I enjoyed a great day presenting at ISACS last week in Louisville.

Below you’ll find most of my materials from those presentations; thank you all who attended and thank you ISACS for inviting me.

Innovative Schools, Innovative Students:  A near identical version of those slides is available here.

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Innovation is Iteration: the Marshmallow Challenge

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After this highly interactive and energetic workshop, participants shared with me a set of great ideas they had for bringing the marshmallow challenge back to their schools.  One person spoke of being at a K-8 school with “family groups” composed of one student for each grade k-8, and using them there; another said she was at a PS-12 school where the pressure to be perfect and right all the time felt very strong and she wanted to do a school-wide marshmallow experience; another explained they were moving toward an iPad 1-1 implementation very slowly, concerned they needed to get everything in order just right before launching and that she wanted to do this to encourage people to jump in and start experimenting.

Enjoy the short video above- it is very much worth the six minutes.

It is the time of year when many are looking ahead to opening of the school year faculty and departmental meetings, so it is a good time to start sharing valuable short videos which can be used for inspiration and illumination at these meetings.   This six minute video is a great candidate (and I intend to share a list soon); it is a very current (ISTE 2012) talk in which author and provocateur Will Richardson lays out his challenge to us: Bold Ideas for Change in Education.   (Another alternative would be Will’s TEDx talk.)

Consider the opportunities: ask educators in groups to identify their bold ideas first, and compare; ask them to watch and discuss which bold ideas make sense and how might they apply them, which don’t and why not, and what original ideas do they have.

From Lisa Nielsen’s blog I’ve copied at bottom of this post the list of 19 bold ideas for easy reference.

A few comments:

1.  Of course, I am delighted to see Will’s very first “bold idea;”  I think it is so important to put a focal point on assessment as a huge lever to influence, via backwards design, everything else that happens, and at St. Gregory we worked hard to develop and advance methods for ‘open network assessments.’   (more…)

With this post I come to the end of  three terrific years as Head of School for St. Gregory College Preparatory School in Tucson, Arizona.  It has been an honor to serve, and I know I will treasure always these years as an extraordinarily high point in my educational leadership career.

In our three years together, we’ve seen enrollment stabilize and grow (after ten years of nearly continuous decline), and expanded external financial support to the annual financial aid/scholarship funding by several hundreds of thousand dollars– allowing us to considerably diversify enrollment and provide new opportunities to students who otherwise wouldn’t have this chance.  Each of the three years has ended financially with a good, positive balance sheet.

From the St. Gregory 2012 yearbook.

I am most pleased about the ambitious twin initiatives,  “Roots and Wings:” Advisory and Laptops, which we launched in 2010.   First, we dramatically overhauled what was previously a small homeroom program into our new, teacher-student advisory program, strengthening student “rooted-ness” with a home base over the course of each week and strengthened relationship with a teacher and other students.   Advisory has also become a new home for service learning, teacher mentoring of students, parent-student-adviser conferencing,  and much more.  We’ve also, especially in the middle school, developed several new bullying prevention programs, which brought a national award from Teaching Tolerance, and significantly revamped our bullying and harassment policy for the entire school.

Wings” is our nickname for our 1:1 laptop program, which has had two years of fine success, with students doing great project-based learning, developing fine research skills, practicing terrific on-line collaboration, and exploiting social media and other tools to connect, share, and learn together.  This project also demanded a significant expansion of the campus WiFi infrastructure and fiber-optic bandwidth.   Students need to learn how to use digital tools responsibly, and we developed and implement a fine, three day, digital citizenship “boot camp.”

We launched a trio of new student outcome measurements, CWRA, HSSSE, and MAP, and I believe we are the only one of the 1400 NAIS member schools to be using and learning from all three of these fine new tools.   We use them because we are more serious than ever about academic outcomes, and want to use the best tools we can to track, monitor, and intervene to improve our educational program.  Believing that we must assess what matters to us, new report card extension, providing goal-setting and formative feedback for our students on a set of 21st century  and mission-central skills we call the EGG: the Essential Goals for Gregorians.  We’ve also worked in both the middle school and upper school to increase and enlarge academic requirements: now 8th graders must take 8, rather than 7, classes, and our graduation requirements for high school students include four years of math and history (up from three), and have gone from 24 to 26 credits in total.

Our faculty culture of collaboration and planning has been greatly improved by the addition of two hours weekly (previously it was one monthly) for time dedicated to this, and the valuable work of our new Critical Friends groups.    I should add that an important priority of my leadership, and a critical recommendation to us from our accrediting association, was that we progress in diversifying racial/ethnically our faculty and administration, and we’ve done that significantly,  taking the percentage of professionals of color in three years from under 3% to about 15%.   In these three years we’ve also doubled the number of Ph.D’s on our faculty, from 3 to 6, with the appointment of three new Ph.D’s to our upper school.    Knowing that a high performing and always-growing faculty is of the highest priority, we worked as joint admin-faculty team to completely revamp our teacher evaluation system, taking it from every four years to annual, and building into it a stronger goal-setting and growth orientation.   I also implemented in 2011 St. Gregory’s first ever annual written evaluation for senior administrators.

A major theme for educational program development has been developing innovative mindsets and habits for our students, and we’ve developed several new elective courses, new project-based learning units, new experiential education elements, and a new special diploma program, to advance this important theme.   Dennis Connor in particularly has built his physics lab into a robotics and engineering lab, and it is a very exciting place, complete with a 3D printer.   (Some of our initiatives on this front are featured in a forthcoming book (July, 2012) by Suzie Boss, Bringing Innovation to School).

We’ve installed more than 600 solar panels on the roofs of 5 of our buildings,  providing more than 30% of our energy usage, and re-engineered air conditioning for our gymnasium, dramatically reducing our carbon footprint.  We’ve built out a new community garden on campus, and a new goat and chicken pen in the middle school.    Through a variety of initiatives, including the new Youth Leadership Summit for 7th graders from 20+ schools, the continuation of the Rotary Car show, hosting a new 5K/10K charity run,  new speaker and film events, and other activities, we’ve made good progress in better sharing our campus resources with the wider Tucson community.   Summer at St. Gregory has also been transformed; we brought back to campus the elementary day-camp Summer Fine Arts, which had left us in 2008, and we launched a brand new, now thriving,  academic enrichment summer day-camp for middle school students called Minds Alive: Leadership and Innovation camp.

Looking forward, I’m anticipating a very different and very exciting several years learning, writing, sharing, speaking, and consulting on the topic and cause I am most passionate about: advancing 21st century learning and schools of the future.   I’ll be blogging regularly, and I have several other writing projects in the works.  I’ll be keynoting and speaking at educational conferences and for faculties, boards and parents at schools around the country and beyond; I’ve already confirmed about eight  such “gigs” for the coming year and new invitations and opportunities are arriving each week.

To expand the breadth of the work I do supporting schools, districts and associations, I’m developing and promoting my new educational consulting practice, JonathanEMartin Ed. Services.  At the same time, I’m forming affiliations, formal and informal, with a wide variety of national educational organizations and consulting firms, including Educational Collaborators,  for whom I’ll do some consulting on strategic planning, technology integration, and professional development.

As a family, we are staying here in Tucson, most of all because both my sons are happily enrolled in schools which suit them well, including my older son, who will be entering the 9th grade right here at St. Gregory, which my wife and I believe is a perfect match for him.   My wife, Carman Ryken, has accepted a terrific appointment as a math teacher at an exciting, dynamic, progressive charter school here in Tucson, Paolo Freire Freedom School, a middle school of about 75 students.   The school is a great match for her educational philosophy and ideals and also for my own views:  the school uses a very interesting and exciting problem-based learning math curriculum called “Connected Math,” out of Michigan State University. I’ll surely blog about the qualities of this math curriculum in the months to come.   With my wife employed full-time, I’ll be, happily, picking up a larger share of the household management and parenting.   As a family, we’ll also continue hosting in our home international students enrolled at St. Gregory, something we enjoy greatly.

We’ve relocated to a home closer to both boys’ schools and within walking distance of shops and cafes, so we’ve downsized to just one car and are happy to be conducting a relatively more urban lifestyle, walking and cycling around Fort Lowell neighborhood.  I have a home office, but I expect I’ll spend as much time working at the two nearby Starbucks (Swan/Camp Lowell in the Basha’s, and Swan/Grant) as I do in my office, so Tucsonans can look for me there and say “hello.”

Over the course of what potentially will be 25-30 more years of professional work are many possible career paths and projects, I anticipate: among them are returning, almost certainly at some point, to independent school leadership positions; joining a national educational reform organization on a full-time basis;  and taking on state/regional or national association management roles for independent schools or other school groups.

To my St. Gregory colleagues, parents, students, and supporters, thank you very, very much for inviting me to join this community and serve this school’s excellent and extraordinary mission.  To my readers, please know that the blog carries on and the best is yet to come.    Onwards.

As part of a continuing exploration here, I am happy to share this next example of and reflection upon “Open Computer” or “Open Internet” Testing at St. Gregory.  As I’ve written before, I think this assessment approach is a highly valuable one for promoting deeper learning, information literacy, and analytic and organizational skill development over memorization and regurgitation.  I think that many tests in most subjects can be, with the right intentional design, “open internet” and that they will be the better for it. 

Some argue against tests altogether, but I still love a good test, and taking the time to think through as a teacher what kind of questions can we ask which will continue to be meaningful assessments when Google and Wolfram Alpha are available is, I think, a highly productive exercise, and, of course, will generate a more authentic assessment experience far more well aligned with the real world of professionals for which we are preparing our students. 

Below is a report about another experiment with this approach from our Theater teacher and director, Lisa Bodden.

Comparing my approach to teaching this course with the last time I taught a similar version I realized that the major thing that has changed is the student’s access to technology. Did I still need the students to buy a heavy, although comprehensive, textbook? No, the information is available at their fingertips.

Did I need to order lengthy videos describing very limited topics and spend time plucking out the important details? No, YouTube is almost too easy and has a plethora of informative  videos, performances, and interviews with scholars and professionals.

Therefore, did I really need the students to regurgitate information or could I ask them to utilize  Internet resources and their class notes to compose essays based on questions that they helped craft?

The “answers” the students created in response to the essay prompts not only proved to me how well they understood the information, but also allowed them to maintain their individuality, voice, and opinion. I asked for historically specific information, but they could choose who and what on which to focus. The test went very well, in my view, and I will happily turn to this method again and again. Although this will not be my only method of assessment, I consider it a success. (more…)

As I wrote about last year, I am greatly enthusiastic about the opportunity Open Computer testing plays in assessing our students in their development of 21st century skills.     I think it is a really exciting way to take assessment into 21st century information environments, and to situate students in much more real-world situations as we prepare them for the contemporary world of work.

The above slideshow displays what I think is a very well designed “Open computer/open internet” exam, and Dr. Scott Morris has added on every slide his annotations of how he expects students to use the internet in answering these questions, and how these questions, with those resources, demand more of his students, particularly the higher order thinking skills of critical thinking and analytic reasoning, and a deeper understanding of the course material. (If the slides are too small for the print to be legible, click on the full screen link at the bottom right).

As I frequently discuss with Dr. Morris, with whom I have prepared this post and with whom I am co-presenting on this topic at the NAIS Annual Conference in March, our rationale is that our students are preparing to work in professional environments where they must tackle and resolve complex problems, and we know that in nearly every envisionable such environment, they will have laptops or other mobile, web-connected, digital tools to address those problems.   Let’s assess their  understanding in situations parallel to those for which we are preparing them.

But it is not just a matter of situating them in real-world environments, but that with open computer testing, the format of exams, (and yes, as much as I am a huge fan of PBL, exhibitions, and portfolios, call me retrograde but I still think there is a place and a role for exams in the range of assessment tools we use,) but the format of exams changes in really meaningful ways. (more…)


I rarely feature guest posts from those outside my own school, but when I read my  NAIS & edleader21 colleague Chris Thinnes’ piece about Race to Nowhere and the vexing issue of homework, which I have written about here before, I offered to post it.  Chris articulates very particularly and effectively my similar thoughts about this topic, and I am pleased to be able to share it here. 

Race to Nowhere Has Some Homework to Do

Chris Thinnes is a parent and an educator who lives in Los Angeles. He is the Head of the Upper Elementary School & Academic Dean atCurtis School, a member of the Advisory Group of EdLeader21, and the director of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School (CFEE), which recently brought together educators from 103 schools and districts for “Transforming Elementary Education: An Evening with Sir Ken Robinson.”

In its latest emailed, tweeted, and web-based blitz encouraging schools to ban weekend and holiday homework, an impassioned group of self-styled activists has once again leveraged 21st century tools to provide a 20th century ‘solution’ to a 19th century problem: the overloaded assignment of dull, mechanical, and ineffectively designed homework exercises to millions of our nation’s youth. However, the similarly dull reasoning of their examination, diagnosis, and prescription (a ban, very simply, on weekend and holiday homework) will inevitably provoke irrelevant, unjustified, and blanket contempt for schools’ practices the rest of the year as well.

Race to Nowhere‘s activist arm, EndTheRace.org, swipes any reasonable analysis off the table with its burly forearm, before any of us — educators, parents, and students — have the chance to sit down to talk. In short, this campaign overlooks important dimensions of a complex discussion about the purposes of education and the needs of children, ignores forward-looking strategies about the appropriate design of learning opportunities at school and at home, insinuates a lack of professionalism and responsibility on the part of educators, and threatens further to divide, rather than to unify, educators and parents of children in our nation’s schools.

“The research on homework is clear and unanimous. Most homework does not increase learning, raise scores, or prepare students for the future.” -EndTheRace.org

If this were an accurate assessment of research ‘on homework,’ it would be compelling. However, this statement misrepresents the fact that only research on the overload of homework is ‘clear and unanimous’ in its findings: namely, that homework should be limited to developmentally appropriate workloads of 10 minutes per grade level per day. [http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/homework.html] (more…)

Last week I spent a few days visiting a very wonderful, creative, and lovely school, Seacrest Country Day in Naples, Florida.  While there, in conversation with a pair of terrific high school Science teachers, I was turned on to The Big History Project, a Gates foundation funded initiative to bring this interdisciplinary curriculum to high schools, based in large part on the vision and wisdom of historian David Christian, whose TED talk, which we showed today at St. Gregory, is above.

The TED talk is terrific: Christian uses terrific visuals, short videos, and a well-designed timeline to articulate the “threshold” moments in the universe’s history, and identifies what makes possible the development of greater complexity in a universe governed by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.    Most interesting, of course, is the role of collective learning: that only by learning with and from each other, and sharing that to pass it forward, can we sustain and advance our greater complexity.   As Christian concludes, however, with greater complexity comes greater fragility: we have an awesome responsibility as humans, we who alone have crossed the most recent threshold, to sustain our accomplishments and our creativity.

At the very end of the TED talk, the Big History project is mentioned, and it is explained more thoroughly in the video after the jump (more). (more…)

A few days ago I wrote a lengthy post about our curriculum changes in the upper school;  a day after, our student newspaper was published, which included two articles about those changes it is my pleasure to share here.

Jafe Arnold wrote this piece:

Historic Changes Set for History Department

The 2010-2011 school year is nearing its last breaths of existence, and rumors fill the air of new curriculum changes that could drastically alter the way education here at St. Gregory works.  Mr. Martin, when referring to these changes, said that the idea is to “make freshman and sophomore years more of a foundational education for junior and senior years, in which students will and pursue narrower topics in greater depth.  Depth over breath is what we want.”  But, what exactly are these changes that are directed toward the history department, the department facing extensive reorganization?

After talking with Ms. Heintz and Mr. Martin, it’s been made clear that most of the specifics about the history department altercations are decided, and have been concluded off of a basis for improving students’ history education based upon what a teacher’s expertise is, and what the students want to learn about. (more…)

Following up on the previous post, in which I shared the tweets of Bo Adams to our school, it is my great pleasure to share now a link to his full post about his visit, and the video he prepared.

As an aside, I share Bo’s embrace of video communications as essential and powerful; it is my aspiration strongly to work to build up my own skills and practice so that, before too long, I am sharing my own videos in this mode.

Bo’s post at his blog, It’s About Learning,” is entitled “Demos and Tinkerers.” I urge readers to click over and read in its entirety, but here  let me quote a few passages.

There is a concerted effort – with much evidence of success – for the student learners to decrease their time in “sit-n-get” and increase their time “doing science.” From my brief exposure to science at St. Gregory, I would say that they are building a tinkering paradise.

two boys were burning leaves with a magnifying glass.  In this case, however, the StG students were fogging the space between the leaf pile and the lens. With an iPhone, the boys were recording the light cone whose finest tip was causing the burn of the foliation. As far as I could tell, they had designed this experiment. They ran into all kinds of interesting issues, and I heard them prototype their next attempt with the rest of their classmates.

from years of observation, I sensed that these students were in a routine…developing habits of mind…about hypothesizing, designing tests, and experimenting. They were practicing the scientific method, not just repeating or parroting it. They were being scientists.

Apologies for the boastfulness of this post– it is a bit awkward.   But what I am so happy about is that Bo’s observations and appreciations are about some of the very same things which also inspire me about the amazing learning which St. Gregory teachers are everyday facilitating, learning that is about doing, experimenting, prototyping, failing and correcting.

This is a topic I have written about regularly here; two posts particularly pertinent are

Two weeks ago we shared with students our changes in the high school curriculum, and the slide show covering those changes is above.  (The presentation was in prezi, but wordpress doesn’t support prezi embeds, so, sadly, it has been converted to powerpoint).

As Dr. Michelle Berry, our History department chair, said in enthusiastically introducing the presentation, “We have lots of changes— and I think they are pretty cool.”

The excitement to me among our students is pretty apparent; one of our student journalists came in to interview me recently, and as I articulated the reasons for the changes, her eyes grew wider.  I worried she was appalled, and inquired of her, and she told me no, not at all: “I am so excited about these changes: this is really great.”

These innovations in our curriculum have come quickly, after a rich January conversation at our school’s Academic Committee meeting emerged somewhat spontaneously after a provocative question about the importance of providing students more choice and having offerings that might be more exciting to them.

In the course of that conversation and subsequent ones, nine values and/or goals have emerged informing and underpinning the new curricular structure.

What is the new format?  We are moving away in most of our departments from a four year defined curriculum sequence of year-long, generic (or non-specific, non-”branded”) survey classes.

Instead, it might be said we are aping a collegiate curricular format, continuing with the year-long survey courses in grades nine and ten, and then replacing what was the default, (single option year-long survey in grades eleven and twelve) with semester electives, in most cases more than one in each department each semester, which are topical, more narrowly defined subjects of study. (more…)

Just learned this week of a new forthcoming documentary film I am eager to see and support, The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.

The film is a convergence of three particularly fascinating topics  & persons:

  • it profiles the remarkable story of Finland’s extraordinary educational success in international testing and the somewhat unexpected methodology by which it achieves this success;
  • it features Tony Wagner, my good friend and the author of the Global Achievement Gap, a book which regular readers of the blog here will immediately recognize as being an enormous influence on my educational vision;
  • and it is produced by Bob Compton, a film-maker best known for 2 million minutes and someone with whom some will remember I had a bit of debate with here on these pages in October 2009.

I should say how very happy I am that Bob Compton has taken this initiative to study Finnish schools and to work with Tony Wagner. Bob and I conducted a vigorous debate about our competing perceptions of best practices in 21st century learning, but I nobody can dispute his deeply held passion for improving education for all our students, and I respect and appreciate his open-minded effort to pursue, around the world, best practices in teaching and learning and to share them with his powerful film-making style.

It is not clear to me,  after the premier at the National Press Center March 24, when and how the film will be more widely available, but I know that we at St. Gregory would be thrilled to have the opportunity to screen it, and we certainly extend a warm welcome to Bob Compton to return to Tucson to share with us this new film.

[original version, 11 Ways..., originally published at Connected Principals, 1.24.11]

[Numbers 11-14 have been added since the previous publication.]


Technology and innovation are accelerating rapidly outside education, but not rapidly enough inside education.  To quote NAIS President Pat Basset, Schools which are not schools of the future will not be schools in the future.

Like others, I am fascinated by pieces  forecasting the coming changes in schooling, and I am inspired by their example to offer my own.

Two that have been particularly intellectually intriguing and influential to me are  Tom Vander Ark’s Ed Reformer post,  The Pivot to Digital Learning: 40 Predictions, and Shelly Blake-Pollock’s post, 21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020.

I should add too that my thinking is greatly informed by the Christensen and Horn’s Disrupting Class,  US DOE’s Karen Cator’s NETP: National Education Technology Plan, the writings of Michael B. Horn, and the Digital Learning Now initiatives.

This particular list is intended to present fifteen ways schools can continue to be  relevant, compelling, attractive, and effective to both students and parents in the coming years.   (more…)

A Presentation by St. Gregory’s Science Department Chair, Scott Morris, Ph.D, and Dennis Conner.

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