Sunday, November 11, 2012

Comfortable with Uncertainty

I went for a mountain bike ride this morning at Sumas Mountain in Abbotsford.  It was a crisp 0 degrees, small snow flakes were falling on the ride up, and “Jack Frost” was present on the trails. I start to roll the tires down the mountain and I see frost, some ice, and I have WP_000407a real sense of uncertainty and concern.  Will my tires hold on the turns (high speed…) or not?  I tentatively burn through the first few corners and thankfully the tires hold.  I release the brakes some more and increase the speed until I’m flying down the trail and not worrying (too much) about the frost and ice.  My trust grows in the bike, its tires, and my skills and I have an exhilarating and positive experience.

So “what does this have to do with technology, education, and the future?” you might ask.  All three are fraught with uncertainty!  Technology is under constant change, often radical.  The options and possibilities available today didn’t exist only a few years ago.  How do we make sustainable choices in a constantly shifting and uncertain context.  This is less of a concern for individuals and consumers as they are only concerned with what a technology means to them right now personally and the cost of a poor choice has limited impact.  But, in a large school district, poor choices can have a devastating impact in terms of lost student learning time, frustrated teachers or other staff, security implications, tremendous expense, difficulty to learn, and expense, to name a few.  Choices come with opportunity costs: if we choose “A”, we are unable to consider “B” and we may miss opportunities.  What works for some iStock_000019241487XSmallmay not work for others.  School Districts must also consider how a technology might impact equity and how their choices impact schools in very poor neighborhoods and in very rich ones.  How do we shift schools away from older models of technology such as labs to embedding a variety of technology in classrooms, embracing BYOD, in a context of limited funds.  BYOD models can increase inequity if funds and a will are not available to fill the gaps.  While my District is rolling out wireless networking to its schools I see uncertainty attached to teacher readiness to embrace it for learning.  I also see uncertain network bandwidth availability for accessing District and Internet services.  Staff development opportunities are necessary for wireless, BYOD, iPads, etc. to be valuable learning and teaching tools.  Similarly, network bandwidth is an essential ingredient to technology powered learning.  Without these, I see a very uncertain future for our ability to effectively leverage technology for learning and teaching.  How do we shift to a culture of action research for technology implementation and how do we find funding to radically increase network bandwidth?  Uncertain.

In BC, educators and parents are wrestling with what personalized learning means in action.  Changing a world class education system like ours is an uncertain exercise.  Creating space in a curriculum, reducing what kids must know (perhaps), redesigning how they will be assessed,… this is serious business with outcomes that will affect all of society.  Stakeholder involvement in choices for education has radically changed the decision making environment.  Decision makers have to consider so many more points of view and influences today – the uncertainty about impacts can be paralyzing.  Technology is increasingly seen as a lever for educational change.  How certain are we that new tools, process, and focus are what our society requires for our kids to embrace and succeed in an uncertain future?  Are our investments, often measured in the millions of dollars, going to make the impact we expect?  Are we always clear about the impact we expect?

The future has always been an uncertain reality.  However, today our reality is on an exponential change trajectory, powered by technological progress.  The uncertainty of the future is being amplified like never before.  How do we make successful choices and decisions in a context that at times feels like chaos?

Today more than ever, leaders need to be comfortable with uncertainty or they shouldn’t be in leadership roles.  Gone are the days of predictability and knowing.  I’m one week into my new iStock_000017883547XSmallleadership role and I must admit there is a mountain of knowing to be traversed.  While I’m discovering and learning, expectations will rise quickly for me to make a difference.  I have to accept that I will not know everything I need to know before I start deciding to pursue certain strategic directions.  Time is not a friend of a leader in a rapidly changing world. 

For all of you in leadership roles who feel fear, uncertainty, discomfort, can’t sleep at times, don’t know what to do, worry about deciding, I have some advice for you.  Trust your judgment, your staff, your experience, your advisors, your training, and enjoy the opportunity and privilege you have to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  That’s our job as leaders, and it’s a privilege and an honor to be trusted to do what we do.  I am excited about the uncertain future I face as a leader in my school district and I look forward to an exhilarating future as we roll forward together.