I’m just back from Philadelphia and my first (but not last) Educon— this was the fourth Educon.  It was a terrific experience, and I feel deeply indebted and appreciative to Chris Lemann, the staff and faculty, and the students, of Science Leadership Academy, our hosts.

Educon is:

EduCon is both a conversation and a conference.

And it is not a technology conference. It is an education conference. It is, hopefully, an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools.

Its Axioms are as follows:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked

I am writing this from a hotel room in Hermosillo, Mexico, where I am spending a week introducing St. Gregory to schools, families, and students here, exploring possible collaboration, exchange, and enrollment opportunities.

10 thoughts about Educon:

1. Innovation matters. Innovation here is perhaps the key rallying call (after all, it is called above an innovation conference), and innovation is a genuinely important and energizing construct around which we can and should organize educational improvement and advancement.  We heard many outstanding minds on two separate panels speak about what innovation means to them in their wildly diverse work, and I heard from many that to innovate is to be human, to innovate is to make the world a better place, that to innovate is to solve the problems, take the initiative, and make the difference to improve the social welfare.

President Obama and Educonners agree: let’s focus on innovation: innovation by our educators and innovation by our students.  To quote a tweet from Bill Ferriter (@plugusin),

Note to principals: If you want me to innovate, you’ve got to create conditions that encourage me to experiment.  As a principal, you have the power to encourage–or discourage–innovation for every teacher, every day.

2. We have great work before us to better determine how we best facilitate our students in becoming innovative. At both panels, the question was asked of the extremely fine panelists:  how can we better support our students in becoming more innovative (or what I might suggest we abbreviate to “ed2in”), and at both panels, to my hearing, there were not great answers forthcoming.   This might be in part because we were asking, in most cases,  non-educators how we can better educate our students, and with all due respect, I am sorry, but we shouldn’t expect non-educators to advise us brilliantly on how to better educate.

But even the educators, to my observation, were still working hard to better think through this challenging question.   The Principal of Boston Arts Academy, Linda Nathan, emphasized skill development, passion, and the arts:

To be innovative students must have the the skills to pursue their passions.  I think about creation, building, playing, collaborating:  my job is for the teachers and support them to be innovative, and help them plan together, reflect, collaborate, explore their passion, and we have to allow kids to pursue things and think things they haven’ t thought of before.  The one thing I want to see in every urban school is the Arts– Start there.  Teach arts in the same way you are teaching English and Math– with as much emphasis and as many years required and as a sequence over many years.

Karl Fisch, a Math educator and technologist whom I respect greatly for his work, focused first on supporting and liberating students.

It starts with listening to kids and saying yes to kids as much as we possibly can– connect to what they are passionate about and help them to connect with others to what they are passionate about.   The fewer restrictions we place on them, perhaps they will become more innovative.

He then went on to say, bravely, that there are real obstacles.

My first answer is I don’t do that very well that yet.   For the skills, I am doing the very defined standards based grading and the conventional assessments– and there is not a ton of room for innovation in that piece.  They need the skills to do stuff, and we can’t overlook that.

He went to articulate a concept that it is very valuable for promoting innovation among our students: use video and digital tools to support students in receiving the content delivery at home or online, and then use classtime to support their discovery, inquiry, collaboration, and creativity.  This project, reversing instruction, or the Fisch Flip, is a valuable technique.

What is apparent to me is there is a fertile field to work in here: let’s continue the conversation and let’s bring more and more examples to the forum of how we can best ed2in.

3. Panels weren’t working very well: Bring on the TED format.   At both panels, Friday night and Sunday morning, there were collected a truly outstanding set of thinkers and innovators, people I would have loved to listen to speak from their hearts and to their passions.   But that is now how the format worked; instead they were asked to respond, concisely, to someone else’s questions, questions that it was often abundantly clear were not ones they would have chosen and ones to which they were not entirely poised and prepared to speak brilliantly too.   I wanted to run up on stage and break them out of the box into which they seemed to be confined and let them soar intellectually so I could really learn from them.

Use instead a TED format– tell them they each have 18 minutes and 20 (at most) slides, and let them knock our socks off.   Then, let us, the audience, “construct” the connection from these speakers’ geniuses to our work ourselves, because it is in the application across the divide we can make the most meaning and learn the most thoroughly.  If you want to have a few minutes of questions after the TED-style talk from the audience, that is great, but let the questioners rise and speak in their voices in personal and social interplay, rather than pull them off a list.

4. PLNs are terrific. Again and and again it was clear to see the power of the network for the intellectual and pedagogical development of these attendees.  Constantly, educon attendees were making reference to their appreciation for their online/Twitter network, and reiterating how much they were growing via it, faster and more significantly than ever before.    Oft-heard phrases: “the power of the PLN,” “I follow her on Twitter” “My PLN is my very best form of professional development,” and “you look different from your avatar.”    After just a few days, I wrote down the names of everyone at this conference with whom I made a meaningful connection, and it was a list triple or quadruple my normal conference list, because of the overlaying effect of the network.

So often, we all know, when you do make a great connection at a conference, it stops there.  You might say to someone: “it is been great talking to you, maybe I’ll email you or give you a call sometime soon.”  Do you?  Not usually.  But now, via the PLN, I will be in a conversation,  sharing and learning with these same people nearly every single day.

5. FtF  with your PLN is also terrific. I had a little bit of a hard time understanding, at first, why Educon was so incredibly valuable for the people in my online PLN, until I experienced it.   It is great to have an online network, but it is also really, really meaningful and rewarding and deepening to, once a year, connect face to face with your network.    I felt myself caught up with an emotional surge getting to know in person people who are so meaningful to me online; it is a really great event for these social- emotional connections which we then can better parlay into better growth and learning.

6. Design Thinking matters. I find myself writing and speaking often about problem-solving as the highest order of school-work, both what we want students to become excellent in and how we want them to become excellent.   But often I go to quickly to the work of solving the problem, and not often do I pull back a step and recognize the importance of defining first what the problem really is.   I am sure my own educational leadership has made this same mistake on more than one occasion.

Because design thinking as framed by the Stanford D-School and IDEO has been something I have been hazily thinking about, I really valued getting a greater grounding in it in the conversation facilitated by Christian Long, David Bill, Ethan Bodnar on Design Thinking: 21st Century Skills for the Real World. The thinking process is composed of five Discovery >Define > Brainstorm> Prototype >Test.

As with all great educational components, this technique and process is something we should be using on both dimensions– for ourselves as educational planners and for our students as analytical thinkers.

Eric Juli writes on his blog, Growing Good Schools, that

I think the hardest part of this process is meaningfully defining the problem. In every school I’ve been in, this step is a battle. We often jump right to solutions, without really taking the time to define our actual problem. What if we did this? What if you tried that? We focus so many of our solutions on the problems we really can’t control, like the socio-economic factors listed above.

This session re-emphasized for me the need to focus our efforts on what is in our control. We can’t always fix what happens before and after school in our students’ lives. But we can develop stronger problem solving skills and apply them to the issues of improving school structures and teaching and learning in our classrooms.

7. In many ways many of us are still struggling with appropriate and effective presentation style. I’ve written above the problematic panel format, and my inference from observations at the four sessions I attended is that there is a lot of uncertainty about presentation style.   I attended a session by a terrific artist and designer on the topic of reinventing powerpoint to be design-savvy and artistic, and though she is thinking carefully and intelligently on the topic, to my eyes her presentation was clumsy and inartistic,  anything but an example of what she was advocating.

Then there is Gary Stager, who I find highly amusing: he spoke to us and at us for 70 minutes seemingly without taking a breath on the topic of Project based learning, Reggio Emilia education, and constructivism.  Now I didn’t hate or resent his session, and I did learn a little bit in it, but again, his medium and his message seemed to me very far out of synch, or even dramatically contradictory.   The session that was probably most effective to me as a “conversation” was the Design thinking session, where we were facilitated in a group process of an entire hour, talking in small groups through a careful process.  But here, as it ended, I know several attendees and myself included felt a craving for having had more content delivery from the presenters.

As someone who is myself presenting more and more often, I take some satisfaction in the recognition that there are no easy answers here and that we are all still working it out.   On my desk awaiting me is the book Presentation Zen, and I have the ambition to improve my own thinking and effectiveness in this area.

8.  It is critical to be serious about strengthening PBL, and Reggio Emilia is a tool for doing so. Gary Stager has a tone and a style that is still a bit hard for me, one in which he is both provocative and dismissive.   It is a product of his passion, I recognize, and his deep desire for better schools for kids.    In his session, Lessons from K-12 from the best Preschools in the world, I valued his argument that much of what is labeled Project Based learning is too shallow, too short, too insubstantial to be genuinely transformative or educational, and that the Reggio Emilia preschool approach with its concern for autenticity, depth, and “monumental” work is something we can learn from to take PBL further.

9. Connected Principals is great, but not perfect. Certainly my most enjoyable session or panel was the Connected Principals discussion, presented to us by the two co-creators of the site, George Couros and Patrick Larkin.  Their exuberance about the power of blogging as a tool of eudcational leadership was infectious and charming.

A few quotes:

  • “It is our moral responsibility to help all educators grow.”
  • “Connecting can change your school for your kids.” Online networking is making a huge difference for learning.
  • I want my school to be great… my teachers need to be allowed to do great things.”
  • “We have to get outside this circle …So many are not connected! Teachers and administrators included!”
  • “Reflecting as an administrator is an essential part of our school leadership practice & I do it blogging.
  • On connecting: “You’re not talking to a computer. You’re talking to a person who cares about what’s happening.”
  • “We need to model what we want our students to be doing– self-directed learners as educators.”
  • From Bill Ferriter: “Principals need model intellectually vulnerable behavior &habits by making practice & ideas public & transparent”
  • From Tom Whitby: “Digital Literacy an essential 21st century skill & tool many adults lack– ConPrin are developing and modeling it”

The session also allowed for some important discussion about the challenges and the limitations to the ConPrin work. Several attendees argued that in a time when educational discourse is sometimes quite heated, even vitriolic, principals and school-leaders may find it just plainly too contentious to open a blog to a community.   The “vulnerability” of school-leaders when making thinking transparent can be very problematic and very stressful– who need this?

Others noted that we need to work harder to help school-leaders not on-line get on-line but we need to do so with communications in print or in person, because providing our advice on-line isn’t going to get there.

Eric Juli, an urban school adminisatrator in Massachussets, spoke of his concern that urban education is sorely missing on the current Connected Principals blog, and I quote from his blog post:

My city colleagues and I just aren’t represented in what’s out there currently. I find it be lonely to be a leader in a district, where very few people think as I do. I’m contributing to moving the mountain each day, with almost no one to connect with face to face. I use Social Media to connect with like-minded people, but also to find ideas I can’t imagine yet.

I love the feeling of reading a blog or seeing a tweet that sharpens my own thinking or introduces me to something entirely new. But the chaos of inner-city schools can be overwhelming. For many of us, the day, every day, happens to us. If more city administrators are going to participate in Connected Principals, we need our experiences to be represented there.

10. Educon is a Godin-style “Tribe,” for which I am grateful. Seth Godin’s book Tribes is among the most influential in the past several years, I think,in the way he articulates that in today’s age, groups of diverse geography can more easily and more significantly than ever before.

The power of this new era is simple: if you want to, or need to, or must,  lead then you can.  Every leader I have met shares one thing and one thing only: the decision to lead.


The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in.  Paint a picture of the future.  Go there.  People will follow.

Present at Educon were 500 people who had made the decision to lead in the movement for educational change.  We are doing what we believe in, we are  painting a picture of the future, and we  are going there in our schools.   One of the most oft-quoted lines of the past fifty years is Margaret Mead’s quote about what it takes to change the world– a small group, or, in Godin’s words, a Tribe–  and this is Educon group is a Tribe that I am delighted to be a member of and contributor to.

I had this conversation about Educon as Tribe with several people over the weekend; Lisa Thumann wrote about it very similarly on her blog post, and like Lisa, I will share Seth’s TED talk on Tribes below.