Managers Do Not Take Risks. Leaders Do.


With 3D printers whirring in the background and the smell of laser-cut wood fresh in the air, a group of dedicated  teachers and students sat at a workstation to write a mantra for our Makerspace. Inspired by a process documented by Kevin Jarrett, the task took us only 20 minutes. My first thought was that we had defied the “rules” of change management.  Looking back now, however, I began to understand that change is not something that necessarily follows a linear process.

“You didn’t really have a plan for your Makerspace, did you?” a colleague said to me a few months ago. Conventional wisdom suggests that technology planning needs to begin with a vision of what the learning outcomes will look like. The vision development process must have input from, and be shared with, all the key stakeholders in the community. “Begin with the end in mind” is the oft-repeated key for success. It is not unusual to hear school leaders say that they can’t move forward until they have a clear vision and path defined. While knowing exactly where you are headed is ideal, I suspect it is becoming increasingly impossible in today’s dynamic world. The certainty of long range planning seems a thing of the past.  As David Price has remarked, “We know only two things for certain. The first is that we should learn to embrace uncertainty…. The second is that if all the old certainties are gone, then we have to be open to radical shifts in how we work, live and learn.”

Last year, as we started planning for a new Design Studio for our middle school, we knew that there were tools our students could use to make, design, create and prototype; we knew that we wanted creators, not consumers, and I suppose that was largely the extent of the initial vision we had. We were not certain how these machines  worked, or what students would do with them, but we knew if we got those tools into the hands of students and teachers, something great would happen. Our ultimate ambition was to create opportunities for our students and teachers and to empower them to take advantage of this potential. We spent a great deal of time researching 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl printers. We read voraciously, attended conferences, connected with experts in our PLN. Perhaps, more than anything, we had endless conversations with colleagues about the potential of our somewhat raw vision. We assembled a team that included teachers from the art, mathematics, science, theatre and technology departments.  The team visited several fab labs in our city, had some basic training, made key local connections, asked for a lot of advice.  Even after this preparation, we all agreed that we would not really know what would happen until we were fully immersed in it. But the team had some critical ingredients: enthusiasm, energy, a huge sense of fun, a major desire to do awesome things for our students, and a massive desire to learn and take risks. At our school, we call this culture.

We secured the support of our Board, we brought in some alumni to help us design the studio: the space became a reality. We bought the machines, and slowly learned how to use each one, teachers and students learning together. The team connected with other makers on Instructables to find ideas for projects, and then contributed their own ideas to the maker community. We made mistakes, we laughed, and we learned. The lab has been running for seven months now, and we wrote the mantra three days ago. In just 20 minutes our vision was clear and, for the first time, defined. It struck me that we were recording the results of a learning process that was messy, but ultimately rewarding in a studio that would not exist for those who insist on knowing all the answers before beginning an ambitious project.

Some might argue that that we really should have established the vision first, that we got lucky. I believe we had a critical component in place that was more important than vision – a culture of learning, of collaboration, of taking risks, of doing the right thing for students. Wanting to know all the answers before embarking on change is the domain of managers, not leaders.The difference, according to Tony Wagner, is this: “Managers do not take risks. Leaders do. They model the behaviors of learning, collaboration, effective teaching, and risk-taking that they expect of their teachers.”

There is no denying that vision plays an important role in leadership. Our mantra now proclaims the kind of learners we want our students and teachers to be. It is a mantra not just for our Design Studio, but for our school. Ironically, it articulates the very journey we took in establishing our program this year. We were able to get there, because the culture of the school supported the type of learning, discovery and risk-taking needed to make the transformational changes our digital world demands. As educators, we need to model the kind of learning we want for our students. If we wait to know all the answers, we will be left with only questions.



Creating the Space for Change: The Entrepreneurial Spiral


A group of colleagues who recently returned from a conference on innovative learning practices assembled a thoughtful collection of reflections upon their return. Two powerful statements resonated with me:

“It reminded us that we must be open to new ideas, create the space for change and own any challenges/ mistakes we make as we learn how to integrate technology and drive education forward to meet the needs of our students.”

“I look forward to continuing the conversation and helping to create an energised community around innovation.”

Clearly, these colleagues are ready to embrace change, and energised to work with their peers to share their learning. I suspect many of us feel the same way after returning from successful  professional learning experiences. However, so often, this potential is wasted. Even if a teacher applies their new knowledge to their personal practices, rarely does it translate to school-wide change. And yet, sometimes inspired teachers can have a significant impact on a school’s culture. How can schools leverage the spark and drive of new learning so that its impact can spread?

In the world of business, there has been much discussion of the entrepreneurial spiral, a process by which new ideas are initiated by a few individuals and eventually spread to the entire organisation. In the school context, an entrepreneurial spiral might begin when a principal, superintendent, technology director, etc. learns of a new concept, strategy, or technology, and then strives to get the remainder of the organisation onboard. As these new ideas gain traction, and the leader enjoys a degree of success, they may then have the confidence to keep pushing more innovative or entrepreneurial ideas forward (Shepherd et al., 2010).  Entrepreneurial spirals may also start at the teacher, or grassroots level.  However,  if the leadership does not champion the innovation or provide the resources to continue it, then the initial effort often results in “islands of innovation” where some excellent teachers embrace new practices while others continue with the status quo (Albion, Tondeur, Forkosh-Baruch, & Peeraer, 2015).

The good news for schools is that innovative ideas can grow and evolve either from “top down” or from “bottom up” initiatives. The key to success of the spiral in either direction? Leadership structure and support.   Finding ways to support innovative teachers is a key role for school leaders. As Edgar Schein remarked, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture and the [critical work] of leaders is their ability to work with culture.” Michael Fullan, a leading expert on the change process in schools,  describes the leadership conditions  that will enable the entrepreneurial spiral to thrive: “Leading in a culture of change means creating a culture (not just a structure) of change. It does not mean adopting one innovation after another. It does mean producing the capacity to seek, critically assess and selectively incorporate new ideas and practices – all the time“ (Fullan, 2001).

At our school, sending a cohort of colleagues to a conference is one way in which we provide professional support. But that is simply the beginning. The real work lies in continuing the conversation with this group, and providing them with opportunities to continue to share their learning with their colleagues. We will seek their feedback on additional new ideas, each step of the way, widening the spiral of influence as we go.  Organisational innovation can come from anywhere, but it demands effective leadership in order for it to become truly effective.


Albion, P. R., Tondeur, J., Forkosh-Baruch, A., & Peeraer, J. (2015). Teachers’ professional development for ICT integration: Towards a reciprocal relationship between research and practice.Education and Information Technologies, 20(4), 655-673. doi: 10.1007/s10639-015-9401-9

Shepherd, D. A., Patzelt, H., & Haynie, J. M. (2010). Entrepreneurial spirals: Deviation-amplifying loops of an entrepreneurial mindset and organizational culture. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 34(1), 59-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6520.2009.00313.x


Why Can’t School Be Like This Everyday?


“The real driver for creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself. When students are motivated to learn, they naturally acquire the skills they need to get the work done” – Ken Robinson

It was the end of a long, and exciting day at our school.  In the Zone was an event designed to provide students and teachers with opportunities to explore ways of learning that will help them develop key skills centred around: creating, innovating, designing, communicating, media literacy and life balance.  It was the result of nearly a year of thinking, planning and learning. By all accounts, it was a huge success, and the shared excitement between students and teachers hung palpably in the air as we reached the end of the day . It was at this point that a ninth grade student asked a simple question: “Why can’t school be like this everyday?”

School change is not easy. But a takeaway from that day, is that re-envisioning  learning everyday  is an attainable goal. We had designed a day to focus on the skills that we know students will need not only for their future, but also for their present. Isn’t this what school should be like everyday?

We didn’t define Science objectives, yet students learned about circuits to build their light boxes. We did not give practice problems, yet students problem-solved as they created video games and designed remote control cars. They communicated their ideas using voice, body and words. We created supportive  environments for exploration, risk-taking, creative expression and collaboration, and the learning took care of itself.

Moving on from that day, our faculty have embraced these ideas and worked to incorporate them in and across subject areas. We are currently redesigning our schedule to provide longer blocks for more in-depth learning activities, and time in which students may explore personal learning. We are empowering teachers to abandon outmoded practices and content to make room for more sustained, meaningful learning.  We have refined our vision to include a digital presence for each student that will enable them to to develop a personal learning network and share their learning globally.

In The Zone was an amazing and exciting day. Had we let it be just one day, it would have been a memorable event. Yet it has become more than that. The day is now a roadmap that describes what we want learning to look like everyday.  We know where we have to go, and our students would like us to get there soon. The difficult question might be, how do we get there? A good starting point, I would suggest, might be to start as George Couros suggests:

“Let’s start asking kids to find problems and give them a sense of purpose in solving something authentic.”

Moreover, let’s listen to the powerful questions our students are asking and act on them.

“Why can’t school be like this everyday?”


Aligning Vision and Schedules: Tackling Obstacles to Modern Learning


“Wait! Hold on! I just need a few more minutes! I want to get this just right…”                        a Middle School student working on a video project when the bell rings

Somewhere along the road to embracing an ambitious vision that will improve student learning one is often confronted with an inevitable tension between the status quo and the need to disrupt the most fundamental aspects of the school day. Our vision for learning involves providing greater student agency, opportunities to empower our learners through personal learning, individual passions, meaningful action, and modern learning. We asked ourselves: how do we best prepare our students for the challenges ahead? More critically, how do we provide them with the skills, the beliefs, the mindset to help solve the challenges that will face them? We started with a two-year process of changing our assessment system to include focus on formative feedback and authentic contexts. We renovated our learning spaces to provide for collaboration and flexible grouping. We adopted technologies that supported the type of learning defined in the vision. Each of these changes was possible because we had a clear learning vision for our students and because we work with a group of teachers who have collectively established a culture of excellence that puts students first. And yet, we knew we had to do more. We needed to create time for students to pursue their personal learning interests. We needed to give students time to delve into authentic learning in depth. We needed to disrupt on a grand scale. Time was of the essence.

Schedules are notorious scapegoats. With the usual constraints of lunch times, buses, shared facilities and teachers, leaders have long used scheduling elements to end the change conversation.  “We can’t bring about that change. The schedule just won’t let us.” As if the schedule has a life and will of its own. Of course, the devil is in the details. In fact, we spent three days in the scheduling underworld. The process was exhausting, and I’ve been thinking about why that is. School leadership can be tiring business on the best of days: why was the process of building a new schedule so utterly exhausting? Colleagues I speak to assume it is about the intensity of hours sitting at the computer, making sure that each click and tick is accurate. Certainly, that is part of it, but I am convinced that is only part, in fact, the smaller portion of the challenge.

The most tiring part of scheduling resides in all of the decisions that go along with each click and tick. Building a schedule is an essential component of a good school. Only the quality of teachers is more important than how we choose to allocate our learning time. Each decision must be guided by student learning first and foremost. Often the easiest solution is one that compromises this principle by limiting student choices, for example. Options that may make things easier for part-time teachers may block student access to certain classes. Small groups of students may require schedules that consume valuable resources that might benefit larger groups. What is pedagogically ideal may be realistically problematic. Quite often, easy decisions are not in the best interests of students. Each decision along the way requires consideration of a complex variety of perspectives and implications. These decisions require a clear, consistent learning vision that serve as a roadmap one is obligated to remain faithful to.

“Wait! Hold on! I just need a few more minutes! I want to get this just right…” This is a comment I heard while teaching a film production class. The student simply wanted to make sure that the music, images and effects were perfectly aligning to convey her message. When students become highly engaged in work that has real purpose, time disappears as they strive to produce the best possible result. Scheduling is the process of operational compromise, but we should never compromise on what is best for students. Changing the school day for teachers is an exhausting process that requires change management, but it is the business of making future decisions that impact student learning that is the most demanding work a leader can do.


Reflections on a Journey: Professional Learning


When I started teaching in the early 1990s, I lived with my best friend who was also a beginning teacher. We were both eager learners and readers, and professional reading was an important part of our development as teachers. We didn’t have many options for getting our hands on recent publications, and many were too expensive for us, but we were determined to keep learning. So about once every six months or so, we would take a trip to our Professional Learning Mecca, the bookshop at Columbia’s  Teacher’s College. We would take an hour long train ride to Grand Central Station. Then the 2 or 3 to Washington Heights, and walk to the corner of Broadway and 120th. It wasn’t a very big place, but we could spend hours there combing through the place to select one book each, or maybe two, depending on the current finances. We found Attwell, Graves, Darling-Hammond, Hayes Jacobs. We treasured those books and they made me feel connected to the current thinking in my profession. Looking back, we were lucky. At least we had that bookshop, (which no longer exists, sadly).

I am still an avid professional reader, just now the process looks vastly different. My Twitter feed is a constant source of interesting articles and blog posts. Yes, there is still a list of writers that I return to regularly, as well as a combination of people whose writing I read when I happen across it. Some reading is from professional organizations, some from experts, some from teachers in the classroom. All are important learning pieces for me. And I get to read other’s thoughts on these ideas, and add my own. So very far from highlighting what I liked in a book, or reading it aloud to my distracted roommate.

Of course I still read books. Most of them are recommended by people in my Twitter feed, some are even written by them. These days, I “Buy now with 1-Click” and have them on my Kindle without even having to rouse the dog sleeping on the couch next to me. And I rarely spend more than 20 USD.  

I am more connected than I could ever imagine, to educators in all corners of the world. Part of my work is encouraging other educators to experience and grow from building their own learning networks. It is not always easy to help them embrace this new landscape. Often I think, how lucky we are now.

And, yes, the friend that I shared the book adventure train rides with is still one of my best friends, despite our being separated by oceans for nearly 20 years. Some things never change.

Photo Credit:: Grand Central Station Interior, 1954. Associated Press

There’s more than one way to cook a turkey

turkey cooking

Someone asked me a question recently: “Tell me about something new you have learned this year and how you learned it?”  At first my mind went to something I had discovered on Twitter, and some other technology-related skills, but then I thought of something that really put me out of my comfort zone. Like most learning, this was personal: I cooked a turkey for the first time. I was hosting Christmas dinner at my place for the first time, and this was going to be key to the success of the day.

How did I learn to do it? The first thing I did was Google for a recipe. I included the words “easy” and “beginner” in my search. I read several recipes, from sites like the Food Network and BBC Food and watched a handful of step-by-step videos. I read the comments left by other community members about the recipes, and got some other perspectives. I admired the confidence of other cooks who added and adjusted without fear. Of course, I sought advice from local friends. I had a Skype call with our family expert, my younger brother, Paul, which led to an animated discussion on the relative merits of frying or brining. I opted for neither, despite his encouragement, but know that I might try these techniques once I get more experience. On the day, I selected a cooking method and recipe that I felt comfortable with, using ideas from my variety of assembled sources. I have all of these sources pinned to a Pinterest page, ready for hosting at my next family holiday, ready to share my learning with others.

I did this without a second’s thought about process, until I was asked that recent question about how I continue to learn. This set me thinking about how this process differed from the way my mother learned to roast a turkey. She learned primarily from her own local expert, her mother. And her mother learned the identical process from my great grandmother. They may have consulted a cookbook, certainly not more than one or two, probably written by Julia Child, a favorite of the time. She would have learned primarily by watching my grandmother.

Mom and I both learned how to roast a turkey. Both of us were motivated by a need to learn this skill. Unlike my mother, I had a variety of open sources and opinions to consult. I was able to combine and create a procedure that worked for my level of expertise, and I have some ideas of how and where I might extend my culinary learning if I would like expand my repertoire.

We know it is time to embrace learning opportunities that technology affords us. The one-size-fits-all deliver-the-learning approach is obsolete, so what should learning look like now? Perhaps there is something to be learned from my turkey experience. We need to provide opportunities for students to decide what they would like to learn, and then provide them with the time, space, resources and guidance in order for them to reach their goals. All of this must be built on a foundation of nurturing relationships. In essence, self-directed, self-selected learning experiences that result in a tangible product or action should be at the heart of education in our digital word.

Mission Critical: Lifelong Learning


“We want our students to become lifelong learners.”

This is a phrase that features prominently in many school vision and mission statements. We know that learning to learn will be key to our students futures as they “learn, relearn and unlearn” in a digital landscape that is exponentially accelerating the amount of knowledge at our disposal. In fact, this is not a mindset that we need students to adapt for the future, it is one they need today so that they may fully embrace the opportunities of the connected world. How do we genuinely ensure that students can become independent learners? To begin, we must ensure that all adults in the system can model modern learning themselves and, to do this, we need to shift much of our current thinking about professional learning.

Many schools and districts, my own included, schedule “PD days” each year, as if professional learning is an event that occurs only on specific days and dates. The model of attending hour-long sessions on pedagogy, technology tools or instructional strategies is alive and well, despite the fact that the research on this type of professional development has long shown it has little lasting or significant impact on teacher practice or, more precisely, on student learning. Despite intuitively knowing this, we continue to send faculty to conferences with optimistic hopes of learning infusion and school improvement.

We continue to rely on traditional, professional development “structures” and approaches: conferences, after school sessions, workshops by peers, the development of so-called professional learning communities. But such structures do not genuinely embrace the habits of lifelong learning students and teachers need. These approaches still require schools to provide the learning topics, scheduled time, and protocols for learning. They still resemble approaches used in a pre-digital world. This is not how our students learn today, though it is, ironically, how we continue to try to educate them. In the 21st century, learning is a connected endeavor.

We have long known that professional learning must be embedded and ongoing in order to have real impact. The words continuous and personal need to be added to this list. Professional learning communities provide the collaborative, supportive ecosystem colleagues need in order to grow, to truly become learners. Educational leaders: superintendents, principals, curriculum coordinators, team leaders, must first model what connected learning looks like before we can expect to develop a genuine culture of learning in our schools.

True learning leaders need to explore the learning potential of social media such as Twitter, in order to openly share their learning with colleagues and demonstrate digital learning in their communities. Leaders share learning celebrations through hashtags and blog posts. They are clear about what they are doing, and why. They demonstrate resilience by sticking at it. They model risk-taking by sharing their thoughts on learning with colleagues. They encourage and support faculty who join in. Just as we aspire for our student learners, they just don’t simply consume information and knowledge, they make a genuine effort to contribute to shared dialogue around learning.

School leaders talk about lifelong learning and 21st century skills, but until we show what is possible by contributing and collaborating using contemporary digital tools, taking the time to learn these tools for ourselves, those words will remain nothing more than empty, aspirational phrases.

Photo Credit:

The Road to Disruption

fish escape concept

Picture Source:

We know that technology is transforming the way we live; reaching into all aspects of our lives.  We know that schools are mired in traditional ways of thinking and operating. We know that we need to do better to prepare our students for their futures. We know we have digital tools available to help us to connect with others to help and support us to embrace the changes. The question remains: as school leaders, where do we start on the journey of disrupting education as we know it?

In a world where technology can make all learning personal and personalized, the road to change is similarly contextualized. Schools and communities face unique challenges, have different resources, and have……Here is the challenge and the opportunity for educational leaders; the process of disrupting school can start anywhere, and begin with any aspect of learning. But it must start.

We started with assessment. We knew that our traditional assessment system was defining learning for students, teachers and parents in ways that were not appropriate for the learning we wanted for our students. By changing our assessment beliefs as a community, we could help everyone understand the powerful learning that ubiquitous technology unlocks. To learn more about that process, read Michael Crowley’s four part blog series on our process here.

Focusing students and teachers on formative feedback and the ongoing process of learning rather than grade averages and points acquired, allowed teachers to reimagine what learning could look like within the classroom. We needed technology tools that could support this work. Then we found that we needed not just digital, but also physical spaces that would support the type of group and individual work teachers needed to meet the needs of all learners.

And then we knew we had to think about the ways that our traditional schedule restricted the kinds of learning we were trying to achieve.  

Roughly, this has been our path to date. It is an ongoing journey. Each piece has lead us to the next. But how did we know where to start? We started with that piece that we knew we needed to focus on. Assessment was driving learning, and we knew that we wanted to transform learning. It was the right place to begin with our faculty and our students.

By no means is our path the only or the best way to go. As educators seek starting entry points for transformation of schools, the key starting point is the vision. From there, transformation can begin with any aspect of learning that connects vision and the needs of learners. Leaders know the aspects of their schools that could offer entry points. Be forewarned, once you begin rethinking one component of school, which is often a major undertaking, the next steps become self evident. As do the next, and the next.  School leaders need to take the first steps. The only misstep is not moving at all.

The Digital Disruption


The digital disruption has already happened, and it is past time to move the discussion from “will technology change education” to “how will we disrupt education”? What would that disruption look like? While it might be difficult to imagine, perhaps we could take some clues from the companies and service providers who are leading the way. Netflix and Alibaba provide choice, access, variety. Facebook and WeChat allows people to connect, share, and reconnect, as needed. Uber and Airbnb provide access to bring people and resources together. Someone has a car; someone needs a ride: the analog systems and barriers in between are now redundant. Credibility and reliability is built on reputation, based on level of expertise, within connected communities.

Could schools similarly become places where students are connected to a community of learners who can provide them with the support and expertise they need? Could they become places where members contribute relevant information to the community, and their learning reputation is based on these contributions? Technology already provides access to the resources, networks and creation tools to make this happen. Some students already learn in this way on their own. Will Richardson clearly outlines the shift that would be needed in his inspiring Ted Talk The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools. It’s time now to stop focusing on the question of “if education will be disrupted”, and engage purposefully in the “how can we disrupt education” dialogue.

At our school, we have begun to explore ways to make this new vision of learning real, starting with small steps that have now evolved into a complete schedule change, including the creation of a Personal Learning block. Our motivation is clear: to do what is best for students. Our impetus is perhaps best articulated by George Course in his recent book, The Innovator’s Mindset, “Once we know better, we have to do better”.

In 2015, most educators know better. I’ll be blogging about our learning journey as we try to do better.

We Have to Stop Pretending…

Responding to the Scott McLeod Challenge, via Mike Crowley at Maelstrom


If we want to give our students the education they deserve for their futures, we need to stop pretending that:

  • The ways students use technology outside of school is not learning
  • Meaningful change can happen in schools without building a collaborative culture first
  • There is a difference between educational leadership and technology leadership
  • Any subject area content is more important than learning how to learn
  • Students know how to use technology for learning because they know how to use technology

From Scott McLeod: Please join us. When it comes to education, what are 5 things that we have to stop pretending? Post on your blog, tag 5 others, and share using the #makeschooldifferent hashtag. Feel free to also put the URL of your post in the comments area so others can find it!