Leading the Learning Journey…the essential questions…

Leading the Learning Journey:  What do we learn?

Leading a learning journey must be a transparent experience.  The leader must be willing to face the status quo, or current state of affairs head on.  This takes persistence and practice.  The first step is to identify and trend the design and culture in the learning organization or community of learners.

A learning organization is more than just a school.  It is a community of learners. In my experience, learning organizations focus on continuous learning that engages all members, but especially students.  There are many dimensions to learning worthy of exploration and I want to begin my inquiry by employing practical questions that I would not only want to answer myself, but would want to listen to the responses from the members of the learning community.  I want to nurture a learning organization that embraces an innovative design and culture.  I begin my messy learning process by answering some questions to build a framework.  Starting with the first question, looking at the status quo with the future in mind, in a broad and general sense, it sounds so simple…

What do we learn?

If I asked a teacher this question, what responses would I get?  In my thinking, a teacher in a more traditional school model would answer something along the lines of this, “We learn how to teach reading using the new reading series that the district adopted.”  In a more innovative school, a teacher may respond by saying, “We are learning to use digital tools in the classroom.”  If I asked a student this question in a traditional school model, I would expect to hear something like this, “We are learning math.”  In an innovative school model, a student may respond by saying,”We are learning to solve math problems in stations and I have created some of the problems.”  The point in my thinking is the notion that the answers would vary according to the school model.    There is no one right answer, of course, but, the answer to we learn, is often artificially quantified, for example, using artifacts such as, curriculum, standards, courses, that align to “the final, the state assessment, the test.” What we learn should be so much more.  When a parent asks his or her child, what did you learn in school today, the response is too often, “nothing.” Unfortunately, it may be true.  I am going to ask this simple question more often.




Five Lessons for Leading the Learning Journey

Back in the day, over forty years ago, (wow, I don’t feel that old) most of my elementary instruction consisted of dittos, basal readers, and/or workbooks.  I can still remember the manually run ditto machine in the corner of the main foyer of the school and when the dittos were copied, the purple ink still moist on the paper, had a noxious smell; when our classroom teacher sent us to pick up the dittos, for whatever reason my initial instinct was to smell that ink as I carried them back to the classroom.  But there was one teacher, (I bet we all have that one teacher) who dared to break the monotony.  My third grade teacher read aloud to us from a chapter book, one chapter everyday.  She read Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.

Photograph:Charlotte's Web is a children's book by E.B. White with illustrations by Garth Williams.

Fern, the daughter of a farm owner and Charlotte, a spider, save the life of Wilbur, a farm pig, destined for death because he’s the runt of the litter.  As I reflected on writing my series of blogs, Leading the Learning Journey, not once, but over and over again, the fact that I can still recall being so enthralled to be sitting at my desk, one in the row of six students, somewhere in the middle of the room, surrounded by two rows of students on either side while listening to my teacher read to the class.   Mesmerized by the journey of the Fern, Charlotte, Wilbur and their farm animal friends, I continue to realize, the leadership and life lessons that my teacher implanted within me all those years ago. She dared to teach outside of the box, the lines, as she shared her passion for children’s literature.  I learned more than I could ever learn from a ditto.

5 Lessons for Leading the Learning Journey

Lesson 1:  Follow your heart!

Fern saw her father with an ax in his hand and she could not bear to let a runt pig get slaughtered just because he was small.  It broke her heart and Fern boldly provided her father with evidence to save the pig’s life.  Her father who allowed her to raise the pig, whom she named Wilbur.  Just like my teacher who dared to read a chapter book, Fern followed her heart.  Leading the learning journey requires the same devotion and commitment.  Leaders must follow their heart, their gut, their instincts to provide the culture and design that nurture communities of learning.

Lesson 2:  Dare to grow!

Wilbur was a runt.  He was aware of his destiny; as a runt, he was going to be headed to the slaughterhouse even after Fern successfully raised him.  Yet, Wilbur realized his will to grow and live.  Wilbur was anxious and afraid, but he forged on and he challenged the status quo and eventually became an award-winning hog.  Leading the learning journey means taking risks. As educators and leaders, we must embrace a growth-mindset and face educational challenges and our own short-comings to embrace life and our passions for providing education for all who cross our path in the learning community.

Lesson 3:  Share your talents!

Charlotte the spider was an excellent writer.  She used this talent to write words in her web that convinced the farmer and the surrounding community of Wilbur’s value and worth.  Wilbur skills and abilities surfaced and his life was saved as a result of Charlotte’s writing talent.  Leaders need to share their talents with those they serve.  Leaders who share their leadership create cultures that allow for risks, voice, and choice.  Some may refer to it as buy-in.  Leading the learning journey means growing more leaders which is the outcome of sharing leadership talents.

Lesson 4:  Support and inspire one another!

Although Charlotte ultimately saves Wilbur’s life, she dies of natural causes.  However, she leaves behind her spider egg sac and Wilbur devotedly carries it back to the old barn on the farm, after the he wins a prized medal at the county fair.  Charlotte supported Wilbur to ensure his safety.  Wilbur protects her legacy, her children.  And so it is with educators.  Leaders support and inspire teachers.  Teachers support and inspire their students.  Students support and inspire each other.  It is the web of support and inspiration which forms the community of learners.  Perhaps, leading the learning journey begins with that one teacher, that one principal, or that one superintendent.

Lesson 5:  Write!!!

The power of words cannot be underestimated.  Charlotte saved Wilbur’s life with words. My teacher inspired my journey simply by reading the words of children’s novel, which is renowned as a classic work of literature to this day.  So many educators blog, author books, write articles, and more, to share and serve a wide audience.  Leading the learning journey requires expression and reflection that the written word can so aptly provide to locally and globally.

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing…after all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die…By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web


Student Voice

When I studied five successful STEM schools over three years in different parts of the United States in order to discover how innovative they were, I was surprised to find that one of the least innovative components was student voice.  Student voice, I  had thought, would be one of the components that would stand out in an innovative school.  However, during the process of collecting qualitative data related to the schools’ design and culture, I learned that barriers to innovation exist in even some of the more innovative schools.  Some of those barriers were the need to cover specific curriculum, follow a departmentalized approach to learning, teacher-centered learning, and local, state, and federal accountability. Sadly, these barriers were influenced the school design-school culture and reduced the degree of innovation.  Student voice was not an innovative component.

With that in mind, I chose to post this blog on student voice.  In this blog, I reference some of the greatest thinkers on student voice, including Yong Zhao.  My intent is to bring to the forefront, the importance of student voice, as well as how administrators and teachers can foster its development in learning organizations and to confront and challenge the traditional barriers that plague the majority of our schools, preventing them from evolving into innovative learning organizations.  Educational policy-makers, administrators, teachers, and students themselves must realize the significant impact a lack of student voice has on organizational learning.  With that in mind, I have collected thoughts on what student voice is, what it looks like and sounds like in the school, classroom, and community, and how administrators and teachers can provide students with–STUDENT VOICE!

Student Voice
When educators create opportunities to listen and honor student voices, they can co-construct relevant and authentic learning experiences and make the vision a reality (Couros, 2015). Student voice is one of the gateways to personalizing learning: forming more open and trustful relationships between staff and students (Hargreaves, 2004). Research has shown that student voice has a positive effect on the school culture, increased student engagement, and overall improvement in children’s well-being.  Students can point out structural and cultural obstacles in the school that may be overlooked by adult administrators and teachers. Thus students should be considered capable and valuable members of a school community who can help initiate and implement educational change (Mitra, 2008).  Student voice helps improve confidence and self-esteem and other crucial competencies for responsible and creative entrepreneurs and citizens (Savrock, 2008).  Students should be considered an integral part of the school leadership in the new educational paradigm (Zhao, 2012).

Student Voice: Governance and Environment 

Students have the right and opportunity to participate in school governance-constructing the physical, social, and cognitive environment (Zhao, 2012, p. 245).  The biggest difference between a rich environment in the traditional paradigm and the new paradigm is the degree to which the children actively participate in constructing the environment. The child-centered paradigm believes the school should fit the child and that means the school must involve children in the making of the environment. Students should become partners of their educational learning experiences through personalized learning (Zhao, 2012, p. 182).  Student voice goes beyond token representations of students on school committees. It requires deep reconsideration of the role of students in the school, not just as a place that transmits knowledge, but as a community of learners (Zhao, 2012, p.183).

Student Voice in the Innovative Learning Organization 

Students are always involved in the development of rules and regulations (Zhao, 2012, p. 245).  Students are always involved in selecting and evaluating staff (Zhao, 2012, p. 245).  Students are always involved in decisions about courses and other learning opportunities the school offers (Zhao, 2012, p. 245).  Students are always involved in decisions about equipment, library books, technology, and/or other similar items (Zhao, 2012, p. 245).

Strategies for School Administrators:  Student-led developments 

o Ambassadors

o Student-led learning walks

o Lead learners

o Student leaders

o Co-researchers

o Radical forms of student council

o Student observers

o Student interviewers

o Student board members

o Student focus groups

o Student surveys

o Student informants of accountability

The Learning Environment  

o Provides a broad spectrum of experiences

o Allow flexibility and exceptions

o Enables personalization of educational experiences

o Involves student as decision makers

Strategies and Tools for Teachers by Terry Heick


o Writing: Blogging

Tools: WordPress, Blogger and a variety of education-focused blogging platforms help students establish their own digital space to meet the world.

o Multimedia: Mash digital images and text to simple, accessible expressions that fluidly adapt to social and mobile consumption

Tools: Storify and Storehouse essentially allow students to collect media bits and pieces from across the web, and to socialize them.

o Speaking: Podcasting or VoiceThread

Tools: While podcasting and VoiceThread have fundamental differences, they boil down to the ability for students to express themselves verbally around an idea important to them.

o Performing and/or Directing:: Create and maintain a digital video channel to find voice, audience, and understanding of viewer habits

Tools: YouTube is the ultimate digital distribution channel.

o Artistic Expression: Photograph, paint, draw, or otherwise create compelling visuals to share with the world.

Tools: Behance is an iPad app meant to share the best artistic and design students create in a social, pinterest-like style. Other possibilities include Deviantart (a site to share drawings, paintings, and photography), Drawp (an app with a classroom-friendly workflow for painting), and flickr (a cloud-based photo hosting site whose latest updates have made it a bit more elegant to publish and share), as well as video games like Minecraft (design, architecture), GarageBand (music) or The Drum Machine

Getting to The Core of Innovation Part 5:Develop

Getting to The Core of Innovation Part 5:Develop

What did I really learn from discovering how STEM schools are innovative? I learned that there are distinctions between traditional schools, or the model that is most predominant in our schools today, unfortunately for the students who have to attend them and innovative schools, where the school culture and school design abound with opportunities to become entrepreneurial and future ready.  And, to further the point, it is the students that create the future, with international peers using product-oriented learning.


It is imperative that schools examine their school design-school culture to find out what their innovative core elements and components are in terms of their degree of innovation.  No longer will schools sustain students’ passion and engagement in a traditional school environment.  I have learned that the successful STEM schools in my study had critical elements and components that were innovative, yet, due to certain barriers disussed in Part 4, were not as innovative as they longed to be.

Getting to The Core of Innovation Part 4: Confront

Confront and Challenge the Barriers to Innovation

As I reviewed that data from the five STEM schools, inadvertently, I could not ignore the barriers to innovation that surfaced in the interviews.  As we all agree or should agree that innovation in schools is necessary to provide students with the learning organizations that will afford the opportunities to be ready to learn and work in the real world.  Students need learning opportunities that assist them in enhancing their creativity, entrepreneurialism, and in becoming globally literate.


Class size-Teachers talked about the size of their classes and the number of students on their caseloads as limiting the types of interactions that would enhance collaboration and mentoring.

Assessments-Most of the participants agreed that project-based learning, performance assessment, and product-based learning optimal for students, but externally imposed assessments at times took precedence. Students could not “opt out” and curriculum must be covered.

Time schedules-Departmentalization and courses scheduled by the bell were not instrumental in creating innovative learning environments.

Lack of common planning time-Teachers expressed the need for more time to collaborate with their students and their colleagues.  Prep periods were often used to meet with students and/or teachers, which often created the need to choose between the two, or to try to fit them all in to a fixed block of time.

Evaluation-Teachers and students were evaluated by federal, state, and local mandates based on student achievement on the externally imposed assessments. Ironically, the students created authentic products, such as prosthetic hands, drones, and wearable technology that wasn’t enough to quantify achievement.

Funding-One of the leaders at a STEM school that participated in my study shared that lack of funding increased dependence on parents and community to volunteer to offer students extra-curricular activities, which ranged from a crochet club to forest ranging.

Poverty-There was always one person at each school who talked about how poverty created a lack of equity in resources available to all students.

Autonomy-Teachers and students lacked choice, voice, and support in some way or another.  Student autonomy was the least innovative element in the STEM schools that participated in my study.

After discovering the Innovation Taxonomy and getting to the Core of Innovation, learning organizations must confront and challenge the barriers to moving forward and creating the future-ready schools that are desperately needed before the journeying in the future unknown.

Getting to the Innovation Core Part 3:The Taxonomy

The successful STEM schools that agreed to participate in my study were willing to to identify and trend their schools’ design-culture, but more importantly, allowed me to analyze and evaluate the data to determine the most critical and innovative elements and components that which became their taxonomy of innovation.  The figure below shows the findings in what I call Mixed STEM Schools-STEM schools that have both traditional and innovative elements and components.


Core 3
The Innovation Taxonomy in Five Mixed STEM Schools

My abstract provides a condensed snapshot of my study (301 pages should you care to read the whole thing!).  Essentially, the method of analyzing and evaluating each school’s design-culture evolved into a case-study for the cross-case analysis of the data.  The findings are shown above, the most critical and innovative elements and components in five STEM Schools.  Using Zhao’s (2012) innovative indicators, coded to align with school design-school culture, the data from artifacts, interviews, and school frameworks, allowed me to look at innovation from Zhao’s lens, as well as to analyze and evaluate the elements and components that were identified within the data.

The methodology was as important to me as were the findings.  In essence, I have created the tool that can be used with any school’s choice of indicators, to assist schools with the process of getting to the core of innovation.  The findings are either a wake up call or the catalyst to improve upon existing innovation.  It can also lead to more questions and reflection which is the hallmark of any learning organization.

Step back for a moment and reflect on this infographic.

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Innovating School Culture-School Design in the Learning Organization Creating a learning organization, one that innovates to provide opportunities for students to be autonomous, create, collaborate locally and globally, and become ready for the future that they create, is a process not a set of linear steps or a one shot deal.  There is no great now you’re innovative-Congratulations!  It is work, constant reflection and commitment to co-creating the places where leaders, teachers, students, and community can learn, work, and play.

My intention in making the recommendations for the STEM schools in my study who were willing to take the risk to really delve deeply into their school culture-school design, was to provide them with specific suggestions that could assist them in developing the innovation in their learning organizations.  But first, my next blog will speak to what is not in the taxonomy of innovation.  What is missing from the innovation core? Why?  Next, we will confront and challenge the barriers to innovation.

The Core of Innovation Part 2: Analyze and Evaluate


The Learning Organization is a process.  It begins with the first step but continues to develop and purpose the core of innovation, or the heart and mind of the design-culture.

The Learning Organization

My previous post was a reflection on the concept of innovation, its importance and relationship to school design-school culture. In today’s post, Getting to the Innovation Core Part 2, I refer to my recent research, specifically the analysis and evaluation of innovation in school design-school culture. To that end, I am focusing on Step 2 in The Learning Organization. Learning organizations are the spaces where leaders, business and community partners, teachers, students collaborate in order to provide future-ready learning for all, most importantly, the students they are honored to serve.  It is my hope that schools get in touch with their design-culture in order to maximize innovation and step away from an out-dated and stagnated paradigm, the traditional model, which is prominent in our school reform efforts today.

Where it Begins

When I set out to hone in on a problem for my research, I read (read, and read!) a broad range of researchers, theorists, articles, books, and social media regarding school reform in the 21st Century in the era of globalization and the flat world, organizational learning, innovative learning, leadership, school design, school culture, and many more of which contributed to my digital portfolio.  As I reflect, 2015, was the year of learning, learning to learn, staying connected, broadening my professional learning network, creating my digital footprint, and completing my dissertation.

World Class Education

The catalyst for my research occurred when I attended a conference at my university and one of the presenters was Yong Zhao.  His book World Class Learners led me to realize that among other things, our education system does not provide students with the opportunities to hone in on their unique talents and abilities, learn in a global campus, rely on student autonomy, or engage in authentic learning or product-based learning. We churn out standardized students that, as research shows, are less creativity and engaged, than when they first entered the school system (Zhao, 2012). While school reforms claim to provide students with a college and career ready education, how are they really innovative in terms of meeting students’ future readiness?  How innovative are schools today?School reform efforts, most notably the Common Core, purport to provide students with a college and career education. Innovative school models provide them with an education that prepares them to be future-ready, creative, entrepreneurial, and employable (Zhao, 2012).  I chose to conduct a comparative multiple case study on five successful STEM schools, since they are also at the forefront of school reform in terms of being innovative school models, gaining ground through federal, state, and local funding.Screenshot 2016-01-02 at 1.24.57 PM

I coded Zhao’s framework of innovative indicators to school design-school culture in order to determine the taxonomy of innovation, those elements and components from school artifacts, frameworks, and interviews with the leaders and teachers from the schools who participated in the study.

The Nomenclature

The Innovation in Learning Organizations (Griffin, 2015)

Leaders, teachers, students, parents, business partners, and the education community at large often equate successful schools based on student achievement on standardized assessments.  It is often difficult to ascertain the level of innovation in our schools and to really take the pulse of the teachers and leaders in a non-judgmental, less intimidating and and reflective way.  My conceptual framework evolved into the nomenclature for qualitatively analyzing and evaluating how schools are innovative, in essence, the creation of the research tool that any school or learning organization can use to determine their degree of innovation in critical elements and components, and identifying the elements and components that are not innovative using the innovative indicators or the framework of their choice.  I highly recommend Zhao’s indicators which I used successfully with five STEM schools.  Getting to the Core of Innovation Part 3 will speak to the findings of my research.