3 Horizons For Public School Educators

Those of us engaged in public education must constantly adjust, reflect, and react to what is happening in the education environment. This means we nurture what is working in our schools right now, while also trying new practices to adjust to the future.I like the “Three Horizons” framework to help us think through how we can concentrate on our present “best practices” while also peering into the future to develop “next practices.”  Here is the framework in a nutshell. I will share the official definition of each horizon and give you my definition of what it means for educators.Horizon One: Horizon one represents those core businesses most readily identified with the company name and those that provide the greatest profits and cash flow.Obviously, schools do not have to worry about profit and loss in the traditional sense. Well, at least in traditional public education, we do not have to worry about profit and loss. But I do think this first Horizon is relevant for educators when we tweak the definition just a little.My definition: Horizon One represents those practices and systems that form the foundation of a school and lead to the best learning opportunities for learners.The goal of this horizon is to always work to make our existing practices and systems better for learners. Leaders in Horizon One are constantly working with staff to hone their craft in the practices and systems that are creating the current learning opportunities for learners. Leaders are constantly reminding their staff and community how what they are doing aligns with the mission, vision, and goals of the school. Professional learning is reinforcing the constant improvement in established practices and systems.Staff involved in Horizon One are the “maintainers”. Although all staff in schools are involved in “maintaining,” a large percentage of the staff will not feel comfortable even trying other practices that are not rooted in what is currently occurring…this is the target group in this Horizon. These are the professionals that see the value in the process and content of what they are doing and understand their contribution to the learners and school.Horizon Two:Horizon Two encompasses emerging opportunities, including rising entrepreneurial ventures likely to generate substantial profits in the future but that could require considerable investment.Again, this definition does not easily fit into the public education sector. However, let’s change it just a little bit.My definition: Horizon Two encompasses those strategies, practices, and systems changes that will significantly increase the value of the learning opportunities of learners.The goal of this Horizon is to build on what works in Horizon One and create better learning opportunities that reflect what we know works while also incorporating future trends in learning, leadership, and management.Leaders in this horizon are bridging future trends with what is already working in their systems. The importance for leaders in building this bridge cannot be overstated. Through reading the magazines and journals of leading education organizations, attending relevant conferences, and interacting with (or creating) networks of like-minded school leaders, a school leader takes all they have learned about what is working on the fringes of education practice and brings it into their school. Professional learning for the staff shows what new practices work, where they are working, and how they can be incorporated into the school to create better learning opportunities for learners. Staff involved in Horizon Two are those that see the value of the future changes and believe their work will lead to creating better learning opportunities for learners. Leaders incorporate new practices by targeting staff that they know will succeed at bringing new things into their classroom. Success will make it easier to incorporate the new practice into the rest of the school since staff will have seen it work with their colleagues.Horizon Three:Horizon Three contains ideas for profitable growth down the road—for instance, small ventures such as research projects, pilot programs, or minority stakes in new businesses.My definition: Horizon Three is where school leaders and the staff that likes to try new things can have a great impact on learners and schools.This Horizon is where a leader is doing more than just copying what is being done elsewhere. Working with staff, a school leader creates new practices and structures based on what they know is working, and what they see is working differently elsewhere. The important term here is “pilot program”. Pilot programs are so powerful in education. Here are three simple rules for a pilot program.

  1. Make failure survivable by creating small programs. Communicate to the learners, parents, staff, and your boss the goals of the pilot program, what you hope to accomplish, and why you believe you will be successful. A pilot can be as small as a teacher switching to bouncing balls instead of chairs in their classroom.
  2. Have feedback loops to know if you are being successful. Create outcomes based on the impact you hope to achieve by running the pilot program. Create feedback loops that align with the outcomes.
  3. Overcommunicate with all stakeholders. Throughout the pilot program, ensure everyone is updated on the successes and challenges that surface.

The staff involved in Horizon Three are those very few that always want to try something new and can thrive with one foot in the traditional model (Horizon One) and one foot in something that may not work.In closing, I challenge you to reflect on whether you navigate between all three Horizons. It is easy to get stuck in Horizon One and continually beat best practices into submission. However, it is also easy to work in all three Horizons simultaneously with your staff in an effort to create a vibrant, resilient school structure that responds to future trends and provides the best learning opportunities for all learners.

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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