Archive for the 'Changing Habits' Category

Lois Easton describes how to deepen professional conversations

 Dennis SparksIn my experience, too many conversations in professional meetings, including professional development, involve “talking about” complex subjects rather than moving progressively deeper into the substance of ideas and practices. Such conversations are often random, superficial, unproductive, and, for all of those reasons, unsatisfying.

To better understand how this problem might be addressed I asked Lois Brown Easton to offer her perspective and to describe how protocols and other strategies could be used to deepen professional conversations.

I have known and respected Lois’ work since I visited Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Colorado in 1997, at which she was then the Director of Professional Development. These days Lois is a writer, coach, and consultant.  (Additional information about Lois’ books and professional contributions are provided at the end of this essay.)

Here’s what Lois Easton has to say:

Sometimes the best-intentioned professional discussions seem to go nowhere.  Polite to the last word, people leave them unsatisfied and uncommitted to making any changes in their daily practice.

Or, perhaps they ARE satisfied.  After all, a discussion that has no repercussions, requires no one to do much of anything, may be a lot easier than a discussion that goes somewhere.

And, perhaps they ARE committed, even if only subconsciously, to stay the same.  After all, what has worked for X years (you put in the number, including the years simply being a K-14 student), will certainly go on working, won’t it?

At the best, such discussions may yield only the most cynical of statements, “Well, another one done.  Back to work.”

Why do such discussions go nowhere? It seems to me that there are three reasons for “Nowhere Land” in terms of professional discussions:

1. The discussion is predictable.  It is not exploratory; there are no surprises.  These people will argue for Point A; these people will argue against Point A and offer Point B.  These people will go along with either one.  These people don’t really care.  One of the solutions will “win,” Point A or B.  Some people will take action accordingly; some people won’t.  Next week (month/year), there will be other discussions and other decisions, and they’ll go the same way.  It’s all politics and power… not new ideas, innovative solutions, or out-of-the box thinking.  Ho-hum!

One solution to predictable discussion is dialogue, real dialogue.  Dialogue is different because people slow down the pace of talking rather than race towards a conclusion or decision.  They consider each idea that is presented, building on ideas through comments and sincere questions, until they reach understanding.  The uncover assumptions, explore ramifications, project possibilities.  The language of dialogue is iterative and probing, as in, “Here is what I think you’re saying: ______.  I’m wondering about the assumptions that you have about that idea.”

Dialogue is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, consciously.  Dialogue works for any topic that needs creative thinking, innovative solutions, and choices among surprising possibilities.  Effective leaders know that juicy dialogue can be sufficient unto itself or lead to productive discussion and awesome (in the original sense of the word) decisions.

2. The discussion lacks prompts or protocols that take people deeper into the subject.

Especially when people in a discussion are speeding down the highway of decision, discussion tends to be shallow.  Discussants deal with the basics in order to make the decision.

Prompts or protocols can take people deeper into discussion and, usually, into dialogue that lets them probe ideas.  One protocol that seems to work well for deepening discussion is the “Peeling the Onion Protocol.”

In one version of this protocol, a presenter (anyone who can present the issue) describes what a group will study.  The presenter also presents one or two key questions, such as “On what basis will we be able to make decisions about this issue? What should be our guidelines?

Everyone writes freely on the issue and the key question(s)—partly to get focused on the issue and partly to have something to contribute in the next steps.

Then there are three rounds, during which the presenter is silent and taking notes that reflect what the other participants have said.

In round one, the focus is on clarifying the issue.  Participants may say things such as, “What I heard the presenter say is . . . ” or “I’m wondering how we would describe this issue to [someone else]” or “I’m not sure I understand what we mean by [X].”

In round two, the focus is on probing the issue.  Participants may say, “One assumption that we seem to be making is…,” or “A question this raises for me is …,” or “I understand this issue as….” Others listen carefully to understand what others say and rephrase, comment, or ask questions before moving on to another probing statement.

In round three, the focus is on deepening the probing process through “What if” questions:  “What would happen if we…?” or “How would it work if we…?” or “What’s the worst/best that would happen if….?” As in round two, others listen carefully to understand before moving on to another probing question.

After the third round, the group is silent while the presenter reflects aloud (consulting notes taken during the rounds), further deepening the dialogue.  The presenter might say something such as, “I heard you say X, and that made me think further about this issue.”

Finally, the whole group debriefs both the content and the process.  At this point, the group has deeply explored the issue and may be ready for making a decision that all understand, approve, and can be accountable for.

3. The discussion does not lead to social accountability.

Decisions that come out of shallow discussions may result in accountability in the sense that someone is going to do something.  Others, especially when they feel the decision is preordained—already decided in some way by those with power—may feel no sense of accountability for the decision.  Since they have not really participated, probed, and pushed deeper into ideas to determine which solutions are really the best, they may feel no ownership of the issue and, likewise, unaccountable for the results.

In “Fist to Five” (with people holding up fingers on one hand to signal their commitment to an idea or decision; a fist representing no commitment and five fingers full commitment and active participation in carrying out the decision), people might show two fingers, meaning they’ll not interfere with the decision, but they will not work actively towards carrying it out.

Peer or social accountability occurs when people deeply understand an issue and its ramifications, and how they can be addressed.  They have had an active role in dissecting the issue and choosing the best solution. They have “owned” the issue and feel accountable for what happens as a result of the dialogue in which they have participated.  When the outcome really matters, people are willing to go deeper and stand behind the results.

Peer or social accountability means that people hold each other accountable for acting upon a decision. People expect others to take action and, therefore, will take action themselves. Peer or social accountability is critical when decisions are being made about whole-school (or whole-organization) change.

So, in a circular way, in order for people to feel accountable for substantial and lasting change—such as improving learning conditions for students or adults—they must engage in deeper discussions, such as dialogue, using protocols to guide those discussions, and making decisions as a result of them that hold each one of the participants accountable.

Lois Easton is the author of Powerful Designs for Professional Learning (which is being published in 2014 in its 3rd edition), Professional Learning Communities By Design: Putting the Learning Back Into PLCs (2011), and Protocols for Professional Learning (2009).  She writes a regular online column for Phi Delta Kappan, providing professional learning activities for articles in each edition.

Why teacher development isn’t the solution to all performance problems

Dennis Sparks

When “teacher training” is the default solution to all performance problems, its inevitable failure to improve teaching and student learning will be blamed on the professional development, not the faulty diagnosis that lead to the training.

Early in my professional development career I was asked by a principal to provide a workshop on classroom management for teachers. As we discussed the need for such a workshop, he admitted that only a few teachers had problems in that area. I also learned that he had never talked directly with the teachers about whom he was concerned because, as he put it, that wasn’t his leadership style. Instead, he hoped the workshop would communicate to them that there were better ways of doing things. Fortunately, we eventually agreed that a workshop was not the most appropriate solution to his problem, and we designed a more personalized strategy for the identified teachers.

Workshop-based professional development is not a substitute for:

• Candid, solution-oriented conversations regarding performance problems;

• Supervisory practices and school structures that ensure frequent, observation and evidence-based conversations about teaching and learning among teachers and between school leaders and teachers;

• A high-trust, collaborative school culture that enables continuous improvement; and

• A clear, results-oriented student learning agenda for the school system and school.

What have I missed?

Effective leaders exemplify positive attitudes and respect

Dennis Sparks

Positive emotions such as compassion, confidence, and generosity have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health, and personal relationships. —Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee

Civil school cultures are those in which community members think the best of one another, display positive attitudes, speak with kindness, respect others’ opinions, and disagree graciously while candidly expressing their views.

Those qualities are unlikely to exist and persist without school leaders who embody them in their day-to-day interactions with staff members, parents, and students.

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude  P. M. Forni writes, “Whether positive or negative, attitude is destiny. . . . Positivity makes relationships better, and better relationships reinforce positivity. So, if you are inclined to perceive what happens to you through the fog of negativity, make a change of attitude your number one priority.”

Changing habits of mind and behavior, however, requires that leaders be intentional and persistent in approaching these changes, beginning with themselves.

To establish civil school cultures, leaders:

Hold positive expectations for others by setting high standards for conduct and learning and by living those standards on a day-to-day basis. And when leaders stumble, as they sometimes do, they acknowledge the lapse and set about resolving whatever problems it may have caused.

Display a generosity of spirit which assumes that others are honest, trustworthy, and capable unless there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Assuming the best is a key attribute of hopefulness, which, in turn, is a critical attribute relationships that nurture and support continuous improvement.

Speak with compassion and kindness, which Forni believes is at the heart of civil behavior. In another book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, he writes, “Never embarrass or mortify. . . . Always think before speaking. . . . With your kind words you build a shelter of sanity and trust into which you welcome others for much-needed respite.”

Speak truthfully. Civility recognizes that people look at the world differently and are entitled to a fair hearing of their views.

Civil school cultures are places in which ideas and beliefs are vigorously and respectfully expressed in meeting rooms. Sarcasm, disparaging gossip, and “parking lot meetings” have no place in such cultures.

These cultures have at their core leaders who display positive attitudes and deep respect for the abilities and perspectives of everyone in the school community and who interact with and speak about others in that spirit.

The 3 basic ways planning can fail, and how to avoid them

Dennis Sparks

In my previous post I recommended “back-of-the-envelop” planning as a way of creating energy and maintaining momentum related to important goals.

There are three basic ways such planning (and all planning) can fail—not having a clear goal that is worthy of our sustained effort, not knowing the specific next step required in the plan, and not having a fail-safe system for recording and tracking the promises we make to ourselves and others for the completion of those actions.

A worthy goal: Worthy goals create clarity and energy. They stretch us out of our comfort zones as we attempt things we may have previously thought were impossible.

Specific next steps: Most of us have fully intended to implement an important idea or skill after reading an inspiring article or book, participating in a team meeting, or having a profound professional learning experience only to discover a few months later that

we had neglected to do so because we didn’t have a system in place for turning our good intentions into actions.

A fail-safe system: A fail-safe system immediately logs the actions we intend to take—which are promises to ourselves and/or others—and provides reminders for their completion. For years my system consisted of ever-present 3 x 5″ index cards, a pen, and a box in which cards were indexed, filed, and acted upon. Today I use electronic reminders that sync among all my digital devices.

As basic as these steps may seem, they are often overlooked in the frenetic days and interpersonally complex work of teachers and administrators. And when they are overlooked, momentum is lost.

It’s also important to remember that our integrity is damaged when we don’t do the things we said we’d do. And when our integrity is damaged, so, too, is trust.

It is much easier to maintain momentum and trust than it is to restore them.

So don’t leave momentum and trust to chance—always know your next action and have a fail-safe system to ensure that you fulfill your promises.

Our colleagues and students are counting on us to do so.

Successful leadership requires cultivating the problem-solving abilities of others

IMG_1365 If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought and could be.  —Goethe

The good news is that the given the right conditions teachers can solve the vast majority of their own problems.

The bad news is that schools leaders too often willingly assume responsibility for teachers’ problems and feel overwhelmed by the additional work they have taken on. As a result, they have little time or energy to devote to the tasks that only they can can do and that are essential to the achievement of their organizations’ goals.

When leaders solve problems for others they create dependency, cause atrophy in teachers’ problem-solving abilities, and diminish important opportunities for professional learning that can only occur when staff members assume responsibility for their problems, grapple with solutions, and experience the consequences of their actions.

David Rock addresses this issue in Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work: “When we try to think for people it takes a lot of mental energy on our part…. Some leaders think it’s their job to tell people what to do or have all the answers…. Managers often complain about how they have to constantly solve their people’s problems—sometimes I sense it is the manager more addicted to this than the staff. Giving people an answer does little but continue their dependence on you.”

On the other hand, leaders strengthen problem-solving “muscles,” Rock argues, by inviting others to do the intellectual work of clarifying problems and identifying solutions. Telling people what to do, he believes, should be leaders’ last resort.

Leaders who wish to address this “addiction” can:

• Believe (or act as if they believe, in the spirit of “fake it until you make it”) that teachers already possess or can acquire the skills to solve most of their problems. (Leaders attitudes about staff members’ ability to solve problems may be shifted in a positive direction when they see them successfully stepping up to the challenge.)

• Determine what role they will play in assisting teachers’ in solving their problems. I encourage leaders to first and foremost serve as committed listeners whose attention supports teachers in thinking more deeply about their problems and in generating possible solutions.

While they may also provide necessary resources or professional development opportunities, leaders seldom offer advice, which can be a subtle way of reinforcing dependence on the leader.

When leaders use these and other practices to develop and tap teachers’ problem-solving abilities, they distribute leadership in ways that increase the school community’s capacity to solve its most pressing problems and to continuously improve teaching and learning.

What do “teacher inservice” and the artificial insemination of animals have in common?

Dennis SparksIn the 1970s I recall reading a Kappan article in which an author who was frustrated with the quality of  “inservice education” compared it to the artificial insemination of animals.

As a result, you can imagine the disturbing images that come to mind when I hear teachers say that they are “inserviced.”

Whenever I share this comparison with teachers, I receive a response somewhere between an appreciative laugh and a disgusted groan.

Previous posts—which have received wide readership—have described the vast majority of teacher professional development 40 years later as “mindless” and a “near-death experience.”

It’s time that administrators and teacher leaders adopt a zero tolerance policy for professional development that is not sufficiently robust to affect what educators believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis.

We know enough about the attributes of professional development that leads to meaningful professional learning and strong teamwork to make the necessary changes; a few hours of study of Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning and other literature will reveal where to begin.

We know the “what” of high-quality professional development. There is no acceptable reason to delay its implementation.

The students and teachers who are now in our schools deserve nothing less.

How routines can add value to educators’ days

Dennis Sparks

[I]t’s our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits overtime that determine our ability to make ideas happen. –Scott Belsky in Manage Your Life

I agree with Scott Belsky… Life is richer and I am more productive because of a small number of daily routines.

I know, for instance, that the morning hours are best for writing, so I preserve some early-morning time each day for that purpose, including weekends.

Likewise, exercise finds an unfailing place in my daily routine.

I have learned the daily repetition—even for just a few minutes a day—makes it easier to maintain momentum and to achieve important goals.

Useful daily or weekly routines for educators might include:

• Reviewing calendars and activities for the day ahead, giving special attention to preparation for special meetings and events;

• Writing newsletters or blog posts;

• Scanning professional literature;

• Exercise and/or stress-management techniques like yoga or meditation; and

• Periods of solitude to reflect and to find inspiration and guidance.

Because administrators’ and teachers’ days are often unpredictable, it is essential that educators be proactive in establishing and maintaing valued routines.

What routines enable you to be more creative, productive, and healthy? How do you maintain the momentum of those activities over time?

Why it’s important to “go slow at the beginning”

Dennis Sparks

“Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly,” Mae West said.

In addition to whatever reasons West may have had in mind, “going slow” is essential when the goal in significant professional learning or making important decisions.

In Leading for Results I recounted a story told by author Parker Palmer about a veteran heart surgeon teaching neophyte surgeons a challenging procedure in which they have only 60 seconds to complete a procedure during which a patient’s life hangs in the balance. The surgeon’s advice: “Go slow at the beginning.”

Recognizing the value of that advice in other contexts, I wrote, “So, too, it is important to slow down, to gain clarity and direction when our culture and the adrenaline flowing through our bodies tells us that success requires moving ever faster.”

These thoughts were brought to mind when reader Joanne Mattiucci commented on a recent post on the value of professional conversations:

“I have just participated in a Common Core workshop series that was done deeply and well. Your mantra of ‘go slow in the beginning’ was done to perfection through the use of a number of protocols. A protocol that was used through out the session was “Notice and Wonder.” Whenever the facilitator gave us something new to look at, instead of telling us about it, she asked us to read it closely and talk about what we noticed and wondered about it. The outcome was that meaning was made, and ownership for what we were working on was gained. The facilitator did a really solid job of modeling this practice, and again, I thought of Leading for Results: What we want for our students, is what we want for our teachers, is what we want for our leaders.”

I encourage you to “go slow”:

• at the beginning of meetings to enable participants to become fully present with one another and engaged with the meeting’s purposes,

• during conversations of substance so that all participants are fully heard and understood,

• at the start of what you anticipate may be an important learning experience to access prior knowledge and experiences, and

• apropos of Mae West, when experiencing anything that you would like to savor.

When else might it be valuable to “go slow?”


Our failure to conceive the idea of…

IMG_1365I appreciate letters to the editors and blog comments that enable me to see a problem and its solutions in fresh ways.

My previous post described physician Atul Gawande’s New Yorker perspective regarding the uneven pace of medical innovation and my thoughts about the implications of his views for education.

A couple of weeks later this letter written by Daniel Mark Fogel of the University of Vermont appeared in the magazine:

Gawande begins with an example of an innovation that spread rapidly after 1846: William Morton’s use of gas to render patients insensible to pain. This advance has been pondered elsewhere, however, as a discovery that surgeons were agonizingly slow to adopt. In 1800, the English chemist and inventor Humphry Davy, in his book “Researches,” described the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide, remarking, “As nitrous oxide in its extensive operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage in surgical operations.” This discovery caught the attention of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to whom Davy’s publisher sent “Researches.” Richard Holmes, who tells the story in some detail in his book “The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” relates that Coleridge wrote to Davy, pressing him to pursue the matter with Coleridge’s friend Sir Anthony Carlisle, a leading London surgeon. Yet nearly half a century of excruciating pain for surgical patients was to pass before the date when Gawande takes up the story. Holmes suggests that the best explanation for the failure to adopt anesthesia is that surgeons—who prided themselves on the speed with which they operated and on their psychological mastery of pain—were simply unable to conceive of the idea of painless surgery.

“The failure to conceive the idea of…”—that is exactly it!

The failure to “conceive the idea” that:

• Virtually all students can learn important things given high-quality teaching and sufficient time

• Learning for both adults and young people is as much about effort as it about “smarts.”

• It is possible to design schools in which everyone in the school community experiences engagement, success, and satisfaction virtually every day.

• Together we are better than we are alone—teaching and school leadership are not independent activities but part of a larger, interdependent whole.

What ideas would you add to this list?

Why the spread of new teaching practices cannot be “teacher proofed”


Education should be more like medicine, educators are often told. High-quality research is disseminated to physicians who unfailingly apply it to improve healthcare.

It is a simple and appealing idea, but it is one that often breaks down in examination rooms as physicians’ biases and habits meet patients’ unwillingness or inability to comply with treatment plans.

Like new teaching approaches, however, medical innovations spread at different speeds, a phenomenon explored by Atul Gawande in “Slow Ideas” in the July 29, 2013 issue of the New Yorker. Here are two examples:

Before surgical anesthesia was discovered in the mid-1800s, “… attendants pinned patients down as they screamed and thrashed, until they fainted from the agony,” Gawande writes. Within a year of its invention anesthesia spread around the world, although, as Gawande notes, “… there were forces of resistance…. Some people criticized anesthesia as a ‘needless luxury’; clergyman deplored its use to reduce pain during childbirth as a frustration of the Almighty’s designs.”

Another major innovation in medical-practice came along a decade or two later, this time the elimination of germs to prevent infection, a leading cause of death at that time. In this case, however, it took a generation for the recommendations to become routine.

Reasons for the uneven spread of innovation

Gawande suggests likely causes for the varied speed of implementation—the source of some problems were invisible (for instance, germs), and new practices may have been contrary to physicians’ beliefs and/or were more technically complex to apply.

“This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas,” Gawande writes. “They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful.”

Gawande notes the power of institutional culture and the failures of traditional approaches to change—seeking to persuade through “rational evidence,” making demands accompanied by threats, or offering incentives. “[N]either penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching.”

“In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter,” he writes, “we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We went frictionless, ‘turnkey’ solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.”

Gawande adds: “But technology and incentive programs are not enough. ‘Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,’ wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people, But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

Implications for school administrators and teacher leaders:

  • There are no “teacher proof” ways to spread new ideas and practices, technologically or otherwise.
  • That’s because the spread of new ideas is intensely interpersonal with all the complexities and demands of human nature and group dynamics. “Messy” is an apt term to describe such processes.
  • The diffusion of new ideas and practices is enabled by a culture of continuous improvement. It is also a means by which such cultures are shaped.
  • The spread of innovation happens over time through the social influence provided by countless individual and small group conversations. “Training” and other forms of “presentations” may help initiate those conversations, but they are never a substitute for them.

My next post will offer another perspective on Gawande’s ideas stimulated by a letter to the editor of a subsequent issue of the New Yorker.

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