Perhaps it’s a good idea to take a moment here to further clarify the term “knowledge stock”. After all, as I suggested in the previous post, optimizing knowledge stock is central to the “school as a system” concept. So, what exactly do I mean by the term?
In response, let me begin by asking another question; namely, why is it that every school seems uniquely different? If you ever have the opportunity to visit a number of schools, one after another, you’ll notice that they each have uniquely different energy levels, different approaches in the way that students and adults interact, different sound volumes, different ways of organizing themselves; in other words, different cultures. And, in the system view I am presenting, the culture of a school is interpreted as a knowledge stock; the foundation or accumulation of knowledge that has been built up over time.
One of my favourite reads on the topic of school system reform is "Building a New Structure for School Leadership" by Richard Elmore. It’s not possible to give this paper the full credit it deserves in this brief posting. But in a nutshell, Elmore is able to explain how our school systems, originating from the local control of elected boards, have evolved under a foundation of“loose coupling”.
By this, he means that school systems are not about managing effective instruction so much as they are about managing the structures and processes that surround already established methods of instruction. Consequently, most innovation “is about maintaining the logic of confidence between the public and the schools, not about changing the condition of teaching and learning for actual teachers and students.” Of course, pockets of effectively applied innovation exist, albeit sporadically. The challenge involves transferring this innovation to a system application. On this, Elmore suggests that the answer lies in distributed leadership, for which there are five principles:
1. The purpose of leadership is the improvement of instructional practice and performance regardless of role.
2. Instructional improvement requires continuous learning
3. Learning requires modelling
4. Leadership roles flow from learning and improvement, not from the formal dictates of the institution, and
5. Authority requires the reciprocity of accountability and capacity.
In my opinion, what is really being described here is the means to developing progressively effectively school cultures. Distributed leadership is outlined as the vehicle through which formal and tacit knowledge is shared to develop student-focused schools. “Organizations that improve do so because they create and nurture agreement on what is worth achieving, and then set in motion the internal processes by which people progressively learn how to do what they need to do in order to achieve what is worthwhile.” I would say that this passes the “structure drives behaviour” (premise number 3 from my second post) litmus test to the max.
Now, here’s the kicker. This paper by Elmore was written in the year 2000. Not that long ago, right? Think again. In the year 2000 there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no iPhone, no iPad. In a very short period of time, these types of networks and devices have become main stream. So developing school culture through distributed leadership, still absolutely valid, now has to be applied within the context of global communications. This is because students and parents will become increasingly empowered to receive a personalized approach to curriculum delivery (premise number 1 from my second post).
This is a very exciting and opportunistic shift indeed. For the first time in the history of public education, loose coupling will be challenged. The institutional structures that have made reform so difficult to implement on a large scale are coming down. This is a bottom-up reversal in how public education will need to be offered in order to survive. The educational systems that understand how to optimize their information stock will have the best school cultures to meet the personalized needs of students and their parents.