Spending five days at home, snowbound in Atlanta, I was able to read some books, blogs, news stories, and think about questions that pertain to school change.  Westminster Schools in Atlanta is embarking on a strategic planning process that started last year.  I happen to sit on a committee of board and faculty members that are wrestling with what it means to be a school in the 21st Century.

In his book, The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do To Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive, Michael Fullan reveals the six tenants that  he believes are at the heart of school change.  They are:

  • Secret One: Love Your Employees
  • Secret Two: Connect Peers With Purpose
  • Secret Three: Capacity Building Prevails
  • Secret Four: Learning Is the Work
  • Secret Five: Transparency Rules
  • Secret Six: Systems Learn

If you haven’t read Michael Fullan’s works on school change (Change Wars and Motion Leadership), they contain excellent blueprints for school leaders to use as they navigate these turbulent waters.  I would put Michael Fullan’s work along side Robert Evans work, The Human Side of School Change.   Where Evans takes a more personal look at the human dimensions of school change, Fullan looks more at the system-wide issues.

For me, two ideas are coming together: (1) The 10 questions I think schools should consider as they move towards more 21st Century teaching and learning; and (2) How to bring about needed change in school structures and policies?

The ten questions that I believe are important to reflect on and implement action plans around are:

  1. What would school look like if students were collaborating with each other, teachers were collaborating with students, and teachers were collaborating with each other-school as a culture of collaboration?
  2. What would a 21st Century school look like if technology was used effectively to leverage learning in all classrooms environments?
  3. What would school look like if its curricula prepared students for the 21st Century?  (see Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Framework for 21st Century Learning)
  4. What would school look like if all assessment was built on a scaffold of formative assessment, authentic assessments, and less content-driven summative assessments?
  5. What would school look like if ALL students were learning at or above their potential, truly no child left behind?
  6. What would schools look like if we modeled “thinking openly,” if there was more transparency in what we teach and how we teach?
  7. In a world in which most of us are connected through the internet and learning is anytime and anywhere, what does a financially sustainable school model look like?
  8. What effect will online learning have on traditional school models?
  9. What would school look like if its faculty professional development model was more 21st Century?
  10. What does a school do to apply what it knows about school change so that it’s positioned to implement changes that allow it to survive and thrive in the 21st Century?

While these 10 questions are the ones I think schools must address to meet the challenges of educating students in the 21st Century, you may have some that are different, disagree with some of mine, or edit the ones I have offered.  These questions are not unique in any way.  Educators are talking about these questions in blogs, articles, and at conferences.  I wonder to what extent educational leaders are putting these 10 questions into a strategic plan, looking for common themes, or discussing how to transform the paradigm of traditional schooling.

Applying Six Secrets of Change to this question is an interesting exercise that could lead to some answers.

First, connecting peers to purpose, Fullan writes:

It comes from leaders who embed strategies that foster continuous and purposeful peer interactions.

He feels this happens in schools when the faculty culture develops the social and professsional glue needed to allow them to work side-by-side in an honest and open fashion.  The right balance of “too tight-too loose.”

Second, capacity building must prevail in a school culture if meaningful change is to happen.  Fullan writes:

Capacity building entails leaders investing in the development of individual and collaborative efficacy of a whole group or system to accomplish significant improvements.

How is your school doing on this third secret behind effective change?  Building capacity within the faculty culture involves learning new competencies, using new resources of time, ideas and expertise, and encouraging new motivations for taking risks.

Third, learning is the work.  This involves the type of professional development schools should invest in to get meaningful change to happen.  Fullan writes:

In other words, there is far too much going to workshops, taking short courses, and the like, and far too little learning while doing the work.

We need to build professional learning that is ongoing, connected to classroom teaching, and involves teams of teachers.  Let’s create a culture where the teacher is a “researcher.”  Of course, this will require leveraging teachers’ time so that they aren’t just filling students heads with facts and testing them on whether the facts have been memorized.  In this type of professional environment, the teacher is as much a learner as his or her students.  Learning is the work.

Fourth, transparency rules in the process of school change.  Here Fullan writes:

By transparency, I mean clear and continuous display of results, and clear and continuous access to practice.  Constant transparency fueled by good data. 

He suggests that transparency based on good data creates a culture of “positive pressure.”  So schools need to ask what data do I need to collect and how will I use it to change the school in positive ways.  We have to break down the walls of the classroom and promote a faculty culture where peer-to-peer observation is second nature. 

Lastly, Fullans suggests that change will only occur when the whole system is learning.  He writes:

Systems can learn on a continuous basis.  The synergistic result of the previous five secrets in action is tantamount to a system that learns from itself.

So now, once we’ve reflected on the ten questions and come up with action plans associated with each question (maybe it’s too many questions for the short-term, prioritize and create a timetable), then we have to get to work on implementation.

The purpose of this task it to create learning environments that meet the needs of students who will enter the 21st Century exceptionally well equipped to handle the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.