4 Steps to Reorganize Schools Around Learning Relationships

By Gunnar Counselman
Last week, Tom Vander Ark issued a radical challenge to schools: to ensure that every single student has (1) an important purpose, (2) a clear pathway to prepare for that purpose and (3) a network of people to support them. He claims these three P’s–purpose, path and people–are what students need to succeed in life after school, and a school’s job is to equip students to do just that.
I agree with him 100%–schools SHOULD apply this simple framework, and doing so would make their students more successful. Teachers apply the three P’s every day both in and out of the classroom, but so often they do it without real support from the schools themselves.
A quick glance at most schools’ organizational structure as they exist today makes clear that they are designed to transfer knowledge to motivated and well-supported students, not to motivate and provide support to students. To consistently do so demands that we redesign our institutions.
Any organizational redesign must be done slowly and with care–especially when we’re talking about schools. More than just about any other kind of organization, schools are about people and their relationships to one another, and relationships take time to form and are stubbornly resistant to rapid change.
This article is intended to provide a simple roadmap for building organizations that can consistently imbue students with the motivational assets that they need to succeed in school and in life after school: a motivating PURPOSE; a clear PATHWAY of goals, content and credentials; and a support network of PEOPLE uniquely well-qualified to help the student to pursue their purpose.
4 Step Template for Organizational Redesign Effort
1.  Inventory current practices relevant to the three P’s.
2.  Align the leadership.
3.  Design the student experience so that it ensures all students get the three P’s.
4.  Train everyone from faculty to advisors on their rolls as it pertains to the three P’s.

STEP 1.  Inventory Current Practices


Interview. A great way to start this process is by interviewing top leadership and “field personnel” (i.e. the people who work directly with students). Your goal is twofold: first to make sure that people feel heard, and second to ACTUALLY hear what’s working. As we pointed out above, people are 3P naturals. In almost every situation we’ve ever seen–even if the organization has no formal mentoring program, poor advising and no social-emotional learning effort–people are taking it upon themselves every day to fill in the gaps. Even when they’re not formalized in writing, people stand up communities.  Where there’s no paid tutoring, you’ll find teachers after class doing whatever they can.
Survey. Find out what people are doing to support students and look at the trends. Both qualitative and quantitative data matter. A survey can also help provide a baseline to refer back to as you move forward in implementing a learner relationship strategy.
Technology. Find out what technologies everyone is using, even the stuff that’s not being paid for. In other words, if Google and Facebook are not on your list, your list isn’t complete. Good people will find a way, even when their organizations make it hard.  The technology that they’re using will paint a picture of how they’re doing it.

STEP 2. Align the Leadership

Organizational Priorities Assessment. Schools, more than any other type of organization, are inherently intensely relational and human. People deeply care about their students, about their jobs and about their organizations. It’s unwise to propose changes without understanding what the organization thinks. Formally collecting data about what the various silos within the organization value and prioritize and then making that data transparent will go a long way towards two important goals: building trust and identifying where there is real disagreement vs just organizational friction. We’ve found that more often than not, organizations agree on the big things, but let organizational politics get in the way of action. An organizational priorities assessment can make that clear to everyone involved and provide focus.
Persona Development. An important part of design thinking is developing user personas; in this case, student personas. Figuring out the types of students you serve and how many of which type gives you a starting point for the design effort, and it allows you to evaluate various student experience designs in light of who your students are.
The most important question on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is “If you knew then what you know now, how likely would you be to repeat your decision to attend XYZ university.” This question gets to the heart of value proposition, but it’s buried on page four of NSSE. We suggest using a survey called the Net Outcomes Score (NOS) to better understand which Personas you perform best with and why. We’ll explore the NOS further in a future post, but at its core it’s like Bain and Company’s famous Net Promoter Score, but focuses not on what matters most in business referrals, but on what matters most in education success.

STEP 3. Design the Student Experiences

Leaders Workshop. Starting the student experience design with the most senior leaders is about more than optics and politics. We’ve found that VPs, Deans and Provost level leaders are usually the best people to start with because they have both the ground level insights from talking with and interacting with students, and they have the senior level perspective about the organization. Similarly, the people who interact with students all day, every day figure out how to make the organization work for students–even when it doesn’t. It’s the middle managers that are frequently too busy handling their bosses and their subordinates to develop real insights. Have the leaders lay down the major muscle groups of the student experience first, then go department to department adding details.
In-Silo Workshops. Senior leaders are the best place to start, but the reality of most organizations is that the senior people don’t know all of the details, and you need the details. So take the design workshop on the road, not to sell it, but to improve it – to admissions, advising, student affairs, career services, to academic departments and to alumni affairs. Take it to every part of the organization that doesn’t normally communicate well with one another and use the process to begin breaking down the silos.

STEP 4. Train Everyone

We’ll let this final point stand on its own, saying only that in our experience, you can’t over-invest in training, and when done right training is more like a football practice than it is like a lecture. Establish plays, run drills and build the confidence of the team. Keep in mind that everyone is part of the team–senior leadership, professors and advisors, even incoming students.
My company, Fidelis built software to support this transformation, but we have learned that software is just a small part of the need–essential but not sufficient. Don’t fall into the technology trap. Technology is essential, but it can’t lead. The educational philosophy itself must lead and then technology can be the vehicle to help scale the ideas.
More immediate than the need for software is the requirement for change management consulting and support. We’ve found that more often than not, organizations need to build both the will and skill necessary to establish student a student life-cycle able to imbue students with a motivating PURPOSE, a clear PATHWAY of content, credentials and goals, and a strong support network of PEOPLE to help .
One of the hardest parts of the above 4 steps is figuring out the student personas. Coming next in this series, a deeper look at student-centered design and how using student personas might help you develop a learning relationship management strategy and organization design.
This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Out of Class Student Support Services” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with Fidelis Education (@FidelisEd). For more information, contact [email protected]. Join the conversation on Twitter using #OutOfClassSupport. For more see:

Gunnar Counselman is founder and CEO of Fidelis Education. Follow him on Twitter:@GCounselman.

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