If I see another conference entitled “21st Century Learning,” I might weep. We are, after all, one decade into this promising 21st century, yet, despite fantastic efforts from many, the education world must admit that it still struggles to match the pace and appeal of digital media outside the classroom. But school leaders play the pivotal role in changing that situation.
What does digital and social media achieve in the “real world”? It helps people share –nights out, football scores, but also learning, research, and insight into the world around us. In addition, it makes serendipity the order of the day by helping us find or bump into interesting people and insights through our laptop or cell phone.
Sharing may well be the linchpin of educational improvement. It’s the one common thread among the world’s best education systems. And since the 1960s, we have known that reflection on practice and friendly critique in a supportive public arena are the main factors in improving learning.
Yet few teachers share knowledge on a regular basis. The education leader’s core job in the 21st century should be to enable in every way possible the sharing of knowledge and techniques among teachers and learners.
For example, Don Ledingham, the Director of East Lothian Council’s education services in Scotland, has had a blog for several years, progressively moving away from “here’s what I did today” to asking hard questions about his job, the way he and his colleagues operate, and where education should go next.
Don Ledingham is not alone. In his district, in one year, a steady band of about 20 people sharing their thoughts on the web grew to over 350 and now attracts up to three million unique visitors in a busy month, peering into school life throughout the region. Classroom practice has improved rapidly and is regularly praised in inspector reports.
So how did such profound change in attitudes, from “getting on with it in the classroom” to “sharing what we do at every turn,” happen in such a short time with what appears such a narrow technological toolkit, the humble blog? The answer—it’s got less to do with the educational technology and more to do with attitudinal change from the top.
1. Find Your Vision: Make It Easy to Connect
The first step in any change process is identifying what needs to be changed. But when it comes to incorporating social media into learning, many vision statements are too vague—statements such as “we need to collaborate more,” “we need to share more,” all leave the question “why?” unanswered. In addition, most are unmemorable and overly wordy, looking toward a better world but, disastrously, without any clear indication of how to get there.
A quick scan of some school mission statements (and there are tens of thousands of web pages devoted to them) reveals two problems. First, words are often wasted on goals one might assume every school is already doing. Which school doesn’t try to develop the whole child or foster a caring environment? Second, practical strategies for teachers are generally lacking. What do excellence and creative minds look like in practice and what types of learning activities are more creative than others?
Vision statements must be succinct, memorable, and actionable by everyone. And people must be able to pass on the vision to others. The English chef Jamie Oliver, in his appeal to wean us off fast food, has spearheaded this “pass it on” philosophy—he offers a great example of vision combined with achievable action, the two ingredients leaders need to make things happen.
“Teaching kids how to make ten healthy tasty meals would eliminate America’s $150bn extra cost for food-related illness. Take this idea and tell three people. If we all did this 25 times over, then the whole population of the US would know about it.”
In 2006, I was asked to help improve learning in Don Ledingham’s school district, East Lothian. We quickly concluded that the best education systems in the world pivoted around the quality of the classroom teacher—not the class size and not the amount of technology. So we needed a way for our teachers to share what worked and what didn’t. We had a goal, and we had to translate it into a vision.
We decided that the humble blog would be the easiest way for teachers to share words, pictures, and videos across 45 schools and 1,500 education staff. We also hoped that once this process had begun our teachers would at some point tap into the millions of teachers sharing ideas globally.
Along with teacher-turned-blog-developer, David Gilmour, we set about making a “product” that we could “sell” in a one-liner to anyone in the district—from the geeky early adopter to the technophobe laggard. “You should blog” and “you should share” were not compelling. So we discovered an available web address that was short, memorable, descriptive, and easy to share through word of mouth or word of mouse. eduBuzz was born.
The eduBuzz tag line was “talk, share, buzz” – we wanted people to discuss the challenges of being a teacher, share their resources and lesson ideas, and generate enthusiasm about their projects.
We also determined that we were not about getting learners to share their learning. We viewed teachers as the gatekeepers who would decide if students would do this later, so our “product” was for teachers, not learners, at least initially.
The biggest hit of the system was that it gave parents a window into what their children had been learning during the day and a way to begin fresh conversations with the school—a happy byproduct of the teacher-based product.
Sometimes educators may want to bypass teachers with a vision that appeals directly to young people. Education projects by the British broadcaster Channel 4, such as Year Dot (careers and ambition), Smokescreen (identity), and Battlefront (politics and campaigns), bypass schools and aim at getting the attention of teens in order to achieve their learning goals.
2. Avoid the Pilot Project
As Don Ledingham would say, “I’ve never seen a pilot project fail”. That’s because pilots are small-scale and short-term. They come with budgets, staffing, and time, and they are written up as the successes they ought to be. Then they usually do not get buy-in from those who do not have the same budgets, staffing, and time. They are good for proving points before making large commitments, but they lose their point when projects have no costs at all, as with social media.
Pilot projects give permission to fail, which releases people to try things that wouldn’t normally get past the user group or senior management. However, when the culture already accepts that failure is healthy, pilot projects lose their point once again. That acceptance of failure stems from system leaders such as you.
3. Open Source Your Management: Find Your Tribe
In the East Lothian district, we then found 20 people who were enthusiastic about being part of the product and who represented different sectors of the education world. Starting with the enthusiasm criterion, we quickly built a group of elementary and high school teachers, head teachers/principals, librarians, visiting student teachers, probationary teachers, the Director of Education, the IT policy division, and parents.
We made our board meetings open, not closed-door affairs, to reflect a policy of invitation. We knew that when teachers share their work and reflect with each other they become better teachers, but we also knew that forcing teachers to reflect does not make them better teachers.
4. Give Something for Nothing
People are much more likely to participate if they can clearly see how it will benefit them, especially teachers and parents who are stretched for time. One challenge with social media for sharing is the time it takes to start regular, interesting writing about classroom experiences or action research, gain an audience, gain some mutual contacts, and then learn from each other. It can take two months to two years before individuals find their voice and their audience.
This is why social media may be seen as difficult– it’s not the clicks, it’s often the deep level of reflection and time required to write a blog post or record an audio podcast on a worthwhile topic. Then there’s the longer-term challenge of building up a tribe with whom you can learn. All this at the end of a week’s hard work in school can make for a significant barrier.
There is no magic wand—teachers need time to reflect. As a leader, you can find ways to create time, and the benefit generally comes back in spades later on.
The open board and access to the Director of Education were our initial incentives. We also offered extra training in emerging technologies to our open board, with a view that they would become our outreach and “pass it on” to others.
5. Create a Community of Practice: Provide Adequate Support
The initial 20 board members are also the trainers, and offering them the opportunity to learn new skills—in return for passing them on—is a great way to engage an enthusiastic and energetic initial team and turn the vision into action.
It’s important that no one plays the role of evangelist—a word associated with all talk and no action. Everyone must be engaged in activities that make things happen. They must share their own work and train others to do the same. Ideally, no training session should last longer than 20 minutes. That’s about the length of time a teacher might have at the end of the day or in a lunch break to take on one task—signup, uploading a photo, or discovering one new education blog whose author is going through similar professional challenges.
These training sessions, however small, also provide the first material that teachers share on their blog or audio/video podcast. They help others learn new skills and find something to fill that first blank page.
6. From Global to Local
As a teacher, I prided myself on the 22 international school links I organized and managed through my mgsOnline platform of blogs, podcasts, wikis and websites (Musselburgh Grammar School online: e.g.: http://mgsonline.blogs.com/, main site now superceded). However, I was unable to convince people that collaborating with the teacher in the classroom next door might be even more influential in driving learning to higher levels of success.
Today, local networks of collaboration, with a few glowing exceptions, are still less frequent, or at least less visible online, than those of an international variety. We need both.
Technology has helped people create international connections, but along with the decline of the whole-staff staff room in our new school buildings, we often neglect the partnerships we can make on a local level. Taking these local partnerships and connections online and, most importantly, beyond private, walled-garden school-based virtual learning environments is the only way we will eventually tap into expertise beyond our immediate locality, spread our own good practice, and hold our assumptions of quality to account.
Leaders need to nurture local networks of collaboration. As these local networks eventually open up to the wider world, everyone benefits.
7. Top-Down Support Is Vital
While people can come on board in a variety of ways, support from senior school leaders makes things work faster and better. Leaders must make time every day to share what they do and what they’re thinking. Often their staff has little idea.
Lead by example. Sharing your ideas and experiences online is the most effective way to engage people. When you demonstrate what works for you, you prove that ideas and experiences are effective in a way that cannot be refuted. This kind of leadership becomes more valuable the longer you exercise it. Never ask for permission. Always ask for forgiveness later. You will quickly bring others on board with your example.
Lead by reminding. People forget, accidentally and purposefully. Remind, remind, remind. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Remind again. Repeat again.
Avoid leading by mandate. “Thou shalt” is the least effective strategy and should be avoided. We’ve known for the past 50 years that telling people to do or not to do something because it’s good for them doesn’t work.
The innovative use of technology starts with social and cultural change that emanates from the top.
The bottom-up movement of open source technology and social media is a romantic idea. We need motivations other than extra salary or promotions to get people to start sharing their work online.
Leaders need to lead—by making that first step. Then they are far more likely to engender hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-quality professional thinking time and action.
So, what are you going to share first?