Leadership Thoughts | Issue #89
I have studied many examples of the failure to create change in education. However, after reading the K-12 Value Networks report, which was written by Thomas Arnett and published by the Christensen Institute, I initially felt less optimistic about creating a learner-centered school system. In this report, Arnett emphasizes that without support from a school’s value network, any attempt to transform conventional education into a learner-centered school is destined for failure. I am a fan of the Christensen Institute, and I had not heard of the term value network before, so I decided to take a second look at the report.
Although the invisible forces in this “value network” are in plain sight, it is difficult to see the overall picture when you are in it. After careful review, I could grasp the author's concept that these hidden forces can help or hinder any significant initiative to move from the conventional education system. This "value network" perspective can help provide insight into creating a learner-centered approach.
This article will provide an additional perspective that helps you as a leader as it did me. It summarizes the various components that must be in place to create a learner-centered educational system.
Thomas Arnett | Christensen Institute
Big Idea: Attempting to change schools with learner-centered models within a conventional school system amounts to the colloquial definition of insanity: doing more of the same thing and expecting different results. Learner-centered education requires value networks that are congruent with learner-centered organizational models. Leaders of individual schools attempting to reproduce learner-centered models within a conventional school system will see their efforts fail or get morphed into hybrids that compromise the hallmarks of learner-centered education.
Key Concept: How do we break the chains that bind the sector to the conventional grammar of schooling? The answer lies in understanding how any organization’s priorities are shaped by its value network.
Essential Question: What determines the capabilities of an organization? And why do established organizations readily adopt some changes and innovations but resist others? Is it the people, norms, and culture? The technology, equipment, and facilities? Policies, practices, regulations, and chains of authority? It’s self-evident that each of these—and many other elements that haven’t been named—shape an organization’s behavior. But taken together, how do they determine an organization’s capabilities (what it can or can’t do) and its priorities (what it will or won’t do)?
The report supports the premise that the current educational system is outdated and needs serious reform. The author shares the research on students’ engagement, demonstrating that approximately two-thirds of high-school students are disengaged in learning. Although most will graduate, and some will battle to get good grades and take advanced placement courses, they too often don’t find the learning to be relevant or inspiring.
Organizational Capabilities and Priorities
Value network represents the context of many different groups that influence schools. The most influential groups are local, state, and federal education agencies and policymakers, learners and their families, employee unions, voters and taxpayers, the postsecondary education system, community organizations and vendors, teacher preparation pipelines, and philanthropic donors. These groups influence a school’s priorities and are labeled as the “value network” in the article.
According to the author, all organizations have four consistent models that operate within a value network.
Value Proposition: What promises are made to the stakeholders?
Resources: What assets does the organization rely on?
Process: How does the organization carry out the work?
Financial Formula: How does the organization cover its costs?
People demand that schools offer more than the standard, conventional model, but school reforms tend to improve the system by adding new majors and elective courses, implementing new technologies, etc. Although these changes only sometimes lead to a system redesign, they usually don't threaten the financial formula or upset the stakeholders. Transforming the school system is a long and challenging process. Leaders who can advance up the path of resistance while wielding the necessary skill will eventually reach a point where established value structures block their advancement. Even schools with the appropriate value systems may need help to shift how they operate successfully due to their contextual restraints. Schools attempting to change their ways may find themselves pulled in several directions by these contexts and must regularly engage in politics and persuasion to fulfill their promises.
New educational models rarely emerge from collaboration and consensus among stakeholders; they are developed from the ground up, led by new value networks. Schools cannot transform their education to learner-centered models by swapping conventional curricula and schedules for learner-centered alternatives and training their staff to use learner-centered practices. Instead, schools must build new learner-centered models with distinctly learner-centered features. Experts in change management suggest that a school's value network can be changed by employing exemplary leadership and communication strategies. Sadly, most schools with conventional models have too many barriers in their value networks to change the model.
Learner-centered education requires organizational models that align with learner-centered value networks. These new models must be developed from different value networks than those created to support conventional schools. The author recommends the following:
School Leaders: To build radically different models, you must assemble new value networks and find politically and financially secure ways for stakeholders to join these new networks.
Teachers: If your educational philosophies align with a learner-centered paradigm, seek to join a school or program with a different model.
Philanthropy: Focusing your work on innovation within existing schools will only result in incremental improvements. To see transformational change, you must invest in models that have situated themselves in new value networks.
Families: If you want to start a learner-centered school, advocate for policies that will incubate new models and allow them to create value networks aligned with a learner-centered vision.
Educators and learners alike have developed new models of education. It still needs to be determined how the path forward for learner-centered education will unfold, both in large-scale changes and small-scale models. Established schools and districts can change their model significantly under the right conditions. It takes time to achieve understanding across different stakeholders.
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