School leaderhip

New Project – Weekly Memos

Dear Friends,

I’m starting a new series here in an attempt to capture something I would love to have as a pretty raw piece of school design data. I am hoping this turns out to be interesting and useful for readers as well.

My goal is to share some of the weekly reflections that I send to the staff at Vaux Big Picture High School (@vaux_BPHS),  where I am the founding principal. Most weeks, sometime between Friday afternoon (when I’m really on point) and Sunday evening (when I’m buried and behind), I send out my “weekly memo” in an email to the staff.

The top of the email is a greeting; the middle consists of updates, announcements and general information; and in the final section of the email, I usually try to share some sort of reflective thoughts related to our ongoing work.

I am going to post these reflections to the thread whenever I can. I’ll post them with their actual date so you can the development over the course of the school year. Feel free to let me know what you think @gkuriloff on twitter.


To learn more about Vaux:

We’ve had a fair amount of press this year which you can read at your leisure to learn more about our work. I also encourage you to visit the national Big Picture Learning site (@bigpiclearning).


A footnote to my previous “Design for Student Leadership”: Student Voice and School Design

Working on my never-ending doctorate (I’m on year 7, I note sheepishly), I recently re-examined one of my absolute favorite school design texts, Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Senge, Cambron-Mcabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, and Kliener, 2000).

Recently I wrote about student leadership and what I believe to be the profound educative value of leadership experience. Then, while reading Schools that Learn, I stumbled across the following:

One last comment on why schools seem remarkably difficult institutions to change and where particular leverage may lie. Industrial-age schools have a structural blind spot unlike almost any other contemporary institution… (more…)

Design for Student Leadership: Participatory schooling is extremely educative (and empowering)

True, I was always a student who wanted my voice heard, and student government in both high school and college gave me ample chance to be in front of my communities, but an extremely overlooked benefit of student leadership is experience with designing and planning.

The process of identifying needs, determining the required resources, planning, and executing is a powerful tool in the developing toolbox of young student leaders. Anyone who was ever on student government probably had growth experiences similar to my own–experiences with thinking up, designing, and executing public actions and events. For student government officers, this certainly includes dances and spring fairs, but also extends to planning speaker series, organizing conflict resolution and community meetings, travel planning, and strategic collaboration with a variety of partners and organizations.

As a believer in apprenticeship and experiential learning, I think one of the best design features schools can choose to incorporate is a mechanism that ensures students will be able to think of, create, and execute, their ideas. More importantly, a mechanism that ensures that these ideas, when serious and well-vetted, will be approved. Students will not be willing to take the risk of investing a lot of work into a great idea unless they are confident that their idea will at least have a fair shot. When there happens to be a strong leader in a school or when systems are in place to empower students and give their ideas a shot, they can create brilliant things. (For an example, see my friend and now departed student Mikals Program Proposal for an Arise school mentoring program. He wrote this as an Alumnus, not as a student, because he cared and wanted to be involved. I discuss some of the things he learned later on.)

There are a number of ways schools can design for this kind of empowerment. (more…)

A message of hope from Mount Karmel

Before I begin, I need to apologize to my readers for the long delay. It probably won’t shock any of you to learn that being the head of a young charter school, particularly one on its third leader in 2 years and in the middle of charter renewal, has been all consuming. Having said this, I am excited to be back finally, and excited to be sharing our work at Arise with all of you. Over the next several months I will be writing extensively about the school design work we are now undertaking but for today I have more immediate reflections.

It is an amazing world we live in.

I say this in part because I am sitting across from Autumn Graves, the head of Girard College, on Mount Karmel, in Israel. The two of us are visiting the Yemin Orde Youth Village.

I also point out that the world is an amazing place as a statement of philosophy and purpose. There is enormous power in optimism, in hope, and in appreciation (See Norton, Anik, Aknin, and Dunn, 2011). The Yemin Orde Model, what they call the Village Way, asserts the belief in something transcendent as one of their philosophical anchors. It is awareness of, connection to, and faith in values and principles greater than ourselves that allows us to achieve the extraordinary and to lead others to do the same. It is from the transcendent that inspiration comes. (more…)

Some preliminary thoughts on designing for teacher motivation

A recent Planet Money piece from NPR (thank you friend and former camper Ryan Spinner for pointing it out) talks about value added measurement of teachers. The reporters calculate the supposed value of a good teacher. It’s very clever and suggests good teachers should be getting paid $500,000 a year which sounds great to me.

I actually think the story, however, while it deals in some of the complexities, doesn’t even begin to address some of the hardest parts of teacher valuation or its flip side, teacher motivation–especially not at a new, independently managed school level (admittedly, this is my bias). (more…)

School leadership and organizational structure – Systems thinking and heterarchical governance

I’ve been tweeting with someone at @edReformer who recently wrote:

You wld think that with all the knowledge in classrooms, and the intelligence, teachers would be given more say in how to teach. U wld think

This put me in mind of Systems Thinking theorist Russell Ackoff’s explanation of the difference in functionality (and effectiveness) between hierarchical and heteroarchical governance. Systems Thinking, Ackoff and colleagues explain (Ackoff, Addison, and Carey, 2010), “…looks at relationships (rather than unrelated objects), connectedness, process (rather than structure), the whole (rather than just its parts), the patterns (rather than the contents) of a system, and context” (p. 6).

The authors then explain that “no-one is directing this system of connections and interconnections…political and organizational leaders are probably less in control of things than they imagine. Things self-organize. What happens next in any system is an emergent property of everything that has gone before.”

By definition, according Ackoff, hierarchical control is ineffective in some fundamental ways and it is vulnerable to attack and to change. What are the implications of this for organizational design? Ackoff points to heterarchical networks, which are “much more resilient; instructions can get through via multiple channels’ they are based on goodwill rather than fear’ they set out to foster creativity; and so on.”

Hierarchy is not the only way to get things done. At the REAL School, we believe that emergent leadership should actively be cultivated at all levels of the organization. Teachers, students, and parents collaborate together in creating the design of the school. It’s not that there aren’t decision-making structures, there have to be for things to get done.

We have designed a committee structure by which representatives from the various constituencies of the school are responsible for governance and decision-making. Furthermore, members of the community, including students, families, and teachers, are voting members of the organization–they elect board members and vote on major changes to the by-laws and school program.

We also believe in rules and norms to guide and limit the rights and behaviors of community members. The difference for us is the assumption of trust. Ackoff et al write, “Cooperative systems dispense with the stick, checks and controls and rely on trust…So it’s the feedback loops and the interconnected structure itself that make the system work in this interconnected way of thinking” (p. 16).

Finally, we recognize, as Ackoff et al emphasize, that all organizations grow, change, grow old, and eventually die (or at least transform). We must be aware of the changing needs of the world around us and we must grow and adapt to both the current needs of the students and communities we are invested in, and we must be aware of how the world is changing ahead of us. This requires learning from the bottom and constantly sensing the periphery.

This kind of sensing requires the construction of effective feedback loops and purposeful ways for different elements of the organization to learn from each other. In our case, we begin by engaging all members of the community in collaborative inquiry into our own practices. In this work, teachers are perhaps the most powerful sensing instrument. Teachers must be agents of change. You would think, as @edreformer laments,they would be involved in designing learning.

Systems thinking requires recognizing when we have become outmoded and adapting or ceding the work to a more capable organization. Changing times require changing systems. We advocate for a wide array of purposeful learning systems serving a wide array of needs (see “what is school design“).