Transformational Culture

New Technology High School celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2016-2017.  It cannot be without great energy, focus, and effort that a school as unique as ours can sustain and grow for two decades.  At the heart of our work is our students.  And at the heart of our students is our culture.  Ask any visitor that has come over the past 20 years, and it will be one of the first things they point to and one of the first things our staff and students are willing to open up about.

Transformational Culture

However, it is not without great persistence that our culture has been developed.  Like any organization or collective of people, it is vital to protect, organize, and transform.  In her 2006 work, Anthropology and Social Theory, UCLA professor Sherry B. Ortner dives deeper into how cultures evaluate their existence.  She writes, “Every culture, every subculture, every historical moment, constructs its own forms of agency, its own modes of enacting the process of reflecting on the self and the world and of acting simultaneously within and upon what one finds there.”  I find this profound when reflecting upon our own work at New Tech High.  What forms of agency and reflection do we have in place to truly examine the validity of our culture?  Here are a couple of ways, I believe we can continue to transform our culture:

Knowing vs. Living

Our schools culture is built upon trust, respect, and responsibility.  Nearly 200 schools in the New Tech Network that have come since the opening of New Tech High have built their pillars on this same foundation.  However, to truly transform culture, we must move from KNOWING what our culture is to manifesting how we LIVE our culture.

For example, a simple Google search can tell me that respect means to have a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.  But what does that look like in action?  How do I interact with someone that I might feel doesn’t deserve my respect?  Being able to articulate how we know our culture into actionable actualizations of it is key.

As well as this, to truly transform culture, it is important that I empower people to have the autonomy to act.  What if one person breaks my trust?  Do I create a rule that the other 99.9% must follow now?  Not putting up barriers to living out the culture is important to create opportunities for cultural growth to happen.

Resting on Your Laurels

One of the hardest parts of having a powerful school culture is not resting on our laurels.  In examining this, I will highlight a few points from the 2012 HBR article, “Cultural Change That Sticks“:

  • Honor the Strengths of Your Existing Culture – not resting on your laurels doesn’t mean you throw out what has been working.  It is important to highlight the core components of your culture, the people that exemplify it, and create opportunities to deepen it.
  • Match Strategy and Culture – one of the trickiest things to do when not resting on your laurels is making sure the strategies you are implementing will produce the cultural outcomes you desire.  Change is hard, but as time goes by, it might mean that strategies and structures need to evolve with it.

There is no end point in school culture.  There is no end point in innovation.  There is no end point in creating amazing educational experiences.  It is hard work.  But when done right, a school can go from resting on what has worked in the past to transforming it before toxicity can creep in.

School vs. Class vs. Self

Is everyone in your organization culturally aligned?  How do you know?  School Culture Rewired by Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert has some powerful tools to help you measure your school’s cultural health.  Why is this important?  Many times, the norms and policies our schools have in place, classroom expectations set out by teachers, or individual behaviors and beliefs get in the way of transforming culture.


One good example of this was our school’s cell phone policy.  We promoted a culture of openness, student ownership, and modeled after the workplace.  However, our cell phone policy was punitive and counterproductive.  In working with various stakeholders, we transformed the policy to mirror the cultural outcomes we desire.  Was it an easy transition?  Did everyone buy-in?  Of course not.  However, it is vital that policies, mindsets, and beliefs at the school, class, and individual level are aligned to those overarching cultural outcomes for a culture to thrive.

PBIS Policies

What Comes Next?

As the world transforms around us, it is vital that we are constantly examining, evaluating, and protecting the culture we have created.  Recently in re:Work, a group from Google examined the role psychological safety plays when people work together.  Continuing to grow our culture where EVERY adult and student feels comfortable learning from failure, sharing ideas, and innovating off of one another must be at the forefront of our work.  Our most recent California Healthy Kids Survey let us know that we have a lot of work still to do.  Many of our students experience depression, deal with or know someone that deals with personal substance issues, and for some, “school” is the only stable part of their lives.  It is imperative that we help make the transition for acknowledging that our culture is unique to creating new avenues for people to live out the transformation that is possible.


Enemies to Excellence in Education

I just got done reading, “The Enemies of Excellence”, by Greg Salciccioli.  Salciccioli takes a deeper look at the risks we face when on the pursuit to the best us we can be.  After reading the book, it made me wonder what, as educator’s, our enemies of excellence are.  Saciccioli highlights SEVEN enemies, I will apply each one to our effort to provide the best learning opportunities for students we can.

1. Egotism

Pride can be a dangerous thing.  When reflecting on this enemy, it makes me think also about Jim Collin’s book, “Good to Great”.  So many times as educators, we are okay with good, because it works.  Being content in schools and classrooms can be dangerous and lead to stagnation.  Putting our ego and pride to the side and striving to be an organism of continuous improvement is a must for all educators.unnamed

2. Life Mismanagement

How many times as educators have we been unhappy with something, take 45 minutes of our prep to vent to someone about it, and then realize we could have actually completed the task we were unhappy with in that time.  Time is one of the most scarce commodities we have as educators, but also the one we misuse the most.  I encourage all educators to have someone audit the work they are doing.  Let them poke holes in your work and help you find ways to be more effective and efficient with the time you do have.

3. Bad Habits

Identifying our bad habits is one thing, putting systems in place to fix them is another.  So many educators have positive intentions with the work they do, but our bad habits get in the way of our desired outcomes.  As a principal, I have a strong desire to be in the classroom more.  However, I have a bad habit of letting other tasks creep into the time I allot for it.  Until I do something to fix it, I only have myself to blame.

4. Indulgence

What do you as an educator indulge in?  What is it that you feel entitled to?  Our view of hard work and dedication can many times drive us to feel like we deserve something in return.  Context drives this a lot.  I am blessed to work in a state of the art school that implements wall-to-wall project-based learning.  It is easy to get frustrated when a kid doesn’t bring their device on a certain day.  When I step back and reflect, I have friends that work in schools that feel blessed when they get a day each semester in the computer lab.  Perspective is killer.

5. Broken Relationships

Back to that intentions thing.  Educators are some of the most passionate people you will meet.  However, many times our emotions and opinions get in the way of moving towards a collective efficacy with our peers.  Also, how many times do we get frustrated with that kid that just “doesn’t get it”.  Broken relationships can fracture any interaction we have with our fellow educators or students.  What are we doing to rebuild and repair these relationships even when we don’t think we are at fault?

6. Isolation

Silo’s only create more silo’s.  Even in the era of one-room schoolhouses, the teacher couldn’t do it all by themselves.  Professional learning communities are hard work and take time and energy.  But working in a collaborative environment gives us the opportunity to receive feedback, implement changes, and analyze results.  Sometimes it feels easier to shut your door and do your own thing.  But in the long run, you are only hurting yourself.  The Observe Me hashtag and movement has been an awesome way to invite feedback and not live in isolation.observeme_sign

7. Self-sabotage

The hardest of all the enemies of excellence.  How do we not get in our own way as educators?  I remember as a classroom teacher, sometimes thinking, “That lesson design was really good.  Only if the students would have done a better job with _______.”  Externalizing the enemy is the easier out.  What if I would have said, “That lesson design was really good.  How could I have tweaked it to reach more students on ___________?”  We sometimes can trick ourselves into doing something or not doing something for a variety of factors.  What does looking in the mirror look like when making that decision?

When we think about the enemies of excellence in education, many times we point to standardized testing, legislation, lack of resources, etc., etc.  What if we flipped that conversation on its head and began thinking about what personally is within our sphere of influence that we can control.  What are the enemies to our own excellence and what are the enemies to our school’s excellence?

– Riley

Education is a Right, but also a Privilege

I have been blessed to be able to spend some time in Mumbai, India.  It is hard to put into words how fascinating the blend of the city is.  Blend of Indian and European cultures. Blend of rich and poor. And there seems to be no pedestrian or traffic rules!  In my time here, I have been blessed to see both the local and international sides of education here.  Now the international side mirrors much of what we see in the modern education system.  But in seeing the local side and exploring the streets of Mumbai, it is clear to me that we are blessed to have education not only be a given right in the states, but also a privilege we are entrusted with.  Here are my thoughts:

That One Kid

I think it is easy for us as educators to be blinded by the context in which we live.  It is also easy for us to get frustrated with kids that just “don’t” get it.  Johnny won’t listen. Susie won’t sit down. Billy doesn’t do his homework.  I myself have had certain students that I didn’t connect with and that can make the job challenging.  But after seeing a couple local Mumbaikar schools,  I can’t help but think about the “first-world problems” that I encounter on a daily basis back at home when dealing with students.

We know many of our students have their own struggles and the need for personalization and differentiation is never more apparent.  But I know, I will not complain about the struggles I might have with that one kid anymore because I am blessed to live in a place where I don’t have worry about many of the things that others around the world have to on a daily basis that disrupt learning.


Initiative Fatigue

It is also really easy in the United States to feel initiative fatigue.  We are constantly trying to innovate and reframe the lens in which teaching and learning can happen in schools.  Things like project-based learning, competency-based assessment, and design thinking can transform learning, but they also take time, energy, and brain power.  It is very easy as an educator in the US, even in an amazing school at the forefront of innovation in public schools like I am, to get weary of always having to reinvent and reimagine our practices for the future.

Initiative fatigue is a real thing, but generally there are other personal factors that cause the fatigue, not the initiative itself.  After spending some time in a school that didn’t have power, solid floors, or materials, I loose my sympathy for those that bitch and moan about pushing their own or others practices to the benefit of students.  Having the privilege to be able to plan and implement amazing projects or working with a leading researcher on mindfulness isn’t going to cause you any pain or despair.  We are blessed to have the ability and resources to try new things.

“21st Century” Learning

We are clearly deep into the world of 21st Century learning at this point.  Defining deeper learning outcomes for students have helped calibrate and align teaching practices.  In my time here in India, I have seen that 21st Century learning can be a myth in some places.  Forget Chromebook roll-outs and 3D printers. Survival is the deeper learning outcome for many of the students I met.  I met one student who every sibling had dropped out of school at some point to go work.  However, the same passion to learn that I see in many of my own students still existed this student.

Its easy to get caught up in what we have or don’t have money for.  You can easily get numb or selfish about having access to wi-fi or mobile learning spaces.  How many times do we have a panic attack if the wi-fi goes down in an American school?  Every time.  It is clear though, we are fortunate to even be able to consider taking learning deeper and stretch it further into the 21st Century.


It is easy as an American educator to not grasp what the worst learning conditions really look like.  Even if I think I comprehend and have empathy for those learners, I still don’t live it.  I respect all educators, but will not lie and say I am the biggest educator empathizer.  I know many educators on both sides of the fence.  Some that are always finding new ways to ignite the passion in their students and some that are afraid of change, live with a false fear, or are unwilling to challenge their practices.  After my time here and seeing some of Mumbai’s toughest schools: kids are still kids, a desire for learning and growing can exist anywhere (it might just look different), and I know that I won’t fall for any traps that gets me to forget the privilege and right I have been given to empower the students in front of me.  Time for us to suck it up and get to work.


Project Context Matrix

Defining project quality in project-based learning can be a tricky thing to do.  What outcomes are we trying to measure?  What determines the effectiveness of a project?  New Tech Network’s Project Quality Checklist utilizes Adria Steinberg’s 6 A’s to determine if a project is ready to roll-out or to assess its quality after implementation.  BIE’s Gold Standard PBL offers an outline for the essential elements of project-based learning, as well as, for project-based teaching.  While both tools are vastly effective, many times we forget to evaluate the context in which a project lives.  Below, I provide a very simple project context matrix to examine what type of authenticity is embedded in your project.  No project is wrong in itself, but it is important to understand the role context and authenticity play in a project-based world.



Fake-Fake projects can sometimes be the most fun.  These projects generally live in the world of imagination and unfiltered possibilities.  Many times the context in which fake-fake projects live is outside the realm of reality.  As closely aligned, the authenticity provided is built upon creativity.  These projects can play a vital role in stretching the thinking capacity of students when it comes to moonshot ideas.  A great example of a fake-fake project I saw was examining ecosystems and our solar system.  Each group created a habitat for the life forms that were already living on a different planet.  Now we know that space travel and life outside of Earth is a whole different conversation, but the students knew that their ideas weren’t going to be implemented tomorrow.  However, the project was structured to stretch their belief of what was possible in relation to the world they knew.

Is there really life on Mars?


Real-Fake projects take a very concrete principle and set of skills and apply it to made up scenario.  In these projects, the context generally stretches our imagination and the authenticity is rooted in practical application.  A great example of a real-fake project was one I did my last year of teaching.  We used the book World War Z to guide us through a conducting a Model UN for the zombie apocalypse.  Obviously, until the zombie outbreak occurs, the context was made up (no, the United Nations is not currently trying to solve a zombie crisis), but the principles studied were rooted in foreign policy and how the United Nations works.  Students examined real global issues through the lens of the book and were even coached digitally by staffers in New York City.

Выступление Михаила Горбачева на сессии Генеральной ассамблеи ООН
The United Nations preparing for the next zombie apocalypse.

Fake-Real projects are generally rooted in a very real problem or issue.  But 9 out of 10 times, the students solutions are not realistically considered by the stakeholders involved.  Many fake-real projects will have a context rooted in working with actual community partners.  They might even go through the same process that varying entities go through to examine the issue at stake.  However, the culminating events in these projects are not always put into practice.  A great example of a fake-real project is a local one from here at New Technology High School in Napa, CA.  Students examined a local land dispute between a rock quarry and public park.  Groups took on the perspective of varying stakeholders groups and presented their recommendations to representatives from the community, the quarry, the park, and the city.  The project was very real and the context was unfolding before their eyes.  Whether or not the stakeholders put the students ideas into practice is yet to be seen.

New Technology High School students conducted soil testing at Skyline Park.

Real-real projects are at the apex of the project context matrix.  These projects live in a truly real context and hold an authenticity to be rivaled.  Real-real projects allow students to be a part of problem-finding, problem-solving, and solution design that is embedded in something that is actually happening.  These projects can be the hardest to plan and the hardest to find.  It wasn’t until I decided to try and rethink my approach to the traditional economics course that I understand how powerful a truly real-real project could be.  The Believe in Your Business project is an 18 week entrepreneurial economics experiment.  Students learned the traditional economic principles of opportunity cost, supply and demand, and fair trade, but they did it through the lens of creating their own business.  In working with a group of mentors, students used the lean start-up model to develop their ideas and then pitch them to investors.  Ultimately, a few businesses were selected each year to receive seed funding, small business supplies, and continued mentoring.  Multiple ventures are still up and running even years after the students “finished” the project and graduated.
The moral of the story is that all four types of projects have a place in a project-based learning environment.  As a facilitator, it is important that you are examining the ratio of your implementation (too many fake-fake projects can lead to lack of student buy-in; too many real-real projects can lead to burnout).  Wherever you stand, reflecting on the context and authenticity embedded in your projects can lend to a more fluid and consistent project-based approach to prepare students for living in a project-based world.


It’s All One in the Same

Innovation is a tricky animal by itself. Add education to the mix, and it gets even crazier.  You can find a slew of opinions and ideas around innovation in education.  I have seen hundreds of examples of amazing innovative school settings and practices; I’m even blessed to work in a real transformative school in New Tech High.  However, we must take a step back and really think about what is stopping systemic change from occurring. A lot of times we get stuck in the sameness of repackaging what we now or think we can do.  Here are a few barriers to systemic innovation:

School as School

One of the toughest parts of true innovation in education is school itself.  Many humans love to learn, but hate the idea of school.  The concept of school is to promote and foster this love in a purposeful manner, but many times it can get lost in conformity and hoops.  There is some great thoughts out there about “deschooling” education. Mindshift has a great article from my friend, Adam Holman, titled “How ‘Deprogramming’ Kids From How to ‘Do School’ Could Improve Learning“.  In the article, Adam shares a revealing comment from a student, “For the first time in my life I am trying to learn everything instead of just get a 70 [percent]”.  That is powerful and the hurdle from not seeing school as something that is done to us or a building we go to must shift for change to happen.

The Accountability Animal

We must ask ourselves always, “what does it mean to be accountable, what are we accountable for and who are we accountable to?”  We know that the fear of accountability can cripple innovation in education.  Both schools and educators alike are forced to constantly think about performance and meeting standards set out for them. But should this stop shifting the way we think about education?  We all know amazing examples of public schools and teachers that are both highly innovative AND perform well on accountability measures.  We also must admit, that we know, accountability is always a moving target.  And maybe that isn’t quite so bad.

Accountability can easily become a scapegoat in stopping innovative practices from spreading.  Teachers feel so tied to meet the standards in front of them or schools feel like they must do everything they can to focus on improving state testing metrics.  Factors such as tenure and seniority can also play a devious role in teachers outlook on implementing innovative teaching practices.


However, data shows, that even the teachers that fail to meet these “accountability” measures rarely get dismissed.  The National Center for Education Statistics have released numbers that show less than 2% of tenured teachers get dismissed for performance.  As well, the American Enterprise Institute looked at teacher dismissal in New York.  They found that from 1997 to 2007, only 12 New York City teachers were let go for incompetent teaching.

The point is that accountability is important.  But vary rarely will your school get shutdown or will a teacher get fired.  So why not try something new and outside the box?

Answering to Higher Ed

This might be my favorite one.  Still being relatively fresh to California, I was puzzled by the A-G requirements from the University of California for high schoolers.  Now I know in a state the size of California, it is important to have some metrics in place for what high school students need, but I was blown away by the influence it has over what happens in high schools.

As well as this, I recently overheard a conversation from one of my high school students about a college class they were taking.  The professor had stated to the whole class that, “high school students should be worried”, “he didn’t understand why they were allowed to take his class anyways”, and “they would probably fail because high school is easy and college is hard”.  It was hard for me to not chime in, but I wanted to find him and ask him who anointed him the gatekeeper of all education.

The point is, these are just two small examples of how high school must answer to higher education.  Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that on average 30% of students that enroll at 4-year institutions don’t finish…at ANY institution.  Whether it be the SAT & ACT or even perceived elitism, higher education has a stranglehold on what happens in high school, many times without the accountability measures listed previously.  Preparing students for college is a vital component of a high school’s role; sometimes I just wonder why the institutes of higher ed have so much influence on us and it seems like the many innovative high schools out there have so little influence on their practices.

full_time_part_time.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeLimits of Humans

Lastly, being human is tough.  The energy, empathy, collaboration, and time necessary to be innovative can be draining.  Hell doing a crappy job can be even more draining!  We must recognize that as humans, we put many limits on ourselves.  We are confined to the practices we know, restricted to our opinions and beliefs, and resistant to change.  As we look at innovation in education, many times it is all just one in the same.  Taking the same box and painting it a different color, moving from a 7 period day to a 6 period day, or using the same ole sustained silent reading everyday are just part of those limits.

HOWEVER, we have seen and will continue to see we are capable of so much more.  When we remove the barriers to entry, we are able to see clearly and re-imagine the role that schools and education play in our communities.  In my next post, I will explore some potential avenues in which I believe innovation can help us re-imagine education, not just repackage it.  I am not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I am saying lets not get stuck in this “it’s just all one in the same” and really think about what can be next for school, teaching, and learning.


Leading as a Parent

Now that I am almost 50 days into this journey called parenthood, I have had a lot of time in the NICU to think about what it means for me as an educator.  The saying is true, there is no love like the one a parent has for their child.  

As educator’s we are faced with the challenge of playing multiple roles with our students.  Now I know I still don’t quite know what it means to be a parent, but being in the NICU has made think more about the way some educators go about their business. Here are some new (and old) found thoughts on what it means to lead as a parent in education:

  1. We need to not be so hypocritical with the standards we hold people (especially kids) to. Don’t expect it, but then do the opposite.
  2. We need to not be so trivial with students. 9 out of 10 times you aren’t really teaching them a lesson.
  3. We need to teach for the future, not for yesterday. Please pay attention to how learning and life are shifting around us and what lies ahead.
  4. We need to do a better job of checking our biases, misconceptions, and false realities at the door.
  5. We need to stop feeling like “the system” is holding us down. I have met more newborns in the last 50 days that are facing far worse crises than we have to deal with when it comes to implementing initiatives or having 27 kids instead of 26. Smile and stop bitching.
  6. We need to remember that school might be the least threatening environment that a student faces that day.
  7. We need to remember that feeding their siblings might be more pressing than finishing your assignment.
  8. We need to stop making grades a definition of students. Not one doctor has called Cael a “C” student in here.
  9. We need to remember not every kid will take the same journey or path.  That’s ok, help them be prepared for whatever that path is.
  10. We need to be careful about stealing play from kids. Play in the real world and play in schools shouldn’t be as different as they are.
  11. We need to remind ourselves how powerful one word can be – it can either make or break a kid.
  12. We need to focus less on the weeds and more on the human. So many times we get stuck in the weeds of something that we forget to stay centered on the human aspect of what we do.


Collaboration vs. Group Work

It’s happened to us all.  We have all been in groups that have been challenged to do something without a defined process.  The trick is, I bet you or a group member had developed a toolkit to turn your group work into a collaborative relationship.  Flipping the script, many times students do not have the tools or developed the ability to activate prior supports to truly live in a collaborative ecosystem.  Just putting students at the same table is not enough.  I know I’m being a bit dramatic here, but further more, we must continue to examine how as educators we can swing the pendulum away from group work and more towards a collaborative nirvana.  Here are a couple thoughts around building a collaborative ecosystem in a project-based learning environment.

Getting Philosophical

I recently read an amazing blog post from New Tech Network literacy coach Alix Horton titled, “How to Get From a Rubric to Scaffolding“.  She outlines a very simple process to take a rubric indicator and transform it into an actionable activity.  I believe this is a great starting point for growing your philosophy on building collaboration.  Many times we forget the true value and role that skills play in promoting deeper learning.  By developing a “spectrum of scaffolding” you will be able to help facilitate students in moving from just working in groups to a collaborative team.

Spectrum of Scaffolding Cycle
Let’s take a deeper look at how a spectrum of scaffolding can work to promote collaboration.  We will focus on the collaborative skill and rubric indicator (Step 1 in cycle):

  • Acknowledges and helps clarify the ideas of others by asking probing questions.

There are a plethora of scaffolding activities that could promote building this skill in teams.  For example, at the beginning of a project, I could introduce teams to accountable talk stems.  Throughout the project, I could do informal data collection on how many groups are utilizing the stems to promote civil discourse (Step 2 in cycle).  As an extention of developing this skill, I might hold a Socratic Seminar or have 1-on-1 confrencing with each group to assess how the stems are leading to deeper questions (Step 3 in cycle).  Lastly, in planning the next project, I will want to reflect on the effectiveness of using accountable talk to promote probing questions in group collaboration.  I will examine how to extend this skill by potentially scaffolding the stems by having teams use the question formulation technique (QFTs) with accountable talk to develop questions (Step 4 in cycle).

Now of course, I know the above scenario isn’t perfect, but I hope you get the point.  When examining how to move from group work to collaboration, it is vital that you explore what specific collaborative skill you are looking to develop.  Then, in relation to the spectrum of scaffolding, how might you help students create a collaborative environment to move from indicator to action to reflection to refinement to integration.

Integrated Contracts

I have witnessed first hand in my own projects how easy it is for group contracts to slide into the dark abyss of meaninglessness. Heck, when was the last time you looked at your own contract? The creation of group contracts in PBL has long stood as a value collaboration tool.  It can set the team’s tone, layout productive processes, and create unity.  However, there are many elements that can and have stifled the value of this. Seriousness, time allotted, revisiting, and staleness are just of the few barriers.  It can be a very daunting task for educators and students alike to be inventive and impassioned with the same contract process over and over.

Standard Group Contract Template

What is the true purpose behind developing a group contract anyways? Is it to build a set of group norms? Is it to develop a culture of collaboration? Can it be both?

I recently saw a strategy from Belleville New Tech about utilizing agency logs for students to track progress in growth mindset and ownership throughout the course of a project.  This sparked my curiosity.  Why don’t we flip the script with what we call “contracts” with this same mindset.  Student teams can still set goals and norms in this process, but it is extended past the fill out this contract, maybe revisit it, maybe fire someone or get fired process you see so often contracts fall into.  The agency log concept makes me wonder, does the contract need to look like a contract at all?  Integrating the goals of a group contact into a process that is continuous and embedded might shift the value it can play in being a true living document for collaboration efforts.

Beyond the Google Doc

Google Apps for Education might be one of the most profound tools to support collaboration, so please don’t take this as an indictment.  My question is though, what percentage of the collaboration we wants students to do lives on Google Docs? It is by far one of the most powerful tools available, but in the connected world we live in, there exists a plethora of tools to support teams moving from merely existing together to taking their projects to a whole new level. To name a few:

  • Trello/Asana/Favro: these 3 are all project management tools that help teams navigate simple of complex projects.  Trello and Asana have strong reputations, while Favro is a relatively new player.
  • Slack: this is the online collaboration tool looking to bring all of your communication to one place.  We rolled it out in our admin team last year and are using it as a school staff this year.  I am already excited about what has come of it and potential for student use in collaboration.
  • Wunderlist: this is a simple task manager that integrates amazingly with multiple platforms.  It features both personal and shared to-do lists.

As well, strategies and resources such as scrum meetings, the Project Management Institute, human-centered design, and the innovator’s compass to can also be used in non-digital ways to shift from group work to true collaboration.  The point is, choose the right tools that will allow students to experience collaboration at industry standard levels.  You don’t have to memic “real-world” collaboration, you can create it.

The struggle is that some educators don’t ever move past basic Google tools implementation with teams because we are basic users ourselves.  Just as challenging is should you have students use one collaboration tool or multiple? I don’t know if there is a right answer, but finding the optimal balance and combination that meets students need is key to actually building a collaborative environment.

Avoid the Divide and Conquer

It is really easy to say “you do this” and “you do that” and “see you in 2 weeks” when working together. But many times, this strategy becomes group work and not collaboration.  Low and behold, someone will probably show up without their part done.

Now I am not saying divide and conquer cannot be effective when building collaborative skills.  But it is really important that there is a framework in place to support fostering that collaboration so it doesn’t become a destructive force.  Utilizing resources such as the following can be a starting point:

These resources are great starting points with students to help shift collaboration from something you do to something you live.  By developing a framework for what it means to be a team and how to interact with various personalities and roles, students can better understand how to develop internal strategies to avoid separation and promote inclusion in their work.


Collaboration can be a fickle peach.  It is evident though that taking the time to truly create a system that develops collaboration and doesn’t just hope it happens is vital to promoting the other skills we hope to grow in students.  Conflict will always exist when humans are working together, but by having a clear strategic approach, you can move from assigning group work to building a room full of collaborators with a toolkit for the future.