Archive for the 'Motivation/creating energy' Category

Getting better at getting better

Dennis Sparks

In a recent issue of the New Yorker James Surowiecki wrote about performance improvement in a number of fields, including teaching:

“…the biggest problem is that we’re in thrall to what [Elizabeth] Green [in Building a Better Teacher] calls “the idea of the natural-born teacher,” the notion that either you can teach or you can’t. As a result, we do little to help ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great. What we need to embrace instead is the idea of teaching as a set of skills that can be taught and learned and constantly improved on. As both Green and Goldstein detail, school districts in the United States that take teacher training seriously have seen student performance improve, often dramatically. More accountability and higher pay for teachers would help, too. But at the moment most American schools basically throw teachers in at the deep end of the pool and hope that they will be able not only to swim but also to keep all their students afloat, too. It’s a miracle that the system works as well as it does.”

In response to the article I wrote this letter to the editor:

“James Surowiecki (“Better All The Time,” November 10, 2014) correctly notes the generally low quality of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development for teachers. He does not acknowledge, however, that inadequate compensation and poor working conditions in many schools discourage talented individuals from becoming teachers. Nor does he explicitly acknowledge, although he cites examples of it, the importance of sustained collaboration among teachers in continuously improving teaching and learning, a quality that has been undermined by ill-considered reforms that encourage unproductive competition among teachers and schools.

“The reason the education system works as well as it does is because of the often heroic efforts of hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers and administrators in the face of immense and unrelenting challenges.”

What’s required for teachers and administrators to continuously “get better at getting better” so that “ordinary teachers become good and good teachers become great”? 

Say yes “to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing”

Dennis Sparks

“The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” —David Brooks

Distraction is widely viewed as a significant problem in society and in schools. It dissipates energy at work and in our personal lives, and it is truly dangerous when we are behind the wheel of a car.

But perhaps the problem is not distraction, but rather the absence of a compelling purpose—a “…subject that arouses a terrifying longing”—as David Brooks describes it.

Cal Newport thinks about it this way:

“Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you can cannot be ignored?”

What useful thing are you striving to do that cannot be ignored?

Almost everyone has the same two problems…

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In the view of many observers, teachers’ dissatisfaction is … closer to passive resignation than to active indignation, closer to dejection that deflates energy than to anger that inspires action…. There is much research to confirm the importance of a sense of efficacy—the sense of making a meaningful difference…—in teachers’ motivation and performance. —Robert Evans (my emphasis added in bold)

Almost everyone has the same two problems.

The first problem is whatever problem we are experiencing at the moment – a technical problem related to teaching or leadership, a relationship problem, a health problem, or whatever it may be.

The second problem, which is often as or more significant than the first problem, is the way we think about the first problem.

How we define a problem and what we believe about it often determines whether we think it can be solved and whether we have the ability to solve it.

Resignation—that is, not believing there is anything we can do to improve the situation—is the most common of those energy-destroying mental barriers. 

Believing that a problem is unsolvable is, after all, the first step in ensuring that it won’t be solved.

In Leading for Results I wrote: “Resignation is an intellectual and emotional state in which educators come to believe that their individual and collective actions cannot improve teaching and learning, particularly given the large and serious problems that affect the lives of many students and their families…. A profound consequence of this belief is that teachers and administrators act as if they have a very small, or perhaps even nonexistent, circle of influence related to student learning.”

Do you agree that resignation is a powerful, often unrecognized barrier to solving the challenging problems of teaching, learning, and leadership? 

When we are committed to being our best selves…

Dennis Sparks

When people make a fundamental choice to be true to what is highest in them, or when they make a choice to fulfill a purpose in their life, they can easily accomplish many changes that seemed impossible or improbable in the past. – Robert Fritz

My personal experience and observations of others tell me that Robert Fritz is correct – that is, when we more consistently act in ways that are aligned with our most important purposes and best selves, we can often accomplish things that previously seemed impossible.

While there are no guarantees, being true to what is highest and best in ourselves and recognizing it in others enables the “extraordinary,” not only in ourselves but in everyone with whom we interact.

What can you do today to enable the highest and best in yourself and others?

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?


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