Monday, January 16, 2012

2 by 4: Why We Need Administrators to Embrace Connected, Transparent Learning

In this first of our new series of “2 by 4s” we share our views on a question or concern that is uppermost in our minds.  We are not unaware that our metaphor has the connotation of hitting someone over the head.  While we do not want to whack at our readers with our hard-hitting statements, we do hope that the directness of our dialogue can express the urgency of our concerns.  At the same time, the two-by-four provides the basic underpinnings for building new structures.  We hope that our dialogue here can do the same.

At the moment, we are thinking about the vital role administrators play in directing the changes that must be addressed in education. More and more, we have witnessed the critical need for Administrators to dive in and immerse themselves in the ways learning is now being experienced by our students.  Yet, these leaders because of their busy schedules and the multitudinous pressures of directing a school, administrators often are the last to join the conversation about the future of learning, the last to receive the professional development hoisted upon their faculties with varying degrees of success, and the last to step into their charges’ shoes (faculty and students alike) and to feel the earth shifting under their feet. So we ask ourselves, “Why is it absolutely critical for administrators to experience the shifts in learning and education?”

(See Shabbi Luthra’s “2011-2020 -- Trends and Forces of Change” for current thinking on cultural shifts.)

1. On Immersion in New Ways of Learning

Susan: So many of us in education are here because we were first successful as students in the 20th-century version of school.  Experiencing the shift, say, of taking a good online course can alter one’s entire perspective of what school is and can be?  

I was always the alpha student in class, yet when I took my first online course I felt my relationships with the teacher and fellow students knocked sideways -- as if the “classroom” had been turned upside-down and shaken like a snow globe.   No longer could I wave my hand and perform for the teacher’s praise.  I had to think more, share more, interact with my peers more.  With the right kind of guidance and structured learning provided by the teacher, I felt as if we were powerful forces building something together. My orientation toward learning has been different ever since: As a connected learner, I am more reflective, more knowledgeable, and more excited about learning in collaboration with others.

At good schools around the world teachers at all levels are at least exposed to professional development in 21st-century learning skills and environments. Yet I have met too few administrators who know this experience first-hand and who can thus can translate it into a deeper understanding of the changes happening in and around their schools.  We are neglecting their learning at a time when they so urgently need to communicate the power of learning in new ways to their various constituencies.

Renee: Until administrators experience the power of this shift in education, to experience first hand how it engages students, I’m afraid they will continue to permit shallow attempts to “integrate” technology into curriculum. I’d love to see an administrator participate in a class where the students are 100% engaged in solving a problem, answering a question, or designing a solution. Not just dropping by to see where all the noise is coming from, but by actually sitting down and learning with the kids, by asking them why what they’re doing matters so much.  Unfortunately, I think finding time for that amount of commitment is almost unheard of in an administrator's day.  

2. On Appreciation for the Learning Curve

Renee: Not only do administrators need to feel the power of of learning differently, but they also need to appreciate the time it takes to develop proficiency with tools used for connecting, creating and collaborating, and sharing and reflecting. Too often we assume that learning to use the technology is the easy part, but for many teachers, that too simply is not intuitive. It also takes time to move past the myths associated with particular tools. Twitter and Facebook, for example, two tools that I am absolutely committed to for my own PD, are powerful tools for connecting, sharing, and learning from others, but both have a reputation as being frivolous time-wasters. I want an administrator to follow me on Twitter; better still, I want to follow her, and I want her to ask questions and share answers...out loud.

Susan: It takes time to be a learner, to build competency and to achieve mastery.  Yes, we need to honor that by building in the time in the time we need to experience learning in every corner of our schools.  We also need to nurture a culture of sharing and of transparency.  School leaders need to model for us that taking time to learn in new ways is important.  They can do this by making time for it themselves and by designing the school environment to encourage the sharing, collaboration, and learning that perpetuates itself continually.  This kind of learning also is what we need in order to renew our psyches, as much as we need a spirited walk on the school grounds, in the often energy-depleting environments of schools.  We pay lip service to being life-long learners, but when do school leaders really take the actions needed to promote this kind of deeper and broader learning in their schools?

After reading Dan Pink’s Drive, we set aside a “FedEx Day” for our teachers during the usual beginning-of-school meetings to allow them to re-discover their own creativity and share their experiences in a learning community.  And despite the unwanted encroachment of other school meetings (the Safety Committee, etc.) into our the time set aside for pursuing creative learning on our own, this was one of the most enriching PD experiences I’ve had at a school.  Other teachers, who usually grumbled mightily about these gatherings, spoke glowingly of the experience as well.  Yet, we never returned to this model again.  How sad....

3. On Modeling for Others

Susan: I am sure that all administrators are aware that as the preeminent leaders of their schools, they models for their teachers and students everything from professional behavior and ethical decision-making to good table manners.  Why do they not see themselves as models for learning as well? Why do they not embrace learning transparently, connecting with other educators, sharing discoveries and concerns, and engaging in respectful dialogue? Surely, we need to watch them stretch and grow in this way.

Renee: Can you say, “double standard?” Administrators have to model their own learning for faculty, parents, boards, students.  They’ll have a lot more credibility when asking faculty to make the same investment.  Parents will see that it’s part of the school’s culture.  Students especially will see that the adults around them are learning too, which is a powerful statement.  

4. On Strategizing for the Future

Susan: More than anything else, we need our school leaders to embrace learning in these transformational ways so that they can then lead us where we need to go, so that they can envision more concretely how our schools can thrive in the future.  If school leaders do not become 21st-century learners who can strategize and plan for the future, how can the rest of us ever get there?

Your silence is speaking volumes! Your distractions by other issues that demand your constant attention is sending a message.  We need your leadership, and we need it now!

Renee:  I say to administrators, don’t let fear of not being an expert, of not fully understanding where it’s all heading, of not having all the answers, stop you from moving forward.  Be the chief questioner, let your faculty know that asking questions and looking for the answers is accepted, even valued.  Let teachers know that this exploration is important by building time into already tight schedules.  So often we tackle these big issues with “plunk” PD (an apt term coined in a recent blog by Alex Inman) or a shared article, but we don’t build in the necessary time to think, reflect, and practice. First, acknowledge that this shift in education is important; second, prove it to faculty by scheduling it into the the school routine; third, ask questions that will coax your teachers into new ways of thinking; fourth, acknowledge and reward those teachers who rise to the challenge and test new strategies in their classrooms; fifth, repeat.