For Educational Change — Teachers Are the Key

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

This article is in response to the challenge that prompted John Adsit‘s “What Is Needed for Educational Change“: What is the one most important factor in making change work? John highlighted leadership, and Harry Keller, in “Leaders Must Be Visionary Risk-takers to Change Our Schools,” added qualities that the leader must have.

I’d be inclined to agree with John and Harry if the campus were still the center of the academic world. But it’s not. The center has been shifting to the world’s digital infrastructure, to the internet, where classrooms, schools, and colleges are being reconstructed in virtual bits rather than cement, creating “a world of ubiquitous connectivity” (Hagel, Brown, and Davison, The 2009 Shift Index: Measuring the Forces of Long-term Change, p. 11).

And this shifting changes the entire perspective of the game from corporate to individual, from enterprise to consumer, and from centralized push to individual pull.

Hagel et al. refer to this as the “Big Shift” and describe it as “ultimately about moving from a world of push to a world of pull, from a top-down, centralized, hierarchical, zero-sum, and often bureaucratic approach to doing business to a participative, collaborative, bottom-up, flexible, and often positive sum approach that emphasizes learning over efficiency and talented people over processes and organizational ‘routines'” (“The Big Shift: Why It Matters,” Sep. 2009).

At the heart of this shift is “personal connectivity,” which Hagel et al. describe as “bleeding over into professional connectivity — institutional boundaries are becoming increasingly permeable as employees harness the tools they have adopted in their personal lives to enhance their professional productivity, often without the knowledge of, and sometimes over the opposition of, corporate authorities. Of the people that currently use social media to connect to professionals in other firms, 60 percent claimed they are participating more heavily in this activity than last year” (The 2009 Shift Index, p. 11).

The virtual campus, like the virtual world, functions “less through conventional command-and-control, make-to-stock, and ‘push’-minded approaches than through the laws of attraction and influence that characterize ‘pull’ systems. Because they enable workers and firms to mobilize resources on an as-needed basis, pull systems encourage rather than stifle the tinkering and experimentation that are a primary means of learning and talent development” (The 2009 Shift Index, p. 110).

The nature of the change process, too, changes when we build with digital bricks. According to Fullan and Miles, “There can be no blueprints for change, because rational planning models for complex social change (such as education reform) do not work. Rather, what is needed is a guided journey.” The “journey” they describe is messy and fuzzy, but recursive and open rather than linear and closed to unanticipated changes in the environment. They exhort, “Do, then plan . . . and do and plan some more.” This is a departure from the traditional and linear approach of “Plan, then do” (“Getting Reform Right: What Works and What Doesn’t,” 1992). Nearly two decades have passed since this pronouncement, but it continues to resonate today. My point is that change modeled as a diffused rather than centralized, longterm rather than short-term process favors individuals on the outer edges rather than a static central core.

When the focus of change switches to the teacher, then the role of  intrinsic motivation enters the picture. Daniel H. Pink describes three motivators: autonomy, power to decide the what, how, and why in our work; mastery, opportunity to grow and improve in our performance; and purpose, freedom to pursue goals that transcend our pesonal needs and make the world a better place (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, 2009).

The question then is, how do institutions “amp” (i.e., provide autonomy, mastery, purpose) teachers to lead the way to change? This is where leadership enters the picture — as climate setters with the goal of optimizing the change environment. From this perspective, it seems almost a chicken-or-the-egg toss-up as to which ought to take precedence, teachers or leaders? The diplomatic answer would be both, but in order of importance, I’d still place teacher first.

One Response

  1. Even though you say you disagree with me, I think we are saying the same thing.

    “The question then is, how do institutions “amp” (i.e., provide autonomy, mastery, purpose) teachers to lead the way to change? This is where leadership enters the picture — as climate setters with the goal of optimizing the change environment. From this perspective, it seems almost a chicken-or-the-egg toss-up as to which ought to take precedence, teachers or leaders? The diplomatic answer would be both, but in order of importance, I’d still place teacher first.”

    In an earlier post I described a research project in which my team visited schools succeeding beyond expectations. We interviewed the leader of the school (principal), who described his goals and how he hoped to accomplish them. He described his leadership style, which he called “leading from the middle” or “getting everyone to pull from the same side of the rope.”

    When we later interviewed teams of faculty, they described their goals–which were the same ones the principal had told us in the earlier interview. They said they were lucky, for the principal was willing to go along with them as they sought to reach those goals.

    In that school the chicken/egg issue was quite evident. What the leader did was make it all possible. The leader had a carefully-designed leadership style, using principles I identified earlier as well, that helped create an atmosphere that allowed teachers to do what you describe.

    The planning process you describe is in keeping with Margaret Wheatley’s “Leadership and the New Science.” Management in chaos allows what you describe to happen. When I first joined the instructional services team in our school district, they were openly using Wheatley’s principles, and those of us brought in from the teaching ranks to help lead reform flourished under the system. We were brimming with ideas, and we were free to carry them out. Those were the most energetic, creative, and productive years of my life–nothing else comes close.

    But then a new person was brought in at the administrative level, someone with a more traditional approach to leadership. Wheatley advocates a flat management structure, but he was as hierarchical as it gets. A couple of the other administrators, never comfortable with the freedom that we had under the Wheatley system, embraced his approach, and suddenly everything changed. In one meeting, one of the leaders said that the administrators of the unit were the “philosopher kings” who thought deeply about these topics and made decisions. We teachers were the “worker bees” who carried out those brilliant decisions. We were the same teachers as before, but I assure you all of them would agree that those were the least energetic, creative, and productive years of our lives–nothing else comes close. It was simply painful to be a part of that process.

    And so, I fully agree that teachers must lead the way as you describe, but it can only happen if skilled leadership sets up a climate in which that can happen.

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