Consulting firms work with school district for glimpses at a new strategy

Posted on: February 17, 2015

Recently The Learner First was mentioned in an article  in the ‘Oklahoma Gazette.’  The subject was on new strategies for working alongside schools and districts.

In his first year as superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, Rob Neu has formed partnerships with several organizations that offer a glimpse of his education philosophy, along with an idea of how he plans to tackle some of the biggest challenges the district faces.

“Often, schools and districts will opt to purchase a program that will provide them with direction, but it takes a little bit more than that to make real lasting changes,” said Joanne McEachen, president of The Learner First. “What we do at Learner First is provide a framework to help people and schools and work with them through it.”

The Learner First is a Seattle-based education consulting firm that Neu has invited to work in the district. McEachen and her team were in OKC last year to gather information and help the district determine the school sites for several pilot programs.

Neu had previously worked with The Learner First as superintendent in Federal Way, Washington.

Read more HERE

An Early Morning Haze

Posted on: November 20, 2014

A Post by Jacob Molloy

I wake each morning to the dark morning cold, reminiscent more of force than of pleasure. I speed through my breakfast in a half daze, get in my car with my younger brother, and begin my daily transit to school. Rain drips and pours down on the windshield, and I wonder at the meaning of such a daily transit. My reactions and vision are blurred in the morning dullness, and my body whines for rest. I imagine the grey halls of my high school, and the half smiles of underpaid, underappreciated, and misunderstanding teachers. Then, perhaps the most crushing reality comes into the corner of my mental visions. That is the bored frown which I share with all my classmates, and each one who I pass in these grey halls. Many of these students have pushed out awareness of their position within this bureaucracy of distrust. They rather accept it, and thrive by crushing their inner passion for the guidance of the dispassionate. Or, they will not accept it, and this society turns from these blemishes.

Laws and punishment bind our lives. Pleasure and joy are put last, if at all, in our lives. We do not see the merit of the system created to educate us, and we are right to do so. This education may instruct us loosely on principles of studies which may or may not have any merit in our future lives, but it sucks the inherent creative energy and conscious thought patterns from the collective school psyche. We are entrenched and entranced in an ideological structure created in a different time for different goals. This system was broadened in a production age, and followed in suit. It is based on numerical values, and is archaic. We are battered and scorned while we work an average 45 hour work week, and are given no notice unless we trump all others in this competition towards undefined success. We are running a race of mediocrity. Crushing students under a massive workload and unreal expectations decimates individuality and weakens the collective.

All of this only saddens me as it acts to block the potential and true power of each of us young people. I can feel myself being weakened through the day while I am at school. Some mornings I wake with a smile, but end the school day with a deep frown. Trying to converse with other students past the confinements of subject matter warrants looks of confusion and dismay, as if it were bad to question further. This is very much representative of the collective consciousness within schools. Predominantly the merits of questioning further are completely overlooked, as they are no part of the curriculum. The number of students I see who are in challenging classes simply to have a more impressive transcript is staggering. Each one of us is a part of a system that no longer honors, nor ever really did honor, ingenuity and creativity. Putting each of us in a listen don’t talk machine crushes the very energy we need to reimagine our world.


Lost in the Core

Posted on: November 6, 2014

 Post by Jeff Petty, Change Catalyst for The Learner First

One of my colleagues here in the Pacific Northwest recently started a short stint as an “itinerant music teacher” in elementary schools. I didn’t know this term. She doesn’t teach kids to play itinerant music; she moves from school to school through the day, leading music classes at several sites. She is also a professional musician and the kind of ebullient teacher kids love to work with; the kind of teacher kids cluster around during lunch and breaks and times they aren’t required to be somewhere else. Last week she told me this story about her first day with a new group of first graders.

Since her approach is all about starting with students’ interests and building from there, she asked them: “What are you learning about in school?” There was a long pause, as students looked around and tried to think of something. “Text features?” one of them eventually offered. Some other students nodded gravely in affirmation.

 “Text features?” my friend asked. “Hmm… well, what’s the most exciting thing you’re learning about? Like maybe in science?” Blank stares. Eventually one of them said, “We aren’t learning science.”

Then she asked, “Well, what would you learn about if you could learn about anything?” Suddenly everyone was talking at once:




I also work as a school design coach with a school that’s shifting to a more interest-based approach to try to improve persistently poor student outcomes. One of their first steps was to tell students that they could choose any topic they’d like to learn more about and develop that into a project. It could be anything of interest and didn’t need to have any obvious connection to school. Instead of excitedly calling out like the first graders did, several of these students flatly stated that they have no interests. When their teachers asked me, as their school coach, how they could possibly make any progress with these kinds of students, I told them that, based on having worked in schools designed to start with and then cultivate students’ interests rather than press on in indifference to them, I thought this had little to do with those students’ lack of interest, and was instead a function of their time in school. In fact, I told them, those students are probably interested in all sorts of things. They just can’t imagine how that has anything to do with school.

Amid all the national attention on improving educational outcomes, what does it mean that small children don’t see their interests in school, and older kids struggle even to engage the concept of interest while inside their schools? Sadly, those first graders my friend is working with will likely in time internalize that what’s interesting to them has no place in school. Apart from the students who drop out of school altogether, it’s hardly surprising that some studies show that less than 40% of students in upper grades are intellectually engaged.

A recent New Yorker cartoon by Liza Donnelly shows a mother greeting her young daughter who has just walked in the door from her first day of school. The little girl looks dejected, shoulders slumped. The caption is the mother saying, “It was your first day – why not give it another twelve years?”

This reminds me of a quote I try to keep close at hand from one of my earliest mentors in education, the late Vito Perrone: “The task for teachers is to become knowledgeable enough about their students’ particular interests to build a substantial part of the curriculum around them.” The zeal to press students earlier and harder to gain skills deemed essential later on seems well intentioned enough. But I worry that our current obsession with improving schools through uniform rigorous standards is taking us farther from Vito’s ideal, and at the expense of the very outcomes we all hope for, namely that our students are increasingly prepared to be engaged, successful contributors within their communities and to the collective community of humankind.

The current prevailing approach is not only misguided, it’s entirely disingenuous.

If you are reading this and you identify as a successful adult leading a life you enjoy, I suspect that right now you would be hard pressed to represent a system of linear equations as a single matrix equation in a vector variable; demonstrate knowledge of the foundational works of American literature from the 18th through early 20th century, including how two or more texts from the same period treated similar themes or topics; or explain the process by which a gene is translated to a protein and the significance of various errors along the way to adaptation by natural selection. These are sample Common Core State Standards in various subjects, and the assumption is that, in order to be successful, high school students must master not just these but many more. In order to get to this level by high school, backwards planning dictates that even first graders must start by understanding concepts like text features. (I’m prompted to note here that I do not know, or at least am not aware that I know, what text features are.)

In numerous workshop presentations to roomfuls of thirty to fifty presumably successful adults, in education and other fields, I have on several occasions asked for a show of hands to indicate who feels confident demonstrating these various standards. Invariably, at most only one or two hands go up for each one; never the same person for more than one. Those who do raise their hands tend to be teachers of those subjects at the high school level. Apparently mastering these standards is not so essential to successful adulthood. What we do have in common as effective adults, what makes us successful, is that we are great learners. If you don’t know how to do those things I named, I suspect you could learn them next week if you wanted to. You likely have a strong sense of who you are and a growth mindset. When you’re interested in making something happen, you overcome obstacles. In fact, if you are passionate about something that requires you to develop new skills, including those named, it’s unlikely anyone could prevent you from developing them. You likely have some leadership experience and a strong support network.

We say the 21st century demands collaboration, creative problem solving, navigating ambiguity, the capacity to define the work ahead of us, and innovating. But in too many classrooms and schools, collaborating is called cheating, problems are pre-defined, and the answers are in the back of the book. What counts the most is what’s easiest to measure in bulk. If we are going to have a Common Core, I propose that it consist not of pre-identified bodies of knowledge, but instead of the non-cognitive competencies through which we acquire knowledge that has personal meaning to us. 

Elliot Washor, the co-founder of Big Picture Learning, has noted that education is the only field where standards now drive the work. In other fields, compelling work defines and continually redefines the standards. Where we need to focus our efforts toward school reform is on redesigning schools to attend to the myriad interests young students bring to us as naturally curious people. What’s interesting is all around us. Learning is everywhere. When we ignore our students’ interest in dinosaurs, pulleys, color, and all sorts of other things, we hamstring the very vehicle whereby students might come to master and continuously extend an array of rigorous academic skills and understandings. To be clear, I am not bashing algebra, American literature, or biology as worthwhile courses of study or exceptionally interesting topics. I am saying that those of us who cherish and actualize our knowledge in these areas didn’t get there via standards; we got there through our interests.

A Student Perspective

Posted on:

Post by Jacob, Chief Passion Enabler for The Learner First

My experiences are first hand as a student in the public education system as it is presented today. I am, sometimes painfully, aware of the pitfalls, but I see many great possibilities for this system. It is hard watching, and experiencing, the currently destructive power of the education system. To spend the majority of one’s waking hours in completion of that which not only lacks fulfillment, but in fact entreats both psychological and physiological ailments is insane. Yet, this is the mission of each student pumped through the school system as it is today. Can such a dire commission be the building blocks of a prosperous and fulfilled society? Surely not. Such illusory and blind devotion to an indeterminate system can lead to not but confusion. This confusing leading directly to a deep seated fear, the fear found in each student in each classroom today. Fear of failure. This failure is born out of the lack of discussion on success; further, on what must be done to achieve such successes.

By helping students through who they wish to be, their values, and by mentoring them along their way to succeeding in these values, we allow this fear to be shed. Education can be uplifting rather than downgrading, empowering rather than manipulative. By molding children to their own design we leave behind the industrial revolution’s influence, and move ahead to individual importance. A human being is not a car, a yo-yo, or an airplane. Each of us is unique, and treating us all the same, shaping us all to the same mold, does not but harm. Teach each student to their own mold, and then you will see children faces shine again at the thought of school.

Perhaps the closest and most cliché way to describe what a child is would be a jewel. This metaphor only works if you imagine each jewel having distinctly different densities, and varying shapes. Using this metaphor, and treating the current education system as the jeweler, it would be as if the jeweler were to shave and polish each diamond with only the knowledge he had learned from a book he had read in his training. Then, as he jeweled for many years, he never changed his method, never questioning that perhaps application was different than contemplation. Never even thinking of any jewel to be different than any other. He never questioned why it would be that an emerald would not shape itself the same as a diamond. So because of his neglect and assurance in his training, all the diamonds he polished seemed to end up looking quite ugly, and quite similar. None of them seemed to shine with any real brilliance. But as he was the owner of a famous old jewelry store, people kept coming, and he kept returning blunt jewels. If we treat each child the same, and base all that off values decided on long ago, we will return nothing but blunt jewels.


The Emperors Clothes

Posted on: September 26, 2014

So when we finally know truth what do you do?

Facing reality is okay, if it happens to someone else. A bit like a tragedy. Usually things happen to someone else. It only becomes real when it effects you. You then realize just what others have been going through and, just how insensitive you have been for days weeks and years… Insensitive only because it did not touch you, or was not relevant to you, so you just did not know.

Recognition and awareness is almost cataclysmic in that moment of truth. A moment of collision with time and space. When that moment of understanding occurs. Creation and recognition of an energy – of your truth. Crystal clarity. The first sight and remembrance of who you are and why you are here.

It has taken humanity century’s to get to this point. Daily now, people are awakening to their truth and are saying hello, it is nice to finally meet you.

But now we are asking once we know who we are, what do we do now we know?

To break free of ‘what we have always done’ when it no longer serves us or each other is the hurdle we face now. We have conquered many of the physical constraints, the technological challenges, and can collectively create new knowledge that is exponentially increasing at rates with enough speed to conquer many new challenges. But how do we get out of the complex challenge of the daily grind to really be who we are?

In the multitude of conversations and interviews I am privileged to take part in, I have heard the many voices of people who live in all the “layers” of our society, from Ministers of the Crown or elected Government officials, business leaders, academics and parents and children across the education system, everyone is saying the same thing:

I am not living the real me.

What I am noticing is we are not trapped by anyone else other than ourselves. The rules by which we live by are mostly created in our own minds, the assumptions we have about our reality.

What no longer serves all of us needs to go. We keep doing the same things over and over that we inherently know to be wrong or harmful to either other humans and animals, the planet and its livelihood, or ourselves. The rationale for doing this is generally because that is the way we have always done things or there has not been another way shared, allowed or trusted.

Start by talking honestly, wearing your own clothes and live the real you. It actually is ok.

Take off the emperors clothes and put our own clothes on. We are amazing in our own beings. When we are who we are, we allow others to be themselves too.  

When kids, teachers, parents, leaders and local community members get around the table to discuss utilizing all their skills and knowledge to ignite and fire-up genuine learning experiences that tap into what is really needed to live a full and successful life- nothing stops schools and communities. Describing what success  looks like and then working out to get there, and how to know if you are on track to getting there, is a better starting place than using a curriculum written by people who do not know what is important to you.

When we know the truth, we have two choices. We can do what we have always done and wine about the system, how it doesn’t serve us, is unfair, and doesn’t pay enough or whatever your beef is to stop you living the real you.  Or, you could try living the real you and behave in a way that is your truth.

What’s the worst that could happen?

When did Special Education become Special?

Posted on: September 23, 2014

I was talking to a friend at Sunday brunch and discussing her son’s recent diagnoses of dyslexia. Her feeling of relief at knowing what causing his delay at progressing was evident, but the concern at being labelled special education was an interesting part of the discussion.

It raised for me the question: Why is it that when we discover how our brain works and it may be slightly different from what we think or perceive to be in a normal range, we consider this to be special education?

The more we learn about humanity, the more we realize that we all have our own and different ways of thinking and learning, some of us can be grouped in particular ways, but when it all boils down, we all are our own people, or individuals. We all need to understand who we are, how we think, feel and how we interact with the world around us. That really is the essence of learning- finding out who we are, how we fit into the world and then how we can contribute to it.

As we discover more about how the brain and body works and how we learn, maybe we need to rethink who and what we are labelling special education. Maybe we are all qualify for special education as we all need to be able to learn what is right for who we are and at the level we are at. The challenge is to be accurate in assessing exactly what it is we need to learn, how we need to learn it and even the why we need to learn it- the relevancy to our lives part!

If we can get that part right then the labels of special education could disappear as we would recognize that we are all learners and we all could classify for special education.

Let’s remove the “Special” label out of education and ensure education meets the need of every learner.

Synchronicity- there is a reason why

Posted on: September 20, 2014

There are moments in time that are “meant to be” or synchronistic. Sometimes we don’t recognize why it happens or how the universe engineers these times to happen but they are critically important if we are open to them. We meet people who help us understand why the experiences in our life happen and help us make sense of them.

Yesterday I got to spend the day with another three amazing world renowned educational leaders, who do this with and for me. We are working together in an innovative global project that is changing the way we think about education. We are not talking about tinkering around the edges, we are talking about whole system transformation. We are talking about knowing who we each are from the inside out, respecting and honoring each of our voices and the voices of those who love us, before we think about providing an educational experience to anyone.

We are talking about fundamentally identifying what counts for success in life, before deciding what counts to learn. When we know what counts for life, then we know what is important to learn, and then and only then could we possibly know where to start with each and every learner and their family.

This is not rocket science.

So why is it so hard?

My colleagues yesterday pushed me- we started with that what we all bring to the work – ourselves. We challenged our own assumptions about what is success for us, for our lives, what has been challenging for us in our own experiences and why. It helps us to understand how we are shaped and the complexities of being a learner, both as a child and as an adult.

I remembered some of the experiences as an educator, trying to do the right thing. The ways I felt I have been treated, in political contexts, have been abhorrent, so I get it. To lead huge system-wide change and be successful in achieving it, does make you unpopular among those who lose political power in the process. If you can see the whole picture, not remain invested in any one particular aspect or program and have the courage and the tenacity to see system change through to completion, it creates a different kind of “hard”.

I stopped sharing what I knew worked because the balance of power or value of who was being served shifted and my safety was challenged. And it happens to us all at some point in time when our values are out of alignment with the work we are asked to do. You can choose to do the right thing or feel powerless within a system that you have no voice in and slowly you shut down.

It requires leadership, courage, wisdom, integrity, and as I was reminded yesterday, political astuteness, to be continuously do what we know is right and this is a collective effort.

  • Just how important is it to you is it to change and why would you?
  • What hinders you?
  • How long will you wait before you change what you do?
  • Which children is the system working for?
  • How close are you to feeling and seeing what is happening to the ones for whom it is not working for?

When it is personal it is quite different, if this were your business and you were only getting a 70% return would you change it? What would you change and who would you ask to find out what you need to change first?

No one is coming.

You and me and our community -all of us together, we are it. We collectively have the knowledge, the know-how to help every learner in our system.

Get the right people together: students, teachers, parents, leaders and community members. Move from learning alone to learning together. Talk more, honestly share who we are, what we know works, forgive each other for what we haven’t been doing, but no more excuses. Pivot quickly when it doesn’t work and learn from what does. Be open to innovation, learn from ourselves and from other places. Learn by doing.

You know what to do, find your people who push you. Synchronicity –there is a reason why.


Are we asking the right question?

Posted on: September 18, 2014

Is the state funding the school system with enough funds to enable a high quality education system for all students?

The right or wrong question?

What if we ask the question: What do we want for our children? This might change how we think about education.

If we talk about what every child needs, and we systematically ensure they get it then the funding of it becomes the secondary question. If we stop fighting over who or which department should take responsibility for which piece of the child they are responsible for, and start talking about the child as a whole, with the family they come from, a real family, with hopes and aspirations for their child, and share in that journey with them, then the funding of that dream becomes part of the discussion. Not the discussion.

It is not that I don’t believe education could always do with more money, it could. Just as any other service area, we would be able to benefit from it. But it is what we do with the money that counts. There are amazing and exciting innovations that are occurring here in WA, and across the world. We know about learning, for individuals and whole districts, states and countries and yes, we do know how to scale this too, and better yet we know more and more every day. What I don’t see happening here, is a systemic way of ensuring that there is equitable access for all of the children to benefit from this.

A wondering I had at policy discussion this week when the discussion turned to how could we get the public to vote on paying personal taxes. Taxes to pay for a higher investment in public education.   Why would the public invest in an education system that they do not trust to deliver high quality outcomes? They don’t trust the system anymore. It is not just the education system the public don’t trust. They don’t trust the whole system because it no longer delivers what they need. It is not every person in the system they don’t necessarily not trust, there are many examples of amazing people within the system, trying daily to make it work and parts of the system are ok, but the system falls short for many and repeatedly for the same groups within our society.

Ask the right question. What do we want for our children and then align the system to that. Maybe we can create trust again. The court decision is giving us all a chance to think about what really matters- not the shifting of dollars or funding, but the future lives of our children and our place in this amazing world.

Do you see what I see?

Posted on: September 16, 2014

I see humanity in an intense struggle with itself. I see this reflected in what we do and what we say. It comes out of us from the minute we are born until we take our very last breath. We know what we want, but our actions defy us as we do the opposite of not only what we want, but what we know to be the right thing.

There are many examples of this but none better than what we do to children or to those who work with children. We say that education is the key to our future, the prosperity of our nation and world, the growth and the way to save humanity and the planet yet our actions we take, day after day, speak volumes.

We collectively have created a system that puts our children, their teachers and leaders into a space that is designed for many to fail, children and adults. We have researchers saying “just do this” after they have sampled a select group saying this will work. We have politicians saying “do this” after getting advise from policy makers who listened to the researchers. We have school leaders who say “try this” after they had district leaders saying this is what we have to do now or “this time” and so on. The problem is everyone’s picture of what works is different creating chaos and then education systems are judged on ever changing and often single metrics.

We do not see what it is the children, their parents and often the teachers are seeing. We ignore their expertise and what they see they need to learn about, to understand how they fit into this complex world and how to solve the challenges of our lives today, the here and now, and how to find ways to be a participant in life and not be on the side of it.

If we combine the insights,  knowledge and know-how of the children, parents, teachers, leaders, researchers, and policymakers we may just have a relevant and meaningful education system.

Yet we blindly let ourselves believe that what we are doing is acceptable. Look into the eyes of the children, the teachers, the leaders, the policy makers and ask them to speak the truth. It does not have to be this way. True accountability is not accepting anything less than success in life for all.

Once we understand what is really stopping us from achieving, what we want, and the stop the chaos of everyone going in different directions, we can then concentrate on what counts and collectively build system capacity and focus on what we really want in life.

If you see what I see, what are you going to do differently today?

The power of my voice

Posted on: September 14, 2014

I lost my voice for years. I couldn’t be heard even though I was talking as loud as I could. I am a powerful woman, so powerful I even frighten myself. I was born with a knowledge and sight of how to connect people together across the world. I see systems and know that we are all connected together and when any one of us even moves, thinks or feels, there is a reaction big or small somewhere in the universe.

Today is my birthday (in my land of birth) and my voice is back. My voice is back because my friends and family are tired of me not trusting me or them, my business colleagues wonder why it is so hard to break into my inner circle of trust, and the yet all the while the learners of the world are calling me.

How do I know this?

I was born knowing that I would change the system of education in some way. I am doing this and it is powerful but there is one huge problem… my own inner conflict. I kept being hurt by the people I trusted the most making it hard for my voice to be heard. I ended up believing that I was the problem and there was something wrong with me. It is as if I am waiting for the next person to take my voice and ignore it, discount it, misuse it essentially for “it” to happen, again.

I am a master at helping others find their pathway and success. I can lead any system, turn them around and support them to be on track to success in a heartbeat because I see systems as a whole. But I kept getting hurt in the process, and others maybe did too.

Today I remembered why.

When you don’t feel like your voice is heard or valued a little piece of you dies. When this happens repeatedly and sustained over a long period of time either as an individual or a group within a society you lose trust. Slowly you lose your voice.

I kept drawing these tough experiences to me to remember what it is like for the millions of people who don’t have a voice. With each of these incredibly painful experiences, while tough they did in fact remind me of what it was like to not have a voice, when no one would listen, no one would hear my story, and no one would care about my views. And, I have held and hold and will hold many positions of power in the world.  I had to have these experiences to truly understand what it was like for us all when we have no voice.

The intense pain I see in your eyes is reflected in mine. Because I know.

My voice is back and here I stand. So is yours- make it count.