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Aurora Institute

The New School Rules

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

After reading in the The Culture Code about the strategy for creating high-performing teams by establishing a set of simple rules to guide complex decisions (heuristics), I decided to pick up The New School Rules by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black of Ed Elements. The six new rules for helping schools to become more responsive are:

  1. Plan for change, not perfection.
  2. Build trust and allow authority to spread.
  3. Define the work before you define the people.
  4. Aim for “safe enough to try” rather than consensus.
  5. Harness the flow and let information go.
  6. Schools grow when people grow.

These rules are for education leaders in the district office and schools, as well as anyone on teams. They are rules that can help shake off the bureaucratic behaviors, what Sal Khan refers to as “habits,” that make up much of the culture in traditional schools.

The New School Rules is filled with stories, examples, case studies, and experiments such as meeting protocols and new language to open up more productive dialogue. The three sections that I felt had the most value for those in the process of converting to competency education are #2 regarding trust, #5 regarding transparency of information, and #6 regarding investing in adult growth and organizational capacity.

#2 Build trust and allow authority to spread.

We have identified a culture of learning, inclusivity, and empowerment to be an absolutely critical aspect of high quality competency-based schools. I highlighted the book The Code of Culture because it gave such valuable insight into what it takes to help create the sense of belonging that is needed for people to cooperate and take the risk of learning. The New School Rules will give you another set of tactics, routines, and practices to allow more trust to grow and to create the flexibility needed to respond to students by distributing authority across the organization.

#5 Harness the flow and let information go.

The analysis in this section on shallow or false sense of transparency is a must-read. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this discussion before about how transparency strategies are not of the same value. For example, there is:

  • Check-the-box transparency when we are asked to check the box about information that is such small fine print or so loaded with jargon that it is impossible to understand.
  • One-and-done transparency when there is too much information made available and only made available once such as posting raw data.
  • Selective transparency that has been word-smithed and spun to the degree that even though you read about it, there is little understanding.
  • Delayed transparency is when the message is passed along and along until the meaning is distorted, or relevance degradation in which information becomes out of date.

The authors then go on to suggest that valuable transparency is relational, not transactional. This is such a powerful insight and not one that I’ve ever thought about. I need to go back to rethink some of what I’ve written about transparency!

#6 Schools grow when people grow.

Similarly to the Code of Culture, the authors of The New School Rules emphasize the importance of listening and building the capacity for very candid conversations in building a learning organization. There are a number of suggestions in the book about small ways to begin to open up your organization. These will be valuable but, given the heavy-handedness of traditional professional development, I’d suggest beginning to personalize professional learning based on data on student learning as a critical step for schools.

The New School Rules can be valuable for a number of different situations. First, if you are a leader starting down the path toward developing a more distributed leadership strategies, this could definitely free up your mind and give you lots of baby steps. (You’ll also want to read Good Leaders Ask Great Questions by John Maxwell.) Second, for people who enjoy more concrete examples and hands-on things to do, this book is chock-full of what they call “experiments.” Finally, team leaders who want some help in thinking through how they might guide their team in more trust-building, knowledge-building practices are likely to find several ideas that can help them get going.

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