The movement to re-envision schools and learning has been slow. It has come as cumbersome and ill-conceived federal and state mandates were thrust upon us. Indeed, there have been pockets of freshness and innovation and courage but the system itself trudges along, allowing people like Secretary DeVos to launch grenades of redundant criticism at us.
Truth be told, change has been too slow for the students in the system and too slow for the businesses and industries that await their graduation and entry into the workplace. Meanwhile, the volume rises and the heat intensifies on the public and the political call for change. Locally, schools continue to judiciously bring technology into their schools through grants, donations, and budgets. Some will add a STEM teacher or a STEM lab over time. This happens while professional development funds remain limited. Yet, the need for it is growing.
It is not a surprise to our readers that we would step out in support of shifting schools into what we all have come to think of 21st century schools using STEM as the shifter of the foundation. So it will not be a surprise that the article in the New York Times entitled The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools caught our eye. In it we read:
In the space of just a few years, technology giants have begun remaking the very nature of schooling on a vast scale, using some of the same techniques that have made their companies linchpins of the American economy. Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental approaches to learning...The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.
So, here we are. Where governments have failed, businesses will step up. At least, these business leaders possess some understanding of learning and technology, even if it is market driven. One of the greatest obstacles educators have to overcome is the less than glamorous history of implementing changes, rallying community support, in the spirit of improving student achievement. But the pressure on schools and classrooms to implement these changes without noticeable benefits in student performance leads to a stressed system, stressed teachers, stressed leaders, and yes, even stressed parents with stressed children. Learning is remote in a system, or in a human being, that stressed.
School Leaders as Active Partners
First, we have to be honest, all of us, including the tech giants stepping into the school arena. It is a good thing that they want to help schools that have been lagging behind in their efforts to facilitate the manner in which learning takes place. We are appreciative of their good will and partnership. But it is important to be active partners, not passive ones.
We acknowledge the challenges and the limits that exist in school structures and systems. We acknowledge the difficulties of children struggling from the effects of poverty, of disability, of drugs, of social pressure and mental health issues, of gender questioning, of bullying, of absent families and adult support systems. These are not excuses for our inability to reach every child. They are simply the human facts of our workplace. Yes, coming in contact with new ways of learning can ameliorate those factors, but not without the wisdom and expertise of the educators working with them.
The businesses who are stepping up also have selfish motives. Some benefit from schools purchasing their product(s) even if offered at reduced prices. Others benefit from having participated in creating programs that produce a graduate better suited to work in their industry. Both are fair and reasonable reasons for their interest. Some are also more altruistic, truly interested in the children and in our future.
Whatever the motive of these tech leaders, schools and their leaders have to be ready to welcome them. Some will see their interest as an investment in education and in schools and teaching and learning. Others will see it as another outside investment and offer lukewarm handshakes or be cautious and resistant. What we know this. We learned from the research we completed for The STEM Shift that every business partner reported how much they learned from the children, the teachers and the leaders of the schools with which they had been working. A partnership is a two way street of benefit.
Gaining Capacity Through Business Partnerships
As they share their beliefs, for example, “Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system”, school leaders must be prepared to engage and create the pathways for common purpose. Most schools have done little by way of engineering ... or they haven’t called it that. This is not an either/or discussion rather, it is a coming together with two educated and committed forces to solve the problem: what is keeping public education from shifting from a 20th to a 21st century model of education? Preschoolers are learning with technology. Children are connected to their devices. Can’t we use that interest somehow? Adolescents are building relationships through texts and social media; can’t there be a constructive use of that for problem solving and learning? It is easier to individualize and accelerate than ever before and give and get feedback. There is great capacity waiting to be released if we join together. Ask for professional development for your teachers or internships for your high schoolers or invite a lecture on engineering principles for parents.
School leaders must be ready to sit at the table with those who want to help, not as grateful recipients of change, but as equal partners engaged in a collaborative relationship with clear objectives that are focused on student success. If any of you were raised in an Irish family, you were taught not to air your dirty linen. But, ours is being aired by those who are throwing stones. This is the time for powerful allies but it requires the open hand of a school leader, not to receive a check but to work together on behalf of children. It is time to accept real help when it comes sincerely.
Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.
Illustration part of a presentation by A. Myers & J. Berkowicz
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.