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Innovation: Sometimes It's Not About Technology

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By Cheryl Williams, Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance

During my annual trek to the ISTE conference, this year at the San Diego Convention Center, I was reminded once again that while the technological possibilities for improving public schooling keep growing exponentially and the practitioners' (who seem to get younger every year!) enthusiasm for learning about and using new technical opportunities to engage their students is exciting, the message that resonated with me around school improvement was Michael Fullan's on leadership for change at the Leadership Symposium that preceded the annual conference. Michael Fullan, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and special advisor to the minister of education in Ontario, reminded those of us lucky enough to be part of the audience that whole system reform is challenging but necessary if schools are to become more effective and students more successful. One of the assignments that Dr. Fullan shared was a contract to evaluate the education reform initiatives in the Tony Blair administration in the United Kingdom. He concluded that those reform efforts had two negative features and two positive attributes. The aspects that he recommended be discontinued were an obsession on targets and negative accountability (i.e. low student test scores; fire the teacher!). He said the two positive findings on the initiative were the laser-like focus of the reform efforts and the resultant capacity building with new roles for educators.

From this experience in the UK and other work he and his colleagues have done with educators globally, he shared the following characteristics of "the skinny of change"...the complex "how" of whole system reform: 

    • Relentless, focused leadership 
    • A small number of ambitious goals 
    • A positive stance with relation to the sector (i.e. educators are smart professionals working in a worthy institution) 
    • A core strategy of capacity building 
    • Use of evidence/data in decision-making 
    • A non-punitive approach to accountability 
    • Transparency of data 
    • Learning from implementation with lateral and vertical dissemination

Fullan stated that it's important to empower a critical mass using what he called motion leadership — leadership that causes movement. The gold standard of leadership is to motivate the unmotivated, and later they will thank you. The push/pull of motion leadership changes behaviors in those being led which ultimately leads to changes in belief that increases ownership and commitment. Behaviors change before beliefs, but belief brings commitment and identity. The crux of whole system reform is creating a sense of collaborative competition with cooperative processes that accelerate the improvement cycle.

And, of course, technology can have an important enabling role in whole system reform, but ultimately, it's the educators who embrace new learning themselves in a system that respects their abilities and increases their capacity to ensure student success that will result in improved school effectiveness that we're all working toward.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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