Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 7|April|2002

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(as well as the futurist and guru)

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

Sometimes they ride into town on white horses. "Let's become the first laptop school (or state) in the nation!" Next thing you know, life is full of change and churn - not all for the good. What's wrong with this picture?

So many of these people specialize in creating anxiety.

"You're falling behind. Run faster! Close the gap!"

We must remember than CHURN is usually not good change. It has the roar, the foam and the excitement of surf but is often "full of sound and fury signifying nothing." (Macbeth)

© 2002, J. McKenzie.

In contrast with the leadership style described in Michael Fullan's book reviewed in this issue of FNO, visionaries take pride in the boldness of their ideas. They are happiest when skirting the bleeding edge of change, pushing the school or organization into uncharted areas.

Visionaries are supposed to have the capacity to see over the horizon - a talent not well distributed among mere mortals.

One superintendent speaking at a national conference mentioned that he expected all teachers in his district to be rabbits (rather than snails).

"We create a zone of discomfort," he bragged with considerable pride. "Feed the rabbits. Starve the snails."

Quality, rigor, communication and value may be left behind in the race to change.

In a time of rapid change and heavy marketing, schools are especially vulnerable to leaders who might fashion partnerships with technology companies without carefully considering the consequences.

Sadly, many visionaries are better at imagining the benefits of innovations than they are at managing the change process so that benefits are actualized. It is enough, evidently, that such leaders be able to grasp new strategies that will put the school or the district into the lead.

Being early sometimes takes on more meaning than getting it right.

As an example, a leader might promote the purchase of laptops for all students without understanding the organizational development or the infrastructure required to convert such an investment into a robust learning experience.

Without full engagement of the staff in program and professional development, conservative, skeptical staff members might pay little attention to the laptops and continue with business as usual. Without adequate investment in network access to the Internet, students who attempt Internet research might find themselves crawling at unacceptable speeds.

In times such as these when we have seen companies go bust, Enron accounting practices distort reality and many bold new product ideas fail to deliver value, we need leaders capable of practicing discernment, as outlined in the March issue of FNO.

Churn often represents the opposite of healthy change. We sometimes watch a visionary leader turn everything upside down and inside out, speaking of 21st Century skills, digital classrooms, a digital landscape, digital literacy and a bold new future that makes little mention of classical values and traditions. They give the impression that the "new new thing" is all that counts. Staff is soon divided into true believers and skeptics. Discernment and questioning is viewed as recalcitrance and heresy.

So-called visionaries have come up with such disturbing and foolish notions as the digital library, suggesting that the Internet is an adequate source for any inquiry. Evidence to the contrary rarely penetrates their digitally narrow world view.

VERB: 1. To cause to move to and fro violently: agitate, convulse, rock, shake. See CALM, REPETITION. 2. To be in a state of emotional or mental turmoil: boil, bubble, burn, ferment, seethe, simmer, smolder. See CALM.

Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition.  1995.

For a wonderful visual showing churn, click here to view a Michael Leunig cartoon.

In the 1970s, this type of school leader was briefly heralded as a "change agent," but the term rapidly fell into disrepute as folks noticed that such leaders often moved from job to job without actually completing the work they launched.

Several decades of research into effective change strategies for schools have discredited this kind of leadership, suggesting instead, that sustained, deeply rooted improvements require much more than bold ideas. They require an intimate knowledge of local conditions, traditions, norms and resources. They demand sensitive, handcrafted orchestration of efforts. They cannot succeed unless the leader and her/his lieutenants do more listening and engaging than preaching.

Evangelism, strangely, is heralded by some technology advocates as a way to develop enthusiasm for new tools, but the judgment and fervor trailing such strategies often provoke opposition, resentment and resistance rather than conversion.

"Take it on faith!" Not likely now that the bubble has burst.

Lighthouse Schools

Schools with an avid appetite for change sometimes refer to themselves as "lighthouse schools" or "lighthouse districts." As new strategies, trends and notions of educational improvement come along, such schools take pride in adopting the innovations early on. They become famous for setting trends and embracing innovations early.

Unfortunately, most untested new approaches will expose the light house districts and schools to surprises and disappointments - what Fullan calls, "implementation dips." Smart leaders devote plenty of attention to planning for such surprises.

"What's the worst that could happen?"

A basic planning strategy - Force Field Analysis - calls for the listing of obstacles and issues the team might encounter prior to project launch. The team then creates an action plan or solution for each problem on the list.

Often, visionaries leave out this step. They have a tendency, like the mythical figure, Icarus, to fly too close to the sun. Their wax melts, the feathers fall away and they tumble, as he did, into the sea of disenchantment.

"What could possibly go wrong?"

And even when the implementation experience forces issues and problems out into the open, visionaries have been known to shoot messengers or wrap themselves in cloaks of denial.

"How are things going out there?"

"Great, boss. It's just like you said it would be."

A disturbing tendency with visionaries is the hiring of disciples - true believers who share the vision (and blindness) of the great leader and help maintain several layers of insulation from the news of issues and problems. Those who share alarming data or dare to question the vision, are often branded heretics and exiled in ways that will prevent them from gaining a broad audience.

During this decade of rethinking the value of new technologies in schools, we need leaders who prize discernment, pacing, well-being and focus. We've had enough bandwagons, silver bullets and quick fixes to last a long time.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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