Meetings add energy or deplete it…

Dennis Sparks

Meetings add energy to the school community or they deplete it. They seldom have a neutral effect.

Meetings that energize:

• Have clearly stated purposes that community members care about, with agenda items and outcomes matched to those purposes,

• Produce learning that is likely to alter participants’ beliefs, understandings, and behavior for the benefit of those purposes,

• Engage all participants in intellectually-stimulating conversations that spiral deeper into important issues,

• Conclude with clear “next actions” — everyone knows exactly what will be done, by whom, and by when, and

• Have high levels of interpersonal accountability to ensure that tasks are completed on time in the agreed upon way.

Meetings that deplete energy:

•  Lack one or more of the above,

• Focus on administrivia, and/or

• Consist of serial speechmaking, often dominated by meeting leaders, during which predictable views are expressed and remain firmly held. As a result, nothing of consequence changes during or after the meetings.

What would you add to these lists?

Believing is seeing

Dennis Sparks

Most of view ourselves as rational, so it makes sense to believe that we and others make or should make decisions based on logic and evidence.

In reality, though, beliefs and feelings play a large role in our decisions, often without our conscious awareness. Our beliefs and feelings, in fact, often determine the “facts” we see.

So, instead of “seeing is believing,” in many circumstances “believing is seeing.”

That’s why  logical, fact-laden attempts at persuasion are less effective than direct experiences, stories, and images.

That doesn’t mean that research, evidence, and logic have no purpose in faculty meetings and other venues where important professional learning occurs and decisions are made.

But it does mean that while these methods may be necessary to persuade others to commit to a new course of action and to sustain their commitment, they are seldom sufficient.

Can you think of times when decisions (either good ones or not) were more influenced by anecdotes or experiences than by evidence and logic?

Aren’t leaders supposed to know all the answers?

Dennis Sparks

Here’s something that’s counterintuitive for many leaders: Admitting that you don’t know something (which is usually obvious anyway) helps others become more skillful in identifying and solving problems.

Leaders who pretend to know everything disempower others. As a result, problem-solving abilities atrophy rather than grow.

Ellen Langer explains it this way in her book Mindfulness:

“Of all the qualities in a manager conducive to innovation and initiative, a degree of uncertainty may be the most powerful. If a manager is confident but uncertain—confident that the job will get done but without being certain of exactly the best way of doing it—employees are likely to have more room to be creative, alert, and self-starting.”

If my goal as a leader was to deplete energy in the school community, I would:

• Tell people what the problem is,

• Tell them the solution,

• Tell them it was their job to implement my solution, and

• To make certain that I was 100% successful in discouraging them, I would label as “unprofessional” those who disagree with me.

In what ways have you seen leaders meaningful engage others in the school community in finding and solving important problems so that their problem-solving skills grow rather than decline.

A year without PowerPoint

Dennis Sparks

Like many readers of this blog, I sometimes attend meetings that feature one or more PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes those are “training meetings,” which means that the explicit purpose is that participants learn something of value.

It is not uncommon for the meeting’s convener or “trainer” to conclude the “presentation” by saying something like, “Now that we have covered…” or “Now that you understand….”

Giving people lists of rapidly-paced information with the assumption that they have learned something is bad teaching—no matter the age of the learners—unless the goal is to create a near-death experience for the participants.

I think of the presentation of lists as the “PowerPoint Syndrome,” although it is not always done with PowerPoint.

Here is a recent example from an organization with whom I volunteer that requires periodic online “inservice.” For about 45 minutes I listened and watched as a speaker read factual information from a list of slides that I was able to view on my computer screen. (I could have read the slides much more rapidly than the speaker spoke them.)

At the conclusion I was given a multiple-choice test of 10 questions seemingly randomly selected from the dozens if not hundreds of points that have been made during the presentation.

Because I am a good test taker, I passed the test with a perfect score. Did I understand the subject matters well enough to explain it to someone else? No. Did I acquire any skill useful in my volunteer work? No. Could I even remember most of the content a few hours later? No.

PowerPoint presentations are a part of a broader problem of teaching and learning that equates teaching with telling and performing.

I am not opposed to all PowerPoint presentations. Occasionally they are the most efficient means of providing a relatively quick overview of a topic or important information.

While presenting learners with information is sometimes appropriate, my objection is to the mindless overuse of long and endless lists of low-level information that cannot possibly be absorbed, yet alone understood.

To promote the mindful use of PowerPoint, I propose a year in which PowerPoint will only be used in meeting agendas or lesson plans when they can be fully justified as essential to the purposes of the meeting or lesson and they have no ill-effects (such as near-death experiences).

Just as the admonition “first do no harm” requires doctors to consider the possible negative effects of medical treatment on patients, so, too, must administrators and teacher leaders consider the ill effects of mindless PowerPoint presentations on teaching, professional development, and meetings.

What do you think—what is the appropriate role of PowerPoint in meetings and learning environments for young people and adults alike?

A year without “presentations”

Dennis Sparks

The start of a school year offers a blank slate for the development of new habits.

In recognition of the value of a fresh start I propose the elimination of the list-heavy PowerPoint type of “presentations” that dominate many meetings and far too much “professional development.”

Presenting” is not synonymous with “teaching.” Teaching, in my mind, is a complex cognitive and behavioral process in which teachers, and often their students, choose learning outcomes, select the instructional methods that are most likely to produce those outcomes, determine whether the learning has been acquired, and provide additional learning opportunities for students who have not achieved mastery.

Presenting, on the other hand, may include some or all of those steps, but in practice seldom does.

While “presenters” may intentionally engage learners through various activities, more often than not they speak to mostly passive “audiences,” which is why professional development is often derisively known as “sit and get.”

As they are commonly used, presentations are not intended nor designed to give more than lip service to higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, assessment, the critical analysis of research, and the development of professional judgment, among other complex instructional knowledge and skills.

Therefore, I recommend:

That “presentations” be used sparingly and only when the explicit goal is “communicating” a modest amount of information for relatively low-level purposes. Such presentations are not to be confused with the type of learning experiences required to deepen understanding of complicated subjects or to develop complex skills.

That leaders be ruthlessly honest with themselves and others to determine if the “presentations” they are considering are really a good use of teachers’ time and good will.

That the term “teaching,” not “presentation,” be used to describe the methods required for the development of the kinds of knowledge and skills mentioned above.

We honor teachers and teaching when we use the verb “teach” to describe the processes by which important and complex understandings and skills are developed, whether the students are young people or professional adults.

In another post I wrote, “… with few exceptions, presentations—because of their typically brief and superficial nature—do not change beliefs, create deep understanding, or cultivate new habits of mind or behavior because they are seldom truly intended to achieve those ends. And if those are the expressed purposes of a “presentation,” let’s then call it what it is—teaching.”

I urge administrators and teacher leaders to consciously justify the absolute necessity of every “presentation.” I am confident that few presentations will meet the standard of being “a good use of teachers’ time and goodwill,” which hopefully means their rapid demise.

All of the above require that leaders be more intentional about the kinds of learning experiences required for educators to expand and deepen the sophisticated and nuanced skills and understandings of their profession.

What do you think—do “presentations” have a place, and, if so, what purposes do they best serve?

[A year without presentations will also likely require a year without PowerPoint, which will be subject of my next post.]

Make high-quality professional learning a priority

Dennis Sparks

“Big Idea”: The quality of professional learning and teamwork in schools determines whether all students experience quality teaching and are surrounded by supportive relationships.

The quality of professional learning and teamwork remains at an unacceptably low level for far too many educators.

Not as much has changed as one would hope 20 years after the National Staff Development Counsel (now Learning Forward) first introduced its Standards for Staff Developmentwhich have since gone through several revisions.

There are bright spots, of course. A handful of schools and school systems consistently produce high levels of professional learning, for which they are to be commended.

Fortunately, interest remains high in designing professional development that leads to continuous improvements in teaching and student learning.

The following posts are among the most widely read on this subject:

“The biggest problem in professional development is…”

“When professional learning is a barrier to continuous improvement”

“Finding the third way of professional development”

“Fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy”

“The 6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development”

“Why professional development without substantial follow up is malpractice”

You can read even more on this subject here.

 

Educators’ attention and energy linked to leaders’ emotional intelligence

Dennis Sparks

“Big Idea”: Continuous improvement requires that leaders effectively manage their attention and energy and the attention and energy of the school community. 

A key to the successful management of attention and energy is leaders’ emotional and social intelligence.

A leader’s emotional intelligence determines to a large extent where the school community directs its attention and energy.

Attention can be dissipated or have a laser-like focus on a small number of essential priorities.

Leaders’ emotional intelligence also creates or destroys energy within the school community, energy that is essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Here are some popular posts from the past year that more fully explain this idea:

“Cultivating the problem-solving ability of others”

“Creating energy for continuous improvement”

“Ways to avoid unproductive, dispiriting meetings”

You can find additional posts on emotional intelligence here.

 


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