Last week I reviewed the visioning and strategic planning documents for a school with whom I may work in the fall.  Taking out the specifics for that school, I thought I would share my reflections on “how might we improve the path from forward leaning vision to sustainable, system-wide implementation of our strategic goals?

I am a huge fan of deeper visioning statements, or whatever title we lend to this document.  Mission and vision statements at schools tend to all have many of the same words, which makes it very difficult for the school community to enact, and the greater community to understand, a differentiated value.  Longer, deeper articulations of the vision provide that opportunity for authentic differentiation in ways that allow faculty and staff to say “I see how I can contribute to the vision each day”, or someone out in the community to say “I see why my child should attend” or “I understand why the school is an important community resource”.

Embedded within the vision, virtues, and strategic visions of most schools are often words and phrases that offer the chance to build this differentiation, and also upon which to ensure systematic alignment of the program.  I have found that “parsing” the existing language, highlighting the core words and phrases, is an extremely helpful first step transition from plan to implementation.  What does “global” really mean?  What is an “exceptional, innovative, and relevant” educational program?  What do we mean by “excellent” teaching? How do we promote truly collaborative professional growth?  How might we become a critical community asset?

If the entire faculty/staff engages in this reduction, and then in developing implementation strategies that address them with rigor, they have both understanding and buy-in; they will have created the implementation process.  We apportion resources (time, money, people, physical space, and knowledge) in ways to best support an evolving program.  Have we asked how our buildings support and amplify our strategic goals? Have we aligned our budget and professional development expectations to promote these goals? Are we hiring people who have demonstrated “excellence” in our key areas or growth? The process involves challenging ourselves to ask the hard questions, to ensure system-wide alignment of resources to these parsed vision elements.  Where are we doing these things well?  Where might we improve and how might we get there?

I will follow up tomorrow with some ideas for rubrics on how to measure success against our vision.

As I reported in Independent School Magazine in 2014 (“Zero-Based Strategic Thinking”), we are living through a rapid global shift in producer-consumer relationships across most industrial sectors. Companies that deliver generic, higher cost products and services are being replaced by lower cost competitors that can tailor products and services to individual consumer demands. According to people like Shoshana Zuboff, retired from the Harvard Business School, organizations that live through these periods of mutation successfully evolve by focusing on core values and services that meet differentiated consumer demands, a significant mutation from the “one-size-fits-all” mantra of the industrial age.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.19.56 PMIn a 15-minute activity in many of my workshops, I ask educator teams to fill in a very simple two-sided list: “Think about everything your school does. On one side list all the things that could be outsourced to, or replaced by, a lower cost competitor, whether you like it or not.  On the other side list those things your school does that are so powerfully at the core of the school experience that they cannot be replicated at a lower price point.” If the audience is largely faculty, I ask them to drill down into the various elements of their teaching day: lecture, grading papers, preparing for class, small group work, going to meetings, etc.  If the audience is business officers, I suggest they mentally check off all the major headings in the budget: food service, maintenance, transportation, human resources, and the like.  If the audience is heads of school I suggest they think about major multi-year commitments, like capital campaigns, campus development plans, and faculty evaluations.

For some this is an uncomfortable exercise.  At one school I correctly pegged a group of faculty at one table as long-tenured Upper School teachers.  A few minutes into the activity, one gentleman loudly proclaimed, “You can’t outsource my teaching!”  His neighbor just as loudly responded, “The hell we can’t!”

The results are so repetitive as to require little synthesis. At every event the list on the left side of the chart—what could be subsumed by a lower cost competitor in a dynamic market—was long and included just about everything that actually takes place at our schools, from office operations to many elements of the classroom learning experience.  Most groups clearly understood that knowledge transfer and objective assessment of student performance, the foundations of historic education, are already being taken over by lower cost competitors using rapidly evolving technologies.

The right side of the ledger in every workshop was much shorter, and focused on a very few items that every group found in common:

  • The relationships that schools build and nurture between adults and children, as well as adult-adult and student-student peer relationships.
  • Traditions
  • Development of character, largely based on relationships that build over time and the respect generated through that process.
  • A sense of belonging to a community
  • Recognition of school standing by top colleges and universities

Not surprisingly the discussion around this activity was usually brief; everyone in the room “gets it”. Enormous resources—time, money, physical space, people, communication, thinking—are spent on elements of our schools that do not provide differentiated value to our customers. Our educators, given a few minutes to parse the problem, understand that value, as seen through the eyes of our customer, is what will drive success at schools in the future.

What if, like Hollywood, schools had a “Black List” of ideas that educators love but that schools have shunned out of fear, reluctance to break with the past, or collective uncertainty? What if the list already exists? Like Hollywood, would we find numerous Academy Award winners and box office smashes amongst that list of ideas that may sound quirky…but right?

imgres-1 imgresI am in the middle of reading (and Tweeting short quotes from) The Rise, by Sarah Lewis, a wonderfully written exploration of the ideas and spaces that we mostly forget or forgo, but in which some of us—the explorers, the creative, the risk-takers, the “quirky”—find incredible “wins” where others only see potential “loss”.

I just finished a chapter about the Hollywood “Black List”, a creation of Franklin Leonard.  In 2005 he sent out an anonymous email to 75 Hollywood colleagues and simply asked for feedback on scripts that they loved but that had not been made into films. Franklin tabulated the results.  Since that initial compilation, 68 of the first 168 films (40%) that made the Black List have been made into feature films. Compare this, Lewis cites, to the average success rate of 0.3% for scripts that get pitched through the Hollywood grapevine. Not only were the films produced, many have gone on to win multiple Oscars and other top awards. The Black List is now a favorite hunting ground for movies with great future prospects.

What is this telling us?  These were scripts that the most successful movie producers in the world passed on, some several times. Lewis says “the list has exposed a fissure in the film industry that would be present in any field with pressure to conform to a particular formula of past success”.  In a nutshell, even though veteran moviemakers “loved” the scripts, they could not find an analogue of past success that justified taking a risk. She goes on to connect the dots to the experiments in the 1950’s of psychologist Solomon Asch who showed that we tend to “abandon our own opinion altogether under two conditions: 1) when we anticipate that our opinion differs from that of a group, and 2) when we have to state our dissent out loud.” Going back to the “Black List”, Lewis reminds us that Franklin was “not asking what scripts would be most successful commercially.  He was just asking which ones they loved.” The collective “love” turned out to be an incredibly strong indicator of future success.

How does this relate to schools today? Why was my attention grabbed by the Black List?

Simple: I think I have unknowingly begun to create a similar list for K-12 schools.  I am not ready to publish the results; that will occur in an upcoming article in Independent School Magazine.  But here is the short version.  As many of you know I have collected more than 2,000 responses from across hundreds of school communities to a simple prompt: ““Ask questions that start with the words ‘What if’ that would break, discard, or fundamentally change something that exists at your school today.”  I have sorted the responses, from over 1,500 educators, into about 40 “buckets”.  Given this freedom to imagine how school could be improved, unfettered by the constraints of the past, the vast majority, of us ignore the traditional foci of many school strategic plans and aim straight to the heart of major, often radical, changes to the learning structures and processes that have shaped K-12 education for 150 years. The largely untapped “winning” ideas that have been passed over by leading educators are the same ideas that, given the freedom of anonymity, we collectively put forward as ingredients for a better system of education.

Will school leaders have the foresight and courage to learn from this list, the faith that what we collectively love, wish for, or imagine as educators, regardless of what has worked in the past, offers the best chance for success in the future?  Some schools and school leaders already are; the majority are not.  The example of the Black List suggests that those willing to take this leap of faith will be the “winners” in the near future.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 8.06.11 AM“Grit” is a buzz word; we have a hard time tying down exactly what we mean by it, or even if we share a common understanding.  Earlier this year we had a lengthy discussion in this blog space about “grit”.

Check out this short piece from CBS Channel 9 LA yesterday; I think you will agree that, whatever “grit” is, this is a piece of it. Am I biased? Hell yes. What does she have that the rest of us don’t? Can it be extracted, analyzed, taught, learned, acquired? Can it even be understood? I don’t know. I do know that of all the athletes in the world competing at this level, or at any level that requires this level of physical commitment, there cannot be a handful, if that many, that are doing it in pain every time they take a step.

Has to be grit in that.

How are three school leaders and their respective schools staying at the leading edge of the innovation wave? How are they successfully transforming away from the assembly line model of “school”? I had a 90 minute video chat yesterday with Bo Adams of Mt. Vernon Presbyterian in Atlanta, Thomas Steele-Maley of the new GEMS World Academy in Chicago, and Steve Mouldey of Hobsonville Point Secondary in Auckland, New Zealand.  Here are a few notes, and reasons to follow these three closely:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 7.39.15 AM

Our international PLN from yesterday.

Bo reminded us of the work that has led him for the past decade. While helping to lead a project of new building design at the Westminster Schools, he realized that architects and builders use a system of design activities and visual tools to articulate and coordinate the dreams of stakeholders along with the pragmatic constraints of things like plumbing, structural engineering, and electricity.  He asked “why don’t we do this kind of coordinated systems planning” for the core of our schools, the learning process?  This has led to his advocacy for the creation of meta-teams of school stakeholders and the use of extensive, ongoing instructional rounds to collect and use data on just what is taking place in the classrooms, and how to align with all-school goals.  Over the last year, the teams at Mt. Vernon have collected more than 350 observations from 24 educators on these rounds. One outcome that Bo shared is that leadership structures at the school may not be optimized to support their essential learning outcomes.

Steve told us that the new and growing Hobsonville Point Secondary has also developed teams that transcend traditional silos of department and subject. Their teams are tasked with developing and coordinating focal areas of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment, much like the “window teams” that I have started using in conjunction with The Miami Valley School, and the non-traditional governance structure we have built for Design 39 Campus. As a community Hobsonville Point has developed a basket of eight core sets of skills and concepts around which learning should take place. Within these framing areas, courses are co-developed on a negotiated basis with students in ways that meet student/teacher passions, the school’s core areas of focus, and national learning standards.  Teachers do not actually develop a “class” until both teachers and students decide what they want to learn about. Steve said that they have recognized the key role of hiring the right people who can deal with this kind of rolling evolution and ambiguity…which we all agreed is vastly more like the world outside of school works.

Bo said that at Mt. Vernon they are trying to take the kind of learning that he and Jill Gough pioneered with their Synergy class several years ago up to scale.  They have started to bust traditional silos; there are no department chairs in the Upper School as they build an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum assessment and courses of study. Last year they started a “negotiated” curriculum in the Upper School: students helped decide that learning would take place around the themes of genetically modified organisms in 9th and 10th grades, and land and water use in 11th and 12th grades.

Thomas is helping open the new GEMS World Academy, so they have a largely blank canvas on which to paint the structures they want for their faculty and students.  They are interested in the kind of models we discussed: fewer subject-based silos; a large role for students in helping to decide and create the actual courses and curriculum; fewer requirements that students learn a certain packed of information each year; performance based assessments.

We talked about the difference between changing an existing school and opening a new school; about the silos teachers place themselves in by labeling their work by grade level or subject and how to change that language; about the tools to truly understand and work with community stakeholders.

Do any of these issues resonate with you? Connect with these three and others. Some of this work is “hard”; sometimes we think it is too hard and we turn away.  But schools like these are making enormous strides and proving that in both public and private school settings, we CAN turn the aircraft carrier, and sometimes more quickly and nimbly than we have been told in the past.


Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 8.01.50 AMIt’s getting close!  The official page for my new book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, is now up on the Jossey-Bass website!

There are links to major US distributors, including Amazon, which has #EdJourney available now for a pre-order discount. I am discounting my normal facilitation/workshop/speaking fees by up to $750/day to encourage schools to buy copies for their faculty and staff.

Honored for some more of these wonderful reviews and recommendations:


“A book of hope…a book of urgency…Lichtman’s insightful reflections combined with his sharp analyses of education’s future form an urgent call for an educational paradigm shift. A must read for all who seek directions, strategies, and action plans for better education.”

Yong Zhao, author, Presidential Chair, University of Oregon

“… a must read book for anyone interested in helping shift the education world out of the Industrial Age mindset.”

David Kelley, Co-Founder of the Stanford d.School; Co-author of Creative Confidence; Founder of design firm IDEO

“Lichtman strikes hard and true.  Recommended reading for all educators and citizens who think America’s schools must meet the needs of kids in the 21st Century.”

Pat Bassett, past president of the National Association of Independent Schools

“A truly stunning achievement, an eye-opening pleasure…Lichtman has done his homework and the heavy lifting for us all…an astonishing microscope into the heart of educators that reveals myriad ways our collective wisdom can make sense and solutions that can work for every child in America.”

 John Hunter, veteran teacher, inventor of The World Peace Game and author of World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements


“Wow…required reading for all stakeholders! Loved it!”

Jack Andraka, high school student, 2012 winner Intel ISEF award, TED speaker, featured on CBS “60 Minutes”

…on par with Horace’s Compromise, Theodore Sizer’s seminal 1984 descriptor of the failures of America’s high schools…the critical difference is Lichtman’s sense of real hope for a bright educational future…a must read…

Pam Moran, Superintendent of County Schools, Albermarle, VA

“Lichtman raises questions of the most basic nature…persuasively argues that innovation requires us to change or suffer the missed opportunities in an educational future that won’t wait for us to catch up.”

John Gulla, Executive Director, EE Ford Foundation

“… incredibly insightful about the future of K-12 education…poignant, memorable, and full of wisdom…a firsthand account that is alive and real…witty, funny, and engaging…it sees the future of education for what it should be – about children and how they learn.”

Dr. Thomas Shields, Director, Center for Leadership in Education, University of Richmond

“… captures the essence of the transformation underway in American education…an incredibly helpful roadmap for all of us who are committed to change education so that our students are truly prepared for their 21st century lives.”

Ken Kay, CEO, EdLeader21, Co-author, The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education

The conveners of #FUSE14 chose the perfect image as metaphor for the event: a swimming pool. I was a swimmer growing up; learned how to swim at age three and was competitive in all four strokes by age five. Am still at home in the water as I am on land.  Like our students in the classroom, things we learn at a young age stick with us, the muscle memories of limb and brain are set through practice and repetition. If you don’t learn to swim until you are an adult it is uncomfortable until you both learn and practice the skills; that is the nature of learning.

imgresDesign thinking, what I hope we can agree to as a highly effective process that allows us to find, unwrap, and solve complex problems in an equally complex world, involves a set of skills, just like swimming.  Perhaps more than anything else, we have to decide to enter the water with a mindset that yes, we can swim.  Then we learn some skills and put them to practice.  We don’t expect to be a great swimmer right away; it takes practice.

There was discomfort at #fuse14; that is a sign of learning in an important zone, as opposed to just listening and spewing back.  I have now both organized and attended many active learning programs where we disdain or disallow the traditional “sit-and-get” model of educational conferences.  #fuse14 sets a new bar.  Attendees were pushed to challenge themselves emotionally, intellectually, and socially.  It was the noisiest, most interactive, most collaborative event I have ever attended...and my own workshops are pretty darn noisy, interactive, and collaborative. Going to have to play some loud music to really pump up the crowd during brainstorming!

I imagine some of the attendees will leave and not practice what they learned; that, too, is the nature of learning. Others have already expressed that this the event was utterly transformational for them.  I have been thinking, teaching, writing, and trying to practice this kind of evolutionary problem solving for more than three decades and I still learned a lot, mostly from watching people dive into the pool, make a few mis-strokes, and then correct and swim just a bit better and with more satisfaction.

Here is my main message to those hundreds who have followed from outside the walls of the event: this kind of approach to solving problems is powerful stuff. Yes, it takes some time and attempts to begin to master, but real personal and organizational change can be successfully achieved in short periods of time.  The solutions are just flat out BETTER than when we approach problems from an old school model.  We have way too many examples now of the efficacy of design-like thinking to ignore its impact.

I could go on with more and more, but the airplanes call.  I hope those who took a dive will encourage others to follow, overcoming our natural fear of the pool.  You will be happier and your school/organization/group will be increasingly comfortable and capable with dealing with a rapidly changing world.




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