The Learning Accelerator Blog/Leading Blended Learning, and Getting Support While Doing It

change management innovation

Leading Blended Learning, and Getting Support While Doing It

by Beth Rabbitt on October 20 2014

As we began developing our human capital strategy in the summer of 2013, we heard two things about leadership in blended and personalized schools:

• principals are absolutely critical to successful design and implementation, and;
• there is a dearth of resources and supports to help effectively develop principals.

Clearly, there was work to be done. To address the gap, we decided to partner with the Friday Institute to develop and launch a new year-long, cohort-based, "blended" professional development program to help school leaders understand, create, and execute upon a blended learning vision for their school (i.e., use technology to increase personalization and competency-based learning). This program will kick off in January, and we are currently looking for organizations to participate in the pilot year.

The announcement of this partnership compelled me to reflect more on my own observations. Having talked to and observed a number of blended school principals, and looking back on my own time on a “flex” school startup team, I’ve come to believe that the central tasks and role of an effective principal are very similar in blended and traditional environments. Yes, they need to understand the levers and opportunities that technology can bring to their schools, but the skills necessary for leading and managing (“doing the right things” and “doing things right,” in Drucker speak) aren’t radically different on the whole.

However, the context of blended learning-- not just the newness of the approach, but also pace of technology development and demand for deeper levels of personalization-- does heavily influence how principals put their skills into action and what they must emphasize. In particular, I think there are two utterly critical challenges worth calling out:

Managing the interplay between innovation design and change management.

At first blush, putting a blended learning model into place at a school seems straightforward: create a vision for learning, operationalize it into a blended model, communicate and train staff, and monitor implementation. (Cue laughter.) In reality, the process is in no way so linear; principals have to engage in iterative cycles of inventing, implementing, learning, and then redesigning in light of new information and parameters. This requires principals to manage both design as well as change, and to know when and how to do both.

First, innovative design. Blended learning remains a pretty nascent practice -- while there are some known products and models to try out, school leaders need to work with their staffs to design new approaches and models to fit their local contexts and resources. To borrow some framing from Innovator’s DNA, leaders have to have the courage to innovate, enact a variety of discovery skills and behaviors (e.g. questioning, experimenting), synthesize novel ideas, and then, once designed, deliver on a new approach to teaching and learning.

It’s this last “delivery” part that gets really tricky, and here’s where change management comes in. Even with a great idea (or, in the case of many school teams, several great ideas), change is hard, and schools are made up of a lot of stakeholders at varying levels of buy-in and skill. Throughout the process, leaders have to effectively translate all the edubabble and management-speak into a meaningful, clear, and compelling picture of what the future of teaching and learning will look like. Then they need to help the community deal with the apparent losses as result of the change. To do this, principals have to bring a suite of strategies to the fore, including communicating the nature of the shift, inviting participation and input to the process, building consensus and commitment, facilitating and training to build capacity, and incenting (in some cases, even coercing) behaviors to get the ball rolling.

Then, even assuming near-perfect delivery, learning happens. Some ideas seem to work well and others don’t. Some ideas seem to work but then the data show otherwise and improvements plateau. After some analysis, it’s back to the innovation drawing board.

This near constant dance between design and change management isn’t one we talk a lot about, but it’s at the core of making blended learning work. We’ve got to prepare principals to learn how to dance this dance.

Adopting and championing a growth mindset.

We talk a lot about the importance of growth mindsets for kids, and, a little more recently, for teachers. But a commitment to learning, and a commensurate honesty about the process, must be modeled from the top down. Principals in blended contexts must abandon their own need to be right and in control, and instead foster a culture that values, celebrates, and creates safety for testing, failure, and open sharing.

Adopting this growth modeling includes principals “walking the walk” by embracing technology in their own professional lives. Leaders have to be willing to try new tools (with enthusiasm!) and be willing to accept some short-term inefficiencies to benefit longer term gain. I once worked with an academic leader who required that all of the teachers and students in her school move to a document creation and sharing platform but refused to make the move herself. Unsurprisingly, this attitude failed to inspire confidence in others and undermined the larger work.

This changing of one’s own mindset can feel painful, particularly given some of the “command-and-control” expectations we have for principals as powerful, all-knowing leaders. Many of us, myself included, are used to seeking perfection and performing well. Adopting a growth orientation isn’t a decision or one-time shift, but rather a mindset shift that is practiced and cultivated over time. We don’t often give principals safe spaces for doing this or provide coaching as they go.

Taking these two challenges together (and then layering them on everything else we expect of principals), it’s clear that leading a school’s blended transformation is no easy task. We’ve got to build up more resources to help principals learn how to tackle them head on. And these supports need to be better than they’ve been; we must construct professional learning experiences that go beyond whitepapers and one-time workshops. These learning experienced should also offer principals the opportunity to learn with their peers as well, so they aren’t so along in the process.

What I love about our venture with the Friday Institute is that we’re aiming to do just that -- create a program that offers tools and frames but also in-person and on-line learning networks to give principals a more sturdy foundation from which to take the leap.

I’d love to hear from others, particularly principals, about these challenges. Do you agree? Would you add others? What resources would have helped? Tweet me at @bethrabbitt.

About the Author

Beth Rabbitt is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. Email comments to [email protected], and follow Beth @bethrabbitt.