Congratulations to Judge Nathaniel Jones!

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2016-07-15 08:00

KnowledgeWorks heartily congratulates Judge Jones on receiving the NAACP’s prestigious Springarn Award. His long, distinguished career as a judge, attorney, civil rights champion, and community leader is legendary, and his impact on every aspect of civil rights law is undeniable. This highly-coveted award is perhaps the culminating recognition of Judge Jones’ incredible life of service and commitment to equality.

As a member of KnowledgeWorks’ Board of Directors for the past 14 years, Judge Jones has humbly and unselfishly shared with us his incredible insights, wisdom and experience. His is a consistent voice for young people who struggle in their education journey, and he always reminds us that we exist to insure equal access to high quality education for all. He serves KnowledgeWorks and many other organizations with the highest levels of integrity and purpose. Our community and our organization owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Judge Jones for his incalculable contributions toward our mutual well-being.

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Meeting Students Where They Are

Posts from WOL - Wed, 2016-07-13 10:30

Natalie Matthews is a kindergarten teacher at Newell Elementary School in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. She provided her expertise for our latest policy resource, “The Shifting Paradigm of Teaching: Personalized Learning According to Teachers.” To learn more about the district’s work in personalized learning, visit here.

Two years ago, I began a very typical day with a staff meeting. Everything about that day felt normal until my principal announced that our school was applying to be a part of the first cohort of personalized learning schools in our district, and he was looking for volunteers to be a part of a team to lead some work over the summer. Our initial reaction was, “Oh no, something else to do,” and the intense looks of fear spread the notion that “something is changing.” Very little details were shared beyond needing to assemble this team to attend a week long personalized learning institute in July. My day had shifted to slightly atypical and slightly uncomfortable, but my interest had also been peaked, so I volunteered.

Prior to that week, I’d always wanted to be “in the know.” I was the teacher. I run the classroom. I say what goes, who, how and when. And as I entered the institute, I brought that attitude with me. I also, however, brought as much of an open mind as I could.

Throughout the week we learned more about what personalized learning could be, what best practices might fit under this umbrella, and had a lot of conversations about what this could and should look like at our school and throughout our district. We worked as a team of 15 schools, ranging from kindergarten teachers to calculus teachers, principals to facilitators, each with a wide range of student populations, to develop a definition and foundation for personalized learning that we could all grow and build from.

This was not an easy process, especially not for someone like me who wanted to “be in the know.” I found it difficult to create a vision based on a philosophy rather than a program. As teachers, we were used to being mandated to use different programs to teach, and this was truly a unique and foreign opportunity. We explored, discussed, and analyzed our collective philosophies of best practices. We were given the freedom to create what was best for our students. After this collaborative week, my mindset was forever shifted. Although it was quite scary to begin implementing personalized learning, my mind was eased by the culture my principal had fostered throughout the school. He had established a culture in which it was safe to try to new things and fail as long as we were moving forward and doing what was best for kids.

I spent the rest of my summer researching and trying to figure out where exactly I wanted to start my personalized learning journey with my kindergarteners. To others faced with the same prospect, start by building your classroom culture and really focus on the whole child cornerstone. Once you have this as a foundation in the classroom, everything else is easier to implement and establish.

Luckily for me, the year prior to our personalized learning journey, we had implemented a 30 minute morning meeting, and I could now use this time to build the culture and help shift my students’ thinking from a fixed mindset to a stronger growth mindset. We discussed goals, norms, learning styles, how we all learn differently, what makes us unique, and everything in between. I believe because of the culture and learning environment my students and I built together, they were more willing to take risks with me and take more ownership of their own learning.

Throughout the school year I tried many things. Some things worked extremely well, while others were a complete failure. During these successes and failures, I had those honest conversations with my students on why I thought this worked and why this might not have worked. Even at 5 and 6 years of age, children can handle these things and engage in this level of conversation, especially when they are trying new things.

Many visitors spent time in our classroom that first year. The novelty of what we were doing was a big draw. My biggest “aha” moment came to me when a newspaper reporter visited, and after interviewing me proceeded to speak with one of my students, Sammy. He asked Sammy what he was working on, and Sammy, ever so nonchalantly, shared his choice board and said, “I’m working on these letters.” The reporter then asked him why he was working on these particular letters and not others. Sammy’s response?

“I already know those letters so I don’t need to practice them, duh!”

It was at this moment that I realized I had been teaching all wrong for years. Personalized learning is just what my students needed for me to embrace and understand so that I could meet them where they are and provide them with the best educational experiences that I could.

Up until this point, I had still been a little nervous and skeptical about personalized learning, but when my 5-year-old student told an adult he already knew something and didn’t need to waste his time learning it again, it all clicked in my head. As adults don’t want to sit through material we have already learned, so why should our students have to spend time with material they have already mastered? Doesn’t it make more sense to meet the student exactly where they are?

Ultimately, for me, personalized learning is a collection of best practices and just makes sense. Our adult world is more personalized all the time, so if our goal is to truly prepare students for the future, their real world, then we should begin to personalize their learning, too.

For more insights into personalized learning, download our latest resource, “The Shifting Paradigm of Teaching: Personalized Learning According to Teachers.”

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6 Resources to Engage Students and Energize Educators

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2016-07-12 08:00

Our technical assistance coaches recently gathered for their annual Coaches’ Camp – a time when we can all come together in our own Professional Learning Community to reflect on the school year and advance our own learning.

We instituted a new protocol this year, something we’re calling, “Lightning Round Learning.” We asked each participant to bring one new article, video, book, tool, etc. that the coach thinks is a game changer for our work. Each person presented the game changer during “lightning rounds.” Participants shared their resource in pairs or trios, with each person having 5 minutes to share.

We previously shared their 8 game-changing book recommendations. This list is the second half of the list of resources our coaches tapped as “game changers” for the learning environment, for both young people and adults.

“5 Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning”

This 6-minute video from Edutopia provides a great overview of project-based learning (PBL) and focused on 5 key aspects for designers. It compares what learning looked like in the past to what it can look like with PBL.

“Digital Reading Poses Learning Challenges for Students”

In this article for Education Week, Benjamin Herold explores if reading comprehension suffers when students read on digital devices. He quotes Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, saying, “We have to move into the 21st century, but we should do so with great care to build a ‘bi-literate’ brain that has the circuitry for ‘deep reading’ skills, and at the same time is adept with technology.” This article offers good insight to teachers and administrators as they looks at literacy plans in their districts.

“Never Say Anything A Kid Can Say!”

An article by Steven Reinhart in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, suggests that leading math teacher to do less telling and more facilitating. The article shares 16 specific strategies for teachers to implement in classrooms, beginning with “never say anything a kid can say.”


As teachers look for new ways to incorporate formative assessment into their lesson plans to gather data and help move achievement, one app worth exploring is Plickers. It uses technology without requiring that each student have access to technology. With Plickers, students hold up cards in response to questions and teachers can quickly scan the room for quick results.

“The Iceberg Illusion.”

When we see an image of an iceberg, we’re usually only seeing what is above the waterline. What lies beneath might be much larger than what’s on the surface. That’s the idea behind this post about success. “People only see the end goal, the glory, the monumental win. They don’t see the dedication, hard work, persistence, discipline, disappointment, sacrifices, and many failures it takes to reach ‘success.'”

“What the Heck is Design Thinking Anyway?”

The creators of the Results May Vary podcast, on which design thinking is the common theme, wrote this simple explanation of design thinking for Medium. The describe design challenges and design thinking in a different way, outlining the four phases of the process as:

  1. Getting focused
  2. Getting inspired
  3. Getting scrappy
  4. Getting smarter




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The Shifting Paradigm of Teaching

Posts from WOL - Mon, 2016-07-11 10:49

In late summer 2015, I sat at my desk with a list of names, email addresses, and a task that I was certain would be impossible. Just days before schools across the country would open their doors to a new school year, I needed to set up interviews with teachers to learn more about the innovative work they were doing. Thinking back to my own years teaching in the classroom, I doubted that any of these teachers would have time for a two-minute bathroom break, much less a one hour phone call with someone they had never heard of.

To my delight, two months later, I had 100 pages of notes from interviews with 77 teachers and administrators from all over the country. Not only had these teachers squeezed spare time out of planning and after-school meetings, they had inspired me with a joy and enthusiasm that is often expected to be lacking in conversations about the teacher profession.

At KnowledgeWorks, we’ve spent the past few years researching how to support an education system that puts individual student needs at its foundation. We’ve been actively shaping federal policies that enable personalized learning. We’ve learned from districts that have been leading the movement towards student-centered instruction. We’ve also worked with school districts to identify which state policies are barriers or enablers for scaling personalized learning.

This work opened the door for us to partner with the National Commission for Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF) and to consider the implications of personalized learning on another level of the education system: the teachers who spend every day with our students. We wanted to understand how the personalized learning actually plays out in a classroom, and we wanted to know what it takes for teachers to shift practices that have been the norm for generations. After several months of interviews, poring over the interview notes, and identifying big picture implications for the teaching profession, we are eager to release a paper summarizing our findings today. You can download the paper here.

The teachers who contributed to the research included veteran teachers who were re-energized by their new approach to teaching, cautious teachers who weren’t sure about new approaches their colleagues were taking, and grab-the-bull-by-the-horns teachers who took professional risks and devoted a significant amount of personal time to finding new ways to reach all of their students.  In conjunction with the paper’s launch, we are reconnecting with several of the professionals interviewed and making space on our blog for them to share their story in their own words. We look forward to the conversations that will emerge as education professionals across the country consider the cost and benefits of a transformed system that strives to meet the needs of every single student.

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Answering the Call

Posts from WOL - Wed, 2016-07-06 09:20

At our most recent board meeting, we celebrated the 90th birthday of KnowledgeWorks board member, Judge Nathanial Jones. Jones is a retired federal judge and served as the general counsel for the NAACP during the 1970s. He is a giant in the fight for civil rights in this country and in South Africa. He a recipient of the Springarn Medal along with such luminaries as George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the first African-American appointed assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in 1962 and served as Assistant General Counsel for President Johnson.

In honor of his birthday, former President Clinton wished him well over video and President Obama sent him a letter, both expressing their gratitude for his life of service. Judge Jones is an icon. He is a gentle, contemplative warrior for justice. He has a quiet, unwavering force to him. He personalized a note on the inside cover of his autobiography, Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America, to each senior staff member at KnowledgeWorks. Judge Jones wrote the following in my book:

Note from Judge Jones

I’m fortunate to know this man, but for this man to write me a personal note about my work is incredibly movingand unexpected. For him to call me a “strong advocate for improving education for all children” is beyond humbling and something I will cherish.

Like Secretary Riley about whom I wrote recently,  I feel truly honored to know Judge Jones and to have gotten to observe  and  learn from him. Both Secretary Riley and Judge Jones have made KnowledgeWorks a better place, but more importantly for all of us, they have spent their lives making America a better place.

One of my favorite quotes from Robert Kennedy comes at the end of his message on the evening of April 4, 1968, the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated,

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Each of these men dedicated themselves to this exact charge and I’m exceedingly grateful for their dedication.

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8 Game-Changing Books to Accelerate Learning

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2016-07-05 08:00

Our technical assistance coaches recently gathered for their annual Coaches’ Camp – a time when we can all come together in our own Professional Learning Community to reflect on the school year and advance our own learning.

We instituted a new protocol this year, something we’re calling, “Lightning Round Learning.” We asked each participant to bring one new article, video, book, tool, etc. that the coach thinks is a game changer for our work. Each person presented the game changer during “lightning rounds.” Participants shared their resource in pairs or trios, with each person having 5 minutes to share.

Eight books topped the coaches’ list. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Better Conversations Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected by Jim KnightBetter Conversations Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected by Jim Knight

This book offers powerful and intentionally reflective professional development for how to improve conversation skills with others so that relationships continuously improve. Conversation is the lifeblood of any school. Key themes throughout this book are are trust, empathy, questions and beliefs and author Jim Knight offers resources for going deeper.

Daring Greatly by Brene BrownDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do us just show up! This book explores themes of vulnerability and opportunity, authenticity, shame, truth, courage, transparency, and whole-hearted living. Rather than focus on winning, this book teachers the value of courage.

 Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher EmdinFor White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … And the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin

Christopher Emdin challenges the perception that urban youth of color can’t succeed in the school. The book addresses teaching approaches that often hurt youth of color and offers food for thought on how to counteract them. He reimagines a classroom where students own their learning.

 Strategies for Teaching the Students who Challenge Us the Most by Jeffrey BensonHanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students who Challenge Us the Most by Jeffrey Benson

Author Jeffrey Benson shares detailed student stories; strategies for analyzing students’ challenges and creating personalized plans; recommendations for teachers and support team; and advice for administrators on how to stick with students until they “get it.”

 Pushing Boundaries and Challenging Conventional Thinking by Todd Nesloney and Adam WelcomeKids Deserve It: Pushing Boundaries and Challenging Conventional Thinking by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome

The authors of this book hope to encourage and challenge you to get unstuck and break out of that rut. They ask, “What if learning was exciting and students felt important and empowered every time they walked into the building?” Lots of ideas!

 16 Essential Characteristics for Success by Arthur Costa and Bena KallickLearning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success by Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick

In this book, Aurther Costa and Bena Kallick share “a repertoire of behaviors that help students and teachers … navigate problems in the classroom of real life.”  Nearly ten years old, the insights from Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick still hold up. This book contains rubrics for competency-based education.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua HammerThe Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer shares the story of a race to save literature that will have readers asking, “Would you risk your life to save a book?” That’s what faces the people at the center of this story about saving precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda. Hammer provides a poignant reminder of the importance of literacy and literary works.

 Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill GeorgeTrue North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George

This book is a collection of stories from leaders (CEOs, political leaders, etc.) about finding your true leadership style. The common thread throughout is that all the stories are about failure and overcoming that failure – ultimately resulting in triumph.


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A Change in Name Only

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2016-07-01 09:49

As KnowledgeWorks looks to strengthen its role in building the capacity of school districts and communities to personalize learning and ensure students are college and career ready, I am happy to announce a next step in taking the work we’re already doing to an even greater level of impact: as of July 15, our subsidiary, EDWorks, will be known as KnowledgeWorks.

Over the past nine years, EDWorks, as a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, has impacted countless students, teachers, and school administrators, providing incredible opportunities to students through its early college high schools. Their work to provide access to to low-income and first-generation college goers, who haven’t traditionally found themselves on a campus, has been exemplary.

This change is in name only. KnowledgeWorks will continue to design and implement early college high schools and early college feeder patterns, just as they have always done, but now with the added option to blend the work with competency-based education. By combining efforts in early college high school and competency-based education, KnowledgeWorks will have enhanced capabilities to partner with districts who are motivated to dramatically improve student outcomes and will be able to provide greater support to districts and schools in personalizing learning to help all students succeed.

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A Homecoming for EDWorks

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2016-07-01 06:54

In the words of Otis Redding, I’m coming home.

Or rather, we are. On July 15, EDWorks will become KnowledgeWorks. I’m proud of what we accomplished as EDWorks, but I’m also excited to be going back to KnowledgeWorks, which is where our work started in 2002.

KnowledgeWorks will continue to build upon the success of EDWorks innovative school designs and deepen our work with schools to provide even more meaningful personalized learning experiences. Partnering with states, districts and schools, we have helped improve education opportunities for students in grades K-16. EDWorks has raised performance expectations for 180,000 students, while more than 12,000 teachers have sharpened their skills through their professional development models, and will continue to do so.

Since its inception, KnowledgeWorks has been dedicated to helping students have access to meaningful personalized education that prepares him or her for college, career and civic life. Over the last year, they have expanded the teaching and learning team to include competency-based education. By combining efforts in Early College High School and competency-based education, KnowledgeWorks will have enhanced capabilities to partner with districts who are motivated to dramatically improve student outcomes.

We might be changing our name, but the great work on the ground with students and teachers races on. We will continue to design and implement early college high schools and early college feeder patterns, just as EDWorks has always done, but now with the added option to blend the work with competency-based education.

This change will bring even more resources, experiences, and networking opportunities to our students and educators – and to the communities we’ll serve in the future.

It’s great to be home, KnowledgeWorks!

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Addressing the Needs of Workforce Development Does Not Have to Come at the Cost of Student Choice

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2016-06-30 17:40

After reading a recent New Your Times article about alternative pathways for youth instead of college by Jeffrey J. Selingo, I wonder what sort of future the author envisions for our children. What kinds of jobs does he think they will have? How does he imagine they will engage in civic life?

recoveryIn the Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s paper “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020,” the authors state: “By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.” While Selingo is correct about the upcoming shortages in areas concerning advanced manufacturing and healthcare, he fails to recognize that unless students have the proper industry credentials, those jobs are out of reach.

Selingo based his editorial on two years spent traveling the country and talking to employers about their needs. I would challenge the author to spend two more years doing interviews that focus on students. Not just students with privilege and access, but students of lower socioeconomic status who feel college isn’t an option for them.

Should it be the norm that we increase the equity gap as our country continues our demographic shift towards browning of our culture? The answer is not specialty colleges that have a high admittance standard and add barriers to access, as the author would like to see. The answer, rather, is increasing the number of all students with access to programs that eliminate the barriers of access and increase equity by better preparing students that are low income and first in family to attend college.

Selingo says, “What we need are job-training institutions on par with academic institutions as prestigious and rigorous as the Ivy League to attract students interested in pursuing skilled jobs critical for the economy that don’t necessarily require a four-year college degree.”

His intentions might be in the right place, but when you get skilled in only one job path, you limit your options for upward mobility in an ever-changing economy. When you give students access to an early college high school, you give them options for the job training Selingo advocates, in the form of career certifications, and also access to college, but without any of the debt Selingo bemoans because early college high school comes at no cost to students and their families.

The choice for whether or not a student goes to college should not be decided for them. We should be empowering our students by giving them choices.

We should be empowering our students by giving them choices.
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The days of tracking students into programs based on academic ability or wealth needs to cease.

The success of early college across the United States demonstrates that this type of school removes barriers for students and opens up possibilities. Early college high school makes it possible for students to earn an associate degree while in high school. The data shows that most early college students continue on to earn a four-year degree.

Selingo is correct in thinking that we have huge workforce challenges facing our country in the near future, but there is a way to address these without decreasing equity and access to college for marginalized students. My challenge to you is to visit early college high schools near you and learn more about this proven solution. Encourage the business community to rally around students and help them engage in learning that sets them up for success in college or career. Or, if they choose, both.




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EdTechs to Watch

Posts from WOL - Wed, 2016-06-29 04:05

EdTech has the power to transform the classroom. But rather than replacing teachers with machines, educators in the very near future will have more tools at their disposal than ever before, enabling them to do more of the work that led them into the classroom in the first place: a love of teaching, of seeing learners inspired, of making real connections with students.

Our latest future forecast explores a range of possible futures where technology will be just one of the many tools available to educators to greater personalize learning and create a student-centered learning environment. Interested? Here are just a few standout technologies to keep an eye on:


There are many learning management systems that will tell you that they support project-based learning, traditional learning, blended learning, competency-based learning, and personalized learning, all in one SaaS app. This feels a lot like saying you can play tennis, go bowling, and run a marathon in your Keds, which I guess you could.  But MasteryConnect absolutely nails the competency-based education space. Tracking mastery for every student, every day, across every academic subject plus agency skills for every grade level and every learning target produces a mountain of data points, liberating teachers from spreadsheets and wall charts. MasteryConnect shows teachers in a simple, visual format where every student ison every learning target, allowing teachers easy grouping for instruction and students easy progress on to the next target.


A Harvard project brought to market, Root is a cute little robot that attaches to and roves about your whiteboards. Root is fully programmable using a simple mobile interface and aims to teach kids as young as kindergarten to learn to code.

The coolest part about Root is that it has three levels of “coding.” The first looks a lot like Scratch, a picture and word-based programming interface that lets you drag and drop a line of commands: go forward, play the musical notes A-D-C, go right, blink pink and then blue, draw a series of circles with its hidden pen feet. Create a repeatable loop that you can insert into your sequence. Level two breaks down the same commands further into more complex if-then-else statements and introduces variables, and level 3 is full-on JavaScript. As a holder of an early Computer Science degree, I bet I would have found out I liked programming at a much earlier age had something like Root been around. It’s extremely well executed and represents a great blend of age-appropriate learning science, engaging technology, and F-U-N.


Districts use Clever to connect different applications together and to share central information (so there aren’t 101 copies of the master student roster out in the wild to be maintained, for example).  In a fragmented EdTech marketplace that’s still showing no signs of consolidation and remains composed of purpose-built, best of breed tools, integration will be king. Clever saw this early and unabashedly established itself in the somewhat unsexy market segment of integration tools as the framework of choice with a smart business model (schools don’t pay – software companies do) and a clear, focused product strategy.  If they can continue to expand into other areas of integration, they could become the Cisco of EdTech.  Remember: the folks that made a fortune in the gold rush weren’t the prospectors – they were the makers of the pickaxes and shovels.


Turnitin applies AI algorithms to literacy. Writing assignments are evaluated for originality and adherence to form, and formative feedback assessments of content are provided by the software. VP Elijah Mayfield states that “students are more willing to accept criticism from a computer than critical judgment from a human teacher.” Turnitin has definitely progressed the farthest in algorithm-based writing assessment, and the technology is sound and impressive. While this tool undoubtedly frees up teacher time, you’ll have to be the judge of whether it frees up the right time. Accepting critical judgment from a human is a life skill that just might come in handy later in life.

The internet abounds with hype about technology taking over the classroom, but real blended learning opportunities enhance the classroom. EdTech is a lot less about glazed-eyed students staring at online videos and a lot more about coding robots that engage students, tools that create a seamless, low-maintenance back office, and apps that free our teachers to spend their time doing what they signed up for:  educating students.

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How Should Blockchain Be Used In Learning? Give Educators a Say.

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2016-06-28 12:54

“So are we talking about using Bitcoin to pay tuition?”

I asked my colleagues that question on the first day of my graduate internship at KnowledgeWorks. At the time, it represented the extent of my understanding about blockchain and education. I had only left the classroom as a middle school teacher a few weeks before, and as a foresight graduate student, I was much more interested in social shifts than in technology hype. So when I learned that a blockchain project would be a centerpiece of my time with KnowledgeWorks, I was curious but was honestly unsure of what we even were talking about.

Since then, I’ve learned an enormous amount about the technology, its possible uses, and, yes, the social shifts accompanying the interest around it. But more importantly, I’ve become even more convinced that educators must have a prominent voice in conversations about how emerging technologies might shape our education systems. Today, we are releasing our paper, “Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?” which includes four scenarios that explore just a few of the many possible ways blockchain and smart contracts could affect education:

  • Faster Horses – A district increases efficiency and security without truly personalizing learning
  • Terms and Conditions Apply – An ed tech product promises turnkey personalized learning – at a cost
  • Parent Power – Unschoolers coordinate self-directed learning with smart contracts and secure access
  • Systemic Synergy – A regional learning ecosystem enables and credentials customized learning pathways.

If you work with students or make decisions about education technology, I specifically invite you to read them and consider their implications.

When I taught 7th and 8th grade, my school implemented a 1:1 Chromebook program. To this day, I’m grateful for the opportunities those devices gave my students to explore beyond their immediate environment, to exercise independence, and to create amazing artifacts of learning that would have been impossible without a computer. However, looking back, I wish I had asked more questions about Google’s data policies, had been more discerning about the products I used with my students, and, above all, had had the opportunity to use more tools that were developed for and byeducators whose main motivation was to make learning more relevant and meaningful for students. Education technology is a multi-billion industry with increasing influence over what happens in schools. We need more people who work directly with learners to have a say in what’s created and how it’s used.

The impact of blockchain and smart contracts on learning seems far away when we consider rates of change within education. But Sony is already developing a blockchain-based testing platform; organizations such as The Open University, ACT Foundation, and Teachur are exploring their potential uses in education; and early developers are already experiencing the struggle and complexities of actually implementing these emerging technologies. That means that now is the perfect time for educators and other education stakeholders to begin considering their potential uses. We don’t yet know how they might be developed, packaged, marketed, and used in education. In what ways might blockchain and smart contracts be used to benefit learners? How might we ensure that they are not used simply to make current inequitable systems more efficient? If these technologies do take hold in education, what precautions need to be put in place in the early days? Ultimately, how might we develop and implement these or any technology in ways that support more relevant and meaningful learning?

Educators should have a prominent voice in how blockchain, smart contracts, and the smart transactional models that they enable develop.  I hope you’ll to join us in exploring possibilities and in advocating for the uses that you think best support students and the kind of learning you want to see in ten years’ time.


Download “Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?

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A True Statesman

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2016-06-28 11:35

I’ve had a great many wonderful experiences being part of the staff at KnowledgeWorks. First and foremost, I cherish the people I’ve been able to work with, know, and learn from. This includes working with our board of directors.

Recently, former Secretary of Education and former Governor of South Carolina Dick Riley rotated off our board after over a decade of service. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with Secretary Riley. I could go on for the rest of the blog post about his resume, sense of fairness, or the fact that he is a true statesman. However, I’ll focus on the man and my connection.

I grew up in South Carolina during the late 1970s/early 1980s when Riley was Governor. My family  discussed politics at the dining room table, and among my first political memories were the names Kennedy and Riley. I had a keen understanding at 4 years old that Riley was the Governor of the state and thus like the state’s Daddy.

I grew up and ended up living in 8 states and two countries before one afternoon when I was reading the Pat Conroy novel, Beach Music, one of my favorite books, Governor Riley showed up again. Conroy had woven Riley into his story of forgiveness and redemption set in Beaufort, SC.

Even later, when Riley was the Secretary of Education under President Clinton, he helped to craft a program called GEAR UP, and I helped to write and secure a GEAR UP grant before going on to direct it for 7 years. Even then, for me, Riley was larger than life. He had breathed life into a program that would be the beginning of my career.When I transitioned to KnowledgeWorks, Secretary Riley was on the Board. I worked with him closely to help craft strategies to support innovation along the I-95 Corridor in South Carolina and traveled the state with him. His grace, insight, quick wit, and hand crushing handshakes endear him to all he encounters and inspired me.

In speaking about the Secretary at a recent Board meeting, I offered that one of my favorite musicians, Ryan Adams, wrote the following lyric in the song “Oh My Sweet Carolina,”

“All the sweetest winds they blow across the south.”

Secretary Riley is one of those sweet winds.

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Improving Educational Outcomes for Disadvantaged and Underperforming Students and Schools

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2016-06-24 08:00

As I approach my 16th anniversary here at KnowledgeWorks, I spent a moment recently reflecting on some of the most important lessons we’ve learned in our efforts to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged and under-performing students and schools.

  1. A great education, and the doors it opens, is likely the single most effective way to alleviate or mitigate opportunity gaps and the effects of [generational] poverty.
  2. Perhaps at no time in history is there less agreement on the primary purpose – “why” – of public education and, therefore, the “what” and the “how.”
  3. Money, both philanthropic and public, can be a helpful catalyst, but alone does not create or sustain improvement.
  4. The fundamentals are still fundamental.
  5. Great leadership from top to bottom is important, but extraordinary building-level leadership in a school is critical to change and improvement efforts, as well as time, space, flexibility, accountability, and resources to get the job done.
  6. Developing the right culture is difficult but of paramount importance. It may be the only way to sustain meaningful improvements over time.
  7. “Eduspeak” is real – and problematic (e.g., college/career readiness, equity, early college, STEM, poverty, data, cultural competency / responsiveness, etc.).

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Bridging the Gap Between High School and College

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2016-06-23 09:56

Guest post by Tom Forbes, a Technical Assistance Coach partnering with KnowledgeWorks early college high schools.

We lose so many students between the end of their senior year of high school and the beginning of their freshman year of college because there is no one there to help bridge the gap.

Imagine this scenario:

A freshman is attending a 120 person lecture class at a university. They had to know how to behave, how to get help from a TA … and know what a TA is. At the end of one class session, the professor asks students to turn in their papers on their way out. Many students don’t turn anything in. Why? Because on day one of class students were handed a syllabus that described the midterm, final and paper that made up the class grade, and those assignments were never brought up again.

That framework of a class, so standard at the college level, is brand new to high school students. Without any support, they are set up for failure.

Early college high school helps bridge the gap between high school and college by making the transition seamless.

At an early college high school, our students are high school students but they attend college classes and are held up to the same expectations of college students. Part of our job at the early college high schools is to help support students so they succeed in both the high school and college environments. We provide so many supports to make sure students succeed and those supports take all shapes. We teach students what a TA is and how to get help from them. We make sure students understand what a syllabus is, how to read one and how to manage their time and complete assignments on time. We help students recognize college behavioral norms such as how to behave in class, how to move from class to class on time and how to seek support on campus.

Our goal is that when an early college high school student leaves us, they have the skills and tools necessary to succeed. At KnowledgeWorks early college high schools, that is happening.

Learn how to bring an early college high school in your school district.

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Early College: Where Success Meets Opportunity

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2016-06-21 10:41

At our annual coaching camp, a chance for all of our technical assistance coaches to gather, regroup and renew best practices for early college high school, we tried to answer the question: What are three characteristics / virtues of early college high schools?

The short answer is that you can’t put thirty of the greatest champions of early college high school in the country in a room together and expect them to have only three answers! So instead of three, here are our top ten, in no particular order.

  1. Early college creates access for students as well as the wrap-around supports for those students
  2. Early college high schools are designed to help first-generation college-goers succeed
  3. Early college high schools create a community of learners who take the journey together
  4. An early college high school raises the bar for students, which sets the expectation for success throughout the rest of a student’s life
  5. Early college high school is where preparation meets opportunity so that students can really succeed
  6. Students get choices in their lives as a result of early college high school
  7. Early college high school creates a culture of “I Can” with the help of adults who are committed to the success of the whole person
  8. Attending early college high school develops resilience
  9. Early college high schools create a culture where it’s safe to fail forward
  10. There is no cost to students and their families to attend early college high school – for courses, textbooks or materials

Learn more about KnowledgeWorks early college high schools and how to bring one to your school district.

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4 Ways to Choose a Better Curriculum

Posts from WOL - Mon, 2016-06-20 09:51

How does a district select its curriculum? We spend a considerable amount of our budget to invest in curriculum, but it’s often acquired piecemeal. Too often, principals or superintendents will be tempted by the next big thing: tech-based, textbook based, something that guarantees it will engage all children and drive to specific standards. But really, curriculum should deliver on what a learning community really needs to help and support its vision for learning. How does it align with a district’s strategic design? How will it help support all learners, and all educators, with the teaching and learning process?

We can approach acquiring curriculum more strategically, and we should make teachers and students  partners in the process.

  • Is the structure of the curriculum easily understood by learners? While it’s often in the hands of teachers, it should drive learning in the hands of students, as well. It should be transparent and accessible to all.
  • Does the curriculum allow learners to pursue personalized learning opportunities? And if so, how? Are learners and educators able to make the curriculum relevant to ideas, learnings, and passions outside the specific content?
  • Can we evaluate data frequently? Does the curriculum allow educators to understand where a student is in his or her understanding so they can target instruction and supports appropriately? Moreover, does the learner understand where he or she is? Do they understand what’s coming next? Real time data is essential – it allows all stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and students, to understand where they are and what’s next.
  • The curriculum should allow not only for personalized learning, but should also accommodate the unique learning styles of all students. A variety of tools and approaches to meet the needs of every child are as valuable to educators as they are to the learners they support.

Even if you haven’t made the full transition to competency-based education, your curriculum should still ensure you’re meeting the unique learning styles of every child. Curriculum should empower and motivate learners to acquire knowledge in ways that are meaningful for them, and it should provide educators a framework for what the outcomes are – and how they can be met by every child, honoring their learning style and the pace at which they learn.

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Is Higher Ed Future Ready? Six Strategies to Gear Up Now

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2016-06-17 08:00

In May, KnowledgeWorks gathered leaders and innovators in higher education to explore the implications of Forecast 4.0, The Future of Learning: Education in an Era of Partners in Code. The conversation highlighted both opportunities and challenges in adapting – or transforming – higher education in response to a changing climate and student needs.

  1. Clarify Purpose – First and foremost, higher education stakeholders need to be clear about the purpose of postsecondary education. While the answer to that question could vary by type of institution and type of learner and does not have to be singular, a tension between workforce readiness and human development lies at its core.
  2. Redefine Readiness – Recognizing that workforce readiness forms only part of the equation and might not be central to everyone’s definition of the sector’s purpose, artificial intelligence and machine learning will change how humans partner with machines over the coming decade and beyond. Current approaches to career readiness will not suffice. We need to consider new forms of workforce readiness and also take into account the possibility that what it means to work – or to labor productively apart from wages – could change dramatically.
  3. Manage Multiple Paces of Change – As the mix of institutions and organizations in the room highlighted, higher education doesn’t function as a coherent system. It’s more of a regulated market. As students seek higher learning opportunities that match their objectives, meet their needs, and manage cost, consumer demand could move faster than government regulation or institutional evolution. Both incumbent institutions and new entrants will need to juggle multiple layers of influence that move at different paces of change. In particular, currently-existing institutions could struggle to adapt quickly enough.
  4. Fly Below the Radar – While the conversation gravitated toward large-scale transformation – and that may well be needed – stakeholders can start small today. Finding approaches to innovation that fly below the radar of established practices until they are proven can help make space for innovation within existing institutions. Building bridges between new approaches and established frameworks (for example, translating new forms of experiential learning to traditional credit hours) can also help. Even newer entrants and today’s innovative programs need to keep an eye on the horizon and not get bogged down in current operations.
  5. Shift Culture and Mindsets – Higher education tends to self-enforce persistent culture and mindsets that can impede change. At one level, that’s positive, for higher education shouldn’t necessarily change as quickly as some sectors. At another level, that tendency presents a risk. If faculty and administrators advertently or inadvertently penalize or impede colleagues from trying new approaches, incumbent institutions could find themselves increasingly out of pace with the context in which they operate. Finding ways to encourage new forms of practice and provide sanctuary for new approaches could help people feel more comfortable with change.
  6. Reconsider Incentives – Current incentives for individuals and institutions also tend to reinforce the status quo. Sometimes that will be appropriate. Where it’s not, considering new employee incentive structures that correspond with desired future states can help people have the courage to do the deeper work of changing culture and mindsets. In addition, advocating for measures of institutional success that support a broad view of student learning and a wide array of rigorous approaches promises to provide the sector with a stronger platform from which to operate.

In the future, higher learning could mean many things to many different people and could take forms that can be difficult to imagine today. Being open to new ways of creating value for students and society could help current institutions that are struggling financially find effective future-ready value propositions and could help those that are turning away students stay relevant and steward resources responsibly long-term.

This workshop was the last in our series exploring implications of Forecast 4.0. Stay tuned for our forthcoming action guide synthesizing their findings. In the meantime, take a look at the top challenges facing K-12 school-based education and key strategies for shaping the future of informal and community-based learning.

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Don’t wait, states: Start planning and designing for ESSA now

Posts from WOL - Wed, 2016-06-15 13:03

Within the last couple of weeks, the United States Department of Education released the first set of ESSA regulations. These regulations, now open for public comment, cover accountability, school improvement and state plans.

Their release provides a good moment to underscore that we are at a national turning point in education. Over the next few months, the regulations will be available for comment periods before being released as final regulations. It is imperative that states don’t wait for the final regulations but begin to execute on a design process now. As has been stated, on multiple accounts in multiple ways, it is essential for states to seize the opportunities in ESSA to transform their statewide systems of education.

It is incumbent on states to actively plan now and engage local stakeholders in designing their education systems. States must be thoughtful in how they design education systems, aligning accountability, school improvement, assessment, educator workforce, and extended learning opportunity policies to create a cohesive system that prepares all students for success from cradle to career.

And it begins with asking the right questions of the right district level stakeholders. When it comes to accountability and assessment, for example, what should you ask yourself and your partners when designing under ESSA?

We believe that an aligned system, established in partnership with districts, communities, and leaders across sectors, should ensure that every student benefits from a personalized education where instruction and supports are aligned to individual interests and needs. Fortunately, ESSA provides a number of high-leverage opportunities to advance a vision for personalized learning throughout each major element of the education system.

We also believe that effective state level implementation must begin with the design process and with engaging district level stakeholders. Questions drive the design process allowing for the development of a vision as well as account for issues such as college and career readiness, equity, and continuous improvement. For example, in the areas of accountability and assessment, states should wrestle with the following questions as they design their systems of education in response to ESSA:


  • What long-term goals and measurements of interim progress will the state establish to ensure ambitious gains in school and student achievement? And how will the state transition to these new requirements?
  • Are there additional indicators the state wants to include in its accountability system to advance equity? There’s more to measure than just state assessments, graduation rates, and English language proficiency. How might the state incentivize closure of achievement gaps, resource equity, and access to high-quality teachers and learning experiences?
  • What measures and practices can the state incorporate into its accountability system to ensure the system has the capacity to meet the needs of all learners? Should the state include any of these measures in its accountability system?


  • Does the state provide flexibility for students to assess when they are ready and take an assessment multiple times, if needed, to demonstrate mastery? How will the state incorporate that information into its accountability and school improvement systems in real-time?
  • What changes does the state need to make to ensure the system of assessments aligns to the state’s system of support for all schools? How can the assessment system help stakeholders design timely and customized supports for each student?
  • What steps can the state take to ensure all districts have the technological infrastructure to ensure problem-free assessment delivery and reporting of results?

For recommendations and more design questions, please see our Recommendations for Advancing Personalized Learning Under the Every Student Succeeds Act. There is much work to be done. Our hope is that states take advantage of the foundational element in ESSA to build new, personalized learning systems to support all students towards college, career, and civic readiness.

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Fun With Flags: How Student Voice Gave Us the Current Design of the American Flag

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2016-06-14 10:02

Did you know a high school student was responsible for the current design of the American flag?

In 1958, Bob Heft, while living with his grandparents in Lancaster, OH, completed a design of the American flag as a project for his American History class. Hawaii and Alaska were being considered for statehood, and more than 1,500 designs for a new flag had been submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Intrigued by Betsy Ross, Heft had cut up a 48-star flag and sewn it into a new design, featuring 50 stars.

Upon presenting his final project, the teacher asked Heft, “Why you got too many stars? You don’t even know how many states we have.” Heft received a B- for his project. When he contested the grade, his teacher presented him with a proposition:

“Get the flag accepted in Washington, then come back and see me and I might consider changing the grade.”

After Heft had written 21 letters to the White House and made 18 phone calls, he received a phone call from 34th President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower. The 50 star flag design that was the same as Heft’s flag design had been chosen and adopted by presidential proclamation after Alaska and before Hawaii were admitted into the union in 1959. Eisenhower “wanted to know the possibility of you [Heft] coming to Washington, D.C., on July 4th for the official adoption of the new flag.”

And what did Heft’s teacher have to say?

“I guess if it’s good enough for Washington, it’s good enough for me. I hereby change the grade to an A.”

You can listen to Heft tell the story of designing the American Flag at StoryCorps, who interviewed Heft before his passing in 2009.

Fun With Flags







Curious about what else you might not know about the American flag? In honor of Flag Day, allow me to channel Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

Fun With (American) Flags

  • The American Flag consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton (referred to specifically as the “union”) bearing fifty small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars alternating with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states of the United States of America, and the 13 stripes represent the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and became the first states in the US.[1]
  • Nicknames for the flag include“The Stars and Stripes,”[2] “Old Glory,”[3] and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My personal favorite is the “Graaaaand Ooooold Flaaaaaaag,” as shouted from the top of a 4-year-old’s lungs.
  • The current design of the U.S. flag is its 27th; the design of the flag has been modified officially 26 times since 1777. The current design is the longest-used version and has been in use for over 55 years.[4]
  • Flag Day is celebrated on June 14, and “commemorates the adoption of theflag of the United States, which happened on June 14 in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress.[1]
  • In 1916,President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day; in August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress.



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Feel the Future: A Citywide School

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2016-06-10 10:26

Step ahead with me to the year 2026. Imagine that you and your eighth-grade daughter are attending a school choice fair where public, charter, and private options were featured and representatives of each school had three minutes to pitch their approach in hopes of enticing you to explore further.

One of the schools stands out because it doesn’t have just one big building; it has four smaller hubs. And it doesn’t confine learning within their walls. Instead, it takes learning – and each student – across the city through customized learning pathways that make full use of citywide resources. Those resources include area museums, libraries, science centers, maker spaces, businesses, and sports venues, plus local residents who have expertise to share. The school focuses on relationships and personalized support while using a network-based structure to organize learning.

One of the students, Kesara, shares her experience of overcoming shyness and frustration with school to get comfortable contributing to project teams and learning in a new kind of environment. Another student, Nadya, shares her excitement over having found a school where she gets to be who she is and decide what success looks like to her.

Your daughter gets excited. Finally, an approach to school that really is personalized. A way of learning that makes real and relevant connections with the place where she lives. After the presentations conclude, the two of you make a beeline to Ubique Academy’s table to find out more.

Want learn more?

Today, Ubique Academy is a concept, not an actual school. KnowledgeWorks’ strategic foresight team thinks that its design is possible given how learning is shifting. In fact, we created the concept for The Mind Trust’s 2016 Charter School Design Competition, where it placed in the final four.

We don’t want the idea to end there. So we’ve published an artifact from the future illustrating the idea as if Ubique Academy were up and running in ten years’ time. That artifact includes:

Why explore the future in this way?

An artifact from the future is a tangible expression of something that might exist in the future. Artifacts from the future respond to emerging trends to show how they might come together to impact people’s lives. Exploring them can help us examine whether we want the kind of future that they represent and what we might want instead. They help us consider in a more visceral way than simply analyzing implications and action steps how we might begin to move toward our preferred futures.

In short, artifacts from the future provide concrete a way of experiencing a bit of the future so that we can learn more about what we want and how to get there.

Could Ubique Academy happen?

We think it could, if enough people got behind the concept and made it real. But that’s only part of the point. Do you want it to? If so, where could you begin to move in its direction? Does it freak you out? If so, what lies the root of your discomfort? What would you rather see school or learning look like in 2026?

Regardless of your response, what light does stepping into the future with Ubique Academy shed on how you’re shaping learning today?

Personally, I hope that something like Ubique Academy is available when my daughter and I attend our neighborhood school choice fair in 2026. That’s the year she’ll likely be selecting a high school. I would want her choice to center on her needs, interests, and goals and to help her access and learn to contribute to the wealth of resources around our city. Maybe Ubique Academy isn’t the answer. But I hope she’ll have access to truly personalized learning by then.

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