Learning is Not Linear

I think, for the most part, everyone strives for success.  We want to be successful in our professional as well as our personal lives.  I strived to be the best possible principal for my students, staff, and community.  Whether I was successful is a matter of perspective. My evaluations seemed to support the fact that I might have been.  I was far from perfect, but always strived for constant improvement. When I reflect upon what was accomplished during my time leading New Milford High School I think many observers would consider my leadership a success based on what we all accomplished together.  Our digital transformation, backed by evidence of improved learner outcomes, has been well documented.  In the eyes of many this is success. 

As I have transitioned into my new role over the past two years as a Senior Fellow for the International Center for Leadership in Education, I continue to set the bar high for myself. Again, whether I am successful is open for debate. Some observers might see the publishing of books as an indicator of success. Others could equate keynotes in the same manner.  No matter what someone’s view of success is, I can tell you one thing for certain – it is not a linear process. No one goes from point A to B by following a predetermined path or script. The question then becomes why does school, for the most part, focus on a linear transition that manifests itself in the form of curriculum? This is just one example that flies in the face of unleashing the talents of our students while teaching them what success really is. 

Success results from a series of experiences that include constructing then applying new knowledge, failure, persistence, commitment, perseverance, adaptation, evolution, and most of all reflection. There are so many images out there that illustrate the concept of success being like an iceberg.  In the eyes of many people, success is only what you see or a final product.  The reality is that success really is a unique combination of behaviors, skills, and mindset shifts. The recipe is different for everyone as well as the criteria used to determine success. The fact remains though that the path to success is always convoluted. 

Image credit: Sylvia Duckworth


Learning and success are intimately intertwined.  You can’t be successful if you don’t learn. You learn to eventually experience some sort of success in life. Learning, like success, is anything but a linear process.  As such we need to be more mindful of the experiences and structures in our schools if the goal, which it should be, is to prepare students to succeed in their future.  This includes the new world of work where in a few short years many of the jobs that exist today won’t.  If we continue to prescribe students to a one-size-fits-all approach in classrooms that have remained relatively unchanged we are in a sense forcing them down a linear path. Instead of a focus on learn to do, schools need to shift their practices and create a culture where students do to learn.

Students learn differently and have hidden talents that we must unleash. This is why I love the maker movement and makerspaces in particular.  Nothing, in my opinion, illustrates to kids the many pathways to success than learning with their hands through trial and error, open-ended exploration, and authentic problem solving.  Education needs some disruptive innovation.  We must lend a critical eye to our pedagogy, especially the way we assess and provide feedback to students. It is time for us to work harder to upend the status quo by redefining success in learning. Are you with me?

Source: A Principal’s Reflections

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