Projects That Learn

leaders edleaders

By Tom Vander Ark & Justin Reich

If you’re a school or district leader contemplating a transformation effort, you’re probably wondering about the cost and capacity to mobilize a large scale change agenda. The work feels daunting, but you can’t afford a van full of McKinsey analysts.

You’re also thinking about developing leadership. What will prepare aspiring leaders to create and lead transformational schools?

These two questions are related. The obvious link is that leadership development is typically part of organizational development. Less apparent is the opportunity to structure the change agenda as a leadership development agenda. Here’s how it works:

1. Define change. Describe the transformation as the change from current state to the desired state.

2. Build projects. Break down the transformation into projects (many of them will overlap with lots of dependencies–that’s a good thing, it teaches systems thinking and collaboration)

3. Learning plans. Support the development of individual learning plans including:

  • What I need to learn to get better at my current job now; and
  • What I need to learn for my next job.

4. Distribute leadership. Assign project leadership to aspiring leaders that would benefit from a challenging assignment and breadth of exposure challenge.

5. Support learning. Support real-time learning needs of project managers to staff, resource, and manage a project team. Use blended resources (check out Udemy, General Assembly, Lynda, edX and Project Management Institute).

6. Coordinate. Make sure every project has a plan, an executive sponsor and a budget to support travel, outside resources, supplies or release time (as required). Have regular reviews (every 2-3 weeks) with project leads to identify dependencies.

Regarding the mashup of change management and talent development, David Haglund, deputy superintendent in Santa Ana USD, said “It is a very cool way to spread the message about managing a 21st-century workflow in the organization, and resets the thinking of the adults to be aligned to the instructional shifts tied to project-based learning implementations.”

Here are a few sample projects:

  • Develop an updated graduate profile.
  • Define the next generation learner experience and learning model.
  • Phase in improved computer access and personalized learning.
  • Develop a comprehensive advisory and guidance system.
  • Build secondary pathways linked to emerging job clusters.
  • Recommend a secondary scheduling system.

To support widespread use of this strategy it would help to have:

  • District case studies that illustrate how the change agenda can be approached as a talent development opportunity.
  • Short courses on project management specific to school districts.
  • Exemplars of school and district components (i.e., good examples of all of the above projects).
  • Communities of practice–networks of EdLeaders who share tips and tools for projects that learn.

For more, see:

Justin Reich is the Executive Director of MIT Teaching Systems Lab and co-founder of EdTechTeacher. Follow him on Twitter: @bjfr

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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