The school where I work has embarked on a strategic planning initiative, using an innovative design thinking model to map out a new future. By marshaling the varied perspectives of different constituencies in the school — administrators, board members, parents, faculty, staff and students – we are imagining what our students will need to be happy, helpful, successful citizens of the 21st century and how to re-construct a learning community to nurture that.
Sounds rosy, doesn’t it?
Actually, a couple of less then rosy terms, like disruptive and perturbed, have been the buzz lately. The combination of an unfamiliar approach to problem solving applied to a problem that begs for solutions far outside our realm of experience is disruptive in the extreme. After the first team meeting a week ago, folks were not so much energized as perturbed. I think it would be safe to say that each participant is still, to some extent, uncomfortable. We are a mess of Magellans in uncharted waters.
Because much of what I am observing and pondering this week at school ricochets nicely of off the this course content on Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), my lens has been the organization, rather than the student, as the ultimate beneficiary of online learning networks. I wholeheartedly concur with Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli (2011) that educators need online learning networks — for themselves as individuals and professionals and for their organization as a whole.
There is so much potential goodness here. Let me just highlight a few blessings of PLNs and the Networked School on an organizational level.
1. Organically-Grown Professional Development
The usual professional development model involves a combination of:
- discrete professional events on topics usually selected by administrators, and
- individual professional development forays, where teachers pursue something of interest to themselves but rarely share out in meaningful ways to other faculty.
I reckon, with that model, a school cannot stay ahead, nor on top, of professional development in the way a sophisticated online learning network can. It cannot customize professional development to stoke the professional passions of every teacher in the school. Active online learning networks can. When teachers take charge — discover, share, and learn from each other and the vast world at their fingertips – they can deliver a varied, rich, relevant, constantly current form of professional development.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
As Richardson and Mancabelli passionately argue, we need to practice doing the very things we ask, or will ask, of students. Just this week our strategic planning team struggled with issues so complex they defy the boundaries of traditional meetings. A collaborative online learning space has been established, where all members of the large team can post the findings from their independent research and ignite online conversations along multi-strands that will get woven into a bigger, brighter whole. What’s been interesting is that team members who are already comfortable in an online setting – with both the research tasks and the collective online conversing — have fearlessly jumped in. But others are not nearly as comfortable. The great thing is those folks are going to gain some valuable ground in these literacies because this learning network will give them the hands-on practice that they need. Online learning networks do that. They exercise the muscles needed for new literacies…..the sort our students already possess.
3. Energize and Expand the Conversation
Learning networks energize in-house communication, opening the conversation beyond isolationist departmental/divisional boundaries and real time meeting hours. And, with everyone fanning out — gathering, absorbing, putting forth what they find — the conversation is expanded to include experts and fresh perspectives from outside our school’s context. In their 2010 report A 21st Century Imperative: A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future, the National Association of Independent Schools highlights one such learning network:
The discoveries, conversations, new learning, and collaborative partnerships percolating and multiplying in networks such as this are absolutely necessary for change. One of the things I really like about Richardson and Mancabelli is the fact that they do not leave the change they are proposing at some lofty, theoretical, amorphous level. They get down to brass tacks. Because of my focus on organizational change this week, I read Chapter 4 on Becoming a Networked School with interest (p. 83-114). Richardson and Mancabelli chock that chapter with valuable step-by-step, practical advice about how a school can go about making a radical change to become a networked school. A map is awfully handy when the terrain is unfamiliar. Richardson and Mancabelli leave a lot of play for schools to arrive at their own destination but provide guideposts that are often hard to find along the way these days. I also believe their advice is scalable, a road map to follow for other changes, large and small, that a school might undertake.
In their beautiful article, Bringing Life to Organizational Change, authors Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers re-situate organizational change amidst natural change systems (1998). They testify to witnessing “organizations that have changed not only in terms of a new destination…..but that simultaneously have increased their capacity to deal with change generally” (Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, 1998). One “principle from life” that they assert applies to organizational change is that “to create better health in a living system, connect it to more of itself….A failing system needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself” (Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, 1998). Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers were not talking about Personal Learning Networks when they wrote this way back in 1998. But they certainly do a good job of describing why PLNs can be so instrumental in facilitating change and cultivating a community that is so unperturbed by change it actively goes in pursuit of it.
A 21st Century Imperative: A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Independent Schools Commission on Accreditation, 2010. <http://www.nais.org/Articles/documents/NAISCOASchools.pdf>
DarwinPeacock. (2009, February 27). SNA segment [screenshot]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SNA_segment.png
Richardson, Will, and Rob Mancabelli. Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2011. Print.
Schools of the Future: A Learning Community Focused on Transforming Schools in Hawaii. Mark Hines. <http://futureschools.ning.com/>.
Wheatley, Margaret J., and Myron Kellner-Rogers. (1998) “Bringing Life to Organizational Change.” n.p. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. <http://margaretwheatley.com/articles/life.html> [Originally published in the Journal for Strategic Performance Measurement (April/May, 1998)]