Anytime Anywhere Learning
More information »

In Praise of Risk-Taking

By: Joe Hofmeister and Charles Clark

The safest and easiest thing for schools to do these days is nothing!

In difficult times, just maintaining the status quo, keeping the students orderly, at least during the school day, paying the staff as well as possible, meeting with their representatives or the Union’s often enough to keep the peace, all this can be more than enough to challenge any school administration. So it isn’t surprising that the idea of taking major risks to implement innovative programs is rare. It’s far easier to concentrate on a public relations initiative that talks the talk, regardless of whether anyone’s walking the talk.

In schools it is understood that “RISK” is a four letter word and is to be avoided at all costs. It is crystal clear that failure is unacceptable for both political and economic reasons and if a district chooses to take a risk, they make sure that someone else has initiated the change elsewhere and has had positive results. Often the educational leader finds some official sounding studies to show that the objective of the change is worth doing and gives these references to every naysayer. That’s the norm for change as most schools know it.

Real change is messy in spite of those who think change is a logical and rational development. We might have titled this article “In Praise of Ready, Fire, Aim,” because we believe that such an approach ought to be more common in schools engaging in significant innovation. We think that schools learn most when they make mistakes, and that failure encourages new thinking whereas copycat success only encourages repetition. If an innovation isn’t working, then it gets immediate attention to support the change because there is a commitment to it. However, if we try something new, and it works well from the start, we opt for more of the same which can lead to still more, and finally to complacency, a place where many good schools find themselves now. Complacency in this new age is the enemy of both “good” and “great.”

Of course we aren’t trying to promote failure or mistakes but we feel that failure is frequently an early and normal product of people taking risks. Our experience in a school environment that was willing to take a significant risk resulted in lasting change where we learned from our mistakes, which opened the door for true reform, and most importantly, produced notable and lifelong benefits for learners, teachers and students alike.

Risk can come in many forms. Ours came fifteen years ago with a technology initiative that equipped every student and teacher with a laptop. It did not take long for us to recognize that this initiative was risky business beyond anyone’s comprehension. We had no national benchmarks to copy but rather only the stories of a few Australian schools. Questions immediately arose: Who will pay? How will these computers be kept in working order? Won’t classes be disturbed and students distracted if they have laptops in front of them all day? How will teachers be trained? What about parent objections, insurance claims, theft and lost laptops? Will handwriting be a lost art? Won’t students be spending all their time on computer games or possibly dubious websites? Will the value of face to face contact be lost? We actually categorized and wrote responses to 175 possible questions gathered from parents, faculty, and students. Risk is no stranger to objections.

Today, twenty years after the first one-to-one programs were implemented in a few Australian schools because of some risk-taking, visionary educators, led by Bruce Dixon vision, the level of risk for a school to adopt a one-to-one program is less, but the risk element still exists. In March of 1996 Microsoft, aware of the Australian experiments in one-to-one learning (prior to the availability of the Internet), invited a group of 50 schools to come to Seattle and interact with the Australian educators to learn about their experience in laptop programs.

Only five schools of the 50 in attendance responded to the call to initiate one to one programs immediately after the Seattle meeting. These five schools dubbed the “Pioneers” met the challenge, but the degree of involvement among them varied greatly. Cincinnati Country Day School became the only school to adopt the program in an inclusive way in September of 1996, when every student in grades five through twelve, and all teachers, were equipped with a Toshiba laptop. On September 24 about 650 new laptops were piled high in the gym, waiting to be issued to students on what became to be called, the “out of box” experience.

The school’s history had prefigured a one-to-one program because in 1969 an enterprising science teacher, David E. Laird, introduced advantages of technology use in the classroom. Laird had obtained a grant that financed a school-owned minicomputer a full 20 years before anyone heard of one to one. In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, computers were used in schools almost exclusively in CAI (computer assisted instruction) programs but Laird’s insight was to use computers as devices that students would program, rather than be programmed by them. Though not possible at that time, his dream was to have a one-to-one program like the school developed in the late in 1996. Following his lead, the school continued its interest in technology through the 1980’s and early 90’s and was, at least in some way, prepared for the new possibilities implicit in having every student carrying a laptop back and forth from school and to class every day.

The school’s history and culture with technology use may have been a necessary condition for our experiment to move forward, but it was far from a sufficient one. The announcement of the one-to-one program to the school community was not met with open arms by any means. Some faculty members were convinced that the program would seriously affect the quality of their teaching, diminish the school’s enrollment and have a negative effect on the budget.

We were able to convince the majority of the community of the advantages of a one-to-one program, in spite of adding significant dollars ($700 for each of three years) to an already high tuition bill, which we believed was evidence that we were on the right track. The risk factor was recognized, but a large portion of the community knew intuitively that supplying students with this “mind tool” in the context of a school program was the right thing to do.

The school’s administration at first planned to have only a few grade levels involved but was surprised to find that there were parents who felt that they were being left out because their children were not in the designated grades in which implementation of the one to one program was to take place. Most memorable was one vocal parent who told the administration that he had been paying their tuition at the school for over ten years, and now that the most exciting innovation ever to take place at the school was about to happen, his child would not be included. His dissatisfaction signaled that our program had gained the necessary support and reached the “tipping point.” Even in 1996, parents realized, as we did, that putting these tools in the hands of our students was in their best interests.

It is unfortunate that taking risks is no more popular in schools today than it was fifteen years ago when the one-to-one programs took root in this country. And although many schools have adopted such programs in different ways, technology in schools, especially when the technology is in the hands of the students, is still viewed with suspicion and reservations. Our assessment today finds that the objections to technology are not much different now than they were a decade or more ago. Educators still approach the idea of universal access, at school and in classrooms themselves, as if they were creeping through a minefield. Somehow we keep confusing technology use in the classroom with negative outcomes rather than seeing and understanding the exponential expansion of learning possibilities and the positive advantages our student will have in navigating the world of new jobs still unknown to us because of their familiarity with technology.

Risk adverse schools are now hurting students, if they are not adopting technology programs that give students access to the world around them every day. We would do well to consider well the words of Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg in their book, Turning Learning Ride Side Up:

“There are two kinds of mistakes: errors of commission and errors of omission. Errors of commission consist of doing something that should not have been done. Errors of omission consist of not doing something that should have been done. Of these, errors of omission are usually the most costly because it is harder to correct a missed opportunity than to correct something that has been done. Errors of omission are not recorded; and therefore, neither is their cost. Thus, those who want to avoid errors in an organization that define mistakes as a bad – if not punishable – thing find that to maximize their job security they should do as little as possible.” (Ackoff & Greenberg, p.75)

Or fear, resulting from the fifteen years of observation is that every child who is without technology that accesses the world, will be at a critical disadvantage when going to college and finding a job. We believe that any school leader who ignores such technology use in the classrooms, and avoids even discussion of the matter, is guilty of a serious omission and should be confronted by those to whom s/he is accountable. There are and should be no more excuses, just swiftly planned action to put technology in the hands of every student for use whenever there is a need.

Charlie Clark has spent forty years in independent schools, fifteen as teacher, coach and Division Head; and 25 as a Head in three different schools. Charlie’s most renown innovation was the implementation of a 1:1 AA Laptop program in grades 5-12 in 1996 before any other school in the country (New NAIS Book on Change has a chapter on this “Change Initiative.”). Most recently, Charlie has perfected a Strategic Financial Sustainability Model for Board and Administrative use, which is the theme of his “HEAD to HEAD NEWSLETTER” that is sent to all NAIS Schools. He is now conducting workshops for individual schools on “Transforming Your Admissions Process” & “Restoring the Quality of your School’s Education in Hard Times as well as “Strategic Financial Planning.” You can contact him at www.IndependentSchoolLeadership.com

Joe Hofmeister is a highly experienced educational technology consultant. He has particularly been involved with schools that are either starting a 1-to-1 program or that find themselves needing to get their laptop learning program back into high gear. As long-term technology director at Cincinnati Country Day School, he led the school's pioneering efforts with one of the nation's first immersions into a laptop program. Joe has spoken at many conferences and seminars and has been on advisory boards at Apple, Microsoft, Toshiba and the Bertelsmann Foundation. He has co-authored eight books for classroom integration of technology and has contributed chapters and articles to a number of other publications. Along with serving as an AALF consultant and coach, he is presently a member of the NAIS Technology Task Force and recently was invited to take part in Ohio's Institute on Creativity and Innovation in Schools. He can be reached at: joe.hofmeister@mindtoolsconsulting.com
March 23rd, 2010 @ 2:26PM