Innovation in Education

This post is the first in a series for a MOOC on The Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC by George Couros.

Imagine if a student today time-traveled to the classroom of 1917.  Our time-traveling student would be out of place culturally, and yet the classroom itself might not be terribly different.  In the classrooms of 2017, chalkboards have been replaced by whiteboards with LCD projectors or even some type of SMART board, but are students still sitting in rows and turning in worksheets?   Or they creating, producing, and collaborating?


When one of my own kids brought home a classroom syllabus from school, I felt deflated as I read it.  The paper looked as if it had been typed — on a typewriter — decades ago.  The teacher had scribbled out percentages on the paper and handwritten over them before sending it through the copy machine.  Students will complete 30 homework problems each night (with the answers in the back of the book) — not exactly engaging, transformative, or innovative.  I have difficulty imagining that the students in this classroom are inspired to learn more on their own or are looking forward to another day of lectures, rows, and drilled practice.

In the Introduction of The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros (@gcouros) writes,

We forget that our responsibility isn’t solely to teach memorization or the mechanics of a task but to spark a curiosity that empowers students to learn on their own.

To wonder.

To explore.

To become leaders.

We forget that if students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.

Why is it so difficult to innovate in education today?  Students have access to more information in their pockets than I had in an entire school in the early 1990s, yet they are often told to leave their phones in their lockers, or they’re blocked by school firewalls on all kinds of useful websites.

While some teachers become early innovators in their buildings, it’s rare to see an entire building of innovators.  One key difference between a handful of innovators and an entire system that values innovation lies in leadership.  Innovative leadership is still uncommon in the world of education.  After leaving the face-to-face classroom to work as a lead instructor at Michigan Virtual, my new supervisor told me, “I see my job as being the person to remove barriers for our teachers.”  I thought she was messing with me.  I’m sure I looked highly skeptical after years of feeling roadblocked in a large public school system.  But she was true to her philosophy, and it’s a philosophy I keep at the forefront as I now lead teachers within our organization.

What would be possible for classroom teachers if all school leaders took the approach of removing barriers for their teachers?  How would that ultimately change a classroom experience for students?


Finding Your Strengths

I am fortunate to work for an organization that commits to professional development for their employees and actively works to increase engagement and improve workplace culture.  As a result, I was able to attend the CliftonStrengths Summit over the summer, where over 1,000 individuals from 27 countries met for two days in Omaha, Nebraska, to explore using the Gallup tool known as StrengthsFinder 2.0.

The goal of the StrengthsFinder test is to discover your unique combination of strengths so that you may focus on building and working within your strengths.  For a reasonable price, StrengthsFinder 2.0 identifies your top 5 strengths in a report (and you can pay more to see how your full 34 possible strengths line up).  According to Gallup, the mother company of CliftonStrengths, people who use their strengths every day

  • are 6x more likely to be engaged at work
  • are 3x more likely to report they have an excellent quality of life
  • are more productive in their role

The possible combination of strengths in any order means that we are approximately 1 in 33 million in terms of how our strengths show up.  CliftonStrengths does an incredible job of emphasizing the uniqueness of every individual and the combination of strengths they bring to their roles.  I admit it — I have long been a super-fan of Positive Psychology and loved working it into the curriculum when I taught AP Psych to high-schoolers. Donald Clifton, Ph.D., educational psychologist and the founder of the Strengths Movement, was an early advocate for studying what was right with people in an effort to improve lives.  I am all in with this approach to viewing those I work with and lead.


My top 5:  learner|adaptability|     intellection|input|responsibility|

In education, we tend to focus on our deficits.  Under current teacher evaluation models, administrators spend time examining areas teachers fall short and what steps they need to take to improve.  Many post-observation meetings are spent with teachers feeling demotivated or even beaten down as the bulk of the meeting covers their weaknesses — weaknesses that need to be improved for teachers to be labeled effective or highly effective.  Hopefully strengths are mentioned, but the message is that we need to improve our weaknesses.  Teachers, raise your hands if you’ve ever left an evaluation meeting frustrated, demotivated, or even angry.  Were your strengths discussed at length in those meetings?  Were you ever coached to develop and use those strengths in your daily work?  If the focus of evaluations is areas of weakness, you can bet your teachers are not feeling great about their work.

Our students have similar experiences.  We test students extensively to find out what they haven’t mastered, and we design more practice or extra work in those areas to improve their skills.  At the CliftonStrengths Summit’s opening keynote speech, Deepak Chopra read a version of The Animal School, where a rabbit gifted in jumping loved going to jumping class every day.  He was thrilled to do what he was good at every day and loved going to school.  Yet when his teachers saw how bad he was at swimming, they took him out of jumping class and put him in extra hours of swimming to make up for his deficits.  The rabbit began to dread going to school.  He hated swimming class and himself.  As Deepak read, the teachers in the audience all understood the moral immediately.  How many students have had an experience like the rabbit?



It’s Deepak Chopra!

I believe mastery learning is important, and as educators, we design experiences to help students build the skills they need to be successful.  What if we stopped looking at where our students or staff were going wrong and started paying attention to their strengths? Is it possible to let go of our weaknesses?  How much happier would you be if you were coached to be able to aim your strengths at daily work?


Shifting Paradigms

If you’ve experienced any FranklinCovey PD or read Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you are familiar with the concept of changing your paradigms. Our paradigms influence how we see the world.  We use paradigms to explain the behavior of others while paradigms also shape our behavior.

Adobe Spark (3)

In Psychology, we talk about this in another way — behavior attribution.  We can attribute someone’s behavior to personal dispositions (he’s acting like a jerk because he’s always a jerk — that’s just who he is), or we can attribute their behavior to situational factors (he’s acting like a jerk because he’s under a lot of stress at the moment and he just received more bad news).  The trouble with behavior attribution is we tend to overemphasize the personal factors to explain the behavior of others while underemphasizing the situational factors that might shape their behavior.  For ourselves though, we overemphasize the situational circumstances and downplay our personal dispositions.  This mismatch between how we attribute the behavior of others versus how we attribute our own behavior is a phenomenon known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  Once we recognize that we are prone to the Fundamental Attribution Error, we might start paying more attention to the situational influences on someone’s behavior.  In other words, we shift our paradigm.

I experienced a paradigm shift while teaching when a student answered her cell phone in the middle of class.  I encouraged students to bring their phones to class — in a school with limited technology, we used their phones as learning devices often, and I trusted students to handle their phones and manage their phone behavior appropriately.  Though normally considered a rather patient person, having a student actually answer a phone call while I was teaching made me furious.  I couldn’t believe this student could be so bold.  In disbelief and frustration, I said, “You have got to be kidding me!  What do you think you are doing??”  My student held her phone to the side and told me quickly, “Mrs. McKay, it’s my mom.  She’s calling from prison so I never know when she’ll call and we don’t get to talk much.”

All my righteous teacher anger dissipated immediately.  I cringed and mouthed “Sorry!” while motioning for her to take her phone to the hall.  When she was done talking to her mom, she came back into class.  I apologized again and told her to just give me a signal next time, and it would be fine for her to take the call in the hallway.  She was so relieved to know it was ok.

Understanding my student’s situation was a shift in my paradigm.  I was able to see her behavior in a new focus.  I better knew how to help her and teach her with that new understanding.

We don’t always have all the information we need when it comes to reaching our students or being their support.  And we don’t always do the best job of asking for that information.  One teacher, Kyle Schwartz, found a simple way to learn about her students’ situational factors with a post-it and the prompt, “I wish my teacher knew . . . “  — a practice that forever changed how she interacted with her students.

In our online courses, many of our instructors provide a “getting to know you” introductory survey to their students.  They collect typical student data, but they also include questions asking about students’ interests outside of school.  A favorite question many instructors ask is, “Is there anything else I should know about you?” or “Is there anything else you would like to share?”  It’s incredible what one thoughtful question will reveal about your students.

In what ways have you experienced a paradigm shift?  How does your new understanding shape how you view the world?


Coaching Our Students to Their Personal Best

My son is a high school cross country runner.  When he joined the team in middle school, I was supportive but secretly perplexed.  Who are these people who run for sport?  What motivates them to just keep running?  Up until he joined the team, I had never been to a cross country event.

It wasn’t what I expected.  I was struck by the positivity of supportive people from competing schools.  The entire group of parents, coaches, and teammates jog to different places on the running trail to catch sight of their runner at various moments of the run.  The supporters line the trail and cheer and clap loudly as their runner goes by, telling the runners “You got this!  Keep it up!  You’re almost there!”  All you hear is encouragement and support.

Every kid works toward doing their best.  They are not all going to win the race, but their goal is to finish and to be proud of their own personal performance.  While I’m impressed at the ones who finish fast, I’m often more amazed by the runners who finish last.  They persevered.  They didn’t quit.  While seeing everyone else ahead of them, they kept their eyes up and just kept going.  These last runners are so happy when it’s over, but they know they’re going to do it again in a few days.  In between races, they show up willingly to practice in hopes of improving their time.  I love seeing the large numbers of parents, coaches, and teammates who are there cheering just as loudly for those who come in last, shouting encouragement and pushing them on as each runner reaches for their own personal best.

Do you teach your students with a coaching perspective? This year, your students will not be running at the same pace.  You will have students way ahead, some comfortably on pace in the middle, and some you will worry about how they will ever make it. Imagine if along the way, parents, coaches, and classmates were cheering each of them on in a way they could see and feel.  “You got this!  Keep it up!  You’re almost there!”

How can we train our students to persevere through their difficult run this school year? We can coach them through regular practice to help them improve performance, knowing well what challenges they will need to overcome.  We can celebrate them along every part of the bend.  We can meet them where they will struggle, realizing it won’t be easy for all of them.  We can cheer for each student individually with the support of their parents and fellow students, motivating them to keep their eyes up and keep pushing forward toward the finish.


It won’t be easy, but at the end, you and your students can feel proud of their personal performance.

One night after practice, my son was talking about how great his cross country coach is at motivating the team.  “He really pushes us to do better,” my son said.  Thinking about my students, I asked him, “How does he do it?  What does he do to motivate you?”  My son replied, “Mom.  He literally runs behind us, puts his hand on our shoulder, and pushes us forward.”  I guess some kids need that extra nudge.

For more ideas on encouraging students to work toward their personal best (without actually touching them), check out:

Pants Not Required

In August of 2015, I left my full-time public school teaching position after nearly fifteen years and transitioned to the world of full-time online teaching.  The move was a big change for me, and while I greatly missed seeing my students most days, the transition to full-time sweatpants was much less difficult.


I quickly learned that working in pajamas didn’t mean I was less of a teacher.  As an online teacher, I felt busier than ever.  In a face-to-face environment, much of my time was spent planning lessons and preparing material for class, followed by endless amounts of grading.  My online courses were already prepared for me, so most of my time was given over to fully attend to my students and how they were learning.  Grading work was constant, like shoveling in a snowstorm, and sometimes the sheer amount of work being submitted by students made me wish for an internet snow day.  Online teachers don’t get snow days.

Face-to-face teachers would look puzzled as I explained that I was teaching online.  “But don’t you miss students?  It’s not like you get to see them online.  You’re not exactly teaching — you’re just grading their work.”  I did miss the classroom interactions with students, but I couldn’t help feeling offended by comments like this.

Online teachers don’t just provide a score on work.  As an online teacher, I assessed each attempt at learning, wrote detailed comments to students on what they did well, where they needed to improve, where they were going, and how to get better.  I instructed them on each assignment, giving them the necessary tools and remediation to move ahead before accepting another attempt on their work.  Grading student work became a major way I connected with my online students.  I left jokes and asked questions in their feedback, and many of my students would share what was going on with them in their daily lives.  I sent them encouraging messages and wished them luck on their other high school activities.  I shared material and resources to individual students who expressed an interest in learning more about certain topics. I created videos to answer their questions and give them guidance when necessary.

Online teachers also monitor progress constantly.  We know that if our students fall behind, they will face an overwhelming amount of work later in the semester (and that translates to a mountain of work for us teachers all at once too).  We send frequent progress updates to students, parents, and mentors.  We constantly look at the grade book to see how each student is progressing and achieving.  We address gaps in performance when we see them, and we provide individualized coaching to keep our students growing.

As it turns out, pants are not actually a requirement to be an effective teacher.  I do highly recommend them for the classroom though.

“You’re going to love working here!”

I recently left the public school where I had taught for almost 15 years, the public school where I started my first teaching job ever.  Though I learned so much working there and grew professionally every year, I was ready for something new. I was ready for more of a leadership role.

So I when I was offered a new gig as a Lead Instructor with Michigan Virtual University, I jumped on the opportunity.  I had already been teaching with them part-time for a year, so I knew a little of what to expect.  And though I’ll very much miss being in the classroom with students face-to-face, I’m excited to expand my reach as an online teacher.  I’m looking forward to learning and mastering new ways to connect and teach students in a new environment.  I’m thrilled to be leading a department of amazing teachers from all over the state.

Starting a new job is not easy for anyone.  I was really good at my old job, and now I feel like a first-year teacher again with so much to learn.  While I have a well-developed tool belt of teaching strategies at the ready, it’s different to apply those skills in an online setting.  I’m learning, which is wonderful, and I do love it.  The experience reminds me of what it’s like to be a first-year teacher again.

Some of my first interactions with the Michigan Virtual team members left me amazed.  Upon meeting me, several MVU employees shared a phrase that I keep replaying in my mind.  Are you ready for this?

They said, “You’re going to love it here!”

That’s exciting to hear for sure, but it got me thinking about being a first-year teacher in a Michigan public school.  In all my years of teaching, no one EVER said “You’re going to love it here!”  No matter how wonderful my previous teaching colleagues are, that is not something that veteran teachers say to new teachers.  In 15 years, I never spoke those words to new teachers!  I offered my help and assistance, guidance, mentorship, and lesson plans . . . but I never once said “You’re going to love it here!”

And isn’t that a huge problem?

I love teaching.  Most teachers I know are truly passionate about teaching.   The best parts of being a teacher — without question — are the relationships you develop with your students.  I loved the kids in my room. I loved planning lessons that would connect with my students.  I loved helping them consider new information in new ways.  I loved the challenge of making my subject meaningful to them.  I loved helping them through difficult patches in their lives.  I loved being a part of their stories, their stumbles and their successes, even if only for a short time in their teenage existence.

No one says to new teachers “You’re going to love it here!” because they know the truth, and the truth is this:  you are going to love the kids, and you’re going to love teaching those kids, but you’re not going to love all of the other parts that have been hoisted onto the shoulders of teachers.

Spending hours analyzing data, more hours preparing evaluation materials (I’ve seen teachers cart in their evaluation files and portfolios on carts with wheels!), and even more hours sitting through professional development that doesn’t apply to you will take valuable time away from the part of the job you love. Mandated writing assignments that require a minimum of 20 hours to grade during exam week might cause your head to spin.  And even the most devoted teachers start to crack when several weeks of the year are spent rescheduling lessons so students can take part in district mandated testing that is separate from state mandated testing.  You will feel powerless as a professional while decisions are made that affect you and your students, and you are not once given a place at the decision-making table.

Please know that these are not issues affecting one district in Michigan.  I connect with teachers around the state, and I hear the same stories everywhere.  Teachers love teaching, but teachers are unhappy with their jobs.  And around the country, other teachers feel the same.

How can we take the job of teaching and make it again about teaching and learning?  What can we do to make new teachers love it here?



So What Do YOU Want to Learn?

The first day I introduced Genius Hour to my students, I asked, “How many times over your entire school career has anyone asked you what you want to learn?”  I teach high school seniors, so this question created more reflection than if I taught young students with only a few years of learning under their belts.  My Advanced Placement seniors looked totally baffled, which was a new experience for some of them.  “It’s true,” said one student, perplexed.  “No one’s ever asked me what I want to learn.”

There was never a genius without a tincture of madness. — Aristotle

Before this school year, I was also guilty of not asking students what they were curious about studying.  If you saw the pages of Economics benchmarks and AP Psychology objectives that students must learn in my classes, you wouldn’t ask students for their opinion on much.  I’ve learned a few things over the last year or two that have helped to change my mind.

Think about your typical school PD session.  For years, I sat through PD sessions that killed my desire to teach.  Two years ago, several required hours of PD had gone unplanned, and teachers were told to put together our own PD.  While it still felt like a hoop to jump through, soon teachers were exploring topics, strategies, and programs that interested them.  It was the best mistake ever.  Teachers grouped together to research topics they had wondered about but didn’t have the time to explore otherwise.  Soon teachers were collaborating and even developing websites for colleagues on topics they were passionate about, from PBL to flipped learning.  I wondered why we don’t conduct PD in that way all the time.  When given the time, I am excited to learn about educational strategies and instructional technology in any way that I can.  When given the time, I am happy to share what I’ve learned with other teachers.

Is it the same for our students?  I think it is.  We use all kinds of strategies to make them interested in what we think they should learn or what we are forced to teach.  But I’ve learned over 13 years of teaching that it’s a rare high school student who is passionate about learning economic theory.  And while students see my passion for all things psychology, it doesn’t necessarily translate into their passion.  I feel successful if they develop an appreciation for the science and look at life with a psychology perspective, but not all of them continue on to study psychology in college (though I want to hug the ones who do).

Genius Hour gives students one hour a week in your classroom to find their passion, to explore a topic of their choice in depth and over time, to research, think, and collaborate, and then to publish and share their reflection with the world through a personal blog. At the end of the project, students present their reflections in a TED-type presentation to their classmates and members of the school or community.  Before jumping in, I spent a lot of time reading about Genius Hour and how other teachers have made it work in their classrooms.  You can view the list of resources I have collected about Genius Hour here

I started implementing Genius Hour at the beginning of our second trimester in late November, and my students continued their Genius Hour projects through  May.  I only offered Genius Hour in my AP Psychology classes because it’s a year-long course, and I know exactly what activities that I can whittle down or cut without skimping on content.  The other courses I teach are one trimester courses lasting 12 short weeks, and I will have to look hard at my plans to decide what I can change about the curriculum.

The initial excitement about Genius Hour in my classroom led me to propose Genius Hour as an elective for the 2014-2015 school year, and the proposal was approved by our curriculum council. I’m a little nervous about how it will progress — it definitely was not all joy and cheer throughout the process — but I’ve learned a lot this year about success, failure, and student motivation, all of which will change the way I guide my students.