Monthly Archives: May 2012

Driving Your Initiative: Positive Pressure & Support (Part 1: Expectations)

So you’re working on your school initiative, and you really believe in it, and you really want it to make a difference.

And you are trying to pay attention to leadership for school change, and have certainly provided training to your staff and have made resources available.

Unfortunately, simply participating in training and having the resources available does not mean that students will do better or that your initiative will have it’s desired impact. The degree to which teachers implement your initiative and related strategies matters. Level of implementation matters.

So, how do you get your level of implemention up?

Providing Positive Pressure and Support is how school leaders affect the level of implementation. Positive Pressure and Support is made up of three easy pieces:

  • Expect
  • Supervise
  • Support

This is the first in a series of three posts on Positive Pressure and Support, each on one of the three pieces, and this first focusing on setting expectations.

Expect – Start Simple
When MLTI, the country’s first statewide learning with laptop initiative, first got started in 2001, there were still an awful lot of teachers who had not used technology much themselves, let alone used it in the classroom with students. The goal, of course, was to impact learning, but more than a few teachers were a little intimidated by either having to teach differently (especially with a device they weren’t that familiar with), or by having every middle schooler sitting in front of them having a laptop (that the student was probably a lot more comfortable with it than they were!).

But we started seeing good progress in schools where the principal made a simple expectation: Do one unit, between now and Christmas, that involves students using the laptops.

That seemed to take the pressure off of teachers who may have assumed that since laptops were everywhere, they needed to be used all the time. In fact, many of those teachers then did their single unit (perhaps to get it out of the way) and discovered that it wasn’t so bad and started using the laptops pretty regularly.

But without the expectation, reluctant teachers may have continued to put off using all the technology in their classrooms.

Similarly, setting initial expectations for Meaningful Engaged Learning can be as simple as letting teachers know you expect to see greater implementation of the Focus Five strategies. Setting expectations for an iPad initiative can be as simple as letting staff know you’d like to see the iPads used in centers. Expectations for getting started in another initiative might be the following: participate in the offered training; increase the use of higher order thinking strategies in daily lessons and activities; do at least one engaging task with students each week; and do one project in a unit in one class before the end of the next grading period.

But setting expectations (even starting with simple ones) can help overcome the (often understandable) inertia that some teachers may feel at the start of a new initiative.

Expect – Participate Yourself
Another way to set expectations is to participate yourself. Busy leaders sometimes find it hard to take the time to attend trainings. But doing so sends the vital message that you value the training and think it’s important. Participating in the training also means that you know what you can expect your staff to be able to do in their classrooms and can better supervise and support the implementation of those strategies.

I once worked with a school where the principal would announce the professional development then leave. We had a hard time getting staff to an adequate level of implementation, I’m sure in no small part because many staff felt that if the initiative wasn’t important enough for the prinicpal’s time, why should it be important enough for theirs…

Meaningful Engaged Learning goal setting form

Expect – Have Teachers Set Goals
Teachers seem to do better with expectations when they have a voice in setting them. One way to do that is to have teachers set goals. When I have worked with schools using Meaningful Engaged Learning as their School Improvement Program, I have had teachers think about the five components of Meaningful Engaged Learning, and asked them to rate themselves on where they think they are in implementing each component (I have used this form).

I then ask them to think about where they would like to be on implementing each component at the end of some timeframe (the end of the semester, for example). When that time frame is up, we can reflect again on what progress has been made.

This approach sets the expectation that we will get better at each component, while both validating that the teacher may already be good at some of those components (is already meeting that expectation), and giving the teacher a voice in deciding how much energy to put into each component, and which they will focus on the most.

iPad expectations

Expect – Collaboratively Set Expectations
Another way to give teachers voice is to collaborate with them on setting those expectations. That’s what we did in Auburn, as we started Advantage 2014, our math and literacy initiative that includes iPads in Kindergarten. We simply had a conversation. What should our expectations be? In what kinds of activities should we expect to see the iPads used? How often?

The consensus that grew from those discussions became our expectations for the program. This included general guidelines, like apps should correlate to our curriculum, and that iPads are part of of balanced educational program that includes traditional approaches, and included minimum expectations for use, such as using iPads daily in literacy stations, or using iPads for interventions with students.

When collaboratively planning expectations related to implementing new initiatives and strategies, it should be a goal to set specific expectations on those strategies:

  • How many?
  • How often?
  • By when?
  • By whom?


These four strategies for setting expecations should help you get started with Positive Pressure and Support. How will you set expectations with your staff? What will those expectations focus on?


What is Our Purpose for Education?

As I have mentioned, there were recently some interesting conversations on the MiddleTalk listserve around each of the points in the Forbes article, “Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School.”

Number 9 is “The purpose of your education is your future career.”

Rick Wormeli reminded us that we are all more than just our job descriptions.

And Chris Toy thought that developing these would make for a noble educational purpose:

  • Curiosity
  • Wonder
  • Love of Learning
  • Finding Out
  • Imagination
  • Experimenting
  • Exploring

This listserve thread prompted me also to reflect on various expressed goals and purposes of education (both those expressed through words and those expressed through actions and practices)…

I think it’s great if one outcome for a young graduate is that they are work-ready and can find employment. Our Chamber of Commerce would certainly agree.

But I don’t think that’s the only purpose we have for an education. I think there are several other purposes, if we both think back to public cries for education, and if we watch what people’s behavior and actions seem to say about what they believe. Some I believe in and some I clearly don’t.

John Dewey suggested that education was both preparation for life and life itself.

Folks involved in customized learning (in all the many forms it exists and names it goes by) would say that education is for developing the talents and passions of each child.

Every time we get a new wave of immigrants, some suggest that the purpose of education is to acclimate the new arrivals to being Americans, while others suggest that it is to prepare us to understand and appreciate diversity.

Our founding fathers would say that it is to prepare citizens to live in (and contribute to) a democracy.

I think some folks are very concrete (perhaps they would say “practical”) and say the purpose is to learn math, science, social studies, English, and some other content.

Sometimes I think the US Department of Education believes the purpose of education is to teach students how to pass tests.

I heard on NPR recently, during a conversation about homework, a statement that would suggest that some believe education should teach young people the “life lesson” of doing things they don’t want to do (sorry, I just gagged a little…).

Sometimes I think some groups believe the purpose of education is to prove that some people (mostly their own kids) are better than other people (the whole sorting thing…).

I also believe (sadly) that in some small circles, the purpose of education is to preserve the institution of schools as they exist today.

Monte Selby pointed out that when he teaches various educational philosophies to college students wanting to be teachers, even undergraduates represent each of those different philosophies passionately! He wrapped up by saying:

It was very clear for them to see how I taught, and they could accurately “label” my philosophy. And they liked how that impacted them in the classroom. But, even though they thought my philosophy was ideal for them, many still thought that “their” philosophy was what other children needed.

To simplify – nearly all liked receiving a personalized, self-improvement, “differentiated” format to develop their own talents and passions – a good philosophy for them. Even when their own philosophy stated a different ideal approach to educating youth.

(I think, as ironic as it sounds, we sometimes forget that working in schools is about working with people, not widgets, and Monte’s anecdote is a reminder of what I have said here before: we need to use more psychology in our educational decision making, and less logic!)

I do believe that some of the ongoing trouble we face is that we don’t have any agreement on the purpose(s) of public education, beyond some agreement that kids should be in school to a certain age and learn something in agreed upon content areas (even if we can’t agree on specific content within those subject areas).

For me, I wish the purpose we agreed was our goal was developing the talents and passions of each child. I wonder how many other goals that would achieve at the same time. But I also think that would require that we make some substantial changes to our schools and how they operate….


What If Sitting In Class Were As Much Fun As Days Off!

I participate in conversations on the Association for Middle Level Education’s MiddleTalk listserve. Recently, we’ve had a series of interesting conversations around each of the 9 points in the Forbes article, “Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School.”

Number 8 is “Days off are more fun than sitting in class.”

I caught myself thinking this one might be true…

Most of you reading this know, my own professional work has focused, for a long time, on motivating students. I constantly wonder how many of our problems would we solved if we just put more energy into how to engage students and how to make learning meaningful to them: attendance; behavior; being on task; distractions like technology and social media; achievement; and on and on.

Now in all fairness, I don’t blame teachers for this lack of focus on engagement and student motivation. I think few of us grew up in schools focused on motivation and engagement, and few of us went through teacher preparation programs that emphasized (let alone modeled!) a focus on engagement and motivation. And you can’t do what you don’t know.

Young children engaged with an iPad

That said, I do think now is the time to start building that focus. It seems clear, when I think about the the challenges schools face, like the day-to-day issues listed above. And it seems clear as competition for students is increasing (public schools, private schools, charter schools, online schools, political pressure for school choice, etc.). And it seems clear as I think about the shift from Industrial Age education, with its focus on developing the talents of the few and the compliance of the many, to Information Age education, with its need to develop the talents in all.

But, if we’re going to ask teachers to do what they have not experienced, then we need to support the heck out of them. And not with information. Information doesn’t change practice, teachers need experiences! Send them to schools and classrooms that are doing a great job of motivating students. And share stories and videos of such classrooms. Structure workshops and courses and committee meetings (any school function focused on the adults needing to learn) so that they model the conditions that motivate learners.

And then, maybe, if we do focus on engagement and motivation, being in class would be more fun than a day off…


Mexican Food Schools

I remember being in high school, and frustrated with school, and thinking, “I can do this better than it’s being done to me!”

I think that thought alone is the main reason I became a teacher.

But it is also the reason I worked on what I called “the Making Algebra Meaningful Project” (Surprisingly not an oxymoron! But it took me a long time to come to that conclusion…). And it was why I started looking at teaching and learning with technology, became a technology integrator, and later a partner in the first statewide learning with laptop initiative. And it was why I did my graduate research on motivating underachievers.

Keep in mind that when I started teaching, I didn’t really know how to teach any way other than “how it was done to me,” but it was my motivation to explore how to reach more learners.

An innovative educational program

For about five years, I had the opportunity to work with a great group that focused on creating schools designed to motivate students (well, still focuses, I just work in Auburn now). Among other projects, we helped the School District of Philadelphia write and support a Magnet School grant, and we created a successful nontraditional school that combines online curriculum with project-based learning and graduated students at a high rate. And they helped me create Projects4ME, the statewide virtual project-based program for at-risk and dropout youth in Maine, that got me connected to Auburn in the first place.

We were/are big believers in multiple pathways to graduation, and that educators will only be successful raising graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates when districts offer students several different approaches to learning, so they can choose the one that works for them.

When we would talk to a superintendent about creating a school for them, we liked to say, “No one really cares if you like Chinese food and I like Mexican food and we go to different restaurants. But we tend to only have Chinese food schools and say there is something wrong with me for being a Mexican food learner.”

We were trying to make those Mexican food schools.

Now I’m in Auburn, where we’re working hard not just to make Mexican food schools for students, but Mexican food programs inside of schools, and lots of other “flavors,” as well.

What are you doing to make sure your students’ diverse tastes in how they learn well are being addressed?


Not All At Once: The Phases of Implementing Customized Learning

Some folks have started hearing grumblings from educators and community members about their school’s work on implementing Customized Learning. And these grumblings make us worry (rightly) if working toward Customized Learning is really the right move.

Here are some of the actual grumblings I’m hearing from within my own district and from other Maine districts working toward customized learning:

  • Parents in District A have made their concerns well known (and well publicized) that they do not like, nor do they want, the changes to grading and report cards that the district has implemented.
  • Principal B wants to know how we can possibly do this work without first changing how we schedule and group students, as well as change our grading system.
  • Teachers in School C wonder what they’ll do with students who finish a course-worth of work by mid-March.
  • Teacher D says he has posted the poster-like tool that is supposed to solicit students’ questions, ideas, and feedback, but students won’t use it.
  • Colleagues and students of Teacher E don’t think the way he is implementing customized learning is working and are saying, “If the way he is doing customized learning is what customized learning is all about, we don’t want to do it.”

Hearing these kinds of concerns, it’s not hard to understand why some people might think there are (serious) problems with Customized Learning, and maybe schools shouldnt do it.

And yet, I know that schools have implemented it successfully.

I’ve enjoyed having the chance to talk with some of the educators from some of those schools about their lessons learned. And from this initiative and others, I’ve learned that by looking at the contrasts between where an initiative works and where it doesn’t, you can learn something about what the successful schools have done and what the less successful schools might not have done.

I’ve grown to believe the root of the problems I’ve shared above is not with Customized Learning itself, but with thinking of Customized Learning as some gigantic, monolithic monstrosity that must be dropped on a school all at once. There is no doubt that there are a lot of moving parts, and that those parts are interrelated, and that it is hard to imagine implementing one component completely without implementing another component completely.

And yet, all of the lessons I learned from conversations with educators in schools where it is working have focused on the opposite of doing it all at once:

  • Schools should think of implementing Customized Learning as something that will take about 5 years.
  • Although flexible, there is one general sequence (phases) of change that seems to work better than others.
  • The sequence is a little counter-intuitive, but, again, works better than others, so should be stuck to, even if it is counter-intuitive.
  • Trying to skip phases, or jump ahead phases, or doing phases out of sequence doesn’t work and derails and delays the change process.
  • Although it is always ok to experiment with and try out strategies and techniques from up-coming phases, each phase has strategies and techniques that teachers and leaders should be working to perfect prior to moving on to the next phase.
  • It is ok to have educators in the same school/district in different phases at the same time, but it is also ok to refer to the phase where the school or district is in general, as a whole.
  • It seems to help to have some early adopters in each school, who are a phase or two ahead of the rest of the staff.
  • Save the school structure changes (grading, scheduling, etc.) for last; although you can readily identify that you need new structures now, you won’t know what structures you need until you have been doing the work for a while.
Phases of Implementing Customized Learning

For Auburn, Shelly Mogul, our Curriculum Director, and I created (with some help and input from colleagues) a chart highlighting 5 phases of implementing Customized Learning (download it here). Within each phase, the chart clarifies what we have learned about what staff should be getting good at and the kinds of things they should start dabbling in. We see the following five phases:

  • Awareness Phase
  • Classroom Culture Phase (Voice & Choice)
  • Instructional Design Phase
  • Instructional Implementation Phase
  • School Structures Phase

And notice how understanding the phases of implementing Customized Learning actually helps us understand the problems described in the beginning of this post. It’s important to recognize that when we implement pieces too soon, they can cause problems or might end up being the wrong pieces. That the purpose of being in a particular phase is to get good at the strategies and techniques of that phase, both by seeking out support and resources, and by school leaders bringing support and resources to the staff in that phase. And that it is ok to say, “Yes that is a concern, but we’re only in Phase X and we should wait to deal with that when we reach Phase Y.” And it helps to be able to say, when things are running roughly for a teacher with the courage to try things out, but others bring up concerns, “Well, remember that Teacher E is in Phase X and trying out ideas two phases ahead of that, without training, and has in fact recognized himself that it isn’t going well and has asked for suggestions and support.”

I don’t believe that all the challenges of Customized Learning will be solved just by thinking about phases of implementation. Clearly some come from thinking about leadership for school change, or about the role of technology, or about student motivation. But I do think that many of the ground floor challenges that come during early implementation are related to trying to do everything at once (or out of order).

How could reflecting on and having conversations about the Phases of Implementing Customized Learning help your school or district?


10 Key Components of Customized Learning

The talk in Maine schools right now, perhaps even more than Common Core, is Customized Learning. The recently established Maine Cohort for Customized Learning is made up of 27 full and associate member districts collaborating on implementing Customized Learning. And Maine’s Education Commissioner’s strategic plan, Education Evolving, is looking to clear a path through state law and policy to help any districts implement Customized Learning.

Students working on a project

But what is Customized Learning?

It really just boils down to two principles: everyone learns in different timeframes and in different ways. Customized Learning is educators being deliberate about how they organize instruction and school structures to support (and take advantage of) these two principles.

Deep down, parents and teachers know these principles well. We recognized them in our own children and in our students. And yet most schools are still organized in such a way as to try to have students learn in the same way at the same time (the power of the familiar!). You can’t help but wonder how much of our challenges with student achievement, special education and support services, student behavior, and student motivation aren’t directly linked to the number of students who have been forced to attempt to learn using someone else’s pace and style!

Customized Learning goes by a lot of different names around the country: standards-based instruction; performance-based instruction; individualized instruction. And there are good models of Customized Learning, for example: RISC (Reinventing Schools Coalition), student designed projects (such as the Minnesota New Country School and Projects4ME), the Foxfire Approach, and Integrative Curriculum.

In fact, Maine’s schools have decided to use the more generic term “Customized Learning” to indicate that we are not aligning ourselves with any one model or approach, but rather are working to identify the components of Customized Learning and explore which models and approaches have strong programs and techniques for each particular component. No one model does all the components well, and Maine can learn from all the good models.

I have grown to think that there are 10 key components to Customized Learning:

1) Shared Vision
It has been said that you can have the best sailboat, the best crew, the best navigational equipment, and the best weather, but if you aren’t in agreement about where you’re sailing, you’re going to have a horrible trip (and probably not arrive anywhere you wanted to be!). Schools that work collaboratively with their staff, students, parents, and community members to come to agreement on their vision for the school/district, are able to more productively make the changes and implement the initiatives they think will improve their schools.

2) Burning Platform
Why should the school and community change? What’s your most compelling reason? Is it some local community need? Is it that, looking at test scores, your schools are working for too few students? Is it the changing economy? This is your burning platform; that driving reason for change that educators and community can rally around.

3) Climate of Student Voice and Choice
Having students learn at their own pace, and in their preferred way has never been about simply letting students do what ever they want. Good Customized Learning takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers. But that coaching and guidance does require a climate where students are used to sharing their ideas, thoughts, and questions, and where they are getting better at making some of their own decisions. Customized learning doesn’t work well with passive students who just wait to be told what to do next. In fact, moving a school toward customized learning also requires that the staff start to feel that they, too, work and live in a climate where they have voice and choice.

4) Instruction for Low Order Thinking
Regardless of which taxonomy you use (Bloom’s, New Bloom’s, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Marzano’s New Taxonomy), low order thinking center’s on a student’s ability to recall or remember. This is the kind of teaching most of our teachers are pretty proficient at. What are the best techniques to not just help students acquire new knowledge but also to insure that it can be remembered/recalled later?

5) Instruction for Higher Order Thinking
Higher Order Thinking focuses on a student’s ability to use knowledge and think critically. Historically, we haven’t seen much of this in our classrooms. And when we have, often we have asked students to apply these skills without doing much teaching or scaffolding on how to do these skills well. What are the best techniques both for helping students develop these higher order thinking skills and learning to apply them to content knowledge?

6) Curriculum Content and Organization
If students are to learn more closely to their own pace, and have choices about how they learn material, there needs to be great clarity about what the curriculum is. Within each discipline, standards and measurement topics must be identified. These standards need to be the concepts and skills that we will guarantee that every student learns (Our lists of curriculum will become shorter. We will give up some favorite units and lessons, but we are simply identifying that which everyone will learn. Many will learn much more.) Measurement topics need to be scaffolded and a progression identified. And all this must be organized, documented, and published in a practical way so that both educators and students can access, understand, and make use of the curriculum.

7) Formative Feedback
One of the most powerful forms of instruction a teacher can leverage is providing students feedback on their work as they are working. This formative feedback is critical to Customized Learning. What are effective strategies for providing formative feedback?

8) Learning Progress Management
With students working at different paces and awarding students “credit” based on what they can demonstrate they know and can do (rather than by seat time or courses they have completed), educators need a good way to monitor and record student progress. Further, there is a coaching element to Learning Progress Management. What is the role of individualized learning plans? How do you help use progress data to keep students moving through the measurement topics? How do you encourage and support (as well as cajole and lovingly nag) students to keep workng? Technology has made this aspect of Customized Learning much more practical and doable.

9) Multiple Pathways
Do students have access to different ways to learn material? Can some take traditional classes, while others do online courses, or design a project, or do an internship? This is multiple pathways. Many schools have a few pathways already in place, but they tend to be “all or nothing” pathways, defining the entire program for a student (the regular high school, the vocational technical center programs, an alternative school). In the context of Customized Learning, students have access to multiple pathways for each course/topic/subject area.

10) School Structures
Once a school starts implementing Customized Learning, they realize that they need to think about updating some of their long-standing structures and infrastructure. How will you group (and re-group) students? What about schedules and assigning students to class? How long will courses (or maybe seminars) last and how will they be organized? What about grades and reporting to parents? Customized learning will (eventually) drive you to change your structures.


Of course, Customized Learning probably can’t be achieved in a school or district without also exploring leadership for school change, the role technology might play, or how to create the conditions that students find motivating

Learn more about Customized Learning at the McMEL Customized Learning Page.


MLTI, Kindergarten iPads, & Customized Learning: a Keynote with Gov. King & Commissioner Bowen


Governor Angus King, who started the country’s first statewide 1to1 learning with laptop initiative, on stage with Commissioner Steve Bowen, whose strategic plan for education moves Maine away from Carnegie Units and toward Customized Learning, answering questions posed by kindergarten students who are participating in the country’s first 1to1 learning with iPads in kindergarten program.

What would they say about meeting the needs of all students?

What would they say about the role technology could play?

What would they say their favorite color was?

That was the opening keynote, “Learning – Past, Present, and Future,” at the 2011 Leveraging Learning – iPads in Primary Grades Institute in Auburn, ME.

If you missed the institute, you can still watch the keynote (link to YouTube).

Hope folks can join us for the 2012 Leveraging Learning Institute next November. Registration opens in mid-August.