Learnability: The Most Important Skill for School Leaders

Steven WeberBlog, Connect Better, Engage Better, Lead Better, Manage Better


  • School leaders face constant change which impacts their daily decisions. So they need a new skill set: learnability.
  • Learnability can happen in three ways: (1) lead by asking better questions (2) cognitive flexibility to navigate change and adapt (3) unlearning and relearning allows leaders to be responsive to new problems.
  • Review reflective questions for school leaders.

Change is constant and constant change impacts the daily decisions of school leaders.  A high school principal may be in charge of 3,000 students and multiple departments.  How likely is it that the principal has all of the answers to the issues and complexities of a large high school?  “We have moved from a complicated world to a complex one.  The two aren’t the same – and complexity isn’t just complication on steroids” (Hefferman, 2020).  The ability to navigate change and ambiguity will require a new skill set.  School leaders can create a vision for the future while navigating complexity by focusing on the skill of ‘learnability.’

Increase Learnability: Leading With Questions

A school leader who attempts to navigate change alone and make all of the decisions will soon discover that it is futile.  During times of uncertainty, leaders can learn to ask better questions.  “Probably the two greatest failures of leaders are indecisiveness in times of urgent need for action and dead certainty that they are right in times of complexity” (Fullan, 2008).

Leading with questions can support the leader and the school.  Listening to multiple perspectives will support school leaders more than a single narrative.  There are leaders throughout the school and they may have a better perspective than the principal or assistant principal.  “In [a] crisis, sometimes we must call for air support.  So, get on the radio and ask for help.  Your team needs you to be situationally aware, make some tough decisions and keep moving forward” (Gleeson, 2020).

The greatest leaders utilize their own strengths and enlist the support of other school staff and stakeholders to solve the complex problems that must be addressed throughout the school year. Click To Tweet

Increase Learnability: Cognitive Flexibility

During times of certainty, school staff can count on limited disruption, a fully staffed school, plenty of substitute teachers, and predictability.  “Developing cognitive flexibility enables you to envision multiple scenarios, develop different solutions simultaneously, and pull the plug and move on when an approach isn’t working” (Colvin, 2020).  The ability to navigate change and adapt is critically important to developing ‘learnability.’  Identify a time when cognitive flexibility helped your school team adapt.  What are the benefits of utilizing cognitive flexibility when the situation is complex and unpredictable?

Increase Learnability: Unlearning

It can be tempting to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.  The fact that we taught Algebra I does not mean we can apply the same philosophy to all departments at the secondary level.  “There is great value in learning, but also in relearning, not overlearning, and unlearning for an increasingly complex and uncertain future (Chew, 2022).  ‘Learnability’ embraces multiple scenarios, uncertainty, and the shifts that are impacting teaching and learning.  Unlearning requires leaders to be humble enough to say, ‘I don’t know the answer, but we will explore all possible options.” 

It may seem counterproductive for school leaders seeking the skill of ‘learnability’ to unlearn.  If the pandemic taught us anything about decision-making it was that multiple scenarios may be needed in order to make the final decision.  “Being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment” (McChrystal, Collins, Silverman, and Fussell, 2015, p. 20).

Reflective Questions For School Leaders

  1. How can leading with questions support our school staff?
  2. Do I display ‘cognitive flexibility’ or do I rely on tradition and the way we have always done things at this school?
  3. When can ‘unlearning’ support me as a school leader?
  4. What has changed in K-12 education?
  5. How can the skill of ‘learnability’ make me a better school leader?
  6. Do I have a ‘guiding coalition’ or a group of stakeholders who provide multiple perspectives and recommendations for school improvement?
  7. Which voices are missing from our decision-making process?

The role of a school leader is to see 3-5 months down the road and begin planning for the future.  This skill is not taught in graduate school and it takes practice.  The constant change in state mandates, board policies, and local issues makes it difficult for school leaders to have all of the answers.  ‘Learnability’ does not make a person a weak leader. 

Having the courage to admit that you are a lifelong learner is a starting point.  It demonstrates learnability when a leader asks 1) Where are we now? 2) Where are we going? and 3) How will we get there?  The greatest leaders utilize their own strengths and enlist the support of other school staff and stakeholders to solve the complex problems that must be addressed throughout the school year.  “Today’s leaders must truly understand the vital importance of adaptability, agility, and learnability….As change has acquired a new cadence” (Culberhouse, 2023).

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Chew, A. (2022). Learning for the future. Retrieved from https://pmo-csf.medium.com/learning-for-the-future-4c960c009fb5

Colvin, B. (2020). How to get comfortable leading through uncertainty. Retrieved from https://www.coachingworksnyc.com/blog/2020/1/24/how-to-get-comfortable-leading-through-uncertainty 

Culberhouse, D. (2023). Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/DCulberhouse/status/1614448007453495296  

Fullan, M. (2008). The six secrets of change: What the best leaders do to help their organizations survive and thrive. Jossey-Bass.

Gleeson, B. 9 ways  crisis makes you a better leader. Forbes.  Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2020/03/31/9-ways-crisis-makes-you-a-better-leader/?sh=7ff0218043e2 

Hefferman, M. (2020). Uncharted: How to navigate the future. Avid Reader Press.

McChrystal, S., Collins, T., Silverman, D., & Fussell, C. (2015). Team of teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world. Penguin Publishing Group. 

About Steven Weber

Dr. Steven Weber is a curriculum leader. He has served on multiple state and national boards. His areas of research include curriculum design, multiplying leaders, professional learning, and school leadership.