We already have some schools that are organized around these principles. They’re amazing, incredible, energizing places of learning. Now, if we could just get policymakers, educators, and parents on board so that we can scale…
How many of us have heard this phrase in presentations about the need for schools to move more quickly toward an uncertain and unknowable future? [yes, I've used it myself once or twice] How many of us have had someone show us this video from EDS?
Most of us don’t get to work in the Big Picture or New Tech or Envision schools. We don’t have the option of starting new like a charter school does. We don’t get to work within district- or state-created innovation zones.* Instead, we’re stuck with legacy structures, policies, facilities, personnel, and mindsets, all of which make it much, much harder to change how we do “school.”
So what CAN we do? Well, Clayton Christensen’s work shows us that the best way for an established organization to handle disruptive innovation may be to plant and protect seedlings based on different models and then grow its own replacements. And that gives us lots of internal options if we choose to exercise them as school leaders, even when we work in small systems. A great place to start would be to better nurture the change-makers that we already have in our classrooms: the teachers and students who want to push various envelopes when it comes to learning and teaching. If we’ve got educators and kids who are ready to dive deep into hands-on, technology-infused learning experiences that emphasize cognitive complexity and student agency, we should be doing everything in our power to support them. I’m amazed at how poorly many schools do at adequately supporting existing innovators. As Gloria Ladson-Billings said long ago, “Make sure the change people win.”
What else can we do as leaders? If we’ve got high-flying classrooms or schools, we can do a much better job of ‘infecting’ others with that positive work. We can carve out explicit structures and time and personnel that have the purposeful intention of fostering innovation AND connecting others to it. We can make it safe – and, indeed, expected – to take risks, to fail early and often, to engage in rapid iteration, to live in perpetual beta. We can give people permission to fail and fail again as long as they’re failing smarter each time. We can set up classroom observation rubrics and professional growth protocols and hiring criteria that focus on innovative work, not just traditional work. We can match action to rhetoric and identify concrete performances that let us know if innovative work is actually occurring. We can identify and remedy internal policies and decision-making that impede innovation. We can hold regular celebrations that highlight the innovative work that is happening. And so on…
As leaders, it is both our privilege and responsibility to create, nurture, and protect innovation within our school systems. And of course we need to engage in those efforts as thoughtfully and respectfully as we can. But we don’t get there with snarky resistance, nor do we get there by allowing such sentiments to dominate our internal conversations.
A number of school leaders across Iowa recently had the opportunity to spend a day with Pam Moran and Ira Socol at the Prairie Lakes AEA office in Storm Lake. Pam is the award-winning superintendent of the Albemarle County (VA) School District and is widely recognized as one of our nation’s most technology-savvy superintendents. Ira is the Program Manager for Design 2015, an innovation and school redesign initiative currently underway in the school district. This year their district received a Magna Award Grand Prize from the National School Boards Association. As you might guess, our day of learning with Pam and Ira was phenomenal. Everyone left with new ideas whirling in their heads for fostering greater innovation in their schools and districts.
One of the key concepts from Pam and Ira that resonated with me was the idea of instructional and administrative tolerance. As they described it to us, instructional tolerance refers to what teachers are willing to tolerate from their kids: Is it okay if kids lie on the floor while they work? wear headphones to minimize outside distractions? collaborate and make noise? occasionally drift away on their laptops? and so on… Teachers exist on a continuum of instructional tolerance. As we administrators advocate for greater student collaboration, hands-on learning, technology infusion, real world projects, and student agency/ownership of their learning, these new paradigms of student work often run into many educators’ long-held notions about learning, student behavior, and teacher control.
Even more important to us as leaders is the idea of administrative tolerance. In other words, what are we willing to tolerate as principals and superintendents? Is it okay if some of our students get to experience technology-rich learning experiences but others don’t? Is it okay if some educators are facilitating problem-based learning opportunities for students but others aren’t? Is it okay that there are such wide ranges of action and inaction across staff members? Is it okay if some of your principals are on board but others aren’t? Pam and Ira pressed us to think about exactly what lines we’re willing to draw and enforce in the name of organizational consistency and progress. Throughout the day, a constant theme in our discussions was the need for a shared organizational vision AND the leadership necessary to ensure that vision is enacted. In order to create new learning opportunities for ALL students, many of us will need to have lower degrees of administrative tolerance for some existing educator behaviors.
If we think even bigger than the idea of tolerance, we can move toward the idea of celebration. For example, when it comes to differences in American society, over the past half-century most schools have moved from grudging tolerance of students of different backgrounds to celebrating what those students and cultures bring to the school environment. Similarly, how can we move from instructional / administrative tolerance of newer forms of student and teacher work to celebrating those different ways of working, thinking, and being? I think that’s a question worth some serious consideration…
When it comes to new forms of student learning and work, what are you willing to tolerate? What are you ready to celebrate?
[If you're interested in learning more about our day with Pam and Ira, see my notes.]
[Yes, this is an actual conversation, not an April Fool's Day joke]
Superintendent: We’re not looking to buy laptops for our students anytime in the near future. We’re concerned that our teachers won’t use them well. We don’t want to spend a lot of money to go 1:1 and then have the initiative be a failure.
Me: But how will your teachers and students learn to use computers well if they don’t have them?
Does your school organization have a vision for technology-enriched learning and teaching? If so, is that vision one that is shared by the larger community? Many school systems are turning to video to help facilitate a shared vision across various constituent groups. Below is one example, A New Design for Education, created by the Farmington and Spring Lake Park school systems in Minnesota.
Has your school or district made a video like this? If so, please share it in the comments area by Tuesday, April 2. If there are enough submissions, I’ll compile them and make a second post. Happy viewing!
I love to visit schools that are trying to live on the cutting edges of deeper learning, student empowerment, and digital technologies. But, like most of you, I don’t get to do that nearly as often as I’d like. So I’m jealous of folks like Barbara Levin and Lynne Schrum who get to do case studies of innovative school organizations around the country. And of whomever at Edutopia gets to work on the Schools That Work series.
A school board member recently echoed on her Facebook page a community member’s desire to stop funding the district’s 1:1 initiative. Here are the community member’s comments that were shared by the board member:
Technology is a wonderful thing and is much needed BUT these kids needs to know how to take a pencil and paper, spell worlds with out spell check, make a sentence with out using grammar check an do math with a calculator. Seems all the school board can see is the good sides of everything before buying it. They don’t seem to be able to think of what bad can come from things or if what they are purchasing with other money is redundant. I’d like to see results of an old fashioned math, and spelling test and even writing. Many young people can’t spell these day and only print, have no idea of how to do cursive writing. Schools need to stop “dumbing down” our future which is our children.
Below is my contribution to the discussion on the school board member’s Facebook page…
Some quick thoughts:
Our information landscape is no longer ink on paper. It’s digital bits in the ether. It’s completely technology-suffused and EVERYTHING is moving as quickly as possible to the Internet. There is no foreseeable future in which the primacy of printed text is not superseded by electronic text and multimedia. Given this fact, how are you going to prepare students for this digital information landscape if you don’t put digital technologies in their hands?
Our hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy requires that developed countries move as rapidly as possible to creative and services work rather than manufacturing and agricultural work, with an emphasis on higher-level thinking skills rather than low-level fact and procedure regurgitation. All of the job growth in this country is in knowledge work sectors. BUT… knowledge work is done with computers these days. You can’t prepare graduates to do real-world knowledge work in a digital landscape by going back to ringbinders and notebook paper. Do you want your students to have jobs? Ignore the comments about ‘spell check’ and ‘old fashioned math’ (which have no basis in actual data or reality) and instead ask whether your students are immersed in cognitively-complex, technology-suffused learning environments that actually prepare them for the demands of knowledge work after high school. As pretty as it is, we must admit to ourselves that cursive writing is not a 21st century skill and neither are many of the other practices that we are trying so desperately to cling to in P-12 education. The biggest barriers to change are our own mindsets of what schooling should look like, which unfortunately are usually based on a past that no longer exists.
It is the job of schools to prepare students to master the dominant information landscape of their time, to be productive workers, and to be successful citizens. All of these require digital fluency, something that is not achieved by a few hours per month in a computer lab. All that said, we also must recognize that change is scary, it’s complex, and it takes time. There’s a learning curve to navigate for students, teachers, parents, and community members. Acknowledge the difficulty of the challenge. Work to make the change as smooth as possible. Learn from mistakes and keep moving forward. Give yourselves time to make the transition. But don’t regress. Don’t give up. Does the district actually believe that NOT using computers is the path to future success for its children? If so, it will be the only one in America that does and it will be dooming its youth to irrelevance. As Abraham Maslow said, “You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.” In rapidly-changing information and economic environments, we all need to be future-focused, not nostalgic.
[School board member], you say that putting technology into the hands of all students is ‘not the way to go.’ Which students get to use technology, then? Which students get to be prepared for the world as it is and will be (and which ones don’t)? Which students are you going to intentionally disadvantage by hobbling their college and career readiness by removing technology from their hands?
I’m happy to have a further conversation with you and/or the rest of the board about this. I work with schools, districts, and communities all over the world as they struggle to meet the needs of students and educators regarding technology. All my best.