July 12, 2007

On the leading edge: some ideas on managing huge technological change in education

Four factors for leading change at the leading edge

A few months ago I spoke at the National College for School Leadership, keynoting the ICT for Primary Leaders of the Future part of the course. The talk was based around the five "usual suspects", the factors I believe are vital to comprehend in order to engage our learners to their full potential.

At the end, however, I outlined four challenges for these future leaders of change in the schools system. I don't know how many leaders read my blog, but if you do or know someone who is, then feel free to send this as far and wide as you think it's worth. I think there are some messages a few more leaders could take on board.
If you want the audio and slides you can view the video right here: (I've put a super high quality version here: 28.4 MB, higher quality, m4a/Quicktime)

1. Anyone can know How, but you can only know Why by being In
There is a new literacy set, at the very least an adaptation of the one we most commonly use, which we need to be working on with our students. Teaching these is notoriously difficult, eliciting from students a haphazard affair with more or less success depending on the questioning and personal literacy skills of the teacher. I think if we are to think about creating a new literacy framework which includes media literacy there are three things leaders have to understand:

  • Firstly is the greatest skill of them all: know when to teach, know when to stand back and listen. You're a leader, not an expert in everything. You're likely not an expert in social media to the same extent as some of your staff and certainly your students. If someone else can do it better, let them explain how it works. Paraphrasing some arguments you don't really understand will only make people feel the message is that little bit weaker, and those who feel they should be there leading things, too, will feel that their ideas have not been recruited (Corante). (Great managers teach (when they should; Lifehack).
  • Second, you've got to participate if you are going to engage with others in the the ways social media and gaming can help improve the education of our young people. It's not good enough for leaders of change to pay lip service to these seismic changes - the students, for one, will smell you out for the lack of interest in the thing that interests them the most. Do you want to give an internet safety talk? Get yourself on Bebo for eight weeks and see where the real dangers lie (and they're not where you expect them). Going to tell us how much potential Facebook has for education? Not until you've been on there long enough to see where the potential really lies.

    Importantly, if you are going to encourage this in your school you've got to, for a while, be the most regular commenter on school blogs, Flickr streams and wikis. Participate, participate, participate. If you do it, the sharing culture you're looking for will largely take care of itself.

Death_by_risk_aversion_2 2. Death by risk aversion?
Does this describe your school or management environment? The phrase comes from Kathy Sierra's post of the same name. She uses the analogy of the Roomba process, whereby good things happen to those that don't plan it that way. We can only go one step at a time before seeing what the next step might be. Planning out all the steps in advance means risking a loss of creative spark that creates the next achievement, that unturns a stone you hadn't noticed before.

Hugh asks if you are "owned by Wall Street", if you are only as good as your last financial quarter and anything else means that silly social media project you're doing will be killed. The notion that a school's aims be dictated by a private bank of investors is abhorrent to most yet, every time a leader starts to avert risk, taking into account only the negatives, it's equivalent to being run by a bunch of faceless investors.

Who is telling the leader not to do something? Who is saying that it's too risky? The thing is, no-one probably is. It's rather the expectation that the faceless investors (parents who don't know about the idea yet, press, staff who only engage when they are complaining) will revolt. On the contrary, the more control exercised by a leader before an idea finds its wings the less trust they will garner in the longer term from their staff (link to Dave Weinberger).

There are some symptoms you can look out for before it's too late. The blog post that you write is only the stub of a conversation, remember, so open up the comments to let the conversation be in a place that you can see and in which you can participate. Not opening the comments up to the public is a common leadership decision and, on closer interrogation, it's because there is a genuine fear of fast feedback. Leaders like time to prepare their justifications, even when the walls are falling down around them. Blog comments are just a little too publicly fast.

If you don't open the comments then nobody will say bad stuff on your blog, but they will be saying it elsewhere. You just won't know about it.

3. Spread the word
Schools are normally great places for viruses to spread of both the medical and vocal variety, yet when good stuff happens it's hard to get the word to every kid, parent, aunt and uncle in the school community. The role of leaders in spreading the word about good news, through technology in particular, cannot be underestimated, yet some leaders have debatable communication skills at the best of times (think of the last PowerPoint you witnessed from one of your leaders).

There will always be glowing examples of open, online communicators in leadership, the first or early adopters, yet they may not take on the next stage in the process - employing the ideas of the other early adopters around them, finding cohesion. East Lothian's Head of Education provides one example where leadership in online communication from the top has helped reduce the permissions-based culture for those 'underneath', although there are still some pockets where permission is clearly felt necessary.

One of the ways to approach this is like a marketer. Take a read, for example, of Dan and Chip Heath's Made To Stick:

  • Simple
    Have a single clear mission by finding the core of what you do and ridding the noise and chaos that no doubt currently surrounds it.
  • Unexpected
    Putting a man on the moon before the end of the 60s seemed like science fiction, not science. Break down misconceptions of what is and is not possible.
  • Concrete
    Don't abstract - put forward notions with which no-one can quibble: Man, Moon, Decade.
  • Credible
    The man on the moon idea came from a President's mouth. Leaders have to lead by making informed unexpected decisions. They have to know the detail of what is being proposed, too, which means becoming more expert than they have been in new domans.
  • Emotional
    Appeal to the aspirations and emotions of people, and take off that analytical hat. Does your education leader want your region to be the best education region in the world? If not, why not?
  • Story
    The man on the moon story is all about overcoming obstacles, and has inspired many other stories. Make sure you have a story to tell if you want to lead others with you.

The curse of knowledge is often a reason for leaders obfuscating and missing the point. As Dan says, a  modern day manager's/leader's take on the man on the moon would read something like:

"Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity's future."


"We're going to put a man on the moon within a decade".

I know which one I prefer. Has anyone done "100 innovative ideas in 100 days" at their school yet?

Learn how to communicate effectively, without the meeting request and memorandum (think about Google's 20% time and efficient creative meetings). Learn how to present this stuff to people. Lots of people know the stuff, but very few have worked out a way to explain it succinctly in a way that people can feel and use themselves.

4. Sustainable energy?
From Andy Hargreaves at last year's Building Learning Communities (available as vodcast):

Sustainability: "Sustainability does not simply mean that it can last (£). It addresses how particular initiatves can be developed without compromising the development of otheres in the surrounding environment, now and in the future."


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Too... much... good... stuff... - you should get colds more often ;-)


Ewan, thanks ever so much for the summary which I'll bring to the attention of all of those who were in the audience and more. I liked the reference to 'Made to Stick' here, which I've just finished myself. Lots of good advice in there for those of us 'inside this stuff' who need to persuade people who don't live it or know it or believe it. Many thanks.

I really appreciated reading this post, Ewan; I need to return to examine it in more detail, so much in it!- it adresses the kinds of issues I shall need to deal with, as my new job at Hutchesons' will involve leading change and development in the school's "e-community". I was struck by today's (9.8.07)post in the "Slow Leadership" blog, which also describes bottom-up ways of how to implement change. ( http://slowleadership.org/blog/?p=136) Worth reading!

Thanks for that link - a new blog for the aggregator!

Great information! I absolutely agree with your points on media literacy. Too often, leaders/teachers “run the show,” forgetting that we can learn and improve our skills, even if we learn from students. I think that the saying practice what you preach is appropriate in this case. Teachers are always having students work together and participate in cooperative learning, whereas teachers are more likely to work in isolation (never learning/growing from collaboration).
There is so much to be said about posting good news on student/staff academic, athletic, and other extracurricular achievements being posted for staff, parents, and community members to see. What better way to do that than with technology! We hear so many negative things about our school systems in the media today that good goes so easily unnoticed.
The PowerPoint clip was absolutely hilarious! There are way too many leaders and teachers that try to be “academic showoffs” when relaying information, setting a goal, talking about change, etc., causing half of the people in attendance to miss the point of their lecture/presentation.
Thanks for the great ideas!

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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