Kim Cofino recently convinced the Head of her international school to blog. Kim reached out to lots of folks and asked them to comment on his first post where he asked for advice. Since I was asked, I shared some of my views on school leadership for the future and on educational technology.

After my comments (below), I add some thoughts I should have included regarding the limitations of blogging. As always, your comments are welcome.

Dear Mr. Macdonald,

Welcome to blogging! Now you are a blogger! That was no big deal, right?

Blogging IS no big deal. It is just writing, but on the Web. Sometimes there is even an audience for what you write. I suspect that you will never receive as many comments as for this post and you may not even get as far as mine. Regardless, I took my assignment from your colleague Ms. Cofino seriously.

Blogging (and its social media cousins) are useful if you have a confessional nature and feel like sharing your thoughts with the world or if you need to have a question answered. It may also serve a utilitarian function in easily communicating with your school community. Blogging, like nearly every other school use of the Web, is essentially a literacy activity. One challenge for school leaders is finding ways to use computers to enhance the rest of what it means to be educated.

For example, Is “math” taught in a Pre-Gutenberg fashion at your school or has computation and the social sciences’ need for number transformed kids’ experience as it has radically reinvented real mathematics?

Regrettably, much of what is done in schools in the name of edtech or ICT is really just a form of “computer appreciation” The true power of the computer lies in its power as a computational instrument for constructing knowledge, the concretizing of formal ideas and the creation of artifacts in intellectual domains that would otherwise be inaccessible to children. This ability to use the computer to amplify human potential is only possible with awareness and teachers’ ongoing development of expertise. Leadership is critical for setting high expectations, asking “so what?” questions, supporting continuous growth of teachers and creating an atmosphere where the technology functions in the ways children expect – free of counter-productive, expensive and hysterical IT practices.

Leaders in the digital age need to redefine “new” and “progress.” New isn’t about what you buy as much as what your students DO. Progress isn’t measured by bandwidth, but when classrooms are less mind-numbing, soul-killing and time-wasting. Leaders need to recognize that young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity and find ways to make school more intense, without making it more chaotic.

So, blogging at least familiarizes yourself with an activity required of students. That’s the first step towards making sound educational decisions. Too many school leaders mandate that children do things that they themselves would never do or may never have even attempted. That isn’t leadership. Leaders also recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants and that computing offers yet another attempt to realize the ideas of Dewey, Papert, Malaguzzi and other progressive educators.

Now, on to the actual nature of your questions…

The greatest challenge facing school leaders is to abandon the notions that 1) education is based on scarcity and 2) learning is the direct causal result of having been taught.

In the 21st Century, there is no reason for school to be concerned with creating winners and losers. Sorting, ranking, grading, labeling and classifying of students are destructive artifacts of a bygone era when access to education was scarce and limited to a privileged few. This is no longer the case. I won’t go into proving the plethora of examples to support this argument. I suspect you can find them yourself.

School in itself is a technology with benefits and consequences – affordances and constraints that dictate the experience of its inhabitants. In the future, your school will NOT have the monopoly on children’s time you currently hold. The challenge is to answer the question of why your students and teachers are co-located in the same space for X hours per day?

Leadership requires serious reconsideration of heuristics like homework, testing, grading and age segregation. These discussions need to be public and your constituents need to know where you stand or how you are thinking.

International schools are blessed with an embarrassment of riches and resources that most educators would covet. However, international schools also suffer from a number of self-inflicted constraints that are on the wrong side of history. Despite their independence, wealth, talent and outstanding facilities, many international schools refuse to innovate because they THINK it will be bad for business. That’s why they too many have discriminatory admissions policies, promise every parent that their six year-old is Harvard-bound and chase IB, AP and every other curricular fads that makes their schools indistinguishable. The prevalent assumption of international schools that kids with mobility will not miss a single day of the US, British or UK curriculum is folly and a noose around the neck of innovation. (The best schools have already abandoned centralized inflexible curricula like the AP while less secure schools grab on with both hands.)

Reflective school leaders know that this homogeneity of approach is ridiculous, unrealistic and ignores the diverse needs, interests and talents of children. Ultimately, it is also bad for the business of international schools.

In many places, you are in the catbird’s seat. If a parent needs a school for their English-speaking child, you may be the only game in town. Yet, far too many international school leaders lack the courage necessary to articulate a unique educational stance and say, “we do things differently for the following reasons…” If you have a waiting list, you do not have to pander.

I truly believe there is a significant market for schools that are not Oxford/Harvard Prep and designed for the children who are good at “doing school.”

Being a franchise of Oxford/Harvard Prep is no way to do good or to do well. That model makes your school more easily replaced by YouTube videos and online testing.

At the very least, school leaders should recognize that people learn differently and invest in some “school within a school” programs where alternative models may be offered to children and parents. Boeing spends billions annually on planes that never fly while schools spend almost nothing on R&D despite the constant rhetoric about innovation. My experience is that whenever parents are offered a chance at a different educational experience for their child, they will seize it. Alternative programs within your school serve as incubators of innovation and may drive future practice in ways you can’t possibly anticipate.

In summary, What if the policy of your school was to make every day the best seven hours of a child’s life?

Best Wishes on your journey,

Gary

I wish I had pointed out that it may be difficult for a new blogger to assess the expertise, point of view or bias of a commenter he/she doesn’t know. I should have warned the new blogger about the torrent of clichés and meaningless platitudes that fill blog comments just as they bog down most contemporary discussions of education. I should have warned of the “attaboy” responses awarded for simply blogging.  I should have mentioned that most commenters have little or no interest in the thoughts of the other respondents. Most of all, there should have been a discussion of whether or how much the blogger should respond to reader comments.

Education is in desperate need of real dialogue. Social media may be an imperfect vessel for mindful discussion.