Archive for the 'Teamwork' 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”? 

Make high-quality professional learning a priority

Dennis Sparks

“Big Idea”: The quality of professional learning and teamwork in schools determines whether all students experience quality teaching and are surrounded by supportive relationships.

The quality of professional learning and teamwork remains at an unacceptably low level for far too many educators.

Not as much has changed as one would hope 20 years after the National Staff Development Counsel (now Learning Forward) first introduced its Standards for Staff Developmentwhich have since gone through several revisions.

There are bright spots, of course. A handful of schools and school systems consistently produce high levels of professional learning, for which they are to be commended.

Fortunately, interest remains high in designing professional development that leads to continuous improvements in teaching and student learning.

The following posts are among the most widely read on this subject:

“The biggest problem in professional development is…”

“When professional learning is a barrier to continuous improvement”

“Finding the third way of professional development”

“Fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy”

“The 6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development”

“Why professional development without substantial follow up is malpractice”

You can read even more on this subject here.


6 foundational assumptions for professional development

Dennis Sparks

Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. —Peter Senge

Professional learning and teamwork, in my view, are the primary means by which schools achieve their most important goals.

And while valued professional learning can occur in a number of ways, its primary but exclusive method is team-based learning focused on the goal of improved teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

Here are six foundational assumptions offered in the spirit of dialogue:

1. Professional development is to professional learning as teaching is to student learning. Professional development may or my not lead to professional learning in the same way that teaching may or may not lead to student learning. Well-designed and implemented professional learning leads to professional learning just as effective teaching leads to student learning.

2. For professional learning to occur professional development must be sufficiently robust to literally physically change educators’ brains. The acquisition of empowering beliefs, deep understandings, and new professional habits requires that new neural networks be created and existing networks strengthened. Such physical changes require the brain to be actively engaged in its own alteration.

3. A core element of professional learning that is intended to alter educators’ brains is a relentless focus on a small number of clear and measurable goals for student outcomes guided by various types of evidence.

4. The vast majority of teachers’ learning takes place within school-based teams (sometimes supplemented by cross-school or cross-district subject-matter teams) guided by the assumption that the solutions to most issues of teaching and learning already reside within the school community and the team.

5. While carefully chosen consultants, courses, and workshops can enrich and support team learning, they can never replace it. Teachers are encouraged to pursue individual projects based on their unique responsibilities and challenges as well as participate in team-based learning.

6. Teachers’ learning occurs as close to classrooms as possible through instructional coaching and in team conversations focused on the core tasks of teaching—planning lessons, teaching lessons, determining the effectiveness of lessons for all students, and using that information to improve future lessons. For the most part, teachers and administrators learn while doing rather than acquiring abstract knowledge that they may someday use.

What would you add to or subtract from my list?

Find the simplicity beyond complexity

Dennis Sparks

Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers. —Colin Powell

Simplicity and clarity are essential leadership tools. As leaders learn about new ideas and practices, their understanding naturally becomes more elaborate and nuanced. But sometimes the complexity such understanding can produce becomes a barrier to effective communication. When leaders pursue the clarity that resides beyond the complexity they find simple, everyday words, examples, and stories that enable them to explain their ideas with proverb-like clarity.

Today I will take a few minutes to practice expressing a complex idea in simple terms. For example, “Professional community means we support each other every day in finding practical ways to improve the learning of all our students to agreed upon standards. We’ll do that in our grade-level meetings and faculty meetings and during professional development sessions.”

[This “meditation” is one of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership, my most recent book, published by Solution Tree.]


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? 

Finding the “third way” of professional development

Dennis Sparks

It is common to simplify complex things by thinking of them in binary ways—yes/no, black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure, and so on.

As a result, we often don’t see shades of gray or “third ways” to solve problems.

Many conversations about improving the quality of professional learning are framed in binary ways, particularly the emotionally-laden issue of who controls it—administrators or teachers.

In these conversations administrator-driven professional development is typically viewed as top-down, out of touch, and often demeaning. It is characterized by “sit and get,” irrelevance, and boredom.

Teacher-driven professional development, on the other hand, is described as motivating, relevant, and immediately useful.

I can say that from my decades of experience in a variety of settings that teacher planned and implemented professional development can be just as ineffective (or effective) as that planned by administrators. There are wonderful examples of long-standing teacher-directed professional development that demonstrably improves teaching and learning. And there are some that make little or no difference.

Fortunately, there is a third way in which professional development is “directed” by stretching, clearly-defined goals for student learning.

The “third way” has as its overarching purpose the continuous improvement of the quality of teaching and learning for all students in all classrooms in all schools. There are undoubtedly many other valuable purposes for professional development, but if that purpose is not fulfilled, in my mind, professional development has failed, no matter what other benefits it may provide.

The third way involves finding the appropriate blend of team-based learning/collaboration within the school in which all teachers participate and individualized approaches, including the use of social/learning media, for improving the knowledge and skills of teachers to provide tailored solutions for their unique challenges.

Such a blending of team-based and individualized methods requires skillful leadership that acknowledges the value of both non-negotiable team-based learning for the benefit of all students and individualized teacher learning goals and methods.

That means that when professional development is effectively lead and well designed it is both/and, not either/or.


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