On Target Sept 2019
Curriculum Corner Sept 19
  • Designers of Learning     


    “There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction” John F. Kennedy (35th U.S President).


    As another school year begins, the major challenge district leaders across the nation face is thinking anew, envisioning different, and most importantly acting to positively impact the school experience for all students, parents, staff - all stakeholders. We are challenged to action even amongst “the tyranny of the urgent” where daily management and routine can easily supersede actions for real, sustained change.


    School leaders can embrace the challenge by fostering environments where teachers and students are designers of learning. They can model a designer’s mindset, allow for connections across the district and involve all stakeholders in order to support innovation (Parker, 2012). These behaviors are essential to move from comfortable inaction to a bias towards action. This is more critical than ever as our educational system needs to respond to the complexities of the new century and a world disrupted by innovation.


    Innovation starts with creative teams who are willing to experiment and desire a shared vision for change. A successful “program of action,” one that supports innovation, requires environments that bolster pilots, projects, new ideas, and the ability to “fail forward.” Their success depends on district leaders providing permission for experimentation, collaboratively defining purpose, and continuously engaging in need finding in order to support teams at all levels in the organization. 


    From an empathic perspective, leaders can more accurately support the identification of needs, plan for experimentation, and leverage innovation. Designers of learning begin with empathy. As demonstrated in Wired to Care, “Companies prosper when they tap into a power that everyone one of us already has - the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people” (p.3, Patnaik, 2009). School leaders must model the use of tools and processes for collecting insights and for building their understanding.  How you engage with stakeholders to harness ideas is critical. Amy Edmondson emphasizes the importance of psychological safety, in The Fearless Organization, when collecting insight from teams and individuals (2019). Tools such as Padlet and Thoughtexchange allow for idea generation and sharing with anonymity. They create a safe environment where all participants' voices can be heard and seen. 


    Once ideas are generated and pilots created, support for action is necessary. Safi Bahcall refers to supporters as "champions" (2019). It is often the district leader who will need to serve in this role as new ideas and pilots are often fragile. Ideas require support to flourish and a leader’s comfort with ambiguity as piloting teams experiment. Finally, district leaders need to support ways of capturing and sharing what worked. This provides the ability to scale up innovation. Video clips, google documents, slides, and other tools created during the pilots need to be accessible to students and staff to empower all stakeholders across the district. Tools such as websites allow for the work to be archived, shared, and celebrated. Harnessing ways to share out beyond the district is essential as well. Sharing success amplifies current and future actions promoting positive change across the state, nation, and the world. 


    The world is changing and so must schools. A bias toward a “program of action” is essential. As this new school year begins challenge yourself to do something different. “Remember...Life is Short. We’re not here to fill or kill time. We’re here to make good things happen for other people” (Parker, p.50, 2012). How will you take action? What will you design? How will you support designers of learning in your district?



    Bahcall, S. (2019). Loonshots. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press. 

    Edmondson, A. (2019). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 

    Gallagher, A., & Thordarson, K. (2018). Design Thinking for School Leaders: Five Roles and Mindsets that Ignite Positive Change. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD. 

    Parker, S. (2012). Lead [simply]. Richmond, Virginia: Give More Media, Inc.