Leadership: Getting the 21st Century Academic Engine to Actually Work

My academic team was fumbling around Friday not getting much done, yet at the same time getting a lot of interesting things done.  We have finished a penny war in the community, raising money for a student in our community whose family had been displaced by a fire, and several of us were standing in front of the coin counting machine commenting on old technology that still has purpose (the coin counting machine) and new technology and what purpose some of it might have in the future (other than its currently designated purpose). That got me thinking. (and you know what happens when I start thinking, right?)

Let’s use a engine driven machine as our example.  Curriculum and Instruction (C & I) is the engine that runs any district.  We understand and respect this, after all, schools are about learning and learning requires some basic curriculum foundation upon which to function. In districts that have fully embraced the 21st century learning model, this will include curriculum delivered electronically. In order for the engine to run, a particular fuel is needed.  Instructional Technology (IT) is the high efficiency fuel for that sort of engine. Providing the infrastructure to use the curriculum chosen and making the electronic curriculum accessible to the learners is paramount. You simply can’t get the engine to start, run efficiently and plug along smoothly, without this fuel.

The classroom teacher is the operator of this machine.  Which is great, except, when the engine and the fuel aren’t compatible. C&I has teachers working with an engine that is rev’d up and and sputtering along on the wrong fuel, thinking everything is going great. C&I begins to add more and more demands on the fuel without mentioning to IT that they’re doing it. The engine starts having “issues”.  This is frustrating for the operator, because now, there’s a working engine, with fuel that is hit and miss.  Its even more frustrating to IT, who would LOVE to provide enough fuel for the engine to run smoothly, so they don’t come across as being incompetent in the eyes of the operator.

Technology in schools only works if there is a conversation about HOW technology is supposed to work in schools.  C&I, as the great lord and master of the academic realm, sometimes forgets that in the 21st century, if they want what they bring to the table to work, they have to use the correct fuel.  In the 20th century, in the age of “hunter/gatherers”, C&I could find the fuel on their own. After all, how hard is it to order books and videos, buy projectors and copy machines, etc. and other (now) low tech items to make it all work?  There wasn’t a great deal of concern about the evidence based research on what was good for learning and what wasn’t.  It worked… then. Everything we do now is research based, data driven and about accountability.

In the 21st century, hunter/gathering techniques don’t work. The fuel is different, so the job has been given to a more specialized group, IT. So yes, you still need books, but they’re eBooks. Sure, showing videos are still important, but blocking Netflix, YouTube and other sites on the 10 year old computers in the classroom, kinda gets in the way. Providing learning outside the classroom is possible, why don’t we try it? The buy in for the community isn’t that high, or is it?  Why CAN’T the students use their mobile devices?  The wireless is wonky, there has no education taught to the teachers OR students on appropriate usage. (but there’s a really great policy on file) and getting time in a computer lab with your class is tantamount to asking the king if you can use his scepter to squash a bug.

The technology liaisons in my district sat down this week and considered these issues.  We looked at 4 areas in the operation of the engine that need consideration:

  1. Digital Content (What content do we use to get beyond the “S” in the SAMR model? How do teachers find and share great classroom resources?)
  2. Structured Professional Development (do all the teachers know how to operate this machine? What do they need to know to learn how?)
  3. Culture Change (for the teachers who refuse to hit the “start” button, how do we give them the confidence to operate the machine? Who is responsible for getting everyone on board?)
  4. Vision Setting (how do C&I and IT work together to provide equal access to the machine? When do we know we are fully integrated and the machine is running smoothly?)

At the district level, these questions have provided a great reflection tool for all of us responsible for the conversation in each of our buildings.  Now, we all need to start the conversation in the building itself.  The engine is running, the fuel is there, the machine is sputtering.  Let’s get all the parts working together.


What is the state of the Learning Machine in your district?  Are all the right people having ongoing conversations about how the parts of the machine are working together?  If not, are you the leader to get that conversation started?

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