How Staying Uncomfortable Is The Key To Success

This post first appeared on Edudemic

Memorial 5th graders at New England Student SHowcase.png
Burlington students presenting at the recent New England 1:1 Summit 

As we near the completion of our third year of being a 1:1 tablet school in Burlington, I continue to ponder what is the next step. Glancing in the rearview mirror, it is hard to believe that nearly three years have passed since we distributed mobile devices to over 1,000 high school students in a school that had previously policies in place against mobile phones and MP3 players just two years earlier. In fact, the integration of iPads into classrooms went so well that we expanded down to our middle school the following year and added in half of our elementary grades this year. While I am excited that Burlington Public Schools will have iPads for students in all grades at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, I am also anxious about our continued growth as learners. A few years ago we were looked at as a progressive school for our work in deploying mobile devices and allowing our school environment to look more like the real world where access to online resources is ubiquitous. However, just providing access was really the starting point, and as I see other schools still struggle just to get the infrastructure in place to provide the same access I worry about stagnation.

How can we continue to move forward?

Looking at some of the work of Amy Edmondson recently has helped me to frame my thinking a bit. Edmondson, a Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, has written a great deal about organizational change. She describes four zones for organizations involved in change initiatives in her article titled The Competitive Imperative of Learning:

  1. Apathy Zone
  2. Anxiety Zone
  3. Comfort Zone
  4. Learning Zone

Although my descriptions of the four zones are be a bit different than Edmondson’s, I think that these four zones can be repurposed rather nicely for schools making the move to 1:1 environments.

Apathy Zone

This is where our school was back in 2008-2009 when we did not allow students to bring their cell phones and other mobile devices into our classrooms. Living in the Apathy Zone, means that you give little or no credence to the fact that having students access web-enabled devices could add any value to learning.

Anxiety Zone

There was certainly a sense of accomplishment as we moved beyond our state of denial and embraced the reality that we would be better preparing our students for what they would be facing if we allowed access to mobile devices. However, this move also moved us into the Anxiety Zone, a place where educators run the gamut from the apoplectic few who are still shocked that we would put these gadgets in the hands of every student, to the app-addicted staff members who want to learn about every new app that hits the app store. Of course, our continuous focus on a Professional Development model which focuses on a few foundational web-based resources that can provide easy wins, along with regular time for colleagues to share best practice, provided an exit route from the Anxiety Zone.

Comfort Zone

But there was still trouble ahead because the next stop, the Comfort Zone, is one that can breed complacency and a false sense of security. This is the place where a great deal of reflection is needed to be sure that momentum is not halted. This is our current reality in year three of 1:1 in Burlington. We have a seen many more examples of students being empowered and following their passions to do things that we would not have seen prior to our 1:1 implementation. This was evidenced during the recent New England Student Showcase during the New England 1:1 Summit. However, we still have a lot of work to do in establishing the learner-led environment that will make these types of experiences the reality for all students.

Learning Zone

This transition would put us into the Learning Zone, a place where collaboration and creation is the norm for all learners (both staff and students). This is the place where we stop asking questions like “How often do you integrate technology in the classroom?” and start focusing on the tools of differentiation that can foster endless opportunities for students to show their learning in ways that best suit their learning styles. Of course, the challenge here is allowing staff the same opportunities in their Professional Development so that they can make the connections as learners that will allow them to seek these same options for their students. We can clearly see the Learning Zone on the horizon, our challenge is not to become satisfied with our arrival in the comfort zone.

Stay uncomfortable my friends!

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How To Choose The Best Digital Tools For You

This post originally appeared on Edudemic

best digital tools
As I look for entry points in working with school leaders just getting their feet wet with digital tools, I sometimes struggle to pinpoint the best place to start. I guess it is because there are so many useful tools out there that my colleagues could utilize to help them to change their workflows for the better. However, the important thing is not the tool at all.
The important thing is that educational leaders are modeling the fact that they too are continuous learners who are striving to employ the most relevant resources that they can access to do their jobs.
In tackling this dilemma, I have decided to look at a few of the functions that school leaders perform and provide a couple of tools that can not only assist them but also help them model the integration of digital tools into their daily routines. Again, I am looking to stay away from a specific solution and instead list some of the options that are available for particular tasks. Choices are a good thing, so let’s embrace the fact that we live in a day and age where we have them!
When first getting started with digital tools, the most important task for school leaders is communication. Whether it is with staff, students, or parents, school leaders need to be strong communicators and provide their stakeholders with the appropriate information at the appropriate time. There are also different levels of communication that we deal with here. Are we just putting out information on upcoming events or are we telling our story and providing people with asynchronous opportunities to share in events and presentations that they cannot get to in person due to their busy schedules?
In an era of transparency and connectedness, we have the ability to tell our story every day of the school year instead of waiting for media coverage of something going on in our school. Why wait for that negative news item that brings the media swarming to your school when you can inundate people with the positive things happening on a daily basis. When people Google your school or district what do they find? What is the first impression they get from a digital walkthrough?
These are the questions that you need to answer for yourself as you start to think about the tools that you want to choose to communicate and the information that you want to communicate. Here are some of the types of communication we do in our district and how we do them:
These are just a few of the countless ways that school leaders can communicate, collaborate, and engage with stakeholders in whatever the topic of the day is in their school community. It’s not critical that educational leaders use all of these resources, but it is critical that they start to get comfortable with some of them.
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Top Post #9 – The iPad In Schools: Is It A Solution Or A Problem?

This was cross posted on Edudemic

As I look to unplug a bit during the first week of summer vacation, I am continuing to repost my top posts from last year. Below is #9 from April of this year.

 Slide via Greg Kulowiec 
Slide via Greg Kulowiec 

 The question above comes from Greg Kulowiec’s Keynote Presentation last Thursday – What is the answer with iPads? – at the iPad Summit in Atlanta, and it is a critical question for educators involved in iPad initiatives (or any 1:1 initiative) to reflect upon. Thinking as a school administrator who pushed for the deployment of over 1,000 devices in his school, I have to admit that I initially responded somewhat defensively as I went with iPad as a solution. However, as Greg allowed the question to linger and began his rationale for looking at iPad as a problem for schools, I began to cast aside my blinders and look at this question from a broader perspective. When Greg asked the following question, “Are we just taking iPads and slapping them into our existing structure?” I knew I had blown it with my initial answer: Of course, I knew that looking at iPad (or any device) as the solution infers a pretty simplistic look at the issues inherent with our current educational system. It also takes away the ownership of the issues from the people in the system, especially if we think simply adding a thing will improve teaching and learning. But what about looking at iPad (or another technological resources) as the problem? How can this help us? Well, the slide below is just one example of what is happening within educational institutions due to the development of technological resources that can change the way we learn. The slide references a situation that occurred at Ryerson University in Toronto when students formed a Facebook study group to help them prepare for exams.

  Slide via Greg Kulowiec 
Slide via Greg Kulowiec[/caption] 
 This is just one example of the countless issues that not only crop up when we bring new technology into static institutions, but also when those who think about how they can do things differently are stifled by those who cannot immediately escape their traditional thinking. I believe that educators need to understand that their initial discomfort is not just about the technology, it is also about the fact that the way learners access information has changed forever. Due to these changes, educational institutions will need to look long and hard at their practice in order to assure the success of the students whom they serve. Justin Reich described this scenario last week in a post on his EdTech Researcher Blog titled The iPad as a Trojan Mouse :

“…what new technologies like tablets or laptops can do is open new avenues for conversation. In schools where every child has a portable, multimedia creation device, what can we do differently? What is possible now that wasn’t possible before?”

In Burlington, we built a formal mechanism for the conversations with the formation of a 1:1 Implementation Team comprised of staff, students, parents, and community members. The ideas that emanated from this group have set the stage for our professional development plans for teachers and parents, leading to summer-long edcamp opportunities, our digital publishing collaborative, technology workshops for parents, and the BHS Help Desk student support team just to name a few. There is no doubt that the conversations surrounding the arrival of iPads into our classroomss have been about much more than just how to use a piece of technology. These discussions have opened the door to deeper insights surrounding student (and adult) learning that have begun to change the way we operate.

Here’s to hoping that more school communities open their doors to these problems as well as the meaningful conversations that follow.

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How To Make Sure Professional Development Is Not An Oxymoron

This post first appeared on Edudemic.


I have always contended that the term “Professional Development” is an oxymoron for most educators. Let’s face it, most people do not look forward to Professional Development (PD) Days in their school district due to the fact that most of these are created with someone else deciding what is most important for the learners. While there are certainly exceptions to this approach of deciding what professionals need to learn about, the fact of the matter is that most educators do not have enough of a voice when it comes to their own learning.


It is interesting to me that we focus a lot of time looking at differentiation, learning styles, and relevance when it comes to student learning but then toss these factors out the window when it comes to the learning opportunities for the adults in our schools. Maybe it is the time crunch or the ever-increasing number of mandates that we need to implement? Whatever our excuse, we need to find a way to present learning opportunities for our staff that replicate the types of opportunities we would like to see for our students in the classroom.  The question for the administrators setting up PD Days is – How would you evaluate this learning experience if it was one that you were viewing with students taking part instead of staff?


In our district, we have had a lot of discussions about Phillip Schlechty’s “Eight Qualities of Engaging Student Work.” (Graphic Below)From my standpoint, we could change PD dramatically for the better if we focused our professional learning efforts on just two of these eight qualities, choice and learning with others.  


In regards to choice, it baffles me that we do not allow more choice for the talented educators that we have hired to lead their own learning and go deeper on topics and issues that impact their day-to-day efforts with students. While I understand that a neatly organized schedule for the year of upcoming PD events looks great on paper, I know that we would never expect a teacher to create a schedule of learning for their students that was set in stone ahead of time. The reality of the matter is that some of the most meaningful “teachable moments” in classrooms occur when teachers make adjustments on the fly based on feedback and/or assessment results from learners. We need to find ways for our staff to receive the same kind of timely support based on priorities that may have come to light well after the year’s schedule for Professional Development was created. We know how important timely interventions are important to support students learning and we need to create the same opportunities for adult learning in our schools.

This leads me to “Learning with Others,” my favorite of Schlechty’s eight engaging qualities. In fact, I would contend that a Professional Development program focused on bringing educators together to share best practices on topics of their choice would be far more meaningful than most of the current PD experiences that educators experience in their schools and/or districts.  There is also a deeper issue here in regards to collaboration that we can help address here. It has been clearly stated by Harvard’s Dr. Tony Wagner and others that one of the fundamental skills are students will need to be successful is the ability to “collaborate across networks.” My concern here is that we have not done enough to foster collaboration within our school network and this inability on the part of the adults to see the value in networking locally will stifle our ability to teach students how to access on a broader level.  In order for our students to develop this critical skill,  we need to ensure opportunities for our staff members to collaborate with people both inside their school and outside of their school network and these opportunities must be both face-to-face and virtual.
With so much happening in public education with the Common Core, New Educator Evaluation procedures, and a number of other new mandates it is imperative that we take advantage of the professional learning time that we have available. So don’t forget that the same engaging qualities that we strive to create in our classrooms should be replicated for staff members when it comes to planning professional development.

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