Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Author, Getting Smart; CEO, Open Education Solutions; Partner, Learn Capital


Find the right balance.

Leaders—at home, school, and work—find the right balance between pressure and support. Setting high expectations and supporting growth are the keys to developing human excellence and organization growth. The trick is adjusting the mix of pressure and support and finding new ways to express the two over time.

Leaders also need to balance execution and innovation. Education is all about execution—talented and committed teachers meeting the needs of students every day in every classroom. But just making the old model work better isn’t good enough any more. We now have the opportunity to customize learning for every student. The trick is running a good organization while inventing the future. Managers deliver results. Leaders create the future. You need to be both—just get the balance right!


Hit the window.

You can work on an old problem or a new opportunity, but you usually have a small window to build a solution, demonstrate some traction, and create something that, as my Learn Capital partner Rob Hutter says, “authentically delights a community of users.”

The best you can hope to do is play Judo on the work and leverage emerging change forces. These external forces—like technology, demographics, and politics—create windows of opportunity and changes you can take advantage of if you are paying attention. For example, how are you going to use the Common Core Standards and online assessment to improve learning or build your organizational capacity?


Learn broadly.

To hit windows of opportunity you need context that requires you to learn broadly—obviously in your field, but also across disciplines. Most innovations aren’t primary, they are translational—stuff that worked in one field is a breakthrough in another. The key is pattern recognition of analogous problems and solutions. I’ve had good success with using book reviews with teams that I’ve led; every great book had something to do with our work together.


Build a team.

I’ve had two great team experiences in the last 30 years. Great teams are hard to build, but when you get the talent, trust and focus right the results are extraordinary. Take the time to get the right folks in the right jobs. Build reflective time into your meetings. Invest in development. Make a change quickly when it’s clear that there’s not a fit. A high-functioning team produces value and is the most rewarding professional experience you’ll ever have.


Keep a contribution mindset.

Instead of focusing on what’s in it for you (i.e., an extraction mindset), stay focused on making a contribution to your school or your company, and the education sector. You may miss a window, your project or company may even fail, but it’s really about making a difference. If you stay focused on adding value and are persistent you will have the opportunity to make a big impact.

The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.


Tom Vander Ark is author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World and founder of Tom is also CEO of Open Education Solutions and a partner in Learn Capital, a venture capital firm investing in learning content, platforms, and services with the goal of transforming educational engagement, access, and effectiveness.

Previously Tom served as President of the X PRIZE Foundation and was the Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he implemented $3.5 billion in scholarship and grant programs. Tom was the first business executive to serve as public school superintendent in Washington State. Tom is a director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and several other nonprofits.

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