In 1997, when I became the director of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) museum in Columbus, Ohio, I had an opportunity to put all I knew about leadership into practice. I was responsible for the daily operations and P&L of an existing science center, the construction of its US$125 million new home, the design of the exhibits and education programs, the business processes and operating systems that the new facility would need, and the completion of a $40 million private-sector fund-raising campaign.
We had a lean staff and a flat organization. Stakeholders included COSI associates, the city’s leading business figures, the mayor, the city council, the governor, and museum visitors. Each person on our core team brought relevant experiences and competencies to the table, but we faced a huge array of challenges unlike anything we had dealt with before. I realized quickly that one of my most important tasks was to ensure that the team was building creative and robust answers to every question.
This in turn meant we had to come to a shared understanding of our situation, tap the knowledge around us, and continually examine and test the answers and solutions we thought we had in place. In other words, we were acting like exploratory scientists, and our terrain was an evolving institution.
As I’ve worked in science education over the years, I have wondered why this type of leadership seems so rare in U.S. schools. This question drew me to collaborate with Karl J. Klimek and Elsie Ritzenhein on the book Generative Leadership: Shaping New Futures for Today’s Schools. In the research on the human mind and brain that my coauthors and I conducted for that project, we learned much about the strong relationship between effective leading and effective learning.
According to the classroom-oriented cognitive researchers Renate Numella Caine and Geoffrey Caine, the brain’s natural learning process works most effectively when three elements are present.
The first element is a “high challenge/low threat” environment. People learn most effectively when they feel fundamentally safe but sense something novel or unknown. The low threat level allows the primal centers of the brain to relax; if a threat is perceived, these survival circuits will overwhelm and shut down the brain regions involved in learning. The stimulus — be it novel experience, curiosity, need, or the desire for a result — keeps the brain’s major processing centers alert and highly active.
Second, people learn best in an environment that is rich in diverse sensory information: imagery, spoken words, written text, numbers, and hands-on activity combined. This variety stimulates multiple regions of the brain simultaneously, strengthening the signaling pathways between them. Further, since each individual has a unique blend of learning aptitudes, richly orchestrated experiences are more likely to engage a broader array of people, whether schoolchildren or adults.
Finally, real learning occurs through the active processing of new stimuli or experience. This involves more than just storing information in working memory. Students cannot simply write down what they heard in class to fully understand it. They must experiment with it or apply it to solve problems. Simple as it may sound, exercises that ask students to link new information to their own personal experiences can catalyze this kind of processing very well.
I saw in these three elements the ingredients that had made my own learning experience so powerful. At COSI, we incorporated them into the design of all our exhibits and education programs. I also realized the need to bring them into formal education, especially STEM education.
Out of the Factory Model
Even after years of education reform efforts and the world-shaping impact of computer technologies, many schools are stuck using an education model based on the factories and armies of the 19th century. Authority is hierarchical; knowledge is broken down into discrete, specialized, unrelated units; and the day is divided into manageable blocks of time.