Earlier this week, I wrote a post bemoaning the ways in which the system treats teachers when it comes to technology and I hinted at a different reality for one school I’ve been working with. Well, that school happens to be my old school, the place where I worked as a teacher and an administrator for 21 years before setting out for my current very different existence. And now, due to a somewhat sudden, imminent move to a new house, the place where in all likelihood my own kids will go to high school.

While I love what Chris Lehmann is doing at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, the problem with the SLA story has always been that it’s hard to replicate. Chris is a visionary who was given the chance to build a school pretty much from the ground up, and I think just about everyone would agree that he has done an absolutely amazing job of it. If I could take SLA and clone it, I would. But that’s not possible. So, the tougher question has always been how do schools that have been around for 50 or 100 years begin to undertake the real shifts and real changes that are required if they are to move systemically to a point where inquiry-based, student-centered, socially and globally networked learning becomes just the way they do their business? In all honesty, I haven’t seen many schools that have fundamentally set out to redefine what they do in the classroom in light of the affordances and opportunities that social technologies create for learning. (If you know of any who have a plan to fundamentally redefine what they do, please let me know.) There is a great deal of “tinkering on the edges” when it comes to technology, districts that hope that if they incrementally add enough technology into the mix that somehow that equals change. I can’t tell you how many schools I’ve seen that have a whiteboard in every room yet have absolutely nothing different happening from a curriculum perspective. Old wine, new bottles.

That fundamental redefinition is hard. It takes an awareness on the part of leaders that the world is indeed changing and that current assessment regimes and requirements are becoming less and less relevant to the learning goals of the organization. It takes a vision to imagine what the change might look like, not to paint it with hard lines but to at least have the basic brushstrokes down. It takes a culture that celebrates learning not just among students but among teachers and front office personnel and administrators alike, what Phillip Schlechty calls a “learning organization.” It takes leadership that while admitting its own discomfort and uncertainty with these shifts is prescient and humble enough to know that the only way to deal with those uncertainties is to meet them full on and to support the messiness that will no doubt occur as the organization works through them. It takes time, years of time, maybe decades to effect these types of changes. It takes money and infrastructure. And I think, most importantly, it takes a plan that’s developed collaboratively with every constituency at the table, one that is constantly worked and reworked and adjusted in the process, but one that makes that long-term investment time well spent instead of time spinning wheels. And it takes more, even, than that.

I’m seeing a lot of that happening at Hunterdon Central, my old school. And you can take this perspective for what it’s worth since I feel like I played some small part in this process five years ago when we formulated a long-ish term plan for technology that started with piloting a teacher/classroom model for technology when I was there to today, when they are piloting a student 1-1 model (netbooks) for technology this fall. My good friend and former co-conspirator Rob Mancabelli is guiding the work, and he’s had amazing success in bringing teachers, supervisors, upper administration, community, students and others into a really “big” conversation about what teaching and learning looks like today, how global and collaborative and transparent it is, and what the implications are for the curriculum and pedagogy in classrooms. This is not tinkering on the edges; this, instead, is a deeply collaborative and reflective process for a small cohort of 30 or so teachers whose kids this fall will all have technology and a ubiquitous connection in hand, a process that encourages them to be creative, to take risks, to make mistakes, and to pursue their own personal learning as well. All of it as a first building block for the systemic, culture change that is hopefully to come in the next few years.

Tuesday, I had the chance to spend a few hours with a part of this group, and I came away just totally energized by the experience. The main reason? Lisa Brady, the superintendent. The cohort group had been meeting throughout the summer, focusing on learning about social networks, on making connections, reading blogs, trying Twitter and Facebook, and thinking about social tools in the context of their curriculum. The teachers come from every discipline, from math to special education to media specialists. And on Tuesday, now as the school year begins to loom large, Rob asked Lisa to address the group and make sure they understood their efforts would be supported. Lisa started by asking everyone to read Margaret Wheatley’s “Willing to be Disturbed.” I’d urge you to read the whole thing, but the first graph gives you the gist:

As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally–our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.

I hadn’t expected to try to capture any of what Lisa said next, but as she talked to the teachers, I started writing some of it down. And I started imaging what it would be like if every superintendent walked into a meeting of teachers who are engaged in reaching beyond their comfort zones and learning something new and said things like:

My question to you is how willing are you to be disturbed?…We have to be willing to examine our practice, to be disturbed about what we think we know about teaching and learning…We don’t really know what we’re doing; we’re teachers, we’re supposed to know, but we don’t know everything…I’m as unsure about all of this as you are unsure, but I believe we are doing the right thing. It is of critical importance to this organization, of critical importance to our kids…Your classrooms are learning labs; we want you be exploring, looking, analyzing…You are fully supported in this work; don’t be afraid of what you are doing…at this school, we don’t change easily, but we change well.

It was really powerful stuff, the superintendent of schools encouraging teachers to take risks, to think differently, to be okay with not knowing, and to know that it’s a process, that it’s not going to happen overnight.  And this is the same type of message Lisa plans to deliver to the full faculty on the first day of school. (The Wheatley piece is being sent to all staff this week.) Already, Central has decided to end the practice of monthly full faculty meetings this year and instead engage in professional conversations around the question “What does teaching and learning look like in the 21st Century?” Since May, all of the supervisors have voluntarily been meeting on a regular basis to study and discuss the shifts around an inquiry/problem based curriculum delivered in networked learning environments. And the teachers in the cohort are archiving and communicating on a Ning site specifically for the work.

Now I know there are some caveats here and not all of this is replicable either. For the last two years, 99% of teachers at Central (3,200 students 9-12, btw) have had their own Tablet PC (for personal and professional use) with wireless connection to an LCD and wireless Internet in every classroom, part of the teacher model that Rob and I started before I left. I would defy anyone to show me a school that has a better customer service oriented technology support plan for teachers and classrooms to make sure everything works. The school has made a fairly substantial financial commitment to the work (with the support of the community…budgets pass). And, 99% of kids in the district have Internet access at home.

But despite all of that, what interests me more is the stuff that they’re doing that just about any school could do right now: have the conversations, begin to build a culture around change, encourage learning on the part of every segment in the school, and create a long term vision and plan that attempts at least to account for whatever deficiencies or roadblocks currently exist. I see so many schools (SO many) where huge sums of money are spent on technology without any thought of professional learning or thinking about what changes. It’s all haphazard, unplanned, unsupported. I talk to so many teachers who just roll their eyes at the newest initiative because a) they haven’t had a voice in the process and b) because they know the next initiative is right around the corner. There’s no thread that binds all of it together, that congeals into a fundamentally different vision of teaching and learning. As Chris often says (channeling Roger Schank) “Technology is not additive; it’s transformative.” But that transformation doesn’t come on its own. It comes only when the ground for transformation has been well plowed. Whether we have the budgets or the technology in hand right now, there is little externally, at least, that’s preventing these conversations to start, assuming we have real leaders who are willing to be disturbed at the helm.

I’m hoping to follow this story pretty closely this year, but I’m sure it’s not the only one. Would love to hear your take on what Central is doing and on other attempts at moving old schools systemically into new places of learning.

(Photo “Do Not Disturb” by Sue)