About the Leading through Learning Playbook

The Leading Through Learning Playbook is a resource for those seeking transformative change.

Launched by the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University in Summer 2022, the Playbook grew out of partnerships with schools, districts, state agencies, and education-support organizations committed to advancing equity by striving for ever better day after day. With their help, CPRL developed, tested, and refined the Playbook’s core framework and content, conducting: 

  • Interviews and observations with over 90 leaders from 40 organizations

  • A 2-year formative evaluation of the Networks for School Improvement (NSI), an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 

  • Strategic support and technical assistance and prototyping with school district central office teams and network hubs

  • A yearlong feedback process with a set of advisers and reviewers representing nine education-focused groups, including network hubs, school support organizations, and school districts

  • Interactive learning sessions at national and regional conferences

Through this research, the concept of Leading Through Learning emerged. This Playbook helps develop learning leaders who:

Learning leaders are, above all, active learners in the communities they lead. They continuously pursue improvement, applying to their own work the learning mindsets and practices they expect others to adopt.

Learning leaders see every strategy, practice, and action as today’s best hypothesis, positioning their system to test and refine those theories as it works to meet the needs of every student and community it serves. 

Underlying this work are several core leadership principles. Learning leaders:

  • Design to measure the full system, not only its component parts. Learning leaders understand that challenges, large and small, are the grist for improvement. They develop and facilitate robust, collaborative learning and formative measurement routines that act as early alerts, prompting and enabling actors to (1) spot and explicitly name problems and opportunities for improvement whenever and wherever they occur and (2) quickly swing into action to learn from and address them.

  • Design systems that learn in community, not silos. From their central vantage point, leaders help others learn as a community, identifying high-leverage partnerships that cross traditional boundaries and connecting stakeholders so they can work in tandem to develop systemic solutions to shared challenges.  Learning leaders reject traditional ideas about where expertise lies, understanding that those closest to and most affected by problems bring unique insight to problem-solving. These leaders go further than merely seeking input about strategy and system design. They empower their community to identify and directly shepherd system improvement efforts. 

  • Facilitate do not dictate. The ultimate goal of all organizational learning is to produce stronger, more consistent outcomes for all. But learning leaders understand that enforcing rules-based, routinized practices across divergent contexts will never spur sustainable progress toward equity. Instead, learning leaders create a strong shared impetus and boundaries for learning, and then help local actors develop tailored approaches to improvement in their own context.

By explicitly articulating their strategy for designing, guiding, and participating in learning and improvement, learning leaders flip the traditional leadership script, committing publicly to learning, positioning themselves to measure and continuously refine their own practice, and becoming accountable to their community.


About CPRL

The Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University strives to revitalize public school systems while reinventing professional education. CPRL conducts high-impact research and consulting projects for its clients in the education sector and provides rigorous coursework, skills training, and real-world experiential learning for its graduate students who attend programs at Columbia University and across the country. By design, CPRL has the opportunity to collaborate with and coach learning leaders in various systems and to learn from and develop learning leaders through its work with graduate students.

Since its founding in 2011, CPRL has provided research and consulting support to state agencies, school districts, charter school organizations, foundations, and advocacy groups, completing 200 projects and counting. More than two-thirds of CPRL’s 500-plus alumni work in education and other public-sector leadership and management roles.

Four members of CPRL’s team coauthored this Playbook: Elizabeth Chu (emc2170@columbia.edu), Andrea Clay (ac4362@columbia.edu), Ayeola Kinlaw (ayeolakinlaw@gmail.com), and Meghan Snyder (mes2302@tc.columbia.edu).

A team of CPRL graduate students also contributed greatly to the conceptualization, design, and development of the Playbook: Calia Anderson, Amayo C. Bassey, Janelle Jack, and Kirk Murrell.


Thank you to the following organizations and networks for shaping the Playbook and for their inspirational models of learning leadership:

  • Bank Street College of Education
  • Denver Public Schools
  • Educate Texas 
  • High Tech High
  • Institute For Learning
  • New Visions for Public Schools
  • Northwest Regional Education Service District
  • Partners in School Innovation

Additional thanks to Ben Daley, Tiffany Deines, Tracy Fray-Oliver, Nikki Giunta, Kate Haisten, Sarah May, Anthony Petrosky, Sofia Tannenhaus, Chris Thorn, Brianna Wilson, Christie Wilson, and countless others who contributed their time and expertise. 

This project was made possible by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We are grateful for the guidance and support of the foundation’s staff. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the foundation.