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Time to Update the Program: Reimagining School with Will Richardson

By Meadow Hilley, TIE Editor

03/30/2018

Time to Update the Program: Reimagining School with Will Richardson
Students the world over are increasingly gaining access to new technologies, giving them more agency over when, how, and what they learn. Will Richardson has followed this major paradigm shift from the very beginning.

Over the past dozen years, he has become an outspoken advocate for change in schools worldwide. Writing and speaking about the intersection of social online learning networks and education, Will has worked with educators in over 20 countries to understand the opportunities and challenges of learning in the modern world. A former public-school educator of 22 years, he is the author of six books and co-founder of Modern Learner Media. His latest initiative, Change.School, is an eight-week program for educational leaders exploring ways to create relevant, sustainable change in schools using a coaching and community model.

Meadow: What sorts of schools are involved in the Change.School program? Are they institutions that feel they’ve got to be serving their students better?

Will: We would say they understand the need to serve students “differently,” not “better.” What we’re trying to do is help people reimagine what schools can be.

This particular moment is very challenging for traditional schools. All of that content knowledge they once brokered and mediated, all of that curriculum is now everywhere. If you have access to the internet, you have at your fingertips teachers and technologies for learning that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. In light of these changes, we need to fundamentally reconceptualize the story that we’ve been telling about schools for the past 100 years.

Our focus is to ask those really big, hairy, existential questions. How has the value of school changed? Why do schools exist today? Then we try to map the answers generated by this inquiry to some transformative, reimagined practice in classrooms, so that kids have a different experience.

Meadow: Describe the educational landscape as you see it. Where are schools lagging when it comes to the rapid pace of technological change occurring today?

Will: When you ask people what’s required for really powerful learning to happen, they’ll tell you things like, “You need to be passionate about it. It has to have a real purpose. There has to be a real audience for it. It shouldn’t be constrained by time.” On the list of 20-or-so conditions educators always cite, you’ll never see things like putting kids in rows, giving them a prescribed curriculum, evaluating every single thing they do, making them compete with one another. In fact, none of the characteristics or conditions that describe the typical schoolroom are ever mentioned when I ask people what is required for decent, powerful learning to occur.

There’s a gap between what we believe and what we do. For 100 years, we got away with it because there wasn’t much of an alternative. But the world has absolutely changed now. There’s a huge alternative, because now we have the means to pursue the things that we find relevant or interesting on our own, with teachers that we identify ourselves. There’s a whole self-directed, self-determined aspect to learning today that is, in the case of many kids, fundamentally butting up against the very structured traditional conditions we continue to impose in schools.

When I go to schools, if I ask 10 different people what they mean by “learning” I’ll get 10 different answers. I find it difficult to believe we can be successful at our work if we don’t have a shared understanding of our main objective and central focus. Our work is to help people articulate what they mean by “learning,” then to generate an understanding about what conditions have to be present today to make learning relevant in the world.

Meadow: I would imagine that some are resistant to your message, which essentially recommends a total rethink of the way we approach learning and teaching. There is an implicit suggestion that, if we’re not willing to have these very difficult discussions and get to the existential problems at the heart of this enterprise, that we’re facing irrelevancy. How are people receiving this?

Will: The suggestion isn’t implicit; we state it explicitly. The system is self-preserving. It’s loath to change. The cultures and structures that we have created around schools over many decades are deeply entrenched. It’s extremely difficult for people to put all that on the table and say, “OK, we have to really look at this and peel back all the layers to get to the core of what our work is.” We’re talking about a seven-to-ten year process. Working primarily with leadership, we explain, “You’re going to have to be part-time SWAT team leader, part-time grief counselor…”

Meadow: Because people are grieving the loss of a paradigm?

Will: Absolutely. You’re asking them to revise their definition of what it means to be a teacher, to change their most basic assumptions about what it is to be successful in their profession. That’s a big ask.

Meadow: How do you win people over? If you’re the one on the Wall—to borrow an image from Game of Thrones—if you’re the one sounding the alarm and insisting that “Winter is coming”—how do you bring that message without alienating people?

Will: In my experience, you start talking about this stuff and a third of people in schools are going, “Thank God. They’re finally waking up.” They have this sense that what they’ve been doing hasn’t been working for kids, and really isn’t what learning is about. Another third probably gets there when you make the case compelling enough. Then there’s a chunk that is going to be really difficult to convince. Those people, either you’ll wait them out and they’ll retire, or in many cases, they will move on to different districts, sensing a shift.

It is about first making sure to have the conversations asking “Why do we exist?” Once you dive into those existential questions, I think most people understand why the change is necessary, or at least why we have to begin thinking about this differently. Obviously, the how part is always challenging.

Meadow: How do we reimagine school?

Will: There is no cookie cutter approach to this. What I do if I’m a school leader in central New Jersey is going to be very different from what I do if I’m a school leader at an international school in Brussels, for example. It’s a unique process that everyone has to engage within their own context and in partnership with their school community.

The conversations are always different, but they share some basic starting points. Number one is, “What do we believe?” Let’s articulate that. Let’s have a conversation around how we think kids learn powerfully and deeply, and then let’s communicate it. Let’s plant that flag in the sand. That’s our stake in the ground. This is who we are.

The second part of this process is to make sure we understand, collectively, what the new context for learning is. We need to take some time to fully appreciate the affordances of the web and the technologies of the day. That’s not to say that face-to-face learning isn’t still a powerful and important part of it, but certainly it can’t be the only thing that we do now.
After that, we start looking at practice as filtered through those earlier considerations. Are we doing what we believe, and does this approach make sense in this particular moment? Somewhere in there you develop a mission and a vision that are relevant in the present. That becomes your north star for the next 7 to 10 years that the process will require.

Finally, the last piece is nurturing a culture that is all about learning. Most schools continue to promote teaching cultures. A learning culture, by contrast, is one in which everyone in the building is a learner, which implies that the process is never complete. What someone I know calls “perpetual beta.” A state in which you are constantly rethinking and reimagining.

Meadow: About that one-third you described, the ones who eventually get the message if you make the case compelling enough—how do you pitch it to them?

Will: To paraphrase Russell Ackoff, the problem in most institutions right now is that we’re trying to do the wrong thing right. Instead, we’ve got to figure out what the right thing is, and do it. The reason we have to really look at this question with irksome urgency today is that, the righter you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you get.

In schools today, most of our effort is focused on, “Let’s make this age-old practice as good as we possibly can. Let’s make it better.” What this approach fails to acknowledge is that it’s probably not the right thing to be working on in the first place. Now is the time we have to stop doing the wrong thing, because the greatest service we can do our kids is to help them to develop as learners capable of going out into this abundant world and making sense of it, instead of telling them where to go and what to do and how to do it. Those kids are not going to thrive.

Meadow: Is it possible to make this sort of radical change one school at a time? Do you see this process as building a critical mass, in anticipation of a watershed moment?

Will: I don’t see it happening at a federal level or at a societal level any time soon, but I see states such as Kansas taking up interesting initiatives. A lot of the New England states are also moving toward competency-based learning. There’s a group called The Mastery Transcript Consortium at mastery.org, that wants to send kids to college without any numbers on their transcript, the goal being to eliminate grades altogether. That would be a huge, huge domino to fall if we got to the point where we didn’t do grades anymore.




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