Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling


Frederick M. Hess & Bror Saxberg

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  • Praise for Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age

    by Frederick M. Hess and Bror Saxberg

    Hess and Saxberg offer a powerful read for principals as the chief “learning engineers” in schools. Instructional leaders know that technology has changed the complexion of schools and classrooms, but their leadership is needed to steward its use to solve learning challenges.

    Principals are becoming masters of navigating programs, gadgets, and curricula to best utilize resources. Applying the principles of learning science to these leadership competencies will deepen the level of thinking about technology, and lead to more meaningful student outcomes.

    By deconstructing learning science and making the connection to technology, the authors have outlined key strategies for school leaders as they work to transform traditional practices in schools. The insights and ideas put forth by Hess and Saxberg will help principals implement myriad practices that fully realize the potential of technology and digital learning.

    Whether it is whole-school reform or targeted interventions, principals will be motivated to rethink or “re-engineer” the use of technology to optimize teaching and learning.

    Gail Connelly, Executive Director, National Association of Elementary School Principals Alexandria, VA

    Hess and Saxberg cut through the ed-tech hype and identify great instruction as the key to improved learning outcomes. Teachers, as well as school and district leaders, will find in these pages an effective blueprint for trying and deploying instructional technologies that is at once deeply conceptual and entirely practical.

    Stacey Childress, Deputy Director, Innovation Seattle, WA

    Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age provides clear insights and thoughtful design to help schools understand that the main thing with technology is not the technology; it is what you do with it. The authors provide a powerful example vital to the understanding of creating classrooms that are full of “learning engineers” including teachers and students.

    Mark Edwards, Superintendent, Mooresville Graded School District Mooresville, NC

    “Learning engineering,” the application of learning science to learning at scale, is likely to be a critical ingredient to make progress in online and on-the-ground education in the years to come. The use of technology in education is finally fulfilling its potential. Bror and Rick are leading thinkers in this accelerating space.

    Salman Khan, Founder and Executive Director, Khan Academy Mountain View, CA

    It's not the tools, as Rick and Bror point out; it's the new potential to engineer engaging pathways to mastery, to leveraging great technology and buying time for teachers to build powerful sustained relationships with young people. Rick's attention to “cage-busting leadership” and Bror's relentless demand for learning R&D make them great coauthors—and make this a must read.

    Tom Vander Ark, Author and CEO, Getting Smart Federal Way, WA

    The democratization of information and the availability of technology are two of the biggest issues facing American public education today and can have a transformative impact on teaching and learning. But we can't simply plug new devices into old classrooms. In Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age, Hess and Saxberg make it clear that we can only fully leverage the educational possibilities of technology if we are willing to become “learning engineers” first, and redesign our schools, classrooms, and teaching practices to take full advantage of these tools. This will require bold leadership and dramatic changes to the way we structure our school day, train our educators, and deliver instruction. This book is an important part of the conversation about what it means to education children in the 21st century.

    Joshua P. Starr, EdD, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools Rockville, MD

    The concept of a “learning engineer” is nothing short of an overdue revolution in thinking about innovation in public education. Leaders across the educator sector, who are committed to improvement in service to kids, must resist the silver bullet promise of shiny new tools air-dropped into yesterday's classrooms. Hess and Saxberg tell us why, and more importantly, how to squarely place people as the drivers of innovation. The pragmatic approach laid out in this book will help leaders recognize that kids need more than touch screens. They need teachers, school and district leaders, and policymakers who approach this work as entrepreneurial problem finders, thoughtfully applying technology as a solution when and where it makes sense.

    Jennifer Medberry, CEO, Kickboard New Orleans, LA

    Technology alone will not improve teaching or learning in our schools. However, as Hess and Saxberg have succinctly laid out, if leveraged properly by effective educators, technology can and will have a profound impact on the educational landscape. It is important that all education stakeholders embrace this way of thinking in order to effectively move technology use in schools beyond just quantity of devices to quality of learning experiences.

    Josh Stumpenhorst, 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year Naperville, IL

    This is a “must-read” book for educational leaders, policymakers, educational product developers and those of us who have a stake in our education system. While many books have described ways that educational technology can help save our K–12 education system, this book is different. Hess and Saxberg combine a realistic view of technology with an engaging and accurate description of what we know about learning sciences and a discussion about how to combine the two. Their concern is that technology is often a solution in search of a problem to solve—a solution that seems very seldom to bring expected benefits. They remind us with brief cautionary stories that different technologies are empty vehicles that are most often used to deliver educational products whose impact has ranged from destructive to ineffective—but also that occasionally their impact is positive and game-changing. They describe many popular but failed approaches that should be avoided because of solid evidence that they don't work. They also offer compelling examples to support their view that the best outcomes occur when forward-thinking school leaders combine solid, evidence-based learning strategies chosen to solve identified problems, with cost-effective technology. They describe the strategies they recommend. They offer clear and specific pointers about how to use these learning science based strategies and an engineering approach to create smart school reform (with and without technology).

    Richard E. Clark, Professor Emeritus of Educational Psychology and Technology; Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Technology; and Clinical Professor of Surgery, University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA

    As we educators expect our children to think deeply and critically about the world around them, we should expect nothing less of ourselves. Here, Rick and Bror provide us with an outline for that thinking. They push us to ask the right questions as we challenge the conventional approaches to learning within our schools. This book is about far more than educational technology; it is a call to critical thought from an orientation that aims first and foremost to provide excellent learning opportunities for our children.

    Mark T. Murphy, Secretary of Education, Delaware Department of Education Dover, DE

    This important book urges readers to create powerful, new learning environments based on learning science. Technology can be transformative when we focus on actual learning experiences and not just the shiniest gadget.

    Alex Hernandez, Charter School Growth Fund Broomfield, CO

    This is a great “how to” book for any district that is interested in tackling the technology challenges for our students. It gives a new way to think about instructional delivery and how to best prepare ourselves for facilitating learning in the 21st Century.

    Colleen Jones, Assistant Superintendent for Academic Services, Liberty Public Schools Liberty, MO

    Hess and Saxberg are spot-on about the right future for the role of science and technology in education. They wonderfully combine an enthusiasm for new and creative approaches with a clear-minded “does it really work?” skepticism. This book presents the most clear argument I have seen that learning science can make a huge difference in improving student learning and lowering costs.

    Ken Koedinger, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction and Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA

    Hess & Saxberg recognize that thoughtful use of technology in schools is not primarily technical nor technological—rather, it is human. Or, as the old cartoon character Pogo said, I have seen the enemy, and it is me. Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age is a must-read for education leaders who want to harness the possibility of new tools, and do so in a thoughtful way that makes a difference for learning.

    Keith Krueger, CEO, Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Washington, DC

    This book provides powerful insight into why state, civic, and system leaders should rethink policies, practices, and procedures related to technology and its usage in our classrooms. Too often, our current structures fail to promote and support learning engineering. Rick Hess and Bror Saxberg have designed a compelling guide for the road ahead.

    William Hite, Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia Philadelphia, PA


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    Years ago, one of us attended an information session for virtual charter school parents. At the end, one mother, who had waited until everyone else asked their questions, walked up with her teenage son. He wore a baseball cap, slouchy jeans, and a smile. After checking to ensure that no one was near, she said quietly, “My boy is slow. It takes him the longest time to understand things. He works and works and works at it, and he does get it, eventually, but it sure takes a long time.” She looked down, then up: “Is my boy going to be all right?”

    That's a profound question: What does it take to ensure that learners of all kinds are going to be “all right”? We think today there are too many schools and classrooms where we can't confidently assuage that mother's fears. What fills us with optimism is that we think there are emerging tools and classroom models that, if used wisely, will make it much more likely that we'll be able to tell millions more parents the words they yearn to hear.

    The truth is that helping all children master skills and knowledge, whatever their challenges and needs, requires an amount of time, practice, reinforcement, and customization that is simply not feasible in most conventional schools and classrooms—especially in an era of tight budgets. Emerging technological tools, however, make it newly possible to practically and affordably offer those very things to untold millions of children … if school and system leaders know what they're doing.

    Consider Acton Academy in Austin, Texas. A tiny, independent school with just about 30 students, Acton looks radically different from most schools in Austin, or anywhere else. Students set their own learning goals, plan their own days, and manage their own time. They aren't separated into grades because the school's founders Laura and Jeff Sandefer believe children benefit from working alongside multi-aged peers. Students learn content and assess their progress using technology-enhanced materials offered by the likes of Khan Academy, DreamBox Learning, and ST Math. The school faculty includes one master teacher and two “assistants” (typically high school volunteers earning class credit).1 The teacher operates as more of a guide than a guru. With the aid of Acton's 11-month academic year, students get all the time they need to master things—and learn at a pace and in a manner geared to help ensure that they're going to be “all right.” As Caroline Vander Ark, chief operating officer at Getting Smart, observed after a visit: “Very little teaching took place during my visit, but there was a lot of learning.”2 Acton has reported some promising results, with students gaining more than two grade levels per year on the SAT 10.3

    In short, many who fret about the baleful impact of education technology have long championed schools like Acton—small, differentiated, student-centered, and rich in personal interactions. Acton is a tiny school, but it stands as one tiny example of what's possible if educators free themselves to rethink the 19th century schoolhouse. Acton shows skeptics that technology can indeed play a role in moving a school forward. This book is intended for those open to bringing that same kind of rethinking to a much broader canvas.

    Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that many tech cheerleaders are suggesting that new technology will inevitably improve learning, save money, startle young minds, and solve our eduproblems all by itself. They tout a series of cool new gizmos and notions—like smartphones apps, iPads for all students, “flipped” classrooms, “big data,” computer-based instruction, game-based learning—and seemingly suggest that we should just get out of the way. To educators, it can sound as if they're supposed to just head down to the Apple store, fill their backpacks with new gadgets, and call it a day. Given this state of affairs, it's no surprise that educators are often skeptical of new devices and the proselytizers who pitch them.

    We want to be painfully clear. We believe that there is tremendous potential in new educational technology, but unless it is wielded wisely and well, most of this stuff will amount to no more than a costly, faddish fling with distracting devices. Today, while schools increasingly have remarkable tools at their disposal, we fear these are rarely wielded wisely or well. We're using iPad hammers to open learning paint cans—pursuing poor solutions to the wrong problems.

    It's a mistake to get caught up in the question, “Is technology good or bad?” We don't think this makes any more sense than asking whether pencils and books are “good or bad,” or whether a doctor's stethoscope and X-ray are “good or bad.” These things are tools, and the value of a tool lies in how it is used. The question that motivates this book is, “Given what we know about learning, how can new technological tools help promote great teaching and learning?”

    The good news and the bad news about technology and learning are one and the same: Schools have not yet begun to systematically tap learning science through technology to deepen, accelerate, and nurture learning. The “bad” here is obvious. So what's the “good” news? It's that, since we mostly haven't figured out the right way to put things together, we're in a position to make enormous progress by tapping emerging tools and technologies the right way.

    As we'll suggest in the pages ahead, learning science is the proper starting point for tapping that potential. Acton Academy, like so many other promising pilots over the decades, can succeed with its tiny population by relying on little more than imagination, pluck, and improvisation. But finding ways to mirror that success in schools and systems that serve thousands or tens of thousands of students requires something more. Learning science provides the grounding, insight, and knowledge to inform that work.

    Setting this in motion requires educational leaders to start thinking more like “learning engineers,” using learning science to inform decisions about what teachers should do and how schools and classrooms should be designed. While there's a wealth of research exploring how the human mind learns, relatively little of it has been used to inform decisions about how to rethink schools and systems. Whether this is because the findings are encrypted within jargon-laden journals, are too new to have migrated to training, or are outside the expertise of those who train and mentor school leaders, it's time to start remedying the situation.

    This is a book for problem-solving educators who are unwilling to simply plug new tools into yesterday's classrooms and who want some help when it comes to designing new ways to better serve kids. In our experience, this “learning engineer” mind-set does not always come naturally to education leaders who have spent their entire careers in familiar routines; it will require a reboot.

    For starters, it's important to note that good engineers are not technicians. They are creative spirits who find ways to use available talent, time, tools, technology, processes, and underpinning science to solve important problems. Technology has the unique promise of taking great solutions and making them more affordable, available, reliable, personalized, and data-rich. But it has to be used correctly and intentionally.

    Today's educational leaders are in a place where they can drive school redesign by tapping into what is known about how minds learn, while using technology as a tool to support and empower these efforts. In this book we hope to help educators and education leaders eager to start thinking more like learning engineers, and offer guidance on how they might best use the power of technology to create the schools and systems our children deserve.

    With that, let's see what we can do to help ensure that millions more parents can be confident that their children are “going to be all right.”


    1. Clayton Christensen Institute. (2013). Acton Academy blended learning profiles. Retrieved from

    2. Vander Ark, C. (2012). It's all about culture at Acton Academy. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

    3. Staker, H. C. (2012). The first principle of blended learning. [Weblog post]. Clayton Christensen Institute. Retrieved from


    We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who provided the guidance, insight, and support that made this volume possible. First and foremost, we'd like to offer our heartfelt thanks to the marvelously talented Taryn Hochleitner for her inspiring work ethic and deft editorial touch. Without Taryn's firm guidance we're not sure this book would have come to fruition.

    This is a book informed by the wisdom of those doing work in the field. We owe thanks to all those who made time to talk to us or advised us along the way. Special thanks are due to Dick Clark of the University of Southern California for his willingness to be a supportive sounding board and guide to the wide world of learning science. We also want to thank the terrific team at Corwin, especially Senior Acquisitions Editor Arnis Burvikovs for his friendship, support, and thoughtful guidance, along with Ariel Price, Editorial Assistant, and Amy Schroller, Project Editor.

    As ever, Rick owes the deepest appreciation to the American Enterprise Institute and its president, Arthur Brooks, for the remarkable support and steadfast backing that make it possible to pursue this work. He also wishes to thank Taryn's colleagues Lauren Aronson, KC Deane, Max Eden, Andrew Kelly, Daniel Lautzenheiser, Michael McShane, and Jenna Talbot for their invaluable support throughout this project. The authors also owe a vote of thanks to interns Chelsea Straus, Sarah Baran, and Luke Sullivan.

    Rick is also indebted to his wife, Joleen, for her love, understanding, and droll editorial support, things that helped carry him through this project as they have through so many others. And he owes big thanks to his loving dad, Milton Hess, for years of insights and anecdotes that helped him better understand the world of information technology.

    On the professional front, thanks from Bror are due to Andy Rosen, CEO of Kaplan, whose thoughtful approach to business success through better learning provides a great platform for learning engineers to make a difference. Bror also has a real appreciation for the pioneering work of the business leaders and learning engineers throughout Kaplan who are building a base of practice and evidence that is putting the principles in this book to work at scale. Thanks are due to Bror's own team within Kaplan, especially Brenda Sugrue, David Niemi, and Amelia Waters, for the good but intense work of guiding Kaplan's progress in learning, and Kimberly Hayes, his assistant, for the nearly-as-difficult work of guiding him.

    On the personal front for Bror, his parents, Borje and Aase, successfully survived his youth and have given him practical examples of the benefits of supporting deliberate practice, not “smarts,” throughout his life. Bror's kids, Haakon, Siri, and Tor, have given him three of the best reasons in the world to think hard about investing in people's learning and their long-term success. Thanks and love from Bror go to his ever-patient wife Denise, who has found so many ways to give their family all the support they need to become what they intend.

    Finally, it goes without saying that any mistakes or flaws are ours and ours alone, while most of the good stuff was inevitably cribbed from one of the aforementioned. But such is life.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Alex Hernandez, Partner
    • Charter School Growth Fund
    • Broomfield, CO
    • Michael B. Horn, Education Executive Director
    • Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation
    • San Mateo, CA
    • Colleen Jones, Assistant Superintendent for Academic Services
    • Liberty Public Schools
    • Liberty, MO
    • Dr. Jadi Miller, Director of Curriculum and Professional Development
    • Lincoln Public Schools
    • Lincoln, NE
    • Brigitte Tennis, Headmistress and 8th Grade Teacher
    • Stella Schola Middle School
    • Redmond, WA

    About the Authors

    An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K–12 and higher education issues as the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include Cage-Busting Leadership, The Same Thing Over and Over, Education Unbound, Common Sense School Reform, Revolution at the Margins, and Spinning Wheels. He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, “Rick Hess Straight Up.” Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Atlantic, National Review, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. He has edited widely cited volumes on education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind. Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 Schools. A former high school social studies teacher, he has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University. He holds an MA and PhD in government, as well as an MEd in teaching and curriculum, from Harvard University.

    Bror Saxberg is responsible for the research and development of innovative learning strategies, technologies, and products across Kaplan's full range of educational services offerings, focused on lifting learner success. He also oversees future developments and adoptions of innovative learning technologies and works to maintain consistent academic standards for Kaplan's products and courses.

    Saxberg formerly served as senior vice president and chief learning officer at K12, Inc., where he was responsible for designing both online and off-line learning environments and developing new student products and services. Prior to joining K12, Inc., he was vice president at Knowledge Universe, where he cofounded the testing and assessment division that became known as Knowledge Testing Enterprise (KTE). Saxberg began his career at McKinsey & Company, Inc., and later served as vice president and general manager for London-based DK Multimedia, part of DK Publishing, an education and reference publisher.

    Saxberg holds a BA in mathematics and a BS in electrical engineering from the University of Washington. As a Rhodes scholar, he received an MA in mathematics from Oxford University. He also received a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT and an MD from Harvard Medical School.



    For my dad, who taught me everything I know about technology, and for my nephew Eli, who finds desktop computers as anachronistic as slide rulers.


    For my mother and father, who supported and challenged my brother and me—they barely survived!—and for Denise, Haakon, Siri, and Tor, whose patience and love always fuel my thinking.

  • CORWIN: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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