Risk, Trust, Collaboration: Leadership for Personalized, Learner-Centered Environments

By Ryan MacDonald, Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO
June 12, 2017

Originally posted on EdWeek’s Learning Deeply blog, April 21, 2017.

Imagine an army general leading a tech startup company or a film director running a construction site. Not all leadership positions are built the same, and if there is a mismatch between leader and organization, the results could have disastrous effects. As such, in education, leaders should reflect the school system they oversee. This is especially true for leaders in personalized, learner-centered schools. If you were to take a principal of a traditional school and plop them into a personalized, learner-centered (PLC) environment he or she would need to develop new skills quickly in order to be effective in their role.

Over the course of the last year, the Council of Chief State School Officers in partnership with Jobs for the Future and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation have been working together to develop a set of leadership competencies that outline the types of knowledge, skills and dispositions a school leader would need to implement and sustain personalized, learner-centered education effectively. Over the last few months, we’ve been receiving feedback on a draft of the competencies and leadership in general for PLC environments from state education agency leaders, national and state organizations, superintendents, administrators, and educators. Although we’ve heard from multiple perspectives, there have been trending themes throughout the conversations. Specifically, risk-taking, trust, and collaboration are three themes that continue to emerge as essential for leaders to possess because of the nature of personalized, learner-centered education. In PLC education, leaders must take risks in their practice, collaborate with the different individuals in their school (including students), and build trust in order to fully develop a truly personalized, learner-centered environment.

Although the concepts around PLC education have existed for many years, the practice of it is still new–to some, experimental. Whenever you are developing new strategies to educate students, it can be seen as a risk. This calls for a leader to be willing to take that risk and develop a culture where educators and students feel comfortable taking necessary risks. One practitioner stated, “the culture of risk-taking is critical when you are trying to build a new framework.” Another said “[you] need a leader that is willing to help the teachers navigate the risks that personalized learning presents.” We have reflected this feedback in the current draft of the leadership competencies by stating one competency as, “establish and sustain a learning-focused culture of risk-taking and continuous improvement.” For most educators and students, it is clear that PLC education is a new practice and requires a leader to both be a risk-taker and to encourage risk-taking among the team.

For risk-taking to be fully encouraged and embraced at a school, there needs to be trust among those in the community. As an educator in a focus group stated, “We need to have leaders and administrators who trust teachers and teacher leaders.” Additionally, in PLC environments, students have more control of their education, with support and guidance from educators. This is a key tenet in the vision put forward in the draft competencies and highlighted in the guiding principles in this way: “Students have agency and ownership over their learning.” A school leader needs to know how to cultivate trust in a building, so educators can trust their students to have the skills and knowledge to be able to effectively own their learning. The culture in a PLC environment requires a level of trust to take risks and to trust people will be able learn from the times they fail, not just when they succeed.

Leaders in PLC environments must be collaborative with staff, students, and stakeholders in their community. A PLC school requires leadership and educators to work together to develop a culture of learning for students. The section on “Capacity Building for Innovation and Continuous Improvement” outlines the importance of collaboration. It reads that personalized, learner-centered leaders need to:

“promote continuous improvement for all educators, regardless of tenure or skill-level, and allow space for collaboration and professional learning in ways that mirror the personalized student-learning environment” and “value community culture in hiring and onboarding, especially growth-mindset, collaboration skills, ability to respond constructively to critical feedback, and the belief that all students can succeed when given appropriate and equitable supports.”

It’s vital for leaders to collaborate with their team and stakeholders so they have ownership over the vision and aim of the school. A leader needs to hear from various stakeholders on the team as well as students to make decisions that cultivate a strong learning environment.

It is clear from the focus groups and the dynamic nature of a PLC environment that a principal or school leader in these schools need a variety of knowledge, skills, and dispositions to effectively run the school for all students and staff. Over the last year, we have attempted to incorporate this feedback and define those competencies a leader might need to thrive in this environment. We are currently working to revise the competencies based on the feedback we have received. We’re aiming to release a final version in the summer of 2017.

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