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From Playgrounds to Programmers: How Sharing Shapes Schools

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Arguably the most powerful leadership tactic we know is one of the most subtle. Successful leaders take seriously their organization’s mission. They tell stories that move constituents to contribute or engage. They hire effectively, putting the right people on the right teams.

But the intentional move that’s often lost in the shuffle, and not taught in any leadership program that we know of, is, quite simply, a behavior we’ve been taught since we were old enough to sit in sandboxes. Simple sharing, especially of the “Look what I just did” variety, is as good for our organizations as it is for the playground.

Just look at one of the most successful industries that most of us have ever known: computer programming. It doesn’t take long to realize that much of what we take for granted these days sits atop computer code. Whether we’re typing an address into our GPS or sending a text message or setting an alarm clock or reading the paper on an iPad or uploading an image to a course management system or making a reservation . . . we’re doing so because someone wrote a program elegant enough and durable enough for human life to wrap itself around it.

Code is the water that the fish don’t see, and its wranglers and writers benefit wildly from . . . you guessed it, simple sharing, especially the “Look what I just did” variety. Developers and makers all over the world share code snippets on Github. Another platform, Stack Overflow, defines itself as “the largest online community for programmers to learn, share their knowledge, and advance their careers.” The word “fork,” when used by programmers, describes a behavior whereby they copy existing code and then push it in a new direction for their own purposes.

Such sharing and its correlate—asking for or receiving help—is not only the lifeblood of computer programmers and great leaders. These concepts should also fuel educators seeking to amplify their school missions and do their jobs well.

Here are some examples of collaborations that we find inspiring:

Educators with other educators:

The New York City Independent School Technologists group is a long-running community of educators, technology administrators, instructional designers, and curricular leaders who habitually share what they are doing and seeing. It serves as one of the most reliable places to ask questions and hear from people who are sharing similar contexts. What makes this group special is that not only do their conversations take place online, but also the group regularly—and intentionally—schedules face-to-face gatherings, every four to six weeks, to allow people to connect in person. This blend of online and offline connection makes this group what it is today.

The Edcamp movement is another example of educators organizing themselves for the simple purpose of sharing practices, successes, and miscues. Edcamp events are free, generally locally organized “unconference” meetings where the agenda is decided by those in attendance. According to the Edcamp website, since 2010 there have been over 700 events in 25 countries.

Educators with non-EDU technologists:

JAMF is a well known provider of tools that help organizations deploy and manage Apple computers, laptops, tablets, phones, and their users. According to a recent press release, JAMF has over 9,000 global customers managing over 7 million Apple devices in businesses and schools. JAMF has an active and responsive online forum where educators who are managing iPads for kindergarten students are sharing practices with and asking questions of IT administrators who are managing enterprise deployments in Fortune 500 companies. Regional administrators often set up adhoc meetups in their cities to connect, in person, with other JAMF admins. And JAMF hosts an annual convening for its customers to learn more about its services, and more important, for administrators to connect with one another.

A more personal story

In the ocean of the Internet, one blog post is surely a drop of water. In Reshan’s case, though, some connections and conversations have helped him to work with students and educators at a scale he never dreamed possible when he was teaching middle school math.

The first iPad was released in April 2010. Reshan started his blog (Constructivist Toolkit) in May 2010. He focused on tools and apps—often of the iPad variety—that were not designed for education but could be adapted for school settings. Focusing on new educational uses for non-educational tools scratched several itches for Reshan: It allowed him to show people new ideas, develop a personal filter to see new ideas, and refine his sharing practice and his sharing reputation. In doing so, the blog helped people understand, quickly, that paying attention to Reshan, whether on his blog, via his Twitter stream, or in person at a conference, would often lead to a refreshing new angle or idea that would stretch their thinking and immediately aid their practice.

One quiet share from October 2010 is worth nothing:

This is a great new app for designing simple animation videos with accompanying audio on the iPad. In PhotoPuppet, you use your own photos or template backgrounds and characters provided by the designer and arrange them on the canvas. Hit the record button, and you can move objects around on the screen to animate them. In a manner similar to MIT's Scratch, you can design variations on a character (i.e. costumes in Scratch) to use in the animation video. Video creations can easily be exported locally to the iPad, emailed, or uploaded to YouTube.

This is an early version, and I have only downloaded the free "Lite" version, but I see enormous potential for this tool. It seems that there are some sophisticated levels of editing and layering objects, but I only installed it today and haven't had a chance to learn all of the nuances.

Fast forward to the year 2016, with many steps skipped, and Reshan’s activities include running a company (Explain Everything) that was born when the creators of PhotoPuppet (in Poland) read that 2010 blog post from Reshan (in New York) and responded. They game him free promo codes to share at events where he was speaking. Next, they brainstormed with him on an idea for a new app. A business partnership, based around shared vision and complementary talents, followed. Five years and over five million downloads later, the phrase “I see enormous potential for the tool” could be the understatement of a lifetime.

Explain Everything is a peak example of how habitually sharing can lead to a relationship, then a collaboration, then a partnership, and finally, beautifully, the completion of work that might not have been possible if the early stage of the work product hadn't itself been shared. But, we would argue, such practice can be imitated on a much smaller scale.

A school-size story

Steve recently joined a committee at the high school where he teaches and serves as an administrator. After a long meeting, wherein the group chair put the committee through a design thinking protocol, Steve did what he always does after seeing something interesting and new: He tweeted about the experience to his followers. He just wanted to squawk about the way the committee was doing its work.

This habit, by this point, was ingrained in him; he was purely in the “Look what we just did” mode. Sure, he thought it might be helpful to someone, but he knew full well that it also might be swallowed up in Twitter and never heard from again. Regardless, it cost him very little—a few seconds—and if nothing else, sharing was a form of quick reflection, a chance to say, “this was valuable . . . that was worth sharing . . . look what we just did.”

Soon after, Devika Patel, an alum from Steve’s school, noticed the tweet and retweeted it with a slight reframing and the same basic premise: “Look at what my former high school is doing.” Devika was interested in Steve’s share because she had just graduated from Stanford, where she had a close affiliation with the d.school -- the Institute of Design at Stanford which frequently serves as the north star for those engaging in design work at any level. She wanted to help.

Devika and Steve soon had a Google Hangout on the calendar. When the time came for Steve to share, Devika shared as well. Steve told Devika about the committee’s work; Devika told Steve about her work . . . at the d.school. In fact, Steve’s committee had read a chapter of a book by Devika’s mentor, David Kelley. Things were getting good. Sharing led to a moment where both the sharer and the shared with were in a position to multiply the goodwill they had been passing back and forth. Devika had been advised by David Kelly to use her design thinking skills in as many situations as she could. It would be important for her, he said, to work with different people and organizations as she figured out what she truly wanted to do. Steve, on the other hand, was trying to solve a particular problem with a committee, and the committee was relying on Devika’s speciality to find a solution that would be potentially transformative. The playground, seeded with sharing, was in full swing.

Sharing without expectation, receiving with an eye on mission: two ends of the same seesaw. From such small gestures, entire institutions can continue to learn and grow and move toward the future. Sometimes that future evolves from tech people solving problems across schools (NYCIST or Edcamp) or industries (JAMF); sometimes it comes from the creation of a new app (like Explain Everything); and sometimes it comes from increasing connectivity and sharing ideas (like Devika Patel and Montclair Kimberley Academy). As Jonathan Ive said about Steve Jobs (as mentioned in a blog post by Jason Fried), “I think he, better than anyone, understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.” Sharing such thoughts strengthens them, makes them more durable. Receiving such thoughts well protects them as they gain clarity and strength. Such sharing, such receiving, is the work of leaders.

Try it. Share this article, or another you prefer, and see what happens. Really follow the thread of your generosity, expecting nothing in return. Then, do us a favor . . . let us know what happens. 

Stephen J. Valentine (@sjvalentine) is an educator, school leader, writer, and serial collaborator. He serves as the Assistant Head, Upper School, and Director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy and Coordinating Editor of Klingbrief, a publication of the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University.

Dr. Reshan Richards (@reshanrichards) is Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Math, Science, and Technology department at Teachers College, Columbia University and Chief Learning Officer at Explain Everything, which he co-founded.

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