I BELIEVE, DO YOU? – The Shift Paradigm Series


I am on my own. You are on your own. When it comes to helping students learn, every teacher, in every classroom throughout the world, is on her or his own. The vast machine-like system of education, in which we are cogs, is incapable of connecting with each of us and connecting us to each other.

If you teach, you know the disconnection about which I write. It is readily apparent in the way the system of education ignores data about its performance. How the system discounts the findings of its own research. And in its benign enablement of approaches, activities, and books that do not connect to each other to form a common practice.

The disconnection is especially apparent in the system’s blatant disregard of the practical knowledge of teachers. Think about how leaders eagerly commit to new educational programs but do not adequately prepare you to integrate the programs into daily practice. Think about the many times you tap into your personal learning network for information and ideas that the system does not provide you. And think about how you, like every other teacher, have no voice, no support, and no choice to improve the system. You are on your own. You must use what you have, to do what you can to help students learn.

In response to these circumstances, many teachers, perhaps you are one construct a personal schema of practice to guide their instruction. Each of these schemas reflects one teacher’s beliefs and knowledge about learning. Like the teacher who creates it, some schemas are simple—lessons from a book, rows of desks, direct instruction, drill and practice, and homework. Others are more sophisticated and involve research proven practices, pedagogies, assessments, and technologies. None of the schema, simple or sophisticated, that teachers create reflects knowledge shared with the system or its teachers. All are symptomatic of disconnection between teachers and the system to which they adhere.

That these disconnections exist should not be surprising. After all, the system makes no effort to foster, among teachers, a common professional language, workable understanding of good educational practices, software tools for high quality instruction, or processes for collaboration among teachers. Hence, the limited reach of a teacher’s schema within and across the system of education.

What if circumstances changed so that you, and other teachers, would no longer be on your own?

If that happens, I want to believe you and most other teachers will embrace the research about high quality instruction. You will use that research to understand the conditions necessary for easily delivering high quality instruction, all the time, to all students. That you will quickly identify the practices—feedback, formative evaluation, prior-knowledge, self-reporting, and so on—that make such conditions possible. Employ those practices with requisite frequency, fidelity, and scale to significantly improve the learning and achievement of all your students. Moreover, I want to believe that over time, as results roll in, you and your colleagues will form a consensus that makes the conditions and practices commonplace at widespread scale.

At scale, you and your fellow teachers will no longer be on your own. You will have a common language with which to talk with each other about instruction. You will share an understanding of good practice. Other teachers and the system, will hear your voice. They will provide the support that you need when you need it. Delivering high-quality instruction, all the time, will no longer be a challenge. You and other teachers who teach well will no longer be threats to other teachers or the system.

Sounds good does it not? Do you believe what I believe? If so, then, here is how you might change the circumstances so that the beliefs can become realities.

Start small. Seek out teachers who believe what you and I believe. Do not waste time on non-believers. Let them keep doing what they have been doing. When you succeed, they will convert to your way of thinking.

Next, form a cluster of believers. Arrange for them to meet. Share respective schemas. Select a few promising approaches or practices. Ask each teacher to replicate, in her or his classroom instruction, one promising approach, or practice. Meet again to debrief about their experiences. Refine the approaches and practices. Replicate them again and replicate some others. Repeat the process weekly. After several repetitions, you will see four things.

One, the approaches and practices that teachers replicate and refine, will get better with each replication and refinement. As will the instruction of the teachers doing the replicating and refining. Two, after a few weeks the cluster of teachers will develop a shared schema that will have a common language, understanding of good instructional practice, and feedback process for informing the cluster, and its teachers. Three, a need will emerge or new technologies that (a) make it easy for teachers to design, deliver, and refine their lessons, and (b) help them create and sustain schemas with other teachers.

Four, instruction will return to its rightful place as the hub around which the system of education turns. As you and other teachers share, replicate and refine approaches and practices you will become aware that high quality lessons—not content, standards, or tests—are the spokes that connect you to each other and to the system. You experience how high quality lessons enable all students to learn what you teach and perform well. When they do, schools, districts, and states perform well too.

The four things playing out in your cluster also play out in other clusters. As they do, clusters connect with other clusters. They share schemas. A body of shared practice emerges that forces the system to self-organize. When this happens, connections replace disconnections. You and all other teachers are cogs no more.

I believe. Do you?


Note: This is the seventh post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

TEACHING PROBLEMS (And How to Solve Them) – The Shift Paradigm Series

coexist.001If you teach, you know isolation. It seeks you out at school. You cannot elude it.

Look at your school’s schedule. See how it allocates most of your time to students and precious little for teachers. Think about the meetings you attend, professional development you receive, and technology you use. See that they ignore the everyday realities you face. Do not help you teach better. Isolate you.

Think about the school building in which you work. See that its classrooms are isolation chambers for teachers. See that there are no places in the building for you to work collaboratively with other teachers. That the places where you most often encounter teachers are the lunchroom and bathroom. Neither place is suited for collaboration. Neither are places you want to spend much time.

The isolation you experience at school results from the paradigm to which the field of education adheres. Its beliefs, goals, practices, processes, tools, and values drive what happens at school. They affect the work you do there and how you do it. To see why isolation seeks you out, you must understand the paradigm.

The paradigm that guides the field of education assigns great value to standardized school days, unidirectional meetings, institutional not personal development, and classroom-only buildings. It commits students to age groups, teachers to levels and subjects, and both to buildings and classrooms. A teacher teaches a set of students in a classroom. There she is singularly responsible for how and what students learn. Every other teacher, each in a classroom, is singularly responsible for her or his students’ learning and performance on achievement tests and other academic measures.

The design and organization of your school—schedule, meetings, professional development, technology, and building—reflect the responsibility that teachers have for student learning. It supports them meeting that responsibility but prevents them from working collaboratively with other teachers. And, if they try to work together, they encounter difficulties. It makes you and other teachers co-exist. Co-existence is the source of your isolation.

Teachers who co-exist do their core work alone, all the time, never together. For instance, when one designs a complete lesson—pedagogical approach, strategy, materials, and rubric—other teachers do not benefit from her efforts. Similarly, when a teacher delivers instruction, she cannot share what she learns from her delivery with others. Such duplication of efforts and disconnection of core work is why your workload is so high. It is why you have neither time nor energy to teach well. It is why teachers burnout. Why the field of education cannot reform itself. And why you feel so isolated.

This is the teaching problem. To solve it you must stop co-existing with teachers and start co-evolving with them. This involves establishing mutual goals, fostering a common professional language, and developing a shared commitment to specific educational practices for doing core-work. It requires that you reciprocally engage with goals using the practices to which you are committed.

When feedback guides your efforts, over time, formal processes for conducting core work emerge. The processes refine themselves using ongoing feedback. Refinements give rise to efficiencies. Collaboration increases. Duplicative efforts go away. The quality of your instruction increases. You workload diminishes. More students learn more and better than ever before. And you never ever feel isolated.

The changes in the school are visible. Times, processes, and spaces for teachers to co-evolve replace isolation. Meetings and professional development, once the bane of your existence are essential to you and other teachers as you pursue shared goals. The common language you use makes for easy and joyful work. As evidenced by you benefiting when a teacher learns or creates something, and vice versa.

Sounds wonderful. Yes, co-evolving, done well, is wonderful. Teachers teach better. Students learn more. Schools improve. And isolation goes away.

Achieving co-evolution via normal approaches, at the scale of a school or beyond, is challenging. Getting to co-evolution—establishing goals, fostering common language, committing to specific practices, and using feedback—places great demands on the interpersonal skills of teachers. Leaving the relative comfort of co-existence for the promise of co-evolution creates turbulence. Navigating it requires much time and stamina. Few groups of teachers have capacity for doing this work.

Technology is the best hope for teachers wanting to co-evolve. Not the technology that you now use. It mostly complicates things. The best hope for co-evolution is a new genre of technology transforms interpersonal processes into technological ones.

This type of technology emerges naturally when teachers work reciprocally to achieve shared goals. The feedback that informs their core work causes processes to emerge. The processes, and subsequent feedback, make obvious the technological tools that teachers need. Processes previously handled interpersonally (e.g. feedback) become software enabled. When the design and delivery of high quality instruction is software enabled, designs and delivery become better and both continuously improve. Over time, the tools come to comprise a ToolKit for teachers.

A set of pilot schools, equipped with a prototype ToolKit, report about quick shifts from co-existence to co-evolution. Their design better lessons, deliver higher quality instruction, experience lower workloads, and re-teach lessons less often. Not surprisingly, students in the schools are more engaged in their learning and performing better on achievement tests. Moreover, meetings at the schools are more productive, professional development there is more meaningful, and collaboration, not isolation is the norm.

As a teacher, you know that, as Ken Blanchard says, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” You also know how difficult it is to be smart together while co-existing. What you may not know, but should know, is that paradigms serve their adherents. You and I can create a new paradigm for education. And that doing so with our fellow teachers requires that we co-evolve. It is time we demand the tools to help make this happen. Let’s end the isolation.


Note: This is the sixth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

WHEN LESSONS ADD UP STUDENTS ENGAGE (And Teachers Teach Better) – The Shift Paradigm Series

lesson.001Imagine yourself in classroom. Where you are observing a teacher and her students. You watch the lesson that she is teaching. Scan the room. Look at the students. See the behavior of each student that corresponds to what is happening in the lesson.

Are students engaging? Do they do what they are supposed to do? In five minutes, see what is happening in the lesson. Scan the room. What is each student doing? Are they on task? Repeat every five minutes until the bell ends the class period.

As you watch, a pattern emerges of the students’ engagement with the lesson. Most likely the pattern is like this. The class begins with attendance, announcements, and other business. Then the lesson starts. A majority of students, but not all, engage with the lesson. As the lesson continues, fewer students engage. Over time, less than half are engaging. At some point, as engagement dwindles, the teacher attempts to re-engage students by raising her voice. Perhaps she says, “Pay attention, this content will be on the test.” Or maybe she calls on a student, one, not engaging with the lesson, who is distracting a student near him. Student engagement keeps dissipating. As the period winds down, students and the teacher idly pass time until a bell signals class period done.

Hold on to the pattern. We will come back to it in a moment. In the meantime, think about how What Teachers Teach dominates the current educational discourse, and has for over a decade.

What Teachers Teach drives the standards that guide the curriculum that in turn determines what students are supposed to learn. Further, it drives the efforts to measure student, and sometimes, teacher, performance against the standards and curriculum and is the basis for the standardized tests that are the primary measure of performance. Some of the discourse about what teachers should teach occurs at the federal and state levels, a little of it happens in the private sector, but most takes place locally. Regardless of where the discourse occurs, you saw the end result of it in the lesson you observed.

Now, return to the pattern that you saw in the classroom. As you do, think about the field’s longstanding discourse. Were content, standards, and tests present in the lesson?

YES they were. However, their presence in the lesson, as the dissipating engagement of students made apparent, had little effect on student learning and the teaching of the teacher. The minimal effect is due to a disconnect that exists between the high levels of learning and teaching that the field seeks, its discourse about how to get both, and what actually happens when students engage with the lessons that they are supposed to learn.

Learning, as you saw, is about minutes and moments. When students engage minute-by-minute with a lesson they learn what the teacher is teaching. If, over time, students’ engagement with a lesson declines steadily, then their learning declines too. So if greater learning the Field of Education’s penultimate goal, then student engagement is an essential indicator whether progress toward attaining the field’s goal is occurring. The quality of a lesson asserts a direct and powerful effect on students’ engagement. The volume of a teacher’s voice and having items on a test do not.

To better understand the relationship between learning, engagement, and lessons, think about the lesson you saw in the classroom. Was it complete? Was its quality high? For instance, did it have sufficient structure to engage all students from beginning to end? Did it help all students understand why what they were learning mattered? Did the lesson connect to the lesson from the previous day? Set the stage for the lesson tomorrow? Was an instructional approach (e.g. direct teaching, cooperative learning) readily apparent? Did it employ instructional strategies (e.g. guided practice, rotate and check)? The answer to each question is NO.

If all students are going to learn at high levels, and perform well on standardized tests, then the answer we must seek is YES. Getting there requires that all lessons be complete, high quality—all the time. Here is why.

A complete, high quality lesson solves the engagement problem. A sizeable sequence of complete, high quality lessons solves the learning problem. Solving the learning problem across several classrooms makes standards attainable and achievement gains possible for a school. Attaining standards and achieving gains in multiple schools makes attainment and gains possible for a district.

Such attainments and gains at widespread scale necessitate that we take up the challenge of designing and building high-quality lessons. There are two routes we can take. One route is obvious, but little travelled. The other is little considered and under construction. Let’s start with the obvious route.

To understand the obvious route please consider a question that I often ask teachers—over 2500 of them during the past 15 years. How long does it take you to design and build a complete, high-quality lesson? A lesson that you are confident will engage every student for an entire class period. One that you are certain each student will master, and necessitates no re-teaching on your part.

Typically, the answers I get range from 1 hour to one day. Teachers quickly adjust their answer, when I say a complete lesson may include a PowerPoint or equivalent presentation, a video, connections to curriculum standards, and, of course, the dreaded lesson plan.

They adjust their answers, again, when I mention the requisite worksheets, handouts, and rubrics. And upon hearing visuals, manipulative, and graphic organizers they adjust yet again. Adjustments finished, they say that to design and build one complete, high-quality lesson for one class period, will take them one day to one week.

Next, I ask, “And how many ready-to-go, complete, sure-to-engage and produce-mastery-of-each student, high-quality lessons do you have?” Whatever response the question elicits, I welcome with a gentle smile, supportive nod, and receptive ear. Ten to 30 lessons, most teachers report. A few teachers offer up that they deliberately use one such lesson during semi-annual observations. Most talk about how they keeping their high quality lessons safe and frequently back them up.

Finally, I ask, “When and where do you design and build high quality lessons?” Teachers tell me how each day the have a 60-minute period for planning and preparation, 25 minutes for lunch, and barely enough time to go to the bathroom. That they must design and build lessons during evenings, weekends, holiday breaks, and summers—while raising families, taking classes, and living their lives.

Let’s do some calculating. First, a typical teacher teaches at least 180 days per year. She teaches four lessons per day. So that teacher needs, at least, 720 complete, high quality lessons per year.

Second, a typical teacher needs at least one day to design and build a lesson. Let’s assume she can use her one-hour of daily planning time to do so. And that maybe, just maybe, she can make one lesson per week. She will, working every week with no breaks, she will make the lessons she needs in 13 years and 10 months.

Third, if a typical teacher spends a five-day week building lessons, nothing else. Does so for 52 weeks (no vacations or holidays). Annually she will make 260 lessons. So in 2 years and 9 months she will have the 720 lessons she needs.

The calculations shed light on the challenges that await travellers who take obvious route. Hopefully the other route is better.

The little considered route involves creating the conditions necessary for all students to engage in their learning all the time. The presence of certain practices makes such conditions possible. The conditions emerge school wide when multiple teachers teach, share, compare, and refine lessons containing the practices.

Technology, in the form of a toolkit, enables teachers to design, build, deliver, share, and refine complete and high quality lessons based on specific Common Core Standards or Provincial Expectations.  Building one lesson takes a teacher 30-minutes. With the toolkit, doing so involves her clicking through a series of screens, accessing libraries, inserting elements, and attaching resources. Doing these steps automatically aligns the lesson to an appropriate standard. When the steps are done, a teacher, with one click, produces a handout, lesson plan, rubric, and homework assignment. Another click produces a PowerPoint-like presentation she can use with a classroom of students. Yet another click initiates a feedback process that improves the quality of the lesson and its delivery.

Independent researchers, using a controlled match methodology, found significant increases in student engagement and instructional quality at schools using a prototype of the toolkit. The increases came within 60 days of the first use of the toolkit. Moreover, its continual use led to sustained levels of high engagement and high quality instruction. Not surprisingly, these outcomes are prompting numerous conversations about next steps for the toolkit approach.

If you are a teacher, you know the impact that high quality lessons have on student engagement, learning, and achievement. Also, you know why so few teachers travel the obvious route to such lessons. For you, a toolkit is an exciting and much welcomed possibility. Hang on! Help is on the way.


Note: This is the fifth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LESS IS MORE FOR TEACHERS (and Better for Students!) – The Shift Paradigm Series

Less is more.001

Conjure an image of a school. Visualize yourself entering a classroom. Students and a teacher are there. What do you see the teacher doing?

Chances are, the teacher you see is not resting, reflecting — or even preparing a lesson. Despite the relative importance such tasks play in the design, delivery, and improvement of high-quality instruction — teachers rarely have time to do those tasks at school. So the teacher you see is likely delivering instruction, managing students, assessing performance, or organizing resources — including technology. As you watch the teacher, it becomes painfully apparent that she has too much to do, too many students with whom to do it, too little time to get everything done, too many interruptions, and too many regulations demanding that she do even more. Further, you almost certainly see her doing several tasks at once.

Now conjure a classroom at a different school. See a teacher there calmly moving amongst students sitting in groups of four. Each student is engaging with other students in the group and each has a laptop computer, iPad, or smart phone to do their work. When the teacher stops at one group, she and her students have a lively exchange. When she stops at another group, again, a lively exchange ensues. After an exchange with yet another group, the teacher, acting on feedback from the groups, uses her iPad to send a message to each student in the class. Upon receipt, each student reviews the message and acts accordingly.

After the teacher’s last stop, she sits with us. The student she brings with her describes the unit-ending, problem-based lesson that is underway, pointing out that the lesson counts for 40 percent of the unit grade. We learn that this level of focus is important because the students and teacher share a goal of every student mastering every lesson and passing every exam. Attaining the goal accounts for 10 percent of each student’s final grade for the course and is a major part of the quarterly evaluation of the teacher.

The teacher tells us that she and her colleagues teach the lesson every year, refining it each time. They came up with the initial design for it five years ago using a software toolkit that teachers share with students, parents, and administrators. Teachers use the toolkit to design, deliver, assess, and refine all their lessons. Students, parents, and administrators use the toolkit for their unique purposes and needs. Everyone uses it to provide feedback about the current lesson. Thanks to the toolkit’s capacity for enabling, processing, and reporting feedback, the lesson and all other lessons improve with each delivery regardless of the teacher or user. The performances of students, teachers, administrators, and parents improve each time they interact with a lesson. The student and teacher are quite confident that all students will master the current lesson and subsequently pass the exam.

Two schools, two classrooms, two teachers: similar yet very different. How? Let us find out.

One difference is quite visible at the first school. Multi-tasking is the norm for teachers there. When in this mode, the cognitive load of teachers at the first school increase considerably as the efforts they expend to do everything that they must do. For students to learn what they must learn in this context, short-term processing capacity of the teachers’ and students’ minds are pushed to the limit and the reserve strength of their bodies is depleted. This everyday high-load reality is the dirty little secret every teacher at the school knows but dares not acknowledge or talk about.

Instead of confronting their secret openly, teachers at the school individually struggle to keep in check their respective cognitive loads. When load-weary, they sometimes do routine tasks in autopilot mode. Other times, they cut corners, inadequately prepare for class, or deliver instruction that is incomplete. Regardless of how they lighten their loads, each time they compromise student learning and generate more load for themselves later; but they somehow need to stay afloat. Yet, each teacher knows she is working as hard as she can. Predictably, the school reports no annual gains in achievement.

At the second school a key difference is visible too. There, everyone—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—shares responsibility for learning and teaching. Each has a clearly defined role and specific, measurable goals for learning and teaching. Their common language and understanding of instruction defines their work. Feedback guides the work they do and how they do it. Assessment of individual and collective performance informs what they do next. They rarely are overloaded, multi-task seldom, and year-over-year the school reports significant gains in student achievement. Everything adds up.

Teachers working at schools like the first inevitably figure out that the coping strategies they each construct actually do not lighten their respective loads. They come to understand that no effort to improve learning at the level of a classroom or beyond will possibly succeed unless the high-load challenge that teachers face is solved. Multi-tasking and maxed out, none of them can do more or perform better. So any improvement effort that heightens their load just makes what it seeks to improve worse.

For teachers in these schools the educational paradigm to which they adhere is the source of their load. The paradigm assigns each of them exclusive pedagogical responsibility for student learning. Their devotion to meeting that responsibility inevitably dooms them to careers of unattainable goals and high-load misery.

Six years ago, teachers at the second school chose to confront the dirty little secret. They began dispersing control for learning and teaching across all stakeholders, including students and parents. In short order, new and genuine commitments to roles, goals, practices, and processes, and tools were in place. Their toolkit makes the core educational work—teaching and learning—of the school powerful yet doable. They are a self-organizing school. Not surprisingly, school-wide performance is at an all time high and so is morale.

Improving education requires permanently liberating teachers from the painful and exhausting effects of their loads. Conjure all you want about fixing the prevailing educational paradigm; loads will not abate.

The time for a new paradigm is here. With stakeholders sharing responsibility for learning and teaching and having technological tools designed to enable, drive, and support their efforts, teachers can be more effective and energized. Teachers at the second school give us a glimpse of the new paradigm’s potential. Let us expose the dirty secret and change the conversation, and change the work of teachers, students, parents, and administrators so that all students can learn and be successful.


Note: This is the fourth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

DEAR KEVIN – The Learning Lessons Series


Dear Kevin,

Much time has passed and many miles have been travelled since the occasion of your high school graduation. I still fondly recall you beaming with pride as you walked across the stage to receive your diploma and shake hands with superintendent MacDonald. Oh the relief you must have felt, diploma in hand and goal achieved. Afterwards, what a good reason you had for celebrating with your parents, family, and friends.

In route to becoming the Class of 1980, my heart was warmed each time you and your classmates overcame a challenge. The private victories that propelled each of you toward commencement were well known to me, as were the defeats. That is why I, a first time school counselor with his first graduating class, was so elated when every member of your class graduated on time.

I vividly remember the first time you came to my office. It was early September of your ninth grade year—1976. Your teachers and classmates had mentioned you—a gentle, friendly, tall, and somewhat effeminate boy—to me as someone to keep an eye on. So that day, when you crossed my office door, I was ready (sort of). You had just failed an Algebra 1 exam. With tears flowing, you said, “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, provided comfort, and helped you regroup. The few Kleenex I had—I was not ready—went fast.

Soon, my office became your frequent destination. To each visit, you brought tears and I provided a friendly ear, reassuring words, and Kleenex (by the case). When you failed tests, tears flowed. Bullied or teased, tears flowed. Every visit had a “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, nodded, and doled out Kleenex

Your life changed, when, late in the first semester of your sophomore year, the humiliating incident in the locker room occurred. Legal action was swiftly taken and protections provided. But listening, nodding, and reassurances I knew would no longer suffice. The damage from the incident would linger and had to be dealt with. That is why during one of the many meetings that your parents, you, and I were having, I proposed referring you for psychological services and home study. For the first time, an “I don’t fit in here” accompanied your all too familiar, “I try, I really do.” Your parents and I agreed with both statements.

Well Kevin, you know the story. From that point on, you did more than try. With the help of psychological services, you came to terms with the incident. Soon after, when we formed a team to look at your academic and social functioning, your cooperation led to several breakthrough insights—dyslexia, poor emotional regulation, limited coping strategies, and inadequate adaptation skills for academic subjects. The team determined you to be bright and capable but lacking certain skills. Armed with those insights, the home study that I thought could be a waste of time, turned out to be a godsend. Accommodations were made, necessary skills mastered, course content learned, and exams passed. The following Fall, when school began, academic successes soon followed.

From then on, your visits to my office became more about strategies, tactics, and problem solving. Favorable progress reports replaced tears; portfolio items with passing grades replaced Kleenex. Your action-plan and the accommodations it made possible for you to really try to fit in—somewhat but enough.

Yes Kevin, your path to graduation had more challenges than the paths taken by your classmates. Your path had more lessons to learn. That is why, as you walked across the stage to get your diploma, the sense of accomplishment, relief, and celebration you felt were so sweet. Your classmates and teacher who honored your accomplish with a heartfelt applause would have benefited from some Kleenex, but the only Kleenex I had were soaking up the tears of admiration flowing down my cheeks.

Kevin, I am proud beyond words of what you did. This letter is testament to that fact. However, as you will now read, it is but part of the story.

Your life changes changed my life. Watching you encounter and overcome your challenges, made me aware of how difficult school can be for students. After seeing your difficulties, everywhere I looked were students struggling to overcome equally daunting challenges. Most of them, unlike you, do not succeed. I did what I could, but it was not enough. My conclusion? The educational system we have only works well for some students and teachers. Moreover, the system is impervious to change. So attempts to make the system work for more students and teachers will inevitably find friction, frustration, and failure.

This understanding has been my constant companion and source of passion since our time together. I carried it with me to nearly every state capitol, Washington DC, three-dozen countries, two technology companies, and several universities. As I did, every day I woke up thinking about you and other students for whom the educational system does not work. I spent my days working to create an education system in which all teachers are empowered and all students are educated well. Each night, before I go to sleep I reflect on what I did that day to make this dream come true.

Kevin, when I needed a teacher, you were mine. You taught me that trying, really trying might help a student survive, but if the student does not fit the system of which he is a part, then his path will be a tearful one. Kevin, I pledge to keep working to create a system that fits all students and works for all teachers. As I do, memories of you are in my heart.

With respect and gratitude,


Note: This is the 11th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES – The Learning Lessons Series


Look at the students in your classroom. Some have faces with beaming smiles. Others have faces with oozing pimples, festering frowns, or haunting hollowness. Each face tells a deep and personal story about its wearer. Each reflects a mind that comes to your classroom to learn the lesson of the day but must multitask on issues and concerns of other days and places.

Each face, story, and reflection is a reminder that a classroom of students is like a box of chocolates. “You never know what you are going to get,” as Forrest Gump so aptly says. Outwardly, the chocolates may look the same, but inside they vary and are diverse. Sometimes the box has a map with brief descriptors for each piece. Some pieces delight more than others. Some are eaten early and often, others later, and a few never.

At this point in the school year your students no longer appear similar. You are well into discovering what resides under the chocolate-like façade. You savor each student like you savor a chocolate in an assortment, taking the time and making the effort to discover its uniqueness. When you see a beaming smile, you appreciate it; a festering frown or haunting look, you understand.

Sometimes savoring the uniqueness of a student can cause apprehension. Perhaps, there are troublesome descriptors about a student in files and reports. Possibly prior experiences with a student may be cause for concern. It could be anecdotes from students or colleagues send up red flags. Other times savoring involves a student with special challenges that make learning difficult, accommodations necessary, and instruction tedious. Whatever and whenever apprehensions arise, pause to reflect:Maxwell quote

“Sounds good,” you say. “But what about the ones who aren’t successful. What do I do?”

Begin by recognizing that homework, test scores, and discussions about who is and is not gifted do not matter. What matters to a student is what we must understand and act upon. Understanding what matters is the foundation on which to build powerful instruction, high levels of learning, performance goals, and curricular standards that are accessible for all students, even the ones about which you are apprehensive. Quite likely, many such students lack the requisite skills for being successful. They need you, or someone like you, to help them through the challenge. This means meeting students where they are—inattentive, hyperactive, dyslexic, blind, deaf, abused, hungry, and on and on. This also means being in tune with the social-emotional needs of your students

“How to make this happen?” you ask.

On the foundation of understanding, convene a team. Connect with teachers who share your apprehensions. Engage school counselors. Consult school and district specialists. Ask your principal to allocate time for you to collaborate and support each other. Over time, patterns emerge. They reveal the squeezing of round-peg students into the square academic holes of an educational paradigm incapable of serving them.

Here, you must make a choice. Either keep pushing students into holes they will never fit, or start creating holes that fit them. Creating holes that fit students, involves teaching—that is what teachers do. Teach students how to cope, self-regulate, and resolve challenges and do so as subjects, much like their English, Mathematics, and Science counterparts, with scheduled classes and qualified teachers. In this way, safe places take shape where students can learn, grow, change, and fit in. Where their emotional, mental, and physical needs are paramount.

A good friend of mine, teaches The Zones of Self-Regulation to groups of her students. They discuss emotions and learn calm breathing techniques. Afterwards, she uses the Zones as a class check in. A student who is blue is bored or sad. Green signifies a student is calm and ready to learn. Yellow, the student is agitated and red, ready to fight or flee, not learn. My friend gives her greatest attention to students in the non-green zones. Sometimes she uses the zones to monitor a student throughout the day, intervening if the student falls out of the green zone.

“Okay, I get it,” you say. “But I am worn out.”

Of course you are exhausted. Teaching the students you have, the way you do, takes all your time and energy but fails to meet the educational needs of your students and you. You are in an all-in but going no-where situation that creates debilitating dissonance. Hit the pause button. Reflect, engage in self-care, clear out the clutter, and regroup. Remember that when in an airplane that is in trouble put on your oxygen mask before helping others.

“So what to do?” you say.

Start where you are, even if it is a lonely, solitary place. Work on yourself. Draw strength from your conviction. Do what you can with what you have to help your students. Grow from there. Seek feedback about your efforts. Make refinements, corrections, innovations, and experiments. Keep moving forward. As you do, teachers will be attracted to you because they understand the difference you are making. When teachers show up and want to join your team, tell them that empathy drives your interactions with students. Then say, “The students I have, are the ones I want to have. I understand that students who require the most love, often ask for it in the most unloving ways.”


Note: This is the tenth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

CONNECT THE DOTS – The Learning Lessons Series


school visit.001

One piece of information is a data point. A line connects two data points. A trend is a line with several data points. A pattern emerges when data points on a trend line accumulate.

As I briskly walk up the covered sidewalk to the public school building where my dear friend teaches, I give no thought to points, lines, trends, and patterns. Rather, my heart is full of excitement about a day watching elementary school teachers teach. I love spending time with teachers in classrooms. I do so as often as possible, but that is never enough.

A nice-to-be-with-you-again hug from my friend greets me at the door. Walking to a nearby conference room, we furiously catch each other up about our lives since my last visit here three years ago. She tells about her recent masters degree, presentation at ISTE, and her second baby, a boy. We arrive at the room before I can ask about her teaching and the school.

“Welcome Mark,” says the principal. After thanks-for-having-me, a cup of tea, and chitchat about her never-ending funding struggles, the principal lays out my day ahead. A morning of classroom observations, lunch with teachers, additional observations in the afternoon, ending with a weekly faculty meeting led by the principal.

First stop, kindergarten. Having been to the school often, I know the teacher and the route to her room. As I approach it,17 tiny people and a flustered aide, trying her best to remain calm, huddle together outside the classroom. Pushing past them, I go inside the room. There, I see a paint-splattered wall, an apparently tossed chair, clothing strewn across the room, and a half-naked boy cowering under a flipped-over table. “You’ll be okay,” says the teacher. “Help is on the way.” I have my doubts—data point.

Help arrives and things settle down. My next stop is a 6th grade classroom. There, the teacher greets me then quickly tells about today’s lesson Finding the Volume of Prisms in which she employs a cooperative learning approach. She starts teaching by presenting students with an overview of the lesson, its outcome, and rationale. Students receive leadership tasks, break into groups, and get to work. The teacher rotates from group to group. Then joining me at the side of the room, she quietly offers up insights—gifted, bilingual, ADHD, and so on—about her students. Nodding toward a girl, hood up over her head, the teacher says, “She has anxiety and obsessive issues dating back to earlier grades.” Then calls my attention to the lacerations on the girl’s arms as “worrisome signs of self-harm, and a possible risk of suicide”. The teacher is acutely aware of this, and other possibilities, in her classroom. Two data points, I wonder, “Does a line connect them?”

During lunch in the teachers’ lounge, I eavesdrop on conversations, while munching on my peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwich. The one about the Cavaliers-Celtics game last night is more smack talk than conversation. Another one is about teaching O-sounds. Around the lounge conversations bounce from Valentines Day to a sale at L.L. Beans and Weight Watchers’ new program. At a table in the corner of the lounge, a barely audible conversation is underway about a 4th grade student recently put into a group home due to parental abuse. Two teachers talk about the problems she has with peers and completing classwork. Three data points, same line, I ask, “Might this be a trend?”

Stomach full of food and head full of data points, I go to the 1st grade classroom. Arriving early, the teacher tells me about the lesson I will observe. Then she briefs me about her students. My ears perk up when she mentions a girl who startles at the sound of the bell and other loud noises. A recent immigrant from war-torn Syria, a non-English speaker, these noises can cause her to sob uncontrollably. “Hopefully, not today,” the teacher says. Four data points that connect. I ask myself, “What’s happening at this school?”

Next stop, the 5th grade classroom. Upon arriving the teacher quickly explains that he is in the midst of a problem-based lesson about the poaching of rhinoceros in the grasslands of Africa. In passing, the teacher warns that one student, if here today, may act out, could distract others, and possibly harm himself. Five points, I wonder, “Is this a trend?”

Returning to the main office, the principal is ready to go the faculty meeting. As we walk down the hall toward the conference room, I say, “How’d your day go”? Not missing a step she recounts a day full of behavior related incidents… an autistic student having a melt down… an ADHD student who is in time out for hitting several students…a boy not taking his antidepressants, and more. Nodding my head, trying to listen intently but struggling to walk fast enough to keep up with the principal, I conclude, “There’s definitely a trend here.”

Later, in the quiet of my home, I reflect on the data points from the school. Each point represents a challenge for a teacher. The best-designed lessons and most thoughtful instructional approaches are no match for an anxious, compulsive, depressive, suicidal, or over or under-medicated student.

I want to believe that children do well if they can. For the children who cannot do well, like it or not, we are their early warning system. The alarm that a child’s presenting behavior—inattention, laziness, moodiness, and disengagement—sets off is an  invitation for us to understand the behavior’s underlying cause and, in so doing, connect more deeply with the child. When each of us accepts the invitation, we meet the data points, lines, trends, and patterns of children’s behaviors with our corresponding points of empathy, lines of kindness, and patterns of understanding. In these intersections reside the lessons, skills, and knowledge for surviving school—and life. Let’s meet our children there.


Note: This is the ninth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

MY LIFE IS MY MESSAGE – The Learning Lessons Series

Gandhi.001I have long dreamt of a time when all students learn at high levels and every teacher is empowered to help her students do so. I dedicate my life to making this dream a reality. It is the basis of this blog and my twitter handle— @shiftparadigm.

When the dream becomes elusive and doubts arise, I grow weary and lack strength to push-on. In those darks moments, righteous souls from earlier eras—who stood true against overwhelming odds, met daunting challenges, and moved humanity forward—provide the youthful vigor I need to push on. They are the people Bob Dylan challenges us to become.Forever 1You know about whom I write. Their names—Adams, Mandela, Rousseau, Sweitzer, King, Mother Teresa, and so on—are on the honor roll of human history. All stood upright and courageous in the face of overwhelming odds to fight oppression, inequity, and ignorance. Only the educated are ever truly free was their common bond.

On the honor roll, a gold star is next to the name Mohandas Gandhi. It is there because in my absolute darkest moments, when the winds of changes shift, his is the story to which I turn. His life inspires and energizes me as does no other.

To a world rife with war and hatred, Gandhi brought a non-violent alternative. Its application helped nearly a quarter of the world’s population shuck the shackles of oppression and ignorance. Not surprisingly, at the height of Gandhi’s efforts—an era before the Internet, satellites, cell-phones, and televisions—people around the globe waited with baited breath to read the latest news from India. Every major newspaper from London to New York, San Francisco to Tokyo and Paris sent journalists to India to report about the civil disobedience of the Indians led by their gentle prophet, Gandhi.

There is a story, I do not know if it is true, about one such reporter. His assignment, interview Gandhi, then report back as soon as possible. Day after day—train stations, market places, along the highways and byways of India—he tirelessly pursues Gandhi. Week after week, mile after mile, to no avail.

Then one day, finally, face-to-face with the Mahatma stands the reporter. “I’ve travelled tens of thousands of miles to meet you,” he says to Gandhi. “The readers of my newspaper want to know what’s happening here in India.” Gandhi looks at the weary, sweat stained man standing before him. Feeling uncomfortable in the pregnant moment, the reporter says, “What message do you want to send them?” Solemn, still, and looking in the eyes of the reporter, Gandhi, says, “My life is my message.” With that, he turns and walks away, leaving the reporter with his long sought after story.

Invariably this story about Gandhi gives me strength to push on. It is a steadfast reminder that my actions speak louder than words. And that sometimes, as in the cases of Adams, Gandhi, Mandela, Rousseau, and others, actions speak volumes.

Gandhi’s lesson to me is that you need not question who I am, what I stand for, or what I am made of…all are visible in the way I live. Servitude, humility, and sacrifice, the themes of Gandhi’s life are as readily apparent today as they were at the time of his death. Each of us, birth to death, in our own way, walks a challenging path. Along that path, the challenges we encounter change.

Going deeper, looking back at my path, I see that in my youth, talk of “my life as a message” challenged me to dream. The messages of my students and colleagues’ lives showed me an educational system failing most of them and countless others. A system that works for all students and teachers—a shifted paradigm—was the audacious dream I dared to dream. Brazenly, I thought time is on my side and there is plenty enough to attain the dream.

Now, on the backend of life, with my biological clock ticking, unrealized dream, and the field of education as screwed-up as ever, I am, yet again, considering giving up. Enough, I could say. Like other people my age, I am entitled to retire. Forget about writing books, posting blogs, giving speeches, and leading workshops. Kick back, smell the roses, relax. Let other brings the dream to fruition by creating the necessary organizations, designing the requisite software, engaging disaffected teachers, and raising money.

So here I sit, pondering whether to push on. Wondering how would Adams handle this situation? What sacrifices would Schweitzer and Mother Theresa make? What ideas would Rousseau pen to paper? What steps would King take? How much would Mandela endure? What would Gandhi do? No doubt, each of these great souls was tempted many times to give up. If they were here with me now, I am certain they would admonish me to adapt to shifting winds, pick up the pace, joyfully purge complacency, and go deeper. Despair, doubt, and age—they surely would say—are no match for desire. Push on!

I am conflicted as to what to do next, an uncomfortable place for me. The dream of an educational system that works well for all students and teachers burns strongly in my heart. Its inevitable realization is likely happening sooner with than without me. Here, between the dream and its realization, is where I will write the message of my life.Forever 2


Note: This is the eighth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

Connecting Conferences and Classrooms


Do education-related organizations and the conferences they host work for you? Or do you work for them? Do they even work for education?

Tens of thousands of education-related organizations exist worldwide. Most fit into two general categories—professional associations and advocacy groups. Professional associations are comprised of people who take on similar tasks. Advocacy groups seek to influence public opinion or policy. Nearly every educational role or issue has an association or advocacy group. If you perform education-related work then you probably belong to at least one.

Associations and advocacy groups typically have a goal to benefit their members (you!). Their documents—by-laws, mission statements, job descriptions—that set forth their purpose, design, and governance reflect that goal. They guide the work of the organization. Staffing and activities, for example, should advance their purpose and directly benefit you.

What benefits do you realize from the education-related organizations to which you belong? The conferences you attend?

I asked this of several teachers and principals, educators on the front line of learning. To a person, they consistently reported two benefits: a great annual conference or convention (often in a fun location) and an informative magazine, newsletter, or web site. A few respondents, those serving on the board of an association or group, reported additional benefits of paid travel, networking opportunities, and speaking engagements.

One specific and crucial benefit the educators did not report was getting genuine help resolving the front-line challenges that they face every day in classrooms and schools. When I probed, they said that their top challenge is how might they—with limited time, energy, expertise, and funds—facilitate high levels of learning among all their students all the time. Since they did not report front-line challenges being taken up by an association or advocacy group to which they belong, it is not surprising that no public report has been made about such organizations significantly affecting the overall educational system (except, perhaps, in peripheral or indirect ways). After further probing, all said their organizations should accept some responsibility for helping members’ resolve school house challenges in ways that add up to overall improvements in instructional quality and learning outcomes.

The comments that educators did (and did not) provide suggest two scenarios worth pondering. One is a possibility that even though an organization may aspire to benefit all its members, an individual member might not, for a variety of reasons, actually accrue advantages beyond the aforementioned “benefits.” In this scenario, aspiration, and benefit, back-line and front-line, organization and member are misaligned.

Another possibility is more disconcerting. What if the organizations—which in the name of their members collectively generate and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, convene thousands of events, send countless communiqués, and advocate endlessly for educational issues—are, individually and collectively, incapable of genuinely helping members resolve front-line challenges? Ironically, both scenarios lead to the same place; questions whether belonging to an association or advocacy group will benefit a member in meeting such challenges.

What might those questions mean for you?

Not much, for example, if modern, digital technologies flatten your association or advocacy group and bring you and it together for the purpose of meeting those challenges. Membership and staff share operational control of the organization, generate, and process feedback about the work you perform, and prioritize the challenges taken up. You and your organization are co-evolving. So when your circumstances change, the organization adapts—and vice versa. For instance, if revenues go down, members step up by recruiting new members and raising additional funds. And if a new front-line challenge surfaces, then the organization adapts to meet it.

Sharing control and responding do not happen spontaneously. They result from members and organization sharing a professional understanding about the work they perform. This is only possible when relevant, digital technologies are a distinct and intentional part of the design and operation of the organization. When that is the case, the what, why, and how an organization accomplishes things and addresses the frontline needs of its members is quite different from the what, why, and how most organizations do things. Within these differences resides the identity of the boss. And the boss determines what you get from your association, advocacy group, or conference.


 Note: This is the fourth post in the Shift Paradigm series—providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

Had Enough? Occupy A Classroom, Change Education


Occupy Wall Street’s non-violent attempts to change the private sector suggest that similar tactics can be applied to America’s public K-12 education system.

This is an intriguing possibility given that nationwide just two of three students graduate school on time. Further, of those who do graduate on time, approximately one in 10 needs pullout remedial help, another one in 10 requires special accommodations, and yet another one in 10 is under-challenged. These numbers reveal an educational system that works poorly for half the school-age population. For urban areas, the numbers are worse.

Since the 1950s, getting from a system that educates some students well (let’s call it “A”) to one that educates all students well (“B”) has been the preferred outcome of countless reform efforts. During this time, while attempt after attempt worked in an occasional classroom or school, wide-scale achievement of B was elusive. Now, however, B is achievable.

Two sets of circumstances show this to be the case. The first involves tight school budgets and teachers perpetually overloaded by bureaucratic policies, inadequate resources, public derision, and jam-packed classrooms. The second includes how schools are organized and education delivered, not teachers per se, not supporting the work necessary to get to B. Certainly, such circumstances are dire. They also generate hope.

An educational system that doesn’t work for most children and youth when budgets are maxed out and teachers are overloaded is a perfect target for the non-violent approaches Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King used to break the chains of colonialism and bigotry in their respective times and countries. Gandhi led millions of Indians to self-rule by showcasing the precarious situation of their British overlords. His simple non-violent actions made the precariousness clear. When Gandhi’s compatriots followed suit, Indian self-rule occurred soon after. Similarly, King realized that civil-rights advocates, by occupying, sitting-in, and striking could callout discrimination and bigotry thus advancing the dream of equality.

Our educational state is analogous to colonial India and pre-civil rights America in that those most disaffected by the current system are now a majority. Imagine how quickly a shift from A to B would be made if, the millions of children and youth nationwide who are eligible to attend school, but currently do not, systematically and intentionally occupied the very classrooms to which they are legally entitled. Moreover, imagine if they joined forces with their remediated, accommodated, and under-challenged peers and overloaded and underappreciated teachers. The neat-rowed classrooms they’d occupy would be shown to have neither sufficient space nor teaching capacity for educating them all.

Further, the sudden influx of students would skew the attendance-based formulas that allocate taxpayer dollars for schools, putting cities and states at financial risk. The non-violent occupiers, all possessing a legal right to an education, would leave the educational system no choice but to reconfigure itself to better serve all students. Such a paradigm shift would be comparable to those brought about by Gandhi and King.

The numbers of lives being wasted should be reason enough to set course immediately for B. Concerns about classrooms being occupied and cities and states going bankrupt should spawn urgency for getting there. The underserved majority will lead the way.


Note: This is my third post in the Shift Paradigm category, dedicated to providing fresh perspectives on longstanding issues in the field of education. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.