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Finding Harvey

I’ve recently taken part in an interesting collaborative effort in which I reviewed a number of articles about schools trying to make fundamental changes in how, where, and for what reason learning happens in their communities. The ones that were most successfully progressing were the ones that took a big picture approach, looking at every aspect of school and community life to understand the role they played and how everything connected and interacted. We all know the expression that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but how often do we tweeze this apart to understand why?

Adding laptops here, or a PD course there, are good steps and good parts, but it is the interaction between parts that creates the important added benefits. If there is no connection, no interaction, then you merely have a random assortment of costly programs. What’s worse is that each of these can be a distractor, so that those involved become so caught up in the minutia of each particular program they forget to understand how it links and contributes to the bigger picture. Add to this the very real possibility that some programs may contradict each other or negate their outcomes, and you end up with an end that is much less than the sum of its parts.

There are no slackers in a good orchestra – everyone’s role individually is important, but it is the collaborative work that brings about the transformation. Yes, the violin section may be superbly talented and the piano solo breathtaking, but if they are playing in different keys or tempos, all you end up with is ear-splitting cacophony, convincing most audience members that, not only is the orchestra bad, but that the community could spend its limited funds elsewhere.

On the other hand, when all programs and participants are working towards the same goal, what results rises above the individual components. In music, when tones of a pure harmonic scale are sounded simultaneously, another harmonic tone is created, a combinational tone. Denny Doherty of the singing group the Mamas and Papas called this the ‘fifth voice’. But it was more than just an additional voice. This harmony transformed the sound of the whole group from four individual voices into one new harmonic voice. Doherty even had a name for this voice - Harvey.

(If you don’t know who the Mamas and Papas are, check out their harmony here).

So, when it comes to transforming learning in your school, step back and look at the big picture. Don’t just add laptops or send some teachers to a PD session or rearrange the desks in a circle. Take the time - seize the opportunity - to rethink all your ideas of how, where, and when learning should happen. If you think laptops will enable more self-directed learning, than consider what perspective and knowledge the teachers need to have to make this happen, what type of ongoing professional learning will support them, how students should be organized to enable this, what curriculum and content mean in this context, what physical environment is most conducive to this type of learning, how time should be used, etc. Each piece should contribute to your vision and you should be able to articulate how it does. Don’t do what happens so often - get so distracted by one component, that implementing it suddenly becomes your singular goal (Yay, we distributed the laptops! ..or…Look – we’ve created a 21st century room! …..and so on). Always focus on the big picture.

In so doing, make it your mission to find Harvey, too.
January 11th, 2012 @ 10:16AM