Seth Godin last week: “When smart people who care get frustrated, something is wrong.”
I had a discussion the other day that should be a wake-up call, if not a bone-chiller, to school leaders. I have started talking to a lot of teachers and administrators about how we can leverage collaboration to more quickly embed new thinking and teaching in the classroom. This was one of those conversations. For obvious reasons I am not going to name the person or school.
“Jane” is a veteran teacher, high school department chair, iconic to most of her peers and almost all of her students. She has always been open to new ideas and has recently engaged her department in a discussion of changing some of what and how they teach. Jane absolutely realizes that the world is changing; that we need to combine traditional knowledge content with an emerging set of skills (call them 21C or NthC skills for ease) if we want to effectively prepare our students for their future. Jane wants to change what takes place in the classroom. She has always been open to innovation. She is a big thinker.
The department has started conversations, and the early results are predictable: some members of the department are eager and others are not. They don’t know what change looks like; they don’t really have a clear image of what they want or where they are going. But all of that is okay with them; they understand that change involves some fear, and that not all of them have to experiment at the same pace. Some can forge ahead and pilot new ideas; others will lag a bit behind and watch to see what happens. That is all good.
Then we started talking about specifics. Keith Evans had shard with me a capstone project they have at the Collegiate School in Richmond that, along with great content, teaches students the skill of discourse, as opposed to debate. I used this example with Jane: what if her department took on “discourse” as a new skill to embed into the curriculum? Would that be of interest? Could that provide some framing as they develop new approaches that seek to enhance skills like collaboration and communication?
Jane hit a stumbling block at that point, and this is the chiller. She loved the idea of teaching discourse, but she did not see how, or possibly even why, a single department or a small group of teachers could or should engage in this discussion. She asked: “Shouldn’t that direction come from the whole school? Is that really my role? Where is the upside for me or my small group to take on the role of “discourse” in our overall program plan?”
As we drilled down in less than five minutes, it boiled down to this: Jane’s school does not have–in fact has never had–a culture or structure for taking a simple idea like this forward without entering into an all-school discussion about it. In fact, Jane is not really sure whose responsibility it is to even start that discussion, or what the process might look like. Remember: Jane is a veteran leader at a highly respected school.
I will not go into all the reasons that this is REALLY bad for any institution. It just re-enforces what many of us are saying: that our schools have structural impediments to change at a time when change is required. Our great educators are great at what they do; they are wonderful people full of passion and dedication, but many do not have the training or natural DNA to process change dynamics. Leadership has to step in and develop the culture and mechanics of change management, and align resources with this critical need. We can teach innovation to our faculty and administrators just like we teach skills to our students. But first we have to make the commitment to do so; it is not going to happen on its own.