Archive for the 'School Culture' Category

The powerful but often invisible influence of school culture…

 

IMG_1365“Big Idea”: School culture trumps innovation. 

The impact of school culture on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning cannot be ignored by administrators and teacher leaders.

Its influence may be overlooked, however, because it is often invisible to the school community.

Nonetheless, school culture determines whether:

  • honest conversations about teaching and learning take place in meeting rooms or in parking lots,
  • teachers participate in high-functioning interdependent teams or dutifully and resentfully attend meaningless meetings, and
  • teachers focus on ways they can continuously improve teaching and learning or blame students and parents for lack of progress.

Here are several popular posts from the past year that address the elements of school culture that enable continuous improvement.

“Why bad things happen to good people when we withhold our truths”

“Managing inevitable dips in relationships”

“Set a compelling vision for your future: An interview with Stephanie Hirsh”

“Supporting ‘wary and weary teachers’: An interview with Kent Peterson”

More posts on “school culture” can be found here.

 

Seeing what is invisible to others…

IMG_1365

The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is. – Marcel Proust

I recently read a fascinating book by Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes. 

In each chapter Horowitz takes a walk around her Manhattan block or in other neighborhoods with different experts to understand what they see that escapes Horowitz/s conscious awareness. She walks with a geologists, a biologist, a researcher in pedestrian behavior, a sound technician, skilled medical diagnosticians, and so on.

Each walk revealed to Horowitz a world that was previously invisible to her and provided experiences through which she believes she will be forever changed.

Horowitz writes: “There is a certain bias in everyone’s perspective that has been named, by the French, deformation professionnelle: the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession.”

What do expert teachers and principals see that I would not?

As I read the book I found myself wondering what expert teachers  and principals see each day in their classrooms and schools that would be invisible to me. A great deal, I suspect.

But my experience in spending time with such educators has revealed that they are often not as skillful as Horowitz’s experts in explaining what they observe and what it means.

While accomplished teachers and principals see patterns and details that escape my notice, they may or may not be able to explain it in the complex and nuanced way that, say, an expert on pedestrian behavior offered his running commentary to Horowitz as they strolled down a Manhattan street.

Here are two fundamental reasons why I think that’s true:

• Teachers’ and principals’ expertise has not been acknowledged and appreciated within and beyond the school community. As a result, they might think that everyone sees what they see and does what they do. These teachers and principals often find it hard to imagine that not everyone thinks and acts as they do.

• They have had few opportunities to polish that expertise by sharing it with others.

Such fine-tuning and collegiality benefit both the individual teacher or administrator and the broader school community and are hallmarks of outstanding schools.

The continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students requires that accomplished teachers and principals share their expertise — which begins with what they are observing and thinking.

Three things are required to develop and tap that expertise:

1. Developing expertise through experience and reflection on the effects of one’s practice on student learning and other valued outcomes. Years of such practice are essential. (10,000 hours is an oft-cited number of hours required to develop expertise.)

2. Honing one’s descriptive abilities through conversation such as those that occur in team meetings and writing in journals and blogs.

3. Sharing that expertise within a culture of continuous improvement. (Creating such a culture, I believe, belongs among the highest priorities of principals and teacher leaders.)

I encouraged  teacher leaders and principals who wish to take their performance to another level to invite others into their classrooms and schools and to explain to them in close to real-time what is observed and the thought processes behind the countless management and instructional decisions made during a particular lesson or throughout the day.

Effective instructional coaches and principals, of course, enable such mindful professional learning processes.

Horowitz concludes, “An expert can only indicate what she sees; it is up to your own head to tune your senses and your brain to see it. Once you catch that melody, and keep humming, you are forever changed.”

What do skillful school leaders do to enable the school community to “catch the melody, and keep humming”?

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”?

 

Ways to avoid unproductive, dispiriting meetings…

Dennis Sparks

There are few things more dispiriting than unproductive meetings. 

A veneer of polite conversation disguises a lack of serious and deep analysis. Conflict about important assumptions and points of view are avoided or minimized.

When such meetings are the norm rather than the exception, the energy required for the continuous improvement of teaching and learning is depleted rather than created and sustained.

Here are several recommendations offered by Dan Rockwell to avoid those problems and “ignite meetings”:

1. Build relations with team members that enable candor. Distance produces fear; connection courage.

2. Systematize dissent. Require the entire team to speak for and against the issue on the table.

3. Ask those who originate ideas to explain why they won’t work.

4. Develop three solutions and have everyone defend all three.

What is missing from Rockwell’s list?

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?

Can teachers give away what they don’t have?

Dennis Sparks

• Is it possible for teachers to create classroom cultures of high-cognitive engagement if their own meetings and professional development require little intellectual engagement?

• Is it possible for teachers in a school with incoherent, fragmented improvement efforts to create coherent, focused instruction in their classrooms?

• Is it possible for teachers who work in professional isolation to create classrooms with high-levels of student cooperation?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But, it’s a qualified yes.

Within every school—not matter how problematic its culture and structures may be—there are teachers who rise above the circumstances of their environment.

But if the goal is quality teaching and learning in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then the bar for intellectual engagement and meaningful collaboration in faculty meetings, school culture, and professional development is set much higher.

Put another way, a school faculty cannot give away what it doesn’t experience on a regular basis in the professional culture of the school.

Do you agree? 

A professional responsibility to continuously improve teaching

Dennis Sparks

My previous post highlighted the problem of “either/or thinking” when it’s applied to professional development.

Such thinking is also a problem when educators discuss their responsibility for improving student learning in the face of poverty and other challenging economic and social conditions.

Some say that poverty is too strong a force for schools to overcome. Others believe that there is ample evidence that schools can teach all students to high levels no matter what their socio-economic status may be.

For me it is not either/or, but both/and.

I am fully convinced the poverty affects student learning and the overall quality of children’s lives. That seems irrefutable.

Poverty has a profoundly negative effect on the quality of life for young people and their families. I hope that educators join with others to do everything in their power to blunt its impact if not eliminate it.

And:

We know a great deal about the kind of teaching that engages all students in meaningful learning, no matter their socio-economic status. And we know a great deal about the kinds of structures (professional learning communities, for instance) and the attributes of school cultures that enable such teaching.

As a result, educators have a professional responsibility to continuously improve the quality of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students, particularly those facing daunting life challenges.

Do you agree or disagree? What are the individual and collective responsibilities of educators in the face of serious social problems?

 


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