Wednesday / April 24

Engaged Learning for All—That Means You, Too

Many schools and districts are working on strategic plans that include at their heart a vision of graduating students who are lifelong learners, with indispensable ‘must-have’ skills such as creativity, problem solving, and collaboration. Thanks to the work of Sir Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the Hewlett Foundation, and others, there is a rising tide of consensus regarding the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that will help students thrive in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (‘VUCA’) world.

Where Do Some Schools Fall Short with Their Strategic Plans?

Preparing our children for an unknowable future is a tall order, and school leaders, teachers, and administrators need significant support to realize this vision. Take a close look at your strategic plan. Does it include a component specifically designed to address how the school will help the adults in your school develop the skills necessary to implement the plan?

A school that has been run on industrial-era methods of compliance, control and consumption has deeply entrenched behavioral expectations and rewards a certain set of skills. If we are saying that we need schools to be much more autonomous, to embrace risk, and to be more creative, then the behavioral expectations need to shift accordingly so that the new skills and habits of mind can be sufficiently nurtured. Professional development isn’t a “nice to have” when it comes to your strategic plan. It is the “must have” backbone—the very means through which the vision will be realized.

What are Signs that Transformation is at Work in Your School or District?

Let’s take a look at some very real and exciting shifts that might already be underway in your school or district:

From   To
Students as passive recipients of content, exercising limited choice


Students as self-directed, entrepreneurial



Teacher as deliverer of content


Teacher as designer and facilitator of

immersive learning environments


Little differentiation for student’s

individual strengths and interests


Strengths- and interest-based learning for every student


Time-based learning


Competency-based learning
Single discipline-based learning as

curriculum driver


Interdisciplinary learning as curriculum driver


Learning grounded in static content

and rote memorization of facts


Learning grounded in the real-world and practical application


Learning that takes place on the school campus only


Learning that takes place on campus and off campus, through meaningful community and global partnerships


Content-based assessment via written tests or exams, learning assessed by the teacher only


Mastery-based assessment of skills, knowledge, and habits of mind. Assessment by self, peers, teachers, and external experts

From Top-Level Questions to Human-Centered Work

As you think about these early signs of transformation in your school, reflect on these questions:

  • What are the top three shifts underway in my school or district?
  • What skills need to be developed in order to see the change take hold and be sustainable?
  • How might the school’s individual goal setting and review process align with, and actively support, the strategic direction of the school?
  • How am I supporting teachers, leaders, and administrators in taking risks and developing those skills?

These are the ‘top level’ questions. There is a deeper level to this work, of course—a juicier level. Supporting development through change is not a “check the box” exercise, but rather an opportunity to truly mobilize and empower every single adult in the school to realize the vision. Think of this work, not as widgets on the factory line, but as a garden you want to grow. Dig a little deeper with these questions:

  • What are the conditions under which these new skills and habits of mind will grow and thrive?
  • How can I, as a leader, establish an environment for development and growth via the change I seek?
  • Where is my growth edge in this work? What do I need to learn, and perhaps unlearn, as I lead this work?

It is messy work. It is emotional work. The predictability of industrial-era management methods will not help you here. But embracing the human-centered power of it will.

Written by

Julie Wilson is the Founder and Executive Director of Institute for the Future of Learning, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping transform the factory model of education. Julie has over fifteen years’ experience in organization development and change leadership; as a learning and development consultant at Harvard University, Julie managed the University’s career and professional development program, provided organization development consulting to University leaders and was the recipient of the ‘Harvard Hero’ award for outstanding contributions to the University.


In addition to helping schools and communities lead sustainable change, Julie highlights great practice and shares reflections on curriculum, pedagogy, and change at Julie graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with a Master’s degree in Technology, Innovation, and Education.  Look for Julie’s new book with Corwin, The Human Side of Changing Education, coming in Spring 2018.  Connect with Julie on LinkedIn and twitter.

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