Sunday, March 30, 2008

Education for the Conceptual Age

The following article is a summation of Daniel Pink's work "A Whole New Mind" and its potential impact on changing our education systems to meet the needs of the conceptual age our students will face.

Many of us had the opportunity to attend the recent NCEA conference in Indianapolis and hear Thursday's keynote speaker Daniel Pink author of the best selling book "A Whole New Mind". Pink's work pushes us towards self reflection as school administrators. What are we doing to address the changing world? How are we addressing the flattening of the world documented in such works as Friedman's "The World is Flat"? Are we holding our teachers and staff accountable for teaching relevant curriculum? Are we collectively pushing our school's to develop right brain creative contextual thinking? In many ways our American education system seems to be stuck in the past in terms of structure, pedagogy, and goals. As Catholic schools we have the freedom to recreate our pedagogy while staying focused on the Gospel message.

Let's take a look at Pink's basic premise. "A Whole New Mind" argues persuasively that the three forces of abundance, Asia, and automation are substantially altering the playing field our graduates will face. Our material abundance is greater than ever. We own our own homes, possess multiple automobiles, and generally live pleasant middle class lives. Ironically this abundance leads to a spiritual awakening as the emptiness of things taints our post-modern lives. The rise of Asia as an economic superpower and the outsourcing of menial tasks has shifted our economy away from the industrial and eveninformation age to a conceptual age where different skills matter. Automation coupled with technology and powerful software has rendered many safe middle class jobs as on deck for outsourcing and off-shoring. For example products such as turbo-tax and online legal forms are narrowing the need for an entire class of workers.

In this changing world, Pink argues six new traits or skills will become invaluable. These are: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. Let's look briefly at each.

Design provides the competitive edge. Pink provides the example of a toilet brush. The technology used in toilet brush design is the same. Without a forward leap in technology design now distinguishes a product. Design can create a desire for a product. Pink gives the example of the toilet brush industry soliciting the work of top designers. Another example is Apple with the iphone. Many other phones do the same things the iphone does and sell for half the price but Apple's commitment to design helps create a huge desire for their product. The iphone is just cool.

The ability to share a story and communicate will be a powerful global skill. The ability to communicate mission and purpose in a powerful way helps provide context and uniqueness to a product. The story of an organization is a compelling part of a group's ethos. This story creates attraction for the mission of an organization. Pink's chapter on story is chalked full of powerful examples of the power of story telling. How many of us have witnessed outstanding teachers who have the gift of story? These teachers are the natural sages of the stage that powerfully reach their audience. Not everyone who graces our classrooms but those who have the gift of story powerfully impact learning.

Symphony or the ability to think abstractly regarding the entire context will become an important skill in the global economy. How do we overcome the fragmentation of our industrial model of education to help students see connections? Why do many of us fail to pair a subject like American Literature with the study of American History to help draw out meaning and to see relationships? The industrial model of station to station learning and the fragmentation caused by current scheduling models is often blamed for the lack of engagement in American secondary education.

Empathy. My wife claims I am empathically challenged and she may be right. I'm a left brain person but the ability to see someone else's point of view and to work collaboratively is certainly an incredibly valuable skill we hope to find in our employees. We all know of that special employee or teacher whose lack of empathy and ability to collaborate stifles organizational change and creates so many pleasant phone calls. How valuable is empathy? Do we look for it as we hire new employees?

Play. The ability to laugh and to see things through in a humorous way will become increasingly valuable. I couldn't agree more. Humor and play with the ability to take enjoyment out of our work will certainly help us face the massive transitions that are coming our way and to embrace necessary change.

Meaning. This echoes Pink's theme from earlier. With our material needs being met how do we make sense of the world? Man's search for meaning and the answers to the core questions of meaning will begin to animate our discussions. Catholic schools are uniquely poised to play a pivotal role in these discussions. Our world view provides meaning and purpose.

So how do we teach these six skills of design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning? How do we guide our curriculum to address these skills? Pink argues for more fine arts as they push right brain contextual thinking? I know our school is currently in the process of discussing fine arts requirements for graduation.

In the end the burden of pushing for change falls on our shoulders. It is one task we can't delegate away. To steal from Pink, "Our schools need to educate our children for their future not our past". It is sometimes scary to think of the future because we just don't know what it will bring. I think we can all agree graduating students who understand their Christian dignity and mission coupled with the six skills mentioned above will certainly make the world a better place.

All of us are at different places in this process. Part of the purpose of the blog is to share our successes so we can be good thieves of one another.

What is your school doing to address globalization?
What strategies does your school use to promote right brain thinking?
How do you push these items with your teachers and staff?

Images courtesy of Flickr:

Monday, March 24, 2008

Four Steps to More Time Continued...

Effective time management helps to liberate your day. We are hired to push our schools towards best practice and to increase student learning. In our last post we discussed the joys of four simple time saving measures. Let's look at three more: appointments with Mr. Doe, color-coded note cards, and the wonders of delegation.

Appointments with Mr. Doe
Many principals come to the realization that much of their time is taken up with unplanned events. You settle into your desk ready to dive into some important issue requiring planning and thought and low and behold at your door is a teacher who has a concern that needs to be dealt with quickly. Being an open-door collaborative leader you of course make the time to hear their concern. These chronic interruptions are par for the course and necessary. Closing the door and barricading yourself in the office may help in the short run but overtime they lead to organizational dysfunction.

What if you could carve out a three to four hour chunk each week that could help you stay current on all your paperwork and ahead with planning? Think about the joy of recapturing your Saturday mornings for personal and family time. There is a way. And the way is called appointments with Mr. Doe. Here's how it works.

1. Find an isolated empty office somewhere in your building. A back out of the way conference room or an unused classroom will do just fine. You'll want to make sure you have a phone and internet access of course.
2. Have your secretary pencil into your schedule a four hour block or two two hour blocks at different times of the week. When people come looking for you she can say you are in a meeting at the moment. No disruptions = efficiency.
3. Use the time to catch up on all the exciting paper pushing that goes with being an instructional leader.
4. You can even put your coat on and grab your briefcase - giving the illusion that you are on your way to an important meeting.
5. You are present. If anyone needs you for a legitimate crisis that can't wait you are only an office or so away.

The Joys of Color Coded Notecards
On any given day a principal will have over 200 conversations or interactions with different people. Through the course of these conversations many tasks evolve. Keeping them all strait is an impossible task. An easy way to remember what you've agreed and promised to do is to keep color coded notecards in your shirt pocket. Use one color for people to contact, one for tasks, and one for reminders. When you make it back to your office just sort them into your 43 folders and into your to call / email box and newsletter / staff memo items. This way when it comes time to write the weekly memo or return email you will be on top of all the tasks that await. You will look like a nerd but remember most of our students will be working for nerds anyway.

Another useful tool is to use the free service "Jott". Jott allows you to call a number and leave a voice message that is then transcribed into text and emailed to you or whoever you designate along with a voice message. You can even manage groups. Jott is a great way for coaches to contact their teams with changing practice and game information and for teachers to relay homework assignments. And best of all it is free.

The Wonders of Delegation
Many people want to unload problems onto us. As the principal the problems should role down hill. Don't let other people unload their work or issues onto you. The work flow should flow from top to bottom. To accomplish this principals need to delegate, delegate, delegate. How many principals sped two hours over lunch doing cafeteria duty or spend hours in the summer and spring working on the master schedule? What a colossal waste of time. If someone else can do it - require them to. Teachers can cover the lunchroom and a good counseling staff can make the schedule. You are hired to be an instructional leader not the food hall monitor or schedule tinkerer.

With every task or job that comes up the question is, "Who can I give this to?" not "When will I make time for this?" If you are used to micromanaging this is a hard thing to do. Remember you are surrounded by competent willing people. Let them do the jobs they are paid to do. If the staff is to thin add more help. The Catholic model often seems to pile as many hats upon one person and expect great results. Nowhere else is this practiced so the idea that it will be successful in a Catholic school is crazy.

At the end of our days most of us will not have regrets about that Saturday of paperwork we blew off to spend time playing catch with our son or making breakfast for the family. Take the time - it's yours and you and they deserve it!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Four Steps to More Time

Time is always at a premium. How we spend our day often indicates the level of success we will experience as a building principal. How many of us frequently experience the following?

Realizing it's four in the afternoon and we've yet to accomplish one item on the to do list.
Spending large amounts of time looking for a folder or file that we need to use for five minutes.
Enduring a pointless conversation that awkwardly takes longer that in needs to.
Being victimized by drop-in employees who want to unload their problems on to you at the worst possible time.
Answering the phone only to be unloaded upon by an upset constituent who needs hours of your time.

These time sucks make it hard to be productive. We are hired to be instructional leaders who shape the culture of the school to increase student learning. Do you ever get to the end of the week and wonder how much time you spent on the mission?

Most principals experience these feelings from time to time but hopefully not all the time. Below are four easy steps to help free your day and give you the time to do what you were hired to do: being an instructional leader.

Step One: 43 Folders and Eliminating Clutter
In the March issue of Principal Leadership Chris Hitch shares the secret of 43 folders in an article titled "Ten Ways to Find More Time". Organize your prime file drawer with 43 folders. 31 are for each day of the month and 12 for each month of the year. As paper and to do items come across your desk sort them into the day you plan to do them. If it's March and something doesn't need to be done till June throw it in the June folder. At the end of May as you begin sorting the contents of the June folder into the thirty one daily folders you'll be set. This avoids the important items being lost somewhere in a miscellaneous stack of garbage that you will avoid. This keeps your desk clutter free giving the appearance of competence. You might as well look like you know what you are doing. Simply grab the folder each morning that you need to use. As tasks come to mind jot them on index cards and throw them into the daily folders.

Step Two: Using Email and Voicemail effectively
Email and voicemail are great tools but they can often sidetrack us from other important work. Email is the most prevalent method of communication. Some estimate the average principal receives between 40-80 emails a day. Some emails can be answered in a minute or two others need more time. Plan to answer email at certain time like 30 minutes before lunch or the end of the day. Answer short ones quickly or forward to who can assist people with what they need. For the in depth 2000 word tirades send a return message that states you will give their email a good read and get back to them within a day or two. Jot the e-mail reminder down on a card and throw it it one of your thirty one folders. Use voicemail. Everyone has a different philosophy on this but why answer the phone if you don't know who it is. We have secretaries and receptionist to help screen. You need to call people back within 24 hours but why be derailed by a call that is neither urgent nor important. You can even set your voicemail message to say something like this, "You've reached the desk of ______________ principal of ________________. I am not at my desk at the moment but your call is important to me. I plan to call you back as soon as I can over the next twenty four hours." This keeps people from waiting by their phone for a call back and griping to friends that you haven't called them back. The other added benefit is that most irate callers have a chance to calm down. A few hours later the injustice against their child is probably not as severe as first thought. Many of these issues will resolve themselves as the constituent receives more information about their issue.

Step Three: Ending Conversations with the Unplanned Drop - Ins
Ever walk into your office ready to begin tackling some exciting task like planning AdvancedEd goals and find a drop by visitor waiting for you. Most of us will meet with anyone about anything as long as it is scheduled. People should have realistic expectations about your time. Most of us just don't show up at our doctor or lawyer's office and expect them to make immediate time to see us. We call and make an appointment first. If you find it to harsh to ask the front office staff to make appointments with visitors or teachers that drop bye then try the following:

Greet them while standing and speak to them in the doorway or hallway. This gives them the immediate impression that it will be a short conversation and that you have other duties to attend to.

Greet them with the line, "It's great to see you I wish we had more time right now but what can I do for you?" They'll get the point.

Drop byes from teachers can be pleasant but too often they take up time you just don't have at the moment. Using the strategies above help cut to the core of the issue. If it is something serious ask them to schedule some time so we can give the issue the attention it deserves. These strategies all help prevent the door closing strategy from being implemented.

Step Four: Use Technology to Make Your Life Easier
Staying current with technology is a difficult task but using it well can make you much more efficient. Here are some useful tools. Learn to use group email and google docs. Say its that time of the year again to collect votes for the communal teacher of the year award. You send a paper ballot and teachers respond and then someone has to go through the paper and tally the votes. Use Google Docs to do it for you or other free online survey tools like survey monkey. These sites tally and record votes for you. Using google forms can greatly reduce stress and paper clutter.

Jott is a tremendous time saver. Imagine being able to make one brief phone message and having that message automatically converted into an email and sent to who needs it. It's late at night and you get word from a sick relative that demands you travel tomorrow. You had a meeting with the curriculum committee for 9:00 AM the next day. One simple call to Jott will send an email, voice message, and text message to any group you designate. Jott is free!

Ever face the homework cycle dilemma? You know the story. Billy's parents will help Billy do his homework but that pesky teacher just won't let us know what the assignments are. Billy's teacher is technological nightmare and can't remember to update her website or board blah blah blah. All a teacher need do is load her students email addresses into Jott and make one call a day. No more excuses from parents and students.

The above tools are just some of many to help ease the workload we face. We owe it to ourselves to give our families and friends the attention they deserve. Don't let the organizational and time needs of the job suck the joy out of what we do. Next week's post will feature three more steps to save time: Appointments with Mr. Doe, the joys of color coded note cards, and the wonders of delegation.

Share your thoughts or time saving strategies you've developed below. The more we share the more effective we become.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fighting Teenage Affluenza

Catholic High Schools are often criticized as being bastions of the elite. For some this may ring true. We are aware that many among us work with the economically depressed every day. My own school serves an economically diverse population but does enroll a disproportionate amount of the city's wealthy children.

As a first year teacher I had the joy of tutoring a young man who came from a two doctor home. He was as innocent and ignorant as any fifteen year old. He constantly reminded me that his parents had promised to buy him a $60,000 Lexus when he turned sixteen. They kept their word. His $60,000 Lexus (at three times my salary at the time) stood out when passing the faculty lot filled with rusty gremlins and family wagons. What struck me when working with this young man was his complete lack of appreciation for how materially blessed he was.

How do we reach the large number of students who fail to have a global understanding of how blessed they are to live in the United States. Do they have any understanding at all of what the rest of the world faces? We preach social justice and solidarity with a preferential option for the poor. How do we teach these principles to the young men and women of privilege that walk our halls?

How do we breakthrough? Some of us must be having success on this end. What are you doing please share. I stumbled across the video below and have been sharing it with my teachers to push them to make the point.

Increasing Dress Code Compliance

Peoria Notre Dame is currently considering a fining system for the next school year for minor offenses. Traditionally we have used a detention system. No system is perfect they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Please share your collective wisdom by posting below.

Increasing Dress Code Compliance
Going through our evaluations from the last inservice it is fairly obvious that the most mentioned item for student improvement is better enforcement of the current dress code. We are all in this together. We all realize it is our job to mutually enforce the rules of the school. It is not just the dean's job or just the teachers' job but the task rests with all of us because we all teach character.

I've just finished reading the book "Freakonomics" which is a wonderful read and certainly very entertaining. I highly recommend it. The book spends chapters explaining and evaluating incentives and how to use incentives to produce the desired behavior.

Applying the lessons of "Freakonomics" to the dress code problem we've come up with an interesting proposal to try during the Fall of next year. We are all annoyed with the dress code compliance right now and would like to see it better. What if we tried the following next fall?

1. Dress code violations would result in monetary fines rather than detentions.
2. The fines would double with each violation.
3. The collected fine money would go to provide teachers with added perks (I'm thinking a water cooler or two in the lounge and bagels / donuts every Friday).
4. Students with unpaid balances would be unable to attend athletic events, dances, be eligible for sports, receive diplomas etc.
5. For students with chronic problems the dean reserves the right to apply other disciplinary consequences.

Obviously there are pros and cons to every plan. The pros of this plan is that consequences are more proporional to what the offense is. Right now a student who has an untucked shirt receives the same punishment as a student who mouths off i.e. a detention. The other pro is the money or loss there of is a huge motivator. In life many minor offenses are met with fines rather than imprisonment.

Cons include some wealthy students being able to flaunt the rules. Of course they would have to correct the offense and pay the fine. Other cons would be parents complaining that the fine essentially ends up their responsibility and costs them a significant amount of money. Of course the parent could cut off the lunch money or hock some of their children's belongins on ebay to pay the fine.

Let me know what you think? We are rewriting the handbook over the next two weeks. Would it work? What are other points we are missing? Do you have a better solution?

To Track or not to Track?

The following blog comment is an exert from the PND faculty blog discussion about the merits and drawbacks of tracking. To give the context we currently track into three lanes: honors, regular, and modified. Our students in modified are identified based off of the Explore exam.

Why do we track? Is it in the best interest of our students? Do we reflect on why we do it? Should we just track for honors? Are our students in modified classes better served by being placed in regular settings and being asked to live up the expectations of the regular classroom? The answers to these questions hit at the core of our philosophy of learning. Do we see every student as able to learn, create, and grow in understanding? Or, do we fall victim of pre-judging students' ability based on their standardized test scores which have placed them in a modified or basic section?

Would Catholic High Schools be better served by placing modified students in regular classrooms? Would this lead to fewer behavior problems? Would teaching strategies have to be adopted and changed if this were to happen i.e. differentiated instruction? What does the research say?
There are pros and cons to both routes. One could argue de-tracking the modified sections would disperse the modified students evenly into various sections forcing these students to work towards the higher norm of performance in the regular setting. Behavior problems would decrease as students in modified sections are surrounded by different students in each period.

De-tracking honors would most likely be a disaster with students leaving in droves for the IB program and other accelerated programs that our competitors offer.

Below is a link to some research on the subject. If anyone has hear of or can find links to other studies about the tracking issue please post the link as well. Let the conversation start.

An Interesting Paper on the Subject