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Monday, March 31, 2014


With great frequency we now read of parents across the nation who are "opting out" of the state-mandated testing of their children in public schools.  For most, this is a political decision, a manifestation of civil disobedience.  Many of these parents cite their frustration at a system of schooling and school accountability that is centered on high-stakes testing that is dubious both in its accuracy in the measurement of learning and in the policy motivations that underly the process.

I came across this video (I Choose C) last week which underscores the absurdity of a misguided school accountability system. It is at once an amusing and painful indictment of a system that has run amuck.  

I can't say that I blame the "opt out" parents.  However, in the school community I serve (Guthrie CSD in Guthrie, Texas) we have chosen to take another approach.  Rather than "opt out," we have determined to re-take the initiative in the defining and deployment of student learning at the local level. I like to think of our approach as "opting up" rather than "opting out."  Yes, we will still take the state-mandated exams; however, we will not rely upon them as the only measure of student progress in learning.  Instead, we have chosen to use and consider multiple measures in our assessment of the developmental progress of our students.  

Our approach at Guthrie has been to have conversations at the community level about what WE want for the education of our children, then pursue those intentions deliberately and daily in the instructional process.  Those educational intentions are what we call the Guthrie Graduate Profile  (GGP) and they define learning beyond knowledge and skills in academic content alone.  The GGP defines/describes our intentions in educating the whole child in ways of thinking and ways of behaving that will optimize the possibilities for their very best futures.  

At Guthrie CSD, we have chosen to "opt up" rather than choosing "opting out" or "C."

Sunday, March 30, 2014


I am and have been a firm believer in continuous improvement practices.  Over the years I’ve seen a lot of packaged models of continuous improvement, such as Six Sigma, Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, Total Quality Management, etc.  All are good and all are premised on the sound theory that getting better is a process, not an accidental state.

Having worked in a number of organizations, both small and large, I have learned that continuous improvement ONLY becomes a reality if it is embedded into the daily fabric of the work.  It must be ingrained in the DNA of each employee, each division, each department.  Otherwise it just becomes one more cutesy poster on the wall or way to get a bonus at the end of the year.

I recently heard a speech on the topic of continuous improvement in which the speaker noted a powerful question that one of his bosses would pose both at formal and informal meetings – “Have we been all we can be?” 

Wow!  Does that not capture the whole idea of continuous improvement in seven words?  It’s a yes/no question, to be sure.  Few, I imagine, can authentically reflect on that question and reply with a “yes.”  The clear implication is that no matter how good we are, how well we did, how effective we are, there’s still opportunity to get better. 

And, why wouldn’t we?

Thursday, March 27, 2014


I recently read A Pedagogy of Questioning (G.I. Hannel, 2013).  

I chose the book because I've been on a personal journey for the last few years to improve both my listening skills and my proficiency in asking questions.

Hannel does a nice job of providing a structured framework for those of us who would use questions and inquiry to advance the learning of others.  Certainly, there are direct implications for those of us who are teachers by trade, but there are also some very applicable strategies for those of us who are in the business of helping others grow/learn in other kinds of settings - as leaders, parents, mentors, coaches, etc. 

My favorite quotation from the book:
“We believe that students are temporarily under-trained, not permanently under-brained; they are dormant, not dead.”  
What a refreshing way to think of malleable learners. 

As to specific structural strategies for asking questions, Hannel proposes a progression of sorts that moves along these lines:

  1. Ask questions that require finding/identifying relevant facts 
  2. Ask questions that require connections to be made between those facts 
  3. Require frequent and brief summaries
  4. Make inquiries that for the exploration of changes to the content 
  5. Require meta-summaries 
  6. Ask questions about actual test questions 
  7. Ask questions about answers to those test questions
Hannel stretched me with respect to my inquiry skills.  His book is a decent read (though not well-edited).

Reading it made me better, I think.  


The Guthrie School principal (Kevin Chisum) and I attended two days of meetings in connection with the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium (TxHPSC).  Guthrie CSD was selected to be a member of that group about two years ago by the commissioner of education in Texas.  The original 23 schools in that consortium have now been joined by 70+ other districts in Texas to engage in that vigorous work in affecting school transformation (and the number keeps growing).

The work of the TxHPSC is dedicated to improving the contexts, processes, and culture of schools across Texas, in the interest of optimizing the learning of EVERY child.

To capture some of the ideas, conversations, and infectious thinking of the educators who attended that event, let me put it into a contrasting summary - things I heard the educators indicate an intention to do Less Of and things they expressed commitment to do More Of.

Less Of This Stuff:

  • Mindless subscription to the pathology of a broken accountability system
  • One-size-fits-all deployment models of education
  • Dependence on superficial and meaningless measurements of learning
  • Struggling independently and in isolation to affect school improvement
  • Frantic instructional delivery aimed at covering mile-wide and inch-deep learning standards

More Of This Stuff:

  • Efforts to customize and personalize the learning experience for children
  • Meaningful engagement with the local community in defining educational intentions and deployment efforts at the local level
  • Purposeful development/use of multiple measures of learning that give an authentic and meaningful view of a student's learning
  • Inter-school collaboration in the interest of making schools in Texas all they can be
  • Identifying fewer, robust high-priority learning standards and focusing instructional efforts at those standards to affect deep, meaningful, relevant learning experiences for students

It is at once powerful and gratifying and humbling to be able to work with such a broad range of diverse educators and school districts who have made the conscious decision to be absolutely all they can be for their students and their communities.  Extremely proud that Guthrie CSD is part of this movement.

Want to join us in this journey?  Click here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


While attending a meeting of the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium yesterday I heard Dr. Doug Christensen quote Terry Pearce about the challenges of bold leadership:

“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”

LOVED it!  And, I had never heard it before.

Dr. Steven Sample makes a similar point in his book titled The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership, in which he articulates the difference between wanting to be a leader and actually having to do the messy work that is associated with it.

To be sure, when we make the choice to follow a path of excellence, for both ourselves and our organizations, the challenges and many and daunting.  It is not work for the faint of heart.

But, oh the fun and adventure of the journey...

Monday, March 24, 2014


According to Simon Sinek in this Ted Talk video, people don’t “buy” what we make, they buy what we believe.

Sinek makes a compelling case that the thing that attracts followers, 
                 and their effort, 
                                          and their time, 
                                                                  and their energy, 
                                                                                               and their resources 
is a compelling story with which they can connect at an emotional level.  

They follow, "not because they have to, but because they want to."

Seth Godin hammers away at the very same thing (in blog post after blog post). 

People invest themselves in compelling and worthy messages/causes/dreams/endeavors.
Not stuff.

Thus, I find that I'm asking myself these questions more and more frequently:

Am I being clear about the "why"?
Am I sold on what I'm selling?
Am I painting a clear picture about our common pursuit?
Is that common pursuit something noble and worthy?
Am I providing succinct and understandable words to capture our common vision?
Am I maintaining a laser-like focus on the "why," not the "what" or the "how"?

The answers to those questions can give me/us a clear indication of whose "buying" and whether or not what we're "selling" is worth the purchase.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


We sometimes get “stuck” in our work life, or even in our personal life.

I believe one cause of that stuck-ness is due to becoming insulated within one worldview or kind of thinking.  

In both our work and personal lives we tend to associate with the same folks all the time.  We go through the same motions almost every day.  We use the same software to do our work.  We walk/drive the same paths repeatedly.  In fact, it seems we have the same conversation(s), over and over and over.  It’s not that our co-workers, friends, and family are deficient in some way;  neither do they have ill motives (of course, there are some exceptions).  And, certainly, having some sound routines that produce good results is hard to argue with.  

However, what seems to happen is that we tend to approach the same problems, go through the same processes, talk with the same people, who see the same things we see, day in and day out.  We lose our sharpness, we lose our freshness, we lose our enthusiasm, and we lose our curiosity.

One thing that has helped me get un-stuck is to step out of my comfort zone.  I’ll read books written by people who don’t do work anything like mine.  I’ll watch videos of folks whose worldview is completely different from my own.  I’ll strike up conversations in airports or hotels with folks who look, smell, talk differently than I do, just to see what I can learn from them.  Even when I go to conferences that are within my own professional genre I usually seek out a table with folks I don’t already know.  

Meeting and engaging with these unfamiliar things/others almost always forces me 
1) to be extra attentive, 
2) to ask good questions, and 
3) to listen carefully.  

That’s a very useful triad for me, IF my intention is to learn something I didn’t know.

Which it is…

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


One of the many reasons I have been blessed in this life is having gotten to work for a long list of bosses who made it safe to make mistakes.  

No, they weren’t detached or oblivious.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  These particular leaders understood that progress and improvement ONLY come on the heels of innovation, energy, and creativity.  All three of those constructs lend themselves to mistake-making.

What I experienced working for those excellent leaders, and have since tried to build into my own thinking and processes, is that folks on a team should be encouraged to work energetically and try new things and grow themselves, without the fear of being beaten down for having done so.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mistakes of neglect, inattention, malfeasance, and/or unethical intent can and should be addressed by the boss, with gusto. 

But, when team members are pushing limits, stretching themselves, working to create something new and meaningful and significant..................

the boss should be both their most prominent cheerleader and vociferous defender.