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Digital Leadership - Retraining the Aircraft Pilots whilst the Plane is in the Air!

This article first appeared in the Education Technology Solutions Magazine April/May 2016 edition.

A wise person once said to me “drop the program and look at the end goal, where do we want to see our students? What type of learners do we want them to become? What type of world will they be walking into as adults?” Even though these questions are big they helped to frame a discussion on digital leadership with my digital leader and Head of Junior School Andrew Coote.

Digital Leadership needs to be deliberate and intentional linked to a vision or a strategy, it cannot be random and haphazard; however, this too does not mean that a particular program will be the silver bullet to cure ‘all ills’. Digital leadership empowers the use of ICT to support the creation of individualised respectful learning for each and every student. The learning is the focus and technology is the tool.

To this end, pedagogy can be identified as the starting point for building any quality form of digital leadership. It is the belt on which we hang our tools. Technology as with all of our other strategies and techniques is a tool we as educators have the opportunity to use. It should be a tool that we use to magnify or amplify the learning and examine and analyse our teaching through.

As a leader understanding how to word and sell vision is crucial as teachers will often adopt ideas and new ways of doing things if they can see how it will benefit the educational outcomes of both the student and optimise or streamline their workload. Questions like “how will using technology enhance this experience and how will using technology amplify the understandings my students are able to attain from this experience?” are powerful as they place the emphasis on the learner and take it away from the potential politics. Educators are empowered to choose the technology or resource that is best for the lesson and the learners, allowing the focus on the learner and not on the teacher.

When we implemented BYOD at our school there was a lot of thought that went into the potential implications from both the teaching and learning perspectives. One of the intentional decisions we made was to make the program voluntary, taking the pressure off the teachers and students to have a device and being immediately able to use it efficiently and effectively. In doing so we had larger ‘opt in’ because there was a spirit of ‘let's choose to get involved when we are ready’. For some, that was Day One and for others it took a few months but by the end of the first year more than 95% of the teachers and students were using their devices in multiple lessons on a daily basis. Over time a culture grew that encouraged greater use of this technology to enhance the overall educational outcomes for the student. Examples of some of these from within our own context are the use of  online collaborative tools such as GAFE or Office 365, opening up ways for students to present understandings through video creation or screencasting or moving towards a more adaptive style of teaching using flipped resources.

I believe all teachers want the best for their students so allowing them to see how learning improves and is manageable using a range of devices and technologies (document cameras, 3D printers, Lego technics) has given more weight to this cultural shift within our school.

In leading the change it is essential to look at the value of change educationally. In the past many schools spent $40000 dollars fitting out a room full of computers which may have looked good but in reality many classes would have only seen them once a week, leaders were spending educational capital without seeing a value for money educational return. In the contemporary context, look at the devices students bring within a BYOD program such as ours and ponder the same question but from a parent's perspective. In creating a culture that understands that we are all growing, the answer is “yes” as the devices students are bringing hold a vast portfolio of evidence of their learning.

It could then be suggested that increased educational return on devices whether school owned or BYOD relates directly to our educational budgets allocated and the time devoted to professional development. Professional learning essentially requires teachers to connect with the technology and embed it into the teaching and learning cycle. By utilising tools such as TPACK and SAMR teachers develop programs of new learning that would not have been able to be achieved without the integrated technology and related applications. Michael Fullan states that there are links between new pedagogical changes, deep learning outcomes and the role of technology. When practitioners look at the links between content, the pedagogy and the knowledge with the technology they arrive at a nexus that brings insight together with new practices. Therefore, it becomes much less about the device and much more about the learning that is happening within the classroom.

Digital leadership is about seed planting. While there may be a broader policy direction or global strategy leaders need to identify the people who will capture this. They will be the early adopters and act as the pioneers. When people at the coalface are willing to take on this role it is far less threatening for their colleagues. The likelihood that the seed will flourish and that there will be wider experimentation increases. Often staff don’t feel threatened by how this unfolds as it is not dictated to them. If they have a ‘crash and burn’ they are less concerned because ‘the boss doesn’t know’ and an education leader is not sitting over their shoulder every step of the way.

In establishing a culture of experimentation the digital leader is empowering an approach that seeks to find how you change the learning experience of the students through embracing the technologies that are such an integral part of their non-school lives. They understand that the FAIL’s as Thomas Edison said is “finding ways that didn’t work”, persistently working on adaptation and refinement until discovering the “10000th step that worked”, bringing about the change in learning desired. This understanding and belief cultivates grit, resilience and determination, it also allows student to deeply question and engage with the learning.

A culture of experimentation ignores the desire to look fancy in “21st Century” clothes and focuses instead on the questions, “Is it making a difference at the grassroots? If it is not making a difference, why are we doing it?”

In our school we utilise flipped learning, adaptive learning and problem-based learning; they are great in that they focus on inquiry-based learning and collectively have an effect size of increasing student engagement but in and of themselves they are not an answer to the needs of students. It’s a given that every student comes to school with different perspectives and views, there is not ‘one size that fits all’ for students, not one strategy that meets every student’s needs and this is the same with approaches to technology integration.

A leadership team can set the bigger strategy and a tone for digital leadership in the school but they have to get their teacher colleagues on board. Selling the idea and the direction in a non-threatening manner is paramount. Where teachers are invited to explore and to get used to how technology might enhance and amplify the teaching and learning in the classroom, success is more likely. Appointing ‘grassroots’ teachers (pioneers) who have a willingness to experiment as leaders, iterators, coaches or coordinators can be one of the single greatest advantages schools can have. It gives that teacher “street cred” as they remain in the classroom working as a teacher but also have the ability to get alongside and be ‘at the shoulder’ of their colleagues knowing the work that they do. That coach does not undertake the integration of technology for the other teacher but models and paces the process in a way that makes sense to their colleague. In this fashion, the coach is the one who asks them to do it but is also the one supporting both the successes and the mishaps. Teachers knowing that they can try and have the support to try again when it doesn’t work find themselves taking on as Carol Dweck frames it, a growth mindset.

Having the coach embedded in their culture and seeing them on a daily basis allows others to fire the quick question when something is not working or they want to try something new. Informal before or after school or RFF coaching sessions also become common place where coaches engage with the teacher to support them to apply the skill they are working on. In the back of the coach's mind is always the strategic direction laid down by school leadership and part of their role is to demonstrate how the skill the teacher is developing aligns with this.

When teachers begin to be more independent with technology it then becomes the coach’s role to ask the question “How do you see what you are doing with technology aligning with the key focus’ we have over the next two to three years?” George Couros proposes division is something to be avoided, dissipation of energy down side tracks does not move schools forward towards adding value or improving student outcomes. Eric Sheningher points out that it is key for digital leaders to empower the conversation and stand behind it. By paying attention to where teachers are at, listening to them and having open lines of communication so that they can state what they need when they need it, school leaders are providing the best kind of digital leadership.

As digital leaders begin to equip teachers as individuals they model what they expect for their students’ learning, individuals progressing at various rates and at a different pace. They also demonstrate respect by inviting teachers to grow technologically at a pace that is right for them. In similar ways for early adopters, this level of respect empowers opportunities that have a broader audience such as writing, running workshops at other schools and conference presentations, sharing the successes and failures and how they were overcome. This spreads the knowledge base and allows new ideas to be brought back.

In our context we are endeavoring to sharpen the focus to ‘anytime, anywhere learning’ and to do that in a way that is meaningful. The next step we are working towards is developing a constant feedback loop to our parents using real-time digital portfolios so that there is a transparency in the teaching and learning process. This enhances how parents can collaborate and partner with us. The final step of our focus is working towards a ‘school in the cloud’ where we can engage with other experts and classes, where we can share our expertise in an online context, where students can contribute and collaborate both with classes nationally but also internationally.

As digital leaders, we are essentially retraining our peers in teaching within a Key Learning Area from the way it has been done to both understanding and teaching the semiotics of multimodal texts ‘on the go’. Fundamentally we are retraining the aircraft pilots whilst the plane is in the air!

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