Leadership Day 2010: Consistency, Vision, and Bravery

So here we are, the 4th year of Dr. McLeod’s Leadership Day.  As I considered this post and it’s eventual topic, I frequently came back to the image at right that Scott shared for us to include in our posts.  The implication I kept coming to was that “Change is slow, let’s speed it up.”  Thinking about a number of discussions I’ve had about Educational Leadership over the past few months, I’ve modified my interpretation of the image, and that led me to the three things I want to highlight for leaders who may be reading this post.  I believe the operative interpretation of the image is “Real change is slow, let’s kick it up a notch.”

Last year, my Leadership Day post highlighted 8 pieces of advice I had for school leaders and administrators.  Many of those focused on the relationship between leadership and technology.  This year, I want to focus on three values that I think are important for 21st Century School Leaders throughout history and moving forward.  These values do not simply revolve around technological progress in the current educational market, they are centered around taking a stand for real education reform in the coming years.  My apologies if this post isn’t “technological” enough.  Cutting to the chase:

Consistency

There is unbelievable pressure for change in the educational world.  In this day and age of standards, testing, and accountability every school year ends with someone somewhere saying “OK, so what will you do to make things better next year?”  It’s not hard to imagine the question being asked on all levels of the educational spectrum.  Teachers talking to students. Principals to teachers.  Superintendents to Principals.  School Board members to Superintendents.  State level educational departments to Superintendents.  Federal level Department of Education to state level departments.  Change is not only encouraged, it’s expected.  Unfortunately, that often leads to inconsistency.  Policies and programs that are implemented one year, are discarded for different approaches the next year.  Things that worked and were effective become part of the status quo, so they must go.  One of the problems I see being generated by our current educational climate is “change for the sake of change.”

As an educational leader, it is important to maintain a level of consistency with your staff.  If there is pressure from above to “change” consider how that change can happen within your current structure.  There is no need to scrap programs that are working in an effort to incorporate the latest buzzwords.  Nor is there reason to rename current programs to make them seem to fit the latest round of mandates.  The same goes for suddenly focusing on a certain program/technological advancement/practice in order to vault yourself above a neighboring school or district.  We need leaders in education who will not bend under the wind of “and now what?”  We need leaders who will be consistent without being bull-nosed in the face of failure.  We need leaders who can distinguish between what works, and what sounds good on paper.

Vision

The only way for our leaders to have that consistency in the current climate of “change” is for them to have a clear vision for the direction of their school and the educational community as a whole. That vision must be informed by the nature of today’s world.  Our students must be successful beyond the skill and drill, recall oriented tests they are subjected to year in and year out.  Our educational leaders do not need to have their Vision tainted by the desire to outdo their colleagues.  When schools are compared to one another based on test scores and educational leaders begin to jockey for position ahead of one another in the eyes of the public, their motives become disingenuous and their integrity questionable.  Yes, competition is important.  Competition breeds ingenuity.  Competition forces the bar to be raised.  Our leaders need to tie those aspects of competition into their SHARED vision for the future of education.  Too often, our Vision within schools is clouded by the short-term, limited to our narrow band of experiences, and not discussed with others in the profession.  We need school leaders who will share their Vision, allow it to be shaped by those they work with, and the changing world in which we live.  We need school leaders whose Vision is not clouded by the mandates placed on them from all around.  Work within those mandates to see your vision through, or work to change those mandates to something that actually makes sense.

Bravery

The first two values can only come about when our educational leaders are able to stand up for what they believe, in the face of pressure and adversity from above, around, and below.  Parents are comfortable with the model of schools they attended growing up.  Shifting that will bring pressure from one direction.  Being consistent with policies and programs that work, while discarding those that are ineffective may be unpopular with your colleagues and superiors.  It is far more difficult to explain at the end of the year why you stuck beside a program that had moderate success than to dream up an explanation for why the next new program will be the biggest success story your district has ever seen.  It takes a brave person to come in with a vision for changes and to consistently maintain a path toward that future.  Educational leaders however have never been a group to sit and cower in the corner.  Constantly bombarded from all directions by those who “know how things should be done” our educational leaders have always been under pressure.  We need educational leaders who can withstand that pressure, and at the end of the day justify why they are not spending unnecessary money on technology that looks good but won’t impact learning.  Or why they are still allow experiential learning environments for middle school students, even if that means a non-academic field trip.  Or why they will not be pressured into a new program when it goes against the vision they have for their school or district.

Consistency. Vision. Bravery.  As an educational leader, can you even begin to fathom those being the three words people used to describe you and your career?  If so, please share what you are doing with as many people as possible.  If not…it’s time to kick it up a notch.

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More Thoughts on the PLN Backlash

Shawn McGirr and Troy Patterson over at the Middle School Matters podcast have posted an episode today that includes some discussion of my previous post about the PLN Backlash of 2010.  That episode can be found here.  I strongly encourage you to go and listen to the whole podcast (as these guys have wonderful thoughts and reflections on middle school, and some great discussion of sessions they attended at ISTE recently).  What follows is a slightly modified version of the comment I posted related to pieces of their latest episode.

I think it gets a lot of attention from the people who are involved in it because they are involved in it…Yeah it might be tiresome in the echo chamber, the people who are doing the PLNs and are really involved in it…I wonder how many outside the “techie types” are really using PLNs, know what they are, how to develop them, know which tools to use to develop one…and I think that’s part of where the conversation is and should be.

Thanks for the discussion of my post. Though I feel the PLN piece may come across as more “half baked” than “well done.” A big piece of the conversation the other night was the “officialness” of THE PLN, as if there were only one that everyone was a node within. I think your comment that everyone’s PLN is different is a huge part of the key. The other byproduct of the “official marketing of the PLN” and Twitter Lists (or TweepML lists) is this feeling that you can develop an “instant PLN”. Sort of “just add water and watch it grow.” A PLN is something that requires time and effort on the part of the learner. You can’t just follow “X” people and suddenly “get” the “power of the network.”  I think that sends the wrong message to those who are new to this venue for informal learning.

Troy and Shawn also mention Twitter being compared to a lunchroom conversation where you can tune out the noise and focus on 1 or 2 in the cafeteria, but not as easily on Twitter.  Along the lines of the lunchroom conversation…imagine only hearing 2 out of 4 people involved in that lunchroom conversation. Twitter’s reversal of their practice of posting tweet replies to individuals you don’t follow makes it harder to see/read/hear all of the conversation. I believe part of that was going on, even for me, the other night during the PLN debate.

I feel that the MSMatters guys are right on that a PLN, or an Informal Learning Network, or a NIHCTTAR (Network I Have Come to Trust and Respect) is not about a single tool. I’m connected to many in my network via Twitter, Delicious, blogs, Nings, listservs, etc. There was an interesting question that came up near the end of the discussion the other night about the difference in a community and a network. I’m still struggling to differentiate between the two, though I feel at heart there IS a difference in them. Jon Becker pointed me toward this article on Imagining Twitter as an Imagined Community that I can hopefully tackle and digest within the next few days.

Near the end of the discussion, you mention Google’s Buzz as an alternative to Twitter.  I’ve actually been exploring Plurk for the last week or so, and think it may offer a bit of the threaded discussion you’re suggesting related to Buzz. I still find Buzz overwhelming with the number of Google contacts I already have who are not part of my “PLN” (1.7.5).  I’m not sure I want my family, friends, and informal learning network all powering through to me on Buzz…time will tell.

As I mentioned in the comments of the previous post, I’m still not sure that the tools we have available are fully capable of supporting the level and depth of conversation that need to be happening. But as a place to spark conversations, there value cannot be underestimated. The more I stew on it, the more I agree with your suggestion that the problem is within the “echo chamber” created by Twitter. We see the power of the PLN, want others to understand it as well, but tire quickly of hearing that over and over again from all sides.

Thanks for pushing my thinking Shawn and Troy!

Great PLN Backlash of 2010…

*dusts off The Technorate Teacher*

Thank you @nashworld for bringing me back out of my blogging shell…it’s been too long since I had a chance to stretch my fingers a bit

A short while ago, this tweet floated through my TweetDeck stream:

And there it began…the Great PLN Backlash of 2010…You had a good run there Personal Learning Network…but now, we must inevitably march on to some other “better” form of online learning.

The strange thing is, I totally get what he’s saying. While a learning network, be it personal, professional, online, offline, real, or imagined is an infinitely powerful tool…it’s still just that. A tool.

That’s one of those things where education tends to get very cloudy. Taking A tool and trying to turn it into THE tool. During my session at Middle Level Essentials, I shared a number of slides showing the “March of Technology Tools”. No doubt there were people throughout the last 50 years of education heralding one hardware or software tool after the other as THE tool which would “revolutionize” education.

The conversation continued on with tweets from @mbteach, @mattguthrie, and @jswiatek among others chiming in about the various benefits and issues with these networks, as well as the dangers of trying to make them required or giving them too much power.  It seems to me, that almost inevitably, when we make anything in education a “required” practice there is more pushback than when someone comes to an idea out of casual conversation.  I’ve witnessed it firsthand in discussions of fair grading practices, parent communication practices, etc.  When these practices are imposed as “required” in the classroom, people lose sight of their merit.

I’m wondering if all the talk about how great it is to have a “PLN” is making it seem like required practice for many teachers.  Matt then asked how you get the folks who are always late to the game or never get there to adopt good ideas.  And there we are again, back at the idea that something is unequivocally “good” while other things are “not as good” or “bad”.

How have we wound up in this spot in education where we are constantly looking for THE silver bullet? Yes, A PLN or alternatively a NIHCTTAR (Network I Have Come to Trust and Respect) is a powerful tool for some.  Attending “real” conferences with planned sessions and presenters is a powerful tool for some.  Attending unconferences with conversations about reform are a powerful tool for some.  And at the risk of having my technogeek card removed: Textbooks, tests, and lectures are a powerful tool for some.

I don’t want someone building my house with just a hammer…I don’t want a teacher with only a PLN teaching my kids…

Not sure I want my builder or teachers to lack those tools either…