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The Essential Underpinnings Of Shifting to 'Modern Learning'

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Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon are two longtime education activists and reformers who have become increasingly convinced that the current education model is not preparing students for a world in which computers can do much of what humans used to do and in which creative thinking is highly prized. They consult with school leaders around the world for their company Educating Modern Learners. After many conversations they believe education as a system is ripe for a radical shift away from reform efforts that tinker at the edges and towards learning that puts students at the center with agency over what and how they learn.

“The conversation is shifting a little bit, but the ‘how’ part is still really hard,” Will Richardson said. Through his work as a consultant he has worked with several districts he thinks are moving in the right direction. In an effort to understand why these districts have been able to push against the status quo, he and Dixon have catalogued the ingredients they believe are necessary to make the kind of change they hope all districts will embrace in a white paper. He cautions that the “how” of dramatically changing traditional education will be different in every community, but hopes their “ingredient list” will help anyone seeking to make real, seismic, sustainable change.


As the superintendent of Albemarle County schools in Virginia, Pam Moran sees one of her main jobs as building a strong culture (Moran is also on the advisory board for Educating Modern Learners). She contends that the system of education is what holds educators back and that teaching is an incredibly creative profession. “You just don’t see it sometimes because teachers hide it,” Moran said in an interview with Richardson on the Modern Learners podcast. “So how do you make that space a part of the formal culture?”

One way Moran tries to create that space is to find ways to say “Yes” when educators come to her with new ideas. But saying “Yes” is easier than acting on “Yes,” she admits. For example, one of her middle school principals called her to ask if his students could use design thinking to redesign the “dining experience” in their cafeteria. She said “Yes,” but was surprised when the principal started posting pictures of what they were doing on Twitter; rather than the simple booths she had imagined they might make, students were building 12-14 foot-high tree houses on wheels.

Mindful that her role as superintendent includes watching out for liability concerns, Moran got a little nervous. But when she went to visit the project she could see that students were engaged and passionate about their work. Not only that, their teachers told her that some of the strongest leaders on the project, the most creative thinkers, and the best workers were the students who struggled the most in regular classes. And in fact, as they were measuring, calculating angles, sawing, and designing their tree houses, those students were doing math that their teachers didn’t realize they were capable of doing.


“This was a real put your money where your mouth is moment for me,” Moran said. But rather than shut the project down she called the school board’s lawyer who said as long as she got the structures inspected and made sure the school had a clear plan for how they would be used the project could move forward.

In her 12 years as superintendent Moran has consistently tried to fight the bureaucratic tendency to say “No” to anything risky or new. But she is also strategic about pushing her employees to connect with one another so that creative ideas can touch many people. She doesn’t want greatness siloed in individual classrooms anymore.

“If we truly are a learning community then we have to behave as a community and not as a schoolhouse full of free agents,” Moran said. She has also found when the right people are involved in a risk-taking pilot project it is more likely those involved will be able to identify and think through potential blind spots. Moran’s “Yes” attitude messages to the educators in her district that their ideas are welcome and that nothing is off the table for discussion. Moran finds her attitude goes a long way to building a culture where creative, risk-taking educators feel supported.

“When [teachers] see kids walking across a stage who otherwise never would have likely graduated high school, and they realize that kid is walking because of something we changed that gave that kid a pathway,” they get it, Moran said. And it motivates educators to keep taking risks that could pay off in the same way.

For example, one high school built a recording studio that all students can use regardless of their academic status. Students love the space. One student knew so much more about recording and music than anyone else in the school that now he is co-teaching a credit bearing class with a teacher. Moran wants to see more of that trend; to her it shows that students are taking over the learning experience, no longer waiting for adults to tell them what to do or how to learn.

“You need people who are visionary or who are at least curious enough to pursue those bigger questions,” Richardson said about the kind of person necessary to lead what he and Dixon have termed “modern learning.”

Richardson says Moran is an example of a strong leader because she is clearly committed to sustainable, long-term change in her district. She manages both projects and people, and is a strong advocate for the work her teachers do. And, she’s constantly celebrating their innovations on Twitter, communicating to the public the mission and vision of the district.


“The biggest misconception about communication is that it occurs,” said Art Fessler, Superintendent of CCSD59 outside of Chicago in an interview on the Modern Learners podcast. Fessler has also been pushing for a more modern approach to learning in his district, but he’s been careful to build the capacity of his community, parents, and teachers while slowly taking on change in the classroom.

“What they understand more than most is that for that stuff to be successful in classrooms, you need parents who understand why you’re doing that,” Richardson said of Fessler and his assistant superintendent, Ben Grey.* That’s why the leadership first spent time digging into what it means to learn in the 21st century and developing core tenets that they hope to see in every classroom in the district. They’ve developed a common language and their district mission is clear, “to provide the skills, knowledge, and experiences that will prepare students to be successful for life.”

A big part of his strategy is to cultivate leadership in every building across the district. “For too long we’ve overlooked the importance of effective leadership and because of that we have a void in our leadership,” Fessler said. The kind of learning he’d like to see in his district requires teachers to open their doors and learn together, but they can only do that with effective leaders. “That’s the intersection where awesomeness happens,” he said.

Like all institutions CCSD59 has old habits to break and deeply ingrained notions of what a “good education” is to overcome. “What I’ve learned is that people hear things based on their experiences,” Fessler said. “What I say and what is heard is interpreted so differently by different people.” He tries to remember that as he talks to parents and teachers about his vision.

To help tell the district’s story and celebrate ongoing creative work, Fessler hired a professional videographer who tells the stories of all the learners in the system from the human resources coordinator, to the assistant principal, to the orchestra teacher.

“We wanted to share important things about our staff in terms of what their vision is for learning,” Fessler said. “The primary rationale is to share the things we’re proud of and to allow people in our community and across our district to get to know our staff.”

The district has also developed branding guidelines for all communications, which might seem like an odd focus for a school district. But Fessler said he wants the community to have a positive experience when interacting with the district’s website and communications. He wants communiques to send the message that “we’re very serious about what we do in teaching and learning. In every communication we want that reflected.”

Building buy-in from parents, teachers, building leaders and the community is essential to making sustainable change in a district. When change only comes from one person at the top it stalls when that person leaves. But if the vision is wholeheartedly shared by the community that stays, then the school board will hire with the vision in mind and teachers will continue the work not because they are told to, but because they see the results in their classrooms. And when kids are excited and engaged with learning they talk about it with their parents, which helps bring along the older generation that might think the traditional model worked well enough for them.


Leadership, culture, and communication are ingredients for success to dramatically shift schools from “places of teaching” to “places of learning,” but to make them truly modern, technology should be involved. Richardson is bullish on this point: most of the technology being used in classrooms currently isn’t doing anything to shift how students learn. Instead, devices have become the primary content deliverers, replacing the lecture, but doing nothing to shift the agency for learning onto the student.

“In a learning culture we give devices to kids because we are trying to amplify their ability to learn on their own in a real, self-directed, passion-based way,” Richardson said. He contends that if leaders examine their education technology plans through a lens of shifting agency, then many schools have spent billions of dollars on nothing. But he’s not an anti-technology crusader. In fact he believes technology has a crucial role in modern learning because of its powerful potential to connect students to diverse people and experts, to create and communicate, to learn on their own.

“If you really have agency over the device that you own and use and someone is nurturing that curiosity and love of learning with that device, that’s a powerful thing,” Richardson said. In their “10 Principals For Schools of Modern Learning” white paper, Richardson and Dixon contend that education is at a tipping point, with many teachers aching for these changes and leaders poised to take the leap.

“I think there’s a really compelling case to be made that the traditional way of thinking about school is not working anymore,” Richardson said. “It’s not fixable.” But existing public schools educate the majority of children in this country, so while effecting change within existing systems is harder, it’s also imperative.

Richardson and Dixon are running a workshop for leaders interested to learn more about the ingredients for change. They aren’t promising a recipe because change will look different depending on context, but they hope to help leaders chart a way forward with the support of other leaders in similar positions around the country.


*A previous version of this story left out the help of Ben Grey. We apologize for the error.