Jul 10

Why Educational Change is Hard

… And the limits of "Here Comes Everybody" for schools.

(I’ve been thinking about NECC / EduBloggerCon / EduCon and Will’s post: NECC ’08 / NECC ’09, and I just finished reading Here Comes Everybody, the edublog book of the Summer of 2008. That’s what’s was ruminating around in my head as I wrote this.)

There’s a lot of frustration about NECC, the EduBloggerCon and where this community of edubloggers is going right now. Will is "thinking hard about change, about what is and isn’t changing, and how maddeningly slow it all seems," and I’m sure some of the frustration about change is when you compare it to the blinding speed of change in so many other facets of our society right now.

So there are a couple of questions that we can examine through Shirkey’s lens, then… first, why is it that schools are so hard to transform using these tools when commerce (for instance) has been so easy to change? And second, what has to happen within the community of folks — loose as it may be — who care about the notion of 21st Century schools.

So why is it that the changes that are taking root in so many other aspects are not changing education as quickly as we’d like? One of the things that Shirkey writes about is how the new social tools and the powerline graph of user use / success / downloads / etc… has meant that there is no longer a high cost of failure. He uses SourceForge and MeetUp as two examples where if a software project or a meeting fails, there’s no real loss, because there is no institutional infrastructure that is lost along with it. On an institutional level, schools have an incredible infrastructure that makes them hard to change, but that’s really not the big problem when we question the change through this lens.

The big problem is that we never, ever have a low cost of failure. When schools fail, kids lose. Shirky writes in Chapter 10 about how in a traditional business infrastructure, there is a natural disincentive to innovate because "more people will remember you saying yes to a failure than no to a radical but promising idea." (p. 246) I’d argue this is more true in education than in traditional businesses, again because the stakes are so high. So the educational establishment sticks to safe ideas and traditional schooling because we know that while the outcomes may not be amazing, they are predictably mediocre at worst.

(By the way, and this is an aside, what is going to happen as charter schools fail? So many of these have five year charters, and a certain percentage of them are not going to get renewed. It’s already happening in Philly. What is the educational / emotional costs for the kids who go to schools that get closed down after five years? Is anyone other than Mike Klonsky writing about issues like this?)

This is a real issue, and it’s not one we can wish away. We have to understand, in ways that Shirky describes, why low-risk mediocrity is almost predictably a better outcome than high-risk success. Until we find ways to bring down the risk of school change / school reform, either by being able to point to enough successful examples of 21st century schools that there is sensible road map to follow or by changing the way schools are assessed to make what we’re talking about more a part of that equation. (And for the record, I’m REALLY uneasy about what I just wrote.)

Which is a great reason to transition to the second part of this question — why can’t the edubloggersphere — why can’t all the educators who want to see change happen leverage all these tools to do something positive?

And that gets to the other great lens in Shirky’s book — the way to look at the how groups form and what they can do easily and well, and what is much harder. Shirky spends much of the beginning of the text talking about how the new collaborative tools make sharing easy — sites like flickr and LiveJournal do sharing well. Collective production — what it took to make Wikipedia is an example — where lots of people can come together around some kind of large common goal and all play a role to produce something is harder, but still doable given the flexibility and power of the tool. Collective action, where everyone pulls in the same direction to achieve a common goal, that’s harder and harder to do without a lot of the traditional organizational structures.

And our community doesn’t have those yet. We’ve done a great job of sharing a lot over the past few years… and that’s valuable and worthwhile and it’s changed the way many of us — if not all of us — go about our professional and personal lives. Let’s not sell that short. Because it’s important to remember, even as we question and push about why we haven’t done more, that we have done a lot already. We’ve even done a lot of community production… the EduCon wiki was probably a great example of a group of folks coming together and building something together. Certainly all the collaborative projects we’ve seen between schools are examples of that.

The next step — the idea of collaborative action — is where it gets really hard. If Will is serious about trying to use these tools to affect change — and certainly, it’s not a bad idea — we need to start to think about organizational structure, philosophy, shared decision-making, goals, action plans, etc… it’s the more mundane kind of organization building that gets hard and tiring and frustrating and often fails.

So what could we do? What might it look like? Here’s a thought: We could use the tools we have to start a call for change. We could look to set up a core set of principles for school reform that harnesses the best pedagogies and the new tools. We could look to build a coalition of administrators, teachers, parents and students to take action in the upcoming campaign. What might it look like? Shirky points out that for collective action to work, the action must require enough effort on the part of those taking action that decision-makers take notice. We could all go to used bookstores and look for old, beat-up textbooks and send them to our Congressmen with a flyer saying, "Is this how students should learn in 2008?" and a list of our core principles and goals. We could coordinate it all with Web 2.0 tools. We could follow up with an online petition to the McCain and Obama campaigns asking for a presidental debate on educational issues.

Then, we could set up workshops and conferences around our core principles, encouraging like-minded schools to come. If we wanted to go the route of the Coalition for Essential Schools, there could be fees for schools who are member schools who abide by the philosophy of the group. We could combine the on-line and off-line tools to set up an organization that was both an advocacy / policy group and a clearinghouse / resource center to help teachers, students, parents and administrators create the change we want to see.

I’m not saying this is what we should do. Lord knows, there’s a lot of work contained in those last two paragraphs, but that is what collective action toward positive change could look like for us. And Shirky is 100% right — that would be easier to do today than it was ten years ago. Without question. Everything I wrote up there could be done quickly and in such a way as to have an effect — because of the new tools. But Shirky is also right when he writes about how the big things are still hard. A group of hard-core folks would have to work their tails off and be very saavy about the setting up the structures (both human and technological) to pull it off.

The point of all this is just this: The hardest challenge facing our community is that we’ve done a very good job at going after the low-hanging fruit. We’ve done what was easiest to do… and most of us would agree that it hasn’t been easy so far. To take things to the next level is going to be hard. Not impossible… and a lot easier because of the tools we have at our disposal today, but hard none-the-less. 

But "hard" shouldn’t be the reason we don’t do it.

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Tags: schoolreform, clay shirky