The Innovator’s Mindset

This past month I read George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset. It was a book that came a good juncture in my professional growth as I move from teaching to administration. The book walked a nice line between both a teacher and administrator’s perspective on how to foster a culture of innovation in classrooms and a school as a whole. As with any book on education, I try to see if what I read simply reinforces my existing beliefs, or if it challenges me to see things differently. While much of what Couros writes was already in line with my beliefs, there was a lot of food for thought in the book and moments where I paused to reflect on my own experience and ways I could try to reframe some of the work we’re doing at Handsworth. I thought I might share a few notes and highlights from the book that really resonated with me.

This year our overarching goal at Handsworth has been deeper student engagement, inspired by our work the previous year with Design Thinking. In The Innovator’s Mindset, Couros says that engagement is good, but empowerment is better. I have had a confluence of inspirations between my experiences at High Tech High with exhibitions of student learning, the self-assessment piece coming with BCs New Curriculum and now reading Couros’ comments of moving beyond engagement. I’m excited to see how we can move towards real student empowerment next year. One idea we are working with is to possibly restructure our twice-yearly parent-teacher interviews to have them be, rather, led by students who will share what they’ve been learning, perhaps with a portfolio of work.

One of the quotes Couros cited early in the book was from American educator and author, Stephen Covey, who talks about the speed of trust. As someone who subscribes completely to the idea that any organization is only as strong as its people and the relationships between them I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that things just get done, and get done faster, where there is an established culture of trust. This culture is developed, as Couros says, “by the expectations, interactions, and, ultimately, the relationships of the entire learning community.” But, even more importantly, relationships are built first on a one-to-one basis. I like Couros’ suggestion that as an administrator it is important to work with smaller staff groups of 2 to 4 people to create an intimacy that is lacking with larger assembly style groups. I have been fortunate to work with some great district administrators in North Vancouver who have also worked hard to create relationships with other staff in those types of smaller working groups. Networking is so important, because, as is mentioned in the book, “alone we are smart, together we are brilliant.” Strong relationships create an environment for innovation.

I had to laugh when the example of Blockbuster was brought up when illustrating the notion that organizations must “innovate or die”. I actually worked for Blockbuster all through my high school and university years. I was an employee there in the year 2000 when a small, little known company named Netflix began its mail order DVD program.

In what is now a fairly well known monumental business blunder, Blockbuster’s CEO had the opportunity to buy Netflix but decided to pass on it because he considered video streaming to be a niche market. Education is also a “business” that is experiencing a rapid transformation. Our students, as “clients”, have higher expectations than ever for how they will be served. It’s on us, collectively, to make sure we aren’t delivering a VHS experience where a digital one is required.

So how do we foster this innovative change we are so earnestly pursuing? Couros says that to inspire change, we must make a connection to the heart first before making a connection to the mind. And again, this really speaks to the importance of relationships – both between staff, and also staff and students. Inspiration comes from embracing possibilities. And as an educational leader, it is going to be incumbent upon me to help create those conditions where creative risk taking and positive change is more likely to occur. A culture of compliance is anathema to fostering innovation. Moreover, it’s important to realize that the improvement of our practice will never really have a finish line. We’re in education after all. If, as a discipline, we’re not constantly adapting and improving, then we aren’t truly living what it means to embrace that culture of learning.

Today, more than ever before, there seems to be this pronounced push and pull between innovative, personalized, big idea learning practices, and the forces of testing, compliance and traditional learning. Thankfully it seems that new thinking is beginning to win the day. School shouldn’t be about “what’s on the test”. It should be a safe and welcoming place where students have permission to make mistakes; to fail quickly and fail often so they learn to find success, not just in the classroom, but also in life. In reading The Innovators Mindset I was reminded of a John Green quote I love. To paraphrase, it goes, “About the test… The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, will make your life yours. And everything, everything, will be on it.” Whether or not we prepare our students to be productive, happy and engaged citizen is the real measurement, I believe, of quality of the learning happening in our schools.

There was, however, one assertion Couros made that I wanted to challenge. He asks what is a student more likely to need to know how to write: an essay or a blog post, suggesting that the latter was more important. I understand the irony of questioning this within a blog post, but I have to say that any good piece of persuasive writing, be it an op-ed piece, a blog post or even an online review requires some understanding of ethos, pathos and logos – elements of persuasion that are the foundation of a good essay. This is in addition to understanding the importance of quality evidence and establishing a good structure. This is not to say the essay is the be all and end all, but it gives young writers a great foundation; a platform from which they can propel to all other forms of writing, including blog posts. But maybe that’s just the English teacher in me. Blogging is certainly important. Couros discusses what a fantastic professional development tool it can be, and I have to agree. While I know what I write is read by very few people, it encourages me to refine my thinking on topics in education – something I will increasingly be challenged to do as I navigate the world of administration.

As a budding administrator, Couros reminds me that the higher up any one person is in an organization, the more people they serve. I’m looking forward to serving more people than ever, and hopefully in the process being a force for innovation and change that can affect even more students. One of the most profound questions that came up frequently in The Innovators Mindset was, “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” I will be serving many classrooms now; albeit in a different capacity, so I feel there is an enhanced responsibility to ensure that all classrooms in the school are safe and caring spaces for learning. But beyond that, I think for me, it’s also going to be important for me to ask, “Would I want to be a staff member in my own school?” The Innovator’s Mindset has given me some good inspiration in helping me make that a positive reality.

You can find The Innovator’s Mindset online at Amazon.ca.

The Innovator’s Mindset

Winter Residency at High Tech High

c3sbjkjxuaakjou-jpg-largeLast week eleven of my colleagues and I had the privilege of traveling to High Tech High in San Diego, California for a transformative professional development experience. High Tech High is a collection of charter schools whose students are admitted by a zip code based lottery designed to draw students who demographically reflect the diversity of the surrounding San Diego county. “High Tech High” is a bit of a misnomer, because although the school incorporates technology in a variety of ways into the classroom, technology is not the focus. High Tech High focuses rather on using project-based learning (PBL) to enhance student engagement and achievement.

What is PBL?

PBL is a constructivist approach to teaching that involves student-centered instruction through assigning purposeful activities and projects. It allows students to work more autonomously to construct their own learning, and culminates in realistic, student-generated products. While the projects are the product, the processes by which the students arrive at that product are far more important. Teachers use scaffolding, elements of design thinking, front-load students with essential understandings and develop inquiry questions to be answered before the conclusion of the project. PBL proponents understand that student knowledge is constructed, not transmitted and work to build a reflective understanding of the project development experience.

The 2017 Winter Residency

img_5589Over the course of our three days at the HTH Winter Residency, participants worked to refine their understand of PBL through activities and discussion. Our group came well prepared with existing projects and ideas we were looking to refine and tune. Some of the major initiatives we’ve been working on at our school include our ‘Innovation Wednesdays’ and a possible school wide project to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Individual teachers also had inquiry questions and class projects they brought to HTH to tune up and reflect upon with colleagues from around the US and Canada.

Two of the most valuable and rewarding aspects over the three days of the residency I found were the opportunity to explore the campus and to interview current HTH students.

I’ve always been interested in the intersection between form and function and specifically in a school how its physical space influences the style of instruction. The classrooms of HTH have enormous windows giving visitors like us the opportunity to peer in and easily see what’s happening. Students work in rooms where desks are arranged in circles or small groups for more collaboration. Transparency is seen not only in the generous windows, but also in how student work is displayed throughout the interior of the buildings. There were visual displays of learning around the schools including murals, exhibitions and even science demonstrations that could fit in a classroom windowpane.

Making learning visible is a consistent theme, and was achieved primarily through three methods; firstly, the aforementioned exhibitions of work, secondly through presentations of learning, and thirdly though student-led conferences. During student conferences, students would address what they are learning and why, how they’re successful, what challenges them, how they’re doing as an individual learner and how they’re doing within the broader learning community. Conferences are mediated with a curated selection of student work the provided authentic evidence.

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-8-01-19-pmThe opportunity to speak with current HTH students was also immensely insightful. All the students we spoke with were incredibly articulate and able to express quite thoughtfully their experience at the school. They all seemed very aware of what a special place it was they were attending, and how lucky they were to have been chosen by lottery. Student performance seemed to be buoyed both by the fact their work is constantly exhibited, and because they knew the opportunity they had been afforded was one coveted by many other students. In my discussions with the students I tried to dig deeper into any perceived shortcomings of their experience, to take a more critical look at anything HTH could be doing better with their project-based approach. One of the aspects the students lamented was that they didn’t have many of the conventional extra-curricular experiences like sports teams or school dances other schools were more likely to have. Any shortcomings, however, paled in comparison to the educational opportunities made possible by going to HTH, including the remarkable post-secondary enrolment rates.

Dr. Kaleb Rashad

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-8-02-31-pmThe other truly inspiring piece of the Winter Residency was the chance to hear the new Director of High Tech High, Dr. Kaleb Rashad, speak. He was both the keynote speaker and also provided a Q&A session at the end of the three days. He encouraged us to look for inspiration during our time, and not simply to try and imitate what they were doing. Dr. Rashad had a lot to say about leadership, both from a theoretical and practical perspective. His mantra was to “love your people” and that in doing so, they would feel empowered to do “badass work!” When asked what he looked for with respect to instruction when sitting in a typical HTH class, he said that students should be engaging first in divergent, convergent, and then reflective thinking processes. When it comes to Pro-D he suggested we should always be modeling for teachers what we want them to do in their classes – avoid stand and deliver professional development experiences! Dr. Rashad has had a variety of educational leadership experiences, and throughout all of them it is evident he’s worked hard to build positive relationships and an inclusive and supportive school culture. To that end, he’s introduced something he calls ‘open mic’, where he makes an effort to sit for 10 minutes at the start of the year with each and every staff member to listen closely to his or her concerns without judgement. Anything said in those meetings is always shared in confidence. Dr. Rashad urged us to build trust and show people you love them – and that your staff, in turn, will also trust and love each other. One of the best ways to do this was via what he called “the two P’s”: permission and policies. Give your staff permission to dream big – to go for it and try something new and innovative and have them feel supported. And the second “P” is policies. An educational leader should work to get the rules and policies out of the way stop people from doing amazing work. Reducing those barriers will help cultivate a positive school culture and make great things happen for students.

Documenting the Process

c3snc8kuyae07g3-jpg-largePart of my process in attending the Winter Residency was to document the journey of my North Vancouver colleagues. I made an effort throughout the three days to grab as many sound bites and video clips as I could to stitch together at the conclusion of our time together. I’m pretty self-critical, so the finished product is never as good as I’d wish, but I was really happy that in documenting our experience I got to celebrate my colleagues’ experience and all the wonderful reflections they had. If building collegial trust and relationships is considered a vital piece of positive school culture, we certainly checked that box off on this trip. Spending four full and intense days together was a wonderful way for us to bond, and I know we’re stronger as a staff for having taken so many people down with us. I have to thank our school board for being so supportive of this experience in allowing us to go. This video also helps validate the professional growth we were all hoping to gain by attending.

Take-Aways

img_5626There were so many take-aways from this experience from project-tuning major school projects like “Innovation Wednesdays” & “Canada 150”, to speaking with students and exploring the campus, to reflecting on educational leadership and connecting with colleagues. This was truly a transformative professional development experience. For Handsworth staff, all of these take-aways were wrapped in the over-arching goal of increasing student engagement. Our first week back at Handsworth has already been influenced by our time away. Staff met this week to introduce a student leadership course to bring new student voice opportunities to our school and to help shape version 2.0 of Innovation Wednesdays. Our Canada 150 project has a small working group who will start drafting details for our staff. Each staff member who came on the experience had to commit to refining one piece of his or her practice, and for me it’s all about how I make student learning more visible. One of things I was reminded of while at HTH was that students raise their performance when they know their work is going to be public. It becomes less about the marks and more about the quality of the work itself. Look for me to be sharing more student work in the future via social media and in exhibitions around the school. Thanks to HTH and to SD44 for a wonderful experience.

Winter Residency at High Tech High

Why I Coach

With yet another basketball season upon us, I thought this might be a good opportunity to take stock of, and reflect upon why it is I coach.

I can still remember playing sports in high school and wondering to myself why on earth anyone would volunteer so much time to a team when their own kids didn’t play on it, and they themselves didn’t even get to play either! I mean, they just stood on the sidelines and did the substitutions and drew up a few plays… it didn’t seem like much fun to me.

Volunteering to coach basketball is a huge commitment. It’s 6 or 7 days a week for 4.5 months of the year. There’s overnight / away tournaments, which means you’re averaging upwards of 20 hours a week in time spent volunteering. ‘Cowichan’ has become a 4-letter word in my house as it means I’ll be away overnight yet again with the basketball team. I’m not popular on those weekends with my family, but it’s a chance to take the team away for some important bonding and quality time. So why do I continue to do it?

The first team I ever coached - Grade 7 Hillcrest Elementary.
The first team I ever coached – Grade 7 Hillcrest Elementary.  My sponsor and principal next to me.

For a bit of context let me take you back to my first real basketball coaching experience. I was in second year at the University of Victoria in 2001, and as part of my teacher preparation program we had to go volunteer to coach a team for a season. There was a local team of grade 7s at Hillcrest Elementary in Victoria that needed a coach for their season and so I dutifully went over to the school and met with the principal. I remember how ecstatic she was that I was there. It was wonderful to be so warmly welcomed by an administrator.  She told me that if I hadn’t come to coach that these boys likely would not have had a team. And what a team they were. Grade 7 is not a lot different than older grades when it comes to a recipe for success. They say you can’t coach height, which turned out to be a good thing for me because my team had 2 boys who were pushing 6 feet tall. I surprised myself with how much I genuinely enjoyed leading the boys through practices, drawing up plays for them to run, modeling good sportsmanship, and making every attempt to have all the boys playing time be as equitable as possible. Having a winning season made my first coaching experience enjoyable, but it was all those little things I had previously thought would be boring when I was a player watching my coaches that I found I really relished.

My Grade 6 Wanouchi Junior High boys team in Japan
My Grade 6 Wanouchi Junior High boys team in Japan. Toshiki is second from the bottom right.

And so I was hooked. For the past 15 years since I’ve been coaching. Even when I lived overseas I made sure I continued to coach. My team of grade 6 boys at Wanouchi Junior High in Japan were easily the least talented group of boys I have ever worked with. We spent an entire season working on the right-hand lay-up (their good hand!). I got to work on my Japanese by repeatedly yelling such phrases as “ASHI CHIGAU!” (wrong foot!) We lost every game that season. But we had so much fun. I can still remember Toshiki, the kid who looked like a sumo-wrestler and was my #5 ‘big man’ and the way he and I would high-five if he even caught some of the rim on one of his shots. I’m not sure he scored a basket that year. It was most evident to me during these times that extra-curricular involvement was where you had the opportunity to cultivate real bonds with students; bonds that tied them to you, and by extension tied them closer to their school community.

Over the years I’ve come to have a new appreciation for the time and effort my coaches put in for me as I went through my K-12 experience. People like Bob Baldwin, Vinny Alvano, Scott Bennett, Peter Therrien and Garth Thomson just to name a few. Without the hours and hours those men put into volunteering with me I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, or be the person I am today. I often think about what their time with me has meant. I know many of the qualities I’ve developed as an adult are due, at least in part, to the guidance they helped provide throughout my own formative years.

Coaching means responsibility. It means leadership. It means having to bite your lip when you’re upset at an official’s call because you know you have a bench of 15 impressionable minds sitting next to you. It means knowing when to encourage and when to discipline. How to provide expectations and help athletes set goals. It’s about dealing with fragile egos, disappointments, and acting with humility when you win.

Coaching is not always easy. Cutting players is the worst – I wish everyone could make the team. I’ve been cut from teams and I’ve been one of the last players on the bench. It’s not fun when your name is not on the list or when you never get off the bench – I know that. Coaches have to make difficult decisions, but I try to focus on the fact that in volunteering I know I’ve been able to provide the opportunity for more students to participate than if I hadn’t volunteered at all.

I coach because I enjoy having the group rely on me for guidance and leadership. I coach to pay it forward and thank those coaches who took the time to guide me. I coach because I know the importance of providing opportunity for students to participate in extra-curricular activities. I coach because I enjoy the technical aspects of the game and being able to continually learn more. I coach, selfishly, because it gives me a better connection with my students, and most of all because I’ve found I genuinely enjoy it.

And with that, I’m excited to start another season!

Why I Coach