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New Environment Sparks New Learning

New Environment Sparks New Learning

Innovative Leadership

Education Elements and Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) came together to design an experience for adult learners that would make a difference in their lives as innovative leaders. Both organizations wanted to create an experience that would inspire them, that would change mindsets and drive different results. 

Here was the real challenge. It was the start of the new school year - August, to be specific - when most district and school leaders are pulled in many directions. The New School Rules (NSR) Leadership Institutes are designed to improve how teams collaborate, make decisions, and achieve their goals as an organization. This institute in particular offered a unique space to grow leadership practices, while learning and collaborating with school and district leaders from across the state of Tennessee who were thinking about the future design of schools and districts differently.

As we co-created the event together we knew motivation to learn evolves over time and Malcolm Knowles, an opportunist in adult education, coined the concept of five teaching strategies for adults, which says adults learn best when:

  1. Adults understand why something is important to know or do
  2. Adults have the freedom to learn in their own way
  3. Learning is experiential
  4. The time is right for them to learn
  5. The process is positive and encouraging


We tried our best to channel his teachings and want share what hit home. You may not be able to pick up and go to the Wellspire in Nashville, TN tomorrow, but we want to share how we were able to accomplish our goals at this event and what you can do to give new energy to your next learning experience.


If you want to promote positive energy.

The open space with crystals and essential oils filled the rooms at the Wellspire which invited a warmer environment that was ideal for opening dialogue and allowing people to connect with each other. Conversations flowed better when people were sitting around round tables with flowers and crisp white lighting. Leaders sometimes feel uncomfortable learning in the same spaces they spend hours making decisions in. While people lounged on sofas and drank coffee, the spark of learning kept its flame. One leader said, “I walked into the space at 8 AM and I immediately knew this was going to be an impactful day of learning. It felt like I was walking into a yoga studio where I was ready to set my intention for the next 6 hours and commit to it.”

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You might be wondering, “Can it feel too relaxing in an environment that feels too much like a yoga studio?” Truthfully, it came down to having an isolated space that set the participants up for success. They were able to focus on the content and felt fortunate to not be disrupted by others’ needs. If your workspace isn’t set-up for this, try setting up your conference room differently. Encourage you to find inspiration by using VizLit’s resources.


If you want to focus on building self-awareness across individuals or teams.

While warm, cozy spaces can help generate positivity and openness. It’s evident that the protocols for reflection can spark more self-awareness. The team of leaders started the day truly understanding what a responsive organization is and why organizations are making shifts to becoming more responsive. As facilitators, we were intentional around setting up the experience to be slower in the morning and faster in the afternoon. We believe at Education Elements it’s essential to provide time and space for leaders to become self-aware of where they stand in their current state and where they want to go next. In order to do that, we have to create the conditions that allow leaders to self-reflect and learn from each other. A few simple things we live by are incorporated in reflection throughout the day (not just at the beginning or end of the day). Model your facilitator “moves,” and provide dedicated time for leaders to discuss in pairs and groups. 

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If you want to spark curiosity and build an authentic learning community.

The best learning communities have been the result of genuine curiosity, and usually happen in environments where most people have a common interest. In an effort to instantly connect with others, we believe check-ins and check-outs throughout the day can provide people the space to share goals, aspirations, hopes and challenges they are facing. People become immediately drawn to one another.

Which leads us to finding a way for people to connect after the experience. The two day experience in Tennessee allowed for people to authentically learn together over the course of 12 hours. We spent a considerable amount of time expanding our knowledge around becoming a responsive organization, to putting it into practice and experimenting with what it could look like, feel like, and sound like in implementation. It’s been over a month and our leaders are connecting with each other via Twitter and email sharing learnings from their own districts, and asking when the next time we’ll all be back together. 

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By co-creating an event together, Education Elements and TOSS learned that by listening, genuinely listening, and showing not only our interests but our appreciation for these leaders, people were willing to be learners throughout the two-day experience and beyond. Authentic learning communities are created by people who are able to put their genuine selves out there. 

Education Elements and Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) will be back together in Tennessee in December 2019. We encourage leaders in Tennessee and other states nearby to join us for our next leadership institute. Check out The New School Rules (NSR) Leadership Institutes for more details on the event. Reach out to Kelly Freiheit, Associate Partner at Education Elements, if you have any questions about the work in Tennessee.



About Barry Olhausen and Kelly Freiheit

Barry Olhausen serves the Tennesse Organization of School Superintendents as Assistant Executive Director. A proud product of Lake County Schools, Barry also spent the majority of his professional career there. He taught middle grades and served as Supervisor of Instruction and Federal Programs and later as Director of Schools. Barry then became Executive Director of Instructional Leadership for the Tennessee Department of Education. Saturday mornings usually find him with his running group, where the running is thrid in priority, just behind teh fellowship and the breakfast that always follows.

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