In education, the road to the future is paved with small steps.
When I first started working full-time in the world of K-12 education, I was fortunate to have a great mentor, Dr. Peter Dean, whom I met at IBM in 1985. Peter was one of the ed tech pioneers and very knowledgeable. I thought I had a lot of bright ideas on how to change education at a breakneck pace, but Peter always told me that in education the road to the future is paved with small steps. I’ve come to know over the last 25 years that he was right.
Change comes slowly to education for many reasons, including legislative and policy parameters, the high cost of switching from one program to another, the investment in re-training teachers, and the complex school budgeting process.
Despite the slow pace, it’s still essential for educators and developers alike to dream big and develop an inspiring vision to light the way. But, to be successful in education, we have to take realistic steps forward, one at a time, recognizing that people and systems can be slow to change. With improvements that can be implemented today—and vision, patience, perseverance, training, and support—we can achieve our goals over the long term.
We can double the rate of learning.
These days, we are always hearing and reading that schools have been using the same paradigm for a very long time, and that the paradigm needs to change to address the demands of the 21st century. This thinking has led to many attempts at change, but successful change has been elusive. Congressman George Miller, one-time chairman of the House Education Committee, recently told me about a school in his congressional district that had implemented 40 different school improvement programs with no impact whatsoever on student achievement.
A few years ago, I realized that, despite the rhetoric about change, most school reform efforts have not moved away from the old paradigm—seat time—and that we need out-of-the box thinking to change the paradigm and make the difference we are looking for. I believe that transformation in education can only be driven by a single-minded focus on personalized learning, which has the potential to help students learn at twice the rate of today’s systems.
Students tell me that over half the time they spend in school is unproductive. Why is that? Because we are not focusing on their individual needs, even though technology now gives us the ability to do so. Digital resources enable personalized learning, which can allow us to maximize the benefit of the time students spend in school and double their rate of learning.
Leadership is the most important ingredient in success.
Great leaders make great things happen. I have visited hundreds of schools and district offices in my career. It does not take very long for me to ascertain if the head of the organization is a true leader, a manager, or a placeholder.
Recently I visited a large urban school district. I could tell immediately that I was in the presence of a terrific leader. His range of action was impressive. He could articulate a vision for improving his district to all stakeholders, work with others to develop a plan based on that vision, and pay attention to every detail to ensure that the entire organization was focused on executing the plan. Without excellent leadership, successful change in schools will always be elusive.
Leading is hard. Every great leader faces opposition because the road to the future is almost always shrouded with fog. Great leaders frequently have to work hard on bringing reluctant players on board. They must be guided by a deeply held vision, and they must inspire others to follow the vision using excellent implementation and people skills. As Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “Make no small plans, for they have no ability to inspire men’s souls.”
We had better get used to exponential change.
Ray Kurzweil makes the case in The Singularity Is Near1 that our human brains are wired to think linearly. In other words, we can project change over the next five years by looking back over the last five years. But we live in a world of exponential change, and we are now at the point where the gap between linear world, represented by many institutions—including schools—and the exponential world—represented by society—is growing exponentially. We often complain that our schools are stuck in the past, but it is more likely that they are just growing linearly.
Unfortunately, as the world outside our schools grows exponentially, the gap between school and the world is also growing exponentially. Perhaps this is most evident in the access to information. For centuries, the information available from teachers and libraries far exceeded the availability of information in the home. With the advent of the Internet, however, the home and the individual have immediate access to most of the available information in the world.
If we are to realize the important objectives for our society, we must begin to think about solutions exponentially. This involves looking to the future and anticipating the impact of rapid change. Schools, for example, must think exponentially about Internet bandwidth—planning and budgeting accordingly—and about evolving technology—recognizing that the capabilities of the IBM Deep Blue computer that wins at Jeopardy and chess will one day be available to students in a hand held device.
Prior planning prevents poor performance.
I have learned that if every task and responsibility is planned as carefully and precisely as possible, organizations are better prepared to handle the inevitable problems that come up. In other words, if we control what we can, through detailed planning, we are more likely to successfully address those situations that are out of our control. Too often, in the business world and in the school world, programs are put in place without proper planning, but it is impossible for results to be better than the plan. So if we are looking for good results, we need to work hard on developing excellent plans.
We live in a world of increasing complexity. Without extremely well thought-out plans that reflect contributions from participants and outside experts, mediocre results are likely. Planning costs may be high, but they are always less than the costs of failure. Many reform initiatives in schools suffer from inadequate planning that fails to take into account all the factors needed for success.
For example, many schools still expect that technology alone can raise student achievement, although the research shows otherwise. Project RED2 , the recent survey of 1,000 schools implementing one-to-one computing, found that only one school in 100 planned for the top nine success factors and no school out of the 1,000 planned for the top 10 factors. Today, the research and the models of school districts that are achieving success through the interplay of several factors are available for districts to incorporate into their planning.
- Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near. New York, Penguin, 2005.
- Greaves, T.; Hayes, J.; Wilson, L.; Gielniak, M.; & Peterson, R., The Technology Factor: Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost-Effectiveness, MDR 2010.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Tom Greaves, Chairman of The Greaves Group, is a highly regarded visionary with over 30 years experience in educational technology. As a pioneer of technology in schools, he built a prize-winning mechanical computer in the seventh grade and went on to develop and market a diverse set of innovative products for IBM, including desktop computers, personal science laboratory, curriculum and network management products.
Tom was a leader of IBM's dominance in distributed networking in schools, and later co-founded NetSchools Corporation, which set the standard for comprehensive, high performing 1:1 e-learning solutions in K-12 schools. He has participated in the development of over 100 award winning educational software and hardware products and holds multiple patents and patent disclosures for educational products.
Tom has been the CEO of two educational companies and has served on the boards of many others. He is a well-known keynote speaker and panelist at national and state education conferences, particularly on topics related to the future of technology in education. He is the author of numerous articles and is often quoted on topics related to future educational technology trends and strategic planning.
Tom has worked for over 20 years with school superintendents around the country and has done considerable work at the policy level in public and private meetings with governors, members of Congress, and their staffs. He is widely connected in the educational technology community.