May 9, 2017

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.


Justin Aglio’s title at Montour School District in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania includes a word we use a lot in journalism right now.

He’s director of innovation.

When he started that job after creating an alternative evening high school program in Maryland and then working in charter schools, Aglio asked that his public school position include no budget.

“Because if we’re going to truly be innovative, it’s not about buying things,” he said. “It’s about changing culture.”

This week marks an experiment for Local Edition. I wanted to bring in someone who’s not in journalism to talk about what’s working in their industry. Education, a field that worked a certain way for a long time before getting shaken by technology, seemed a great place to start.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


I feel like there are some parallels with what’s happening in education right now and what’s happening in journalism. For people who may know one world but not the other, can you talk a little about the kinds of challenges that your industry is facing right now?

The biggest challenge we’re facing right now is pretty simple. We live in this digital age. And we live in an age where kindergartners are coming to us who’ve grown up with devices in their hands.

Our biggest challenge is: How do we make sure students are safe, responsible and also use this technology in a learning way? Also, how are teachers using technology not just to engage students, but to increase learning and empower students to be learners?

That’s not just our challenge, that’s every school district in the country’s challenge. How do we embrace technology and move forward with it?

Yeah, that sounds familiar. Both our industries are also based on a model that worked one way for a very long time. What are some things that people in education have to unlearn in order to move forward?

That sense that we know everything, and it’s our jobs to put that information out there for our students to memorize it, to regurgitate it back to us like how maybe you and I went to school – those days are over.

I can get on Siri and ask who was the 25th president of the United States, and she can tell me faster than any teacher in this school. Probably.

If you look at the top jobs in 2020, they’re all based around critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills. So our job is how can we build motivation and independence for students to not just know that information but be able to explain what they’re doing for student-led learning.

And for the teachers to shift that role from the knowledge provider to facilitator is one of the practices that we’re continuing to push and push more and more.

Let’s say you have a teacher who’s been in the district for 20 years. They started in a very different era. Have you found ways of working with those people to help them unlearn what they’ve always known and start to think in new ways?

Absolutely. It’s very simple. I truly believe, and maybe it’s me being naive, I truly believe that everyone has a strength. So when I go in a classroom and I see a teacher that’s been teaching 20-25 years, I learn something every time.

I think checking my ego at the door, walking into the classroom with an open mind and tapping that teacher to share what they know…what you create is a learning culture. To us, that’s so important.

We developed three core values in our school district:

– Putting children first

– Developing a growth mindset

– Developing a learning culture

I’ll give you a great example. I walked into a teacher’s classroom, and I said, “what’s that you’re doing?”

She said, “I call it ‘Flashlight Fridays.’”

I said, “what is it?”

She said, “I wanted to break the monotony when they’re reading, so on Fridays, I shut the lights off and every kid gets their flashlight out and they go and find someplace in the classroom and they read with their flashlight in the dark. And kids love it.”

I’d never seen it before. And this teacher’s been teaching for 25 years. So at our very next staff meeting, I asked her to share that.

A week ago, maybe, I walked into another class, and guess what they were doing?

Flashlight Friday.

It wasn’t a 3D printing thing. It wasn’t a kid making an app. But every one of those kids was engaged, and it was something different, a new idea, that that teacher was able to share.

So, what happens is you create this culture where she’s sharing, she’s excited, it sparks an interest in her, and she’s going to be more receptive to listen to someone else’s ideas now because people are listening to her ideas.

It’s something I think a lot of schools lack. You need trust with each other. You need to be respectful with each other. What it comes down to is treating people with respect and integrity…knowing that innovation comes from people.

Another core principle you mentioned is a “growth mindset.” What’s that mean? What’s that look like?

There’s tons of research on growth mindset, but at the end of the day, it’s just being able to stretch your mind. What you thought of something, traditionally for a long time, how can we think differently?

And a learning culture? What does a learning culture look like?

It’s when someone from the superintendent to someone working in the cafeteria to someone who’s teaching in the classroom to someone who’s a principal, everyone’s learning from each other.

It’s Flashlight Fridays.

Thank you, Justin! 

Do any of you work in newsrooms that operate this way, where you’re being taught new things while the things you’re great at are also valued and acknowledged? Is that happening intentionally?

What would happen if we adopted this approach and got the veterans and the newest in the room to teach each other? 

I don’t know the answers, but this is a great transition into where we’re headed. But first, next week we’ll wrap up all this unlearning.

Until then, read Tim Griggs on local and national collaborations. Subscribe to these two newsletters if you want to see more great local work. And Poynter has a Webinar later this month on how to write and edit for social media. 

Now, I’m going to go shut the lights off and read by the light of my Kindle. Flashlight Tuesdays could be a thing, too. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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