From the Outside Looking In

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"From the outside looking in you can't understand it, and from the inside looking out you can't explain it"

For the first time in eighteen years, I have found myself in a completely different situation and am fascinated by what I am learning as an outsider about the world in which I previously lived.  As an educator, I have spent my entire career working within the public education system working and pushing for changes I believe are not only good for kids but essential to their learning experiences.  I have had the honor of being a part of major initiatives including developing blended learning environments with Sal Khan of Khan Academy, using design thinking to create a different trajectory for a school district and most recently creating a comprehensive STEM program beginning in kindergarten.  My work is and has always been fueled by a passion, an unwavering commitment to public education and a belief that change is possible for all students.

And then I was hit with an unexpected personal change that came in the form of an incredible new opportunity for our family to relocate to Southern California.  I resigned from my position as the Director of Strategic Initiative & Community Partnerships with the Los Altos School District in November and relocated to the west side of Los Angeles, where I am now a parent of a first grade student in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) trying to understand the world of education from a different perspective. While I am no longer affiliated with a public school district, I continue to work with school leaders on reframing their leadership both as an independent consultant and through my work with The Wiseman Group.  

Despite what I had read in the news, I chose to see being a parent of an LAUSD student as an opportunity and promptly reached out to my local school leaders - school board members, district supervisors and local school principal. No response. I reached out again, doing my best to share my background and offer my expertise asking for opportunities to get involved.  No response.  Shocking or expected? For all the rhetoric about parents and schools being partners I was simultaneously disgusted and not at all surprised.  For the time being, I have given up on reaching out to either school board members or district leadership and instead have chosen to focus on my local neighborhood school.  After a brief conversation at a school event, the principal politely invited me to consider joining School Site Council while also making it clear that I would have to be elected to the committee should a position be available.  Is this actually code for we “have a few carefully crafted opportunities for parental involvement and aren’t really interested in what parents have to offer?”  Regardless, the conversation has left me wondering about the ways in which we tap into parents expertise, talent and intelligence.  Sure I want to volunteer in my son’s classroom during art time but I have a whole lot more to offer and I am guessing that is true of many parents that find themselves volunteering at schools.  It has also left me wondering about the ease of navigating the educational system as a parent.  If I am struggling to navigate a world where I spent the past eighteen years, what about the non-educator parents?

  • What might happen if we were able to tap into this expertise?    Are we breeding complacency by making it so complicated for any real change to take place?
  • Are school leaders so bogged down with the logistics of running a school that they don’t have the time or capacity to engage in meaningful conversations about change?
  • What could parents and community members do to make it easier for school leaders to tap into their experience and expertise?

At the moment I have more questions than answers but this experience is certainly helping me to better formulate ways to support school leaders who are ready to make meaningful changes in their school community. 


Drive the Train or Design the Tracks?

Photo by hxdyl/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by hxdyl/iStock / Getty Images

This summer I was driving, listening to Ed Catmull’s book  “Creativity, Incorporated,” an outstanding account of how to create a sustainable culture of collaboration.  The entire book is phenomenal, but I heard something that really struck a chord with me. So much so that , I veered off the highway pulled onto the shoulder, & re-listened to it - multiple times. Ed was talking about mental models people use to frame their work & talked about the all too common mental model of “driving the train”  Many people believe the way to shape the future of a company (or a school) is to drive the train, when that actually couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Driving the train doesn’t set or change the direction.  The real work is in designing its course.  Then for the rest of my drive I thought about what we do as educators and the opportunities we miss because we are so focused on “driving the train.”  

We are already a couple of weeks into another school year - far enough into the year to establish a rhythm but still close enough that you can almost get a lingering taste of the “Back to School Energy.”  At one of our back to school events, I was chatting with a teacher about our summers and the teacher shared  “I’m so excited! This summer I was able to do a lot of lesson planning.  In fact I have almost the entire year planned!?” It wasn’t the time to dive into a deep pedagogical discussion, but I’m pretty sure my horror was clearly displayed on my face “ Your entire year is planned?!  How can you plan out a year of learning for students you haven’t even met?” Sadly, in a system driven by standards, pacing guides, benchmarks & instructional targets this isn’t too uncommon.  

In education have we become so caught up in driving the train that we have forgotten to focus on designing the tracks?   Amazing things are possible when teachers no longer feel confined to lesson planning and begin to see themselves as designers of learning experiences.  While this shift may seem small, it is huge because it shifts the focus from “instruction” to learning.  It requires a focus on the learners and how they will experience what we design.

Think back to your own educational experience. Let’s say the first day of sixth grade. You walk into your classroom with your backpack full of supplies, and you can pretty much predict how the day will go. Why? Because it will be like every other first day of school you have experienced.  There will be some get to know you activity,  the sorting of supplies, and the labeling and sectioning off of binders. Then, there’s the passing out of textbooks and workbooks. In between, there are the rules. Classroom rules, homework rules, hallway rules, playground rules. You quickly learn that school is a series of rules & events all driven by the teacher and you are just along for the ride.  When asked about your day - you are likely to tell stories about your friends, describe your teacher as nice, strict, or funny, but likely there is very little dinner conversation about learning…. Isn’t it time for a new story in education?

Now let’s reimagine that first day experience. What if you walked into the classroom and the first day was about you, the learner? What if the teacher didn’t explain the rules but encouraged you to create them? What if, instead of being handed a textbook  or a syllabus you were handed an idea to explore or a problem to solve? What if you were encouraged to pursue “interesting?”  What would your dinner conversation sound like that night? What new stories would you be able to tell?

Determining who controls the learning experience is a very real issue. For so long in education we have worked under the mindset that we adults must be the “deciders” in the classroom. We must not only make sure that students have their tickets, but that they have all of the right luggage, are sitting in the right seats, and are quiet while we step to the front and move the train forward. What happens when we shift our focus?  What if we design multiple tracks and allow the students to choose both their path and their stops along the way?  What if we invite students to be co-creators in designing the path?  We have the power to change this!

Our students are capable of driving the train, but we have to get out of the driver’s seat and empower teachers to relinquish control.  Teachers may be overworked, but they are underutilized.  Do we have our teachers so busy focused on the “wrong things” that they aren’t able to shift into the role of “learning designers”?  And what does that even mean to start thinking like a designer?  Thinking like a designer means being more aware of the world around you, taking the time to empathize with your users (in this case your students), creating solutions for the future, and taking action to implement those solutions.

There is growing awareness of the importance of design and design thinking in education.  Design Thinking is a process grounded in empathy that helps you approach both problem finding and problem solving from a new perspective.  My journey with design thinking began a few years ago with a class taken at Stanford’s d. school. Like most people I was blown away by the space, the process, their interdisciplinary teams and ultimately, their success stories.  Inspired to act, my colleagues and I jumped into rethinking spaces and adopting the process but quickly learned it was so much more than that. We had to work to change our mindsets and problem solving strategies.  We didn’t know what we didn’t know, but even with our limited knowledge we started to see different results and through the process we developed awareness that we needed to reframe our mental models.  

In an attempt to capture and share our lessons learned, we started to create practices that would help us “think like designers.”  These are the very practices that will also help teachers shift out of the drivers’ seat These are the 3 practices that have made a difference in how myself and my colleagues approach our work -

Get Out of the Water:


You may have seen this photo last February of man out whale watching in Redondo Beach. He misses a whale two feet in front of him because he is glued to his phone.  This is a perfect example of someone who is so caught up in their own world, that they are missing a significant opportunity right in front of them.  They metaphorically need to "Get Out of the Water." The focus of this designer mindset is to sharpen your vision and curiosity.  Is it time to get out of your classroom and broaden your perspective?   Last school year we arranged adult field trips - why do the kids get to have all the fun?- we visited other schools to see different strategies in action, we met in art museums to discuss the integration of art into STEM & visited video game studios to understand firsthand why gaming has such an impact on students.  The insights brought back to the classrooms were amazing.  Is it time for you to get out of the water? Try to take some time to get out, and then return to your world as a tourist with a beginner’s mindset.  What new things might you notice and what are you missing?  

Ride the Same Wave

The 2nd practice is to ride the same wave.  This practice is really grounded in empathy. It is a mindset of broadening your perspective via people and need-finding. I find it interesting that we spend all of our time with students in schools and yet very little time truly understanding the experience of our students. I wonder at times if we are making assumptions primarily based on our own experience of being a student.  We were all students, so we already know what’s it like -right?  Consider shadowing a student for an entire day -put yourself in their shoes.  Walk the halls as they walk, sit in their seats - what is their daily experience at school?  The ah’has that teachers get from this experience are rich, human centered and powerful! in fact, teachers who have tried this often credit it  as the number one thing that helped them shift their role.  What might happen if you viewed your role and approach as a teacher through the eyes of your students?  How might that shift your focus?

Rule Break with Intention

How many of you have rules or practices at your school that don’t really  make sense?  This is a mindset of thoughtfully challenging the way we always do it.  It is about questioning rules, but first knowing the ins and outs of why the rules exist. Some of these might be written rules, but more than likely many may just be common practices that have existed at your school site forever - it’s just the way we have always done it.  Try creating a list of “the way we have always done things” see if you can identifying the underlying assumptions and ask WHY?  Why do we require students to walk in straight lines?  Why do we give a spelling test every Friday?  Unfortunately, some of our accepted practices have been created over the years for the convenience of the adults and have very little to do with what is best for students and learning.  Questioning long held practices & the intentional breaking of some rules open possibilities to yield greater ownership of learning for students.

Three ideas - that if put into practice will help you shift your role as an educator.  A shift that is going to be required from all of us if we are ever going to move beyond our current circumstances and allow students to have more ownership in driving their learning.   With intentional practice, we can shift our mindsets and start approaching our work as designers where the possibilities are limitless.  

As we see educators taking on new roles let’s remember that the “new needs friends” - we need to support them, encourage them and shine the spotlight on their work. If you are a teacher wanting to make the shift… Just start.  Start by observing in another classroom at your school for an hour.  Start by sitting alongside a student for a morning to understand their experience.  Start by questioning a “rule” in your classroom or school  collaborating with one student on something they find interesting. The shift to a learner centered model is going to take collective attention, conversation, and action as individual teachers embrace, learn and grow into these new responsibilities.  Let’s support and applaud the teachers who are refusing to drive the train and are instead choosing to focus their energy on designing new directions and opportunities.  


How Might We Be Shutting Down the Intelligence of Students?

Photo by kkgas/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by kkgas/iStock / Getty Images

5 Things We Can Do to Bring Out the Best in Students

As the educational partner for The Wiseman Group, a good portion of my time is spent guiding and coaching educational leaders to use their intelligence to make everyone around them smarter and more capable.  In this role I have the privilege of working closely with Liz Wiseman, best-selling author ofMultipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and Rookie Smarts.  Liz is an exceptional leader, dynamic person and outstanding speaker. (If you ever get the chance to hear her speak GO!)   It is always a treat to hear Liz speak about Multipliers and Rookie Smarts, but recently I had the opportunity to hear Liz engage with a parent/teacher audience about applying “multiplier concepts” to bring out the best in our children.   

Liz began her research several years ago with a fairly straightforward question: How do some leaders create intelligence in the people around them, while others diminish it?  Her research uncovered two fundamentally different types of leaders.  In the first group are the Diminishers.  These leaders tend to believe there are few really smart people and that people will not figure things out without them.  The second group of leaders are Multipliers.  These leaders bring out each person’s unique intelligence and creativity.  They see their organization as filled with intelligent, capable people and create the right opportunities for continued growth.  As you can imagine these two types of leaders get very different results.  Multipliers tend to get twice as much from their resources as do Diminishers.  Liz goes on to identify a leadership continuum with Multipliers and Diminishers on opposite ends of this continuum. As you might expect, just a small number of people fall into either polar extreme of being a Multiplier or a Diminisher 100% of the time.  Most of us find ourselves along a spectrum functioning as Accidental Diminishers.

This concept of Accidental Diminishers is especially intriguing to me in education, as most educators I know are extremely well intentioned, following popular leadership and instructional practices which may actually have a subtle diminishing influence on those we lead whether they are teachers or students. With some focused effort, we can shift our accidentally diminishing tendencies and develop skills to lead and teach more like a multiplier.  In fact, Liz shared five things you can do tomorrow in your school or classroom to bring out the best in students. (All of these suggestions work in work in parenting as well!)


Shift From Answers to Questions

What if we stopped operating in telling mode and shifted to questioning mode?  What might our students already know?  Too often we fall into the trap of telling our students things they might already know.  Test this out by going extreme and only asking questions of your students for an identified period of time.  Chances are everyone will learn more and you’ll improve your ability to ask questions in the process.

Play Fewer Chips

Often as adults we just take up too much space.  We have so much to share, that we actually end up shutting down what our students have to share.  What if we thought of our contributions as poker chips to be played?  When planning, try identifying a number of “chips” to be played.  By limiting your contributions, you might actually create more space for students to do their best thinking.

Offer Bigger Challenges

Imagine for a moment that the challenges we give our students are like the stretch in  rubber bands.  Now imagine that you are holding tight to one end of a rubber band and a student is holding tight to the other end of a rubber band - if you pull the rubber band to it’s maximum tension point (without breaking) the person holding the other end has a couple of choices: let go or they can step in and move closer to you.  In teaching we need to experiment with the amount of stretch on the rubber band.  Are we stretching too much so that students give up?  Are we not stretching enough? Are we stretching but then lessening the stretch at the first sign of struggle?  Try thinking of challenges in the amount of stretch offered.  Do you tend to over stretch or under stretch?  As human beings we are built for challenges, in fact our best learning happens when there is maximum tension on the rubber band and we have to step into the learning.

Find Their Genius

What if we learned to see our students differently?  We all know our students are unique and have their own innate talents.  What might happen if we saw our primary role as teachers to identify and nurture the native genius of our students?  Challenge yourself to observe and identify the native genius of every student in your class. Help students see this native genius and nurture it.

Give the Pen Back

We all know that learning is a messy process and there are times when people get stuck.  As educators our goal is to help students but sometimes when we jump in to help we end up taking the ownership of the learning.  What if we helped just enough to get students unstuck but then quickly gave the pen back, transferring the ownership of learning right back to the student?

Experimenting with these five shifts, may help you teach more like a multiplier and unleash genius in your students.  If you try any of the above experiments, I’d love to hear what you and your students experience!

Let's Transform Education

Photo by Jens Stolt/Hemera / Getty Images

Photo by Jens Stolt/Hemera / Getty Images

A few months ago I was asked to be a part of a national group committed to re-imagining education,  Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.   This group is focused on creating a new paradigm for learning.    Convergence created a vision that outlines  five interrelated elements essential to a new learning paradigm:

  • competency-based

  • personalized, relevant and contextualized

  • learner agency

  • socially embedded

  • open-walled

Simply put Convergence recognizes the current educational system was designed in a different era and structured for a different society.  Their vision is a call to action, not to tweak or modify the current system but to create a drastically different paradigm of learning that will serve all children. Convergence hosted a “Pioneer Base Camp” of educators who have demonstrated their belief in one or more essential elements outlined in the vision.   It was honor to be invited along with four other educators in the Los Altos School District.

After spending time with educators, policy makers, private corporations and foundations dedicated to improving our education system for ALL students, we all returned with  renewed commitment to revolutionizing learning for all students and BIG ideas about how to accelerate our work.  It was a tremendous experience to connect and learn with so many diverse groups.  Here is a list of some of the other Pioneers that attended:  Big Picture Learning, Design39 Campus, High Tech High, Iowa BIG, Lindsay Unified School District, MC2, Quest to Learn, Re-School Colorado, and Roycemore School. Our reactions to hearing what is happening elsewhere in the country ranged from “We do that, too!” to “Ooooh, we could do that!” to “How in the world did you do that?”

Fundamentally, our world is changing and so should our education system.  Is your organization working to embrace this new mindset?  Knowing we need to grow and adapt is only the first step, we must now apply new strategies and approaches across entire systems. This is challenging.   Especially, when we are talking about making changes to a system that so many of us are products of. Too often I hear, “I survived school…. It worked for me, what’s wrong with it?”

Yes, that system worked for me, too. Everything I needed for research could be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica and I relied heavily on my ability to memorize content.   In this traditional system, we “learned” at school, and then we left to “do” at work.  This approach no longer works - in today’s world learning and doing have become inseparable.  If we continue down the same path, are we preparing students for a world that no longer exists?  

Having just participated in this national conversation about transforming education, I am asking a lot of questions - questions that challenge the core of our learning system.  Here are just a few of the questions swirling in my mind-

  • Why do we determine what a child learns and is exposed to based on how old they are?

  • How can we design a system that embraces the fact that not everyone learn in the same way or at the same pace?

  • What role does learning outside of traditional school “hours” and “walls” look like and how can we partner to make sure we are expanding opportunities to learn, not limiting them?

  • How can we re-organize our current resources (time, money, people, space) to shift our system now, rather than waiting for a full-scale, start-from-scratch re-design?

Knowing that there are big challenges ahead for all educators and educational organizations, I am curious to know what questions you are asking. Let’s stop tweaking our educational system around the edges and start re-imagining based on the needs of our students.