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We Might Be Giants

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It's becoming increasingly clear that the demands of the 21st Century are creating a need for schools to become learning organizations that focus on developing human capital and creativity in their teachers by preparing them to make dramatic changes in the educational landscape.

In his book "The Fifth Discipline," Peter Senge describes a learning organization as a place "where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together."

As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Unfortunately, most schools simply aren't there.

In my mind, there are two major reasons why schools have failed to develop as true learning organizations—competition and isolation. Roland Barth dared to discuss these "elephants in the room" in a 2006 article for Educational Leadership. His conclusion: "Relationships among educators within a school range from vigorously healthy to dangerously competitive. Strengthen those relationships, and you improve professional practice."

One way to strengthen relationships is through meaningful collaboration around a common task or shared vision. But school culture is such that it often underutilizes and underestimates the wisdom of teachers in terms of school improvement and school reform. Rather than create professional development experiences that tap what teachers know and help them to develop their professional voice, teachers are often removed from the decisionmaking process that directly affects classroom practice and professional growth opportunities.

Fortunately, teachers are beginning to resist the forces that encourage isolation and unproductive schoolhouse competition. Through virtual networks, teachers are increasingly drawing on external communities that promote divergent thinking. Some of these virtual networks develop into powerful learning communities that connect the ideas of educators from around the world as they explore together and push traditional education boundaries.

Relationships Are Key to Change

I personally belong to several of these external virtual learning communities and value the relationships I have cultivated there. For example, within the social messaging service Twitter there is a great deal for educators to learn from each other. Often, someone will throw out a request, only to have it met within minutes by several different members of the community. Through Twitter we laugh together and sometimes offer words of encouragement—all part of the trust building that occurs in a community of practice.

I am also a part of several Ning communities, Tapped In professional development communities, Flickr photo groups, Web-based discussion groups like the Teacher Leaders Network, and the edu-blogosphere. All have their own flavor of community and each helps me to grow in my knowledge and further refine my online voice.

Something Seems to Be Missing

What is so often lacking, though, is the link from these external communities to the professional learning communities in schools. Teachers need to experience the same kind of collegiality within their school-based professional learning communities that many are now finding out on the Web. And I would propose that one of the most powerful ways for teachers to create more in-house collegiality is by actually forming Web-based professional communities right in their own backyard. Virtual learning communities can connect colleagues under the same roof just as easily as they bring educators together from around the world.

Professional development providers in a school or district (or teachers themselves) should consider using the Web's networking tools as a way to promote the creation of any-time, any-place professional learning organizations. Teams of teachers within a school could collaborate and learn together with other diverse thinking educators from around the world.

This 21st Century version of the PLC would live up to the far-sighted advice from the 1970s: "Think globally, act locally." Such a PLC would allow for job-embedded professional development that was shaped by a global perspective. In this setting, teachers could develop the perspectives of change agents and the knowledgeable voices of frontline education reformers.

Change vs. Control

This is, of course, very scary stuff for traditional education, still steeped in the formal structures of the past. If teachers come to know a lot about the educational changes taking place in the world, and they learn how to be effective in evoking change, then that creates problems. Teachers start asking questions. Things get messy. In the words of teacher-leadership experts Gayle Moller and Marilyn Katzenmeyer, we "awaken the sleeping giant" and change is no longer incremental and controllable.

I used to say, "Change takes time." I don't say that anymore. Look around you. Change is happening at exponential rates. The challenge for educators is to adapt to the rapid pace of change—indeed, to become leaders of change—before we as an institution find ourselves irrelevant in the lives of the students we seek to help.

We have to awaken ourselves, and the Web is just the tool we need to do it.

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