Creating a Culture for Rigorous Learning: The Key to Successful Lives for ALL Students Leading the Reinvention of Education

by Bill Daggett, Ed.D. and Susan A. Gendron

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Rigorous learning is the bridge from our classrooms to our students’ future, long-term success. Rigorous learning is developing in students the skills, knowledge, attitudes and aptitudes that will enable their success in the increasingly complex world in which they will live and work. To achieve rigorous learning for all students requires instructing each student in a way that is relevant to him or her. It includes nurturing, caring relationships with ALL students and teaching interpersonal skills. It includes instilling in ALL students the skills they will need for the careers that will allow self-sufficiency as adults.

The world is changing at a rapid fire pace. Think back to what the world looked like when you were an elementary school student. Recall the learning tools you used and the technologies you had in your home. Consider how much life has changed since then, and how quickly. Consider how much your smartphone alone has changed in just the past few years.

Technology is driving change at breakneck speed. And it’s influencing everything—from how we communicate and get and share information, to how we get work done and engage in commerce. It’s changed our relationships with each other and it’s changed how we relate to and collaborate with those in other parts of the world. It’s changed what is needed to be successful in work; everyone must be reasonably fluent in technology. It’s changed how we will be successful in life; the transparency and permanence of our digital selves—our “digital tattoo,” that mark we leave of all of our online communications and actions—is having and will continue to have a huge impact on our students’ ability to succeed in college, the workplace and society.

What does this mean? It means that the well-paying jobs of tomorrow, the jobs that will allow people to be self-sufficient, successful in their careers and successful as citizens—the jobs we want our students to get—are getting increasingly competitive. As the world changes rapidly, by and large our schools’ rate of change is not keeping pace. Too many schools are struggling to provide our students the rigorous learning they need to thrive in the world they will face upon graduation. Unless we as leaders decide to make big changes in name of rigorous, student-centered learning, the gap between what today’s learners need and what schools provide them will only grow larger and larger, making it harder and harder to catch up.

Many schools across the nation are now attempting to create curriculum where the goal is to provide rigorous learning opportunities for every student.

How do they do that? More importantly, how do you do that? How do you and your district close the gap between what the world demands and what schools provide?

It begins with a shift in culture and our collective mindset: ALL educators must begin thinking less about teachers teaching and more about learners learning. This is the lens through which productive education must be viewed: Are students learning?

A Systemwide Approach to Rigorous Learning and Sustainable Change

Change is hard—there is no doubt about it. But when approached collectively with a systemwide shift in mindset, the culture can and will change.

We’ve seen many districts make great strides in building instructional capacity and shifting the culture to where ALL parts of the system believe in rigorous learning for ALL students. We have also seen time and time again that if the entire system—from the classroom all the way to the district office—is not aligned around supporting teachers as they deliver rigorous and relevant learning to ALL students, innovation and broad changes will not sustain.

The key to making a systemwide shift toward rigorous learning for ALL students is first to create awareness of the problem and then to nurture a change in mentality, one that will eventually become a “change culture” that is embedded throughout the entire system of organizational leaders, instructional leaders and teachers, as well as parents and the community.

Leading the change process also requires patience. It cannot be rushed. The initial awareness program should start small, typically with a group—perhaps one-third—of administrators and teachers who seem to recognize the challenge and therefore are open to change.

Leaders must guide the process through three distinct stages by addressing three overarching questions: Why? What? How?

Why is change needed?

What are our beliefs about learning and what do we believe needs to be done to address the challenges identified?

How are we going to implement change?

Only after the first two questions have been communicated and addressed should a plan of action—the how—be planned and built.

Not all staff and other stakeholders will be in agreement with the need or the plans, especially in the early stages. Consider two important approaches to implementing transformational change:

By segmenting the staff into thirds, the “lunatic fringe,” those who are always up for improvement efforts, can convince the “moderate middle” that change is inevitable and they will get on board when they recognize the realities of why change is needed. Once two-thirds of the staff is invested, the “nay-sayers,” who may never be entirely on board with anything that will make them change their 10-year-old lesson plans or calendars, are more likely to follow suit. Be sure to involve those outside stakeholders who can provide support, credibility, reinforcement of messaging, and resources.

Be compassionate and empathetic during the process of culture change. People accept change in different ways, with different needs and styles of adapting. Be honest, but also encouraging. Reach out to those who need support along the journey. A culture of positive relationships, trust, and caring concern really makes a difference in helping people suspend disbelief and eventually climb on board. Culture trumps strategy every time.

Changing culture isn’t easy. However, a shift toward more rigorous learning for all students must be made if our children are to be prepared to succeed in this ever-changing world that requires complex, high-level thinking.

Bill Daggett, Ed.D. is founder and chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), in Rexford, NY.

Susan A. Gendron is President of ICLE. For more information, go to www.leadered.com.

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