Archive for the 'Storytelling' Category

“Every encounter matters”: An interview with Chris Kennedy

Dennis Sparks

When I am asked to name a school system leader who is an exemplar in the use of blogging and Twitter to further educational purposes, Chris Kennedy is the first person that comes to mind.

Chris is superintendent of schools in the West Vancouver School District in British Columbia. Chris’  blog, the “Culture of Yes” and tweets (@chrkennedy) are a model of of how school leaders can use social/learning media to teach, encourage, celebrate, and link educators within and beyond West Vancouver. As a result, Chris’ influence is felt not only in British Columbia but throughout North America and around the world.

So I was particularly eager to see Chris’ responses to these questions.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity.  They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control.  This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people that encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students – how will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves.  They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often get distracted.  That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller.  I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents, and the community.

Sometimes teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger.  As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.


Effective leaders speak from the heart

Dennis SparksThat which is spoken from the heart is heard by the heart. —Jewish saying

Emotions trump facts in motivating human behavior. That was an awareness I acquired only after many years of frustration trying to persuade others to change based on research and logical discussion.

This understanding means that in addition to providing evidence to support new practices, leaders will speak from their hearts to the hearts of those they lead to sustain a steady flow of energy for doing the demanding work of continuously improving teaching, learning, and relationships in schools.

John Kotter and Dan Cohen elaborate on this perspective in The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. “People change what they do,” they observe, “less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.”

Because emotions underlie lasting change, leaders’ ability to evoke and channel the energy they create is essential in overcoming inertia and providing the commitment necessary to establish new habits of mind and behavior.

Leaders evoke feelings when they:

Speak with passion about the values that guide their lives and of the values shared by the school community. They do so whenever appropriate in faculty meetings, team meetings, and one-to-one conversations with colleagues, parents, and students.

Tell stories that touch the hearts of those they lead. For example, leaders touch hearts when they speak authentically from their hearts about the incidents and events that shaped them as human beings and led them into teaching and school leadership. They can also invite others to share the influences that shaped their lives and professional choices in faculty meetings or other appropriate venues (my next column will have more to say on leaders’ use of stories).

Provide learning experiences that affect the heart as well as the mind. The use of well-chosen poetry and video clips are two such methods. Another is to form panels of current or former students in which participants reveal salient aspects of their lives, their experiences in the school, and/or how well prepared they felt they were for the next phase of their lives.

While research and professional literature are important tools in stimulating meaningful and lasting change, they are usually insufficient.

That’s why it is essential that whenever possible leaders speak from their hearts to the hearts of others in ways that promote a sense of possibility and commitment to important goals and encourage others in the school community to do the same.

6 ways you can influence others

Dennis Sparks

The most common question I’m asked by system administrators, principals, and teacher leaders is some variation of, “The people I work with are unwilling to change, and I don’t know what to do to get them to open their minds.”

Put another way, these leaders are interested in being more influential.

I respond that while countless articles and books have been written on that subject, and that there are no formulas, I can offer a few suggestions for their consideration.

1. Leaders can make demands. While demands are occasionally necessary, they only work in a very narrow set of circumstances, and their long-term effects are usually limited. Demands won’t work, of course, unless there are meaningful negative consequences that will be invoked for noncompliance.

2. Leaders can make requests. Motivation is increased when individuals feel that are choosing a course of action rather than being required to do it. That means that often the most direct and effective way to motivate others is simply to ask them to do something. The key is to invite, not to require. The energy created can be astounding, although it may take a while for members of demand-oriented cultures to believe that there will be no negative consequences for declining the request.

3. Leaders can delegate meaningful responsibilities and provide the necessary developmental experiences and support to enable success. Tapping the strengths and resources of others is a multiplier of leaders’ direct influence, particularly when distributing leadership improves the performance of teams within schools.

4. Leaders can engage in dialogue. Dialogue is most effective when participants listen carefully to one another as assumptions are surfaced and examined in the spirit of inquiry, not judgment. When those conditions are met, conversations move to deeper levels and participants slowly open their minds to new perspectives. In this way, leaders can initiate “crucial conversations” that respectfully perturb the status quo.

5. Leaders can share stories that illuminate important values, ideas, and practices. Because human beings are hardwired to listen to and be affected by stories, storytelling is often a way around emotional and cognitive resistance to new ideas and practices.

6. Leaders can provide novel experiences to promote breakthrough thinking in which everything about a subject is viewed in a fresh and more empowering way. Such experiences – like well-designed field trips for students – are only useful, however, when participants are appropriately prepared for them through dialogue and background reading and when extended opportunities are provided to reflect on the meaning and significance of the experience.

What would you add to my “starter list” of ideas to increase leaders’ influence?

How “SUCCESS” can increase your influence


Successful leaders are influential. That means they are able to create energy in the school community around a common set of beliefs, ideas, and practices without directing, threatening, or manipulating others.

A primary quality of those leaders is their intellectual clarity and their ability to communicate that clarity concisely and precisely.

An effective leadership tool for creating and communicating that clarity are the “six principles of sticky ideas” described by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book, Made to Stick.

The Heaths use the acronym SUCCESS to capture the six principles:

Simplicty: To find the core of an idea, we must be masters of exclusion, the Heaths say. “Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the idea,” they write. “Proverbs are ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound… a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.”

Unexpectedness: Getting people to pay attention sometimes requires the element of surprise. To that end, “We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive,” they write. In addition, they point out that it’s important to generate interest and curiosity by “…systematically ‘opening gaps’ in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.”

Concreteness: To make ideas clear, the Heaths say, “We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information… Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images… Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.”

Credibility: Credibility is established, the Heaths say, when people can test out the ideas  based on their own experiences. “We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves—a ‘try before you buy’ philosophy for the world of ideas.”

Emotions: “How do we get people to care about our ideas?,” the Heaths ask. “We make them feel something.”

Stories: Stories are the means by which all of the other elements are tied together in a coherent whole. A story, the Heaths say, “… provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act).”

These six elements are not a formula, but rather factors to consider when seeking to influence.

They remind us that we are most influential when we speak and write with proverb-like clarity; tell stories that illustrate our ideas, elicit emotion, and include the element of surprise; and provide concrete details that describe and pique curiosity.

Leaders may benefit from developing a checklist based on these six principles to help them prepare for important meetings and conversations. I’ll have more to say tomorrow about the value, power, and use of checklists.

My night with Pamela Anderson

 IMG_1365A friend told me that he thought the best way to expand my blog readership would be to more frequently write about celebrities and sex. Hence the title of this post.

Now, technically, I didn’t spend the night with Pamela Anderson. More precisely we shared an airport security line at 6 a.m. for about 10 minutes. And, technically, it wasn’t just me and Pamela. She also had a bodyguard and even at that early hour fans were taking photographs. (That’s the celebrity part.)

But, nonetheless, I could tell that Pamela was attracted to me because every time I smiled she subtly moved in the direction of her bodyguard as a way, I assume, to protect herself against the strong desire she was feeling.  (That’s the sex part.)

If this experimental post attracts fewer readers than normal, I might conclude:

• Pamela Anderson is old news, and/or

• Such an extremely improbable event was of no interest to busy readers.

If this post attracts more readers, I might conclude:

• The improbability of such an event proved irresistible to readers who wanted to know the rest of the story, or

• Educators are indeed more interested in celebrities and sex than blogs titled, for instance, “Doing what we’ve never done,” although some readers might have thought it a better title for this post.

If celebrities and sex prove appealing, I promise that in the not too far distant future I will disclose for the first time the full contents of a personal letter to me from Dolly Parton which she signed,



But enough about that for now.

When leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge

Dennis Sparks

I sometimes suffer from the curse of knowledge. I also suffer from the impostor syndrome (more about that tomorrow).

(Based on those two observations you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also suffer from medical student syndrome, which causes me to believe that I have every illness I read about.)

For the moment, however, I’d like to focus on the challenges posed by knowing too much—otherwise known as “the curse of knowledge,” a term I am borrowing from Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick.

The curse of knowledge is a problem that often besets those who possess deep understanding of a subject – researchers, consultants, and even school leaders, among others.

The problem, though, isn’t the amount of knowledge one possesses, but rather our inability to communicate clearly what we know.

For example, some of the worst teaching I’ve experienced was in advanced graduate courses taught by scholars with deep knowledge of their subject matter. There was no doubt they knew the material. They had literally written the book. But they were unable to structure and explain what they knew in accessible ways.

The curse of knowledge can make it difficult for those who possess it to understand a beginner’s mind. It can make it difficult to distinguish what is central from that which is peripheral and to speak concretely rather than abstractly.

Because communicating clearly and concisely with others is an essential leadership skill, it’s important that principals and teacher leaders are aware of and address the curse of knowledge as it infects their work.

Here are a few things that school leaders can do:

1. Spend a few minutes writing about what you would like to communicate, separating what is primary from that which is of secondary importance. Engage in conversations to help you further develop your clarity.

2. Hone in on a big idea or two. Organize two or three subordinate points around each big idea. Polish each of those points to proverb-like compactness.

3. Provide concrete examples and/or offer stories to illustrate those points.

In a recent blog post, Ann Murphy Paul uses the term “curse of expertise” to discuss the same phenomenon and offers some suggestions for addressing it.

Question: In what areas do you or others on your leadership team experience the curse of knowledge? What have you done or could you do to address it to enable you to communicate or teach more effectively?

Readers comment on my recent post regarding the destruction of public education

Dennis Sparks

In a recent blog post I described the basic elements of what I believe is an insidious, carefully-constructed narrative that threatens to destroy public education in this country.

Yesterday Diane Ravitch mentioned my essay in her influential blog, and I thought you might enjoy perusing the varied and lively conversation among readers that ensued.

I encourage you to add your comments regarding my original essay on this critically important subject and to join the comment threads that follow it.



The storyline used by those who seek to destroy public education

Dennis SparksJust as stories can instruct, provide guidance, energize, and help create a desired future, they can also provide a rationale for destruction that becomes so broadly accepted that it is viewed as an unquestioned truth. Here’s an example that is having a profound effect on public education in the United States.

The prequel:

A few enormously wealthy individuals and organizations such as ALEC that are ideologically opposed to government services and/or who see the privatization of government functions as an essentially untapped profit center focus their resources and efforts on remaking public education for their benefit.

Through an unrelenting litany of criticism they have convinced many Americans that their public schools are failing and that they must be radically changed. If these “reforms” are not implemented with urgency, these ideologues say, the United States’ world dominance will fade as “government schools” deprive American’s of their freedom.

The storyline and the plan:

1. What business does is good. It is efficient and effective. What government does is bad. It is inefficient and ineffective. With a small number of exceptions, everything government does can be better done by private enterprise.

2. Public schools are government schools, which means they are inefficient and ineffective.

3. Exploit this country’s financial crisis by blaming public education for economic problems, including the outsourcing of jobs.

4. Blame the  alleged failures of public education on teachers and teacher unions.

5. Use the imprimatur of “reform” to shift public resources to for-profit companies who run charter schools and are online providers.

6. Begin “reform” with historically low-performing schools because of the long-standing challenges they face, which are closely linked to poverty and discrimination. Then expand “reform” to suburban schools using the results of new standardized tests and systems of teacher evaluation as evidence of their ineffectiveness.

7. Transfer public money with minimal oversight and accountability to companies that manage for-profit schools and provide other services.

8. Consign to “traditional public schools” students whose high-cost special needs make them less profitable. Then blame resource-starved schools for not succeeding with those students and begin anew to find new ways to drain those schools of their remaining resources.

The consequence:

• Money that would benefit students is siphoned off as corporate profit.

• Public money is spent to serve non-public purposes (for instance, schools that promote an ideologically-driven form of science education) without transparency and public accountability.

• The “traditional” schools that remain continue to serve the neediest students, and they do so with even fewer resources.

The narrative I’ve outlined is the rationale for a wholesale, ideologically-driven assault on public education that will affect a generation or more of students in virtually every school system.

It remains to be seen whether the forces that are beginning to coalesce in response to this threat can gain traction before irreparable harm is done. The stakes are high, and I remain hopeful.

The power of stories to create a desired future

Dennis Sparks

Human beings seem to be hardwired to tell, listen to, and learn from stories.

Stories help us understand our past, make sense of the present, and anticipate or even create the future. Our stories convey our history, explain our values, and can touch the heart in special ways.

Attempting to persuade people through logic and evidence that our view is right—particularly if that means they are wrong—often causes our audience to lean away and literally or metaphorically cross their arms.

“Let me tell you story” is a way to invite people to lean toward you and to open their minds.

Skillful leaders use stories to provide a sense of direction, explain how a desired future will be created, and to sustain the energy that continuous improvement requires.

Fortunately, schools and classrooms abound with stories that illustrate human resilience in the face of adversity, the effectiveness of new teaching strategies, the power of collaboration to solve seemingly intractable problems, and the progress the school community is making in achieving important goals.

Teacher leaders and administrators only need to pay attention to the sea of stories in which they swim, take note, and be mindful of opportunities to use stories to teach, guide, and inspire.

The power of stories to teach, guide, and inspire


Dennis SparksAs I awaited my flight from Vancouver to Toronto I fell into conversation with a Canadian man sitting near me who told me a fascinating story about a half brother from Australia who until recently he did not even know existed. The discovery of his brother was due to diligent detective work done by his daughter, and culminated a month before in a heartfelt reunion in Toronto. As we parted company we introduced ourselves and he gave me the name of a Toronto newspaper in which I could read more about his story.

As I settled into my next flight—this one from Toronto to Detroit—I again fell into another unexpected conversation, this one with my twenty-something year-old seat mate, who I noticed was reading a book on his iPhone. He said he had just begun The Count of Monte Cristo, and I shared my enthusiasm for it. We talked for some time about our interest in reading classic novels by authors such as Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy.

My seat mate said he was a medical student in Arizona, and I told him of my hospice volunteer work. He said that he was also a hospice volunteer, and that that experience had shaped his decision to go into primary care medicine. He listened with great interest as I described the work I was doing in helping hospice patients and their families capture on video their life stories to be shared with future generations. We agreed that we have been touched and enriched by the stories of the hospice patients we had come to know.

Stories are powerful and can change lives—whether they are the stories told in blogs or novels, shared at airport gates or on airplanes, or offered by families who fully understand the finiteness of life and appreciate the importance of capturing those stories before they disappear forever.

My experience has taught me that everyone has an important story to tell, stories that define and explain their lives.

In addition, stories can persuade and influence people in ways that logical arguments and research often cannot. They can touch the human heart in ways that overcome intellectual defenses to new ideas and practices and that replace resignation with a sense of possibility and hopefulness.

Carefully-selected and well-told stories enable administrators and teachers to deepen understanding, create empathy, share values, describe a course of action, shape culture, build community, and motivate action.

What’s on your mind?

  • What’s your experience with the power of stories as a teaching tool and as a means of influence, both as a storyteller and a listener?

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