It’s not about the infrastructure, the new policies, or the digital content. It’s not about tablets or smartphones or Chromebooks or laptops. It’s not about learning management systems. It’s not even about data and privacy. Challenging as all these are, they don’t hold a candle to the subtle, intricate work of culture change – the human heart of transformation with technology.
Without real culture change, 1:1 implementations do little more than trade pencils for pixels. The low-hanging fruit of increased engagement and access to information and content are harvested early, and then stagnate. After a few years, parents and politicians question why this investment didn’t lead to increased test scores and the experiment is considered a failure, the investment a waste.
The necessary culture shift isn’t new. It’s been described for decades as authentic, or student-centered. What is new is the ways in which personal, connected devices for students make this shift possible. With the same tools as professionals use in their work, students can now engage in real, meaningful high quality rigorous work that is profoundly different from the traditional lock-step delivery of content and procedures through whole-group instruction. Why does this matter? Because it enables an environment where students’ intrinsic motivation is engaged and where learning is no longer de-contextualized – it occurs within a framework of knowledge that is unique to each student and that builds on their experiences in a way that leads to deeper learning, longer recollection, and (often) skills transfer to other fields. It leads to a set of skills
that are appropriate for the constantly shifting, ambiguous, and self-directed work environment that will be the norm for students graduating this century.
The culture shift isn’t limited to the classroom. While students are being asked to become intrinsically motivated, self-directed deep learners, teachers will need to model these skills in their own work. They will work collaboratively with their peers to learn new approaches and practices and to hone their own practice by trying new things, keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t – then sharing their learnings and outcomes with their colleagues. IT departments will be asked to change from traditional command-and-control compliance cultures to service organizations that find ways to say “yes” to the needs of teaching and learning. Finance departments will be asked to fund new ways of doing things, which will mean ruthlessly eliminating much of “the old” in order to fund the new essentials.
And at the end of the day, whether this shift happens or not depends on a single individual – the principal.
Culture change happens, or doesn’t happen, building by building. If the principal has a vision for and a commitment to student-centered learning, if the principal has the perseverance to pursue student-centered learning with all the resources at her disposal, if the principal has
the courage to abandon the status quo, even in an environment of punitive accountability, if the principal has the wisdom to reward and recognize every small step that makes life and learning better for her students, then she can lead this change. A change to a culture that values trust over control, agency over compliance, and the application of learning over the memorization of facts and procedures. A change that is subtle, yet profound, to prepare every student for a world where the skills they need to thrive are so very different from the world their parents graduated into. And yet a change that, while it demands students and educators
work harder than ever, feels more like Papert’s “hard fun” than like an endless grind.
This change is subtle, but it is easy to know when it’s been achieved. It happens in different ways at different times, in different places, but the result of transformation is the same in the way “Happy families are all alike.” When they have made it through the hard work of culture change, there is a shift of power and control and ownership of learning from institutions to students and families and teachers, and invariably, educators, students and parents alike tell us, “I could never go back to the old way.”