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Melting the glacier in "Ice Age Schools"

A workbook offers practical strategies for changing the underlying structure of education
Leighangela Brady is an assistant superintendent in the Encinitas USD. Lisbeth Johnson served nine years as superintendent of the Santee School District.
Leighangela Brady is an assistant superintendent in the Encinitas USD. Lisbeth Johnson served nine years as superintendent of the Santee School District.

We’ve all heard the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

In their book, Transforming Ice Age Schools: A Practical Guide for School Leaders (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014), Leighangela Brady and Lisbeth Johnson argue that, beyond superficial “fixes,” little has changed in the underlying structure of education. The result: students unprepared for the complex challenges that await them after high school.

Brady is an assistant superintendent in the Encinitas USD. Johnson served nine years as superintendent of the Santee School District in San Diego County.

"The book is a step-by-step manual on how to make a significant difference in the way teaching and learning happen,” Johnson says. “We’re asking leaders to move the glacier one ice cube at a time, and we’re giving them specific tools to do it, in a comprehensive way.”

How did you arrive at the glacier metaphor you use throughout the book?

Brady: Looking back at the history of education, we found that we’ve been teaching the same way since the middle ages. We teach in courses and subjects. Our education system was predicated on a lot of foundations that really helped either the farming industry or the factory industry, and those traditions have stayed.

So we started to look at all of these changes and developments in education as just more snow, ice and rain piling up on what we call the education glacier. We are at a critical time in education. We have access to information like we’ve never had before. We have access to devices that can augment and accelerate learning like we never had before.

When a glacier gets to a critical depth and width, it starts to move and it carves out this brand new landscape. However, one person cannot move a glacier alone. If somebody told you to melt the glacier, you wouldn’t know where to start. And you’d probably just not do anything.

So, there’s inaction because no one knows what to do?

Brady: When we hear “21st century skills” and we are in Year 16 of the 21st century, we find that very little of the glacier is moving. We are starting to see some changes occur, but we really want to create a movement to truly melt the glacier and create a brand new landscape for education which we know is under there.

Johnson: Education has many superficial changes, like new maths and various literacy programs, but it has been very stagnant. It’s very difficult to change the structure of it.

Technology is not really addressed in the book.

Johnson: We agreed we weren’t going to do another technology book. There are many that talk about different devices that you can use and various apps and so on. But again, these are all surface changes. This is not teaching students how to think, how to be innovative, how to construct things as a team—all those things that the work world now wants. A lot of school districts have purchased loads of technology, we’ve spoken to principals who say, “We don’t know where to start in terms of the learning.” Our reply is, “No, you don’t know where to end up.”

We wanted to talk about what it looks like in the classroom whether you have a lot of technology or not. There’s so much constantly changing information that students can get access to without a teacher. We believe teachers need to continue to be guides.

Clearly this is not a book to be read and filed away on a bookshelf. It’s an ongoing exercise.

Johnson: Right. We believe ours is probably the first book to talk specifically about what leaders need to do and how it looks in the classroom. These are practical behaviors that would make a difference.

So, you can’t read the book and say, “Well, maybe I’ll do Chapter 4 or 5.” You really have to walk through it step-by-step as a leader and continue to evolve and to improve.

Brady: We really want it to be a workbook. Although it is available in digital form, we recommend leaders get the paper copy so they can actually write in the book. It can sit on their desk to remind them to pick it up and work through a section.

Almost every year there’s some new teaching method or some new mandate for assessment or evaluation. It’s no wonder faculty are frustrated. How do you persuade an entire organization to get on board?

Johnson: Much of it depends on the staff. You do what we call a culture audit, which is a way to assess how ready your people are for change.

On every staff there are three basic levels of readiness for change. First here are the trailblazers—the people that say, “Oh, you want me to do this? How fast? How high do you want me to jump?”

Then you have that middle level that says, “There have been so many changes. Is this going to last?” They will ask you, as leaders, lots of questions, so you want to be ready with various resources to let them know that it isn’t a quick fix like a new math. It is a change in our environment for learning, a change in the way they were taught in school.

Finally, you have the resisters. Some will get on board, and some may say, “You know what? I don’t want to deal with this anymore and I’m just going to retire.”

So a leader assesses this, but continuously brings his or her staff new ideas they can sink their teeth into and talk about. It is working out some of the kinks for people who say, “I might be willing to change, but I need a lot more support.”

Brady: Our book addresses the components that a leader might encounter with resisting change. For example, if the vision is lacking, people are going to be confused and they are not going to want to change. So we have a section on helping leaders set the vision.

Throughout the book, there are notes saying, “If you don’t understand this, stop and follow up with these resources before continuing.”

Brady: When we were writing the book, we knew we didn’t have all the answers but we wanted to create a movement of people. So we do Twitter chats with the hashtag #melttheglacier. We go through the different chapters and different ideas in the book, but we also seek out additional ideas from other people trying to do this same work. The book is intended as a starting point, but also to get people to seek deeper understanding of the thought that’s out there.

You emphasize working with the community and corporate world. But you suggest that many teachers haven’t worked in any field but education. So they don’t know as much about the world beyond teaching. How do you address that?

Brady: Put those teachers in front of business executives. Take them out to the companies that hire our graduates and ask what they want in our students. Then compare what we see in the workforce to what students do in the classroom. Our students are doing very different work.

Johnson: There are some high schools, such as Linked Learning in California and several others, where teachers have rewritten their curriculum to go along with, say, the medical field or the legal field or the engineering field. If they have math content or social studies content or English content, they rewrite it with a business executive so that students learn skills in those areas. And students later begin internships in those kinds of businesses.

So you have a teacher and a business person collaborating side by side on curriculum content, and students get experience in the real world.

Those high schools and departments that are involved are beginning to move the glacier to a different perspective on what students are learning and how it is aligned with the real world. Having a businessperson work with a teacher who knows the content is a dramatic change in the way that these specific California schools have tried to look at education at the high school level. Then the issue is making sure the courses meet the state’s A-G requirements so students can get into the colleges they want. Colleges need to change too, but that’s another story. DA