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Building Leadership Technology

The Missing Link Between a Superintendent's Vision and the School District's Actions by Lewis A. Rhodes

Leadership for Learning—the phrase prominently displayed on all of AASA's correspondence stands at the core of its mission. It makes sense, because why else lead schools, and it feels right to those with leadership responsibilities who want to make a difference in more children's lives.

So why should it be so hard for school leaders to make a visible impact on learning during their watch? What missing links exist between the visions for which superintendents are hired and the actions of everyone in their school and community systems that produce daily results? And what roles might technology play in establishing and sustaining those linkages?

The search for answers to those questions culminated recently in AASA's announcement of its National Center for Connected Learning (see related story) to articulate a new concept—leadership technology. AASA had been exploring the link—or lack if it—between leadership and technology through efforts that included a National Science Foundation-funded study (The Connectivity Crisis), a seminar ("Seeking New Connections: Learning, Technology and Systemic Change") at the Aspen Institute, development of a video ("Leadership and Technology: Connections for Success"). The association also has worked to bring quality management principles to the attention of educational leaders.

Emerging from these efforts was a growing recognition that the unique nature of system leadership required connecting tools and processes that could link present actions and results more directly to future visions. This recognition was paralleled by the exciting realization that many of the tools and processes already were available, having been developed in non-school organizational settings. Creative school leaders could take advantage of advances in understanding and practice outside of schools to support more effective learning and teaching. These technologies (such as intranets) and processes (such as quality management) could create a sustainable core for the missing infrastructure between visions and actions.

But two critical barriers stood in the way. One dealt with perceptions of the roles of technology; the other with perceptions of the role of leadership.

Countering Intuition

AASA noted this leadership dilemma several years ago as it listened to its members articulate their uneasiness with the ways technology was being introduced into schools. At that time, vendors and many in the educational technology community viewed information technology through a narrow lens. They artificially classified technology first as "educational" and then within that category, as either "instructional" or "administrative." What was missing were the "organizational" uses.

In the world outside of schools, these applications support changed roles, trade-offs of time and resources, and a realignment of accessible human and technology support to the core human work of the system. This missing aspect of technology use directly addressed the scope and nature of the systemwide problems with which they—as system leaders—had to deal. It dealt with the nature of the work, the way it was organized, but most critically, it dealt with the work of the adults in the schools. And here school system leaders confronted a barrier that existed in no other of America's work settings.

To suggest that technologies be provided for adult use in schools (e.g., that teachers should have computers and telephones) is as counterintuitive as the airline's suggestion that you put on your oxygen mask before the child who accompanies you. There, the first reaction will be to save the child. Similarly, concern for children's well-being is so strong in the school culture that it makes it almost impossible to have a more total perspective in which the relationships among all technology users can be seen and their interdependence understood.

Within that cultural perspective, resource scarcity forces either/or decisions between providing direct services for children or building a continuing capacity within the school system to provide these direct services. In making that decision, direct services always will win because children are at the center of everyone's value system. Expenditures of significant resources for building or reinforcing the infrastructure of knowledge, skills, and capacities that could support the improvement of direct teaching and learning services has not been acceptable—either by a public that sees it as bureaucracy-building, or by many educators with fundamental commitments to keep children first.

Cost vs. Value-Added

While it might have seemed as if the student-first perception would at least ensure that some children had access to technology, it has proved to have the opposite effect on the quantity and quality of technology accessible by all children. Moreover, it has created false barriers (e.g., a belief that it is cost and teacher training that keeps technology out of the hands and minds of children).

Technology's costs in non-school organizations usually are justified by the value technology provides to the overall work of the organization. Put another way, most organizations believe that the more value that is added by a tool, the less the tool is perceived as costly. In these settings the empowering nature of information, and the consequences of access to this information for what people as knowledge-workers in the system could do, becomes more important than the technology itself.

Moreover, value is added as the technology helps support more effective roles and relationships, enabling new organizational structures to be created and sustained. These values seldom have been factored into equations that look at school technology costs. Negative consequences result when the value-added factor is missing. Research in industry and education demonstrates that until these new technologies become functional, practically transparent tools for everyone in the district, the necessary understanding and supportive culture will be lacking for fully capitalizing on technology's obvious values for all students.

This understanding directly affects what is now thought of as a primary barrier to technology use in schools—training. In other work cultures this support is seldom seen as a barrier. On the contrary, training is an enabling process sought by practitioners who want to use technology to make more of a difference. It is not found in other human service agencies, such as hospitals, where society already accepts a model of a technology-facilitated information infrastructure that allows professional autonomy and task interdependence to co-exist. In such settings, practitioners work toward common purposes regardless of their specialties; exchanging information with each other to solve problems, learning as they go, with technologies providing continuous access to information needed for in-the-moment client-responsive decisions.

In these public and private organizations, technology is not an "end" requiring separate technology plans and visions. As an assumed means, technology is integrated in the organization's more comprehensive plans.

Each vs. All

Given that in other organizations technology infrastructure is an accepted means and that new technologies could make schools more effective for teaching and learning, one would think education's "either-or" mentality—either technology for students or teachers/administrators—could give way to a "both-and" way of thinking. Schools could simultaneously address children's needs and the needs of the system to better meet children's needs. But something was still missing.

To apply new tools to the work of schools required challenging some assumptions about that work. Also, embedded in the school's culture was an experience-based picture of the scope and nature of the work that takes place in those settings—the work of managing and leading the classrooms, buildings, and school systems in which learning must take place. While some have studied what happens in classrooms and school buildings, only recently has the unique nature of system leadership been explored.

Many educators feel their job requirements are impossible. In reality, two key roles actually have been impossible when one considers their true nature and scope. "Teaching is impossible, yet teachers teach. Expected to give individual attention to each child, the teacher knows that it can't be done," noted former superintendent Larry Cuban.

Cuban might have said something similar about his job as CEO/leader of a school district—the system of roles and relationships that is created to make the teacher's job possible: "System leadership is impossible. Expected to address the needs of all children, the superintendent knows that it can't be done."

Yet how many educational wars still must be waged between "each" and "all?" And why do schools find it impossible to address simultaneously the needs of each child (the nature of the work) and every child (the scope of the work)? The reason lies in the interdependence of those two concepts—scope and nature—and especially that the scope of a problem can change its nature.

The familiar forest-and-the-trees metaphor can help us picture this interdependence and why schools believe it is impossible to deal with both "each student" and "all students." As Cuban noted, the scope of the teacher's work focuses on the individual tree. The fundamental nature of that job requires interaction with each tree. The scope of the superintendent's job, on the other hand, deals with the forest. The nature of that job requires creating and sustaining interdependent relationships that ensure the growth of each and every tree.

Obviously, schooling must be a both/and and not an either/or process. New research about how individuals learn and about how organizations learn can help us conceive of how that goal might be achieved. From cognitive science, research on learning has provided revolutionary understandings of how the trees grow. From organizational research on learning organizations has come related understandings of how to develop and manage the interdependent relationships that can connect homes, classrooms, buildings, and districts into a nurturing, community forest.

Leader As Juggler

Without those understandings as a common base, describing the school leader's role has proved difficult, even mysterious to outsiders. For example, here's how a New Hampshire superintendent recently characterized the scope and nature of his job to a nationally known researcher who had complained that "superintendents are a mystery to me." "In fact," she said, "the whole human support system in schools still is a mystery to me. … Somewhere there must be another plane, which we're not seeing."

At that point, to identify that other plane, this superintendent asked the researcher "to visualize superintendents as jugglers … keeping a number of balls in the air … and every little while someone keeps coming in and adds a new one." Another superintendent chimed in that sometimes onlookers add a "chainsaw," and a principal pointed out that the challenging aspects of their job felt no different for them. Then one teacher noted that it's actually the same for them except that "their balls are very fragile eggs … which can't be dropped!"

That leader-as-juggler metaphor provides important insights about the nature and scope of the work done by administrators and teachers whose roles encompass managing a system of elements toward common purposes. For instance:

* When you are juggling, no one ball can have priority. Instead, one's first concern must be to keep the overall process going. The scope of the work entails moving everything together through time and space.

* Keeping all the balls in the air is the nature of the work; and it is highly dependent upon maintaining relationships among the parts in both time and space.

* The juggler is accountable for a system of components whose aim is to survive as a system. Once it "stops" it no longer exists.

* Sustaining that system's continuing existence by maintaining alignment and relationships among parts; by providing momentum to each part that keeps the system moving together through time; and by performing a less-noticeable but nevertheless critical function—maintaining constant awareness of factors outside the system that could throw it off-balance and then taking actions to avoid them.

Beyond Understanding

This juggler metaphor helps illuminate what AASA had heard its members telling them. Contributing to the seeming impossibility of their fundamental leadership tasks until now has been the lack of means or tools that matched the scope and nature of the situations to which their juggling had to respond.

As system leaders, AASA members required tools that could maintain here-and-now interactions with the everyday work of everyone in the system. They had to be able to deal with problems of alignment and connecting in real time and space, managing interactions (rather than actions) among staff, and continually improving their system's capacities and then sustaining those capacities—all as part of work.

Understanding the nature of this system leadership "problem" can be valuable knowledge for those who envision and plan future systems. But for those whose daily actions influence the present lives of children, just understanding the problem is seldom sufficient. There also must be ways to act on that knowledge. And school leaders lacked the tools to do this.

Bridging the Gap

Participants at AASA's Aspen conference in August 1994, "Seeking New Connections: Learning, Technology and Systemic Change," identified three seemingly unbridgeable gaps between school visions and actions. They recognized that schools' capacities to operate as systems were limited by gaps of purpose, space, and time.

* School practitioners' daily actions had been disconnected from their intended common purposes. The mental models or visions that gave meaning to their actions varied according to where they were in the system. Like the blind men in the fable who were trying to figure out what an elephant was like, the part of the system they touched often became the "whole beast."

* School people were disconnected physically from each other as they did their work—one teacher to a classroom, one principal to a building, one superintendent to a district, etc.

* School practitioner's work was disconnected in time from those whose prior decisions influenced it. People had found few ways to capitalize on the natural interdependence among those whose daily actions influenced what could happen in the classroom.

In their conclusion, Aspen contributors stressed the power that could be released if all participants in a system understood their interdependence and had an infrastructure that provided the means to act each day on that understanding.

Just in Time

Fortunately, the world outside of schools has provided a significant body of theory and practice focused on bridging internal connectivity gaps as part of daily work. In the midst of national fascination with the Internet's information highway, the organizational world discovered that access to all the information one could ever want wasn't the critical issue. What was needed was "knowledge," much of which had to be created internally. The hands-on tacit knowledge of the frontline worker has to be continually transformed into the explicit knowledge that becomes the organization's ways of doing business.

Thus, the concept of Intranets and internally networked "groupware" gained power. These provided interactive connections for people within organizations who needed to function as a virtual team. Quickly recognizing how these internal knowledge-building scaffolds can impact organizational productivity, most of the Fortune 1000 companies now are planning to implement them in the next 12 months.

As one respected industry leader noted this year: "The era of the standalone computer is over. … We're in a communication revolution now that focuses on connections, not crunching. … When technology works it enhances the value of people. These are relationship technologies … that encourage and advance relationships among individuals. … The market is in relationships. … The killer application is people."

Sustaining Relationships

To act on this knowledge, AASA recently announced its creation of a National Center for Connected Learning that would create understanding and support for the tools that school CEOs have been missing—leadership technologies that weave together the technological and process tools necessary for re-connecting educators and their communities into effective child-focused systems.

These principles underlie this concept of leadership technology:

* Leadership is the creation and management of relationships.

* Relationships can be understood as information (i.e., like values, relationships can't be seen until something happens or someone acts). Those actions, literal or virtual, create information. In organizations, relationships become formalized by the nature and direction that information flows.

* Technology can be a tool of for creating and sustaining relationships; and therefore

* Technology can be used as a tactical leadership tool.

To apply these principles and learn from the applications, one of NCCL's first announced activities involves a strategic, public/private partnership with the Family Education Network and Communities In Schools (see sidebar) to address one new dimension of connectedness faced by school leaders.

Research on factors that most influence children's learning has expanded the scope and nature of what has been considered schooling. Parents are increasingly acknowledged as their children's first teachers and the whole village as their continual teachers.

These new understandings of how the two worlds inside and outside schools dynamically influence each other expands the scope of the educational system. If these two worlds can be functionally connected, school leaders will have new opportunities to increase the effectiveness of the learning/schooling/community system so that continual momentum and progress can be sustained. This new effort with the Family Education Network and Communities In Schools will enable school districts to join AASA in this learning exploration.

Making Connections

A developing understanding of system leadership, along with today's practical technological possibilities, suggest that the missing links between vision and action can be bridged in today's schools. Building knowledge is the name of the game, and today's processes and technologies can break through the isolation that has limited the schools' capacities to improve and grow.

Old ways of understanding learning, teaching, and leadership resulted in visions in which stand-alone people using stand-alone technologies seemed to make sense. Knowing what we now know, and with knowledge of what we now can do, this no longer can be accepted.

Lewis Rhodes, Consultant, Sabu Inc., Silver Spring, Md.