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Systems Change

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By John Swanson, Deputy Director at Technology and Innovation in Education (TIE) and Director of the Midwest Alliance for Professional Learning and Leadership (MAPLE, the Learning First Alliance South Dakota state affiliate)

Systems change has been the focus of our professional development outreach in South Dakota over the past several years. We've invited the perspectives of education leaders from across the country whose messages encouraged us to better understand ideas like teacher leadership, research based teaching strategies, and student responsibility and employ them to improve our schools. Last year we heard from Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine and the first black student to graduate from Central High School in 1958, who chronicled the daily challenges desegregation provided him, his fellow black classmates, and their families. His message helped us understand the sacrifices that often need to be made in order to effect significant change. Ernest's journey reminds us as well that sometimes systemic change must be court ordered.

Success in responding to educational challenges varies widely, and still today many schools maintain very traditional structures and practices which support a factory approach to schooling. It seems as if schools keep doing business in the same basic way, just with new research and tools. Same road. Different car.

Lately I've been learning about some new roads. Technology is blazing new trails in connecting teachers and teaching to learners and learning. Ideas found within Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning by Charles Schwahn and Bea McGarvey and Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World by Tom Vander Ark offer a foundation from which to build digital pathways for individual students to engage with content and teachers of all kinds. Ongoing research about adaptive software and search recommendation engines continues to uncover ways to tailor learning to individual interests and academic skill levels.

Customizing and personalizing learning via technology appears as both an opportunity and a dilemma for many educators. Technology is making truly individualized instruction more feasible than ever. Even more exciting is the ease with which students can help design their own pathways to learning by accessing powerful curriculum content with just a few keystrokes. They can learn most anything from experts across the globe at most any time of day. The dilemma for many educators involves changing the roles and rules to accommodate these new roads to learning. How can we make room in our schools for the education students can access without them? What systemic changes need to be made to support a customized K-12 experience for each student?

Dialogue around these kinds of questions is creating great opportunities for professional growth and collaborative action within MAPLE. Significant systems change toward customized learning requires pioneers, many of whom are already creating effective blended learning environments. Widespread change to the traditional system of education, however, requires a more coordinated approach from all stakeholders. Alliances similar to MAPLE can serve as great vehicles for fostering the unity and cooperation necessary for changing the current system.

To meet the systems change needs of our state's educators, plans are coming together for the 2012 Systems Change Conference, to be held on October 10 - 12 along the Missouri River in central South Dakota. The conference will focus on the Common Core State Standards as attendees explore the leadership and increased cognitive demand necessary to meet them. These common expectations also offer clarity about what students are to learn in a way that allows for uncommon and customized pathways for student learning. I'm looking forward to the creative dialogue at the conference around this kind of educational cartography. It will be a great conference and I hope you can join us. To get there, take the road less traveled.

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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