Toolset. Skillset. Mindset.

Technology as a catalyst to amplify student agency


When people hear Technology Department they usually think about the tools. The hardware. The stuff.  Sure, there is plenty of that in our world, but what we are really after is helping people develop the skillset to use these tools as a springboard that transforms education and opens up mindsets of innovation, advocacy and problem-solving. We exist at this amazing intersection where Toolsets, powered by Skillsets, transform Mindsets. Here staff empower students to exercise autonomy and confidence in learning every day.

Toolset, Skillset, and Mindset recently came together in an inspiring way here in White Bear via our crowd-sourced innovation program, The Big Sleuth. When our incredible staff was challenged to come up with ways to improve our school district, they submitted nearly 150 ideas and then voted on the ones that had the biggest impact.


Big Sleuth idea champions are now collaborating with teams of staff and students to design-think their problems. This work will span the next few months and will take them through empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Teams are digging into ideas around mental health supports, school start times and student washing machines as well as recess time, access to school pictures, and flexible professional development. This type of advocacy and shared problem solving is EXACTLY the kind of skill we want to model for, and encourage in, our students.

How do we get there? To effectively integrate technology, we need a robust Toolset, a strong Skillset, and the Mindset to champion ideas that empower autonomy and confidence in learning.


Toolset is the stuff we see and use, like Chromebooks, PC’s, and wireless access points, but it is also the understanding of how to employ those tools to strengthen teaching and learning. When we take advantage of the efficiency built into Google tools, for example, we automate low-level tasks and create more time in the school day for collaboration and higher level thinking.

As a technology department, we provide access to, and daily support of, all hardware, including our 1:1 Chromebooks in grades 3–12 and 2:1 Chromebooks in K-2. Our technicians maintain devices and manage the software and networks that power our core work. We collaborate with teachers and instructional leaders and we offer varied staff development and support such as Google level I and II certification, one on one coaching and summer innovation camps.
Students and teachers have access to a growing toolset to make the learning choices that are the best fit at any given moment.


Skillset is putting that toolset to work to engage in deeper learning. This development can be measured by the 4C’s. To better communicate, collaborate, think critically and express their creativity, learners need a robust skillset that leverages technology. A 4C’s checklist is the perfect lesson plan header.

In a discussion about the current state of education, I once heard an educator exclaim, “We used to focus on integrating the 4C’s into the curriculum, now I understand that the 4C’s should be the curriculum.”  I’ve seen the power of that philosophy on display in classrooms across our district. I’ll never forget walking into a 3rd-grade classroom here in White Bear and overhearing one student say to another, “You don’t get it. This is not all about you. We’re supposed to be collaborating now.”  Their teacher could not have been prouder. That was the 4C’s in action!

That 3rd grader’s agency and the understanding that one must take risks while learning was palpable in that classroom. The 4C’s skillset there grew because students were supported as they stepped out of their comfort zone. They saw their teacher model and support this ethic daily. As educators, we are mirrors. When we model these skillsets for our students, they mirror them back.

Technology departments and instructional leaders support staff and students as they use technology to better communicate, collaborate, think critically and express their creativity, because authentic work centered around the 4C’s is one clear way to foster accountability and growth. To that end, we provide coaching, encouragement, and updates on the latest tools for differentiation and content creation.

Students hone their own skillsets through the practiced construction of their own learning. I saw this in a 1st grade classroom where students were writing and sharing autobiographical, non-fiction stories. I heard it from a 6th grader who testified for water conservation at the state capital, and I’ve witnessed these skillsets come together in a group of students who collaborated to send science experiments into the stratosphere along with a plastic model of our school mascot. Those students were applying technology and 4C’s skillsets to extend authentic learning experiences. Once this becomes innate in a classroom, the mindset shift to increased student agency can happen almost organically.


Fortune 500 companies (and school districts!) are looking for employees who can communicate, collaborate, think critically and express their creativity. They also want workers to can solve complex problems while understanding, managing and negotiating with and serving others. We help students develop these skillsets and mindsets when we model them in learning environments that prioritize autonomy and build confidence.  To emphasize the importance of the point, the first strategy in our District’s strategic plan declares we will ensure that each student is the primary agent in their learning. Technology provides a platform to access expertise and an authentic audience to showcase the work students produce. This validation gives their expanded autonomy and confidence greater meaning.


A teacher at White Bear’s North Campus explained it to me this way, “When our comfort is high, our growth is low. We need to step out of our comfort zone in order to experience real growth.” That is true for all of us.

Brave New Workshop talks about a mindset of discovery. Their five ideas provide a clear pathway to an innovator’s mindset. They call for us to listen rather than checking out. To defer judgment rather than criticize. To reframe rather than whine. To declare our thoughts rather than concealing them. And to jump in rather than stall. By leaning into these five traits we elevate and mirror the innovator’s mindset for our students.

White Bear’s technology department hires student interns in the summer. We run clubs, engage students in creative problem solving and offer technology courses. We’ve employed students in device repair and we’ve deployed Makeries across the district to encourage creative problem-solving. We are looking at how classroom spaces and technology impacts learning with the goal of being able to customize learning spaces to better meet student needs. And because technology changes rapidly, educators step to the edge of their comfort zones every day as they model learning, in real time, in front of their students.

. . .  

Like many districts, we’ve made important investments in technology. We owe it to our students, our community and to each other, to implement our investment in the most impactful ways possible. The Toolset, Skillset, Mindset framework gives us a tangible way to reflect on where we are as educators and students. To step out of our comfort zone. To model learning as we employ new technologies. To take risks and ask for the help we need. To champion big ideas. And, most importantly, to continue to ask, how might we promote even greater student confidence and autonomy across our entire district? Go Bears!

Developing & Measuring Innovative Technology Integration

There are many models that attempt to quantify effective classroom implementation. I have most frequently turned to the 4C’s in my own district because we believe that Chromebooks are being put to good use when students leverage them to better Communicate, Collaborate, think Critically and express their Creativity.

It is easy for educators to put a simple checkbox on the top of daily lesson plans and click off which of the 4C’s the lesson addresses. If it has been a week since students expressed creativity in your class or three days since students collaborated, then the checkbox serves as a reminder to shape your next lesson around those frameworks. Moreover, when employers talk about the traits they are looking for in future employees, they always return to the 4C’s. These concepts resonate with students as well.

Many of the other popular models have fallen short in one area or another. SAMR is fine for a snap self-evaluation, but few educators ever talk about their goals to “augment” or “modify”. These words lack meaning. Additionally, SAMR takes a rear-view mirror approach to lesson planning - always comparing the lesson to how it was taught in the past. It is not a framework for creating new or innovative lesson plans.

TPACK reiterates that content knowledge (C) and pedagogical knowledge (P) are the foundations of good teaching. Where technology (T) is added to the mix, magic happens in the classroom. This is reassuring. However, like SAMR, it is very teacher-centric.

The TIM matrix provides a rubric that pretty well measures the 4C’s. TIM provides more detail than TPACK or SAMR, and talks about what students are doing in a classroom, but the matrix lacks the immediate accessibility needed for wider adoption.



Looking ahead, I am excited about the potential of Sonny Magana’s new T3 framework. He introduces the model in, Disruptive Classroom Technologies. The book takes on a research approach and is not the most compelling read, but the T3 model and the observation rubrics, self-assessment frameworks and other resources you can access after purchasing the book are very compelling. T3 is student-focused and lays out an actual progression for teachers and students to follow as they improve their own technology integration.

T1 - Translational

Automation Doing things more efficiently or more accurately.
Consumption Taking in content, rather than collaborating to create new content yourself.

The translational level includes the use of technology to increase efficiency and consume information. It is an important foundation for tech integration. All educators should understand how to leverage technology to increase efficiency and should help students consume information with the aim of increasing knowledge and engagement, rather than distraction.

T2 - Transformational

Production Keeping track of one’s own learning goals and creating content to reach those goals.  
Contribution Creating work that helps others learn or shares with a broader audience. 

The 4C’s come in at the transformational level. Here, student are producing real work and contributing to a broader audience. They are communicating, collaborating, thinking critically and expressing their creativity with a true sense of agency, meaning that students are identifying their own goals to achieve their objectives.

T3 - Transcendent

Inquiry Design Solving and then communicating about big problems that matter to you and require complex solutions.
Social Entrepreneurship Using digital tools and the design thinking process to build and distribute solutions to big problems.

The T3 model really proves its worth at the transcendent level. Students at this level are following their own inquiry … We all know that problem-based learning is profoundly effective, but it is also amazingly time consuming. Here the ownness is on the students to identify their big problem and then collaborate to implement complex solutions.

This reminds me of the Bears in Space project the emerged when a small group of brilliant White Bear 9th graders collaborated with a former teacher to form a group with the aim of doing something impactful. Their project quickly evolved into a complex plan to launch a couple of small plastic bears into the stratosphere via weather balloons. While they worked on the logistics, permitting and math, they also talked about how to increase the project’s impact. They decided to film the whole thing and then present each of the recovered bears to educators in our system who are advancing scientific learning in our district. They partnered with a high school AP chemistry class to join their project. Those students devise experiments to launch that tested sound wave differences at various altitudes along with the insulative and impact values of mushroom-root styrofoam. Others in the class paired with a local elementary school to design and test parachutes. Once the project was complete, the group presented to a very impressed School Board and is now working on their next big thing.

Bear in Space.JPG

The Bears in Space project is a perfect example of inquiry design. It also has hints of social entrepreneurship - the last level in the T3 Model. In this highest level, students are using digital tools and the design thinking process to build and distribute solutions to big problems. Real problems in the real world.  Outstanding!


I have high hopes that pairing the 4C’s with the T3 resources and ideas will help us prioritize student agency and empower our staff and student take learning to a whole new level. Although his research with Hattie does come out after the release of the book, I look forward to hearing more about how they are measuring the very real impact of this model.

CoSN Conference - 8 Big Takeaways

The 2018 CoSN (Consortium for School Networking) @CoSN conference in Washington DC was organized around the theme of designing learning in the 4th industrial revolution and many sessions examined the rise of machine learning. That said, at a time when computers can do more and more low-level work, presenters continuously returned to their work empowering students with the agency to thrive in this new era. I was impressed by the high quality of the sessions and the level of discourse among all participants. Here are the eight big themes that I’ll carry back to my work.

Student Agency & Authentic Experiences


Tom Vander Ark @tvanderark summed up the rise of project-based learning (PBL) by noting that it is easy to implement, but hard to implement well. He pointed to New Tech and other organizations that focus on PBL and long challenges as stand out examples. Such environments help students develop teamwork and project management skills. Tom Vander Ark sees similar strengths emerge through participation in the fine arts. He calls for every student to develop their resume and/or LinkedIn account throughout their school years so they graduate with marketable skills and noted that the work being done to develop diploma networks is moving us closer to more authentic school careers. - Slidedeck -  - -

In an even more dramatic call for deeper student-driven learning, Ted Dintersmith @dintersmith declared, “When standardization comes in the front door of a school district, learning goes out the back.” The Most Likely to Succeed creator spoke at length about the damaging impact of designing curriculum around testing requirements and advocated for real-world experiences. - - - - MIT graduates cannot power a light bulb


Dr. Darryl Adams @TheEdutainor prioritizes student agency by involving student voice in every district decision, including what students learn and how they want to learn it. He knows students are empowered in a district when they have compelling answers to the question of why they are learning something in class. The efficiency and access we gain through technology use should empower students to make their community and world a better place.

Milton Chen @miltonchen2 talked about the importance of all of Gardner’s multiple intelligences. He noted that all learning now involves technology and his examples drove home the point that students discover their passion for learning when that technology is paired with authentic experiences such as backyard gardens, wilderness experiences and playspace learning. - - - National Geographic Bioblitz



If Jonathan Rochelle’s @jrochelle team at Google could measure one thing in new employees it would be skills in teamwork. He added that the 4C’s transform technology from a tool into a powerful driver of learning.

Speaker after speaker illustrated ways that the 4C’s remain impactful and persistent. One even declared, “We used to focus on integrating the 4C’s into the curriculum, now I understand that the 4C’s should be the curriculum.”

(Rochelle it the co-founder of Google Docs and Drive. He also works with the GoogleEdu team on Classroom and Jamboard.)


Planning for the future is prioritizing equity. The Beaverton, Oregon School District won this year’s CoSN equity award. They noted that Innovation, when implemented with an equity lens, can bridge rather than widen inequalities. Indeed, only when we bring an equity focus to every decision we discuss, do we have a shot at making our schools great. In addition to provide wifi access, Beaverton holds regular collaborative lunches to identify systemic inequalities in their system and discuss solutions. Ted Dintersmith added, “The real gap in education is that we spend twice as much educating rich kids in this country as we do educating poor kids.”


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Speakers and participants alike argued for disruptive school leadership that builds up educators who are innovating while eliminating outdated programs and approaches that are less effective. Putting design thinking into action, professional development must model the kinds of deeper thinking experiences we want for our students. Additionally, leaders must build the public’s will for change and see it in context of broader community and district initiatives. Neil Pasricha noted, "it's called change because you don't see it coming. When you see it coming, it's called planning."

Empower groups of teachers whenever possible. It is a lot easier for ten teachers in a school to innovate than one, and easier for five schools to innovate than one. Schools must promote coherence over siloed work and leaders must bring everyone from students and teachers to principals and school board members into the discussion about how to best innovative. My own “Lead. Manage. Coach.” focused on strategies to best advance this work.

Lead. Manage. Coach. - The Future of Skills - Employment in 2030

Dr. Sonny Magana @sonnymagana has collaborated and consulted with Marzano and Hattie. He has leveraged their work to develop his own T3 (Translational, Transformational, Transcendent) framework of innovation in education. In his session and subsequent conversations, he described how his model provides proven methods that leverage technology to take teachers and students from low level automation and consumption at the translational level, through transformational production and contribution and onto transcendent inquiry design and social entrepreneurship. He claims 1.4 point gains on Hattie’s scale. I look forward to reading his book to learn more.

Book - Disruptive Classroom Technologies - - -


The conference closed with Neil Pasricha’s @NeilPasricha inspiring message that if we train ourselves to be happy we will be more creative, more successful and more action oriented. He left us with five research proven ways to increase happiness and urged each of us to pick at least one to put into practice in our own lives. Doing one or more of these for 20 days will develop a potentially life-changing pattern of behavior. They are:

  1. Take at least three brisk 20 minute nature walks per week.

  2. Journal a 20 minute story that was a highlight of your day.

  3. Perform five  random acts of kindness for others over the course of the week

  4. Meditate for 10 minutes per day

  5. Write down or say 5 gratitudes at the end of every week - - Apollos Hester



While in DC, I visited Capital Hill where I had conversations with Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Tina Smith. It was an honor to meet with each of them. We discussed school safety, education funding and other policy work that impacts Minnesota’s schools.


Devices, Products, Advice & Insight

Conversations with vendors and other edtech leaders left me with many ideas. Among them:

  • Hold a staff viewing party for Ted Dintersmith’s film, Most Likely to Succeed ( and connect with him when he is in Minnesota later this spring.

  • Check out as a tool to measure student participation and work throughout the process rather than simply the end product.

  • Consider extending the life of our desktop replacement to 5 years.

  • District 191 is in year two of their Acer flip 11 deployment. They are hoping that the majority of the 1:1 devices will last 4 years. 9-12 deployment?

  • Move back to cases over ADP next school year for 1:1 devices. Offer one accidental repair for free to families who buy a case.

  • Blended learning experiences have to center around extended learning opportunities and big projects.

  • Schedule 20-30 minute bi-weekly check-ins with all direct reports.

  • Performance doubles every 2 years. In 10 years, a new cell phone will be 32 times more powerful - In 20 years over 1,000 times more powerful.

  • Encourage children to do interesting things that matter to them, rather than simply competing for test scores. Those who follow that path are so much happier!

  • Creativity triples when you show up to work happy.