Connecting Leadership and Learning

Executive Summary of an AASA Position Paper on the National Center for Connected Learning by Lewis A. Rhodes with Paul D. Houston

Much of what happens in schools today no longer makes sense. It makes even less sense that we in education find ourselves relatively powerless to do something about it. After all, education is the business of sense-making. What is it that is keeping dedicated professionals—teachers and school and district administrators—from fulfilling the purpose that brought them into and keeps them in education: to make a difference in children’s lives? Why should it be so hard?

This AASA position paper strives to answer those questions. Its purpose is to provide a different context for making sense of what can be observed happening in America’s schools, then, within that perspective, to describe new strategies that can make sense for today’s schools and tomorrow’s. It has been prepared as a planning document for AASA’s National Center for Connected Learning, which will use these concepts to initiate development and support for more effective, systemic, and sustainable ways to operate 20th and 21st century schools. The center will focus on new understandings of the inter-relationship of system leadership and learning and on new roles for technology in creating and sustaining those relationships.

Misdirected Criticism

Today’s critics accurately focus their anger at the lack of change in the basic workings of schools, but they are completely wrong about the reason. They believe that educators won’t change, but the sad truth is they can’t. With a work setting so fragmented that new knowledge about what really works falls through the cracks between isolated practitioners, whatever the organization may learn from its attempts to improve and change cannot be sustained.

Fixing schools requires educators to respond differently to the situations they face daily. Sustained changes in performance have to be a consequence of what they learn there. When schools lack the capacity to support continual on-the-job learning and cannot translate that knowledge into how the organization works, changes remain isolated and transitory. No wonder that the history of educational change has been characterized as random acts of improvement!

How can the schools we have become the schools we want? In its 1995 report, "Using What We Have To Get the Schools We Need," the Consortium on Productivity in the Schools pointed out that we already know enough. But how can we apply this knowledge to developing, within schools, the capacity to create changes of the scope, nature and immediacy required?

Making Sense

This position paper addresses those critical questions by looking first at what does not make sense about today’s schools. These paradoxes—which contribute to the public’s growing frustration—include:

Paradox: Advocates for systemic change in education can’t agree on the system they are trying to fix. Why do attempts to determine which structure is at the focal point of systemic change frequently become enmeshed in "everything-seems-to-be-connected-to-
everything-else" gridlock?

Paradox: Today’s leaders and managers do many "right things" in ways that make them seem incompetent as leaders and managers. Why is Dilbert so popular? Is something missing between talking-the-talk and walking-the-walk?

Paradox: The operation was a success, but the doctor died! Why do successful practices wither away when their champions leave? Why can’t proven practices be sustained and spread throughout a school system and to other systems?

Paradox: Technology plays no role (or a small one) as a tool in major national reform or restructuring efforts. Major reports and initiatives often mention technology as an end in itself. It is portrayed as a change requiring restructuring of the educational environment. Yet few national efforts aimed at the systemic restructuring of schools rely on technology as a strategic tool to help realign and reconnect the roles and relationships that are the essence of that structure. Why?

Paradox: In general, schools are the only organized work settings where available technologies tools that—enhance and extend what people can do—are not used to increase their workers’ productivity. This fact flies in the face of what happens in most organizations, where technology’s impact on productivity also provides systemwide organizational values that justify its costs. Why does the public expect technology to be applied differently in schools than other work organizations? Why in schools but not other organizations are the excuses of high cost and lack of training accepted as reasons for not using technologies to add value to the entire organization’s work and results? Why would teachers be the only professionals in modern society to not welcome and demand tools that can provide them with "the power to be their best?"

Paradox: Today, when we can connect instantaneously with people and experiences around the world (and beyond), society seems to be coming apart. How can the technologies creating the problem contribute to its solution?

Paradox: Many of the paradoxes that abound in education are not seen as paradoxes, just as the way things are. Why should so many paradoxes in American education exist?

Questioning Paradoxes

The discussion of paradoxes leads to the ultimate paradox: The only system that is called a "system"—a school district—is the one that is most difficult to understand as a system.

In its report, the Consortium on Productivity in the Schools had suggested some answers. Perhaps, said the consortium, America needs to look at its schools through a different lens. "Without a sense of the whole, we end up with what has become a familiar cycle of patchwork improvement and disappointment."

To illustrate why a common definition of the whole is needed before trying to fix it, the AASA position paper employs the Blind Men and the Elephant metaphor to portray how individuals try to define an elephant without sight. Each in touch with a different part of that system could be "partially in the right and yet could all be in the wrong." In that parable, it is clear that the scope of a problem changes the problem.

Consider, though, what might happen if the Blind Men had an additional task beyond determining what it was they had hold of. What if they then had to determine how to make the elephant move in a different direction, or how to help it grow new capacities?

Now, simply understanding the scope of the problem ("It’s an elephant, stupid!") would be insufficient. The blind men also would have to understand the elephant’s essential nature. They would have to believe that each of the parts they touched were interconnected. Even if they weren’t quite sure how, they would know that—for the whole elephant to move or grow—all of its parts would have to be involved in some way. The blind men would learn a fundamental principle: the scope and nature of a solution must match the scope and nature of the problem.

The school district has been education’s missing elephant. The result has been an inability to tap the unique potentials only accessible at that point. Lost are possibilities for reducing the time required for bringing about changes that can meet needs of all children in a community, not just a few in a building or classroom. Lost, too, are possibilities for developing an infrastructure that can sustain changes across classrooms even when champions and leaders leave and to embed new ideas in the community’s expectations.

Reframing Paradoxes

The position paper offers additional insights as it explores the new knowledge which challenges the assumptions about classrooms, schools, and school systems that frame those paradoxes. These new conceptual bases emerging from usually separate domains of learning, instruction, and organizational management share a common core in cognitive science. Research, enabled by modern medical technologies such as Positron Emission Tomography scans and Magnetic Resonance Imaging, brings unprecedented insights into human learning. It fortifies what some have believed—that learning is a natural activity strongly influenced by learners themselves.

With these new views of the human mind’s inner workings, we now have certainty that knowledge is constructed from the inside, not just inserted by external sources. Starting in the womb and continuing throughout our life span, human beings seek meaning out of the challenges they confront. They strive simultaneously to understand the world and themselves from their interactions with the surrounding environment. They take in information and connect it to what they already know to construct new knowledge and skills. By testing these new capacities through continuing interaction, they increase their ability to act intelligently and solve problems.

At the core of this emerging knowledge base, therefore, is a key understanding. Human minds (those of children and adults) require sustained, purposeful environments that permit learning from their work. This is more than a requirement. If America wants to develop and sustain both effective people and effective organizations, it is a necessity.

Confronting Barriers

Unfortunately, this "new" core of knowledge challenges the assumptions upon which classrooms, schools and school systems have operated. The position paper explores these barriers to accepting and applying this new knowledge.

Current roles, relationships, and pedagogy have been shaped by an outmoded view of how human learning occurs—in both children and adults. These assumptions are so profoundly embedded in the minds of both the public and many practitioners that we find it impossible for us to change the way schools operate.

These outdated assumptions about human learning are responsible for the great number of education’s paradoxes—i.e., situations that seem opposed to common sense because this "common sense" is imprinted in a seldom-surfaced model of the ways schools are supposed to operate. This makes it impossible for educators to solve the problem by themselves. To be effective the entire community must be engaged in re-thinking the connection between schools and the results wanted from them.

A National Center

The position paper concludes with a specific strategy for action—a National Center for Connected Learning at AASA that will focus on the unique needs for systemic leadership and support strategies for American school systems.

America’s schools require new ways to connect the learning processes that inform both policy and practice. Planning and action must be connected in new ways. These new strategies must be useful to policymakers, and at the same time, help communities and their school districts develop the capacity to change themselves. The American Association of School Administrators’ National Center for Connected Learning will take on that challenge.

The center’s activities will capitalize on three emerging areas of organizational knowledge.

* Understanding that the quality of an organization’s results are more a product of the relationships among its parts than any one part itself.

* Recognizing that system leadership is a connecting process. This perspective focuses on leaders’ actions that provide a framework for establishing, and then the means for sustaining, the critical connections enabling the whole to be more than the sum of its parts.

* Visualizing information technologies as relational tools that enhance and extend what individuals do and that serve as connectors of people attempting to accomplish mutual purposes. The present explosion of Intranets in business and industry—which are basically an internal Internet—provides an example of this dimension of technology.

The NCCL’s vision emerges from a set of beliefs and present knowledge. That vision encompasses a school district and community where together they undertake the job of refashioning outdated, constraining mental models into new understandings of how people and organizations, schools included, work. This new knowledge emerges from the inside-out, meaning it develops from their own experiences in support of children’s learning that can be tested and sustained by new organizational scaffolds that link staff, students, and community. This new way of work supports new behaviors, technology and processes until they can become part of the community and school culture.

The knowledge derives from what we as a society already know and do, but we do not apply in our schools. This includes new knowledge and understandings of people and organizations that have emerged within the last two decades—along with new methodologies based on them—that now can address the gaps of purpose, space, and time that have served as blinders hiding the true nature of the system needed to support learning in our communities.

AASA’s beliefs come from experience.

* Educators can connect, collaborate and learn as part of their daily roles.

* Organizational change can develop from professional and personal changes generated as part of work. These learnings can become a sustainable base of knowledge and understanding across a district and community that can remain as permanent infrastructure whether or not individual champions leave.

* A single "infrastructure" (people, processes and technology) can link all components of a school district to the single purpose for which they exist: the continual development of children's capacities to learn.

Initial Activities

Upon this base of knowledge and belief, the NCCL will focus on:

* Developing and articulating a coherent frame for understanding the nature of the relationships that hold schools together as effectively performing, learning-centered organizations. This organizational vision will make it possible to perceive connections to common purposes and to identify key leverage points for capacity development.

* Identifying and working with others to develop and apply technology as a tool of connectedness; and

* Exploring—defining and articulating—the critical, unique role of system leadership so that this new knowledge can be integrated into both leadership preparation and in-service support programs.

Designed to erode the paradoxes constraining schools today, the NCCL’s strategy might itself be seen as a paradox—i.e., opposed to the common-sense notion that systems change from the top-down. Instead, the products of NCCL’s efforts will create new opportunities for systemic learning that start with improvements in children learning and use these to drive a simultaneous inside-out learning process that connects the learning of practitioners and policymakers to that compelling catalyst.

Today America has the knowledge to operate its schools as continually improving systems of people dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children. Now it needs wisdom—that unique form of knowledge that develops as the product of learning from repeated experiences. Only by learning together, can America deal with the scope, nature, and immediacy of its educational needs. This is the mission of the National Center for Connected Learning.

Lew Rhodes is a consultant for Sabu Inc., in Silver Spring, Md., and a former associate executive director at AASA. Paul D. Houston, AASA executive director, collaborated in preparing this position paper.

Interested in More?

Those who would like a copy of the complete position statement about AASA’s National Center for Connected Learning may request one from AASA Member Services at 703-528-0700.