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In Pursuit of Ambitious Instruction: Leading for Deeper Learning

By Justin Reich — January 23, 2017 3 min read

This guest post is from Prof. Donald Peurach, an Associate Professor of Educational Policy, Leadership, and Innovation in the University of Michigan’s School of Education and a Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is the developer of the University of Michigan’s Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program, a collaboration with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that uses massive open online courses on the edX platform to catalyze a global community of educational leaders.

Educational leaders in the U.S. and around the world are being pressed to transform their organizations to support ambitious instruction in classrooms.

The hallmark of ambitious instruction is teaching and learning that moves beyond the straightforward communication of facts and skills to instruction that has teachers and students making meaning of rich academic content, co-engaging in authentic practical and intellectual puzzles, and creating new knowledge and capabilities in themselves and others.

In the U.S. and abroad, this type of ambitious instruction sits at the very center of policy-driven educational improvement efforts, with schools and systems pressed to engage students in “deeper learning” and the development of “21st century skills.”

Many efforts to lead this type of change do not focus on the core work of teaching and learning but, instead, on restructuring the school-level and system-level resources and incentives that surround teaching and learning. For example, leaders often focus on such matters as establishing performance standards and accountability systems, cultivating norms of responsibility and improvement, creating or acquiring curriculum frameworks and resources, and/or establishing assessment and data systems.

A problem, however, is that this “educational surround” is often constructed absent deep knowledge of precisely what is being asked anew of teachers and students in classrooms. As a consequence, these efforts are often weakly coordinated with the work of teachers and students, and have little effect on their day-to-day interactions.

An alternative approach - one responsive to the press for “deeper learning” and “21st century skills” - would begin with a careful examination of the work of ambitious instruction. With that as its beginning point and nucleus, the approach would move outward: to a careful examination of “systems thinking” as an approach to building coordinated, school-level and system-level supports for ambitious instruction; and, from there, to a careful examination of the diverse, distributed leadership teams needed to develop and leverage those supports.

I have been collaborating with colleagues in the University of Michigan’s School of Education and Ross School of Business to develop a massive open online course that moves aspiring and practicing educational leaders through precisely this progression. Titled Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning, our aim is to develop leaders’ capabilities to collaborate in thinking, reasoning, and strategizing about the meaning and pursuit of ambitious instruction in classrooms.

Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning launches on January 24, 2017. It is the gateway to a new, five-course MicroMasters in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement that will take learners even further, into:


  • Research and case studies on innovative, large scale “learning systems”.
  • Principles and practices of Improvement Science as advanced by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  • Formal methods for applying Improvement Science to different categories of educational problems.

Through this structure, the MicroMasters will support a diverse array of learners seeking the knowledge and capabilities needed to respond to new needs, opportunities, and pressures to advance more ambitious instruction in classrooms, at a large scale.

More importantly, the MicroMasters will welcome this diverse array of learners into a new community of educational leaders committed to improving educational opportunities and outcomes for students in the US and around the world.

Register now for Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning or the five-course MicroMasters Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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