Did we really expect to escape the critics?

By October, we started hearing grumblings from students and parents. Below is a copy of the petition from some members of the Class of 2015. In the midst of the college application season, our seniors were nervous.

2014 Senior Petition

We immediately shared this information with our faculty and scheduled meetings with the seniors and then grade level groups with the 9 – 11th graders. We also surveyed the entire student body to find out more about their understanding of the new policies and how the implementation was going.

We had a tremendous amount of faith in the students’ abilities to adapt and be successful under these new conditions. While some students were signing the petition, there was a large group of seniors who saw the value of the changes. Unfortunately these students were less vocal than their peers. We had also solicited information from university admission representatives and we believed that our students would not be negatively affected during the college admission process.

We explained to the students that we would continue working with them on their adjustment and that we believed that, in the long run, they would benefit. We were determine to move forward and find ways to improve the implementation and on our grading practices.

Wait until you see what we learned after semester 1.


People Get Emotional When you Talk about Changing Grading Practices

Over the years I have followed newspaper articles from communities where grading and reporting changes have taken place and quite often the conversations lead to heated arguments, animosity, teachers getting suspended and/or fired, principals getting losing their jobs and court cases.

Possibly the most controversial change that really gets tempers flaring is when schools decide to not assign zeros to missing student work. While the two sides don’t usually get physical, the battle can be nasty.

"Untitled" by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain

“Untitled” by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain











Under these circumstances it’s very difficult to change overall practices. Instead of the focus being on changing assessment practices to improve learning, individuals take a myopic approach and the two sides get bogged down in the single issue. The fear of having to face upset parents, students and teachers typically leads to continuing the status quo. The status quo, even though flawed, is just easier to continue.

Fortunately, the Graded community was appreciative to discuss assessment practices that improves learning. Our teachers, parents and students saw the value of being able to give feedback to students on academic performance and separate feedback on learning habits. There wasn’t a battle around the typical divisive issues (i.e. zeros, extra credit, participation, group grades, homework grades). The only issue that created a stir throughout the year was reassessments (more on this in another post).

These are the responses from the high school faculty at our opening faculty meeting for the 2014 – 15 school year.

From the start of the year we were continuously learning in these four areas (and others).

What did I learn?

  • That it is never too soon to prepare for rolling out these changes. Ask teachers to respond to these prompts as early as possible.
  • Having a community that supports the concepts and initiative makes the rollout easier.
  • Even when you have the support of the community, there will be disagreements and critics.

Best Practices Just Aren’t Enough These Days

Best Practices – Aren’t. Mike Myatt. Forbes Magazine. 15 Aug. 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/08/15/best-practices-arent/

Just over a year ago I read George Couros’s post, Ignoring the Status Quo and after this I have been campaigning against best practices. I was in search of alternatives to looking at “best practices”. Unfortunately I’ve been doing a poor job of communicating the concept that best practices keep up the status quo without taking us to a new level. Thanks to Brett Jacobsen at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School I started reading Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. They clearly explain the benefits of best practices mixed with “bright spots”.

“They’ve long since learned to “benchmark” competitors and absorb industry “best practices.” While these habits are useful, they are rarely transformative. Good ideas are often adopted quickly.”

In Decisive, they give the example of how Sam Walton replicated practice that Ben Franklin was using where customers paid for their items at one location at the front of the store. In the past customers would pay separately in the respective departments. As more stores starting adopting this strategy it became common practice. Walton would frequently ask, “Who else is struggling with a similar problem, and what can I learn from them?” I find that we do this all the time in schools. In the international school community, The Principal’s Training Center listserv is buzzing with colleagues who are gathering information on what others are doing (“best practices”). This type of sharing is necessary and very helpful. For example, about a year ago we asked schools (see The Best Time – Design Thinking Part 2) how they were organizing their classroom without walls trips. We received some excellent ideas and ended up piloting trips based on the best models that we found.

The Heath Brothers present a case for a combination of best practices and “bright spots.” The bright spots are solutions that come from alternative thinking within the organization. Thinking that is tailored to meet your needs and takes the solution to the next level. This type of thinking can lead to mash-ups or innovative practices.

“The search for options might lead the manager to search first for best practices. In a world with thousands of other organizations, someone has surely faced this problem before. Next, she might look for bright spots within her own organization, …”

Using the classroom without walls trip example. We’re basically at a point now where we need to develop brights spots that will improve our school trips. Based on the feedback that we received from teachers and students, the pilot trips were excellent, but they weren’t innovative and we didn’t quite accomplish our objectives. We’re now in the process of developing a new iteration for next year’s learning experiences and we plan to take them to another level. A level that better meets are needs and will hopefully be seen as a “next practice”. Notice that I said “learning experiences”. We’re realizing that the activities for the week don’t have to be trips.

I’m changing my campaign in support of best practices and bright spots.

Join us at Graded for Innovate 2015 in March

We are looking for forward-thinking, dynamic and passionate educators who want to lead the learning at Innovate 2015.  Submit a proposal to workshop, present and lead learning at Innovate 2015!

Innovate Proposal



Innovate Page

Do parents really want schools with innovative learning environments?

Defining what it means to create a culture of innovation and especially a culture that cultivates innovators has been on my mind for some time now. I wrote, Jumping on the Innovation BandwagonInspired by Passionate Students and The Minerva Project as a Disruptive Innovation Case Study which all included views of innovation. I know that innovation is a hot buzzword these days and I’m hearing it more and more from parents. Questions like, “How can we make the school more innovative?”, “What innovative ideas do you have for our children?”, and “What will innovation look like in our school the future?”. I’ve also noticed that when pressed to describe what they mean by innovation the answers are shallow. There seems to be little understanding of what innovation in education looks like. Lately, I’ve been wondering if parents do really want their children studying in an innovative environment. Why? Because for this to happen the current system will have to change.

I’m a big fan of Tony Wagner’s work on this subject and he lists the 5 contradictions between current school culture and a culture that cultivate innovators.

Wagner points out that innovative cultures of learning have the following characteristics.

1. A high level of team work  where accountability is built into every single project. Most school systems promotes individual performance where students may work collaboratively at very low levels. The level of cooperation is typically superficial. This requires less time spent on content and more time on developing collaboration skills. It will also lead to highly sophisticated projects that require high functioning teams.

2. Interdisciplinary study of complex problems and solutions. Much of our curriculum today is designed by subject matter and there is little room for diverting from this course. Standardized state mandated tests are created by subject matter, AP and IB exams are also for subject matter courses.  Wagner states, “innovation happens at the margins of academic disciplines…” Will parents support schools who create trans-disciplinary courses that will look very different than what they had in school?

3. Active and engaging classroom cultures where there is no one expert that the students rely on for gaining knowledge. Traditionally the teacher has been the only expert in the classroom and the students are lulled into passivity. Students can be the consumers instead of creators. Often when teachers do take on a role as a facilitator or coach students and parents question why the student has to make sense of the learning on their own. There is an expectation that the teacher will spoon feed the students.

4. Promoting failure that leads to learning. A focus on grades and earning high grade point averages to get into colleges can easily lead to risk aversion. This is a fixed mindset where the grade is the end of the learning process and the results better be good. Innovators understand that there will be trial and error in the learning process and that without failures, the learning will not be as deep and the challenges not as great.

5. Intrinsic motivation that leads to passion and purpose. Again, many of our students are driven to success that is measured by grades and grade point averages. As educators, we constantly talk about how many of our students spend way too much time checking their grades online. Innovative learning cultures are filled with learners who are passionate about learning because they can see the current and future applications. They see how the learning can help them make a difference. This means finding ways to take the emphasis off grades and to put it on the deeper feedback that teachers can provide students with.

Are parents really willing to have their children’s schools make these types of changes? First of all I believe that very few understand what innovation in education really looks like. My hope is that by educating students and parents we can help them to better understand what changes will need to occur and what the benefits will be for students.

There are already educators, students and parents who are latching on to these ideas and taking steps to create innovative learning cultures. My hope is that, in time, we will see a new type of fish bowl with teachers and students engaged in practices that cultivate innovators.

fishbowl jump

“Fishbowl Jump” by Kay Kim is licensed under CC BY 2.0


The Minerva Project as a Disruptive Innovation Case Study

Ben Nelson with Graded’s Innovators

We were fortunate to have Ben Nelson and his team present at Graded this month and we got a first hand look at The Minerva Project. It was also a pleasure to be able to meet Ben at Transformar 2014 the day before.

Michael Horn speaking at Transformar

Michael Horn was also at Transformar and it didn’t dawn on my until yesterday that Minerva is an excellent example of what Horn and Christensen refer to as disruptive innovation.

The theory explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.

– See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/key-concepts/disruptive-innovation-2/#sthash.bUb4ndYu.dpuf

While reading the NYT Innovation Report 2014 I came across the following.

Hallmarks of Disruptive Innovation

  • Introduced by an “outsider”
  • Less expensive than existing products
  • Targeting underserved or new markets
  • Initially inferior to existing products
  • Advanced by enabling technology

This seems to be a textbook case study for innovators to follow. Here’s what their press release states.

Minerva provides a reinvented university experience for the brightest, most motivated students in the world. Combining a redefined student body, a reinvented curriculum, rigorous academic standards, cutting-edge technology, and an immersive global experience, Minerva is committed to providing an exceptional and accessible liberal arts and sciences education for future leaders and innovators across all disciplines.

The Outsider

Nelson is definitely an outsider to the higher education scene. He talks about the initial ideas for Minerva came while he was an undergraduate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It was then that he realized that the learning experiences could be dramatically improved. After leaving Penn he went on to several business ventures but most notably Snapfish. Hardly the path that university founders typically take.

Less Expensive

Tuition for Minerva is USD$10,000/year. The total estimated costs for housing, student services, food, books supplies and health insurance is $28,850. This is far below the $50,000+ that it costs to attend the Ivy League universities that Minerva is trying to compete with. Nelson is adamant that Minerva is going after students from throughout the world who are Ivy league talent. Minerva will not have athletics programs, student services facilities, teacher tenure and many of the other amenities that universities provide. Instead they are strategically locating their housing in exciting cities around the world.

Target Markets

Minerva is targeting students from around the world and the low tuition and their quest to provide students with financial aid will attract students from around the world. Nelson reported that 80% of the inaugural class is from outside of the United States.

We believe drive, talent and hard work should be the only factors that determine access to an extraordinary education. Minerva is committed to ensuring that all accepted students are able to attend.

Initially Inferior

While Minerva has put together an impressive lineup of professors and they are recruiting the best at the brightest, it’s hard to imagine that the initial product will rival the Ivy League schools. The curriculum is also new which means that there will certainly be wrinkles to be ironed out. The initial cohort will be small which means that the thought partner pool will be small. I’m guessing that the university will attract risk-takers which will make for an interesting mix of students.


With students and professors at various places in the world Minerva has developed the Active Learning Forum to facilitate learning in the virtual classroom.

  • Rapid Break-Out Groups
  • Individualized Instruction
  • Collaborative Documents
  • Dynamic Polling
  • Real-Time Simulation
  • Enhanced Debates

You can check out the video which shows what the experience is like.

I’m rooting for Minerva to succeed in the long run and to cultivate innovative leaders for our future.

Inspired by Passionate Students

Presenting with Two Young Visionaries

Me with Two Young Visionaries

For the past two weeks I have had the pleasure of working with Gabi Campos and Nik Hildebrandt, two Graded students who are passionate about what the future of education can look like. So passionate that they took the initiative yesterday to present at the 2014 School Leadership Summit.

Gabi and Nik are currently 11th graders who have developed bold ideas on education that are based on their experiences and research.  Several weeks ago they presented these ideas to their IB English teacher with a proposal to present at the AASSA Conference that Graded hosted. While it was too late to present at AASSA they were determined to share their message with a wider audience. The School Leadership Summit now provides them with a global audience.

Gabi and Nik shared a story about “Caroline” a high school student who is very good at “doing school”. Their ideas for the perfect school include:

  • Promoting Creativity and Real-life Projects
  • Abolishing Grades
  • Providing Opportunities for Failure
  • Focus on the Future
  • Developing Life Skills

They have even bought into Tony Wagner’s model of learning environments that cultivate innovators that include Play, Passion and Purpose. Gabi and Nik were so excited after the presentation that the first words out of the mouths were, “What’s next?” I encourage you to spend 45 minutes listening to their presentation. The recording is available here.

Whether you agree with their ideas or not you have to admire their enthusiasm and desire to make a difference. I know that I have truly enjoyed partnering with them and I look forward to supporting their work in the coming months. There may be a new club on campus for student innovators that needs an advisor.