Important New Contexts for Leading and Learning

EML co-founder Will Richardson asks if we can imagine a world where, for example, gravity no longer exists. That is, can we imagine a world where everything is changed so utterly that all our expectations, our practices cease to function? And what if that’s the world we’re already inhabiting in education — not one without gravity, of course, but one that has shifted radically due in part to information technologies? How does this change our expectations, our practices for school?

Imagine “having to figure out how to operate in an environment where gravity no longer exists.” It is, I think, almost impossible to conceive. Everything, and I mean everything, would be different.

Yet that’s the leadership challenge articulated in “Leading in Context,” (.pdf) a 2013 study of global CEOs published by Duke Corporate Education, a subsidiary of Duke University. In a nutshell, business leaders around the world are “disoriented” from the pace and scale of change today. Those surveyed described a modern view of the world “where it is increasingly challenging to foresee problems, where the problems they do identify are more multi-dimensional in nature and the solutions required to address them are more complex, and where the power required to address these problems must increasingly come through influence as opposed to formal authority.”

The authors of the Duke study suggest a “supernova” has occurred, an event that has “untethered many of the assumptions and beliefs that leaders have depended on to frame their leadership context.” In the business world, that was the combination of the explosion of connections online over the last seven to eight years or so and the “Great Recession” which began in 2009. Those shifts have forced business leaders around the world to challenge old assumptions and principals that worked for a good part of the last century:

We now live in a globally interdependent world where we play simultaneously in an environment that is interconnected in ways that were unheard of before and unpredictable to a degree that we haven’t experienced. In essence, our gravitational tethers have been severed, change has accelerated like never before, unpredictability is a fact of life, and complexity is the new norm. This interdependent world is different and holds varied challenges we haven’t dealt with regularly before – our current leaders must adapt and future leaders must be developed in order to succeed in this new context.

That describes the business world, but it applies to education as well. Yet, I wonder if education leaders are feeling true, gravity-less disorientation about learning and schooling? Or are they clinging to a narrative about the world that is easier to function within even as it grows more tenuous by the day?

If we hold to an outdated worldview for educating our children, one that because of technological and cultural changes is quickly fading into obsolescence, can we adequately prepare our students for the challenges they’ll face?

In my travels to hundreds of schools, my sense is there’s not enough “disorientation” happening. Sure, here in the US, there’s the new Common Core State Standards and the accompanying assessments. Both are causing a mix of angst and excitement. In Australia, it’s the NAPLAN, and similar curricular changes are happening in other countries. In all parts of the world, new technologies, tablets, smartphones, and “learning systems” are challenging and changing the way we deliver an education. And on the reform level, the news is filled with charters and vouchers and tenure challenges and parent trigger laws… There’s no shortage of changes and “innovations” to unsettle us.

But none of these developments “sever gravity,” so to speak. They serve to disorient us only at a micro level because primarily they are layered on top of a deeply nostalgic vision of what an “education” should be. We have yet to understand the larger, more macro changes that should really make our heads spin.

Simply put, the reason ed leaders are not disoriented enough is that our larger contexts for decision making haven’t changed and, to a great extent, are not changing in any significant way.

That should deeply concern us. If we hold to an outdated worldview for educating our children, one that because of technological and cultural changes is quickly fading into obsolescence, can we adequately prepare our students for the challenges they’ll face? The simple answer is no, we can’t. We need a modern context through which to make decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, assessments, technology, infrastructure, scheduling, budgets, and everything else that goes into the work of schooling.

Now, as the authors of the study suggest, we need to understand that:

  • The shelf-life of information is unstable – Our “knowledge” of the world changes rapidly and, in some case, radically on a daily basis.
  • The interconnection of information resources is non-linear – The hyperlinked Web environment we live in renders much traditional thinking about research and reading almost useless.
  • Access to information is uncontrollable – The gatekeepers are by and large disappearing.
  • Creation of information is uncontrollable and global – Technologies and apps make writing (in all its diverse forms) and publishing to global audiences powerful and easy.
  • The source of true differentiation between people now lies in figuring things out as opposed to finding things out – As author Tony Wagner says, “It no longer matters what you know. What matters is what you can do with what you know.”

Very few of these new realities are currently a part of our context for education and schooling. We still have a library mentality when it comes to knowledge, that it has a spot in a traditional taxonomy, that we can read it and learn it page by page, chapter by chapter, that we have to go to some place to find it, and that “knowing” is more important than doing something with it. (Look at our assessment regimes regarding that last part.) Our contexts for our decision making do not acknowledge that with a connection to the Internet, we can now learn anytime we want, anywhere that we are, with whomever we can connect to from around the world at that moment. We now curate and write our own texts. We form our own classrooms. We direct our own curriculums. We assess our own learning. And we no longer simply consume; we create and share with the world.

That context should be disorienting because it challenges the fundamental premise of schools. It calls into question the relevance of our collective school experiences and stories. To fully acknowledge the profound new realities surrounding learning and schooling would be to let go of gravity and conceive of a different way to operate.

The Duke report begs some very big questions of us in terms of the way we think about the education world, including:

  • How does a system of schooling built on predictability prepare students for challenges that are less predictable?
  • How do classrooms move from a focus on explicit knowledge that is now accessible anywhere to tacit, experiential knowledge that people share with one another?
  • How do students gain a truly global perspective on the world, one that allows them to find and solve problems with others far outside their local spaces?
  • How do we help students flourish in online networks and communities? How do we help them gain influence in those spaces?
  • How do we help students (and teachers) question long held assumptions about the world?

Unless we are willing to grapple with these and other important questions we will not be developing the kinds of learners and leaders that the future (and the present) demands.

Would love to hear your thoughts on how we take steps the reframe our contexts.

Image credits: Mike Lewinsky

5 thoughts on “Important New Contexts for Leading and Learning”

  1. Rowan K

    Hey Will – great thoughts! My immediate thought is that because access to information has gone from a position of scarcity to one of abundance by way of the connectedness brough by the internet, it’s a double edged sword which while encourages change also slows it. How? With the information overload also comes the desire/demand to package it, to make it more consumable and this means that schools (which arguably do this) aren’t (yet) exposed to the same degree of disorientation. Thoughts?

    1. Will Richardson

      Thanks for the comment, Rowan. I think that it’s hard for school the institution to conceive of a world where knowledge consumption and creation can’t be controlled. Or a world where some entity isn’t involved in either of those processes. The interesting moment we find ourselves in now is that individuals have the power but don’t often know what to do with it while institutions have lost the power but either aren’t aware that they have or can’t see a path to continuing relevance. Interesting times…

  2. Hakan G

    Courageous, no-holds-barred analysis. Lives its message, in a quasi-Marcusean way, in that it unabashedly stays conceptual. One step towards (more) concrete implications – from the vantage point of biz schools – was taken by to Wharton School of Finance profs, recently (in Wharton Knowledge, excellent interview and video). They suggested three pathways or scenarios flowing from MOOC technology (not the Coursera and other MOOCs themselves), namely a/ more of the same with expanded reach (e.g. exec education packages to lower-level employees), b/ a hollowed-out biz-grad-school system, employing dramatically fewer profs and c/ unbundling-cum-disruption. c/ would (via the automated system) entail the knowledge-transfer process being separated out and delivered independently from other biz-school “value elements”, such as networking , group-dynamic-enhanced skills training and testing/assessment (not sure they included this last one). In all three scenarios one could expect fewer classic biz-school-prof jobs available.

    Based on your analysis, the Wharton inputs, HBS professor Clayton Christensen’s material and related thinking I’d suggest three potential systemic-developmental steps, not gravity-defying, perhaps, yet with serious business implications. Jointly they involve disruptive threats as well as great opportunities:

    1/ Executive education could represent a forerunner to other forms, stages and areas of deliberately managed learning. The company or the individual exec builds his own problem-finding and problem-solving effective-knowledge-defining modules. Definitions can start fluid and tentative, becoming increasingly sharp and contoured as the learning progresses. Documentation of learning achievements becomes the individual exec’s responsibility. Potentially independent testing houses can follow a selected set of exec’s (perhaps sponsored by their employer) in “verification” modules. Business school research, including the extensive global library of case studies, constitutes a global menu of raw material for those kinds of exec-defined and independently verified modules .

    2/ Over time this kind of problem-finding / opportunity-driven, self-defining-module based learning becomes a useful prototype for grad school as well as, further down the road, for undergraduate education. Instead of going to business school the individual takes a look at the world he seeks to inhabit, works in it, and defines his evolving learning plan. Then proceeds as per 1/ Potential employers or business partners ask, “so where did you get your MBA?” Reply: “Here are the five areas of learning that I’ve produced for myself”. Potentially he adds: “…jointly with these excellent people…” Next question: “So where do you rank on the global Richter scale on the qualities that get you admitted to a top-tier MBA-programme?” Reply: “Here’s my G-Math test score and here are 15 other (relativised) test scores that I’ve exposed myself to, if you really want to know.” “OK, so who do you know enough to hang out with? Do you enjoy any elite network?” “Yes, these 20 people I’ve worked with on line, they’ll all vouch for me, and 8 of them I’ve worked with intensely on location”.

    The upshot? A great “education”, i.e., a dynamic learning record, and a great package (unbundled then re-bundled) with which to engage in dialogue with potential employers or business partners!

    3/ That model next trickles down to secondary education. Some kind of evolving learning plan. Parents contribute. Teachers contribute. A little bit of very early life planning and career planning is necessary, attractive and highly valuable. Why not? The youngsters often know surprisingly well what they like and don’t like, if only someone has the patience to tease it out of them. Plus perhaps some experimentation.

    The starting point? Probably executive education. May be entrepreneurs, who care less about “credentials”, but deeply about what they can and cannot do themselves, and what their business partners (including hired hands) have learned.

    Look forward to more thought-provoking material from EML!!!

    With best regards,

    Håkan Gomér
    # 320
    Linen Hall
    162-168 Regent Street
    London W1B 5TD
    Tel: +44 207 038 3584
    Mob: +44 7770 915 120

    1. Will Richardson

      Thanks for that, Håkan. I have no doubt that we’re going to see more and more businesses creating their own degrees, if you will, a la AT&T and Apple universities. And I’d also agree that employability is already and will be even more the sum of a number of different parts that go way beyond the school record. It will be interesting to see what trickle down that has into K-12 education and, importantly, when that happens.

  3. Esme C

    As a leadership team we believe we have accepted the challenge to disorient in relation to traditional practices. We continually debate how we approach education to meet the needs of children in a 21st century environment. A strong theoretical position is what allows us to disorientate. It provides an alternative gravitational force which allows us to counter the traditional, cultural tether which is increasingly irrelevant but still very strong. The tension lies between the traditional views and constraints such as parental expectations and experience , standardised testing, policy and funding models. More than ever we need to see teachers as researchers in this environment to help us interpret these new leading and learning contexts.

    Esme Capp, Anne O’Sullivan, Tim Aris, Keith McNeill

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