Effective Leadership in Schools

I’ve been thinking lately about leadership theories, and specifically about leadership in schools. There are few topics, about which so much has been written, as leadership. Annual best-seller lists are filled with biographies of leaders, and “how-tos” that promise to show us how to be just like them. Clichés abound, like “leaders think outside the box,” or leaders know “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” and “stick to their guns” because it’s a“marathon, not a sprint.” When I was tapped early in my career to be a leader, I remember feeling the pressure to “act like a leader,” thinking I needed to adopt a persona or do what famous leaders did. It didn’t work!

Over time, I have learned that at the root of leadership, in education or any other field, is not a sum of traits and behaviors, but something more simple and profound: leaders have strong personal character and unwavering ethical virtue. When I think of the most effective educational leaders I know, and who I aspire to be like, they are people who my peers and I respect because we believe in their character. Yes, of course, they are good communicators, who build relationships with their teams, and are able to share an inspiring vision. But those traits are secondary. The primary trait for effective educational leadership is character. I believe in this truth so wholeheartedly that each year I remind my team that, above all, I am committed to:
taking responsibility,
commitment to our shared mission, and
honoring each person’s inherent worth, and perspective.

Integrity is the supreme quality of a leader. A commitment to being honest, and to giving and keeping one’s word, is essential for an educational leader. Nobody will follow someone perceived as dishonest, and deceptive. Closely tied to integrity is authenticity, defined as being and acting consistently as the person the leader claims to be.Responsibility is about acknowledging being “cause in the matter” of the team’s successes and failures. A leader doesn’t blame others for what happens, but instead publicly owns problems and challenges. These three traits, integrity, authenticity, and responsibility are inspiring ethical virtues that all effective leaders share.

In education, like in all ventures aimed at improving society, leaders must be committed to the shared mission, and inspire that commitment in others. In schools, that is often a commitment to follow the maxim to “always do what’s best for kids.” But it goes further than that. Leaders demonstrate and demand consistent focus on the school’s values and mission. I once worked at a school whose mission boiled down to the phrase “use power for good.” Imagine the inspired work that teachers and students would do in a school where the leadership team all maintained a fully realized commitment to always use their power for good! Unlike in the business world, where leaders are usually judged on profits and stock prices, in social profit institutions like schools, effective leadership is characterized by keeping everyone in the organization laser-focused on the mission, and inspiring delivery on the mission with excellence.

Great schools are built on relationships between people. Leaders who don’t value relationships, and don’t build cultures of support for teachers typically fail. In one of his famous TEDTalks, Sir Ken Robinson said “leadership in education is not about command and control; the real role of leadership is ‘climate control.’” Valuing people, listening to their perspectives, and involving them in decision making, creates a culture where people can bring forth the best of themselves. True education leaders know the work of school happens at the faculty level, and that building personal relationships actually builds a culture where anything seems possible.As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and any leader who wants to achieve any strategic initiative had better build a culture where teachers feel supported and valued.

Of course there is more to school leadership than strong character. An educational leader in the 21st century must be prepared with a vision to lead in a world that is more global, digitally enabled and transparent, with faster speeds of information flow and innovation, and which is being disrupted by technologies, like artificial intelligence, that lead us to question the essential worth of humanity. A successful 21st century educational leader is always anticipating the next change that will affect our schools. I spend time with innovators, and people in other fields who think differently about the future. I read voraciously outside of educational literature, trying to distill potential shifts and how to plan for them. I attend conferences and devote thirty minutes every day to professional reading. Because the world is changing more rapidly than ever before, an educational leader must not be head-down, but must be able to see around corners by staying curious.

Still, even when I think of the practical competencies that are needed for strong 21st century leadership, I think about relationship building. I have very much benefitted in my career from the diversity of my personal learning network. I have been fortunate to have successfully built personal and professional relationships with people around the country, and around the world, who have very different perspectives from me, regional, functional, political, cultural, and socioeconomic. The differences have been the value, because with our varying perspectives, together we can see patterns within complex problems, and also solutions. These people in my network support and inspire me to have the courage to abandon practices that have made me, or my school, successful in the past. In a changing world, being able to recognize imperatives for change before they become crises, and act upon them, is essential.

Ultimately, what is demanded of the educational leader is the success of the school. Achieving that success takes a range of knowledge, skills, and some good fortune. If the leader understands their responsibility is to be a model learner, and to support the faculty in their ability to deliver the mission with excellence, satisfaction and enthusiasm, success is possible. In my experience, the leaders who succeed are those that commit to being people of strong character.

REPLY: “A Letter to My New Principal”

A couple summers ago, I read Laura Bradley’s open letter to her new school principal in Edutopia. I remember thinking that I almost completely agreed with Laura’s advice to her new school leader. I noted her letter was shared again this week, and with me being the new principal at my new school, I’m finally writing my reply.

In the same format as Laura’s original letter (to “Teacher,” from “New Principal”)…

Dear Teacher,

Thanks for the warm welcome! I could not be happier about joining your school and to be working with you. I know that you and your colleagues are a talented and dedicated group, and it’s a real privilege for me to be working with such awesome teachers.

Like you, I’ve spent a long time working in schools and have seen all kinds of school leaders. I have appreciated those leaders that made me feel valued and supported, and that’s the kind of principal I hope to be for you. You know I have a big job with lots of responsibilities, but my primary focus is on helping you be the best teacher you can be, so all of our students benefit.

Let me begin by saying that I believe all teachers are leaders, not just the school principal!  You lead in your classroom, in the hallways, on the stage, and on the field. Leadership at school must be distributed and shared, and I don’t plan to try to do it all on my own — I value and rely on your personal leadership ability.

You wrote “effective principals genuinely care about kids” and I could not agree more! I do this work because I believe in our students and care about their learning. I will be out and about each day, greeting students at the door in the morning, eating lunch with them, going to their games and performances, and getting to know their interests and concerns. I know it is important that I have a relationship with them because knowing the students helps me learn how we can tweak our work to best serve their needs. Being truly “student-centered” means we all have appropriately close relationships with kids, and I hope to do that as well as you already do.

I also agree with you that if principals “genuinely care about kids, [they] will care about their teachers.” I value you and trust you to be the professional you are. The best principal I ever had loved spending time with the kids, and during breaks and lunch was somehow always available to chat with them. And he was also available to teachers! I can remember him coming to find me at the end of the day a few times a year just because he wanted to check in and see how I was doing. He made time to go into classrooms as a regular part of his day because he wanted to show he cared about our work. He was always ready to talk about my interests and the ideas I had for my classes, and was focused on partnering with me to make school a great learning community. More than any other school leader, I felt like he really “got me.” He showed me he cared. That’s the kind of principal I want to be for you! Of course, I need for you to help build that relationship with me, and give me the feedback I need to best support you.

To be a principal who cares about and supports teachers, I want you to know that I’m committed to “responding to your needs.” I commit to our ongoing conversation about learning and school business. I will listen, and really try to hear you. I know you have big, bold visions for our students, and I know my job is to help discern how those fit our strategic direction, and then help make them a reality. I know that one of the most important indicators of a successful school is a healthy and thriving faculty culture, where teachers feel valued and supported to grow and do good work. As your new principal, I look forward to talking about your exciting ideas! I have ideas too, and I’m sure ours will often overlap. I want you to know that my primary job as your principal is to help you develop your capacity to meet our mission with excellence, and I want to help you get what you need to build that capacity.

I have a slightly different view about the last item in your letter. You wrote that you hope I will “wait a year before making any changes.” I know it is not easy to be on the receiving end of change, so I get your thinking on this, and having been a teacher with a new principal before, I can empathize. And yet, we both know that we are living in a dynamic time of constant change in our society. Indeed, many have said that the 21st Century is itself a “world of change.” We should expect some small changes in our schools every year as a result. I think educators Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown explain it well:

What happens to [schools] when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change? Ironically, the relentless pace of change that is responsible for our disequilibrium is also our greatest hope: a new culture of learning is taking root and transforming the way we think about information, imagination, and play. We need to transform our schools for this new era of learning.

Leadership in a culture of change is not straightforward though, and I will need your help as we all navigate complexity and uncertainty over the coming years. I like how Jim Hemmerling describes how to lead in this culture of change and here are 4 commitments to you:

1. I promise to put our people first by connecting change to our shared sense of purpose. The “why” of any change must connect to our mission and vision and our shared sense of what is best for kids.

2. I commit to support you so you can go all-in with any change. I want to help you get the skills and tools you need to do our important work daily.

3. I will model a growth mindset, and encourage you to experiment and support you in analyzing and understanding the results. Together we will build a powerful learning culture where we all feel safety to try new things and sometimes fail.

4. I will engage you early in any change process, and will value your input. I plan to lead inclusively, walking our transformation journey in partnership with you.

Let me end by answering the question you asked at the end of your letter: “what do I need from you so I can be an effective leader of our already great school?” I need your good will, and your feedback. Like anyone, I will make mistakes! I need to know you are on my side and that we will all succeed together by being in partnership. I often say “thanks for the feedback” because I know all of us need to share with each other how we can be better in our roles at school. I need your help in developing and maintaining a school culture where we discuss our work collegially and always have each others’ backs.

I can’t wait for the kids to arrive and to get started. Here’s to a great school year!

Your New Principal



How To Be Better at Global and Digital Citizenship

Many of us who are active in social media have, over the last few years, watched with increasing unease as the discussions online have become more and more tribal. Political conversations especially seem to find themselves happening among people who are in heated agreement with each other as they share their opinions in echo-chambers. The recent election cycle is just one demonstration — as observed by many people, more astute than me (e.g. here and here) — that instead of fostering conversations where diversity and inquiry reign, social media seems to have isolated us into pockets of groupthink.

Recently, friend and colleague Peter Pappas and I have been developing a sense of guilt about our role in pushing social media. We, and many others (if you’re reading this, you are likely one of us), believed that social media could democratize our culture, empower marginalized voices, ensure a more nuanced reporting of news, and improve democratic life. We reasoned that when “everyone had a printing press or a television camera” to publish with, communities would hear more voices and become better places for everyone.

It has not turned out that way.

Since 2014 or so, it’s been clear to us that the promise of social media has not been realized, or at least it has not been realized as a vehicle for improving democratic culture. In fact, the opposite has happened. We are in a time when all sides are shouting past each other, when they should be listening. For so-called connected educators, while we have been singing the praises of intersection of teaching, technology and new social media – the same system has been used to upend civil discourse, politics and culture. Peter and I gave a workshop at the OTEN conference in Pacific Grove, Oregon in early February, in which we tried to crowdsource some ways to teach students how to understand what has happened, and what they can do to be good citizens, digital or otherwise.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a good deal about how the private-independent school sector, in which I work, can foster truly democratic cultures on campus and develop young people who seek out and have meaningful conversations with those who think differently. Ideological diversity is essential for teaching critical thinking, and going to school with people of different political points of view prepares students to live and prosper in a multicultural society.

This morning I gave a keynote address at the OESIS conference in Los Angeles (slide deck at the end of this post), in which I confessed my transgressions for (perhaps) pushing social media as a democratizing agent a little too hard. Meanwhile I shared a few ideas about how I’m trying to address global and digital citizenship at my school.

1. We have to keep telling students to engage with other people online. Yes, it is difficult and fraught with peril for educators, but if we don’t teach them they’ll move into that space without any preparation at all. Remember, our job is to educate students for the world they will live in, not to educate them in ways that make us educators comfortable.

2. Schools have to promote ideological diversity. In admissions and hiring, we need to think about the need to build a community that helps us all think in different ways about our society. Allowing students to go into the world thinking the “other side” is just too dumb to see things the right way is a terrible educational result. Two years ago, many of my liberal students had what they said was their “peak educational experience” engaging with a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in one of our class projects. He didn’t change any students minds — that’s wasn’t his goal, or the reason to have the conversation — but the students came away understanding he wasn’t just a “crazy guy” lacking logic, or worse, compassion.

3. My school has a strong liberal dominance within the faculty and student body, probably around 85% to 15%. Conservative students have often told me they have to be “in the closet” and don’t feel safe talking out loud about politics at school. So recently, a brave junior and I co-founded the Conservative Affinity Group at my school. We have a group of 20 students who meet once a month and are beginning to find the courage to speak and listen more with the rest of the students.

4. As part of a Project-based Learning unit on citizenship, my 11th and 12th grade Government, Politics, and Citizenship class designed a curriculum for “Civil Discourse” at school. The goal was to teach the entire 9th-12th student body how to talk about politics in a way that promotes listening instead of shouting, and understanding instead of condemnation. My students implemented the curriculum in an extended 60 minute Advisory block in late January, and have become leaders for difficult conversations and open dialogue on campus.

None of this is easy, but educating for democratic participation is what our schools are called to do.

Collaborative Professionalism

I appreciate the writing of Educational expert Michael Fullan. He has written extensively about his view of how schools can embrace the professional practices of an oustanding learning culture, and one that closely aligns with my view of how to create a school for the future.

Collaborative Professionalism” happens when educators commit to really work together and share knowledge, skills and experience to improve student achievement and well-being. Collaborative professionalism transforms culture by continuously lifting everyone involved in the ecosystem. When the entire school’s faculty and staff are both teaching and learning, nurturing and being nurtured, giving and receiving help, the whole system gets better.

Fullan’s diagram (below) shows the elements of collaborative professionalism that he says interact, feed on each other, and self-correct. They operate like a flywheel— accelerating once on the move.

In a culture of collaborative professionalism:

Teachers have autonomy and trust — the freedom to choose how they teach, which fosters creativity, collaboration, ownership, and a sense of self-worth.

Teachers want to learn together, with and from each other — there is a culture of continuous learning.

All faculty and staff work together to improve learning — there are no special or elite groups in a school, just one team committed to students.

All faculty and staff are committed to continuous professional growth and improvement — teachers and administrators participate in the culture as learners.

Teachers seek ideas, sort them out individually and together, and press for precision of pedagogy in terms of what works best for a given student, crafting custom learning experiences.

Innovation is valued — all faculty and staff have a growth mindset in which they listen to, learn from, bring out, and support colleagues’ smart new ideas.

In this globalized, technology-rich world where change is constant, school quality will be closely tied to the ability of the faculty to adapt to the times. A culture of collaborative professionalism can bring out the best in teachers and support them through periods of uncertainty, and toward growth.

School Culture, Educating Citizens, Creating Democracy

democracy_and_educationExactly 100 years ago, John Dewey asserted that a purpose for our schools should be the creation of citizens who share the highest values of democracy. Only education can bridge the distance between our “uncivilized” nature and the skills and habits of people who have learned to exist in a thriving body politic.

American schools then perform their civic purpose by playing a powerful role in building democratic culture and educating citizens.

In progressive schools that take their democratic purpose seriously, students experience the complexity of democracy — they think critically, discuss and sometimes argue about ideas, co-create solutions to meaningful problems, and build community. A school culture that embodies civil discourse, and values conversations even when they are difficult, builds students’ capacity to act in the public world, to make good things happen. In these schools, students learn how to truly disagree in the way citizens who share a hope for common ground do, and then move toward finding that ground.

To create such a school culture, conversations about politics are essential. Because educators care about the affairs of their communities, and because they believe in the democratic process of collective decision making, educators should engage students in discussions of public affairs. To avoid what is political, because it might be difficult to discuss, would be an abandonment of the civic duty of schools. They would fail to cultivate in students the interests, skills, and habits of citizens.

Of course, educators should not use their authority to cultivate support for strictly partisan purposes. To advocate or oppose particular political parties or public political figures would be wrong. Engaging in open dialogue about public life among people with different ideas is not always easy, and requires courage. Educators can demonstrate the maturity, balance, and empathy required to listen and discuss ideas without becoming one-sided and closed to opposing viewpoints. Of course, mistakes will be part of the learning process.

Educators recognize that to engage in civil discourse, and to create a democratic and inclusive culture, students and faculty must learn to enjoy arguments and moments of discomfort. The civic duty of schools is to help students to listen and explore ideas, to co-create solutions and community, and to commit to building a world that values and protects every person.

Education Week, Bridging Differences Blog, Democracy in Schools: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/democracy-in-schools/

Talk to Strangers


Talking to strangers is certainly not something we encourage children to do, but importantly, talking with and understanding the “other” is essential for citizenship in a democracy.

American schools generally understand that democracies need active, informed and responsible citizens who are willing and able to take responsibility for their communities and contribute to the political process. For our schools to be incubators of engaged and effective citizens though, they require diversity. Being in a community of people with different ideas teaches students to listen, try on ideas, grapple with difference, develop empathy, and build compromise and cooperation skills.

Democracy requires that citizens respect the “other,” and regard them as one’s equal regardless of ideological or cultural differences. Citizenship requires the will to live with and for fellow citizens.

The 2016 election campaign symbolizes the current breakdown in public discourse that threatens our democracy – name-calling from both sides, and too much shouting without listening. Partisan media outlets (FOX, MSNBC, etc.), 24-hour news cycles, and social media has given everyone a megaphone to broadcast their views, and it is difficult to hear anything when everyone has a megaphone. The way candidates, pundits, and prominent individuals use media teaches young people that if they aren’t the loudest, their opinion doesn’t matter, and it shuts down opportunities for cooperation and understanding.

Schools can counterbalance this loudest-is-best, shout-without-listening culture. Our classrooms are places where students exchange and receive feedback about ideas. But too many of our schools are “echo chambers,” where conversations reinforce commonly held views. The lack of truly diverse opinions at some of our schools makes it too easy for students to hear their own opinions echoed back to them. Similarly, friendships in social media with people of like-minded ideas hardens beliefs and builds wedges against other ideas. The reaction by students in “blue” parts of the country since the election of Donald Trump helps illustrate that our echo chambers reinforce our own present world views, making them seem more correct and universally accepted than they really are. A democracy that descends into tribalism will not be a democracy for long.


By engaging in civil discourse with people who share different values, attitudes, beliefs, and partisan identification, our students can learn to be citizens who know how to understand others, are more humble in their own beliefs, and are willing to compromise to work for the common good.

What is civil discourse?

Civil discourse is “robust, honest, frank and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance the public interest” (Brosseau 2011). It is “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree” (Davis 2010).

Civil discourse does not simply mean being polite – argumentation is a social good. “Creating a culture of argument, and the thick skin that goes along with it, are long-term projects that will serve democracy well” (Herbst 2010).

How can a school that has a clear majority opinion develop a culture of robust discussion of diverse ideas? It’s a challenge.

On many occasions, I have joined classrooms together from around the country, across time zones, for discussions of common academic content, and to work on projects. When I taught for an independent online school, my AP Government students did this as a natural part of the course, and the conversations about politics brought forth a more diverse group of opinions than in any single brick-and-mortar classroom I have ever been in.

I am working on a project to join schools around the country to do this very thing. This election has proven to us the divisions of attitudes in this country runs deep, and there is a risk they will harden if we educators allow our students to imagine the worst about people on the other side of a debate.

I encourage teachers and administrators at all schools to look for ways to connect with each other across the country. If you want to join in this work, please use the contact form on my website to connect with me and I will include you in the project I am beginning.



Brosseau, C. 2011. “Executive Session: Civil Discourse in Progress.” Frankly Speaking (October):http://nicd.arizona.edu/newsletter/october-2011#125.

Davis, J. C. 2010. In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Herbst, S. 2010. Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Educating Through an Election

Today was a hard day at work, trying to help students make sense of an election that for nearly 2 years has shown us some of the worst of American politics.

An electoral campaign was in full swing in my first year as a classroom teacher (1992 election), and as a civics teacher I’ve had my fair share of election conversations with students since then. None of them have felt as bizarre as those that I have had in this 2016 election cycle. Few of the conversations were as hard as those I had with disillusioned young citizens today. In 2008, helping students understand why Californians passed a ban on same-sex marriage was difficult, but students were at least happy the nation had elected the first black president. The high schoolers I worked with today do not believe the 2016 election gives them anything at all to celebrate.

I have long known that my purpose as an educator is to prepare students for daily, active citizenship. The hardest part of that work may be to develop within students the capacity and inclination to seek to understand people with values seemingly opposed to their own. To have a truly functioning democracy, we all must be willing to talk to, and work with each other. The instinct to say that the supporters of an opponent are “stupid” because they don’t see the world the way we do is not helpful. Instead, we need to try to walk a mile in their moccasins. Considering the rights and interests of fellow citizens, and working to understand others’ perspectives builds empathy, critical thinking, better citizens, and a better society.

Educating students through an election requires us to model and coach them how to engage in civil discourse, not so they can prove they are correct, or to win an argument, but so that they learn how to seek to understand and to be understood. We need to make this even more of a priority in our schools over the coming weeks and months.

Making Math Education Inquiry-based, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful

A long-time member of my professional learning network, Alanna King, posted today about “wrestling with math.” Alanna’s son has found his way into the meat grinder that is math education in most schools, and she is thinking about his struggles in light of her reading of Building School 2.0 (recommended).

We all know the story of the kids who struggle in math. Long nights of homework, tutoring, and some of them never quite become the computational experts their personal computers are. This week I was in a parent-teacher conference with a really top student who excels in all of her classes but is struggling in Calculus class. All that anxiety and stress because she believes (and with good reason, unfortunately) that Calculus is a mountain she must climb in order to get into the college of her choice. The student disclosed in her conference that she wouldn’t be taking the course if she didn’t think it was necessary in the college rat race.

College is a real world goal for students, certainly, but if it is the only reason to take math, it seems like a poor one. Students should understand that math education has a more meaningful purpose, and that purpose should not be math itself. A “siloed” math education divorces the meaning from math and for students who don’t see it as fun, the typical question is “why am I doing this?” Math should be a problem-solving tool for the real world, and education in math should look like that.

what is math?I wrote about this on my blog back in November 2010, and about Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk in which he argues that computers should do most of the computational work of math, leaving the focus on the interdisciplinary purpose of mathematics: http://mikegwaltney.net/math-is-dead-long-live-mathematics/

iBooks as Public Products

[pullquote]one exciting way to do authentic work with young writers is to publish books[/pullquote]Authenticity is central to excellent project-based learning. In a recent post I explained that to create a meaningful and effective PBL experience, teachers should envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is used for or by real people outside of school. By doing work that students understand has a purpose bigger than “just for class” – authentic work – they are more engaged and the learning outcomes are more profound.

Now that self-publication and distribution is easier than ever before, one exciting way to do authentic work with young writers is to publish books. In my U.S. History class, I recently gave my students a PBL challenge to research and publish stories about the Cold War as iBooks on the Apple Store (following the lead of my good friend and colleague, Peter Pappas and his students’ iBooks). In their reflections after the project, students expressed that they had never felt so engaged by a school project, and that they were able to understand twentieth-century American history in new, personally meaningful ways.

True, the writing of high school students about the Cold War is unlikely to break new scholarly ground or skyrocket to the top of best-sellers lists. But their work is original and valuable, and is a fresh perspective by a new generation on historical events that have helped shape their world.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.01.22 PMTheir “Cold War Stories” iBooks – in Volumes I and II (available separately) – are the products of a 6-week project-based learning unit. Students were given wide latitude to conduct their own study of the period, and the chapters in the books show the variety of topic choices. What is common to each chapter is that the writing is original, and that the work is by students. Readers should of course not hold the work to the standard that they might for a book by a professional historian, rather, understand that these are books by students developing as writers and historians. Feedback so far indicates that readers are impressed by the quality of the work, and by the complexity of the students’ thinking.

iBooks are created using iBooks Author, an Apple application, and are viewable only on iPads and Mac computers. However, there are many publishing options in other formats, for teachers and students who work in non-Apple environments.

I invite you to read the books! And don’t hesitate to send me comments or to ask questions, using the discussion tool below this post.

Get “Cold War Stories” Volumes 1 and 2 on the Apple Store: itunes.apple.com

Get PDF versions of “Cold War Stories”: Volume 1, Volume 2


Creative, Appealing, Meaningful Learning

[pullquote]In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.[/pullquote]Grant Wiggins has just written about a study released in 1983 – my freshman year of high school. The study’s conclusions fit what I remember about schooling:

“School curriculum is sterile. Topics of great human interest on the way to the classroom are apparently transformed and homogenized into something of limited appeal. Students scarcely ever speculate on meaning or discuss alternative interpretations. Teachers teach as they were taught years ago in their own schooling. All the messages received by them conspire to reinforce the status quo. The cards are stacked against innovation.” [emphasis added]

Grant’s post ends with “plus ça change“, and I don’t doubt that in many classrooms, if not in most in the United States, the curriculum is STILL sterile, and the work students are asked to do is STILL neither creative nor meaningful to them.

But many schools and teachers are doing innovative work. It’s not hard to be inspired by the great project-based teaching at High Tech High, the Science Leadership Academy, and at the New Tech Network Schools. In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to see the required curriculum differently, to be creative, and my students have benefited.

Here’s just one example.

In my U.S. History course last year, I wanted my students to think deeply about the cultural effects of the Cold War on American life. After a unit of study in which we explored many of the key political events and social trends through socratic seminar (try this method, here), I put some questions to my students:

  • How might you have been affected by the events of the Cold War, if you had been alive then?
  • How do you think these events in the U.S. and around the world affected individual Americans, and the culture in general?
  • What cultural trends do you notice in America that might have been influenced by the Cold War?
  • What more do you want to know about the Cold War’s impact on American life?


Students came up with some truly interesting responses, and raised a number of potential research and discussion topics. I challenged the students to consider if the topics were meaningful to other people, and how. I told them that if the topics passed my vetting process, they would be free to research them, but that they would have to share their answers with the world. They agreed.

By designing a project in which students pursue their own inquiry, what I was actually doing was asking them to speculate on what is historically meaningful and to develop their own interpretations of history. I asked them to be historians.

Here are their topics, in this Google Doc:

Sure, I had content goals for this project in mind before I gave it to the students. My challenge was to fit those content goals into the project’s design. Where there were gaps between the curriculum and the students’ interest, I designed some short socratic seminar moments and embedded them in class at key points during their research. By the end of the project, I was confident that my students were learning in ways that were creative, appealing, and meaningful to them.

In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.

How can you see your curriculum differently?