Big ideas and ed trends from the #ASCD15 conference

ASCD is one of the most important and influential conferences in the nation because it’s targeted toward school leaders and those who make big decisions in education. In addition to many, many teachers and teacher leaders in attendance, there are always huge numbers of superintendents, principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, curriculum specialists, and district office members.

I’ve covered the ASCD conference as a member of the press (read: education blogger, it’s not really that fancy) since 2009, and I always view the major conference themes as an indicator of the direction that American schools are currently moving. The ideas shared at this conference are heard, discussed, and hopefully implemented by decision makers in schools all across the country.

This year, I was really pleased about the themes of the sessions and conversations I heard. It was obvious that most principals and superintendents in attendance are well aware that we need big, big changes in schools to make learning meaningful for kids and and to make teaching a sustainable, rewarding profession for teachers again. I would love to see more school leaders attend ASCD and become a part of these conversations. Here are 6 big ideas and educational trends I heard throughout the 3 day conference:

Big ideas and ed trends from the #ASCD15 conference

1) School culture

This year more than any other, there was a huge buzz about creating a positive, innovative school culture. I was thrilled to see so many principals and district leaders embrace the challenge to inspire and support teachers and kids. Every session I attended touched on the importance of creating a school culture that makes staff and students look forward to being in the building each day. The most inspiring presentations in that regard for me were from Rafe Esquith, who talked about culture at the classroom level, and Todd Whitaker, who spoke about it at the school level.

2) Failure as an integral part of success

Though failure has been a buzzword in the ed tech community for quite awhile, I think it’s taken a little longer to catch on in the space of school leadership. It was great to hear many, many conversations and sessions at ASCD centered on the importance of letting kids experience productive struggle and learn how to rebound from failure. Robyn Jackson gave a particularly impactful presentation called “Failing Up” which I’ll be blogging about in detail later on (or you can grab a spot in her free live webinar on Monday, March 30.) Many other presenters shared how principals/assistant principals can foster a safe space for teachers to try new things and receive helpful, constructive feedback rather than being “caught” making mistakes. Amber Teamann wrote a great post summarizing our conversation with administrators and teachers at Magnolia Elementary, the school which won the ASCD Whole Child Vision and Action award: learn how they use “feedforward” instead of “feedback.”

3) Nimble grit

This was a term introduced by keynote speaker Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. We’ve been hearing about grit, mindset, and resilience for years, but Sarah points out that grit is not about dogged persistence in tasks that are not worthwhile. Some things are not worth pursuing, and people who are true masters of their craft know when to quit, cut their losses, and move forward in another direction. This was echoed in a conversation I had with ASCD author Jeffrey Benson, who spoke to the problem of grit being used to persuade kids to stick with meaningless tasks. Sometimes grit is misused: we continue to push outdated lessons or boring test-prep activities on kids and insist the problem is that they need to be grittier. Yes, we want kids to work hard and not give up when things are difficult, but there’s no sense in making them work hard at inauthentic learning experiences that don’t move them toward real mastery. Grit is not a catch-all solution: we still need to take a look at the types of tasks we’re asking kids to be gritty toward.

Downtown Houston during ASCD 2015

Downtown Houston during ASCD 2015

4) Meaningful technology integration vs. tool-centric obsession

In each of the last few years, I’ve seen fewer session offerings about specific tech tools and more sessions focused on the pedagogy behind them. (Insert the Hallelujah Chorus here.) Even more importantly, the non-tech-oriented sessions incorporated suggestions of how technology can enhance teaching and learning: these ideas were simply integrated as best practices, exactly as they should be, rather than advertised as a technology session. The focus is finally becoming on the learning, not the tools. I enjoyed hearing sessions from Steven Anderson and Joe Mazza about using tech and social media to share the great work that’s happening in schools.

5) Personalization of learning for kids and PD for teachers

I was thrilled to see a session on EdCamps offered this year, and many others on differentiated and personalized professional development. The days of one-size-fits-all PD are (hopefully) drawing to a close, and school leaders are increasingly being urged to give teachers options as to what and how they learn. The same push is happening in classrooms, as many sessions focused on helping kids take more ownership of their learning. I particularly enjoyed Myron Dueck‘s session on assessing creativity–he showed many examples of how we can give kids choices about how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning without it turning into a logistical assessment nightmare for teachers.

6) The effect of relationships on motivation

I think every session I attended over the course of 3 days emphasized the importance of building relationships, particularly with students. Regie Routman has been saying this for decades, and getting to finally talk with her in person and hear her presentation was one of the highlights of the conference for me. Throughout the weekend, I saw that more and more school leaders are choosing to decide that kids must come first. Whatever pressure they are feeling from the district, state, etc. cannot be allowed to detract from their most important mission: relationships with students. Both kids and teachers need to feel like they matter, and need to be inspired, not pressured, to work hard. It’s a big challenge for everyone in the education community, but truly a worthwhile goal.

Did you attend the ASCD conference (or another education conference recently)? What big trends did you notice? If you didn’t attend, I’d love to hear your impressions of this list–please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

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