Schools in a Passion Economy
Thanks to Virginia superintendent and fellow blogger Pam Moran, I ran across this thoughtful post regarding 21st century economics and just how different it is from the 20th century. I have reflected on this topic in earlier posts referencing Alvin Toffler and his theories outlined in The Third Wave. This recent post from Digital Tonto raises several challenging questions for leaders in education…
Tim O’Reilly, long a fixture in Silicon Valley, likes to talk about perpetual beta. The idea is that products should be constantly updated. As an example, Google’s Gmail was in “beta” until 2009, five years after it was launched. In other words, it had already become the most popular service on the planet and still wasn’t considered finished!
Have we embraced functioning in "perpetual beta" in the classrooms of America? It seems embracing this paradigm would require more teacher time spent analyzing the quality of instruction and working collaboratively to update and improve pedagogy, content, and connections with individual students. While we may want our teachers to do this, are we creating enough time for this kind of work in the assembly line framework of current job assignments? Just when is this kind of collaborative reflection supposed to happen?
In the information age, the only knowledge that is truly hard to come by is tacit knowledge. That comes with direct experience and is acquired more frequently by employees than managers. Therefore, senior executives often need to be comfortable being the dumbest guy in the room, not the smartest… Being smart requires refinement. Having the courage to be dumb takes passion.
Do we have the passion and the structures in place necessary to tap the tacit knowledge of our educators? In other words, are we comfortable being the dumbest guy in the room? The reality of serving as an education leader is much like conducting an orchestra… the conductor doesn't make a sound. What matters is how the musicians are playing their instruments and in education, what matters is the quality of the magic – the learning - created by each individual teacher. Pretty forms, glitzy power points, and rousing speeches matter not at the end of the year when students have not learned what they should have. Only through planned collaboration within a structure that pushes that wisdom up towards district policies and practices can we indeed tap the incredible wisdom that lies within our own ranks.
As I wrote before, great progress is made not by discovering new facts, but by reordering existing ones. The iPhone wasn’t a triumph of technology, but of usability and design… Work in the industrial age was largely made up of repeating the same tasks over and over again and managers strived to enforce standard procedures and ensure efficiency. The new economy is much more focused on how ideas interact. Value is created when people are inspired to do things differently (repetitive tasks are increasingly done by robots).
How much energy are we wasting trying to discover new magical methods for teaching and learning? This dynamic has played out all too often in public education as "new silver bullet" after staff development idea has passed through the rank and file resulting in resistance to change and apathy for growing collaboratively as a true learning community. Indeed there have been significant changes in our culture over the past 25 years, however at the end of the day, great teachers have and always will be great teachers. The core principles of differentiating instruction, working as a learning community, and pursuing Greatness have been around since the one-room school house. Science and technology have certainly advanced our ability to execute on the principles of great teaching, but truly great teachers are leading that charge. Greatness in education is not about discovering a new theory or concept – it's about looking at the current research and applying it with fidelity in every school and classroom. That's it. No bells and whistles.
I don’t mean to imply that nobody was passionate about their work before, or that efficiency has become completely irrelevant. However, a difference in degree eventually becomes a difference in kind. The basic elements for what makes a company successful today have changed considerably.
Creating and disseminating ideas through bits, constantly and continually improving products and getting people with diverse skills to work effectively toward a common goal requires inspiring and focusing passion more than anything else. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that new principles are emerging for how businesses need to be run.
Finally, are we investing appropriate resources on getting the passions of educators and our greater communities focused on the common goal of making sure every student is post-secondary ready? The question is no longer about how to efficiently move students in groups of 30 down the assembly line of teachers waiting to spew their wisdom. It is now about how to channel the talents and skill sets of every individual on the "education team" to best help each individual student achieve his/her goals. Repetitive, unaligned 49 minute classes are most certainly not the best option for accomplishing this… So then what? How should school look?
If starting with a blank canvas, how would school look if it reflected a clear focus on ensuring every student reached his/her goals by tapping the diverse talents and skill sets in our schools and communities??