The Principal of Change George Couros

Stories of learning and leading
Updated: 2 hours 43 min ago

3 Myths About “Empowering” Students in Schools Today

16 November, 2017 - 22:36

The notion of “empowering” students has become more prevalent in the last few years, and for a good reason.  In a world that is moving at a faster pace than ever, we need people to initiate and make things happen.  To do this, you have to have ownership, and with ownership, one becomes empowered in finding and creating their solutions.

Bill Ferriter, has pushed my thinking on this notion, and I love this image he created:

Image by @plugusin

AJ Juliani and John Spencer also wrote a great book that is 100% dedicated to the idea of the importance of empowering students. They push the idea of how important an “empowered environment” is to create, going beyond the thought of engagement.

Empowered environments allow our connections and impact to move beyond the classroom walls and continue to be powerful, long after our students are out of sight. There is no better time to be in education than right now. Education is the bridge to so many opportunities for our learners. We must step aside as the gatekeepers and instead move next to our learners to take the journey together.

As with any new narrative that comes into education, “empowering learners” has pushback in what it means for education.  Below are some of the arguments I have heard in the context of why “empowering” students might face criticism, and some arguments against the idea of empowerment.

1. It is a “free-for-all.” When people hear the term “empower”, they often envision a free-for-all where learners just do whatever they want.  For example, the notion of Google’s “20% time” (which has often been debated), is that people just do whatever they want with 20% of their time in which they work for Google. The reality is that the time is meant to advance Google, not a “do whatever you want” initiative. From “The truth about Google’s famous ‘20% time’ policy”:

“We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google.”The same is true within education. In my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset,” I wrote about a Health Class that I turned over to the students. Instead of planning everything myself, I turned the curriculum objectives over to the students, who planned for each objective and how they would teach it.  I still met the curriculum objectives through this process, but the students had a much better understanding of each objective because a) what they planned for other students was much more powerful than what I would have planned myself and b) they had to teach it to others.  One of my favorite quotes on learning is from Joseph Joubert, where he states, “To teach is to learn twice.”  Empowering students within constraints of education is about innovating inside of the box.

This interpretation of empowerment leads to the next myth.

2. It is disconnected from the curriculum. As shown in above, you can empower students, while still teaching the curriculum. Yong Zhao opened my eyes to the concept of “individualized” and “personalized” learning, and their differences:

“Individualized learning is having students go through different paths to get to the same endpoint.  How you get there is different, but the destination is the same. Personalized learning is having students go through their own paths to whatever endpoint they desire.  How you take the path and where you end up is dependent upon the strengths and interests of the learner.” Within individualized learning, students still have to get to the same endpoint of the curriculum, but the process of how they show their learning can vary. If you give a student the opportunity to create a video, write a story, create media, etc., that allows a different process that the student has ownership over, yet the assessment is still based on the understanding of the objective.  I love this quote from Chris Lehmann:

“If you assign a project and get back 30 of the same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.” Opportunities for personalized learning are also important.  Things like Genius Hour and Identity Day allow for students to not only learn about their passions but more importantly, learn about themselves.  We have to find opportunities for both while ensuring we meet the requirements of our jobs.

3. Students are becoming entitled. If anything, I am hoping that “empowering students” creates the opposite effect.

When someone is entitled, they think things should come to them. When you are empowered, the belief is that you need to make things happen. With empowered learners, the expectations should be greater, not less. I wrote about this idea previously, and the difference between creating a “GoFundMe” account versus creating something of value:

Here was an example of a fine line that I struggle with in teaching a child to be “entitled”, as opposed to “empowered”. Think about what we are saying to students when we ask for money through “GoFundMe” or something similar for our classrooms or ask for others to retweet something so that our class can win a competition?  This borders on modeling entitlement. “Give me something because I’ve asked for it.” Now if you have ever asked for money for your classroom to give your students opportunities that may not exist without that funding, I can fully understand why you would do that.  Every great teacher wants to provide every opportunity they can for their students. But as I had written before, what if we created something of value to earn that money?  If we asked students, “What would you create to earn this money? What rate would you sell the product or service? How would you get the word out to others?”  This is quite hard work, but what if you earned furniture through this process? There is ownership over the creation process while entrepreneurial skills are developed. Empowering students means teaching them that they are going to create their own future, not that someone will do it for them.

I have tried to distinguish examples of “compliance, engagement, and empowerment” previously:

This does not mean that “compliance” is never necessary (think submitting taxes). It also doesn’t mean that “engagement” is now irrelevant.  It is just about pushing further into our world today.  I always say that you can be engaged without being empowered, but if you are empowered, you are definitely engaged.  Those that are empowered create the(ir) future and do not sit back and wait for it to happen to (for) them.

Categories: Planet

Only Schools Can End Schools

14 November, 2017 - 22:17

The image below  has been circling online and is attributed to Alberto Brea:

The simple line that is missing from the picture is this; Blockbuster killed Blockbuster.  In reality, they had everything they needed to continue to succeed as well as advantages over competitors. They were the most well known, had stores all over the world, and a history of success.  It was more of a refusal of Blockbuster to move forward than it was a willingness for a different company to do something different, and more importantly, better.

I am not a fan of the “school is broken” narrative.  The people who need to hear it, don’t, and the people that it is often targeted toward, are the ones working their butts off to make amazing things happen for kids on a continuous basis.  There are lots of things about current schools that I love, that are not necessarily new, but are the norm when I went to school as a student.  Schools get way too little credit for what they do right, and often, when they are doing great things, the focus immediately shifts to find the weaknesses.

Want proof?

Check out the title of this post in the Toronto Sun from 2014; “Literacy rates up but students still struggling with math.” The bulk of the article is not about literacy, but about math.  The constant game of education whack-a-mole.

This doesn’t mean schools can’t get better, as is the case of every organization.  It also doesn’t ignore the fact that any organization is immune to being “disrupted.”  If you remember when Khan Academy first came out, many educators were extremely nervous that this would replace schools and were sick of that narrative.  Although many in education use Khan Academy as a useful supplement, the reason it didn’t replace schools wasn’t necessarily because schools changed their practices significantly, but in reality, Khan Academy could not succeed the importance of a teacher in a classroom. It is the relationships that separates schools, not the content.

The reason I love the image shared in this post is because it is a reminder that schools hold their fates in their own hands until they don’t.  That will always be up to the people in the organizations making these things happen. But as my friend, Dwight Carter always reminds me and others, “Make it a great day…or not. The choice is yours.”

I am not worried about some major disruption happening to schools because I see so many educators and organizations creating their own change, not waiting for someone to do it to or for them.  They are also doing it within constraints and in the constant face of adversity. That is what makes educators amazing. But we can just never become complacent with “what was” or we could lose our opportunity at “what could have been.” Educators have more control of the future of schools than any outside source will.

Continue to create that meaningful change. Your students and your communities might not thank you as much as is deserved, but your impact will always be significant.

Categories: Planet

Times Change, Time Frames Stay the Same

12 November, 2017 - 22:30

As it does seemingly every year, an article came up about teaching cursive in schools.  I recently tweeted this post out:

Reading this article from 2017 – Do we need to teach children joined-up handwriting?

— George Couros (@gcouros) November 11, 2017

I encourage you to read the post as there are many arguments on having cursive taught in schools, and not. Personally, I believe that students need to be able to read cursive, but spending a ton of time on cursive writing (not writing…that is something different) might not be as feasible as it once was.  There are benefits to teaching cursive, but I would hope that is true whatever is taught in school. Coding was not taught when I went to school, but now it is. What is the benefit for our students now and in the future? It had to replace something. The question is how do we get the most out of our time?

Yet, cursive writing is not the point of this post (I wrote a post on cursive in 2011, and I encourage you to read it but more importantly. read the comments), although it is something that we need to think about and discuss. It is about the amount of time we have to teach students different skills within the school day.

Here is the proof…

I am leading a session the other day and asked if anyone was a student in the 1970’s. When one person raised their hand, I asked them what the time frame of their day was. They estimated it was about 9am-3pm. Then I asked if anyone who was a student in the 1980’s. One person responded, and their time frame was about the same. Then the 1990’s, and again, the time frame was the same.

Why ask these questions? Because as the demands on what we teach increase, the time frame of our day stays the same.  You cannot simply continue to add onto the day; you have to think about how you use your time differently.  These are conversations that must take place in our school communities.

Jordan Tinney, Superintendent of Surrey Schools, said something to a group a few years ago that stuck with me.

“The amount of change that has happened in the last 20 years, is more than any 20 year period prior.”

Now let’s think about that statement made a few years ago.  Is it any less valid today than it was when originally stated? Would it be any less accurate 50 years in the future or the past?  Change is the constant we deal with daily. It always has been, it always will be.   The pace of change may be faster, but it (change) will also be something that will always be in front of us.

When people ask me, “What is the next big thing that will come our way in education?”, my response is, “I have no idea, but whatever it is, I will learn to adapt, embrace, and take advantage of it.”


The next 20 years, more things will come our way.  The beauty and concern of that statement are that you can read it at any point in the future and it will still be true.  But the time frame of the day will stay the same.  We can not continuously add new things while holding onto the old.  We will have to engage in discussions on what our students need now and in the future, and what will serve them best. Nostalgia is not a valid strategy to help our students move forward.

The conversations will be (and should be) messy.  It is just essential that we continue to have them.

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How do you focus on being innovative while still teaching the curriculum?

9 November, 2017 - 22:00

Here is a question I often get in workshops:

How do you focus on being innovative while still teaching the curriculum?

When I hear this, the viewpoint of “teaching the curriculum” and “innovation in education” is that the curriculum is on one side of the spectrum, and innovation is on the opposite side.

Working often as an outside consultant, I could tell teachers to not worry about the curriculum, “school is broken, and we need to fix it,” blah blah blah, but that would be irresponsible of me as someone who works with schools, but not employed directly.  While these teachers focus on “innovation,” they may also lose their job because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do.

What I try to get people to understand is that how we teach the curriculum, often, is the innovation.

Look at your curriculum, understand what you are teaching, and ask, “is there a better way?”  For example, instead of lecturing on a topic, could you have the students create a video or Vlog on the topic, to explain it in an in-depth way?  I don’t think that classrooms should be absent of providing content to students, but I do believe that what we create with the content provides a deeper understanding of what you are learning.  What does it matter if a student does well on a test, but doesn’t understand the ideas a week later?  I have seen so many schools get devices like tablets and they ask immediately, “What apps would you download?”  The question they should be asking is, “What can I students create with this?” Simply focusing on the word “create,” and thinking about how that would enhance the learning could make a significant impact.


I am also not saying that lecture is a bad thing.  I think there are great lessons learned from lecture, but I don’t think that any one way is the best way for all students.  I know that from the experience of being both a teacher and a learner.  But I challenge you to look at one thing in the context of your work, whether it is in leadership or teaching, and ask, “Is there a better way to do this that would work better for the people I serve?”

All of a sudden, that one thing, becomes a second thing, third thing, and so on.

What separates the great teachers from everyone else, is not what they teach, it is how they teach.  The curriculum is the same across subjects. The “how” is where the artistry in education happens.


Categories: Planet

3 Ideas to Help Others Embrace Your Ideas

8 November, 2017 - 09:43

Recently, I have started my own “podcasting” experience by sharing my #thoughtsfromthecar.  I drive quite a bit to events, so I just turn on the voice memos app on my phone, and start talking.  Although there are lots of bumbling through ideas, it is meant to be just informal.

On my most recent episode, I shared the importance of being able to communicate great ideas out to others.  If you have a great idea, but you aren’t able to get people interested in what you are sharing, then it will go to waste. How we communicate is essential to helping others see your vision.

Below, are a few of the ideas I shared.

  1. Tell your story in a compelling way. Have you ever sat through a presentation that was boring “bullet point” slide after slide? Many educators have gone through this, but then we teach our students to do the same type of presentation. Are we trying to punish the future generation?Using visuals and media can help bring an idea to life, but it is also in how we share a compelling story.Too often we blame “PowerPoint” for the flaws of a presentation, but it is all in the way that we use it to help convey a message. It isn’t forcing you to put 900 words on a slide. (I use Keynote for Mac which is a much better software, but I have seen great presentations done with either.)

    Tell a story and create an emotional connection to the idea.

  2. Build rapport with those that you serve. To show that you know your audience, let them know that you know your audience. What things do you have in common? What ideas are shared? Whether this is with one person, or with 1000, building rapport with a group needs to happen quickly.  The more you know the people (person) in front of you, and the more you build backward from them, and not try to pull them to you, the more they see themselves in the vision. Let them know you as well. Be personable and approachable. Too often I have listened to speakers who talk “above” an audience, and they will lose them quickly. Be humble or be humbled.  Connect first with those you are serving.
  1. Get a “360 Degree View” of your idea. With every great idea, you will have detractors.  It is inevitable, but it doesn’t mean the idea won’t work.  But instead of waiting for the negatives to be pointed out by someone else, find them yourself first. If you take what I call a “360 Degree View” of your idea, and look at it from all angles, you will also see flaws in your approach. This is not a bad thing. Address them or acknowledge them, but know the strengths and weaknesses of an idea.  Not only will it debunk some of the naysayers, but it will also probably create something better.

Motivational speaker, Les Brown, states that “the richest place in the world is the graveyard.”  Too many great ideas go there to die, not only because we are scared to share them, but also because we haven’t shown anyone a compelling reason on why anyone should be interested in the first place.

Tell your story because you have a story to share.  Do not let that idea stay stuck in your head.

Categories: Planet

Same Message, Different Delivery

5 November, 2017 - 22:11

A good friend and colleague of mine, would walk into a school building in the morning together, and I would count the number of times the words “no,” or “stop” or “don’t” would appear on the doors and the wall (about seven). This is before we would go to the room to “empower” learners.  It felt like you were getting scolded continuously for things that you weren’t going to do anyway, and on some days, was deflating for no reason.

Just today, I saw a sign walking into a school that said to students, “No smoking on the premises.”  Maybe I am naive here, but are kids lighting up a cigarette in the middle of a class, still a problem in our world today?  I have heard of the teacher staff rooms where everyone would go smoke at recess “back in the day,” but have never seen that in my almost 20 years of educational experience.

The messages on the wall, that we become numb to and often no longer notice, matter.  Dr. Martin Brokenleg said something a few years ago about the messaging on our walls, and what they convey to our students and staff.  He mentioned the sign that is often at the entrance of schools that states something similar to the following:

For the safety of our students, please check in at the office upon your arrival.

He pointed out that the first thing this sign hints to people walking into your school is that this may not be a safe place.

He suggested the subtle shift:

Upon arrival, we love to welcome all guests, so please come say hi at the office.

The sign is going for the same outcome, but the messaging is in stark contrast in “feeling” from the original message.

Of course, we want schools to be safe, and they should not be absent of rules, but what do your messages say and what tone does it set for the day?

I love this example from this post on “Emotionally Intelligent Signage“:

Both make the same point, yet one makes you smile while the other is in CAPS LOCK!

Take a look at the signs around your school.  Is there a more positive way to share the same message?

Categories: Planet
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