Author Archives: Michael Gielniak

Breaking the Cycle of Failed Innovations

I recently sold my house and started packing last weekend. As I was going through my books I found one from 2008 called “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” It started me thinking about the reactions I have witnessed in many of my teacher friends when I talk about the potential of technology to enhance the learning process. To be fair, I do understand much of the resistance. When I was in the classroom it seemed like the administration was always jumping on the latest educational fad bandwagon. One year it was Multiple Intelligences and writing across the curriculum. The next year those initiatives seemed to vanish, and we all had to focus on Differentiated Instruction and how to use the state test score data to raise math and ELA scores. All of these initiatives may have merit, but it was never clear how each fit into a bigger vision for learning, or within the curricular areas outside of math and ELA.

The biggest issue for me in adopting any of these so called innovations was that I felt like they were being done to me, not with me. I was a successful teacher with exceptional student outcomes, and awards to prove it. I thought at the time, “Why am I being forced to figure out how to retrofit my curriculum to be compliant with the district mandates, especially when the mandates didn’t even make pedagogical sense within the learning I was facilitating?” What incensed me even more, though, were the hours and hours I had to sit with the entire staff going over the analysis of our school’s state math test data, even though there was no middle or high school level math in my curriculum.

I was fortunate that I was befriended by a 35 year veteran teacher shortly after I started my first assignment. He was great at sensing my frustration, and would say with a big smile, “This too shall pass, Michael, this too shall pass.” He was right. All of the experienced teachers in my building knew that if they didn’t make waves, and just looked compliant for a year, the winds would change, and the district would be blown onto the next greatest educational innovation.

Adopting technology, for me, was different. In my 6th year of teaching, the district gave each staff member a desktop computer. Teachers who needed basic training were able to sign up for classes like “Compact Basic Operation,” or “How to use Word and PowerPoint,” but that was about the extent of the support. The district did not demand we use the computers at all. When, after two years, teachers were still not using the computers, principals tried strategies, like only communicating about meetings through email, to force teachers to use them.

Only a few early adopters experimented with ways to use the device to benefit learners. I appreciated the district not forcing the usual compliance. I was excited to have found a remediation app and was working on an efficient way to circulate struggling students through the program. Four years later, students were using computers on a regular basis in the visual arts, in a website design class, and in journalism/yearbook, but there were many teachers that still didn’t even know how to use their email.

Looking back, I can see several change leadership strategies the district and principal could have used to engage teachers and change behaviors, but why were teachers so reluctant to change?

There is an old saying that is attributed to Confucius that “No man can be rightly taught until he feels a real need in his life or in his work.” When I think about how I manage my personal and professional life now, it seems unimaginable that I didn’t purchase my first cell phone until 2001. Today all of my work is done through a laptop or smartphone. I no longer have a conventional workplace I go to each morning. Everyone I worked with during the past year, outside of school district personnel, had similar circumstances. In the corporate world we definitely feel a real need to use technology in our work. We couldn’t function without it. The efficiencies experienced in my work, as well as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and create, led me to start using the technology in my personal life.

My 9th grade daughter was born in 2001, just after I purchased that first cell phone.  For her, technology has always been “ubiquitous.” When she was around 3 years old, I remember waking up one Saturday morning, and wondering where she was. I found her in my office. She had booted up my old desktop computer, loaded one of the CD-Rom educational games I was asked to review, had set her achievement goal, and was monitoring her progress. When I asked her what she was doing she said she had seen her older sister play this game and had to try it. In Sophia’s mind, she felt a real need in her life.

Today Sophia has her own YouTube DIY Channel. She uses Facetime to gather her study group, and to collaborate with friends on a variety of personal projects. She communicates with her soccer coaches and receives automated schedule reminders through TeamSnap, and uses iPhone, iPad, Chromebook, and Windows apps to communicate, collaborate, and create in dozens of other ways. Sophia has never had any formal technology training. She simply has something she wants to do – like share the cool DIY things she comes up with – and looks for the best tools she has at her disposal to do so. In effect, she takes a DIY approach to share her DIY approach.

As the available tools change, or the popularity of certain apps dwindles, Sophia seems to migrate to new apps seamlessly. The device doesn’t seem to matter much to her, nor do the apps. It is as if she knows the technology will change, and that other companies will come up with better solutions that address issues her and her friends had with the old technology. This phenomenon is not unique to Sophia. All of her close friends have the same attitude toward technology and use it flexibly…at home.

Sophia’s flexible use of technology versus the rigid perception and usage I see in most schools is often labelled as digital natives versus digital immigrants. I don’t dispute that there is some of this going on, but there is something else at play. I’m noticing that a person’s attitude and approach to change seems to align with his/her perception of the world, and that these perceptions fall into two categories:

  1. People who view life as continuously evolving; and
  2. People who view the world as static.

In education we call these growth mindset and fixed mindset. Carol Dweck has done important work on mindset psychology traits if you want to learn more about this topic. Growth mindset, unfortunately, seems to be one of the latest buzz words in education. It is not that I think growth mindset is unimportant. To the contrary. The issue I have is that schools are trying to address growth mindset within a fixed mindset environment. Almost everything in secondary schools across the country reinforce a fixed mindset view of the world:

  • The command and control leadership style
  • The importance we place on standardized tests
  • Teachers feeling like they just need to get through the curriculum
  • The value placed on right and wrong answers
  • The amount of memorization teachers require of their students
  • The predominance of direct instruction used in classrooms

This seems to be the never-ending story in education. We try to retrofit our traditional system with a new innovation, it inevitably fails, and then we move on to the next hot innovation. Ask any 20 year veteran teacher and they will provide you with a laundry list of initiatives they have seen come and go during their career. Until we stop applying new programs like Band-Aides to fix education, and fundamentally change the way we do schooling, we will continue on this treadmill of failed innovations.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

Check back in May for my next blog on the importance of teaching and how to embrace change as a core principle in schools.

Respect: The Foundation for Personalized Learning

Last Thursday I happened to be in the kitchen getting some coffee when my 9th grade daughter came home from school.  Sophia was in a really bad mood, but I just figured she needed a snack.  She is one of those people (like me) who can get pretty crabby when hungry.  I asked her how her day was, and she sort of mumbled something about leaving her alone.  I brushed it off and went back to work knowing she would probably be fine once she had something to eat.

Dinner time wasn’t much better.  Like lots of teenagers today, Sophia is binge-watching a TV show on her phone.  I don’t mind as long as she finishes her homework and isn’t neglecting the other things she has to do.  That has never been a problem with her.  I think she is actually the most driven, disciplined, and organized person I know.  If anything I am a little concerned that she expects too much of herself.

After asking her to shut her phone off at the table, I noticed that her attitude was the same as after school.  I asked her if something was wrong, and she had the same retort as before, but this time with a lot more emphasis!  Most people with teenage daughters know what it’s like.  It wasn’t until we were on our way to soccer practice that she began to open up.  There is something magical about a long car ride with some good music that seems to prime great conversations between my kids and me.  Out of the blue Sophia blurts out, “My school is so stupid!”  I asked her what she meant, and she started in on a 20 minute rant about her day.

“I hate having to get up so early in the morning for school.  If I want to have time to actually eat a good breakfast and take a shower I have to get up like at 5:30 am.  That’s just crazy!  When we got to school today the bus was actually a little bit early so they keep us in this one area like a bunch of penned in animals.  It’s like they think we are going to destroy the school if they actually let us go to our lockers and get ready for class.”

It was at this point I realized her story might make a poignant statement about secondary education in our country, and I wanted to capture it so I could use it later.  I asked her if she would mind if I recorded her story on my phone, and she said she didn’t care, and added “Maybe if you write about it, Pappa, my teachers might read it and actually change.”  I sort of laughed at the thought that my little blog could yield such power.  Without missing a beat she started back in.

“I wish they would let us take our backpacks to class.  I can’t possibly carry everything, so I have to go back to my locker between every class – and get to be yelled at for the privilege!  You know, sometimes my locker is on the opposite side of the school, and God forbid I have to go to the bathroom.  There is no way I could get to my locker, put my stuff away in my backpack, get all the right stuff out for the next class, go to the bathroom, and get to my next class on time.

So anyway, on Friday I put my stuff in my locker and I am sort of skipping and singing down the hallway to class, and I get yelled at to “cut it out, and get to class!”  I wanted so bad to say to him, “Cut what out? Being happy?”  It’s like some teachers I believe really think that we are not supposed to have fun at all in school.  So I get yelled at, and I’m not even doing anything.  It’s not like I was even doing anything wrong.

So then there is first hour.  I hate first hour!  We had a math test today and the teacher gave us the review sheet yesterday.  We spent the first ten minutes correcting the review sheet, and then he wouldn’t even answer any questions because we had the test.  What’s the point of giving us a review sheet if we are going to correct it the day of the test?  Aren’t we supposed to be able to study from it??

So that was the start of another wonderful day at school. Spanish class was ok.  The teacher shares things from her personal life and we do some projects, so it isn’t all just sitting there.

The next thing was at lunch.  First, it’s crazy that I have lunch a 10:30 in the morning.  Then I’m not supposed to eat anything until after school?  Lunch is like a prison.  We get yelled at to sit down, we get yelled at to stay in line, and we get yelled at to clean up.  It’s like they think we are a bunch of wild animals.

The food is horrible.  There isn’t anything fresh, and about the only good thing is the Ice’s (sparkling water), but they cost twice as much as in the store.  Anyway, so I finish my lunch and I am leaving when the teacher stops me because I have half a bottle of water in my hand.  He tells me I can’t take it out of the cafeteria, and that I have to throw it away.  I said to him “Are you serious?” and he threatened to give me detention.  I mean, come on…we’re not even allow to drink water?

I thought my day couldn’t get any worse, but in science the teacher was explaining some stuff about the periodic table.  I pulled out my phone to look up something about the charges and he walked over and took it away.  He didn’t ask me what I was doing, he didn’t ask me to give it to him.  He just took it out of my hand and put it in his desk.  It made me so mad, the only thing I could think about the rest of the class were arguments for why he is a horrible teacher.  He didn’t seem to notice.

Then in my last class I started to get a bad kink in my neck.  I tried to sit up, but that didn’t last long.  I started rubbing my neck and tried to push the corner of the hard plastic part of the top of the chair back between my shoulders, but it was hard to get into the right position in those stupid desks.  The teacher stopped what she was doing and asked me if something was wrong.  I started screaming at her in my head that “yeah there is something f$%&1#$ wrong.  I am paralyzed because I have been chained to these f$%#&@#$ seats all day.”  I didn’t actually say anything, of course, because everyone knows what she really meant was to stop messing around and pay attention.

So you keep asking me why I am in a bad mood.  I’d like to see how you would feel at the end of my day.  Knowing you, you wouldn’t even be able to get through the first class without being sent to the office!”

I chuckled and said she was probably right, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. “Ok, I get why you would be crabby, but if you could change things, what would you do?”

“Well, for starters I would let kids move around more, and go outside. We have this beautiful courtyard at school, but nobody is ever allowed to use it.  The only time I was in it was last year when a teacher made us pull weeds.”

Sophia paused for a second to collect her thoughts, and then continued.

“It’s like the teachers don’t respect the students at all.  They’re always yelling at you…they take your stuff if they think you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, without bothering to find out what was going on…they tell you to sit down and pay attention.  Like, could you imagine if I commanded a teacher to “sit down and pay attention?”  I have heard teachers say we should respect them.  Well, how can I respect them when they don’t respect me?  Just because they can make me do what they want doesn’t mean I respect them.”

And then there was a long pause.  I couldn’t believe that school is really this horrible for her all the time.  It must just be that she had a really bad day.  I decided to follow up with a positive question.  “So, what do you like about school?  There must be somethings you like?”

“My friends, and seeing what all the other kids are wearing, and what they’re doing.  I also like watching what they do, like, who they hang out with, and being able to see the different patterns and stuff.”

“OK, that’s normal”, I confirmed.  “Human beings are social animals, we learn through social interaction.  I think if you asked most students in America what they like the most about school, their response would include something about friends.  But isn’t there anything else you like about school?”  Her comment defines my whole point in this blog.

“Well, there are a couple of teachers I like.  They are nice, and they tell us things about their lives that I can relate to.  Other than that, I am told what to do all day, I don’t get to eat when I need to, I don’t get to drink when I need to, and I don’t even get to go to the bathroom when I need to.  Would you want to have to spend your whole day there every day for years?”

Obviously, no adults would tolerate another adult talking to them the way Sophia described.  The lack of respect seems obvious when you’re thinking of it in those terms.  What bothers me the most is that I think every adult in the country can relate to some of Sophia’s experiences, and unfortunately, I see these type of behaviors, and systems of command and control in almost every secondary school I visit.  The country seems obsessed with Personalized Learning right now.  It has become the latest and greatest answer to all of educations woes.  What I am often seeing in the name of personalization, however, is the implementation of a set curricula that can be adjusted for individual students, within the same old command and control structure.

I say, if you really want to help students personalize learning, start with building a culture of respect for each student.  Until that has been established, it isn’t even possible for the student to engage in the meaningful ways it would take for them to truly personalize their learning.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

Change Leadership: A New Focus for Administrator Preparation Programs

One-to-One Institute’s newsletter this month focuses on the role higher education can play in the transformation of learning and teaching in the K-12 system. When discussing higher education programs the bulk of the conversation, rightfully so, tends to focus on teachers. We learned, however, through our Project RED research that principals play a paramount role in whether or not a 1:1 implementation is academically successful and financially sustainable.

We have been investigating the beliefs and actions of principals for the past couple of years, and the effects these beliefs have on teachers, students, and learning. When I started formulating my ideas for this article I decided to match the course content being taught in a couple of popular graduate programs for school administrators with the list of Key Implementation Factors, and other essential elements and best practices we have gleaned from our work. I found that there are pieces missing in the area of pedagogy and instruction, but there are two areas that seem to have been completely left out, namely change leadership, and project management.

Change Leadership

The education landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. The number of students in charter schools instead of traditional public schools more than doubled, from 3.1 to 6.6 percent. Enrollment has also continuously increased in online courses during the same period. According to the Online Learning Consortium, “The number of students taking online courses grew to 5.8 million nationally (2015-16), continuing a growth trend that has been consistent for 13 years.” In order to combat enrollment lose, and to provide an educational experience more personalized to an individual student’s interests, most public schools have initiated magnet programs within the district. According to the NCES database there were approximately 1.2 million students enrolled in magnet programs. By 2015 that number grew to more than 2.5 million.

There have been many other changes even within the traditional public school system. Schools have experimented with ideas such as Personalized Learning, Inquiry-based Learning, Design Thinking, Flipped Learning, and Blended Learning, to name but a few. More content area digital programs become available every day, as well as content and platforms designed for students that fall into other specialized categories such as special education, ELL, and credit recovery. Change is all around us in education, and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Since change seems to be the new normal, principals need to develop the requisite skills to lead change. It is simply not acceptable, or effective any longer to be a building manager. College programs seem to be doing a reasonable job of emphasizing the importance of the principal as instructional leader, but they must also help aspiring administrators understand the principles of change leadership. Developing an understanding of human motivation, for example, can lead to developing strategies for the co-creation of a new vision for learning and the learning environment. Through their college experience students may also need to challenge their beliefs about control and authority. Students need to explore the concept of organic growth, and systems of continuous improvement, and investigate the research on the effects of command and control mechanisms.

Project Management

Understanding how to lead change, and develop systems of continuous improvement are both extremely important for administrators to learn, but without the skills to manage the implementation of an innovation, it is highly likely that the implementation will flounder, and ultimately fail. I’ve noticed that very little importance is placed on professional project management in schools. When a district decides to build a new school, however, there are a number of outside professional that are hired. A project manager (title may vary) is always one of those professionals, and acts as the liaison to the district, as well as managing the details of the construction. On the other hand, when a district spends large sums of money on technology they seem to misunderstand the complexity of proper implementation, and therefore, fail to see the need for the investment in a trained project manager. They may appoint someone in the central office to oversee the project, but in these instances much of the fidelity of implementation fall to the principal. I’m not suggesting that schools of education should provide every administrator candidate full project management training, but making them aware of the basic principles, and the importance of the position could lead them to advocating for a project manager, or seek the help they need if the job ultimately falls on their shoulders.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone in education that the principal is often tasked with managing the implementation a several new programs at the same time. They wear many different hats, and often play the role of the fireman, cop, counselor, and the human resources director, all in the same day. With the number of duties assigned to principals, and their hectic daily schedules, it is highly unlikely they will find the time to focus on developing project management and change leadership skills on their own. Therefore, college graduate programs must embrace this content within their programs. To a great extent success in any field in the future will hinge on a person’s ability to facilitate and manage change. We know clearly from our Project RED research that if principals don’t have these skills, the learning environment will not change, and even the best new programs will ultimately fail.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

The Challenge of Raising Student Achievement

Raising student achievement has been a goal in every district I have ever worked. It is discussed in political circles, in the media, and even at cocktail parties. Defining student achievement, and the different things students need today to be successful in life is a conversation for another day.  For the purposes of this article I would like to share an article I found on the topic.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s article “Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement,” effective schools exhibited the following characteristics:

  • A strong focus on ensuring academic success for each student;
  • A refusal to accept excuses for poor performance;
  • A willingness to experiment with a variety of strategies;
  • Intensive and sustained efforts to involve parents and the community;
  • An environment of mutual respect and collaboration; and
  • A passion for continuous improvement and professional growth

I agree with the importance of each of these characteristics, although I would add a couple of items, and would order them differently. I think creating an environment of mutual respect and collaboration is most important. Without these values providing the foundation, and permeating classroom relationships between teachers and students, it is very difficult to learn there. Then, if a continuous improvement process is put into place, and everyone (students, teachers, administrators, and even parents) is committed to learning through these processes, good things will eventually happen.

What is missing from the list are some of the things we have learned through our Project RED research and our work with schools. The list is missing a carefully designed system for educators to investigate and experiment with the characteristics, and process for them to learn how to learn from experimentation and decide on the next action. This doesn’t seem to come easy to many educators. Therefore, teachers often need to be closely guided and supported throughout several iterations of the process. The list also either neglects, or assumes the role of the instructional leader. It is imperative to have a skilled change leader at the school level that can develop and initially guide the process, as well as encourage teachers to stay the course.

It was refreshing to see a systems way of thinking about education reform in the article, rather than pushing variations of the same programs inspired by the failed standards and accountability movement for the past 40 years. The USDOE isn’t really espousing a systems approach, per se, but the findings that are attributed to success are much more conceptual in nature, and allude to the importance of a continuous process of investigation, reflection, and action. I find it a little ironic that the only way to dramatically raise student achievement at scale is for all teachers to become effective learners themselves. The content of teacher learning may vary greatly, but the process needs to focus on investigating, experimenting with, and improving the ways they help each individual student learn.

The biggest challenge I have with the article, personally, is that it was written as if these are new insights, and if we could only figure out how to scale them, we could dramatically improve student achievement nationwide. The article, however, was written in 1998, and it was actually developed as a as a guide for state and local leaders on how to turn around low-performing schools.

What happened to the potential of these findings? Why haven’t we improved student achievement by scaling the learning from this guide? There are several possible reasons. It is possible not many educators saw the guide. It is likely that it was not broadly marketed. Companies and advocacy organizations spend a tremendous amount of time and money marketing their solutions. The USDOE guide would be only one small ripple in a sea of programs being pushed on instructional leaders.

It is more likely that many urban educators were aware of the guide since several high profile urban districts are showcased in the document. So why didn’t they implement the ideas from the guide? Unfortunately, our egos sometimes get in the way. Many of the building administrators I have worked with think they are doing the things they need to in order to be successful, and therefore, are not really open to new ideas. This response may also be the result of building administrator being overwhelmed with the many responsibilities they have that lie outside of their role as instructional leader. I have met a few that told me they simply don’t have the bandwidth to deeply engage in any new ideas. This is often evident in compliance driven systems, rather than growth-minded systems.

My belief, however, is that some educators probably did try to develop the characteristics in their schools, but it didn’t work. Often our first reaction when things aren’t working in education is to adopt an existing program, and plug it into the troubled spot. These type of “plug and play” programs usually come with a bunch of steps that teachers must follow, as well as guidance on how to implement them. Unfortunately, this never works in the long run. There is too much variability in human systems to standardize in this way, and expect it to be effective for every student.

Without much further investigation we will never know for sure why the characteristics have not been more widely adopted, but there are a couple of other things that must be considered that we have learned from our Project RED research, and our work at One-to-One Institute. First, without a strong leader who can develop a shared vision for any reform, it will not succeed. I believe most districts realize this, but may verbalize it differently. One of the questions I most often hear from administrators, for example, is “How do I get everyone to buy in to ____. There are effective ways to enlist people in someone else’s vision, but the optimal scenario is to involve all constituent groups in the development of an actionable vision. Either way, unless a majority of people in your system are supportive of the vision, and are willing to deeply engage, it is doomed to failure.

Second, unless leadership is distributed throughout the system, it will not be sustainable. The average tenure of a superintendent is currently around 3 years.  If the superintendent changes every 3 years, or sometimes even more often in our most challenging districts, the vision often dies. This happens because the roots of the vision may have not had enough time to grow, or were never effectively nurtured.

It is obvious that raising student achievement for all students is a complicated endeavor, and I have just scratched the surface of reasons why we haven’t found a guaranteed way to raise student achievement at scale. One simple truth is that we will never increase student achievement by simply adopting a program that worked somewhere else. The bottom line is that only when everyone in the learning environment engages in an effective system of continuous learning and improvement will student achievement steadily improve.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

The New Digital Divide

For the past several years I have become increasingly concerned about growing inequities I am witnessing between our country’s most vulnerable students, and almost all others. I actually originally became aware of major differences in how we treat struggling urban students versus suburban students when I spent some time in Detroit Public Schools back in 2001. I was working with Detroit Public Television on a project for their Enrichment Channel. In our first visit to some DPS elementary schools I was immediately struck by the regimentation I saw. Students were in uniforms, and seemed to be treated like privates in the army, with the teacher acting as the drill sergeant. The schools had adopted Open Court reading program, and the principal was circulating throughout the building making sure the teachers were on the correct assignment and page number at the specific time of day that was set for the goal. The teachers had a script that was provided that administrators insisted be followed verbatim. The students all looked like compliant little robots, and the teachers I talked with seemed both frustrated and resigned to the lifeless experience their job had become. The joy, curiosity, and creativity that has always surrounded my most memorable learning experiences was completely missing.

Even though this all felt wrong to me, I didn’t want to dismiss what the schools were doing without having a better understanding of their challenges, and the results they were seeing from the implementation of the program. What I found, however, was that the students were not performing substantially better than their peers in other programs. What was more concerning to me, however, was revealed once we began our program in these schools.

The program we were there to implement and record was called Welcome to Youville. We had put together a project-based learning unit to address some of the k-8 standards and benchmarks around the concepts of community, region, and Michigan history. The main goal of the project was to have students in Detroit, and in two suburban districts create their own communities. The theory was that if students began by defining the elements of their own community, and discussed with peers what people need to have in their community to live a healthy and happy life, and then actually created a 3 dimensional representation of their dream community, they would have a much deeper understanding of the concepts than if they were to read the chapter in the textbook and fill out a worksheet.

We began by having students identify unique characteristics of their own family culture, and to bring in artifacts of their parents’ or grandparents’ that were important to their family history. The next step was to group students, and have them draw their neighborhood, and discuss the things they have in their community, and the things that may be missing. In the final steps, students were given prompts and asked to discuss the specific needs that human beings have, and the things we need in our communities in order to be healthy and happy.

What we witnesses was shocking to me at the time. The students in the suburban schools jumped right in to the activities and discussions, and seemed to be having a great time exploring the concepts. Innovative ideas emerged, and the groups discussed the need for, and feasibility of each idea. It was going exactly as we had hoped, until we began in Detroit. The students in DPS reacted completely differently to the assignment. Basically what was so shocking to me is that when the students were presented with the open-ended pieces of the project they just sat there silent. When we tried to engage them in an initial conversation about their family artifacts and traditions we were met with the same silence. We thought it might just be nervousness, but we found the same thing when we grouped them to begin discussing their neighborhoods and designing what they would want in their dream community. Students seemed to be waiting for someone to tell them specifically what to do, or for their teachers to tell them what to say, or maybe even worse, what to think. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to make them believe we really wanted to hear their ideas, that their ideas were important, and that they weren’t going to get into any type of trouble for sharing them.  An outgoing student actually shared with us that he wasn’t sure what to do because nobody had ever asked him to share his ideas before.

By the end of the project we were able to establish a trusting relationship with most of the students, and they produced exemplary work. This instructional unit may have actually been important in a number of ways. The students definitely will not forget this project, and came away with an excellent understanding of the content. I believe, however, the more important result was that all of the students had in-depth discussions about what a community actually needs in order for its people to be healthy and happy. Unfortunately, many of the communities they live in are missing important components of a healthy community, such as a grocery store. Once they began trusting us, and started to discuss their thoughts, students not only created wonderfully imaginative communities, but seemed to be interested in becoming community activists.

I use this story to demonstrate phenomena that I am seeing now in urban schools across the country. I was hoping with all of the investment in innovation, and the creation of charters and other options for urban students that things would have improved over the past 15 years. If anything, I think the situation has actually become worse. The strategy that policy makers and education leaders have taken (i.e., higher standards, more accountability, doubling the time in content areas, reconstituting the staff and administration of failing schools, numerous charter school option, etc.) have all failed to achieve their goal, and I believe in many cases has made the problem worse. I just read an ASCD article that illustrates my point.

The way I am seeing technology being implemented in many urban settings is another example of this failed instructional approach. I call this the “New Digital Divide.” Education technology is being adopted at faster and faster rates, and we believe that 1:1 programs have increased by at least 10 fold since the arrival of the iPad. The price point of Chromebooks has accelerated the adoption even more. Most schools, regardless of their location, have adopted a fair amount of technology. There is a stark contrast, however, between the ways technology is being used in some urban schools versus their suburban counterparts. The Rocketship model is pointed to as one extreme example, but I have seen lots of classrooms in urban public schools where students are expected to sit in front of a computer for most of their day working in a skill and drill remediation program. I have seen too many urban classrooms where technology becomes a digital prison of sorts, with students being forced into compliance. The lack of engagement is obvious, and the results I believe are disingenuous in the short-term, and potentially disastrous long-term. I have watched students navigate a couple of the popular software remediation solutions as they “game” the system in order to pass out of a section. The lack of foundational knowledge, pared with a lack of ability to think critically that may stem from a reliance on these sorts of programs will ensure that these students are ultimately left behind.

In stark contrast are the innovative and affluent suburban public schools where students are engaged in meaningful dialog, are building understand through investigation, and are using technology as a dynamic tool for creation and collaboration. In many of these environments administrators have not pushed for a complete digital conversion for fear of rocking the boat. Students continue to achieve at the high levels they always have, but are budget busting if they do not take advantage of potential cost savings and reallocate these dollars to paying for the new paradigm.

I believe that the success lies somewhere in between. Content standards divide into two main categories: skills and concepts. Skill development takes practice. Common wisdom states that we need to practice something for 10,000 hours to master it. We see the importance of practice to learning in lots of ways, from learning to dribble a basketball and accurately shoot, to having facility with math equations or foreign languages. Technology can be quite good at providing opportunities to develop skills in engaging ways though gamification. Some software programs are also getting pretty good at identifying deficits in a student’s foundational understanding, and adjusts the content to meet the individual student’s needs. This use of technology, in SAMR terms, is not transformational, but is more of a substitution with enhancements, but is nevertheless important to the complete learning process.

The transformational uses of technology may be more suited to the conceptual side of the content standards. In order for students to develop a meaningful understanding of a concept they need to ask questions, share their thoughts, investigate possibilities, and experiment with their ideas. Technology holds many advantages over traditional means by allowing students to communicate, collaborate and create their way to a deeper understanding of the concepts.

I think our legislators, and even many educators keep looking for a silver bullet. Well, it seems obvious to me that the path we have taken for the past 30 years is not working. I can tell you unequivocally, that technology on its own is also not the answer. I believe that understanding how human beings learn, and what motivates them to learn is the key. Once this understanding begins to guide our decisions about content, technology, and what instructional strategies will be most effect for the types of learning we want to occur, the better our outcomes will be, and the quicker we will improve our failing schools. Remember, if you treat a student like a criminal, he will act like a criminal. I believe if we start by building environments of mutual respect, and value the ideas and opinions of students in our urban schools, we could actually see a renaissance in learning beyond our wildest imagination. Let’s work together to unleash the potential of millions of American students, rather than locking them in a digital prison.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

The Brain, Pedagogy, and Student Outcomes

Our newsletter this quarter focuses on pedagogy, and I would like to thank Superintendents Leah Christman, and Ann Linson for taking the time to share some of their experiences transforming learning in their districts. Both of their districts participated in our three year Signature District Research Program, during which we followed 17 districts that used our research findings to guide the implementation of 1:1 technology. We had three primary questions that drove the research:

  1. What effect do the Key Implementation Factors (KIFs) have on student outcomes? Our original research identified 9 KIFs, but unfortunately, the sample sizes of the schools that had implemented the KIFs was too small to validate the results through traditional analysis. Therefore, we wanted to find a way to further validate our findings, and better understand the roll the individual KIFs might play in raising student achievement.
  2. Can 1:1 be cost neutral when taking advantage of the cost avoidance and redeployment factors we outline in our financial modeling chapter of the original Project RED report? We based our modeling on the best available information at the time from districts, vendors, and prior research. We found pieces of the model being implemented in a number of districts, but we were not able to identify any districts in the United States that embraced the entire model. We were hoping to glean from our Signature Districts a better understanding of what is feasible when attempting to implement the model in diverse settings.
  3. What new learnings or best practices were revealed during the Signature District Research Program? School districts are complicated systems. We knew that we had many bright, hardworking people in each of our districts, and that collective intelligence is far more powerful than the thinking of our Project RED team alone. Some districts already had burgeoning 1:1 programs. Some had experimented with other innovative education models. The one constant, however, was that every district had a lot more going on than just following our Project RED implementation guidance. We wanted to make sure that we remained open to all of the serendipitous learning that was going on in our districts.

As part of a district’s commitment, key administrators participated in a professional learning community facilitated by a Project RED team member. We were very pleased to hear during the first year that the implementations were going well. There are always challenges to overcome, but the devices were rolled out without any major issues, the infrastructure seemed to be sufficient and reliable, and the kids were using the devices on a regular basis throughout their day. By year 2, however, superintendents began reporting that although the rollout was effective, very few students and teachers were using technology in transformative ways, and that most teachers (especially in MS and HS) were still relying on direct instruction as their primary classroom pedagogy.

One of our Project RED core beliefs is that learning needs to become more student-centered and personalized if students are going to have a chance at fulfilling our dream of doubling student achievement. There are more organizations than you can shake a stick at right now that say they know how to do this, and for a hefty fee will guide you. “Student-centered” and “Personalized” are the catch words of the day. The problem is that most of these programs/strategies are really still teacher driven, and the vendor’s cookie cutter programs fail to address the complexities of the learning process, and the human systems that implement them. The truth is there are different types of learning, and therefore, different pedagogical approaches may be more effective than others in raising student achievement.

I am often guilty of focusing so much on helping educators move toward a more constructivist approach to learning and teaching that educators sometimes think that I expect them to abandon all other pedagogy. The reality is that pedagogy and instructional strategies need to match the intended learning. For example, I wouldn’t spend a month of valuable class time having students explore the concept of multiplication, collaborate on an inquiry project, and present their findings if the learning objective is simply to be able to quickly provide the result of multiplying two small numbers.

I am fortunate that my work provides numerous opportunities to observe, and even experiment with pedagogy in so many districts and classrooms. What I am finding is that effective learning is influenced by several things. There probably isn’t anything readers will find Earth-shattering on my list, but it is shocking how little evidence of these things I see in schools. I don’t have space to go into depth on each one, but here is a list of factors that seem to play the most significant role:

  • The learner’s intrinsic motivation
  • The learner’s engagement, and attentional system
  • The learner’s environment
  • The appropriate level of challenge, and support for each individual learner
  • High quality dynamic content/resources that include systems to provide ongoing feedback to the learner during the learning process
  • Systems of continuous improvement at the classroom, school, and district level that are laser focused on the effectiveness of learning

As some of the districts I work with have embraced these ideas, they began to see a shift toward a more student-centered culture in the schools, as well as improvements in student outcomes. These ideas don’t address pedagogy specifically, but seem to imply the need for pedagogy that is more student-centered and personalized. Knowing that direct instruction is still important, as well as repetitive practice, I started looking for a way to organize different types of learning by its most effective pedagogy. It has lead me to the generalized idea that learning in schools divides into two main categories: concepts and skills. In general terms, then, skill building usually requires direct instruction and repetitive practice, while building conceptual understandings requires more exploration, communication and collaboration.

I used this approach in a middle school 1:1 program I implemented in Michigan several years ago. The teachers developed their curriculum by unpacking the state standards, and identifying the important skills and concepts embedded. These skills and concepts were then structured around interests and research projects that students generated collaboratively at the beginning of the school year. The results were remarkable. We had virtually no discipline issues because every student was engaged in work they personally found meaningful. This approach also had a major impact on student standardized test scores. By the end of the 3rd year, every student was achieving at, or very near the highly proficient level on the state test.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I have many dedicated educators to thank for my insights. If I had some silver bullet I wouldn’t need to write this article, and America’s students would be outperforming the rest of the world. What I do know is that almost all educators are facing similar challenges.

In order to practice what we preach, OTO has decided to begin hosting ongoing e-chats around factors that are essential to raising student achievement. The intent is to begin creating professional learning communities of like-minded people that want to face student achievement head-on, and understand the power of learning from each other. We are not looking for people that think they have the answers and just want to share, but rather, people who are willing to contribute their best thinking, to test strategies, and to share their honest results as we take on the serious challenges facing our schools. If you would like more information about participating in our e-chats, send your contact information to lindas@one-to-oneinstitute.org, and we will provide you with dates, times and topics as they become available. I look forward to our first discussion.

Michael Gielniak, PhD
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute

Your Ed Tech Implementation Will Fail!

My title may be overdramatic, but it upsets me that we continue to see so many 1:1 programs fail when many of the issues that lead to the failure can be avoided.  Examples of successful 1:1 programs are starting to emerge. Mooresville Graded School District is the most famous, but there are others, like our Project RED Signature districts Richland School District Two and Huntsville City Schools that are seeing transformation and improvements in student achievement. Unfortunately, there are still too many high profile examples of failure, and many, many more districts that haven’t seen anything really change. Before I discuss why I think this is happening, and what we might do about it, let’s first take a look at some of the most publicized failures.

Miami Dade

In November of 2013 Miami Dade County, one of the country’s largest districts, decided to put their 1:1 program on hold. They had concerns about their implementation after seeing what happened in Los Angeles Unified, and Guilford County. The district lists some of their biggest concerns as:

  1. Confusion about responsibilities and (parental) liability

(According to the work of Dr. Mary Lippitt (change leadership chart), confusion happens when a shared vision is missing. The district also had obvious communication challenges, which added to the confusion throughout the community.

  1. Rising cost projections

The district attributes this to poor planning, and a lack of understanding about what it really takes to make a 1:1 functional.

  1. Students bypassing security filters

This is partially a technical issue, and partially a cultural issue. We often see in districts with strict top down structures of control that students may act inappropriately when given freedom they are not prepared for. A district can do a great job of filtering, etc., but until a culture of mutual respect, and student ownership is developed, these type of issues will continue.

  1. Readiness/quality of digital curricular content

Unfortunately, in many large districts the pre-packaged content purchased by the district becomes the curriculum, rather than integrating purchased content into teacher-created lessons and district designed curriculum. Although digital content is improving, there are very few providers that have even the basic elements needed to allow students to drive their own learning, authentic opportunities for collaboration, ongoing formative assessments, and ways to engage students in deep levels of thinking.

  1. Adequate teacher training

It is still shocking that districts spend millions on technology, and are reluctant to spend even as little as 1% of their investment to ensure that everyone knows how to use it effectively, or to examine the fidelity of their implementation.

Fort Bend, TX

The 70,000 student iAchieve program was halted after it was determined the program was not achieving its mission. You start to notice a pattern in the issues that lead to their decision.

  1. Unrealistic goals

This is usually due to a lack of a shared vision, and a lack of awareness, or understanding of the research in the field.

  1. Insufficient planning and project management
  2. Lack of consistency with existing FBISD curriculum development standards
  3. Poor contract management practices

Contract management is another piece of the overall project management that has failed in this case.

Guilford County

Guilford County had a false start, due in part to technical issues that were not their fault. The district identified, however, other fundamental issues that lead the district to halt the program. First, and foremost, was the lack of a shared vision. District administrators actually are quoted as saying “We want to do it in a way that’s not going to result in a whole lot of challenges for kids and teachers,” and “It’s not that we don’t want to give kids the tools they need to be successful, but we want to do it in a way that is not going to be disruptive.”

Statements like these are counter to the whole idea of digital transformation, and the benefits of disruption that Clayton Christensen clearly defined in his book. Even if the technology is worked properly, it is highly unlikely that a district is going to see significant improvements in learning and student outcomes by making sure nobody is challenged or disrupted.

Los Angeles Unified School District

Finally, there is the most famous ed tech failure of our generation. In the American Institute for Research’s year 2 evaluation of LAUSD’s Instructional Technology Initiative they state that there are “Ongoing challenges and areas where less progress occurred included: deploying devices in a timely manner, communicating with schools, coordinating efforts with other instructional initiatives, and clarifying a vision for technology use in instruction.”

Again, we see those common themes, including a lack of vision, poor communications, and poor planning and project management. There are plenty of other examples I could cite, but I think the pattern is clear. Too many districts are not aware, or are not using the well documented research and best practices to guide their implementation. Even the most basic factors identified in our Project RED work, factors such as change leadership, vision and project management seem to have been ignored (or misunderstood) in all of the examples.

When I compared what I found in these failed 1:1 districts with other education innovations that have failed I started to see some higher level themes emerge. I think basically all education innovations and programs that have not made a substantial impact, are not scalable, or are not sustainable struggle because they are not aligned with one (or more) of three underlying tenets, namely:

  1. Understanding how the brain learns, and creating environments and experiences that maximize learning potential
  2. Understanding human motivation and creating environments, governance structures, assessments, content, etc. that enable and empower all level of learner
  3. Understanding how to develop structures of continuous improvement that also take #1 and #2 into account

There are plenty of researchers and organizations that are contributing to our understanding of what works, and what doesn’t in education. Part of One-to-One Institute’s non-profit mission is to be a clearinghouse for the latest ed tech research and insights, so many of the publications can be found on our website. I’m not naïve enough to think our Project RED research is a panacea. We build on the backs of giants, and we hope that others will build on our work and take it in directions we can’t begin to imagine. What I can confidently say is that implementing ubiquitous technology is a highly complicated endeavor, and if you try to go it alone, or do so without the research guiding your actions, you will definitely fail.

But you don’t have to go it alone, and you definitely should not reinvent the wheel. Begin a dialog with districts that have done this work, and learn from them. Do your due diligence and study the research. Look for support from organizations that understand the research, and are interested in building your sustainability, and not just interested in selling you their silver bullet. Our work with districts, for example, is not quick, and it is not easy. It embeds systems theory, and research in cognition, motivation, environment, change leadership and our Project RED work. It also includes working with the district’s administration to help them develop processes of continuous improvement in a number of key areas that will lead to steady academic improvement and sustainability. If your top administration is not this level of engagement, don’t do it. If your district is not ready to make the transformation of learning and teaching through technology a top priority, then don’t do it. And if you are not ready to challenge your entire education community to walk this path with you, than do yourself a favor, and don’t do it. You will fail, and then we will have another mountain to move out of the way before we can get people to see there is another path…the path to success. Walk with us.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer
One-to-One Institute