Last week I had the opportunity to spend a little time at Science Leadership Academy, the inquiry/project-based learning school started by Chris Lehmann. Here are several things that stuck with me as I reflected about what makes this school so special. [Note: “Special” is not just my opinion as evidenced by the fact that they have thousands of visitors come to see the school each year, receive over a thousand applications for the 120 openings for ninth grade and host educon, an annual learning conference that consistently draws the best and brightest thinkers and leaders in the world of education.]

These are things your school could should do, too. In no particular order…

1. A Common Language   
Everywhere you go at SLA, you know what’s up. It’s communicated in the posters on the walls, both in halls and classrooms. Three simple rules: Respect yourself, Respect the community, Respect SLA as a place of learning. As Jeremy Spry, our tour guide, put it, “Basically it comes down to ‘Don’t be jerk.'” 
I think that one of the most important things a school leader can do is infuse a school with a common language and value system. It is undeniable that Lehmann has done that at SLA. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to teach the same way or that there is not room for individuality. It does mean that certain, important ideas, like norms of behavior and core values, are consistently communicated throughout the school. 

2. Kids Over Content                                                                                                                       
If you’ve read his blog or talked to Chris Lehmann you have heard him say that students should never be the implied object of their own education. In other words, it is clear that teachers are there to teach people. As Jeremy put it,
“Students don’t need us for information. They have Google for that. They need us to take care of them, raise them in community, guide them.
I think that is beautiful and so essential to remember. Of course, I like teachers to also be passionate about the subjects they teach, but kids come first!
3. Technology Like Oxygen
Another famous “Lehman-ism” is that technology in schools should be like oxygen- necessary, invisible and ubiquitous. I’m not sure what else to say about this one except that sometimes this is easier said than done, but as a vision, it’s the only reasonable choice.
4. School is Not to Prepare Kids for the Real World
I personally despise “schooliness” and think it is one of the most insidious blockers of evolving our education system to meet the real needs of learners. Even young teachers seem to have trouble envisioning a classroom or school environment different from the ones they encountered as students.
Schooliness to me equates with teacher-centered and passive. Students show up waiting to be told what to do. Teachers show up to tell students what and how to learn and “manage” behavior. Learning is low-level and closed-ended.
Why is this still the dominant culture in so many schools?
What I heard at SLA was this: We don’t think of our job as preparing kids for the real world. We believe our students already live in the real world. We don’t ban cell phones because cell phones and the distractions they provide are part of life.

5. Passion Matters!
Jeremy told us about the process by which students apply to become SLA freshmen. He said they receive over a thousand applications for around 120 open spots. Admission process is by interview, and interviews are open to anyone. The interviewee shares a learning project about which he or she is excited. What they are looking for is passionate learners. I compare this with high schools that base admissions on grades and test scores. Passion for learning is a much greater indicator of success. 
6. Good Design Required!
Art is a required course at SLA. Jeremy explained that visual literacy and design skills are not optional in today’s digital world. I agree, and I still see many presenters, otherwise highly qualified, who use outdated slides that lack visual appeal. It is obvious that SLA makes thoughtful decisions, based on what students need rather than what has always been considered important, when designing their curriculum.