Best Practices for Transforming Learning

by Stephen Davis

In addition to the ideas expressed by scholars of adult learning, the literature reveals interesting suggestions from top business executives and professional development gurus.

What follows are 11 especially good ideas that may prove useful to superintendents interested in stimulating the transformative learning of school leaders. Of course, since the chemistry that sparks collective imagination and creativity in schools can be highly situational, none of the ideas presented below will guarantee success. Applying combinations of these ideas is more likely to stimulate creativity, innovation and transformative learning than applying a single strategy alone.


  • Identify and nurture mavens and champions.Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, suggests that leaders “set maven traps.” That is, they find out which people in the organization exert deep influence, not by the virtue of their rank or status, but by the power of their passion and support for a new idea and their ability to influence others. These are the people whom leaders enlist to become change catalysts. In this effort, leaders also identify the champions of change (those who have an established record of successful innovation) and support and recognize their accomplishments.



  • Establish and support hot groups.Thomas Kelley and Jonathan Littman, in their book The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm, define hot groups as typically non-hierarchical, diverse, like-minded people in pursuit of goals, passionate, slightly irreverent but mutually respectful.


    Hot groups are frequently cross-functional, with members drawn from different units within an organization. Such collaboration often creates a buzz of creative energy that can permeate the organization. Stay out of the way! It’s better to be a guide on the side than a sage on the stage.


  • Reduce unnecessary controls.In their book Creativity Inc.: Building an Innovative Organization, Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman maintain that creativity rarely flourishes in highly regulated work environments. People who work in organizations need to feel efficacious and potent. They need the physical and mental space to unveil their talents, gifts and best efforts. Arrange physical spaces and work schedules so that key people can have regular opportunities to interact informally as well as formally. According to Mark and Barbara Stefik in Breakthrough: Stories and Strategies of Radical Innovation, it also helps to develop and support a “fellowship of the bench” whereby you find opportunities to match rookies and novices with proven innovators.



  • Hire and organize for diversity.Years ago, as I prepared to take over the principalship of a large suburban high school, the outgoing principal forewarned me that the faculty “could, from time to time, pose a challenge.” He had purposefully hired people with different backgrounds (e.g., culture, gender, age, politics) and differing perspectives and beliefs about educating children. He did this precisely because of the vibrancy and energy such diversity can bring to an organization.


    The principal was quite right in his assessment of the faculty. However, we never were short of divergent opinions and creative ideas, several of which stuck to the ribs of the organization and helped stimulate the transformative dimensions of my own professional development.


  • Resistance and conflicting ideas can be useful allies behind organizational change and personal development.Glad-handers, groupies and yes-men and women are never at the forefront of creative change. According to Richard Daft, a Vanderbilt University professor of organizational studies, “Only the ideas you disagree with have the power to change you.” Moreover, resistance surfaces issues that must be addressed if change is to progress and often generates opportunities for further creativity. Leaders who mismanage controversies over conflicting ideas can create a culture of mistrust and fear and unwittingly engender subversive behaviors.



  • Help school leaders learn to cultivate strategic brainstorming.According to Thomas Kelley and Jonathan Littman, “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” Each of us has participated in structured efforts to brainstorm creative ideas or solutions to organizational problems. But brainstorming is far more than simply posting wild ideas on a wall chart. Effective brainstorming requires practice, focus, strategy and a competitive yet friendly process.


    Encourage wild ideas and playful thinking, yet stay focused on the issue at hand. Carefully articulate the problem, issue or objective beforehand. Brainstorm frequently and infuse it into the cultural fabric of the organization. Find ways to jumpstart the group when creativity plateaus. It’s often when the easy ideas have been exhausted that the deep work of creative thinking begins. Remember, great discoveries most often emerge at the point where rational analysis ends and human imagination begins.


  • Fail your way to success, but always make new mistakes.Management experts Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas maintain that most people learn more from their mistakes than from their successes. The reality is that novel ideas are frequently impractical and prove ineffective. Failures and mistakes should become the grist for opportunistic search rather than stagnation and retreat.


    My dad told me when I was learning to snow ski, “If you don’t fall down from time to time, you’re not learning anything new.” When people fail honestly, with integrity and through calculated risk taking, they should be acknowledged, coached and encouraged. So close your eyes, take 10 deep breaths and give people a chance to fail safely and instructively.


  • Keep a junk box of ideas and solutions that didn’t work and treat all prior thinking as a storehouse of emerging solutions.This suggestion from Kelley and Littman recognizes that contexts change, situations change and players change. What failed to work in the past may well provide reasonable solutions (or parts of solutions) in the present or future. I can’t tell you how many times over the course of my career I’ve heard school leaders dismiss creative ideas with the statement, “We already tried that and it didn’t work.”



  • Learn how to juggle beanbags.Kelley and Littman focus on the importance of building prototypes, not monoliths. Massage good ideas in context. Get the ball rolling! Don’t worry about finding perfect solutions or inventions immediately. Put new ideas into the field, test them, seek feedback, adjust and refine the details along the way.



  • Help school leaders think verbs, not nouns.Help them focus on how a creative idea will be experienced by others rather than on the contextual factors. Kelley and Littman suggest asking, “How will it feel? What emotions will it evoke?” This kind of thinking gives life to innovative ideas. It humanizes deliberations and fosters an experiential rather than an abstract or theoretical orientation to creative thinking and learning.



  • Become proficient in the art of storytelling and the use of metaphors and analogies.Lee Bolman and Terry Deal encourage school leaders to learn how to tell stories about the school, its people and their accomplishments. Vibrant, interesting and meaningful stories can be tremendously powerful symbols about what is valued, what is accomplished and the positive attributes of those who promote creative change. Stories rich with metaphors, analogies and humor can stimulate the imagination and new insights and can shake loose deeply ingrained patterns of thinking. They allow us to chunk problems or complex ideas into a rough but colorful storyboard that portrays them in ways that can be understood and appreciated by others quickly and powerfully.