What Are the Right Schools of Experience for Teachers in New Schools?

I spent a few hours recently with the head of a brand new blended-learning school. The school is pushing the bounds of blended learning with a Flex model that is competency-based. Students move on when they have mastered the appropriate standards and skills, have individualized learning plans, and, along with their parents, receive daily progress reports based on how they are doing. The role of the teacher in this new school looks very different from that in a standard school.

Many parts of the schooling model are also still evolving as the school learns what does and does not work. Uncertainty exists, and teachers are both teaching amidst the uncertainty and helping to create and refine the school model itself on the fly. Because new innovations rarely emerge fully baked and launch with perfect success, this is both natural and good.

One of the school leader’s questions in this first-year of operations was whether he had hired the right teachers—and what profile of a teacher would be right for the model. His early hypothesis was that the right teachers would have the same profile and skills as those who were successful in other “No Excuses” charter schools, but he said he wasn’t sure if he should be looking for other attributes as well.

I suspect that his initial hypothesis has some merit, but I think one of the theories that we call the “Schools of Experience” could be helpful in refining it further.

As Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon recount in How Will You Measure Your Life, most companies that hire assume implicitly that there are some innate talents that candidates either have or don’t have that can predict success. In essence, employers list the skills correlated with success and search for those candidates with them. The surest sign of this talent they think is in the resume: if a candidate shows success after success, she must just have the “right stuff” to be successful in any job. If this were true, however, then why do we so often see executives with a successful track record in one company fail in another?

Morgan McCall, a professor at the University of Southern California, developed a different view that moves beyond the skills correlated with success to a circumstance-based theory. His model asks whether someone has actually wrestled with a problem similar to the one she will need to wrestle with in the new job. In essence, it looks to see if potential employees have taken different “courses” in their “schools of experience” that will prepare them to tackle and succeed in the new job.

As Christensen et al write, “McCall’s thinking is not based on the idea that great leaders are born ready to go. Rather, their abilities are developed and shaped by experiences in life. A challenging job, a failure in leading a project, an assignment in a new area of the company—all those things become ‘courses’ in the school of experience. The skills that leaders have—or lack—depend heavily on which ‘courses,’ so to speak, they have and have not taken along the way.”

Through the lens of McCall’s theory, the job when hiring shifts from identifying candidates with stellar resumes to asking whether the potential employees have had the right experiences that prepare them to be successful in the job.

An example helps make the pitfalls of the first approach and the merits of the second clearer. When launching an internal startup, many established companies will bring on board star performers from the parent company—people with stellar resumes. But often these people will not have had any experience in launching a new venture. None have had to adjust a strategy when the first one didn’t work because they were in a company with established processes and a successful strategy. Staffing the new venture with some people who have had the right schools of experience increases the odds of success.

Turning back to the blended-learning school at hand, the school is a startup in which there aren’t existing processes to get things done and people are inventing the school’s culture as they teach. This suggests another criteria for the school leader to be including as he hires teachers: looking for people who have had experience in uncertain situations where there were not firm rules to follow—and they had to create and establish new processes and tweak them as they went along. High flyers who have high expectations for students but who have never been in an organization with an emergent strategy might not be ideal off the bat. Of course, as the school evolves and is hopefully successful, processes will emerge that define how to do things and what the school’s culture is. As this happens, the ideal schools of experience a candidate will need will change as well.

This lesson is not just for this particular school leader. As innovation increases in education in the years ahead, the way we prepare some teachers may need to change as well. Some will need a new “course” to prepare them to succeed in the new and uncertain schooling models being developed and tweaked in the years ahead. The life courses that allow entrepreneurs to succeed may also be important for teachers.

-Michael Horn

This blog entry first appeared on Forbes.com

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