Leading change demands living the change…and building agency

In a recent article on EML, Will Richardson shared that he asks the districts he works with, “Is this a school that learns?” He went on to write these provocative questions:

What does a learning school look like? What’s the culture of a school that learns? How does it happen?

Will sparked in me some significant reflection. He also spurred me to write this blog post and share how Mount Vernon is, indeed, a school that learns. Here’s one example how…

The made world is designed. Everything in it is designed. Therefore, this made world is malleable, changeable, and transformable. For if it was designed, then it can be redesigned. And we all have the ability to make these changes in our world.

This simple argument is at the heart of agency. And we in education should be about the business of inspiring and nurturing agency in our learners. The very essence of being an engaged citizen leader is realizing and understanding one’s capability – one’s agency – to be a positive change agent in the world.

For years, Mount Vernon has focused its work around inspiring and nurturing the agency of learners. We are about designing and making, in numerous and myriad forms, and we are committed to developing engaged citizen leaders who see themselves as agents of change. And we are taking our work in design and making to a next level. We are building our maker, design, and engineering programs, and this work is invigorating and exciting.

Jim Tiffin and T.J. Edwards are leading these efforts to build our maker, design, and engineering programs. Jim Tiffin is the Director of Maker and Media, and T.J. Edwards is the newly appointed Director of Design and Engineering. Together, they are a phenomenal, dynamic duo, and they are integral members of the MVIFI nucleus team. I consider myself most blessed to work alongside them.

Throughout the year, Jim, T.J., and the MVIFI team will be leading a charge to create and construct the next levels of design-and-maker-based learning at Mount Vernon. We’re fortunate to be learning from many others along the way. And we’re looking forward to sharing with many the various stories of this purposeful build that we are experiencing.

But how do you go about such change work?


Among the many lessons of change and program building is this critical mantra: The leaders must live the change.

So, if we intend to take making, design, and engineering to new levels at Mount Vernon, then we must live the change we are expecting. How exactly are we doing this?

Well, here are four ways that we are setting the conditions so that leaders at Mount Vernon can live the change that we are envisioning in maker, design, and engineering.

ONE. If we want more making in school, then we need to build our own skills and understandings as makers.

This summer, The Tinkering Studio at San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Coursera offered a MOOC (massive, open, online course) called “Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning.” T.J. made us aware of this course, and we enrolled together as a small group. The learning was powerful and intense, and it coupled leading research in learning, brain science, and pedagogy with practical experience as participant and facilitator in maker education. For me personally, the experience was invaluable, as I was able to read and watch curated articles and videos (see two examples below) while also trying my hand at tinkering activities that I had never done while wearing these particular lenses of emerging maker facilitator. Additionally, the course materials and practices provided T.J. and me with a number of things to think through and plan together in our own programatic build with Jim.

TWO. If we want more making in school, then we need to make in leadership team meetings.

A mentor of mine once told me (actually, he said it multiple times), “Bo, as much as possible, you should DO the projects that you are expecting your learners to do.” He implored me to lead from a position of experiential understanding. So, if we believe that we are creating conditions for more sophisticated and advanced design and making to exist in our MV classrooms, then we decided to immerse our school leaders in such project work from the very beginning. Therefore, in August, at a meeting for division heads and heads of learning and innovation, we utilized the scribble bot learning that we had undertaken during coursework in the Tinkering MOOC. Here’s a quick movie trailer of that session we enjoyed together – these are the “principals” and “academic deans” of our four divisions at Mount Vernon.

THREE. If we want more making in school, then we need to make time for making in our professional learning days.

For months, we knew that we were scheduled for a professional learning day on October 9, 2015. However, in early September, we decided to reimagine that day as an internal conference, hosted by MVIFI. We named the inaugural event Collider, and we established a small list of sessions that prioritized our strategic objectives as a school. Jim and T.J. co-designed and co-facilitated “anchor sessions” (like anchor stores at a mall) for maker, design, and engineering. On purpose, we set the conditions for faculty to elect into learning experiences that would advance their knowledge, experience, and excitement around design and making. We were intentional about ensuring that building interest in and capacity for maker, design, and engineering was a part of our professional learning day, even before we had all of the details established for the overall programmatic architecture. By doing so, we were prioritizing a strategy of getting our faculty involved.

FOUR. If we want more making in school, then we need to experiment with entirely new ways of developing capacity.

At Mount Vernon, we are fortunate to live in a culture of prototyping and educational entrepreneurship. We ideate frequently about new possibilities, and we rapidly prototype these ideas into physical manifestations. On this maker, design, and engineering front, we are offering “evening maker clubs” for our faculty and staff. This is just a simple idea that we came up with – kind of like book clubs, but for tinkering. So, at the end of September, the MVIFI team prototyped a “dine and design evening,” learned from the experiment, and created a new program for getting faculty together for some food, fellowship, and fun – all centered around building creative confidence in maker, design, and engineering.

Gallery of Photos from Prototype Night for “XLR8 Makers”

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recent invitation sent to Mount vernon faculty for xlr8: makers

MVIFI XLR8 Makers Nov. 12 2015

To purposefully advance the strategic vision and practices of a school requires agency. By definition, such work is about change, and educational leaders must see themselves as change agents – designers, makers, and engineers of better and better learning architectures.

Most importantly, we educators must take seriously our opportunities and responsibilities to inspire and nurture agency in our learners – in ourselves, in our faculties and staffs, in our students, in our parents, and in our surrounding communities. And this incredible work necessarily involves integrating more making, designing, and engineering programs for the benefit and capacity building of our learners.

To do so most successfully demands that we lead by living the change ourselves.

Designing for wisdom – a case study and a set of challenges

Designing organizations – and schools – for wisdom. A fascinating case study full of provocations, encouragements, and challenges to us all.

“Richardo Semler: Radical wisdom for a company, a school, a life”

Schools that work for kids – @E_Sheninger

“No longer should we have school and real life as separate entities.” So concludes Eric Sheninger’s TEDxBurnsvilleED talk: “Schools that work for kids.” Thanks to @Kat_A_Jones, a sophomore member of the Innovation Diploma Disney Cohort for sharing this talk with our team.

For whom is school really designed?

Project Idea #2: Use TED as a rolodex of idea sparks for a virtual army of engaged citizen leaders

I love this talk from Aziza Chaouni: How I brought a river, and my city, back to life.

As I watch, I see an inspirational activist and change maker. And I see a meta-lesson. I see the potential and possibility of dozens and dozens (thousands?!) of student learners giving just such a talk to showcase and share the work that they are engaged in — as their school work — to make a difference in their project(s) of passion and curiosity as engaged citizen leadership.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have watched a TED or TEDx talk everyday since May 11, 2011. Maybe it’s rewired my brain somehow. Because I see in my mind’s eye a virtual rolodex of project stories — to spark, to inspire, to model storytelling, to demonstrate the integrated and connected nature of real-world learning.

Imagine schools across the world where student learners are giving such updates on their project work. What if they joined the rolodex of examples?

Imagine. Make happen. What are the possibilities?


I am thinking of writing a series of blog posts about project ideas that could happen within a school – projects that could both transform school and, ultimately, transform us beyond school. This is my second prototype. I’d love to know what you think.

Project Idea #1: Establish a true, three-part government in school. Live the democracy.

Project Idea #1: Establish a true three-part government in school. Live the democracy.

How serious are we – U.S. schools and educators – about educating citizens for our American democracy?

How many of our schools allow for, or even promote, student governments that model and mirror the three-part system of our governmental system?

Imagine a high school that elected two senators for each grade level. Imagine that high school electing representatives for each grade level, based on population of the grade level. Or perhaps advisories or homerooms could provide for the “state” structure to mimic.

What if there were a true judiciary of the student body, elected and appointed just in the same mechanisms as our U.S., state, and municipal judiciaries? 

What if there were a true executive branch of the student government, elected and empowered in the same manner and mechanism as our President, governors, and mayors?

Imagine that such a system started in elementary school, progressed through middle school, and culminated in high school. 

Over the years, how might our democratic citizenship be “practiced” in the ways of leading and participating in our civic structure and responsibilities?

Imagine a student or group of students who became so passionate about such an idea that they made it happen. Image if they lived the lessons they are being taught in U.S. History and Government classes. 

What system of government are students actually practicing in school? Is it a representative democracy? Is it a relative dictatorship? I wonder what that’s teaching them over 13 years. 

What if they lived and practiced the system that we want them to take responsibility for? What if we operated school in the ways that would more authentically educate a citizen of our democracy?

Imagine. Make happen. What are the possibilities?


I am thinking of writing a series of blog posts about project ideas that could happen within a school – projects that could both transform school and, ultimately, transform us beyond school. This is my first prototype. I’d love to know what you think.