Voice, Choice and Mastery with Rodney Bowler

In this episode, Will Richardson talks with Rodney Bowler and Aaryn Schmuhl from Henry County Schools in Atlanta, Georgia.  Rodney is District Superintendent for Henry County Schools, while Aaryn is Assistant Superintendent for Learning and Leadership.

Highlights of their conversation include:

  • Why being intentional by being courageous at the same time are really important dispositions for the leadership of a change movement.
  • Why we have to change our metrics of success and start thinking differently about what makes the kids life ready. How do you measure the immeasurable?
  • Why sometimes a hard reboot is what a school or District really needs.
  • What does giving students voice really mean, and what are the implications for their learning?
  • Why it’s not about tailoring content to kids, but rather it’s about giving kids the power to learn how to tailor content to themselves. How do you do that?
  • How do you get teachers to be authentic project based learners as well?
  • The importance of moving away from the sit and get or the spray and pray models of professional learning and really challenging teachers to engage in ways that are meaningful to them and building out competency based kind of professional development expectations for teachers.
  • Why the biggest pressure point right now in schools is relevance?
  • Why its important to be very intentional and tell people that they have permission to stop doing things.
  • How their community became a pressure point for change.
  • Why the chocies in change are too often limited to moves that teachers make based on what they think they can do, instead of what they should do.
  • Why a willingness to be transparent to engage them in broader community discussions requires parents to be a part of our redesigned teams at our schools.

Transcript for the Show

Well hey again everyone.  I’m Will Richardson and I want to welcome you to Season 1 of the 2017 Modern Learners Podcast where this year we’re scouring the world for schools and districts that are raising the bar when it comes to thinking about relevant and sustainable change process that’s centered on shifting agency over learning to the learner and in creating a culture both in schools and in their communities that embraces constant change and innovation.

Transparency, self-reflection and a commitment to learning together as adults and students all play a big role in their work.  I’ve learned a great deal from their efforts and I’m sure you will too.

Remember, if you want to learn more about this podcast series about our whitepapers or our master classes or about our new eight-week course on modern leadership that we’re launching in March check out our private Modern Learners Facebook Group or head on over to ModernLearners.com where you can sign up for our amazingly interesting and informative weekly newsletter that checks all the opportunities and challenges of learning today.

But for now sit back and enjoy my conversation with Rodney Bowler and Aaryn Schmuhl.  Thanks for listening.  I’m just wondering what the kind of burning question is that’s driving the work in Henry County right now.

Rodney Bowler:  Sure.  That’s a great question too and it’s one that we feel like we finally have been able to come to terms with and then that really is the students that we’re serving.  We’ve been able to do really move away from being stuck in the box of having to protect the adult practices and traditional methodology in order to be able to really look at how we best serving our students and are they really getting exactly what they need in order to be successful within the content and within the curriculum and within the educational environment.  And when we ask that question in our traditional methodology the answer is no. 

So this is the time and particularly I guess we all are in different times but this is the time in Henry County when we’ve been able to honestly ask that question and then make a difference is to how we’re going about educational process to meet the needs of our kids.  And I won’t take too much of your time on the answer but so you know where we are in Henry County this is the time for us to be able to make that opportunity a reality.

We went through a tremendous growth time when all we were doing was building schools and opening new schools and moving faculties around and hiring 700 teachers in a year and all we can do is just try to sure things up in an environment that we are already very familiar with.  And then we had a recession where we had to tighten our belts and make some hard decisions which started to open our eyes and challenge our thinking.  And now we’re in a time where we have very small growth and we’re able to provide tremendous support and resources to our schools that we’ve not been able to provide before and as the money is coming back and the opportunities are coming back it allowed us to say, well, we’re not going to just do the same thing we used to do because we have funds to do it, how can we go about making sure we changed what we’re doing in order to best meet the needs of our students.  Yeah this has allowed us to do that.

Will RichardsonSo I’m just wondering how did you get to that answer no, right, when you asked the question are we preparing our kids or are we serving our kids?  What was the process that brought you to no or not?

Rodney Bowler:  I think we had some traditional indicators that said that we were okay but we weren’t great.  So if you look at all the stuff that your child left behind required you to attend to, we were okay.  We were average.  Maybe slightly above the Georgia State average because looking across the landscape of United States we knew we weren’t making our kids competitive with the whole world.  I think also we have a lot of discussion around college and career academies and the idea that that is this vision that every kid has to go to college, the best answer and it didn’t jive with any of us that that was the right answer.  So then you have to change your metrics of success and start thinking differently about what makes the kids life ready.

Will Richardson:  I know that on your website you have two core beliefs that you’ve listed and one of them is that students should have voice and choice and the other is that that schools should have autonomy in determining how that kind of goes forward.  So kind of two parts to that one.  So number one, how important is it that you have those clearly kind of articulated beliefs around where you’re going?  You have a big school district, right, about 40,000 kids?  Is that right?

Rodney Bowler:  That’s right about 42,000.

Will Richardson:  So, in a district that size with a whole bunch of schools and a whole bunch of teachers, talk a little bit about why you have made those two kind of declarations at the top of the page.

Rodney Bowler:  Sure.  Yeah, really it goes back to your first question as the core of what do we do and the best meet the needs of the students that we’re serving and I know it’s a big bite of the apple to say we’re going to do this district wide.  But as we reflect on that it’s been one of the best decisions that we’ve made in order to support that kind of philosophy across the entire district.  If we have piece mill this by individual schools and allowed for that second question to be their school autonomy but we didn’t have a vision of voice and choice of personalized learning enforced the entire district I don’t believe those individual schools would have been able to be successful because of a lot of other reasons we’re going to get to probably later on particularly as it pertains to support of the Board of Education and the community and all those others.  So we do believe that it is a core value of ours that our students are engaged in this work and that they have a voice and they’re able to demonstrate their learning and mastery in a way that is most beneficial to them.  And we as the adult practitioners have to provide that and support that.  And I think our district approach has really given us the foundation in order for that to be successful.

Will Richardson:  So when you guys say voice, a lot of people are talking about giving students agency in it.  There’s kind of a spectrum of definitions as to what that is.  You know, some school districts will talk about it in terms of giving kids choice in terms of how they get to the school district outcomes, others will really look at it and say students have almost total agency over to what the how the when, all that kind of stuff.  So when you say give them voice what does that mean and where do you kind of fall in that spectrum and maybe where you aspired to fall on that spectrum?

Rodney Bowler:  Yeah.  I think currently we fall in the space where we’re giving kids different options on how to meet some common goals.  So high school graduation is important to us.  But how kids get to that is very very different.  And so we have lots of district wide options whether it’s through or virtual school, whether it’s through do enrollment and move on when ready options, whether it’s through giving kids multiple ways to demonstrate mastery in a traditional model.  We still have the state required 23 credits you have to get to get that diploma.

But we’re a lot more flexible in the way that we allow kids to get to that space.  We used to be even in our little steps so far very very lock step into the options that kids had.  You know ninth graders took X courses and then you might have a choice of one and 10th graders took another X choices.  And then by the time you got to be a senior maybe you’ve got to choose three out of your six or seven classes.

But there were still kind of a lock step expectation.  We’ve really broaden that.  Some of that is because of the state context in Georgia and the push forward do enrollment opportunities that has opened the doors to allow people to think differently about where kids get their education, what it looks like when they get it.

We give kids a lot of voice and choice within those individual classes though.  And we really started thinking more about the instructional shifts we needed to make knowing that each teacher really controls the outcomes of every classroom that that was the hitching point by which we had to begin to give kids voice.  So even if we created all of these wild and crazy logistical pathways at the organizational structure it still depended on the teacher to be the arbiter of whether a student had demonstrated mastery or not.

So we’ve really focused on getting teachers to think differently about what this choice and voice look like for kids.  And that’s been a struggle.  That’s probably the hardest shift to make because teachers are traditionally viewed as the folks who know stuff and who help make sure that kids learn that stuff that they know and to say it’s not about knowing particular things but it’s about demonstrating a set of skills against the common rubric instead of all having common experiences.  That’s a pretty big fundamental shift in the way you think about the role of the teacher and the student in education.

And so we say a lot that we start with what we call the M&M choice.  The idea that kids can have any color of M&M that they want but they still have to have an M&M.  So they’re still eating chocolate even if they’re allergic to it.

But eventually we are able to say well you know, what if they wanted to have a Skittle instead of an M&M.  And it’s kind of a continuum in that strands in the instructional space too where we get teachers to do the M&M choice and then they get to the choice where they pick different candy.  And then not to take the analogy too far but then they start off in a fruit or something.  And then the kids start getting to the point when they say hey I don’t want any of that.  Can I do this?  And actually the core of this is getting kids to be able to advocate for themselves and say I see what you want me to do and here is how I want to show you mastery of that.  That’s our true aspiration.  That’s what we really want to get to.  And we’re headed in that direction pretty strongly.

Will Richardson:  I think you know, everybody I’ve talked to is on a path, right?  And they’re taking it at a various speeds, various places but they are all engaged in this kind of long term thinking about change.

I’m just wondering let’s pretend we’re 10 years from now, I mean how much if you keep moving in that direction that you want to go, how much student agency do kids have?

I mean do they, does it get to the point where kids really can say I want to learn about this in this particular way and the teacher then kind of plays the role of connecting that to what we want them to learn or is it still kind of teachers starts that are teacher kind of organizes what the outcomes are but kids have just leeway and freedom to get to those outcomes?

Rodney Bowler:  Sure.  If our vision holds true I think the first part of your thinking is it’s something that we’d all aspire to have our district do.  And you know, once we really flash out in the course we’re just early into the competency work and once we’ve really got all of our competencies flashed our and we know exactly what it is we expect kids to be able to know and be able to demonstrate as far as mastery as they go through their educational experience then I think 10 years from now the door is wide open.  If we’re successful in these steps that we’re taking now to do just that, for kids to be able to say I understand these are the things that I’ve got to master throughout my path of K12 and have … I can’t even visualize right now what that freedom might look like in order to experience that and demonstrate that.

But certainly we are open to seeing what that looks like in the future as we continue to build this out.  And I think that is part of the end game.  I think one of your questions probably will come up as far as how is education currently, public education in United States right now.  And I think it’s changing.  And for those who are now willing to change their methodology as far as from the traditional method of education then they’re going to not succeed and being able to meet the needs of kids.  And so we’re way ahead of that curve and I would eventually love to see a vision such as you described and something beyond what we can even imagine at the level.

Will Richardson:  I definitely want to get back to that change question but I’m just wondering in terms of those things that kids need to be successful in their lives.  I think a lot people in education are coming around to the idea that that’s more about skills and dispositions than it is about knowing stuff.

So how do you struggle?  You I’m sure are struggling with well how do you measure the immeasurable?  How do you deal with the fact that a lot of the things that we want kids to be these days and a lot of what we think is going to make them successful, doesn’t really show up easily in a data point.  So what does that look like for you guys as you struggle with that?

Rodney Bowler:  Yes.  So our thinking around that is really the reason why we are developing out to learner profile that we’re building.

Will Richardson:  Yeah, talk a little bit about that.  Okay?  Just talk a little bit about that learner profile idea because I think that’s really interesting.

Rodney Bowler:  Yeah.  So our learner profile vision for us is really a space and it’s a digital space right now where it has a bunch of information on students but we have really taken the perspective that it’s not for the adults to do two kids but rather a place for kids to kind of have a scrapbook of the academic and experiential lives while they’re with us.

We think about it as a space for them to learn about themselves so you know, we look at Howard  Gardner as multiple intelligence is and how much that can inform us and we talk about different learning modalities and we talk about different ways that kids can express mastery and think that’s important to have a historical record of that that kids can refer to.

So many kids, you know they finish first grade and they get to second grade and they don’t have any record of what they did and even worse not first and second but third grade to 12th grade to be able to be reflective on how they’ve grown as a learner both with academic skills that we value but also we call out the 4Cs of the partnership with 21st Century skills that idea of being a good communicator and a creative thinker and a collaborator and really feel like a portfolio of evidence is the best way for kids to be able to justify in a really solid way.

Look I have evidence that I am doing these things that you think are important as I go on to life.  We’ve partnered with our chamber of commerce to really think about job-ready skills and what was it looking like for kids to be job-ready when they graduate.  And really that gets quantified in how they are able to stand up and do things like senior portfolios where they say I am ready to graduate from school and this is the evidence I have that says that I am ready to do so.

In the learner profile is the tool by which we’re able to track all of that.

We also think very strongly a skill kids need is to be able to set short and long term goals and then be able to demonstrate evidence of attaining those goals.  And then also equally important if they don’t attain the goals, being able to say well that goal I thought it was important when I started but I didn’t finish it because it wasn’t that important and this other one superseded it as I learned on my own.

And so being reflective and metacognitive all that stuff is good when you talk about it but if you don’t have a record of it to be able to look back on into solid kind of document then it just becomes talking points instead of an actual experiential record of their learning.  And so that’s what the learner profile is for us.  It’s got in it away for us to get feedback to kids.  So not only are they being reflective on their own but they have all these feedback loops where they can say I set this goal or have this piece of evidence.  I’m going to have my peers and I have my parents and I have my teachers giving me feedback on it so I can improve it.  And it tracks all of that so that you can see over time how you are getting better.  It reminds me of, Facebook right now is really big on throwing out memories from when you were back first members in Facebook.

Will Richardson:  I know.  I just saw that for the first time.  It’s interesting.

Rodney Bowler:  Yeah.  It’s very similar to that.  We’re not automating that like they are able to do.  But really it allows you to say oh yeah this is a scrapbook of my learning that is both evidence and also an opportunity for you to say how do I get better.  And so that’s what the learner profile is for us and that’s different than a lot of other kind of visions of it.

A lot of people wanted to make or continuing to make learner profiles that take pictures of kids and look at different data points and then push content to them in ways that they feel are tailored to the kids.  And we think really it’s not about tailoring content to kids necessarily.  It’s about giving kids the power to learn how to tailor content to themselves.  So they know what they need to go out and look for in a really tight partnership with the adults in their lives who are mentors and tutors and teachers not jut givers of knowledge.  And so that’s kind of how we’re thinking about using the learner profile.

Will Richardson:  You guys are also very devoted to what you call authentic project based learning and I’m sure that that’s a big part of what’s going to end up in that learner profile, right?

Rodney Bowler:  Absolutely yeah.

Will Richardson:  Those types of experiences.  So let me ask you just really fast then because that’s an easy question, right?  And here is the hard one.  So how do you get teachers to be authentic project based learners as well?  And how do you or are you developing a profile of a learner for them as well?

Rodney Bowler:  So yeah.  We are.  We’re actually.  So it’s been interesting as we develop out the learner profile you know all of the tech companies out there builds all of those platforms based on rosters in a really traditional way of thinking about the organization at school.  So when we first started down the road and said well we want to create learner profiles for teachers as well there was a technical challenge that they’re like well who is the teacher of the teacher class and how do they make that work?  And we don’t have a way to build that.  So we’ve had that little small piece of the technical side of it I think is indicative of the bigger problem of not looking at teachers as learners as well across the spectrum of public schools.

And so we’re making that shift.  We are tailing professional learning to teachers based on the goals that they set for themselves.  We are very much moving away from the sit and get or the spray and pray models of professional learning and really challenging teachers to engage in ways that are meaningful to them and building out competency based kind of professional development expectations for teachers to say you know we think all teachers should be good teachers of reading.  Eighty percent of you might be that way right now.

Give us a body evidence that shows that you are instead of necessarily putting them through a training.  And so we are trying to build the learning experience for our professional educators to mirror and match what the experiences we want our kids to have because most of our teachers didn’t grow up.  I would venture none of our teachers grew up in a model that was either a competency based or reflective of that idea of voice and choice.  And so we are trying to mirror that in their learning so they can help deliver that to kids in a really strong partnership.

Will Richardson:  So Rodney I want to get back to that change question.  So I’m interested, do you think that the biggest pressure point right now in schools is relevance?  Because I mean that’s kind of your answer at the beginning, right, as to why you see the need to change in terms of you’re not preparing kids for the worlds that they’re going to live in.  Is that the biggest pressure point right now and what might be some others if that or what might be the biggest one in your mind?

Rodney Bowler:  Yeah.  I think making learning relevant is critical.  And we know the success behind student learning when learning is relevant for our students.  And one of things, I have to kind of back up just a little bit to and everyone is in a different place in this journey.  But one of the things and what’s going on in the Henry County and the area that’s alluded to it already a couple of times is, is the community prime and ready for this type of massive change?  And being able to recognize that it is important that the learning is relevant for their students.

Will Richardson:  So let me just jump in really fast because I do want you to talk about how you built the capacity of your community to embrace or at least understand the changes that you’re making in your district.  But I’m wondering too is is the community becoming a pressure point for change?

Rodney Bowler:  The community became a pressure point for change.  We went through a very large community program that was sponsored and supported by our chamber of commerce several years ago what we call Economics and Education.  We call it East Where and then the help crop of that was the community desired to see a College and Career Academy in Henry County.  And so because of that we were able to start the relative learning discussion within the community on why this is so important for our students learning to be relative to the needs of the community to the needs of their learning.  And we’ve now have one of the largest college and career academies in the state and that is the catalyst to allow us to expand that into our 2020 vision of personalized learning at each school at the content level.  And that’s where I think a community has to be primed.

The community as a whole and I’m not saying community, I’m talking the big business leaders and the politicians and all of those who are at the table at that time to say we are not preparing our students to be successful to stay and work and live and pray and experience their time here in Henry County.

What can we do with our educational system to help us keep kids here and to make their experience relative to the needs of the county.  And we’ve been able to use that as a launching point to really get full community involvement because when you have the key movers and shakers that are supporting you and saying this is the right work even though they don’t fully understand what this transitionary work necessarily looks like then we were primed as a county to take that well beyond just what we call our College and Career Academy or CTA courses.

We were able to take that into the general curriculum as a whole K12 and it’s really because the community was crying out for change at some level for relevance and we’ve been able to expand upon that and it was just been a phenomenal opportunity for us that we really think have done a great job and take advantage of.

Aaryn Schmuhl :  Yeah I think we’ve had to give the community words and talk about it though, right?  So there was this sense that something needed to be different.  But not really clarity on what that difference was so other than we know that our kids are not getting what they needed because they’re coming back from college or they’re not going to college or you know it’s not working out for them in our chamber and our business community is saying you know the kids that are applying for jobs aren’t really work for us.

So there was a sense that something needed to be done and it took the willingness to think differently about what that would look like if we did something that would help address that need.  But I will say there are still a lot of hesitation when you talk about competency based learning.  I mean the idea of a competency based diploma, we’re moving from grade to grade based on demonstrated mastery.

You know that’s going to a touch point for a lot of folks as we walk down the road because we’re going to say just because June showed up it doesn’t mean that you’re ready for the next grade level but it doesn’t mean that we’re retaining you either it just means you got some skills you got to work on.  Those are going to be hot items for individual families and parents to address as they move forward.  But I think our willingness to be transparent to engage them in those discussions we require parents to be a part of our redesigned teams at our schools.

I mean they’re in the discussion along the way and we work really hard to make it so that we’re not doing this change to the community.  We’re doing it with the community.  And that’s something we’ve had to very very particular about with our principles and our school team leaders and really push back hard to say people will come along in the community if they see the value of the work that you’re doing.  And they just need to know that you’re being transparent as you walk through it.

Will Richardson:  Yeah.  I really believe that if you’re not feeling some push back you’re probably not changing enough.

Aaryn Schmuhl :  Yup.

Will Richardson:  And so that’s the kind of fine line that you have to get to, right?  So you’re telling a different story and you’re changing the story, the narrative that most people are familiar with when it comes to schools, whether that’s project based learning, whether it’s competency based learning, you know, moving agency to kids not having those maybe, those kind of typical homeworky types of things that we’ve all known and loved in the past.

So you mentioned transparency Aaryn.  So how do you make that new story more transparent?  I mean I hear you when you say that you have parents that aren’t engaged in those conversations from a kind of planning or from a philosophical standpoint.  But then when it becomes real in classrooms, how are you guys transmitting that, communicating that, sharing that out so that people know, oh okay so this is what it actually looks like.

Aaryn Schmuhl :  So in our redesigned models as we have our schools go through it and they spent a year-and-a-half planning and then they launch.  And they launch the redesign in a way that makes sense for their individual school community.  So some of them are more aggressive than others but they’re all within the tenants that we’ve articulated as a district.

Once they launch we have a requirement, we call the Pay It Forward plan where we require those schools to open their doors to people that come in and see what’s going on.  And so all of our schools have an obligation to create a tour of sorts and in that tour they have two obligations.  One is to open the doors of the school and let people see what’s going on without much fanfair.  I mean we don’t want them to make it anything that’s too theatrical or scripted but just come and see the real things that we’re doing.  And then they have another part of that where they ask people to help them get better.  And so as people visit they’re not necessarily just saying here is where we are, we’re awesome.

They’re asking the question, what did you see that we could be better at or what questions you have that we haven’t thought about and being very intentional about insuring that schools have to do that part of it.  I think it’s something that’s very different from most school houses.  You think of the schools who have a sign up that says you can only come visit your classroom if you have an appointment 18 weeks ahead of time.  And we’re saying come on, come on in whenever you can come in to see what’s going on.

I think that in and of itself is really a simple answer but something that’s so dynamic because it says to the community we’re not hiding anything or we want to get better and we all want to learn together in how we get better at this work.  So that’s part of it.  The other part of it is just inefficient conversation with lots of people.  It’s not a quick shift for people who are used to something that’s been around for 100 years and so they need time to process and work through it.  And there’s no magic newsletter or a website or number of meetings that you have to have but it’s about the willingness to say we’ll sit down with every single person that has questions about it and spend the time it takes to answer their questions whether that’s a teacher or a principal or a parent or whether that’s Rodney and I spending time with all of those different groups as well.

That’s really I think what’s worked for us is that willingness to take the time it takes to talk through it and really think deeply about, where are you coming from and what are your concerns and how can we address that?

Rodney Bowler:  And Will, not a sexy part of this conversation but I think are critically important thing that we’ve got to discuss and realize is the support of the Board of Education.

And as we’ve rolled this out through cohort after cohort after cohort with our board being fully behind this vision even early on with the challenges that we have answering questions of figuring this out together with our board standing firm behind the vision it’s giving each individual school within those cohorts the opportunity to take the time to figure out their communications to work with their communities in order to make sure that they fully articulate what this work looks like for the students that they’re serving under a very protective dome that the board is not going to swoop in after X number of complaints and say this is over.  You’re done.

And I think that’s been critical to our success as a district as a whole and why I think it was the best move for us to go district wide over a five-year-period of time because we’ve got that support of the board.  That had not been there.  If we had given the autonomy to an individual school to step out there to do this work then the board itself would have collapsed potentially after X number of complaints, requesting or whatnot and the support wouldn’t be there and then the risk factor wouldn’t be there for those working in that building.

I mean we’ve said this over and over again this is very courageous work.  And when you’re doing something very courageous you’ve got to know that you’re supported in your risk.  And so the board is huge in this change in allowing individual schools to tell their story and get that community buy in.  And without their support it just wouldn’t happen.

Will Richardson:  So Rodney I have to tell you one of the most, one of my highlight moments of 2016 came at the end of the day that I spent with you guys last fall when you got up in front of your leadership team and said something to the effect of the only person that’s going to get fired in this district, if this fails is me, right?

Rodney Bowler:  Then I still have my job.

Will Richardson:  With you right?  So it’s not just the board but it’s also your leadership team and your teachers know that you’ve got their backs and that these are the expectations.  I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some of the dispositions that you think leaders need to have when they enter into these types of … I mean it’s a pretty big change processes that they know we’re going to take a long period of time and that are going to be complex and aren’t going to be smooth and all that sort of stuff.  I mean what do you see is the most important attributes of those types of leaders?

Rodney Bowler:  Yeah absolutely.  And I’m glad you brought that up and I’m glad it’s a pivotal moment for you that year because it was for us as well.  And that was you witness and we all experienced climbing over the top of the mountain that day that moment whether our principals.

We are on a downhill slope at this point and I’m really making this work and I was able to express that same sentiment to my board just this past Monday night about our experience together at that principals’ meeting and what that looked like.  And I think to answer your question is those leaders have to have the trust and the faith that they’re going to be supported n doing what they know in the core of their heart is right for kids.  And yeah we’ve got CCRPI scores that we’ve got, we’ll look at.  We’ve got SCT, ACT, all the test scores, all those data points are out there that are extreme stressors for any leader who focuses in on that.

But they have to know that they are in a risk free environment for which as long as they’re working to change what the educational experience looks like for our students to meet their true needs, their rigor relevance and relationships then they have our full support.  And I praise our earlier adaptors, the first six schools and our first cohort that reached out there and trusted us that we would support them and they have fought major battles on the front for all the other principals behind them.

And what you witnessed that day was that battle being won.  And those principals in the room that had not yet raised their hands saying I get it, I’m going to have the support and it’s going to work.  And you heard one of the principals I think has the question you know, what are the steps, what is it that I have to do?  What does it look like?  And the answer was you tell us.  And you figure that out for your school and your community and you have our full support.  And that was the first time that may feel like common place to you but that was the first time that that room of principals was able to truly open their hearts and minds and dialogue with each other about what this is looking like.  It is.

That was a pivotal moment and we’ll speak about that moment for many many years to come particularly as we get closer to fulfilling our goal with our 2020 vision.  So I’m glad we both had that same takeaway.

Will Richardson:  Yeah I mean just so you know.  I mean one of the … it’s not that common place.  I think that there are lot of people that are hoping to get to that point, to that moment.  But that’s one of the reasons why I’m impressed with the work that you guys are doing because you seem to have done it at a scale that I don’t think most people would take on.  And you’ve kind of moved all the parts at the same time.  I mean a lot of places where I go there’s a lot of capacity building that has to be done before the molecules can start to move.  And it feels like I know you’ve been on, you know, you have a five-year plan and you probably feel like you’ve been doing this for decades.

But it feels like you’ve done a pretty decent job if not a really good job, making a lot of stuff happen in a short period of time.  I mean so why is, why did that happen with guys?  What made that the case in Henry County?

Rodney Bowler:  Again I think it’s all about timing.  And for us as I shared a little earlier this I think we had a sense of urgency that I was able to share and that I’ve been wanted to understand.  This is our five-year window to get it right in Henry County.

With our growth that we went through, with the recession that we went through and where we are now and the growth that we’re going to experience again in the future I don’t know if I’ve shared but the Atlanta Regional Commission is projecting that we’re going to double in population between the years 2030 and 2040.  And so the growth is coming back.  We will be 80,000 students in some point in time.  And so if we don’t do this hard reboot and making sure that we’re personalizing the educational experience for our kids based on what we know in the core of our heart is the right work for students it’s not going to happen when we’re enrolling tons of students at a time and hiring all those new teachers and building new buildings, if that is not a core operational process of the district it will not happen.

So I think that sense of urgency is upon us all and I think it’s just all about timing and I don’t know where other districts are in that same process but this was our window then we couldn’t miss the opportunity.

Aaryn Schmuhl :  I think it was also willingness to examine everything that we were doing.  One thing that I credit Rodney with in making this happen is that he doesn’t make quick decisions.  He is very thoughtful when we actually change something and we considered all the different sides of it.

But once the decision is made it’s purposeful and intentional and moves us forward.  And I think it’s not a matter of going slow for the sake of going slow.  It’s a matter of saying have we thought through all the good, bad and ugly of this and then made a good call moving forward and there’s nothing that we’ve ever ask or talked about that he didn’t say, I’ll just look at it and see if there’s a better way.

So I think that continual inner drive to always say are we doing things the best way that’s possible and even if we were doing it the best way that was possible last year we’re still doing it the best way that’s possible this year.  It’s a small piece but every year when we set the agenda for each board meeting we look at what we were doing last year at that same month and say are these things still relevant to us to bring before the board and to think about.  And so it’s that same cycle of saying how do you hold on to those things that are good while having an eye to always making things better.

So I think being intentional by being courageous at the same time are really important dispositions for the leadership of this kind of change movement.  And now I think also that that willingness to say we don’t have any answer but we know there’s one out there if we do enough thinking and enough learning and enough talking to other folks, I think that’s also something that a lot of school leaders in particular aren’t willing to do.

They want to make sure they get it right because people come back into education played the game of school pretty well so they’re generally not the entrepreneurs and they’re generally not the risk-takers.  The kids are the ones who fill that at school.  And so being able to push that edge so that they’re not all the rule-followers, you got to be able to work through that and recognize that people want to follow rules because they want to do right not necessarily because they’re trapped or anything like that but because they want to make sure, I mean this is serious business, this is kids.  And they want to make sure that they’re doing it right.

So the willingness to say we trust who you are as people that you’re actually having that at your core and speaking that into existence and acknowledging that I think has been a really powerful part of the change as well.

Will Richardson:  So one of my favorite bloggers, Harold Jarche up in Canada has a couple of phrases that I really like.  And one of them is that we’re now in a mode of perpetual data where you’re going to be done with this.  You guys know that, right?  You’re never going to wake up one morning and say okay we did it, we’re done.  And the other phrase that he uses is that learning is now the work.  Right, that we are constantly … we have to be constantly learning.  So Aaryn,  you kind of touched on it there a second ago but given that change is, and this is a phrase I’ve been using a lot in these interviews is that change is a moving target, right, that it’s something that is never going to be static and it’s going to have to be revisited over and over again.

So I’m wondering if you guys could just briefly talk a little bit about so how you keep up with that?  I mean how does learning end up being the work in what you do and how do you deal with the idea that it’s just perpetual change now.  It’s not something that is ever going to be finished or that’s ever going to be even kind of static for a short period of time?

Rodney Bowler:  Sure.  From the district level from a big perspective I think a real example of that is Locust Grove Middle School.  And it comes back down to having the trust as well.  And the model that’s in place today at Locust Grove is dramatically different than what they rolled out in their first year of their personalized learning efforts.  And so they’ve learned they continued to learn and grow and develop and I think it’s about being reflective.  It’s about being open-minded.  It’s about listening just as much as you try to direct and make those changes that are best needed in order to improve upon the learning experience for your students.

So you’re exactly right, learning never stops.  And I think one of the things again and you’ll hear me always talk about the big support but if Locus Grove had ducked their head and turned away when they rolled out their model and said this is what’s going to be great for kids and then they realized there were some areas in there that weren’t that successful and they didn’t learn from that and we didn’t give them the support to say you didn’t fail or you’re just growing, they wouldn’t be where they are today and they’re not going to be, they’re not where they’re going to be five years from now.

But that we I think the learning approach comes to again having that faith and trust and support and allowing that to happen organically within our community and within our system and within those schools.

Aaryn Schmuhl :  I think you alluded to the very beginning about what are those evidence points that you’re doing this well, how do you measure something that appears to be immeasurable.  And I think having a really clear focus on what Alex Hernandez, I’m sure he borrowed it from somebody else but said to us when he first came and spoke at our first convening, he talked about making sure that you are focused on your North Star.

And so our North Star in Henry County is really about that idea of voice and choice for kids.  And so all of the logistics and the organization structures and the things that you can count those are shifting but you still have that one consistent thing that is are really listening to kids and are we meeting what kids are stating are their needs while we help them figure out what their needs are, right?

It’s not about saying turn everything over to them and get out of the way.  I mean the adults are still important part of building a community.  But I think having that as a constant allows you to more effectively handle the things that change on a day to day basis.  And so I think it’s not that change is always the constant because that implies that you’re kind of wandering to the wilderness blindly but it’s more about saying there’s a destination and that’s making sure that we’re making kids the kind of kids that we want to have move in the house next door to us because they’re good citizens.  And as long as that’s your goal you might want the lawyer in your house next year, you might want that kid is going to cut your grass, you might need your plumber next door to you.  And so all of those outcomes look different but you still are a part of the community.  I mean I think that’s the thing that helps us to achieve our eyes on the prize as all of the logistical and organizational things begin to shift.

Will Richardson:  So if there are people out there who are listening to this and are thinking yeah it’s time, we really need to do, we really need to make some serious changes in the way that we practice, the way that we think, what would be your advice here as the last question as to where the start.

You know, what’s the first step that you think people need to take in order to get on this path of a long term sustainable relevant change process in schools?

Rodney Bowler:  I think you have to start with your first question, what is at the core of your work?  And what do you believe students should be able to experience with their educational opportunities.  And if you truly take a strong look at that and if you know that’s the traditional method of providing an educational model for our students is no longer acceptable.

Then it forces you down the path of being able and having to redefine what that looks like.  And then that forces, that challenges all of your beliefs about what you should be doing.  And I mean then the start comes with I think we were intentional but we were also gifted in the fact that like I shared earlier our community kind of rallied around the need that we’ve been able to launch from.

I think you’ve got to find a way to make this a community effort, make sure that and I would encourage folks to get a strong consideration to making it a district work and not individual school work for probably a whole other hour worth of discussion.

But I mean I think you just have to truly be reflective and as we’ve talked about this for years but I think this was the first time in my career as an educator and that I truly saw us making a real effort to make this a reality.  It’s not about what’s best for adult it’s what’s best for the children that we serve.  And we’ve been able to take that to heart and to really share that with our leaders and with our educators in the district and give them the freedom to believe that that’s true through the support that we’ve provided for them.

And they have done, this is far beyond what Aaryn and I been able to envision, I mean the work that they’re doing in those buildings, the experience that those students are having in our schools is far beyond what I could have envisioned.  And so you made me smile when you asked about 10 years from now.  I can’t imagine what that … I can’t even imagine.

Aaryn Schmuhl :  One thing that we tell our schools are we ask our schools to do when they start the conversation with their community because that’s a scary thing for a lot of educators to do, is we don’t want to start with a plan.

We want to start with the question, what do you want your kids to look like when they’ve left the school?  So if I’m in elementary school, you sit down and whether you call it a chalk talk or whatever you wanted to be and you just open that question up to your parents, what do you want your kids to know and be able to do as a result of having had five years at this elementary school?  And that’s a really, it’s a scary but also safe way to start that discussion around what do we value, what do we think is important and then all of the structures and organizations and the moves that you need to make, get connected back to that.  And I think way to often folks trying to do school reform, start with the moves and then come up with the reasons.  And they also limit the moves that they make based on what they think they can do instead of what they should do.

So I think it’s really about connecting to what do we value and then building things around what we value and being willing to throw away those things that don’t jive with what you value, even if there’s in a kind of melody metric out there that says you got to do this, if it doesn’t match up with what you value as a community then you just have to say well, we’re not going to do well on that measure and we’re doing that on purpose.

So we’re going to go worrying about this over here that we value.  And that takes some courage but I think you get booed by the community supporting you in that.  And those things are usually big and lofty and hard to define but it helps you to be able to then move in the right direction and say we agreed that this was important, the kids being able to communicate effectively.  So that’s what we’re building is the way to allow that to happen.

I would say that’s a good starting point for schools as they walk through this.  And then the last thing I have is one thing that we had to deal with at the district level is and Rodney has alluded to giving them cover, is we’ve had to be very very intentional about saying you can stop doing X.

Whatever it is we said that you needed to do five years ago you don’t have to do that anymore, stop doing it.  Because school people like I said earlier are rule-followers and there are lots of folks out who said you had a memo, you sent out four years ago that said we had to do this, looking for fours even though you forgot you sent that memo.  And so we have to be very intentional and tell people that they have permission to stop doing things.  And I think that’s one of the more powerful things district leaders can do to help schools.

Rodney Bowler:  Yeah.  I’ll finish that just by adding that this isn’t the work of the entire district.  And if there are districts out there that are looking to do this through the work of a particular department it is not going to work.  We come together every Friday, the senior leadership team and we challenge each other.  And you can only imagine that Aaryn giving challenge with his wild thinking but we challenge each other and we support each other through it.  And so my HR person knows what this is all about, my finance person knows what this is all about and the technology person is at the table with curriculum folks and we’re all there together and we owned this vision as a district.  And it’s not something that we said, let’s go and get a personalized learning department put it in place, let them see what they can do and we’ll go about our business and tell they are success related.

That is, we’ll not work that way and I think unfortunately that might have been the route that some people have taken in the past that’s not been successful.

Will Richardson:  Well Rodney and Aaryn, I really want to thank you for your time.  You guys are doing great work in Henry County and I know I’m going to be interested in watching where you go.  Hopefully be around 10 years from now to see where you guys end up.  But sincere best wishes on your work and continued success.

Rodney Bowler:  We appreciate then.  We’re looking forward to you coming back in June.

Will Richardson:  Yeah, so am I, looking forward to it.  Thanks a lot guys.

Rodney Bowler:  You’re welcome.

Aaryn Schmuhl :  Thank you.

Will Richardson:  Appreciate it.

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Bruce Dixon

Modern Learners and Change School co-founder Bruce Dixon has spent the bulk of his career developing programs that assist governments to make effective use of technology across their education sector. His strategic work has enabled governments to better manage large scale personal technology deployments, and ensure outcomes that drive both school improvement and ultimately transformation.

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