3 Things Silicon Valley Taught Me About School Leadership

I spent the last four years as a high school principal in San Francisco.  Living and working in the City by the Bay gave me a front row seat to how Silicon Valley is redefining modern society.  The boom and bust nature of the digital gold rush is rich with success stories of rapid market capitalization and cautionary tales of lost fortunes and squandered opportunities.  Here are just three of the things I learned from Silicon Valley about leading schools in the 21st Century.

1 – Embrace Design Thinking

Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.  That’s the Stanford d.school cycle for design thinking.  In Silicon Valley, it’s not just a process, it’s a culture.  There is a pervasive faith in the power of data analysis and informed experimentation to iterate our way towards improvement.  The entire process depends on a wide aperture for ideas, and a big appetite for learning from failure.

Design thinking comes as a shock to education.  It flies in the face of standardization.  Reform initiatives typically have their genesis outside the school site.  School leaders talk about roll-out and buy-in and implementation struggles.   Design thinking flips all this on its head.  Design thinking assumes that the most important data lives at the classroom level, and it’s not just quantitative data we want.  Empathy requires leaders to pay attention to the emotions and perceptions derived from the lived experience of students and teachers in their classrooms. This reconceptualization of school leadership requires strong facilitation skills and the emotional intelligence to publicly acknowledge that you as the leader don’t have all the answers at the outset.  It turns the principal into the lead researcher of his or her own organization.    

2 – Physical Space Matters

Gourmet cafeterias, funky couches, open architecture, desks without chairs. Silicon Valley thrives on creativity and innovation, and has the architecture and furnishings to match.  This isn’t just the whim of youth or privileged engineers. Nor is it just about recruitment and retention of top talent.  Silicon start-up style aligns work spaces and physical landmarks to shape organizational culture and emphasize the power of collaboration.  When success depends upon authentic integration of expertise across skill specialties, physical obstacles work against the bottom line.  When survival is directly tied to product aesthetics and end-user ease-of-use, ugly and boring spaces mitigate organizational purpose.

School architecture is often placed on the altar of efficiency.  While efficiency is an important consideration in an environment of scarcity, schools do not exist to save money.  We build schools to educate and inspire our children – and we need the architecture to support our end goals.  School leaders should see themselves as designers, curating powerful learning spaces and showcasing student work that reinforces aspirational learning outcomes.

3 – The Power of Networks

The connection economy has its birthplace in Silicon Valley.  Social media disaggregates mass communication to the individual level, and success is increasingly measured by likes, hits, kicks, and pushes.  This new world of digital networking is actually built on the foundation of very old technology.  We’ve all heard the adage “it isn’t what you know but who you know.”

Too many conversations of school improvement and reform define success solely as a measure of cognitive skill.  At City Arts & Tech high school where I was principal, every student had to complete an internship in the workplace as a graduation requirement.  While the development of workplace skills was an important outcome, the social benefits of an expanded professional network were perhaps even more impactful.  Internships led to offers of paid employment, letters of recommendation, and ongoing mentorship.

Networking no longer just helps us get our jobs.  In the connection economy, networking is our job.  While our students may be digital natives, they do not have equal access to the tools that facilitate meaningful connections, nor are they necessarily strategic in the development of their online presence.   We need to build student skills and social capital.

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