Monday, February 7, 2011

School Innovation Process - Part II: 5% Digital Proposal

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” - Dale Carnegie.

“The man who achieves makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all - doing nothing.”
- Benjamin Fraklin.

Just getting started with difficult tasks is sometimes the most difficult part. In regards to new ideas, the path of least resistance is not to fight an idea, and it’s obviously not to implement a new idea either. The path of least resistance is to do nothing; to be frozen in inactivity. If you're anything like me, most of you can attest from your own experiences, taking the first steps on a difficult project can often spur a bout of procrastination, but once the first steps are taken, often, things start to flow. Even if the flow was not what was originally anticipated, it seldom leads to wasted efforts. In terms of taking action to improve our public schools, much has been discussed recently about the use of technology in the news:

School CIO: The New One-to-One

Online Course Reviews: The Rise of K12 Blended Learning

Three Trends That Will Shape the Future of Curriculum

Teacher-Replacing Tech: Friend or Foe?

Teachers, Parents Question Education Reform

The writing is on the wall and the belief that an online component to public education is inevitable. Many private companies are coming out with education solutions. However these companies are commercial businesses with the ultimate goal of satisfying investors and earning money. Commercial developed curriculum can create instructional materials that address state standards, but they cannot create resources that effectively address local community needs. This is because they purposely create curriculum that can address the widest audience as possible. This inevitably will lead to curriculum that is very generic, or average at best. (I should say this argument also holds true for the current textbook materials we have even using for decades.)

Many people have a miss guided perception of technology in schools and digital curriculum. The ideas that computers are going to replace teachers is ridiculous. The evidence supporting the use of digital curriculum is supported in the concept of a blended instructional model. One where students continue to attend regular classes with other students and a teachers, but also are receiving instruction through the use of digital content outside of their normal classroom.

In terms of school innovation in general, one of the most widely sought after innovations is the ability to create more time; more time for learning, more time for school, more time for PBL (Project Based Learning), more time for meaningful computer usage, more time for professional development, more time for PLC (Professional Learning Communities), more time for relationship development, more time for individualized instruction, more time for feedback, more time for assessment, more time for student interests, and on and on and on. Many have tried to synthesize “new time.” Most of these have been focused on changing the structure of a typical school day. They have created block scheduling; class periods that last for hours as opposed to 55 minutes. They have lengthened the school day, to increase time students are required to be in their seats. Most of these have met with varying degrees of success, primarily based on whether or not curriculum and instruction had changed in response to the addition of more instructional time. One problem with these strategies is that they do not address the time outside of students in the classroom. In other words, teachers are still provided the same amount of time to develop the instruction for these longer class periods as they had when they were designing instruction for a fifty-five minute period. (Granted these examples are middle and high school examples, elementary schools face similar daunting tasks due to required minutes of instruction in content areas, and the emphasis on addressing standards found within the state assessments.) The thought being that developing instruction to capitalize on longer instructional periods takes more time, not just in the sense of the teacher developing an actual lesson, but also the fact that teachers will require professional development to effectively design those lessons to utilize the additional resource (time). So if we appear to agree that more time seems to be one acceptable solution/innovation that we have actually acted upon in the past in our schools, albeit one that is pretty much null on the scale of disrupt-ability, then how do we magically create more hours in a day that addresses all aspects of school and education, not just student seat time?

Here is my proposal. The components of which are fairly obvious, and one that leads us through a common agreed upon notion in terms of innovation. The simplicity of the idea at the initial phase will create results that compound as we get better and better at the it eventually leading to the potential to radically change how we educate children. I actually believe we have been in this early innovation stage for a number of years now, but are only now entering a period of time that all the pieces are coming together. Our actions today will only control the speed at which we get to the ultimate result and the degree to which we decide to use up resources in the process. This innovative idea is already in practice to some degree, in pockets around the country, however it is handicapped by its self-restricted small scale. The most effective use of this innovation only reaches its full potential when the number of people implementing it is beyond the size of a single school. What is this grand idea? The simple idea that school districts mandate that all teachers be required to convert 5% of their classroom curriculum into a digitally deliverable, shareable, modifiable resource.

How does the conversion of traditional classroom instruction to digital content address the ability to create time? It does so indirectly. A common argument about requiring teachers to convert 5% of their curriculum each year is the idea that they would just be duplicating what they do in the traditional classroom, just putting it in a digital format. This is actually a valid argument. But it falls directly within the acceptable norm for the initial phase of this innovation. This is common with any type of technology. The first use is to actually automate a current practice by either making it easier to do or doing it faster. This automation principle may not be relevant to education in the beginning, because teachers would naturally say that the time it takes to create these initial digital resources could be well spent in other work related activities. But that is kind of my point. If the content that they are initially converting can be delivered digitally to students, why not deliver it digitally and use the saved classroom time for more guided complex instruction? For most teachers, converting components of their curriculum into a digital format would be something completely new to them. However, if the results of their initial efforts are successful, it brings up one very important fact; if students are able to access the learning content digitally on their own, why have we been using up valuable time in the classroom for this teacher led activity? Why don’t we recoup the time we save with the digital delivery of content and utilize it in the classroom with more meaningful face-to-face instruction, and design an instructional day that can accommodate professional development?

The practice of this innovation over time would lead to additional innovations that would further improve on the initial idea. For instance, over a number years, the coordinated development of digital resource by teachers would lead to a very large library of digital instructional content. These content resources would be extremely valuable in the sense that they are locally created and address the local population. If and when a school district were to begin offering innovative alternative education programs to students, they would have a collection of instructional resources that could be readily available to that alternative education program. In addition, with an ample supply of teacher created digital resources, the purchase of “textbooks” could be eliminated and the teacher created resources could be used to create the district authored "textbooks."

This proposal though simple in idea, is vast in its implementation complexities. But by successfully addressing the all the complexities of this idea, and changing our expectations of administrators, teachers, students and parents, a few years down the road we could be really in a position to improve our public education system. Digital resources the teachers would be creating would also evolve into more powerful learning tools, a curriculum, over time capitalizing on the continued sophistication that teacher would be acquiring. It is not out of the realm of believability that with the advances in technology and software development you could have teachers creating their own applications to help improve student achievement. Granted those are extremely optimistic predictions in our current economic environment, but after a decade or so of implementation, I believe we could be at that point.

The following is some brainstorming on some of the complexities of what a proposal such as this would entail. I'm sure I've missed plenty, so if you have other ideas, questions or comments, please post them below in the comment section.

(CreativeCommons Licensed Image Courtesy of Don Wright on

Friday, February 4, 2011

School Innovation Process - Part I

Back in the Spring of 2010, I was asked, along with one of our site principals, to chair a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and community members to begin investigating the future for our school district and which directions the district should be investigating for long term planning. Initial meetings focused on determining the needs of our students, schools and community as we move into the future. We listed and ranked those needs and identified the top needs receiving the highest rankings. The highest scoring main categories were: Student Communication, School to Home/Home to School Communication, Improving Instructional Program, Technology, School Culture, and Professional Development. Under each of these main categories were specific needs that were submitted and ranked high by committee members. Once those needs were identified, the committee began to research how other schools around the country and world, were addressing those same or similar needs. The results of that research were shared with the committee on subsequent dates. Not surprising, one common thread that appeared through each of the main categories was the use of technology to address the needs.

The committee also interviewed students, adults who were products of the school district, and members of the local community to gain insight as to what they felt was good about their educational experience and what they felt could have improved their educational experience. Our guests had varying experiences with the educational system, primarily due each of their unique life experiences. One idea that shared some commonality was the importance of cultivating caring relationships. This idea of relationships is important because in points at an obvious fact, we are all different. Strong relationships are built upon one to one, honest, personable contact. I’m going to take a little liberty here and stretch an idea, if students feel relationships are important, and yet all students are unique and different, how should be we addressing our approach to teaching and learning when we have 30 students in the classroom?

The answer to that question is designing instruction that is unique to each student. That is only possible when you have fostered a strong relationship with each of your students, clearly identified each of their learning needs, and possess an instruction strategies supply that you can use to pull out tools specific to their needs. At best, what we have been doing up to this point, is grouping our students together (i.e. grade levels, reading levels, pre algebra, algebra, etc. etc.) with what we feel are similar needs and using our “bag” of strategies to address those similarly grouped student needs. Does this strategy work? Sure, up to a point. Could we do better? Of course.

Our school innovation committee is at the point now where we would like to take some recommendations to our school board. These recommendation will focus on what we feel the next steps should be in preparing our schools for the future. I, being a member of that committee, have some thoughts on this and have developed a recommendation I will share at the next meeting. I will explain my idea in a future post. But I will finish with two recordings and a reference to one of my last posts.

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn have written a book titled, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns . In his recent interview on TheFutureofEducation, Mr. Horn explains the main themes behind his book and their recent updates to the book. I have excerpted out a section of that interview below with the section relevant to my idea. The full recording of his interview is available here:

The second recording excerpt below is from Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. In this recording she shares the 2010 National Education Technology Plan and responds to a question related to why innovation is only found in pockets across our educational system. The full recording of her interview is available here:

Finally, my post here, gets to the big idea I will be sharing in more depth in a future post.

Feedback encouraged...What do you think?

(image courtesy of wwworks on