College and Career Ready?

College and career ready? Are we really teaching the necessary skills  kids need for their futures? Studies of business costs resulting from employee behavior show significant losses due to miscommunication (Sanders, 2017). It’s quite possible schools will need to change their focus if they truly want students to succeed.

In her 2017 article, Sanders mentions numerous international reports, surveys, and studies that suggest education is skipping teaching the most important skills employers demand, which have nothing to do with standardized testing.  Her account of the lack of communication and collaboration skills among employees topped the list of challenges employers face –  across the globe – costing companies a bundle in mistakes and training (Sanders, 2017).

What Educators Should Consider

Sanders identifies a problem that is real threat to our young peoples’ future employment, which will ultimately affect all of us who plan to retire one day. As society is changing, education can’t adapt quickly enough to capture the attention of students about to graduate and join the workforce. Schools need to add “soft skills” into the curriculum, somehow.

The article made me recall a recent conversation with a colleague.  A question was posed to me by a seasoned teacher who wanted to understand how my classroom was different than many others, which it is. The nature of the question made me suspicious.

I described my learning environment explaining that often, my students are found teaching themselves, and each other, without any help from me. The room is full of teenagers (mostly high energy boys) but their chatter is on point and their behavior is under control. They don’t always like each other but they treat each other with kindness and respect.

As projects take shape it’s obvious that students are relatively self discipline and responsible even at the young ages of 12 and 13. I choose to believe the question was posed out of frustration, assuming the teacher really wanted to know why, or more so, how this gang of boys, are achieving so much on their own. In many ways it’s because they are learning to use the soft skills I model and teach them.

In my classroom our work is fun. The objectives are clear and personal judgement doesn’t exist, at least not from me. We/they build robots, figure out how to code them, write instructions, and work in small teams.

Everyday student roles change, and every few weeks members are rearranged, that way no one gets too comfortable. I do this because it emulates the real workforce. Our class has real work to do.

They know outcomes are dependent on how well each team operates. This means they must communicate effectively. When teams are faced with failure, they learn to focus on the team’s breakdown in communication and teamwork rather than to blame someone. Students learn to separate themselves from the work they do, understanding that overcoming failure means to build up the skill of others.  The class is more about building character than building robots.

Changing the Learning Landscape

In academic terms we call this creating a significant learning environment – CSLE. The hope is that classrooms like my own represent what students will one day find in the real work force, starting with an expectation to think and communicate without direct instruction, and with a purpose. 

I wonder how that might look in a different classroom; like math, for instance. What if the process of learning algebra began with a problem instead of a formula? What if students were asked to find a solution by backing into the steps rather than solving for X? Can we offer real world problem solving, at the same time we teach kids to cope with difficult concepts like algebra and coding?

I recall the moment my own child realized that building stairs with his father was the purpose behind learning to calculate slope. What if he was first asked to build stairs in the classroom and ended up discovering the mathematical rationale by collaborating with his classmates and relying on his own investigative powers – would he possibly understand better? At the least, he may have learned something about struggling through tough times in hard courses.

This extraordinary idea may be what students need in the classroom in order to learn to work together and communicate.  “Soft skills”, as Sanders (2017) noted, are what’s missing in the workforce. They include the ability to communicate ideas, listen to others, assess a situation, and know intuitively how to proceed in a positive, productive manner.  These skills are learned through experience working with others and finding harmony no matter the discord.

Where do we begin?

As teachers, coaches, and parents, we can create environments where soft skills will be developed simply by allowing students to practice a handful of simple skills under the guidance of caring adults. For example, brainstorming for ideas, trial and error, and most importantly, allowing students to fail without penalty, help students experience what it takes to actually collaborate and solve real problems.

Fear of failing often prevents young people from trusting others, possibly because they feel judged. It leaves many kids unwilling to work together. Without practice, they are less prepared for situations they will face in college and careers. By giving them strategies with which to operate and removing the fear, students will often exceed expectations. Here’s an example:

Two middle school girls recently helped me set up a cart of projection equipment. It was a golden opportunity to allow them to work on their soft skills. I didn’t tell them what to do, I told them what success should look like. I gave them the vision and prodded them to use what smarts they already had to investigate, test, troubleshoot, and adapt by working together. I assured them they couldn’t break anything that I couldn’t fix. Each had to anticipate what the other needed and by talking it through they took chances and succeeded. It’s that simple.

If you’re a teacher or administrator, ask yourself if your learning environment is helping students build these essential college and career ready skills. If not, I urge you to create an environment free of judgement that encourages teamwork and inspires your students to develop the real skills that will make or break their futures.


Sanders, L. (2017).


File:Raspberry-Pi-Camera-on-GoPiGo-no-servo-front-view-300×300.jpg. CC BY-SA 4.0 

All other photos from 0CC.



Remember to Model


We know all about how to be teachers. This year I challenge you to be leaders. Leaders model what they want others to emulate. Brett Lewis, a friend of my family-entering his Junior year of high school- recently went “live” with his fabulous TED Ed talk on YouTube. Brett calls to action all students to be leaders for students with disabilities. I urge you to do the same in your classrooms. Do more than advocate for students with special needs. Model for your students how to be patient, compassionate, and willing to help special needs students get a fair shake at a good education.

Being a Digital Leader

My Learning Journey

Two years ago I began learning about who I wanted to become. A friend reminded me that time would pass no matter what I chose to do with my life.  That conversation prompted me to begin the Digital Learning and Leadership M. Ed. (DLL) program at Lamar University. It has been the perfect compliment to my business undergraduate degree and my work as the Technology Director of a small school. If you’re interested in knowing what I accomplished through the program, take a look at the interactive presentation on the Facebook post below. It has links to everything I created through all of my course work. If you are curious about what I learned, keep reading.

Continue reading

Looking Back to See the Future: a reflection

 The Impact of Significant Learning Environments

the past

Reflecting on the past is only useful for lamenting regrets and assessing one’s potential for change. My experience in the DLL program has given me cause to reflect upon both. Of course, I have no regrets except that I didn’t find the program sooner – although it probably didn’t exist. What I have discovered about my own potential for change is immeasurable.

In the beginning of my DLL (Digital Learning & Leadership) journey I was skeptical that academia could help me become a better, more effective leader in education. Not that I knew everything, it’s that my views about education tend to rub traditionalists the wrong way.  Many of my battles in life have been centered around academic versus practical knowledge. I’ve always had a different view about teaching and learning.  I entered the DLL program with the goal of learning. My focus was about finding out what I didn’t already know that seemed to separate me from my teacher friends. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Fortunately, from the very beginning of the DLL program I could tell it was different.

I discovered early on that the program was looking for real opinions from real experiences, by real people. Shortly after it began, the COVA approach was introduced – Choice, Ownership, Voice, in an Authentic environment. It caught my ear – it was what I believed was missing from K12 education. Climbing to the top of the class to chase a grade wasn’t important, in fact, the format of the program didn’t lend itself to that type of COVAthinking. Contrary to every other type of academic institution, students were only competing with their own ideas. But make no mistake, COVA made learning far more challenging, especially for me. Living up to the program’s expectation was far easier than living up to my own!

We were judged on our ability to apply our ideas in our work environments.  That’s what the “A” stands for – authenticity. Course professors didn’t have a list of right answers for us. We had to apply our coursework in real-time, with real coworkers, and with real students. We could choose our projects and methods but had to make them authentic. Occasionally my thoughts wandered to the movie “Truman” with Jim Carey. Unknowingly, he lived his entire life in a perfect world which had been staged and televised. When he discovered the truth he set off to escape. The DLL program was an example of the same significant learning environment we were striving to create (a CSLE – created significant learning environment) in our own schools and workplaces; the difference being that the program goal was to allow us to learn how to create the same significant learning environment outside of this wonderful, perfect world.

COVA was the method by which we practiced. It was like telling someone to burn 100 calories in an hour using any equipment in the gym – we had choice, ownership, and a voice – the gym was our online classroom. In time we each discovered what worked individually, and partnered with others for accountability.  Eventually we tried out other equipment until our confidence improved. By the end of the program we were fit and eager to mentor others.

Course content was all about teaching and learning, thinking and analyzing, but mostly about how to identify what needs to be changed and developing ways to accomplish that.  It was current, insightful, and thought provoking. It was inspiring. My greatest takeaways, however came from the significant learning environment itself, and the COVA approach by which the courses were presented. Here are my top 5 DLL program takeaways in a nutshell:

top 5 takeawaysLove What You Hate

Picture5Among the hundreds of nuggets of information I encountered through my time in the program I came away with a sense that if I can force myself to love something I hate, I won’t let it suck the life out of me. No amount of complaining would make required projects leave my to-do list, so I overcame my procrastination. COVA allowed me to start with the skills I had and build on them.

Celebrate Failure

Picture 4There is no path to success except through failure, like chipping away at a stone block to reveal the statue inside. I learned to treat failure like success. I wanted to get to it quickly. I wanted to get rid of ideas that wouldn’t work so I could get them out of the way. My success was often the result of vetting ideas through a panel of my peers. Many of them had experience that changed my way of thinking, or offered suggestions that changed my course entirely. Perhaps I knew this theory about failure before DLL but I rode the wheels off it in the program. Submission deadlines were at midnight for a reason.

Know When Something Matters

Picture 3Mindset was a large part of both the content and environment of the program. Conversations with classmates were very challenging. I learned to recognize when my opinion didn’t matter in another person’s journey. For example, when a ship is both on fire and sinking, offering a sailor either a fire hose or a cork won’t make a difference. He may have to board my ship to survive. Some captains would rather go down with the ship. The same is true in reverse. Sometimes I was smarter to abandon my ideas for something else. Authentic learning environments are the best teachers of all.

Stop Talking – Start Doing

Picture 2If time is spent creating a plan, it needs to be executable. The program expects its students will execute, analyze, revise and re-execute them. COVA is about real experiences. Learners must walk the talk. The innovation project I developed was based on real work I was paid to do. Administrators at my school didn’t have the time to discuss the plan so I stopped talking about it and got to work doing it.  Rather than waste time and effort explaining the details, a simple explanation and an action plan were all I used. When I stopped talking and started doing, my plan came to life.

Embrace Community

Picture 1Without a doubt, the #1 greatest takeaway from COVA and the DLL program was learning to embrace community. I’ve completely changed my view about relying on others. Times have changed and learning isn’t the result of my own hard work, it comes from the work of many. People who share what they know seek to build a nation “in the know”.  COVA includes ownership and voice. I have learned to own what I believe and voice what I know. Sometimes I know less than others, and sometimes I know more. I have gained the wisdom to understand how lucky I am to be the dumbest person in the room.

The Future

the future

No one can predict the future but we certainly can plan for it. The five most important lessons I’ve learned from the DLL program (loving what you hate, the importance of failing, knowing what matters, taking action, and the value of community) are supported by an enormous amount of pertinent content.  It can be applied in any learning environment. In the short term my intention is to implement the remaining two years of my technology integration plan using the innovation plan format. It will continue to be adapted, changing as my action research reveals ways it can be improved.

Using COVA and creating a significant learning environment is well underway at my school. Every year our teachers become more skilled and innovative, incorporating technology in teaching. As they see success they become more comfortable encouraging students to be independent as learners. The process is leading them to embrace their new roles as learning facilitators.

measure learningThe challenge ahead is to show teachers how to measure the effects of COVA in learning. They need to understand how to measure more than student enthusiasm. In some cases teachers may be disappointed with the results and unwilling to return and try again. My goal is to help our teachers raise the bar for achievement while loosening their grip on how students learn. I can’t possibly achieve this with only a technology plan – no matter how innovative it may be. I will continue to plant the seeds and cultivate other leaders within the school.

I will help our teachers learn the lessons I have taken away from the DLL program. I will create a significant learning environment for each of them, with choice, ownership, voice, in their authentic classrooms. I will help them love what they hate by supporting them, and celebrate their failures on the way to success.  I will help them see what matters in learning and model ways they can take action. It’s what I’ve always done.

We have entered the front edge of the digital age and all organizations must adjust. Being an education leader can happen in any industry because learning is infinite. My challenge is to fit new methods into an old system with better results than the status quo. When I achieved that, I will move on.

Images Chalkboard (Graffiti) by Gerd Altmann CC0, (fortune-telling) by Tumisu CC0