Creating a New Vision: Three “Re-Thinking Breakthroughs”

Voices from the Field   22 December 2015
By Bea McGarvey


Transformation isn’t about improving…It’s about RE-THINKING.

Malcolm Gladwell


Educators, policy makers, parents, and learners are signing on to a new vision for education. No more tinkering! It’s all about transformation.

Creating a new vision, however, is a foreign concept for us educators. We are much more comfortable with implementing a new program. Just tell us the components of the new program, and we will comply. Creating a new vision??? Where and how do we begin this transformation?

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell tells us, “Transformation isn’t about improving…It’s about RE-THINKING.”

While working in the field to make this vision a reality, my colleagues and I have discovered a few “Re-thinking Breakthroughs.”

Breakthrough #1: Start with the Ideal Learning Experience

Creating a vision? Let’s begin by studying and modeling the thinking and creative processes of visionaries. Today’s visionaries don’t think about buffing and polishing existing organizations, they begin by…re-imagining the ideal.

Steve Jobs didn’t think about buffing and polishing Tower Records. He began by re-imagining what the “ideal listening experience” might be.

Jeff Bezos didn’t think about buffing and polishing Barnes and Noble. He began by re-imagining what the “ideal reading experience” might be.

Teachers, Jerry Baldwin and Zev Siegl, and writer Gordon Bowker didn’t think about how to make a better cup of coffee. Instead, they began by re-imagining what the “ideal coffee experience” might be.


We almost universally try to stuff that beautiful, ideal learning experience into the current, bureaucratic, time-based, Industrial Age, assembly-line structure of our public schools.

Bea McGarvey

So let us start by re-imagining (and defining) the Ideal Learning Experience (ILX). My friend and colleague, Chuck Schwahn, and I base our definition of the ILX on the conditions for intrinsic motivation.

Every hour of every day, every learner (simultaneously):

  • is met at his/her level of learning;
  • is using one of his/her best styles of learning;
  • is learning concepts and skills with content of high interest to him/her;
  • understands the relevancy of what he/she is learning; and
  • is challenged, successful, and looks forward to returning to his/her
    learning community tomorrow.

Once Jobs, Bezos, and the three coffee-guys imagined their ideal experience, they then asked the Design Question: What will we have to do—have to create—to make the ideal listening, reading, or coffee experience happen? With this question in mind, they followed the golden rule of effective organizational structures: Form follows Function. And, their answers to the Design Question required new structures, which gave birth to iTunes, Amazon, and Starbucks.

We educators, on the other hand, reverse the golden rule of organizational structure:  We put the Form before the Function. We almost universally try to stuff that beautiful, ideal learning experience into the current, bureaucratic, time-based, Industrial Age, assembly-line structure of our public schools. Instead, the Design Question for us educators must be: What will we have to do—have to create—to make the Ideal Learning Experience happen? To make Form follow Function?

AND, that question is closely followed by another: who will create them?

Breakthrough #2: Empower (Unleash) Teachers

Most educators are energized and pulled by this vision—to REALLY meet the individual learning needs of all learners simultaneously. Savvy leaders, at all levels of the educational community, are recognizing the power of a previously untapped resource: the expertise and entrepreneurial thinking of teachers. These leaders are systematically enabling educators—especially teachers—to create the structures that will allow the Ideal Learning Experience to exist. The culture in their organizations has shifted.

New Hampshire Commissioner of Education, Virginia Barry has shifted the culture from the very top of New Hampshire’s educational community. Likewise, under the leadership of Superintendent Tom Rooney, the Lindsay Unified School District in California is a model of top-down/bottom-up transformation. Both leaders are strategically empowering—or systematically enabling—their staff.

These leaders recognize that the bureaucratic, controlling, accountability strategies of Industrial Age public schools have served only to manipulate people and have resulted in a culture of veiled compliance and, ultimately, of alienation. Applying the research of motivational theorists (Dweck, Pink, Deci, and others), these leaders are using empowering strategies to support people as they create the vision, resulting, instead, in a culture of autonomy and investment.

Empowerment is about acknowledging and releasing the power people and teams already have. A question remains: Are all people/teams ready for empowerment? As we observe these empowered teams in the field, we are seeing the following characteristics—which might become requisites to empowerment:

  1. They GET the vision. It runs through their veins. They aren’t faking it. It’s impossible for them to think otherwise.
  2. They are out-of-the-box thinkers. They are not paralyzed by the 1892 structures in which they find themselves.
  3. They are problem-solvers. They identify barriers and constraints and brainstorm ways to get over, under, or
    around them. They make no excuses.
  4. They use inventive thinking. They are entrepreneurial.
  5. They have a Growth Mindset for themselves. They are not deterred by setbacks. They have a strong sense of efficacy. They believe they can transform education.
  6. They share the load. They work together in teams—continually adjusting to meet the needs of learners.
  7. They embrace technology. They use technology as teacher and enabler to be able to customize learning for all learners.

Breakthrough #3: Change Your Language

The last of the Re-thinking Breakthroughs is rather simple—yet symbolic and powerful. If I say, “students, teachers, classroom, schools,” you get a picture in your head.  However, if I say, “learners, learning facilitators, learning opportunities, learning communities,” you get a different picture.


The words we use drive our THINKING. It’s what we SEE, and thus, what we CREATE.

Chuck Schwahn

Replace the old, Industrial Age words with those that signal a transformation and see the possibilities that emerge.


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