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.

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.

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.


Come through.001

In Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, Alice leaps into a topsy-turvy, alternate world. A giant chessboard with fields for squares and chess pieces as characters, across which Alice, herself a pawn, must journey to become a Queen and wake up at home again. Along Alice’s journey, the experiences she has and characters—including Humpty Dumpty, March Hare, and Hatter—she meets blow her mind. Teachers who step through the looking glass of technology find a wonderland of education, as mind-blowing as the world Alice encounters.

Thanks to computers, software, and the Internet, educational priorities, values, and roles are upside down and inside out. Cookie-cutter classrooms are no more.

Classrooms that were once places are now processes. Workstations and computer labs are gone, portable devices with wireless access have taken their place. Instead of the once standard school-day-week-year with corresponding courses, bells, and periods there is anywhere anytime learning.

In these classrooms, teachers jettison one-size-fits-all stand-and-deliver instruction that they once relied on. Replacing it with personalized and authentic learning approaches. They give and receive timely feedback—frequently. They use data from the feedback to refine, differentiate, compensate, and enrich their teaching. No longer recitation taskmasters here they are guides for students and partners in learning. Groupthink is unthinkable, collaboration the norm.

On this side of the looking glass every student from Ottawa, Ontario to Ankeny, Iowa and Yuma,  Arizona is one click away from most every resource necessary for learning most everything. Roles and functions blur so students and teacher are learners. Technologically enabled and instructionally empowered, students morph from capitulators of facts into synthesizers of information and creators of knowledge. They use easy-to-use software to show their mastery of concepts, topics, and skills. The artifacts of their learning—images, videos, recordings, documents, and more—reside in digital portfolios that document their mastery and progress. Not surprisingly, here all students learn at high levels all the time.

Parents? On this side of the glass parents are active participants in their children’s learning and instruction. Through their child’s portfolio, parents monitor their child’s progress and communicate with teachers and other parents. They use it to provide and receive regular feedback, early warnings should things go awry, and accelerate should opportunities afford.

After stepping through, Alice struggles. She is an innocent child in a nonsensical adult world. She finds thinking and reasoning to be quite different here. To survive, Alice must adapt —play by new rules, learn a new language, and engage with a new, seemingly senseless, and oftentimes unpredictable order.

Much like Alice, teachers who step, fall, or are pushed through struggle to understand their new and apparently nonsensical world. Calm, quiet, and peaceful yet rapidly spinning to and fro from the changes wrought by technology, it is a seemingly absurd and surprisingly logical place.

What to do? Where to begin? Let’s ask Alice.

The way forward, as Alice discovers, involves awareness and adaptation. Finding herself in new surroundings, Alice adjusts to it in the “head”. She begins by rethinking her identity. Because, as she says, “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” The same happens to a teacher who identifies as a teacher but once through the looking glass must adjust to being a student and partner too.

As Alice shows, rethinking leads to growth and maturation. But, as she also shows, rethinking can be confusing and uncomfortable. Being ten feet tall was not comfortable, Jabberwocky with its bright colors and gibberish words calming. Problems familiar and solvable on one-side of the glass are, on the other side, puzzling and logic defying. That is why Alice, upon stepping through, feels directionless and tremendously alone. She has no support system, does not speak the language, and is unfamiliar with the terrain.

A teacher stepping into the high-tech world of education feels the same. If you are a teacher who has stepped through you know this to be true. You also know that, as does Alice, lacking direction and being lonely are temporary conditions.

Curiosity pulls Alice through the looking glass. Curiosity moves her forward and brings her back out. With a questioning and open mind, Alice greets various characters. Learning a lesson from each that enables her to move across the chessboard, Alice becomes a Queen, and wakes up at home.

Those of us who have met the characters, learned the lessons, successfully navigated the high-tech wonderland of education do not need to go back through the looking glass, as Alice did, to stay. Rather we must go back and come through again and again, each time bringing with us a teacher or two. By showing them the way through and sharing lessons about what to do once there, we enable the teaching profession and the field of education to grow and mature. This is the wonderland of learning each of us seeks.


Note: This is the seventh 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 — The Shift Paradigm Series


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.



When teachers are not connected to meaningful and supportive relationships they often feel isolated. If you teach, you know this to be true. Tending classrooms filled with diverse students leaves a teacher with little time for bathroom breaks and no time for professional growth and engagement. A reality that poorly designed meetings, teaming, and programming—in which a teacher is required to participate at their school—further exacerbates the disenfranchisement and marginalization she feels. All this affects her teaching and the learning of her students.

A growing number of teachers, disconnected within their respective schools, are seeking connections elsewhere, often via social media. Twitter is a popular option. With a few clicks, a teacher equipped with Twitter, can connect with people and events anywhere and everywhere.

Teacher use of Twitter follows a predictable pattern. First she does a tweet, then a like, a retweet, and a follow, next up is a #hashtag chat, followed by a direct message. Nearly every teacher who reaches this point has a Velcro moment.

Understanding the significance of a Velcro moment requires understanding the functionality of Velcro. Its hook-covered strips easily connect with corresponding loop-covered ones. Velcro’s press and pull functionality—complementary, secure, simple—epitomizes connectivity.

A teacher, who, like a Velcro strip, seeks her corresponding workplace relationships but fails to find it, is disconnected. That is why a teacher, ensconced in her Twitter enabled Velcro moment, says, “Even though we have yet to meet, and despite the distance separating us, I know you, and you know me.” The connection she experiences is a match waiting to happen and meant to be. So with each ensuing tweet, like, retweet, and direct-message the teacher’s feelings of disenfranchisement, marginalization, and isolation abate. A Skype session or Google hangout awaits them, as do edCamps, meetUps, and unconferences.

For a previously disconnected teacher, a Velcro moment is exhilarating. The bond she forges in the moment stands in stark contrast to the mind-numbing interactions she often experiences in staff rooms and school hallways. Connecting with people, who validate and inspire the teacher to grow and think anew spurs her to seek more Velcro moments. She finds the relative ease and impermanent flexibility with which she has Velcro moments with other teachers empowering and addictive (in a positive way).

Close physical proximity of teachers is no guarantee of professional growth and engagement and resultant student learning. Extensive evidence supports this statement. The recent experiences of teachers equipped with social media and energized by Velcro moments, point to a way forward to less isolation, better instruction, and higher levels of student learning through connectivity. Blazing a trail may prove to be the single greatest contribution our generation of teachers makes to the field of education.

The profound beauty of the seemingly trivial clicks, tweets, chats, and hangouts is the connections and Velcro moments they afford. It is in those moments that teachers take charge of their lives and the future of education. Let’s learn this lesson.


Note: This is the fourth 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.


In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.


“Hold my hand,” Mom says. As we start descending the steep stairway to the musty basement of the Methodist Church. Holding my hand, a plate of fresh baked cornbread balancing on her other hand, Mom deftly navigates each step despite wearing her highest heels. Her floral dress celebrates the peony blooms that punctuate our little town on this sunny day in June.

It is a first Friday. Women’s Circle meets this day each month. Mom, by virtue of marriage to the church’s pastor, must attend.

“Hurry up. We mustn’t be late!” Mom says as we reach the last step. Scooting down the hallway, fellowship hall in sight, she reminds me of the unspoken, but strictly enforced rule about meetings of the church ladies. They wait until Mom arrives. A rule, that with ten minutes to spare, we do not invoke this morning.

At precisely eleven o-clock, Mildred, the chief church lady stands. She says, “Bow your heads, let’s pray.” She then proceeds to lay a blessing for everybody and everything on the 37 women and 9 children present. Prayer done, the ladies line up for lunch. Bertha, with blue hair and a gingham dress to match, begins gathering us children together.

Now, I may be only five-years old and have yet to experience many meetings, but I do have eyes. As I look around, the mannerisms of the ladies—a whisper here, a chat there, a few hugs, and some teary eyes—reveal that this is not a meeting in the usual sense of the word. Rather, it is a much-needed respite from the day-to-day toils of the small town life. Each weekday morning their husbands head off to work. They remain home, caring for children and family, preparing meals, tending gardens, and minding the house. Some make clothes and quilts. A few work jobs outside the home like the men do.

You need not be an adult to see the Circle’s highly evolved nature. What began, as a bible study group—with periodic projects—is now a convenient place for women to support each other, exchange gossip, and break bread. The real business of the circle is women making other women’s business their business.

Children, like me, are a big part of the women’s business and a reason they need support. To enable women with young children to attend meetings, older women volunteer to care for the children. This day, Bertha is up. In a room near the Fellowship Hall, Bertha enthusiastically teaches us about Zacchaeus, how to play Button-Button, and sing Jacob’s Ladder. We, like our mothers and their compatriots, have a grand time.

Or so I thought.

Later, during dinner, Mom tells Dad about a comment that a woman at the meeting had made to her. Then she tells how another woman had made a similar comment at the meeting last month, as had yet another woman at the meeting before that one. The thrice repeated-comments pertain to me, “I’m so sorry about Mark Edward” (Dad and I have the same name so that is what the church ladies call me). With furrowed brow, Dad says, “Come to think of it, several people have said that to me too.”

Unable to discern the comments’ meaning, to bed I go. Leaving Dad and Mom to solve the problem. Next morning, sitting at the kitchen table, digging through a bowl of cheerios, I wonder why everyone is sorry.

My wondering stops suddenly when Dad rushes in. Just back from the café on the square where he shared coffee with some men, Dad says, “Mystery solved.” Then tells Mom, Pamela, and I that people feel sorry for he and Mom, and do so because they believe I am slow for my age…emotionally, socially, physically, and intellectually inept.

Mom smiles. Dad laughs. Both talk about how my height—taller than boys two years older than me—might lead people who see me with older, same height boys to conclude I am slow and clumsy.

Mom, being my mom, knows there is nothing slow about me. The gleam in her eyes says she looks forward to the many accomplishments of her big boy and to future encounters with the church ladies. The makings of a poignant sermon are percolating in Dad’s head.

As for me, in my Heartland, and in my long journey of joy and adversity, my family knows me best. Slow or tall, their unconditional love lights the path and charts the course for Mark Edward, and that feels perfect.

Mark Edward

Note: This is the second post in the Heartland Series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

Shift Paradigms – Quit Failing Technology


Education is failing technology. Yes, you read that correctly. Education is failing technology.

To understand why this is the case, not vice versa, requires understanding what the research literature makes clear: It is possible to get all children learning at levels beyond their respective aptitudes. The same literature, however, makes clear that such levels of learning rarely occur outside one-to-one tutoring settings. Let’s unpack these seemingly contradictory statements to shed light on why education is failing technology and what we can do about it.

Nearly three decades ago, Benjamin Bloom (author of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives) led a research effort to find methods of group instruction that were as effective as one-to-one tutoring through which students performed two standard deviations higher than their classroom educated peers. Bloom named the target of his search the 2-sigma problem. The research-based solution he found was simple, yet profound. If certain instructional practices are used and specific conditions met then one teacher, instructing a group of students in a classroom, could help the students attain 2-sigma. The practices he identified that make 2-sigma possible include reinforcement, cues and explanations, corrective feedback, and cooperative learning. The conditions include student classroom-participation, student time on task, and classroom morale.

Despite Bloom’s work and thousands of subsequent studies by other researchers (e.g., John Hattie, Robert Marzano) that demonstrate the positive effect that specific practices and conditions have on classroom learning, 2-sigma remains a rare attainment for teachers. This is largely because in the current educational paradigm individual teachers must shoulder a disproportionate share of the pedagogical load for making 2-sigma happen.

The organizational and operational design of most schools—that make load sharing nearly impossible for 2-sigma oriented teachers–exacerbates the teacher-load conundrum. In such schools, a teacher trying to take a classroom of 30 students to 2-sigma must make it happen alone. That is a lot for an already heavily laden teacher to do; a load even heavier if that teacher lacks the emotional, intellectual, or pedagogical wherewithal for unilaterally taking on 2-sigma. That these circumstances exist at all is a failure of the field of education, not the teacher. This failure is quite ironic given the intense pressure placed on the education field to get teachers to produce ever-greater student learning and achievement, mostly in the form of improved test scores.

When viewed through a produce-greater-student learning lens, school-level support for all teachers, especially the 2-sigma seeking ones, may be the most pressing, yet least recognized educational challenge of our era. My colleague Alan Bain and I call that challenge 2:X. Sadly, classrooms and schools are not designed for meeting the 2:X challenge.

What can we do? The answer involves technology. Without its powerful benefits teachers face the same predicament and the educational paradigm stays the same.

During the past two decades many technologies have entered our lives. The technologies brought with them lofty expectations for transformation of classrooms and schools. Implicit in such expectations are beliefs that teachers and students with access to and mastery of technology would transform education.

While some evidence suggests that the personal lives of teachers and students have changed as a result of new technologies, little evidence shows their educational lives changing much. Technology has exerted little overall effect on educational settings and the teaching and learning in them. Student achievement test scores remain flat, school completion rates have not declined, and instruction remains mostly teacher-led in classrooms with neat-rowed desks.

The minimal effect that technology has had on teaching and learning is a failure of the field of education not a failure of technology. Teachers who strive to take their classrooms of students to 2-sigma, but have no school-level supports know this well. Further, those teachers know that the technology available to them barely connects to the real work that they do every day and the extra work they must do to make 2-sigma happen. And they readily admit that in many instances the technology that they do have actually increases their load. Not surprisingly, data show teachers rarely using technology in their classroom instruction.

What most teachers do not realize is that the lack of support for their efforts to attain 2-sigma and the ineffectual technology they are given are symptoms of a much more pervasive failure. The field of education failing to acknowledge its own research about what works and failing to investigate and build consensus about how to take what works to scale. This failure of scale limits the field’s ability to provide direction to the technology industry. It in turn limits the industry’s ability to help schools attain 2:X and teachers attain 2-sigma.

Fortunately, these circumstances are alterable.

The way forward starts with you, me, and other like-minded educators embracing Bloom’s and other researchers’ findings about the practices and conditions that have the most powerful effects on teaching and learning. Then, girded with these findings, we push, pull, and prod to secure school-level commitments so those practices and conditions become the basis for organizational and operational designs and decisions. In turn, the designs and decisions support putting technologies in place that enable teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to generate emergent feedback about the school-level support they receive and guide further refinement of their efforts.

The necessary shifts in educational thought, theory, and action require that our field demand technologies for extending, connecting, and developing the capacities of teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to benefit from the research of Bloom and others.

Sound preposterous? Perhaps it is. Anything less, however, reinforces past failures.


Note: This is my second 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.