System turbulence, needed green dye, innovating innovation, and #pedagogicalmasterplanning

Are you learning as fast as the world is changing? In this insightful HBR article, Bill Taylor wrote:

In a world that never stops changing, great leaders never stop learning.

Eddie Obeng made this passionately visual in his TED talk – “Smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Obeng provided a picture of injecting green dye into a pipe of faster and faster moving water until the turbulence created can actually be seen. Then, he graphed what happens when the pace of change outstrips the rate at which we learn.

What we call “schools” exist in this world of ever-quickening change. What “green dye” are you using in your school so that the pace and nature of change is more visible…more tangible and discernible?

When I was a school principal, a support I provided for nearly a decade, I thought the best green dye I could inject was providing time for faculty to be together – a meta-goal advocated for in Carrie Leana’s “The Missing Link in School Reform.” Together, we implemented and improved on a few practices:

  • Peer visits – we committed to at least two peer visits a year. Many practitioners, especially those who really strived to improve, made sure that they exceeded the minimum.
  • PLCs – learning from 25 years of research and practice in public schools, we built a system that created job-embedded R&D time for faculty. In the model we created, participating faculty spent four 55-minute periods a week together so that they could do things akin to what David Creelman described when writing about the architect Christopher Alexander as Eishen campus near Tokyo was designed and built. Just like Alexander employed a short-cycle, iterative-prototype mix of design-and-construction so that architecture could inform building and building could inform architecture, the PLCs together designed instruction and assessment, built the constructive lessons with student-learners, and debriefed how to improve the design for the next phase of building.

The infrastructure contained some additional parts and pieces, and this infrastructure facilitated learning at a rate and pace that more closely matches the rate and pace of change that we are experiencing in schools – from technology, globalization, and knowledge about the brain, just to name a few influencers.

My best work, which I did not do alone – I had tons of collaborative help, was simply to make it easier for faculty to work together. Individual learning remained important, too, of course, but the traditional silo-ing traits of school were broken down so that necessary and essential co-laboring and co-learning could occur more often than at sporadic lunches or happenstance encounters in the faculty lounge. The get-togethers were made intentional, purposeful, and systemic.

My next arc of learning and educational support finds me at Unboundary, a transformation design studio. As Polly LaBarre is calling in “Help Us Innovate the Innovation Process,” we are working to design and prototype something currently called “pedagogical master planning.” Essentially, we are deconstructing the campus-master-planning process, and we are re-imagining it as a metaphor or framework to architect and engineer a strategic-design method for systematizing and enhancing the core purpose and radial functions of a learning/teaching community. It’s a next generation of strategic planning. Like Christopher Alexander’s methods with Eishen, pedagogical master planning will involve a short-cycle, iterative-prototype, dynamic responsiveness. Like the PLC’s ethos and structure, pedagogical master planning will systematize the parts and pieces of the whole – not to make the system rigid or slow-moving in complexity, but to respect, leverage, and amplify the interrelated and integrated nature of real systems.

At a time when change continues to quicken, we must design learning systems that can keep pace – or even outpace – the rate of change in the world. Master planning for such learning systems will necessitate a series of shifts from strategic planning to strategic design…design that serves as a green dye to make the intersections of change and learning visible, harness-able, and enhanceable.

PROCESS POST: Seeing the pedagogical master plans on a pin-board. #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

Why has campus master planning developed as a field of work?

  • Is it because we put such high value on land use, and we realize the scarcity-of-land dilemma…so we want to plan and plan and plan most carefully before we commit land and resources to construction?
  • Is it because campus master planning makes thinking visible? By constructing campus master plans, we can better visualize the way that academic centers, athletic complexes, art studios and theaters, and green spaces relate and complement and supplement each other?
  • Is it because the construction of buildings and hardscapes and landscapes seem so relatively permanent that we want to make sure that the engineering systems of plumbing, electrical, air, etc. are well-conceived so that we minimize future issues of wishing that we had put “that there and this here?”
  • Is it because we recognize the wisdom of soliciting input from the wider community about our use and intents with space and architecture?
  • [Fill in your good thinking and hypothesizing here…]

In Melanie Kahl’s October 1st MindShift article, “Recasting Teachers and Students as Designers,” Kahl wrote:

The design field covers the gamut of industries in art and science of making ideas, mindsets, and methodologies tangible. (emphasis added)

In my mind’s eye, I can see comparable graphics and imagery for pedagogical master planning. I can see bubble diagrams that relate a methodology like project-based learning to various assessment-feedback systems. I can see these in my mind – moving from hazy, grey images to sharper, clearer pictures – just like I can see on a campus master plan how the academic center and athletic facilities relate to each other. I can see how a school technology plan “fits” or doesn’t with the school’s move to integrating the Maker Movement into it’s STEM-STEAM-STREAM plans – just like I can see on a campus master plan how the systemic, infrastructure engineering schema optimize the flow of water and gas to the various buildings on campus.

What if we pursued design-based planning in the pedagogical and instructional domains at the level of detail constituted on campus master plans? What if we thought of standards, assessment, curriculum, pedagogy and instruction, professional development, and learning environments as the integrated and interrelated sub-systems that they are?

  • Would we value the systemic construction of minds and hearts to a more comparable degree to that of buildings, hardscapes, and landscapes?
  • Would we be more able to make our thinking visible and reveal such epiphanies as “our assessment model is misaligned with our plan to move to more challenge-based learning?” Would we realize that our selection of tech tools and furniture is not optimized with our habits-of-the-mind philosophies?
  • Would we re-think the design of the “school day” appreciating that faculty would HAVE TO HAVE TIME to collaborate on the overall scope and sequence of wisdom-and-understanding formation amongst our student learners? Would we re-imagine the flow of the “school day” to optimize what we are learning about the brain and neuroscience? Would we re-consider our existing definitions of what constitutes a “classroom?”
  • Would we enhance and improve the partnerships and teams we could have with parents, businesses, NGOs, and other people and organizations of the surrounding community…because our children’s educations are THAT important?
  • [Fill in your good thinking and hypothesizing here…]

Yes, I can see it in my mind’s eye – a beautiful set of detailed, designed, customized plans that SHOW VISIBLY the intersections and surrounds of standards, assessment, curriculum, pedagogy and instruction, professional learning, and learning environments. And I believe we are going to figure out how to create and optimize such plans at Unboundary. Then, we could place such plans on a pin-board wall and work to make certain that the construction phases, blueprints, engineering schema, and contracting notes are well-understood by the entire team – in this case…students, parents, faculty, business and social innovation partners, administrators, alumni, receiving colleges and universities, etc.

I can see it plainly. Can you?

College and university aspirations as a piece of pedagogical master planning

Reviewing the Duke Forward website, home base for Duke’s $3.25 billion capital campaign, I was most struck by two statements:

But we cannot be satisfied with methods of teaching, or learning, that were born out of different needs and different realities. In a world where technology is reshaping the very definitions of communication, education, and knowledge, universities must adapt, preserving the best of our traditions but also transform­ing inherited approaches to education and research to meet today’s challenges.

The university of the future will be defined as much by collaboration as it is by individual accomplishment, and as much by the opportunity to engage with problems as it is by the accumulation of knowledge.Deeply con­structive partnerships across areas of expertise, between researchers and practitioners, and among students and faculty of diverse perspectives must be the norm rather than the exception.

In such an environment, the walls are low and the aspirations high, the solutions nimble and the breakthroughs profound. (emphasis added)

– from President Brodhead’s Overview


Through the campaign, we’re seeking support to strengthen curricular and co-curricular programs that give students throughout Duke’s 10 schools the opportunity to develop their talents by solving real problems. (emphasis added)

– from Boundaries Not Included page

If schools declare that we work to prepare students for college and for life, then how are we studying and implementing such innovations ourselves? How are we lowering walls, crossing borders and boundaries of subject and expertise, and engaging real-life problems?

What if a content-centric curriculum and silo-ed departments and walled philosophies disadvantage student and faculty learners for the future at our doorsteps?

[Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Blue Devil, undergraduate class of 1993. Duke was the only undergraduate school to which I applied because it was the only place I wanted to go since I was 7 years old. Go Duke!

Of course, I would love to see Duke’s “pedagogical master plan” for all of this – those plans with the equivalent, intricate detail of analogous architectural plans and engineering schema.]

Some questions I continue to research about #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

Schools and universities are making huge decisions about academics and instruction, partly to “keep up” with other decision-making institutions doing likewise.

The University of Virginia board’s decision to dismiss Teresa A. Sullivan as president in June illustrated the pressure on universities to strike MOOC deals quickly to keep up with peer institutions, said Martin D. Snyder, senior associate general secretary and director of the department of external relations for the American Association of University Professors.


Schools and universities spend millions and millions of dollars on planning and construction of physical spaces and buildings.

Phase One of the master plan (2008 through 2017) calls for more than $750 million in new facilities and infrastructure construction on the campus


Schools and universities are investing enormous time into meeting with stakeholders and gathering input from various constituencies about campus master planning and physical buildings.

The core of the planning process focused on engaging the university community in crafting a plan for the future of Carnegie Mellon. Town meetings were widely advertised and dozens of meetings were held with students, faculty and staff as well as neighbors in Oakland and Squirrel Hill and the City of Pittsburgh.

Are schools proactively thinking and planning about the big academic and instructional decisions they face…and master planning for the consequent issues that are symbiotically affected?

Are schools investing comparable dollars into the master planning for academics, pedagogy, and instruction – similar to the dollars spent on physical master planning?

Are schools devoting similar time to gathering stakeholders and constituents to discuss the academic, pedagogical, and instructional future of their organizations and the overall institution of education?

[Note: The above is not intended as commentary or criticism about University of Virginia, University of Massachusetts of Boston, or Carnegie Mellon University. Rather, in my investigations, these are quotes that spurred ideas of possibility for me around the future of pedagogical master planning. Shouldn’t schools make decisions from “academic-architecture plans?” Shouldn’t schools spend comparable money on the core of the organization – the academic architecture? Shouldn’t schools convene similar quantities and qualities of meetings for developing academic architecture? And, perhaps, some are doing so. But I’m not finding those articles or sharings online.]

Making reality a school. #IDreamASchool

If school is meant to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t school look more like real life?

This is the primary question that has kept me research-busy for the past seven to ten years, at varying degrees. Of course, there are countless corollaries that spur me to sidebar explorations, integrated component searches and implementations, and related co-primary investigations. For example, during my middle-school principalship, I concentrated significant efforts to studying and orchestrating professional learning communities (PLCs) as a foundational structure and ethos for the way we worked. If the world at large is moving to more collaborative ways of working, then our educator workforce should operate in such paradigms and methods, too. (Of course, 25-years of research from public schools helped enormously!) By becoming a more formalized professional learning community, we blurred some of the lines between “school” and “real life,” and we enhanced the ways in which we worked as team problem solvers and educational designers – for the benefit of ourselves and our students. What’s more, we were able to empathize more genuinely about what we were asking students to do when we asked them to collaborate.

One of the most important and critical co-primary investigations in which I continue to search is How might we transform school to look more like real life?

As schools explore sustaining (tier 1 and tier 2) and disruptive (tier 3) innovations, one strong way to transform schools into more life-like analogues is to reconsider the traditional departmental structure. Typically, schools sub-divide into departments called “Math,” “Science,” “History,” “English,” etc. Curriculum tends to be categorized by these departments and divisions – by subject-area or topic. Often times, silos develop…sometimes intentionally, but more understandably in unintentional ways.

But what if we re-imagined curriculum to be more about the issues and challenges that we face? What if we had departments like…

  • the Department of Energy
  • the Department of Justice and Equity
  • the Department of Education
  • the Department of Health and Human Services
  • the Department of Environmental Sustainability

Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education

Through project-based and problem-based learning, students in K-12 education could engage genuine issues, concerns, opportunities and possibilities. Whereas the traditional departments – math, science, history, English, etc. – have been used to segregate the disciplines, with a newly devised departmental structure, the traditional subject areas would continue in importance and vitality, but they would do so as lenses co-ground into the same optic glass.

Imagine a Department of Energy in school. Student learners could explore and work in the fields of energy research and investigation, and they could employ mathematics and statistics as lenses through which to understand energy – math in context. They could hypothesize and experiment as genuine scientists working to discover the emerging, integrated sectors of biofuels, solar energies, and other non-fossil-dependent sources – science in context. They could research through lenses of historian, anthropologist, and sociologist, and they could write persuasive and expository pieces – humanities in context. They could examine the economics and psychology of energy consumption – interdisciplinary human studies in context. Design and visual prototyping could play an integrated role – industrial arts in context.

Context should inform content and cognition. And student learners deserve to gain practice with “the app for that.” We know that athletics require much practice, but the athletes regularly have opportunity to apply their skills and development to “real-life” settings called games. We know that musicians require much practice, but the instrumentalists regularly have opportunity to apply their skills and development to “real-life” concerts and performances. When do student-learners regularly have opportunity to apply their content learning and skill development? A test is not a game or concert. An essay for a teacher is not a game or concert. Contributing to a blog about experimental energy sources is more like playing in a game or concert. Designing alternative-fuel engines is more like playing a game or concert. Partnering with local businesses, NGOs, universities, and other co-creators of our energy future – such experience most certainly is comparable to playing in the games or concerts of real life. Surely, we don’t really believe that students should wait for application until they are finished with formal schooling. Surely, we can devise better responses to the age-old question, “When will I ever use this?” Student-learners could be using their imaginative, developing understanding now.

Compassion should also inform content and cognition. The world needs problem finders and solutions makers. Todays students care more deeply about the world than I think my generation cared when we were in elementary, middle, and high school. By engaging student-learners in real-life, problem-based work, we could essentially connect the millions of students like batteries in a series to light the solutions to some of our greatest challenges in society. Business and non-profit could become involved in more integrated ways with education so that a symbiosis of efforts would build self-reinforcing and sustaining capacities – innovators guiding future innovators for for a more dynamic and productive future.

I am not just theorizing and hypothesizing. The type of real-life schooling described above is already happening in many places. Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School comes to mind. Bob Dillon’s Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School comes to mind. Project H Design comes to mind. Whitfield County Schools comes to mind. Geoff Mulgan’s Studio Schools come to mind. Projects at High Tech High and Partnerships at Science Leadership Academy come to mind. Even in my own personal experience, I co-piloted Synergy 8, a non-departmentalized, community-issues, problem-solving course for 8th graders. One group of four boys organized a job fair for residents of English Avenue and played a major role in helping people secure jobs. Other programs at Westminster, like the Summer Economics Institute, Philanthropy 101, Dr. Small’s Research course, and the Junior High Leadership Experience Advisory Program come to mind.


And just this week, I heard Brittany Wenger share in her TEDxAtlanta talk about her experience creating an artificial intelligence app to help more accurately diagnosis breast cancer. However, she did reveal that only about 10% of the project was supported as actual school work. The kind of work and contribution that Brittany Wenger is making could BE school.

Business leaders understand the inter-related, interdisciplinary nature of real-world problems and issues. Consider Michael Moreland’s explication on his SEEDR website:

No single discipline or sector can drive meaningful progress alone. To meet the most intractable challenges, we built SEEDR as a vehicle for next-level collaboration, building bridges among industry, philanthropy, government, and academia worldwide. We value wild multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral work and if you share our passion for global development and thirst for learning the languages of technologies, causes, and cultures, we want to work with you.


Does our world possess high-quality activists and efforts geared toward making the world a better place? Absolutely! Do these people come from our existing schools and educational institutions? Of course. However, I believe there is a realization gap. The type of interdisciplinary and cross-sector work that Moreland espouses above could be significantly enhanced with innovative thinking and implementation to transform schools into more “real-life” organizations. We could realize an amplification and acceleration of problem solving by activating our schools as more contributory blends of practitioner-based learning labs. With the proper attention to pedagogical and instructional master planning, I can imagine many scenarios in which content knowledge and cognitive accountability would only be enhanced. In other words, I challenge the typical rebuttal that students would loose content-knowledge attainment chances by working in the ways suggested above. Numerous researchers and practitioners are finding otherwise…especially as they focus more on what is learned and retained, instead of what is delivered and taught.

To summarize several of the points discussed earlier, and to introduce a few not detailed above, I believe that a number of advantages could come from re-organizing school departments in such ways that make school more like real life:

  • Student engagement would improve, as school studies became more relevant and contextual. Attendance issues could improve. In the current state of testing, assessment performance could rise, as shown by people such as Kiran Bir Sethi.
  • Testing could be re-balanced, even replaced in cases, with performance-based assessments that are more realistic and aligned with those performance assessments encountered in the “real world.”
  • The 21st century skills, particularly the 7 Cs, would be more purposefully and realistically integrated into the school day. The practice would better match the games and concerts.
  • Curriculum would move to curricula vitae – “the course of life” – as learning goals and objectives aligned more authentically with the challenges facing our societies and world.
  • For-profit business, government, and non-profit organizations – spokes of a wheel, in some ways – could be connected through the hub of education. Innovation could breed innovation as social entrepreneurship and education became more intertwined and interrelated.
  • Students could experience more giving and contribution as an eventual norm in schools, instead of school being so focused on what students get during their school years. Yet, students would also gain tremendously as they experienced more of a powerful mixture of cognition and affective domains.
  • The issues we face as a human race could be addressed in a solutions-based manner with amplified and accelerated attention from and with schools…schools working more in partnership than in precedents with real-world problem solvers.

Of course, such a move to organization around Departments of Energy and Departments of Justice and Equality could strike fear and trepidation in school administration and faculty and parents. Transitions and transformations could occur in a number of ways. Schools could invest more in master planning. Schools could experiment with a mini-test of such a department with those teachers, students, and parents who were interested and willing. Or wholesale changes could be bravely attempted. In fact, many of our new-school startups are exploring just such re-imagining and re-organizing.

What are your thoughts? Where are the opportunities? Where are the challenges? Do you know of more examples, exemplars, failed prototypes, and not-yet-realized possibilities? How might we think together on such multi-tier innovation in schools and education? I would appreciate your idea, links, questions, and insights. It’s going to take many of us working together to make reality a school.

[This post was cross-published on Connected Principals and Inquire Within on 9.28.12]