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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Schools...the New Digital Age Learning Organization?

By Bill Brennan — March 25, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Bill Brennan (@DrBillBrennan). Bill is the Lead Innovator (and Respectful Disruptor) in Farmingdale Schools, NY and an adjunct professor for Fordham University.

We are truly on an exciting journey in Farmingdale Schools. Our “Institution of Learning” is morphing into a digital age learning organization - one that is continuously learning and unlearning. Fueled by social media, collaboration, and other online/offline learning endeavors, teachers and principals have quickly become the ambassadors for technology, initiating and catalyzing conversations in their buildings. I’m inspired by how they are pushing the edges of learning and embracing new approaches in the classroom.

In fact, in an effort to celebrate much of this work and continue to build our collective learning capacity, we are hosting Long Island Connected Educators’ Conference on April 5th - an event that has attracted over 160 participants ambitious to connect, share and learn together. Events like this are truly amazing. Many describe it as empowering, liberating, life changing, and a new paradigm for professional learning. My own experiences at events like this have unleashed a boundless journey of professional learning.

Speaking of journeys, today I traveled to New Jersey with my middle school principal, Luis Pena (@principalpena) and high school principal, Glen Zakian. Under any other circumstance, embarking on a trip to New Jersey from Long Island is nothing short of dreadful as visions of bumper-to-bumper traffic float through my head. Today was different. We were headed to a place called New Milford High School. I couldn’t wait to get in the car to talk about the future of our schools and how this visit might completely recalibrate our perspectives.

When we arrived to New Milford High School, Laura Fleming (@NMHS_LMS) greeted us. Laura had returned to New Milford this past September and is literally constructing a modern day Library Media Center. Within a few minutes of us arriving students flooded the Library, a space for conversation, research, learning and inventing.

In speaking with Laura, I was inspired by how she continuously shapes her vision for this space. In describing this she said, “I spent my first few months here just talking to teachers and students about their interests.” This reminded me of a recent tweet of mine, and served as a reminder of the importance of asking teacher and students what they think.

Shortly after, Eric Sheninger, (@NMHS_Principal), greeted us in the library and took us on a tour of the building. As we walked the hallways, entered classrooms and visited the cafeteria it occurred to us that there was something unique about New Milford High School. We couldn’t quite put our finger on it.

For those of you that may know me, you know that I love to study organizations. In fact, I’ve become deeply interested in understanding how we cultivate and accelerate organizational intelligence.

The essence of my experience can be best summarized through the lens of Albrecht’s Law on Organizational Intelligence. Albrecht (2003) borrows two terms from physics - Entropy and Syntropy. He states,

In the field of thermodynamics entropy is defined as the amount of a system's energy that is unavailable for conversion to work." What we observed was the opposite of entropy. Albrecht states, "Syntropy denotes the gain made possible by the intelligent integration of resources, the coming together of people, ideas, resources, systems, and leadership in such a way as to fully capitalize on the possibilities of each."

In the midst of education reform efforts, many of us educators may feel as if we are stuck in the proverbial quicksand. As we spoke with Eric, his students and teachers, it was strikingly apparent there is a common purpose and a feeling of joy and pride of being in New Milford High School. On the ride home, we discussed a level of order, calmness, and flow that we’ve never quite observed in a school.

Where are we going and why?

Can you and your faculty answer this question in just one sentence? And is there synergy around the response? Not to minimize it, but meaningful change starts with a willingness to change and a clear picture of where we are going.

Interestingly, what emerged from our dialogue on the way home was the idea of being equipped for the journey. As much as technology is ubiquitous in New Milford, it’s not about technology. I applaud the educators of New Milford who recognize the “Holy Grail” is not a thing or a device, yet it’s is the people of the organization. Under Eric’s stewardship, there are organizational conditions to support a culture of emergent leadership and at the heart of this is a significant level of autonomy.

Allow me to share one final thought as highlighted in my National Study I lead at Fordham University on Schools Principals, Social Learning and Leading Change. I think it captures the essence of digital leadership and constructing a digital age learning organization.

Envisioning a Digital Age Learning Organization

I’m sure you have seen the pictures or video of the Tour de France. There are packs of riders all clumped together, appearing to pedal in unison. At some point, someone realized it’s much easier, and requires a lot less energy, if you follow behind a rider rather than lead the pack all the time. If you want another good example of drafting, just watch the start of a swim during a triathlon. Also known as drafting it involves the activity of swimming closely behind someone, allowing you to coast on their wake and expending less energy. I believe this is a good metaphor as it relates to being a connected educator. As I also reflect on digital leadership, I think we have to ask ourselves - Are our schools institutions of learning or learning institutions? And, what does that look like in the Digital Age?

Although the bike race or swim race will eventually end, our journey as a learning organization won’t. As we envision a digital age learning organization, we see something more akin to the peloton. Consider the following points and please add to the list.

  1. While there is leadership in the peloton, there is not just one leader;
  2. Leadership will and must constantly change throughout the peloton;
  3. There is an on-going back and forth exchange of resources, but all towards a common goal;
  4. The peloton resembles a flexible group prepared to co-create/respond with their environment;
  5. There is great trust between athletes;
  6. These groups are complex, often appearing to be in unison and maintaining homeostasis, but perhaps more close to the edges of chaos.

The time has come to reinvent schools, education and learning. I’m thrilled to be living this journey right now at Farmingdale Schools, NY with the outstanding students and educators. Thank you Eric and Laura for opening your doors and expanding our perspectives. Lets do this!


Albrecht, Karl. The Power of minds at work: Organizational intelligence in action. New York: Amacon, 2003.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.