Lessons from the "Locks" on Change in Education

In late August, I had the delightful opportunity to present to educators at Lake Superior State University during an inservice day planned by our friends at the Eastern Upper Peninsula (EUP) ISD in Michigan. After the session, a couple of new acquaintances suggested I enjoy the beautiful afternoon and explore the Soo Locks. Not being from Michigan, I was intrigued and set out to explore.

The Soo Locks is just one of the many reasons tourists flock to the quaint town of Sault Ste. Marie each year. The clean air, friendly people and beautiful scenery draw people from all over the country. Perhaps most mysterious to me is the draw of the Locks.  After exploring the carefully manicured park and Visitor Center, I gathered with over a hundred people in the concrete stands beside the Locks, patiently waiting for the entrance of the next large freighter. I pondered, “How does something so simple keep everyone’s attention so long? Do we really just sit here and wait?” Quite magically, the ships enter one by one from Lake Huron, ropes are tied off and without a sound, rise mysteriously to their new water level 21 feet higher, ready to enter St. Mary’s River, Lake Superior and beyond. With a loud honk, they are ready to move on and seamlessly they are on their way.


As I was flying home over Michigan’s beautiful forests and lakes, I pondered again on the Soo Locks and their mysterious draw. Perhaps the Locks cause us to pause and contemplate on life and its many transitions, some gentle like the one I witnessed – well planned for, carefully executed, with boundaries and ropes to keep us safe – and some not quite so stable and serene.


In this tumultuous time in education, with rapid change and transitions becoming a way of life, perhaps there is a lesson we can learn from the Soo Locks. How can we, like the architects in the mid-1800’s, design a system to help everyone safely rise up to new levels, providing a path forward to learning at new heights? As every learner, teacher, classroom, school and district across the country move away from the old, transitioning and preparing for new waters, how can we, like the Lock engineers, provide a safe environment, with structure and clear boundaries that will help everyone advance and successfully reach their destination…. without the risk of capsizing.


Here are a few things we are learning from our work with courageous districts that are successfully making the transition to higher waters.

  1. Have a Navigation Plan. Do you have a clear vision that everyone on board is committed to and working towards? Consider visiting neighboring districts that have successfully made the transition. Seeing a positive example may help you and your colleagues envision the future. Begin now to put into place the support structures you will need, both physical and human. Do you have a leadership team in place to assist with navigation, representing all district constituents? Have you assessed and upgraded your facilities to meet new requirements for assessment and to support a transition from print to digital? Taking the time now to create a comprehensive plan will help you avoid common pitfalls, saving you time in the long run.
  2. Revisit Policy and Procedures. This new land will require revisiting existing charts and maps - what policies and procedures need to change to allow for your “ship” to elevate and launch into new waters? What is holding you back, tethered to the past? Think creatively, like the Soo Locks architects. What can be designed to help you bypass the barriers you may encounter? Take a look at what other forward thinking districts are doing to revise their Acceptable Use Policies, opening up access while maintaining control over their waterways. View traditional funding sources with new eyes to find the dollars you need to accomplish your vision and goals. Be creative!
  3. Establish Guides. Have you established guides with experience in both the old and new lands? Do they understand the “undertow” and “dangerous waters” that need to be avoided, as well as have a clear picture of the final destination? Guides have a critical role in helping everyone transition through rough waters, finding their own pathways to success. As you recruit your guides, remember that those who are closest to instruction are often the best choice. Do you have innovative classroom teachers who are ready to assume a leadership role and help others? How about library media specialists or your existing curriculum or technology integration specialists? The best guides are good listeners that honor their fellow colleagues and are quick to establish strong relationships.

As you create your own district plan, we’d like to offer a possible framework to help guide your work.  Consider each of the elements in our Digital Transformation Framework. Conduct a self-evaluation to determine your areas of strength and challenge?  Where do you need to shore up and add resources? Are there areas where you excel and could shed a light for others as they navigate through rough waters?  We encourage you to join our discussion forums in Know New Ideas to share your new ideas on making the print to digital transformation.

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Comment by Mark Febus on October 9, 2012 at 3:08pm

Great article Lynn! Your correlation between the Soo Locks and the digital transformation in education paints a very vivid and realistic picture of the importance of creating a plan, and not letting "21 feet of seperation" become impassable.

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