5 Ways to Transform a School – and 5 Ways to Fail

If your school isn’t currently in the throws of significant change,  you should be worried.  Every school and educator that plans on being relevant a decade from now should really probably be having some tough conversations.  Even if you have figured out the what and why questions it can be daunting to figure out exactly how to move forward.  What does great look like?  How will we know when we are there?  The simple answer is that you are never there, greatness is not a place, its a journey, a process, a disposition and a mindset.  From several years of experience in radical change environments, I can now begin to reflect on five essential conditions that can lead to an organisation that learns, grows, and improves. There are others that I have yet to learn for sure, but this is a good start.

Think Strategically

This might be plainly obvious to you but without a solid strategic plan that clearly describes the way things will be when you have achieved your goals then you should proceed with great caution.  Schools are far too complex for the wait-and-see approach.  You need a good mission that defines a vision of radical change.  If you are in the process of strategic planning and your vision looks anywhere like the school you went to, then you should be worried.  This is a good way to fail at transforming a school.

Build a Collaborative Culture

“Culture eats strategy for lunch”  or does it?

There is so much packed into this idea and that is what makes it so powerful.  It would be easy to bore anyone to death talking about the benefits of collaboration, so you need to see for yourself.  Think of it this way.

Individual experts working to solve complex problems are consistently outperformed by groups, draw conclusions contradictory to those held  by other experts in the same field, and overestimate the reliability of their own conclusions (Surowiecki, 2004).

credit: wonderferret, Flickr

This sounds nice, but the reality is that we are mostly really bad at working together.  You’re team is only as good as its facilitator and most team leaders haven’t been properly trained to facilitate collaborative groups. However, it is probably an absolute truth that inspiring teachers and other community members to share ideas, make meaning together, support and lead each other, and solve complex problems together is an essential condition to becoming a 21st century school (there I said it).

To succeed at this one you will need to commit to establishing and nurturing a program with good street cred, such as Adaptive Schools (now Think Collaborative) or Critical Friends, or both.  Its not a gimmick and everyone at your institution needs to be trained, not just a few favorites.  It is easy to fail at this by making collaboration something only leaders do, or by asking people to do it without proper training.  If it becomes a clique it will fail. If the extension into the classroom is not made explicit it will fail.

Get Everyone Mobile Technology They Want to Use

credit: capmac.org

The school of the future will be student-driven.  Don’t ruin this by forcing everyone at your school to use the same technology.  Let people bring what they want as long as its productive.  This will go a long way to empowering and motivating users.  If you aren’t thinking about Bring-Your-Own-Technology yet,  I would Google it.  One-size-fits-all is a 20th century paradigm whose time has passed.  This goes for teachers and admin as well.  If you do this, don’t go with the old BYOD model where you take their computer and lock it down so tight in the name of security that they can’t innovate with it.  This is a great way to maintain the status quo.

Implement a Cloud-Based Productivity Suite (aka Google Apps for Education)

There are other systems out there, but why?  Unless you are wary of the Eye of Sauron,  this is the single most transformative tool in the known Universe.  I can’t imagine being at a school, let alone a job, without it.  Office 365 works, but it falls short of the Google ecosystem that now works on all mobile devices really well.  A tried-and-true pitfall, or at least a speed bump, is to continue to offer ample server storage so that users can safely create and save MS Office documents, email them as attachments to everyone, and then email another one when something changes in it.

The reason this is so critical is that it dramatically increases productivity and the ability of teams to know what is going on.

Develop Teacher Leadership

We are all leaders.  We lead children, we lead tribes, we lead ourselves.  Teaching teachers how to be better leaders is essential to making lasting change happen.  Some schools are afraid of confident teachers.  This is a mistake.  Teachers who innovate and lead will not only impact their own classrooms but will inspire their colleagues to do the same.   With all the tools above in place, teachers will soar and take their school to unseen heights.  A foundation of trust and respect with dedication to a mission is essential to success.  Leaving teacher leaders to flail, undermining their ideas, providing inadequate feedback, and/or supporting the wrong teacher leaders are all  strategies best avoided.

What am I missing?  What other ideas are out there to help us turn the ship without running it into an iceberg?

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