During Boot Camp last week, Sheryl turned me on to Phillip Schlechty’s newish book “Leading for Learning: How to Transform Schools into Learning Organizations” and I had a chance to get through a chunk of it on the cramped, smelly plane(s) to Melbourne. In it, he makes a pretty compelling case that “reform” is really not going to cut it in the face of the disruptions social Web technologies are creating and that we really do have to think more about “transform” when it comes to talking about schools. There are echoes of Sir Ken Robinson here, and I’ve still got Scott McLeod’s NECC presentation riff on Christensen’s “Disrupting Class” on my brain as well, especially the “the disruption isn’t online learning; it’s personalized learning” quote. And while there are others who I could cite here who are trumpeting the idea that this isn’t business as usual, I think Schlechty does as good a job as I’ve seen of breaking down why schools in their current form as “bureaucratic” structures will end up on the “ash heap of history” if we don’t get our brains around what’s happening. In a sentence:

Schools must be transformed from platforms for instruction to platforms for learning, from bureaucracies bent on control to learning organizations aimed at encouraging disciplined inquiry and creativity.

To that end, Schlechty refers to past efforts at reform as “tinkering toward utopia” and says that if we continue to introduce change at the edges, we’ll continue to spin our wheels. He says that schools are made up primarily of two types of systems, operating systems and social systems, and makes the point that up to now, most efforts to improve schools have centered on changing the former, not the latter. Here’s a key snip in that case:

As long as any innovations that are introduced can be absorbed by the existing operating systems without violating the limits of the social systems in which they are embedded, change in schools is more a matter of good management than one of leadership. Such changes can, in fact, be introduced through programs and projects and managed quite well by technically competent people who are familiar with the new routines required by the innovations and skilled in communicating to others what they know.

In these cases, while it is sometimes difficult to break old habits, usually after a brief period of resistance, old certanties are abandoned and new certainties are embraced. For example, teachers now routinely use PowerPoint slide shows where once they used overhead projectors and slate boards. The reason this transition was relatively easy to accomplish is that it did not change the role of the teacher. Indeed, PowerPoint makes it easier for teachers to do what they have always done, just as a DVD player is easier to use than a 16 millimeter projector. Moreover, the technical skills required to use a PowerPoint slide show are easily learned and communicated, making the process of diffusion relatively simple.

But when innovations threaten the nature and sources of knowledge to be used or the way power and authority are currently used and distributed–in other words, when they require changes in social systems as well as operating systems–innovation becomes more difficult. This is so because such changes are disruptive in inflexible social systems.

So, from the social media standpoint, the message here is clear. This isn’t about doing what you’ve always done as a teacher or as a school. It challenges those social constructs in the classroom and in the system, and therefore, these shifts are going to be much harder to embrace. Channeling Christensen, he says that existing organizations seldom successfully adopt truly disruptive innovations, and that it’s easier to build something new than to change the old. And if you listened to Scott’s presentation, you get the idea that the time is ripe for those innovative systems to form and flourish in education. (My question is whether commercial interests will be at the heart of those efforts.)

What I really like about this argument so far, however, is that while the thinking is rooted in the affordances of the technologies, Schlechty also makes the case in the context of citizenship in a democracy as well as a moral imperative that we create citizens who “have discovered how to learn independent of teachers and schools.”

Many Americans fear that an inadequate system of education will compromise America’s ability to compete in a global economy [hearing Friedman here]. In fact, they have more to fear from the possibility that young people who graduate will lack the skills and understandings needed to function well as citizens in a democracy. Americans have more to fear from the prospect that the IT revolution will so overwhelm citizens with competing facts and opinions that they will give up their freedom in order to gain some degree of certainty than they have to fear from economic competition around the world. Leaders should be far more concerned that Americans will cease to know enough to preserve freedom and value liberty, equity, and excellence than they are with how well American students compare on international tests. As numerous scholars have shown, authoritarian leaders and charlatans thrive in a world where ordinary citizens are overwhelmed with facts and competing opinions and lack the ideas and tools to discipline thier thinking without appealing to some authority figure for direction and support. [Emphasis mine.]

That resonates with me on so many different levels, on trying to navigate the arguments about global warming, for instance, or in attempting to explain the nuances of the world to my kids who more and more are coming to me with questions inspired by their interactions with online media. The key to this all, to me at least, and a piece that I don’t think Schlechty gets, is that much of that now is dependent on our “network literacy” in terms of building our own personal systems of filters and sources that are balanced and open.

The idea that schools become “learning organizations” is compelling in the way that Schlechty describes the shift.

Schools will be places where intellectual work is designed that cause students to want to be instructed and will become platforms that support students in making wise choices among a wide range of sources of instruction available rather than platforms that control and limit the instruction available to them.

That “vision” started me thinking again about what our expectations are for teacher “learning” and the ways in which we might move toward a culture that celebrates and models and makes transparent learning in every corner. One thing that I constantly hear from Sheryl is the idea that we need to see teachers as leaders and as learners, not just teachers. That’s such a huge shift here, one that we talked a lot about and struggled with in Boot Camp. And it all makes me wonder what the next decade or two will bring.