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System Transformation, Whole Child Focus, and Community Design

by Julie Wilson

The education system needs transformation, not reform. Too many 20th century practices remain in our school system. If we were to build a 21st century education system from scratch, we would establish immersive learning environments calibrated to each child's individual learning needs, we would leverage technology, we would recognize and develop multiple intelligences. We would help children learn, not just facts and figures, but also the importance of context, decision making, critical thinking, physical and emotional well-being, and what it means to be a global citizen in our hyper connected world. None of these ideas are new. Many of my fellow series contributors have noted, more articulately than I, the possibilities of a 21st century education with a whole child focus.

Regardless of the specifics of your 21st century education vision, the question remains, "How do we make it happen in practice?" How can we transform a creaking, resilient, century old bureaucracy from the inside out? I outline my proposal to you below:

1. A committed superintendent who 'gets it'. Change of this magnitude takes a committed leader, one who has a clear and compelling vision to transform her district to a 21st century learning environment and who is committed to the medium and long term work to make it happen. A leader who holds a bold vision with a whole child focus, and who is prepared to do the heavy lifting of systems change and transformation.

2. A 'dream team' support network. No man or woman can do this alone. Transforming a creaking bureaucracy from the inside out is a herculean task. A superintendent committed to transforming his district faces the task of keeping an obsolete system running while building a new system in parallel. He needs help! Imagine the existence of a funded-partner organization, working with the superintendent as both a hands-on resource and provider of subject matter expertise. Through this organization, the superintendent has access to a 'dream team' support network comprising project managers, labor relation specialists, child health experts, cognitive development experts and community organizers.

3. Community design and implementation. The community takes an active role in designing and implementing the new system. Principals, teachers, students, parents, and members of the local community are all invited to participate. This is not a "We'd like your opinion and then go off and do our own thing" kind of exercise, but rather establishing a vision for what the community wants to build and taking an active and participative role in making it happen. Too often large scale change projects are cooked up behind closed doors with little or no input from the people who have the most informed and nuanced perspective on how to make it work in practice. Engaging the community takes longer (much longer) during the design phase, but results in an accelerated, and much more successful, implementation.

There is no silver bullet for this work. Transformation requires a leader with a vision, a hands-on support network and the active engagement of, and with, the community. I believe these three elements provide a practical and flexible approach to education transformation, from the inside out, district by district. What do you think?


Julie M. Wilson is an organization development consultant at Harvard University and the Founder of The Institute for the Future of Learning. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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