Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Change--a new management philosophy?

Like Charlie Brown's sister Sally in the musical, I am developing a new philosophy about change issues. Having recently done yet another survey of the field involving schools that have embarked on "21st-century learning" initiatives, I wonder whether it it might be time for schools to revise some of their strategies for program change.

I'm not talking about slowing down, or scrapping the work. I'm thinking more about the schools where "initiatives," "innovative thinking," "roll-outs," and other language borrowed from the high-tech, financial services, and NGO sectors has taken hold to the point that faculty, students, and families feel as they are being swept along from one of those ultracool, ultrahip Apple product introduction extravaganzas to the next. There has been something of a trend, driven by the steady drumbeat of gurus and strategic planning consultants, toward treating schools as if they are living manifestations of Guy Kawasaki's engaging and seductive blog posts or possibly the bridge of the latest Starship Enterprise as Admiral Kirk and his crew ooh and ah over the capabilities of this latest wonder.

And schools should be those places--where intellectual excitement, incisive analysis, creativity, and extravagantly innovative thinking are taking place, are nourished, and are rewarded. But I'm beginning to think that it might be better--and make those new initiatives take root and bear fruit more quickly--if leaders did a little less ballyhoo-ing and paid a little more attention to connecting schools' traditional values and ways to the "new work" that we have to be all about doing. In other words, don't slow down, but lay off the wild and woolly language; not everyone in the school has read Clayton Christensen or even Daniel Pink. Don't guilt trip or try so hard to out-cool those who aren't as evolved as you are.

In my new thinking about change, whether it involves curriculum and assessment, technology (which is really a set of tools that can be useful in curriculum and assessment), or professional culture in general, it's not about roll-outs or coming up with groovy language to describe the work that schools need to be doing. When the academic administrators show up waving the latest manifesto of the brave new world around, not a few people are going to retreat. It's not that they aren't excited about going forward and doing the right thing, but often enough there is an unintended--and I stress unintended--implication that current ways are obsolete, gone the way of the dodo, stupid, even. We shouldn't be surprised that practitioners of current ways get noodgy at the thought that they are obsolete, dodo-ish, stupid, even.

Instead, schools might be looking for ways to build in the new work in ways that feel at least more organic than roll-outs and to talk about this work in ways that, while it acknowledges Ted Talk smartness, is grounded in the values and the ways in which the school has been steeped all along.

In other words, don't keep talking about the work and how it represents a departure from business as usual. Don't keep throwing out those quotes about how the way school is currently done is criminal, 19th-century, and shortsighted--stupid, even.

Just do the work.

How? The same way we've been launching initiatives and rolling out new programs forever:

1) Assemble an administrative body that shares a vision and is deeply versed in and committed to ways of achieving this vision.

2) Make a plan for bringing the elements of this vision to life in the work and practice of the school. Find some experts, set aside some professional development time, gather the resources that will be needed to make it all work.

3) Build in some accountability structures, and allow no escape or opt-out. You want to create a set of core competencies and grade-level benchmarks? Put the right people in a room, give them time, guidance, sustenance, and above all clear goals--"deliverables," to use the corporate-speak that should only be used sparingly and among friends. Give the people doing the work clear feedback on how their work relates to expectations. Make the work interactive, but make it happen.

You want to have teachers using project-based learning? Devote the next professional day to training people in what this actually is, and how to design worthy projects, and make devising a project-based unit or major activity one of the required goals for this year's evaluation. Give the teachers time and resources--including feedback mechanisms--for doing this work.

Schools have traditionally been places of autonomy for teachers, and they must own the curriculum. But schools that adapt to changing ideas of educational best practice will thrive, and those that stay stuck in one place will not. I believe that schools that push themselves forward through intentional and mandatory institutional work are going to be perceived as more viable and more responsive to 21st-century exigencies than those that allow their teachers to mosey along as an all-volunteer army, some doing exciting, great things and some holding tight to the status quo.

It may be that the best way to engage teachers in participating in this intentional and mandatory work is to make the case for the work in language that echoes the traditional spirit of the school rather than in terms of a launch from Spaceship Earth that must happen because the 21st century (or Daniel Pink) demands it.

Again, don't get me wrong here. The 21st century (and the estimable and right-on Daniel Pink) DO demand that schools find new ways to do things, and fast. But consider eschewing the roll-out or the launch or the references to the Futurist du jour and keep the language and purpose of the work grounded in continuing the great work and program development that have always been hallmarks of the school's commitment to providing an excellent educational experience for its students. Remind faculty and everyone else that the school has always had a responsibility to incorporate new ideas about best practice into its ways; that's how the school has built its fine reputation, and that's how the school aims to keep it. "This is what we do."

This may feel like a little white lie, especially in schools that have been dozing through the curricular, cultural, and technological revolutions of the past three or four decades. But it is never too late to catch up, and dozers actually have the advantage of having made fewer false starts than those that have jumped at every new idea.

Maybe this sounds crazy, or perhaps it's so obvious as to be utterly banal, but for a while, at least, I want to hear less about "21st-century learning" and more about the work that schools are doing help their faculties incorporate the kinds of practices and mores that the 21st century requires, just as they did for the 20th, 19th, 18th, and in a few cases on this continent the 17th centuries.

There really shouldn't be anything so special about this, now, should there?

1 comment:

David Colon said...

I think you are spot on in this post. It's easy to get caught up in the moment and forget all the good work that has preceded current reform efforts. I'm as guilty as the next person in this regard, but we lose a lot of talented people along the way if we frame the discussion in terms of ancients and moderns or some such dichotomy.

Advocating reforms and changes as the next evolutionary stage in a school's history isn't so much a "white lie" as it is a recognition of the importance of the affective side of life. Ignore it at your own peril.