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

The real reason we ban cell phones

Marc Prensky said:

Let’s admit that the real reason we ban cell phones is that, given the opportunity to use them, students would “vote with their attention,” just as adults “vote with their feet” by leaving the room when a presentation is not compelling. Why shouldn’t our students have the same option with their education when educators fail to deliver compelling content?

via Listen to the Natives

Not sure I buy into the idea that educators should be ‘delivering content,’ no matter how compelling! But I like the quote. Anyone else besides me want to admit that if you had mobile phones and social media when you were a kid, you would have tried to escape your boring classrooms too?

We can mandate their attendance but it’s nearly impossible to mandate their attention.

Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

Will Richardson said:

More than, what, 90% of what we currently teach and talk about … is quickly forgotten once the next topic in the pacing guide comes up. Climate change, literacy, fake news, #metoo, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, racism, income gaps, privacy, future jobs, AI, cryptocurrency… We can make that list of things that really matter today (or probably will matter in the future) a mile long.

And after we do, we have to own up to the fact that, by and large, even though we know that’s the stuff of modern life, we in schools say to kids “Good luck with all of that. Hope you figure it all out. We can’t really deal with that stuff because we have to teach you Geometry, which, btw, we know most of you will NEVER use, but hey, it’s in the curriculum and we’ve been teaching it forever.”

This is one of the many existential questions we need to be grappling with: Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

via the Change.School community

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

Before you start bashing the Millennials…

Older generations love to bash the Millennials. But in many ways we are the problem. Here are a few quotes from Huffington Post’s recent article, Generation Screwed:

Mention “millennial” to anyone over 40 and the word “entitlement” will come back at you within seconds, our own intergenerational game of Marco Polo.

This is what it feels like to be young now. Not only are we screwed, but we have to listen to lectures about our laziness and our participation trophies from the people who screwed us.


Since 2010, the economy has added 11.6 million jobs—and 11.5 million of them have gone to workers with at least some college education. In 2016, young workers with a high school diploma had roughly triple the unemployment rate and three and a half times the poverty rate of college grads.


Between 1970 and 2002, the probability that a working-age American would unexpectedly lose at least half her family income more than doubled. And the danger is particularly severe for young people. In the 1970s, when the boomers were our age, young workers had a 24 percent chance of falling below the poverty line. By the 1990s, that had risen to 37 percent. And the numbers only seem to be getting worse. From 1979 to 2014, the poverty rate among young workers with only a high school diploma more than tripled, to 22 percent. 


Since the Great Recession, the “good” jobs—secure, non-temp, decent salary—have concentrated in cities like never before. America’s 100 largest metros have added 6 million jobs since the downturn. Rural areas, meanwhile, still have fewer jobs than they did in 2007. For young people trying to find work, moving to a major city is not an indulgence. It is a virtual necessity.

But the soaring rents in big cities are now canceling out the higher wages. Back in 1970, according to a Harvard study, an unskilled worker who moved from a low-income state to a high-income state kept 79 percent of his increased wages after he paid for housing. A worker who made the same move in 2010 kept just 36 percent.


The Boomer-benefiting system we’ve inherited was not inevitable and it is not irreversible. There is still a choice here. For the generations ahead of us, it is whether to pass down some of the opportunities they enjoyed in their youth or to continue hoarding them. Since 1989, the median wealth of families headed by someone over 62 has increased 40 percent. The median wealth of families headed by someone under 40 has decreased by 28 percent. Boomers, it’s up to you: Do you want your children to have decent jobs and places to live and a non-Dickensian old age? 

Read the whole thing. Recognize how structural inequities and ongoing policy decisions are systematically disadvantaging younger people. And next time you’re inclined to bash the Millennials, maybe think again…

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.

Connectivity versus isolation: Which leads to prosperity?

Thomas Friedman said:

We’re going through a change in the “climate” of globalization — going from an interconnected world to an interdependent one, from a world of walls where you build your wealth by hoarding the most resources to a world of webs where you build your wealth by having the most connections to the flow of ideas, networks, innovators and entrepreneurs. In this interdependent world, connectivity leads to prosperity and isolation leads to poverty. We got rich by being “America Connected” not “America First.”

Finally, we’re going through a change in the “climate” of technology and work. We’re moving into a world where computers and algorithms can analyze (reveal previously hidden patterns); optimize (tell a plane which altitude to fly each mile to get the best fuel efficiency); prophesize (tell you when your elevator will break or what your customer is likely to buy); customize (tailor any product or service for you alone); and digitize and automatize more and more products and services. Any company that doesn’t deploy all six elements will struggle, and this is changing every job and industry.

What do you need when the climate changes? Adaptation — so your citizens can get the most out of these climate changes and cushion the worst. Adaptation has to happen at the individual, community and national levels.

At the individual level, the single most important adaptation is to become a lifelong learner, so you can constantly add value beyond what machines and algorithms can do.

“When work was predictable and the change rate was relatively constant, preparation for work merely required the codification and transfer of existing knowledge and predetermined skills to create a stable and deployable work force,” explains education consultant Heather McGowan. “Now that the velocity of change has accelerated, due to a combination of exponential growth in technology and globalization, learning can no longer be a set dose of education consumed in the first third of one’s life.” In this age of accelerations, “the new killer skill set is an agile mind-set that values learning over knowing.”