Leading Through the Transition

shifting-conversations-logoOne of my oft repeated lines in my presentations to teachers and leaders goes something like this: “This modern world of technology is not what you signed up for when you went into education.” By that I mean that most people who go into the profession have a very clear picture of what they’re getting themselves into. It’s about tradition…and nostalgia. I know I went into teaching because I knew exactly what it meant to teach. I’d watched people do it for most of my life, and I figured it would be fun, rewarding, creative, and more. But I also figured that my main role was to impart whatever curriculum I was given and do my best to assess the knowledge and skills my students gained in my class. Now, all of that is beginning to change at scale.

That’s not to say that the trappings of traditional teaching still aren’t in place in most schools. They are. But that’s because schools haven’t yet caught up to the massive changes that are happening in the “real” world, the one that most policy makers still don’t really have a clue about. (It’s stunning to me that we here in the United States have two senators freely admitting that they have never sent an e-mail. Ever.)  The one that, to be honest, few board members or trustees or
other educational decision makers actually live in. The one that, as BYU professor David Wiley articulated almost 8 years ago involves the following important shifts:

  • 7477897782_0979dc6488_bFrom analog to digital
  • From tethered to mobile
  • From isolated to connected
  • From generic to personal
  • From consumption to creation
  • From closed systems to open systems.

I would add a couple more to that list today as well:

  • From event to flow
  • From content to conversation
  • From credentials to contributions

These are all shifts that access to the Web is driving. And they have profound implications for the way we think about learning and education. Yet looking at that list, how many have schools in general have actually started to move along any of those lines? Not many. Not many at all.

Students have very little freedom to learn, and schools are still highly isolated and closed and traditionally structured.

Sure, you could make the case that schools are more digital today, but a) that’s not universally true, and b) schools’ uses of digital technologies are incredibly conservative. The rest of those shifts represented in those bullet points are hardly noticeable in schools I visit. Students have very little freedom to learn, and schools are still highly isolated and closed and traditionally structured. It’s kind of amazing actually, how little of what counts for transformation in business and politics and media has a close relative when it comes to education.

Look…I get it. Change in schools is hard. There are all sorts of bureaucratic layers and constituencies that make shifting very hard. But I have to admit, I’m growing increasingly impatient with leaders who refuse to take on the work of understanding the larger changes even though they may be difficult to implement at a local level. Just because it may be hard to shift doesn’t mean you don’t need to understand the shift. Whether school leaders realize it or not, they are leading into a transition that I’m becoming more convinced is inevitable…a transition that is required for schools to remain relevant.

So what should school leaders be doing today, right now?

1. Learn – Hopefully, that’s one of the reasons you’re reading EML. But it goes beyond what we’re able to cover even here. Look at our reading list, follow some really smart people on Twitter, read blogs. You don’t have to sign up for a course or a workshop in “The Shifts.” In fact part of understanding the shifts is that you create your own curriculum, classroom, and questions.

2. Educate – If you’re like most leaders right now, you have more people to educate than just the students in your charge. Parents, board members or trustees, community members, local politicians…all of those constituencies and more are needing a different way of seeing the world if they are to support your efforts for the changes you know need to be made. Hold some book clubs, speak at local luncheons, start a blog. This, in fact, may be the hardest part of all of this, and it will take a consistent effort over time to make the compelling case for change. But you have to make it.

3. Advocate – It’s not enough to just help people understand the changes. It’s equally important to get people to make the changes that you need to provoke real changes in your schools. At some point, education leaders need to take a stand in the legislative and political conversations as well.

The easier path is to wait for someone to tell you to change, to just stay focused on the traditional approaches to teaching and learning and only push into a new direction when someone either mandates it or explicitly gives you permission. But easy isn’t serving our kids when the world is changing so much around us. Whether you like it or not, we’re at the beginning of a huge sea change in learning and education. Are you going to lead or follow? And which answer is better for your students?

Image credit: geir tønnessen

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