IN CLOSE WITH | Ken Wallace
As the superintendent of Maine Township High School District 207, Ken Wallace, Ph.D., holds the belief that every teacher deserves specialized coaching and professional development. Here, he talks about the importance of coaching, and how regular feedback enhances learning, both inside and outside of the classroom; what inspire him—and much more. Ken is also founder of the Chicago Coaching Center.
GETTING STARTED How did you get started as an educator, and how has your job changed over the years?
I was a high school English and journalism teacher, and I coached wrestling. I taught writing almost exclusively and loved it. After five years of doing that, I was recruited to go back to my hometown to become the head wrestling coach. The only teaching job open was middle school computer science. I was only one class shy of the endorsement, so I got that and taught middle school computer science for six years. It’s one of those things that at the time didn’t seem like a big deal, or perhaps it was even a little sad for me because I loved teaching writing and felt like I was just hitting my stride. Looking back, though, it’s really one of those happy coincidences that helped change my life and my thinking.
I’m excited about the future of education, but committed to making sure that we develop world-class public education, because I see that as the battleground for the soul of our democracy.
I had every 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-grader for nine weeks every year in our rotation courses. I took over a Commodore 64 lab and was able to build an Apple II and eventually Mac lab. I treated the kids like adults, and we constructed ways to use technology to solve real problems. I was teaching the full Clarisworks suite, along with Turtle Logo programming and a fair amount of gaming.
Moving from teaching to leadership required changing many things. While learning is the same for students and adults, leading adults is different than leading students. Adults make rules up for students that they would never follow themselves. This is changing, thank goodness. What has changed more than anything is this fundamental understanding that so much of what we’ve done in education is just wrong. We built schools to herd students through them, pretending that we wanted to educate everyone while building systems that often limited students, bored students, or simply discriminated against students. If we actually apply what we know about human learning, which is that the more we enrich and give ownership of learning to the learners the better humans learn, then we have to move past old ideas, wrong ideas, and open up paths for students to experience rigor and leading their own learning in ways that have previously been limited.
My best college professor was Dr. Tom Rivers at the University of Southern Indiana. He taught me about heuristics—the power of questions, really—and how they were the key to solving problems. I used to tell my students that questions were at least half of an answer, which is why I loved teaching writing, and why I think students liked my class. We had to invent classes like Speech and Oral Communications so that students could practice speaking in school, because for too long we treated students as empty vessels who needed to be filled up by an answer-driven education construct.
We know better and we should do better. What we are trying to do in District 207 is really support each student to find his or her voice, talent, and passion—and connect it to their future. School today, at least great school today, has flipped the script and allowed students more space and support to apply their passions to learning experiences. I’m excited about the future of education, but committed to making sure that we develop world-class public education, because I see that as the battleground for the soul of our democracy.
INSPIRATIONS What inspires you about teaching? Do you have a slogan or mantra that guides you?
Great teaching and teachers inspire me because they have two things that I hope every human could have: they see students for their possibilities and they are learners themselves. Truly great educators have humility and self-reflection. Coaching in sports, medicine, and a host of other field is common, but with all due respect, teaching humans is more complex than just about anything else, and that’s why I’ve always been passionately driven to not only learn as much as I can about learning, but also to try to construct the best possible conditions to facilitate adult learning.
Of all of the things I’m proud of in my career, I’m most proud of the incredible teacher leadership program at Maine Township High School District 207 because it’s led by the learners themselves. We aspire to be to teaching and learning what teaching hospitals are to medicine. I often ask, and not in jest, “What if we took teaching and learning half as seriously as we take high school football? — where every play and every player in every play is videoed for review down to the point of the cornerback’s toe when defending a receiver? How good could we be then?”
That’s where I’m excited to give our teachers Insight ADVANCE to use to video lessons. We’ve done some lesson study, but I think this tool has the best utility I’ve seen for coaching and having a two-way or more feedback loop. Everyone wants change or “takeover” ideas, but real improvement doesn’t happen that way. It’s a mindset and a culture, and it takes time. If I have a slogan, it’s “The better you get, the better you can get.” It really just means making the work about positively seeking better, and building capacity in each teacher as a learner. In District 207, we aspire to demonstrate that it can be done in a way that truly honors teaching and teachers.
FAVORITE TECH What is your favorite tech tool right now and why?
I love utility, and I try to keep it simple. This won’t be sexy, but I construct almost everything I write now using Google Docs because it makes the feedback loop so much more efficient. When I taught writing, my students wrote every day, but 90 percent of it was journaling just to help students develop their own voice. I took the journals home every week to give my students feedback—nothing about language conventions; I just wanted to peek at how they thought and expressed those thoughts. I’d bring the journals back on Monday morning and return them.
With docs, I’d have been able to shorten the learning loop while providing more and better feedback, and it could have been more interactive to include student reaction. We look for whiz bang technology, and we use many cool things, but learning is so enhanced by the feedback conversation. The human mind seeks that. It’s why kids who aren’t interested in school topics will play video games for 10 hours without a break but won’t do their homework. The most important feedback that games give students is that it’s okay to fail. What did you just learn that will help you get to the next level next time?
The tech that I’m most interested in right now facilitates shaping the curriculum into a more gamified framework. But the key here is that the tech matters, but not nearly as much as the science of learning and that the curriculum that we’ve “gamed” is worth pursuing in the first place.
For our students, I’m for tools like YouTube that provide a platform for them to display what they’ve created themselves, whether it’s music, science, or anything else. Human imagination is a powerful thing if we honor it, and technology can amplify it in ways that we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Will Richardson just did our keynote. His position is that the web is the most significant learning invention ever. He’s right, and our challenge is to figure out how to move past schools as nearly exclusive owners of content, which we aren’t anymore, to places that help people (including the adults) learn.
In terms of my favorite, this is going to be a silly answer from a superintendent of a high school district, but I just came across this tool called ABCmouse that is a pre-school and elementary literacy program. What I loved about it most was it’s a cool interface that kids naturally like, and it’s recursive and iterative, which the best learning tools now are. They have conducted really compelling research behind its efficacy.
This is where I think technology can change the world in a way that really matters. Imagine if we could identify struggling readers really early and have a game nimble enough and powerful enough to keep even a struggling reader engaged to build the reading pathways that will help a student have success. Until we re-imagine new coding for literacy and give it the same currency as we do reading and writing, then I think this is the magic of technology and how it can help us solve some really complex problems that, quite frankly, we are only truly beginning to understand. A lot of our “conventional” thinking has just been wrong, and we’ve harmed students and filled jails up behind this issue. There are still states either setting these “read at grade level by third grade” mandates, and even some contemplating them.
RECENT EVENTS What memorable edtech conference have you attended recently?
I just attended the Center for Digital Education Superintendents’ Group meeting in July with Kecia Ray and CDE founder Cathilea Robinett. It’s a group of superintendents from around the country who serve a variety of districts from urban and suburban to rural, rich to poor, and homogenous to incredibly diverse—which is District 207.
What I love about these types of conferences is that it’s only a little about the tech and way more about the learning. Kecia and Cathilea both have fascinating back stories, but it is such a privilege to get to connect with people who have the same passion for improving the lives of students through education and the strategies that allow us to amplify learning through technology. Kecia and Cathilea have been at this tech journey for a while, and though they have traveled far different paths, their common ground is the place that we have to get to if we really want to not only know what works, but how to bring it scale to really improve outcomes. One of the key issues still facing the nation is just basic connectivity, particularly in rural areas, and CDE, along with the good folks at Tech and Learning, ISTE, and a host of other organizations, is trying to identify and amplify solutions to this problem.
MEMORABLE MOMENTS What was your greatest educational moment?
When I started teaching I was traveling to classrooms on a cart. I had a mentor, but we had no formal structure in place, and we really didn’t talk much. I’m not sure I even knew the right questions to ask. No one came into my class to just watch me and provide feedback, other than one or two visits from an assistant principal toward the end of the year when evaluations were due. I made a bunch of rookie mistakes, but I wanted to be good at my craft, and I wanted to help students learn.
By the middle of my second year, I really started to figure some things out. I thought a lot about the teachers I learned the most from, and I thought about how I learned. The first thing I did right was to honor student questions and to give students a lot of choice and autonomy in their writing. I found a pathway of connecting that was real, and when you reach that, it’s really meaningful. I remember it vividly, and it is one of my career regrets that I didn’t get to teach writing longer. I truly loved it, and the feedback that I got from students was genuine. Today, I’m incredibly proud to say that our seniors this year are likely the first seniors in America to spend their high school career in schools where every teacher every year was supported by an individual instructional coaching and coaching plan. That was profoundly influenced by my own journey as a teacher.
RED IN ED What was your most embarrassing educational moment?
It was when I really saw first-hand how tricky politics is in leadership. I tend to see things that involve students in a black-and-white way, and in this profession, there will be times when you have to confront whether decisions are being made for the benefit of students or for the benefit of adults. I respect and care deeply about making sure we have great conditions for adults, but we build schools to serve students. I have faced some issues that were egregious and needed to be addressed only to find out that politics, even up to the board level, can often stop someone from being able to do the right thing. I’m lucky now in that I work with a board that is committed to doing right for our students, but no one should ever assume that everyone has that agenda at their first priority.
PD FOR ME What makes for great tech-related professional development?
We were at the forefront of 1-to-1 and cloud computing. My first great hire in District 207, Dr. Hank Thiele back in 2007, and I decided early on that we would open our web to a lot of things that some schools still lock down. I hired him to help us become great at instructional technology, so being open to information is really a prerequisite. We started, like many, with “Tech Coaches” who delivered professional development. There were two keys to our evolution:
1. Changing behavior in the classroom is a hard thing to do, and seeing an app for 30 minutes at a “lunch and learn” will not get most teachers to change, no matter how cool it looks. We coach every teacher every year, and we provide just-in-time support to help teachers work through the inevitable issues and mistakes that come with changing practice.
2. This is the real key: we don’t treat technology as a stand-alone element in our teaching and learning program. We have evolved our professional develop to include integrated, teacher-led topics like, “How to enhance a 1:1 environment using cooperative learning.” And we aren’t just showing teachers. We guide them by making sure that we have coaching support available as they go through classroom transitions to implement new learning strategies for students. Whether it takes a week, a month or a year for the teacher to really hit his or her stride, we have to provide personalized support to teachers to ensure that they feel comfortable making the changes. Absent that, there is an incredibly high failure to implement rate if teachers only get learning through brief “sit and get” sessions.
NEXT TECH What’s the next technology you want to bring to your district and why?
We have students building applications right now to solve real problems and challenges at school. We are working with a software company right now to develop software that will enhance our college and career counseling program with a custom program that we think will have a giant audience in the future. We are working on this as an entrepreneurial venture where District 207 will co-own the program. If it fails it will have been a good experience, because we will have student programmers getting real world experience. If it succeeds, maybe we have helped create a revenue stream for District 207 while trying to solve a real problem that we are already at the forefront of trying to solve: how to evolve high school college and career counseling to help alleviate the high debt and underemployment that is occurring on an historic scale right now for our young adults in this country.
We hosted the world’s first student Google summit last year. Our friend Jaime Casap did an incredible keynote for our students and students from around the Chicago area. He challenged them to identify problems, big or small, that they wanted to solve and then get to work solving them. This is where technology matters. How can we leverage technology to help invent and create solutions to real problems? That’s an essential question that we all should be asking, and we should be supporting our students’ learning by getting out of their way so they can solve these real problems. What’s most cool is that you can do this and also do school better.
NO THANKS What educational technology do you wish had never been invented and why?
One can make an argument for many things like Facebook or any social platform that brings people together.
In The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver points out the irony that, in a world more connected than ever before, we are actually more isolated, because people tend to go where like-minded people go, and this creates an “echo chamber” effect. It’s real. I think we can all see it, and it illustrates the power of technology, but also how important it is for schools to still help students develop basic human and civil skills like respect, openness to hearing other ideas, and the ability to conduct rational debates with civility. Those concepts are more important than ever. Technology has so much potential to help us create better lives, but those basic human interactions about how we treat each other—what we stand for as a country, that we condemn racism and bigotry for what it is—are bigger than technology, and we need to understand how technology can isolate us and really create good learning conditions to balance that. As Will Richardson said at our keynote the other day, “Unless we learn how to talk to each other, we are in trouble.”
FUTURE LOOK What educational technology do you wish someone would invent and why?
The next level of development is going to be the use of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality to help us enhance learning for students. We are only just now scratching the surface of what’s possible, but I think there are ways to help solve many complex learning problems with technology if we do a better job of marrying the programming logic to a real understanding of how humans learn and how to create the conditions for that learning. If we understand what students are passionate about and we can personalize learning using strategies like gamification, I truly think there are very few learning problems that we can’t either completely solve or greatly improve outcomes. That’s how we should aspire to use technology.
Reach Ken through Twitter @KenWallace207
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