The Energy to Focus on Change

Many of us are the lone voice of change in our institutions. Some may be lucky to have the support of their administration, or to have a group of teachers ready and willing to change their teaching practice, or even to have a small team to work with, but very few seem to have a whole-school focus on changing the way we teach and learn (except for maybe one, of course).

So, if you don’t have a school-wide focus on changing practices, and you don’t have ongoing professional development offerings at the institutional level, and perhaps you don’t have the expectation to change from “the top,” where does the energy to change come from?

It comes from us, the lone voices. If we are not energetic and enthusiastic about moving forward, if we are not constantly offering ideas for how to engage students, if we are not tirelessly promoting new ways of thinking, who else will do it?

I worry about apathy, about giving up when the institution doesn’t value the same things we do. Or when the institution is so big that we know it will take years to reach the tipping point. I worry that when our lone voices stop bringing the energy and enthusiasm for learning in a new way, it will just fall by the wayside.

Why is it important to always keep institutional change in mind as the ultimate goal? Why not merely keep working for small-scale change on a daily basis, and hope that things will gradually improve? For one thing, the stakes are too high not to be thinking about the big picture. As Scott McLeod’s K12Online presentation points out, schools as institutions are themselves in real danger of becoming obsolete.

Referencing Dr. Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovations, Scott shows that institutions that don’t embrace change early enough will simply become obsolete and disappear once the change they have ignored happens. Similar to the old land-line phone companies who didn’t switch to mobile networks fast enough, unless schools start thinking about technological changes now and new types of learning that will arise in the near future, there might come a point when everyone decides that we don’t need schools as institutions anymore – and it may be approaching sooner than we think. Either way, it’s clear that most schools will not embrace disruptive innovations (in this case, technologies used for learning) until it’s too late.

As Scott points out, we can no longer make decisions based the assumption that people will always need schools. In fact, these disruptive technologies can and will become so much more useful than the current state of our schools, that the “customer base” schools have come to expect, may in the near future no longer exist, simply because there are so many more meaningful ways to learn outside of that institution. Think about the last time you used a public telephone booth – almost overnight, the entire infrastructure of public phone booths became irrelevant to its customers. Unless we (even as lone voices) keep working towards embracing and changing with these disruptive technologies, the school classroom may become the “public telephone booth” of the future.

So how can we, those of us who believe in these disruptive innovations, help influence the outcome of schools as institutions, before they become obsolete? And how can we find and implement the best approaches towards reaching that change? Something I’m worried about is repeating the same strategy or approaches to the point of diminishing returns, or in getting trapped using ineffective methods repeatedly and hoping for the best.

Jon Becker’s K12Online presentation discusses some recent research about the role and effectiveness of technology facilitators, specifically in the United States.  He contrasts two different styles of technology facilitation: the collaborator and the salesman. The collaborator is one that attends team meetings on a regular basis, continually sharing new ideas for how to embrace technology within the core curriculum that teachers are focused on. The salesman is one that sits in the lab or an office, waiting for teachers to approach him or her with an idea, and then sells the “wow factor” of certain tools based on that teacher’s needs. Based on Jon’s synthesis of the research, the collaborator approach is far more effective, meeting the teacher’s pressing needs of teaching the curriculum, while being a constant partner in the learning process.

In terms of thinking about how to work towards school-wide change, there’s no question that the collaborative approach is a step in the right direction. Working at the team level authentically embeds the facilitator into the schools infrastructure – albeit at a much smaller scale. Teachers will naturally be more receptive to suggestions simply by virtue of the fact that the facilitator is an informed, contributing member of the team. Not only will the collaborator get a better picture of all of the intricacies of a specific team, but they will be so much more knowledgeable about that particular team’s needs. This could be one way to begin to institutionalize change – by working through the school’s existing infrastructure, and consistently demonstrating enthusiasm and energy for new ways of teaching and learning that are directly relevant to the teacher’s needs at that level.

Along with the team approach, I love the idea of Viral PD that Jen has been talking about for ages – why wait for the PD you need to be offered by an institution that doesn’t realize they need it (or isn’t ready to provide it)? I love the fact that it is grassroots, but it’s organized, with a clear structure and focus and it allows for people to learn at their own pace without having to “wait” for help. Methods of professional development for educators should reflect the new ways we teach and learn, increasingly through online networks and user-created content, just like Julie Lindsay‘s E-Learning for Life Ning with her teachers in Qatar.

I especially love the idea of having a “home base” for this type of professional development. This is something I’m always promoting for the projects I conduct with students, why wouldn’t we use the same approach when teachers are learning? If we can start building an infrastructure now, a place where teachers can effectively share what they know, that infrastructure can be used when the broader shift begins to happen and the institution finally embraces the changed nature of professional development. Taking the time to thoughtfully implement this infrastructure now, can then become the foundation for a changed approach to professional development at the institutional level.

I understand that change is slow and that each small step we take is valuable, but I am a planner at heart, and I would like to find a strategic way to approach these small steps so that they lead to something more. I don’t mean “strategic” merely in the sense of being complex or clever. To me, it means an approach that’s transparently organized, with definite goals and a clear focus on the future. If you’re lucky enough to be working in a team, being strategic might also mean coordinating time to work together, or methods of cross-pollinating and sharing the team members’ insight. Being strategic in this sense would mean concentrating on deliberately putting structures in place in the present that could help bring about future systemic change. Whenever I plan a project, I always start with the end in mind, so why can’t we do this with teachers? Even if it is a small group of teachers, we can be thoughtful and coordinated about how we help build their understanding, right?

So I’m starting to think about how I can use the Understanding by Design process with my seedlings (or Tribes, if you prefer). Maybe taking the ISTE Standards for Teachers and designing “units of study” that would help build teacher understanding of one standard at a time? Developing authentic tasks and experiences for the teachers I’m working with that would demonstrate their understanding at a deeper level. Instead of letting the learning be hit or miss, dependent on totally arbitrary factors, perhaps I could use this approach to help coordinate the learning among the teachers that are already interested? Does anyone else have experience using their classroom unit planning methods as the framework for collaborating with fellow teachers? What methods get the best results? What extra factors need to be accounted for, and what needs to be modified, when thinking of teaching peers as a type of “unit planning”?

Without the energy and enthusiasm of even just one lone voice in the school (whether it’s a tech facilitator or a classroom teacher or a librarian or specialist), none of this will happen. As so many of us like to say, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world, but can we organize and strategize enough to provide an infrastructure for others to adopt and adapt to these changed perspectives, eventually, perhaps the whole institution? Is this one way to ensure that the changes, ideals and ideas brought by one lone voice can outlast their time at one specific institution?

What do you think? Is it possible to be strategic (in the sense that even small groups of learners outside of the institutional PD structure can be organized and focused) when you’re the lone voice?

18 thoughts on “The Energy to Focus on Change

  1. Pingback: The Energy to Focus on Change | Schools online

  2. Kim, What an excellent, thought-provoking post- as you can see from my long response!
    As a classroom teacher (only 1½ years ago) I could create and manage innovation in the world of my own classroom on a daily basis and as a colleague when opportunities could be created or arose. I did it for my students’ needs and strengths. As a technology facilitator I think most staff see my position only to help introduce and integrate use of tech as a sporadic teaching and learning tool- yet technology is not the primary focus or motivation in my eyes. Being out of the classroom makes it much harder to create change and growth in the school for the students- it tests the pedagogical thoughts and gut feelings without being able to implement ideas on a daily basis.
    Having said that, when I compare a year ago and today in my school, I can see the impact I have had (with the help of my administrator and tech colleagues, of course). But it’s due to baby steps, patience and sweat.

    My strategy has been to plan and initiate incentives and paths for opening communication. Publicity through the school Tech Newsletter put out every 2-3 weeks and brief presentations during staff meetings have helped as well as persevering with after-school open lab times. My after-school student group involved in collaborative projects allows me to show what I’m talking about. Having a great tech-support team, new designated laptops for staff and LCD projectors in most rooms this year is a great leap. But much of the success has come as a result of just being visible and ready to assist with any menial tech task in order to open doors and initiate conversations. Creating groups of learners within a school is possible but takes time because everyone is so busy with the day to day tasks. With luck or support from the administration and budget- along the lines of initiatives seen in top corporations- I believe collaboration could grow much faster. Slowly bringing in new staff who share the school’s vision is another solution- but also challenging.

  3. Thanks for extending the conversation about my K12 Online presentation over here, Kim. We’ve got some pretty big things to figure out – and SOON! Will schools still exist 30-40 years from now, or will they go the way of the phone booth? It’s hard to say, but Christensen’s work seems to infer the latter rather than the former UNLESS schools can create their own competition rather than being disrupted from outside. Right now I (and Christensen) don’t have much hope…

  4. Kim,
    Don’t know how you did it but you must have somehow been able to read the unpublished post in my blog 🙂 Your thoughts exactly echo what I had written, even down to the references to Scott’s K12 Online Presentation. I have ordered “Disrupting Class” on the back of this.
    Thanks for your take on Jon’s presentation too. I listened to this as an audio file but did not take away as much as you. I will revisit and look at the visuals.
    I have been thinking a lot about my future lately. I left a great job with a shifting school in Australia to take a position with a school in Hong Kong who said that they were on a similar journey. Upon arrival I found the leadership sadly lacking in understanding of what ICT could do for learning across the school. They were really just into investment in technology that looked good in glossy photos. Unfortunately, they also did not really work to get the staff onboard. It was just about putting it in place and getting staff to use it, usually in addition to existing demands and responsibilities. Talk about a lone voice! From what I have seen of your colleagues they are generations ahead!
    I eventually decided that over 2.5 decades of teaching and a master’s in effective use of ICT for learning must have some application in Hong Kong and the region. I set up a consultancy as a Digital Learning Advisory based in HK but working around the region. I am afraid to say that after around 2.5 years of doing that, it is still a huge challenge!
    The IWB staff I took on and trained can make double what I can pay them as English Tutors in spite of the fact that there are IWBs in almost every school here with an English affiliation (in this former colony, that is most.) Apart from an elite couple of schools here, I dismay at the pitiful use of the boards. There are some great things I can show them and have for free but most schools here say they have no funds for “non-essential” workshops like using ICT for learning. I KID YOU NOT! I had a teacher suggest to me the other day that I should “disguise” my blogging and wiki workshops as “Using Poetry for the Teaching of English” as it would make her job of getting approval for the workshops a lot easier.
    It sounds to me like Thai and Shanghai Schools are more supportive of embracing the disruptive technologies than here. At least you guys are employing integrators like yourself and Jeff.
    I agree that we all seem to be a long way from finding schools like the Science Leadership Academy in this region.
    If you do happen to know of one, let me know!
    Or perhaps a few of us should get together and set one up. Now there is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal for you.
    Cheers

  5. @Nancy,

    Thank you for your positive feedback! I wholeheartedly agree with your statements about visibility and opening doors to conversations. Once your staff realize that you are ready and willing to help, they will begin to ask more of you.

    One thing I’m really wondering about is sustaining that kind of change when people rotate in and out of positions. Is there a way to provide an infrastructure for support that can continue beyond one person’s tenure at a specific school.

    I am really impressed at what Julie Lindsay has done in Qatar with her eLearning4Life Ning – now there is a vehicle for change, totally voluntary, but so easy for anyone to manage and contribute.

    @Scott,

    Thanks for such a great presentation! So, does it make more sense to just give up and see where schools take themselves? Or is it something we can prevent by being the voices for change within our schools? How would you recommend going about being the voice for change – to really provide infrastructure for change within the institution?

    @Paul,

    You’re right – I am so lucky to be working with such an amazing team. It’s a testament to the vision of ISB that they have hired such forward-thinkers.

    It is sad to hear that it has been so difficult for you in Hong Kong… but I like the sounds of starting our own school. Now that would be something!

    @Julie,

    So glad this has prompted discussion with your group! Can’t wait to hear what they had to say!

  6. I teach in an area that has received large grant funding from Classrooms for the Future. Many of our teachers take classes, have a dedicated coach to help, etc. but pedagogy change is sorely lacking despite this. Though disruptive change is necessary as well as Communities of Learners (nings, blogs, etc.) to increase information, some investment still needs to be made at the personal level at the school. I know that it is slow and that change needs to happen more immediately, but this can be attacked at many angles. I still use learning communities to push my knowledge, encourage me, and create better learning for my students. But I have also built a Community of Practice at my school through mentoring with others who would not attempt such change on their own. My entropy 101 presentation for the k12 online conference is a reflection of my thoughts and work on change at the teacher level. Some of the teachers I am working with are what I consider “rising experts” and are pushing change now with others. Yes, it is slow, but these efforts are necessary too.

  7. Pingback: Sustaining Change: The Next Level of PD | always learning

  8. Kim, I would like to see how your program develops. At International School of Tianjin we are taking on this challenge as well. And I’m about to talk to Christine at Yokohama International School about their ongoing professional learning goals. You mentioned that Julie has been working on similar goals.

    Is there a place where we can all document and share our progress? It would be beneficial for us to see how we deal with ongoing professional learning at our schools and then see how teachers in other schools get this done. Warren at American Embassy School in New Dehli is doing something like this with the software we use for more than 100 educational-related tasks. Great stuff.

    Cheers,

    Tod

  9. Pingback: Is Focusing on Traditional Learning Really “Playing it Safe”? | An Expat Educator in Asia

  10. Christensen’s research leads him to the conclusion that making change WITHIN the organization is futile due to the ‘natural’ laws of disruptive innovation and the difficulty institutions have of changing their mission from doing A to doing B. Instead, the old organization gets eclipsed by a new institution. Can schools prove an exception to this? Only time will tell…

  11. @Louise,

    I totally agree about personal investment and I love the concept of mentoring. I would really like to find a way to put that process into practice “officially.” Do you have any advice about that? I will definitely have to watch your K12Online presentation – thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    @Tod,

    It’s definitely a work in progress. I’m just as interested to see how everything develops. Every day I learn a little bit more. I would absolutely love to connect with you, Christine and Julie and see how we can all benefit from each other’s experience. Maybe we should create a wiki or a Ning for ourselves as organizers or facilitators of this kind of learning in our schools?

    @Scott,

    Boy that’s depressing… As an eternal optimist, I’m going to keep working to put structures in place that could help my school change. At the very least, more and more individuals in the school are getting excited about new methods of teaching and learning.

  12. The groundwork in terms of reading materials for change to a new pedagogy is here in my school. It does not mean everyone changes. Most people will embrace change if they can be assured the one thing they value will not change. They also need help seeing how it works. I listened to the hallway conversations and identified what problem I could help solve for them and what aspect they needed to retain. I also problem solved out loud. Eventually I was able to turn a person here and there. I wish I had an answer to your question. I really believe key teachers in places in the school is what is needed. They have practical concrete examples and have “been there.” Our coach was a classroom teacher but she is one person and having a lead teacher in each department would be an advantage. I am really giving of my time to help others out (I have learned from these rising experts too.) I wonder if I had an “official” title if it would have worked as well.

  13. Kim, I agree that it’s a little depressing. Like you, I continue to plug away at the existing system, hoping that we can create structures and environments of innovation that are sufficient to enable educators to be ready and responsive to whatever changes lie down the road. But it may be wasted effort. While some schools, due to their nimble leadership, will be able to make the change from A to B, the existing system is so deeply ingrained in most places that they will not be able to make that change. However, the educators that we work with on this stuff hopefully will be better able to go work in system B if/when system A disappears!

  14. First of all, thanks so much for sharing your prolific writing so openly, Kim. I read your work faithfully as your thoughts, ideas and questions reflect my own journey right now. As the Instructional Technology Specialist for our district, I have been thinking about holding a series of workshops, both f2f and online, which would bring grade level teams together to rewrite a predetermined standards based unit they currently teach. The process would entail utilizing what they have learned about UbD, best instructional practices and the infusion of the ISTE NETs for Teachers. I haven’t fleshed out any of the details and would be thrilled to have the opportunity to work with others to put “structures in place in the present that could help bring about future systemic change.” (In the words of you!) Am I on the right track? Could we figure this out together?

  15. @Louise,

    I really appreciate your statement: “most people will embrace change if they can be assured that one thing they value will not change.” I wonder if these means that we need to do more research into what our teachers value, because I think we probably do value the same thing, but I don’t know that everyone knows that. This is an interesting path to take – especially because it doesn’t have anything to do with technology specifically, more with our philosophy of education. I’m actually thinking this is quite a valuable experience for any school to do at the beginning of a school year in general…

    I also appreciate the importance of having teachers who have “done that” be the leaders. Promoting and supporting those teachers to enable them to make connections with others is definitely going to be my key focus for the rest of this year. We need to model sharing and positive change within the school before we can expect anyone else to take these new ideas on board.

    @Scott,

    I’m wondering if smaller schools are better suited to this change…. Smaller organizations seem to be more flexible and adaptable in general. I’m not sure how this would fit into the US public school system, but certainly for international schools, I’m thinking the smaller the better.

    @CaryHarrod,

    Thank you so much for your kind comments. I would be happy to chat about your PD process – it definitely sounds like you’re on the right track. And if the team you’re working with is totally on board about re-writing the unit, then you’re in a great position to develop a great process for curriculum development. I’d love to hear more about what you’re planning and how you’re thinking of going about it!

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