Too often a school’s recipe for technology integration feels something like the following:
- Start with your existing staff and environment
- Mix in some new technology
- Turn up the heat and just hope that something good will begin to rise in 1-3 years.
Recently, the Google Leadership Symposium, an event that brought together educational leaders to explore transformational change and to showcase technology as a tool to help increase student engagement and prepare students for the careers of the future, reminded everyone that this approach often just results with everyone feeling burned. Ultimately, it is not just the technology that makes for a great learning environment. So, even though Google, a multinational technology company partnered with us, Five-Star Technology Solutions, to host this event, one might be surprised to know that this really wasn’t a technology conference at all. The presentations and conversations certainly didn’t center on technology, integration, or Five-Star Technology Software Solutions. The conversations also didn’t outline 101 ways one can leverage Google Apps or Chromebooks in the classroom. Instead, the presentations and conversations kept coming back to how schools can build a culture of collaboration and innovation.
Each of the three sessions (Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation on October 1, Greater Clark County Schools on October 2, and the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township on October 6) started at the registration desk, where after typing in their names on a Google Form, our team encouraged attendees using Google Cardboard to sneak a peek at the Eiffel Tower or take a quick ride on a virtual roller coaster. After some opening remarks, James Leonard, the Regional Manager within Google for Education, turned the microphone over to the administrative teams of 2-3 selected schools to talk about how they have overcome various challenges and have started to transform their own schools. Here were just a few of the highlights:
- In northern Indiana, Penn-Harris-Madison spoke about how their district is experiencing the highest academic achievement in the district’s history while at the same time having the highest rate of Free/Reduced lunch students in the district’s history. MSD of Steuben County shared how, when three years ago they faced a long list of technical issues, support challenges, and poorly implemented professional development, they had the courage to ask some hard questions to recognize that all the areas that required improvement directly tied back to one gap: vision & leadership. And, Crown Point Community Schools shared how their work has really been about disruption and innovation — disrupting the barriers that keep students from learning at their own pace and innovating to meet the individual needs of students.
- In central Indiana, MSD of Wayne shared how they created a diversified cabinet with an equal voice to create their vision and empower their leaders and teachers to be vulnerable and take risks. Franklin Community Schools also spoke on how they formed creative and powerful partnerships with their community to financially support their transition and sustain those efforts.
- At the southern Indiana site, Milan Community Schools, Greater Clark County Community Schools, and South Ripley talked about how they have tried to keep the focus on good instruction and not about a device. They shared how their partnership with Five-Star Technology Solutions has allowed them to have the necessary technical, teacher, and leadership support and has given them a way to measure clearly their progress. As, South Ripley Community School Corporation explained, making the necessary shift wasn’t just about fixing equipment, it was about fixing the hearts and minds of the staff to have the trust and confidence in technology again.
In short, it became clear that each of the schools that spoke made a deliberate effort to become a district that was better at problem-solving, collaborating, and innovating — not because their district purchased devices, but because they recognized those qualities to be essential for any strong learning initiative.
After the school presentations, James briefly spoke about the culture that has been established at Google. Articles, books, and even movies have now captured the unique environment at Google – a place that is often described as a place to play as much as a place to work. People often cite the perks of being an employee, such as free food, an employee gym, on site doctors, and free massages. But as James spoke, it became evident that what makes Google a great place for innovation isn’t just some company perks, but rather an entire place focused on building spaces and opportunities for people to collaborate and think big. He spoke about the mindset of 10x at Google: instead of just aiming for products and services that make existing solutions marginally better, they have built a culture where employees are challenged to create products and services that are 10 times better than the competition. His comments about Google reminded me of some of the same reasons that I love working at Five-Star Technology Solutions. No, we don’t get free massages, but I do feel fortunate to work alongside people who aren’t content to just have schools using technology. Instead, our team really strives to change the world by making awesome learning experiences for students through the use of technology.
In attempt to get school leaders to think about ways they can improve their own district’s environment, James divided attendees into groups of six and challenged each group to tackle this key question: “How might we create rituals and routines that establish a culture of innovation in our schools and classrooms?” To help flush out creative ideas, he guided the group through the three stages of design thinking: 1) Ideation, 2) Iteration, and 3) Refine and Prototype. In as little as 30 minutes, very powerful ideas that could be easily implemented began to emerge, such as: changing the physical workspaces in offices and classrooms, adding 20% time projects for students and staff, and having “fail fests” to celebrate risk-taking and the growth that occurs from trying new ideas.
Attendees also were able to tour classrooms of the host schools and see pockets of innovation and collaboration that have started to blossom in each of the districts. Lastly, at the end of each day, our team showcased some Google tools and accompanying strategies that can further foster problem-solving, collaboration, and innovation in schools including: Google Forms & Sheets to Easily Collect & Manage Information; Using Google Hangouts on Air to Engage Your Community; & 5 Reasons You Should be Using Google Classroom.
In summary, in each of the locations, we had a jam-packed day that began to unravel some of the steepest challenges facing schools. It was a great time to not only celebrate the success of some schools, but also to acknowledge and celebrate the opportunity for growth that still awaits. And, yes, I’m sure that as the leaders transition from the bubbling enthusiasm of the conference to their own realities of their districts, each will be grounded in the challenges they face. But, when they face those obstacles, hopefully, this day will equip them to not just benefit from the powerful collaborative nature of Google tools, but also to borrow from the lessons of Google’s workplace. Afterall, according to Google’s own careers website, “what makes working at Google truly unique is the workplace culture that encourages innovation and a healthy disregard for the impossible.” And so it goes with school and school leaders.It’s not ultimately the challenges that they face that will define the leaders or the schools; it will be their ability to courageously face those challenges and establish a culture of innovation that allows them to overcome them.