If we’re not irrelevant, what are we?

As I look across the presentations and workshops and keynotes that educational leadership faculty are sponsoring and facilitating, outside of a few isolated pockets I don’t see much evidence that we’re having wide-ranging and substantive conversations about the need for students to:

  • engage in deeper and higher-level learning instead of spending 80% to 85% of their time on regurgitation and recall of low-level knowledge items (that can be found via smartphone voice search in seconds);
  • possess greater agency and ownership of their own learning in order to foster engagement and self-directedness instead of being directed by teachers and schools toward control and compliance;
  • have opportunities to engage in authentic, meaningful learning activities instead of isolated, disconnected-from-the-real-world classroom assignments; or
  • utilize digital technologies in academic- and work-productive ways that go far beyond social uses or mere replication of analog instructional practices.

I rarely see or hear educational leadership faculty talking about the profile below of high school graduates, even though these student life skills are absolutely foundational to schools’ and policymakers’ current college and career readiness efforts:

College and career readiness

I rarely see or hear educational leadership faculty talking about these components of ‘future ready’ schools:

10 building blocks

We are preparing instructional leaders for P-12 schools but I rarely see or hear us talking about how to help preservice or practicing administrators understand how to (re)design school structures, curricula, units, lessons, and instructional activities to move in the directions noted above. [indeed, I have some doubts that most of us faculty would even know how] Even though social justice is a deeply held belief for most of us, we rarely discuss the intersections of that concept with changing workforce readiness needs or how the inequities of students’ digital access are extended and exacerbated when it comes to students’ digital usage. I don’t see most educational leadership faculty having broad and rich conversations about how technology has and will transform almost everything, what ‘college and career readiness’ or ‘personalized learning’ even mean these days, or what our roles are as faculty, parents, community members, and citizens to deal with all of this.

We do a great deal of research and teaching on interesting and important topics. We speak out against the marginalization of underserved and underrepresented groups. We talk a lot against federal and state policy. But we rarely foster ‘future ready’ policies, instructional and leadership practices, or school organizational redesigns. When we talk about student voice, it’s primarily within the frame of empowerment within local, not global, contexts. We talk marginally, if at all, about furthering students’ global awareness. And so on…

I really like my educational leadership faculty colleagues. They’re whip-smart, thoughtful, well-meaning, and kind and are engaged in some fascinating work. I learn lots every time I get to interact with them. So maybe ‘irrelevant’ is not the right word for what we do because it sounds too pejorative. But it sure seems like there are enormous, important, gaping holes in our conversations that we educational leadership faculty decline to fill year after year…

9 Responses to “If we’re not irrelevant, what are we?”

  1. Scott,

    I agree – it often seems as though the conversations many deem most important are in fact mostly unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Why aren’t we focusing more on providing students with more autonomy over their learning? Before we have conversations centered on education, we must ask ourselves, “What is the overarching impact of this issue on each and every student?” Why should we spend time on anything at all in education if we can’t pinpoint its specific effect on students? We must be sure we’re putting students first, and that begins with critically examining and crafting each conversation rooted in education.


  2. Education is about politics over reality. We have known for years what is actually effective in education, but chose to do what sells politically instead. We have federal policies set by politicians, and local policies are set by elected school boards whose only required qualification is to get the most votes. Trying to change education at a classroom, building, or district level is often like pushing a rope. The best that many of us can hope for is to be left alone enough to actually implement best practices in our own little corner.

  3. Totally agree with what you are writing about. Here in Ontario, we seem to be obsessed with math scores to the exclusion of everything else. We are chained to EQAO result (standardized testing), and we have lost the ability to innovate or think outside the box.

    We are missing the boat in several key areas and the 10 Building Blocks is a good place to start from when we are looking to have meaningful conversations about change.

  4. When you find it, please let me know. I want to work for and with educational leaders who are at least openly grappling with these ideas, even if they are not yet at a place where they can all be implemented.

  5. Thank you for your insightful article. I believe many educators are so focused on the daily duties that they don’t have time to plan for a change in their method of teaching. In education I always try to show the students how to think and not what to think. Nowadays, this “how to think” is implemented through many tools of technology. Students must be properly equipped with the necessary skills to lead their educational path. These skills differ greatly than skills that were required many years back.

  6. As a college student myself, I completely agree. I find that a lot of learning that I have had in my years has been focused on recall rather than insight into a text. I think the trouble with this is how to standardize this type of learning amongst all of the schools. Multiple choice tests do are easier to “game” than a project would be but it is easier to create a uniform standard for all of the schools. I have personally always enjoyed projects and real life applicable scenarios more so than memorizing facts.

  7. I think this depends on what one considers to be relevant work. I assume many of my colleagues consider my work with schools doing the kind of direct leadership for deeper learning (instead of more publishing) to be irrelevant also. Certainly my promotion and tenure committee is likely to consider it as such. — We also can’t be so presumptuous. I personally, like you, see a thousand hacking at the branches for the few of us striking at the root … but that is only through my eyes. Through their eyes … they are likely striking at the root and I am hacking at the branches. Which vision holds sway is just part of the marketplace of ideas. Presently, the social justice approach prevalent at UCEA that seeks a mostly critical approach of the current system is holding sway over a more practical, system embedded, reform-oriented approach. Neither may be wrong, and perhaps we are richer as a society when we have both. I would love to see more direct leadership on behalf of UCEA-types for deeper learning school models and transformative leadership, but calling others work irrelevant is unlikely to entice them to try our approach. Like everything else, they need to see models, get coaching, have safe places to practice, etc.

  8. While perhaps presenters aren’t focused on these topics, my school leadership and faculty have been working towards many of these ten “building blocks of the future.” We are taking student, faculty, staff, and parent input as we redesign our schedule and spaces for learning. I think that the world is changing very quickly, and it’s been hard for schools to keep pace. This doesn’t mean that we should give up, but we should be having conversations about making meaningful changes in our school structure.

    • Thank you Jacqui for your valuable comment. Indeed, in today’s world; teachers don’t know it all anymore. Smart educators engage all the parties involved in the process of education including students and parents. The development of what is being taught and more importantly how it is being taught is essential. In a successful learning environment, we all learn from each other.

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