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When A School Is About Learning

I am just back from EDUCON, where a lot of the talk was about new ways to learn, the new era of education to come, the loneliness of being an innovator in a largely innovation-averse sector.

One of the things I came away with was that we don’t still, after all these years, have good models for talking about what a highly effective school looks like and feels like, from a learner’s point of view. (And I mean all learners–not just kids.)  So while I propose, as a given, a short list: the child/student is at the center of the enterprise, and the student is most important person in the school’s dynamic–here are additions to the list–a few other attributes of a highly effective “learning” school.  These have been developed after years of culture-watching in breakthrough districts, in writing about innovative school models, and in working with leadership teams now engaged in real innovation.

1.  The adults in the building are passionately engaged in learning.  In my experience, when the adults in a school are really fired up learners–passionate about their own quirky projects and deeply interested in their students’ learning–a school tends to be high performing and highly effective.  Learning more about how kids learn, learning about their own practices as teachers or administrators, learning about stuff that interests them, are consuming passions of the adults in these schools.  That passionate learning culture transfers directly to kids.

2.  School leaders model their own excitement about learning.  In meetings, in walkthroughs, on Twitter, in their own blogs, school leaders talk openly about what they are learning, how they make mistakes, and what excites them about their work.  Through this modeling, learning is regarded as pleasurable–not a chore to be gotten through, a checklist to be completed, or something to be excused from for good behavior.  The culture highly values expressions of learning–people are fired up about hearing what someone else is curious about, what they just read online, how they could put this together in a project! How that reminds them of something that they read about 3 years ago and let me go look it up online, no here come with me and let’s look at it together.

3.  Content is negotiated. Teachers and students together begin to negotiate what is taught and how it is taught, with increasing emphasis on independence and interdependence between learners.  Rigor–the drive towards excellence–is increasingly driven by students as they become more and more accomplished at their work, and how to meet the needs of the accountability environment begins to be something shared by students and teachers.

4.  Difference is welcomed.  Cognitive, social class, ethnic background differences are welcomed.  Leaders and teachers see difference as making the school stronger and more healthy, like any biologically-diverse community.  What this means in the adult community is that adults also get to be different from each other–and some adults are allowed to be better at the work than others.

5.  Practice is public. Adults see each other practice their work, and they talk openly about the issues they are working on.  How can you get better at your work if you are not in discussion with other practitioners about the complex business of teaching?

6.  Adults share a common understanding of what powerful teaching and learning look like in their building. In highly effective learning schools, adults share explicit language about powerful teaching.  They are able to describe where their work falls on Blooms taxonomy, they have ways of talking about how kids are developing expertise, they share vocabulary about cognitive complexity.  Examples of excellence are shared.

6.  Mistakes are regarded as feedback. There is a mastery orientation towards learning, in which it is understood that learning is developmental, requires practice, study, persistence–but that ultimately everyone can get a lot better at what they are trying to do.  That means messing up and trying again.

7.   Driven to be the best. George Couros at EDUCON spoke about being a very competitive principal–that he wants to be the best, and he wants his staff to be the best.  A great principal is not afraid of greatness in others, and knows that truly brilliant staff members will help make others more brilliant. In less effective schools, administrators or other teachers often are threatened by exceptional practice in one of their colleagues, and strong practitioners have to hide their expertise, skills and knowledge.  (We call this, “the land of nice,” where no one can be better than anyone else.)  In a highly-effective learning school, expertise is welcomed and prized, and adults openly seek out the expertise of their colleagues.

Many teachers and school leaders unfortunately, just aren’t very interested in learning.  They seem to regard it as a chore, a way to force kids to behave, something that has to be done to kids to get them ready for adult life. They lack intellectual curiosity about research in the field, breakthroughs in cognitive research.  My belief is that until teachers become deeply interested in their own work, and are driven to make their practice better and better, school will not really be about learning for anyone.  It will be a chore, it will lack magic.  It will be controlled by others.

What does your school look like?  Is it a highly effective learning environment for you?  Why or why not?


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


30 thoughts on “When A School Is About Learning

  1. What a fantastic post! “The adults in the building are passionately engaged in learning” How many times do we hear about or suggest an innovative teaching practice or student-based project and have it dismissed because it will be too much work to figure out how to implement it? What it really amounts to is being afraid to learn something new. Teachers can’t expect students to be engaged when they’re not engaged themselves.
    Our favourite teachers have always been those people who had passionate interests outside the classroom that they shared with their students. This school encourages teachers to bring their passions to school.

    Posted by Shauna Farrell | February 1, 2011, 1:45 pm
    • Shauna, I just went to the post and the Kent School looks fantastic. Choice. Isn’t it amazing how attractive and undervalued it is in modal instructional culture? Real, authentic choice? When we know choice drive higher level learning and passionate engagement? Also, how choice drives aliveness in teaching culture.

      So how do you see choice and passionate engagement as related to performance? How do you explain that to parents? Because getting that discourse more articulated is part of the work.

      Thanks for stopping by and I am now a true fan of connectedprincipals.


      Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 1, 2011, 10:14 pm
  2. Kristen, what I love about this post is that the focus is on creating a culture of passionate learning in the school. That culture is sorely lacking in most schools today. When everyone in the building is expected to be a learner, the focus shifts from being a teacher with all of the answers, to being a lead learner that is discipling others to be learners.

    Posted by ktenkely | February 1, 2011, 3:51 pm
  3. Kristen, you are so right on and isn’t it sad that how lonely innovators can be in their own schools? I’m living a situation where the principal is threatened by change and it’s not pleasant.

    Thoughtful and well-written post!


    Posted by Melissa Taylor | February 1, 2011, 6:33 pm
    • Melissa, Many many truly exemplary practitioners I know hide out in their buildings. They feel that their imagination and expertise are unwelcome and threatening, and their relationships with students sometimes challenge the adult culture–too close, too productive. Retreat to the “egg crate” classroom and isolation as the norm is in part why our sector has been so slow to improve. I am heartened by some new models–teacher-led schools. What are you going to do about your isolation? How can your innovative vision be leveraged to affect the entire school?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 1, 2011, 10:17 pm
  4. ah, i ran a school like this for seven years. it was an amazing place to be and to work.

    Posted by Lori | February 1, 2011, 6:36 pm
    • The ones I have been in are some of the most exciting places I’ve ever been in Lori. I wish there were more of them. There are too few, criminally too few.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 1, 2011, 10:18 pm
      • agree, agree, kirsten. over and over again i heard from visiting educators that they couldn’t do what we did — because the children weren’t capable (wrong), because they didn’t have enough money (we had no money!), etc. etc.

        there won’t be change until the system reflects the same values the schools say they want for children. teachers need the same permission to explore, make mistakes, and tap into their personal interests and passions. administrators need to negotiate and share power. we can’t expect students to be living and learning by one set of values when educators are held to another.

        Posted by Lori Pickert | February 6, 2011, 3:01 pm
  5. Great descriptors, Kirsten –

    I’m processing “Driven to be the best.” Maybe I have too much “land of the nice” in me, or maybe I’m internally wordsmithing between “the best” and “excellent.” Most likely, I just haven’t named what it is I really want to achieve, so I have some energy and defensiveness about who defines that how. Who makes times for teachers to figure this stuff out, if not teachers themselves.

    I could use another EduCon’s worth of cafeteria conversations to figure it out.

    I want to take this list back to my school and work on making practice public first. I think that would be a great lever for welcoming differences, seeing what’s working best, and making it safer for everyone to share their passions and learning with the school.

    Thanks for an excellent summation and call to action.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 1, 2011, 7:52 pm
    • Hey Chad,

      Isn’t if different now that we’ve met each other? I think so. So much better and cooler.

      I too was at first taken aback by George’s assertion about being very competitive, about wanting to be the best–sounded like Bush-era exceptionalism. Then I thought about it. Actually, the really powerful learning communities I’ve been in–have see and observed–really are driven by a crazy spirit to find the best, to be the best, to not be satisfied until they’ve tried, at least tried, to be at the top of their game. I think that drives them to seek out whomever is doing the best work, thinking the most unusual things, taking risks in their practice. So in spite of sounding a bit Air Force One, I think the idea of not-resisting greatness has legs. We aren’t very great in our sector. Being just better than average often makes us exceptional. We could go for a little more greatness. I liked the spirit in which he said it.

      Let’s keep talking about the list. Another thing I would add to it is that great learning communities also have a healthy respect for “not knowing.” They know there is a lot they don’t know. There are important things to not know, about the act of teaching and about the act of spiritually engaging with someone else around the act of learning.

      What do you say about that?

      Learning involved appreciation of mystery.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 1, 2011, 10:26 pm
      • I hear you and I can hear George in what you say. Meeting face-to-face definitely increased strength of signal.

        The school day has crept up on me; I’ll mull and ponder and revisit.

        I call dibs on being the best at both not-knowing and games-based learning 😉

        More later,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | February 2, 2011, 10:07 am
  6. nice list Kirsten. thank you.

    it baffles me that we have created a public system that declares itself to be about education, but, for whatever reasons, as you say, most see learning as a chore.

    guys – read Kirsten’s Wounded by School if you haven’t.
    you won’t be sorry.
    you will be changed.

    Posted by monika hardy | February 1, 2011, 9:24 pm
  7. Kirsten,

    Fantastic post. I think that the idea of “mistakes” being about learning is huge. I have always said that the number one thing that I look for in teachers are one that continuously grow. You do not grow from doing everything right but far too often many educators are defensive at any criticism. This is part of the reflection process that we expect our students to take part in every day, and it is essential that we take part in this.

    Thanks for your leadership and fantastic words. I am going to go check out “Wounded by School” now 🙂

    Posted by George Couros | February 1, 2011, 10:48 pm
    • George, It is great to have you here. Mistake-making as a learning art takes a long time to acquire. I still struggle with this myself and have to remind myself how truly important it is to learning.

      Lots of opportunity for this kind of humble reflection.

      Thanks for the great Educon session, and for the blog and connections. I admire what you are doing very much.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 2, 2011, 11:14 pm
  8. well
    1) all you write about in your book Kirsten – what we are doing in the name of public ed.
    2) all the efforts to fix #1 with a less obvious sameness. in my mind, if there’s any agenda, other than finding/facilitating individual choice, well, we could very easily do better. we are just so desperate for an answer – we settle for parts, forfeiting whole people and authentic nclb.

    i listened to David Wiley today, he said two things that especially resonated:
    1) the more we’re able to do with tech, the stronger the moral imperative becomes
    2) we could be educating the world right now with tech, policy is getting in the way

    the world.

    we spend money in ridiculous ways and call clever ideas impossible. how silly are we.

    i understand change takes time. disruption takes time. i believe in disruption. disruption is all about choice. i don’t like pushing. so that takes time.

    however. we’re not talking a business deal here, or even an environmental change for good. we’re talking people. the urgency lies in the reality that we are facilitating the destruction of people.

    i did post a bit of this on my own random site here, if you’re so inclined:

    i can’t sit still.

    Posted by monika hardy | February 2, 2011, 12:14 am
  9. Very interesting post, Kirsten. My question is, why do you think it is that many teachers (as you seem to suggest) are not “deeply interested in their own work”? How do we develop/attract the kinds of teachers (at scale) that you envision in the highly effective school?

    Posted by Anthony Rebora | February 2, 2011, 7:12 pm
    • Anthony, This is a question that obsesses me, preoccupies my husband (who teaches future school leaders), has been a part of many wondering conversations for me. Honestly, I think the work sociologically is not constituted as “intellectual.” Many teachers (not all, of course) do not come to the work expecting to be learners all their lives, and are not especially comfortable with heavy lifting as learners. The sector does not internally demand that teachers hold themselves to high standards of intellectual engagement and training, does not rigorously demand recertification around new professional knowledge, has haphazard professional norms and low barriers to entry. For many, teaching is relatively easy, predictable, “regular” work.

      Until the profession treats the teaching of children as complex and consequential as brain surgery, and requires similar kinds of training, the sector will flounder and be controlled (badly) by others.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 2, 2011, 11:22 pm
      • i would say the answer is — it’s not their own work. the less power and autonomy they have, the less vested they are in owning it and developing it.

        no learner, child or adult, is going to be passionately engaged unless they have power and responsibility.

        Posted by Lori Pickert | February 6, 2011, 3:03 pm
  10. Great stuff, Kirsten. One hugely important point here is something you wrote parenthetically in your introductory comments: “And I mean all learners–not just kids.” This broader definition of learners to include adults is so often overlooked by school leaders–not only with respect to their staffs, but also themselves. No surprise, then, that the status quo prevails in so many schools.

    Schools, on the other hand, where everyone–from the principal to the lunchroom staff–sees themselves and each other as learners (and as teachers) have the highest morale among children and adults alike. And though I wouldn’t add morale to your list of attributes of an effective school, in my experience it’s a pretty reliable barometer.

    Posted by David Ginsburg | February 3, 2011, 12:36 am
  11. David, I truly agree. Morale is a critical indicator of whether adults are really learning in the school–real learning engenders high morale. Little learning creates impacted cynicism and ossification. And you can feel it practically the instant you walk into a building.

    May I recommend to all COOP folks David Ginsburg’s wonderful column over at Teacher Magazine, I met Coach G at EDUCON, and he is a beacon of reasonableness and thoughtfulness, combined with a truly practical orientation to the problems of teaching and learning. “Let solutions sell themselves,” he counsels. Wise advice.

    David, maybe you’ll post some thoughts here too?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 3, 2011, 10:27 pm
  12. Excellent post…you pretty much just described my school and our staff! Check it out!

    Posted by Jen | February 3, 2011, 11:26 pm
  13. Lori, How might teachers take charge of their work and feel that they own it? How might they be authorized to do so?

    A favorite quote from Frederick Douglass:

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    Do teachers actually submit to their own oppression and disengagement?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 8, 2011, 11:47 am


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