Consensus: Timing is Everything

All the talk about reform; educational transformation; and change, in general, has propelled me into many conversations about consensus lately. Many people tout the importance of consensus building. Some even view it as a do-or-die step in the process of bringing about true and lasting change.

Picture from http://bit.ly/eH3REZ
After much introspection, I suppose I am one of those people. I know nothing can actually get done without group solidarity. I understand that the true power of transformation rests with the teachers who are the doers so often overlooked in a world of loud thinkers.

But here’s the catch…

I think we are often ill-timed with our consensus-building efforts. And, as usual, timing is everything. I propose that the right time to engage in consensus building is AFTER a vision is established.

As school leaders, we often start with some dissonance—an experience, a question, a problem—that causes us to think that perhaps our current way of doing business isn’t working anymore.

At this point, it seems many default to our tendency toward systemic ad hocracy and form a committee to study, recommend, or just fruitlessly toil. We tend to default to consensus building at this point, but I propose that aiming for consensus at this stage, at best, just promotes the status quo and, at worst,  derails positive change efforts.

Vision is leader-initiated with consensus built. That means that the process of consensus building comes AFTER the development of a vision for change. Keep in mind that I use the term leader to describe a function, not a position. I recognize that a school’s strongest leaders are more often than not those without formal leadership titles.

Furthermore, I don’t propose for a vision to be developed in isolation. It should be informed by wide input, which is qualitatively different than consensus. Input comes BEFORE vision development. Consensus comes AFTER vision development.


Reflections on Our Current Reality

I believe we are truly at a time where a critical mass of energy and ideas from many different sectors have converged. There is great input coming from the private sector that is informing new ways of defining "life, work, and post-secondary ready." There are myriad examples of what I would call serendipitous innovation happening in schools and districts, and Iowa is leading the way in many of them. All of these things are happening at the grassroots level and without (and in spite of) structure or systems, though I would be remiss not to acknowledge the power of the Iowa Core to provide a common language and common understanding in Iowa.

There is a new generation occupying classrooms and administrative offices--and we are unwilling to accept the status quo. Policymakers have begun to understand the critical nature of our schools to economic vitality and forward-progress and appear willing to loosen and redefine policies that have long stood in the way of educational transformation. 

So, as John Carver would say, we are at a "printing press moment." It is truly just a matter of time before something big happens to radically change the way we do business in education. I, for one, intend to be a part of that something big. I have a bent toward systems thinking and systems change, and I believe right now we can capitalize on existing and emerging innovations in different strands of the system to truly bring about widespread and lasting change.

There are already siloed efforts underway in Iowa to develop an open-source high school; a gaming platform for learning; competency and mastery-based assessments; virtual reality applications in schools; an interdisciplinary, project-based pathway through secondary school; and more.

From my clearest vantage point, this is where we are now. The important question is: Where do we go from here?

An effort to connect these efforts around a common vision and scale them up would be timely and powerful. If you read my Ender’s Game blog post, you know that I was part of a diverse group that met over the summer to consider how we might do just this. Consider the Guiding Principles we developed as a framework for such progress: 
  • Iowa [and the US] needs a flexible, learning-focused educational system that is not bound by time and place.
  • High quality learning involves problem solving, risk-taking, and self-discovery.
  • Students must become civically engaged, culturally competent producers of knowledge.
  • Existing and emerging technologies are key factors in the transformation of teaching and learning. 
  • Change requires action. The time to act is now. 
Act now. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” What can you do today?