The Fertile Zone for Learning and Innovation

With new information at our fingertips and the ability to connect with content at any moment, it is quite common to assume that we are constantly learning. This assumption has translated to a lot of talk about the importance of personalized learning and allowing people learn in ways that suit them as individuals. We know that when learners have voice and choice in their learning they are empowered. This is a good thing; however, when I dig deeper into many initiatives that are promoting personalized learning for educators and allowing people to opt in, there are only a small percentage that are actually taking advantage of these opportunities.  Although I firmly believe that learners need to be empowered and have voice and choice, when learning is an option rather than an expectation, not everyone takes advantage of the opportunities that exist.

This concern was further supported when I read an article, Making Learning Easier by Design that referenced the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2015 American Time Use Survey, which indicated that only 3% of adults in the U.S. spend time learning during their day. In my disbelief, I checked these statistics with a colleague of mine and he read it as closer to 8% of adults engaged in educational activities in their day.  Clearly, there is some gray area and does not define all learning that happens in the day. But even if we gave educators the benefit of doubt and assumed that they were engaging in learning at a rate double the average person (6-16 depending on how you analyze the stats), roughly 75% would still not be learning on their own. I know this is a shock since many of your reading this are part of the 25% who are independent learners and probably tend to associate with others who are avid learners as well, but according to this study that is not representative of the majority.

This has pushed me to think about the notion of personalized professional learning and the importance of setting up a system that provides clear targets but allows for flexibility and choice of path to get there. The current reality is that most teachers’ days are full of teaching among the many other expectations that are placed on them and not much time is sanctioned for learning. And too often, when there is time for for teachers to gather, they are rarely get to drive the content nor the learning experiences.   When schools or districts empower select educators, rather than leveraging the expertise and experience of all, the innovations only impact teaching and learning in select classes and the majority of classroom and learning opportunities for students remain unchanged. To ensure schools are meeting the needs of today’s students, leaders must create systems to ensure goals are clear and provide job-embedded time to learn in the work day.

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To do this, we must reimagine the traditional mindset of “professional development” as an event and understand that learning is an ongoing process of input, trial, feedback, reflection, refinement, and growth. We need to create systems that foster a culture of learning to ensure this is a regular process for educators.  In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson discuses the notion first observed by Christopher Langton that, innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the “edge of chaos”: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy. I have been thinking about this idea a lot lately and  how to best create the fertile zone for learning that inspires innovation. If you think about schools, and specifically how we learn in them, when systems that are too rigid and demand compliance, there is little room for creativity nor opportunities to be innovative. On the other hand, when there is no structure with a clear vision and support to get there, many feel lost without a clear direction and revert back to what they have always done. In both of these extremes, you will always have outliers that are doing amazing things but this is too often in spite of the systems rather than because of it.


To ensure that professional development is developing practices to support powerful learning in classrooms, I believe we must begin with a clear and shared understanding of the skills, dispositions, and mindsets that we believe are critical for student success.  From there, we can then create learning experiences to meet the diverse needs. Here are some guiding questions that help me think about how to create a system with clear goals that empowers educators to move towards them.

  • What are the skills, dispositions and mindsets we believe are critical for all learners?
  • How might we create learning environments that develop the desired skills, dispositions, and mindsets?
  • How might we create coherence (clear vision and expectations) while allowing for flexibility in place, pace, purpose, and path? 
  • How might we support learning and innovation at the district, school, and individual level?
  • How might we balance system goals and individual goals?
  • How might we measure impact on professional learning based on desired student outcomes?

With complex change, there is no one “right” answer because each context is different and has unique strengths and challenges.  To create the fertile zone of learning and innovation leaders must engage diverse stakeholders, ask questions to understand the needs in your community, and empower people to figure out how to get there.




One Reply to “The Fertile Zone for Learning and Innovation”

  1. Great article and questions!! Now . . . how to answer those question!! 😃

    Sent from my iPhone


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