School Hacks As Professional Learning: Transforming Schools, One Leader at a Time

What if big changes started small? What if adopting a “hack mindset” led to transformational change at your school or organization?

That’s the theory behind School Retool, a relatively new transformational professional development cohort that is making its way to regions around the country. When an education leader joins School Retool, they commit to attending in person workshops over the series of a few months. In return, they receive personal coaching, have access to a network of other innovative principals in their region and obtain collegial support, all with the goal of implementing new changes at the school level.

School Retool is a partnership between the design firm IDEO, the Stanford d.School and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation as part of its deeper learning initiative (#deeperlearning). The Raikes Foundation, based in the Seattle area, is bringing School Retool to the Puget Sound in early 2016.

What is School Retool?

School Retool is a professional development fellowship that helps school leaders redesign their school culture utilizing small experiments called “hacks.”

Hacks may be small, but they’re built on research-based practices that lead to Deeper Learning outcomes, and can create big impact.

In the School Retool fellowship, school leaders learn to adopt a “hack mindset” which Sally Madsen, Senior Design Lead at IDEO describes as three things:

  • Start small. Break down goals into smaller ones that are quickly achievable. Keep the team small and the timeframe short.
  • Bias to action. Don’t overthink it, just try it.
  • Fail forward. Use “failures” as an important opportunity to learn.


Madsen, who authored the blog The “Hack” Mindset for School-Wide Change and was featured in our recent publication, Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning, described the success one principal had in the School Retool program this way:

“Hoping to increase student voice in addressing racial tensions in her school, she [the principal] invited a set of students—socially influential but not highly engaged in school—to a ‘speak your mind’ session in her office with pizza and refreshments. They watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Adiche about race. Slowly, a deep conversation opened up about race, class, and how students in certain groups are perceived by others. At 5:30 (two hours after school ended) the students were still in her office! This was unheard of. And the next day, one of the students came into her office and said, ‘I need you to help me. I’m not motivated. My grades are terrible.’ With just a small experiment, striking new behaviors had emerged, inspiring the principal to completely rethink how she cultivated student voice at her school.”

What it Involves

Here’s what a sample workshop schedule might look for a School Retool program:


If you are a principal and are interested in applying for School Retool, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Check out the School Retool application page and apply today. Applications for Puget Sound are open until December 18th. Other applications for additional School Retool programs are open through January including cohorts in Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Virginia, and Washington D.C.
  2. Share the application with principal friends of yours. On social media, use the #deeperlearning hashtag and follow @SchoolRetool to share and spread information about School Retool.
  3. If there’s no School Retool in your area, don’t fret. Consider sending School Retool a note with your interest. School Retool will be coming to all 50 states in the near future.  How do we know? Because in November, the White House hosted a high school redesign summit and announced the School Retool program will be growing! As part of the White House’s commitment to fund innovative approaches to learning, they announced that there will be a “new funder collaborative led by William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that will provide support for more than 1,000 school leaders across 50 states to redesign their schools with leaders.”

As Sally Madsen writes:

“Whether you’re a leader looking to design school culture or an educator looking to make shifts at the classroom level, try the hack mindset on for size! Take a bias to action and learn through hacking, so that when the time comes to scale your approach you’re already informed and inspired. Big change starts small.”

Are you a principal that has a story to tell about deeper learning? Email [email protected] and place “deeper learning” in the subject line. We’d love to hear your stories of hacks and successes.

For more see:

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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