Leadership: The Connective Tissue of Educational Change
“True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.”
I delivered my first virtual class in 2009. I was in front of a blue screen, behind a desk. Across the studio in front of me was a huge monitor which showed me on one side, my slides on the other and the U.S. capitol in the background. Two technicians sat side-by-side on my left behind sound-proof glass. I never saw the 23 participants and could only communicate with them through a chat screen on my laptop. That involved looking down as if I were not engaged. Ouch.
I had no idea how it went, feeling surreal and exhausted after the screen went blank. Two things stuck out. First, I felt disconnected much more than they did (via their feedback). Second, the client required a test as part of the course. Not only were the multiple-choice answers nearly perfect, but the four short answer questions produced the longest and most detailed responses I’d ever seen – essays rather than bullet points. Somehow, I’d been sucked dry and they’d overperformed. What was that about?
In their feedback, the prevailing comments had to do with their feeling more engaged in the learning than in an in-person classroom, that their breakouts were more streamlined and productive than the usual table groups, and (this was the kicker), they felt more connected to me as a fellow learner rather than as an instructor. I wondered if my discomfort was not because the medium was ineffective, but because it was novel? Bingo. The traditional classroom stood in the way of their leadership; the digital one made room. What if our traditional classroom has been preventing rather than promoting the connective tissue of continuous learning?
"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
The sudden pandemic-driven breakdown of the big box school, the vanished world of in-class learning, and the extreme democratization of virtual connection has given learners new opportunities for engagement coupled with a new level of accountability. They are, and always will be from this point forward, increasingly in charge of leading their own development. Anything that stands in the way of students developing these habits should be discarded: segregation by age, teachers responsible for lessons, administrators at the peak of the school’s direction, cheating means helping other students, tests measuring achievement instead of curriculum, schooling as a series of events disconnected from the rest of everyday life, and thinking that connectedness necessitates proximity. As the traditional, linear life of our schools has been withdrawn, we have created a vacuum. What a perfect time to introduce leadership as our primary engine for future learning
STEM and STEAM are fine. So are social studies, performing arts, and wood shop. We need topics, which give us what to know. Now we have the perfect storm to give us access to how to be.
Shared leadership is the thread that links how to be to the school—empathy, political savvy, listening and feedback, embracing different learning styles, engagement and accountability. And we don’t have to work hard to teach these—we simply model them and create a context that nurtures them.
I suspect we’ll see some marriage of face-to-face and virtual, synchronous and asynchronous learning environments as the way forward. The way forward for all of us will not even resemble a straight line. So straight-line thinking about power, control, and leadership simply will not work.
I don’t claim to have an answer for this (that’s straight-line thinking at its most corrosive). I do have some first steps.
“It’s not about scarcity, it’s about abundance: The more power we share, the more power there is.”
Power and Control
You want to know about power? Watch kids play. You want to know about leadership? Watch kids play.
Our classrooms—whether kindergarten or corporate training centers—underestimate power and overestimate control. Even LMS (Learning Management Systems) too often promote a chalk-and-blackboard environment. Information, connections and assignments are parsed out in dribs and drabs: “Read chapter three and answer questions three, four, seven, and 13. Please be sure to make your response no fewer than 100 words, no more than 200. Floss before you brush. Be sure to set your alarm five minutes early . . . et al. Control squeezing out power.
I get that we need boundaries and rules to set expectations and to create a safe environment. However, if a rule does not promote shared leadership, give it the axe: more rules do not create more opportunities. Have you ever heard of an employee manual getting shorter? Peter Senge (The Vth Discipline) suggests that the only thing on a job description should be LEARN. Our children are not dumb. They know about hypocrisy—e.g. parents who insist their kids wear helmets when bicycling though they don’t. If we really want them to learn, why don’t we trust them enough to let them build the elastic edifice they need?
Management is about controlling others, leadership is about exploring self. Knowing how to read, analyze, construct, solve, assemble, synthesize, combine and separate are all wonderful tools. To learn and apply them in a tightly managed setting shrinks learners’ capacity rather than nurturing it. This capacity is developed through trial and error and cognitive and emotional exercise. You can’t learn how to swim by sitting in rows and moving your arms and feet around!
What if we accepted that the power of human curiosity, discovery, and creativity develop in indirect proportion to the weight of control—the more control, the less power?
“There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
We are being swept along at the confluence of technology, viral mayhem, social and economic turmoil and a culture in a cocoon whose next shape is undetermined. And we know that caterpillars have to dissolve into a sort of organic paste before they can re-form into flight-capability. For us, the dissolution is happening. Much of it is devastating and deeply wounding. That’s non-negotiable, but what we do next is.
The course we take, and the navigation we need for that course will not be linear. I’ve mixed metaphors shamelessly in this piece and played conceptual whack-a-mole. I don’t have answers, much less the Answer, and even couching the way forward that way is a mistake. I’d like to suggest a first step. Who can decide what to do, how, when and why? Everyone.
We’ve never had such anxiety and possibility in our lifetimes. We owe our future children a huge debt—much of this disruption is of our own making. Ambiguity, questions, risk, fearlessness and vulnerability will provide for us if we give them space and trust. And we can’t expect anyone, or any group of people, whom we exclude from this de- and re-construction of education to invest in the change.
This opportunity is painful and uncomfortable for all of us, even devastating for many. Why not have the next generation look back on this time and say of us, “They didn’t run and hide, they made it better. And they trusted us to lead. We’re more capable because they let us become so.”
As a companion piece, I’d like to share back2different, a pro bono podcast with people from all over the world in conversation about pushing forward rather than pushing back.
About the author
Mac Bogert is President of AZA Learning and a regular columnist for the Learning Counsel. He began his career as an English teacher. For the past 25 years, Mac has focused on the intersection of leadership and learning. In between, he is a musician, professional actor, yacht charter captain, staff development consultant, curriculum designer and author of Learning Chaos.