From Oral History to Digital Narrative

In early March of 2015 I was spending a lot of time thinking about the importance of institutional memory as it pertains to the field of education. I was in my first year in a new school leadership role and was struggling to understand the context for past institutional decisions that were presenting me with challenges. As I began to read about the subject, I put together the bones of a presentation in the form of a session description for the EARCOS Leadership Conference 2016. My description was selected and I began working on fleshing out the concept. Here is the final product.

EARCOS Session Description — All international schools have stories to tell — stories that are both enriched and complicated by the transience of each school’s population. As schools grow and change, holding on to individual contributions is crucial to understanding the present, appreciating the past, and being able to move productively into the future. Imagine if, as a new administrator, you could quickly pull up a digital timeline outlining the origins, evolution, and future goals of any project, program, or initiative. Learn how to utilize technology to shift from documenting via a fleeting oral history to establishing a more permanent digital narrative.

Biography — Good Morning/Afternoon — my name is Daniel Kilback and I am the Director of Technology at Korea International School. I have been teaching since the Spring of 1996 and have taught Kindergarten, Grade 5, and 7–12 Humanities and Technology. Korea International School is my third overseas post — in 2000 I participated in a teacher exchange with my local school division and National Taiwan University where I taught first year English classes and moonlighted as an ESL teacher in a Kindergarten close to NTU. After returning home to Canada for 4 years I moved abroad again in the fall of 2006 taking a post at the American School of Kuwait — I was there for 9 years and served as their Tech Director for 5, as High School AP for 2, and as their Innovation & Communications Director during my last year in the Middle East. I transitioned to KIS in the fall of 2015 and am currently in my second year in Seoul. This is my second year attending EARCOS and I am pleased and proud to be here with you today.

Background — This is my 21st year in Education and my 10th year in school leadership. I’ve worked in 3 overseas schools, 4 schools in my hometown, at the Elementary, Middle, High School, and university levels. I’ve worked with countless administrators and like many of you I have served on a variety of committees and been involved with more pilot projects and school-based initiatives than I can remember. I’m now at the point where I am beginning to see initiatives and educational perspectives from early in my career come around for a second time — ideas once thought innovative are now being repackaged and rebranded in an attempt to find relevance in an educational landscape that continues to refine, remix, and reinvent itself but where teaching and learning remain the ultimate focus for all involved.

Growing up, I stayed in one school division for my entire education. I returned to the high school that I graduated from four years later as a teacher. Going back to work with the teachers who had taught my older siblings and me, I was able to experience the benefits of program continuity and organizational memory. This was available to me in a small town in Saskatchewan pre-internet and seems almost impossible in a modern day, let alone international, setting.

Local Perspective — My interest in story telling and documentation as it pertains to education is rooted in my early career experience with a committee titled “Time as a Valuable Resource.” I was four years into my career, had survived the initial challenge of keeping my head above water, and was ready to contribute to something bigger than my classroom. This committee was established to consider and examine how we, as a school division, were using time. The committee was comprised of a team ranging from administrators and teachers to students and parents, and was something I relished being a part of. I engaged in reflective activities, wide-ranging conversations, and collaborative work. Participation in this committee was transformative for my practice and increased my appreciation of the complexities of large organizations. In the end, our committee compiled our research and work into a static document. The efforts of the committee went on to impact teacher practice, evaluation and feedback systems, school communication, and division-wide policy, but the committee’s role as initiating those changes wasn’t something that was promoted or widely understood. It wasn’t transparent. The story wasn’t told. For faculty coming into our division three years after our research had been adopted, there was little understanding of what had changed and why. What was left was an oral history available via committee participants to anyone who knew to ask, but there was no documentation method in place to get new faculty members up to speed and provide them with context for our practices. I have observed this scenario in multiple schools and it can be problematic. The trajectory of an organization can be derailed by new members questioning and changing methodology based in research and experience that, without documentation of that history, may seem merely arbitrary.

International Perspective — All international schools have stories to tell — stories that are both enriched and complicated by the transience of each school’s population.

Being a part of an international school for nine years changes the way you look at school-wide initiatives and programs. It changes your appreciation for the context in which decisions are made. While in Kuwait I saw a series of school-wide adoptions take place ranging from interactive-boards, to Responsive Classroom, to increasing the number of, and access to, high school AP courses for students. I saw a new activity and athletics conference emerge (MESAC) and another end (EMAC). I saw programs like character education, experiential education trips, and advisory in the Middle School cut. The rationale behind for of these changes was rooted in some element of reason, but that reason was not always transparent, clearly communicated, or documented for current or future members of our school. The inherent transience of international schools compounded this problem as inherited programs of past leaders often lacked sustainability while new initiatives established by keen newcomers temporarily flourished.

In any organization there is explicit and tacit knowledge — knowledge that is easily documented and experience which is not. It was on my exit from Kuwait that I was struck by the volume of tacit knowledge I had about our program and the many changes that had taken place over my nine years — not because I was always in the room when decisions were made but because my longevity afforded me something most faculty lacked — perspective over time. I could see in hindsight how programs evolved and changed, but there was no consistent method for making that knowledge accessible to or transparent for others. We had focused on capturing explicit knowledge by documenting our curriculum, writing and reviewing policy, and keeping meeting minutes but neglected the tacit — the context for our decision making. We leveraged our Google accounts and tied curricular and extra-curricular work to position-based accounts while experiencing an average 30% turnover in our organizational memory. High impact individuals came and went often operating from the viewpoint that those who came before didn’t know what they were doing. They often overhauled and, at times, duplicated existing work. Our faculty experienced initiative fatigue as they struggled to merge past priorities with new ideas. In retrospect, our school became an incubator where individual ideas and initiatives took off but where we lost sight of establishing quality programs over time. By not effectively documenting and communicating our context, and instead relying on a shared oral history, new leaders struggled to navigate the murky waters of not knowing, which made understanding the present difficult and planning the future even more challenging.

When I began teaching the stories of the schools I worked in were conveyed through the local press. Newspaper articles or features on the local news station were the avenues available for schools to connect with a wider audience. Monthly classroom newsletters or quarterly publications were cutting edge for those with access to desktop publishing and a photocopier. Later in my career websites and blogs became the method of choice for teachers and schools as they attempted to connect with a broader community by sharing pictures and stories. With the advent of social media, the rise of mobile computing, and ease with which people could share photos, audio, and video has forever changed how we connect with one another and share our stories. All of these attempts to document work are positive as they move towards making things more sustainable: however, each new documenting tool comes with its own pitfalls.

Proliferation of Social Media — Different studies have attempted to quantify the impact of Social Media on Education and Schools. Not surprisingly the results are mixed. Some studies point to the positive impact social media has had in that it allows people of similar interests to connect, to find a community, and to maintain social ties. Conversely, it also provides a convenient avenue for hate speech and dissent as people seek the anonymity and protection found behind a keyboard.

Within the field of education, many teachers and administrators have taken to branding themselves as they document their experiences, share their philosophies, and connect with other professionals. This is a logical step in their efforts to separate themselves from the pack. A premium is placed on telling yourstory. On being your authentic self. On establishing your personal brand and controlling your narrative.

The brand adoption can be as simple as a unique Twitter handle or as complex as a personal website with a custom url, logo, colour scheme, and slogan. All of this to support an individual narrative arc amidst a glut of educational personalities. This micro approach to sharing and documentation is incredibly valuable for the individual but takes effort to bring together and establish value for the whole of an organization.

Schools and administrators are seeking to mitigate the negative effects of this individual branding and documentation by trying to hone a larger narrative of their schools as a whole. The challenge is to shift this focus from the micro to the macro. One such way is by advocating unique hashtags as a way to filter out the extraneous elements of their individual contributors while allowing what is pertinent to rise to the top. These hashtags allow for an individual voice but contribute to a larger group narrative.

Leveraging the micro event for the macro purpose is compelling as schools market and promote, share academic or team success, and celebrate individual or group achievements through a common hashtag used by the whole of the community. Pulling the individual threads of teachers and initiatives together into a cohesive narrative of a school allows administrators to better provide insight into that school’s trajectory. As schools grow and change, holding on to individual contributions but contextualizing them in the arc of the school as a whole is crucial to understanding the present, appreciating the past, and being able to move productively into the future.

Taking Control — We know that schools are telling their stories but are you, as an administrator — explicitly telling yours? Are you providing “perspective over time” — a digital narrative for the person who will come after you or are you intending to fall back on an oral history? Are you relying on individuals to tell their stories or are you also shaping the story of your school as a whole?

My challenge to you is to begin to think in terms of context over time and to be intentional about what story you are telling and how you are telling it.