Chad Ratliff is Director of Instructional Programs for Albemarle County Public Schools, which serves 13,500 students in 28 different school facilities, located over 700 square miles surrounding Charlottesville, VA, where he focuses on integrated curriculum, the maker approach, and entrepreneurial opportunities as part of the district’s emphasis on student-centered and experiential learning.
He has represented this work at the White House on several occasions as well as other national-level events. He also serves as Project Director for the $3.4 million U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) grant. Also active in the entrepreneurial community, Ratliff has been profiled as one of the top leaders under the age of 40 in both the Blue Ridge Business Journal and C-ville Weekly; served as a StartupWeekend EDU coach and organizer, and was a facilitator for the High School of the Future Startup event at the Governor’s 2013 STEM Summit.
Dr. Rod Berger: Why organize a Startup Weekend for your teachers and what was the initial response to the idea from both teachers and administrators?
Chad Ratliff: The event was actually open to the community, not just for teachers–but we did offer it as professional development so our teachers could earn recertification points if they participated. We had roughly 60 participants and nearly half were educators. We also had students from K12 and higher ed jump in. When we first pushed it out to our teachers, internally as a opt-in PD opportunity, I received several inquiries asking for clarification about “expectations”. Some thought it was a weekend-long “workshop” or, worse, “training” but were relieved to find out differently and gave it a shot. It’s the process and experience that I believe is most valuable and Startup Weekend makes it authentic.
Dr. Rod Berger: Take us behind the scenes of the weekend—what surprised you about the process and ideas teachers generated?
Chad Ratliff: It was a fascinating mashup of makers, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, coders, professors –all with an interest in making the schooling experience better–and was a high-energy, fast-paced, and communal event. We saw creative and insightful ideas flow and prototypes iterated. A very meta experience where an education-focused multigenerational, cross-sector community convened to solve problems for each other and society. People are generally excited about opportunities to actualize their own ideas, then share what they’ve done and learned. Startup Weekend-style events harness and compact that energy and they’re extraordinarily hard, but fun.
The winner was actually a 7th-grader whose prototype from the event landed him at the White House. One other finalist was a middle school teacher who prototyped a universal design solution for locker entry. One event alum, Keaton Wadzinski, is currently founding a nonprofit called ReinventED Lab to further develop the educational innovation ecosytem in Charlottesville. And we had roots music education and performance center, The Front Porch, go from Startup Weekend pitch to being accepted in the prestigious i.Lab incubator at the University of Virginia. But even those who just wanted to be entrepreneurs for the weekend maintain the experience itself continues to pay dividends.
Dr. Rod Berger: What does it say about teachers role in the future path of education when we provide time and space for their inclusion and more importantly ideas?
Chad Ratliff: Practicing teachers, sadly, don’t get many chances at the creative destruction of the current schooling model. I consider educators compelled to routinely do so to be pedagogical entrepreneurs. Teachers–and students–don’t need to just be included around the table, they should be leading the charge. We embrace risk-taking and rule-challegers in Albemarle County Public Schoolsand I’m always looking for opportunities and experiences to elevate the pedagogical entrepreneurs and spread what they do for kids. I then tell them this: My job is to hold the umbrella so the muck from above doesn’t hit you. Your job to keep me from using it.
Dr. Rod Berger: Professional Development continues to be a hot topic in education circles. How do you view PD and how can we reframe the opportunity for teachers and administrators so that it is seen for its value rather than its obligation?
Chad Ratliff: I think most adult learners aren’t different from kids. We want experiences that are personally beneficial, build on past experience, and are practical–and we want some choice and control over what those experiences are and how we approach them, and we want to share what we know. Compliance-based PD, like compliance-based schooling, is less effective if not downright demoralizing. Ultimately, at least for me personally, PD is about one key question: How do I learn something when I need to know something?
Dr. Rod Berger: You worked as part of the high school of the future Startup event at the Virginia 2013 STEM Summit. What is your vision for the high school of the future and how will we know when we’ve arrived? Will it be what we can see with our eyes?
Chad Ratliff: I don’t think we’ll ever arrive because, if we do, we wouldn’t be educating for the future anymore. But more importantly I think we erroneously default to imagery of “futuristic education” versus educating for an unpredictable future. We see images of children staring into screens, or staring at 3D printers. We imagine teaching machines and schools made of bits instead of atoms. I consider these technologies to simply be modern affordances that allow us to reconceptualize–perhaps even accelerate–old, better ideas. I want to at least see evidence of learning organized around projects and products, student agency, choice and comfort in seating, and hear the steady hum of questions and ideas. I want to see access to the skills and tools of creative production in formal and informal spaces and opportunities. In many ways, I suppose, it will look and feel a lot like a Startup Weekend.