“Kids who ‘own’ their learning are destined to do the most amazing things.” – USA

One of the toughest challenges faced by many schools is keeping top athletes interested in academics. But in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, a new school has developed a way to teach and train promising young skiers and snowboarders. Students at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA) spend half of their day on the mountain and the other half in the classroom. Geoff Grimmer, the academy’s innovative leader, has a good deal to do with the school’s successful approach. To ensure that the school’s student athletes were just as focused on school as on sports, Grimmer has employed a one-to-one computing environment for collaborative learning.

“As an administrator, I didn’t have to be all that hip to support a progressive group of teachers, especially relative to the typical principal personality,” Grimmer notes. “I was a sounding board to their best ideas, and the development of Web 2.0 tools was a wave that we were able to ride to best support our kids.”

Today, Grimmer shares his views on education reform and what’s getting in the way of
fixing our schools.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education? 

In designing the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, we started by grappling with the challenge of delivering rigorous academics to a population that was often travelling and away from school.
That began our journey with Blackboard (Bb) in 2007.  VSSA has been a catalyst for creative delivery of learning since we began teaching both in class and on Bb.  We discovered that the use of Bb with the students who were not travelling was also useful.  Discussion boards gave a voice to the normally reserved students, embedded video allowed our kids to rewind and rewind and then get it, and Blackboard as a platform allowed teachers to recycle their courses year after year so that by year three they were just making refinements to the course rather than rebuilding it each cycle. At the end of the day, my biggest contribution to education is probably my lack of anxiety around new tech tools.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

Our students are very ready for college because the tools we use are the tools they will see in a post-secondary environment.  They are crushing ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) standards up and down, and in the process have developed a very high degree of ownership in their education process.  To me, that is probably the most interesting example that VSSA provides.  We have sent kids to Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth and Middlebury at a strangely high rate for a school that graduates only 12 kids per year.  Some of that has to do with their family background and motivation in life, but ultimately, kids who ‘own’ their learning are destined to do the most amazing things.

By learning in a one-to-one (computing) environment, our kids are collaborators with staff, which reduces the ‘sage on a stage’ approach to instruction.  It allows kids to Google stuff simultaneous to new content being presented.  It supports the kids being ‘experts’ in their study and leads to the ‘teacher as facilitator’ approach to classroom leadership.  Kids will often come in and show off new math apps to teachers, and parents are seeing how advanced the kids are and seeking new ways to grab ideas and make life better in small ways.  At every turn we look for ways of decentralizing power and control through technology, towards a community where each of us is giving our best ideas, and trusting in the best ideas of others.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

VSSA has hosted dozens of school and ski academy leaders this year, and what we usually hear is that our model really isn’t that ‘far out’ but that we have been doing it for five years so we have advanced ourselves into some interesting places across the curriculum.  We use gizmos from www.explorelearning.com to simulate labs, which is what universities do too.  It is too expensive to set up and run a lab 15 different ways, so gizmos allow for multiple simulations at less cost and are asynchronous.  We use brightstorm, Khan Academy, and Math TV to deliver embedded videos in a flipped mathematics environment every day.  Our English and Social Studies courses are taught through Blackboard and allow for rich discussion board topics, integrated web assignments, authentic assessments (like blogging and web-based contests), and become the centerpiece for student-led conferences.

Our school is organized around collaborative docs, which lends itself to a more democratic community and one where administrators are more accountable to the ideas of the staff and kids.  We chat a bunch and kids can video conference with classmates, teachers, or administration if they are stuck on something while not at school.  Kids are thirsty to strengthen their learning further than many educators allow for.  An example close to home is my son Owen who has become a skillful chess player through a blended model.  He gets all his best ideas when he has time to play and then he applies his new learning in repeated online practice through the web or smartphone.  It is a different experience than the model I had, but allows him to press on without me (the teacher) involved at every turn.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

My work, the work of an administrator, is quite foolish at times and has more to do with connecting people to other people and project management than it does with my own skills within the realm of education.  I use Facebook and twitter to create and consume information.  I use email tons, and calendars to coordinate meetings.  I use collaborative docs to develop ideas over time in a brainstorm-like fashion.  I really like Prezi but find myself still using Powerpoint to roll out ideas that need to be crystal clear for kids and staff.  The future of all good communication lies in the capture and edit of video through iMovie, Final Cut Pro, etc.  I would like to spend more time as an admin within that domain.

YouTube provides handy snippets of video to create a theme or mood that acts as a ‘jumping off’ point for staff and community discussions…with TED presentations being the model for how a staff meeting can look.  Everything we do is in the cloud, and most of what I need to do as an admin can be accomplished with my iPhone or iPad.  This allows me to work during strange times and places throughout the day.  My goal is to spend more time in face-to-face discussions with kids and staff, and crushing work through a [smart device] outside the normal day is huge.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Standardized testing, and the madness that goes into scoring high on those exams is probably the single greatest threat to student learning. Achievement is knowing that you have done something truly remarkable, and there just aren’t enough ‘remarkable’ stories of standardized testing within the lives of children. I have asked our staff not to chase the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) exam, but to use each day to create dynamic lessons that ‘light the flame’ rather than ‘fill the bucket.’

I see the culture of a school community being perhaps the most important thing.  If you walk into a school lobby, and it feels great and kids are skipping around and teachers are smiling and the place feels like a place you would be cool with spending an afternoon, then that is probably a great school.  We have squeezed all the spirit out of our communities by beating exam scores into admin who then beat it into teachers.  It’s a big ol’ mess that starts in Washington D.C., and ends with kids crying and stressing out in 3rd grade about tests.  At VSSA, we take and do very well at standardized tests (ACT Average of 26 among this year’s graduates) without smashing the spirit out of kids.

What is your region/country doing right to support education?

Our region is a bit nervous about all the changes.  We live in ‘Cowboy’ country, where ‘things have always worked so why fix them?’  I recently applied to CASE (Colorado Association of School Executives) to present a blended learning model that school districts could use to improve both ROI and VOI.  It was not accepted, which could easily be related to the weakness of the ideas, but to me it was an indication that CASE is not ready for the big ideas that support radical education change in Colorado.  It suggests that we spend less on staffing and more on innovative technology upgrades.

Our country, on the other hand, seems to be making progress in isolated ways that keep hope alive.  We recently repealed NCLB (No Child Left Behind) in Colorado and in doing so are opening the door for change in the old ‘corrective action’ charade that has strangled schools for the last decade.  If we can avoid the adoption of legislation that is written for the corporations, by the corporations, kids will be healthier.  NCLB was a chance for massive education businesses to rape the federal education budgets by prescribing textbooks (McGraw Hill) and other systemic systems (like Baldridge) in response to low test scores.  This led to federal and state ‘grants’ for districts to chase and (whoo hoo) win.  Teachers were then forced to learn about ‘Plan Do Study Act’ models that were borrowed from failed businesses rather than design rich learning activities.
This helped corporations maximize their profits while communities unknowingly squashed their prophets.

What conditions must change in your country/region to better support education?

We need to develop community-centric curricula that celebrate local history and culture within each unique community.  We need to reduce testing to college placement exams, and benchmark international standards like PISA (see this great video for a description of what PISA represents).  We need the best and the brightest to become teachers rather than the people who just aren’t good at anything elseWe need to establish some urgency to our mission… at a time where the earth is falling apart; we should have kids out solving real environmental problems in their communities rather than memorizing disconnected and irrelevant science flashcards.

We need Obama to lead policy reform around his own two daughters rather than allow himself to get bent over by the education machine.  We need to give our brightest scientists a target besides the Department of Defense for employment.  In fact, we need to end wars now, and reallocate those minds to environmental stewardship… and the war budget to education.  Our region needs to put in massive wireless upgrade that allows free and fast Internet for all (like Finland).

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I think a complete economic meltdown might catalyze change in the way we organize our resources as groups of people.  It would probably lead to some really beautiful developments in what we deem important for young people to know and would establish more local relevance in what is worth teaching and learning.  We could probably accomplish something very similar though by eliminating corporate interests in education (and government in general).

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Listen to kids.  This is about kids.  If you think of it as a job then it will become one.  Teaching is a blast so have fun.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

They are digital natives and therefore much more intuitive about technology than the generation before them. The teachers are unknowingly getting in the way sometimes!

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I think a tablet is effective for most learners.  It allows kids to explore what they are interested in.  Their passions drive their pursuit of knowledge. Once you tap into passions, the rest is details.


About  Geoff Grimmer,
Academic Director, Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA), Colorado, USA

Birthplace:  Madison, Wisconsin
Current residence:  Eagle, Colorado
Education:  BSB Finance, University of Minnesota 1998; MA Secondary Education, Western New Mexico University 2004; MA Educational Leadership, Western New Mexico University 2005
Websites I check every day:  twitter, facebook
Person who inspires me most:  Gandhi
Favorite childhood memory:  Riding bikes in the summer with the 608 posse
Next travel destination (work or pleasure):  Pop-up camping in Colorado
Favorite book:  Anything by Alan Watts
Favorite music:  Phish
Your favorite quote or motto:  Think Globally, Act Locally

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