Creating a Culture of Learning

Creating a Culture of Learning.

Two themes.

I hear two persistent themes through the pandemic.

  • How do we build a culture of care; just to keep the wheels on and everyone functioning? And …
  • How do we create a culture of learning to improve student learning?

Both are needed.  Care and creativity.  Empathy and excellence.

A Culture of Learning our way Forward.

This blog is about why and how to build a culture learning. About how we can learn our way forward.  How to build accountability into a data poor district. Encouraging teachers to pose great questions and engage kids.  Making strategic plans a living document that guides us forward.  Encouraging and energizing principals who feel they can’t handle one more thing.  Creating buy-in … and collaboration … and working smarter.

What do we really want? 

We want to have an impact on student learning.  We want kids and teachers engaged, cared for, and learning every day.  We want to be better than what we are … to build better systems … to better meet the needs of our students.

This is an adaptive challenge

We can’t solve this alone.  No technical solution will work miracles. Selling and telling only create more resistance.  Better (I think) to model adaptive leadership.  Gather a representative group (teachers, principals, and yes, students).  Share the dilemma: we have this opportunity to get better.  I need your help.  How can we do this?  Then look for overlap between what you want … what you can get … what will impact kids for the best.

Some thoughts … on Creating a Culture of Learning

Wisdom of Crowds: 

Kotter says create an opportunity statement and invite volunteers.  He says 10% is enough to turn the tide.  In Seattle, we held a three day leadership retreat around equity.  We asked the question about what we could do together that would have the greatest impact.  1/3 said it was about time; 1/3 cautiously came on board; 1/3 wondered what was that about?  We engage in and help support the things we help create. 


Narrow the focus.  Be crystal clear.  We are all suffering from initiative fatigue.  In the three day Seattle retreat on equity we settled on four themes:

  • Positive Learning: Caring, high quality instruction is essential … but not enough
  • Positive Beliefs: Believing in each and every student … no matter what … shifting our thinking
  • Positive Relationships: Knowing every student by strength, story, name and need 
  • Positive Partnerships: Schools can’t do it alone; we need lots of partners working together:

Stay the course: 

Keep refining the message.  Find and celebrate the positive outliers.  Each year the message will get clearer and clearer.  Some will be attracted by the vision … and others will leave because of the vision.  As Jim Collins says you get the right people on the bus.  Then you learn from and put your positive outliers on center stage.  We learn best from those like us … those who have found a better way and are willing to share.  Over three years you grow coherence.

Leadership voice:

People watch what you do and listen to what you say.  Develop your leadership voice.  Use it at every opportunity.  There should be no doubt about what you stand for.  Not in a dogmatic, my way or the highway, sort of way.  Just positive affirmations of the big why and the celebration of those who are making an impact.

Amplify the message:

Teach your leaders to do the same.  Ask them to develop their leadership voice.  Create a safe place where you can share with each other and learn from each other.  Teach, model, coach … and learn from those who do it even better than you do.  Then ask school and district leaders to put their voice out there … on the website, in bulletins, at the top of every agenda, at the start of every PD.


As your leader voice develops, you become ever clearer about what you expect.  Over time in Seattle, this grew into a leadership manifesto that shaped our leadership postings, interview questions, monthly PD, building visits, and evaluation processes.  We hired for, trained for and grew strong leaders highly invested in instruction and equity.


One superintendent who I admire greatly shared the opening day message with principal leaders on three consecutive days.  Each day principals were asked for feedback and that feedback was incorporated into the opening day message.  By the time the message was delivered to all staff, principals knew the message inside and out.  They had helped shape it.  They understood the what and the why and the how.  And they could amplify that message in each school.


Peter Senge says there are several responses to making a vision a reality.  Commitment will do whatever it takes.  Enrollment gets it, but only pushes it to a certain level.  Compliance will do what is asked.  Pretty good soldiers will attempt it.  And some will be apathetic or actively seek to sabotage.  Ask leaders … on a scale of 1 to 5 … How committed are you to this endeavor? And … What would it take to move up a notch? 

Monthly PD:

Vision leaks.  Life happens.  Things come up.  Crises are real.  Constant reinforcement is needed to keep the momentum going.  Plan PD with principals not for them.  Meet in cohorts and spend at least 50% of your time processing and learning together … not being talked at.  Put outlier principals up front on stage.  We learn best from those who we trust and respect. Those who are doing good work in situations like ours.


Principal Learning Networks (PLNs) push each principal to keep getting better.  Seat them together for PD.  Ask them to work together on their School Improvement Plans.  Go visit each other’s buildings together.  Hear what their goals are, their strategies and their progress.  Then go observe classrooms.  Gather round to debrief.  What did you learn, what will you steal, what might you suggest?

Going Viral:

Help positive outliers go viral.  Give them the floor.  Schedule more than half of your PD around positive outliers.  Help refine those ideas.  In Seattle, extra acceleration blocks began to spread across the district elementary schools.  Parent engagement grew as schools stole ideas from each other.


We need BOTH a culture of learning AND a culture of caring.  A culture of learning comes from a passionate leader that asks good adaptive questions that engage staff in figuring out better ways forward.  We engage in and help support those things we help create.

To Learn More:

Accelerate by Kotter shows how to create opportunity statements, a guiding coalition and and army of volunteer change agents.

Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: | 425-418-4398 |