What’s so bad about conflict?


Recently, I was speaking with a couple of colleagues and one of them half-jokingly mentioned, “You love conflict!” I think that to some degree this comment came from my penchant from asking probing questions in my meetings with faculty and staff.

When I ask questions during meetings, I try to make them probing and seek deeper meaning. I am seeking to find out a person’s deeper intention and core beliefs. I think what often bothers some of my faculty and staff members is that I am exploring why we do the things we do.

When a leader starts to question the status quo, feelings of tension and conflict can arise among the group. But, not all conflict is bad.

Think about peanut butter and jelly, the conflict of salty and sweet is a joy for many. If PB&J isn’t your thing what about French Fries and Ketchup? How about Balsamic Vinegar and Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a salad?

Some people love sports. Why? Because of the conflict and tension. Think about two soccer teams on the pitch, or football teams battling it out. Tennis, baseball, and basketball all are about the conflict of two opposing forces.

One does not have to go far when examining the arts and how conflict plays an important role in discovering deeper meaning. Classical music, jazz, rock and pop music all use conflict, either in lyrics, meter or key signatures, to help create tension and release to create a deeper meaning for the listener.

Painters and other artists use conflict as a medium to engage viewers in order to make meaning from their visual art. Novelist and poets use conflict to create tension and develop story arcs in order to draw the reader in. Television and movies use story arcs for the same reason.

The idea of conflict can have negative connotations because people often see it as unpleasant. However, respectful candor during courageous conversations and using strategic conflict is a powerful tool to change practices which are no longer effective.

Sometimes asking questions in which you already know the answers is important so that others may derive deeper meaning on their own rather than being told the better course of action. Effective teachers use this strategy in the classroom with their students. After all, there is little value in providing students the answers when the learning can be more meaningful and permanent when they arrive at the conclusion themselves.

I think the most vital part of using conflict effectively is to provide a safe environment where people feel safe to share their opinions. Part of my role as a school leader is to create the conditions wherein faculty and staff feel safe to have courageous conversations. In this way, I can continue to have a growth mindset conversations with my faculty.

How do you create a safe environment within your school. classroom or organization?

What is 21st Century Learning?


I spend a lot of time in the school I lead talking about and explaining what a 21st Century Learning Environment is, isn’t, what it looks, like and feels like. I have similar conversations with other Principals and leaders within the department of schools in which my school operates.  

As educators, often times these conversations focus on the learning and skills we seek to develop within the students.  The educators I speak with agree that 21st-century learning skills encompass the ability of students communicate, collaborate, critically think and problem solve, as well as be creative.  These are commonly referred to as The Four C’s.

The Four C’s are incredibly important skills for today’s students to understand and master so that they can be prepared for the uncertain future work environments which they will be entering.  It should not be a secret that the dawn of the “internet of things” and Artifical Intelligence means that our students need to be prepared to enter a workforce who jobs do not exist yet.

However, if we only focus on the skills we want our students to develop we lose sight of the WHY we want them to develop these skills. Schools still need to continue to help students develop competency in the core content areas such as English, Modern Language, Fine Arts, Math, Economics, Science and Social Studies. In addition, we must develop students understanding of global awareness, financial and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, health literacy, and environmental literacy.

In today’s technology-rich and rapidly changing society, we must develop students ability to access and evaluate high-quality information, in order that they are to able to utilize this information, navigate social media, and use technology effectively.

Educator’s today are tasked with developing students life and career skills in a much different way than in years past.  In order for students to be prepared to meet the needs of an rapidly evolving world, they must develop skills in flexibility, self-direction, productivity, leadership, and social & cultural competencies.

Given the complex nature of intersecting these various skill sets (the 3 R’s and 21st-century learning skills) within the classroom, it is unreasonable that we expect teachers to meet these needs in a traditional classroom setting.

Moving beyond just having technology such as iPads, Chromebooks or laptops in the classroom schools need to look forward to how instruction is delivered. It is even necessary to look at how many states establish curriculum standards and set expectations to evaluate student competency.  Standardized tests and school rating are not enough to determine if we are doing justice for our students.

As we look towards more student-centered learning environments Problem Based Learning or PBL, is one avenue wherein schools can look to bridge this gap and address the needs of today’s learners.

The efforts by High Quality Project Based Learning outlines a framework of six domains to make PBL effective in the classroom and prepare students to be successful in the world after school.

These domains include:

  1. Intellectual Challenge & Accomplishment – How do students critically think and strive for excellence?
  2. Authenticity – How do students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, lives, and future?
  3. Public Product – How is student work discussed, critiqued, shared and publicly displayed?
  4. Collaboration – How do students collaborate with one another in person/online and receive guidance from adults and experts?
  5. Project Management – How do students use project management processes that allow them to start a project, ideate and complete a project?
  6. Reflection – How do students reflect on their work and develop their metacognition skills before, during and after a project?

If we want students to be prepared to enter the workforce ready to challenge and question the ideas before them and to have the stamina to focus and inquire over a long project we need to create environments for them that are authentic, give them a voice, and provide an opportunity for them to reflect on their learning.  In this way, they can develop the skills to critique in a professional manner and be proud of the work that they share in public.

To continue to teach using a traditional educational methodology that trains learners to become good at being students rather than become competent at becoming learners does a disservice to those who we are tasked with guiding and shaping into effective members of our society.


The Power of Student Agency

This school year I am working with my faculty and staff to launch student-led conferences.  Student-led Conferences (SLC’s) have been around for years but have not caught on as a promising practice with many schools and school districts.  It is truly a shame that more schools have not adopted the practice. To get started you could check out the variety of resources on Edutopia, Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest. Two Rivers Public Charter Schoolin Washington, D.C. has a great web page that outlines the benefits of student-led conferences for parents.

A typical parent-teacher conference finds the teacher reporting to the student’s parent(s)/gaurdians about the child’s academic performance and behavior. Often times these meeting can be contentious as teachers try to communicate how the student performs and behaves in school.  Meanwhile, parents can become increasingly defensive about the comments made about their child, especially if the comments are negative, as they perceive the teacher comments as a reflection on them as a parent or parenting style.   But what is the critical piece missing from these meetings? 

When properly scaffolded and supported, student-led conferences can be a powerful practice wherein students to develop agency in their own learning and set goals with their parents for future growth.

The Student! Doesn’t it make sense to actually include the student who is being discussed at the conference? In my time as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to teach first through eighth grade and I have found that when students are actually involved in the conference, the child and the parent take more ownership in the learning process.  When properly scaffolded and supported, student-led conferences can be a powerful practice wherein students to develop agency in their own learning and set goals with their parents for future growth.

            In a student-led conference, the students and the teachers work together to develop a portfolio to share during the conference.  The teacher helps the students prepare to lead the conference so the teacher can act as a facilitator and ally to the student.  The student-led conference is the chance for students to share his or her reflections on their academic progress, success, and opportunities for growth. While the formats may differ slightly from kindergarten to grade eight, the idea is the same.  Students are responsible for their own learning and success.

            A student’s portfolio often incorporates pieces where they have demonstrated mastery, show where they are progressing and share areas of improvement. Teachers provide discussion starters and scripts for the students to help them lead the conference and build their confidence. During the student-led conference, teachers act as an advocate for the student and often help the student plan the conference by sharing positives, areas for improvement and encouraging families to create strategies to help support student growth at home.

            A parent’s role in the student-led conference is a bit different than that of a traditional teacher conference. Rather than wanting to ask the students teacher about grades and behavior, parents must focus the conversation on the child and reflect on work with the child.  It can be challenging for parents to listen to the student instead of asking questions to the teacher. 

It is important to remember that learning is active, not passive. As John D’Adamo, a friend and fellow Principal once shared during an #Edchat, “Learning is something one does, not something that happens to a person.”  It has taken some planning on my end to prepare the faculty for this different model but many have found it valuable already. It has helped with student accountability and classroom management.  Students too have begun to see a value.  Students have become more aware of their strengths and opportunities for growth. We are only about a third of the way through the year but I can already see signs that students are beginning to see the relationship between their effort, progress, and quality of their work. I hear it in their conversations in the classrooms, hallways and when I meet with students individually. I see it in the quality of the work the students are completing, knowing that it might be an exemplary piece of work they will want to share with during the conference. 

John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” That is the opportunity student-led conferences provide, an opportunity for reflection.