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Ruth Simmons on leadership

To See A World

Ruth Simmons said:

the perceptions of what it takes to be a leader are often based on prototypical models that don’t have much truth in reality. People look at the institutions that I have led and they see dissimilarities. I see similarities. When people think in terms of leadership, they’re often thinking about the kind of specific skills needed for different types of enterprises. I think of leadership as more of a disposition – the ability to step into a situation to learn about the history of the enterprise, the opportunities that it faces, the culture that exists and the people who are served by it. To look at all of that, to listen to stakeholders and then to think about how that enterprise or institution should best be served. There is no one model of leadership if you approach it that way. What I have tried to do wherever I go is to start where the institution is rather than try to import particularly rigid constructs from other places. In that sense, I think a leader is more than anything else a facilitator. A person who is able to come in to show a community a picture of what it is, to provide some insight into what it could be – how it could be different or improved perhaps – and then enlist the help of people who are there and others who support that institution in order to move forward together.

I don’t subscribe to the model of hero leadership, which is identifying somebody who can come in and have magical powers and then wield the wand and fix things that have not been fixable before. I don’t see that. I think leadership is a community affair.


Image credit: Civic Center Community Garden, San Francisco

New Year Leadership Challenge 2: Curiosity

Question Mark Cookies

[Instead of just challenge-based learning, how about challenge-based leadership?]

Sir Ken Robinson said in Creative Schools:

Human achievement in every field is driven by the desire to explore, to test and prod, to see what happens, to question how things work, and to wonder why and ask, what if?

Young children have a ready appetite to explore whatever draws their interest. When their curiosity is engaged, they will learn for themselves, from each other, and from any source they can lay their hands on. Knowing how to nurture and guide students’ curiosity is the gift of all great teachers. They do that by encouraging students to investigate and inquire for themselves, by posing questions rather than only giving answers, and by challenging them to push their thinking deeper by looking further. (p. 135)

Others have noted the power of students’ asking their own questions – not just answering those of others – and using those inquiries to drive meaningful learning:

When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. Typically, questions are seen as the province of teachers, who spend years figuring out how to craft questions and fine-tune them to stimulate students’ curiosity or engage them more effectively. We have found that teaching students to ask their own questions can accomplish these same goals while teaching a critical lifelong skill. (Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Harvard Education Letter, 27(5))

Unfortunately, as Postman and Weingartner noted long ago in Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

What students do in the classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say) . . . Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. . . . Mostly, they are required to remember. . . . It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. . . . Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know . . . [However,] what students are restricted to (solely and even vengefully) is the process of memorizing . . . somebody else’s answers to somebody else’s questions. It is staggering to consider the implications of this fact. The most important intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school! Moreover, it is not “taught” in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the environment so that significant question asking is not valued. It is doubtful if you can think of many schools that include question-asking, or methods of inquiry, as part of their curriculum. 

New Year Leadership Challenge 2: Curiosity

What could you do as a school leader to hack at some new possibilities for curiosity- and inquiry-driven student learning…

  • in the next two weeks?
  • in a one- or two-month spring pilot?
  • in full-force implementation next school year?

[HINT: think some students, not all; some teachers, not all; some blocks of time, not all; some locations, not all; etc.]

New Year Leadership Challenge 1: Same-age grouping

Bluegrass Stockyards

[Instead of just challenge-based learning, how about challenge-based leadership?]

Sir Ken Robinson said in Creative Schools:

The principle of linearity works well for manufacturing; it doesn’t for people. Educating children by age group assumes that the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. In practice, different students learn at different rates in different disciplines. A child with natural ability in one area may struggle in another. One may be equal to older children in some activities and behind younger ones in others. We don’t apply this batching principle outside of schools. We don’t keep all the ten-year-olds away from the nine-year-olds, in separate facilities. This form of segregation mainly happens in schools. (p. 37)

New Year Leadership Challenge 1: Same-age grouping

What could you do as a school leader to hack at the deficiencies of same-age grouping…

  • in the next two weeks?
  • in a one- or two-month spring pilot?
  • in full-force implementation next school year?

[HINT: think some students, not all; some teachers, not all; some blocks of time, not all; some locations, not all; etc.]

Image credit: Bluegrass Stockyards gates, pens, and corrals in black and white; Anthony

18 things that leaders of innovative schools do differently

TIES 2017 Shelly Terrell

I had a wonderful time this past week at the TIES conference in Minneapolis. Having worked at the University of Minnesota for six years, it was super fun to connect with old educator friends and new (including a lot of goofiness with Shelly Terrell while at Flipgrid headquarters).

I served as the lunch keynote for TIES on Sunday and then facilitated a lesson redesign workshop that afternoon using our trudacot discussion protocol (thanks, Julie Graber, for joining us!). I always love redesigning instructional activities with teachers and school leaders. Two random comments from that Sunday workshop that gave my heart a warm glow:

  • “We’re not having these kinds of conversations using the Danielson framework
  • “I skipped the Vikings game for this workshop and am glad that I did” 

Both of those were high praise indeed!

On Monday I was in charge of TIES’ annual all-day Leadership Seminar. There are a few things that I would do differently next time, but all in all it went very well and we had some superb conversations. In the afternoon we looked at a variety of innovative schools from around the world and tried to answer the twin questions of ‘What is going on in these schools that’s different?’ and ‘What do we think the leaders of these schools are doing differently?’ [compared to those in more traditional schools]. Here is the list that my group came up with…

Leaders in innovative schools…

  1. give permission for innovation AND ALSO provide support. Teachers know that they can take risks and will be supported by their administrators.
  2. take risks themselves and have the understanding that things will not always go as planned. They are brave and courageous enough to put their school and themselves ‘out there.’
  3. are able to change existing schedule, transportation, staffing, budgeting, and other structures in concrete, tangible, productive, and strategic ways to support new forms of learning.
  4. empower student choice. They and their staff are able to open up spaces to find out what students are passionate about and interested in and then leverage those opportunities to create cultures of intrinsic motivation.
  5. create academic pathways that help learners be successful based on their unique interests, skills, and talents. Both vocational and professional partnerships, internships, and mentorships are created.
  6. reduce, distill, and connect disparate initiatives in order to reduce the number of things on educators’ plates.
  7. facilitate clarity of organizational purpose and establish instructional coherence in partnership with their teachers and other staff.
  8. provide lots of time for staff to collaborate in rich, substantive, and meaningful ways.
  9. engage their community in the instructional and organizational redesign processes and provide opportunities for community members to be part of the work. Redesign work is less individually-dependent and more community-driven.
  10. understand that every person brings their own beliefs, ideas, assumptions, and values to the table. They see those differences as assets, not problems to be managed, and are able to harness the power of distributed leadership to facilitate ownership and contribution across various stakeholder groups.
  11. help educators, students, parents, and community members see new possibilities and the power of instructional transformations.
  12. facilitate shared agreement and commitments toward core values and day-to-day expectations. Protocols are put into place for discussion, dissent, and revisiting previous decisions. 
  13. create climates of open communication and safety in which everyone is sharing information, successes, challenges, and questions.
  14. take a holistic approach toward identifying and addressing student needs.
  15. have a vision of what success – the end goal – looks like. Celebrations are connected to both the process and the progress. Explicit structures are created to share and celebrate those successes.
  16. are able to plant seeds of innovation and grow them successfully while anticipating the problems that may come up during the transformation process. They create proactive – not reactive – response structures that automatically kick in when anticipated issues inevitably arise.
  17. find ways to ensure that ‘the change people’ win instead of the resisters. They buffer and protect innovative educators rather than allowing ‘crab bucket’ or ‘tall poppy’ environments to flourish.
  18. are able to help teachers translate big ideas from mission and vision statements into day-to-day instructional practice. [emphasis added]
I don’t know if this covers everything but it’s an excellent start as we think about innovative leadership. This obviously is complex work, which is why most schools and administrators aren’t doing it…
Which of these do you think are most important? How are your school leaders doing with these: which are they doing well and which could use some more attention? What would you add to this list?

We cannot continue to educate students in classrooms designed for a world that no longer exists

Hazel Mason said:

We can’t make America great again, or Europe only white by trying to recreate the world of the past. The era of well paying industrial jobs with amazing benefits and pensions is over. The problem America and other industrial nations are facing is the girth of their populations who are not just ill equipped but not at all equipped to compete in the Modern Learning world. In a sense I suspect we are in for some difficult times because the folks who are being disenfranchised by the changes we are experiencing need for someone to blame. They can’t blame themselves and their inability to adapt and re-learn, so it must be the fault of the immigrants. What they may need to start to grapple with is countries like India, China, Singapore etc. already realize they need to change.

If educators are still unconvinced moving to a Modern Learning environment is a moral imperative, I hope they are beginning to come around. We cannot continue to educate students in classrooms designed for a world that no longer exists. The unrest we are beginning to see is a testament to the change we are facing and we have a professional obligation to ensure our current students are ready to adapt to an ever changing horizon.

Some early comments on my new book

Different Schools For A Different World Book Cover

My new book with Dean Shareski, Different Schools for a Different World, is getting some positive early comments. A sampling is below. Thank you, everyone!

1. Jeff Nelson

Different Schools for a Different World by Scott McLeod and Dean Shareski just hammered my thinking. Their work is not a long read. It’s about 60 pages. Don’t let that fool you. My favorite college professor, Dr. Ruth Slonim, once said, “Good writing is not when there’s nothing more to add, rather when there’s nothing more to be taken away.” This book is lean and dead on point. A literal wake up call.

2. Darren Draper

Scott McLeod and Dean Shareski have knocked it out of the park with their latest book. It’s practical with solid arguments and a length that every school administrator can manage, given their already-too-busy schedules. Outstanding work!

3. Silvia Tolisano is making motion graphics of quotes as she reads… Awesome!

Tolisano 01


Tolisano 02


New book! Different Schools for a Different World

Different Schools For A Different World Book Cover

As some of you may have realized by now, Dean Shareski and I have a new book out. Titled Different Schools for a Different World, it describes 6 key relevancy gaps between today’s schools and what students and society need from them:

  1. Information Literacy. If schools are to genuinely prepare graduates to compete in a technology-infused information landscape, they must stop acting as they did when learning and teaching primarily occurred in analog formats. Instead, schools must begin to immerse students in the use of digital tools and in the outside contexts that surround those tools, and schools must do this in deeper and more significant ways.
  2. Workforce and Economy. If schools are to genuinely prepare graduates for a hyperconnected and hypercompetitive global innovation economy, they must stop emphasizing low-level content coverage. Instead, they must focus on interdisciplinary thinking, interpersonal skills, and technological fluency: the skills that allow individuals to offer value and differentiate themselves in digital marketplaces.
  3. Learning. If schools are to genuinely prepare graduates to be powerful lifelong learners, they must stop blocking mobile devices, digital environments, and online communities out of fear, nostalgia, or concerns about maintaining control. Instead, they must help students learn how to utilize these tools to foster powerful learning and extracurricular connections.
  4. Student Engagement. If schools are to genuinely engage students in their learning rather than simply force them to comply with academic and attendance directives, they must move away from one-size-fits-all instructional models. Instead, they must find ways to make the learning opportunities students experience more relevant and personally authentic.
  5. Innovation. If schools are to genuinely prepare innovators rather than “just tell me what to do” workers, they must stop disengaging students by using extrinsic punishments and rewards to govern classrooms. Instead, they must transform their learning spaces into the kinds of engaging environments of discovery, play, and intrinsic motivation that reward innovation.
  6. Equity. And if schools are to genuinely address equity issues so that no child is truly left behind, they must no longer be content to provide exclusive access to technology and rich, creative technology education to those students who have the most advantages. Instead, schools must find ways to enable robust digital learning for all students.

In the book we also note some strategies to address each of the relevancy gaps and highlight some schools that are doing well on the 4 big shifts of deeper learning, student agency, authentic work, and robust technology infusion.

Our book is a call to action that serves as the framing volume for the Solutions for Creating the Learning Spaces Students Deserve series from Solution Tree. Other awesome books in the series include:

If you get yourself a copy of our new book, let us know what you think. Thanks. Happy reading!

10 building blocks for the future of schools

As Dean Shareski and I worked together on our new book, Different Schools for a Different World, (released this week!), he encouraged me to update my list of building blocks for the future of schools. Here’s the new list (now 10 items instead of 8):

  1. Project- and inquiry-based learning environments that emphasize greater student agency and active application of more cognitively-complex thinking, communication, and collaboration skills.
  2. Community projects, internships, digital simulations, and other problem- and project-based learning experiences that foster students’ ability to engage in authentic, real-world work.
  3. Competency-based education and standards-based grading efforts that shift the focus of assessment from seat time to learning mastery.
  4. 1:1 computing initiatives (and concurrent Internet bandwidth upgrades) that give students powerful digital learning devices and access to the world’s information, individuals, and organizations.
  5. The expansion of digital and online (and often open access) information resources that increase the availability of higher and deeper learning opportunities.
  6. Online communities of interest that supplement and augment more-traditional learning communities that are limited by geography and time.
  7. Adaptive software and data systems (and accompanying organizational models) that can facilitate greater individualization of learning content and pace.
  8. Alternative credentialing mechanisms that enable individuals to quickly reskill for and adapt to rapidly-evolving workforce needs and economic demands.
  9. Flexible scheduling that moves students away from 50-minute time chunks – and a prescribed number of hours and days in a prescribed location – and toward opportunities for students to learn longer, deeper, and in more places about important life skills and concepts.
  10. Redesigned learning spaces that accommodate flexible, student-centered grouping and learning tasks rather than classrooms that are dictated by instructor or janitorial needs.

What would you add or change?

10 building blocks 001

10 building blocks 002

Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate…

Radio tower

The teacher transmits information to the student.

The textbook transmits information to the student.

The online tutorial or learning software or YouTube video transmits information to the student.


The student’s role is to be the recipient of what is transmitted.

The student’s role is to regurgitate what was transmitted with enough fidelity that the teacher or software system can check off that the student ‘knows’ it.

The student’s role is to be obedient and compliant.


It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is of interest to the student. 

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is meaningful or relevant to the student.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated can be found with a quick Google or Siri search.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated can’t be applied beyond the narrowly-conscribed classroom setting.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is forgotten by the student just a few weeks later.


What matters is that the student holds in her brain what was transmitted and regurgitated long enough to get the grade. We need to check the box. We need to move on. We have things to cover. Hopefully, enough of what is transmitted and regurgitated will stick – individually and collectively, across all students and all buildings – for those end-of-year assessments of factual and procedural regurgitation that we use to determine educator and school ’success.’


Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate… Why do we believe that this model is adequate for the demands of a complex, global innovation society?


Image credit: Transmitting, Tim Haynes

The importance of common, shared understandings

Fortune cookie: We all have extraordinary coded within us, waiting to be released

I had the chance recently to work with an awesome teacher-led school here in Colorado. Because the school already is pretty amazing, we spent most of our day and a half together fine tuning a few aspects of its work.

One of the core values of this school – stated front and center in its mission statement – is its commitment to guiding students to become self-directed learners. However, although the school had been working on this front for several years, there was still a lack of agreement across faculty about what that really meant. There were some great student projects occurring, but there weren’t common understandings across classrooms and grade levels. So we spent a significant amount of time in a structured process that allowed them to pin down a definition that they could all agree on (woo hoo! success!). Now in this school, if they’re going to call a student experience ‘rock star quality student self-directed learning,’ it’s going to have most of the following 7 elements (each of which they defined in detail) most of the time for most students:

  1. student choice
  2. student voice
  3. student as director of own learning
  4. student engagement
  5. student risk-taking
  6. student reflection
  7. teacher as facilitator

If the student experience doesn’t have any of these elements, it won’t be considered ‘self-directed learning.’ And if the experience only has some of these elements, it will be considered one that is ‘working toward’ the end goal of ‘more student self-directed learning, more often.’

What was important about this process was not the variety of different facilitation techniques that we used or the ‘correctness’ of the end result. You might define ‘rock star quality student self-directed learning’ differently, for example. What was important was the productive, goal-oriented dialogue and that the school faculty was able to come to agreement about what will work for them so that they then could identify concrete ‘look-fors’ and action items. In other words, common, shared understandings are prerequisites for common, shared commitments.

I love doing this kind of facilitation work with educators. Too often in our schools we use big, important ideas or terms – critical thinking! technology integration! student inquiry! academic rigor! social justice! – that mean widely different things to different people. Because we never take the time to really pin down and define common, shared understandings (or, worse, we try to impose our understandings on others), we see significant variability as educators attempt to implement those ideas in their day-to-day practice. If we want to get an entire system to extraordinary, we have to get everyone in agreement about what that means…

As a school leader, when was the last time that you engaged in a structured dialogue that allowed you to see if your staff really agrees on what some big ideas mean in your school and what they look like in practice? Are you just assuming or hoping that everyone has common, shared understandings?