As a school Principal, I often think about the actions we take and structures we create that provide the greatest impact on student learning and engagement. In other words, if every school and educator implemented the best designs for formative assessment (assessment that drives learning) and summative assessment (assessment of learning), would we have an educational system that is the very best for each child? How does an extensive toolkit of instructional strategies to engage students ensure that student learning has been achieved to a higher degree? Can we motivate children if we do not have the quality of relationship with them that will allow our students to be guided by the educators or adults who teach them? How much influence does our ability to manage our classrooms have on minimizing distractions in class or reducing transition times between activities to maximize learning and on-task behaviour? How much do our own personalities and learning styles influence the way we teach and therefore the quality of learning our students experience in our classes? At the core of everything we do as educators, how do our own belief systems, personal circumstances, cultures, and values influence the learning experience of our students?
There have been numerous studies in the field of education to try and deconstruct many of these questions with the hope of narrowing in on the number one thing we should do as educators to influence student achievement. However, we know that student achievement is not the single indicator of a child’s success in life. In fact, there is sufficient research that provides evidence that a person’s social and emotional well-being is more important to a child’s future opportunities than a child’s intellectual well-being. The Ministry of Education in British Columbia is looking at our education system closely and attempting to address some of the challenges we have with our current model for educating children. How do we ensure high expectations and quality teaching/learning without standardized assessments, such as final exams? What are the competencies that most benefit students as they learn particular curriculum content? How do we provide feedback to children and parents that gives our learners and their support systems more insight into their growth and development over time? Our current system tells us that our child may be getting a “B” in class, but what does this really mean and how does this provide us with direction on where to focus our resources? At what stages of development should learning change from reflexive or automatic, such as the syntax for reading, arithmetic, and writing and move to more reflective learning in which we want our students to critically think about solutions that may be more open-ended and abstract. At what stages should learning be more directed by the teacher and when should the learning be more independent and driven by the student?
Rather than write a lengthy response to each of the questions above, I will focus my writing for this blog entry on what I believe to be the critical component that sits at the root of all of these questions. While I recognize that assessment, instructional strategies, classroom management, personalities, and learning styles are critical to the effectiveness of any class setting, I believe that systemic effectiveness (success throughout an entire school, district, or province) needs to take into account the culture in which we operate. My experiences have taught me that there is a readiness or willingness on the part of educators to deepen their effectiveness in the areas I’ve mentioned above when they feel that they are part of a culture that values risk taking, play, and innovation. More importantly though is that this culture tolerates failure with the recognition that this is the nature of learning and we will become more effective over time. This culture celebrates collaboration and teamwork as well as trust, care, and support for one another. The culture is one in which we can be honest, but not personal, critical, but not pessimistic, solution oriented, but not pathological.
This culture takes time to develop and it starts with our leaders. Our leaders must give permission to play, create, innovate, and take risks. They must be seen as risk takers and innovators themselves. Strategically, we know that small wins increase our willingness to take more risks and greater risks. We learn to see that small wins and especially our failures teach us important things to move us forward. We know that data or evidence is important in helping us determine what a successful innovation would look like and whether the innovation is worth keeping. Furthermore, we value innovation within the context of coherence….the innovations are connected to the goals or vision of our school.
Approximately three months ago, I had the privilege to meet with Brian Coupland, the Director of Innovation for Staples. He is an interesting man with extensive experiences consulting with many of the top companies across North America. I was inspired by a comment he made to me during our meeting. He asked me how much failure I would be willing to accept as a school leader that values innovation. Immediately, my mind raced. In the world of social sciences and educating young minds, how much failure is acceptable and can this failure have detrimental effects on our children? How might we manage failure in order to limit or mitigate risk? He then told me that most very successful companies will accept that only 10-20% of their innovations are successful, because they also know that these successes are what enable corporations to thrive and surpass organizations who take a much more cautious approach. There is a realization on the part of the leaders in these companies that applied learning comes from failure and that failure is part of an iterative process towards success. The approach to innovation is often pragmatic and thoughtful. It involves small scale experimentation or trials with feedback and possible upscaling until there is enough evidence that the innovation is worthy of large scale implementation. While this approach may take more time to implement, it inherently manages the risk. In many ways, this has been our approach to moving to a 1:1 Bring Your Own Device Model for all our current grade 9 students. We started with pilots, learned about what worked and didn’t work. We upscaled to our current grade nines and are recognizing where we are seeing successes and where we need to make refinements. We will work towards a large scale implementation that will be school wide by 2016. The reality is that organizations must continually innovate within a culture of risk taking, failure, and learning. Organizations who do the same thing day in and day out will eventually fall behind because someone else out there is creating better ideas, better products, and better services. In this global market, it does not take long for a consumer to go elsewhere, especially in a digital world where the choices are endless and accessible.
In many ways, schools are no different. With on-line schools and open boundaries, parents are often looking for the type of education that they believe will fit best for their child. When we look at the number of international students studying in Canada and around the world, we realize that parents are not only willing to change schools within a district or between districts, but they are also willing to send their children to a different country in pursuit of a better education. As a parent, my children are my greatest investment and I am willing to do whatever I can to give them the best chances for a successful life. I think about this when reflecting on what we need to do at Riverside to ensure that our learners are prepared for a future of unknown possibilities and that this world is so much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. And while learning outcomes in our courses are important to me, it is even more important that we create a culture that explicitly and implicitly tells our learners we want them to play, create, innovate, be curious, and be inspired. We are developing a next generation of innovators and problem solvers to tackle some of the greatest challenges our world has ever faced and this requires a mindshift in the way we educate our children. If we are not developing a culture which promotes and supports innovation and creativity, I believe we are stifling the strengths and desires within each child and educator to see the possibilities and successes which lie ahead. And in a world of unknowns, this to me is critical. As Michael Fullen once said, “Everyone wants to be part of a success story.” Build the culture and the success will come.