Apr 1, 2019

Note to Administrators: Tools Don’t Solve Problems


—By Gary Daynes, Senior Consulting Associate

A few weeks ago I stumbled on a grant proposal written in 1984 by one of my predecessors as academic vice president. He won funding to buy a better student information system, hire a founding director for a center of teaching excellence, and give stipends to faculty who embrace technology. His hope was that by spending money is this way, the college would use data more effectively, develop faculty more systematically, and teach more powerfully. Thirty-five years later, we have spent millions of dollars on data systems, technology adoption, and faculty development. We are still a long way off, though, from using data effectively, systematically developing faculty, or teaching in ways that transform the lives of all our students.

You can hardly go to a conference of education administrators without hearing a keynote speaker say “The pace of change is faster than ever before. Schools have to embrace change or die.” The assumption behind that remark is often that administrators embrace change while faculty and staff resist it.

That assumption is, on the whole, wrong. Sure there are faculty who vote “no” on every proposal and staff who’ve yet to adopt email. But by and large, faculty and staff are comfortable with change, or at the very least, have made peace with its constancy and relentlessness. Most faculty update their content and pedagogy every time they teach. Staff stay up on trends in their fields. Staff and faculty respond to constant shifts in external and internal regulations with aplomb. And veteran faculty and staff welcome a rising number of new colleagues with warmth at the start of each school year. It isn’t the case, then, that educators are change-averse.

It is the case, though, that faculty and staff have a different perspective on how change happens than do many administrators. My predecessor thirty-five years ago believed that positive change came about through tools–buying new software, incentivizing technology adoption, hiring a new person to make something happen. The reliance on tools is stock-in-trade for administrators today. Hang around during break time at that conference for education administrators and you will see in the exhibit hall tools to solve every problem. Enrollment down? Buy a predictive model. Assessment a problem? Buy an integrated planning/budgeting/assessment package. Retention too low? Get an app that will automatically text struggling students. Learning lagging? Get a plug-in for your LMS. And we buy those things, hoping that they will help, but knowing inside that no tool will solve any of the problems that our schools face.

Why not? Because tools lack vision, wisdom, and a common story. When schools also lack vision, wisdom, and common stories, tools become ends in themselves. Faculty and staff will spend time managing the tools, but they will be frustrated at the added challenge, the added complexity, the extra time it takes.

Before buying a new tool to keep up with the pace of change, then, take time to talk with students, staff, and faculty to learn what they know about learning (wisdom), what the school truly excels at (vision), and how it works best to improve the lives of students (a common story). Faculty and staff know those things. They know that without vision, wisdom, and a common story, new tools will do them or their students little good.

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