Archive for the 'Changing Habits' Category

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?

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.]

Eliminate clutter that depletes energy and anchors the status quo…

Dennis Sparks

Mental clutter interferes with the clarity of our thought and depletes our energy.

The clutter of too many items on our “to-do lists” and appointments on our calendars interferes with our focus and efficiency.

Ron Sherman takes this idea to another level in a blog post by describing the challenges caused when clutter clogs a school:

”…a building that couldn’t breathe under the weight of all the stuff in it.  And at a deeper level, I understood that it was a school that couldn’t develop it’s own culture and identity, it couldn’t move forward into it’s own future, because in many ways it served as a museum, and repository for others’ long-forgotten materials.”

Just as our minds can be museums of outdated ideas, our offices, classrooms, and schools can be repositories of objects that anchor the status quo.

What clutters your mind, office, classroom, or school, and what steps can you take today to reduce it?

[Belated Canada Day best wishes to my Canadian readers, and Happy 4th of July to everyone in the United States. I will be taking a mini-sabbatical for the next few weeks. My August posts will tie together some of  the themes and issues raised in essays during the past year.]

 

Why “crazy busy” is, well, crazy

 

Dennis Sparks

In a culture that venerates overwork, people internalize crazy hours as the norm.  —James Surowiecki

I have heard people say they are “crazy busy” with a kind of pride that indicated they viewed it as a badge of honor. Exhaustion is viewed as a status symbol, and productivity and self worth become dangerously intertwined.

There are only two things wrong with “crazy busy.”

The first is ‘crazy,” which is self evident. Administrators and teacher leaders who are stressed are toxic. Not only does that stress negatively affect their performance, it infects the emotional lives of others and undermines their performance

The second is “busy.” Many of us—me included—thrive when our lives feel full and rich. We would rather have too much to do than be bored with too little to do.

However, busy also carries with it the possibility that there is no down time in one’s professional or personal lives, that we move from one activity to another without opportunities for restoration or reflection.

So, the next time you hear someone say that he or she is “crazy busy” or some variation of that theme, invite that person into a dialogue about whether that state of affairs is good for them and for others.

And don’t allow “I don’t have choice” to put an easy albeit superficial end to the conversation.

Go deeper, without judgment, to help your colleagues consider the effects of such craziness on themselves, their families, their colleagues, and their students.

What do you do to avoid feeling “crazy busy”?

 

The biggest problem in professional development is…

Dennis SparksThe biggest problem in professional development is that administrators and teachers significantly underestimate the amount of effort and time required to create the new habits of mind and behavior that are necessary to provide high-quality teaching and learning for all students.

One of the best and most accessible explanations of the challenges of shaping human understanding and practice is provided by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life in which he explains that people are influenced to change through three linked elements he describes as relate, repeat, and reframe. 

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships that inspire and sustain hope and provide support.

That means that:

• Teachers work in teams rather than in isolation and are accountable to one another for continuous improvement rather than to district offices or state education agencies.

• Teachers relationships exhibit high levels of trust and appreciation rather than distrust, blaming, and negativity.

• Teachers speak with candor and courage rather than evading discussion of important issues.

• Teachers are hopeful and energetic rather than victims of a “slow-death spiral” of distrust, anger, and stress.

You can learn more about promoting continuous improvement through positive relationships here.

Repeat means learn, practice, and master new skills until they become habits. 

The cultivation of new habits requires intention, attention, and persistence across many weeks or months until mastery is achieved, a task often complicated by the tenacity of old habits.

The development of new habits begins with an initial learning that explores new ways of thinking and acting. It continues with the repetition of those thoughts and behaviors (often in the face of opposition from people who prefer the old habits) until new ways of thinking and acting have become routine.

An example of what may be required for leaders to alter their own behavior—which is almost always a precursor to influencing the behavior of others—is provided here.

Reframe means providing new ways of thinking about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

Conceptual frames are the mental organizers we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface system of beliefs and ideas. While often difficult to alter, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice, and continues by identifying alternative frames that better serve student learning.

Strategies for promoting reframing can be found here.

Although Change or Die is not explicitly about education, it explains why well-intentioned innovations more often expire than thrive.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts in schools:

• offer a sense of hopefulness that student learning can be improved through a genuine sense of community and teamwork that supports the implementation of new practices (relate),

• provide sustained learning to enable the acquisition of new habits of mind and behavior (repeat), and

• enable the development of new conceptual frameworks aligned with the innovation (reframe).

Do you agree that administrators and teachers often underestimate the intensity and duration of learning that is required to meaningful influence thinking and behavior?

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?


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