Ready to Blend founder and president Heather Clayton Staker provides her expertise on how to disrupt traditional education systems with innovation, outline the best strategies for both hybrid and pure play school models, and assesses the changing landscape of the US classroom.
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Simon: Hey everybody, welcome back to Atomi Brainwaves. I’m your host Simon and today I’m joined by our very special guest, Heather Clayton Staker, Founder and President of the US-based educational resource ready to blend, researcher and bestselling author in the field of disruptive innovation in education and global spokesperson for student-centred learning. Welcome Heather.
Heather: Hi Simon.
Simon: How are you?
Heather: I’m doing great, it’s great to talk to you.
Simon: Yes, I believe you were coming today from your daughter’s birthday. Is that right?
Heather: That’s right. I have a 13 year old, she’s my middle child, so I have a 16 year old and a 14 year old and also a 10 year old and a 7 year old, so as I talk to you as a Researcher, I also have the head of a parent as I look at innovation in education, it’s definitely hits me on a personal level as well.
Simon: Yeah definitely all across the board, all about that, there’s five kids in total, is that correct?
Simon: Well I come from a family of six kids so I’m very familiar with the pandemonium that can be involved there, but I guess happy birthday...
Heather: Oh thank you, it’s a good way to describe it, especially as schools are closed with the pandemic, the level of pandemonium has probably increased, and it’s fair to say in our household.
Simon: Yes, without a doubt. And it’s a good a time as any to say to our listeners that if any of that pandemonium is heard in the background, we apologise in advance, but hey it adds to the flavour, it adds to the fun, I like to think. But anyway, enough of that, let’s get into our conversation and the central idea of what we’re going to talk about today is kind of an area of expertise for you which is “disruptive innovation in education”. Before we get into all that though, as our regular listeners will know, whenever we’ve got a guest on, we like to start by just getting a quick run-through of your journey in education...where you started, what happened along the way to lead you where you are today?
Heather: Sure. So imagine your favourite company in the world, your organisation that you just think is so innovative and who does amazing things, some people might name Elon Mascot Tesla, some might say IKEA has revolutionised furniture, I was just running for some exercise around our neighbourhood and I was thinking about how grateful I was for my workout gear that the fact that synthetic fibre was invented has done so much to improve the quality of life, imagine if I was running around in like woollen wear, cotton or a blow-up bag or something, but even just the invention of these more sophisticated fibres on a daily basis, they impact our lives, and when I started working for the Clayton Christiansen Institute for Disruptive Innovation about a decade ago, that was really the problem that I signed on to help solve, was look at all the innovations that have improved life in other sectors of the economy and the world, “Can we do more to innovate in K-12 education and rather than looking at our problems as being those that require us to just redistribute resources, can we instead attack them through a lens of innovation?” So I began my work in education as a professional there and then went on to do somethings...I founded a coop preschool, I’ve worked at an online learning company, I have helped start several different school programs where it has led me to this point is...in 2015 I crafted a book called Blended using disruptive innovation through approved schools with Michael Horn and we felt that the message was necessary to send to the world that look, there’s all of these online resources that allow us to be the right person at the right time at the right way to the variety of learners and how can we blend those in our brick and mortar experiences? And after that book came out, I had a lot of opportunities to do keynote speeches and to share that message with teachers and school leaders, and then I found that people were starting to be familiar with that message, that it wasn’t a novel idea anymore, but what people wanted was help implementing it. And so my keynote work shifted into workshopping where I really met with groups of 50 or 100 teachers and school leaders at a time and help them roll up their sleeves and say “How do we do this? How do we actually bring new structures into our schools to improve teaching and learning?” And then from there I started deputising other folks to go out and do that training on my behalf, and so now there are 150 ready-to-run facilitators around the world who help schools, and help their own schools predominantly, leading their own professional development sessions to think about how do they redesign and really redesign with students at the centre and then think about how teaching and curriculum and facilities and budgets and staffing all get put back together again, but in a way that optimises for the best interest and needs and abilities of each learner. And so that’s where I am, that’s my journey, and that’s what I’m still doing today, is empowering mostly school leaders and teachers to run their own professional development programs based on these principles.
Simon: That’s amazing. I feel a bit guilty now when you started off with that really interesting thought about thinking about companies that sort of change the game, I guess you had some wholesome examples and my first thought was You Tube maybe or Netflix or something, but I suppose in their own way they fall into that camp, but I think it’s quite fascinating that you sort of came into education from that perspective of straight out of the gate disruption and how that can be brought into the mix because you know a lot of guests that we’ve had on or people that you talk to, they almost started from the opposite perspective. It was either just becoming a teacher or taking on any role in education starting out from a point of view of going along with the flow of the river and realising along the way all of the things that needed to be changed. But it sounds like for you it was kind of from day one, it was this perspective of “What can I bring in a disruptive sense?”
Heather: It is, well if we zoom back to when I was 17 years old, this was a few decades ago at this point, and I was appointed to be the student member on the California State Board of Education and so in the state of California there is one 17 year old, a senior in high school, who flies to Sacramento, the state capital, and lives there for a week each month and votes on education policy for the whole state with the idea being that the students should have a voice. So I had a very unusual 17 year of life and during that time had such an up-close look at the bureaucracy at the full California Department of Education which goes on and on, there are multiple floors in this building, miles and miles of filing cabinets that I remember roaming through, and at the time I felt pretty powerless, I didn’t know very much about education code or curriculum frameworks or all of the ways you could impact the system. But what I did see was that it was a big bureaucracy and that really was the kernel of my desire to go forth and say “How can we innovate and streamline?” and if you mention that on You Tube, I would guess partly what makes this interface as fun for you...it’s simple, convenient, they’re affordable and “Can we look for those same opportunities in education?”
Simon: Absolutely, and also geared towards the user I guess, which is another part of this which we’re obviously going to get into about how putting students at the centre of the whole experience is key! Before we get to that though, I wanted to, I guess before we get around to the solutions, the best place to start is the problems and you’ve touch on it a little there but I wanted to kind of take a deep dive into why exactly this disruption is needed? What it was/is in traditional classrooms going all the way up to the levels, you talk about the bureaucratic level, we can start there and move our way down into actual individual classrooms but what is it about those old systems that, from your point of view, needed disruption, needed changing, needed innovation?
Heather: Sure, so I’ll share a story with you that to me crystallises it, and this is a story about a trip that I took to an education conference, it was not in Europe in your part of the world, it was not in the United States, I’ll leave it at that, for the sake of this country not mention where it was but I will tell you that I met a young man there who was a beautiful architect, he had created a building that was in the town, it was just beautiful, and he also had near-perfect English and I started talking to him, I was fascinated about how he had become such an accomplished architect at such a young age, and he shared with me that when he was 10 years old, his family had...his father had been offered a job in Florida, so he moved with his family to Florida and enrolled in the local school, and within days the teacher at this primary school informed his parents that this young man had dyslexia and they didn’t know what dyslexia was, in fact in their home country, there wasn’t a direct translation for the term dyslexia, and this Florida school was able to diagnose that barrier to his learning and also recognise his genius and develop an individual education plan for him that helped him soar to the point where he went back to his home country, took a job as an architect and became very accomplished in his field. Now the interesting thing is had he stayed in his original country of origin, his life would have taken a very different turn. He would have been grouped with a cohort of 6 year olds and then travelled through the primary system and secondary system all the way through to the end before university in that same cohort. It was pretty stark in its exemplification of this idea of just standardisation. So same cohort, zero electives, once he got to secondary school, he had no opportunity to choose, if he perhaps wanted to focus more on art, or focus more on performance arts, or on engineering, nothing like that, no accommodation for any special needs he had or diagnosis for his dyslexia. His life would have been very different had he stayed in that country for all of his schooling. The example of what happened to him in Florida, to me, typifies what we’re talking about when we say student-centred learning. And it’s this idea that “is it new”, really as long as compulsory education has been around in the developed world, there has been a call for more personalised forms of education to allow students to move at their own pace, for allowing the curriculum to bend and yield to the needs of each learner. But what’s different is that with the emergence of some new innovations primarily internet based tools, that idea of allowing us to design a system that bends and yields and tailors to the individual needs of each learner is now becoming within reach and that’s what we mean by student centred learning. Our traditional classrooms have a bunch of design inflexibilities that make it hard for them to accommodate individual differences, and it makes it hard for the teacher to pause during the middle of a lesson and address a concern or a question of an individual, meet with those individuals one-on-one, conference with them, all of those structures are very hard in a traditional classroom that still has a lot of sit and get instruction. So the ideal is more of a student centred system that empowers the learners with tools and guides and a variety of learning pathways so that they can move through the system in a way that is more tailored to their needs. It really contrasts what I was just describing as a 17 year old, this big monolithic blob of bureaucracy where it’s just the bureaucracy and the system imposes the routine on these anonymous learners and instead what we’re seeing is this shift towards putting the student first before the politicians, before the state, before the teachers, before the curriculum frameworks, and deciding what that learner would best serve that learner and then bringing the tools together to light them on fire for them.
Simon: Yeah absolutely and it’s really a terrific story of that guy and that unnamed country, which shall remain nameless...
Heather: I don’t want a lot of bosses coming after me (laughing)...
Simon: Well I didn’t realise it was for those reasons we were keeping it nameless, were we not, but I won’t push for an answer on that front. But I guess as sort of inspiring as that story is and as much as it can act as a template for what can be achieved unfortunately for every one person who has that fantastic journey, there are a multitude of students who might have done just as well given the same opportunity but unfortunately could not. Even today in a scenario where as you say we have so many more resources and possibilities, and I guess to go back to what you referenced, the kind of bureaucracy you came up again, to what extent does that represent an obstacle for disruption. To what extent does the kind of official policies, the decision makers, the top of the pyramids, obviously it’s different depending on the country and it’s a different story, some places are a lot better at kind of being unified in terms of thoughts and making changes, others there’s a lot of different voices and things can move at a glacial pace, but I know this is kind of big picture kind of thing and we’ll zoom back down in a moment, but to what extent do you think even in a moment like now where we do have so much more capability, are these bureaucracies kind of posing a barrier to the kind of disruptive change that can make a really positive difference?
Heather: It’s an excellent question.
Simon: Thank you very much!
Heather: It is an interesting question because we are talking predominantly about schools that are public schools, most of the schools run in this world are run by the government, and so one can argue that the disruptive forces that transform other sectors are not at play in a public system, and I do think that countries who have the basic principles of a pre-market at play are much more amenable to allowing disruptive innovations to percolate up, but on that note, the regimes that are more authoritarian or communist that don’t have as many free-market principles in play are going to have a harder time preventing that fertile ground from which disruptive innovations can emerge. That being said, I’m actually quite bullish on disruptive innovations even in a public sector, they tend to find their way. And when I say disruptive innovation, I mean an innovation that’s not as good as judged by the traditional way of judging a system but it offers a new value proposition, so convenience, affordability, accessibility, and typically disruptive innovation gets its start serving non-consumers, that means people whose alternative is nothing at all and they say “well look, I would love to be able to go to a local video store and rent a DVD, but it’s too far away, it’s too hot outside, I don’t have a car, I’m just going to hop on Netflix and stream that movie into my home”, and then over time, that convenience becomes so alluring combined with the fact that Netflix figures out what to do to attract even more customers and to make it appealing, even to people who have a video store next door that they can walk to, they still are enticed by Netflix because Netflix over time improves its game and offers a bigger variety and there’s the ecosystem of streaming technology improves, until look left, look right, all of the video stores have gone out of business. That’s disruptive innovation. And even in the public sector, it seems to be that the grass finds a way to grow between the cracks of the sidewalk and typically what you want to look for is pockets of non-consumption. So as you look in the field of K-12 learning, where is it that there’s a missing learning opportunity? Often that’s where the disruptive innovation will get its start. So at the elementary school level, often times students don’t have a way of getting homework help or they’re learning a foreign language or maybe continuing to learn afterschool care. At the secondary school level, the non-consumption is even more abundant. So elective courses that aren’t available, courses that a student can fit into their schedule because of scheduling conflicts, perhaps they’re travelling for a sport for athletics so they miss some learning, all of those are areas of non-consumption where what we’re seeing is online learning creep in as a disruptive innovation to solve those gaps and it’s really not because of the bureaucrats, it’s not because of policy change, it’s because of a disruptive enabler, which is online learning, combined with enough of a free-market system that it allows for those opportunities to take hold.
Simon: I really like that as a way of framing it because it’s definitely the most political and economic that we’ve got on this podcast so far, but it is an important way to think about it and we’ll get into the specifics of it in a moment, but this idea of the economy of education and how that works and I suppose it’s definitely not just a fascinating, but a productive strategy almost to look at it as this kind of “filling in the gaps” and as you say “the grass creeping up” and sort of the public policy side of things having no choice but to take on what’s being offered because it is filling in those gaps so effectively and becoming making itself through its own progression and grassroots development so essential to students!
Heather: Yeah, let me just say in response to that, that to the teacher it doesn’t feel like a political or an economic. To that, it feels like “wow my learners in this rural part of town have an hour and a half that they’re spending on the bus”. I wonder if we can put a hotspot on that bus that would allow my learners to get their homework done while they’re driving home, so it’s just an engaged teacher who has a heart for the reality of her learners and the fact that they’re wasting an hour and a half on that bus ride who thinks “is there a better way to use that time?”. So really when you’re living the experience, it doesn’t feel political or economic, I’m just saying that those economic preconditions then allow the teachers of the schools to go forth and procure the hotspot and those various elements that they would need to actualise the vision but when it really, from a user’s point of view, what they’ll feel is they’ll see an opportunity, they say “wow it’s too bad that we don’t offer Arabic as a course at our school and there’s some learners here who want to learn Arabic and it turns out that in a neighbouring province, they are developing really beautiful online courses to teach Arabic perhaps we could use that to address that learner need”, and that’s what it feels like from an educator’s point of view.
Simon: Of course and as you say from the teacher’s perception, it isn’t an economic issue. It is just interesting to look at it in terms of those broader trends, but we will now pivot away from that into the kind of more specific lane of what this means for teachers and we’re going to do that by talking specifically about the disruption itself, so what it is that you do, what you can bring to a school, to a teacher, to a classroom in terms of introducing this disruptive education. I know blended learning is a massive cornerstone of that which is something we have covered on the podcast before, but can’t hurt to have a refresher of it on blended learning, and I guess following on from that, what the strategies are for introducing that and other forms of disruption into the classroom.
Heather: Sure, so just to continue with the story of disruptive innovation, I mentioned that online learning is appearing to be a technology enabler that breaks down many of the design constraints that in the past have dictated that a class has to be a certain number of minutes in a day, that it has to be configured relatively in a certain structure that cohorts of age-based students progressing through the system in a linear path, and online learning allows for a rethinking, a reimagining of what are the various pathways and various pacers and different guides along the way that could help a learner move more organically based on where they are in their learning. And so that vision came about with online learning, but then the question was “well how about our brick and mortar schools?” and students still needed to go to brick and mortar schools, for one thing just the practical concern of parents were working and they needed a place for their children to be, and then the social aspects and the love and the care that they get from the human contact with a teacher is so critical. And so online learning couldn’t be just this distance learning idea of “great, now you can access your assignment and your lectures online so just everyone work where you want, it doesn’t matter to come to school anymore”. But for the majority of students and families, they still want to go to that brick and mortar community, and so blended learning is the blend of that online potential into our brick and mortar, and so that at my organisation which is ready to blend, I focus on “how do we equip teachers to use the possibilities that that online modality brings to them?”. So really simply, one of the things that teachers do sometimes is a foot classroom where they, instead of having their students go to school and do the lecture and then go home and do the assignment, that’s flipped, and you’ve probably talked about this on previous podcasts, but they do their online learning ahead of time from home and then they come to school for lectures, so that’s a very simple entree into blended learning but just it’s indicative of the types of new models for teaching and learning that are possible because online learning is blending into schools.
Simon: Hey folks, hope you’re enjoying the episode so far and we’ve got plenty more to come after this quick break. Here at Atomi Brainwaves, we’re all about education, and not just for students, for ourselves too. We would love to hear from you, whether that’s feedback on one of our episodes or a question you’d like to see answered by one of our guests, or by Sue. So, if you’ve got a comment or a question, don’t hesitate to email us at email@example.com. Looking forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, let’s get back to it...
Simon: Yeah awesome, and as you say we’ve talked about it before, but always good to get a refresher from an expert in the field. Let’s talk a little bit about resources for a moment if we can because you know obviously it plays such a huge role in disruption in education and blended learning and it’s obviously something very important to us her at Atomi given that that’s our whole MO. I wanted to ask you about what do you look for in a resource that is going to bring value in terms of disruption to a classroom? What does it look like? Which applies by the way to online resources and obviously that’s going to be a significant part of the conversation. But even offline resources or how well an online resource combines with the offline within the classroom. What does an ideal resource look like?
Heather: Well let me start with a different version of a resource just to get a little bit philosophical with you...
Simon: Sounds good, love getting philosophical. First politics, then economics, now philosophy! We’re hitting them all...
Heather: Before talking about resources and the way we usually think about resources, I want to submit that one way of thinking about a resource is a mindset, that your mindset is a resource. So one of the resources in that sense that seems to be the most useful for schools is a mindset of embracing change, embracing entrepreneurialism, and the schools and the teachers who are willing to be slightly open-minded about what teaching and learning need to look like and be willing to change, are the ones who seem to have the most success. In fact, when I’ve surveyed school leaders, the number one competency that they say they are lacking in their staff is just the mindset of being willing to experiment with shifting from teacher-led to student-driven learning. So I’m going to throw that out there as one resource because I actually think it is a huge resource that is potentially a gap, is the human resource of embracing change, being willing to try stuff a little different from the past and experiment. So that’s the first resource. The second category of resources that I’ll name would be the content resources, so tools that allow learners to access content at their own pace so that they control. So whether that is a full online course or whether it’s more a playlist with resources, it is a system that helps them track where they are, maybe its digital badges that help them earn points and recognise where they are in their learning, anything in that category that helps give power to the learners so that they can see the menu of options and then have some power to drive their own learning, those are the content resources that are really helping to change the world for the learners. And then the third type of resource that is just so critical is the coaching resources, and so those are the people, whether they’re face-to-face or online guides, and in many cases a combination of both, that guide the learners, that love them along the way, that show them the unconditional positive regard, that give them feedback and build relationships of trust, and that is a resource that is absolutely critical as we combine them with the content resources.
Simon: All key and how they interact, all of the above is so important as well, getting the right balance between each of these things, the human element both in terms of open-mindedness and the guide that the teacher being there for the student, and also that balancing out correctly with what’s being offered online, that’s what I would imagine super important as well.
Heather: Yeah, there seems to be this sweet mix when you get all three of these working together that leads to the most gruff. One thing I found with teachers is that when you hear my story, at first you start feeling panicky because you think that’s so much change and how would I take my traditional classroom and change it to be something that’s really student-centred and learner-driven and learners are moving at their own pace and earning badges... it just sounds like a lot to build, but I want to just share that the fascinating thing that I hear on the other end of it is once you have flipped some of your lessons and built some of these content pieces and tried it, then teachers say I would never go back to the old way because I have so much time for healing connection, one-on-one, tutoring and mentoring and connecting with the child, and if someone is not there because they just, something in their life is amiss, the teacher finally has a way of minister to them and find out what it is, and that’s what is revolutionary. And in this world right now particularly I would say was some of the complexities in it, the fact that there are innovations that allowing teachers to get more healing and individual one-on-one, it’s just so wonderful. I think it’s really an opportunity that teachers love as they go through the sort of tunnel of misery of getting it built.
Simon: Absolutely, and it’s definitely a place we’re striving to get to for any teacher but I just, while we’re on this subject, I wanted to ask if we can consider Point A to be the position you talked about where teachers just are totally phased by all of these changes and “Oh my god, how am I going to do all these things?”, and then we consider Point B to be this perfect finishing position of they’ve mastered what’s going on, they’ve mastered how to implement this disruption and it’s opened up these avenues for having that extremely valuable face-to-face guiding interaction with the student. In terms of the space between those two things, the A to B, where yourself or another ready-to-blend coach comes into the mix, I wanted to talk about that journey. What are the common challenges that arise as a coach from getting the teachers from A to B, how you can overcome those? From your perspective, what does that journey look like?
Heather: Sure, so often times the first question I hear is what technology should be buy, what learning modules do we need, what tablet do we need, and a similar question I hear is which blended learning model should we do, what’s the right instructional model or learning model? And neither of those questions is the easiest place to start. The easiest place to start is by thinking through what are my goals, what do I want to make possible for my learners, do I want more individual time to coach them, or is it that they’re struggling to get their homework assignments done, and so I want them to do those assignments in class, or if I’m being honest, are my lectures fully boring and I want to find a way to increase engagement in my classroom. And so getting very honest about what are the problems and opportunities that I want to go after, that’s the starting point for the teacher. And just forget about the technology, forget about all of the building choices and instead think about what do you aspire to for yourself and your learners, and what sort of student experience do you want them to have, what you want to create for them as a teacher is the most rewarding for you. And then from there, you can start to look at the different models that can allow that to happen, so for example flipped classroom which we discussed looks very different from like a stationary rotation where you’re meeting in class with your students and they’re rotating from station to station and one of them is an online station, and that is very different from the a la carte model where students are doing a fully online course, maybe you have a learning café at your school now, they’re doing a fully online course with an online teacher. And that’s what’s different from a flex model where the learners are predominantly working through their own playlist online, but there’s a face-to-face guide whose pausing to launch the discussions, to meet and mentor, to enrich the learning with hands-on projects, to there’s another opportunity for a teacher. And after you’re clear on your goals, what opportunity you’re going after, what problems are you trying to solve, you can start to think through which of these models might help me make this goal happen?
Simon: Yeah, which kind of ties back into what you were saying, we looked through all of those phases of the mindset interacting with the resources interacting with then the relationship with the student, one kind of follows on from the other. The first thing that needs to be cultivated is the mindset, is the approach, and then everything kinds of stems from there. Would that be fair to say?
Heather: Yeah, I was really thinking about change this week because my children are home-schooling right now which has been a big change to our family and some of the projects that I started at the beginning of this year have taken a different course because of the things that have happened in the world and the intervening months, and I realised that I was feeling so uncomfortable, I was feeling anxious, and once I noticed it was because of change, but changes that were not even necessarily bad, there were some good things about the changes. It was just the human discomfort with change, it was easier for me to then navigate it and to almost embrace it, and I think the same thing is true in innovating in schools, that there might be some anxiety and some concern about changing from how we’re currently thinking about teaching and learning, but if we recognise that that’s to be expected, that that is a human reaction to anytime that we’re venturing into the unknown, and then turn to guides, turn to resources that can help you and take those steps. I do think it leads to living a better life as a teacher than if we always stay in our comfort zone and never are willing to take a step into that challenge zone.
Simon: It kind of actually ties itself neatly to what I wanted to ask you next which was almost more on the theoretical sides, because I know something that kind of pops up in your research and your writing is this idea of the theory of hybrids. First of all, I wanted to ask if you could explain what that is for us, what is the theory of hybrids.
Heather: Sure, so when a disruptive innovation emerges, the people who are going about their business as they were ahead of time see that disruptive innovation but they don’t really know what to do with it. An example was when Toyota in the electric battery, they said “wow that’s interest”, instead of just a gasoline powered automobile, “what if there could be some sort of battery charged automobile?” And they noticed that potential disruptive technology but they weren’t ready to completely abandon their gasoline powered cars, they didn’t know how to make a purely battery operated vehicle, they were used to selling for customers who expected some of the conveniences that petroleum offered and so rather than just completely abandon namely their whole fleet of gasoline powered vehicles, they said lets create a hybrid it will be the best of both worlds, we’ll put a battery into a Toyota Prius so we will have both gasoline and electrical charge and you can have both. And so it was a way for them to go to the market and offer the best of both worlds extensively to their consumers and it’s become the number one selling hybrid vehicle in America, the Toyota Prius. We see a similar phenomenon in schools that the incumbents, that means those who are already doing their thing, see the disruptive enabler on the horizon, they see online learning and they don’t want to completely just throw their lessons plans throughout their classrooms and just say we’re doing a full flex model from now on, it’s going to 100% flex. Well that feels troubling and you don’t even know how to do that and so instead what we’re seeing a lot of schools do is create more of a hybrid where they see we’ll take our traditional classroom and then we blend in some components of the online learning and hopefully offer our families the best of both worlds. And so when we talk about flipped classroom and station rotations and lab rotations, those models of blended learning are more hybrids, where they’re really preserving a lot about the traditional classroom but blending in online learning to add some of the benefits that can come from that control of time and pace and pathway and the gamification elements. And so they are the hybrid models and meanwhile we’re seeing what we call pure players which are where really the whole design of the traditional classroom goes out the window and instead schools are creating these new learning studios that centre on tools and guides and pathways that are optimised for the learner, and when you walk into one of these types of studios, you can’t even tell where the front of the classroom is anymore, it’s such a pure play disruption relative to the traditional classroom model. And so both strategies I think are important, I think that hybrid strategy of taking online learning and blending it into your traditional can bring some good improvements into to sustain your existing classroom model and to bring vitality to it, but then meanwhile the real pioneers in education who want to get out of the lead of what the future of learning will look like, they’re starting to experiment with the more disruptive models and thinking through “what would a high school a secondary experience that was all flex model really look like?” where those learners were equipped and empowered to have customised schedules and they set their tutorial schedule and their seminars and do project-based learning and it’s much more fluid and based on the needs of each learner, “what might that look like and how can we create a new school or a school within a school or maybe a summer school pilot?” to try and figure that out.
Simon: The opportunities are endless and I suppose you can kind of see the rationale for either avenue can’t you, because on the one hand you can totally understand how from a school’s perspective taking a total leap into the deep end can be quite scary, whereas kind of slowly going in to the shallow end and working your way along seems to make more sense, so you can understand that rationale for the hybrid side of things. On the other hand, if there is a disruptive innovation that you truly believe is going to add so much more value in that situation, it makes perfect sense to fully embrace that. I imagine though that for either direction you take, they pose their own unique challenges along the way. So I guess we’ll start with hybrid, then we’ll go to pure play, but what are the...for school as the kind of the larger institution entity trying to navigate through a transition into either of these models, what are the biggest challenges that you perceive to be, and how should a school approach them?
Heather: One of the challenges for the hybrid model is to configure the right team of people to bring that about. If you’re looking at a flipped classroom and you already have devices accessible and you already have some digital content available, then often you can empower those teachers to flip the classroom themselves, they don’t really need what would be called a “heavyweight team” made up of experts from a classier organisation coming in together to figure out how to flip the classroom, and so allowing the teachers enough autonomy to flip the classrooms themselves would be the most important response to that challenge. If you’re envisaging more of a station rotation where perhaps the 5th Grade students are reading buddies with the 1st Grade and it really affects operations and budgets and staffing, then it’s incumbent on the school leaders to form a teach that includes experts from across the school and that can come together and re-architect how that school will function. So I think that’s one thing to get right as you’re looking at the hybrid models is, is this something that teachers can do on their own or is it more of an architectural level change where we need to be proactive about creating a team that can come together and figure out “what does our school look like?” with a more rigorous blend of online learning infused into the classroom structure.
Simon: Okay fantastic. And now we’ll go to option B, we’ll flip to the pure play...its pure play, is that right?
Heather: Yeah pure play, that’s right.
Simon: Sorry I just got really paranoid there for some reason. That was wrong and I butchered the name. So same question I guess for the pure play side of things. What do the challenges look like there and what’s the ideal approach to take to navigate them?
Heather: One of the biggest challenges with those purely disruptive models, so a flex model or an enriched virtual or an ala carte blended model, is organisational resistance. So suppose you go to your very best English composition lecturer and say “guess what, we’re going to subside your years of carefully crafted lectures and replace them with these beautiful playlists of content that learners can navigate themselves”. Well I’ll tell you that all hell will break loose because the teacher doesn’t want to hear that, the parents don’t want to hear that, there are numerous political organisations that do not want to hear that, and so it’s a really bad idea. So the biggest challenge as you’re navigating those disruptive models is to look for pockets of non-consumption where it’s a pure opportunity. We don’t offer an Arabic course, no one’s threatened by bringing in an online Arabic course, and PS, while we’re doing that, we can start thinking through how we make this learning experience really take off for each student. Do we need to have a learning café? Do we have the right devices? Is the online teacher interfacing in the right ways? Does there need to be a face-to-face guide, and so what did they do along the way? All of those questions get explored, but you’re creating a safe harbour to do that innovation work without the community piling on and shutting down your effort. So really being smart as innovators about your strategy and looking for pockets of non-consumption places where the opportunity is nothing though. But interestingly in the world right now, there are so many schools that are closed that the world is awash in pockets of non-consumption and that’s why you see so many schools that are moving to online learning and distance learning right now without the community throwing up their arms. It’s because those alternatives are nothing at all, and when you are in a world where an alternative is nothing at all, that’s the most futile ground for disruptive innovation, and so we are seeing it everywhere right now, and these disruptive models all over the place and that was not true four months ago. Four months ago, everyone wanted to know how to do a station rotation, everyone wanted to know how to flip classrooms, it was all about the hybrid models, now everyone is saying “How do we do these pure disruptive models?”
Simon: Which is so fascinating and just to go back for a second, I quite enjoyed the parallel, you know when you’re talking about within the school and its surrounding community, this idea of finding the pockets of space, it kind of mirrors what we were talking about earlier in terms of the broader trends in relation to public policy, this idea of finding those pockets of space and letting it grow within them to the point where the previously sceptical majority can look upon and say “Why is there so much value being brought there?”, it’s almost even if you do want to oppose it, it’s hard to because you can’t ignore the evidence that’s in front of you of how valuable that is. So it’s very interesting to see how that kind of mats itself down from the top level all the way down to just one individual school.
Heather: I think you connected the dots on that really well, maybe you need a job at the Christianson Institute next because that is exactly true (laughing)...well everyone really hones in on that theory point of view but what you just identified is that disruptive innovations tend to find a way to rise up if you give them some field to grow. So some areas of non-consumption where they can prove that they are simpler, more convenient, more affordable, more accessible, and then they like a magnet and people will be drawn to them. In fact, one phenomenon we’re seeing quite frequently right now are micro schools that are outside the public system but are affordable because they’re using more flex model and people are drawn to those. They want that, they want for their children to have a more student-centred experience so there are various ways that these disruptive models, these pure play disruptions are taking route.
Simon: As you pointed out there are some amongst us, such as myself, who naturally pick up on and other maybe need it explained, but that’s okay too, nothing wrong with that. I guess we touched on it a little there but I wanted to kind of close our discussion by talking about kind of the present moment and where the wind is blowing in relation to disruptive innovation in education because obviously it goes without saying, the present situation in terms of the lockdown, in terms of the pandemic, what everyone is facing is changing so much, so that’s going to be a huge factor as part of this. But even outside of that different factors feeding it over the past few years, what would you say the prevailing mood is at the moment with regards to disruption, is it something that is becoming increasingly accepted, obviously you’re going to know best in terms of US schools, but even beyond that if you can speak to a global context, where do you think we are in terms of the temperature right now, and where we are moving towards.
Heather: My observation from the teachers who I meet with is a level of fear that I haven’t seen in the past and I think it’s because they’re looking at the potential for teaching in a way that is very different from what they’ve experienced in the past, and like we’ve discussed change can feel uncomfortable and yet it’s also one of the most beautiful ways to grow, is to be open to change, so I do think there is a level of discomfort right now, people are being asked to get outside of their comfort zone and think about doing their jobs in a different way and meeting learners’ needs in a different way. I want say on the other side of that thought, and I describe this tunnel with a tonne of misery, but when you get through and you start seeing that you are able to empower your learners and you are able to give them content and coaching in a way that lets them...sort of like that young architect I told you about at the beginning...where he wouldn’t have been able to soar had he not gone to a school that was more student-centred than his country of origin school, and now we’re taking that same idea of really thinking and diagnosing each individual strengths and weaknesses and individual needs, and then giving them even more tools and better guides to help them realise their potential. We are creating a better world for them, so even if there is fear and discomfort right now associated with the change, we’ve got to lean into that faith that because we’re pioneering some models that have so much opportunity to be more student-centred, we’re going to come out of this better people, I’m thoroughly convinced of that.
Simon: It’s a great mindset to have and as much as you’re right there is fear and of course that’s a natural impulse and reaction when faced as we are right now with a really difficult situation and lots of different regards. There is I suppose the cautious optimism that the kind of good you’re describing can come out of it. So a hopeful note to end our discussion on disruptive innovation in education, however, we’re not quite finished because we always like to end by getting from our guests a...it can either be a little piece of advice for teachers out there or just a little fun anecdote from your own experiences in education...can be more serious, can be more light in tone, whatever you’re feeling, but before we go, Heather we’re going to ask you for your fun piece of advice/anecdote for our teacher listeners out there.
Heather: My advice is don’t run down the grocery aisle before you learn how to sit in the cart. And what that means is we started this conversation by discussing these big families, and I don’t know, did your mother ever take you grocery shopping with her?
Simon: She did, I don’t know why she did, it must have been an absolute nightmare with all the small children, but yes she did.
Heather: (Laughing) So I come from a family of seven children as well, and when my mother took us to the grocery store, at first we’d be like strapped to her in some sort of baby carrier and then we’d be put in the cart and then once we learnt to sit in the cart we could sit in the cart, and then once we were toddlers and we could walk, often sometimes we could walk alongside her and hold onto the cart and ride alongside it, and then as we became even more responsible and conscious, we were able to maybe go down the aisle and fetch what she would need from the aisle and then by the time we were older children we could go all over the store and get the things we needed and often times things she didn’t want and put them into the cart, and there’s an analogy there, not only for learners but for ourselves. So for our learners, many of them are experiencing online learning for the first time and in some cases just say “Here’s your lesson, here’s your assignment, do for it”, it’s like saying “Wander around the grocery store, you got this” instead of giving them this incremental experiences to help them get to the point where they’re ready to handle their autonomy. The same thing is true for ourselves that right now as we’re thinking there are so many opportunities in education and I just expressed some real optimism around the potential if we do this right to make a better world, and I do think that potential is there. But, that being said, we don’t want to let ourselves just run all over the grocery store yet, we need to start with learning how to be in the baby carrier and then sit in the cart and then walk alongside it, and what does that look like? It means looking at one lesson that you’re comfortable with and thinking through how can I take this lesson and turn it into content that my learners can access according to their own timing and according to their own ability level? Looking at one increment of time on your calendar and thinking how can I use that time to coach an individual student. I’m just looking for those incremental steps forward and knowing because...most people who are listening to this are teachers, we know that humans need to develop within their zone of proximal development and just like a child needs those baby steps, we also need to set realistic one lesson at a time mindset for ourselves and know that over time they will accrue into something great, but it really comes from just looking at one individual task and thinking through how can I empower my learners, how can I make this something that they can tackle themselves so that my time is freed up to be a better coach? That’s how we get started.
Simon: I’ve got to say your words there have served as kind of a hybrid of their own, both a wonderful piece of advice and, for me, a complete trip down memory lane to my own youthful years alongside my siblings in the supermarket, so thank you very much for that double whammy. So that is all that we have time for today. Heather thank you so much for coming on and talking to us and sharing your wisdom and expertise.
Heather: Thank you.
Simon: We won’t keep you from your daughter’s birthday anymore, we’ll let you get back to that. To everybody listening, hope you enjoyed it. If you want to hear more, you can listen to more episodes on whatever platform you’re listening to this on, and check us out at our main site at getatomi.com. For the time being, it is goodbye from Heather.
Simon: And goodbye from me. See ya.