Many of us are the lone voice of change in our institutions. Some may be lucky to have the support of their administration, or to have a group of teachers ready and willing to change their teaching practice, or even to have a small team to work with, but very few seem to have a whole-school focus on changing the way we teach and learn (except for maybe one, of course).

So, if you don’t have a school-wide focus on changing practices, and you don’t have ongoing professional development offerings at the institutional level, and perhaps you don’t have the expectation to change from “the top,” where does the energy to change come from?

It comes from us, the lone voices. If we are not energetic and enthusiastic about moving forward, if we are not constantly offering ideas for how to engage students, if we are not tirelessly promoting new ways of thinking, who else will do it?

I worry about apathy, about giving up when the institution doesn’t value the same things we do. Or when the institution is so big that we know it will take years to reach the tipping point. I worry that when our lone voices stop bringing the energy and enthusiasm for learning in a new way, it will just fall by the wayside.

Why is it important to always keep institutional change in mind as the ultimate goal? Why not merely keep working for small-scale change on a daily basis, and hope that things will gradually improve? For one thing, the stakes are too high not to be thinking about the big picture. As Scott McLeod’s K12Online presentation points out, schools as institutions are themselves in real danger of becoming obsolete.

Referencing Dr. Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovations, Scott shows that institutions that don’t embrace change early enough will simply become obsolete and disappear once the change they have ignored happens. Similar to the old land-line phone companies who didn’t switch to mobile networks fast enough, unless schools start thinking about technological changes now and new types of learning that will arise in the near future, there might come a point when everyone decides that we don’t need schools as institutions anymore – and it may be approaching sooner than we think. Either way, it’s clear that most schools will not embrace disruptive innovations (in this case, technologies used for learning) until it’s too late.

As Scott points out, we can no longer make decisions based the assumption that people will always need schools. In fact, these disruptive technologies can and will become so much more useful than the current state of our schools, that the “customer base” schools have come to expect, may in the near future no longer exist, simply because there are so many more meaningful ways to learn outside of that institution. Think about the last time you used a public telephone booth – almost overnight, the entire infrastructure of public phone booths became irrelevant to its customers. Unless we (even as lone voices) keep working towards embracing and changing with these disruptive technologies, the school classroom may become the “public telephone booth” of the future.

So how can we, those of us who believe in these disruptive innovations, help influence the outcome of schools as institutions, before they become obsolete? And how can we find and implement the best approaches towards reaching that change? Something I’m worried about is repeating the same strategy or approaches to the point of diminishing returns, or in getting trapped using ineffective methods repeatedly and hoping for the best.

Jon Becker’s K12Online presentation discusses some recent research about the role and effectiveness of technology facilitators, specifically in the United States.  He contrasts two different styles of technology facilitation: the collaborator and the salesman. The collaborator is one that attends team meetings on a regular basis, continually sharing new ideas for how to embrace technology within the core curriculum that teachers are focused on. The salesman is one that sits in the lab or an office, waiting for teachers to approach him or her with an idea, and then sells the “wow factor” of certain tools based on that teacher’s needs. Based on Jon’s synthesis of the research, the collaborator approach is far more effective, meeting the teacher’s pressing needs of teaching the curriculum, while being a constant partner in the learning process.

In terms of thinking about how to work towards school-wide change, there’s no question that the collaborative approach is a step in the right direction. Working at the team level authentically embeds the facilitator into the schools infrastructure – albeit at a much smaller scale. Teachers will naturally be more receptive to suggestions simply by virtue of the fact that the facilitator is an informed, contributing member of the team. Not only will the collaborator get a better picture of all of the intricacies of a specific team, but they will be so much more knowledgeable about that particular team’s needs. This could be one way to begin to institutionalize change – by working through the school’s existing infrastructure, and consistently demonstrating enthusiasm and energy for new ways of teaching and learning that are directly relevant to the teacher’s needs at that level.

Along with the team approach, I love the idea of Viral PD that Jen has been talking about for ages – why wait for the PD you need to be offered by an institution that doesn’t realize they need it (or isn’t ready to provide it)? I love the fact that it is grassroots, but it’s organized, with a clear structure and focus and it allows for people to learn at their own pace without having to “wait” for help. Methods of professional development for educators should reflect the new ways we teach and learn, increasingly through online networks and user-created content, just like Julie Lindsay‘s E-Learning for Life Ning with her teachers in Qatar.

I especially love the idea of having a “home base” for this type of professional development. This is something I’m always promoting for the projects I conduct with students, why wouldn’t we use the same approach when teachers are learning? If we can start building an infrastructure now, a place where teachers can effectively share what they know, that infrastructure can be used when the broader shift begins to happen and the institution finally embraces the changed nature of professional development. Taking the time to thoughtfully implement this infrastructure now, can then become the foundation for a changed approach to professional development at the institutional level.

I understand that change is slow and that each small step we take is valuable, but I am a planner at heart, and I would like to find a strategic way to approach these small steps so that they lead to something more. I don’t mean “strategic” merely in the sense of being complex or clever. To me, it means an approach that’s transparently organized, with definite goals and a clear focus on the future. If you’re lucky enough to be working in a team, being strategic might also mean coordinating time to work together, or methods of cross-pollinating and sharing the team members’ insight. Being strategic in this sense would mean concentrating on deliberately putting structures in place in the present that could help bring about future systemic change. Whenever I plan a project, I always start with the end in mind, so why can’t we do this with teachers? Even if it is a small group of teachers, we can be thoughtful and coordinated about how we help build their understanding, right?

So I’m starting to think about how I can use the Understanding by Design process with my seedlings (or Tribes, if you prefer). Maybe taking the ISTE Standards for Teachers and designing “units of study” that would help build teacher understanding of one standard at a time? Developing authentic tasks and experiences for the teachers I’m working with that would demonstrate their understanding at a deeper level. Instead of letting the learning be hit or miss, dependent on totally arbitrary factors, perhaps I could use this approach to help coordinate the learning among the teachers that are already interested? Does anyone else have experience using their classroom unit planning methods as the framework for collaborating with fellow teachers? What methods get the best results? What extra factors need to be accounted for, and what needs to be modified, when thinking of teaching peers as a type of “unit planning”?

Without the energy and enthusiasm of even just one lone voice in the school (whether it’s a tech facilitator or a classroom teacher or a librarian or specialist), none of this will happen. As so many of us like to say, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world, but can we organize and strategize enough to provide an infrastructure for others to adopt and adapt to these changed perspectives, eventually, perhaps the whole institution? Is this one way to ensure that the changes, ideals and ideas brought by one lone voice can outlast their time at one specific institution?

What do you think? Is it possible to be strategic (in the sense that even small groups of learners outside of the institutional PD structure can be organized and focused) when you’re the lone voice?