5 Underconsidered Aspects of an Esports Program

In education, people are accustomed to building out and supporting instructional programs, athletic teams, or standard extracurricular activities, but they struggle when something new comes along. If there’s a new set of standards for math and we’ve got to revamp our program, we might revisit the most recent research, begin our instructional materials adoption process, find additional supplemental materials and manipulatives that align, build out a scope and sequence, implement a new professional development series, build out the courses in our learning management system, and plan for a system of ongoing support for our work.

Enter esports.

So many esports programs begin when someone in a school or district has a passion for gaming and feels ready to begin. We throw the kids and the coach into a room with computers after school and… done! Right?!

Wrong!

Here are 5 aspects of esports programs that are often forgotten or left behind and some questions for each that we need to consider to build a successful program.

1. Curriculum

Are we building an actual esports curriculum and specific courses that will support our program?

How can we weave this in where we are teaching digital citizenship, media literacy?

Which of our existing CTE, magnet, or innovative programs have curriculum that supports this work?

2. Career Pathways

Are we being intentional about the pathways beyond gaming that can be involved in our program?

Are we making the myriad career pathways that stem from esports clear to our students and providing access to opportunities?

How does this impact our community and vendor partnerships and how might we leverage them to benefit our program?

3. Scope and Sequence

How does this fit within an overall plan for esports for the district or are we just thinking about this as a random act of gaming?

Are we going to scaffold our program (i.e. Minecraft Education Edition at elementary, Rocket League and Super Smash at Middle, and League of Legends and Rocket League at High School)?

What are our pathways to success? Will there be a Practice Squad, JV, and Varsity?

4. Coach and Player Development

What are our plans to address the growth of our program other time by developing our coaches?

How do we plan to develop additional skills beyond the games and healthy digital habits for our students?

Are we leveraging existing (and amazing) resources like those provided by NASEF to build systems or support for our coaches and students?

5. Sustainability

We may be able to fund our initial push, but how do we ensure funding for the future of the program?

What community and business partnerships can we leverage that might benefit from students building the skills that come from a sustained, successful esports program?

How might we build capacity in our leadership and staff to make sure that our program isn’t dependent on one enthusiastic person?

Live Sports: EDU/X

Hot take: Watching a football game on TV is objectively better than being there in person.

  • You can actually see the players. And I mean REALLY see them. Up close, in slow motion, down the line, from above, with annotations.
  • Someone is talking you through every play, every backstory, and keeping track of the stats for you.
  • You can pause the game if you have to run to the bathroom, which is always clean and never busy.
  • There is no food or drink available at the game that you can’t make at home.
  • Temperature, precipitation, and humidity are an issue for the players, not you.
  • Cost: not even a close comparison. I can buy the entire season of games and food/drinks for every single one of them for about the cost of two tickets, parking, a couple drinks and snacks, and any other costs of being there.

Okay, so why are you so mad at me for writing this (and why do I personally disagree with my first statement)? Because what you’re undoubtedly yelling at the screen right now is, “It’s about the experience, you moron,” and frankly, I deserve it. And here’s where I’ll digress from the sports and head to education.

When we plan a lesson as a teacher, build out a master schedule as a school leader, or adopt a new program as a district leader, we tend to fall back on what is the “objectively best decision” at each fork in the road. While it might seem there’s nothing wrong with that plan, it ignores the fact that what we are doing in schools around the world isn’t just making decisions, but designing education experiences. And it’s this education experience design, or EDU/X– often neglected- that defines how our students, educators, and staff feel about their time in our care.

Before you close the books on the most recent decision you made in whatever chair you sit in, take a moment to reflect on how the current stakeholders education experience will be impacted. Not a simple, “they’ll like this because it’s fun, it helps solve X problem, etc”, but truly take stock on their current state and how you envision this decision playing out. As you’re thinking through the experience, consider your lowest and highest performing teachers or students. While it’s tempting to cover the most folks by considering the middle, it’s our folks around the edges that truly shape our impact.

And you enjoy that next game from the couch, I’ll be in the stands soaking in the experience.

Writing Goals 2020/2021

This post isn’t really thought leadership or education reflection. Let’s call it a check-in, accountability, and progress update on a goal. Last year, I set out to explore what it would be like to spend some more time writing. This wasn’t a SMART goal and I didn’t put steps in place or milestones along the way. I had found writing to be both cathartic and reflective and wanted to improve. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it also became a great way to organize my thoughts, practice communication skills, and highlight the amazing work I see each day with education leaders. I had three unofficial writing goals for the year.

1. Write regularly: Publish a new post per day for 30 days, no misses.

This goal was to stretch my creative ability to sit down and process the events of the day, combine it with a few nuggets I may have encountered, and put some pressure to regularly create something new. The initial goal was 30 days in a row of blog posts which I ended up continuing for 64 days. That wasn’t a magic number, I just felt like I now knew that I could sit down every night and come up with SOMETHING. The truth of the matter is that I actually wrote about 100 posts in that time, but many that needed to stay hidden were unfinished, unpolished, or unprofessional!

2. Write more broadly and take more chances: Begin writing content that I could submit to various publications.

I’ve often read posts on sites like EdTech, Education Week, and Edutopia with the thought process that those were written by “writers”. They were mythical beings who had a gift or went to school for writing, but then happened upon education and settled in. In all honesty, sometimes that is true but many of the folks whose writing you see are educators and leaders who are submitting pieces as guests to the publication.

The biggest difference between us and them is that they regularly submit articles and pitches to education publications, and we don’t. So I became a “them”. Because of my role, I’m in a unique position to be able to publish in EdTech Magazine, but rather than waiting for folks to ask, I started pitching them ideas. But that would be like cheating my way through the goal, so I set my sights on other outlets. I created a list of publications I wanted to target, read a LOT of articles on each, studied their submission guidelines, and started writing.

Some ideas were easy to write about, others a struggle. Some publications accepted the first piece I sent them, others took quite a while. This goal is still in progress and I’ve got a few sites and publications in my crosshairs. One piece of advice I would give folks who want to wander down this path is to just start writing and submitting. It took SIX rejections before I got a piece accepted into Edutopia and I didn’t start submitting to them right away- I worked up to it. And those were six submissions that I thought had a great chance and eventually ended up on another site, as a guest post on someone else’s blog, or here on my own site. That’s also what I would say is the progression of where my work ends up: more formal submission to a well-known publication > guest post on someone’s blog > my own blog > hidden in my drafts somewhere.

Here’s my progress so far… and there are still plenty of places I’ve gotten rejections from that aren’t on this list yet (I see you, EdSurge).

EdTech Magazine (this one is built into my current gig, so it’s a little different)

Edutopia (SIX rejections)

Tech and Learning (THREE rejections)

District Administration Magazine (this one is pre-goal during my district time, but also TWO rejections)

Teach Better (while working on another piece of content was introduced to this team)

eSchool News (ONE rejection)

3. Write to uplift voices. Collaborate and highlight the work of great education leaders.

This is pretty straight-forward: I work with amazing leaders in different districts around the country all the time. A large majority of the people that I work with are incredible educators, coaches, and leaders. I wanted to showcase their work, and also collaborate and help folks who wanted to get some content out there, but didn’t know how to navigate the landscape (I’m also still learning this one).

My three favorite examples of co-authorship and a shared writing process are the article on voice assistants in education with Julie Daniel Davis, the piece about creativity in the classroom with Mike Cicchetti, and the post about interoperability with Susan Bearden. My favorite piece where I got to highlight incredible leaders and their work is now live in Tech and Learning.

What started out as a writing goal morphed a bit when I took the opportunity to stretch myself creatively in the form of a web series and podcast. To continue shining as much light on amazing folks as possible, I started a web series and podcast, but that’s a story for another day…

Connecting the Dots

TL;DR

  • You’ve got to draw some dots to be able to connect them.
  • Sometimes dots present themselves, but you’ve usually got to take action or ask.
  • Once you’ve drawn the dot, you can always revisit it later.
  • Most dots will become useful in many different ways.
  • Document your dots, they rarely become erased or faded.
  • Be intentional about how you connect your dots.
  • You can always add new pathways or reconnect the lines.

Connecting the Dots

Connecting the dots in your life is great if there are already dots on the paper, but don’t forget that you can’t connect dots that aren’t drawn yet. Great– what does that mean?

It’s no secret that this has been a tough year, especially in the microcosm of education. Many teachers around the world have been tasked with running virtual and in-person classes at the same time. While Bo Jackson may have been able to pull off playing two sports at an elite level, educators struggled to find simultaneous success. This pedagogical feat of strength is sometimes called concurrent hybrid teaching by some and a steaming pile of- well you get the point- by others. Often maligned by those in the field, many teachers sought to retire early, avoid the profession altogether, or change occupations.

Over the last dozen years, I transitioned from a teaching position to a school administrator to a district edtech leader and finally to the corporate world of education (although not very far removed from district life). As such, I often get asked about the pros and cons, trials and tribulations, and overall process of transitioning out of the public servant side of K-12 education. With so many folks looking to make the jump, this year has been full of these types of conversations. This is also where we get back to the dots.

What are the dots?

The answer to many of the questions you would suspect someone might ask who is thinking of transitioning out of their district: connect the dots. Over the years, I amassed a lot of dots- each dot representing little activities, decisions, relationships, projects, and actions– that I was able to connect in many different ways to help lead me down a successful path and through multiple successful transitions. When most folks reflect on their time leading up to a desired transition, it’s not the fact that they aren’t connecting the dots that holds them back, but that they haven’t drawn enough dots in the first place.

Quick, but significant aside: I recognize that I am in a position of privilege as an able, neurotypical, cis-gendered, straight white male with a graduate-level degree. This privilege undoubtedly provides me more opportunities for success and influence than others. Back to the dots.

The following section is not to be boastful, but to provide a sliver of context for the work. When I interviewed for my first teaching job and was asked if I would take on the additional responsibility of being a class sponsor (not yet knowing what that meant), I agreed. When I interviewed for my second teaching job and the principal mentioned that he really wanted to hire someone with chemistry on their teaching certificate, I took the exam the next day and sent him a note to let him know that I had passed. While the dots themselves- the class sponsorship and the additional subject area certificate- were important, it was the growth in the relationships that really paid dividends in the end. When I wanted to start my educational leadership degree during my second year of teaching (the university’s policy was 5 years experience), the principal was happy to write a letter of recommendation supporting the journey. When I needed administrative experiences to create more dots, both principals provided myriad opportunities.

While your exact circumstances might prevent you from being able to participate in after-school activities or to sit for specific teaching certificate exams, you’ve got some dot-drawing activities at your disposal.

Dot Drawing

  • Writing a blog (like this one) to hone your communication skills and serve as a reflective activity.
  • Join or run a committee (or a few) at your school to expand your experiences, knowledge, and relationships.
  • Present on best practices at your own school, in your district, or at conferences (local, state, national, international).
  • Create and share lesson plans and resources (preferably for free*) to build relationships and connections.
  • Submit posts to education publications based on your experiences. There’s only one you and your voice is worth amplifying.
  • Ask questions. Ask for opportunities. Ask to know and learn more.
  • Follow-up with someone you meet at a conference or from another school.
  • Call folks using an actual phone instead of emailing them when applicable and appropriate.
  • Share your gifts (singing, drawing, baking, woodworking, crocheting, etc). They all provide opportunities for connection.
  • Write recommendations for folks who ask (and for folks who don’t on a platform like LinkedIn).
  • Volunteer.

Dot Documentation

In whatever way feels most natural, document the dots that you’ve created over the years. From a running list in the Notes app of your phone to a formal CV or personal/professional website, just make sure you are consistent. The most efficient and effective way I’ve found to do this over the years is to record them in specific categories as close to real-time as possible and update your resume often. You can trim down an overly inclusive resume (and always do) as you apply for a role, but it is often difficult to remember all those dots in the moments you need them most. The act of documenting them also helps solidify them into your memory (cite impressive study here). Think of this main document as the entirety of tools in your garage or around your house. When your father-in-law needs help replacing a few electrical outlets, you only bring the tools you need for the job- leave that circular saw at home.

Dot Connecting 101

When it comes time to connect the dots, be intentional about which dots you are connecting and why. Picture this: You recently talked to two folks (one is a teammate and the other you met at a conference) who are trying to solve the same problem. From a project team you were on last year, you also know an expert in that field. You connect both folks to each other and to the expert (and then follow-up or stay engaged). The intentionality behind the connection is important here. Connecting them to your sister the hairdresser is probably not the dot you need to get involved here.

The more time and energy you spend reflecting on your experiences and the dots you’ve drawn, the more connections will become visible. Also, you will start to see more connections as the dots are being drawn or even before you’ve drawn them. If you start to see the connection before you’ve drawn the dot, you can seek out a specific dot to build the right connection when you need it.

Just like neurons in the brain create many different synapses and connections, your dots are rarely relegated to a single connection. That project you helped get across the finish line becomes a starting point for five others and the source of three different personal connections which serve you at various crossroads down the line. One of those folks connects you to their cousin who runs an education podcast, and the connections continue. Don’t be afraid to reflect on an experience afterward and think carefully about the different benefits and connections that could be generated to help you continue your journey.

Dot Reflecting

At the end of the day, think of this as building a web of connections, where each dot is connected to 20 others, rather than a series of single cause-effect relationships forming one long queue of connections. Let’s head back to our teacher looking to transition to a corporate role. Multiple connections from each of our dots might be the difference between not knowing anyone at the company, to knowing one person who works in a department unrelated to the role we want, to knowing ten or fifteen folks spread throughout the organization.

Dots: Draw ’em, document ’em, connect ’em, and reflect on ’em.


*- I am, admittedly, known as a pretty open-source person. I’m a big fan of the relationships and opportunities that giving away resources have helped me create and nurture. However, I recognize the some folks rely on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers for additional and necessary income, but other get themselves in trouble for selling things that technically aren’t their property.

Right Place, Right Time

“Right place, right time.”

People often say this or some close variation to reflect on an opportunity they earned where they felt like luck or circumstances played a key part in their success.

This thinking suffers from being half (or maybe a third) of the story and it’s self-effacing. There are plenty of circumstances where we are in the right place at the right time, but still aren’t ready.

Give yourself some credit.

  • We need to have learned the applicable skills.
  • We must have cultivated strategic relationships.
  • We need to have made the decisions that set us on the correct path.
  • We must have lived through unique experiences that shaped us and helped us grow.

Right place, right time, applicable skills and learning, strategic relationships, accurate decisions, and unique experiences.

Privilege also undoubtedly plays a role here. As a straight, white, cis-gender male, I write from a place that acknowledges my privilege. My experience lacks the same constraints as folks in marginalized communities. The systemic racism, sexism, and other discrimination play a major part for many individuals as they experience the story above.

Sure, this doesn’t have the same ring to it as “right place, right time”, but it all plays a part in our luck.

On Your Stance…

Sorry, no golf tips here if you were misled by the title. My current reading, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, has me thinking about organizational dynamics and changes over time. Some of this post is a reflection on the reading, some is based on past experiences in driving change in organizations over the years.


Within your organization, there are probably things you wish were different. You’ve got different options for your change management stance. How you approach the changes that you seek and those options have different chances of success. This isn’t ALL of the possible scenarios, just a few common ones to think about as you navigate change.

You could…

Seek out key players within the organization who are currently driving change and learn from the ways they have found to navigate change within the overarching culture. Ask them to grab coffee or lunch. Offer yourself up as a resource to work on projects with those people. Use this time to learn about how change happens in your organization. Most importantly, appropriately express the need for the change you seek with a plan to get there.

You could…

Voice your desire as a dissenting opinion to all of those around you and try to build a coalition of peers who all agree that things aren’t as they are supposed to be. Over time, the negative opinions take over and no one really remembers what you originally were seeking change for, but now you’ve got a long list. Often, this group doesn’t have a plan to get to their desired outcome, just the idea that things are wrong.

You could…

Defend the organization as it stands because you have the feeling that ‘nothing that you do will make a difference.’ In your mind, you may not drive the change you are hoping for, but at least you won’t stand out and risk being seen as a rabble rouser.

So what can you do TODAY to start driving change?

  • Prioritize: Of the changes you seek, know which one will have the most positive impact for the business. This should be your lead dog and main focus to start out. Once you get there, you will have some credits in the bank that you can cash in for other, more personal or targeted change.
  • Clarify: Make sure that your vision for change is clear, concise, and easily digested.
  • Plan: Any time you are seeking to drive change, spend time thinking about how you might get there. Think of as many different departments and divisions as you can and how they would have to contribute. Maybe the change you seek requires more human capital than the organization can afford for the outcome. Your supervisor or project sponsor will appreciate and consider your change much more often if you being it forward with a well thought out plan toward the goal.
  • Collaborate: Figure out what problems are already being solved (or that the organization is trying to solve) and find a way to get involved. This will allow you to see what the process looks like and build up some change experience.
  • Network: Find people of influence internally that you can make connections with. When you are driving change, you need people with clout in your corner.
  • Stay Positive: While this seems obvious, staying positive can be one of the more difficult aspects of driving change. Throughout the process, you may be rejected many times. Your ideas might fall on deaf ears. It’s easy to get negative. If you can maintain your focus and stay positive, your chances of success greatly improve.

Teacher Foundation

In Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye, the author explains that in medicine, doctor’s spend years learning the basics of medicine, but don’t spend a lot of time diving into many specific maladies until they present themselves. The truth is that they simply cannot learn about every condition under the sun, especially those that are rare. So, doctors must spend time doing research after they’ve met the patient, after they’ve had time to consider the symptoms, the medical history, and the story they tell when they walk into the office, clinic, or hospital. What doctors learn in medical school is just enough to get them started, not the final destination.

And so it is in education. A foundation is laid in schools of education, teacher prep programs, and alternative certification paths around the world. Future educators build up a background knowledge of general theories of cognition, gain familiarity with the general technology and tools, research their specific content area, and study past pedagogical practices. But then, the teacher is hired and the students arrive- each presenting with a different educational history, different cognitive habits and routines, different stories in their past and their present. The teacher must lean on their foundation, but also consider the student in front of them each and every time. They must consider the lessons that their work and their experience have taught them. Again, their education is just enough to get them started on their journey, not the final destination.


Evaluating EdTech and Other Tools

Knowing how to assess educational content is a foundational skill, especially because the technical aspects often change in our fast-paced world. 

As an educational technology leader, I was often asked to evaluate educational content to help principals, teachers and other educators fill out district software request forms or decide on purchases. This involved talking to them about compliance, data privacy, interoperability, standards alignment, and, of course, costs.

While these factors are certainly important to making smart district-wide decisions around ed tech adoption, integration and use, I realized that they mostly hit on the logistics — the what and how aspects of educational content. By simply focusing on these factors, educators and administrators fail to address the basics: the purpose of a specific product, the expected outcomes from using it, and the educational experience they’re trying to create for their students.

Educators should be intentional about what content or product they introduce in their classrooms. Before they suggest or implement a new tool, they should ensure that it aligns with their instructional practices and consider how it might play out in a real classroom scenario with their actual students, staff, or lesson plans.

To better assist teachers and administrators going through this process, I came up with a strategy for evaluating educational content. Assessing Content in Education Systems, or ACES, is a great jumping-off point for discussing content and the role it plays in the curriculum. It helps educators look at content as if it were on a spectrum — not a diametrically opposed world of good and evil, but one that is flexible and focused on the student experience.

ACES is based on four key spectrums: active or anchored, creation or consumption, educational or entertainment, and social or solo. I’ve outlined them as questions below for educators to reflect on and use to drive conversations around a specific piece of content.

1. DOES THE CONTENT REQUIRE A STUDENT TO BE ACTIVE OR ANCHORED?

This question is all about the physical aspect of the experience you’re trying to build. As you’re planning your lesson and thinking about learning objectives, consider whether it would make the most sense to have a motion-packed or stationery activity. Which one would enhance the learning experience for your students? Which would best help them grasp the concepts you’re teaching?

2. DOES THE CONTENT PROMOTE CREATION OR CONSUMPTION?

Think about the different ways a tool might encourage students to create something from scratch or passively absorb knowledge. There are plenty of educational tools that are flexible enough for students to do both. For instance, Nearpod is a great online tool that enables teachers to present information to students in an engaging way. However, Nearpod can also be used to foster creativity; some educators have had students produce and present their own Nearpod lessons, allowing for a completely different learning experience.

It’s also important to remember that even though helping students become active creators is a crucial goal, especially with creativity being a 21st-century skill, consuming content is still necessary. Being a smart consumer of information is critical to developing a deep understanding of a specific subject and taking that understanding to the next level: innovation.

3. DOES THE CONTENT FOCUS ON EDUCATION OR ENTERTAINMENT?

This question will get you thinking about the primary purpose behind the content or product you’re evaluating. However, the answers aren’t always so clear. As educators continue to look for ways to motivate students and keep them engaged, the line between education and entertainment gets blurrier. Today, there’s content that’s clearly based around education with entertainment as an add-on and vice versa. Take educational apps that gamify learning, such as Kahoot, which can really bring learning to life. Again, there is no right or wrong when it comes to this spectrum; it all depends on what kind of experience you’re trying to create for your students.

4. DOES THE CONTENT REQUIRE SOCIAL INTERACTION OR IS IT COMPLETED SOLO?

Last but not least, ask yourself whether there’s an aspect of the content or product you’re evaluating that will require students to work by themselves or with others. Some classes or lessons may benefit more from one tactic than the other. It’s also important to think about learning objectives here; for example, if the goal is to get students to gain independence in problem-solving and practice self-reflection, basing an activity on a Zoom breakout room may not be the way to go. Introducing the use of a digital notebook may be the better option.

Knowing how to evaluate educational content is a foundational skill, especially because the technical side changes often in our fast-paced world. Before getting down into the nitty-gritty of data sharing or platform access, it’s crucial for educators to prioritize and reflect on the learning experience they want their students to have — from what kind of interactions they want their students to have to how they should feel when using that content or product in the classroom.

Signal to Noise Ratio

In 2015, as the new head of instructional technology for a school district of 19,000 students, 1,300 teachers and classrooms, and 2,500 staff, part of my role was to plan, implement, and support the audio-visual equipment over our approximately three dozen campuses and ancillary sites. We were transitioning from projectors and interactive whiteboards, to interactive flat panels. Think of the new solution as a flat-panel TV, but with touchscreen, embedded instructional software, and rugged to withstand a classroom environment. We were transitioning from DVDs to digital video. But one thing that was a constant was the audio enhancement systems we had been installing for seven or eight years already.

Purchasing big-ticket items in a school district comes with a lot of responsibility, a lot of time speaking at board meetings, and a lot of planning and budgeting. Another thing that the role has in great abundance is the opinions of others on how to best do your work and accomplish district goals.

Our audio enhancement systems, at the time, are something that we did universally in all of our classrooms. It was one of our district standards. While many folks loved the systems, used them every day, relied on them, and praised our standardization, others felt that they were a waste of district resources and many people were not taking advantage of them. I constantly heard the, “my voice is loud enough, so I don’t need to use it,” argument.

I’ve never been someone to just take what I’m handed and continue to “do what we’ve always done”, so I decided to dive into the research because I couldn’t imagine that we invested in this significant instructional infrastructure just to ease the voices of our teachers. Each system cost roughly $1,000 including installation. At 1,300 classrooms, that is an initial $1.3M investment with ongoing support costs and a refresh/replacement cycle for the equipment. These systems are not some casual add-on to a classroom- they require installation, ceiling mounted speakers, a tie-in to the computer system, microphones, etc.

What I learned about the importance of these systems in the classroom is something that served me well in my role and in sustaining this important equipment for our students (because it is for them and not the teachers), but also in my life.

Enter the concept of the “signal-to-noise ratio”. If you already know what it is, please don’t blurt it out and spoil it for the kids who didn’t read that issue of Modern Acoustics or get their degree in audiology.

WHAT IS SIGNAL-TO-NOISE RATIO?

At it’s most basic, signal-to-noise ratio is the proportion of how much sound you want to focus on (signal) is present compared to the background noise. Now, let’s step into the classroom.

Aimee sits in the front row. She has students to her sides and behind her, but no one in between her and the front of the room. Assuming that the teacher spends most of their time in the front of the room, she is much closer to the signal (teacher’s voice) than many other students in the room. Because of the lack of other students in the vicinity and he proximity to the teacher, the signal-to-noise ratio plays in her favor.

Tyrie sits in the dead center of the classroom. He has students in front, on the sides, and behind him. He also sits under the ceiling mounted projector which has a fan running throughout class. With the students and projector creating an increase in background noise, and his distance from the teacher decreasing the level of signal, the signal-to-noise ratio starts to impact his learning.

Finally, we have Lia, who is sitting in the back row and has students to the sides and in front of her, with every conversation impacting her in some way. Every sneeze and every sniffle lie between her and the teacher. In addition to the student noise, the projector fan, the speaker for announcements, every shift in a chair, and every dropped item in the classroom increases the background noise, for a signal (that regardless of teacher volume) is still lower for her than for her counterparts.

If you include the fact that our students are interacting with more and more multimedia in class as well and most of that signal comes from the front of the room if you don’t have a dedicated system, you start to understand what a pivotal role signal-to-noise ratio can play in the classroom and in our lives.

Once we had a conversation about the research and signal-to-noise ratio with the board and district executive leadership, the hesitation to continue the project ceased. We then turned our efforts to making sure that our teachers understood that regardless of their vocal volume, their students’ learning experiences were vastly different depending on where they sat.

Now let’s take this a step farther and layer on top of this the fact that the idea of signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t only apply to sound. If I’m in the front of the room, I also see everything that the teacher intends for me to see, and nothing that my classmates are doing behind me. If I’m sitting in the back of the room, I see every student, every movement, every door opening; every possible distraction is between me and the intended experience.

MOVING OUT OF THE CLASSROOM

Think of your own work now. Think of how many tabs you have open on your computer while you are working on a presentation or researching for a project or preparing for the big meeting. Think of how many notifications you get on your phone, your tablet, your computer, and even your watch. Think of how many disruptions exist from folks walking in or through your work area. Think of how often you are reading emails or checking on social media accounts when you’ve got a looming deadline.

This is all a signal-to-noise problem. In the classroom, we can design and implement a system that serves to push the signal-to-noise ratio back in favor of the learner, but this can be much more difficult in our daily lives. I’ve taken two tips from one of my favorite TED Talks (5 ways to listen better by Julian Treasure) and adapted them to help me right my ship when I feel I’m moving too far into the background noise of my work.

1. SILENCE

Treasure mentions that three minutes of silence a day helps to recalibrate your hearing so that you can better hear quiet noises again. I echo this, but add that you should try to pull away from the work, from the screens, from everything for a few minutes a day, not only to recalibrate our listening, but to recalibrate our sight and one of our most important and very limited resources, our attention.

2. THE MIXER

When you are in a noisy environment (noisy with sound or with distractions), take a few moments to try to identify each individual sound, each person’s voice, each item that is pulling our attention away from the work that we should be focusing on.

Identify them, so that you can address them. I once took this inventory of the number of notification and status lights that exist in my room at night compared to what would have been in my parent’s room 25 years ago. Since I spent the time to identify, it became easier to address them and limit the distractions, to improve my signal-to-noise ratio.

Once you become more aware of the items that are pulling you away from your work, that are impacting your signal-to-noise ratio, you can set yourself on a path to sharpened focus, increased productivity, heightened listening, and improved learning.

On Version Numbers…

While we are living in this world of social, political, and educational uncertainty, it is a great time to do some reflecting and assess a few things. I’m brought back to a section of Jesse James Garrett’s The Elements of User Experience where he addresses the idea of Scope Identification. While his work focused on user experience, it is an incredibly useful tool to help guide our work, either as a teacher, leader, or in whatever role we currently play. For example, if your life as a teacher was turned upside down by a pandemic and you had to reassess how you were going to deliver instruction, scope identification is very handy.

Scope is the sum total of work to be completed. Hence, scope identification is the process by which we determine what work is actually going to occur as part of a project or program. Scope identification allows us to accomplish three (maybe four) very important goals. Allows us to identify what we are building. Allows us to identify what we are NOT building. Allows us to identify what we are NOT building YET. That final piece can be broken down a littler further into things we are NOT building YET that are a modification of the current system and things we are NOT building YET that are a total remodel of the system.

Think of this as the process you can use to divide your work on a project into buckets.

  • Version 1.0 – The first bucket is the ideas that are most critical to creating a working product and being able to minimally complete the work. Equally, or even more important for the sake of focus are the next few buckets.
  • Version 1.1 – The second bucket is the ideas that are not mission critical, but will improve version 1.0 through slight modifications or feature enhancements.
  • Version 2.0 – The third bucket is the ideas that only come to pass if you are building a new system to address the work or the idea. They are the ideas that are part of re-imagining the work.
  • The Garbage Can – The fourth bucket is the garbage can. These are the ideas that you are not using. Not now. Not ever. Or at least you don’t think you’ll use them for now, so they aren’t part of your work.

While you don’t have to set up actual buckets, use this method in whatever way you like to organize the next time you tackle a project. If you use the example from the first paragraph of a teacher in the pandemic, version 1.0 is the teaching you did immediately after we moved to remote learning back in the spring. It was keeping the ideas that are most critical to continue to deliver instruction, connect with kids, and embrace the change.

As you iterate forward and create modifications for version 1.1 or 1.2 and re-imagine your work for version 2.0, formalize this process by documenting what ideas go into each bucket. Keeping an actual record of the work allows you to stop losing your good ideas to the ether and saves you time by not wasting a lot of brain power or precious minutes rehashing an idea that you’ve already determined is ready for the trash bin.


This post is part of a series on EDU/X, an idea that applies the elements of user experience (U/X) design to the world of education. For the first post in this series, head to https://www.designededu.com/strategy/.

The need for recognition…

If there were ever any question that all people, regardless of demographics and circumstances, all share a need for some kind of recognition of a job well done or task completed, the posts we’ve seen online lately solidify the answer. When people spend time together, either in a work setting or personally, they are generally aware of large milestones in each other’s lives. It is hard to hide from everyone you know that you are getting ready to sit for the bar exam, earn a new certification, get a new job, or complete your doctorate as you defend your dissertation. There is a natural recognition that arises from that proximity.

Enter COVID-19, remote work, and distance learning…

As many of us are removed from our previously normal interactions- even those who are back at an office or in a more formal work setting talk about how differently the day unfolds- we continue with our accomplishments. There seems to have been a remarkable uptick in the number of people I have seen posting on social media about matriculating through a doctoral program, defending their dissertation, or earning a new type of certification. For many, these milestones are normally recognized through formal ceremonies or face-to-face events which cannot currently be held. Many of these accomplishments are part of a long-term cycle of work or are multi-year commitments, so they had clearly begun long before the pandemic hit.

This isn’t a post to talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or rather its “generous borrowing” (appropriation) from the Blackfoot people (thanks Ken Shelton for pointing this out). This is a post to say that people wouldn’t be posting if they weren’t proud of their accomplishments and in need of some recognition. Here is the ask: rather than clicking a quick ‘like’ and moving on, take a few moments to comment and re-share to help provide the recognition that these folks deserve.

During this tough and confusing time, we could all use a little more love from our community.

A bullseye on the wrong dartboard…

It’s great when something you design elicits an unsolicited “Oh, I totally get it now.” This design did that for a few people in my former school district and for that I am excited. It is so important to remember that most design- and even most art, has function. It can be something that might seem insignificant, like a quick presentation to your colleagues, or something enormous like the rebranding of a major corporation.

Both are important and the work you do will reflect who you are and make connections between you and your audience whether large or small. Second, they both have function. Two vital thinking points for your design: 1) Do you have a clear idea of the function? 2) Does your design, as simply and clearly as possible, reflect that function? However, what isn’t addressed here is whether or not we are hitting the bullseye on the wrong target when we create something like this.

Confusion abounds surrounding testing in education and which assessments are formal and informal, formative or summative, competency-based or standards-based, where and how each is administered, and what purpose each type of assessment serves. When asked to create a model to help explain this and clear up the confusion as we launched a new set of assessments to fill a perceived gap in accountability, the question I should have been asking wasn’t how do I best represent the system. The right question is whether or not this is the right system at all.

Outside of certifications (here’s my most recent opinion on those), there are very few practical, authentic activities as adults that mirror the multiple-choice test we were subjected to as students and that we continue to subject our students to. The idea brings me back to an amazing podcast episode about creativity with Mitch Resnick from the MIT Media Lab, where he asks if we are measuring what is most important or simply what is easiest to measure. In other words, are we throwing darts at the board in our eye line because it is the closest and most obvious target or are we taking the time to find out which board the competition is actually being held on and hitting the bullseye on the correct target? Are we even playing the right game? Are we holding darts and everyone else is playing chess?

In the case of the assessment graphic, I can confidently say that we weren’t asking the right questions to make sure we getting to the purpose of the assessments and asking the questions surrounding the authentic role assessments play in our district. Writing a quick post and recognizing we could have done better doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility I have in perpetuating that system, but I believe in the idea that when you know better, you do better. Let’s all strive to ask the right questions and make sure that when we hit that bullseye, it’s both accurate and precise.

Striving to Come Up Short

As time has gone on, we’ve seen and read countless headlines and articles about education and the impact of the current pandemic on the underlying systems of support our students and their families have come to rely on.

The emerging popular narrative is summed up by this heading from a large hardware manufacturer’s website: “eLearning and Remote Teaching: Recreating the Experience of the Classroom Online”. While this is one microcosmic example, other evidence abounds that as a society, many people are looking to return to or recreate the way things were before the pandemic and hold that as the gold standard of what education could be.

For many, the idea of ‘it worked for us’ or ‘was good enough for us’ is taking over as the dominant storyline. The problem with ‘it worked for us’, is that it only works if you are an ‘us’. If you are a ‘them’, by definition, it doesn’t work. If you are a member of the BIPOC community, LGBTQ+ community, an economically disadvantaged family, or part of any other population or community that has been historically marginalized or underserved, then you are likely to be much less excited about returning to that same system.

Before we rush back to a system that worked for ‘us’, let’s consider how we can make everyone an ‘us’ through meaningful dialogue, process and policy changes, thoughtful decision-making using the idea of education experience (EDU/X) and day-in-the-life simulations, and a growth mindset about our system. More than anything, let’s focus on what education could be instead of what it was.


Quick note: This commentary is on the overall conversation surrounding education right now. There are absolutely some school systems that have endeavored to take the road less traveled- seeking to innovate and create a system that better serves their students. They are working toward building out new structures where previous structures have been failing to align with the rigorous brain-based education research that has proven we know a better way. More on that in the future…

Conversion Rate in EDU

In e-commerce and marketing, conversion rate is the percentage of visitors to a web page or online store who become paying customers.

In the classroom, think of the conversion rate as the percentage of present students who actively engage in the learning process. I want to stress that this is for students who are ACTIVELY engaged, not just compliant (if you want to dive deeper into engagement and compliance, check out the visual below about Schlechty‘s model, visual by Sylvia Duckworth).

Image

When looking to increase conversion rate on the web, there are a lot of changes you can make to your site, but the most important is to focus on the user experience (U/X), or how something performs or behaves in the real world when its being used. Thinking about your site as an experience helps frame issues that are causing people to browse instead of purchase.

When looking to increase the conversion rate in education, educators need to think about the education experience (EDU/X) that we have in place for our students. EDU/X is based on the keeping the full experience of our students and teachers at heart as we make decisions in our schools and classrooms. For engagement, that means thinking about each activity as part of the whole instruction and keeping the flow and overall impact of each piece in mind as you build. Keeping the full breadth of EDU/X at the heart of our decision-making in our classrooms (albeit virtual or in-person), will help us transform students from simply being present to actively engaged.

While some people believe that engagement strategies are more ‘fluff’, there are two things that I’ve noticed in the last decade.

  1. Students need to be present (digitally or in-person) to be engaged, so we need to drive attendance. Students show up when they feel valued, loved, and safe.
  2. Students need to be engaged to be learning, so we need to drive engagement. People engage with content and strategies that are authentic, relevant, and thought-provoking.

On ‘Lazy’ Students

In education, some adults talk about students who simply ‘don’t care’ or are ‘totally against learning’ or are the ‘laziest group I’ve ever had’.

Hard truth time: that’s a reflection of the teacher in front of them at that time. Their laziness is boredom and disengagement with the work and it is feedback to the teacher. We know that feedback can sometimes be hard to take and this situation is no different.

So for all the educators talking about their lazy (but actually bored, or disengaged, or marginalized, or traumatized) students, what steps are you taking to improve what you do? How can you reach your students where they are and engage them? How can you improve your practice and ignite curiosity and creativity in your students?


I know that this is a hotly contested point of view and I’m positive that there were times I was one of those teachers. But it holds true as I look back and reflect on my years of experience as a student, teacher, administrator, consultant, and strategist.

The group most heavily impacted by this is our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community. They do not find themselves reflected in their teachers or their schools, their culture is not displayed in textbooks or on classroom walls, and they regularly encounter resources and assessments written with incredible bias and they are then labeled as disengaged. This is a reflection of the system and our practices. If you want to start to understand the problem as it impacts the Black community in particular, please read For White Folks Who Teach in the ‘Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too, by Dr. Chris Emdin.

Process and Product

In The Elements of User Experience, by Jesse James Garrett, he introduces this idea:

We do some things because there is value in the process, like jogging or practicing scales on the piano. We do other things because there is value in the product, like making a cheesecake or fixing a car.

Jesse James Garrett – The Elements of User Experience, 2003

When thinking about education experience (edu/x) and the impact of our work, where do you find value in the process and where do you find value in the product?

The Whole Employee

In educational institutions, a lot of time is spent talking about the whole child. While this is absolutely vital to the success of the student, school, and district, it is also important that people remember the whole employee.

In Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, he discusses the impact of trust and valuing all members of the team, regardless of where they sit. When CEO Bob Chapman came in as the new leader at Hayssen-Sandiacre, he worked to increase trust and break down barriers by removing time clocks, and allowing access to equipment that was previously locked to employees on the manufacturing floor. Over time, the culture improved greatly, employees helped each other more often, and were able to more efficiently take care of their machines- oh, and the companies revenue grew from $55 million to $95 million. While this wasn’t only due to the shift of priorities and increase in trust, they definitely played a part in the success.

Beyond trust, another way to develop the whole employee is to invest in the development of your people. Remembering to build the employee’s professional AND personal skills will go a long way to strengthening the relationship between the employee and the organization. Strengthen this relationship and employee retention and satisfaction will grow.

In one example, it may seem counter-intuitive to teach an employee how to build a LinkedIn page or improve their resumé if you lead with the assumption that they are looking for employment elsewhere; however, that employee is viewed by others as part of the larger organization. The improved profile will better represent both the employee and the organization as a whole and signify a layer of trust, thus strengthening the relationship once again between the employee and their organization.

In education, this strengthening of the relationship between the organization and the teachers will then trickle down to the student, leading to more support for the whole child. After all, people who have their needs taken care of can better focus on the needs of others.

#UpsellEducation

Upselling is a sales technique whereby a seller induces the customer to purchase more expensive items, upgrades, or other add-ons in an attempt to make a more profitable sale.

How can we as educators upsell our students, so they are induced to ‘buy more’: to dive deeper into exploration, extend their own learning, and upgrade their creativiry or critical thinking skills? What does upselling look like from a teacher’s standpoint? An administrator’s?

Being Reactive

Reactive has a bad reputation.

While it is important to have vision and be proactive, that is only one piece of the puzzle. You must effectively and deliberately react to a wide variety of situations on a daily basis to be a strong leader. Part of your strength is born from your ability to consider options and react decisively when facing adversity and difficult decisions.

And although it seems counter-intuitive, sometimes the best reaction is deciding not to act.

On Being Helpless

We like being helpless. It may sound odd, but think about it. How many times have you heard, “I would like to do __ but we have this policy,” or, “I want to be able to __ but the people that work for me just aren’t performing.” If things are out of our hands, then we don’t feel responsible when nothing gets done and nothing changes. When everything is status quo, we get to be stagnant, blame others, and say that there was nothing we could do.

If there is a policy or process in your way, seek first to understand. Then research alternate policies that help address the fear that is part of the original policy. If you can help people move beyond the fear, than you will be able to make meaningful change. Don’t let yourself get caught up being helpless and in the blame game, instead become a part of the positive change for your organization.

Should

Should is the enemy of progress.

Instead of “We should make this change,” replace it with, “We are making this change.”

Start.

We should be improving practices, but are we? Or are we just recognizing that there is a better way out there that we aren’t currently executing on?

The difference between the pioneers, leaders, early adopters, and everyone else is that they are already making changes that everyone else should.

Digital Trail

Our trail on the internet is sometimes called our digital footprint, but there are two distinct pieces that make up that trail which render the footprint analogy only half baked. For the work that is actively being completed and the accounts we continue to access and build, these are our digital footprint. New enough and still within our view so that we can take action to make changes if necessary and continue to actively shape their impression. But when it comes to accounts we no longer have access to or have long since forgotten, it is much more permanent than that. The definition of fossil (trimmed for dramatic effect) is: a remnant, impression, or trace of an organism of past geologic ages that has been preserved.

How many of your digital fossils will future digital archaeologists unearth?


During an otherwise great and impactful conversation with Mark Otter (CEO of Participate), we digressed to talking about Second Life and I found that my account still exists. Other than my original AOL Screen Name and a MySpace page, I’m trying to think of what other #DigitalFossils I’m leaving behind.There was that brief moment in time that I had a tumblr blog- time for a digital dig!

Three types…

Three types of great employees: those who do the work, those who love the work, and those who live the work. You will be happy with all of them, but there are huge differences in what they can do for your organization. As a leader, it is important you understand who they are and what they are capable of.  

Paint Around the Edges

When painting a house or a room in a house, we tend to want to get that roller in our hands and get the bulk of the square footage done with a few broad strokes. Completing the ‘cutting in’ and the trim work generally takes a lot of time, a lot of tape, a lot of patience, and a steady hand. When the job is done, it is rare to find imperfections in the broad strokes, they are easy and cover fast. However, it is the work around the edges that really shows the quality of the work and where we notice those imperfections. When we get a glob of blue paint on the white ceiling, our eye is drawn immediately to that spot every time we walk in the room. Being content with the work requires a strong focus on those outliers, on the work around the edges.

Moving now to education, we know that we can reach most of our students with the broad strokes of the roller, with our standard methods and curriculum. But the true measure of our effectiveness is how we address our high-flyers, low-performers, and other outliers- differentiation is our work around the edges and it is difficult. It takes time. It takes patience. It makes all the difference.


This is a post I wrote on LinkedIn about 4 years ago. As I consolidate my content here, I’ll breath new life into a few of the highlights from other platforms in the past.

Stockpiling Great Ideas

Personally I’ve got ideas and notes in the margins of books, in the Notes app on my phone, scribbled in notebooks, as audio recordings, emails to myself, as Google docs, and the list goes on. I’ve started consolidating and stockpiling them here, as drafts in a folder for my blog which I then revisit daily. But the real question is: how do your professional self and your organization as a whole stockpile great ideas?

How do you record and revisit:

  • When the team is working on a project and digresses into something that could make for an impactful project?
  • When someone asks a question during a meeting that sparks a great idea, but the timing isn’t right?
  • When you know that a feature or improvement isn’t in version 1.0, but might be appropriate for 1.4?

To dip your toe in the water, work with your team to build out a designated place/method for logging these ideas and set aside a time once a month to revisit them and decide where on your road map they will live. Maybe they are ready for a beta test right away, or they are moonshots that don’t have a place on the map yet. Ultimately, each one could still be important to the future version of your team and you can’t rely on remembering them when the time is right- you’ve got to plan for their eventual integration.