I met a principal of a small school that was working to add more project-based and student-centered learning activities. The effort seemed to be going well with one significant challenge. A number of the parents expressed concern that their children were not getting enough worksheets. I know very little about this specific situation, so the following comments are not directed at this school or principal. I am simply using it as a tool to think about an important topic when it come to innovation in existing P-12 schools. Toward that end, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the importance of shared ownership when it comes to new initiatives in education.
When I heard about the worksheet concerns, disappointment was probably the first thing that I experienced. I thought, “How can they think that mindless worksheets are as valuable as rich and immersive projects?” Of course, worksheets are likely what they know and remember from school, and they seemed to work fine for the parents. So, why consider something else? Parents might need a chance to see the benefits of such a change. This seeming challenge provides an exciting opportunity for us to consider how we might help the entire community become informed and supportive of a new model and possibility for learning.
This was a private school that depends upon tuition to keep the doors open. If parents don’t like something enough, then they may well vote with their wallet, and move to another school. Such an arrangement gives the parents a type of influence that does not exist in schools that do not reply upon tuition. As I see it, such an arrangement amplifies the importance of shared ownership in any school-shaping innovations pursued by a school. Lone Ranger innovations happen in these schools and can work quite well. This usually comes in the form of one or two creative teachers trying something new. However, when it comes to school-wide initiatives, it is not always wise to assume that parents, students and others will simply trust our expertise and decisions. There are too many examples of such trust being betrayed in education. As a result, trust must be earned and re-earned even as the people (parents and students, in particular) come and go over the years. Or, rather than thinking about building trust, we might choose to think about it as creating a sense of shared ownership, community, and/or shared vision among the parents, teachers, students, and administrators. I should note that I’m not talking about strategic “shared ownership” efforts for every small school-wide change. I’m thinking about efforts that are potentially transformational for the learning organization, things that might otherwise flounder without widespread support.
School-wide changes can thrive by taking the time to build consistent and effective communication plans, hosting town meetings, finding ways to make abstract visions more visible and concrete, creating “field trips” and tours of other places that embraced a similar innovation, having brainstorming sessions with a variety of stakeholders (especially administrators, teachers, parents, and students), and many other intentional efforts. This will take longer than just jumping to the implementation stage, but it is sometimes an important step for long-term success. Of course, one alternative is just to start a new school and only reach out to those who are already supportive of the idea, but many do not have the time and resources for such an option. Or, if a school can afford to take the risk of losing some parents and students, the other option is to push forward and accept the fact that some will not like it, but other new families may appreciate the change and join the community.
The phrase “shared ownership” may sometimes relate to a group of stakeholders being equal investors and creators of something new. However, this is not how some of the best ideas take root in learning organizations. Instead, they often come from a person or a small group of people seeing something that is difficult for others to see at the moment. In either situation, it still requires the need for communication. If it is a model that is foreign to parents, students and community members, then find ways to help them get informed about the benefits and possibilities. This doesn’t mean that everyone will agree or support it, but it is critical for adoption and assimilation into the community. I know that some are uncomfortable with this idea, but anyone in the education “business” is not successful unless they learn how to build a case for something, influence, and invite people to consider and embrace new possibilities. In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that school-wide efforts should not be successful unless they effectively cultivate shared ownership (at least among the people who are directly affected by the effort). As I see it, these are the rules by which we must choose to play in a society that purports to value democratic education. Beyond the standard managing change (think John Kotter), disruptive innovation (think Clayton Christensen), and diffusion of innovation (think Everett Rogers) books, four others come to mind as being useful in thinking about this subject.
In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization by Deoborah Meier – Readers may not like are agree with everything in the book, but it is a worthwhile read as one looks at the ways in which they sought to cultivate shared ownership.
Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds by Howard Gardner – This is not a “how to manipulate” text. Instead, it provides insight into how we and others go about changing our minds, and how to build a compelling case for something. Years before the book was published, I found a draft of Gardner’s ideas about this subject that he later expanded into the book. That original paper had an enormous influence on my own thinking about persuasion.
To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others by Daniel Pink – This new and popular book by Daniel Pink puts a twist on the idea of “sales”, attempting to remove the stigma that many associate with the word. Along the way, he shares several helpful insights about how to “sell” anything from a product to an idea to a new initiative.
Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini – Drawn from years of research on the “psychology of compliance”, Cialdini shares a series of practical insights that can help with building a compelling case or even cultivating commitment around a new effort.
I welcome additional thoughts and considerations. What are the factors that you consider most important when striving to cultivate shared ownership around a new and potentially significant school-wide innovation?