Leading Today Revisited

CEO, One-to-One Institute

Education leadership today calls for a holistic, dynamic approach aimed at specific vision and goals.  Leaders must generate a shared model.  The collective and individual strengths of each stakeholder need to integrate into the design and launch of a digital, student-centered/personalized conversion.  Adapting and flexing within an ever-changing learning environment will be essential for day to day, short and long term goals and activities.  As learners take on more responsibility for their personal growth, roles of distributed leaders will shift to become more ‘activators’ than facilitators or guides on the side.

Dancing with ‘change’ will be the norm. The driving force within collective leadership is the school’s focus on learners’ goals.  At the heart of leadership is a collective vision, which calls on the spirit; learning, which invigorates the brain; and action, which produces vigor. From these perspectives, leadership development shifts from individual-centered to collective-centered; from static curriculum and instruction to dynamic, digital content production. The robust technology classroom continuously evolves around students’ personalized learning experiences.  Teachers empower learners; leaders empower teachers.

The Leader Role in Visioning

The education leader first must create a successful foundation by developing a shared vision among the school community’s stakeholders.  The administrator must lead the effort with honest communications-including ‘why’ the movement to new models, sharing expected program outcomes, modeling technology integration, building an effective and supportive human and hardware/software infrastructure. 

An engaged leader strives to grasp the culture changes happening to stakeholders by understanding new processes, environmental shifts, accelerated pace and robust technology integration that characterize his century’s schools.  Facilitating consistent professional learning and understanding the impact of ‘change’ for individuals is a significant piece of this leadership work.

Planning is crucial.  For some, the changes from traditional to a high tech, student-centered environment will be embraced.  For others, the divergence will seem to ‘attack’ core values and beliefs.  Those in the latter group need the collective leaders to address their fears while encouraging risk-taking in a safe environment. McREL calls this ‘leading second order change’ in schools.  There are 11 leadership responsibilities necessary for facilitating second order change (McREL 2005).  Those responsibilities coincide with what we have learned about leadership needs for implementing education technology rich environments.

As we move to robust technology school environments there is the demand for generative leadership (Klimek, Ritzenhein, Sullivan 2008) for a student-centered environment.  Following is a brief discussion of the next six leadership focus areas.

6 Leadership Focus Areas

Professional Learning: It is essential for leaders to ensure comprehensive, ongoing, focused professional growth for those engaged in the digitally transformed environments. Veteran education technologists know that teachers move from novice to expert over a period of three years. Leaders must assure that the professional learning experiences are differentiated for teachers’ unique readiness and skills sets. Educators will move along the novice to expert continuum at different speeds.

Digital learning tools, well implemented, can generate constructivist, student-centered systems. Teachers need to unlearn traditionally practices techniques and learn new pedagogies to replace teacher-centered strategies. In addition to the training around technology integration, leaders need to develop plans that include ‘time’ for teachers to learn and connect within peer learning communities.  These communities provide opportunities for teacher debriefs, sharing, reviewing student work and artifacts, collaborations, successful technology integrations, curriculum and much more.

Leaders also need professional learning opportunities.  The learning plan should be consistent, ongoing.  The rapid pace and increased advances of technology and information in our hyper-linked world mandate all educators be present and knowledgeable of current and future learning tools and directions.  Coaching and mentoring frameworks have been very successful.

Culture: School culture conducive to the digital shift is non-negotiable.  The leader builds the environment for success. This usually means challenging the existing culture and norms. Nadine Engels and her co-authors discuss a positive culture as one in which there is “a shared sense of purpose and values, norms of continuous learning and improvement, collaborative collegial relationships... and sharing experiences".  They further point out that innovation, leadership, teamwork, and "goal-orientedness" are also significant to creating a positive culture.  Michael Fullan says that principals should focus on creating that positive school culture above all else.  To move a school community toward a rewarding culture requires the principal to get buy-in from all stakeholders.  Communication and discussion help lay that groundwork.  The culture must facilitate an understanding of this change. It is important for leaders to provide an environment of ‘safety’ for teachers to try new ideas and practices without risk.

Professional Practice: Leaders must model the use of technology in their professional work increasing their own productivity and demonstrating effective use. Continuous growth and development in this regard speaks volumes to the leaders’ constituency. Classroom visitations where teachers and students are engaging education technology are important. Regular communication and discussion among these pioneers will guide progress and program adjustments. Basic to this are establishing lines of communications, systems for input and feedback and efficient problem-solving.

Change, such as that created through one-to-one programs, is systemic. Each system, as part of the whole, must be working in the direction of fostering the transformation. Close attention and alignment is needed among policies, procedures, services, information, and technology engagement. There are not templates for these areas as each will be unique to the school environment. What is needed is ongoing reflection, rethinking, and redesigning among members of the professional learning community.  Leaders must understand the social, legal and ethical education technology issues. It is important for leaders to model responsible decision-making related to these matters.

Operations: Leaders must ensure the integration of technology to support overall district systems for learning and administration.  As education technology integration grows and expands the district's abilities to respond to the robust technology use, acquisition and use of big data will affect teachers’ consistent work toward ubiquitous analyses of student learning and technologies integration.  The more that school leaders and officials across the district understand, support and engage the implementation, the greater the chance for real transformation to occur.

Assessment and Evaluation:  It is important that a system of ongoing and annual evaluations be in place to assess program goal attainment and incremental measures of needs for adjusting the project. The annual summative evaluations provide necessary information regarding overall program success, needs for improvement, and focused areas of response about project efficacy. Research findings should be accessible to stakeholders. It is recommended that evidence of adjusting the program as needed be shared through ongoing communication systems.

Communications: As with all things that are ‘change’ in schools, the leaders’ ongoing and consistent communications are critical.  Focusing on the ‘why’ for the changes being experienced is crucial.  Sharing the research and knowledge base with district stakeholders is a must. The community will need to share, discuss and understand the project. This includes the good news as well as the challenges. Multi-mode communications are recommended. Ensuring a feedback loop for stakeholders to express successes and challenges is important.  Responding to those aspects is required.  Stakeholders need to be heard and acknowledged. 

Ideas for communicating are: structuring scheduled meetings to allow for different groups/stakeholders to have concerns heard and addressed; facilitating immediate support where needed; learn from others who have traveled this same path-seek help when needed; be highly visible and available within the project; support the risk-taking pioneers; provide printed or electronic newsletters/updates for constituents.

Repetition of key messages helps. Assert and clarify what is happening with the program through the avenues chosen for communicating. Remind the community of the reasons for the program launch, the focus on student preparation for the future and the shared vision that provided the foundation for the effort.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list.  Much goes into a high quality leadership approach.  These areas provide a 30K foot perspective of the ingredients needed for education digital transformation to take hold and be amplified throughout a system. It is hard work but it is the right work.


Leslie Wilson, founder and CEO of One-to-One Institute, has served education for 38+ years  in top level, key decision-making roles at state and local levels. Recognized as an international expert in education technology, Wilson is a frequent writer, presenter and interviewee. Among her many publications, she co-authored, “Project RED-The Technology Factor, Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost Effectiveness” which is the most broadly used research around successful implementation of 1:1 technologies in schools.  

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