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Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System”, with Kenda Lawson

An Interview With Penny Bauder


Responsive pedagogy. We must do a better job of making sure that students have access to equitable educations that equip them to overcome trauma and social barriers. Our teachers are ill-equipped to deal with the level of need they will face in schools. Teacher training programs must do a better job of enabling educators to have difficult conversations and navigate challenging issues concerning race, inequality, poverty and trauma.

I had the pleasure to interview Kenda Lawson, co-founder and CEO of Owls Education Company LLC. Lawson redefined her role as an educator when she founded Owls Education Company LLC in 2014. She cultivated a brand defined by optimism, wisdom, leadership, and strategy and designed to spark social innovation through education. Her company designs educational training, curriculum, and technology to help educational, government, and corporate organizations teach 21st century skills to a new generation of thinkers and doers. Kenda hosts Pedagogy After Dark, an irreverent but entirely relevant web-series that takes on ineffective educational policy & practices by offering imaginative solutions.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

After undergrad I decided I wanted to do some public service. I thought that teaching would be an excellent way to make a difference while at the same time attending law school or figuring out what to do with my life. I had no idea at the time that it would become my lifelong passion. Looking back, I suppose I should have suspected education was my calling. I have always valued the transformative power of knowledge. I even once had a former high school teacher tell me prophetically that I would become a teacher. At the time I had plans to become a scientist, to find cures for diseases, so I laughed it off. I ended up teaching high school English for ten years and discoing that I was good at it.

I have always been blessed to teach where I was most needed, but I wanted to make a greater impact.I felt that if my students could be successful, so could others. Part of my strategy was to create my own lessons that were responsive to the needs, interests, and attention spans of my students. Many of my co-workers encouraged my to share my lessons on sites designed for teachers who were also content creators. I created an e-commerce store called Teaching with Optimism, Wisdom, Leadership, and Strategy (OWLS). I found a market and an outlet for my creativity. Basically, I stumbled to where I was destined to be.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once had a student show up late on the day of state testing. I immediately launched into a lecture about the months spent preparing and the need to be responsible. If I had paid more attention or paused to listen, I might have noticed that the child was out of breath and seemed shaken. At some point I asked, “What excuse could you possibly have?” It turned out there was a very good one.

The eighth grader had awoken to police lights and sirens. It turned out that the police discovered a dead body in the family’s backyard, and they had been held for questioning. When he was finally free to go, my student had run to school so he would not miss his test. I was shocked and very ashamed. The best I could muster was, “Just try to put it out of your mind and do your best.”

A series of revelations bugged me the entire day: that this child had endured major trauma before most of America had had coffee and my own inadequate response. I watched my mostly black and Latino students do their best to focus on showing the world that they had learned and that they had value. All the while sirens sounded and tragedies awaited so many in the surrounding neighborhood.

That day I realized that I could not just prepare kids for what I needed them to be. We all have a duty to offer an education that is relevant not only to the world but to their world specifically. I began to teach concepts like language through the lenses of self-expression and self-advocacy. And do you know what? They scored higher on state tests than ever.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are actually working on a couple of exciting projects right now. My team and I are working to bridge the gap between teaching and technology by developing comprehensive curriculum units powered by integrated digital tools. Feedback from market tests show the disrupting value of our products to enhance learning outcomes and make every teacher a master teacher by support ing them from start to finish.

The other project has been pretty top secret as we prepare to launch so your readers will be among the first to hear about it. With the launch of GamEdTM in 2020, teachers will have access to a suite of fun, interactive language arts video games that promote critical thinking, literary analysis, and creativity. We didn’t just add badges and icons to the same old computerized assessments. We created a way to help teachers teach content in a unique way that leverages the benefits gaming culture without sacrificing content.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

I have fifteen years of successful experience as both a teacher-leader and as a high performance consultant in schools. When I offer advice, I can back it with evidence and first-hand knowledge. What I have found is most valuable to school and industry leaders, however, is that I also have fresh ideas which reflect current research and trends in education. As the head of innovation and instructional design for an education startup, I thrive in the space where education meets innovation.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I would have to give us a C-. I think that’s the grade you get when you are trying really hard but things just are not falling into place. It also reflects the reality that there are some things we do really well but other places where we are failing.

My company uses a special rubric that assigns EAR2 marks to evaluate our products. We ask educators and students to rate engagement, alignment, rigor and relevance. If we look at how the US education system performs in all of these areas with students from higher socio-economic statuses and dominant cultures, for example, I think we would score a B plus. When it comes to addressing the needs of children in poverty, minorities, and kids with learning difficulties, it’s a D minus.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

That’s a great question to address because we are getting a lot right. The move towards a common, standards-based system of education was essential to ensuring equity and quality in education for many kids. We have also made tremendous strides in providing access to support services for families. We have come to understand that learning can not occur when a child’s basic needs are not met. The efforts to provide access to individualized instruction and technology are also admirable. The best thing we have going is that the discussion about how to improve our schools is ongoing and a part of the public consciousness.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

1. Data analysis. In this era of high-stakes testing and accountability most authorities will tell you that data is essential. There are hundreds of systems available to help schools track, store, and present data from constant assessments. The question is: What should we be doing with all that data once we have it?

Much of my work as a consultant is to give school leaders and their faculties the ability to process the volume, variety, and velocity of data necessary to make informed decisions and adhere to current best practices. It is important to provide training that empowers teams to have productive conversations about how to improve results. They learn to routinely and easily dig-in when presented with new data using data-intelligence skills like visualizing, interpolating, and extrapolating information. This will help educators ask smarter questions and get better results.

2. Technology Integration. One of the things I mentioned earlier was that we have largely accomplished the goal of putting a computer in every classroom. What we have yet to do is ensure that students use the technology that is available to them in meaningful ways. Today, the only time that many students touch a computer is to complete some computerized form of assessment. The potential of technology to transform teaching and learning remains largely unrealized. Part of the problem is that teachers a wary of technology because it can be difficult to navigate, untrustworthy, and time-consuming. While learning is an inherently social experience, delivering individualized learning programs to students requires sacrificing collaboration and, often, critical thinking. Our current application of technology in classrooms has created a tension between teaching and technology. This is harmful to our students because the ability to navigate and integrate technology is certain to be a major factor in the careers that are available to them in the future.

3. Responsive pedagogy. We must do a better job of making sure that students have access to equitable educations that equip them to overcome trauma and social barriers. Our teachers are ill-equipped to deal with the level of need they will face in schools. Teacher training programs must do a better job of enabling educators to have difficult conversations and navigate challenging issues concerning race, inequality, poverty and trauma.

4. Literacy. The shift to Common Core forced the US education system to confront the way it taught the skills in many subjects in isolation. While our language changed to include “integrated skills”, our methods and overall outlook did not. We know that we can maximize our students’ learning and strengthen their understanding by highlighting the connections across content areas. Literacy is the ability to make connections in order to solve problems and communicate with others. In an ideal system, all teachers would be teachers of literacy. In practice, many people complain about our students’ poor reading skills but only one group is held accountable. If we are to improve, that has to change.

5. Lifelong learning. Our rapidly changing economic landscape will require employees to be flexible and creative thinkers. Students are preparing to enter industries that do not yet exist where they will use tools that have not been invented. As millions of students go off to college and careers, most lack the 21st century skills to compete in the economy of the future. It is crucial that learning not end when people leave high school or even college. It falls to us (and now) to prioritize learning readiness and continuous education. Many of our nation’s colleges and corporations have already begun to realize that they will have a part to play in cultivating the workforce of tomorrow. As young as primary school, we can teach resiliency, soft skills, and lifelong learning skills.

One reason that education reform is so critical is because it is so timely. We can seize this moment while there is momentum and a great deal of motivation to change our education system for the better. Just as our education system rallied once to propel our society forward and put a many on the moon, we can build on our successes and challenge the status quo. A great deal of that momentum will come the millennials who now make up the majority of the workforce. There has been quite a bit of talk about how millennials are destroying everything from cereal to marriage. Well, this problem is one thing millennials well suited to handle. They are rising to leadership in schools and organizations and ready to make a mark. They can leverage the highly visual nature of their experiences to see patterns in data and motivate others to be responsive. A natural intuitiveness about technology means they can be a resources when training teachers because they are more comfortable learning new software and using devices during instruction. The integration of technology more seamlessly during instruction has they potential to accelerate learning and literacy. Collaboration and creativity are the keys to seeing a US education system that works for everyone in our lifetime.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Access to STEM is still limited in many places and for many demographics including girls and minorities. There is also a general lack of understanding that STEM introduces critical skills like problem-solving, strategic design and challenging your own assumptions. A larger percentage of teachers including those in subjects like English and history should receive STEM training. Technology integration is also important. It is a platform for creativity, collaboration, and communication. Improving visibility and access to people working in STEM careers is another thing schools can do to engage young people.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

The largely untold stories of the contributions so many women made to science are cause for us to consider the importance of getting girls and women involved in STEM. In a very valuable way, women see things differently. They have so much to offer including a knack for design and attention to detail. Denying half the country access to the STEM education deprives us of the much needed diversity in perspective and experience that leads to innovation.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

One thing that I have found encouraging is that far less girls have reported being told that careers in STEM or otherwise were unavailable to them. That means that we are making progress in changing stubborn gender dynamics and addressing discrimination. We can continue to make gains by highlighting women who are engaged in this work, designing challenges that are relevant to the problems girls and women face, and by working to ensure that a young woman who goes to college at the same cost as a man, receives the same pay for the same work. Addressing the glass ceiling that often awaits them in STEM professions is also critical if we want girls and women to see STEM careers as viable options.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I think it is pretty clear that I believe that you can not sacrifice any subject or topic without losing a critical piece that contributes to functional and transformational literacy. Without creative outlets and learning, students can learn the information that has been passed down from scientists before them, but they will have a difficult time with innovation. Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” That quote is on the wall of my office as a reminder that learning happens in both hemispheres of the brain.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. I would encourage intentional and intuitive understanding of how to collect, analyze and evaluate data.

The reactive and inadequate nature of our response often drives students to drop out and drive teachers to leave the profession. We can do a much better job of developing methods that promote more productive and effective conversations around data.

Several years ago an administrator sat down to review the baseline assessment data from each of my two English language arts classes with me. The September screening revealed that only 8% of the students in one class was proficient and just thirty percent of my accelerated class was proficient. The administrator asked if I was concerned by these results. My response was that I was aware of the data but not concerned by it. I produced my own copy of the report complete with scribbles, hand-drawn graphs, and a detailed plan centered around seven groups of students. I knew just where my students were and where they were going. Not only did the administrator accept this response, she seemed pleased. Her goal was really to make sure that I was responsive to the data. She initiated an open-ended conversation and allowed me to describe my plan to meet our common goals. Because we had built a relationship of trust and communication, my initial reaction was one of optimism and ownership rather than fear.

2. I would encourage schools to integrate technology in a way that provides a platform for maker education but does not attempt to replace educators.

A teacher I coached once explained that there were three separate educational technologies she was required to use each week in addition to giving a weekly test. That meant that three days each week, students were remediated, coached, and assessed while sitting in front of a computer for the entirety of the class period. At the end of her account she announced, “I teach on Mondays and Tuesday.” She wanted me to help her be more efficient and effective during those two days.

Teachers should teach every day. Full stop. While technology has an important role to play in the process, it is a poor substitute. Research has already begun to bear this out. Unprecedented access to technology and millions spent on programs have not yielded fundamentally better learning outcomes.

This does not mean that the computer carts and programs are useless however. We simply need a new approach.

Companies like Apple and Microsoft are exploring ways to leverage the access schools have to computers to make an impact on students. Providing free, on-demand teacher training on how to use their products is a promising and important part of a winning strategy. Yet knowing that a resource exists will not necessarily translate into teacher incorporating the technology into their instructional design.

Our approach has been to develop technology-enriched curriculum to help educators become familiar with the tools available to enhance learning while using easy to navigate curriculum that makes every teacher a master teacher.

3. I would work to enrich the share economy and enable broader collaboration around education. One of the great benefits of our modern world and work is the access to share and collaborate with each other. This collaboration strengthens ideas and allows them to spread quickly and organically in a way that teachers more readily accept. It empowers educators to serve as resources for each other and brings a sense of purpose and autonomy back to the profession.

4. I would reaffirm teaching as a profession again. I do not know where it went wrong, but teaching is the only profession that I can think of where policy is so often written by people who have never practiced. I One thing teachers are taught quickly in most school is that with great responsibility comes very little power. I know that is not the way the saying goes but it is the reality for many teachers across the country. While educators know what they need, they are rarely ever asked. While we expect teachers to be more qualified than ever, their expertise is not valued. Successful schools value the experience and talents of the people in their building. Schools with shared leadership models promote ownership and autonomy. There is a culture problem in our industry and it must be addressed before meaningful reform can occur.

5. I would address the innovation problem that plagues education. The high-stakes nature of education means that taking a risk that does not pay off can cost people their jobs. That kind of atmosphere sniffles innovation. It means that an ingrained but ineffective strategy can become preferable to trying any new idea. It ensures that schools continue to go to the same places and find largely the same answers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My uncle used to say, “People will pay you for what you know.” This quote empowered me, as a young girl growing up in south Memphis, to embrace education as a way to build a better future for myself. It is the very foundation for the work we do consulting for schools and other organizations.

What he left unsaid was that people are punished with what they do not know. I have seen the consequences of when children do not have access to the knowledge they need to successfully navigate challenges. This realization inspired me to write curriculum that incorporates character education, social and emotional learning, and other 21st century skills that helps all kids access a path toward success.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to sit down with Bill Gates. I appreciate the work he is doing in the education space as well as his passion and purpose. Where I think we could have a productive conversation is now that there is a computer in every classroom, how do we help teachers and kids maximize the potential of technology to open up new worlds for them to explore?

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on twitter @TeachingWithOWLS.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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