Rain clouds stirred overhead as we gathered at Traverse City’s Career Tech Center. Inside, superintendents from 17 districts across Michigan filtered in, bearing a cautious optimism.
To say the last couple of years have been challenging for our educators is an understatement. And yet, despite the toll the pandemic has exacted, an air of perseverance and hope buoyed the room as FLC leaders considered strategies to redesign learning in a post-pandemic environment.
School leaders traveled from all over the state — some from as far away as the northernmost reaches of the Upper Peninsula — for a day of dreaming and planning with Michael Horn, one of the nation’s foremost experts on K-12 innovation.
Attendees shared that they’re eager to go beyond the theoretical to explore innovative strategies for transforming learning in their school communities.
“We’re ready to move past the why and into the how,” said Dr. John VanWagoner, superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools. “How are we going to make meaningful change to move learning forward in our districts?”
The energy of this group’s collective vision, expertise, and passion is contagious. It’s hard to leave events like this one without feeling more optimistic about the future of learning in our state.
Three major takeaways
Unsurprisingly, Horn’s latest book is one of his finest works to date. Comprehensive and practical, From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating School for Every Child offers a road map for school leaders looking to make transformational shifts in a system historically resistant to major disruptions.
Below are three insights from this book that spurred conversation during the Superintendent Leadership Summit:
#1. Shifting from threat → opportunity framing
There is a time and place for labeling threats as “threats.” Horn shared some fascinating research illuminating that “threat framing” is effective for marshaling resources and motivating action.
Consider the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of this mentality. The threats to both safety and learning loss led to a swift injection of federal aid dollars into the K-12 system across the nation.
But there is a downside here, which Horn refers to as “threat rigidity.” Left unchecked, over-focusing on threats (instead of opportunities) leads to a top-down, command-centric organizational model that is not conducive to innovation.
As human beings, when we’re faced with danger, we tend to stick to what we know rather than thinking outside the box.
“It’s hard to remain curious when you feel threatened,” explained Jamey Fitzpatrick, President and CEO of Michigan Virtual. “To create an environment that fosters innovative thinking, you need to shift away from a ‘threat’ mindset and toward an ‘opportunity’ mindset.”
From Horn’s perspective, it’s time to shift away from conversations about “learning loss” (the threat) and focus instead on “mastery” for every student (the opportunity).
#2. The power of small, autonomous teams
It’s no secret that massive system change is difficult to achieve in K-12 education. So many stakeholders need to be on board before sweeping changes are made.
That’s why it can be so incredibly effective to start small instead. Begin with a coalition of the willing. Give this small team the autonomy they need to rethink anything and everything. They need the freedom to dream without being constrained by the limits of the existing system.
This is one way micro-schools can be developed. Small, autonomous teams are given the ability to create pockets of change within the larger system.
Rather than replacing the traditional model of schooling, micro-schools offer families the ability to opt their child into a new learning experience. When successful, these movements will grow organically.
#3. Your innovative pilot projects shouldn’t be PR machines
When you give small teams the autonomy to create change, you must also protect them from public scrutiny while they’re still growing.
If your goal is to empower these teams to create innovative and effective student learning experiences, they need to be allowed to experience fast failures and iterate quickly.
As a school leader, giving them this space to innovate is difficult if you’re simultaneously shining a floodlight on what they’re doing and broadcasting it to the larger community.
It’s important to hold off on the PR efforts until you’re further along in the innovation process. Your team needs to be able to fall down, skin their knees, get back up, and try again. They need time to learn and continually make adjustments that improve the student learning experience.
While you’re still piloting these programs, it’s best to insulate these teams so they can design a program with enough success and momentum to weather the limelight.
“Success is the best deodorant,” Horn explained. “Kids talk. Parents talk. If your micro-school is working as intended, parents will call asking to sign their kids up for this program.”
We’re at a tipping point — Which direction will we head?
Throughout our full-day event, we explored many other topics relevant to the challenges that district leaders are facing today:
- Co-designing the purpose of schooling with your community
- Leading toward consensus in the face of widespread disagreement
- Creating micro-schools within your district
- Maximizing teacher satisfaction and motivation, and
- Optimizing learning models for the most effective uses of class time, teaching staff, and technology.
Throughout these conversations, attendees shared their experiences, challenges, current innovations, fears, and hopes for the future.
One noteworthy part of our conversation centered around finding common ground in communities fractured by disparate beliefs, values, and politics.
“One of the most important things we can do is find common ground,” said Dr. Kelly Coffin, assistant superintendent at Farmington Public Schools. “If we’re going to move forward together, we need to be able to get community buy-in and develop a shared vision for education.”
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the threats facing our school communities — polarizing political views, a lingering pandemic, and teacher shortages, to name a few. Certainly, these are all valid and pressing concerns, but it’s also important to remember that we’re also amid a ripe period of opportunity.
“The ask of public education is different today than it was 20 years ago,” explained Dr. Dave Richards, executive learning strategist for Michigan Virtual. “As leaders, we have the opportunity to engage in these conversations with our communities and redesign learning to guarantee success for every student.”
In other words, if there were ever a time to foster public dialogue about transforming K-12 education, that time is now.
“We’re at a tipping point,” Horn predicted at the event’s end. “We have to utilize this window of opportunity. It would be equally easy to fall back into ‘the way things used to be’ if we don’t act while there’s still urgency.”
What’s next for the FLC?
The Future of Learning Council was created precisely to facilitate events like this one with Michael Horn.
Launched in September 2021, this coalition of 40 school districts and learning organizations has banded together around a single mission: to shape the future of learning in Michigan.
Over the past year, we’ve brought in an incredible line-up of national experts, including Rebecca Midles and Tom VanderArk of Getting Smart, Dr. Paul Facteau of Apple, and Dr. Theresa Ewald from Kettle Moraine School District.
These speakers have galvanized our collective visions and helped us to develop practical strategies for moving forward.
In the coming months, the FLC will be working with Michigan Virtual to produce two additional resources for district leaders.
- A practical guide for busy school leaders — We really believe that Horn’s book offers a valuable roadmap for K-12 innovation, and we want more school leaders to benefit from its wisdom. In the coming months, we’ll be creating a practical guide designed for busy school leaders, so you can take the key insights and apply them to your leadership practices.
- A map of Michigan-based innovations — Next, we’ll be crowdsourcing a map of K-12 innovations across our state, so you can better visualize what’s going on in your neighboring districts and discover who to reach out to if you have questions or would like a site visit. We do better when we rise together.
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