How Ed Tech May - and May Not - Help Close the Global Teacher Shortage

Thoughts from BETT London and LearnIT.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics indicates that 74 countries are facing a teacher shortage, and 69 million teachers will be required to achieve universal education access by 2030. This shortage is compounded by stark data on teacher burnout. For example, 40,000 teachers in the UK—or 9% of the teaching workforce—quit in 2016 alone. Likewise, 20% of secondary job vacancies in the UK are typically left unfilled on an annual basis.

When developed and deployed effectively, technology may hold some answers for addressing the global teacher shortage and teacher burnout. In January, I attended BETT and LearnIT in London with four key questions in mind focused on the future of teaching:

  1. How might new technologies and products support teachers as instructional leaders and coaches?

  2. How are digital solutions becoming more affordable, accessible, and scalable?

  3. What might blockchain, automation, and AI offer schools?

  4. How do we know what is working in our schools and for our students?

 LearnIT and BETT proved to be complementary events. While LearnIT was focused on the why and how of the future of education, BETT was focused more on the what. Conversations, talks, and meetings at both events provided some insights into these four key questions.

 Technology in Support of Teachers:

We know that technology cannot replace teachers; however, it will shape the future of the profession. Whether this is a positive or negative outcome depends largely on the technology and the vision of the organization in which it is being used. In this sense, I was reminded of the criteria for sustainable educational improvement identified in Millions Learning, a 2016 Brookings Institution Report. These included strategic purpose, defined outcomes, affordability, and elevating teaching. With this in mind, my colleagues at Mirai and I have identified the following criteria for sustainable ed tech interventions:

  1. Cost effectiveness: Ideally, edtech products should cost less than the resource they replace. I was impressed by the number of affordable solutions I found, including eMathsMaster and Get My Grades.

  2. Ease of use: Teachers should be focused on teaching, not setting up the IT infrastructure to do so.

  3. Agility: Products should be usable on different operating systems (and ideally across curricula). 

  4. Strategic value: Products should meet identified local or global academic needs, not create new needs.

Emerging Technology:

I recently had a conversation with an ed tech entrepreneur considering development of a new product. “And, it will be blockchain-based,” he told me. While the product concept was interesting, the requirement for blockchain wasn’t clear. Blockchain, AI, Big Data and other key digitization concepts are frequently referenced in product pitch decks, but the rationale for them is often ambiguous.

 This ambiguity, however, should not prompt us to give up on emerging technologies. I must say I entered both conferences with a bit of buzz-word ennui, feeling “blinded by blockchain.” Yet, I met two tech entrepreneurs with a profound purpose at BETT and LearnIT. One was Jacksón Smith of Learning Economy, and  the other was Bo Kristoffersson of Lexplore.

Learning Economy is a consortium of technologists and researchers dedicated to understanding the effect of learning experiences on performance. Learning Economy maps diverse, individual learning into a blockchain ledger, essentially quantifying hard and soft skills. This results in real-time data on human capital initiatives. Moreover, it begins to address the complex concept of impact on professional learning—and Learning Economy aspires to do so on a global level.

While Learning Economy addresses understanding lifespan and adult learning at large, Lexplore applies 30 years of research to improving the process of assessing reading skills. Using AI and eye tracking technology, Lexplore allows teachers to conduct diagnostic reading exams. Reading fluency is fundamental to most academic progress and comprehension across the curriculum. While the importance of reading is well-known, the complexity of reading as a skill is less understood. Early identification of reading difficulties supported by Lexplore allows children to receive intervention before their progress in school is impacted. Regular use of the Lexplore platform can also provide real-time data on the efficacy of these interventions.

Both products grew out of real needs that can be meaningfully addressed using technology.

Impact:

Although it has shown signs of improvement, the impact of education technology is limited. A 2017 EdWeek market brief indicates only 9% of American school districts felt their education technology met their goals, whereas 37% of purchased licenses went unused for the year and another 24% of licenses went unused.

This is bad for schools and ed tech companies alike, as schools are spending money without seeing impact. Ed tech companies are unlikely to renew licenses that have never been used. Not surprisingly, my conversations with both ed tech companies and schools suggests that both would like to know more about impact on school performance and student outcomes.

In many cases, data in schools still remains in silos. Advanced learning record stores, such as the Learning Economy or Kinteract may ultimately provide interesting solutions when combined with teacher performance data, student attainment records, parent satisfaction surveys, and less tangible factors such as character development inventories.

What 2019 Will Hold (I Hope):

From conversations at BETT and LearnIT, I believe that 2019 will be a year of focus— focusing on what students, teachers, and schools really need; focusing on affordability; and focusing on impact. Elevating and simplifying the roles of teachers may ultimate open the profession to more people – and retain those already in it. In this sense, the exciting technologies this year will come not in the form of VR content or robotics kits, but tools that enable those of us who work in education (K12 and beyond) to better understand and even predict what works and for whom.

Warm data

It’s a Friday night, the eve of the Global Education and Skills Forum. I should be asleep, but I am snuggled on the sofa with my two beautiful dogs thinking about the future...and warm data.

At the February Learning Innovations Laboratory at Harvard, we had the opportunity to hear from Nora Bateson, Founder of the International Bateson Institute. Nora challenged us to think about the ways in which our contexts overlap and shape one another, to think about where we end (not at our skin) and where others begin.

Although I missed Nora’s warm data lab, I have spent some time this month thinking about the concept as I have been working through some discomfort with the idea of systems thinking.

According to the International Bateson Institute’s website, “‘Warm Data’ is information about the interrelationships that integrate elements of a complex system. It has found the qualitative dynamics and offers another dimension of understanding to what is learned through quantitative data, (cold data). Warm Data will provide leverage in our analysis of other streams of information. The implications for the uses of Warm Data are staggering, and may offer a whole new dimension to the tools of information science we have to work with at present.”

I know that systems matter. We can’t think about one aspect of a school system, say teachers or school leaders, without considering the systems in which they exist. Yet, while we know that systems are complex, we also need to understand that they are not static. And what matters most in a system may not be a snapshot of where elements connect, but a deep dive into the goo of the connections themselves.

So, after my run and a cup of coffee tomorrow morning, I will head over to the Atlantis for a day of immersion in the future of work, innovation, and technology. At the heart of this is foresight and the capacity for change.

True foresight can only occur when we let go of (or at least understand the blindspots of) our biases. And foresight will yield an impact when we deeply understand not just the desired future state, but the ever-moving who, why, and how of our current systems.

As part of my role as Innovation Leader at GEMS Education, I travel occasionally for work. When I do, my husband happily steps in to fill my share of parenting responsibilities. This does not, however, keep me from micromanaging from afar. I can often be found hopping onto Whatsapp to set up sleep-overs or to remind my husband to pick up a gift for a birthday party. On a recent trip, though, I had to make a call I wouldn’t have expected until this year - to remind my husband not to allow our children to watch the third American presidential debate.

As parents, we want our children to be kind. But how can we teach civility and generosity in a world that so often models anything but that? While attending the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) at Harvard University this October, I spent quite a lot of time learning and thinking about organizational culture. On the flight home, I considered how this research might apply to developing a culture of kindness within our families.

Research on culture by Michael Muthukrishna from the London School of Economics and shared at LILA states that we adopt norms and behaviours through high fidelity social learning. In other words, we intentionally and unintentionally imitate what we see others do. Given a variety of norms, we are most likely to select the ones that are conveyed by people who we admire, who appear to be succeeding in what they are doing, and who are willing to share their behaviors with us. We are also more likely to imitate the behaviors of those we see imitated or admired by others. This is nothing less than scary given our current election cycle.

Even universities are taking note. A Harvard Graduate School of Education report released in January 2016 took up the challenge of prioritizing kindness. The report cited concerns that the college admissions process in the US not only created stress, but simply did not do enough to emphasize caring for others. In response to the report, Yale University decided to add an essay about engaging with and supporting one’s family, one’s community, or the common good to their application.

While I appreciate universities doing their part, as parents, we have the greatest capacity to impact our children. We need to be intentional in not just teaching, but actually immersing our children in kindness.

  • We need to unpack our words and actions. The Making Caring Common project found that about 80 percent of youth felt that their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether or not they cared for others. Do we take opportunities to model kindness? Does kindness feature prominently in the stories we tell our children? Do they hear us talk about others with patience and empathy? We may ask our children to play fair, but do they always see us do the same?
  • We need to consider entertainment and friendship circles that envelop our children. Do our children watch shows and play games in which kindness is valued and displayed? Do we ask our children about how they and their friends treat one another?
  • We need to consider who we appear to admire and emulate as parents. Is it the parent who organizes the Ramadan fridge to help provide meals for laborers or the best dressed parent? Do we speak highly of the child with the best grades in math or the child who helps a friend?

In writing this, I reached out to my eight year old son to ask “What can we do as parents to help teach kindness?”

His answer was clear and simple, “Spend time with us and be kind. And, when we mess up, don’t yell.”

Wise words.

 

Going Beyond Grit

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on June 29th, 2016.

Several summers ago, I read Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. Far from serving as a manual to help my kids break into the Ivy League, Tough’s book reinforced the importance of developing grit, curiosity, and character.

As my children have grown, I would add one more trait to Tough’s list: comprehending complexity. While checking into a flight at the airport this morning, my eight year old asked me if it was true that Americans were racist. After some discussion, I learned that he confronted this stereotype while attending a program with students from around the world in France. I responded that statements like that are never just true or false and that people cannot be reduced to stereotypes based on where they are from. As I write this, I know that we need to speak more about this encounter. I am unsure of what I will say, but I know that I need to welcome this opportunity to help him understand the often paradoxical and deeply complex nature of the world in which he lives.

My boys are Irish American and Iranian American. They call Philadelphia home, but have lived in United Arab Emirates for most of their lives. Their father is Muslim and their mother is Christian. They are unique and yet completely not. We live in a suburban community where our children bike to school. It’s like the neighborhood in ET, but with palm trees instead of pine trees. I could shelter them very easily, but I choose not to. My boys will grow up into a world marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, but their hearts and minds will seek simplicity. Atrocities will affect their friends’ families and may affect them, but they will learn that there’s never been a better time to be alive. My boys will be proud to be American, but will be asked to explain gun violence to their friends. If they are to be agents of change in the world, they will have to see humanity through inhumanity, opportunities for abundance when scarcity abounds, and solutions when problems and barriers are far more obvious.

But what does this look like in action? A graduate of one of our schools sent me a video last week detailing her understanding of the challenges and opportunities women encounter as leaders. In this video, she boldly redefines stereotypes as strengths and outlines the role she wants to play in the world.

The young woman, Hanny Semere, grew up in Ethiopia. At the age of fourteen, she founded a charity to help provide educational opportunities within her community. At sixteen, she moved to Dubai to pursue IB studies at GEMS Wellington International School. She quickly took on a series of leadership roles, driving initiatives for which she had a passion and acting as both an agent of change and a contagion for action within her peer group. When I spoke with Hanny about her advice for her peers and their parents, she shared the following:

  1. Trust your children to make decisions and stand by them, whether you understand them or not. When parents do not do this, secrecy grows and secrecy is toxic.
  2. See problems as opportunities to grow and appreciate the hard moments as much as the easy ones.
  3. When you have something to say, say it. And say it in a way that will make people listen.
  4. Take risks. In Hanny’s own words, “I know it seems like you will be ridiculed if you speak on a certain matter or do something that will attract attention, but that is the farthest thing from the truth. Do whatever you are truly passionate about and trust me, TAKE RISKS!”

Hanny certainly has grit, curiosity, and character. But, just as importantly, she is making sense out of senselessness and finding meaning where it is not immediately evident. This combination will help her become the kind of leader our world needs.

Learning Environments for Tomorrow at Harvard's Graduate School of Education

I've spent the past three days working closing with architects, educators, and researchers from around the world to consider how we might best design learning environment not just for tomorrow but for today. 

All too often, we are caught up in a futurist model of education - hoping to plan buildings with with the bells and whistles that our students might need in the future. Instead, we should be design environments that support rich pedagogy and can adapt over time. 

Key take-aways:

1) Architects and educators should work together as co-designers of learning experiences.

2) Begin with people in mind. For whom are we designing? What are their needs, assets, and aspirations?

3) Develop a list of design principles. Several examples can be found below. When difficult decision need to be make, come back to these.

4) Then consider programs and pedagogy. What programs and ways of learning will best support this community and draw upon their existing strengths?

5) Only then, start to plan. What might this look like in action? Work with a diverse team and include the fewest people required to create action. This could be 5 or 100. Ideally, break into teams of 6.

6) Prototype to test. What do you need to find out about your prototype? How can you test aspects of the learning experience before building?

It's Testing Season; But Are We Measuring What We Actually Treasure?

Originally published on The Huffington Post on May 12, 2016.

It’s “testing season.“ Not unlike the term “selfie,” “testing season” has become an expression, a way in which we discuss the school calendar. Usually, “testing season” is given as a reason why absolutely nothing, other than perhaps fire-breathing testing pep rallies, can be scheduled or planned - not just in the one or two weeks of testing but in the weeks leading up to and after testing as well.

I am not opposed to standardized testing and international benchmarking. I believe in accountability because I have seen the impact of a lack of accountability. In my first meeting as a first year teacher in South Baltimore, my new principal - a man close to retirement - stood with a stack of test results. He looked out at his small team of elementary teachers and said, “Our test results were pretty bad. There’s probably some interesting data in here if anyone wants to have a look.” Then he put the stack down and moved on to the next topic - our dress code. The data report was fresh from the printer the pages still linked to one another, and the edging with circular holes to run the paper through the printer still attached. I wonder to this day where, if, or how it was ever used. The message was clear; our students’ learning didn’t really matter. This was four years before No Child Left Behind.

Fast forward to 2016. No one is cavalier when it comes to test results. In fact, schools are inundated with data. But this data paints an incomplete picture of our students’ overall educational experience and growth. In fact, in the pursuit of test results, many schools have become dismissive of aspects our children’s development that matter as much as reading and math attainment.

While we should continue to talk about student achievement as measured by standardized tests, we need to document and discuss more. At the 2016 Lego Idea Conference, Dr. Philip A. Fisher from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, explained that we should be using data to make decisions in schools and about educational initiatives - but we need to be very critical about precisely what we are measuring and what data we are using. Are we measuring what we actually treasure?

We know, for example, that children learn more about language through play than through test preparation. Most educators agree with this intuitively, but have a very difficult time demonstrating the impact of play in their classrooms. Doing so may be difficult, but it is not impossible. Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow at Temple University and Director of the Infant and Child Laboratory, shared an assessment model for what she refers to as The Six C’s. The Six C’s include collaboration, communication, content, creative innovation, critical thinking, and confidence. Most of what is assessed through standardized tests includes lower level content knowledge and critical thinking. Even in the case of tests such as the NAEP and PISA which will begin to include social skills and character dispositions, reports will not go as far as to say whether children will “dare to fail.”

Schools must begin by deciding, with their communities, what they value most. From there, they can decide how best to use standardized assessment data and what other sources of data they must seek to truly understand the impact of their practices on their students. An effective assessment model for social and emotional development or for the skills and dispositions outlined in the Six C’s should serve not as a measurement for children or schools, but a documentation resource to help paint a picture of who our children are becoming and how our schools are best supporting them.

Should you care about your child's school's KHDA ranking?

The KDHA rankings were released today. The rankings have been a hot topic on the radio as well as the Facebook groups and coffee shops we, as mothers, inhabit. In a world in which we are constantly plagued by the question, “Have I picked the right school for my child?” it can feel refreshing to see schools placed side-by-side with a simple grade.

This clarity, however, is accompanied by questions for many parents. Are all schools within the same rating band delivering the same experience for their students? Should I move my child to a school with a higher rating? Should I even care?

I’ll take the last one first. The answer is yes...and no. If your child attends a “Weak” or “Acceptable” school, you should absolutely care...and ask questions.  If your child attends a good, very good, or outstanding school, the rating matters a lot less than your child’s experience.

I have many friends who send their children to a costly school that has been rated “Good” for each and every inspection. Several have even approached me to discuss whether or not they should consider moving their child to a school rated “Outstanding.” Conversely, several parents I know have moved their children from a school rated “Outstanding” to a new school that has not yet been rated. They did so because their children were not well-suited to the particular curriculum which was taught at the “Outstanding” school and they have been happy with this choice.  

So, what should a parent do?

  1. Decide what matters most to you and your family.  My family values play and creativity as well as personal and academic achievement. As a result, we moved our children from an “Outstanding” school on the other side of town to a not-yet-rated neighborhood school. This has allowed for more playtime before and after school and more independence for our children who now bike to and from school. I also love (I mean really love) not doing the school run.

  2. Measure what you treasure. Yes, the KHDA ratings are based on a thorough inspection conducted by world class professionals, but they may not measure everything that matters to you - or weigh all areas in the way you might. Read the full report. Your child’s school may be a “Good” overall, but may be “Outstanding” in what matters most to you as a family such as pastoral care or leadership.

  3. Consider the curriculum - and your child. Some children thrive in the content rich CBSE curriculum. Others prefer the consistency of the French curriculum, the inquiry approach to IB, or the specialization offered in the A Levels of the National Curriculum of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There are outstanding schools in each curricular category, but a child’s experience will vary greatly based on the curriculum - as will a parent’s!

  4. Check international benchmarks. Find out what international benchmarks your child’s school is using, how they are administered, and how your school’s results stack up to schools in your home country and beyond.

  5. Find out what is next. Ask your child’s school how they will use their report. Do they have an improvement strategy? Can this be articulated by teachers as well as school leaders? If they are already “Outstanding,” where do they intend to grow?

  6. Ask your child. Is your child happy to go to school every day...or most days!? Does his or her learning feel relevant and engaging? Does he or she feel challenged and supported? If his or her answers are yes, there’s a pretty good chance that your child is in the right school...whatever the rating may be.

Celebrating Maker Day

A full three months after Maker Day 16, I had the pleasure of handing out awards to many of the UAE's creative young people. I also finally had the pleasure of watching the Maker Day video. As the event organizer, my Maker Day begins at 6 am and usually ends around 6 pm and I wonder where the hours have gone. I hope you enjoy this video as much I did. And, if you live in the GCC, please mark your calendars for Maker Day 17 on February 4th at Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis.

The MENA STEM Summit

The first annual MENA STEM Summit was held this weekend in Dubai. This two day conference featured world renowned keynote speakers, including Dr. Kenneth Wesson, who spoke about the neuroscience behind STEAM education. It also featured hands-on workshops led by practitioners from the region...teachers teaching teachers...a student panel, and a genius hour during which schools mapped their way forward with the ideas they amassed during the program. I spent two days building and programming robots, learning about the latest developments in 3D, and learning from courageous and innovative colleagues. From an Indian school with a Reggio  approach to STEAM, to a school with a low-cost student maker space, to teacher who incorporates game making in the humanities - I left enriched and inspired. 

The Butterfly Wings of Play and Learning

Originally published on the Huffington Post on April 15th.

When launching Play Futures at the LEGO Idea Conference, Carla Rinaldi, President of the Reggio Children’s Foundation, explained the butterfly logo she wore on her tee-shirt. Play and learning, she shared, are like the two wings of a butterfly, interconnected and interdependent. This is true not just for children, but also for adults.

I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner, but I don’t feel like I play much. I certainly have fun, but engaging in actual play is a different story. The night before Professor Rinaldi spoke, I sat across from another conference guest who said that he felt that most adults are broken children - people who have lost the ability to play and to create. The conference ended with a video turning children’s comments on adults’ woeful playing abilities in a rock ballad, which you can find here about minute 43. It was funny, thought provoking, and accurate.

Where, I wondered, does this resistance to play come from? What message does it send to our children? And, how does it affect our ability to learn and to solve problems? For these big questions, I turned to the experts - my own children and moms in their natural habitat (Facebook groups).

Apparently, my children do think I play...but not enough. I play Uno, they explained. And I get to play with robots at work. They advised me to “play hookie” more often and to make sure I make some time to play everyday. They also called me out for using my phone a lot but not having any good games on it.

When I posted the questions above to social media, the most common response I received was, “What do you mean by play?”

Followed by, “I’m afraid to ask.”

While the rest of the responses were more varied, the clear enemy was work.

5 year old: You and daddy sometimes play, but mostly you work...so you don’t get fired and you have money.

6 year old: You play a little, but not much. Because you have to work. When you come home from work, you should make us dinner and then play.

10 year old: You don’t really play. The first reason is that as you get older, you get more work and, if you don’t do it, you don’t get money and your life would be more difficult. The second reason is that, as you mature, it seems like playing just isn’t fun for you anymore.

Aside from water parks and roller coasters, which many children noticed their parents still enjoy, adulthood looks a little bleak. Our kids think we work a lot and they are right. They also seem to think our work is pretty joyless and that we’re one bad day away from not being able to put food on the table.

And, despite the fact that I love my work and have a lot of fun doing it, I have definitely contributed to this mindset. Like many other parents, I have had this conversation on more than a few occasions:

Child: Can you play with me?

Me (banging away on the computer): I really can’t. I have to send this email and have five more things to do before making dinner.

Child: Please....

Me: I’d love to, but I can’t.

Child: Please...

Me (now feeling guilty): Look, I have to work...so that we can do things like go to the water park this weekend. I’ll play with you after dinner.

Yet, playing more at home and in the workplace would help us work together with empathy, optimism, and an open mind. According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center for the Developing Child, the most successful adults maintain the ability to play. Play allows us to explore and tackle challenges while building foundational skills such as communication and teamwork.

Playing requires being fully present in the moment. So does learning. And so does problem solving. For all of the yoga, meditation, and more we are being prescribed to navigate our adult worlds, maybe we should join our children in their world...without our phones...for a while.

Learning Through Play

On Thursday, I had the privilege of visiting the International School of Billund (Denmark). This Pre-K to Grade 8 school follows the IB PYP and MYP. Yes, there are LEGOs everywhere, but ISB is not a school focused on LEGO, it's a school focused on children. 

Key take-aways:

1) ISB is not purpose-built. It is a re-fit of an existing school. It is always possible to re-think the space we have.

2) For elementary and middle school students, the classroom is more of a home base than a prison. Learning happens throughout and beyond the school. The school is built around a central maker-space with workshop rooms for art, robotics, resistant materials, textiles, and more.  Children also make use of the outdoor spaces in Billund and community resources such as the public swimming pool.

3) Displays are informative, but not fussy. They capture the immersive and on-going nature of learning.

4) Play matters. For everyone. From the foosball table in the teachers' workroom to the display of parent comments on play, it is easy to see that ISB values the role of play in lifelong learning,

Day 2 of the LEGO Idea Conference

Making it happen

I love hearing ideas. I love it when people come together, share ideas, and generate new ideas. But, more than anything, I like seeing things happen. Day 2 of the LEGO Idea Conference focused on the elephant in the idea room - figuring out how to implement and scale initiatives.  From evaluating educational programs for their capacity to spark passion, play, people, and purpose to considering the 14 factors shared by highly scalable programs, we were equipped with strategies to take our interventions forward.

The highlight was a sneak peak at the findings on scalability in the Brookings Institute's Millions Learning report which will be released this coming Tuesday.

Day 1 of the LEGO Idea Conference

Quality Education for All

While access to education has doubled over the past 15 years, access to quality education has not. In Rwanda, for example, 98% of children are in school at Grade 4, yet only 60% have acquired a basic education. Today, we unpacked myths and realities of education reform, learned about the educational context in six settings and set about defining transformational skills for students in each environment - with the help of local consultants. Here are a few shots of the action.

Do We Care Too Much About Our Students to Innovate?

One thing is clear, you care a lot about us. But I wonder if the amount you care is holding you back and holding us back.

These insights were shared by a seventeen year old keynote listener at a recent meeting on innovation for sixty or so principals and school leaders.

This meeting was the second time that we invited students to observe us plan, challenge one another and engage with new ideas. Providing them with an opportunity to share their observations and feedback brought their voice to the school improvement process as insightful participants. Our student keynote listeners took in our words, observed our body language, and watched how and when we reacted with passion and energy. They debated with each other before presenting their feedback.

Meanwhile, we quickly forgot that they were there. The principals worked in groups to address definitions of innovation, areas of strength, opportunities and challenges they face, and possible solutions. They shared stories and advice with one another. Their collective knowledge is vast and their experience draws from decades of working at the forefront of education reform in countries and systems around the world.

Yet, innovation can feel elusive and threatening for schools. Will Richardson’s March 23rd post, “Stop Innovating in Schools. Please.,” pointed out that all too often innovation in schools involves doing the same things differently...and with new iPads. This is not lost on our principals.

When our principals speak, we can see that they care deeply about their students and school communities. The natural result of this is to be care-ful. We know that innovation requires a risk-taking mindset. Yet, we also know that taking risks with the education of children is very different from taking risks with money. Understanding this brings principals to a place of vulnerability - and an almost mama-bear like instinct to protect their cubs.

This was a surprising insight for our students. They have been led to believe that principals maintain order because that is their job. Through their experience as keynote listeners, our students learned that principals maintain order because they fear any child slipping through the cracks.

Our principals were surprised to see how much our students valued being invited to the table. All schools have a student government, but the structure of authority remains in place. The student government generates ideas (maybe even funding) and submits these to the school leadership who make decisions about what will or will not be implemented. This is an important process, but one that does little to yield empathy or form new perspectives.

With the keynote listeners, the tables were turned. I was personally called out for starting the meeting by talking about the limitations of space, time, and money. Talk about what does work, not what doesn’t, they told me. Solve problems. They noticed how similar our conversations became, regardless of the question. When we invited outside guests, they noted the value of divergent perspectives.

We know that empathy sows the seeds for innovation through developing a deep understanding the human side of problems. And we need to truly listen to have any chance at building empathy. There is no clear cut answer to the paradox of care our student listener noticed. But its very recognition may be the first step towards change.

Originally published on The Huffington Post - April 5th, 2016