Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bottoms Up!

The conversation about (dun dun duuuun!) 21st Century Learning can be frustrating for those looking for concrete direction and answers.  "What do we do next?" "How does this work," and for that matter, "Who's in charge around here?" ...are all questions that we used to be able to answer in schools.

In the past, one or a few administrators would convene, make a plan, and give a list of new requirements to teachers.  Teachers created new lists of information or procedures for students.  Kids got on board. Or if they didn't, it was their fault, or maybe their parents'.

This model doesn't work anymore. Kids can get the information themselves. Good teachers are responding to this new reality by helping the kids ask good questions, evaluate information, and learn how to collaborate and contribute.  This means that administrators and their tech support overlords are going to have to follow where the teachers are leading.  We won't know how it will work ahead of time, and we're going to have to respond really, really quickly because what's "next" is happening every time a kid wonders aloud.

Sound chaotic? Maybe. The best businesses in the private sector have been doing this for a long time.  Think Google, Amazon, UPS, Southwest Airlines, Disney: all Fortune 500 Companies who have weathered massive industry shifts.  They're successful not because they have always had geniuses at the helm.  They're successful because of their focus on the bottom line--which for them is customer satisfaction. Keeping customers' needs met means empowering  the people who work with them most closely.

Studies of these companies' support models reveal a bottoms-up mentality.  Plans are based on constant, careful listening to frontline employees (who represent the customers) and to real-time data on customer experience. Procedure is less important to these companies than getting the customer the experience they're paying for, whether that's finding where their favorite band is playing tonight, getting to their next flight connection, or having a fun and easy family vacation.  And when plans aren't successful, no one blames the customers. In fact, little blame is to be found. A new plan is tried instead.

These phenomenally successful service industry companies lack many of the pressures we face in public schools, but we lack their agility, not to mention their customer loyalty, employee satisfaction, and community support.What would it look like if entire school districts were structured not around what the Board wants or how the Directors think resources should be used, but instead around what Mrs. Smith's second period class wants to find out about their new pet lizard?

If a little chaos means that our schools are not only more effective, but better places to work, then I say, bottoms up! Cheers.

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