I started reading a dynamic book over the weekend. Educated by Design by Michael Cohen (@thetechrabbi) is a fascinating book that I enthusiastically recommend. While I have only read about half of it, I have found so many ideas that resonate with me in the work that we are doing both in Design Challenge at North Rowan High School and with our renewal system in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools. One of the key idea that I am focused on currently involves what Cohen describes as functional fixedness. Fixedness, as described by Cohen is "the inability to use a known object in a new way." Fixedness, as I have processed, is a state of mind that prohibits others from finding new ways to do or use something.
I think that too often educators have "fixedness" so engrained in their being that we fail to innovate the learning experiences of our students. Further fixedness keeps us stuck in the cycle of status quo where we fail to consider new approaches that better serve our students. Many of us even actively fight to maintain the status quo because it is something familiar to us. We fail to realize the importance of "and" when hearing a new idea or use. Instead, we too often say "but." The conjunction used makes a huge difference in the future actions that we take. By using "and," we are able to rise about fixedness and consider a new and potentially better way. When we use "but," we continue to exhibit the symptoms of fixedness.
At North Rowan High School, I have previous blogged about how the box was not even considered when relaunching the school under the restart plan. Instead, the hard work was done by others who thought, considered, and reflected on what was needed to create authentic learning experiences for all students. Essentially, the concept of fixedness was suspended from use in the school AND this is why we have been able to create something truly innovative that better serves students. While we still have much work to go, I applaud the thought, effort, and reflection put in by those educators who sought a better way for our students. It has been such a difference for our students.
As our school system continues its journey into being North Carolina's first renewal system with "charter like flexibility", I want to issue a challenge to all other school's instructional design team (IDTs). The work that you are doing to redesign schools that serves all students by creating authentic learning experiences is the most important work that you will do as an educator. But that work will not be easy nor will be linear or clean. Instead, it will be challenging, messy, and beautiful. I encourage IDTs to be bold in designing schools that prepare students for the future. Further I encourage the IDTs to take the time to really think about and inwardly digest the various ideas and suspend fixedness from their work. Focus on what is really needed to ensure students are prepared for the future. This work is not easy but it is important. As you design your schools, eliminate thoughts and processes that limit the creative potential and curiosity of our students. Also, be prepared to take risks. Sometimes, when we innovate, others may not support or see the value in what we are doing. That, while expected, is okay. It is part of innovation. However, we cannot and must let the lack of support of others (an ailment of fixedness) limit our willingness to boldly create schools and learning experiences that propel students forward. And by all means, read Cohen's book Educated by Design to help shape your thinking and for inspiration.
Many individuals are familiar with the story of the mystical Phoenix - a bird of fire that ends up burning itself only to be reborn from its ashes. Each time, a newer and stronger Phoenix emerges. This story is also the story of North Rowan High School.
Earlier today, our school board made the decision to continue to keep North Rowan High School open for the foreseeable future. That was great news for many in our community. For several years, North Rowan High has been struggling with enrollment and making progress under our current testing and accountability program. A lot of the lack of success could be tied to many factors including declining economic opportunities in our community resulting in less students. Additionally, there has been a variety of different leaders in the school over the past 10 years. Approximately two years ago, our current principal, Meredith Williams, was appointed to serve as principal. Mrs. Williams is a homegrown product of the North Rowan community. She graduated from our high school while earning the prestigious Morehead Scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill. I can attest that students earning this scholarship are often the strongest students in their classes and continue to do amazing things to improve the lives of their communities.
Mrs. Williams is quite humble and always refocuses the spotlight on others whether students or staff. Her humility is only matched by her vision and disruptive thinking. You may be wondering what disruptive thinking is. Some would define it as thinking outside the box. But to use that analogy would presume that Mrs. Williams was at some point inside the box and moved outside of its edges. In actually, she has never let her thinking be defined by a worn out box. Instead, she has transformed into a designer where new ways of being and doing things are imagined and implemented that disrupt the status quo and eliminates the mediocre. In actuality, it is her willingness to share Design Thinking and empower her staff that has resulted in our school creating learning experiences that matter and transform the lives of our students.
Under her leadership, the school has continued to made consistent academic growth. While we still have far to go, we are making growth and with our board of education deciding to leave North Rowan High School open, the hard work and tremendous progress that has occurred has been acknowledged. I applaud our board for their willingness to solicit community input. I know that this was not always a pleasant activity as many individuals in our community were very passionate about North Rowan High. However, it is encouraging to see how supportive our community was and the passion that many had for North Rowan High School. I know that this was not an easy decision for our board of education as our district is struggling with declining enrollment. We currently have over 5,000 open student seats. But sometimes, we have to make decisions that best serve students and our board showed this today. They recognized that the curriculum redesigns and the positive changes at North Rowan High School are making a difference. With their votes of support, our board is saying to our community and students that “we believe in you and want you to be successful.” Financially this will challenge our board to make tough choices but I am firmly convinced that this decision was made in the best interest of students and I send my gratitude to our board of education.
As we move forward, it is time for North Rowan High to be reborn. We need those strong supporters to continue to support our school, students, community, and board of education. We need individuals to join our PTA and Athletic Boosters. We need people in our community to serve as positive and encouraging role models for our students and let them know that they are valued and loved. We need to hold each other to high expectations and demand nothing less than our best from each other. We will continue to change the trajectory of our students. With each hurdle, we will continue to be reborn and create a world class education for our students that disrupts much of the traditional idea of school where we create winners and losers. Instead, we will transform into a model that others will want to emulate and become.
As we evolve, we must ensure that our community remains fully supportive of our school and students. We cannot have anything less than full support. We must also be prepared to support our leaders and build each other up. While we have passed this hurdle, let’s renew our focus on helping to ensure that each student at North Rowan High School has the maximum opportunities available to be successful.
Below is a poem in our Design Challenge created a few weeks ago as part of our "Making Stories Come Alive" units where students were challenged to identify a story, poem, or other work and remix it to add new value to an original work. Students then had to perform their creation with an authentic audience. A group of extraordinary young ladies created this poem and shared it with a group of nursing home residents. This poem spoke profoundly to me as it was about their experiences. The group of young ladies who wrote this poem are dynamic. In honor of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr holiday, I am so thrilled to share this amazing creation.
Let American Become Its Dream by Saige, B, and Julianna
Let America become its dream
Let it be the dream it should be
Let it be the freedom most wants
Let it be the fantasy most imagine
(America isn’t what it’s supposed to be)
Let it be an equal power to all
Where all people get treated
The same where no one
Feels the right to be mislead
(There’s never been equal rights or freedom for us)
I am the broken African-American
I am the unwanted Immigrant
I am the lost Native American
I am the wounded Caucasian
(Let all get treated the same with the same amount of wealths)
I am the Caucasian, wealthy and privileged
The one that owns many lands
The Caucasian that believes all
People should have equal rights
We are the young African Americans
Suffering from gun violence and racism
Many getting abused and neglected
(Let America Dream stop all the violence)
O, Let America Become It’s Dream
The lands that were never there
The land where every man is free
We must take back our land again
We the people shouldn’t be determined by the color of our skin
But by the love in our hearts
Instead of fighting against one another, why don’t we come together
And set a good example for the ones younger than us
O, Let America Become Its Dream
Let it be peace
Let it stop the madness
Let it be more happier and positive
Let it be CHANGED!!!!!
Having returned from the holiday break, we have been working on a "Mock Trial" challenge with our students. Since most of our students are currently taking the equivalent of Civics class, this has afforded us the opportunity to connect what they are learning with our Design Challenge. Further, we have even delved in some biology connections such as gel electrophoresis, DNA, and forensic analysis of evidence. When students first saw many of our activities, we heard "I learned this in Ms. Freeman's class" or "I remember this from biology." While students did not quite realize the connections that they were making between their core courses and our design challenge course, my colleagues and I did. We had been very intentional in making sure that we had connections between the core courses and our design challenge course. Prior to the holiday break, our social studies colleague had taught about civil and criminal court as well as a variety of ideas including that defendants are innocent unless proven guilty.
As we started the challenge, students were uncertain about what a mock trial may involve. And to tell the truth so was I. I am classically trained as a science teacher. I did minor in anthropology so I had some connection with analysis of forensic evidence based on my anthropology and chemistry backgrounds. But I had minimal knowledge of our legal system. What I knew I mainly had learned from watching Judge Judy and The People's Court (we live in a tough day time TV market). As we progress through our challenge, my colleagues and I opted to conduct a mock trial where students would try a homicide case. This afforded me the opportunity to learn along with my students, again proving that our design challenge course is very student centered where teachers learn alongside with students. Often, the questions or insights that our students result in expanding what I know as well.
We chose a very challenging case where an undergraduate died while performing an initiation task for a fraternity. The case was very challenging and, at times, we all experienced frustration. While this case was ambitious, the students definitely rose to the occasion as they do with our challenges. Students had to learn to work together and rely on each other. This facilitated increased collaboration and communication. Additionally, our students had to think critically and creatively about the facts of the case. One great example that I shared involved students asking why an alleged murderer would drive the victim to the emergency room to saver her life only to try to kill her later. Many of our students began to evaluate the validity of the information in the court documents and sought to make connections between the various pieces of information. We saw students at all ability levels push themselves to wonder and think about what makes sense. They pondered such questions as "Why would the pledge master want to murder an aspiring pledge" and "Would a college professor really give "A"s for poor work in order to show his commitment to the fraternity?"
Our students also learned the importance of making sure that their witnesses knew their parts and could accurately portray them when interviewed on the witness stand. I saw our prosecution and defense attorneys make decisions on their own about pulling witnesses prior to the court case to review testimony and ensure that the witnesses were well prepared to testify accurately. We had witnesses who had to think on their feet with some of the questions that they were asked in the trial. Perhaps one of the more interesting experiences occurred when the lawyers involved had to make an objection and to provide the rationale. I would dare say that almost all of our students understand what hearsay is and how it used as an objection. We had students who played the role of judge that had to make decisions regarding these objections and explain them to the class. We had also had juries who had to debate the facts and reach a verdict.
As we progressed through the various trials, I saw many students become passionate engaged in representing their assigned side. When verdicts were shared, I saw the passion of the students who won come through as well as the disappointment in the students who lost the case. It was truly an experience that many students will not forget. One of the most important lessons that students said that they learned is the importance of making sure that your case is well prepared and everyone knows the role that they play in this case. This is a powerful artifact of learning and shows the importance of design and challenge based on learning. As an instructor, I could have taught the standards and asked students to share what they learned. They may have remembered what they learned in a few weeks or not. However, based on experiencing a mock trial, students live it. They understand the importance of the burden of proof and how to evaluate evidence. They can clearly articulate what happens in a court case if thorough preparation has not occurred. They also think about what they could do different next time. Essentially, our students reflected on their experience and considered what they could have done differently next time. Although students do not realize it, they were engaged in high levels of metacognition where they reflected on their thinking.
The experiences associated with this challenge definitely provided a new way for our students to learn so much more. Several teachers shared that our students were using the terminology from our design challenge in other classes. Several colleagues also mentioned that they heard students actively discussing the case to try to better understand it and develop new insights. Essentially what they were doing in our design challenge class was spilling over into other areas. One colleague shared that one of our students told him "I know what you all are doing - you are making us use what we learn in other classes. And I like that." This student seems to have figured out the value of design challenge and the benefits associated from cross curricular planning. As we move forward, I continue to be so proud of our students and the great transformations that are occurring within them. Many of students are developing strong leadership qualities in leading their peers while learning to listen and value what others say. Many of students are eager to see what they will be doing and look forward to be challenged to grow. It continues to be so personally gratifying to see that the work we are doing with our students truly matters and is making a difference in their lives. At the end of our course, it continues to be my hope that our students will leave being empowered to solve any kind of problem through collaborating with others while thinking critically and creatively.
Images from our mock trial
I just finished reading Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.” This book has many important lessons for those who work with both young people and talent acquisition. While the book is a few years old, it still contains very relevant information that is needed to help shape the way that we change and prepare our young people for living in the 21st century.
Before I extend on some of my key “take aways” though, I want to share some cynicism that I have had for several years regarding the American Dream. This may be due to having living some a challenging economic crisis where I saw many of my former students who went to college, earned their degree, and followed the steps that they were supposed to in order to realize the American Dream. I had become disillusioned with the idea of the American Dream after seeing so many of my former students unable to find employment in their chosen fields. We had always been taught that the American Dream is open to all who are willing to work hard. As someone who grew up in rural Appalachia, poverty was a way of life. There were times when our family struggled to pay bills and put food on the table. While we never went hungry, there were times when we had to make dollars stretch and eat the same meal several days since it was more economical. But I was told that if I worked hard, I could go to college and get a good job. I did just that. I earned a full scholarship to college, double majored in chemistry and education, and secured a great teaching position at a well respected high school. I taught extraordinary students and helped many of them follow their own “American Dream.” I was lucky. I realized the dream and benefitted from following the right steps. However, many of my students who were told the same thing, even my myself, have not been to realize that American Dream because the world and our economy has changed. Many of my previous students currently live at home and have high levels of student loans from college. Many of them have taken lower paying jobs, often outside of their areas of specialization. It does not seem quite right that these students did what they were supposed to and in the end, their dreams did not materialize like they had been told. It is for these reasons that I have become to doubt that the American Dream existed any more. It only seems to exist for a few select students who were either very lucky or have financially secure backgrounds.
In reading Wagner’s book though, I feel that like many things, the American Dream has changed. In what I am leaning toward calling the “American Dream 2.0,” students still have the opportunity to realize the dream provided that they are able to innovate. As our economy and world has changed, a new paradigm has emerged. Information is readily accessible to anyone with access to the internet and a device. Many argue that there is not a need to memorize as many facts since that knowledge can be retrieved by a device in a matter of seconds. While base knowledge is still important, there is some relevance to that. Also, innovation in the past often resulted in improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process or earning larger profits for a corporation. Wagner refers to this as “trying to squeeze more juice from the same orange.”
As globalization has created a world wide economy where labor is cheaper in developing countries, we must be mindful that innovation will no longer occur using our “old ways.” Instead, innovation will occur when individuals work collaboratively together to solve problems in creative ways that connect in ways that are disruptive to the status quo. Individuals who are adaptable and agile with higher levels of curiosity and imagination will lead the way in innovation. Individuals who are able to connect these points are those who will be able to realize the “American Dream 2.0.”
In our classrooms, I would dare say that too often we continue to prepare students for a differentiation work force with archaic management structures. Most students leave high school with the idea of the “top-down” structure of management where there are a few people at the top who make decisions to be carried out by those further down in the management chain. This model, muck like warm vanilla ice cream, is comforting to many but really fails to nurture and cultivate innovation with our students. Instead, disruption must occur if we truly want innovation to be something that our students do upon graduation from high school.
This year has been a year of change and evaluation for me. I have “unlearned” much of what I was taught and trained to do in the classroom. The practices and procedures that were drilled into me fail to create innovation in many cases. I am not saying that they are no longer relevant but rather, that they do not lead to creating innovators. Instead, we have worked to “refocus” our thoughts, actions, and behaviors to help our students see the importance of being innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs. Wagner mentioned in the book that many students who do school well often are not very innovative. Students who need to be more innovators often do not fit in our model very well. And that has definitely been true in my experience. During our first few weeks of class, several students asked if we could “just tell them what they needed to know” or “just read us the notes so we can copy them down and study them.” My co-teacher and I looked at each other and emphatically responded “that is not possible.” We explained to them that they would be responsible for generating their own knowledge with our support. Further they would be responsible for demonstrating their learning by creating something that is an improvement or solves a problem.
As I reflect on the six months, it has been a plethora of experiences and emotions mixed up. Our students have made so much progress in becoming more divergent thinkers, problem solvers, and creators. We still experience setbacks which is part of the innovation process. But our students seem to be more intrinsically motivated which is our goal. We want our students to be able to find solutions to problems, work with others, and create. At this point, it would be so challenging to return back to a regular classroom where “status quo” is the expectation. Much of this is based on knowing that what we are doing with our students at North Rowan High School really is the right thing that we should be doing with all students. I think that too often, we, in education, get stuck on the status quo because it is easy to measure how students are doing on a standard since many feel that we can test them. However, I would say that this minimizes any student and her/his potential since our students have many gifts and often know much more about a concept than a test can measure. It is my hope that many more schools will move toward adopting a school wide model where students are celebrated for being innovators, creators, and disruptors of the status quo. We must continue to stress the importance of these things in order for all students to be able to realize their potential, the new “American Dream 2.0.”
I encourage you to follow Tony Wagner on Twitter at @DrTonyWagner
As part of our relaunch of North Rowan High School, we created a hybrid course where Design Thinking, Design, and Challenge Based are integrated into a core course for students. This extraordinary creation was the ideation of several ideas and “failing forwards” of our principal. She initially sought to form a Health Science Academy as part of the school’s innovative relaunch. While we can always benefit from increased interests in Health Science by students, this idea was simply a recycled idea of what schools in our district had done but packaged differently. The principal described how the idea of a Health Science Academy literally fell apart in a 24-hour time span. In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever could have happened. It brought out the best qualities of North Rowan High School and its students with one of them being resiliency. Resiliency is ubiquitous for the North Rowan experience. Due to the many challenging circumstances that our students and community have faced historically, they have developed the ability to circumvent obstacles and move forward.
Our administration could easily have just thrown their hands up when the Health Science Academy idea fell apart. It would have been understandable but not acceptable. Instead our staff dug down deep to find a better way. In doing so, they lived the experience of Design Thinking. By taking the time to clearly understand the needs of our students, our administrators demonstrated empathy. Further they took the time to clearly articulate and define the challenge that our students lack necessary skills for an ever-evolving world. While there are many skills and competencies that are needed, these “Master Designers” identified critical thinking, collaboration, communication, student agency, and creativity as the important focus areas.
After spending significant time ideating how students may best experience these core competencies, a model was created where all 9th and 10th graders would take a double course and that is where I enter the equation. As one of the four teachers charged with our “Design Challenge” course, I had to unlearn and relearn many things. One of the things that I am most amazed by is the transformation from a teacher-o-centric classroom where I, as the teacher, set up the classroom, dispense the information, manage what students learn, and assign “winners and losers.” By that, I mean I have to issue grades. Those who adapt to the teacher-o-centric are typically students who do school well and get good grades. Those who don’t adapt as well often find school less than empowering and earn lower grades. In our relaunch though, we eliminate many of the traditional ideas of school where we reward those who do school well and frustrate those who do not adapt to our model.
In our relaunch, we have created a learning experience where students are truly leading the way in what they are learning. In this “Student-O-Centric” model, my role has evolved into a true facilitator learner where I assist students in their learning while learning along with them. It has been a challenge to shift from the traditional paradigms I learned as a teacher into one where I am a facilitator of learning. It is also a model that has equity in that all students have an opportunity to be successful at a level appropriate for them. While some of our students may have deficits with various skills, we are able to meet them where they are, assist in building their capacity, and valuing their thoughts and creativity. It has been amazing to see the growth that many of our students have made over the course of a semester with this “new” way. I have seen students who would barely even acknowledge me create poems that they read proudly to middle schoolers. I have seen students work in groups to create remixed stories that add value to the original. Our students have created amazing programs and opportunities to combat poverty in our community. Our students have done all this while learning forward.
By creating a student-o-centric learning experience, we have been able to inspire many of our students to see that they can make a difference in this world and contribute in positive ways. We have been able to help students explore their passions and learn their strengths. In essence, we have created a classroom where students drive their learning much like Piaget described. It is extremely gratifying to see students creating their own knowledge. While we still make mistakes and a lot to learn, our work matters as it helps all students have the opportunity to be successful. I applaud our principal for being willing to fully embrace the Design Thinking mindset to create dynamic learning experiences that serve all students and celebrates their inherent gifts and creativity. What we have created for our students at North Rowan High School is so important and truly innovative.
Early in my teaching career, I attended a staff development where a speaker pointed out that the most innovative thing that has occurred in schools in the last fifty years was the use of block scheduling. The speaker shared this in jest to point that our schools are often slow to innovate and change. As a science major, I was exposed to the idea that when organisms experience disruption in their environments, they must respond according to this disruption or risk extinction. LeChatelier's Principle states that when a system in equilibrium experiences a change or stress that the system responds in a way to establish a new equilibrium. Both of these statements connect to scientific processes that result in a new way of being for both the organism and system. If we consider schools today to be either or both an organism or system, then we must realize that innovation is one of the best ways for both the organism and system to adapt and change. However, as initially stated, if block scheduling is one of the most innovative things that have occurred in schools in the last fifty years, then we are way overdue for a major disruption. The status quo for many schools continues to result in students disconnecting from education, the loss of creativity, and the proliferation of apathy.
During the holiday break, I had some time to think about what exactly innovation looks like. As I reflect on this, I firmly believe that much of what we are doing with the relaunch of North Rowan High School is truly some of the most innovative work that has occurred in Rowan-Salisbury Schools in the past twenty years. When researching about innovative schools, I ran across a blog post from AJ Juliani where Juliani describes the five habits of highly innovative schools. He mentions that highly innovative schools are not afraid. With our restart here at North Rowan High School, we have definitely embraced new ways of doing school that are more beneficial to students. With the creation of Design / Challenge Based Learning, we took a huge gamble to break away from the status quo and create a totally new learning experience that can truly benefit all students. Our visionary principal, Meredith Williams, did not let “traditional ways” of thinking about education deter the creation of this new experience. We still worked within confines of our schedule and space but we kept our minds and ideas totally open and did not discard any ideas without careful diligence and discernment. Too often in education, schools let fear paralyze their ability to create powerful and engaging learning experiences for students. It also stifles innovation. I am so elated that we have not let fear stop us from making the necessary changes and do what is best for our students.
Juliani also discusses that innovative schools make mistakes. That is very true in our case. We are still learning about best practices in our new way of serving students. I feel like I have made more mistakes in these first six months of being a Design / Challenged Based Learning instructor than I ever made as a beginning teacher. But our principal has stressed and encouraged us to own our mistakes and to learn from them. It is refreshing to have a leader who reminds that we are human and we will make mistakes. Further it is empowering to know that we, as teachers, are not expected to always be perfect. Instead, we show the true spirit of progress by making mistakes and learning from them. One thing that I like about our design course is that I can model this for students. I am no longer the “holder and dispenser of knowledge;” instead, I am a co-learner along with my students. In this way, I can model for them what it is like to be wrong and mistakes. Many of our students do not often this in their real life. It also allows me the opportunity to show students a positive model in which we own our mistakes by first acknowledging them and using that experience to learn. Life is really messy and it definitely cannot be scripted. For many our students, I think that it is important for them to be see and learn from adults who provide positive experiences of making mistakes and growing from them.
Innovation can be an overused term for schools these days though. I think that we must really look the driving force for the changes that create innovation. In the case of North Rowan High School, lower student performance coupled with some major curriculum roadblocks drove the school to really think differently about what our students really needed. This would be the challenge that our equilibrium mentioned earlier in the post experienced. We responded by ideating many possible solutions to establish a new way of being. It was this process of thinking hard and extensively that allowed North Rowan High School to truly innovate and create some different and of better value for our students. As we stress the importance of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, student agency, and creativity, our students have started to realize that they all have values. Their ideas matter. Their previous experiences matter. Their ability to work with others matter.
As North Rowan High School begins an uncertain future to our district’s potential school consolidation, it is important that we call consider the amazing change that has occurred at North Rowan High School in just a short period of time. If left intact, I am confident that the use of Design and Challenge Based Learning at North Rowan will continue to disrupt a status quo that never really served many students well. Rather, we will create a new experience where all students are successful and valued. It is my hope that the best innovation ever to occur in Rowan-Salisbury Schools will be allowed to continue to evolve and flourish.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.