Saturday, April 04, 2009


This is very much a “rough-draft” post, probably mostly for myself to return to later.

I ran across this quote recently in a completely different context.
You cannot lead strangers, you can only coerce or bribe them.
I’m not saying that I necessarily completely agree with this quote (part of what I’m pondering), but it has me thinking about the quote in relation to the following.

School Reform/Transformation: How much chance of success does this have when implemented from a Federal or State level? Or sometimes, even from a district level (particularly in larger school districts)? I believe strongly that we need systemic reform, not just pockets-of-excellence reform, yet can that really occur at any kind of scale?

Online Classes: How do you “lead” in a virtual or even hybrid class setting? How realistic is it that you can overcome being “strangers” without that fairly regular face-to-face contact? Is it necessary to lead in a classroom (physical, hybrid, or virtual)?

Personal Learning Networks: I believe strongly in PLN’s, and I’m not abandoning that, but in terms of leading others and effecting change, can you do that successfully? I feel like many folks in my PLN aren’t “strangers,” but they aren’t quite “known” or “friends” either.

Speaking/Consulting: Can someone come in from afar and “lead” in any meaningful way? I have five more of these scheduled between now and the end of June, and I’m not backing out, but I’m seriously considering not accepting any more of them because I’m not sure it’s very effective. If I’m not part of the solution, then I’m part of the problem.


  1. Interesting - Been having the same pondering moments re: leadership this am. Must be the lack of the predicted snowstorm.

    Is exposure to other's ideas, notions, success/failure "leading?" Or just another conversation in a long line of conversations? How do you measure leading?

    Continuing to ponder...

  2. Such great questions. I have thought about these often. I am the kind of participant that loves to listen to and learn from experts. But I think that is because I have a huge network of colleagues here that thinks together. I am not sure about #1 and #2 because that is all about relationships and authenticity. But for #3 and #4, I have been impacted greatly by thinking from people who I don't know, reading books, blogs, tweets, etc. I have also been hugely impacted by speakers that come in for a day from the outside. I think both of those have been powerful to me because of the conversations they begin--they are a way for us to bring the conversation to our own schools if we have a strong network here. For me, it is often a conversation starter or a way to validate an important conversation. When someone comes in from the outside, I can focus on the learning instead of the policies and politics that are more local. For me, it is a combination of these things that supports my learning and that I believe helps change things over time. I'm not sure if they would mean the same for me if I didn't have people here that were key to my learning though.

  3. I think there is a fair bit of pondering occuring on these topics! I don't see this as rough-draft at all. My $0.02 is:

    Reform - is not only possible, it is ncessary. See the Adams 50 SD in Denver. Disruptive Innovation will occur in education, and we must strive to act before it takes full effect.

    Online - The things that make great classes now (relationships, relevance, engagement, etc.) will make great online classes. As online leaders we must make sure we provide the same opportunities for connection, etc.

    PLN's - a perfect example of distributed leadership. All people in the network lead. Like geese, perhaps, taking turns.

    Speaking/Consulting - I still believe in the value. Perhaps it is more for the impact it may potentially have on ONE person as opposed to an organization, but I believe there is value.


  4. I would agree with Franki on the notion that even though you may not directly know the people in my building or myself, your work does provide leadership to me and eventually my school. I don't agree with the quote, but I do understand why you bring up those four points. Good leadership is able to transcend many things.

  5. Exactly the reason I decided to get into administration after 20 years in the classroom. There is change that can occur, but there are definite places from which the agent of change must reside. Unfortunately, being a school or district tech coordinator isn't the place. You must lead a group of dedicated teachers, where there are some who have already made an investment in tech integration, and create a culture of trust, professionalism and team work. The only place someone can make this work is by being a site administrator. District administrators are too detached from the day to day business of the school and tech coordinators, no matter how good they are, do not have the political clout from their administration to gain overall buy in. The biggest reason is that once the administrator does not have the tech coordinator with him/her they get hit with the question that they can't answer and it invalidates the process.

  6. The scale question has been on my mind the past few weeks. I work in a large district (six high schools). Trying to agree upon a common vision is difficult.

    I've also been doing consulting work here and there for three years. Most of it has been very frustrating for me in that very little change is happening (at least from my perspective). I'm "brought in" by the administration and foisted upon the math department staff.

    It wasn't until this year that I've begun to see progress. I believe this is due to it not being a "short term" contract. Over the past nine months, the staff and I have built a relationship. They've beginning to trust me and see value in what I'm asking them to do (which isn't any different that what I do myself).

    I think the key, no matter the situation, is that people have to see value in the change. And get over their fear. Which is more often the bigger problem.

  7. Karl, I've been teaching for over 30 years and you have had an impact on me with your blog. You ask great questions that helps all who come in contact with you better.

    To help you with these questions, I'd recommend Clayton Christensen's book, Disrupting Class. He has some excellent ideas on the systemic problems that we all know exist. He also presents some ideas on the future classrooms and roles of teachers with technology as a delivery system of the online classes you ponder.

    The sharing and reflection in our PLN's are still valuable tools for all good educators. It's an environment for connections and learning to take place (between a Karl Fisch and a classroom teacher).

    For me, the outside speakers don't have to be live. Think of all that is to be learned from TED online or podcasts. Live speakers can serve as a breath of fresh air sometimes or the source of a fresh idea or two. However, the sharing of resources online through blogs like yours, can be just as beneficial.

    Keep up the great work and keep the questions coming. They help all educators improve student learning.

  8. Excellent food for thought.

    Transformation is occurring, albeit glacially, from the bottom up; which is the only way a system can be changed for the better and be sustainable. The very nature of learning, an individual act, requires that transformation take place amongst a group in a similar way to which ideas are propagated in our minds; through networked nodes at a very basic level. That said, I believe there is still plenty of room for administrators to set engagement benchmarks within their buildings (leadership). District level mandates will be worked around, out of sight out of mind.

    Online learning, a part of the transformation, is a window through which the evolution of leadership and the role of the teacher are observed. By its very nature, online learning facilitates that change, as students work more independently to research and network in order to complete assignments. Building their PLNs as they go. Although, as human beings we will always need face-to-face contact. Video chat can help bridge that gap.

    PLNs will be a vital part of the transformation with leadership ebbing and flowing throughout. Redefining what leadership is, how it can work, and the understanding of that process will recruit more and more people as time goes by. Individuals empowered to share their passion and thinking through the support of their PLNs will become leaders of the nodes of transformation. Established leadership positions (administrators and classroom teachers) will likely not be the place where shift first occurs. The shift for the establishment will be in seeing that, and being secure enough to embrace it and make use of it (real leadership). Hopefully, vibrant and robust PLNs include more than just peers. That is what makes this so complex, the shift is different things for different people, not just a new set of tools.

    Speaking to others in a way that motivates and inspires will always have value. While transformation by proxy (or osmosis) is not likely to occur, people do need to understand at a very core level the reality of our world and why change (shift) is so necessary. People are afraid of what they do not understand and change. The world has become a difficult place to understand that has changed right under our noses. So, for those fortunate enough to be in demand as speakers, keep putting a human face on the transformation.

  9. I finished The Invention of Air a few days ago and I am wondering if you too may be feeling the lingering after effects of the ideas that pour out of that text.

    I find that I am craving more from my PLN's that what I am currently receiving. I have been contemplating what would amount to my own version of the Club for Honest Whigs. Face to face encounters with intellectual equals where we pour ourselves into the ideas that might shape our very future.

    On a separate note I believe strongly that reform must be a grass roots operation with teachers at the center. To me it seems that reform may only come on the tails of a revolution in education.

  10. Great food for thought. I mostly agree with the online classes portion. I'm a student in college and I've taken an online class or two and, for some reason it just doesn't work all that well for me. I mean grade wise its fine but the overall effect that I get is somewhat lacking. I believe that has to do with the lack of relationship formed between the teacher and student, and other students in the classroom as well. As i study to become a teacher, and find out more of my own personal teaching style and what I want to give my students, a big part of it all is the relationships that I can form with them and I think without those we could be doing a disservice to the students.

  11. Is exposure to other's ideas, notions, success/failure "leading?" Or just another conversation in a long line of conversations? How do you measure leading?

    Perhaps leading "strangers" isn't as important as influencing them. With influence, you may be creating leaders in their own setting.

  12. “… you cannot lead strangers, you can only coerce or bribe them.”

    This is a pondersome quote. After some research, I discovered that it was one of my favorite authors who penned it – Orson Scott Card in "Ender in Exile".

    In eleven words, its sums up everything that is wrong in education, from the methods that we take to motivate of our students to the methods politicians take to motivate us to reform. I believe Card’s point is not to encourage coercion or bribery. The quote implies that coercion and bribery are not leadership. The intent is to focus us on being more familiar with those we are trying to lead.

    We do not have to have a personal relationship in order for us not to be considered strangers. To be effective as a leader we must demonstrate that we are familiar with the conditions that those we lead face, and we must make our thoughts and ideas familiar to those we lead. It is not people or their personal relationships that lead revolutions, it is their ideas that do.

    Another quote comes to mind. “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The intrinsic value of an idea is mightier than the extrinsic value of reward or punishment. I have come to believe that coercion and bribery, which are the true nature of external accountability measures, cannot and will not lead to lasting change for this reason.

    You ask, “Can someone come in from afar and “lead” in any meaningful way?” I ask if you cannot lead from afar, how can you truly “lead” from anywhere? Continue to lead by sharing your ideas. With the technology we possess, what does “from afar” mean any how? How would you lead any differently if we were any closer? If the pen is mightier than the sword, then what is the communication technology that we possess today mightier than?

    The logic in your last statement is backwards. It should read… you are part of the problem, if you are not part of the solution.

    The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it. - Albert Einstein

    The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men. – Plato

    It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable. – Moliere

    The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problem. - Mohandas Gandhi

    Do not give up hope. You are making a difference. You have shared your ideas with me and countless others. Unlike coercion and bribery, the sharing of ideas that lead to lasting change takes time, but not as much time as it would have 100 years ago;)

  13. I have to agree with you about PLNs. I'm learning of people who can help me do my job better every day that I work on building my PLN. Those people aren't just the ones that I know in my school or school system, but now they are from points far and wide. Although I have not met some of these people face to face, I try to follow people with a passion for education with similar goals and interests. At the very least that makes me feel like I have a wealth of people with diverse skills, resources, and perspectives helping me be a better teacher, and helping others teach better as well. That's my job. Keep pondering. I'm right there with you.

  14. You've got an important story to tell, it tell it well, and you need to keep telling it.
    I'm amazed at how many people will come to me and remember a talk or idea I threw out a few years ago and they will tell me it's finally starting to stick. If you can be part of starting a few important conversations, it's time well spent.

  15. It never ceases to amaze me which posts generate comments – wouldn’t have expected it with this one.

    @Renee – I think exposure is not leading, but I’m not sure I can define exactly what leading looks like either.

    @Franki – That’s the assumption I’ve always made, that by starting the conversation – through the blog, or Twitter, or a presentation – I’ve done my part. But I’m guess I’m not so sure of that – because if it stops at conversation and doesn’t translate into action (at least in any reasonable amount of time), then what was the point?

    @Sandy – Yes, reform is necessary (or, actually, I guess I would argue for transformation, not reform). But how is that going to happen? Top-down from the Federal or State Government doesn’t seem to really work, and I’m not sure I completely buy Christensen’s argument that disruptive innovation is the magic bullet here.

    And I agree that online or hybrid classes can be good when taught by someone who’s good at it, but I’m not sure we can scale it. I don’t think we have enough people (and I include myself in this) that know how to do that well, yet I think it’s going to scale very quickly for budgetary and convenience issues. If Christensen is right, and 50% of all high school classes will be online by 2019, then I see that as certainly disruptive, but not necessarily innovation.

    @Kyle – How do we define “good leadership?” What does that look like? How can we scale that? Do we need to scale that?

    @Kyle Brumbaugh – I don’t disagree that building administration is key, but how do we accomplish that? The administrators in my building are great, but they legitimately have 26 hours of work each day on their plate already – how do we free up the time for them to immerse themselves in this? While the ranks of administrators that are exploring these ideas is growing, it still seems to be relatively small. Again, how do we scale it enough to create transformation?

    @Jackie – I agree fear is a huge issue, but it’s also time, and resources, and what’s the next thing that’s going to get thrown at them. How long did it take you to really start to get a feel for all this? And you’re an early adopter. It took me several years to really get a handle on this and I had the luxury of not being in the classroom (building level tech coordinator). And now I’m actually feeling more confused about my vision than I did perhaps 12 months ago, so how can we lead when we aren’t sure where we’re going?

    @mroth – Yeah, I’ve read it, but he didn’t convince me that the result would be much better than what we’ve got (see comment above). And I don’t discount the value of hearing (or reading) someone else’s thoughts to spur your own, but it just doesn’t seem like enough.

    @Herb – While philosophically I guess I agree with the “bottom up” idea of change, I don’t see how that scales to systemic transformation.

    @Nate – Certainly The Invention of Air is still on my mind, but some of this angst (if that’s what it is) predates my reading of that book. So if reform/transformation must be grass roots, how do we scale it? While grass seems to spread everywhere in my yard where I don’t want it, I just don’t see the same thing happening in schools on any kind of scale.

    @Alyssa – So is there some way for you, as a future teacher, to hone your skills to develop those relationships in an online or hybrid environment? What would that look like?

    @Lisette – Yes, I agree that influencing can be different than leading. But with all the influencers we have in our PLN’s, why hasn’t that translated into more leading?

    @Zack – Yes, I thought about linking to the book in the original post, but didn’t want it to focus on the book, but the thoughts the quote generated.

    I’m still struggling with the concept of leading in general, and certainly leading folks you are not familiar with. I look at our politics here in the U.S., when even a very charismatic leader like President Obama only sways the 10% right in the middle, but there’s a solid 45% on either side in hardened bunkers. And I’m not sure that blogging, or podcasting, or skyping, or PLN’s, or speaking/consulting are the bunker busters in education.

    @swalker – As great as it is that PLN”s (however you define that) is great for you, and me, and thousands of others, but it’s still gotta be well short of 5% of educators. And I would predict – although there are always exceptions – that as those educators move up into more leadership roles, they’ll have less and less time, and less and less incentive (and therefore perhaps less and less inclination) – to continue with their PLN’s. What’s the lever that will truly move the rock of public schools?

    @Dean – Well, they remember what you say because you say some good stuff! But is it enough? Yes, it makes a difference for that one educator, and that educator’s students, which is nothing to sneeze at. But if we’re talking about systemic transformation, and impacting the majority of students, is it the right approach? Is there a better way than bringing in crazy Canadians (or Coloradans) for an hour or two? I just think we can do better, we must do better, but I don’t see the path right now.

  16. Excellent post and discussions on the larger issues. As I work with a variety of schools and districts, I find that many share your views on change/evolution of education. And yes, the quote speaks volumes:
    “… you cannot lead strangers, you can only coerce or bribe them.”

    In terms of personal/professional development, every district is looking for ways to give teachers more development/support with less time set aside for the actual development. So let's look at these questions: How much of quality professional development is done talking issues through across a table/computer from one or two other people and how much is done by looking over someone's shoulder as they show a new way of doing something. How does your district foster those interactions?

  17. Karl,
    Let me preface my comments here by saying that I think you're terrific and have so much to offer. You already know that I'm one of your biggest fans! I'm hoping that this post of yours was you just having an "Eeyore" moment. I've had quite a few of those lately, myself.

    What surprised me most here was your binary view on Speaking/Consulting. You ask if someone coming in from afar can “lead” in any meaningful way? I wonder who has asked you to do that? or have you instead been asked to share your experiences and insights and spark some conversations? I can certainly speak from experience here when I say that the insight you share IS meaningful and impactful.

    You expressed to Dean that bringing people in for a few hours is not enough and we can do better. We can always do better; but we shouldn't discount the fact that we ARE doing better every time we bring together thousands of teachers for a conference to engage with someone like you.

    For many teachers, the local conference will be the first, and possibly only, time they will hear any "out of the box" suggestions. They may never before have had the opportunity to engage in face2face challenging discussions with educators from Canada and Colorado.

    And one more thing, while I'm slapping you around...Your statement, "If I’m not part of the solution, then I’m part of the problem" is ridiculous. 'nuff said.

  18. @Lee – I’m not having an Eeyore “moment,” that’s just my natural state! Feel free to slap away any time . . .

    Well, to be clear, most of this post wasn’t about me (or at least it wasn’t supposed to be), and it certainly wasn’t about Palm Beach or its conference (although certainly that plays into my thinking). I was just exploring various aspects of a quote that jumped out to me. But, yes, actually, that “lead” word has been tossed around quite a bit when I’ve been asked to speak/consult. And, while it’s kind of you to say, I’m pretty sure you were too busy to attend my sessions so I’m not sure you can have that good of a read on how impactful they were or weren’t.

    I certainly love that you bring those teachers together, but I’m still not necessarily sold that the best use of your time and resources is to bring in outside folks (other than perhaps a David Warlick or a Will Richardson as a keynote who truly can be game changers). I just think the time could be better spent in small groups, led by folks like you and Melissa and Kim and . . . Again, not saying the conference wasn’t a good experience, or that I’m totally worthless as a conversation starter, just struggling with what I think might be best for everyone.

    Finally, I still have to disagree with your ‘nuff said. This was the one part of the post where I was focusing on myself particularly and another thing I’m struggling with. If I think this is not the best way to go (doesn’t matter what others think in this case, just what I think), and if I continue to participate and perpetuate a strategy I think is flawed, then I am indeed part of the problem. Not saying that’s where I’m going to end up as I ponder this, but it’s logically consistent.

  19. Karl, as much as I, too, would like sea changes in education tomorrow, historically that just isn't how it occurs. While societal and technological change continues at a staggering rate I don't see a mechanism that would bring successful wholesale change to public education. I believe it falls to people such as ourselves to do the work day by day, showing and convincing small groups of individuals that the transformation has already occurred. And, as humans always do, now it's time to catch up. I also believe that there will be a tipping point. What is now outside of so many people's comfort zone, for so many reasons, will come into reach, and that will be where the real transformation, both intellectually and physically, takes place.

  20. Karl - going to disagree, I think exposure is the first stage of leading. Introducing folks to a new idea, concept, way to look at things and then step back and see what happens. Encourage where/when necessary. It's the opening of the door to the next step - which sometimes takes much longer than we'd like. Leading change offers many opportunities, especially in the P-20 world. And you are right - leading is something that is difficult (impossible?) to measure.

  21. The quote “You cannot lead strangers, you can only coerce or bribe them.” is really thought-provoking. How much administrators at Federal, State, or school district level, the School Board, the teachers, the students, and the parents know each other? If they are strangers to each other, systemic reform is doomed impossible, because coercion and bribery will never make things totally different.