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Four Lessons for Today's Education Leaders

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Karen Cator

When it comes to designing learning environments that lead to engagement and achievement in today's increasingly complex world, most of us are hampered by our memories of what it was like when we were in school. If we had a positive experience, we start there and develop models that build on it. If we had a negative experience, we work to create models based on what we wished we'd had.

Neither approach fully accounts for the fact that learning environments should mirror the society in which they exist. Today, that means learning should be powered by technology - the Internet and mobile, and supported by teachers who know how to orchestrate deeper learning interactions that develop communications, critical thinking and habits of mind. These skills are what will support a long life of learning. And, they certainly didn't exist when I was a schoolgirl!

Digital Promise's League of Innovative Schools convenes K-12 school district leaders, working to tackle challenges alongside researchers and entrepreneurs and spotlights the innovations that have been making a difference with student engagement and achievement. Now, through a partnership with Verizon, we are also fostering a deep collaboration with leaders and teachers in 20 U.S. middle schools. As an integral part of the multi-year technology rich (each student and teacher receive a tablet and a 5GB data plan) project, we are fully documenting the process and experiences in words, images and video. This will result in a "behind-the-scenes" guidebook for leaders, teachers, and others interested in learning more about designing and developing deeper learning opportunities.

Our goal is to close the Digital Learning Gap by designing new ways to engage students in deeper learning experiences. Teachers engage with personalized professional learning opportunities and participate in a national community of practice. Every school is assigned a coach whose purpose is to help teachers set and realize their learning goals.

Selecting the schools and districts for participation required more than the analysis of the technical infrastructure. In fact, strong leadership was a "must-have" criterion. Through our engagement with the league and as we begin this project with our middle schools, a few lessons about what leadership looks like are not surprising, but they are inspiring.

  1. Celebrate education and opportunity. Smart leaders have viewed parent engagement as critical for supporting students, and this is especially true when learning looks different. So, each school enticed students, teachers, parents, and their communities to join the celebration of the tremendous opportunities this investment in technology in learning creates. Here is how one district engaged its community as they began this journey.
  2. Establish and nurture shared leadership. Learning new teaching methods can be lonely and risky even for experienced teachers. In addition to support from their principals and superintendents, they need to know someone is there to help. School-based coaches are the lynchpin for this project, ensuring the school's teachers have help solving everyday problems and fostering a culture of continuous learning. Coaches have their own community as well, and are sharing ideas between classrooms and schools and spotlighting teachers, so that innovation spreads.
  3. Develop a culture of inquiry and problem solving. It takes courage to share challenges openly and freely admit that all the answers are not known. Openness and dialogue not only create better solutions, they are the behaviors that should be modeled up and down the organization.
  4. Showcase examples. Leaders ability to showcase examples of student work, teacher ingenuity and school culture go far to encourage opportunities for deeper learning experiences. One real-world example is worth a thousand hypothetical descriptions.

Over the course of this Digital Promise Schools initiative, we will showcase innovations in teaching and learning as well as the leadership practices that make continuous improvement and ultimate success possible.

This post is part of our "Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning" series. If you have thoughts about what today's school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we'd love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject "Preparing Leaders" for more information.

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