Foster breakthrough thinking to guide and energize improvement

Dennis Sparks

For many years I’ve been interested in breakthroughs that enable major advances In how principals and teachers think about and do their work. Breakthrough moments are ones in which we see the world or a part of it in fresh and dramatically new ways.

School leaders who practice breakthrough thinking and promote it in others provide school communities with a source of direction and energy  that continuously improves teaching and learning and strengthens relationships.

A “Leadership Freak” blog post recommends seeking out breakthroughs rather than waiting for them to find us.

“Breakthroughs happen,” Dan Rockwell writes, “when:

Frustration outweighs satisfaction.

Someone believes in you more than you believe in yourself.

Fresh eyes observe stale attitudes.

Someone courageously names the elephant in the room.

New faces cross your path.”

I found that I am most likely to have breakthroughs when I:

  1. Face a challenge or solve a problem that cannot be solved unless I think and act in new ways.
  2. Engage in sustained conversations with people who hold views different from my own. Usually that requires digging deeper into our assumptions.
  3. Read articles and books from a wide variety of fields, keeping an open mind about the implications of their ideas for school leadership. (I am currently reading Nate Silver’s book,The Signal and the Noise, about the science and art of prediction and forecasting. So far, though, no breakthroughs.)

Please comment: How do you encourage breakthrough thinking in yourself and in others?

2 Responses to “Foster breakthrough thinking to guide and energize improvement”


  1. 1 Cathy Albro January 10, 2013 at 11:34 am

    I have consciously evaluated my thinking lately in regards to the fixed and growth mindset research. I find that when I force myself into what I would call an enhanced growth mindset (something that I would not typically think of doing), those are the times most likely to foster breakthrough thinking.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks January 10, 2013 at 11:44 am

      Thanks for that suggestion, Cathy. Perhaps the whole world can be divided into two groups – those who think our potential is fixed at birth or at least in our earliest years and those who believe that through effort and persistence we can learn and grow. It would be wonderful to have schools staffed by educators in the latter group. Fortunately, for those educators who don’t currently have a growth mindset, we believe that it can be cultivated.


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