Administration & Leadership

Insight and Outsight: 8 Strategies to Catalyze District-Wide Learning

To prepare for an unpredictable future, look beyond educations’ familiar rhythms to encourage staff and student voice and agency, rule challengers, design thinkers, and leaders.

July 28, 2015
Photo Credit: Edutopia

As I begin my tenth year as superintendent, I take stock of the significant changes that have occurred in my school district. As Pascal Finette says, social media have turned the world into a participation culture linked by a global communication network. And mobile devices, with 500 times the computing power that put astronauts on the moon, rest in the hands, pockets, and backpacks of children, not just top executives. Smart technologies have moved onto some college campuses, and students now receive texts telling them when washers are open for laundry. No longer science fiction, driverless vehicles represent real stories in our daily newsfeeds.

Yet even with all our knowledge about global changes, many U.S. schools have changed little while the world participates in the rising Age of Smart Machines. Who doubts that young people must be ready for a future in which they will be challenged by radical workforce evolution, global problems from environmental degradation to geopolitical instabilities, and demographic shifts redefining family, community, and culture? How do we prepare learners for that? Considering how to proactively respond inside the walls of schools to the exponential changes occurring outside those walls keeps me up at night.

Mapping our district staff's course through these radical innovations pushes me to look outside traditional education resources as we prepare our kids for adult life. I've come to realize that as a leader, it's not just insight -- my own observations and understandings -- that informs what our district must do to catalyze learning and unleash the potential of educators and young people. Listening across a flattened hierarchy to the valuable perspectives of students, parents, educators, and community members also illuminates the paths that we must take. And I've come to understand that the best strategic decisions emerge by paying attention to how the world is changing beyond the perspectives gleaned from inside my educational community and from my own intuition. Outsight, the power or act of seeing external things clearly, also matters.

Leveraging contemporary capabilities to search, connect, communicate, and consider new information along with our insights helps to map the journey of Albemarle County Public Schools. Our work doesn't occur by chance. We make collaborative decisions as we gain fresh insight and outsight into better catalyzing the changes needed in educating young people to be prepared for their future. To accomplish the changes needed to move our vision toward reality, I've learned over many years what truly matters.

1. Voice Matters

Spend time with both students and educators. Be present in schools and classrooms. Ask questions. Extend wait time. Listen. You will gain the insight and outsight needed to determine and support readiness for change.

2. Agency Matters

Compliance-driven change is superficial at best. People embrace the need to change when affirmed as leaders, contributors, and active participants in shaping processes of deep change. Mindful leaders understand that authentic solutions to challenges emerge from collaborative teams, rather than from the top.

3. Rule Challengers Matter

They generate questions: "Why not?" "What if?" "How might we?" They explore beyond the boundaries of our district. They bring fresh ideas to the table. They create dissonance, making us all uncomfortable. But they take risks. They delight in adventures beyond the horizon. Hire them. Value them. Keep them. Drop "yeah, but" from your leadership vocabulary. Rule challengers are outsight contributors of the first order, forging new paths for others to follow.

4. Design Thinking Matters

Aim for small changes and small wins to catalyze the greater journey of district-wide change. Start with seeding small-project design in schools to learn from prototypes, shape new approaches, and mitigate the risk of big mistakes. Value the failures of design teams as learning opportunities, a byproduct of invention and innovation. Celebrate successes as they occur. Apply the power of discovery, empathy, and user experience in your own design thinking processes.

5. "Yes" Matters

Invest in time for pedagogical entrepreneurs to work together. Create opportunities to design for learning, not plan for teaching. When educators approach you with new or different ideas, breathe deep, say yes, and figure out how to support them in trying out these ideas. If you say no, they will likely never come back, and will tell everyone else to not waste their time with you, either.

6. Networking Matters

Encourage horizontal networking to scale innovative ideas across schools, rather than attempting to vertically scale up one-size-fits-all programs. Too often, a district invests in cookie-cutter programs and attempts to implement them identically everywhere. When those programs fail, it's no surprise. Schools, like gardens, grow differently in different locations. Be OK with school communities developing their own identity as they network and share important ideas that shape contemporary learning.

7. Leadership Matters

Get outside your own boxes: office, schools, and education traditions. You are a model for professional learning. Read, watch videos, listen to ebooks, and share. Tweet. Blog. Participate in "couch-based" professional development such as MOOCS, live streams, Twitter chats, and webinars. Explore how the world is changing around your school district. Observe how businesses, offices, museums, libraries, parks, and even coffee shops are changing. Ask, "Will our kids be ready to work, learn, and live in these spaces?"

8. Lifelong Learning Matters

Remain open to learning. Consider each day what will you change to become a better leader tomorrow.

After all, if you don't continue to grow new knowledge and competencies, why should it matter to anyone else?

School Snapshot

Albemarle County Public Schools

Grades K-12 | Albemarle County, VA
13677 | Public
Per Pupil Expenditures
$12154 District
Free / Reduced Lunch
68% White
11% Black
11% Hispanic

10% Students with disabilities

Data is from the 2014-15 academic year.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Albemarle County Public Schools.

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