somewhere else in the county where it was warm and didn’t snow at all.  My wife knew full well how much I love the work that I do so out came a map of the United States and the discussions as to where we would raise our family for the foreseeable future began.

During our discussions, I had to set my non-negotiables.  She wanted warmth and no snow while I needed a huge airport that was centrally located to cut my flight times and connections down.  There were only two realistic choices at this point, Dallas and Houston. Since Houston was a bit further south and we could get the exact home we wanted the decision was made.  One other factor that weighed heavily in our decision-making process was the school district that our children would attend.  The icing on the cake for me was that when it was all said and done taking into account our non-negotiables, we decided to build our home within the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD). 

CFISD is an amazing school district that is not only one of the highest achieving large districts in the state of Texas, but also firmly committed to scaling innovative practices to improve learning for all 120,000 students. For the past year and a half, my team and I at ICLE have been assisting the district with doing Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) K-12, incorporating blended learning, and aligning sound pedagogy to the use of flex spaces.  We have also used our Digital Practice Assessment (DPA) process to help them determine where they are at, but more importantly where they want to be for their learners. Now back to my story.

Shortly after arriving in the Houston area I was contacted by Cheryl Fisher, a local CFISD elementary principal.  She had been following me on Twitter and asked if I would be willing to visit her school and see how they were implementing blended learning across all grade levels.  What I saw just warmed my heart, but more on this later.  A little over a year later Cheryl was named the principal of Wells Elementary, a brand-new school right smack in the middle of the community where I lived.  I couldn’t control my excitement, but there was a challenge ahead in the form of my daughter, Isabella.

Bella, who was in 4th grade at the time, had a big decision to make. Stay in the other community school where she had made friends for two years or go to a brand-new school for her last year of elementary school. To be honest, she was leaning on staying put. I discussed this with Cheryl, and she said quite bluntly, “If your daughter decides to come to Wells she will love learning every day.” Well, I was already hooked, but Cheryl also made the time to meet with Bella and explain in detail the vision she had for the learning culture at Wells.  What followed was the waiting in anticipation of what Bella would decide to do. 

Well, my daughter, on her own without much pressure from my wife and I, decided to attend Wells Elementary. Every day I ask her how school was and literally tear up when she responds as the answer is always the same – “It was great Daddy.” My daughter is entirely in love with the school. As an educator and parent, this means so much more to me than her consistently being advanced proficient every year on all standardized tests.  Wells Elementary to me is a school of dreams because my daughter loves learning.  Here are some specifics as to why:
  • School-wide decision to have no homework.
  • Students K-5 are empowered to use their technology to support their education as part of BYOT. In addition to this, technology is used to support and enhance learning while providing authentic opportunities to explore concepts.
  • Strategic use of the station rotation blended learning model to maximize learning time and increase student agency.
  • Incorporation of flexible learning spaces throughout the building.
  • Portfolio-based assessment using Seesaw and Google Classroom to provide better feedback to students.
  • An entire staff that believes in the power of being connected and the importance of having a Personal Learning Network (PLN).
  • Systemic use of a variety of social media tools to communicate with stakeholders and keep them in the know.
I encourage you to check out this video where Cheryl and one of her teachers discuss the digital transformation at Wells Elementary.

It is important to know I am not just making the casual statements about using only my parent lens.  I am honored by the fact that I am the one who is engaged with Wells as part of ICLE’s partnership with CFISD to support the district with our Digital Leadership and Learning solutions.  As the job-embedded coach for the school, I have been working with the teachers and administrators and will continue to do so throughout the school year.  Even though there are some fantastic initiatives in place as mentioned above, the Wells community knows that there is room for improvement.  This is the case in any classroom, school, or district. Together we are working on the pedagogical shifts needed to support their bold vision and plan for innovative learning.  

All in all, this is a school of dreams in my opinion.  The fact that my daughter loves learning and is being prepared for her future means the world to my wife and me.  Thank you to all the educators at Wells and CFISD who are have brought so much joy to my daughter. With the compelling learning opportunities she is experiencing, I hope that she will be further motivated to follow her dreams, no matter what they are. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Pulse of a Learning Culture

What makes a great and successful learning culture?  If you were to ask the majority of stakeholders, they would typically say that a school or district that has high levels of achievement in the form of standardized test scores represents success.  Many parents will choose to move to an area and raise their kids there for this reason alone.  All one has to do is look at all the hoopla surrounding national and state rankings to see that this indeed is the case.  Parents and community members observe these scores as they have the power to positively or negatively impact real estate values.  No matter where your school or district lands in these rankings, there are always disgruntled people, unless you are number one.

Achievement is often viewed as the single most important outcome of a thriving learning culture that is preparing students for the demands of their next stage in life, whether it is grade level promotion or moving onward to college or a career.  However, those of us who work in education know that this is the furthest thing from the truth.  The playing field is not equal in many parts of the world.  Privilege is bestowed upon many by the zip code they live in or whether or not a privately funded education can be afforded.  Thus, in many cases achievement is directly tied to income. Even so, it can still be debated whether this equates to a thriving and prosperous learning culture. 

Image credit:

It doesn’t matter how successful the adults think a learning culture is. Quite frankly, it’s not about us.  Educators don’t work for administrators, central office, superintendents, heads of school, boards of education, or parents.  We work for kids!  Thus, the best way to get an accurate pulse of a particular learning culture is to engage students as to what they think about the educational experience they receive in school and then see how this compares with traditional metrics such as achievement and other forms of data.  I am not saying achievement doesn’t matter.  What I am saying is that the experiences that shape our learners and help them discover their true potential matter more.  Some of the best learning that any of us ever experienced wasn’t given a mark, score, or grade.  It was our ability to work through cognitive struggle, construct new knowledge, and authentically apply what we learned creatively that helped us develop a genuine appreciation for learning.

The bottom line is we need to cultivate competent learners in the digital age while putting them in a position to see the value of their education.  Engaging the number one stakeholder group – our students – in critical conversations about the education they are receiving provides us with an accurate pulse of a learning culture.  Just because a student achieves doesn’t automatically infer that he or she appreciates or values the educational experience or will be able to use what has been learned authentically.  With all this being said three guiding questions can be asked of students to determine where your learning culture is:

  • Why are you learning what you are learning?
  • How will you use what you are learning?
  • What is missing from your learning experience?

It is vital to continually put a critical lens to our work and look beyond what the majority of stakeholders see as the leading indicator for district or school success.  Powerful qualities such as leadership, empathy, integrity, resilience, humility, creativity, and persistence can’t be measured per se, but are so crucial to future success.  A thriving learning culture blends these elements to not only support the achievement of all learners but also to prepare them for their future.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Clean Slate

All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it. To make this goal a reality, we must change our thinking and believe in our abilities to improve learning for all kids.  It’s interesting that many of us are ready to embrace and celebrate the ideas of others openly, but we don’t necessarily believe in the ones that we either think of or develop on our own.  The best ideas in education come from practitioners in the trenches. It is these people after all who implement innovative practices and ultimately find success.  The challenge though is to begin believing in what you have to offer and not worry about what others think. 

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This is where mindset comes into play. The hallmarks of a growth mindset include embracing challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, seeing the effort as a path to mastery, learning from criticism, and finding lessons and inspiration in the success of others.  A mindset shift is the first step, but then we have to act. Change begins with all of us.  We must change ourselves first before we can expect others to follow suit.  

Recently I have been refining my latest keynote presentation on cultivating a transformational mindset amongst both learners and educators.  The six essential elements that comprise this mindset shift include competency-based, entrepreneurial, maker, empathetic, efficacy, and storyteller. Preparing students for the new world of work require us all to embrace a bold new vision and strategy for transforming learning today.  This might seem scary to some. Others might find it daunting or even unachievable considering the obstacles that lie ahead. It is natural to feel this way, but in the end, we have to think about the needs of those we serve – our students.

For some context, I encourage you to watch this short, yet powerful video.  It is all about the decisions and changes we don’t make that after time passes we come to regret.  If we shift our initial approach to a challenge or impending decision through a different process, we can overcome the potential roadblock that our mind manifests. A transformational mindset focuses on the “what ifs” as opposed to the “yeah buts” and shuts the door on potential regrets.

Changing outcomes begins with changing your mindset. Every day is a clean slate. Do the things you will regret not doing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Measuring Impact with the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA)

Note: This post is directly related to my work at the International Center for Leadership in Education

Efficacy has been on my mind a great deal as of late, and as a result, it has been reflected in my writing.  When I think back to the successful digital transformation and implementation of innovative practices at my former school when I was a principal the key driver for us was the ability to show, not just talk about, evidence of improvement.  By combining both quantitative and qualitative measures, we were able to articulate the why, how, and what, as well as the detailed process that went into each respective change effort.  The “secret sauce” in all of this was the strategic use of digital tools to proactively share the details of our efforts and resulting impact.  

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During my tenure as a principal, I was always in search of tools and processes to help measure the impact of the changes we were implementing.  Unfortunately, nothing existed.  As I work with schools and districts on a weekly basis, I am often asked how they can determine the impact and effectiveness of the many innovative initiatives they have in place. Practices such as BYOD, 1:1, blended learning, personalized learning, classroom and school redesign, branding, makerspaces, professional learning, etc.  This need served as a call to action of sorts and catalyzed my current work.  As Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), I have worked with a fantastic team to develop services and tools to help districts, schools, and organizations across the world transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  One of these tools is the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA). 

The DPA creates the context for our work with leaders and teachers, providing authentic baseline data to support personalized professional learning. It begins by examining the strategies in place at each school or district that support student learning with technology in the areas of rigor, relevance, relationships, engagement, and overall culture. The process then moves to understanding the current leadership practices in place to successfully implement technology and innovative practices, aligned to the 7 Pillars of Digital Leadership & Learning (Student Learning, Learning Spaces & Environment, Professional Growth, Communication, Public Relations, Branding, and Opportunity). 

Through this proven model, our consultants can help schools and districts identify opportunities to begin their transformation or take their digital and innovation goals to the next level, leveraging the knowledge, experience, and practice of ICLE’s thought leadership. The DPA process consists of a combination of a self-reflection questionnaire rubric, on-site observations, and online inventories comprised of data and evidence collection. We then leverage evidence-based rubrics to observe leadership and instructional practices while collecting artifacts to provide evidence of effective digital learning and innovative professional practice. Once collected and analyzed, a detailed summary report outlining areas of success, focus opportunities, and recommended next steps will guide the professional learning partnership with ICLE, supporting the development of a strategic professional learning and implementation plan. 

Below is a summary of the DPA process:

Step 1: The Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire is completed by the district or school. This 18 question rubric asks school leaders to reflect on their perceptions for where their school falls on a continuum from not yet started to well developed. During this reflective process, it is expected that school leadership teams collect and document aligned evidence for each item.  This information is completed and archived in the Professional Learning Portal (PLP), a free digital platform developed by ICLE to support schools in data collection,  reflection and goal setting, to grow and improve. The baseline evidence shared is in the context of digital leadership and learning (including examples of data, lesson plans, unit plans, student work, PLC minutes, rigorous digital performance tasks, walk-through forms, assessments, sample observations/evaluations, portfolios, PD plans, social media accounts, pictures, videos, press releases, media coverage, partnerships, etc). 

Step 2: On-site observations and interviews are conducted by consultants to validate perceptions and evidence collected for the seven Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire, as well as targeted classroom observations of student learning, aligned to rigor, relevance and engagement. Additional data is collected and archived in the PLP during classroom observations. The idea is to engage school leaders in dialogue about their culture, student learning and digital integration, no matter where they are with their digital transformation. 

Step 3: The data and evidence are tightly aligned to ICLE’s research-based rubrics to provide a detailed view of where a district or school is with their digital transformation.The data and artifacts are analyzed, leading to a summary report that details the current state of practice at each school or in the district. 

Step 4: The DPA report is shared and discussed with the school leadership team. In partnership with ICLE, observations about the evidence collected are shared and discussed. During the strategic planning process, discussions focus on areas of strength and improvements to develop a tailored and personalized implementation plan.

Step 5: On-going professional learning is implemented and progress monitoring through the online Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire is documented to determine the efficacy of the digital transformation.

The DPA process has been created to support districts and schools looking for ways to measure and articulate the impact of technology and innovation on practice.  While data is valuable, it moves beyond this as the only metric for success by actually taking a lens to an array of strategies and practices that combine to create a thriving learning culture.  

The DPA doesn’t just look at technology and innovation. It also provides insight on all elements of school culture and student learning.  In addition to being informed by a broad body of research and driven by evidence, the DPA process is also aligned to the following:

We don’t know where we are and how effective change is until steps are taken to look critically at practice. We hope that through the DPA process we can help you develop, refine, measure, and then share amazing examples that illustrate how efficacy has been attained.  

If you are looking for a method of determining where you are and where you want your district or school to be in the digital age, please contact Matt Thouin at ICLE (  He can arrange for an interactive and detailed look at the DPA rubrics and process as well as the PLP platform from the convenience of your home or office.  We look forward to supporting you on your journey toward systemwide digital transformation. If you have any questions for me, please leave them in the comments below.

Copyright © by International Center for Leadership in Education, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Efficacy in Digital Learning

As a principal, the buck stopped with me.  I was reminded of this by numerous superintendents during my tenure as a school leader.  However, when we began moving forward with our digital transformation one particular superintendent asked me point blank what evidence I had that actually supported our claims that new equated to better. This not only stopped me in my tracks, but that moment in time provided the grounding that my school and I really needed.  For change to really be embraced by all stakeholders it is critical that we just don’t tell and claim that improvement is occurring, but that we also show. 

Accountability matters and is a reality in our work.  We are accountable first and foremost to our learners. As a supporter of the purposeful use of technology and innovative practices, I had to illustrate how effective these strategies were at improving learning.  Statements and claims didn’t cut it and this was more than fair.  It was at this time where the term efficacy kept finding its way into the conversation and my head. In the real world of education efficacy matters and it is important that this is part of the larger conversation when it comes to digital. It is a word that, in my opinion, has to be a part of our daily vocabulary and practice. Simply put, efficacy is the degree to which desired outcomes and goals are achieved. Applying this concept to digital learning can go a long way to solidifying the use of technology as an established practice, not just a frill or add-on.

The journey to efficacy begins and ends with the intended goal in mind and a strong pedagogical foundation.  Adding technology or new ideas without this in place will more than likely not result in achieving efficacy.  The Rigor Relevance Framework provides schools and educators with a checks and balance system by providing a common language for all, creating a culture around a common vision, and establishing a critical lens through which to examine curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It represents a means to support innovative learning and digital practice as detailed in the description of Quad D learning:
Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.
Aligning digital to Quad D not only makes sense but also melds with a great deal of the conversation in digital and non-digital spaces as to why and how learning should change.  A framework like this emphasizes the importance of a strong pedagogical foundation while helping to move practice from isolated pockets of excellence to systemic elements that are scaled throughout the learning culture.  It also provides the means to evaluate and reflect in order to improve. 

Rigor Relevance Framework

Once an overall vision for digital learning is firmly in place you can begin to work on the structures and supports to ensure success.  This brings me back to efficacy.  The why is great, but the how and what have to be fleshed out.  Determining whether technology or innovative practices, in general, are effective matters.  Below I will highlight 5 key areas (essential questions, research, practicality, evidence/accountability, reflection)  that can put your classroom, school, district, or organization on a path to digital efficacy. 

Essential Questions

Questions provide context for where we want to go, how we’ll get there, and whether or not success is achieved.  Having more questions than answers is a natural part of the initial change process. Over time, however, concrete answers can illustrate that efficacy in digital learning has been achieved in some form or another.  Consider how you might respond to the questions below:

  • What evidence do we have to demonstrate the impact of technology on school culture?
  • How are we making learning relevant for our students?
  • How do we implement and support rigorous and relevant learning tasks that help students become Future Ready?
  • What is required to create spaces that model real-world environments and learning opportunities? 
  • What observable evidence can be used to measure the effect technology is having on student learning and achievement?
  • How can targeted feedback be provided to our teachers and students, so that technology can enhance learning?


Research is prevalent in education for a reason.  It provides us all with a baseline as to what has been found to really work when it comes to student learning.  Now, there is good research and bad.  I get that. It is up to us as educators to sift through and then align the best and most practical studies out there to support the need to transform learning in the digital age. We can look to the past in order to inform current practice.  For example, so many of us are proponents of student ownership, project-based, and collaborative learning. Not only does digital support and enhance all of these, but research from Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, Papert, Bloom, and many others provide validation.  See the image below. For more on authorship learning click HERE.

One of the main reasons Tom Murray and I wrote Learning Transformed was to provide a sound research base that supports digital learning and the embracement of innovative practices.  The research of Linda Darling Hammond found that technology can have the most impact on our at-risk learners when it is used to support interactive learning, explore and create rather than to “drill and kill”, and constitutes the right blend of teachers and technology. This is just one of over 100 studies we highlight. Then there is the comprehensive analysis by John Hattie on effect size – a listing of the most effective instructional strategies that improve student learning outcomes all of which can be applied to digital learning. If efficacy is the goal, embracing a scholarly mindset to inform and influence our work, not drive it, is critical.


All of what we do should align to the demands, and at times constraints, of the job.  This includes preparing students for success on standardized tests. If it’s not practical, the drive to implement new ideas and practices wanes or never materializes.  The creation of rigorous digital performance tasks that are aligned to standards and the scope and sequence found in the curriculum is just good practice. All good performance tasks include some form of assessment, either formative or summative, that provides the learner and educator with valuable information on standard and outcome attainment.  Again, this is just part of the job. 

The Rigor Relevance Framework assists in creating performance tasks that engage learners in critical thinking and problem solving while applying what they have learned in meaningful ways.  There is also natural alignment to incorporating student agency. This is exactly what so many of us are championing.  My colleague and good friend, Weston Kieschnick, has created a template that combines research and the practical aspect of performance task creation to assist you in creating your own.   Check it out HERE. You can use the template and go through the process of developing a rigorous digital performance task or just use it to inform as you design your own. 

Evidence and Accountability

As many of you know I do not shy away from openly discussing how important this area is. Just go back to my opening paragraph in this post for a refresher. Evidence and accountability are a part of every profession and quite frankly we need more of both in education to not only show efficacy in our work but to also scale needed change. Not everything has to or can be, measured. However, focusing on a Return on Instruction allows everyone to incorporate multiple measures, both qualitative and quantitative, to determine if improvement is in fact occurring. 


When it is all said and done the most important thing we can all do is constantly reflect on our practice.  In terms of efficacy in digital learning consider these reflective questions from your particular lens:

  • Did my students learn? 
  • How do I know if my students learned? 
  • How do others know if my students learned? 
  • What can be done to improve? 
  • What point of view have I not considered?

Amazing things are happening in education, whether it be through digital learning or the implementation of innovative ideas.  We must always push ourselves to be better and strive for continuous improvement. The more we all push each other on the topic of efficacy, our collective goals we have for education, learning, and leadership can be achieved.