Byron's Babbles

Leapfrogging To New Paradigms In Education

I am going guess most of us played the game of ‘leapfrog’ at some point in our childhood. You know, the game where a number of children bend down and another child jumps over them one at a time, moving the line forward. If you are still playing this game – no judgement here. I refuse to grow up, too. This is, however, a great metaphor for where we are right now as a country. You all know how I love a good metaphor and Susan Patrick, President and CEO of Aurora Institute, knocked it out of the park (note the baseball metaphor) during her opening remarks and call to action at Aurora’s 2020 National Policy Forum saying, “We are at a ‘leapfrog’ moment in education.” This is so true!

Besides the definition of ‘leapfrog’ as a child’s game I did not really like the other definitions because phrases like “moving past others quickly” or “missing stages” were used. I did kind of like Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of “to improve your position by moving quickly past or over something that blocks your way.” To Susan’s point, we have an obligation in education right now to do this for ALL students.

I had the opportunity to speak on a global platform to over 40 countries back in the spring and I presented the following list of what I believe to be our Global Education Policy Considerations:

  • Connectivity and Technology Access
  • Remote Learning – I followed the first bullet with this because remote learning is so much bigger than just devices and broadband access. We also need to be thinking about the support students need in coaching, mentoring, tutoring, social emotional learning, nutrition, and basic care/safety needs
  • Personalized/Self Directed Learning/Mastery-Based Learning
  • Equity In Learning
  • Educating Students with Physical and Learning Disabilities
  • Mental Health Counseling / Physical Health Support
  • Flexibility
  • Support for Teachers

A pretty daunting list, I know, but we must get our focus just right on these issues and now is the time to ‘leapfrog’ to that focus. And, maybe, just maybe, the bullet point of ‘flexibility’ is one way to get us there. If we put on our equity lens and take all the points into consideration can we create space, remove obstacles (I like thinking obstacles better than barriers because obstacles can be ‘leapfrogged’ and removed; barriers not so much) so we can address all these issues. The COVID-19 Global Pandemic has also highlighted how in need of attention areas of our education system truly are, with concerns of equity and quality leading the lists.

I would like to submit the following question for us all to consider as we contemplate the future of education for ALL: Can we have new paradigms for education? I certainly believe we can.

We truly are at a ‘leapfrog’ moment in education. I believe the Aurora Institute has the Strategic Pillars in place to be a catalyst for bringing about this ‘leapfrog moment’ and bringing about new paradigms in education. Here they are:

Policy & Advocacy

Removing barriers and creating space for education innovations by advancing enabling policies and providing technical assistance, expertise, briefings, and support to policymakers at all levels.

Field-Building & Knowledge Creation

Building the field across networks, creating new knowledge, analyzing field data and sharing the latest research to produce and communicate insights to move the field forward.

Convening & Connecting

Providing unparalleled networking and learning to professionals designing new learning models, our events connect the field’s leading experts and practitioners with the trends, promising practices, and research to shape the future of education.

I so appreciate Susan Patrick inspiring us to leapfrog forward. As Abraham Lincoln taught us, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” Let’s not forget that excellence is our best equity proposition. By leading collectively we can create an educational ecosystem that is best for all students.

The Education Catapult

Last evening I had the opportunity to do some of what I call #LearningTogetherApart. Yesterday was Day 245 of the Global Pandemic and the webinar was entitled “Post-Election 2020: Charting a Path Forward in Education.” The webinar was put on by The Hunt Institute and the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), which I am chair of the board for, was one of the partner organizations involved in making this conversation possible. Other partners were The School Superintendents Association, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and National School Boards Association. And, what a great conversation it was. The panel included The Honorable Margaret Spellings, Former U.S. Secretary of Education (2005-2009), President & CEO Texas 2036; The Honorable Arne Duncan, Former U.S. Secretary of Education (2009-2015), Managing Partner, The Emerson Collection; Chancellor Richard A. Carranza, New York City Department of Education (2018-Present); and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade County Public Schools (2008-Present). As you can see this was quite the lineup of experience and expertise in the room.

Another highlight yesterday was receiving the new book Beyond The COVID – 19 Pandemic from authors Pradeep K. Kapur and Joseph M. Chalil. I am so glad that I started reading it in the space between the end of the work day and the webinar. In the preface of the book there are six questions posed for the global community to contemplate (p. xxi-xxii):

  • What sort of changes are required at the policy level to cope with such pandemics in the future?
  • How do we better equip global organizations to evolve for dealing with the challenges ahead?
  • Do we need to think of setting up new organizations to replace the WHO and the UN?
  • Can we have new paradigms for healthcare?
  • How do we create reserves and stockpiles of essential healthcare supplies? Where will the money come from when the budgets are already under great stress?
  • How do we get the global economy back on its feet?

As you can see, these are pretty good guiding questions and even though these are not education specific questions they could be great guiding questions for any conversation. Really, the answers to these questions need to involve education in every answer. The authors point out that the pandemic is the biggest disruption to our county in 100 years. In having studied the 1918-1920 pandemic, I am amazed that we are experiencing and struggling with many of the same issues we had then. I can’t wait to immerse myself into the book as these authors dream big and have offered solutions that are possible if we just reach political consensus and carry through to implementation (a core value of how I try to serve as a policymaker on the Indiana State Board of Education).

The panelists last night were also using their experience to dream big. I want to touch on a few thoughts they had by referring back to tweets I made during the conversation. Allow me to pick a highlight or two (or three) from each of the participants using tweets. You can check out all the tweets at @byronernest or by going to #ElectionEd2020. Here we go!

Secretary Margaret Spellings reminded us that education must be a major component of any pandemic recovery plan. As she said, “Education must be on the first train out of Washington.” And, she also reminded us that in order for there to be economic recovery, education must be involved. As a person who believes so much in the involvement of business/industry in education it gave me hope when she suggested that “Alignments between our schools and workforce are going to be critical right now.” This also includes continued alignments with higher education for all of dual credit, dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, internships, and work-based learning opportunities. We cannot let the pandemic take these away from our students. These opportunities provide for some of the greatest outcomes being afforded our students. I loved that Abigail Potts, NASBE’s Director of College, Career, and Civic Readiness, retweeted my tweet on this with comments that added the importance of our high school pathways, broadband access, and state and local investment. And, Abby pointed out in that tweet that education is not partisan but a place to come together to support our students. Thanks for the tweetversation (yes, I just made up a word), Abby!

Additionally, I have to add in one more insight from Secretary Spellings. She reminded us that “We cannot just go back to normal; we must catapult to the new way ahead.” I love the way she put that. I have continued to say over and over we have to take what we have learned and apply it and never look back. “Catapult” was the best term that could have been used for this. Go back to the questions posed in Beyond The COVID – 19 Pandemic and put them into the context of education and that is exactly where Secretary Spellings is suggesting we need to go.

I got to know Secretary Arne Duncan during my service as 2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year. He is so passionate about doing what is right for ALL children. In fact he made this clear when he said, “We need to be fighting for our most vulnerable.” I’ve also been impressed with the non-partisan way in which he views education. He also reminded us that “Education is our best way to bring the country together.” He firmly gave us a call to action for stitching our democracy back together. He posed the question, “What if we committed to go find every lost child?” Wouldn’t it be great if we could reach some consensus on a vital few things we could all work on and begin our evolution dealing with educational challenges? Secretary Duncan finally reminded us that, “We need need a healthy debate/conversation, putting aside political ideologies, based on data. We need the courage to do some things differently.” Well said!

Superindent Carvalho and Chancellor Carranza brought great perspective to the conversation from street level at the school. Superintendent Carvalho taught us that “The rules of the past stop applying. We need to start using what we have learned from the last nine months.” Providing education to ALL children has been a continuing challenge for families, schools, local, state, and federal governments, and leaders around the world. To answer the challenge we have tried and need to continue to try different paradigms to equity in learning for all. In my opinion we must develop a system by which we are developing the whole child in every child. Also, we must develop an ethos that sees the potential in every student. As a policymaker I use the test question of “Will this policy reduce inequity, maintain inequity, or increase inequity?” to inform my decisions. As I listened to these two school leaders I thought about how, after 245 days, we really need to assess what to de-prioritize and what needs to be prioritized.

Chancellor Carranza warned us to not “let our foot off the gas.” Some might argue that in some areas we need to put our foot on the gas, but those are the areas that Secretary Duncan told us we need to all get around and start working together on. When speaking of early childhood education and education funding in general, Chancellor Carranza gave a very real example by asking and answering his own question: “Do we invest early in education? Yes! It takes $20,000/year to educate a NYC student. It takes $275,000/year to incarcerate someone in New York State.” This was a reminder to us all how important an investment education is. And, let’s not forget the economic impact of having students prepared for our ever changing workplaces. Additionally, I think a lot about how we need to identify all the reasons for our students’ learning struggles. This goes beyond having devices and internet access. It takes us into the support structures in place or not in place for the student. We must have the whole portrait of student if we are create the ideal environment for learning.

As you can see, this was quite the discussion and I’ve only scratched the surface. This truly was a conversation, not an interrogation around defining the challenges and how to best disrupt education with the exponential learning we have done during the pandemic.

An Invitation

Posted in Communal, Community, Education, Education Reform, Educational Leadership, Invitation, Invite, Leadership, NASBE by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on October 29, 2020

“It is such an honor to be part of a community of citizen leaders who seek conversations by showing up through invitation rather than mandate, and the diverse gifts of each person are acknowledged and valued. Together we will answer the question, ‘What can we create together?’ so students of all backgrounds and circumstances are prepared to succeed in school, work, and life.”

~ My remarks on October 22, 2020 when accepting the gavel as Chair of the National Association State Boards of Education Board (NASBE) of Directors

The remarks above come from the personal core values I have developed from being a student of Peter Block. Peter Block’s name is synonymous with “Community” and he literally wrote the book on it: Community: The Structure of Belonging. I first became acquainted with Peter through my great friend Mike Fleisch. Mike kept telling me that everything I believed in was aligned with Block’s values as well. Mike told me I just had to read the book, Community, and that I would learn so much from Peter Block. So, I began reading and studying, and have since had the chance to visit with Peter Block a couple of times. The bottom line is that everything we do is as part of a community whether it is an organization, neighborhood, city, country, or world that works for all. We need to take our membership in these organization, truly belong, and then be accountable for the leadership of making communities great to be part of.

So, my post here deals with an organization, the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) – let’s call the organization a community. A week ago I took the helm as Chair of the Board of Directors and I reflected back on how I really came to be so involved and belong in this organization. It all happened because of one of the most powerful tools that Peter Block says we have in a community in the power of the invitation. The question becomes “Whom do we choose to invite into the room?” In our case as an organization made of state boards of education and their members, that’s who we want to invite, right?

“If the artist is one who captures the nuance of experience, then this is whom each of us must become.” ~ Peter Block

(Block, 2008, p. 9)

That is where my story begins. Shortly after being appointed to the Indiana State Board of Education back in 2015, fellow board member, Gordon Hendry, personally invited me to attend the NASBE New Member Institute. Peter Block would remind us how powerful the invite is “because at the moment of inviting, hospitality is created in the world” (Block, 2008, p. 117). Gordon told me about NASBE and how valuable the organization would be to my development as a board member and how awesome the New Member Institute is. Here’s the deal: any new state member can go to New Member Institute. But, here’s the big deal: Gordon Hendry had asked me to attend and raved about how great it was. How could I refuse? I couldn’t abdicate my responsibility to the communal structure. I registered and I attended. I didn’t just attend, however, I became a part of the fabric of NASBE and was woven into the fabric of a collective community of great citizen leaders from all over the United States, including Guam.

This transformation from thread to fabric happened because another group from Delaware (without consulting me, I might add) nominated me during the Institute to serve as the New Member Representative to the Board of Directors. First of all, how cool is that? Quite an honor coming from my new east coast friends. Secondly, how cool is it that an organization has a new member sit on their board? What a way to truly get to know customer needs, right? Anyway, the members from Delaware nominated me and a day later somehow I was elected to serve on the Board of Directors (and there were even three other candidates). The rest is history or history that is still being written. I served two years as New Member Representative, then two years as Secretary-Treasurer, then a year as Chair-Elect, will serve this year as Chair, and then next year my final year on the Board will be as Past-Chair.

Again, what a ride that is still running. Here’s my point in all this: none of this would have happened without the invitation from Gordon Hendry to be at the “table” and then the Delaware delegation further weaving me into the social fabric by nominating (a form of invitation) me as a New Member Representative on the Board. Peter Block taught us that, “To build community, we seek conversations where people show up by invitation rather that mandate, and experience an intimate and authentic relatedness” (Block, 2008, p. 93). We need to have diversity of thinking, dissent encouraged and valued, and the gifts of everyone valued.

Our NASBE community is an asset-based community that is continually evolving because of the tremendous aptitude of our members. Together we continue to advance education equity and excellence for students of all races, genders, and circumstances by answering the question, “What can we create together?”

What do you have going on, and who do you need to invite? Go ahead and bring some more hospitality to the world!

Don’t Overlook The Brilliance Of Our Students

I’m still getting caught up on my reflection of the lessons from Kevin Eikenberry’s Virtual LeaderCon last week. This post is about Chip Bell’s response to my question about where education and the students we serve fall into the realm of the work he has put together in his latest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets For Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions. The first thing he said was, “We must treat students like customers, not consumers.” There is brilliance in our students that so many times gets overlooked.

I asked Chip to go into a little more detail about treating students like customers and not consumers. To this he stated that we have board meetings and where are the students (I’m excited that many states have put students on their state boards of education – I’m still working on Indiana)? But, local school boards should think about student members in some capacity, too. He also asked us to think about where the student was when we were having planning meetings. Chip explained that everything we do should “have our customer’s fingerprints all over it.” He used the example of when we coach little league baseball we tell the kids to “be the ball.” We need to be telling our students to “be the customer.” And, then letting them be the customer. Chip believes our students should be partners along with our students’ families. He promotes student-staff partnership initiatives.

Chip Bell reminds us that customers can give us our best next idea. We should be asking the question, “What is something no-one else has ever thought of?” This discussion reminded me that the words “customer” and “consumers” are often interchangeably used and are easily confused with one another. While students are consumers and the ultimate user of the product, we need to treat them like customers – the person buying the product. We need to think of our students as a final customer– these are the customers who buy the product for their own need or desire. This kind of thinking will help us to better individualize education for every student.

We must innovate. Listening to our students will help us to do this. We can’t keep offering the same thing over and over and over again. We owe it to our students to be authentic. As Chip told us during Virtual LeaderCon, “Authenticity wins every time.”

Precisely What Students Need

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend the morning at Heartland Career Center with the Mark Hobbs, Director; Lori Dubois, Precision Agriculture Specialist; and, most importantly, students of the new Precision Agriculture Program at Heartland Career Center. I say I was at Heartland Career Center, but actually the bulk of our time was spent 15 minutes from the school in the field.

We were out on McKillip AgVenture land learning about seed genetics and the start to finish process of their seed corn operation. Last week the students had sorted seed corn as it was being harvested. This is just one of many partnerships that has been formed so that students can get real world and relevant content for learning.

This all took me back to my days as an Agriculture Science Teacher and our partnerships with AgReliant Genetics and our students doing real research for the company in our school greenhouse alongside geneticists. As I always say, “School work must look like real work.” I talk about that a lot in my book, The Hand In The Back Of The Room.

I am passionate about this program and have had the opportunity to be part of many of the planning meetings, served as a champion, have helped remove obstacles along the way, and helped make connections where I could. One of the many things I love most about this program is that it was developed shoulder to shoulder with business and industry. The very businesses that will be hiring students from this program, helped design the program. Novel idea I know, but you’d be surprised how often this does not happen. Students are able to leave this two year program with an Unmanned Part 107 Drone Certification, Chemical Applicator License, and a Class A Commercial Drivers License (CDL).

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to experience drone flying first hand. In fact this was the very first time I had ever flown a drone. We’re not talking some toy drone, but a commercial drone like would be used in precision agriculture businesses. I was shocked at how quickly I was able to learn to fly the drone. The students did an incredible job of teaching me. Here are two videos of me piloting the drone:

This two year program of study prepares students for careers that bridge the gaps between agronomy, agriculture, machinery management, and data analytic sciences caused by the rapid evolution of high-speed sensor agricultural technology. This is all stuff that fascinated me. We even got into a discussion about artificial intelligence, which is an area I have been exploring with some of the work I have been doing with SMART Factory League, globally.

This program is truly making school work look like real work! Well done!

Salient Issues From The Field Of Personalized, Competency-Based Education

I had the opportunity to be a part of what I would call a silver lining of the COVID-19 Pandemic situation. Aurora Institute had to pivot to their annual symposium being virtual so took that opportunity to develop a virtual pre-symposium webinar series of over 20 webinars leading up to the Aurora Institute Virtual Symposium being held October 26-28, 2020. Click here to see past webinars and click here to see webinars yet to happen. The webinar series has been incredible and I had the opportunity to present with Lauren Bailey from the Middlebury School Corporation and Sarah Koontz of Horizon Education Alliance. I have had the opportunity to work a great deal with both of these great individuals when providing professional development on project-based learning for the school corporations in Elkhart County, Indiana and then when we (Noble Education Initiative) partnered with them on our free webinars last spring. Click here to read about this.

Yesterday, Lauren, Sarah, and I presented on Integrating Project-Based Learning in Online and Blended Courses in Indiana for the Aurora Institute Pre-Symposium Webinar Series. This was such an awesome experience and I have had so many participants reach out afterward wanting further information and wanting to stay in touch. I also love the fact that the Aurora Institute has made the recordings of these webinars open access. Its great that that these webinars are available for educators, education leaders, and policymakers for high quality learning.

For this post I am going to let our webinar recording and the quote banners that the Aurora Institute did do the talking. Here is our webinar:

Here are some quotes from the webinar:

“Sticky” Learning

Screen Shot 2020-08-26 at 11.35.50 AMI made the comment last week that relevance makes the learning “sticky.” This really caught on and caused quite a bit of discussion. As an old Agriculture Science teacher I have preached about using relevant and real-world contexts for facilitating learning for years. In fact, I even wrote a book about it: The Hand In The Back of  The Room: Connecting School Work To Real Life. This book is all about how we (four agriculture science teachers at one school) went about teaching science in the relevant context of agriculture. The great part of the story is the statistically significant impact leading learning in a relevant context had on student learning. In other words, there was proof that relevance makes learning “sticky.”

41mQxC0XQNL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_In the book I state, “It has always been my belief that there are three worlds that a student exists and learns in; school world, real world, and virtual world. While these three worlds can be drawn as three separate circles, I believe that for true learning to take place we must, as educators, help connect the circles for them. This means finding a way to facilitate learning in a way in which the student uses real world contexts where the student plays an active role” (location 320 on Kindle). Right now, during the Global Pandemic (we are in day 165) we have some real opportunities to make use of these world colliding. I wrote about this yesterday in When Worlds Collide. I also argued in the book that, “…facilitating learning in a relevant context enables the work to be student centered and for there to be a connection made between the student’s real world and school world for learning” (location 331 on Kindle). This connection is what makes the learning so “sticky.”

“We have to make sure that all our students have access to these kinds of challenging and hands-on activities. Although much of the focus has been on the new technology that is fueling the maker movement, even more important are the values, dispositions and skills that it fosters, such as creativity, imagination, problem-solving, perseverance, self-efficacy, teamwork and “hard fun.” ~ Secretary of Education, John King Jr.

I proposed at time of writing the book and would still advance six ideas for improving learning (Ernest, 2016):

  1. Knowing what the end product needs to be before practicing the parts
  2. Study content and apply it to authentic real world predictable and unpredictable problems/issues
  3. Applied learning opportunities must be afforded to the students
  4. Students must participate in active exploration of real world problems
  5. There must be opportunities for students to make adult connections
  6. We must make schoolwork more like real work and real life.

If we intentionally use the six ideas, we will make the learning be what former Secretary of Education, John King Jr. called “hard fun.” The nature of using relevant contexts makes the learning more rigorous. I love the term “hard fun” over rigor. If our students are learning to adapt what they have learned by addressing real world situations they will be more motivated and the learning will stick with them.

The bottom line is that education can be inspiring for our students. I believe agriculture education has an important place in creating a real world context for our students to learn in. I also believe that there are many ways for cross-curricular collaboration to be done in all subjects. At the very least, we have an obligation to our students to find ways to give our students hands-on, real life lessons that answer the questions of the hand in the back of the room and make the learning sticky for our students.

 

When Worlds Collide

Screen Shot 2020-08-25 at 9.43.38 AMLast week I did a professional development webinar for teachers where we were talking about one of my favorite topics that I am most passionate about – making learning relevant, authentic, and engaging. As we continue to try and disrupt education as we know it and move from a teacher-centric model to a student-centered model, there are two ways to go about this:

  1. Focus on making learning more customized to each student
  2. Focus on making learning more relevant, authentic, and engaging.

At times it seems these two foci collide. We also discussed how our students live in three worlds – school world, virtual world, and real world. Right now, as we enter day 164 of the Global Pandemic, I believe these worlds have collided as well. The point is we must truly be preparing our students for the complex, rapidly changing, technology driven, increasingly connected world they will face. I said that I thought there was a song about worlds colliding that is often played at football games. A participant quickly reminded me it was When Worlds Collide by Powerman 5000. Of course I had to listen to the song and check out the lyrics. I loved that one of the lines in the song that is about being strong and not giving up was, “What is it really that motivates you?” That is what we really must find out from each of our students; or, even help them find out for themselves.

Screen Shot 2020-08-25 at 9.43.18 AMStrategies for deeper learning that increase student engagement and produce the kinds of skills needed for today’s economy and career requirements can be improved by leveraging the practices of personalized learning allowing each student to get the kind of differentiated instruction needed to ensure that they have mastered the content.  Additionally, when implementing personalized learning students benefit when we balance their computer aided learning with robust, relevant, and authentic projects. And, guess what? When taught with these strategies, in this environment, students will be more engaged.

As our students’ worlds collide we have to remember that in the world outside of school, learning happens in real time as students begin to realize they need to know something. We must remember, however, that in the real world being knowledgeable is only part of what makes a student successful.  Making sense of the knowledge, communicating effectively with others about that knowledge, grappling with diverse perspectives, applying that knowledge, and validating their ideas are just as important. Our students must be able to adapt what they have learned to both predictable and unpredictable real world situations.

Where Is The “Twin”?

Today I had the opportunity to moderate a great global webinar entitled “Creation of a Digital Twin.” The webinar was put on by GIA SMART Factory League. I am always honored to have the opportunity to work with this organization and it was incredible to be in the [virtual] room with industry representatives from over 36 different countries. And…now that we have learned we can hold these events effectively virtually and learn together apart, we can get together more often and not have the huge travel expense. Talk about holding the whole world in your hands!

I value the opportunity to spend time learning from those in business/industry and manufacturing. It saddens me that many leaders in education talk a big game about wanting to hear from business stakeholders, but most of what happens is lip service. We need more walking the talk. Those in education must stop thinking we know more than those that hire the students we educate. It must be a partnership. There must be a true dialogue of listening to understand.

That’s why I love events like the one today where we can learn together and learn each other’s industry specific languages. Today we were learning about the “digital twin.” The creation of a digital twin enables us to simulate and assess decisions:

  • Before actual assets are built and deployed
  • Before maintenance
  • Before a design change
  • Before complex tasks

A number of industries are creating digital twins, digital replicas of products, and many other things including body parts. Today we saw a digital twin of the heart done by Philips Innovation Services. The heart digital twin performs patient specific adaptation. It was amazing. Imagine the testing of procedures and products for heart repair. Also, think of the possibilities for training and education. Endless!

The digital twin mirrors what it is twinning in bits keeping the bit replica synchronized with the real one. I learned today that just certain parts of an asset can be selected to twin. Thus making it easier to focus in on specific functions or parts. It was pointed out that this could be of incredible use in education and training. In this sense digital twins are a new tool for education: rather than studying on the real thing you can study on its digital representation. Even though in a polling question I asked during my introductory statement today, there were only 7% of participants using digital twin technology for training/development and education, and 27% just starting too, technologies like virtual reality provide new tools for education.

Imagine if we had a digital twin of ourselves. We would still have all the flaws, but some some smart technician might find ways to help us improve. Far fetched? I think not!

Messy Creativity

On Monday I was doing a professional development gathering for Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary, North Carolina entitled “Flat Stanley Goes Virtual: Let’s Be Engaging, Not Flat.” Of course, I used a through line: Flat Stanley’s and Flat Sarah’s. We were discussing achieving high student engagement. Participants made their very own Flat Stanley or Flat Sarah that represented their journey during the, then 156 day, journey they had spent during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic.

The participants were super creative and it is always interesting to hear the share out stories. One really caught my attention (see picture in this post) when the participant pointed out she had put a paint splatter on Flat Stanley’s right knee to represent the messiness of our lives right now during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic – the mixing of colors without a set plan or vision of a final piece of art. While it is true, there seems to be a lot of messiness and paint slinging, it got me to thinking that we should try to treat our current situation more like an artist.

In education we have always relied on our function being to provide clear standards and the facilitation and tools needed for student success. This function has been, and continues for the most part, done in a very rigid and standardized way. While reform attempts have been made there is still much work to be done to disrupt the status quo.

All of our lives have become messy during the now 158 days of the pandemic. Additionally, the pandemic has exacerbated the messiness of leading learning in education right now. To address an issue standing between a problematic status quo and student success, we must travel into an uncomfortable unknown territory with no signposts pointing toward the destination. Right now, in these times, we are on a quest not knowing our destination before arriving. We must recognize and accept the scariness and messiness of the unknown.

We need to find ways to let loose and let the paint splatter, like on the knee of our participants Flat Stanley, into beautiful art. This makes me think of the paint splatter rooms that are popping up in many cities. Basically, you go, suit up in protective clothing, and sling paint (🎨 6+ colors) at each other and a canvas. What fun! Upon completion of your 30-45 minute “splattering” you have a beautiful piece of art. I really want to go do this! Leadership is so messy, and this splatter room concept makes such a great metaphor.

These splatter rooms have been used for therapy and team building because of the feeling of freedom achieved by just slinging the paint and the random mixing of colors. A messy process where the splatter artist doesn’t exactly know how the canvas will look in the end, but has created a beautiful product. There is so much we can’t predict, much less understand and control, especially right now. We need to keep leaping into an exploration of the possibilities with unscripted questions and activities – the splattering of paint.

We need to embrace the messiness and discover previously unimagined possibilities. Leadership is not about finding one’s courage. Rather, leadership is accepting the messiness and fear that goes with the new and unknown, and then finding the courage to surface its possibilities and beauty.