School & District Management Opinion

Provocative Questions for Leaders of Change

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 09, 2016 5 min read
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We have long written about our shared belief that schools are built upon a foundation designed to support an educational system whose century has past. Our own research during the writing of The STEM Shift reinforced our belief. Schools are spinning as they push and pull with new ideas, demands, and methods but they are not making forward motion that is future inspired. The structure of schools, the organization of the school day, the manner in which students are taught and assessed, the attention to ongoing professional development, and the supervision of teaching and leading remain similar even after all our tinkering.

Good News
Here is the good news we discovered. Some schools have made huge strides away from their traditional roots. In those courageous and innovative schools, they learned that what had held them back was their own mindset and that of the school community. It was a paradoxical challenge for the leader to hold the vison constant and to let it emerge simultaneously. We watched those schools we studied with interest as they moved forward, as they work toward a total renovation of thought and practice. Why do we use the word renovation? Because like buying an old house or doing a room in our home, they did not abandon the system but they took it to its bones and began anew.

More seeds of change appeared in our inboxes as we received a notice of a new book, Personalizing 21st Century Education. What first caught our attention was the position of one of the reviewers. Dr. Valerie Truesdale of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is their Chief Technology, Personalization and Engagement Officer. It is a position that may be unique to that system. They had created a position highlighting two important aspects of their philosophy of learning in this century. One is technology, an essential 21st century tool. The other was personalization and engagement. Even without knowing the relationship of her job to the other central office leaders in the system, the title peaks curiosity. In her review, Dr. Truesdale writes:

Equitable opportunities to learn can be realized if we have the courage to dramatically reimagine teaching, assessment, and accountability. This book is a call to action for the dramatic paradigm shift we need in order to serve all learners well.

Provocative Questions
The authors of the book, Dan Domenech, Morton Sherman, and John L. Brown ask,"Could we reconstruct a system that focuses on teaching one student at a time? How would we do it?” They go on to ask several others:

  • How much of the system of today would remain?
  • Would the new system achieve the goal of closing the achievement gap?
  • Would it resolve the fiscal gap within educational funding laws?
  • Would it render remediation services, summer school, after-school programs, and the practice of not promoting children to the next grade obsolete?
  • Would we need classrooms or school buildings or do we move teaching and learning spaces into the community?
  • Would students still be expected to graduate after thirteen years of schooling or does it become by 21 years of age and/or up to 15 years of schooling?
  • Would we free ourselves and students from assessing all students at the same time with the same tests?
  • Would we replace report cards and grades with portfolios and conversations? (p. 5)

These questions are provocative. They represent deeply held beliefs, processes and fears that invisibly constrain educators’ innovation. They support compliance instead. These questions also take the reader to the edge. One could read them and immediately put them down because of a belief that touching funding, the thirteen year model, assessment, report cards and grades are all out of our hands. They may be, now. But missing from the vista is the collective voice of educators as they explore what is known and what is imaginable.

Cracking the Walls
Educators are skilled at working within the system that exists. But in doing so, for the most part, they are called to work within the mental and physical walls that exist. Little time is spent on looking for answers that would crack those mental and physical walls and allow them to fall away. Experts argue we are failing to produce enough graduates that are eager and prepared to enter STEM fields. We are doing little to help students to become change experts, with the ability to handle and even lead change. We are, however, continuing to teach students a series of subjects that were determined a century ago to be the best preamble to their futures as adults.

Entry Points
There are many entry points into the change process. For example, it is a local decision as to whether to consider reimagining STEM as an all inclusive, multi-disciplinary, partner driven change process (Myers & Berkowicz) or whether one chooses to enter from the point of view offered of personalizing education, in which each child

...is assessed in each of the subjects to be taught and, based on the assessments, integrated lesson plans are developed that builds on what the child already knows, with instructional strategies designed for his or her ability level (Domenech et al. p.6)

The paths cross on the newly formed landscape of how teaching, learning, and assessing take place, how students are engaged and motivated, the new relationships and roles of teachers and leaders and partners, and the inclusion of the community that supports the school.

These are accomplished with leaders who turn into the future with the realization that the future is here, now. The leader makes the turn alone, as each of us must, but the leader role demands the qualities it takes to make others want to join the turn and take the journey. The leader’s capacity to develop coalitions is imperative. Each coalition builds the momentum and expands the advocate base for change.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Domenech, D., Sherman, M., Brown, J.L. (2016) Personalizing 21st Century Education: A Framework for Student Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J. (2015) The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks CA.: Corwin

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.