Too Big for Your Britches
I've always felt this and certainly have experienced it, but as I've had the privilege of seeing a lot more schools and school districts up close, it's become evident to me that size is a real enemy to innovation. Change is difficult for any organization and education is particularly difficult because of its systematic problems and tensions as a public sector institution. But there is an inverse relationship between the layers of bureaucracy and the ability to innovate and change. I won't pretend that's a particularly profound or new realization but when I look at those pockets of change, it seems that it's often a result of fewer hoops to jump.
I was fortunate to work for many years in a relatively small school district. All teachers had pretty easy access to superintendents and directors and even board members. Trust was easier to build. Certainly it doesn't guarantee a trusting environment but it's much easy to build. Convincing 2 people is easier than convincing 10. That's basic math. For example, back in 2007 I had a teacher email me asking if there might be a way for her students to use their cellphones in the classroom. This was way before we'd heard of BYOD concepts and cellphones were not quite in the hands of the majority of our teens as they are today. Within a few weeks, I had contacted our local ISP provider and within a few weeks, a plan was in place to provide these students with phones and data plans. And by the way, the school's policy was "no cellphones" which was quickly abandoned. When I tell people about the open internet, liberal filters, posting of student images, BYOD, mulitple platforms and many of the other things I was part of at Prairie South, they are often baffled as to how easily these things were able to happen. Then I forget that in most cases, those decisions were made by a small group of trusting teachers and leaders in one or two meetings.
On Monday I had my class listen to the story of Clarence Fisher and Heather Durnin. Two teachers from rural provinces whose classrooms are one. I can't even tell you all the cool and meaningful things they do all day. From their common learning space to their connections with each other and experts, I can't imagine there are many better learning environments than this one. They are constantly exploring new opportunities for their students. Recently they launched their own radio station. I'm guessing that most teachers would never be able to even consider this. Even if you have a principal and teacher on board, questions about permission, privacy, the things the students might say or do, etc, would kill the idea before it could take root. Clarence has always been advocating that his students, even though they are from a remote, small town in northern Manitoba can have the same opportunities as anyone. The fact is, in many ways his students are getting more of an opportunity to learn than many of our students from our biggest districts.
Another disturbing trend with many of our larger districts and schools is an arrogance to admit they might not have all the answers. Big organizations are looked to for leadership and often they seem to be guarded against seeking help or exploring what the "little guy" is doing. Whether they actually believe they know it all or maybe they think that smaller organizations couldn't possibly have anything to offer, it's something I've seen more and more. This is certainly a relativity involved here as well. When Prairie South amalgamated from 7 districts to 1, I noticed some of the larger schools (300+ which is still small in most large urban centers) ignore or at least neglect to look to our smaller schools for expertise and innovation. Now I'm seeing some of North America's larger school districts showing little interest in what anyone of lesser size is doing in the way of innovative and promising educational practices.
Certainly I'm making some generalizations here. Not all small districts and schools are innovative and awesome and not all larger institutions are thwarting innovation. I know Will Richardson has been on the look out for bold schools. I'm not sure what he's collected thus far but my money is most of those have reduced bureaucracy. If you're reading this and you're from a large school or district and yet you're happy with the freedom teachers have to make change and innovation, feel free to comment and help others see that it's possible. For the most part, I'm stumped as to how the red tape can be removed. To me it comes down to trust, autonomy and leadership. There are some great leaders in larger jurisdictions that are humble enough to recognize they don't have all the answers. That's what often leads to trust and autonomy. However, leaders need other leaders and too often it just doesn't trickle down.
I used to feel bad for small districts with limited resources. I don't anymore. I truly feel for our large districts and those innovators who fight the uphill battle to make both significant and even incremental change.