A Journey with Failure


“Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.” Jon Sinclair

When I think back, the majority of my early education was dominated by a fear of failure. Fear of failing a test, an assignment, an evaluation, or anything else that I perceived or was taught to recognize as the final attempt. The stress and anxiety was sometimes overwhelming. Now, I have empathy for teachers, students, and other leaders when I see them in similar situations. As a teacher, I was deeply aware of the impact on fear of failure on my students with learning difficulties. Fear of failure has the potential to be paralyzing.

In Justin Reich’s article, Failure is Mandatory: Creating a Culture of Innovation, four essential strategies are outlined that as an administrator, as a leader, is having an impact on my personal vision of what awesomeness really looks like. I found it helpful to select the quotes from the article that I found particularly useful to enact the strategies as an administrator.

A Culture of Innovation

“In all, there should be an aligned and cohesive attempt to create a culture of innovation that is defined collaboratively by the administration, IT department, and classroom teachers. Where there is an understanding of the mission of technology as it pertains to the service of learning, and where all of the constituents are pulling together so that they have the infrastructure, the professional development support, the resources, and best practices available to them to ensure that their technology program is purposeful and not purposeless. Finally, all constituents should understand that Failure is not an option…. it’s a requirement!”

Strategy #1 – Remove the Fear of Failure
“Thus the challenge for administrators is encouraging experimentation and failure so that teachers work through their fears and gain an understanding of how technology enhances classroom instruction in ways that go beyond the affordances of pen and paper. When teachers uncover innovative ways in which technology engages students and nurtures essential skills such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration, they can begin to move beyond instructional practices perhaps best suited to a bygone era.”

Strategy #2 – Create Skunkworks
“Administrators can encourage these skunkworks by providing educators with planning time so that they can meet to discuss technology integrations, lessons, activities, and strategies, or by designating individual time to experiment with and share new technologies and their incorporation.”

Strategy #3 – Promote Success
“Administrators can further cultivate a culture of innovation by providing public recognition as well as teaching opportunities for innovators. They can create avenues for progressive, innovative teachers to present in front of the faculty or in department meetings.”

Strategy #4 – Align IT & Curriculum
“Administrators need to ensure that a technology committee collects, retains, and disseminates institutional knowledge of best practices, that teachers share lessons, activities, and practices, and that curriculum advocates have a prominent say in technology directives along with the IT Department.”

Reference: http://edtechteacher.org/failure-is-mandatory-creating-a-culture-of-innovation-from-tom-justin-on-edudemic/


The Asset Map Journey


The Asset Map is a tool that I am going to introduce in my next Learning Circle discussion. From that point, we will solicit volunteers from the Team Level. The Asset Map ovals indicate the four system levels of members who will be able to contribute to the development of a solution to the Problem of Practice. At the Organization Level, the nuts and bolts of the framework for implementation will take place. This usually involves a cost-benefit analysis as well as the projected rate of return. Our district is keenly aware of budget development and presenting a fiscally sound and appropriate budget for the community to approve based on the sustainability and provision of existing programs, plant, and people, with an eye on innovation.
That being the case, I have selected Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as the potential solution for our learning organization. “Universal Design for Learning is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Design_for_Learning).” The community cares about meeting the needs of all learners so the solution embraces that which people care deeply about.

Rather than designing a linear model, I chose to depict my notion and hope that the interactions among the levels will be somewhat organized while somewhat messy. I anticipate a lot of back and forth, reflection, and revision. There will be designated time to look at the elements and components noted under the five processes that surround the four levels of the system. Time will be afforded conveniently at department meetings, professional staff development, curriculum meetings, and at budget meetings in terms of presenting UDL, its research, and its proven ability to improve academic and social outcomes for all students or all learners. The key component is at the Team Level involving the principals and teachers in order for them to see that UDL is not more work, and/or more lesson planning. The Team’s ability to “get the word out there” will have an impact at the Community Level. The core of innovation represents the capacity for the change to occur without additional resources or support, although the core represents a starting point. Digging deeply through our many conversations, the Asset Map eventually provides the path to confront the challenges and barriers to the full launch of innovation or the implementation of Universal Design for Learning. Thinking positively and relying on the assets in my system, I will be prepared to speak to the challenges and barriers that may at first seem insurmountable with research, resources, funding, and system level support.

As I created my Asset Map, I began to think about and appreciate the staff who really cares deeply about considering innovation and change. I also began to appreciate even more my professional learning network that has allowed me to develop a deep understanding of Universal Design to Learning and to be able to defend its value for all students, not just students who are classified as having a disability. In terms of aligning to core values espoused by the community, I turned to the Board of Education goals, my conversations with teachers and principals, as well as to the professional organizations whose members I collaborate with in our endeavor to improve teaching and learning. I think that when I thought of confronting barriers, the ever looming financial uncertainty reared its head. It always seems that innovative solutions are met with the same questions: How much is it? What other districts do this? Do you have money in your budget for it? Despite that, I am hopeful that my voice and that of The Team’s can launch a successful school innovation.

Leading the Learning Journey with a Network Map

On my journey of leading the learning organization, I embarked on a new way of looking at launching innovation in schools. Using Peter
Senge’s systems thinking model for a learning organization, I reflected on the roll-out of one of the district’s initiatives which was implemented this year to for students with disabilities who demonstrate significant reading difficulties. This is called creating a Network Map. The roll-out has been successful so far, due to the levels of the organization’s team members being a part of the initiative and having input at every juncture. Critical to this roll-out was buy-in from the building principals. Since this initiative is one aspect of a powerful classroom learning environment, without the principals’ support, special education teachers would lack the resources and feedback to work through the challenges that any new program or initiative presents to students.

Key to this new program is the concept of blended learning. The director of technology assisted with the technological requirements needed to successfully initiate and sustain the program for seven elementary schools and two secondary schools. In addition, there was a financial commitment that was secured through the buy-in of the parents and community in the form of a budget allocation. The commitment will continue based on the improved reading performance of the students who are enrolled in the program. The director of curriculum and ELA supervisor ensured that the appropriate time for implementation was made possible by the addition of the program in the current and recently reviewed RTI model. Most importantly, this was an outgrowth of the teachers input regarding the need for a program that would assist the in delivering equitable personalized, individualized, and differentiated instruction, while ensuring that students with disabilities are in included with their non-disabled peers for the majority of the day.


Back tracking a bit to the Four Corners, this activity promoted my thinking about the elements and components in my district that are shifting the paradigm from a traditional model of schooling to a more innovative learning. It also reaffirmed that my notion of the Problem of Practice which, after much thinking, was narrowed down to a problem of coherence. Based on the success of the reading program which employs a growth mindset and blended learning, my thought process turned to how this Innovation could be launched to meet the needs of students who are not necessarily classified as disabled, but often find the traditional paradigm of school difficult to do. In order to meet the needs of all learners, in all classrooms, including students with disabilities and a variety of other students with diverse needs, a coherent approach to teaching and learning is needed. This is something that the community, organization, teams, and I care about deeply. My initiative to meet this Problem of Practice will be to launch Universal Design for Learning in all classrooms and schools to meet the needs of all learners including the teachers who passionately create the powerful learning environments, the administration and the community, who provide the resources and support and unquestionably the students, who need the 21st century academic and social skills to continue to learn and work in the 21st century.

The next path of the journey is the creation of an Asset Map for my plan to innovate the learning organization coherently with the launching of Universal Design for Learning. Relying on the Network Map, I will engage deeply in a thought process that will provide me with the assets of all of the relevant stakeholders as we design a plan to meet the needs of all learners using Universal Design for Learning.

Putting a Lens on the Elements of a Powerful Learning Practice


Reflection on the Elements of Powerful Learning Environment Conceptual Framework

I assert that the powerful learning environment is takes place at the classroom, school, district levels. For the purposes of my project, I am going to place a lens on the classroom level. In order to develop this framework, I looked at evidence from my teaching and administrative experience as well as to what I hope to see in an innovative school.

Core of Innovation: This element is vital to the powerful learning environment. The Core of Innovation is defined as the degree of innovation present in the classroom and moving further in the learning organization. As I am reflecting, the Core of Innovation may be the gestalt of the Powerful Learning Environment and on a larger level the core is the sum of the parts of the degree of innovation in the elements. The Core is not isolated from the school design-school culture. Culture and design maintenance is up to the leadership to monitor, support, innovate and nurture. Culture and design interrelate with the degree of innovation in the classroom, but there is a process here not a stagnant product. Innovation fosters the “power” in the environment. It is the essence of awesome.

The Core of Innovation is powered by the culture and design of the learning organization. In the same vein, the learning organization is comprised of the systems. At one level, there is a powerful learning environment in the classroom. I am acknowledging that the classroom is also impacted not only by the culture, design, and core of innovation of the larger system, hopefully, a learning organization, but also has the capacity to be innovative and to develop the Core of Innovation by delving more deeply into the elements.

In terms of importance, I will note that all of the elements that I selected are equally important. For the purpose of my reflection, I will analyze them individually, but it is important to note that each element is an important component of the core of innovation.

Sharing beliefs and common language
I just changed shared to sharing. The change is important. Since a powerful learning environment is a dynamic, messy, process, it is best articulated in the present tense, things that are going on now. This is an important element because it relates not only to the culture of the learning organization, but it is the basis for the learning organization to create the connections and conversation whose meaning is easily understood by everyone. Akin to vision, shared beliefs and common language are vital to launching innovation in schools because without this element, there is no communication, articulation, and practice. Without this element, teachers, students, leaders, and parents, learn in isolated silos.

Reshaping roles of students, teachers, and leader: Another important element that occurs in a powerful learning environment, at the classroom level. The teacher is a facilitator, the leader a support and lead instructor for the school or the department, and the students are leading the learning through the use of the other elements, sharing common language of learning, constructing agreed upon learning standards, developing authentic products and services, interacting with local, national and global community with the assistance of networks and technology.

Expanding relationships in a Community of Learners
This is an important element since learning environments must provide students with opportunities to develop the soft skills that are needed to be relevant communicators, thinkers, and problem solvers, which some refer to as 21st century skills. In addition, the problems to be solved are not always structured (Reich, 2017). To that end, learners need access to experts in the community locally and at large. This can be accomplished through the many technologies that are available. Non-cognitive skills are emphasized.

Co-creating the Learning Standards
Learning standards are often adopted outside of the classroom. In a powerful learning environment, the learning standards are co-created by the students, again, looking a a common language, beliefs (culture and design), and creating a common standard by which to assess and evaluate the work being done in the learning environment. Just as teachers bring the standards to the practical and relevant level, so do the students with the teachers, with each other and with the outside experts.

Developing Authentic Products and Services
This element relates to the how of learning. It is here that the role of teachers and leaders are very important in addition to students developing products and services. The how relates to reaching every learner, assisting the learners in metacognition and relating to their domains of learning and the domains of learning of others. It also relates to the design of the classroom. Students must be engaged using differentiated, personalized, project-based and universally-designed learning. This is the essence of the learning process; it cannot be taught, but it can be learned.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” W. Edwards Deming

Leading the Learning Journey isn’t a path that I plan to take on my own.  I enrolled in Justin Reich’s and Peter Senge’s MOOC:  Launching Innovation in Schools through MIT on https://www.edx.org/.  I highly recommend it since over 5,000 participants are collaborating world-wide to share their practice, problems, visions, and learning.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” W. Edwards Deming

In most traditional public high schools, the factory-style, assembly-line model of covering standardized curriculum, teaching to standardized high-stakes assessments, following bell to bell schedules and routines, teacher-centered lectures and desks in rows are the norm.  I am not writing my reaction to a high school student interview to bash free and appropriate public education. However, I believe that launching innovation is the only way to sustain its relevance. My belief was confirmed after I interviewed one high school student.  Although this is one student’s view, a small lens on one high school, and certainly not statistically significant, I learned some key points.

  1. Students attend school from a notion of mandatory attendance, yet, peer connections have the capacity to foster a sense of belonging. “I felt like I had to go there.  In the morning I see friends when I get to school so it wasn’t that bad.”
  1. High school has the capacity to foster efficacy or not. “Most time, I feel accomplished when I leave school at the end of the day, yet sometimes I feel like I should have worked harder when I am faced with a test and I feel like I don’t know anything.”
  1. High school students can find school to be predictable, routinized, and non-creative. “A typical day is going to classes, going to the gymnasium eating lunch getting snacks. It is difficult being a student at my school because you get tired of being at the same school for four years.”  
  1. Students in high school want to learn metacognitively, but are often not provided with the opportunity to do so. “…trying to understand what the teachers are saying to me and understand their way of thinking.  Teachers should find a way to allow us to think and reason in our own way.”
  1. High school extracurricular activities provide motivation and connections. “It is fun being on a sports team.  It is a way to represent the school community.  The extra curricular and non-traditional classes are exciting.”
  1. High schools must embrace social-emotional learning and students are often challenged behaviorally as well as challenging to school leadership. “I like the way some students who get in trouble aren’t punished, but are also supported; the school administrators tried to help them.”

These “aha” moments will infuse my posts on Powerful Learning Environments and Problems of Practice where I plan to delve more deeply into my analysis.


Relationships Matter on the Learning Journey

I have recently become even more keenly aware of the importance of relationships.  My blogging came to a halt because I was spending many days and/or nights visiting my cousin who was placed on palliative hospice care.  My need to say good-bye, to say thank you and I love you, as well as provide her with support took priority.  Relationships must take priority and we never know when we are called upon to rearrange our current plans to put relationships first, whether in our families or in our learning communities.  But, rearrange we must because life is really a composition of relationships; we are the notes in the song, important words on the tablet.  How powerful are relationships! 

  • Relationships provide support for family, friends, staff, and other leaders.  The network binds and propels us forward to a shared mission and vision.
  • Relationships sustain the overarching plan that includes members of our communities.  Once we create our mission and vision, it is the pool of people, reciprocally meeting the challenges and commending the milestones.
  • Relationships recognize the worth and value of others.  We sense our part in the whole picture.  Through relationships, we find trust to receive, express, and endure because we have a renewed sense of coping and capability.
  • Relationships sometimes require no words or actions, but just being there in the presence of someone.  Seek to listen rather than to be heard.  A smile, a hug, a pat on the back acknowledges a bond that another person just might need at the right time.

Leading a Learning Journey: Who is learning?

A learning organization or community of learners is defined by everyone in the organization learning and their commitment to learning.  Leadership is the essence of the learning organization and is certainly not confined to building or district level administration.  On the contrary, leadership in the learning organization is shared.  It empowers teacher leaders who are aided by the research and development, resources and support that the administration can provide.

My commitment to blogging at least three times a week stems from my hopes in nurturing a learning organization.  As a district leader, it is not only my hope, but my obligation to foster shared leadership.  This is not always an easy task.  As I reflect, I often think about the financial challenges that my district and department faces in terms of staffing and obtaining resources that teachers would love to have in their classrooms.  Another challenge though, perhaps the most daunting, is launching innovation that is affordable and sustainable.  Innovation that considers the present design and culture, or the status quo, and creating the future innovative learning organization, while we work together in the present.

Who is learning?  Hopefully, it is our students.  But in a learning organization, we must all learn.  Educators must learn everyday how to lead, how to create and innovate, and how to provide students with the best education despite the challenges that we face everyday. Leaders in learning organizations should have learned that top-down initiatives are rarely sustainable. True change originates from and within classrooms, from students and teachers themselves.  This is the learning that is required not only for lasting change, but to provide the community of learners with the power, the tools and the inspiration to follow their passions and interests to design environments that embody authentic personalized learning, meet the needs of diverse student and teacher needs through project-based learning and universal design for learning.

John Dewey aptly stated, “If we teach today’s students like we did yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow.”  I would add, if education leaders do not prioritize learning organizations, rather that organizations of learning, we rob teachers of their ability to lead and learn and to model it for the students that they teach and learn from as well.  We all must continue to learn, grow, adapt and change.  We do it collaboratively and with a growth-mindset.

Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow”

 Robert Kiyosaki