YOU ARE HERE (Ed)

by Dr. Scott Andersen in


I do a lot of activities outdoors. I love the outdoors! I live for the outdoors!

I use apps on my cell phone to help me when I ride and hike. The apps share with me milestones of distance, time and pacing. When I am hiking, it shows me where I am on the map, where I am on a trail and where I need to go to complete the hike. The apps are super handy and they work great.

I feel safe when I use these apps while hiking. The key word though, is “when.” Sometimes the apps do not work. This typically happens when I am in deep into the mountains. The technology may not work...but sometimes it is due to my choosing. Sometimes I choose to get off the trail and explore. If I do that for too long or for too far, I can get disoriented. 

With this disorientation comes the need for help to get back on track. If my app is working, I can usually use it to directionally find my way back on to the trail. But if the “deadly duo” happens, if my app is not working and I stray too far and, as a result, get disoriented, then I am in big trouble. Even if I had a paper trail map, it wouldn’t do any good because, if I don't know where I am, the map is not going to be much help.

 Hiking without direction can be scary and dangerous. Photo by Richard Barron.

Hiking without direction can be scary and dangerous. Photo by Richard Barron.

So the most important thing is for me to know where I am at all times.

For instance, imagine I pick you up in a helicopter, blindfold you and fly you out to the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. Before leaving you, I give you a map of the state. I fly away and leave you on your own. How useful is that map going to be? The answer is NOT AT ALL USEFUL.  Why? Because you have to know where you are on the map to plot the course to where you want to go. You can see Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau on the map, but you will not have any clue where to take your first step.

You have likely seen this symbol on maps in shopping malls or when you seek online directions. It is usually accompanied with the words “You Are Here.”

The concept of knowing where you are in crucial in just about every component of our everyday lives. It’s true at work, at home, at play and in our spiritual journeys.

In business, this is important because you want your business to grow, to achieve success for you and those associated with your business. You have to have a very good understanding, a fact-based understanding, of where your business is. I mentioned fact-based because when considering where we are, we do not need to include how we FEEL about where we are. It is also not about where we THINK we should be. It is about the observable facts that exist. These observable facts should be things that others would be able see and know without question.

People in successful businesses ask lots of questions about where they are: What conditions exist? What challenges you have and will have? Is the business truly successful and performing at optimal levels? What do you do well and what do you need to do better? Where do you stand in the marketplace? Do you have the right talent? Do you have the right employees? How does your business stack up against the competition and market conditions? 

In our personal lives the same types of questions hold true. Relationships are a good example. We can and should frequently assess where we are in our marriage and our other familial relationships. Improving on your relationships is challenging if you have no idea of the true FACTUAL conditions that exist in the relationship today.

Finally, the same is true in education. If you are teacher, leader or policy maker, you have to know the facts about your current state before you can adequately design a plan to help each student find their unique pathway to success. Speaking of that, you also have to know the same about the students with whom you work. This is an essential component to personalized learning.

So, here is a fact: YOU ARE HERE. 

Yep, as you are reading this, YOU ARE HERE.

Look around you. Look inside you. Take stock. Take notes. Be honest. If possible, seek feedback from trusted advisers. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. Lay out the facts. Respond accordingly.

When you have that clear and honest self-picture, then you can truly start mapping your next steps and begin to map your journey to your desired destination.

Regardless of where you are on your personal journey, every day you can wake up and say, “YOU ARE HERE: and repeat the process of honest assessment and well-informed planning of your next steps. It works in hiking and it works in all aspects of life.

See you on the “trail.”


Another Brick in the Wall

by Dr. Scott Andersen in , , ,


I can still remember the day vividly. I am not sure of the exact date, but I remember it was in November of 1979. I was in 10th grade at Intermediate High School in Broken Arrow, OK. I had a 1-mile (or so) walk home from school that took me by our local K-Mart.

I had heard that the British rock group Pink Floyd had just released the album “The Wall.” I really didn’t know much about Pink Floyd at the time, but I knew I liked one of the songs on the album, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Of course, as a young high school student, I loved the following lyrics from the song, “We don’t need no education.

On this day, I stopped into the K-Mart, forked over about $10 and bought the double album on vinyl. Yes, I am that old!

I walked home quickly so I could listen to the whole album and it instantly became my favorite all-time album. Funny thing is, that at that time, I did not fully understand that song, or the entire album.

As I write this today, I can’t help but reflect and be amused by the irony that I have worked in education for over 25 years.

Today, with a few more miles under my belt, I am even more impressed with the album and that particular song. As a classroom teacher, a principal and a superintendent, I worked very hard to implement, to the best of my ability, a student-centered and individualized approach to teaching and learning. I met resistance from “the establishment” at each level of my educational career. The resistance was not necessarily against meeting student needs; it was more about stepping outside of the “system” in order to do so.

While I originally was enticed by the song because I viewed it as a revolutionary anthem, it was much more than that.

It is actually an anthem about reclaiming one’s individuality.

It is also a criticism against educational systems that would not address the needs of an imaginative child for thinking uniquely and expressing that in writing.

And that brings me to the present day.

I am still as passionate as ever about the need for educators to recognize and act upon each student as a individual. We must recognize each student as an individual, and by so doing, create their own unique pathway for them to learn and prepare for their future.

Personalized learning is growing in its reach in our country. More and more teachers, schools and districts are stepping away from the status quo and finding ways to meet the unique needs of their students.

In a study called "What's Possible with Personalized Learning? An Overview of Personalized Learning for Schools, Families & Communities" that was just published by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), a teacher identified as Rebecca, said the following:

“I don’t think that what children want from school has fundamentally changed. I think they want to be inspired, engaged and motivated. They want to learn new things, to be challenged and to do things differently. Whereas we were happy to sit at school and have information given to us and copy that down, learning by rote, children now don’t want this and won’t accept this at school. They like working with each other and finding things out for themselves. I think this is also what we need to be doing as responsive teachers. We need to be giving children the skills to think for themselves and be active learners who take responsibility for their own learning.”

The great news is there are ample and continually evolving resources available to help educators personalize the learning experience for their students. Many are outlined in the iNACOL report and I highly recommend reading the report.

I also recommend that if you feel the need to begin a journey, improve upon your existing journey, or learn more about personalized learning, that you start by reading, asking questions, talking to colleagues, parents, and most importantly, to students.

Together we can create pathways for students that are engaging, powerful, effective and that prepare them for further life success. The worst thing we can do, is to treat them like “another brick in the wall.”

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EVERY SNOWFLAKE IS UNIQUE

by Dr. Scott Andersen in , , , ,


It has been snowing a lot here in Utah this winter. This past week we had a most beautiful snow fall. The video does not even do it justice.

 

Big fluffy flakes floating, falling and finding a place of rest on a pine tree.

Here is a universal truth: Every snowflake is unique. 

From a distance, it is a most beautiful sight to see the snow collecting on the trees.

I started looking closely at the snowflakes as they were landing on a beautiful pine tree. I noticed when they landed softly on the pine needles, they kept their shape, form and beauty.

But as I looked closely, I began to observe something that I would have never seen had I not taken the time to get closer.

The closer I looked, I was able to see that the longer the flakes sat there, the individual snowflakes began to melt into small drops of water. It wasn’t just one flake; it was many.

The drops then tried to cling to a pine needle in one last attempt to survive.

Then sadly, under the force of gravity, the individual drops fell to the ground and were no longer distinguishable.

They had transformed from a most beautiful and proud fluffy flake, to melting and falling to the ground, becoming lost.

Because I am an educator, I could not help but draw a parallel between what I was witnessing with the snowflakes and what I have witnessed with children in education.

Just like each snowflake is unique, so is every single child we teach.

Similar to how the snowflakes float from the sky down to the pine tree with great beauty and potential, so do our children come to us with bright eyes, open minds, eager hearts and with great excitement and capacity to learn.

And from a distance, the vision of what happens in school can be heartwarming for our children. Teachers teach, students learn, play and grow and many of them graduate and are successful.

All of that is true.

But when we look closely at individual children, we can see a different story for some of them. Unfortunately, we can see a different story for far too many of them.

We can see them melting in an environment that is not suitable for their success. Just like when the snowflakes all land on the same tree and even on the same pine needle, when some students land in the same class, the same delivery of instruction, the same sequence of curriculum, the same timing, the same assessment, they can melt, and like a drop of water falling to the ground, become lost.

They are lost for so many reasons: they may not have been equipped to learn like some of their peers, they may have difficulty with their sight, they may have challenges hearing, they may not have adequate food to eat, they may have a learning disability, they could have physical or mental disabilities, they may have different likes and dislikes, and one of the worst reasons they can get lost is they may not have a good school or even a good teacher. I know that is not a popular thing to say, but it can be true.

While from a distance we can see that many students are successful - something we should celebrate, we cannot be truly successful until we have ensured that each student who walks through our doors, is able to achieve individual success.

Just like I was observing the falling and landing of the snowflakes and them melting and dropping to the ground, I believe we must look closely at what we are doing for each child. While looking is important, it is not enough. We also need to be equipped to respond with personalized pathways for children that put them on THEIR UNIQUE road to success.

Many students will thrive in a traditional learning setting. Many will not. Some thrive with direct instruction. Some thrive with hands-on learning. Some thrive working on real-world projects. Some thrive in small or individual settings. Some thrive with self-paced online learning. Some thrive in blended learning environments. Some thrive with combinations of the above. Some thrive in ways that we have not yet discovered.

My purpose of writing this is to encourage all of us to look closer. Even closer. And closer some more!

We need to look closer at our students to truly know them and we must look closer at ourselves and ask if we are really providing pathways and opportunities that help each child thrive or have we unfortunately made decisions based upon reasons that do not relate to students succeeding.

The snow is gently falling again. Students are going to keep coming into your schools. Let’s work together to give them a chance to thrive on the pine needle in their own special way and let’s prevent them from falling to the ground and getting lost.

Let me know if you would like to discuss further.


The Finish Line Does Not Tell the Whole Story

by Dr. Scott Andersen in , ,


The finish line does not tell the whole story. Sometimes the starting line tells a better story. Sometimes the journey in between tells the story. And quite frequently, all three used together, tell the most complete story.

 Getty Images

Getty Images

Unlike an Olympic 100m sprint, not all of our talent has the same set of starting conditions. For instance, if I were to race Usain Bolt, I would like to start at the 95th meter. Even then, it would be a challenge to beat him to the finish line. But if I were to actually beat him in that unfair race and we were ONLY looking at the finish line, then we might very errantly conclude that I was faster than Bolt. Let me be perfectly clear…I AM NOT!

It means that we sometimes have to look at growth over a time period, as opposed to simply looking at some pre-constructed finish line or business goal.

Another analogy that can be used to illustrate this point is the use of standardized testing to measure student knowledge and/or teacher efficacy. An illustration is below.

test.jpg

Teacher A has a 3rd grade class of students who all read on the 3rd grade level. Teacher B has students who all read on the 6th grade level but are in the 3rd grade like the others. At the end of the year the students are tested again and Teacher A’s students are now on the 5th grade level and Teacher B’s students are still on the 6th grade level.

In this oversimplified example, by only looking at the grade level designation results from the year end test, or the “finish line”, one might conclude that Teacher B’s students are smarter, or on a better track and/or that Teacher B is a better teacher. After all, her students are one grade level ahead of the others.

But that would be totally wrong. 

What teacher would you want your child to have, Teacher A or Teacher B?

As a business leader, as you are identifying, developing, recruiting and retaining the best talent you can, it is important to look deeper than just the finish line results. It requires more thought, insight, analysis, observation, multiple measures and a good look at growth or progress over time.

It is likely that you have both Teachers A and B in your organization. You probably also have a Teacher Z. Whatever that is. 

Since your people are, or at least should be, your greatest asset, doesn’t it make sense to resist the temptation to only look at the finish line? By so doing, the greatest risk is that you’ve spent some time validating that those who crossed first did an excellent job. However, you may also discover that you have some unknown, untapped, or emerging talent that can take your organization to the next level.

Finally and selfishly, we can help ourselves cross the finish line first, or faster than before, by better identifying and recognizing the talent in our organizations. In business and in education, we MUST be able to better recognize talent.


A TERRIFIC EDUCATIONAL SOLUTION

by Dr. Scott Andersen in ,


I am going to repost this news story about Silicon Valley software company Oracle and their plans to open a first-ever of its kind high school on their campus.

I am pasting the text of the original story below. LOVE THIS!

It's never been done before. A Silicon Valley corporation will now build a high school on its campus to help train the future generation of techies and engineers. The school is called Design Tech High School and the company is Oracle. It was an idea proposed 17 years ago by its CEO Larry Ellison.

Ground breaking ceremony for @dTechHS at @Oracle. Designing a future where everything is possible. pic.twitter.com/6uFNUKe2ho

— Lyanne Melendez (@LyanneMelendez) August 12, 2016


The land was donated and the building for the Design Tech High School will be paid for by Oracle.

The company knows they will come. It was an idea Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison shared with his staff more than 17 years ago. "To better prepare students for the work places of today and tomorrow and again to be the designers of solutions to people's needs and the world's needs," Oracle education fund executive director Colleen Cassity said.

Before Oracle gets all the credit, we should clarify that the concept and model of the school already existed.

The school had been operating in Burlingame since 2013 when it got the attention of Oracle's education fund.

Oracle knew it had to be part of this new way of teaching, modeled after Stanford's school of design. "It's not a production design or fashion design or interior design. Design thinking is a way to solve a problem," Design Tech High School executive director Ken Montgomery said.

Problems like global warming. "A lot of our programs and how we learn are done through projects. It's not like you are sitting in a classroom getting a lecture, you're doing a hands-on activity to help reinforce what you are learning in the classroom," student Nick Dal Porto said.

The school wants to attract more students of color and girls. While it's open to anyone, families living in the San Mateo and Sequoia Union High School Districts would have priority. "If there are more registrants than there are place in a given year, then there's a blind lottery," Cassity said.

The school will open on the Oracle campus in September 2017. The first lesson will be to design a future where everything is possible.


The Impact of Preschool

by Dr. Scott Andersen in , , ,


I came across this in my daily literature review this morning. For all my preschool peeps, I would love to hear your reaction to this article by Erika Christakis from the Atlantic.com. I am pasting the text below for convenience, but you can go to the content by clicking the link above.

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.

Because so few adults can remember the pertinent details of their own preschool or kindergarten years, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early-education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades. The changes are not restricted to the confusing pastiche on classroom walls. Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.

One study, titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. The researchers also reported more time spent with workbooks and worksheets, and less time devoted to music and art. Kindergarten is indeed the new first grade, the authors concluded glumly. In turn, children who would once have used the kindergarten year as a gentle transition into school are in some cases being held back before they’ve had a chance to start. A study out of Mississippi found that in some counties, more than 10 percent of kindergartners weren’t allowed to advance to first grade.

Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor was the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Pendulum shifts in education are as old as our republic. Steven Mintz, a historian who has written about the evolution of American childhood, describes an oscillation in the national zeitgeist between the notion of a “protected” childhood and that of a “prepared” one. Starting in the early 2000s, though, a confluence of forces began pushing preferences ever further in the direction of preparation: the increasing numbers of dual-career families scrambling to arrange child care; a new scientific focus on the cognitive potential of the early years; and concerns about growing ability gaps between well-off and disadvantaged children, which in turn fueled the trend of standards-based testing in public schools.

Preschool is a relatively recent addition to the American educational system. With a few notable exceptions, the government had a limited role in early education until the 1960s, when the federal Head Start program was founded. Before mothers entered the full-time workforce in large numbers, private preschools were likewise uncommon, and mainly served as a safe social space for children to learn to get along with others.

By second grade, the children who had attended preschool performed worse than their peers.

In the past few decades, however, we have seen a major transfer of child care and early learning from home to institution: Nearly three-quarters of American 4-year-olds are now in some kind of nonfamily care. That category spans a dizzying mix of privately and publicly funded preschool environments, including family-run day cares, private preschools in church basements, and Head Start programs in public elementary schools, to name a few. Across all of them, the distinction between early education and “official” school seems to be eroding.

When I survey parents of preschoolers, they tend to be on board with many of these changes, either because they fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option. The stress is palpable: Pick the “wrong” preschool or ease up on the phonics drills at home, and your child might not go to college. She might not be employable. She might not even be allowed to start first grade!

Media attention to the cognitive potential of early childhood has a way of exacerbating such worries, but the actual academic consensus on the components of high-quality early education tells another story. According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted—as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.

Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in informal classroom settings predicted their students’ reading comprehension and word knowledge in fourth grade. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”

Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.

Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.

Iwas recently asked to review a popular preschool curriculum that comes with a big box of thematic units, including lists of words and “key concepts” that children are supposed to master. One objective of the curriculum’s ocean unit, for example, is to help preschoolers understand “the importance of the ocean to the environment.” Children are given a list of specific terms to learn, including exoskeletonscallop shellblubber, and tube feet. At first glance, this stuff seems fun and educational, but doesn’t this extremely narrow articulation of “key concepts” feel a little off? What’s so special about blubber, anyway? Might a young child not want to ponder bigger questions: What is water? Where do the blue and green come from? Could anything be more beautiful and more terrifying than an ocean?

The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.

Last year, I observed some preschoolers conversing about whether snakes have bones. They argued at length among themselves, comparing the flexible serpentine body with dinosaur fossils and fish, both of which they had previously explored. There was no clear consensus on how these various creatures could contain the same hard skeletons, but I watched, transfixed, as each child added to the groundwork another had laid. The teacher gently guided the group as a captain might steer a large ship, with the tiniest nudge of the wheel. Finally, a little boy who had seen a snake skeleton in a museum became animated as he pantomimed the structure of a snake’s spine in a series of karate chops: “One bone, one bone, one bone,” he informed his friends. “I think we’re all going to have to do a lot more research,” the teacher replied, impressed. This loosely Socratic method is a perfect fit for young minds; the problem is that it doesn’t conform easily to a school-readiness checklist.

The focus should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.

The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are gettingsomething this way.

But that something—while relatively cheap to provide—is awfully thin gruel. One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.

We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter.

It’s become almost a cliché to look to Finland’s educational system for inspiration. As has been widely reported, the country began to radically professionalize its workforce in the 1970s and abandoned most of the performance standards endemic to American schooling. Today, Finland’s schools are consistently ranked among the world’s very best. This “Finnish miracle” sounds almost too good to be true. Surely the country must have a few dud teachers and slacker kids!

And yet, when I’ve visited Finland, I’ve found it impossible to remain unmoved by the example of preschools where the learning environment is assessed, rather than the children in it. Having rejected many of the pseudo-academic benchmarks that can, and do, fit on a scorecard, preschool teachers in Finland are free to focus on what’s really essential: their relationship with the growing child.

Here’s what the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.”

For our littlest learners, what could be more important than that?


The High Cost of Assumptions

by Dr. Scott Andersen in ,


What are your assumptions costing you?

I have been thinking a lot this past week about an activity in which I participated during the Knowledge Universe Field Leadership Academy in Phoenix.  The activity was designed to help me unveil the full potential of my business.  In this case, “my business” means the region of schools (centers) in which I have stewardship.

During the activity, I went through a series of steps that opened my eyes to the bottom line upside that is possible.  Basically, it was an activity that allowed me to see what it would take to fully realize that potential.

It allowed me to see that I have about 41% topline growth available to me. That involves huge dollars!

That potential identification was followed up with being asked to set a stretch goal for my team. The stretch goal was designed for us to go beyond our 2015 budget and to see what we could do once we better understood that potential.  My stretch goal was about 3% growth.  Yep, 3% out of a potential 41% upside.

Hardly a courageous position

As soon as I submitted my stretch goal, I knew it was not the correct one.  I knew I had not truly stretched.

While I usually am a quick responder to many situations, the fallout from this activity has left me thinking deeply and reflectively about my work and about my leadership.  More importantly, it is how I, as a leader, am impacting the results on my team.

This afternoon I went for a bike ride.  When I ride, I am usually quite thoughtful and also usually very insightful.  Today was no different.

To help stir my thoughts, creativity and actions, I listened to a church sermon podcast.  I like to do that when riding because I am a totally captive audience and thus, pay very close attention.

What my thoughts and this podcast made me realize was why I failed to truly develop a stretch goal.  I made a lot of assumptions.  I imagine these assumptions may also be relevant to others.

I am summarizing them below.

1.      The Ability Assumption.  Part of what went into my non-stretch goals was the fact that perhaps I doubted my own ability and even the ability of my team to reach new levels of performance.

2.      The Significance Assumption. This is the assumption that perhaps my contribution to the company as a whole isn’t really that important.  It could also be the thought of a Center Director that their small center doesn’t really make a difference by thinking something like, “I only have 45 FTEs, what would 5 more do for the region or for the company?”

3.      The Safety Assumption. This is the assumption that makes you think it is better to not get out of your comfort zone and to not risk any type of failure.  In this case, talent and energy are, in essence, buried in the ground and wasted.

4.      The Urgency Assumption. This could also be called the Lack of Urgency Assumption. When you have this assumption, you assume that there is not any urgency to respond to the conditions that exist and that there is no immediate need to tap into your potential.

5.      The Maintenance Assumption.  With this you act as if it is ok, or even good, to be maintaining your current level of performance.  This one is often true when performance is in the acceptable range, or “on plan.”

6.      The Entitlement Assumption. This one is a bit of a tough one. It can manifest itself through taking things for granted and becoming comfortable with your actions.  For instance, we can take our business performance for granted because “we all do fine” or because our center is almost always full or because we have experienced a pattern of the times of the year when our enrollment grows.  The bottom line is that there is NO entitlement in business.  We have to earn everything we get and everything we get is a direct result of the actions that we take or don’t take.

So what is the cost of my assumptions? The clear answer is under performance from me and my team which then results in the loss of unrealized dollars to our company.

As a result of my disappointment around my non stretch goals, I am hitting the reset button. I am setting a whole new goal for my business and then I am going to work with my team to drive those results. The outcomes are that I will meet, exceed or miss the goals.  But in order for me to do my best, I must reach through my assumptions, help my team do the same, and work with laser sharp focus on the things that matter most.


A Tough Decision

by Dr. Scott Andersen in , ,


I visited one of my schools in West Palm Beach, FL this past week. The theme for the VPK class is Healthy Bodies. They staff was very excited about an experiment they were going to do for snack time.

The students were each getting $4 in play money.  They could choose to buy 4 healthy snacks, a bananas, apple slices, raisins and yogurt OR they could buy one chocolate kiss for $4.

The results were that 23 our 26 students chose the healthy options.

You can see highlights in the video below. The Director, Sharon Alaimo, leads the activity.


The Magic of Teaching

by Dr. Scott Andersen in , , ,


I absolutely adore this picture!

OK, full disclosure...it's not really magic.  

In early childhood education and beyond, there should be a strong focus on SERVE and RETURN, which means the intentional and purposeful dialogue and interactions between a teacher and a child.

During a visit to La Branch Child Development Center in Houston recently, when I stepped into the classroom, this was the scene I saw.  It lasted about 15 minutes. I had to capture this moment. I wish I shot video as well.  The child was cooing, touching the book, and the teacher did a great job leading and responding to the child. 

Picture this common scenario: you are standing in line at the grocery checkout and a baby seated in the cart in front of you makes eye contact. She looks at you inquisitively, leans her body back, and smiles. You smile back, wave, and say “hello.” 

The baby babbles, delighted by your attention. She continues to interact. She points to a balloon at the checkout aisle. You say to her, “Look. The pink balloon has a flower on it.” She claps her hands in happy response. And then you smile and wave again.

This brief interaction with this child is not just a friendly exchange. It is much more. You are actually supporting the development of her brain circuitry.

 Serve and return

“This simple interaction is called serve and return. It is this back-and-forth communication between children and responsive adults that builds a young child’s brain architecture,” says Dr. Elanna S. Yalow.

“Serve and return is like a game of tennis between a young child and a caring, responsive adult,” says Yalow. A baby coos or cries, or a preschool child asks “Why?” The adult returns the child’s “serve” with interest, and the back and forth begins.

“Serve and return promotes learning because these interactions actually help to develop the neural pathways in a child’s brain,” Yalow explains. Because 70 percent of all brain development occurs within the first three years of life, consistent use of serve and return is essential to establishing a strong foundation for success in school and later life.

Open-ended engagement

Simply giving children directions does not foster healthy brain development. Children need rich, meaningful exchanges to develop the brain connections that pave the way for continued learning and growth.

Asking children open-ended questions is an easy way to start serve and return. If a child draws a picture, parents and teachers should do more than compliment the picture. Asking the child “What is happening in your picture?” or “Why did you draw that?” creates an opportunity for back and forth dialogue. Praise is important for young children, but serve and return is essential to their development.

Serve and return and language development

Serve and return also plays an important role in developing literacy skills. Here’s an example: a baby points to a ball and a parent or teacher says, “ball.” This helps the child make a connection between the word and the corresponding object. Through this process, early literacy skills form. And as children grow older and adults read to them, asking children to react to what is being read or to predict what might happen next in the story also helps develop new connections in the brain.

The absence of serve and return

Without serve and return, the development of brain circuitry and learning can be impaired. And without meaningful interactions with responsive adults, even the youngest children show signs of distress.

Adults who simply satisfy a child’s physical needs without providing serve and return interactions don’t adequately support the healthy development of the child. Neural pathways that may be important to a child’s future may never be formed or will fade away through a process called “pruning.”

The foundation for all learning

Ensuring that children engage with caring adults who consistently engage in serve and return, beginning in infancy, builds the foundation for learning into adulthood.

“Serve and return is the fundamental difference between custodial care and high quality early childhood education,” says Yalow. “Vibrant serve and return should be the goal in every home and classroom, something that every parent and teacher should practice.”

Engaging with young children in intentional, meaningful ways not only helps them build relationships. It impacts their ability to develop language and cognitive skills. Serve and return is a crucial base on which all future development is built; it is the foundation for learning.

The next time you smile or wave at a baby in the market, remember how important serve and return is for that child’s development. Your interaction is helping that child’s brain in important ways.


A Kindergarten Science Experiment

by Dr. Scott Andersen in , ,


The three slices of bread that are being studied are sealed in Ziploc bags and displayed on one of the classroom windows.

I visited Westlake Child Development Center in Houston this week.  While visiting their Kindergarten room, one of the students was anxious to tell me about the science project her class is conducting.  So I decided to video her description of the project.  

The students were studying the impact of germs on a slice of bread.  They had three slices in Ziploc bags for observation. The first slice was untouched. The second was touched by clean hands. The third was touched by dirty hands.

Students record their observations here

The students are observing each day and making notes and pictures of what they see happening over time.

I am anxious to see what conclusions they draw!

Check out the video below.