Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

When we go to conferences like this one, we load up on ideas that are going to get us to progress. We have our little tote bag – we’re going to fill it up with ideas. We hear about a new strategy…a new tech tool…we hear about all these great programs other people are doing… by the time we’re done, we are FIRED UP, we are PUMPED, we are ready to go to progress.
And then we get back to our schools…”

– Jennifer Gonzalez in her closing keynote

I’m writing this post from San Diego. Although I am glad to be home with my family and sleeping in my comfy bed, I am sad to have left #SXSWEDU.

Innovation is hard work, especially within an established institution like K-12 schooling. It can be isolating to realize that not everyone sees or believes in your vision for change.

That’s why I love SXSWEDU so much. It’s like finding the holy grail of like-minded educators. Thousands of them! It feeds my soul, refills my bucket, and gives me hope and inspiration moving forward.

So it was perfect that the final day’s keynote, by Cult of Pedagogy founder Jennifer Gonzalez, focused on the Aerodynamics of Exceptional Schools. Jennifer reminded the audience that our excitement and ideas and leaving a conference like SXSWEDU isn’t always met with open arms from eager colleagues. In fact, often it can be met with resistance or hostility. Therefore, how change is introduced is just as, if not more, important than the change itself.

Her tips were on point, and I’d encourage you to watch the entire presentation on your own. But in the meantime, here’s the Reader’s Digest version of her tips:

1. Take a breath – ask yourself – what problems does this solve? What are obstacles? Do I have proof? Can I find a guide? What is my long-term vision?
2. Find allies – (as illustrated with the infamous Dancing Guy video) – When you have a group, it helps you to clarify your vision, it helps you to deal with negativity, and it also makes your crazy ideas seem a little less crazy to other people
3. Set precise goals – different from dreams. “DO” Genius Hour is a dream. Goal is dates, specifics, etc. Backwards map the plan to reach the goal.
4. Expect bumps – build in buffer time. Ask “what can we learn?” Celebrate small successes. Come at me, bro – attitude
5. Invite – too much telling, and not enough asking. Why not a learning menu for adults like we provide to students?
6. Validate – not same as agreeing. Recognize, affirm the feelings or perspective of another person. Ignoring pushback doesn’t make it go away. 
7. Be transparent – especially about failures. Makes you more approachable, more accountable, easier to follow – blog, staff meetings, newsletter, bulletin board, video, podcast
8. Praise – Seek out the positive in those around you, praise them for it, and include their skills in your process

The final tip was to dig deep. She related the story of a Crossfit participant who always pushes himself further. He isn’t afraid to grunt, to sweat, to go all in when he’s tackling a tough challenge. She encouraged us all to be that guy.

This talk really resonated with me. I’ll be honest, I feel like the “set precise goals” is a weakness of mine. I like to dream big and build big. Details aren’t always my thing. I want to create the vision and set it loose on others to carry forward.

But dreams are weird things… think back to the last time you had a really vivid dream. You can picture it like it is still happening. And yet, when you try to explain the dream to a friend, they look at you like you’re crazy. You realize that you forgot part of the narrative, or you can ‘t quite explain the right shade of blue on the 3-headed monster chasing you through the candy store because you stole his favorite Hello Kitty band-aid box.

When goals stay in dream mode, people have a hard time being part of the narrative. They need to see it all laid out so they can find their part, read their lines, rehearse their scenes. Therefore, I need to (and will) be better at laying out all the components.

Thank you Jennifer for a fabulous end to the conference, and thank you SXSWEDU for filling my tote bag with ideas. Can’t wait for 2020!

You can read my #SXSWEDU musings by catching up on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 or learn a ton by following the hashtag on Twitter.

Change Isn’t Glittery

Glitter GIF

When working on cultural shifts, it can be easy to get frustrated when change doesn’t come fast enough, bold enough, or loud enough. We want glitter and ticker tape parades to reassure us that we’re doing the right work. That we’re on the right path.

But that’s not how change works – especially not when it’s asking people to shift beliefs and practices they’ve held for years. It’s happening, but it’s happening at varying paces, in varying methods, and with varying results.

I was reminded of that today when I met with a few different teacher groups. Each conversation was built upon the understanding that students needed more opportunities to engage in meaningful learning that encourages agency and creative expression. Each conversation built upon teacher reflection and willingness to embrace ambiguity while trying something new.

Each conversation was evidence that cultural shifts are happening in classrooms. That change is happening.

And yet, none of these conversations included glitter. Or ticker tape parades. Go figure…

Total efficiency constrains us. We become super invested in maintaining the status quo because that is where we excel. Innovation is a threat. Change is terrifying. Being perfect at something is dangerous if it’s the only thing you… Read More

Embrace Your Inefficiency

It’s All About the Soft Skills

Read an article today called, “Teens Rate Soft Skills More Vital Than Hard Skills.” The author, Dian Schaffhauser, opened by discussing how teens incorrectly rate the soft skills of self-confidence, communication, leadership and teamwork as more critical than hard skills:

Could we be over-promoting the importance of soft skills to young people at the expense of helping them understand the relevance of other, “harder” skills? According to a recent survey, just over half of teens (52 percent) said they believe have a good understanding of the skills they need to be successful after high school. Yet, what they ranked at the top of the list were all soft skills: self-confidence, communication, leadership and teamwork. The skills that ranked least important were computer expertise, writing, typing and math. 

By Dian Schaffhauser . 01/07/19

I find it interesting the author assumes the teens are wrong in weighing ‘soft’ skills over ‘hard’ skills.

Soft Skills Matter

One of the soft skills at the top of the teen list is communication. By its nature, communication requires solid understanding of rhetoric, language, etc. which is much more robust than the five paragraph essay we teach in schools. Likewise, without self-confidence, leadership, or teamwork, what use are your math skills unless someone hires you to sit in a closet and solve equations all day?

Quite honestly, I’m baffled that typing is called out as a hard skill at all, given the influx of touch screens, Siri/Alexa, and mobile devices which require dexterous thumbs over home key placement. Likewise, I’m sure many teens don’t see computer expertise as something “else” for them because technology is ubiquitous in their lives. And let’s be real, when they are in classrooms that relegate technology to internet searches, or a PowerPoint presentation, why would we expect them to see “computer expertise” as a needed hard skill?

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner isn’t looking for computer expertise, but he is looking for digital fluency, which requires proficiency in designing presentations, manipulating spreadsheets and navigating social media. At a conference in April, he urged schools to focus on four core skills: critical reasoning, creative problem solving, collaboration and basic digital fluency (Article: “Forget coding. It’s the soft skills, stupid. And that’s what schools should be teaching.”)

Schaffhauser’s article goes on to share other data points from the survey about access to STEM learning, but it’s non-congruent with both the article title and its opening declaration so I’m not sure what purpose those data points provide. 64% of students said they didn’t believe they were involved in any STEM programs. So are we to be surprised when only 33% of students express interest in STEM fields? And honestly, how are they supposed to know what career options are out there, and what hard and soft skills are required, if less than half of the teens are getting any instruction in career path opportunities?

Seth Godin quote on soft skills being real skills.

The Real Skills

Is the author implying that hard skills are the path to STEM, and that teens valuing soft skills are going to prevent them from success in those fields? Seth Godin, American author and former dot com business executive would argue, against that. He believes that soft skills, which he’d rather call real skills, are what matters most. In fact, he calls them real because even if you’ve got the hard skills, “you’re no help to us without these human skills, the things that we can’t write down, or program a computer to do.” Seth knows that real skills can’t replace the hard skills, but what they do is amplify it, give it meaning and value, and add to the success of an organization.

In Gallup’s 21st Century Skills and the Workplace Survey (2013), a majority of respondents agreed that most of the skills they’ve used in their current job were developed outside of school. So maybe instead of dismissing these teens as being incorrect in their assumptions that soft skills matter more than hard skills, we should take some notes.

Book Read: Design for Strengths

“‘You can have all the right answers, but it doesn’t matter if you are answering the wrong question.’ The willingness to circle back and challenge the central question and continue to ask it in a better way – and potentially abandon the current exploration – that is the hallmark of Design Thinking.” – John K. Coyle in Design for Strengths


In education, there is a lot of talk about students discovering their passions, their strengths, their interests, and then building upon those through personalized learning opportunities. What does that truly look like? Although Coyle’s book is not specific to education, there are so many nuggets of wisdom that we can apply to our school culture. 

“Skill gaps are easy – you work at them until you master them. Gravity problems – you accept them, quit solving for them, and then design around them.”

“Step Zero: Acceptance. You can’t solve a problem you are not willing to have.”

“Just because you ‘accept’ something does not mean you agree with it or submit that it is ‘OK.’ It simply means you accept that it is.”

“Most companies hire for diversity of talent, experience, and background – and then they waste it… more often than not, they ask each team member to do the same set of tasks in the very same way… they ignore the unique capabilities and contributions that individuals bring and, in so doing, waste all that unique talent they recruited in the first place.”

“The ‘one size fits all’ fair approach to work task distribution is a recipe for an unengaged team.”

“When all the team members have a reasonably good working knowledge of each other’s strengths, they will – on their own (with a nudge of encouragement from leadership) – start to self-organize for their strengths.”

In all honesty, I probably have Post-Its on every other page in this book and could have put so many quotes in this post. It’d be a great book study for teacher groups looking to better understand ways in which to develop personalized, strengths-based environments for both students and staff.

Design for Strengths
Design for Strengths

Exploring Agency & Personalization

For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside our county office’s Assessment, Accountability, and Evaluation Unit, as well as some of our teachers, to better understand the principles of agency and personalization. As these are key elements of our district’s vision and mission, it is important to be able to articulate what those principles are, how they manifest in an elementary school classroom, and what impact they have on student learning. 

To dive deeper in to these principles, I have been meeting with three teacher hubs to further explore the principles of agency and personalization. Hubs consist of a grade level team at a school site that meet weekly around this topic. By participating in a cycle of Plan, Do, Study, Act, teachers dig in to better understand how the principle they are focused on is developed in, and impacts, their students.

For example, a hub studying student agency might ask:

What is agency? What impact does it have on DMUSD students? What do we want to accomplish?

What common activities will we engage students in to increase agency?

How will we communicate the work, results, and resources to stakeholders?

How will we measure agency?

Each teacher hub meets weekly for approximately 6-8 weeks. During these meetings, teachers discuss articles read on the topic, ideate methods to bring these principles to life in the classroom, and after prototyping those ideas with students, time is spent reflecting and refining the idea. This cycle is repeated as many times as needed in order to gain a deeper understanding of the principle.

Personalization Brainstorming
This is an example of our initial ideation as to ways we personalize in an elementary classroom.

In January, the three hubs will convene together to share their findings with each other. Their findings will be documented and passed along to new hubs. The new hubs will then analyze the findings of the group and expand on it within their own time together as a hub cycle. 

This is part of a developmental evaluation approach, which is much like the R&D process private sector product development teams use. It allows us to provide feedback about how a major systems change is unfolding; generate evidence for how an innovation may need to change or adapt before taken to scale; and then spreading the resulting ideas/knowledge to have a broader impact.

The idea is that, as the hubs expand, we will reach consensus as to what these principles mean for our students and can then provide districtwide professional learning so that all students, and all teachers, have a common vision and plan moving forward. It’s been an amazing experience to join these teachers on a learning journey. I’m excited to see the results.

You Have To Find Ways Around Things

I received this email from a colleague:

In the mix of conferences…
What if….
We completely reimagined what that looked like??? How would we make that change?

It made me think about IDEO’s blog vignettes called “Thoughtless Acts.”

Human-centered design requires us to observe human behavior with beginner’s eyes, so that we can spot the innate ways people interact with the world around them. We call these intuitive and unconscious reactions Thoughtless Acts. – IDEO

A recent Thoughtless Act called “Going with Gravity” described an old woman leaning over her small wall to pick an herb because it was easier on her body than bending down, and then having to get back up.  The woman, explaining her new moves to her grandson, shared that, “At my age, you have to find ways around things.”

You have to find ways around things. 

I would venture to guess that our teachers and students are always finding ways around things. They find ways around internet content filters. They find ways around limited supplies. They find ways around dress codes, outdated textbooks, and high-stakes testing. So many items that could be added to this list!

Why do so many of the systems, structures, and beliefs of schooling require the users to find ways around them?

Jose Vilson asks, “Why do we hold so tightly to the rigid ideas of what teaching used to look like and work with the generation of students we currently do, with different, valid values and diverse understandings of the way the world works?”

If we aren’t constantly tackling educational systems, structures, and beliefs, then the changes schools make will continue to be Thoughtless Acts of working around the system, instead of working on the system.




“I want your absolute WORST thinking…”

The other day I was co-presenting a session to educators that focused on why design thinking is needed in K-8 classrooms. We talked about the need for empathy, for designing a new future, for “soft” skill development, etc. You know how it goes… you sit and listen to a presenter talk about why their idea is going to revolutionize education, and you get all pumped up and ready to take on the world.

Then I led them through a brainstorming activity in which I asked them to quickly brainstorm all the WORST possible ways to introduce design thinking in their classroom. They stared at me. Surely I had misspoke. “No,” I clarified, “I don’t want your best thinking. I want your absolute WORST thinking. The most TERRIBLE ideas you can come up with…” and off they went.

The ideas they shared were eye-opening. Some were:

  • Present design thinking as a worksheet
  • Micro-manage every aspect of the design thinking process
  • Use a K-W-L at every stage of design thinking
  • Grade them on their final product
  • Provide no direction whatsoever and expect them to figure out what design thinking is
  • Make it a mandate

And so on… from those terrible ideas, we were able to springboard into great ideas because underneath every bad idea is a great idea just waiting to get out. It was a fun activity, yes, but a meaningful one as well.

Then today I read an article called “How You Can Get Better at Predicting the Future”  Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, discussed the importance of a premortem before making an important decision. Opposite of a postmortem, a premortem figures out what killed a person before the person actually dies. It has fantastic implications for the edu sector.  In the premortem, you take your decision, or planned course of action, and describe how it proves to be a “catastrophic failure” in two years time. Why was the idea so terrible? How did it fail?

Johnson explains that this forces people to look at their decision from a different angle. Usually, we ask, “Do you foresee any issues with this idea/program/solution?” and people say, “No, looks good” and we move forward with the idea. But when you ask people, “Okay, invent the story of how this path ends up leading to disaster,” they see flaws they might not have seen otherwise.

How many school initiatives or even classroom lessons have been failures because we didn’t conduct a premortem? Even our best laid plans have room for improvement.

Next time I conduct my “most terrible idea” brainstorm, I think I’m going to switch it up and also ask them to brainstorm the catastrophic failure of their best plan so that the plan can become even better. Maybe then, we can eliminate some of our silver bullet solutions and dig deeper for a real edu revolution.

When you know your ‘why’ then your ‘what’ has more impact,
because you’re working towards your purpose.
– Michael Jr. 

Today I was fortunate to present at the online #InnovateSD conference hosted by San Diego County Office of Education, thanks to an invitation extended to me by PowerSchool Senior Director of Educator Engagement Mike Lawrence.

At around 1 hour and 18 minutes of this YouTube video is my presentation.

Screen Shot 2018-11-02 at 11.46.11

Sorry – it won’t allow embedding

I’ve asked about the story of learning to over 300 educators over the past year, and regardless of age, background, or socioeconomic status, the answers were largely the same. The story of learning has been one largely comprised of compliance. Even those who shared about projects and experiential learning still shared a common message that you must do what you are told if you are to be labeled successful.

Many of our practices and our beliefs are so ingrained that they are institutionalized. After all, most educators have been in the school system since the age of four or five. It’s all many of us have ever known so it’s not a surprise that we don’t notice the messages we send through our systems, structures, and beliefs, or why we send them.

This video is about how Del Mar Union is pushing back on those systems, structures, and beliefs. It’s about the importance of providing students with the foundations and the experiences needed to think and to know their voice matters. It may be the story of Del Mar, but I am hopeful that it becomes the story of learning for all of us.

Empathy is Always Worth the Time

There are days when we all probably ask ourselves, “Is anyone actually listening?!?” Then I read tweets from teachers like this, and I realize the ripple effects from a pebble can travel much farther than seen from shore.

A Tweet from Meg Money about using empathy mapping with her students

Meg is one of those teachers I get excited to know and work with because she is willing to reflect on her practices as she continuously looks for connections that make a difference for students. After the above tweet, I asked her to blog this experience for others. Since she doesn’t have her own blog, I am giving her the space here to share. So this is Meg’s story in her own words…

There’s a little saying that goes, “a stitch in time saves nine.”  
Is Empathy Mapping worth the time?
By: Meg Money, Sycamore Ridge 4th Grade teacher

“As teachers, how do you want to invest your time?” Ron Ritchhart, Harvard’s Project Zero, asked a cohort of DMUSD teachers recently. This question has replayed in my mind time after time since.  Last week I was at a crossroads; time or making a difference? You see, our 4th grade class was in the thick of a Design Thinking challenge. All groups were collaborating ferociously and productively…all but one. But hey, it was my fault. I designed that group knowing that it had a 50-50 chance of working. This group of three included  kids who were bright and capable in their own right but different as day and night. Unfortunately I didn’t play my cards right, and now I had a group on my hands that had potential but was so far behind because productivity and collaboration were nonexistent.

Now comes in the saying, “Timing is everything.” Fast forward two weeks to another training led by our very own DMUSD Design Team.  Paula (@CDMDreamers) and Sarah (@SarahZRaskin) led us through a Empathy Mapping exercise, and a light bulb went on. This is what my lagging group lacked… Empathy! However, this would take time; time a group was running out of.

“How should I invest my time?” replayed one more time in my head. Yes, this is exactly what this trio of budding engineers deserved. They deserved to feel safe in a group and showcase their talents. Their assigned grouping shouldn’t be the barrier holding them back.

I wasted no time and asked the group how they were feeling halfway through the research/prototyping phase. As you can imagine, they were frustrated and asked if they could just work alone. It was then I suggested that we come together and build empathy through the mapping exercise.

What happened from there surpassed every expectation I’d anticipated. The kids were open, honest, polite and so insightful. They really didn’t need much prompting; they got it! They created NEED statements that immediately inspired them to hurry back to their learning. I watched in AWE as this group of young scholars immediately started approaching a difficult task with empathy and producing with the maturity of adults. I’m not going to lie, I had tears, goosebumps, and a swollen heart.

So, was this worth the TIME? Oh, you have no idea. Just ask the group members.

“Ms. Money, thank you for taking the time to do the mapping with us,” said one student.

“This was the best day of the year,” another added with a hug.

“Ms. Money, hurry, come see our idea!” shouted one from across the room.

I will forever be reminded of this experience that truly confirmed that helping students find their potential and giving them a chance at success is absolutely worth the time. Empathy Mapping is now the frontrunner of my long list of “Must Explore and Practice” list. It is worth every second of TIME!

Connect with Meg on Twitter at @mmoneydmusd

Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that people have baggage before we can offer to take it off their hands. In shifting our educational culture, we need to see ourselves as the hotel concierge. When someone asks for help, they may not know what exactly they are seeking. It’s the job of the concierge to figure that out so that the guest has an extraordinary experience. Asking questions, discerning what the person likes and doesn’t like, and then brainstorming and providing different ideas to work towards a solution…. we can’t just assume everyone that comes to the desk needs a taxi cab or an extra towel.

Likewise, we cant assume all our staff have the same understanding of the WHY or need the same professional learning when we’re making cultural shifts in our educational system. It takes time to dig in and figure out those latent needs, and then it takes a commitment to the person and the process to work towards the needed cultural shift.

As we move forward, it will be important to keep those needs clear, and use them to set a path forward. Communication is going to keep everyone aware of all the pieces in motion and why those pieces are moving. Think of the concierge… when he recommends a restaurant for dinner, he doesn’t just give you the name. He writes it down, hands you a map and circles the location. Often, he’ll show you the best route to get there, and offer to make a reservation. This is how culture is shifted.

If this post made you nod your head, or smile and think of a colleague… then share it! And subscribe to keep the posts coming!

Death by Syllabus

It’s that time of year … back to school! Teachers are excited to meet students, and students are excited to meet their teachers.

Back to school also means a lot of discussion about how best to establish relationships and culture when students walk in the door. I’ve seen tweets suggesting teachers hold off on “doing school” at first so as to focus on getting to know the students, and establishing the positive culture of the classroom.

Part of “doing school” is, for many teachers, passing out the course syllabus, or class introductory letter. This document, often read and treated like a terms and conditions contract, outlines objectives, grading procedures, behavior and academic expectations, consequences for violating those expectations, and rewards for following them, which is often the grading scale.

It outlines what students will learn, how they should learn it, and in what timeline it is expected to be learned. It requires multiple signatures to signify understanding, and is filed away in case any of the signatory parties disagree with the terms and conditions at a later date.

So yes, I can see why this would be quite a downer on day one for teachers trying to establish a culture of joy, of lifelong learning, and of collaborative discovery with their students.

“Hey students. This year is going to be AWESOME. But first, you all must agree to the terms and conditions… potential side effects include dizziness, heart palpitations, anxiety, and death…” Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 10.16.21

Umm, yea, about that… Total downer!

That makes me wonder… if the syllabus is so disconnected from the culture being established in the classroom, what message does it send to parents who are asked to read and sign it? For many parents, this is the first impression. The first handshake. The first “Nice to meet you.” If it doesn’t represent the culture you want to establish with students, then I have to ask what culture it establishes with the parents who are being handed this paper to sign without any other context.

And what contradictory message does it send to students? “Hey, I know I told you that I value you as an individual and we had all  fun week one getting to know each other, but the reality is, if your work is late, I will dock you a half letter grade. And if you use the bathroom pass three times, you owe me detention.”

If the syllabus doesn’t reflect the culture of your classroom: a culture of thinking, of learning, of student agency, and of growth mindset, then the only place that syllabus should go is in the trash.

If it’s in the trash, how might we develop a new, student-centric syllabus that reflects our values? What questions should it answer? How about these for a start:

  • What does the teacher value about teaching and learning?
    • What does the teacher believe about how students learn?
    • What does the teacher believe about the conditions that need to be in place for students to thrive in a learning environment?
    • What does the teacher believe about the whole child, and his/her role in supporting individual development?
  • What do students value about learning?
    • What conditions do the students in the room right now need to thrive?
    • What passions do the students in the room right now possess?
  • What do parents value about learning?
    • What does it mean for parents to be partners in their child’s education?
    • What do parents need to feel like a valued partner?

In addition, we should consider how language sets a tone. Is it a “we” document or a “me” document? Does the font and spacing encourage reading? Hey, maybe add some graphics and resource links.

By creating a document that exudes relationships, culture, learning, and voice, we are breaking down one of the traditional structures that serves as barriers to our values.

… Have you already transformed your syllabus? Would love to see a copy! Post a link in the comments, or send me a message. Let’s get the word out and encourage a movement!