Chris Rothwell is the Director of Education for Microsoft UK. He oversees a team that helps to deliver Microsoft’s vision to empower every student and educator to achieve more, helping them make the most of technology to save time and increase the impact of teaching and learning.
Improving Schools and Creating Inclusive Classrooms with Tech
- Ways to gain access and embed meaningful technology the entire learning community is excited about to drastically impact growth
- Finding a balance of mixing the physical environment and digital environment to expand learning to make content more accessible and inclusive to meet diverse learning needs.
- Create clarity by implementing small steps with big rewards
- Build habits about effective coaching that empowers people
- Prioritizing important areas to support the same mission
“It’s absolutely about customers and that amplification of the things that people are incredible at and how do we get technology to help them be even more incredible in that combination of technology plus people and creativity and it’s not about dehumanizing, but it’s absolutely about amplifying the human impact.”
– Chris Rothwell
Full Transcript Available Here
I’m here with Chris Rothwell, the director of education from Microsoft UK. He oversees a team that helps to deliver Microsoft’s vision, to empower every student and educator to achieve more, helping them make the most of the technology to save time and increase the impact of teaching and learning.
Chris, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Daniel. Really pleased to be here.
So you were visiting a primary school you were telling me about and they were in the bottom one to 2% and grew to the top 1% using technology in a very intelligent way. Can you tell that story?
Yeah, for sure. So it’s one of the primary schools that I work really closely with us as a showcase school and they were definitely having a pretty difficult time and really in pretty short order they had a change in head teacher changing approach and really chose to deeply embed technology as part of how they wanted to teach, learn, run the school. And really over the course of about 18 months to two years, they really managed to turn the school around. The next inspection they were deemed to be outstanding and particularly credited for the breadth of their curriculum and the way they’re engaging their students.
And of course that’s okay. We’d be naive to pretend at all that that is all down to technology. Of course it’s not. These sorts of changes take incredible effort from leaders and teachers and students and parents and many others all coming together to make that change. But one of the things that I absolutely love about their story and the way that they’ve used technology is they just got started. They had a plan and they had a vision of where they wanted to get to, but it would have been dead easy to stop and just kind of wait for everything to be ready before they really got moving.
And they didn’t do that. They decided that they could keep going now and they would just take small steps. And amazingly, what they did was they actually just dedicated about 20 minutes a week to staff professional development in the area of using technology. And it doesn’t sound like very much, but 20 minutes a week adds up pretty quickly. And so quite soon they were starting to get people who were building really, really deep expertise in different areas of technology and each of them became a champion for different types of technologies. And so they had a champion for Minecraft and how they use that across the curriculum and they had a champion for how they were using Skype to connect with different schools and starting to teach each other paved the way start to expand the learning opportunity to change the kind of commitment and ethos of the school and all of those things came together to really have a big tangible impact on the learning of the students and the way that the school was run and the impact it had on the students.
So it’s an incredible place to visit. Good example of how strong leadership with taking those small steps has really made incredible impact on the school and the students that go there.
You may or may not know the answer to this, but did somebody plant the seed of the small step idea in the head’s mind or was that just his or her approach?
Just her approach. So she sort of decided that everybody was going to come on the journey and so rather than saying, Oh well we’ll start one class at a time or whatever it was, no, we’re all in it. And that included herself. So she was in the team, she’s gone on to become a certified educator with Microsoft and she’s done some of the training courses and be in the group. So she absolutely kind of led the way and chose to participate as well.
I wanted that mantra of this is going to be part of how we’re going to run the school. And so really brought everybody with her on that journey, which amazing to see kind of the pace at which the success snowballs once you get started.
And I think for the ruckus maker that’s listening, what I really want them to pull out, there’s that idea of the small step. That really reminds me that 20 minutes a week reminds me of Jim Collins story, the 20 Mile March, and so it’s just being consistent, not doing more. They didn’t do 25 30 they didn’t do 10 or 15 depending on how people were feeling and she led the charge. She was also a part of it. Investing in her own development and just being on the journey with her people. Such an important thing to do as a leader.
So you have another story about Flipgrid and Mr. Magnolia.
Yeah. For anyone listening that doesn’t know Flipgrid, it’s a video service really about giving students a voice and it’s a way for you to bring your classes together and help make it very easy really for your students to record themselves talking to the camera or on a phone or a laptop device. And for those to then be shared with the group that you want. So whether that’s your class or just individuals or whatever and it’s a really fun way to get students engaging with content and sharing their content and even providing feedback. The example that you’re talking about was they were doing a topic around the book, Mr. Magnolia and they had to close it, that people read the story but it has lots of rhymes and Mr. Magnolia has only one shoe and they will have to write their own version of the poem and then perform it to Flipgrid and so they videoed themselves playing out their rhyme and sharing it with the class and everybody gets to see each other’s and provide some constructive feedback as to what they really liked or what they could maybe do differently.
The thing that struck me when I can see it in the classroom is when I first heard of Flipgrid, I wasn’t quite sure how that would work and what the value was going to be in a classroom. And yet seeing it come to life, it’s amazing how it gives each individual student a way to share and they’re kind of in control and yet it’s helping them build confidence in telling their own story. And then the school was using it really brilliantly to help each of the students learn to give feedback and so it wasn’t just, Oh I liked it, I didn’t like it. It was being really thoughtful about, I really liked this element of the way that you chose your rhymes or thought about your story and that was also really lovely experience to see how the students were supporting each other.
Thinking about learning collectively and having an opportunity to learn to give great feedback. And that’s such an important skill for you to have in life. And Flipgrid was really helping bring that to life together.
Yeah, I had to plus one Flipgrid. I’ve experienced a lot of the folks that I coach or work with, they definitely use it within their schools. But my all time favorite professor, Professor Arlette Willis at the University of Illinois, she prepares pre-service teachers for their first role in getting the certificate all that as undergrads. And she had her students record themselves asking a question about what a veteran educator, which they knew as a novice teacher. And then they sent that out to former students that Professor Willis served like me. And I was able to respond back. And that was just such a fun experience.
The questions were incredibly deep. I enjoyed just watching other people’s responses. And the thing that’s beautiful about too, video is so important because I think it just adds a little bit more of a human element to that communication. And so you could see on their face the excitement, right? Or the seriousness and the weight of their question. But love Flipgrid definitely very much.
Your story reminds me of another example that we saw happening where one of the innovative educators, I think in Wales, she was doing a topic with her class all about World War II and she got all of her students to film their questions about World War II and what it was like living through at the time and they recorded it all in Flipgrid and then she took her laptop and visited her grandmother who lived through World War II and she played all the videos from the students and their questions about what it was like and you’ve got her grandma to record the answers and share her experience of what it was like.
Speaker 5 (10:36):
And I absolutely loved that use of Flipgrid in the way that your lecturer used as well to kind of connect across different groups and share experiences and bring those things to life. As you say, video is such a connected visceral experience when you do it that way. I love that way of sharing stories and answering questions together. I think it’s a great use of
Chris, with your role I’m sure you get to almost, I don’t know if it’s like a weatherman forecast, not necessarily the weather, but the future, right of tech. That’s what you do. And I’d love to hear just from your perspective, what trends are you seeing?
I think there’s a lot of interest I think in the role that technology is playing and can play in education right now and it’s really exciting to see how the tech that’s being built and adapted is being taken by educators and leaders in the education sector and being put to incredible use.
I think there’s no doubt that data is a big theme and a trend with a lot of interest in an activity around and that’s a lot about how do you collect and display data and how do you turn it into something that’s useful for staff. And a lot of teachers experience the frustration of maybe being asked to input a lot of data, but maybe not getting the insight back from that data very easily. And reporting and process can definitely be simplified. And that data platform will really pave the way for AI to have much greater impact in education over the coming few years as well. So that will help us do more automation and simplification, particularly for the staff. So you can hopefully manage some of the workload and take some of the routine out and give teachers more time. So focus on teaching and thinking about how to get quite learning outcomes with pupils, but also it will help in terms of personalization and the ability to have personal learning journeys and adaptation for specific students.
Well some of this is happening already today and one of the areas where AI is already having a lot of impact is, is in the area of accessibility and that theme and that topic around how technology is helping make learning and content more accessible and inclusive for all sorts of different people I think is one that I absolutely love and love seeing how technology helps people engage and participate maybe where it hasn’t always been easy. So AI is able to do some incredible things. And one of the examples I often talk about is in PowerPoint there’s a capability called PowerPoint designer. And really what you do is you put some pictures in and PowerPoint makes it look pretty good. It really is that simple actually. And that particular capability was designed after feedback from an employee group at Microsoft where they had physical disabilities and said it’s really difficult for us to do sophisticated and beautiful laid out PowerPoint slides because of the amount of movement of a mouse we have to do. And that’s not easy for us. And can’t you do it for us. And sure enough, PowerPoint actually took that challenge on and started to build machine learning and it was able to look at the images and get the layout right. And make those slides look pretty good and that’s incredible. It means a lot to people that maybe don’t have full movement or maybe don’t have full vision and suddenly you’re able to create really good looking graphic slides. And so that’s another theme that I definitely see the rise of the role that technology can play in making more accessible and inclusive. And I think that’s very exciting. And then probably the last one I talk about is just the general adoption of technology and how it can become not just a special thing in the school, but part of the way that you teach and work and use it to expand the learning opportunity, engage in different ways of teaching and learning and help students learn in different ways in different styles, in different locations even.
And so think about classroom space and pedagogy really that’s not using any particularly new technology, but it is reliant on us making sure that teachers feel really comfortable with that technology, that the technology is available, that it works, it’s connected. And so there are still some barriers to getting that available and adopted everywhere but that’s really exciting as you start to see people build those skills and adopt technology and see it light up different ways of learning for different students.
Back to the accessibility story that you shared there, I think that is very impressive and a beautiful picture to paint for us. And then the leadership lesson within that too. How are you responding to feedback? Right. Because it could have been easy to ignore that feedback and not change how PowerPoint, like you said, the machine learning and all this stuff, but you heard it, you reflected it back and you did something about it and then created something even better as a result. So that’s definitely something I want listeners to take action on. How are you a part of a feedback loop and then taking action on what you’re hearing from your people? I’m curious, what does that look like in leadership within your role?
In terms of the how we’re working with technology with our customers?
I’m sorry, I asked a really poor question but I was hoping you could read my mind so that’s okay. Part of the value that people love this show is getting really high quality leaders like yourself to also talk about how you lead and what I should have asked is what does it look like to be responsive to feedback in the role that you occupy there at Microsoft?
I suppose I would in my particular role I would phrase it ever so slightly differently and talk about how do we make sure that we’re keeping the customer the center of what we’re doing. And you can sort of then translate that to the leaders I meet in education, it’s really thinking carefully about the vision and mission of the organization and the impact you have on the student. So for me there are a hundred, you know, there are a thousand things that you can choose to do in any role and I think part of our role of leaders is really helping to create clarity for the people around us as to what are we going to prioritize and how are we gonna bring that priority to life? So one of the things that I am really delighted that we are choosing to prioritize is accessibility. And that of course has consequences. It means you can’t do some other things. But deciding that that’s an important area and making sure that we have the team lined up and we’re going to go and make the most of that and bringing that sort of trying to create some clarity and simplicity, make sure that people are aligned in that goal really has a huge amplification effect of getting the team aligned and all on the same mission rather than sort of doing things slightly differently. That’s an incredible force multiplier, I think.
Let’s continue this talk about mission, vision values in just a sec, but we’re going to pause for a message right here for our sponsors. Better Leaders Better Schools is proudly sponsored by Organized Binder, a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning, time and task management, study strategies, organizational skills, and more. Organized Binder’s color coded system is implemented by the teacher with the students, helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine. Learn more and improve your students’ executive functioning and noncognitive skills at organizedbinder.Com.
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And we’re back with Chris Rothwell, the director of education for Microsoft UK. We’ve been talking about a school’s transformation from the bottom one to 2% to the top, Flipgrid and Mr. Magnolia stories about World War II, how to use data and how tech is helping out build more inclusive classrooms. Now we’re talking a bit about leadership and you touched on something that I can talk about all day, but you, me, the listeners don’t have that kind of time. Tell us a bit about how you process mission vision and values within Microsoft.
I think all of those have been incredibly important. In fact, just this morning I was spending some time with one of our university customers on exactly this topic and I think they’re incredibly important, particularly during times of change and for anybody that sort of follows the tech industry will have seen a change around Microsoft over the last few years. And absolutely part of that has been us reflecting and thinking about what is our mission and our place in the world and how do we want to work with our customers in order to bring that mission to life. I think that’s true in every organization I talk to, particularly when things need to change. It’s important to have that sense of where are we going, why are we going there? One of the topics we talked about this morning was definitely just starting with why and to try and bring people with you.
And that’s incredibly powerful in getting people to say, yup, I’m on this journey. I’m coming with you. I’m in for the ride or not as the case may be. And so certainly at Microsoft, our mission is to empower every individual and organization on the planet to achieve more. And, and it took us a little while to refine that and get it to that line. But it speaks a lot to the choices that we make around being focused on actually our technology, helping our customers do more rather than it being cool for its own sake or being about us. It’s absolutely about customers and that amplification of the things that people are incredible at and how do we get technology to help them be even more incredible in that combination of technology plus people and creativity and it’s not about dehumanizing, but it’s absolutely about ampliying the human impact.
And then the values that we want to bring to bear I suppose in being focused on our customers about having a growth mindset and being happy to learn and adapt and try and to think about making a difference. Those are the sorts of things that we think about at Microsoft and how do we make sure that we empower our employees to do that and to support our customers and bring our technology to life in a way that’s meaningful for them.
It reminds me of a Victor Frankl quote, which is “Man is pushed by drives but pulled by values.” In terms of leadership, has there been a resource you’ve had access to maybe over the last three or six months that has really helped you level up?
The biggest thing that I’ve focused on personally over the last few months is actually on the power of coaching and coaching is a leadership and development style I suppose in terms of developing people capability across the organization.
And that’s been a big, big topic and focus at Microsoft generally. But really building a habit about coaching and empowering people and from working with them that way. And so coaching has become a much bigger focus to me in my own leadership, in a way to work with my team more effectively. And so that’s probably been the biggest focus for me over the last few months.
How do you learn to coach? Is there a course? Is it a book? Is it that you have a coach yourself?
Well all of the above actually. So we definitely used a book called The Coaching Habit which breaks down coaching into seven questions which kind of makes it sound very, very easy. And then working through, we’ve done courses and peer learning here at Microsoft to help us develop and it is all of our practices with most things, just keeping on trying, reflecting and learning.
And then more recently I have used a coach as well to sort of give examples and things for situations where I know I haven’t quite got it right, but one is a reflect on Okay, why was it that I found that difficult? And how might I do it differently next time? But it’s been great to reflect on the scenarios where I don’t get it quite right and think about how I do that differently but also occasionally just to get those glimpses of when it does really, really work and you see the power of coaching come to life and helping people develop and solve problems, and bring their best creativity and help problem solve, solve those issues. So that’s been really rewarding trying to make sure that that’s part of kind of everyday engagement with people.
There’s another quote, “The chief enemy of good decisions is a lack of perspectives on a problem” and I think that speaks to the power of coaching and having a coach and coaching others. It’s about eradicating blind spots, just getting that perspective so you can be your best, which is also in alignment with what Microsoft wants to do.
Yeah, I think that’s totally true. Actually sort of the irony that actually it’s easier to coach someone on a topic you know nothing about rather than once you’re in the details sort of actually that’s when it gets difficult. Whereas when you don’t know anything, that’s when you’re asking good, simple, insightful questions often because you genuinely don’t have any knowledge itself. And so weirdly it is, as you rightly say, like about how do you bring that perspective and help others take a different perspective to the challenges that they have and work through them and that’s a fun thing to work with people on. And it’s a joy I think to work with people as they go on those journeys.
So Chris, what message would you put on all school marquees across the globe if you could do so for just a day?
I’d have to think about the wording, but it would be something around sort of the growth mindset approach and the thing that immediately sprang into my mind would just be keep trying. And it isn’t about some sort of success or failure. It’s about, are you continuing to take steps, are you continuing to learn and apply and go again on that journey to help make you more successful. And so I’d have to think about the kind of the phrasiology of it. But that would be the spirit of the message that I would like to put everywhere.
Keep trying. Love it. You’re building a school from the ground up. You’re not limited by any resources, you’re only limitation is your imagination. Chris, how would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?
Oh, well, so the immediate thing that comes into my mind is about flexibility and I love visiting education institutions where they have the ability to have big spaces, small spaces and move between them really nicely. And I love to see class teaching in big environments and school hall environments, but then also the ability to break up into small groups and take your learning out in different places and have access to kind of that different space. So that’s the number one thing that I would love to highlight. I suppose it would also be remiss of me not to say that it has technology baked in, in a way that is invisible. I don’t want technology to be the thing that’s on show everywhere. I want technology to be the thing that helps the buildings work, the day flow more easily, the teachers’ lives to be easier for the students learning to be more effective and kind of lights up those scenarios.
And so how do you create spaces where physical environment, a digital environment become mixed and you get to bring the best of both together and expand the learning potential from just that room to being outside and digitized and shared and connected and bring different environments together. So that would be something I would love to see from the very beginning. And then I think that’s the sort of school I would like to create though kind of has that sort of flexibility and creativity and that allows people to change the physical environment depending on what they’re trying to learn. That would be my dream.
And Chris, thanks so much for being a part of this Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast. Of all the things we talked about today, what’s the one thing you want a ruckus maker listening to remember?
I want all of your ruckus makers to embrace that technology can help them create a more accessible, inclusive classroom. So whether that’s people that have specific learning requirements, just different preferences, dyslexia, physical disabilities, technology is helping create an environment where people can interact more equally and learning opportunities and engagement is so much greater when you get that right. And overwhelmingly, there’s so many things that technology can do that is such a powerful thing where you see the impact that it can have for particular individuals and so I’d love everybody to take that away.
Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast ruckus maker. If you have a question or would like to connect, my email, email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter @alienearbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more ruckus makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode. Extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alienearbud and using the hashtag #BLBS. Level up your leadership at betterleadersbetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, class dismissed.
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