Toggle open
Learning Library Blog Be the change: The role of educators in leading transformation
Expand breadcrumbs

Be the change: The role of educators in leading transformation

By Tim Douglas
December 21, 2015
Img id 629 Version Id Cadvutiqm HN Xd Cei Fa MWR Gk05 OM1 O9ls

Idealists. Dreamers. Nonconformists. Agitators. Rebels. Lunatics.

These are labels applied to those who called for women’s suffrage, demanded laws for protecting the environment, fought for the right to form unions, marched for civil rights, took a stand for an 8-hour workday and staged a pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

These social, political and cultural movements happen because they are necessary. To change is to improve, and change is difficult, but what power it has. Social movements transform “crazy” ideas from the margins to the mainstream, from polemics to policy. Social movements breathe life into ideas and make them real.

Aspects of the U.S. education system, and many others globally, have been slow to change for a variety of political, financial and philosophical reasons. The U.S. education system was formed more than 100 years ago in a different time, in a different economy to serve a different lifestyle using the technology available at the time. These systems taught students for those times.

Times have changed. These changes are demanding significant transformations in our classrooms. And education change agents, many part of the ISTE community, are leading the charge.

Will Richardson, author, education consultant, blogger and ISTE member, says the education system tends to be structured around how we educate a child versus how we help students learn. “To give students the technology and the access, you have to give them power and agency over their own learning. It’s about helping kids discover their own education and developing them as powerful, sustained learners,” Richardson says.

There’s amazing consistency among education stakeholders regarding what they know for sure about learning. All agree it’s about experience, passion, interaction, real work and interesting questions. “But then you walk into many schools, none of that happens. You have kids in rows, teachers are asking the questions and the conditions don’t foster learning. Yet we keep doing it,” Richardson notes.

The approach and conditions can be so ingrained that some feel they have little power to change it. But what if they could? What if more educators joined the grass-roots movement to become change agents? What if the few became the many and what school is became something quite different around the globe?

Empowered learners

The ISTE community has been advocating for education transformation for 40 years. Passionate members have long been on the leading edge with some of education’s biggest ideas and transformative initiatives. The seeds of transformation rest in the ability to empower learners to flourish in a connected world…a world where all learners thrive, achieve and contribute, and the product will be a better future.

“We want to make a difference in the world of education by demonstrating the power of technology,” describes Kecia Ray, executive director for the Center for Digital Education and immediate past chair of the ISTE Board of Directors. “ISTE has been a community of innovators for decades. Technology plays a leading role in how we believe education can be transformed, keeping in mind the most prominent roles belong to the teacher and student.”

Ray knows the stakes are high and the “movement” needs to succeed.

“Education is the least efficient system in our country today, but it’s the most important. It’s the system that will establish our future,” Ray says.

The aim is to cultivate a movement that links passionate teachers and education leaders and allows them to share best practices that create better policies and better outcomes for students.

The value of student voice

ISTE has taken the lead in the push for education transformation, and yes, technology is a primary weapon in the revolution, but the students are the generals. Real reform must be student-driven and student-centered.

If the first step in the movement is to identify the problem (the what), which is to change how we teach students to better prepare them for a life of learning and achievement, then we should start by listening to them and validating their power.

“We always think of adults and speak with adults, but we need to think of students and speak with students,” says Pernille Ripp, a seventh grade teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wisconsin, the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project and an ISTE member. “We do many things without bringing students into the conversation.”

“The real change will begin when we listen to kids and start asking what’s best for them,” says ISTE member Chris Lehmann, who is the assistant superintendent in charge of the Philadelphia School District’s Innovative Schools Network and the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive science and technology high school in Philadelphia. “We need to keep asking what’s best for kids. Schools serve kids, but schools really serve all of us.”

Ripp adds that the ultimate objective is very broad and the paths to success will vary, but all involved must keep this in mind: “The bigger goal is having passionately curious human beings. That’s the goal. We really want learners for life, and we forget that.”

The movement is mobilizing

Always keeping the goal in mind, movements are about mobilizing people behind a shared purpose, providing them with a clear path forward and helping them communicate about it. The movement to transform education and how we teach our students takes flight with their involvement, but everyone has a role to play. Movements are sustained by all stakeholders, and they need to attract the entire community: teachers, school administrators, parents, clergy and elected officials.

“Everyone needs to be unified around a central vision,” says Andrew Smith, educator, director of digital innovation for the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina and an ISTE member. “Everyone needs to see where we’re going…and talk about it in ‘grocery store conversations,’ common places where people talk. We need to be able to tell a great story about our school all the time. If we don’t tell the story, someone else will, and they never get it right.”

Smith adds that his colleagues don’t wait for the conversations to find them. They take their messages to community members by visiting service groups, businesses and different types of organizations – anyone who will listen.

Ripp agrees. “The community needs to be part of the conversation, but we assume that others will shut us down, so we don’t even invite them. There is lots of research on changing the minds of others, and it’s face-to-face [interactions].” This approach trumps emails, forums and big meetings every time, Ripp notes. “It’s about real, face-to-face human relationships.”

Consistency is a must

Consistency is important as well. Change doesn’t happen overnight; people need to have several positive experiences along the way to make the ultimate goal seem attainable. These experiences also help stakeholders better understand what they are trying to do and sustain their interest.

For example, Smith’s district highlights its open-door policy each Wednesday when one school in the district serves as host to any and all visitors.

These interactions also invite and encourage tough questions, and the answers lead to greater credibility. Movements thrive in sunshine. Transparency helps the transformation. If teachers and others want to create change, they need to be able to “show and tell.” All of this adds up to trust, and trust is the glue for strong relationships.

“Seeing is believing,” says Smith. “We need to let everyone see our good work. Feel it. Touch it. Be a part of it. Really understand it. This also respects the community. Change usually looks like disrespect to a community, but you need to honor the past and explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

Authentic connections, honest dialogues, proven knowledge and a clear vision also help guard against what Josh Stumpenhorst calls “survivor bias.”

Overcoming the common experience

Education is the only system we’ve all experienced in one way or another. And just as owning a wrench doesn’t make someone a mechanic, taking algebra in the seventh grade doesn’t make someone an educational transformer.

“Many people think what was good for me is good for my kid,” says Stumpenhorst, a sixth grade teacher at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois, author of the book The New Teacher Revolution and an ISTE 2015 keynote speaker. “They think ‘I turned out ok, my kid will be ok.’ It’s the feeling of ‘let’s do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ and this is the most dangerous phrase in education today.”

Ray believes Stumpenhorst is right, and recognizes this issue as a significant roadblock.

“The world isn’t the same as it was, but everyone does have some authority on education,” she says. “We need to help everyone understand that kids deserve a better education than we had. Why would you give a kid a Gremlin, when you can give him or her a Porsche?”

Sapping survivor bias

The survivor bias phenomenon usually afflicts parents, who, like others when faced with a need for change, have a tendency to return to the familiar and the usual. But, after students, parents are the strongest forces in the movement to transform education and are allies who need to be courted.

“If you want change in schools, take the time to really explain the issue to parents, make them aware of it, and then maybe they get upset and see the need for change,” says Stumpenhorst. “Parents are a great seed to plant for change because they’re the best advocate for their kids, and if parents don’t advocate, then often times there is no one to advocate for students.”

“Parents will listen to their kid more than they will listen to a teacher or anyone else,” Ripp says. “Parents then become a mouthpiece [for their child], and that’s important.”

Students are the raison d’etre of the movement and parents their powerful ally. Teachers and educators are right in the middle, bridging the two groups.

Teachers are the spark

As the ultimate connectors, teachers may wield a great deal of influence, but there are catches. Sometimes teachers are stifled by a district or an administrator; sometimes teachers are undone by parents; sometimes teachers are their own worst enemy.

Nevertheless, teachers can light an intense fire in the classroom that will spread and feed the movement, especially when they have a supportive administration.

“We need the leadership at the top, and we need the power at the bottom with teachers, parents and students,” Smith says. “It’s a combination of grassroots and top down. It’s the perfect storm that will lead to transformation. Students are the fuel. Teachers and parents are the vehicle. The superintendent and the leaders are the ignition. You get that, and then you’re blazing.”

“Teachers are true agents of change if allowed to be,” says Stumpenhorst. “For me, action is most impactful at the ground level with teachers, when it starts in the classroom and spreads. You get change rolling by doing it.”

But what connects teachers? Vision, objectives, goals, communication – the intangibles, of course. The tangible tie that binds? Technology.

Go big or go home

Some of the biggest global movements of the decade – the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mubarak and Occupy Wall Street – gained momentum because word spread quickly via social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Education transformation shouldn’t – can’t – be any different.

While perhaps not as incendiary or quick to morph as other global movements, changes to education can be spurred via shared stories and connected communities.

“We need to share our successes and our failures so we can all learn,” says Stumpenhorst. “I have a friend who always says, ‘if a doctor cures cancer and doesn’t share the cure, that doctor would be drummed out of the profession.’ It’s unacceptable and wouldn’t be tolerated. Why isn’t it the same for teachers?”

“A lot of people are doing a lot of great things,” says Ripp. “But we all need to know about them. Being a connected educator is not just being on social media, it’s about using social media effectively.”

And the best thing about all of these tactics, according to Greg Green, superintendent of Clintondale Community Schools in Clinton Township, Michigan, is that they’re free, which is a good thing because finances aren’t the fix.

“First, work on aligning the school improvement movement without concentrating on needing money, because money won’t fix the problem,” he says. “We have the human capital. We need to cash in on the human capital for the transformation. It comes down to people.”

It's worked before

Achieving change has been successful before in education via ubiquitous networks and the leveraging of social media. Take Edcamp and #edchat, for example.

As ISTE member Kristen Swanson, author of The Edcamp Model: Powering Up Professional Learning with Kevin Jarrett and Dan Callahan, shared in a blog post, the first Edcamp was organized by a group of teachers who came together in Philadelphia for BarCamp, a computer science unconference first held in 2008.

“After experiencing the passion, sharing and excitement that surrounded the event, a handful of other educators and I decided it was too good to contain,” Swanson wrote. “We exchanged contact information and, on Skype calls over a period of months, tweaked the design and adjusted the BarCamp concept to accommodate teachers and administrators.”

The creation of a logo and promotional materials were funded by donations of money and skills. With no advertising budget, they leveraged social media, word of mouth and blogs to lure people to the event. Within a few months, 100 people had signed up to attend.

As Swanson passionately tells it, “On an unseasonably cool morning in May 2010, lots of educators arrived at the Philadelphia location, collaboratively built a schedule of sessions related to their interests, and talked. And talked. And talked. It was a pos-itive, interactive day. Personally, I couldn’t recall another professional learning experience where I got to do so much discussing and sharing.”

As part of the event’s debrief, committee member Dan Callahan suggested creating a wiki to document the experience and share it online.

And just like that, as those first Edcamp attendees began to share their experiences via blogs and social media, interest grew, others wanted in and Edcamps began to emerge throughout the East Coast.

Today, the Wiki lists hundreds of Edcamps around the world.

The edchat concept has an equally compelling and grassroots rise to prominence.

In 2009, a critical mass of educators began using Twitter to collaborate and share ideas. At the time, much of the back and forth was between a small group of educators. One of those educators, ISTE member Tom Whitby, wanted to engage more people at once and began posing provocative questions to get a wide-ranging conversation going.

Three educators, Shelly Terrell, Berni Wall and Steven Anderson, were frequent participants in the conversation.

“We benefited from and enjoyed these spontaneous discussions so much that we decided to organize a chat with a specific topic and theme and a specific time,” Whitby explains.

Today, #edchat has more than 400 chats taking place globally seven days a week. The initial creators have also been instrumental in helping a number of other chats get started.

Change is afoot

Change is messy and it’s exciting. But we really must ask ourselves if we are willing to suffer the discomfort of change in order to achieve a better future.

Education consultant Richardson says he’s more optimistic than he was just a year ago about the potential for real change in education. “More people are acknowledging we need to do something different,” he says.

Ray says the solution is clear. “If we care about kids and our future, then we’ll do what’s right.”

Tim Douglas is a former television news producer who also served as a senior media consultant for several speakers of the California State Assembly. Today, Douglas is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics.