How Did Strategic Planning Become Engaging and Relevant?

How Did Strategic Planning Become Engaging and Relevant?

Here we are in School District 63 Saanich at the tail end of a five year strategic plan.  Guess what that means?  Yup, build another plan.  Ho hum, right?  Maybe not.  Here are five ways in which planning for the five year period 2016-2020 will be different from planning for the previous five year period.

  1. Being able to feature 2020. This may be trite, but we get to have a five year plan that targets 2020, so we get to call it the 2020 Project! How cool is that.
  2. Enhanced opportunity to engage with community. There are a few reasons why the creation of our new strategic plan will create more engagement than when we built the last one. One reason is that we have labour peace, and that contributes to a different sense of engagement for teachers and support staff. That said, there is a lot to do this year with curriculum implementation so we have to be cautious about pushing too hard. Another thing that works in our favour in terms of engagement is that we can spread the word, and engage in school and community dialogue, more efficiently given advances in digital communication and online engagement. We can expect more people, more rich dialogue, and more data points, and therefore a more relevant and current plan this time around. We will, of course, as always, build our dialogue around community forum events. There is nothing like a series of well facilitated school/community forums to get the juices flowing.
  3. An interactive web-based product. Four years ago we built a plan that, while vibrant and relevant, was packaged in a glossy booklet that sat on shelves and a pdf version of the plan that sat just as idly on our website.  But now, as one of our principals said in a steering committee meeting, “Why can’t we build a plan that is alive on our website, with hot links to what a particular goal looks like and how we are doing? It could look like the new curriculum documents where a click on a core competency or big idea link gets you up to date and interactive information.” Why can’t we indeed. In fact, we will. The 2020 plan will be live and interactive, and hopefully therefore that much more relevant.
  4. The ability to monitor, track and publicize progress. Another benefit afforded by technology is the ability to track our progress on an ongoing basis, whether of our own accord or by using plan monitoring software like Envisio.  A live and relevant strategic plan can also have live and relevant updates on how we are doing. Not only will you be able to click to learn more about, for example, student learning in key domains, or successes of Indigenous learners, or energy management, but another click gives you a live update on how we are doing in relation to those goals. No more waiting for the annual spreadsheet overview of progress against goals (talk about a shelf occupier); instead, a vibrant real-time indicator of progress in relation to priorities.
  5. An opportunity to focus on image and brand. We are pretty sure that we have a solid image, message and brand in Saanich, but building a new strategic plan allows us to ask questions about how we look to our changing world. What is our presence? What do people know about us? What are their first impressions? Are we seen as relevant and inviting? Is our front-end material (logo, mission, etc.) compelling? Is our motto relevant? Are our colours and images current or are they outdated? As we wrestle with these questions we may find that everything is as it should be. But I think not. I think we will be able to recreate our message to the world and to our community. Re-brand if you will. An exciting notion.

These opportunities, to leverage technologies for process and product, to engage people in quality dialogue in person and online, to build a live web-based interactive plan, and to create a modern image or brand, raise the crazy prospect of strategic planning actually being fun, engaging and relevant.

If you care to follow along, look for us on our Twitter account, our YouTube channel or our district website.  We have some very good people working on connecting all of this to the world through the web.  Onward with optimism.





Where to from here . . . BC’s Graduation Program

For years, many of us have been wondering aloud about the efficacy of the current BC Graduation Program for students in grades 10-12.  Our questions about whether or not and how the current system is serving young people and society in this day and age have been echoed by countless voices from the world of research.  People who study systems, and in particular education systems, and who do so for a living, continue to write books, peer reviewed articles, and op-ed pieces about the need for change. “Secondary renewal” has been a call to action since I began in the profession 35 years ago.

At some level, this is a rhetorical call for change, and properly so.  We are supposed to ask big questions, with assumed big answers.  Too often, though, those rhetorical questions are inadvertently demeaning to the practitioners who do the real work.  We wonder about when learning will become modern and relevant, when technology will be properly embedded in teaching and learning, when assessment practices will become authentic in relation to what we know about learning, and when teachers and others will finally break out of an industrial model of education.  We do so as if those things are not happening.  As if we are somehow derelict in our duty, devoid of innovation.  But that could not be further from the truth.

This is a good news story.  We are doing ALL of those things in public education in BC.  Pundits who are the most critical of the current system are often those who have the least immediate connection to that same system.  I am in schools all the time, and since we are talking about secondary schools I can tell you that what I see is rapidly changing pedagogy with increasingly relevant and meaningful experiences for young learners.  Students are routinely engaged in interdisciplinary, community-connected, technology-supported, inquiry-based and relevant learning.  They are engaged, and even as they explore their passions they are covering necessary content, acquiring appropriate knowledge, and reinforcing what we commonly call the basics.

And there is even better news.  The Ministry of Education is building from its emerging successes in transforming curriculum and assessment in kindergarten through grade 9, and is working with partners from across the spectrum, most importantly teachers, to design a new program for grades 10-12.  The new grade 10-12 program will build on the progress that has already been made in K-9 where there is a purposeful shift toward core competencies (beyond but including the 3Rs), big ideas, learning standards and less content.  Gone for K-9 and soon 10-12 will be the days of mastering hundreds of discrete and often disconnected bits of learning. That old model will be replaced by slimmed down core content being at the foundation of deep learning based on inquiry about things that matter.

As we move to a new model, we need to attend to two tremendously important issues, the elephants in the room if you will.

First, we must not, in our quest to modernize, lose what is working. If we move to more interdisciplinary (multi-subject) learning with fewer and broader learning outcomes and students pursuing their interests, we must not lose the value that comes from studying certain subjects in cohorts, and from gaining core knowledge and insights collectively. It may be that the best way to learn certain big concepts is through self-directed projects, but that the best way to learn senior chemistry (as an example) is to work together through heavy content at roughly the same pace, relying on the teacher as subject expert. My point is that we have to guard against being overzealous in our efforts to reform. Put another way, we should only reform that which needs reforming.

Second, we must also have the courage, in our quest for modernity, to abandon some parts of our system that we are used to, but that may have outlived their utility. It may be hard to believe for those who see government as reticent to change, but the senior leaders at the Ministry of Education are working with teachers and other partners from across the system to wonder about . .

  1. Why have grades 10, 11 and 12 at all? Perhaps students can enter the graduation program the year they turn 15, and leave when they are done.
  2. Why have courses? During their time in the graduation program students could work through a series of learning activities and events, perhaps some courses of the kind we are familiar with now, a wide range of teacher-supported learning activities in the community, and a number of inquiry-based larger projects. All of this would be with a teacher mentor supporting the journey and documenting progress in relation to learning outcomes and standards.
  3. Why have tests and traditional assessments? At a time when we know more about high quality authentic assessment, we ought to be able to embrace and document constant progress in relation to multiple learning domains. We can also store those assessment data electronically for ready access by students, teachers and parents.
  4. Why have report cards? If students, parents and teachers are aware of progress all the time, and are accessing the electronic warehouse of assessment data to better understand progress against learning outcomes and standards, maybe we don’t need to stop three or four times a year and produce a piece of paper that tells us what we already know.
  5. What about percentages? One of the secrets of reporting (okay, it’s not a secret, it’s more like a bluff) is that percentages are terribly misleading in terms of purporting accuracy. Students demonstrate learning in far bigger chunks than can be measured on a hundred point scale, or heaven forbid if one uses decimal places a thousand point scale. Yet we take comfort in the perceived accuracy of 83.4% because it looks so . . . well, accurate. In fact it is just what comes out when we ask a spreadsheet to add up numbers and divide. Sure, we weight the numbers in the spreadsheet, and we have been doing good evaluation all the way along to get those weighted numbers, but to sum it all up as a percent? That doesn’t fit learning theory. We need to examine ways to describe authentically and holistically what is in reality a set of authentic and holistic experiences for our students. Why do we wait for students to be in graduate school to evaluate learning as A, B and not yet?
  6. Do we need a timetable and a bell schedule? Why do we expect Math learning to occur every Monday to Friday from September 6th to January 29th from 10:07 to 11:10 am? It is such a shame that powerful and engaged learning can be interrupted by a bell just so that students can head off to the next time-limited event of learning a discrete subject. Our structures need to be changed to better reflect the way learning occurs, and that is not in 63 minute blocks of time. Thankfully, we are already remedying this with bigger blocks of time, learning beyond the bells, and more.
  7. And that begs the question of why have subjects at all? We may need to retain certain discrete subjects, but if our new model provides for more opportunity for interdisciplinary learning then it may be that we find ourselves less and less reliant on subjects as delineators of learning.  It is time to challenge our assumptions, build on the great work being done all across BC by innovative teachers, administrators and system leaders, and get on with creating and implementing a new Graduation Program. We will never have everyone on side, but the directions we need to take have never been clearer.

Innovation as an Obligation and the Need for Loose – Tight Coupling

If, as John Ralston Saul said in his essay “In defence of Public Education,” public education is the primary foundation of any civilized society, then we had better get it right.  And to get it right we need to see innovation as an obligation rather than as an opportunity.

Why must we innovate?  First of all, and quite simply, we have a duty to be the best we can be.  But beyond that, in our commitment to public schools as the foundation of a healthy society we had better make public schools the best in the game.  Students in the 21st century have choice, and they will go to the schools that provide modern, relevant, welcoming, exciting and engaging learning experiences.  To create those schools we have to be bold, to break out of old habits, to act on what we know in order to win the hearts, minds and allegiance of all of the children in our communities.  No student should ever feel a need to go to a private school or to a charter school.  With the exception of secondary students going across town to attend a public school academy that offers a unique program that can’t be afforded in every school (specialty athletic or otherwise), every child should attend and thrive in the neighbourhood public school.

My thesis here is that innovation is a necessary element of public schooling.  Thankfully, we all, at least in British Columbia, seem committed to that notion.  The BC Education Plan calls on us to personalize learning and commit ourselves to quality teaching and learning, but more importantly there is tangible momentum and enthusiasm for system reform through “ground-level” or grassroots innovation.  The passion of 1200 people who came together for the 2012 Educational Leadership Conference in Vancouver BC, entitled “Partnerships for Personalization: Leading and Transforming Together” exemplified that.

The best thing about innovation in BC in 2012 is that we know what we are doing.  We have been working at this strategically and purposefully, and with expert passion, for a long time.  We have not just awoken to this idea and said to ourselves “let’s innovate.”  Evidence of great modern practices exist throughout the province, including in my district, Saanich, because conditions and structures have been put in place over many years. This speaks to the notion of loose-tight coupling, an idea that I first encountered in the 1980s from Peters and Waterman in “In Search of Excellence.”  We have to establish culture, conditions, structures, supports and expectations (the tight part) that truly enable everyone to take risks and explore new pathway, with latitude and trust (the loose part).

What does that look like in Saanich, as an example?  We have had innovation supporting structures and conditions in place for a long time.  The professional growth council, a partnership between the school district and the teachers union, brings people from all schools together three or four times a year to co-explore, share and report on new practices ranging from universal design for learning to assessment for learning to restitution to technological innovation.  On a larger scale we have been into our community with large-scale appreciative inquiry processes to clarify values, beliefs, priorities and vision, we have seeded innovation to activate reform and most recently we have worked in community to develop a five year strategic plan. We have also created innovation research partnerships with the University of Victoria.  And just this year we created a district innovation team, six teachers and administrators provided with release time to seed, lead and support innovation.  That team of six has blossomed to fifteen people, all of whom lead their colleagues in new sustainable and scalable directions.  All that is to say that we are purposeful in laying foundations for growth; again, that’s the tight part.

The loose part is way more fun and is making a huge difference.  Teachers are working in teams, with support, to explore new opportunities and directions that engage students in relevant and engaging experiences.  Examples abound, and include:

  • Staffs that have pulled professional development and staff meeting times into weekly collaboration time in order to inquire and experiment in teams;
  • Inquiry-based learning projects in our elementary schools;
  • Multi-aged interactive classrooms in elementary and middle schools;
  • Our highly advanced and successful technology plan;
  • Our very strong programs in environmental responsibility and sustainability;
  • Leading edge projects in our secondary schools including the PL10 project at Stelly’s, the Institute for Global Solutions at Claremont, the Marine Institute programs at Parkland and the TASK trades program at ILC;
  • Our ongoing leadership in distributed learning at SIDES;
  • The K-3 reading initiatives and pedagogical narrative projects in our elementary schools;
  • Continued focus on and implementation of Universal Design for Learning, Assessment for Learning, Restitution, Restorative Practices and the Comprehensive Model of Student Support Services;
  • The great successes, at the program level and in terms of student achievement, of the implantation of strategies captured in our W’SANEC, Other First Nations, Inuit and Metis Education Enhancement Agreement; and
  • Critical to our success in the world of innovation, our strong partnership with the University of Victoria and faculty members who work alongside our teachers and administrators to support and research our innovative practices.

To summarize, there are no magic simple solutions to creating the best possible education system, but it’s not a bad start to say that we must:

  1. Consider innovation as an obligation, not an opportunity, and
  2. Be purposeful in how our supports and our enablers provide loose-tight coupling when it comes to our key leadership work in innovation.

Schools of Relevance. . . and the Beauty of a Good Alternate School

As we move into a new school year in Beautiful British Columbia I am (1) pleased that we do so with labour peace, (2) grateful to the provincial parties, the BCTF and BCPSEA, for negotiating an agreement to that end and (3) excited about the prospects of innovation infusing our schools and communities as we act on real and meaningful improvement agendas captured in so many places including and especially in the BC Education Plan.

I am also struck by the extent to which we have already brought about meaningful change in support of all successes for all learners.  No wonder that 94% of 19 year-olds in British   Columbia are either high school graduates or are currently in school moving toward graduation. In “my day” (meandering through school from 1963 to 1975) one could leave school at 16, find good employment in the resource sector, have a family and own a home at 20, and with focus and ongoing training in your chosen field actually find your way to what we believed was attainable . . . freedom 55.

Things are different now.  Schooling and graduation mean everything, and further education is essential to finding your way toward freedom anything, more likely 65 these days.  And young people are behaving accordingly. They are staying in school and graduating, and it is not just because they see the need to do so.  It is also because the public education system has been responsive and nimble enough to create programs and services that work for all children.  Our neighbourhood schools are alive with modern and student-centred practices from K-12.

The secondary school of today may look physically like the one I graduated from, in fact those big-box schools are exactly what you see in every part of our province.  But step inside and you’ll see a different place – we aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto.  Students have and are acting on choice, and teachers are creating learning spaces of meaning, relevance, flexibility and personalization.  Teaching remains the most amazing of professions, and I am so proud of how BC teachers have worked with administrators, students, parents and others to re-define what we do and how we do it.  Constant collaborative inquiry is alive and well.

We have also created great other opportunities beyond and affiliated with our neighbourhood schools, particularly through distributed learning and modern alternate schools.  I will expand on DL in another blog sometime, but for now, let me sing the praises of 21st century alternate schools.  These are no longer places that exist in order to receive students who have been removed from or just don’t fit in neighbourhood schools. They are real schools of choice because they fit the mould of the modern, personalized environment.  Students of all kinds come to these thriving schools because they know they will be supported for who they are and in their areas of need, sometimes significant need. And they will have great teachers supporting them in every way, including academically as they move to graduation

The best testament to the success of alternate schools is often found in graduation speeches.  In Saanich, our alternate and continuing education school is the Individual Learning Centre (ILC), a two-campus school that serves and graduates fully 200 of our 3000 secondary students.  In June I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Rhianna, whose inspiring words are reprinted here in part with permission:

Thank you everyone, for coming to celebrate with us today.  Although I question the prudence of allowing me anywhere near a microphone, I am honored to have been invited to give one of the valedictorian speeches.

First off, I would like to give huge congratulations to our grads! Each graduate has fought tooth and nail to earn their place here today and that effort and perseverance in itself is a tremendous accomplishment.  Each of us has faced numerous challenges in pursuing our educations, whether they were trying to manage working and raising a family while attending school, battling illness, learning disabilities, or struggling to finally find a way to learn that works for us.

Our paths have been different than most students, and our journey a longer and more arduous one.  However, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”  I believe that is something that every one of us grads here today has learned firsthand in our time at ILC.

It is because of the obstacles we’ve faced and overcome that we have become stronger, more confident, and much more aware that, with hard work, we are capable of greatness.  Many of us thought this day would never come, and without our commitment to tough it out through the hardship we’ve faced in order to better ourselves, and the help, guidance and encouragement of our teachers, it might not have.

When every day can be a challenge, a strong support system is vital—and we were lucky enough to find one in ILC.  Please, a round of applause for our exceptional teachers and staff.  ILC has the most concentrated group of wholly committed, deeply caring and effective teachers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  On behalf of our graduating class, I would like to thank each and every one of you.  You’ve taught us things we never thought we would be able to learn, advised us, pushed us to do better, celebrated every small victory alongside us with genuine excitement, and believed in us even at times we did not believe in ourselves.

We have come a great distance in our time at ILC, and the journey has changed us all.   Three years ago, when I first entered ILC, I never would have been able to gather the courage to speak from my heart in front of all of you, but my time at this school has given me the strength to move forward and taught me the value of facing my fears.  We’ve fought through adversity and come out on the other side. Our graduation is a victory, and a hard-won victory is always much sweeter.

There is a saying, “Smooth seas do not make skilled sailors”.  While there will be many more bumps in the road ahead, with the experience and life skills that we have learned from them, the challenges that at first set us back, can now launch us ahead.

It is important to remember that are options for us now—they’re unlimited, when we before we had so few. Be proud of that, graduates, because we have created those options, with the help of our teachers and built brighter futures for ourselves. If we can do that, we can do anything.

A wise man once said, “The fireworks begin today. Each diploma is a lighted match. Each one of you is a fuse.” 

Congratulations class of 2012—we finally did it.

Rhianna, your speech above is full of thanks to people who brought you and your classmates the success of which you speak, and now graduation.  But please allow me to reverse the message.  We are indebted to you, and to those classmates with whom you celebrated a well earned victory.  You have taught us so much, including that if we act with purpose we can create places of learning that truly serve the many, varied and unique needs of our learners.

Appreciation of Teachers

I have just posted my May/June 2012 newsletter in which I included the following:

Supporting Our Teachers

Our teachers are facing a troubling dilemma. They are teachers first and foremost because of their passion for the profession, their genuine commitment to increasing life chances of children and their commitment to making a positive difference for not only those children but their families, our communities and society at large. That is why they work so hard and consistently give so much of themselves, exceeding even their own high expectations.

At the same time, as evidenced by the action plan that teachers voted to undertake in response to Bill 22, teachers are feeling the need to push back against legislation that they feel undermines their profession. As an optimist (some might say too much so) I believe that the provisions of Bill 22 can be made to work in partnership with teachers and the BCTF.  However, I understand the concerns that teachers have and I respect their right to act on those concerns. I look forward to these matters being resolved where they need to be, which is at the provincial level, but in the meantime I want to say thank you to our teachers for continuing to bring passion and enthusiasm to their work with children, families and colleagues.

While we await and support restoration of relationships and resolution of challenges at the provincial level we have a job to do at the local level, and that is to be in strong and respectful collaborative relationships with teachers.  That begins with appreciation, not just of positions but of values, beliefs and intentions.  Let us continue to treat this uncertainty about things contractual as an opportunity for dialogue and, while we are at it, continue to celebrate all that is right with the profession, the teachers who care so much about it, and the public education system as a whole.

Finding Calm in the Eye of the Bill 22 Storm

Maybe it’s the balmy weather, but here we are on March 21, 2012, the first full day of spring, and I feel a sense of optimism for the working relationship between the BCTF and government.  Some might suggest that it is false optimism, a case of spring fever in the form of PollyAnna wearing rose-coloured glasses.  But let me dream for a few minutes.

First of all, I don’t think Bill 22 is as bad as some people are making it out to be.  At its worst it is an attack on teachers and an attempt to force into place a new model that will give the employer the ability to hire without consideration for seniority and fire with only minimal process.  At its best it is an overdue solution to a stalemated bargaining process and a genuine attempt to modernize the public education system through innovative system design that supports teachers’ rights while optimizing opportunities for children.  Specifically, it brings about opportunities for districts to select teachers on a combination of suitability and seniority, to which I would add the expected caveat that senior teachers would not be denied work, rather in rare cases be denied a transfer if not suitable for the work (e.g. K-12 certified teacher with a 25 year history at secondary who wants to transfer to kindergarten).  And properly implemented we would find a way, with teachers, to design a system that has more effective evaluation processes, enhancements of already strong professional development programs and effective uses of the more-than-welcome learning improvement funds flowing to each district.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes of very bad and very good.  If the provisions of Bill 22 come to life through mediation or legislation we will see a short contract imposed with an opportunity for the parties to bargain for a new contract that would begin in July 2013, a bargain that would include finding “manner and consequence” language on class size and composition.  That means that we would see within a year another round of bargaining that might just work (there are those glasses again).  In the meantime we would work with the provisions of Bill 22, as mediated or legislated (as one would expect should mediation fail), and do so in an honourable, professional and dignified way, where superintendents and other system leaders would commit to working with local unions to make the provisions work for teachers.  My commitment for example would be to follow the ideals of the “at its best” description above.

I also take some optimism by the messaging from the BC Teachers Federation today, that being that a vote will be held on future actions but that the vote will not be until April 17.  Still with the positive, that vote will primarily relate to the best means of putting immediate pressure on government to stand down from aspects of Bill 22, with consideration of escalations to job action (legal or otherwise) being for further down the road.  Maybe over those coming weeks mediation will work; maybe the parties can take a deep breath and share with a mediator what really matters most to each party and find a middle ground.  And if not, then hopefully any further action or legislation by government would impose a contract that the parties can get to renegotiating soon with an eye to ongoing labour peace and excellence in education.

In the meantime, all I know is that we have an outstanding public education system in BC and I am blessed to spend every day working with great teachers, support staff, administrators, children, parents and community members in “BC’s best place to live “(couldn’t resist adding that plug), Saanich.

Leadership as “Presence”

I have been thinking a lot lately about how important it is that a leader be present.  Of course that starts with a leader being visible and available, but when it comes to leadership in a school, presence means much more.  It means being the heart of the school without necessarily being the centre of attention.

Let’s think about principals and vice-principals and consider what we have learned from research.  Grint speaks of leadership as being a balance of person, process and position.  Bennis talks about the key leadership ingredients being guiding vision, passion and integrity with others being candour, maturity, trust, curiosity and daring.  Urs Bender says that leaders raise awareness, show direction, create results, demonstrate to others how to reach a goal and achieve progress that benefits others, not just themselves.  Secretan writes about leaders needing to create organizations that inspire the soul.  Sergiovanni, Goleman and others have taught us about the importance of servant leadership and emotional intelligence.

This list of experts and what they say could fill volumes; in fact it has.  Whenever I review the literature and overlay it on what I experience every day in public education, I am struck by the key role that personality plays in all of this.  Some people have an inherent advantage in leadership in that they are just born to do that work.  They have the will and the capacity to lead, and if they are really effective they have enhanced those with formal and informal leadership learning combined with learning that comes with experience.  The net effect of all of that is that they have real presence.  People turn to them and look forward to being involved in meeting the next challenge or unleashing the next great idea, in no small part because that principal or vice-principal liberates and motivates them.  Those leaders plant seeds of real and meaningful dialogue that lead to real and meangingful change.  They are living in what Sergiovanni refers to as the spiritual level of leadership as opposed to (actually in addition to) the managerial and technical places of leadership.

My point here is that in my district leadership role I look for a school leader whose presence is really felt, who is a connector, who has charisma, who people admire and like to be around, who is revered and not feared, who is relevant and not disregarded, who is trusted, who inspires, who asks the right questions in the right places at the right times rather than pretending to have all the answers, who is so humble as to hardly know that he or she is who I am talking about right now . . . that’s the person I want leading schools in my district.  And I’m happy to report that that is the norm in the Saanich School District.