It works in architecture and urban planning. It can work in ed transformation, too. #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

From Nancy Duarte’s Resonate, which, by the way, is one of the best books I own, especially in it’s multi-touch book format.

Dan Roam, author of Back of the Napkin, says that, ‘The person who has the ability to verbally describe a problem has a great talent – but also a great limitation. All the real problems of today are multidimensional, multifaceted, and deeply layered. There is no way to fully understand them – thus no way to effectively begin solving them – without at some point literally drawing them out.’

Thought experiment: 

Imagine contemplating a significant remodel or renovation of your home (or school). Now, imagine only dealing in words and verbal descriptions with the various sub-contractors: builders, electricians, HVAC, lighting, flooring, plumbing, casing and carpentry, technology, etc. Also, imagine only naming the remodeling specifics in general-goals terminology. Now, imagine not providing much time, space, or opportunity for these people to ask questions, engage in R&D, meet together and discuss, sketch ideas and check understanding, develop shared knowledge around the transformation, etc. No blueprints, images, infographics, design elements, or visuals. Only words. Inadequate discussion.

How do you think the remodel or renovation would turn out?

Follow-up questions…the deeper thought experiment:

How are schools – those with the greatest intentions and people; those that truly recognize and accept their need for change – how are they going about the transformations of their teaching and learning cores/corps?

Could you show me the designs, blueprints, images, and visuals for those fundamentally important modifications? (I could not have done so as a school principal, and I regret that – I consider it a major failing that I am now working to resolve and re-prototype.)

Can you show dedicated time, space, and regular opportunity for the various members of your school team – faculty, admin, parents, students, etc. – to meet to talk, compare notes, ask questions, attend “practice or rehearsals,” develop shared understanding, etc.? (We did work really hard at this during my last principalship. The Junior High faculty deserves so much credit here for the collaborative, professional-learning-community work that was accomplished.)

Wrap-up question:

How might we commit to and devote the same vigor for community engagement and transformation design in our teaching and learning core/corp that we use in our physical building and campus development?

It works in architecture and urban planning. It can work in ed transformation, too.


From @SAISnews – Interview about #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

Recently, Holly Chesser, Director of Member Engagement at SAIS (Southern Association of Independent Schools), interviewed me about Pedagogical Master Planning. SAIS published the interview in the March 2013 edition of their SAIS Headlines newsletter.

The original Internet source of the interview is here, and I’ve embedded the PDF below. For those of you interested in the development of Pedagogical Master Planning, Chesser’s interview provides an overview and update on the radical rethinking of strategic planning.

Many thanks to Holly, Damian Kavanagh, and everyone at SAIS for all they do in education.

How are pedagogies acting like species in the school ecosystem? #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

by Jennifer Parks as seen in Sean Gourley's talk:

by Jennifer Parks as seen in Sean Gourley’s talk:

Do you ever wonder about the various ways that schools are working to transform their teaching and learning practices? I wonder about this all the time. In fact, thinking about school transformation and working for school transformation define my educational career, especially the past decade and current next chapter of my career.

I’m convinced that schools are complex ecosystems. Within those ecosystems, in efforts to enhance education and forward schools, I wonder how our developing practices are acting like competing species in a natural ecosystem’s food or energy web.

In the screen grab above, we can see a diagram of an ecosystem energy web. I’ve seen this image used in a number of presentations and talks. The colored species are thriving and dominating, and the grayed species are declining and disappearing from the ecosystem.

I wonder how project-based learning, design thinking, inquiry-based instruction, formative assessment, standards-based grading, performance-based assessment, e-portfolios, etc. are interacting in transforming schools. I wonder how these Dewey-progressive and 21st-century-skills approaches are behaving like reinforcing and competing “species” in the school ecosystem. I wonder how they are interacting with more traditional practices and methodologies, and I wonder how they are interacting with each other. The interactions with each other really fascinate me.

For those who know me or read this blog, you understand that I am a strong believer in PBL (project-based learning, problem-based learning, passion-based learning, etc.). Yet, I often worry when I imagine a middle school student taking six or seven departmentalized courses, and her teachers somewhat or entirely adopting PBL… as independent practitioners. Even thinking about half of them adopting PBL as independent practitioners can cause me some concern.

I start to imagine that seventh grader trying to manage four large-scale projects that are not coordinated or integrated across the departmentalized subjects. I start to wonder if the PBL will be the “dominant species” in the ecosystem, or if the departmentalized subject species will devour and crowd out the PBL species. Will the 55-minute time slot for class be the predator or the prey? Or could they become symbiotic species, if the other system characteristics were thoughtfully re-examined and redesigned? How might “flipping the classroom” become a symbiotic or predatory species? (If folks aren’t careful, can you imagine those poor parents at home managing four independent projects with their over-stretched children? Yikes!)

I wonder how the teachers’ assessment practices (species) will complement or compete with the PBL species. I wonder about design thinking being integrated into a course whose teacher is moving intentionally toward PBL. Then, I start to wonder how the traditional content grading will fit with a species that depends on iterative prototyping and rapid failing to conceptualize enhancement and reach eventual success. I wonder about the report card or progress report species trying to capture the elements of this system – elements that are better understood disaggregated rather than smashed into a single number.

I wonder about students designing for perceived problems and struggling to interact with “real” community members because of the online policy species that was introduced to the school ecosystem. I wonder about the level of access of the students and teachers to the surrounding community, and then I think back to those departmentalized subjects and students trying to manage four sets of discovery-and-interview phases in their silo-ed project work.

Which species will prove dominant in the ecosystems of our schools? Are we thoughtfully designing these ecosystems with collaborative and integrated thinking, so that the parts of the system harmonize with instead of cannibalize each other?

Are we designing and nurturing and sustaining the ecosystem from a learner UX point of view? (“UX” is short for user experience.)


Thanks to @MarkCHale, head of Greensboro Day School, for putting me onto “Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem,” which is KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 and the work of Andrea Saveri. Exploring this resource led me to “TEDxNewWallStreet – Sean Gourley – High frequency trading and the new algorithmic ecosystem,” all of which significantly helped me think more deeply about the interplay of the current and coming changes in schooling and education.

PROCESS POST: How are schools planning and designing their pedagogical renovations?

Will we achieve meaningful school reform with independent efforts that are not designed as interdependent wholes?

Not long ago, I received an email from a group that I highly respect and admire. In the email, they advertised a number of courses for educators, such as:

  • Web 2.0 Tools
  • Common Core
  • Project Based Learning
  • iPads and Apps
  • Gaming
  • Teaching Online
  • Blended Learning
  • Flipped Classrooms
  • (and some others)

To be clear, I am a “fan” of many, if not all, of these practices, standards, and approaches. And I am certainly not criticizing the educators who enroll in these courses to enhance their practices and work with student learners. I’m all for adult learning and improved instruction.

But where is the school-level approach to enhancement and improvement in these reform practices? Are schools architecting and blueprinting the systemic transformation of which these practices are parts of a whole? How will the “renovations” named above fit into a master plan that harmonizes the curriculum, instruction, assessment, and learning environments that function together as the ecosystem of a school’s teaching and learning core? Is it enough to have “independent contractors” at various schools enrolling in such courses and enhancing their individual practices? Would schools renovate their physical campuses in the same manner in which they are remodeling their pedagogical constructions?

What about the user experience of the student learners who are enrolled in the schools for which these adult learners work? What’s it like for them to live in their school houses when the rooms and the sub-systems of the home don’t seem to be undergoing remodeling that is planned, coordinated, and orchestrated as a connected whole – from a common set of well-crafted designs?


How do we define our system boundaries as teachers? What’s our identity?

If you are a teacher, how do you define the “boundaries of your system?” How do you define your aim and purpose within that system?

System Boundaries

When I started teaching, I defined the boundaries of my system as my subject and my classroom. I called myself a “math teacher.” I talked about my “algebra class” and my “pre-algebra class.” Later, when I moved schools, I referred to myself as an “economics teacher,” and I talked about my “5th period econ class,” my “7th period econ class,” etc. More often than not – MUCH MORE often than not – when I hear professional educators introduce themselves, they talk this way, too. They say, “Hi, I’m Martha. I teach U.S. History at Essex Middle School.” And, “Hi, I’m Frank. I teach 5th grade English and language arts.”

Do our self-imposed labels cause us to be competitors within our own schools?

I remember feeling pretty competitive as a teacher, now that I reflect on it. At the time, I didn’t realize I was being so competitive, but I’m realizing it more now. For instance, more than a few times, I can recall a student saying something like, “Mr. Adams, I didn’t do my math homework last night. I had a big English project due today.”

“Oh!” I said. “So you think English is more important than math?” I think I was mostly kidding, and I can remember many of my own teachers saying similar things to me when I was in grade school. I guess I was somewhat trying to continue the teacher joke. But, part of me was definitely not kidding.

Or I can remember another teacher or counselor “pulling out” a student from my class to finish a test or something similar. Thinking back, if I am entirely honest, I can feel some tension in how I viewed that teacher that was taking away from “my time” with that student. They were interfering with my aim to teach that student math.

W. Edwards Deming, Profound Knowledge, and Systems

Two things are critical in applying this part of the system of profound knowledge. First isdefining the boundaries of the system. For example, if you are a motor freight company, does the system include only your suppliers, your customers, and your company or does the system include all motor freight carriers, suppliers, and customers? This distinction is important because, if it includes your competition, then you must work together with your competitors to improve the system.

from here

For a number of years, I’ve been studying “systems thinking.” I’m a long-time groupie of Peter Senge’s. I like to think of myself as a systems thinker. Lately, I’ve been studying W. Edward Deming and his work in Profound Knowledge. As I read and re-read the paragraph above, I cannot help but think about how I defined my system as a teacher. Unfortunately, for too much of my career as a teacher, I was in competition with the other teachers on the faculty. Some of that competition was fairly intentional. A lot of that competition was unintentional. But the competition existed nevertheless.

How might our definition of system boundaries affect our work as system enhancers?

In so many ways, I did not even know what was going on in my fellow teachers’ classrooms. I was a math teacher, or a U.S. history teacher, or an economics teacher. I had “my classes” and “my periods of students.” My aim was to teach math, or history, or economics. I would say that I was “on the faculty,” but most of my time and attention was really just spent in my small system as math teacher, history teacher, or economics teacher. To have a different systems mindset, I would have needed to know more about the other parts of the system. Maybe then, I would have seen the other parts as cooperatives, instead of as “competitors.”

“If [the boundary of your system] includes your competition, then you must work together with your competitors to improve the system.”

About six years into my teaching career, I became a sixth-grade boys “grade chair.” The boundaries of my system changed – because my title and responsibilities changed. Now, my system continued to include my eighth-grade economics classes, but it also included all 85 of the sixth-grade boys in my care. Now, I had formalized reason to see myself as part of a bigger system. I could no longer afford to “compete” with my fellow teachers. I needed to know what happened in sixth-grade math, sixth-grade English, sixth-grade science, etc. Now, I had to talk to parents about the three hours of homework that their son was doing every night – the subjects added up! Before, I could really just lull myself (unintentionally) into thinking that I was only giving 20-30 minutes of econ homework. But now, as a grade chair, I could see the cumulative effect. Probably the best thing I did as grade chair was to shadow a student every year… and to do the homework that night. It was very empathy provoking, as well as system-boundary widening.

Two years later, I became an assistant principal of sorts. We called it “Director of Studies.” Now, I had to know the curriculum and instruction of all 86 faculty and all 560 children. My system was growing. My system boundaries included all of the departments and all of the grade levels, sixth through eighth. I had to see my system as a system of cooperation and collaboration, not as a system of independent contractors and competitors. But I began to wonder if my fellow teachers’ perspectives and points of view remained relatively constricted by closer boundaries on their systems.

Two years later, I became the middle school principal. Now, my system was even bigger in boundaries. But what about the definition of the system for the other teachers and educators? Were we in sync about the boundaries of our system? Or was my perspective only changed because of my formal title and responsibility changes? What if I had never changed roles? Would I have kept my more myopic view of the system?

It was really all about “identity.” 

The system self-organizes around its Identity. That includes its vision, purpose, guiding principles, values, history, theory of success and shared aspirations. A clearly designed, shared identity allows the organization to self-organize in alignment with the identity desired by leadership. All systems are complex adaptive systems which adapt around their identity. The identity may be designed by leadership or it may occur without design, more by accident. If it is allowed to occur accidentally it will lack clear, shared direction. Thus empowerments will not be fully successful.

from here

Hindsight has provided much clarity, but when I became principal, I began to work to affect the identity of the teachers. First, we began peer visits. At least twice a year – once each semester, and once in-department and once out-of-department – we would observe each other’s classes. Of course, these observations could help provide feedback, but they were more about tearing down walls and hypothesizing that such expanded vision might expand the boundaries of our relative systems. We would begin to see more of the overlaps, commonalities, effects of our “competitive” actions. We might identify with each other differently than we had before.

Next, we began to restructure as a professional learning community. We gathered together in teacher groups to become teams – to see our collective roles rather than our competitive roles. To be fair, the other teachers may never have seen themselves as competitors, like I realized that I had been. But maybe, just maybe, my silo experience was not dissimilar from most teachers’ experiences. In teams, though, we could design curriculum and instruction together. We could assess student work together. We could coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate. We could alter the boundaries of our system and reach a greater accord about our shared identity. Now I was a teacher in the PLC, not just an economics teacher. Now, I could see how my practice intersected with the practices of the math and science teachers. Now, we could be teachers of the entire set of children.

Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s business.

from here

If I had to do it all over again, I would have been much more intentional about our collective identity. There’s critical work to do there as a faculty.

Then, transformation could spring from shared understanding and profound collective knowledge.

To be continued…