10 Next Steps for EdLeaders: The Advanced Course

Community, Leadership

Fulton County Schools are inventing the future of learning. The suburban Atlanta district has empowered teacher leaders, engaged a blended learning partner, assessed school readiness, and launched new learning models, all backed it with community support and investment.

I’m visiting with Fulton EdLeaders this week; they’re ready for the advanced course. Building on an April entry, following are 10 next steps for EdLeaders (call it the 201 course).

1. Check Your Mindset. Over the last decade Dweck, Duckworth, and Tough reminded us that a growth mindset matters. In addition to the importance of hard work, we think students need the opportunity to make stuff, to take initiative and working collaboratively. In our last book, Smart Cities, we outlined the formula: Innovation Mindset = Growth Mindset + Maker Mindset + Team Mindset. (Read about classroom strategies for building an innovation mindset).

If leaders want teachers and students to develop an innovation mindset, they should start by examining their own approach to the work. Ask some tough questions: Do I recognize effort as well as reward performance? Do I create room and incentives for initiative and risk taking?  Have I created a collaborative environment?

2. Name the theories in use. Earlier this month Clay Christensen said theories have experience, they define causality, they help human beings create agreements and move forward. But you only gain that benefit by naming the theories in use.

Education is bounded by sedimentary layers of policy and practice that once had meaning but now form unexamined traditions. By being explicit about what’s going on, we have a shot at building a path forward.

Like the folks at the Christensen Institute, we see personalized learning as a grand unifying theory, one that acknowledges that different students have different needs at different times.

3. Create an LX vision. EdLeaders, particularly those in Fulton County, have the opportunity to lead community conversations about what is possible. That starts with putting students, and their learning experiences (LX), first. For hundreds of years schools have been organized around the needs of the adults and the enactment of a common curriculum. It’s now possible to customize a sequence of experiences for every student. Ask these 21 questions about learning experiences and environments.

As it is in Fulton, student choice and voice, flexible pacing, and options for demonstrating learning are central to a student-centered environment.

Hold community conversations about parenting for powerful learning. Our new book, Smart Parents is based on a vision of student centered learning: personalized, competency-based, anytime anywhere, with kids driving their own learning.

4. Expose new school models. What’s different between a struggling school and a next-gen school? Everything! New school models that incorporate lessons learned and new technology have different structures, schedules, and systems. You and your team need to study new models. Time for a road trip or at least a staff study project.

The most influential group packaging promising strategies into new and transformed school grants is Next Generation Learning Challenges. (We tracked 14 of the teams that received an NGLC grant and told their story in Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning.) Each of these teams embrace high expectations for college and career readiness and personalized learning. They are approaching their work in a way that is scalable and sustainable. Grant funding helps initiate and support the work, but even without grant funding the NGLC framework is a good set of design principles. Supporting new and transformed schools, the NGLC work has expanded to six regional funds.

NewSchools Venture Fund just launched Catapult, a new school grant program that focuses personalized learning, student agency, and an expanded definition of student success.

The best field trip is a day at Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area. Check out a day in the life of a Summit student and a summary of their efforts to share their model. Like Fulton’s focus on just-in-time direct instruction, Summit creates customized playlists that prepare students to engage in challenging projects.

5. Embrace broader aims. It’s clear that broader aims of student success, including mindset, self management and relational skills, are widely recognized as important to success in life. These hard to measure skills and dispositions require broader feedback systems than traditional standardized testing. Three examples with reviewing include:

6. Create community agreements. To move past a narrow focus on test prep, EdLeaders lead community conversations about What Should High School Graduates Know And Be Able To Do?

With clear commitments to equity and excellence and embracing the paradox of clarity and openness, EdLeaders should take every opportunity to describe a hopeful future where students and teachers benefit from personalized learning. It’s particularly helpful to be quite specific about the kinds of experiences you’d like to see more of (see #3). Harlem Success Academy principal Andrew Malone suggests simple powerful phrases packed with meaning as a result of lots of examples and conversation.

EdLeaders need to be conversation leaders and agreement crafters. When things are this dynamic, a sequence of temporary agreements that keep a school community moving is the best case scenario.

7. Model next-gen learning. Want to see more next generation learning? It starts with modeling the way, being authentic, vulnerable, and connecting with others.

Start modeling the way by exposing your routines for trend monitoring, sensemaking, and learning new things, including successes and challenges. Share your lessons in staff conversations and in social media. Blogging can be a great way to model clarity of convictions and openness to new pathways.

8. Personalize Professional Learning. Ditch the old boring school wide PD.  As discussed in Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning, educators should have the same kind of learning experiences as students–blended, personalized, and competency-based.

Platforms like Bloomboard (where I’m a director) make it easy to build an individual learning plan linked to quality learning experiences.

9. Improve your wellness. Managing a school is a big job. Orchestrating a transformation agenda requires what seems like superhuman powers. The first part of the solution is to distribute leadership. The second part is to take care of yourself. Build daily wellness habits. If you want healthy staff and students, modeling starts with you.

10. Stick around! Different than the revolving door common in many urban centers, real equity producing progress takes time, a broad web of leadership sustained over a decade. Stick around and see the fruits of your hard work.

For more:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


Kelly Parker @Proud_Tigers /

Very much enjoyed the discussion and modeling the way this morning. Thanks so much