A little history to provide some context. . .
b: 12/17/1965 to Larry & Karen Pickering, Keystone, Iowa
Moved to Vinton, Iowa at age 6.
1970's: Grew up a typical 70's/80's kid - lots of freedom, fun times with friends. Long hair, bell bottoms, mopeds and sandlot baseball.
1980's: Fell in love with basketball in HS and was reason I kept going to school. My first great mentor and teacher entered my life - Dan Koch. He was the first to see what I could be. He questioned, pushed, supported, believed, and accepted nothing less than everything I had - I spent my last 2 yrs in HS a bit more engaged and trying to learn something besides basketball.
1984 - 1988: Attended Simpson College. Fortunately, my test taking skills got me an ACT score that they liked (turns out it's a reading test more than anything - at least it was then)- it sure wasn't the GPA! Caring faculty engaged me, pushed me, and believed in me. Got to coach Chris Street.
1988 - 1989: Allison-Bristow CSD teaching English. Great opportunity to live on my own and learn teaching-by-fire. 5 preps, 2 coaching assignments.
1989: Married HS sweetheart, Kim Nelson 8/12/89
1989 - 1990: Center Point/Urbana CSD teaching history. Block scheduling with a team of caring and dedicated teachers had a profound impact on me as we focused squarely on kids and making sure they were supported and were learning. I began to see that content, testing, and lots of stuff I learned about teaching wasn't really what it was about. Worked for a great superintendent, Dick Whitehead.
1990 - 1992: Council Bluffs CSD teaching American Literature at Abraham Lincoln High School. Followed my mentor, Dan Koch, to coach basketball. Youngest coach (25) in the Omaha Metro Conference.
1992-1997: College Community (CR Prairie) as Associate Principal of the Middle School. It was in 1992 when I read Peter Senge's "The Fifth Discipline" - it had a profound effect on me and started a life-long love of systems thinking. Learned a ton about administration and leadership - school went from 600 kids to 800 during this time.
1994: Daughter, Samantha, born.
1997: Daughter, Shelby, born.
1997-2000: Al Rowe, myself and two others formed "Strategic Learning Technologies" developing software and assisting schools with their network infrastructure needs.
2000-2002: I returned to my first love - teaching - by becoming an instructor at Kirkwood Community college.
2002-2012: Hired at Grant Wood Area Education Agency as a Planning & Development Specialist, eventually becoming an executive administrator because I had a burning desire to work on systems again. It was here I met many, many more caring educators and kindred spirits. My first partner, DJ Corson and I quickly connected and she pushed my learning and together we became a highly-effective team. This can be said of many of my colleagues at Grant Wood - caring, thoughtful, passionate people!
2012-Present: Director of Community Building, The Gazette Companies. Hired by CEO Chuck Peters to help figure out what community building looked like and how it could transform a media company and a community. With others, we've focused on education and economic development/entrepreneurialism. It's been a great ride as the tenets and practices of Community Building are powerful forces for transforming schools.
For more details, read: www.communitybuilding.us
Stardate 1991: Assessment as Learning, OBE, & the call for a new way to school.
In 1991 I was a 3rd year teacher in Council Bluffs, Iowa teaching American Literature and coaching basketball. My first three years in the profession caused me to wonder what the value of testing, quizzing, and grading really was. Few students seemed to care or be interested and I never felt right providing a grade when I realized I didn't really know what any particular student knew or didn't know.
An opportune meeting with some district leaders led to my selection as a member of the Iowa Success Network's newly created "Assessment as Learning" team. It would be here that I met my second great mentor, Al Rowe, (the first being my HS teacher and coach, Dan Koch), and other great and influential leaders like Tom Micek, Kathleen Reyner and others, and began to see that others were not only thinking about the fact that the future of the current system of schooling was past, but were actively trying to do something about it.
We were exposed to Peter Senge, where I began a life-long interest in social systems design. We learned and presented on the merits of Outcome-Based Education and heard William Spady speak passionately about the need for us to shed the Industrial Age model of schooling for one that was more student-centered, project-driven, and focused not on successful completion of inputs like reading assignments, worksheets, and attendance requirements but on substantial, meaningful, agreed upon outcomes. We spent a week at Alverno College to understand how to utilize assessment more as a tool for learning and less for rating, ranking and scoring. This was the first time I saw how the real job of the teacher was to faciltate learning, not evaluate. It was somewhat an embarrassing moment - I played the role of "coach" well in the gym and then went to my classroom and assumed the role of "referee." It was time to become the coach in the classroom.
This experience led me to administration, working with Al Rowe and arguably the finest superintendent in the midwest, Dr. Mick Starcevich (now president of Kirkwood Community College www.kirkwood.edu). I was able to apply my learning to a larger system - a building and district, as opposed to a single classroom and it was here that I learned the power of data to impact behavior, utilizing what Iearned from David Langford to drastically change discipline policy and results in the middle school.
It was also during this time that Al Rowe connected me with his friend, Bill Spady. For those of us in education and paying any attention in the early 90's we all know him to be the father of OBE - Outcome-Based Education. He was right then, he's right now and we owe a lot to our current transformational efforts to him. Bill allowed me to participate in his workshops across the country and to hone my consulting and presentation skills as a very young educator. It was tragic and sad to watch Bill get attacked by a fearful group of people who misinterpreted OBE to mean "mind-control" and "schools dictating what students will believe." So strange was this to Bill, since this was antithetical to what he was saying, that the groundswell ate him up before he realized it. He has a great book, "Paradigm Lost" where he tells this story with candor and insight. What was on the move and nearing a tipping point in 1993 was dead and over in 1994 - and America and our schools have suffered since. So here we are, 18 years later finally getting back to implementing his work - I'm glad we're finally here again, its been a long wait.
My entreprenuerial spirit caused me to want to try private business and, with 3 partners, formed a company to develop educational software and consulting that would change school and teacher behavior. This experience has proven invaluable to me as I returned to education. Knowing and understanding what businesses need, how they operate, and the constant pressure of producing has made me a far better leader, thinker and do-er in the education industry.
In 2002, while working for the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I met my next great mentor - Dr. Susan Leddick. Teaching the Contemporary School Leadership class, Susan and I became fast friends and colleagues. She taught from a book called "Systems Thinking" by a guy named Jamshid Gharajedaghi (Garage-a-dog-ee) who completely turned my head inside out. What I knew about systems was taken to a whole other level - finally someone offered a methodology and a clear understanding of the dimensions of a social system and why we must understand the way in which systems are designed - their functions, structures, and processes - completely dictates their behavior. Senge layed a nice foundation and Jamshid and his colleague, Russell Ackoff, constructed the building. I came to understand that "Re-structuring," "process re-engineering," and "doing LEAN" simply wouldn't cut it if we truly wanted to transform schooling from the Industrial model to the Information Age model. Like the leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century who designed an education system for the new context of the time, we must stand up and do the same for the next generations of Americans.
Over the years this desire to fundamentally change school led me to the principalship, then to private business as a consultant and owner of a sofware firm (we designed a standards-based gradebook in 1997 - as Jamshid says, "sometimes being ahead of your time is worse than being behind it." People just weren't quite ready), then back to education at the community college level and to my current place - an intermediate service agency (callled AEA's) in Iowa leading the effort to introduce disruptive innovation and organizational redesign in our own organization and in that of our LEA clients.
I've learned that a lot of people talk about change and want to change but rarely understand the implications of trying to improve into something new (you can't by the way - it requires redesign, not simply improvement of existing conditions/parameters). I see well-intentioned people with a great amount of energy and drive continue to offer the same solutions to the same quickly identifed problems only to discover the same results. This leads, sadly, to the creation of cynics - a passionate person who doesn't want to be disappointed again. (A quote taken from Ben Zander in his book "The Art of Possibility")
So. . . I've been in this fight for 20 years. Honestly, it is very frurstrating to hear people get so excited about new "authentic" assessment practices and student outcomes (careful not to say OBE lest those who wanted to preserve the current state hear about it again and try to re-kill it), and standards-based grading, and "we need to take a systems view" as if these are new answers to new problems. I was asked the other day why education keeps recycling ideas and just attaching shiny new names with polished new advocates and champions. I thought for a moment and said, "Good ideas don't die. The question isn't 'why do they keep coming back?' - that answer is easy - because they are ideas with merit that hold the potential to advance 21st century education. Rather, the question is, "why don't they stick?" That question is more complex but in the interest of brevity, my answer is: the system of education - its functions, structures, and processes are wholly incompatible with these approaches. Given a little time, the default culture and design simply overwhelms the attempts of the people trying to make the change. In short, its easier to return to the past than to push through to a new reality. For treatment of this issue and phenomena, see Chip & Dan Heath's great book, Switch.
Join me in discussion, debate, learning, and musing about the state of education, the world, and the promise of social systems theory and methodology to help us create a new future for American education. Let's hope its not already too late! Thanks for visiting and sharing your experiences and expertise!
- Dr. Trace Pickering, September 2, 2010