The Human School: A Conversation with Randy Ziegenfuss

Q&A   15 June 2022
By Randy Ziegenfuss


I see mindset as being the foundation, the root of everything.

Randy Ziegenfuss
Founder and Lead Visionary at The Human School

We sat down with Randy Ziegenfuss, who we met in 2017 when he was the then Superintendent of Salisbury Township School District in Salisbury, PA. We collaborated with Randy as he and his colleague, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, launched their podcast Shift Your Paradigm, exploring leadership in learner-centered environments with practitioners in the field. Since retiring from public education in 2021, Randy has been focused on a new venture, The Human School.

Q: Why The Human School and why now? 

I’ve always considered myself a reflective practitioner, so when I retired from my superintendency, the logical first step was to make sense of 34 years in public education, from music and theater teacher to superintendent.

One thread that I saw weaving itself through those several decades was the need for more humanity in our organizations and systems. Teachers, students, families, leaders — all wanted to be seen, heard, and valued. Yet, too often, systems were set up to prioritize system needs and standardization over human needs.

This human-centered thread served as an anchor to look back on my various roles and activities as an educator and uncover the actions and mindsets to transform those organizations and systems to be more human-centered.

As I examined and reflected on my practice, I identified four areas of action: Objector, Inventor, Curator, and Storyteller. I call these four actions, collectively, The Human School Compass.

Within each area of the Compass Points, I further uncovered specific, more human-centered ways of thinking. I call these mindshifts.

The Human School Compass and mindshifts are an idea — a theory based on my own practice — of how we might transform education and its systems to be more human-centered. 

I realized that exploring these ideas with people committed to true transformation is how I want to spend my time, and so far, so good!

Q: Tell us about the Compass. What’s unique about those particular four points?

The Human School Compass is only one answer to how we might move our schools to be more human-centered. It is a unique way of broadly framing the journey that I saw myself (and others through the Shift Your Paradigm Podcast) taking.

You’re an Objector when you identify those things you want to change and commit to taking action upon them. The Objector Compass Point contains two mindshifts:

  • Be radically curious: Navigating from passively compliant to actively curious
  • Lead from anywhere: Navigating from leadership just in title to leadership where anyone can take action 

You’re an Inventor whenever you design a solution that brings about change. The Inventor Compass Point contains three mindshifts:

  • Start with the human: Navigating from prioritizing the needs of the system to prioritizing the needs of the people
  • Step out of the present and into the possibilities of the future: Navigating from ignoring the future to embracing the future 
  • Design collaboratively: Navigating from designing alone to designing with others

You’re a Curator when you design and implement a plan to gather human-centered evidence on the effectiveness of your solutions. The Curator Compass Point contains two mindshifts:

  • Leverage your insider perspective: Navigating from devaluing your insider perspective to embracing our collective expertise
  • Value stories as much as numbers: Navigating from overvaluing numbers to valuing stories and numbers

You’re a Storyteller when you reflect on what you learned being an Objector, an Inventor, and a Curator, and you share that story with the world. The Storyteller Compass Point contains two mindshifts:

  • Reflect on your journey and what you’ve curated: Navigating from ignoring what happened to learning from what happened 
  • Tell the new story: Navigating from not sharing our stories to we will share many stories

Q: Why do mindshifts and paradigm shifts matter in order to truly transform education? 

I see mindset as being the foundation, the root of everything. So a mindshift is going from one mindset to another. I saw a lot of different mindsets in my work and within my own organization. When we’d try to change things, it wouldn’t always work or be sustainable because the way we think about school, or our mindset about school, is so in our DNA that we don’t really change the way we think, even when a new idea is presented. Really changing the way we think requires a mindshift.

These mindsets and shifts are particularly important when it comes to deep systems change. Unfortunately, it is the work that often has the most friction and is the hardest to accomplish. Going back to my practice and reflection, the times that things didn’t work out or I saw transformation not stick were because people were still thinking in the old way. That’s why the idea of systems thinking and systems change requires a whole range of leverage points that we can push on to advance change. 

But, despite the challenge of it, I believe you have to go for the mindset shift because if you go for anything less, you are tinkering around the edges. You aren’t going to get what you truly want, and that is a system where all learners are seen, heard, and valued — a deeply human system. Education Reimagined has been talking about this quite a bit — the idea of the need for systems change. 

And, practitioners need to have a voice in that change and in that system. They have energy and ideas that need to be heard. In many ways, The Human School is seeking to address that need not with a solution per se, but with an idea for a new approach or way of thinking about it. This is why I’m so focused right now on engaging more practitioners in this work.


I believe you have to go for the mindset shift because if you go for anything less, you are tinkering around the edges.

Randy Ziegenfuss
Founder and Lead Visionary at The Human School

Q: We are particularly interested in Inventors. Tell us more about what this looks like in practice. 

Randy: It comes after Objector, which is when you find something that you want to change, something you object to in education. Once you identify that, you have to take some action. That action is to design an alternative idea, implement it, gather data and information from it, and tell a new story about it. 

It is really about inventing or designing a solution that brings about change. Like with the five elements of learner-centered education, they are kind of bottomless. Inventing is different from being an improver, which would just be making slight changes to the existing practice or way of doing things.

The idea of the Inventor is that you are trying to create something new that does not yet exist and that can address what you’re objecting to in the system. In the process of invention, what you imagine and create first might not be the most effective path — it might even be chaotic, but that is OK. If you are inventing something, you don’t have that clarity just yet, you have to embrace that.

Q: What do you hope to see happen from the work of The Human School?

Randy: Since this is Version 1.0 of an idea, the focus for the next year is to iterate through conversations with educators in learning environments working on transformation, as well as with other curious educators. What resonates? What’s missing? What would make this framework really useful for those committed to transforming systems?

Learning in public is one of the values in the framework itself, so this iteration process is happening online for all to see through a variety of media in the Conversations hub. I’ve been collaborating with two colleagues, Chad Evans and Rachel Girman, along with other community members, to design the next stage of iteration. 

We’ve been trying to make resources and create spaces for conversation, like Mindshift Cards Conversations, an Inquiry Inventory, podcasts, you name it — all trying to help people think about their work differently. We already have a few I’m really excited about:

  • The Human School Manifesto What exactly is this thing called The Human School?
  • Narrative-style podcast episodes connecting the four Compass points and corresponding mindshifts to practitioners.
  • A Video MasterClass for those who want to learn more deeply about The Human School Compass and the mindshifts.
  • Conversations, a public virtual space where we have conversations about The Human School through various media, including podcasts, blogs, videos, social media, and other creative content. 
  • Mindshift Cards, a series of rich questions that’ll take you deep into each of The Human School Compass points and their corresponding mindshifts. 
  • The Human School Compass Guide PDF V. 1.0, a visual outline of the Compass points and mindshifts. (This one is still in its first phase of iteration!)
  • A Private Facebook Group for building community around the evolution of the idea of The Human School.

Q: We know all this work is driven by your vision for a new future of education. Tell us more about that. 

Randy: Our vision is a human-centered movement focused on transforming learning communities where each individual is seen, heard, and valued. All are able to flourish by cultivating and by meaningfully contributing their unique gifts to the world.

We need a new system and are not sure exactly how we go about getting there. But, if we keep the system as it is now, it just doesn’t work for all people. That system needs to be transformed into something where people are seen, heard, and valued. All are able to flourish by cultivating and meaningfully contributing their unique gifts to the world. I believe this is possible but to get there will take true transformation from the school system we have now.

We’ve been dehumanized — right now, we feel unseen, unheard, and unvalued (or devalued). So I think the future of education is where every individual feels seen, heard, and valued. Why? Because every individual has something inside of them, a gift. No matter the ways the system tries to push back on or ignore those gifts, they exist and should be elevated and valued so they can contribute to the common good. Imagine the world we would have if everyone contributed whatever their gift is? That is my vision.

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