Thoughts About Leading for Learning…Schools on the firing line

The current political climate has placed public schools increasingly in the news and not in a good way. In the last few years we’ve seen a rise in the use of terms like “failing public/government schools”, “failure factories”, “the tenure problem”, etc. Research conducted by Jane Mayer for her book, Dark Money, seems to indicate that this has not been accidental or coincidental. Rather it seems to have been an intentional plan to “normalize” the notion that our public schools have failed. Regardless of the intent behind the use of such terms and increasing calls for more choice options for parents, it is clear that these are troubling times for our system of public education and those who have committed their professional lives to working in it.

Moving Beyond “Other-directed” responses

Responses to this increasing criticism have largely been “other-directed”. This “assault” is part of an ideological agenda being pursued by wealthy philanthropists and business people who seek either smaller government, greater opportunities for access to educational dollars, or some combination of both. Or we have been handicapped in our improvement efforts by the imposition of a 30 year commitment to a test and punish accountability solution that has been demonstrated to be both bankrupt and ineffective. Or an explanation that connects student achievement and achievement gaps to expectations for schools to resolve decades long social issue that we have been unable or unwilling to confront. I know that these are on my list of “other-directed” explanations and they all have at least one thing in common… they distract us from the issues that we can control.

Katie Martin’s recent blog, “The Evolving Role of the Teacher”, offers an important break from “other-directedness” and addresses one of the areas we can control and can change.  She looks at the dissonance between the new knowledge we have about learning and the way this is experienced in many of our classrooms and schools. She offers a couple of examples’ one, which for obvious reasons, she doesn’t choose to identify and another, for equally obvious reasons she recognizes. Take a look…

A Tale of Two Classrooms

In this first classroom, the teacher is calling on her 5th graders, one by one to identify each of state and their geographic location. I talked to one of the students who told me they were learning the states because “the teacher thought it was important to know them” and when I asked if she knew a better way to learn about the states, she pointed to the iPad face down on her desk and said, “the Internet?” As I looked around the room, each of the students had their own iPad that was face down on the desk as they were copying the states from an Atlas into her map packet.

…this lesson, or some version of this lesson, is still happening in many “21st century” classrooms with an emphasis over compliance and standardization rather than deep personal learning. This example illustrates the challenge that exists in many classrooms when we add on new resources and expectations to an old paradigm of school.

Katie goes on to describe a different kind of classroom model. In Ms. Kim’s classroom

…a group of 4th grade students are engaged in a project where they are partnering with local business to understand their challenges and design solutions to impact their local community. In this classroom, groups of students are planning a pitch they are about present to the local water board. At the same time another group is designing a website for their business. Other groups are virtually collaborating with their organization to receive feedback on their product and building prototypes. The technology in this class allows all students access to relevant resources and to connect with people to learn, create, share and solve problems…

How do such variances in classroom/teacher practice vary so much? Ms. Martin provides a clear (and in my experience) accurate summation of where we are in our schools, noting that “Most educators in our schools and district offices have gone through their own education without the access and opportunities that exist today.“

Her analysis coincides closely with that offered by Dr. Phillip Schlechty in his book, Leading for Learning: How to Transform Schools into Learning Organization, published in 2011. Take a look at both Schlechty’s and Martin’s take on the necessary response.

Schlechty’s thoughts…

As a result [of new technologies] students are empowered to take on a more active role in the classroom, which becomes a shared space where teachers and students learn together and from each other. These newer technologies also give students a voice, where traditionally they had none, and provide an authentic audience of potentially millions.

Increasingly, students will direct their own learning and learning will happen in conversations, as opposed to structured lesson plans. And just as in life, learning will be connected rather than happening in isolation. All of this forces us to rethink how we do school.

So much of learning can and does happen outside the four walls of the classroom and with so many more people than the teacher. Learning doesn’t just happen between the hours of eight and three. It’s a continuous process for both teachers and students. We can no longer artificially filter what students are exposed to and instead have to help them learn to filter on their own. The lines between teacher and learner have to be blurred and the very idea of what is considered content has to be reconsidered.

Schlechty continues with a picture of what will occur if the transformation that he encourages does not take place…

And without transformation, about all that can be expected from school applications of new developments in the IT world is the digitization of past practices. More important is the fact that without the needed transformation, schools will play a less and less vital role in what the young learn and will be less and less important in shaping the worldviews the young develop. In the future, students will have increasing choice concerning the form their instruction will take and considerable control of the time and place that instruction will occur.

Remember, Phil Schlechty wrote these words in 2011. He wasn’t some guy peddling ideas on a street corner. Phillip C. Schlechty, who died last year, was an education researcher, speaker, and school-improvement advocate. He taught at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels, and served as a special assistant to the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s public schools. He also served in faculty positions and as an associate education dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Schlechty was the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, KY., an early initiative to create networks of school districts to experiment with and share best practices in leadership and student engagement.

It might seem that Phil wasn’t much of a futurist. Reading further, though, we see that he painted a picture of a future that seems pretty familiar and his words speak to us today. They add another dimension to our explorations.

With the advantage of an additional 5+ years of development to inform her sense of our needs, it’s interesting that Martin’s sense of the need, although adding some additional detail, does not differ substantially from Schlechty’s.

Martin’s thinking…

To meet the needs of the learners in our classrooms today and align school with the world we live in, there is a need to embrace new mindsets about learning, along with new tools and resources available to make these shifts across diverse classrooms.

She also echoes Schlechty when she notes that if we want our schools remain central in the educational lives of our young people our teacher must move beyond their learned roles of presenter of information, arbiter of what should be taught and when, assessor-in-chief – i.e., we must facilitate a shift in mindsets that both Martin and Schlechty advocate. So what are the ‘new mindsets’ that Katie is looking for?

Martin adds to Schlechty’s identification of needs that not only move the role of teacher from traditional teaching activities to a focus on the design of engaging learning experiences. Schlechty hints at and Martin expands that even this seemingly huge leap in role definition is not enough. She moves us beyond what we should not be to what she identifies as the new roles that we must embrace and enhance.

Her graphic portrays the roles that she sees as critical in the transformation process.


Returning to her “Tale of Two Classrooms”, she uses her experiences in Ms. Kim’s room to add detail to each of the four roles she suggests.

Designers of Powerful Learning

The learning experiences described didn’t come from a curriculum guide. The experience was “co-constructed” with Ms. Kim’s students to achieve the desired goals. In both classrooms, students had technology – i.e., devices. However, they used them quite differently. Ms. Martin emphasizes that while technology can be a powerful tool, it “… no substitute for a teacher who designs authentic, and relevant learning experiences based on the unique contexts, strengths and interests.

Partners in Learning

 Ms. Kim and her students were learning together as they were collaborating with the businesses. She continues…

 When teachers embrace their role as a learner, everyone benefits. With so much information at our fingertips and new content and tools being created each day, it is impossible for anyone to know everything. Teachers and students as partners in learning models lifelong learning and empowers students to explore their passions and interests, rather than solely consume information.

Community Developers

Ms. Martin notes the importance of relationships and the teacher’s role in building such relationships. She adds to this that “the teacher’s role is pivotal in creating the community where students develop relationships with one another.” While the first classroom she described was compliance-based, Ms. Kim created community guidelines and established classroom meetings that “empowered learners to work together, seek to understand diverse perspectives, solve problems and communicate effectively” all of which are skills that are being identified within increasing emphasis by employers and higher ed institutions and which must be modeled and practiced in our classrooms.

Connector and Activator

Martin points out that Ms. Kim “designed opportunities for students to connect with one another…” but also with “with information and ideas beyond what she knew or could provide. She set up opportunities to connect with local businesses and provided the framework that empowered for students to solve relevant problems.”

Supporting the Evolving Role of Teachers

The actions and the implications for leadership…

The question for us as school leaders and as teachers was framed eloquently by Schlechty. His words are a challenge to us to assume control over the future of our schools/our classrooms, to treat learning and students as if minds matter more than the preservation of schooling as we have experienced it.

The questions are whether schools have the kinds of leaders needed to bring about such a fundamental transformation in the authority relationship between students and teachers, and whether the boundaries of the schools can be made sufficiently permeable to safely admit the information that the digital world makes available. Without such leaders, the transformation of rules, roles, and relationships that is required will not occur.

Martin adds to and balances Schlechty’s challenge to school leaders with “on the ground” observations.

…making these shifts across countless classrooms is more than equipping schools with technology or creating creative learning spaces.

To create powerful learning opportunities for diverse learners, teachers need to be supported to develop new competencies: skills, knowledge and dispositions to leverage resources and tools to support them in their evolving role. (Emphasis mine)

Critical points:

This is not about schools as “failure factories”.

This is not about teachers as self-serving, overpaid impediments to improvement.

This is about our willingness to move beyond “other-directed” explanations.

This is about the creation of cultures that embrace the new roles required to move our schools beyond organizations focused on teaching to the organizations we need – organizations focused on the process of learning, both for our children and for our adults.

This is about our willingness to move beyond the comfort of familiar zones of safety that we find in traditional roles of teaching and to explore the implications of engaging in the adoption of new roles.

Which of Martin’s new roles offers the greatest challenge for you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s