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For the past 25 years, I have noticed that the confidence in professional judgment of educators is eroding due to a constant attack on the education profession. I continue to observe state and federal legislators passing legislation that is inflexible and ties the hands of teachers and principals. These fine educators are unable to make decisions that will positively impact their learners. They are robbed of their creativity and ability to innovate in the classroom because of these outside forces. Educators across this country are frustrated and leave the profession because of the lack of respect for their judgment and experience.

Since 1987, I have been committed to developing processes and structures that would bring meaning to the work of those around me. These structures depend on the professional judgment of educators who are closest to the classroom. Connecting community and organizational members to a shared vision and a common purpose developed with staff, parents and community members is the best way for a school district to: learn in collaborative ways; constantly strive to improve the conditions for students; and allow staff members to do their best work on a daily basis.

Consequently, I continue to search for ways that will bring out our best in times of transition and change. All organizations seek stability and balance so that we understand the expectations of our work. To be sure, public education is facing many complex issues such as school funding, various achievement gaps, school choice, and school safety among many others. In addition, public education is experiencing a transition as learning is being transformed and the future of work is evolving because of the influx of new technologies that our students must integrate with to find success. For public education to successfully navigate these changes, we must listen to and build the capacity of all educators to lead this transformation in an environment that exhibits stability, trust, hope and compassion.

It is important to establish clarity and focus and provide avenues that involve all staff in this important work. It is imperative that we understand the needs of our students and staff to maximize and build the capacity of all stakeholders. As we design educational opportunities, it is critical that we do so from the perspective of our students and with the professional judgment of educators. We should then work backward to align our behavior, and that of our system, to meet the unique needs of all learners.

What I am proposing here is very different from traditional school improvement processes or continuous improvement models, and is one that I feel will help our communities realize their shared vision with energy and purpose. By changing our language from school improvement to school design , we use our professional judgment to examine our system and commit to designing learning opportunities that are personalized, authentic and taught with a rigorous curriculum to ALL students.

By maintaining the language of school improvement, educators remain anchored to the current system. The current system is a deficit model that is focused more on remediation and dependency, and will not lead to independent, critical thinkers who problem solve and are able to adapt to an ever-changing world. Despite our best efforts and hardwork to change and improve our current system, the weaknesses in this model hinders our ability to meet the unique needs of all our learners and build on their strengths.

By using the language of school design, we release our energy and create synergy using our professional judgment with multiple stakeholders to focus on designing new systems that support student learning. With a laser-like focus on students and what they need, we create a system that is strengths-based. Educators help our children visualize a positive future and develop the confidence to find their path to a successful future. Staff are not constrained by the legacy of an old system, but are often energized by the opportunity to design learning opportunities that are personalized, authentic and engaging based on student strengths, passions, needs and interests.

The results we seek through this design process are to share our vision for learners, infuse professional judgment into the change process, increase staff buy-in for innovative ideas, build the leadership capacity of all stakeholders, understand district expectations and, of course, increase the achievement and engagement of all students and staff members.

The school design process that I have evolved with these past 20+ years and shared here is based on the work of Stanford’s Design School, The Collective Impact Forum, the Accelerated Schools Project, Adaptive Schools processes, The Institute at CESA #1, Otto Scharmer’s work Theory U , Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. My experience using this research and processes assisted me as I developed and led strength based learning organizations in several schools and districts in multiple states.

In my work as a school administrator and superintendent, it is clear that to realize our vision and reach our goals, we must develop a connection from today to tomorrow. The bridge that connects today with tomorrow starts with strong professional learning programs that support our staff in their growth and development as professionals. In addition, a set of design principles that lead to transformative student learning opportunities is critical to realizing the district’s vision and focused goals.

In my current work, the administrative team co-created a strategic plan with a set of essential and supporting goals with internal and external stakeholders. Today, we work collaboratively to meet agreed upon outcomes for these goals. The district’s individual building teams are meeting to set building goals for the current school year.

The following set of design principles and group norms guides the work of our design teams. The principles serve as a cornerstone for a process that will release the energy of staff in conjunction with the precision of our vision and strategic plan. These design principles define our work, but do not limit our creativity. Rather, they provide staff members with clarity and flexibility, and create an opportunity for team learning to occur. It is my hope to build rich learning environments where teachers and students alike are generative learners. From my experience tells me that learning is grounded in the following design principles:

  • All learning begins with literacy across the content embedded in a viable and guaranteed curriculum across content areas;
  • All learning is grounded in best practices that are supported by high quality formative and summative assessments;
  • Learning is integrated with current and emerging technologies to calibrate student learning to fall within each student’s proximal zone of development, such that success remains within reach, but is challenging enough to require significant effort;
  • Learning is designed to encourage critical thinking through inquiry-based authentic learning opportunities for ALL students;
  • Learning is authentic and designed to foster learning independence through local and global partnerships, rather than dependence on others for direction, structure and solutions;
  • Learning encourages self-awareness, leading to an understanding of students’ strengths and a focus on their passions to nurture learners to “own” their learning rather than view learning as something they do for someone else;
  • Student learning capacity is seen as malleable and developable through practice, persistence and effective use of available resources rather than a hard-wired, unchangeable characteristic;
  • Learning is designed so that students recognize the value of and potential to succeed in relevant learning tasks so they are engaged and persist in becoming independent learners. Adapted from the Institute at CESA #1

The design principles are supported by a set of Design Team norms that serve as objectives by which to operate as a group. They are:

  • Be committed to the truth
  • Build leadership capacity of stakeholders
  • Exhibit trust and respect at all times
  • Take risks and learn from failure
  • Listen to multiple perspectives
  • Be clear of intent/outcomes
  • Presume positive intentions
  • Challenge our mental models
  • Let go of the past
  • Let the future come

In summary, this design process fosters the creativity, innovation and professional judgment of staff members and facilitates collaboration between and among staff, parents, and community. It creates a conversation that is open, direct, and respectful leading to a unique product for each building in the district. Finally, it assists working groups experiencing difficulty to reflect and come together to overcome obstacles and achieve the district’s goal to maximize student achievement and engagement in a positive school culture.

Blane K. McCann Ph.D. is currently the interim superintendent with Piper USD 203 in Kansas City, Kansas President / CEO of Bright Future Consulting. If you would like learn more about personalized learning contact

His most recent work is the book When They Already Know It: How to Extend and Personalize Learning in a PLC at Work, published by Solution Tree, Bloomington, Indiana. 

Blane McCann

Author Blane McCann

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