Tag Archives: reviews

Book review – Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today

SheningerMurrayThis post is a review of Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today by Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray. Disclaimer: both are friends of mine so keep that in mind as you read below. My short recommendation? There is lots of value in this book and a great deal of information that validates what we know about good leadership and strong school organizations.

What I liked about the book

Eric and Tom list eight ‘keys’ to intentionally designing tomorrow’s schools. They are:

  1. Leadership and school culture lay the foundation
  2. The learning experience must be redesigned and made personal
  3. Decisions must be grounded in evidence and driven by a Return on Instruction (ROI)
  4. Learning spaces must become learner-centered
  5. Professional learning must be relevant, engaging, ongoing, and made personal
  6. Technology must be leveraged and used as an accelerant for student learning
  7. Community collaboration and engagement must be woven into the fabric of a school’s culture
  8. Schools that transform learning are built to last as financial, political, and pedagogical sustainability ensure long-term success

It’s hard to argue with any of these. All are critically-important components of robust, future-ready schools and each gets substantial coverage in their respective book chapters. Tom and Eric back these up with a variety of research studies to support the importance of each one. And they write in an engaging way that keeps readers rolling along. All of this is good.

There are strong emphases throughout the book on building trust, fostering relationships, empowering others, the intentionality of the work, the importance of communication, and recognizing our power as change agents. This is all good too!

I thought Chapters 4 (learning spaces) and 5 (professional learning) were especially strong. Chapter 4 gave me a lot to think about and there are numerous ideas in Chapter 5 for taking educators’ learning in some new directions, particularly pages 152-155 where Eric and Tom describe some ways to move from hours- to outcomes-based ‘accountability’ for educator learning.

Finally, Tom and Eric have chosen to profile some great leaders and organizations throughout the book and also have selected some resonant quotes. My favorite is probably the quote from Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis: ‘In the absence of knowledge, people make up their own.’

Some minor quibbles

There are some things that I wish were framed a little differently in the book. For instance, in Chapter 1, Eric and Tom say that ‘great leaders help others see the value of change by clearly articulating a compelling why and working to build support throughout consensus’ (p. 34). I wish they spent more time here talking about a visioning process that was less leader-centric and focused more on educators, students, and parents figuring out together what their why is instead of simply being sold their why by the leader. If we want shared understandings and commitments within organizations, I believe that process needs to be more communal rather than leader-driven. I’ve seen too many schools where the leader has a robust vision but never can ‘build support’ with the staff because she’s the only one that really owns it and is trying to then sell it to everyone else. Tom and Eric do talk a bit more about shared visioning on page 36 when they quote Kouzes & Posner, but that section doesn’t articulate what a ground-up process could look like.

In Chapter 2, Eric and Tom do a nice job of articulating ways that technology can enhance student learning. But the chapter sometimes feels a little technology-centric. There are numerous ways to give students access to deeper learning, greater student agency, and more authentic work opportunities that don’t involve learning technologies. Even though I’m an educational technology advocate, I would have liked some more discussion of project- and inquiry-based learning, performance assessments, community-based service learning, Harkness circles, and the wide variety of other non-technological possibilities that still result in robust learning. There is mention of a few of these things but I think in general these could have been fleshed out more. I did greatly appreciate the emphasis on equity in this chapter. Chapter 3 is similar. Tom and Eric discuss the concept of return on instruction but the chapter is framed dominantly within a lens of technology infusion. We need classrooms to move beyond factual recall and procedural regurgitation, and I know that Eric and Tom agree with that notion. But I think that non-technological learning and pedagogy could get some more attention in this chapter too. Although Tom and Eric state directly in Chapter 5 that ‘professional learning must focus on student outcomes through improved pedagogy – not on tools’ (p. 146), I think that idea gets lost in Chapter 3 amidst all of the technology discussions. 

The book closes on the idea of sustainable change. That’s an incredibly important topic and also is incredibly difficult to accomplish. There is a great deal of discussion in the chapter about what needs to be done, and I think Eric and Tom rightly identify numerous issues and tasks. They also do a nice job in this chapter of staying positive and encouraging people to recognize that great leadership is within their grasp. However, there is barely a mention in this chapter of one of the biggest barriers to organizational sustainability of change initiatives, which is leadership turnover. When superintendents, principals, and/or school boards turn over fairly frequently, teachers and communities get whipsawed by new innovations and new directions because those new leaders rarely continue the innovation pathways of their predecessors. Some discussion in this chapter of how to actually navigate that concern would have been helpful beyond the couple of sentences on political sustainability that merely acknowledge the issue.

Finally, there are large chunks of several chapters that feel like long lists of leadership ideas that have been thrown together (see, e.g., Chapters 1 and 7). It’s not that the ideas or items are wrong or incorrect, it’s just hard to see how they all fit together. Tom and Eric do a great job of citing research in their book, but it would be helpful to have some research-based frameworks and mental models that tie the list items together. For instance, if there’s a three-page list of ten leadership ideas, why these specific ten and not others and how do they interact together to create a coherent whole? If there are two solid pages of bullet points, maybe those could be tied together into some kind of model that illustrates the connectivity of the disparate parts. Otherwise, we’re left to question where all of these ideas came from and how they’re supposed to work together.

All of these are minor quibbles and choices have to be made in any book about what to focus on and what to leave out. It’s Eric and Tom’s book, not mine, and they’ve done a nice job of presenting their arguments, their reasoning, a variety of resources, and numerous action steps that can be taken.

Questions I have after reading this book

  • How do we flesh out in more concrete detail – and with specific action steps – some of the ideas articulated in this book?
  • How do we navigate the twin challenges of leadership turnover and initiative fatigue due to successive leaders wanting to ‘put their stamp on’ the organization?
  • Much of the book is based on the research about good leadership. We’ve known for a long time much of what’s in the book, but those research-based leadership practices aren’t showing up in administrators’ actual practices. How can we as educational leadership researchers do a better job of translating our scholarship into actionable ideas and behaviors in the field?
  • How can schools do a better job of treating parents as authentic partners and co-designers in the learning of their children, not just passive recipients of whatever narrow boxes we educators try to put them into?
  • How can we foster the creation of ground-up visions for student learning and educational experiences rather than individual or oligarchic visions that then get sold to the rest of the community? And how can we involve students as substantive partners in that work?

Rating

I liked this book a lot, and I’m glad I have friends who make me smarter. I marked it up all over the place. I give it 5 highlighters (out of 5).

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Book review – Education unbound

My goal for June: 30 days, 30 book reviews. This post is a review of Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling by Rick Hess. My short recommendation? I believe that this is a book that will substantially stretch educators and policymakers and should be required reading for any university educational leadership program’s education policy course.

What I liked about the book

Hess’ essential premise is that we need more innovation and entrepreneurship in K-12 schooling. He believes that the “greatest challenge for teaching and learning is the creaky, rule-bound system in which they unfold” (p. 3) and that school organizations are “so hobbled [by various legacy characteristics] that even sensible efforts will fall short” (p. 3). He advocates for a greenfield approach to schooling, one that clears the ground for innovation and allows reform efforts to proceed unhindered by restrictive policies, mindsets, and other constraints.

Education Unbound, by Rick HessThis is not just a book about school choice. As Hess notes, greenfield approaches to schooling require “that choice be coupled with opportunities for entrepreneurs to enter the field, obtain resources, recruit talent, try new approaches, develop new products, compete fairly, and benefit from their successes. . . . [We] have paid little attention to the development of the infrastructure, quality control, and policy environment needed to turn school choice plans into greenfield” (p. 33).

In Chapter 2, Hess identifies four tasks that are crucial to greenfield educational reform: “removing obstacles, ensuring quality, and supplying both talent and financial resources” (p. 41). He then describes in detail in Chapters 3 through 6 the issues, the challenges, and some potential solutions in each of those four areas. Unfortunately, as Hess notes, “for all their virtues, [American] schools … are not noted for their embrace of creative problem solvers” (p. 1) and that “the vast majority of superintendents [and principals] have learned to regard precedent-breaking action as risky and conflict as something to be avoided” (p. 61).

I liked Hess’ recognition that we tolerate wide discrepancies in outcomes when it comes to public education but not when it comes to for-profit educational services. For example, he says that “in education, we … are much more squeamish about [for-profit] approaches that may yield uneven quality (even if we quietly tolerate massive mediocrity and unevenness among existing school districts)” (p. 85). I think that’s an important point worth emphasizing. We are so afraid that for-profit solutions will cause harm to students. Of course some will. They already do, and we should work to prevent those from happening as much as we can. But the same is true for public education. We shouldn’t stifle opportunities for innovation for some perceived notion of educational quality that, in reality, is also variable in the public sector. Instead, as he advocates, we need better oversight and better mechanisms for accountabilty, ones that go far beyond – and are more robust and complex than – the simplistic bubble-sheet accountability measures that we have now.

Key quotes

We routinely look at new learning tools and ask only how they might be used to improve traditional classrooms rather than how they might revolutionize schooling. . . . Technology is not a way to augment yesterday’s classrooms but rather a tool with which to revolutionize schooling. (pp. 27–28)

AND

The dysfunction that limns our school systems is like the air we breathe. It’s so familiar and accepted that, after a while, we take it for granted. We forget that things might be otherwise – that there’s no reason choosing to be an educator should mean accepting bureacracy, standardization, and inept management. (p. x)

AND

It is hard to see how even souped-up versions of existing approaches will recruit or prepare the kind of talent needed to fundamentally improve K-12 education. (p. 87)

AND

[An] often overlooked operational barrier is the tendency of district leaders to regard staff time and salaries as sunk costs. . . . Districts typically do not eliminate teaching or staff positions, even if an innovation allows nine employees to accomplish what used to take ten. The result is that school and district leaders have a hard time seeing labor-saving technologies or services as cost-effective. . . . A management style that ignores cost efficiencies in staff time and salaries constitutes an enormous obstacle . . . Rather than ask whether a tutoring program would allow a district to reduce the number of paraprofessionals or whether a more sophisticated diagnostic tool might allow talented elementary teachers to accommodate more students, . . . officials seemingly operate from the premise that technology and service providers must “supplement but not supplant” personnel. (p. 59)

AND

The failure of most [best practices-oriented reform] efforts is due to barnacles that encumber today’s school systems, including inefficient human resource departments, intrusive collective bargaining agreements, outdated technology, poorly designed management information systems, and other structural impediments. Greenfielders do not reject the utility of sensible best practices, but they question the assumption that the best practice mind-set will be enough to overcome these obstacles. . . . If we are to deliver transformative improvement, it is not enough to wedge new practices into familiar schools and districts; we must re-imagine the system itself. (pp. 6–7)

Questions I have after reading this book

  • What is the likelihood of us ever achieving even some of the greenfield approaches that Hess advocates?
  • What are the best ways to address the “supplement but not supplant” mindsent of school leaders, teachers unions, and policymakers when it comes to technology and personnel?
  • Can we get educators to recognize that digital technologies will supplant some of their work – and some of them – and that this will be a good thing for students?

Rating

I liked this book a LOT. I like any book that really stretches my own thinking and pushes me into new areas that I haven’t considered much. This is one of those books and I bet it will be for you too. I give it 5 highlighters (out of 5).

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[See my other reviews and recommended reading]

Disclosure

This book was sent to me gratis by the publisher. I was not compensated in any way for this review and was not asked by the author or the publisher to write positively about this book.