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Project BluePrint: Curtis W. Johnson

Edina is hosting Project BluePrint Schools this week. Comprised of districts that are suburban and of similar stature in their respective states, Project BluePrint consists of the school districts of Guilford, Connecticut; Wayland, Massachusetts; Cape Elizabeth, Maine; Palisades, Pennsylvania; Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin; Clayton, Missouri and Edina.

Curtis Johnson, co-author of the book Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, was invited to speak to the superintendents, curriculum directors, technology directors and teachers representing the different districts. My notes on the session follow.

Johnson began by asking those in the audience "Why would a 14 year old want to go to High School?
His answer: Social Peer group interaction and to feel competent. Are our schools meeting those needs?

He then told the story of a suburban Boston convenience store that had lines of people buying milkshakes between 6:30-7 a.m. Johnson said that people "hired" the milkshake to have something to hold on to on the commute, because it was viscous so it would last a long time and not spill as easily as coffee, and it was filling enough to get them through lunch.

Johnson then shifted to our current realities in education.
Not long ago, dropping out could still be a ticket to success later in life. Today, not so much.
The economic downturn has lead to a new normal: We are not on top, we can't just roll out of bed and be successful. Commodities were cheap. Every trend that made us stay on top are in reverse.

China is back and here to stay.

Are we going back to that profile? Here are some statistics prior to the downturn:
  • 41% of workforce in financial services.
  • 35% of U.S. capitalization was in Real Estate
  • 58% of graduates of top universities went into Law or Finance. Not making things, or running things.
  • 1/2 of Wall Street trading on average is flash trading w/ naked access. All algorithms based transactions, not creating any value for anyone.
So where are we headed?
We're probably only going to do well if you are prepared to do something with your head. We still lose 20% of the kids. School is rigid, predictable and boring for those at the top, and we lose them too!

Disruption is a good thing!
Christiansen observed successful companies like Data General and Wang that died very quickly despite being well managed. The common thread was "good management!" They didn't look out their windows to see what was going on in the rest of the world. Why would they build a $2,000 computer with 4% margin when they could build a $500,000 with 40% margin.
What happened to the phone company?
Look at Toyota. The 1st Corolla's were poorly made, but "non-consumers" could afford them.
What drives organizations? People, Process and Priorities. Enterprises repeat the things that work. This becomes the organizational culture. Listen to your best customers. Who are the best customers in K-12? Parents of the children who do well! (Usually they did well in that type of environment too!)

"Society has moved the goalpost on K-12 education the last few years." From you are supposed to provide access to "you are supposed to provide achievement." The problem is the operating model of current K-12 is the model is not reflective of 21st century realities. Sequences and Silos. Getting to knowledge is not an issue today, yet the sage on the stage is still the most common pedagogy.

The model is NOT the way kids learn. Integrated knowledge is a part of who they are.
Never has every kid learned the same thing at the same time in the same place on the same day.
Standardization in the name of efficiency is not helping our students.

We have a performance problem, not a design problem. They just need to work harder! We don't back up to see if it's really a design problem.

If this is true, a big change is coming....
The online platform behaves like every other disruptor. Online learning 1.0 only appealed to a small narrow population. (TV delivery) 2.0 Online learning was a bit more creative, as it allowed schools to continue to offer subjects like German, Economics, etc.
Now, online learning is heading to the 3.0 phase. More interactive, individualized, beyond the experience available in the classroom. Video-conferences, guided tours of museums, languages, the best Chemistry course in the United States is online. It is too good to ignore.

How do we participate in this? The only examples of professionals participating in their own disruptions that are successful involve these important components:
Separate Space. Don't try to change everything or everybody-Just allow a few to try it. (Dayton's-Target example of decentralized Target didn't have to report to the Department store)
Radical Autonomy-IBM was the only company that survived the changes in the computing industry from mainframe to mini, mini to PC, and beyond.

It's a hard thing for people to do that, when there is fear of "what if they do well?" What about how unions will react?

Portfolio schools. Allow them to go do it and turn them loose. Judging them only on the results they get. If they can get to the 30-40% who we are not getting, then we might be able to do it.

Think about how different our demographics are from 30 years ago. Different internally from each other. Much more diverse. Students in Minneapolis come from families that speak 37 different languages. Shoving computers into classrooms hasn't done it.
It's changing the pedagogy to teacher as facilitator, coach, etc. that is needed. We've been talking about personalizing learning for decades, but the only place we really do it is Special Education.

Inserting our agenda into their use of technology.

Palisades has an Academy program where kids can learn in a different model.

Johnson on "Chartered Schools"-"There is no such thing as a "Charter school" it is a license to create a school under certain criteria. Is a Chartered School better than regular public school? "It's like asking if it's better to cook at home or eat out!"

Wayburn's superintendent asked the question: "How do you entice "us" to change? We're some of the most effective schools in the country! Why should we embrace this?"

Johnson: In the 90's there was no demand for e-mail. The same thing may happen in response to your question. If people are forced to move in that direction, they won't have the time to do it, unless they test it and develop best practice now.

The fuel injector put the carburetor out of business.
There is a perfect storm of kids who power down when they come to us. Parents think we're good at getting kids ready for beyond school and they need an online, student lead experience.
Efficiency in how we use our time as teachers.

In other industries, are their "creative deviants" that are currently underground and we're just waiting for them to surface. Are they under-represented in K-12?
Maybe many who leave after a few years are the ones who are leaving. "We won't get better teachers unless teaching is a better job!" "This is not a professional opportunity if you can't control your work."
Creating a space or environment where we're not compromising the results, but we're adding critical thinking and creativity.
Accountability for results next to the authority for the work. In teacher lead schools, they have both, and it makes all the difference.

Closing comments: see more at


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