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7 steps for schools to provide deeper learning

How district leaders can spark curiosity and give students ‘voice and choice’
Grant Lichtman, a former administrator, is the author of Moving the Rock, a book that outlines seven “levers” to help schools or districts introduce a “deeper learning” model.
Grant Lichtman, a former administrator, is the author of Moving the Rock, a book that outlines seven “levers” to help schools or districts introduce a “deeper learning” model.

Our education system is like a giant embedded rock, says Grant Lichtman. In his book, Moving the Rock, the former administrator outlines seven “levers” that schools or districts can use to begin to pry that rock free and introduce a “deeper learning” model that truly prepares students for the future.

The levers, which include changing assessments and a new leadership model, have been applied at a number of schools profiled in the book.

“My head explodes every time I hear someone say, ‘I guess we really need to change schools because they are stuck in the past.’ Well that train left the station a long time ago,” he says.

“We know why schools need to change. The big challenge is how to change our schools before we lose another generation of students to a system of learning that just does not serve their needs.”

You visited numerous schools and districts to find examples of the deeper learning model. Do they have common characteristics?

My experience is that there is a very high level of agreement when you ask stakeholders in diverse schools and communities what they want their schools to be. And that agreement centers around the deeper learning model, which is an education that is vastly more differentiated based on student interest.

It includes student voice and choice. It is based on seeking curiosity, rather than just finding answers and doing well on an exam.

How we make the change is where the big existential question is now, but there’s not agreement about how to get there. We’re starting to see convergence about what is successful, and that’s what I focused the book on.

What makes it more successful in one place than another?

I don’t think it’s geographically dependent and (with a caveat I shared in my book) I don’t think it’s necessarily socio-economically dependent. It’s certainly not dependent on type of school—public, private, charter and so on.

It’s really dependent on a number of characteristics within a school or a district, where we can trace efforts to change and innovate going back decades—Characteristics in leadership, vision, commitment, resource alignment, a willingness to take risks, a willingness to connect beyond their organization, and so on.

Schools now have to exhibit those same sorts of characteristics.

The reason I wrote the book is that many schools and districts have said they want to change but, in fact, we know our schools have been very “stuck.” We get caught up in the finger pointing—“Why is this so hard? Why can’t we change our organizations?”

I wanted to identify strategies and tactics that schools and districts are using successfully to undergo significant transformation, that don’t require permission or empowerment from those forces that have essentially created the inertia in the first place.

There are examples from every region, and every type of school, where they have successfully overcome those forces of inertia.

Do you think one reason for the inertia is fear? What happens if this doesn’t work? Will our kids be able to get into college?

Yes. Fear of an unknown and fear of taking a risk are classic and widely understood impediments to organizational change across all sectors and, frankly, for individuals. Fear and inertia are two of the biggest impediments to schools changing, certainly. And the fear of not being able to get into a good college is probably at the top of that list.

The college admissions policies that I discuss in Moving the Rock are certainly among the largest impediments to schools significantly changing. We see cracks in that dam through efforts like the Turning the Tide report, where there seems to be a strong collective will on the part of the colleges—in theory—to change their admissions practices.

Are we starting to see that change fundamentally in practice? We’re not seeing it yet, but there’s nothing whatsoever preventing colleges and universities around the country from waking up tomorrow and substantially changing their admissions practices.

So this sort of evolutionary change could take a few generations until it becomes the norm.

That could be the case with respect to some of the levers I describe in the book. Our society is undergoing major changes across virtually all sectors.

All our large traditional institutions—political, religious, economic, educational—are still in the throes of adjusting to the information and post-information ages. And those big changes are not going to happen overnight.

What is interesting is that individual schools are changing much more quickly than that. When I wrote #EdJourney five years ago, my best prediction was that individual schools, even given a desire and capacity to change just within their own walls, would take probably 12 to 15 years to make a substantial change.

But in the intervening five years, I think we can say that pace has accelerated dramatically at some schools, many of which I cite in Moving the Rock.

One of the levers you talk about is leadership, and the understanding that it isn’t top-down directives, but a collaboration.

Yes. Schools for a long time have fallen into the trap of the “bimodal” way of leadership.

One is top-down, where the principal, the superintendent, or whoever, tells us what to do and we do it. And the other is more organic, where the leadership says, “Look, we’re going to nurture good things that are happening and our assumption is that those good things will percolate out and become systemic throughout the organization.”

The problem is that takes a very long time. Many of us have now settled on the preferred modality, which is “inside out.” It essentially says we are all leaders of change. Everybody in the organization has a requirement and an expectation to lead change.

We need to provide them the skill set of how to do that. It starts with realizing, “I lead myself through change. I lead a team through change. And I lead a growing tribe throughout the organization through change.”

It empowers teachers who have not viewed themselves as organizational leaders in the past to start acting that way, which is incredibly important amongst successfully changing organizations.

It still takes someone at the top who is capable of dealing with outside interference to give faculty the time and the space to develop their new model.

Absolutely. I talk about the “architect” leader, which is a very different model. It’s not a leader who tries to dictate from the top. It’s a leader who understands that they have to let go and empower others to be good designers and creators of their own change.

It involves a lot of good listening, and designing prototypes and iterating those prototypes, and not getting stuck on one particular answer, but rather having leaders who are willing to evolve their ideas and understandings.

And perhaps most importantly, it requires the titular leaders of our schools to be trained to understand what distributive leadership actually means.

School leaders are recognizing that they have to empower distributive leadership across the system, or else this change either won’t happen or it will take so long that it might as well not be happening.

What’s the big takeaway from your book for our readers?

There are schools and districts across the country—and to some extent around the world—that have undergone really significant transformation toward a school that looks a lot like what your readers want their schools to look like. And they’ve done this essentially by just getting after it; by finding some of these levers and pressing them.

The point is there’s nothing magical about these schools. There’s nothing unique about them. It just takes the collective will of a community to say we are going to press the levers.

I want people to take away that optimism, and the understanding that no one has to recreate the wheel. There’s a tremendous amount of overlap about what we want schools to be. We don’t have to wait for the inertial battles to be solved. We can go ahead and just go after it.


Tim Goral is senior editor.