New View EDU Episode 43: Building School 2.0

Available October 3, 2023

Find New View EDU on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify, and many other podcast apps.

Chris Lehmann worked in a school that matched his vision of education by about 75%—and that other 25%, he says, was what gave him “license to dream.” What would you dream of if you had the opportunity to design a school from scratch? The founder of Educon, the Science Leadership Academy, and Inquiry Schools talks with host Tim Fish about his quest to create a fully inquiry-driven, human-centered learning model where citizenship and science shape the direction of the school. 

Chris LehmannDescribing economic independence as “important, but not the whole thing,” Chris shares his view that education should create a populace of informed and engaged citizens rather than aiming solely for financial success. Who you are as a worker, consumer, and member of society, he argues, is directly related to the kind of economic contributor you’ll become—and he seeks for his students to become thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind. Those habits of character, Chris says, are what lead to adults who will contribute positively to their communities and to the world, regardless of their career paths.

But what parts of the traditional educational structure contribute to building those characteristics? Very few, Chris argues. He and Tim discuss the different strategies schools like the Science Leadership Academy build into the school culture to achieve the desired outcomes, and how traditional classroom structures are designed in a way that limits those outcomes. The key, Chris says, is unlocking agency—and understanding that personal agency is not something we can give to students, because it exists within each student already. 

That unlocking of agency happens partly through helping students understand the purpose and meaning of their learning. Chris advocates for upending the hierarchical teacher-student relationship, creating instead human-centered dialogues and supportive structures that allow teachers and students to co-create and discover together in the classroom. He urges educators to help students understand that the learning they do, the projects they undertake, the answers they seek, and how those things inform the choices they make have real consequences and impacts for the world around them. Passionately connecting everything from science to Shakespeare with laying the foundation for informed citizenship, Chris encourages every school leader to consider the “why” behind each curricular choice.

And ultimately, Chris says, all of these tenets are part of creating a culture of well-being in schools, not just for students but for faculty and staff as well. He urges leaders to consider how we can create caring institutions where people feel like they matter. It may not be easy to create those cultures, and may require us to push back against notions of achievement and striving that have permeated education. But, Chris says, we are at a moment where we urgently need to revalue education as a whole, for the betterment of our society. Valuing people is a crucial step along that path.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Chris explore in this episode include:
  • What inspired the founding of Science Leadership Academy? What is the school’s north star?
  • How does SLA work toward developing thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind future citizens? How do traditional school structures allow—or prevent—that kind of personal development?
  • As a school leader, what are the core principles that help create a culture that unlocks agency for students and staff?
  • How can schools attract and retain staff who contribute to a culture of meaning and well-being in our schools?

Episode Highlights

  • “I want their heads full of thought. I want them to have the wisdom to apply those thoughts in meaningful ways. I want them to have the passion to push through when the world tells them it cannot be done. And I want them to be kind because I think we need more of that in the world.” (15:49)
  • “We don't give anyone else agency, right? We, as human beings, you have agency because you are a human, because you are alive, as do I. Now lots of institutions in our society, school being primary among them, take away agency. But what actually we try to do is not give students agency, but help them unlock their own.” (23:10)
  • “If a high school science education does not help students understand fundamentally that the way in which they live their lives, the products they buy, the kind of house they build or live in, the way they use power, the car they drive, that all of these things have a profound impact on our world, then you have failed children. Because the ability to apply a scientific lens to the choices we make every day as human beings is a fundamental part of being a citizen.” (26:51)
  • “And then how are we creating caring institutions that people feel cared for and valued? And people feel like they matter, and teachers don't feel like they're on that grind? ... I don't know a single educator right now who doesn't feel that the mental health challenges that we are seeing—students, adults, doesn't matter. … Not just in education, but the world is not OK. And all of that comes in our doors, and we're still expected to teach.” (35:32)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guest

Chris Lehmann is the founding principal and CEO of the Science Leadership Academy, a network of inquiry-driven, project-based schools in Philadelphia. SLA was named the Dell Center of Excellence for Technology in Education and is considered a national model in the School 2.0 movement. In 2013, Chris co-founded the nonprofit Inquiry Schools to help schools create more empowering, modern learning experiences.

Chris is the 2014 winner of the McGraw Prize in Education. He was named the 2013 Outstanding Leader of the Year by the International Society for Technology in Education, and in November of 2012, he was named one of Dell’s #Inspire100—one of the 100 people changing the world using social media. He has spoken at dozens of conferences and has worked with schools all over the country. Chris is co-author of Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need and author of the education blog Practical Theory.