Practicing Innovation and Inclusion to Create a Learning Culture in Schools

Pat Greco, Kathy Oropallo, Melissa Matarazzo

If you want to feel secure, do what you already know how to do. But if you want to grow, go to the cutting edge of your competence, which means a temporary loss of security. So, whenever you don’t quite know what you are doing, know that you are growing.”
— David Viscott, Finding Your Strength in Difficult Times


  • Creative discomfort helps students and employees push the boundaries of what is possible to improve their knowledge and skills.

  • Leaders create the foundation for continuous learning by creating a safe and inclusive space for innovation and cognitive exploration.

  • Learn about four school districts who are doing continuous improvement exceptionally well by focusing on continuous learning as a mindset.

Discomfort: The Key to Supporting Employee and Student Learning

The outcomes of learning are rewarding, and when people have a curious mindset, the process can also be enjoyable. But learning is also an uncomfortable experience. It forces people to face a lack of knowledge and often fail before understanding. Educators understand this perhaps more than most. Their work is centered on pushing students out of their comfort zone to stretch and grow cognitive muscles. However, sometimes K12 institutions struggle to create this same continuous learning environment among employees in the school system.

When a learning culture is visible both in the classroom and in the workforce and leadership, the school system tends to have higher engagement rates, lower turnover and proven results. Why? Because improvement requires change, and it’s the people who do the daily work that creates real change and shift in outcomes. The innovation and creative problem-solving that emerges outside of the comfort zone empowers people to respond quickly to change.

The Foundation of a Learning Culture

For people to collaborate and learn together, leaders must create the conditions necessary for learning. Learners need trusting relationships before they can consider leaving their comfort zone. The most effective way for leaders to build trust in teams are through transparent communication, genuine listening and recognizing achievements.

Learning as a Team

Learning, innovation and creativity happen when people are open and willing to take risks and sometimes fail. To effectively function in development, learners first need to overcome the fear of the unknown. This means creating a space where they can share without judgment. When people feel safe, they are more willing to present ideas, take risks and fail together. Part of creating this space means sharing and accepting feedback that fosters improvement rather than criticism.

Continuous improvement is a tool and a mindset. K12 Education as a whole is in pursuit of this effort to create a real, lasting impact for students and staff.

Four Districts Implementing New Ideas and Practices to Expand Their Impact

The School District of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin

For over a decade, the School District of Menomonee Falls has been building a systemic backbone for continuous improvement. As schools closed, improvement teams were formed and district leaders applied seven principles to guide their decisions. People were prepared to learn deeply, design the next actions and align execution of their plans to keep students learning and everyone safe. Staff responded quickly as a coordinated team. Routine feedback cycles became essential as leaders worked to accelerate two-way communication.

Improvement is not new to SDMF, it’s co-owned from the classroom to the board room and embedded into their culture. As a result, shared, sound decision-making is the goal at every level with the school district. Team norms give teachers space to take risks and share ideas openly. Meetings start with the plus/delta process to seek input and share ideas on what’s working. Through these practices, teachers and district leaders identified the students demonstrating the most significant learning loss. Then, they executed a plan to assess learning progress, identify barriers and get students back on track. On an episode of the Accelerate Your Performance podcast Superintendent Corey Golla shared how the school responded at the outset of the COVID pandemic. He confidently reported that students in the district continued to perform at the same rate as a typical year.

Tea Area School District, South Dakota

Located outside of South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls is a young, rapidly growing district led by Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Lowery. The district’s young age can be an advantage to their team, Dr. Lowery explains, “There is no ‘well, we have always done it this way,’ mindset. We are quick to adapt and purposeful to adopt as we build sustainable practices and manage our growth. These unique qualities supported our quick pivot into online education.”

Following School District of Menomonee Falls’ example, Tea Area School District invests in professional development centered around improvement science to increase individual and team improvement capacity while avoiding additional practices and products. With a focus on what it does well during the pandemic, the district was able to deploy iPads to every K-2 student. In addition to the devices, the technology team worked with local internet providers to ensure connectivity for all students.

To collect feedback, Dr. Lowery committed to communicating daily with students’ families. The district also used live documents both internally and externally to send messages and receive feedback from staff and families.

Lac De Flambeau Public Schools, Wisconsin

Last year, at the request of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Ojibwe Indians, Superintendent Larry Ouimette called an emergency meeting of the school board to approve the tribal council’s request to immediately shut down the school. The Lac du Flambeau School District is a small district in northern Wisconsin with a close relationship to its community. This unique relationship embeds the culture of students and their families into the district’s decision-making and practices.

Approximately 95% of the prekindergarten through 8th-grade population are members of the tribe. As a result, the district places cultural sensitivity at the forefront of the classroom experience. Even the values are influenced by the tribe. Larry explains, “We take our work to the next highest level by following the Seven Grandfather Teachings: Wisdom, Love, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Humility and Truth. This makes it possible for the values of the school to align with the values of the home in ways that are meaningful.”

Through the district’s continuous improvement journey, they continue to close the divide of Ojibwe students as they share educational and residential space with students from surrounding communities. To accomplish this, the district has created a culturally appropriate curriculum. Lac du Flambeau partners with the tribe to include traditional seasonal activities and ceremonies and expand student support services. By respecting local culture, we can positively influence the success of students in schools.

Estacada School District, Oregon

While much of the world was focused on the COVID-19 crisis, the Estacada School District community was threatened by one of the largest wildfires in central Oregon’s history. Students and employees were displaced from their homes during an already incredibly stressful time. Superintendent Ryan Carpenter and his team knew that agility, quick decisions and a process to cascade clear communication would be critical.

By using tactics such as daily huddles and leader rounding, district leaders demonstrate that two-way communication is a top priority. These tactics propelled the district forward with positive energy rather than focusing on anxieties and uncertainties. The timing, reliability and consistency of the communication built trust with district leaders and staff. As a result, the district scored its highest employee engagement mark on its employee survey. Leadership’s focus on employee engagement also led to the district’s recognition as a Top Workplace 2020 from the Oregonian.

Estacada School District never lost sight of its strategic priorities. Ryan explains, “By creating robust processes that placed the stress on the system, not its people, we were able to keep moving forward, achieving desired results and living out our mission.”


To create a continuous learning culture that spans from the system to the classroom, education leaders must:
  • Think differently.
    Recognize that the success of the system depends on tapping into the leadership that lives within each student and employee.
  • Plan differently.
    Intentionally invest time in leadership development for all employees and students.
  • Act differently.
    Build trust in the improvement process through transparent communication, genuine listening and recognizing achievements.

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