What role does human capital play in the lives of educators? We all have had a discussion between classes that sparks a new lesson idea or a long conversation after school that allows us to blow off steam. Should this be an organized part of our school districts, though? Would it be worth it? The answer may not come from the educational world but instead from business environments.
Google pays its employees to have a free exchange of ideas and to work on their passions. The modern concept for 20 percent time came from a company called Atlassian; they decided to allow their employees to muse on what projects they could explore. The results for Atlassian were dramatic in their creation of innovative new ideas and sparked the adoption of 20 percent time at Google, which changed the world with inventions such as Gmail. The question becomes: Why do these times of undirected imagination yield such positive results? Daniel Pink explored the answer in his TED Talk on how, in a modern world of dynamic change and decision making, humans respond not to a monetary-based specific direction but instead to having the autonomy to master their craft driven by their belief in the purpose of their work. This basic idea is at the heart of the movement championed by Sir Ken Robinson—the New York Times bestselling author of “The Element,” TED speaker, and education and creativity expert—that learning must come from the heart and a yearning to explore, and not from a rigid system of goals. If we believe this is the best way for our students to learn and grow, would it not make sense to do the same with the professionals entrusted with educating them?
This is not a call to abandon all direct professional development. Every building needs to have direction and targeted areas to improve. When teachers have a greater role in the direction of their school, they will be far more productive. Conversations become not about what needs to be fixed, but instead about what things people do well that can be built upon. The creation of a culture of positive deviance can often come from this collegial interaction. Interaction among veteran teachers and new teachers is also important in passing down knowledge.
This interaction is especially important in a newer generation of teachers raised on technology. Simon Sinek, an American author and motivational speaker, believes that without this downtime to have conversations, real human connections are not truly created. Great ideas are often cultivated not from watching someone else, but in that quiet time in between when the mind can wander. In creating this time for the staff, it is also important that it be respected and not create more work.
You may be thinking, “I like this idea, but how do I sell it to the district office or school board as something more than a waste of money?” The answer is that dedication to human capital exchange is a cost-effective use of time for a school district. When examining human capital exchange programs between teachers, dedicated professional development programs, and external professional development programs, districts that had such programs benefited at a greater and more cost-effective level. Perhaps the most valuable part of these programs is the sense of belief that the educational staff’s ideas matter. When teachers feel supported, they are far more likely to stay within a district and the profession.
Creating time for your staff to have conversations is a good leadership practice. Far too often, leaders market themselves as having an open-door policy but are either unwilling to listen or unaware that they are listening but not hearing. If you give your staff the sense that they are being heard, your organization will be more effective. Leaders who truly want to create an organization of accountability must start with themselves. It is a vulnerable endeavor, but leaders who allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to be judged are quickly respected while earning a sense of loyalty in those who work with them.
While this free-formed human capital exchange has been called for in education reform movements with some positive quantitative results, what evidence can we find of this free exchange of ideas within the real world? In their 2019 study, “Teacher Agency in Professional Development Programmes—A Case Study of Professional Development Material and Collegial Discussion,” Eva Insulander, Daniel Brehmer, and Andreas Ryve found that the more freedom teachers had within their professional development direction, the more likely they were by far to have high-quality and beneficial results within their teaching. currently execute professional development. Our newest teachers are often trained through a free exchange of ideas and choices on where to take their learning, only to find that they are far more limited once they enter the profession.
When you create an environment characterized by a free flow of ideas, your organization becomes more proactive in recognizing how to improve, and it creates a more positive environment that can reduce stress and produce better results. The idea of just allowing time for conversation and intellectual exchange without a deliverable product seems almost foreign in our current educational environment. Even harder is the idea of selling the need and benefit of such an approach to school boards and taxpayers. Research, however, shows that not only is it cost-effective, but in a world of ever-in-creasing change in a field often reticent to look forward, we can’t afford to allow our trusted professionals who are the experts on our environment to not have time to deliberate what the future may bring. It allows them to find the best way to serve our students.
Karl F. Hubner is a doctoral student at Southern New Hampshire University. He is currently studying the impact of educational expenditures on student outcomes.