Headwinds or tailwinds?

Against the wind | Vinoth Chandar, photographer

David Brooks said over at the New York Times:

The crucial social divide today is between those who feel the core trends of the global, information-age economy as tailwinds at their backs and those who feel them as headwinds in their face.

And that’s really it, isn’t it?

We have a majority of schools and leaders and educators and policymakers for whom the rapid changes around us feel like strong headwinds, negative forces that continually buffet them in the face. Technology that expands access to others… An ever-shifting, complex, hyperconnected information landscape… The ability to learn whatever we want at any time, in any place, on any path, at any pace… Global economic competition and cooperation… These are all seen as dilemmas. As problems that must be managed and minimized. As destructive challenges to retreat from, often because of a deep longing for a nostalgic yesteryear that was simpler, easier, and allegedly ‘better.’

And then we have the minority of schools and leaders and educators and policymakers for whom the rapid changes around us feel like tailwinds at their back, propelling them forward into unique opportunities to rethink education and do better by kids. These are places that are diving into the constructive complexities and emerging with new beliefs and new mindsets and new practices. They are finding ways to enable deeper thinking and greater student agency and more authentic work – and utilizing digital technologies all along the way to help facilitate and enhance these new forms of learning and teaching.

The headwinds people could learn a lot from the tailwinds people. They could garner ideas about how to pilot new initiatives. How to plant seeds of innovation and grow them in productive ways. How to move more quickly in order to be more relevant. How to empower children and youth and teachers in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. And so on…

Likewise, the tailwinds people could learn from the headwinds people. How to proceed thoughtfully. How to recognize the potential negatives and address rather than ignore them. How to validate the felt needs of communities without being dismissive. How not to get too far ahead of others who just aren’t there yet. And so on…

Ultimately the future lies with the tailwinds people, of course. ‘The future’ always wins. Whether we embrace the world around us or resist it with both heels dug in, the forces of technology, globalization, and learning possibility inevitably will carry the day. As I said in a long ago blog post

I think it is becoming increasingly clear that our current system of education is going to go away. There are simply too many societal pressures and alternative paradigms for it to continue to exist in its current form.

The only question, then, is: How long are we going to thrash around before we die?

Where do you fall? How do you and your educators and your schools and your communities view the changes around us? As headwinds or tailwinds? Or something else?

Image credit: Against the wind, Vinoth Chandar

4 Responses to “Headwinds or tailwinds?”

  1. Interesting thoughts by David Brooks to be sure. As a person that spent a lot of time in the Midwest (you are apparently attracted to swing states) how do we deal with the situation where most people feel there is a headwind … and instead of embracing a changing course seek to close the windows, lock the doors, and prep for the worst (I’m surprised by Iowa in this cycle, of course, not by Kentucky). There is a lot of thrashing in some parts of our country.

  2. There is a lot of thrashing everywhere. Most schools and educators are not ready to dive into the complexities and challenges of the future-relevant change process. See, e.g., Will Richardson’s latest thoughts at http://willrichardson.com/change-sucks

    So we start with the why (thank you, Simon Sinek). We create emotional and cognitive dissonance between school as it is and school as it needs to be. Then we envision our desired new states of being. Then we support like crazy as we being making necessary shifts. And we stay in it for the long haul.

    Work with the willing. The rest will catch up eventually… (unfortunately, in the meantime millions of students will continue to be ill served)

  3. Heather Sharpes-Smith Reply October 16, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    My school is based in the ideal that kids should receive the timeless education that their parents received. When will they see that this traditional education they insist upon is in fact doing a great disservice since we are not preparing our students for the future – whether it be college or the work force? When will they realize that this elite boarding school that is supposedly prepping kids for the ivy’s is actually failing those students and launching them out into the world completely unprepared? Currently, I am working with the willing and hoping the rest will catch up. The willing are few and ultimately they get pushed out because they are not supporting the traditional learning environment that the school and its leaders have created and uphold.

    It seems like in one breath my school is pushing for innovation and shows a desire to keep up with current trends in educational technology and even invests in initiatives and technologies that would bring learning and teaching into the 21st century. However, tradition and habit squash any initiatives we bring forward. The administration would prefer to do just enough to appear as if they are making progress. What will it take to bring my school and others like into a place where trends in technology act as a tailwind?

  4. Heather, I think you’ve clearly articulated one of the essential tensions for independent schools. You may be interested in my Independent School magazine article, The Challenges of Digital Leadership, in which I said:

    Schools often purchase software, computer devices, and technology-based learning systems because they are effective marketing tools for recruitment, or because they want to keep pace with the digital investments of rival institutions, or simply because they fear appearing outdated. None of these have to do with learning, of course, and inevitably are insufficient to smooth over the challenges that arise as digital tools enter classroom spaces.

    Additionally, for some independent schools, the potentially disruptive nature of these devices and online spaces presents perceived threats to institutional history and norms. If a school’s reputation and pride are built on decades or centuries of “this is how we’ve always done things here,” resistance from staff, parents, and alumni to significant changes may be fierce. In such institutions, heads of school may have to steer carefully between deeply ingrained habits and the need to modernize the information tools with which students and faculty work – but they need to steer nevertheless.


    Please let me know how I can be of support to you and your school. I’m always happy to set up a web meeting and chat! 🙂

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