Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blended Learning is the Now!

Image from 

We can all agree that we have entered a digital age and live in a digital world. And students take heart, schools are catching up and entering that digital world as well. In fact, in September, the U.S. Office of Educational Technology began encouraging Superintendents to sign a Future Ready pledge, focused on blended learning. Over 1000 Superintendents have already put pen to paper, or in this case, filled out the Google form and electronically “signed” the pledge. The pledge commits school districts to foster and lead a culture of digital learning, empower educators through professional learning opportunities, and provide access to high quality digital content and more.

It’s a great start to the conversation and it’s exciting to see districts that are moving beyond the talking and getting to the doing. I am impressed by the work at Summit Public Schools, a charter based network of schools here in the Silicon Valley. As they built their blended learning model, they were in need of a personal learning platform to help empower their students. Rather than wait for something to be developed, they hired an engineer and partnered with Facebook engineers through Facebook’s Secondment Agreement program to design their own. They are working to scale it out beyond their own district in the near future. (Learn more here.)

For many districts, the constant development of blended learning tools is a bit overwhelming and confusing. The market is continually changing and new products are popping up every five minutes. How many more passwords and log-ins must we remember? The landscape seems to be progressing however, as we see more open educational resources (OER”s) become available. A recent article in The Journal highlighted an 11 state coalition that is developing OER materials for math and ELA for K-12. The K–12 OER Collaborative will build resources that will be aligned to Common Core State Standards and will include instructional materials, contain tools for differentiated instruction, and offer a full suite of assessments. Hopefully, we will also start to see Learning Management Systems more fully develop to become single sign-on, one stop portals for all of the many different learning tools as well as better gathering places for student data and progress reporting.

Blended learning is no longer the future, it is the now. Because of the need for individualization and the many open learning opportunities for students, schools need tools that are adaptable and gather good information on student learning. Teachers need a better understanding of how to use data to drive their instruction and incorporate a more blended approach. As we move from the “one size fits all” strategy to a more personalized model, classroom tools, spaces, and strategies must shift to a new model. Here in the Los Altos School District, we are working to build and expand our blended learning model. Designing relevant professional development and adopting strategic tools to help us achieve better personalization.

It was exciting to look at the agenda for the National Summit on Educational Reform taking place in Washington DC this week. There were strategy sessions that focused on the need for better assessments, a session that speaks to the way we craft our message around educational reform, and looking at ways to innovate the teacher certification process. It’s uplifting to see forward thinking and such an important conversation happening on a national level. As we work to reform education, blended learning is clearly becoming a part of the conversation.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nurture a Growth MIndset

In the Los Altos School District, we have designed a set of learning principles that we believe form a foundation for all of the work that we do. There are seven learning principles.

Through our iLearn program, we are developing and offering our teachers an after school professional development series focused on each one. We started with growth mindset as we believe that forms the foundation for everything that happens next.

Carol Dweck, a leading Stanford psychologist, argues that a critical quality that separates successful people from those that are less successful is whether they think their intelligence can be developed or whether they believe it is fixed. "Being mastery-oriented is about having the right mindset. It is not about how smart you are. However, having the mastery-oriented mind-set will help students become more able over time."

Part of developing a growth mindset involves the practice of embracing challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, and seeing effort as a path to mastery. Mindset is everything. Some tools to practice with yourself and your students:

Small Wins - Ask a small question to make big changes. Caroline Arnold, author of Small Move, Big Change, calls this "working within the margins." She says, "There's really no such thing as a small behavioral change in terms of impact. By working the margins, you gradually get to where you want to be."  Celebrate the small wins which repeated over time can lead to a growth mind-set.

Praise Effort - Get gritty and focus on the effort and strategies rather than the intelligence. Pay attention to the words you choose when commenting on students work or your own. (Process & Outcome)

Focus on the Value of Learning - While grades are important, the value of learning should be prioritized. Take time to notice and comment on the learning that is happening outside of the expected outcomes. (Process & Outcome)

Collaborate - Working with others helps build motivation and a sense of responsibility. The positive feedback loop of effort and success can also encourage a growth mind-set.

Having a growth mindset doesn’t always come easily and needs to be practiced. As we move forward and explore other learning principles, it will be important to embrace a growth mindset and remember that we are all in this together.

Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Step Into the Learning Zone

How is it possible to operate at your best even when you are doing something for the first time?  In a new book, Rookie Smarts, author Liz Wiseman shows how, with the right mindset, it is possible to recapture the enthusiasm, curiosity and fearlessness of beginners.  In a rapidly changing world, experience can actually become a curse as it allows us to operate in our comfort zone. Some time ago, operating in the comfort zone worked for people the span of their entire career, but with the pace of change around us that is no longer the case. For many types of roles, constant learning is now more valuable than mastery. For a short synopsis of Rookie Smarts, you may enjoy watching this short video.  In her recent work, Wiseman reveals the different modes of the rookie mindset that lead to success:
  • Backpacker: Unencumbered, rookies are more open to new possibilities, ready to explore new terrain, and don't get stuck in yesterday's best practices.
  • Hunter-Gatherer: Rookies seek out experts and return with ideas and resources to address the challenges they face.
  • Firewalker: Lacking situational confidence, rookies take small, calculated steps, moving fast and seeking feedback to stay on track.
  • Pioneer: Keeping things simple and focusing on meeting core needs, rookies improvise and work tirelessly while pushing boundaries.
What might Rookie Smarts look like in the field of education?  While writing the book, Liz reached out to people across different industries and challenged them to help create a specific learning itinerary for someone wanting to take on the rookie mindset in their world of work.  I had the opportunity to collaborate with Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius in Our Schools, to create a learning itinerary for educational leaders.  Our challenge was to create a learning itinerary that would “Help Recharge a School’s Leadership Team.”
As any school leader knows, the daily pressures of leading a school can be exhausting and time consuming.  The constant pressure can make it challenging to lead and execute on a bold vision for a school. Here are some experiments school leaders (or really anyone in education) can try that may help unleash their inner rookie and actually bring new insights to their work:

Make a Map:  Try seeing your school through the eyes of a student.  Sit in a student, teacher or colleague’s seat and walk the school as they do.  How do these observations inform the work of your team?  How do they inform your teaching?

Talk to Strangers:  Connect with other principals or educational leaders outside of education together.  Recharge yourself by learning what is happening in other schools, districts or industries.  
Try to Get Fired:  List the top ten changes you would make to improve student learning if you weren’t afraid.  Share the list with your Principal, Superintendent or School Board.  How might these ideas spark discussions that lead to improvements for students?

Risk & Iterate:  Set up a playground for your team, where everyone can experiment with procedures, processes and the status quo.  Let your staff meeting be your sandbox - change the location, invite students or frame the agenda with three big questions to encourage collaboration.

By stepping outside of our daily routine and challenging ourselves to take on new learning, we actually become happier and do better work.  This new perspective can even help us be more present with staff, students and community.  A fresh perspective and recharge may be just what you and your team needs to deliver on that bold vision (or make it even bolder).

There is a lot of evidence of the Rookie Smarts mindsets and practices in play at Los Altos School District. In fact LASD Superintendent, Jeff Baier is acknowledged in Wiseman's work for introducing a new hiring criteria for teachers. "They (LASD) have established a specific set of qualities beyond a teacher's technical skills, which include: open-minded, adaptive, growth-minded, sense of humor and joyfulness." With this new hiring criteria we are finding that new teachers are better able to innovate and adapt in the perpetually shifting field of education.

How can you stay fresh in your role at work? I encourage you to read Rookie Smarts and challenge yourself to adopt the practices of a rookie. I'd love to hear about your journey, especially anyone who "tries to get fired" with a top ten list of changes needed in education.

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Partnerships

Monday, November 10, 2014

How Might We Reimagine the K-8 School Experience? Collaboration with Design 39

Last week a small team from LASD had the opportunity to visit Design 39, a brand new public school located in the Poway Unified School District.  The school is currently a K-6 with 840 students but will grow to a K-8 over the next two years.  Our visit down south was triggered by a desire to learn from other educators who are also on the path to revolutionize learning.  Design 39 is especially interesting as the school was built with a new paradigm of learning in mind.  A core team of educators, including the principal, Sonya Wrisley and a few lead teachers, spent over a year learning from leading educators around the country and planning for their new school.  

We had the opportunity to meet Design 39’s core team last fall during their EdJourney and spent a day collaborating in LASD around professional learning models, STEM education, learning management systems and a variety of other topics.  While we have continued the relationship and collaboration since their initial visit to LASD, it was extremely exciting to visit Design 39 while school was in session and see their vision realized.  

When you arrive at Design 39, you can’t help but be impressed by the building itself - a magnificent new multi-story building, but the real WOW happens inside.  Here are a few of our key take-aways from our time at Design 39:

  • Language Matters - “The School Office” has been renamed “The Welcome Center,” “Teachers” are referred to as “Learning Experience Designers” and “Noon Duty Aides” are referred to as “Motion Managers.”  These may seem like small shifts but they are intentional shifts that communicate the beliefs of Design 39 and highlight how the language we choose contributes to the overall culture of the school.  
  • Space Impacts Learning -   Learning spaces around campus are designed with what is best for students in mind first, as a result teachers don’t have their own classroom. Teachers may teach in a variety of classrooms within their pod depending on the groupings of students within a multi-age span.  Multiple teachers share a “Design Studio” - think collaborative office space - where they store their personal belongings and collaborate with their colleagues during planning time every morning from 7:45-8:45.  Learning spaces are large relatively uncluttered and varied depending on the learning activity - large group spaces, interactive screens to display student work, makery spaces, etc.
  • Learning Flow Matters -   Students at Design 39 have the opportunity to be truly immersed in what they are learning.  The day is structured with fairly large chunks of uninterrupted instructional time. In the morning, students are working on integrated learning (think Language Arts, Social Studies, Science) then after lunch depending on the day they will either have 90 minutes of math, or a deep dive (an elementary version of electives) followed by an hour of “Minds in Motion” (a new take on PE, think kids crossfit, dance, basketball… It doesn’t matter what class students choose, what matters is that they engage, get sweaty and have fun!).   Learning isn’t ever disrupted by bells, even body breaks (aka recess) are taken when it makes sense for that particular group of students.  This -ish type of schedule requires much more collaboration on the part of the adults at school, but results in a much better day to day learning experience for students.
  • Kindergarten Reminder List
    Question Everything - Why do we require students to respond to bells, walk in straight lines and raise their hands to speak?  What do these routines communicate to students about our belief in them?  Design 39 has reimagined many of these of practices.  Students know it’s time to head to class when a song is played over the intercom (Songs are dedicated to particular grade levels) and students still eating or playing enjoy the music.  Students are taught how to respectfully get from point a to point b on campus but are never required to walk in a straight line.
  • BYOD Can Work at Any Grade Level -  Design 39 is a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) school beginning in Pre-K.  All students are encouraged to bring a device from home to use a learning tool.  Students without devices may check out a chromebook to use for the year.  We saw a variety of devices in use throughout the school, it doesn’t really matter as all instruction & instructional tools are web based and device agnostic.  
  • Are Report Cards & Grades Necessary?  Student progress is being reported via “Growth Guides” instead of formal report cards.  Growth Guides are a definite work in progress, and aren’t fancy (currently an elaborate shared google doc between student, teachers, and parents) but they communicate actionable feedback about learning in a timely way.  
  • Change is Hard, Personal Flotation Devices Help - Teachers are engaging in a very different way of planning and teaching.  Most of the teaching staff has previous experience as a teacher which is sometimes helpful but can also be challenging as they consciously don’t want to fall into comfortable traditions or patterns.  With so much change at hand, their principal encourages the use of a “Personal Flotation Device” when needed. This may be a personal practice not entirely inline with the new direction of learning but one that is helping the teacher stay afloat for the time being.  The personal flotation devices are only temporary and provide teachers a way to say, “Hey I’m working on this, but am not quite there… yet.”

School Vision in Student Language
Those were a few of our big take-aways from the day of learning, but what personally impressed me most was the dedication of the staff.  It is clear that the entire staff is working with a lot of ambiguity, they are out on the leading edge doing work that hasn’t necessarily been done before in public education. It is uncomfortable for the staff, but necessary as they learn a different way to work.   Leading author and business leader, Liz Wiseman suggests, “We have to get comfortable asking people to be uncomfortable. Don’t ask people to do more work, ask them to do harder work.”  It is clear that under the leadership of Sonya Wrisley, the Design 39 team is being asked to do harder work as they reimagine learning for their students.  

While there were a lot of ah-ha moments for our team, we also recognized that much of the work we are doing in LASD has helped pave the way for a new learning paradigm in LASD.  With our new Learning Principles, we are actively engaged in questioning practices and reimagining learning for all LASD students.  We look forward to continued collaboration with the Design 39 team and other innovative teams of educators on this journey.  For more information on Design 39, you can go to their website at

Contributed by Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Community Partnerships