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Leading Us Deeper Into 21st-Century Schools

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Scott McLeod recently wrote a poignant post in his Dangerously ! Irrelevant blog, clearly stating the challenge for schools in this century.

...while students increasingly are self-directed learners and active technology users outside of school, their learning work inside of school - particularly for independent, technology-suffused, higher-level cognitive activities - has not changed much. As the Consortium for School Networking has noted, "educational mindsets and school cultures do not yet align learning to the realities of the 21st century."

We could not agree more. McLeod's position on 21st century learning environments has been long held and communicated.  His work with Karl Fisch on the now updated "Did You Know?  Shift Happens" has been watched by teachers, leaders, parents, college professors, and boards of education around the country. It hit the mark. It captured the data that opened minds and brought people to an understanding that the world has changed and raised the question about schools needing to change too.  The world, so it seems, has morphed into one of rapid continuous change, with technology as the accelerator and science as a prominent beneficiary. But, schools have been slow to change, long surviving bastions of tradition and the familar.

Schools need to be re-designed now but across the nation bond issues to refurbish existing facilities continue. Change is demanded by the times we live in, by those who are at the edge of the new economy and, most importantly, by the children who are arriving at school. Once the world starts spinning, it is natural to hold to what has worked in the past. Public schools have served well for a century or two. They are also one of the few remaining relics of communities that used to be part of the American fabric of society and culture. But, games are no longer played on street corners or in backyards. So, some schools look for "turn-around leaders", those who will secure different, improved results in the form of student achievement numbers, others are moving on and some are holding on. On the national stage, New York's Commissioner King resigns to become Arnie Duncan's Special Assistant in January. He earned his reputation as a common core proponent and a charter school advocate. There is no hint that this national agenda will drive choices in each of our communities.

The call to change schools, like many challenges we are dealing with today, is confounded by a lack of common vocabulary. When we think of change, we think of exchanging one thing for another. A teacher changes from administering formative assessments being end of chapter quizzes to being a performance of student knowledge.  An assistant principal changes from calling students down to the office during class when they receive a referral and determining their punishment, to meeting them at the end of class in the hallway or during lunch or study hall and having a quiet conversation and offering counsel and consequence as discipline.  A principal changes from approving professional development requests randomly, to encouraging individual and groups to focus on specific areas that fit with the schools' goals for the year and is attentive to those who are not engaged in learning by encouraging their participation. All are important changes...but none penetrate the culture.

Affecting a culture is a huge undertaking. It requires:

  1. a clearly articulated and shared vision that energizes and empowers those being led. It requires the development and participation of leadership throughout the organization;
  2. the development of a readiness level, where those engaged see and understand the destination and are willing to participate in the letting go process, painful and messy as it may be, to arrive in the next phase;
  3. a leader with the social/emotional skills to engage with his or her followership in ways that continuously feed the need to be heard and understood as the newness emerges;  and
  4. the ability to bring all constituencies together to form an energizing coalition that reduces unforeseen obstacles.

In the last century, these leaders were called "transformational."

Changing Times Requires Changing Leadership Skills
Transformational leaders have become a most threatened group.  FDR, used by well-respected author James MacGregor Burns as a vivid example of a transformational leader, led in a different time. The press, that reporting source and image and opinion making force, had an unspoken agreement to maintain silence about his physical disability. Almost never did the world see this man drag himself to the podium or be lifted in or out of his car. No one wanted him to seem weak. Today, we rally as a nation behind no one. Every foe exposes any weakness or inconsistency witnessed in order to discredit anyone in public office. Technology makes that possible. It is humanly impossible to walk life's entire path with confidence and fearlessness. Leaders become cautious when one human slip can go viral.  

Another luxury FDR enjoyed was the ability to try new things, have them fail, and try something else.  From his campaign in 1932,

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another" (MacGregor Burns. p. 22).

Of course, that does require a leader who can admit to mistakes and people who will trust the next experiment because they trust the good will and wisdom of the leader.

Responding to the needs of the time FDR changed his leadership "...just as Lincoln had midway through the Civil War.  He had been both a lion and a fox, but now the lion prevailed"  (MacGregor Burns. p.23). 

Transforming schools to be responsive to the learning needs of 21st century students requires leaders' transforming their own leadership styles to meet the needs of the times. The very leadership these times demand, including the attributes of personal courage, may be summed up by the father of modern management, Peter Drucker as:

...lifting a person's vision to high sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.

These are easy words to read yet they are filled with the need for courage, open-heartedness, dedication to personal growth, the capacity to envision a new system and lead those within it to take risks as we proceed more deeply into the 21st century world. 

MacGregor Burns, James (2003). Transforming Leadership. New York:  Grove Press

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