Interview | Chris Lehmann and the New Playbook

You’re a 21st-century administrator. Now what? Chris Lehmann is the Founding Principal of the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), an inquiry-driven, project-based, one-to-one laptop science and technology high school in Philadelphia, a school that has garnered international recognition. Sharing his hard-won experience, Chris has been a speaker at International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) events and will be the keynote speaker for the upcoming inaugural ISTE Leadership Forum 2012. For today’s school leaders, the rules of the game have changed, and in his talks, Chris shares what it takes to be a 21st-century administrator with practical examples of how to create learning environments for the digital age, offering up what amounts to a pragmatic playbook for the new game. In addition to his other commitments, he authors the education blog Practical Theory. In this in-depth discussion, Chris goes above and beyond in addressing the issues and challenges facing administrators today.

Victor: Chris, you’ve posed the question:

“As more and more schools integrate technology into their classrooms, how do we ensure that we truly leverage the transformative nature of these modern tools to re-imagine what our schools can be and allow more children to create authentic powerful artifacts of their learning?”

Briefly (and you don’t need to spoil any future presentation by giving it all away!) what is your answer to those questions?

Chris: What I think we have to do is create opportunities for students to do real work that matters and leverage all of our tools in real ways. What we do a lot of times is say, “Let’s have the kids do a blog project or a video project.” What we need to do is empower kids to do real work using technology tools in an authentic manner that allows them to do that work in a transformational way.

Victor: Breaking it down further: Why do you classify our current, modern toolset as “transformative”? What makes you say that?

Chris: I think that what is transformative is what the kids can do with them. We finally have the tools that allow us to achieve the dream, that lets kids to do real work that matters. We can allow kids to create, network, share, and present in more powerful ways than ever before.

The tools we have today are more far reaching in their communications capabilities, efficiency, or speed. A laptop is probably one of the most powerful, personal productivity devices we’ve ever seen before. It allows us to do things in new ways. True, many of the things our tech tools allow us to do, I think that we’ve done before, but now we can do them for more efficiently and more people have access to them.

The transformational nature of the tool is that they allows us to see far more clearly than ever before that our classroom should not be defined by the four walls, but by what we hope kids are able to do.

Victor: How do we ensure that we truly leverage the transformative nature of these modern tools?

Chris: We develop common languages of teaching and learning. We develop the visions of why and how we use tools in schools that builds that common language. I don’t want to see “You get with this tech or you lose your job.” That’s a bad idea!

We ensure that we leverage these tools by creating visions of schools and building systems and structures around those visions that allow kids to build an authentic skill set. Hopefully, in the grand scheme, we have policies that reward that.

Victor: How do you get people in and around education to reimagine what our schools can be?

Chris: Help them see the vision. Help them to see the path to new ways of doing things. Give them models.

Victor: What is something educators can do right now to reimagine their schools?

Chris: I think what every educator should be able to do is to consider “What do I control, what do I have control over?” And by control, I don’t mean command-and-control teaching, I mean, if you’re a classroom teacher, what you own inside your classroom or, if you are a principal, within your school. Within the boundaries that we have control over, how can we develop visions of what we want in order to invest in our kids? Then, latch all of our systems and structures that we have control over to that overall vision.

The way kids produce information, the way they consume information, the way they reflect, the way that we as educators grade, the way we sit kids in the classroom, anything that you have control over, ask yourself, “Does it leverage the best ideas that we have? Does it leverage the best vision for what we have for what we hope kids can do and learn and be with us?” If not, change your policies! Change your structures so that they are more closely aligned to that best vision of what we are and what we can be.

Victor: What do you mean by ‘authentic powerful artifacts’ of a student’s learning?

Chris: It varies. What I mean by that is that students should be able to create things that are of interest to them, that matter to them, that allow them to see the effects they can have in the world as the people they are today – not just as what they may do someday. I think it can be everything from building catapults in a physics class, to building architecture plans in a geometry class, to writing for publications in an English class, to doing original mini-documentaries in a history class. There is all kinds of work that kids can do that is authentic, that is real, that is owned by them, that allows them to see themselves as active agents in the world and that is more empowering than bubbling in the answers on someone else’s test.

Victor: When we speak of “maximizing your tech investment and stretching your dollars” – could you give some context for this well-worn phrase? Why does this ring so true these days? Could you point to any examples that illustrate the huge difference between a school or district that accomplishes this and one that does not?

Chris: These are hard economic times. When people think that we’re going to save lots of money with technology, they generally end up regretting it. You have got to find a way to use the technology without breaking the bank, but technology is going to cost money, and that is okay. That shouldn’t be what we’re thinking about.

What we should be thinking about is how we can put the tools in the hands of students and teachers so that they can do powerful things. Sure, people can use online learning and distance learning to extend their classroom offerings; they can use it to save money, but that is borrowing from Peter to pay Paul on some levels. Anyone with the goal of using technology is to be able to hire fewer teachers and just put kids in front of computers all day long really doesn’t deserve the title of educator. Kids learn by doing and interacting.

Leaders have to save right now, I get that. We are experimenting with some online Spanish courses due to cuts in our budget. But that doesn’t make it good. It makes it a necessity, right now that we should understand as a manufactured crisis in this country.

We should be able to conceive of a school system in this nation where kids have powerful, caring adults who work with them every day and a laptop. That shouldn’t be a stretch for one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Victor: There is a tremendous reach for Common Core help. What do you have in mind when you suggest that educators might “employ technology to meet the Common Core”?

Chris: You should use technology in teaching and learning. If the coin of the realm is going to be Common Core, then we should use technology with Common Core. If the coin of the realm is whatever the next set of standards are five years from now, we will use technology for that.

Use technology to do profoundly important and interesting and authentic things with kids. Let them build stuff, create stuff, do stuff, use stuff, share stuff that matters. If that meets the standards, all the better. 

Victor: How specifically do leaders actually support and motivate their staff to embrace new strategies? Easier said than done?

Chris: I think you let people see what is best. I think you let people what is possible. You stop making this one more thing that teachers have to do and help them see that using this technology will allow them to transform their practice.

Very few of us live the way we lived 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago, no one was buying anything online. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t engage in the political process online. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t get our news online. We certainly didn’t get much of our entertainment online. Today, all of life is transformed by the new ways in which we act within the Internet. There’s so much that has changed. The nature of communication, commerce and politics has changed. How can anyone argue that education should remain unchanged?

Victor: What sort of tech tools are out there that assist with parent communication and involvement? Where are we in terms of using what we have? And where will we be in two years in regards to this area?

Chris: Social media is amazing for that. You can look at the work of someone like Joe Mazza in the suburbs of Philadelphia or the pioneering work of Tim Lauer out in Portland. People are using social media, whether it is Facebook or Flickr or Twitter or something new. Or if it’s just an old-fashioned email listserv to communicate with parents and to be able to do this work. There are tons of tools these days. It is less about the tools and more about what do you want to do.

I don’t know about the future. I don’t have a crystal ball! I could care less about the tool, if it is Twitter or Facebook or whatever, I want to make the schools as transparent as humanly possible. I want teachers and parents and students to be able to talk authentically on an ongoing and as-needed basis. I want more structures inside of schools that allow teacher and parents and teachers and families to know each other. We need to leverage the technology to support and transform those communications structures.

I think too often, we see home and school as separate and not always on the same side. That has to change. We need to leverage the tools to help that change. The specific tools we use is less important than the fact that we use them at all.

Victor: Are 1 to 1 laptop programs going to be superseded by tablets in the classroom? iPads, mini tablets, etc?

Chris: I don’t know. I’m sure we’ll see. The funny thing is that we don’t have enough laptop implementations to know. Tablets are cheaper so I’m sure there will be schools that will use them.

What I hope is that we have a wide range of devices being used in schools. Whether it is an Apple laptop, or an iPad, or a Chromebook, what I want to see is authentic use of the tools. I want to see kids being able to learn. I want to see them be able to create. I want to see them be able to share. I want to see them be able to network. I want to see them be able to research. What device they use — well what’s the best device for that?

The devices continue to evolve; the devices continue to get more powerful and more interesting. I don’t think we know what will be best. I think there is always space. I think giving kids access to really powerful tools is key. I love laptops because as much as I love my iPad, there are things it can’t do. Now, will that change over the next few years? Quite possibly. I don’t know.

Victor: Let’s talk about BYOD and the issues and challenges involved – what are the key issues and challenges, what direction should leaders be headed in?

Chris: The single greatest issue that we should be concerned with about BYOD is simply this: BYOD cannot be an excuse for districts to not provide technology to students who come from economically challenged backgrounds. Asking a kid to use a $150 Smartphone when the kid next to him has a $2,000 laptop is not educational equity.

What I’d like to see is a hybrid. If you are on free or reduced lunch, schools can provide robust, powerful devices. If not, then we can make sure there is a sliding scale of paying for this. There are a million different ways to make sure that you maintained educational equity.

We need to understand that the difference between a kids using a laptop and a kid using a Smartphone, but at the same time, if we can provide devices and kids have other devices and they want to bring them in, rock on! We give every single kid a laptop at Science Leadership Academy; we also let them use their Smartphone and their iPads if they want to bring those in too.

Letting a kid bring in their own device does not absolve me of my responsibility as a school leader to provide them the tools that they need in order to succeed. If there are more tools that they’ve got that they think are useful, bring them in and we’ll make that happen. We will let them use it. But when I’m running a school with a 50 percent economically challenged environment, BYOD doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility to make sure that every child has access to a powerful learning tool like a laptop or a tablet.

Victor: The inaugural ISTE Leadership Forum is upcoming in October. Why would leaders want to attend? Any words of wisdom for the thousands of other leaders out there who may not be attending but are still willing and eager to learn?

Chris: What I hope comes out of the ISTE Leadership Forum is multifaceted. I think that it is important to have the opportunity to come together with leaders who are also engaged in the change process, in the evolution of their schools and their districts. I think coming together among a group of people who are all grappling with these same issues, who are all looking to solve these problems, is a powerful experience. What ISTE has done with the ISTE Leadership Forum is create a moment and a forum and a community that will live beyond the meeting, where school leaders can come together with people to solve some of these problems together, face-to-face, and then continue that work virtually when they leave.

I’m sure that best thing will be to be there, but, knowing ISTE as I do, I am sure that they will make sure that those folks who cannot come have the opportunity to engage in parts of this conversation and grow themselves and, hopefully, will come next year.

This is an amazing opportunity to look at these issues specifically through a leadership lens and ask ourselves the hard questions about what it means – as leaders – to try to make the transformation in our schools. My hope is that my keynote will be a piece of that puzzle, but when you have someone of the esteem of Michael Fullan there to help these leaders through a transformational process, amazing things can come out of this. Leaders will have the opportunity to learn how to take their vision and enact that vision and setup plans and possibilities to implement in their communities and in their schools.

Victor: What important questions should leaders be asking themselves and their colleagues these days?

Chris: What is our best vision of what we hope kids can learn and do and be while they are with us, and what is our hope for the people they will become?

Victor: Thank you, Chris!

Chris: Thanks, Victor!


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