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Does Your School Need A Chief Learning Officer?
By Kirsten Olson,
Author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

If asked (and shouldn't you be asked?), how would you respond to the following questions about the culture of your school? It is a place that welcomes innovation and contributions about teaching and learning from everyone in the building? (Rarely/Sometimes/Frequently/Never.) In your school, people talk about teaching, and you can rely on powerful in-house discussion forums to talk about new developments in practice?

Is it easy for you to develop a wiki, blog or collaborative learning tool for your students, your colleagues and yourself, to share learning and explore interesting questions? Do school leaders encourage reflection, even on flops and big mistakes? (Yours, mine, ours?) Do you talk openly about your own screw-ups with your students and colleagues? In your school, can you to work across departmental, grade-level or classroom boundaries and collaborate on important problems in your practice? Are there expert practitioners in your building, and is it easy for you to learn from them? Are you growing in your work, learning new things, and passing on that growth and vitality to your colleagues and students?¹

Wouldn't it be great to work in a school like that? Wouldn't it be wonderful if your school resembled a vibrant garden, a learning ecosphere, with lots of different, productive and expertly crafted microclimates--but with a single grand and encompassing design? Or maybe your school would be a dynamic city plaza, with individuals of many different expertises and backgrounds holding forth at podiums and soapboxes, with an information center nearby for students to do research what they'd just heard, or discuss it with learning partners and learning coaches?

Click and stop the download. Unfortunately, most of the schools I'm in every week in aren't much like this at all. Let's not belabor it. Many students and teachers struggle in undernourished and unwatered soil pots, trapped in dark, old-fashioned industrial plants, where they are performing tasks that involve little choice, little real challenge, in tasks that accrue not much meaning. Although the core business of schools is learning, and improving learning performance for everyone in the building, the climate of schools and its old fashioned ways of rolling out instruction more often resemble GM than intensive and well-organized organic gardening. Even at Saturn, that GM amalgam that was to help the car industry rethink itself, there was too much acclimating individuals to hierarchy, learning to accept that someone else was in control, and an impacted overhang of the old way of doing things.

How do we begin to move from the old-fashioned industrial plant and the assembly line of learning to the dynamic ecosphere or city plaza? What would the new learning organization look like and feel like? How can we create it and support it within our own schools? In addition to rethinking the physical plant of schools (do schools really need to have classrooms?), maybe it would be helpful for every school to hire a Chief Learning Officer, whose job it is to support and cultivate a vibrant learning ecosystem throughout the building that helps all learners grow.

Sound like a fluff position? I think not. "Many schools and districts have full-time positions for testing coordinators and college counselors and data-driven decision makers. We put a great deal of emphasis on outcomes with our kids, but I keep wondering how much more we could do in emphasizing the process of learning as well, not just for students but for everyone in the school," school consultant and innovator Will Richardson recently observed in his blog (http://weblogg-ed.com).

A term borrowed from the corporate world, and a role that emerged in the mid-1990s in response to new, fluid, dynamic online learning environments (forget training! that is so old school and skills based), Chief Learning Officers in major corporations are responsible for critically important projects and outcomes. They optimize learning in the organization, not only because it is good for people but because it dramatically boosts the bottom line. They do things like check on how people are sharing information in the corporation. Do they disperse important knowledge outward with colleagues, or jealously guard and hoard it? They notice what tools people use to do their jobs, and look at how people generate information about what they really need to know. CLOs focus especially on informal learning, and networks of knowing. They "notice out loud" and celebrate acts of learning in the organization, and try to foster a social culture where people can take risks openly, make mistakes, and managers can be open about what they are learning -- and what they don't know. CLOs are the public troubadours of learning in the organization, inviting everyone to come out and play, ensuring that adventuresome thinking is at the center of people's work. Because if it isn't, ultimately they know corporate profits will be affected.

I'm not a fan of simple, heroic, role-based models of school transformation (find that mythical person and he/she will transform the organization), but right now in most schools, who is responsible for the well-being of learning? Who is nurturing pleasure in learning day to day, and why isn't that a priority? A CLO's job in school would be to represent a new culture of learning, along with other teachers, school leaders and students, and to literalize it. We know that the way we are learning is changing forever, but we lack models to help think us about it, and people in our work who help lead the way. We can all use help along the way.
So what exactly would a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) do?²

  1. Recognize what powerful, engaged high-level learning is and promote it. That means knowing that the students working on the cover graphics and mixing of their band's CD are probably having as powerful a learning experience as the analysis of the Suuni and Shiites taking place in senior international relations. We want to celebrate them both.

  2. Help connect people (students, teachers, administrators) around the building in talking about their practice as learners. Many of us are very isolated and lonely in our learning in schools.

  3. Help remind school leaders that the business of the organization is learning, and to help grow that in every decision and every meeting. CLOs show how learning is collaborative. dynamic and synthetic, and that schools grow their own. Right here. Right now.

I'm not saying that finding this person would be easy, because CLOs have unusual sets of qualities. They are highly knowledgeable about their businesses (in this case, I would say, are expert teachers), and are motivated by connection. They are non-hierarchical people who have a sibling orientation towards learning, rather than relying, metaphorically, on Dad. They are voraciously curious, and as a matter of routine read and explore outside their normal range of values and interests. They are deeply interested in other people's ideas, and have advanced listening skills. They like listening and do more of it than talking themselves. They are synthetic processors (are able to put disparate pieces of information together or see patterns in seemingly disorganized stuff), think learning is really fun, and get charged up by anyone else's learning.

Expert teachers out there, that is you. Are you your school's next CLO?

Endnotes
¹These questions are part of an online survey that accompanies "Becoming a Chief Meta-Learning Officer," by Jay Cross and Clark Quinn, in Chief Learning Officer Magazine, May 2009, pp. 48-52.

²For more information, see Chief Learning Officer magazine. http://www.clomedia.com/current_issue.php

©2009 Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Author Bio
Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture, is a writer, educational consultant, and national-level Courage To Teach facilitator, and principal of Old Sow Consulting. She has been a consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and many large public school systems and charter schools.

For more information please visit http://www.kirstenolson.org/