As an educator with 24 years of experience, I can honestly say that schools aren’t a great deal different than they were when I first started teaching.

One significant difference is that we have the opportunity to be hyperconnected via technology.   And being connected means exposure to new ideas, new people and new conversations.


Much is made about the role of conversation in the change process.  We now have 140 character conversations that occur in Twitter, conversations that occur via blogging, and the new trends of conversational conferences, unconferences, cafes, you name, we have it at our disposal, much of it always-on, always available.

But it just doesn’t really mean that much when you are talking school-based systemic change.  Yeah, its cool and friendly and sexy to engage in these conversations, meet the people face-to-face and give them a hug, it might even be…well, amazing.  Yet, having these types of conversations are exactly why schools have never really changed-we just talk about it, we never really do it.

Of course, there are a number of impediments to change in schools, which if I listed them here wouldn’t make me a lot of friends.  Let’s just say that there are obstacles which we haven’t dealt with very well.

Continually talking about the need for change isn’t helping.  At some point you have to do it what you are advocating for.  How exactly does that get done?

Online and face to face conversations at conferences/unconferences/Eluminate sessions/Webinars are for sharing ideas.  People get their ideas challenged, they have a chance to reflect and change their direction if they deem it appropriate.  Perhaps the conversation serves to reinforce the validity a person’s belief, which is good. Nothing wrong with that, but its individualistic.

But how does that exactly contribute to school-based systemic change?  That’s what I’m interested in.  Everyone going together in an identified direction, all pulling together, and believing that that place is the place.

I get that the person can bring the conversation into their schools.

But the more critical conversation begins locally, and not in 140 characters.  Not at conferences.  Not online.  It occurs as a discussion among school community members about what they want their schools to be.  Plain and simple.  It needs to be an organized process with contributions from all stakeholders.  Doing that can root conversation as an essential element in the sequence required to change schools.  Expecting that a set of conversations that occur outside of the climate and culture of a school will have a significant impact on change is a simplistic at best.

What’s first?  Engaging in these endless conversations online, and then bringing some of it in to a discussion?  Or is it simply putting heads together in a school and just talking through it.  Perhaps many of you are saying that it doesn’t have to be necessarily either or.  Maybe so, but maybe not.

Talk about education.  Talk about your kids and what skills they need.  Talk about your school.  Educators are smart people.  We know what to do.  Change is about leadership, not conversation.

Having endless conversations online, and thinking that the online conversation is required in order to change or start the change process in a school won’t get you anywhere.  Instead, roll up your sleeves with your colleagues and have the difficult conversations face to face.  Sure, bring some ideas from the never-ending, feel-good stream of educational consciousness, but talk and discuss and share with your colleagues while using the climate and culture of your school as a foundation for that discussion.

Simply stated, change begins at home.

11 Responses to “Rethinking Conversation and Change”
  1. Brian Crosby says:

    Hi David – In many cases the digital conversation is the one that is “doable” I think. It doesn’t matter what time it is or where you are (like you didn’t know that). But the face to face doesn’t happen much … less now than when I started teaching even. Meetings tend to run long and aren’t good places very often for this conversation in the current climate. Teachers are doing more after-school – remediation classes and the like, so getting teachers at the school site to have conversations like you describe is tough. Doing REAL PLC’s (as opposed to the ones my district does where the agenda is NOT usually set by the teachers) would help. But really I think you have hit on an important point. We need to ramp up the conversation onsite, and in our area. We know less about what is going on in our own building than our network. I mean really how many teachers/educators are remotely aware of “the network” many of us enjoy? So you’ve given me something to think about … hope to see ideas here.

  2. Great idea. Maybe someone should list some conversation starters on how to begin this with those who refuse to change.

    I agree that the conversations are better served on the local level, but those conversations are nothing without the experiences I gain from the conversations I have at the conferences, Twitter, etc.

    Also, linking back to our previous conversations, I truly think a change in learning spaces forces the conversation on a local level. Being able to be a part of a changed classroom landscape gives them the opportunity to acclimate to not only a change in physical space, but a change in theory, philosophy, and attitude.

  3. Dave Meister says:

    I am sure this was the piece I was going to write! I have nothing to add here. I am going to talk about it tomorrow with staff though….thank you!

  4. Could it be that too many of the conversants do not feel the “risk-reward” equation of stepping out and being a change agent is worth it? The educational culture, with its emphasis on quantifiable numerics, does not encourage creativity or innovation. In fact it seems to send out numerous messages that indicate that classroom teachers need to just stay on script.

    Change leadership requires a decision to ignore the “risk-reward” equation and admitting that the going will be tough. It may mean tight fiscal restraints, piles of paperwork hoops, and various other barriers that the establishment will throw up in efforts to maintain the status quo. But revolution is not rewarding unless it is undertaken.

    Most importantly, the revolution must remember that it gains its existence in the hearts and minds of the students who will benefit.

  5. DSJ says:

    @Brian: I think the essence of your thought is this: “We know less about what is going on in our own building than our network.” I think many in the “network” might say the same, and how quick are they to jump into the online fray when a simple conversation with the teacher down the hall might result in a simple hello in the hallway, and then perhaps something more?

    @Scott: Yes, I wont discount the importance of online interactions, but I believe they can only go so far. The online conversations are essential for you, and for me, but far more (in fact, the great majority) don’t engage in this world. I’d rather find a way to get them talking. As far as refusing to change, well, that’s what teacher evaluation and remediation are for. That’s hard, unpleasurable, but if it comes down to that…

    @Dave. How’d it go?

    @Greg: First, I believe you overestimate the influence on quantifiable numerics on practice. For example, my school did not make AYP in several subgroups but our faculty are highly creative and capable, and continue to provide high quality learning experiences. Being accountable does not mean and end to creativity and innovation.

    As far as stepping out, true leaders step forward in the absence of leadership without concern for personal reward.

    Who is the establishment? I’m slightly confused on that…administration, government?

    Do you believe their is a revolution occurring in education? If so, where? And if so, do you believe that schools, in 20 years, will look the same or different than they do now?

  6. [...] Jakes (Blog, Twitter) in a recent blog post, “Rethinking Conversation and Change,” took on the tension that exists between talking about change and actually doing [...]

  7. @David Isn’t it arguable that numerics (quantifiable and otherwise) drive the culture? I wouldn’t argue that there aren’t many teachers that ignore the oppression of numbers that seems to predominate policy. However, I believe there are more who do let the threats associated with the numerics hog-tie them and keep them teaching as the believe. You are right, the current culture doesn’t end creativity or innovation, but it successfully limits its occurrences. Accountability, also, doesn’t end creativity or innovation – unless the measures are focused on those practices or outcomes that are antithetical to them. If the focus is on maintaining a standardized culture (testing, textbooks, curricula) then it would dampen innovation.

    I agree completely on your second point. Conviction is far more rewarding than personal reward. I would classify “establishment” more as the culture and of course anyone who works to perpetuate that culture would be part of the establishment. It’s larger than any single segment of education and includes government, administrators, teachers, school boards, parents, etc.

    No, I don’t believe there is currently a revolution occurring. I do believe that it is beginning and the establishment (as defined above) is attempt to keep it from gaining traction. Using the Reformation as an example, discussion, dissemination of ideas and writings were the underpinnings of what would grow and eventually change the world. The Enlightenment equally was predicated on ideas, which had to be spoken and developed through dialog, debate, and experimentation. The revolution came when the strictures that had held society in check were loose enough that those right behind the martyrs felt they could step into the breach. That may sound rather hyperbolic, but I think the point is valid.

    You have begun a discussion of taking the discussion from the confines of the incubator (Twitter, Edublogosphere, etc) and plant them more intentionally within a school or a district. I think your bang on that the time has come for this next step. I think when this happens on a larger scale and we begin to see whole schools start to step out of the status quo, then we will have a revolution. Until then we have an insurgency (I really hate militaristic metaphors). I think the indicator of a real revolution will be when an entire state education system (order written does not indicate prioritization):

    A. determines that the purpose of school is process driven and not content driven learning

    B. makes the decision to reconceptualize its budgetary decisions making process and repurposes finances so they aide in creative exploration in curriculum development, innovative classroom practice, and equipping teachers with the autonomy to engage in action research as an ongoing act

    C. makes the decision to forgo Federal dollars as an act of freeing itself from the numeric driven policies being perpetuated at that level

    D. builds structures where by local communities have greater autonomy in the development of the learning centers contained within them and assists in educating all constituencies in these communities about the power of the new culture

    E. divorces itself from the constrained learning environments dictated by current standardization movements (including content, curricula, textbooks, and testing)

    A system that makes these decisions (and there may be some I missed, but this is a significant start) will begin the revolution. Until then we will only have pockets of resistance where real learning is happening. I am optimistic that we will be on our way to something that looks nothing like the schools we currently have. I hope the resistance grows into a revolution and in 20 years we are discussing how to keep pushing the envelope forward.

    Here is the caveat. If the reality in 20 years is not what I hope it is, if it remains essential as is . . . it won’t be because society and students didn’t demand it.

  8. Sean Nash says:


    Step 1: Get out there… mix it up with others who are talking. Those who are willing to imagine something different.

    Step 2: Come home (even if it is a step away from the laptop) and bring the good of it forward for those around you who are willing to make a difference.

    Step 3: Keep pushing. Keep questioning. Suggest action. When action doesn’t happen fast… repeat step 3.

    Step 4?: So how do we take the gold of organized “conversations” of the Educon ilk… and parlay them into action? To me, this is your essential question here.

    As goofy as this may sound, protocols guide smart people to action. As simply as the stated goals of such “conversational” meetings… those goals change the conference into something better than we had before. How then do we impose the next protocol of action?

    Imagine tacking on a rather similar protocol to the end of any organized “conversation: => A conference that doesn’t exit as one day in a calendar year. Think of it. Why do we meet on one day each and every year to chat? There really is no connection from one year to the next. Imagine an organized “conference” that takes place on not one day, but two separated in time. Simply put: Educon 2011: January 30 AND June 30. Built in of course… is the protocol of ACTION required at the end of each session that follows up with sharing said action five months later in the summer of the same year. Imagine THOSE conversations. Conversations with actual data from even small action home… brought back to the initial focus of the original charge… in the same room… five months later in the summer.

    How would that change the initial conversations? How would that drive us to real-world changes back home? Perhaps it’s crazy. Perhaps two F2F meeting isn’t fiscally possible. The second might not even have to be F2F. Why would it? Perhaps we don’t have the commitment to sustain real action-research/implementation. But then again… perhaps we do.

    What is possible?


  9. Colleen Cannon-Ruffo says:

    I like your quote that the conversation “needs to be an organized process with contributions from all stakeholders.” I agree with you that systemic change needs to begin at home, back in our schools. We can’t just talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. I believe this conversation takes on a new dimension when administrators buy into that concept. In one of my buildings, we’ve been working this year on integrating the technologies we want the teachers to use into all of our inservices and faculty meetings. Whatever topics we are charged with delivering to the staff is delivered through an appropriate technology we hope teachers will use in the classroom. For example, if we want them to reflect on something we’ve covered during the inservice, we do so online using a Reflection Blog. After discussing the difference between Retelling and Summarizing, teachers used Comic Life to demonstrate their understanding of the concept and learned the program at the same time. Because our teachers have SMART Boards, we created SMART notebook activities that introduced concepts such as “Classroom Management in Guided Reading” or “Beliefs about Ability Grouping” and asked teachers to use these activities in small groups while discussing the topics. The conversations that we had about the topics were so much more powerful and included conversations about the merit of using that particular technology.

    We put a lot of thought into which tool addressed each topic best as well as which technologies they needed to feel more comfortable with. Our objective is to model appropriately how they can use these technologies and maybe expose them to something they may never try on their own. I’ve made it very clear to teachers that they don’t have to use these technologies, but if they are interested in learning more about them, I’m available to support them. We’ve had more demand for technology than ever before and teachers are definitely showing more comfort and ease in using these tools. But even greater than that has been the reception from the teachers. You said it yourself, “Educators are smart people…change is about leadership, not conversation.” Our teachers have been amazing in their appreciation of our efforts to lead through example, not just conversation. And even more exciting is the fact that the conversation has now begun spreading among other schools and is leading to even broader systemic change.

  10. [...] to get across town where we should really be at already.  We should be buried in the middle of local conversations about how we could be changing teaching practices to better fit the kids we see coming through our [...]

  11. Often the problem at home (in the school) is that it (the conversation) quickly turns into a bitch session.

    Well if the administration did this
    If the parents did that
    If I were allowed, knew how, had the expertise, had the resources I could do the other

    Most teachers don’t really want to talk theory in the break room. They just want to complain about the students, administration, etc…

    True we need a bit of time to vent, but we also need to talk, research, learn, discover what it is we can do better, why it works, what it looks like, where we can practice, and do all this without dropping test scores that might hold sway over whether or not we keep our jobs.

    The conversation starts online, because we find like minded folks who can’t complain about the pitfalls or deficiencies of their school because I’m not in their school. Though I think most of the people in my PLN tend to get past the bitchiness fairly quickly.

    I think one great way to start the conversation at school is to create a school or district wide conversation online. Make teachers and administrators start twitter accounts and blogs and ask them to discuss theory. Create message boards and wikis and try to get everyone involved. Get the momentum started, give them a chance to hold conversations when they don’t really have time to meet at school. Ask teachers to do this on their own time, but ask the conversations to stay theoretical. Perhaps it is too Utopian to think that this might work, and some districts have probably tried and already failed, but I think others have also tried and find it is actually working.

    Not everyone will be involved or change, but changes doesn’t happen all at once. it starts with small committed groups of individuals. If your lucky one or two people you never thought would be accepting does, and they motivate dozens of others to do the same. All we need is the one great follower.

Leave a Reply