The Unlearning Leader – Sharing a Mindset

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who can learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Toffler

Nick Polyak and I wrote the Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today (2017 Rowman & Littlefield) and we have had the good fortune to speak about the messages in the book all over our home state of Illinois, around the USA, and overseas as well. We did not “invent” the concept of unlearning, of course, and we’re not the first authors to publish on unlearning, either. We are called to UNLEARN in our service to Students, Communities, Boards of Education, Educational Support Staff, Teachers, Parents, & Society in general!

In this post, I’m sharing an excerpt of the book for reference, as well as an audio file from a recent keynote address Nick and I presented in Chicago. If you would like to read an article about our book, use this link from an article published in the Spring 2019 Update from the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.

We would love your input and insights on the concept of unlearning in your own leadership and in support of your own journey. Please comment and if you have read the book and you like it, feel free to share an Amazon comment/review.

Click the audio player to hear the Keynote address Nick and I presented at Cognia Connect Midwest, in Chicago:

From the Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today – Preface:

The Time is Now
In some school systems, executive leadership still does not understand or value current methods of communication, especially technological methods. Their relative lack of knowledge about social connectivity can become quite detrimental to a school system in search of change, innovation, and leadership. We want to help school leaders unlearn their current approaches to leadership in how they “connect”, lead, support student learning, transform schools, and impact organizational culture.

We wrote this book to celebrate the connected leader, show case study examples of change and modern change processes, and to help leaders unlearn to relearn! The premise of this book is that we all need to unlearn. Our landscape is applied to leadership, classrooms, pedagogy, and education in general. In order to change and prepare for tomorrow, we submit that much of what we have learned must be unlearned as we aim to create a new tomorrow for our nation’s children.

Our current public school system was essentially created by ten university leaders in the 1890’s. A lot has changed since then, yet our structures in public schools seem unable to unlearn the structures and conventions from the 19th Century. Our purposes include supporting leaders to lead and enabling leaders to lead for tomorrow’s schools. There is an urgency for change.

Futurist Jack Uldrich has made presentations across the country about the concept of unlearning. While at a Future Ready Summit in Illinois, we participated in an activity that has been practiced across the country from Jack and others. We were asked one simple question, “What color are yield signs?” Sounds simple. Uldrich asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought yield signs are yellow and black.

The majority of those in the audience raised their hands in a sign of agreement that yield signs are yellow and black. That was the correct answer, many years ago when members in the audience first learned about yield signs. Years after the audience members learned the yellow and black color scheme the yield signs across the country changed to red and white.

Folks knew intellectually that the signs were no longer yellow and black, but they “learned” this earlier in their lives and knowledge proves difficult to unlearn. This provides a powerful lesson about our need to unlearn old knowledge in order to modernize our thinking as to what is true today. And it shows the challenge. That which leaders learned early on in their careers, or in leadership schools, often stifles their growth with their inability to unlearn.

The world is changing at an exponential pace, but oftentimes our educational leaders and our educational systems are not. This experience (with the yield sign) was an epiphany of sorts for both us that has led us to look at educational leadership through the lens of unlearning.

Horace Mann is credited with saying
“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

Now, more than ever, with the nation becoming an ethnic “minority-majority” leaders need to unlearn and to unleash powerful innovation in the new reality. Today is far different from yesterday. Leaders must get out from behind their desks and integrate doing and empowering others with managing and leading from a 30,000 ft. view.

Since 1983 our nation’s schools have been at risk. Since 2002 we have been leaving no child behind. Now with ESEA reauthorization, we are getting ready for every student to succeed. In order for every student to succeed, school leaders must unlearn the old ways and learn and practice leadership through innovative methods and courageous actions.

Representing careers in leadership and public education spanning many decades and impacting thousands of K-12 students and teachers, we are sharing a passion for excellence in education with the leadership lessons and insights throughout this book. We serve as educational leaders as part of a larger calling to serve. We wrote this book as part of this calling.

Students in each grade level have but one chance to experience that grade level. Students don’t have time to wait. We mentioned a sense of urgency – the urgency is that the 19th-century structures no longer serve as relevant to the needs of modern society. Why has it been so hard to change structures in schools? We submit that it is part of the challenge of unlearning. “Everyone” has attended school – they have a construct as to what it should be.

We are learned leaders in the education space. We too were schooled in traditional, 19th-century structures though we have enjoyed success and fulfillment. And we are from another era than our students. It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to demonstrate organizational agility and flexibility so that the current needs of children are reflected in the nation’s schools. We have a moral imperative, an economic imperative, a pedagogical imperative and leadership imperative to unlearn.

Just because our teachers, leaders, members of elected boards of education, parents, grandparents, and the community at large learned what school is – in another era – that does not mean we current leaders need to lead for nostalgia. Nostalgia has a place – in museums and other venues, but not in schools. Unlearning an individual’s experiences proves quite difficult. Learning is wired and challenging to unlearn.

Policymakers don’t know what is current in education – they know what made them successful and happy – they don’t know what is needed now since often they are many levels removed from schooling. Yet it is policymakers who are credited with legislating mandates, standards, expectations, training, rules, etc. yet they base their views on their own construct of education and schooling – that of nostalgia.

We wrote this book because nostalgic policies might be destroying public education. Nostalgic experiences are actually incongruous with the information generation. Voices in telephone devices can restate the 50 state capitals – that doesn’t mean it’s not important to learn the 50 state capitals, it means that memorization is not the only form of “learning” anymore. Just because you, your mother, your aunt, your grandfather, and his great grandfather also memorized capitals in 4th grade does not mean that it’s relevant for today’s youth.

We wrote this book because leaders who unlearn and innovate make possible opportunities for children. We wrote this book because leaders can unlearn ways of the past to create new and relevant futures. We wrote this book because so many great coaches and mentors and friends guide and support our unlearning and we feel called to share and illustrate how unlearning is impacting systems in our care. The time is now to change, unlearn, create a new system and a new construct of structures for schooling – we have the knowledge and we have the will, let’s unlearn together!

Global Leadership at International Conference – #112Leads

“Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.” -Lao Tzu

Joining educational leaders from across the United States, China, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Costa Rica, Finland, Singapore, & Canada, I represented North Shore School District 112 at the Fifth Annual Conference of Global K-12 Education Research Association in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China.


( Their website will be updated with information from this conference within a few weeks).

Through my leadership roles within the education community, including training aspiring superintendents, teaching at the graduate education level, presenting at conferences, and authoring books & journal articles, I am informed about conferences & symposia on global education issues.

I learned about this particular educational conference from the (AASA)American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

Together with superintendents and educational leaders from the nations mentioned above, and leaders from the following states in the USA: IL, MA, IA, CT, VA, AZ, OH, MD, VA, & WI, I was invited to present a speech to an audience of local (Chinese) educators, administrators, & local civic officials. Many of us presented speeches and shared presentations with one another and our Chinese hosts and local educators.

This year’s conference topic was Cultivating Student Leadership Skills. This topic is near and dear to me as I recently co-wrote the book Student Voice: From Invisible to Invaluable (2018 Rowman & Littlefield) with fellow Illinois superintendents Nick Polyak and PJ Caposey.

Coincidentally, and unrelated to this conference, our

Draft of Chinese Language Edition Book Cover – Student Voice: From Invisible to Invaluable

book is being translated into Chinese through a partnership between our publisher and Hohai University Press in China. The Chinese version will be released within the year.


The family with two children (pictured here) invited me to their home for dinner and a visit. This was one of the highlights of the experience!


In addition to the honor of speaking before my peers and international colleagues, I had the additional benefit to learn and grow as a leader and as a person through the depth of knowledge of the other speakers, the cultural learning opportunities, including a visit with a family whose

children attend the school we were visiting. This was my second trip to China on an international educational experience. My first trip was with the College Board, and it focused on forming partnerships to establish a Chinese language program in the school District (this is still on my vision/plan for our District as we expand our global learning opportunities).

For this trip, the primary goal was to gain more leadership and practice insights into cultivating student leadership skills to bring back and apply in the school District where I serve as the superintendent. One of the presenters from whom I learned is a professor at Harvard University’s school of Education, Dr. Randolph-Michael Testa. And another distinguished speaker was 91 years old Chinese educator Dr. Gu Mingyuan. In addition, as this was the 25th anniversary of the Shijiazhuang Foreign Language Educational Group (SFLEG), our host institution, we learned from their principal and others from the school. One of the delegates is a professor and administrator at Drake University in Iowa as well.

The overarching theme was Cultivating Student Leadership Skills and many of the presentations discussed research, practice, and programming PK-12-university-post baccalaureate with respect to that cultivation (the student is a child of ages 3-18 and an adult ages 19-??).

Throughout many of us identified what leadership is to us. for example, the professor from Harvard University stated that leadership is “helping other people to be better as they serve others”. Overall messaging was related to we leaders brining in joy to our communities through service and capacity building. Through moving from “why” to “how” we are able, in our own unique ways, to make the world a far better place for us all.

One of the greatest reinforcing “takeaways” for me is the synergy between the school (District) and the local governments, the civic groups (eg Rotary), the local businesses (eg Chamber of Commerce), students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents, grandparents, and the overall entirety of the community.

My view is community capitalism (of course where I was visiting has a slightly different view of community) — nonetheless, regardless of political ideology or economic system orientation or preference, this professional learning experience reinforced for me the need for global communication, partnership, study, relationship building, and dialogue.

Through travel, relationship building, open mindedness to new people and ideas, we leaders can help our local communities see and hear views

Practicing Tai Chi at the “playground” (stadium) at the school in the mountains that partners with SFLEG (our host school group). We had the opportunity to experience education, culture, history, and engagement.

via other lenses and viewpoints. We highly value diversity of thought, opinion, and experience; through opportunities like attending and presenting at this conference, I can “walk the walk” with other leaders by doing the learning in support of my leading!

As a point of reference, scale in China is HUGE from my mid-American perspective. Overall, it is the most populous nation on earth, it is one of the oldest cultures on earth, and it’s cities are among the world’s largest.

The scale of the airport (in Beijing), the high-speed train stations in Beijing and in Shijiazhuang were massive. The traffic and the orderly flow of life with so many people is mind-boggling and quite impressive. The scale of the school campus, itself, was massive. The campus hosts about 10,000 students in grades PK-12. There are buildings that resemble college campus buildings and museums. I’m sharing some images to attempt to show and explain the scale about which I am writing:

Their “playground” area that looks like a college or even professional sports complex.
Photo of our group of delegates in front of one of the buildings – the school buildings – on campus.😒
View of the train station in Shijiazhuang (high speed trains that travel around 300km/h)
View in the intermediate building from the middle gallery/display area.
Me at the entrance to one of the buildings on campus.
View of the senior high school building on campus.
Image in the Beijing Airport





















There are activities for kindergarten-12th grade students that are also awe-inspiring. These include woodworking and culinary arts for K-12 students, art galleries of student work that rival museum and art gallery displays and the sheer size of the logistics and operations. Students are in school for many hours compared to our standards, for example, the children in high school are at school from around 7am to 9pm daily – then they study until about 1 or 2 in the morning … 5-6 days per week. Again – the “scale” is simply very large and quite different from our system.

So, “at the end of the day” so to speak, what does this all mean?

  • Well there are many meanings – first, and foremost, we educational leaders are lifelong learners and we demonstrate that by attending and participating in conferences and symposia like this one to learn and apply that learning to our local settings.
  • There are universal desires in terms of maximizing student success and learning at the K-12 level from leaders in the east, west, and in between.
  • We can only get better by learning and sharing perspectives with people from all parts of our globe.
  • When a mission statement calls for global competencies, it’s incumbent on the leader to actually go out into the globe …and learn so that the competencies may be developed and refined.
  • In our school District, we’re on the path toward greatness with our motto of Inspire, Innovate, Engage!
  • In our School District, this year’s “Big 3” focus areas are aligned with international best practices and implementation areas.
  • Finally, it takes a village (of the right people) to raise and support a child — every child is a winner and every child deserves equitable access to excellent educational opportunities.


Through leadership opportunities and experiences like those in which I have just participated at the K-12 GERA, our District, its schools, the students we serve and the teachers and support staff we support will become even better and stronger and more impactful than if we limit our views and experiences through narrow lenses of local existence and paradigms.

I’m grateful to the Board of Education for supporting broad-based educational experiences for our students and its leaders and educators. I’m grateful to the professional leadership organizations for unending support and creative growth opportunities. I’m grateful for outstanding superintendents, professors, headmasters, principals, and others for supporting my leadership and stretching my points of views and skill sets.

Stay informed about our District via our website, Twitter hashtag #112Leads, Podcast, Lighthouse 112, Facebook Pages, and news & information!


Listen to a Podcast episode containing the audio transcript of the speech I presented:


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