Future of Learning Top Reads for week of June 25 2018


I frequently enjoy the privilege of collaborating with Leadership+Design. Sometimes that means project work for schools, sometimes it means co-presenting at conferences, and sometimes it means writing for L+D's blog.

Recently L+D published their 2018 summer reading recommendations. It contains contributions from Carla Silver, L+D's Executive Director; Erin Cohn, a senior partner and Experience Designer; and me.

I encourage you to read Carla's and Erin's recommendations. In the meantime, below is a reprint of my suggestions. I hope this summer affords you the chance to enjoy one or more of these great reads.


Recently I was talking to an emerging school leader about the challenges and opportunities in bringing about organizational change. Before long, our conversation turned to the power of culture.

“What books would you recommend on culture?” she asked.

“You should start with The Culture Code,” I said. “In fact, I’m going to be reviewing it for the next L+D newsletter.”

Her question made me realize that, in the spirit of design thinking, my reviews should align to the needs of L+D newsletter readers. So I hope these questions behind my summer book recommendations resonate for you:

  • How might we design a culture to support our vision?

  • How might we design forecasts for an uncertain future?

I have also chosen these two books because they strike me as appropriate follow-ons to Whiplash, the book the inspired this year’s entire set of L+D monthly newsletters. If Whiplash (2015) tells us “How to Survive Our Faster Future” by way of nine broad design principles, then The Culture Code (2018) and The Signals Are Talking (2016) offer specific strategies and tactics.

How might we design a culture to support our vision?

What could make a single sentence--a mere 19 words--so powerful that its recipients improved dramatically over those who did not receive the same feedback?

In The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle tells of an experiment conducted by Stanford, Yale, and Columbia psychologists. An experimental group of middle school students, after writing an essay, received the following feedback from the teacher:

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.”

Coyle points out that

“None of these words contain any information on how to improve. Yet they are powerful because they deliver a burst of belonging cues. Actually, when you look more closely at the sentence, it contains three separate cues:

  1. You are part of this group.

  2. This group is special; we have high standards here.

  3. I believe that you can reach those standards.

These signals provide a clear message that lights up the unconscious brain: Here is a safe place to give effort.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Everything we do--and everything we neglect to do--is a drop in the sea of our school’s culture. When department chairs always hand off hard conversations to division heads, that contributes to culture. When people seek out the faculty lounge as a space to complain, that contributes to culture. When every employee makes a point of saying to visitors, “Welcome to our school,” that contributes to culture.

Across 21 years of working in education, I can count on one hand the number of schools where the culture had been intentionally designed and cultivated. But it can be done. And Coyle’s book details how, starting with the atomic units of culture:

  • Build Safety (use “belonging cues”)

  • Share Vulnerability

  • Establish Purpose

I want to pause for a caveat. After I recommended the book to Carla Silver, she pointed out that she liked it very much and she felt it put forward a “very male” point of view on culture. As a male and someone who spent most of my career in all-boys education, I knew instantly that Carla had put her finger on something essential that I had totally missed. It is worth wondering what a more balanced (or even a female-centric) exploration of culture might yield.

Fortunately, my favorite moment in the book is a non-gendered one: Coyle describes the way that murmurations of starlings can reveal something about powerful cultures.

A murmuration of starlings is

“a living cloud that swirls and changes shape at the speed of thought. [...] The question, of course, is how so many birds behave like a single entity. [...] Basically, each starling tracks the six or seven birds closest to it, sending and receiving cues of direction, speed, acceleration, and distance. [...] Successful groups are attuned to the same truth as starlings: Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goals. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story.”

This is the two-edged sword of school culture: we adore stories from the past, yet we spend very little time telling the stories of the future that we seek.

Which brings me to...

How might we design forecasts for an uncertain future?

What if schools could see into the future and start telling those stories now?

That sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it is not as far-fetched as you may think.

Consider this story:

“Around noon on November 12, 2015, a police officer in Northern California noticed something unusual. There was a gumball-machine shaped car ambling slowly along a busy, three-lane road. Unlike the other cars that would occasionally signal and brake to turn into one of the liquor stores or the Five Guys Hamburgers restaurant along the street, this car was driving along steadily at 24 miles per hour--about 10 under the speed limit. It wasn’t swerving or violating other traffic laws. When the police officer finally pulled over the car, he was startled and completely unprepared for what he saw.”

You can probably guess that this was a self-driving car. But beyond a future of autonomous vehicles, what can you see? Does it matter that Google, an internet search and advertising company, is behind this experiment?

For a professional futurist like Amy Webb, this story about a self-driving car--which she tells in The Signals Are Talking--is a signal from what she calls “the fringe.” But it is not an isolated signal. In fact, it belongs to a pattern that includes Google’s investments in companies such as Editas Medicine (genomics), Kobalt (music), and Boston Robotics (robots). None of these are search or advertising companies. Does Google envision a future that the rest of us don’t see?

To make sense of all of this, we need to recognize that search and advertising belong to the stories of Google’s past and present. On the other hand, as Webb points out, that self-driving car in 2015 was connected to a story about Google’s future: artificial intelligence. Autonomous vehicles collect massive amounts of geospatial data, which in turn shape apps like Waze and Google Maps, which in turn collect data on how we drive, which in turn train the artificial intelligences running those autonomous vehicles. Would it shock you to learn that Google’s CEO Sindhar Pinchai said last year that Google’s future is as an artificial intelligence company? All of a sudden, Google’s massive stake in Uber is a signal that makes a lot more sense.

But what does this mean for education? Webb’s book offers a method for seeing--and hearing--the ways that signals:

  • emerge at the fringe, before they...

  • coalesce into trends, and eventually...

  • settle into mainstream life.

For example, in the last decade, many signals were blinking at the fringes of the education industry. First came iPads and Chromebooks. As fringe use cases for digital devices evolved into trends, new signals emerged at the fringe: online learning and project-based learning. After a few more years, 1:1 programs have become commonplace; online learning and PBL have matured into strong trends; and at the fringes we hear about schools experimenting with mixed reality and artificial intelligence.

To be clear, a signal at the fringe is not guaranteed to evolve into a trend (to say nothing of settling into a commonplace phenomenon). That is because, as Webb writes, “Future forecasts are probabilistic in nature”; forecasts are not predictions. That is why students study through Global Online Academy and One Schoolhouse and not MOOCs. Each represents a legitimate mode of online learning, but five years ago a futurist would have assigned those signals different probabilities as future trends.

Our craving for certainty--predictions rather than forecasts--often prevents schools from listening to the signals chattering all around us. But what if schools thought of forecasts as stories of possible futures?

What if, in addition to the stories that circulate about a school’s past, teachers and students and alumni and other stakeholders told stories about the future they desire?

What if every Board of Trustees had a standing “Forecasting Committee” to lend substance and direction to those stories? (Credit to Carla Silver for that idea!)

These are ways to build culture and to prepare for an unknown future. And Coyle and Webb make great companions for that journey.

Three other recommendations

Looking for something in addition to, or different than, books on culture and forecasting? Here are three more questions with matching recommendations:

How might we design transformational learning moments? In The Power of Moments (2017), authors Chip and Dan Heath present a how-to guide for designing wonder. Once you read about things like “tripping over the truth,” you’ll never think about designing learning experiences the same way.

How might we ignite change through storytelling? I wish Illuminate (2016), by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, had been available when I started my tenure as Head of School at Malvern Prep, where we undertook the transformation of the learning experience. Subtitle for the book? “Ignite change through speeches, stories, ceremonies, and symbols.”

How might we develop greater empathy through radical kinship? Consider Greg Boyle SJ’s Barking At the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (2017). This is the most moving book I have read in years. Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and prevention program in the world, tells story after story of his relationships with current and past gang members that will bring you to tears of sorrow and joy. His memoir reminds us to listen to the stories, spoken and unspoken, in every encounter.

In our age of accelerating change, books remain one of the most powerful technologies we have for spreading great thinking. If you dip into any of these books, I would love to hear what you think. Happy reading!


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Christian Talbot