Rant Against the Educational Visionaries

Let me warn you right off, this is a rant. I’ve had a long, long week and I am taking out my frustrations in this blog. So, just be aware and read this at your own risk:

I am completely over the “big picture”, “big vision”, “global thinkers”, and “epic dreamers”. What is it about the world of education that makes us feel like we have solved a problem by telling schools and educators we aren’t doing it right.

I have had, and continue to have, opportunities where I listen to a speaker who tells us our current educational system is not preparing students for the world they will live in the future, or for the world we live in now, for that matter. I’m quite certain that no one in those rooms is unaware of this fact. I don’t think anyone in those rooms is thinking, “Well, goll darn, we’re preparing our students for factory jobs at our school”. I really don’t think any of us are unaware of the problem; what we are unaware is what to do to start fixing the situation.

At another meeting, I took some administrators through an activity where we took each of the items listed in the article “14 Things That Are Obsolete in 21st Century Schools”. The article can be found here http://ingvihrannar.com/14-things-that-are-obsolete-in-21st-century-schools/.  We did an activity similar to the EdCamp “Rocks or Sucks” session where we voted by standing in a certain spot as to whether or not each thing was relevant or obsolete. Most of the people there saw most of these things as obsolete even though they exist in their own schools! Goodness, if you know it’s the wrong thing to do, shouldn’t that be enough to change?

No, it isn’t enough!! We don’t change until we know WHAT TO DO DIFFERENTLY. That’s why having a vision is great, but it is not the big work by a long-shot. The big work is choosing what you are going to do and doing it with fidelity and monitoring what you are doing to make sure what you are doing is actually getting the results you want.

This is the big, hard, boring, tedius, thankless, work that so many of us either don’t know how to do or don’t want to do.

I am an idea person. I have vision up the ying yang. There isn’t an educational shiny object that hasn’t caught my eye. I love to dream big. And I am good at seeing what is wrong in everything around me. I am your best candidate for “Critic of Everything We Currently Do”.

But I’m bored with that and I don’t have time to engage in talking about the way things should be anymore unless it is going to be followed up with some purposeful and specific planning for what to do differently.

So, I’m going to make some giant assumptions for now:

  1. We all know that the world we are preparing students for is drastically different than the world where we grew up.
  2. We all know that what schools currently offer kids is not what they need.
  3. We all have a vision that kids will learn at high levels in an engaging and creative and challenging manner.

Here’s the assumption I don’t think we all have. There are no quick fixes to this problem like handing every student a computer or tablet or adding Genius Hour to every schedule. In fact, these have been some of our most dangerous practices. If we are going to truly change the behavior of schools it will be a long and arduous process with lots of detail work along the way.

One of the biggest hurdles we need to face is answering the question, “what does it look like?”. And, this doesn’t mean we send people to another state to see what that school is doing and think that is enough. What does it look like here? With our staff. And our resources. And our administrator. And our parents. And our School Board.

As change-agents, we have to be willing to get embedded in schools, to know that district’s situation intimately and to plan with them and for them. It needs to include a coaching model, not a “we are the expert” model. We can’t tell people what to do, we have to do it with them.

At Prairie Lakes AEA, we have had a vision of changing the way instruction is delivered to special education students for several years. One of the first things we realized is that we knew what it didn’t look like, but we hadn’t articulated what it DOES look like. So, we went to work with the DE and, after two years of arduous work, we have a rubric for what Specially Designed Instruction looks like.

So, we just do the same thing with everyone to get them to implement this, right? WRONG! Now, we are working on a protocol to determine the unique situation every district is in so we can work with them to create the best plan of action to really impact instruction. We plan to be in six districts this year and it involves spending time side-by-side with district folks to do classroom walk-throughs in every building; focus groups with teachers, students, parents, administrators, and paras; and a comprehensive data review. In the end, we will choose five things we saw to celebrate and five things we saw as priority areas for improvement. The action planning will be what we can do in 10 days, 10 weeks, and 10 months with implementation support and an evaluation component embedded in the plans. It is long, hard work, but I believe it is the right work.

So, keep dreaming, but start doing as well. My mantra with everything I attend at work is, “What am I going to do differently tomorrow as a result of this?”.

So, a few things I think you can do as an administrator or teacher within 10 days to make a difference for kids and their future:

  • Schedule time for yourself to visit a place where your students may work and watch what they do and ask them what they value in their employees.
  • Survey your students about what they would be passionate about learning. Create a passion project that all students are required to complete. More information on this at http://www.rundesroom.com/2013/11/passion-projects-in-classroom.html or http://psolarz.weebly.com/mr-solarz-eportfolio/step-by-step-directions-for-creating-passion-projects-in-our-classroom.
  • Create a peer coaching relationship with another staff member and observe each other looking for the level of instructional complexity in your classroom. As an administrator do walkthroughs of classroom and provide immediate feedback.
  • As a teacher, give your students a real world task with an authentic work task. As an administrator, require this of your teachers and hold them accountable to these expectations.
  • As an administrator, hold your Tech Director to a high standard. So often, this is the person in a school who is a huge barrier and no one will take them on. You need to take them on; the position should work collaboratively with your teachers and administrators, not make decisions in isolation.
  • Spend 30 minutes a week learning on-line about what the classroom of the future looks like. Literally google “What you can do right now to create a classroom for the future” and read the articles and watch the videos that are listed.
  • As a teacher, restructure you classroom in a way that fosters collaboration.
  • As an administrator, restructure your building schedule to foster collaboration. Require that a piece of the collaboration time is spent on building a classroom for the future.

I think we get overwhelmed by how far we have to go so we do nothing. Set small goals that you can reach, plan to do ONE thing in the next 10 days. I promise we can all accomplish that dream.

(May, 2016)