Category Archives: Shared Vision

Shared Visioning in Action

I recently started a new job: Policy Director of the Learning Through Technology Team (LTTT) at the Maine Department of Education. It’s essentially the state tech director position, and its largest responsibility is managing the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI – 1to1 in 7th & 8th statewide – since 2001! – and making it easy for districts to buy in at other grades), and supporting schools as they think about how technology can support learning.

I have a small (but awesome!) team of 7 colleagues that help make all this happen. If you follow this blog, you already know I’m a strong believer in “Leading Beside” which includes both shared leadership and working from a shared vision. So it won’t surprise you that one of the first things I did with my new team was set aside a morning for us to build a shared vision.

We used the same process that Bette Manchester introduced to districts at the very beginning of MLTI: To think of a preferred future for young people we care about (the Preferred Future), then think about about what students need to start doing today to get ready for that Preferred Future (the Vision for Learning), then think about what teachers, schools – and the Learning Through Technology Team – need to do today so students can do what they need to do (the Strategic Plan). (A process Bette would credit to Bruce Wellman’s work.)

Building a Preferred Future

We started by thinking about a young person we care deeply about. Then thought out into the future, beyond middle school, beyond high school, beyond college or job training or military, and then a few more years, until that person was getting settled in their jobs and, perhaps, their family.

And then we thought about three questions:

  • Where would we like them to be able to work?
  • Where would we like them to be able to live?
  • Where would we like for them to be able to learn?

Here’s what the team generated:

These charts represent the Team’s Preferred Future.


Identifying Our Shared Vision Vision for Learning

The next step was to think about these same students today. If the charts above represent our preferred future for these young people, what do they need to do today to get ready for it?

Here is what we generated:

So, these charts represent the Team’s Vision for Learning.


Creating Our Strategic Plan

So, if this is what we believe students need to start doing today to get ready for the Preferred Future, what do do we believe teachers need to do, so students can do what they need to? Our thoughts:


And then, what do we believe schools (principals, tech directors, district administration, etc.) need to do so teachers and students can do what they need to? The Team’s lists:

These charts represent what we hope teachers and schools might adopt as their strategic plan.

But they also lead us to think about our own work and responsibility for making our Vision for Learning a reality. What does the Learning Through Technology Team need to do to support the work of students, teachers, and schools?



Accomplishing 3 pages of strategic steps is a daunting task! (Actually, self defeating! We need a little focus!) I gave each Team member 6 dots to place on the charts. The prompt was, “Which are the most important pieces for us to work on right now.” All of them are important, and should be tackled as some time, but we needed to identify where to start. Team members could distribute their dots in an way they wanted (all 6 on one item, or spread out across items, etc.), but they each only had the 6 dots.

You can see where they placed their dots above.

That translates into the following as the Learning Through Technology Team’s Strategic Plan for the coming year:

  • Collaborate with our Vendors/Partners to give life to our Vision
  • Foster Postive Collaboration with School Leaders
  • Know the Field – where are their successes and challenges?
  • Improve Communications (Organizations, Schools, Partners)
  • Capturing data / Evidence of Impact


Where We’ll Go Next

It’s not enough to capture a Vision on paper. It needs to be used as a filter and a compass.

In order to do that, we’ll have to polish our Vision for Learning into a shareable document (it’s a little too rough for sharing in this current form), and create a mission statement. Then we can put together a “Compass and Filter” document (that includes our vision, mission, and strategic plan goals). We will use it to help us decide how to prioritize and do our work, and help us decide which new opportunities to take on. We can also share it with the schools, organizations, and other partners we work with (or might start working with) to see where there is alignment between our work and theirs.

But I’ll save that for future blog posts…


Does Technology Improve Learning – No! A Keynote

I recently had the honor of keynoting at the Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) conference.

My message was that technology alone will not improve learning; only teachers improve learning. But technology can be wonderful tool for teachers and for students under the guidance of teachers.

Watch the keynote here. And related resources are down below.


If we want to leverage technology well for learning, then these are the components we should attention to:

  • Focus on Learning
  • Deliberate, Shared Leadership
  • Community Engagement
  • How You REALLY Protect Stuff
  • Support the Heck Out of Folks





Community Engagement:

Supporting Educators (Professional Development):


A Vision of Customized Learning

It is the vision of my district (and the others who are members of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning) to expertly prepare every child for a future yet to be imagined. We look to achieve this by restructuring our schools for Customized Learning.

At the root of Customized Learning are two core principles: that students learn in different timeframes and that students learn in different ways.

We believe that many of our challenges with student achievement are based on the fact that our current school structure does not widely support these two principles. Through our reform work, we will strive to make learning the constant and time the variable, instead of trying to struggle for student academic success in our current school structures where time is the constant, resulting in learning being the variable.

Our vision has students working their way through a well-defined continuum of learning, using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning.

While teachers will still do targeted direct instruction and plan rich, interesting (standards-based) units of study, these are delivered when students need them (and we have the tools, so teachers will know!). Good Customized Learning takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis also on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, monitoring progress, identifying learning resources and multiple pathways to demonstrating mastery, as well as timely direct instruction.

Teachers and students will work together to match student interests, strengths, and learning preferences to opportunities to learn. Ultimately, all students will be successful with our career- and college- ready curriculum, and teachers will be successful in creating learners who are well prepared to go wherever they want with their futures.

As educators, we work in a vocation that, for over a hundred years, has been geared toward the preparation of youth for the Industrial Age. Yet, today, we are acutely aware that we need to prepare students for the Information Age. Where in the Industrial Age, school appropriately developed the talents of a few and the compliance of the many, school today needs to apply a different tact for the Information Age. We need to develop everyone's talent.


Creating a Shared Vision: The Whole Process

Destination Matters.

This is true with schools, too. Our destination should be more than just the work we do: taking attendance, direct instruction, providing practice, reviewing and assessing work, providing feedback, etc. Why are we bothering to do this work? For that matter, how do we know this is the right work to do?

A fundamental and critical component for the success of any large-scale school change effort is the thoughtful creation, and formal acceptance, of a shared vision for that effort. Education for what? Why bother? A vision tells us what our desire outcome is, and a shared vision has a lot of buy-in, because a large cross-section of people connected to the school were involved in creating it.

The series of posts linked below both explores the need for having a shared vision, as well as describes an easy to implement process for working with a stakeholder group to create your own shared vision.

I like this process enormously.

I like it because it is quick and dirty: it can be accomplished in one or two afternoon or evening meetings. And I like it because it gets right to the crux of the matter: what is our preferred future for the children we care about and what do they need to be doing right now so they can get there?

I like it so much that I used it with my team, when I took a new job.

I know this process is effective, because it was introduced early in the implementation of MLTI and I have used with a variety of schools and districts across the country since.

Building a Shared Vision Part 3: How Will We Get There?

If you are reading this, I suspect you want to help move your school or district forward, and recognize that a critical first step is developing a shared vision with stakeholders, including your staff and community.

This is the third post describing a process to quickly build an effective vision. The first post set up the activity. The second post described how to collaboratively envision a preferred future for students you care about. This post will describe the final step in the process, developing a plan for preparing students for that preferred future.

The process enters its final phase with reflecting on your vision of where you'd like students to live, work, and learn, then asking your participants to return to “today” and think “Let’s all get to work …”

Without a plan, the vision created in the futuring phase will remain at best a dream. The worse outcome would be that it would not be used to improve teaching and learning. In short, given a clear view of what this stakeholder group wants the future to hold for their students, it is now time to use that vision to help design the kind of schools, school community, and classroom practices that can be reasonably expected to deliver those desired outcomes.

If this is our preferred future for our students, what do students, teachers, administrators, and tech coordinators need to do now to prepare students for that future?

The Student Plan
By accepting that student practice has to be the center of the target, and given the vision created in the last post, ask participants what a student would be doing in the classroom today if they were going to be “on track” for becoming the learner they have envisioned.

Have a new chart paper sheet labeled “Student.” The prompt is, “If this is what we want for our students' futures, what does the student need to be doing now to get ready?” Record everything that they call out.

Sample Student Plan List

  • Action based
  • Connected to the community
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Engaged in problem solving; both real world and simulations
  • Group – more collaboration and integration
  • Independent & self directed
  • Information – equity of access to resources – not limited by location or time of day
  • Initiative – connections to student interest
  • Organize – self-organized & time management
  • Presenting, sharing, and teaching others
  • Problem solving skills (learning them) (real problems, community based)
  • Projects – authentic, integrated projects
  • Real world problem solving and service learning
  • Questioning and research skills
  • Self assessment
  • Comfortable with technology

Once the student practices have been described (which you can expect to focus on inquiry, self-directed learning, teaming, research rather than memorization, growing as a learner, etc.) the participants will be ready to think about the kinds of changes in student practice we need in our classrooms.

This is an interesting process. If you start here with student practice, you get a list of preparatory activities that really does reflect the future you have described, but it also suggests how teacher practice needs to change. But not following these steps can derail the process and not give you the information you need.

I once worked with a group that ended up skipping the step of starting with what students need to be doing now to get ready for this future, and instead simply asked what needs to happen in the classroom to prepare for this future. This group happened to be all teachers, not a larger stakeholders group. Interestingly, they simply generated a list of traditional teaching practices and “shoulds” for students (They should do their homework. They should behave. Etc.).

I think a couple things happened. One was a little bit of paradigm paralysis. When we asked what should happen in the classroom, we thought right away about what we were used to doing in the classroom. And this was exasperated by the fact that the notion of what should happen in the classroom is just that much further removed from that preferred future than the notion of what a student should be doing now to get ready (the preferred future, after all, is about students, not classrooms). The combination of paradigm paralysis and being further removed from our preferred future kept us from coming up with a plan that was likely to get us to that future.

So the lesson is: starting with student practice is critical.

The Teacher Plan
Once the student practices have been described, ask participants to envision a classroom of today where those student practices were a reality, and describe what the teacher would be doing. In this way, they will define the “teacher practices” that would effectively support the visioned student practices.

Add another chart paper sheet labeled “Teacher” and ask the group, “If this is what the students need to be doing to get ready, what do the teachers need to do?” Record what they call out.

Sample Teacher Plan List

  • Collaboration with both kids and adults
  • Facilitator / coach
  • Flexible
  • Learner & being co-learners with kids
  • Mentor and modeling
  • Taking risks, supporting risk taking, and letting go
  • Technology as a tool, not as a add on

The Administration & Support Plan
With teacher practices defined, ask participants to move out another level to describe the Principal and Tech Coordinator actions that would be seen if one were to visit a school in which the visioned student practices were happening. It will also be important to describe central office administrative practices that would support the now-visioned building Principal and Tech Coordinator practices.

Add a last chart paper sheet labeled “Administration & Support” (or maybe separate sheets for each subgroup) and ask the group, “If this is what the students and teachers need to be doing to get ready, what do the administrators, assistants, curriculum coordinators, tech directors, and other support teams need to do?” Record everything that they call out.

Sample Administrator Plan List

  • Communicator, especially with community
  • Goal setting and establishing high expectations
  • Applaud failures as learning experiences and encourage reflection
  • Involved – visible, consulting with teachers, and working with kids
  • Modeling learning, and the use of technology
  • PR – advocating vision, and working for systematic change
  • Supporting and encouraging risk taking, and making it safe for teachers
  • Support – providing professional development, encouraging teachers, and removing and managing obstacles
  • Allow time for collaboration, planning, and learning

Sample Tech Directors Plan List

  • Keeping current
  • Learning constantly
  • Make it work /keep it working
  • Provide infrastructure, tools, and professional development
  • Share information, wisdom, and some of the control
  • Supporting & championing the vision
  • Understands education and learning, not just the equipment
  • Team teach with classroom teacher (while teaching the teacher)

Your stakeholder group should now be congratulated! By working outwards from the student, a clear focus throughout will be maintained on the students and their practices, and all other efforts would be in support of those changes. You now have a draft vision that can be used to drive your work, including decisions about resource selection and allocation, the use of technology, and professional development.

There are still a couple steps. What was generated on chart paper should be typed up and the language cleaned up a little and made clearer. The two part vision document (the preferred future and the plan) are now ready to be shared with the wider school community, including those who were not part of the stakeholder group that created it. You might even go through a process of collecting feedback from those who weren't at the event and then seek formal approval of the vision from the educators, and then from the community.


Building a Shared Vision Part 2: Where Will They Be?

Creating a shared vision is a critical step in school improvement efforts. This post is the continuation of an effective process for creating such a shared vision. In the previous post, we discussed the background of the process, who to invite, and some of the set up.

This portion focuses on how to arrive at the preferred future we have for students we care about. The next post will highligh the last steps in the process. You'll like this process for the same reasons I like it: it is quick and dirty, and gets to the crux of what we want for students.

Think of a Student You Care About
You've welcomed the attendees and gotten them seated at their tables. The first step in the work (after introductions at tables), is to ask participants to think of a student they care about.

Participants should be directed to think of the students “as their own children.” This is considered a critical component to insure that during this visioning process they do not get “mired in current reality” (get too frustrated thinking about the students who frustrate them!), but rather allow and encourage them to “vision the best” for students they care as much about as they do their own children.

Where Will They Be In the Future?
Next ask them to think into the future for that student – through middle school, high school, college/military/training, to a time when they are living and working on their own.

And ask them to think about “where” their students will be, specifically in three domains:

  • Professionally (What work will your students be doing for work?)
  • Learning (What, where, and how will your students be learning?)
  • Physically (Where will your students be living?)

Have individuals (independently) record their own responses (you might provide each table with scratch paper, or a handout with boxes for each of these three domains, where participants can jot their thoughts).

Next, have each table compile their answers.

The table groups can then reconvene as a whole group to share their Where Will They Be? lists. The facilitator can have three chart paper sheets—one labeled “Physical Location,” one labeled “Learning Location,” and one “Working Location,” and list everything that tables report out. Have groups report out on only one of these three domains at a time. Perhaps use a Round Robin approach, where each group only shares one item on their list, then the next group shares one, and so on. Groups are asked to avoid repeats, and the facilitator keeps going around until all items have been shared and recorded.

Repeat similarly for each of the other two domains.

Occasionally, while asking “where will the be?”, someone will suggest something like “Walmart” or “in jail.” It's usually good for a laugh from the group, and clearly they are focusing too much on the students they don't know what to do with. But these kinds of comments can start to lead the group down a very negative path. It is prudent to ask the group, “Is this really our preferred future for students we care about?” This will get the group back on track to creating a desirable vision.

Sample Responses
Below are some of the common responses I have received from various groups.

What Kinds of Jobs Will Students Have?

  • Choice – doing something they enjoy – following a passion
  • Communication
  • Community – give to society
  • Data – analyzing data, patterns, predicting, managing information
  • Family – home – strengthening family connection
  • Flexible – very flexible – working smarter not harder
  • Global technology based industry
  • Healthcare
  • Home – working online from home and traveling to job sites
  • Medical, research and development, bio-tech
  • New – profession that has not yet been invented
  • Professional
  • Research
  • Service industry (stores)
  • Technology as part of work

Where Will They Live?

  • Choice – living where they would like
  • Close to family & Maine (home state), & their home town – staying connected
  • Return – go where they want, but come home
  • Community – feeling of community / connected environment (human)
  • Some particular part of the state (such as Southern Maine)

What Will Their Learning Look Like in the Future?

  • Choice – anywhere / anytime
  • Collaborate – unavoidably, in teams and groups – connection
  • Communication
  • Distance learning
  • Experiential – learn from experience on job
  • Face to face – personal interaction
  • Global
  • Higher degrees
  • Use & find various resources and solve problems and adapt to task
  • Self directed & independent
  • Technology based, wireless, online

I have shared these lists to give you a sampling of the kinds of preferred future groups might envision. But don't make the mistake of trying to build a vision around these here (or any other list belonging to someone else). Your list only gains its value if it is your own. You need to ask the questions of your own stakeholder group.

But once you have your own lists of where the students will be in the future, let your participants know that this is their preferred future. This is what they want for the students they really care about. And remind participants that if this is what we want for the students' future, then we need to start preparing them for it now.

But we tackle that in the next post…


Building a Shared Vision Part 1: Where To Begin?

Destination Matters.

This is true with schools, too. Our destination should be more than just the work we do: taking attendance, direct instruction, providing practice, reviewing and assessing work, providing feedback, etc. Why are we bothering to do this work? For that matter, how do we know this is the right work to do?

We can answer those questions if we work with our staff, students, families, and community to create a shared vision. A vision tells us what our desire outcome is and a shared vision has a lot of buy-in, because a large cross section of people connected to the school were involved in creating it.

A Vision Building Process That Works
This post describes the beginning of a process I like enormously. I like it because it is quick and dirty: it can be accomplished in one or two afternoon or evening meetings. And I like it because it gets right to the crux of the matter: what is our preferred future for the children we care about and what do they need to be doing right now so they can get there?

This is the same process that was introduced early in the implementation of MLTI.

In the spring of 2002, eighteen regional meetings were held around Maine in support of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). Each school sent a shared leadership team (a teacher leader, building principal, and technology coordinator). Hosted by the nine Exploration Schools of the MLTI, these meetings were designed and facilitated by Bette Manchester, Distinguished Educator at the Maine Department of Education, and members of her Design Team for Curriculum and Professional Development (I was involved in a couple of those, and have used this process with diverse groups since). Educators from all of the 239 MLTI schools attended the meetings.

Out of these meetings came both a statewide vision for the future of Maine’s students, including defining the role of technology in that vision, and a replicable process for building a shared visioning back at their own schools.

Who To Invite
The place to start, of course, is to think about who to invite.

It is important to have as many people as you can physically accommodate, and to have as broad a cross section of participants as you can. At a minimum, you should have representatives from administration, the staff, students, parents, and other community members. And don't just invite the historically “supportive” people. A shared vision is a powerful tool precisely because it is shared, because it has broad approval. And when people of all perspectives are represented in that work, it is a very strong document.

The process will involve individual, small group, and large group interaction, so I'd recommend a venue with tables for small groups, rather than rows of chairs, or “theater seating.” You will need name tags, individual writing materials (pens or pencils, and scratch paper should be fine), chart paper, masking tape, and markers.

You should think about who will be attending and how you might want them grouped. At the MLTI meetings, participants were broken into groups of 6, including complete teams (Teacher Leaders, Principals, & Technology Coordinators) in the same group; we wanted the local shared leadership teams working together.

Once you have everyone at the meeting, the first half of the process is called, “Where will they be?” and focuses on the preferred future we have for students we care about. This will be the focus of the next post…


The Need For a Shared Vision

Destination matters.

What if you were a sailboat captain.

Let’s even say you’ve got a great boat and a wonderful crew. Together you’ve done a lot of sailing. Maybe you even work well together and know how to collaboratively operate the boat to maneuver well and go really fast, coaxing its peak performance.

But what does all this mean if you have no destination?

Or worse, what would happen if each of you had a different picture of where you were headed? What would the outcome be then?

In fact, you may only be able to judge how successful you are when you judge it against how well you did getting to a specific destination.

Perhaps a day sail out to the island is a different kind of work than a sail from Maine to the Keys. Maybe sailing to Antarctica is different than sailing to Spain (as Shackleton will tell you!). Maybe sailing the Intercoastal Waterway is different than sailing across the ocean. Destination matters and it defines the specifics of the work you need to do, despite the commonalities of the work. Doing the work isn’t the desired outcome. Getting to the destination is the desired outcome, and the work is how you get there.

Now, you might question my metaphor since sailing is just sometimes about heading out and enjoying the water, but I’d argue that that was a pretty specific destination. And think about how frustrated you would be, if the crew thought that was the destination and you thought you were headed to Vinalhaven Island!?

Schools also need to be on the same page about their destination. A fundamental and critical component for the success of any large-scale school change effort is the thoughtful creation and formal acceptance of a shared vision for that effort. Education for what? Why bother?

A shared vision in not only a description of what you want your desired outcome of school to be, but is one that is held in wide agreement with your administration, staff, students, families, and community.

In spite of the renewed interest in having a shared vision brought on by the Customized Learning work going on in some Maine districts, I believe this is a piece of work that is overlooked all too often. Sometimes I think schools, districts, and state Departments of Education think their destination (vision) is simply to “do school,” to go through the motions of schooling as we’ve been going through them. It is no wonder that some districts see no reason to change (after all, if the purpose of sailing is simply to see how well you work the rudder and sails, any port will do, won’t it?), or just believe that the purpose of school is obvious and get frustrated with people who don’t and want to spend time on “this touchy feely stuff!”

And thus is the problem with schools and shared visions. Districts, schools, or states can either assume that their existing mission or purpose statements (despite often being created as so much rhetoric) can simply be spread to cover any new effort, or they simply assume that everyone understands that school, or the initiative, “is important” (especially if someone else has said that you have do it, such as implementing the Common Core).

The trouble with the former is that traditional mission or purpose statements are not future-focused enough to be effectively used in support of an large-scale change effort, such as 1to1 tablets or laptops, or Customized Learning. In the latter case, a lack of a fully developed shared vision (because you all just assume “it is important”) will mean that the time will inevitably come when it becomes clear that individual beliefs about what the vision “is” (but remember they don’t know, because they assumed) compete and contradict each other, and disrupt any forward momentum, unraveling (or at least stalling) your initiative.

So what should we do about a shared vision?

There are certainly lots of approaches. Which ever approach you choose, it should meet a couple criteria:

  • The vision should be both realistic and creative
  • It should reflect the contexts of both your students and school
  • It should also reflect what you hope for your students and their futures
  • The process should involve a broad a group of stakeholders (administration, staff, students, parents, community members)

I’m getting ready to blog (in three parts) one of my favorite approaches to creating a shared vision. Like a lot of my favorite strategies, it is based on lessons learned from MLTI, the first and only state-wide 1to1 learning with laptop initiative, now over a decade old. This post, and the next two on building a shared vision, come from materials that were jointly written by Jim Moulton and me, and were distributed to educators in the early years of MLTI. (Note: Those portions of these posts that may have been originally penned by Jim are used with his kind permission. Any inaccuracies, errors, or erroneous information are certainly all mine.)

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….


Getting a School Back on Track

A friend from out of state recently wrote me asking for some suggestions for helping a school she’s involved with.

She wrote (edited to add some anonymity):

I have been appointed recently to serve on a Commission for a high school that was reconfigured and provided with $54 million for building and equipment in 2000.  It was the investment child of a foundation with matching funds from several local corporate donors for the intention and purpose of establishing a state-of-the art trade and tech school. It has a 99-year intergovernmental agreement among the local university, tech college, and school district that allows the school to be directed by a Commission.  The IGA allows more flexibility and autonomy than I have seen in most charter contracts.

Unfortunately, the Commission has not really held anyone accountable, and never implemented the very cool (albeit unrealistic) curriculum and programs.  Twelve years later, the school is a pack of trouble.  Donors are squealing about wasted investments, and the neighborhood (Latino) kids won’t go to the school since it is now mostly African American.

She wanted suggestions on model programs they could look at (and I suggested one), but mostly she wanted some ideas on how to get the school back on track.

I’m wondering if there aren’t other schools and districts out there that also feel like they have gotten off track and are wondering what to do next.  So I’ll share here a version of my respone to my friend.

I think the answer is working on your school’s “Burning Platform” and on your Shared Vision.

In school change circles, the Burning Platform is that big reason you have that screams “WE NEED TO CHANGE OUR SCHOOLS!” to all the stake holders.  For us (Auburn School Departement), it’s that 70% of our kids are doing well – which really means that our schools don’t work for 30% of our kids.

So, the first step is to work with your leadership team to involve stakeholders in identifying the Burning Platform.  But the Burning Platform can’t be something like “we got away from our plan” (teachers & students are just as likely to say, “so what!” to this as anything).  It’s got to be that one big reason that will pull everyone together to say, “Let’s do it!”

Then you need a shared vision.  There are lots of approaches to creating a shared vision (I promise to blog about a visioning process I like very much in the near future). But which ever way you do it, make sure you are involving TONS of stakeholders – students, teachers, admin, parents, community members, local employers, school committee/commission folk, donors/investors…  Literally having hundreds of people involved with creating your shared vision is not a bad thing.  The more the merrier – but much more importantly, the harder it will be for anyone to criticize your vision after it is created.  But you need a good facilitator and a good process, especially if you are going to involve lots of diverse stakeholders. 

I guess the other piece is leadership.  I suggested to my firend that either their Commission needed to lead hard or they needed to hire a good principal for the school (or both).  Maine’s major lesson from MLTI (our statewide learning with laptop initiative): Leadership is everything. (Judy Enright, another friend who works with schools on large scale change, likes our Lead4Change model to help insure that school change leaders are being systematic and paying attention to all the moving parts.)

Anyway, it seems to me that the only way you start getting back on track is to first bring everyone together – through the Burning Platform and the Shared Vision.

It’s Your Turn:

What are your suggestions for getting a school back on track?