Guest post by John Clements

I am an optimist about the future of schools and learning. My unwavering hope as an educational leader springs from the expanding definition of what it means to be a successful school. For decades, perhaps since the foreboding message of “A Nation at Risk,” educators have equated success with one word: achievement. While the lens of student achievement may provide a well-intentioned view of school, it clouds the vision of schools as places that engage, empower, and inspire students. Achievement ignores the inherently aspirational aspects of learning.

Ask any mom or dad what type of schooling they want for their child and you’re likely to hear about curiosity, excitement, and joy in learning. Ask educators what they believe about learning, and they’ll tell you about experiences that ignite students’ interests, promote creativity, and provide a link between the classrooms and the community. Ask students what they love about school and they’ll share stories of collaboration, exploration, and times when learning was just plain fun.

No one—not parents, teachers, or students—will tell you about final exams, or test data, or number 2 pencils.

I find hope in the increasing awareness of the incongruity between what we believe about learning and what we practice in our classrooms. In schools across our nation, educators are moving beyond simple achievement to design curriculum, instruction, and assessment that align with the aspirational parts of learning. In my role as principal of Nipmuc Regional High School, I see that this work takes many forms.

While the subjects, the instruction, and the teachers vary, three elements remain consistent as we make school less about achievement and more about learning. First, these learning experiences provide students with agency, giving them opportunities to pursue their passions. Next, in acting as leaders of their own learning, students have the chance to engage in deep inquiry which activates their curiosity and creativity. Finally, students participate in real work that matters, taking learning beyond the classroom to make a community impact. Here are several examples of how educators at Nipmuc have taken actionable steps toward aspirational learning.

21st-Century Learning Conferences

These conferences are full-day events that answer the question, “If you had a day to learn something new, what would you want to learn?” Modeled after professional conferences but offered to students, these events are designed through school-wide brainstorming sessions that collect hundreds of ideas about the students’ interests. Teachers and community members then design workshops that allow students to explore these ideas. Through these conferences Nipmuc has welcomed more than 200 community partners to campus to guide students in deep inquiry on a range of explorations.

Lead Learner Meetings

Looking to provide students with a voice and encourage shared leadership? Consider trading traditional, hierarchical meetings of your leadership team for open meetings with students and teachers. At Nipmuc, we have replaced traditional department chair meetings with Lead Learner meetings—monthly workshops in which students and teachers explore concepts such as agency, inquiry, and community-based problem-solving. Meetings are open to all students and teachers, encouraging a culture of learning for all.

Food for Thought Lunches

Held monthly, these lunchtime events give teachers the chance to ask students about what’s working, what’s not, and how schools need to evolve in order to value inspiration over achievement. Simply gather 12–15 students with a small group of teachers, post key questions on chart paper, ask students to answer the questions, and discuss.

Community Advisory Board

Get your community members involved in the conversation about reimagining our schools. Use your mass email system to invite parents from grades K–12 to participate in a conversation about what our schools look like at their best. Build consensus, excitement, and momentum around the future of learning.

Tell Stories of Learning

Look for the moments of awesomeness in your school where teachers are providing opportunities for agency, inquiry, and authenticity. Be sure that these stories of learning—rather than stories of achievement—are the ones you promote through blogs, face-to-face meetings, and newsletters.

My excitement about moving beyond the limits of achievement to redefine successful schools grows each time I speak to a student, parent, or educator who has seen learning lead to inspiration. To build a network of support for this movement toward aspirational learning, my colleagues and I launched the Inspired Learning Project, a free network of like-minded educators who are interested in evolving education. It provides a way to connect with amazing educators, access scalable practices that inspire student learning, find actionable resources, and participate in monthly face-to-face digital conversations about the future of learning. Join us on the journey to reimagine school at

John Clements is principal of Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, MA, a 1:1 learning school that is dedicated to its core values and driven by its beliefs about learning. He is a believer in the power of professional collaboration and sharing as a way to make schools places of inspired learning. He is the 2017 Massachusetts Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @JohnKClements.


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