Archive for the 'Teamwork' Category

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.

 

Why it’s essential for school board members to be intentional learners

Dennis Sparks

First among many superb ideas to be found in A School Board Guide to Leading Successful Schools: Focusing on Learning by Stephanie Hirsh and Anne Foster is this one:

“Exemplary school boards are made up of members who come to the board for the right reason–to provide quality public schools for the children of their school system.… They are committed to serving and learning, and their example can become a model for the entire school system and community.…

“Each person on the school board brings a unique set of experiences and knowledge that can be valuable to the group as a whole. But regardless of the knowledge and viewpoint that each member brings, the entire board is on a continuous learning curve. Board members can grow together in their knowledge of public school issues, school system business, and their role as board members. How they go about learning and continually upgrading their knowledge will determine to a large degree how successfully they will work together and lead the school system. How deeply they are willing to learn about important issues will determine the quality of their decision making, their attempts to reach consensus, and their ability to support the superintendent and staff. (bold mine)

In my experience, a system of learning schools requires a school board and superintendent who are intentional and public learners.

There are no exceptions to this requirement if the goal is high-quality teaching for all students in all classrooms in all schools.

Do you agree?

If so, I encourage you to read and pass on Hirsh and Foster’s book to a school board member who seeks to better understand the importance of Board learning and teamwork. Better yet, if you are in a position to do so, provide copies for the entire Board and ask members to devote as many sessions as possible to its study.

 

5 ways to create energy for continuous improvement

Dennis Sparks A perennial challenge of school leadership is creating and sustaining energy for the demanding work of the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Fortunately, we know a great deal about creating and sustaining energy. Here are a few suggestions:

Have compelling purposes that stretch the school community outside of its comfort zones. Fortunately, because education is at its heart a moral endeavor, teachers, administrators, and parents have such purposes built into their daily responsibilities.

View the solving of important problems as a creative process (inventing solutions appropriate to your context) rather than a technical one (following a formula or script). People are energized when they create solutions—drawing on research and the best thinking of others—to the meaningful challenges they face.

Make professional learning and intellectual stimulation an integral part of each day. Such learning, of course, not only occurs on “PD days,” but is embedded in teachers’ work as a regular feature of faculty and team meetings.

Create strong teams infused with trust and interpersonal accountability that are charged with the responsibility of achieving stretching student learning goals. People are motivated by relationships that matter.

• Cultivate physical, emotional, and spiritual health within the school community. Leaders’ emotional health is particularly infectious.

What have I missed?

How to manage inevitable dips in relationships

Dennis Sparks

There’s never been a relationship that didn’t start off strongly and that didn’t then run off the rails at some stage. This is actually not the problem. This is just life. Success for you lies in managing these dips when they occur… It’s about laying foundations for resilient relationships from the very start. – Michael Bungay Stanier

In “Building Resilient Relationships,” a chapter in Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, Michael Bungay Stanier recommends “social contracting” as a means for managing these inevitable relationship dips.

Stanier is describing a problem that is common and vexing for school-based teams or Professional Learning Communities. Things start out strong, with everyone seemingly committed and energized, only to have that commitment and energy fall off over time.

“At the heart of social contracting,” Stanier says, “is spending time upfront talking about the How – the relationship and how we’ll work together – rather than being seduced by the What, the excitement and urgency of the content…. Just understanding that you should talk about the How will immediately make a difference in your working relationships.”

Stanier proposes five fundamental questions that such teams should ask and answer:

1. What do you want? (Here’s what I want.) “This is a question that almost always stops people in their tracks,” Stanier writes. “It’s deceptively difficult to answer and incredibly powerful when you can clearly define what exactly it is you want from this relationship.”

2. Where might you need help? (Here’s where I’ll need help.) “This turns the ‘What do you want?’ question over and comes out it from a different angle,” Stanier says.

3. When you had a really good working relationship in the past, what happened? (Here’s what happened for me.) “Tell a story,” Stanier recommends, “of a time when you were in a working relationship similar to this one, and it was good, really good. What did they do? What did you do? What else happened?”

4. When things go wrong, what does that look like on your end? How do you behave? (Here’s how I behave.) Stanier again recommends telling a story, “this time of when a working relationship like this one failed to soar.”

He also recommends articulating missed opportunities, unilateral actions you are likely to take when things start going wrong, and your own “hot buttons” that get you going.

5. When things go wrong – as they inevitably will – how shall we manage that? “Things will go wrong,” Stanier says. “Honeymoons end. Promises get broken, expectations don’t get met. By putting that on the table, you’re able now to discuss what the plan will be when it goes wrong.”

Stanier  concludes: ”[B]y asking these questions you now have permission to acknowledge the situation between you both when things get off track (as they inevitably will…). If you’re just beginning a new working relationship, then you’re in the perfect place to build and resilience through social contracting right now.”

About relationships that have already begun, Stanier says, “… you’re also in the perfect place to build in resilience. Step back for a moment from the What you’re absorbed with, and invite them to have a conversation with you about the How.”

What has been your experience in addressing early in the life of a team the common relationship issues that are likely to arise? And what challenges have you faced in making explicit those understandings by establishing “meeting agreements” or other processes that establish group norms?

 

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?

“Set a compelling vision for your future and outline a path for getting there”: An interview with Stephanie Hirsh

Dennis Sparks

Stephanie Hirsh and I worked together for 20 years at the National Staff Development Council (now known as Learning Forward) where in 2007 she followed me as executive director.

Because I know Stephanie thinks deeply about improving the quality of professional learning in schools, and because I have deep respect for her views, I was eager to explore and share with readers her latest thinking about the issues I raise in the questions below.

In addition to her work at Learning Forward, Stephanie previously held a number of positions in the Richardson (Texas) Independent School District, including serving as a school board trustee. You can follow her on Twitter at @HirshLF.

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

Hirsh: The first year sets the tone for your tenure. Think about how you want people to perceive you and what kind of leader you want to be. Consider what you think you know and what you need to learn more about. Make it a priority to do a lot more listening than talking. It may sound trite but it is true — people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

As a new leader, you will want to demonstrate why you are in this position of responsibility, but at the same time you’ll need to temper the desires for immediate change — yours and others’ — with the need to practice listening and understanding your new context.

I suggest you use your time as a new leader to:

• Clarify your vision and values, including your values about children and your staff;

• Share your ideas for changes and for the future a bit at a time, and gauge peoples’ reactions carefully;

• Stand for significant ideas, engaging others in the process; and

• Stand for professional learning.

During your first year, be careful about drawing any lines in the sand. Make sure any lines are values driven and worth potential consequences. Be willing to let the small stuff slide.

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

Hirsh: Leaders who I admire have several characteristics that I strive to develop and advocate.

First and foremost, they put student learning first. They are driven to do all they can in their sphere of responsibility and influence to advance it.

They are inspirational; they can clearly articulate their vision, beliefs, values, theory of action, and strategic priorities. They are consummate learners, which further advances their knowledge, insights, and actions.

The leaders I admire are people of integrity, they are authentic, and they practice what they preach.

Finally, these leaders treat people the way they want to be treated.

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

Hirsh: I think if you are committed to being a great leader, one of your first steps to growth is to identify other leaders who have the qualities that you admire. Set out to learn more about these leaders, watch them as they work, and read what they write. If at all possible, see if you can engage them in a relationship to support your own growth.

Gain clarity and write your own vision statement for the kind of leader you aspire to be. From there, create a plan for becoming this person. Seek feedback along the way, and learn to respond to it with appreciation. Always look for opportunities where you can learn some of the skills you admire in others.

As I encourage for all educators, extend your learning and growth circle to colleagues, mentors, and coaches. Each brings a different perspective and will contribute to your growth in different ways.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders is that some teachers are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders

Hirsh: While educators are motivated by their commitment to their students, substantive and sustained change is really difficult. While educators must think big for the kinds of improvement schools need, I encourage them to start “small” in their actions. To do so, leaders can:

• Select those practices that are the highest leverage;

• Articulate your theory of action behind new practices;

• Provide opportunities for practice and feedback before educators use new strategies in front of students or in an evaluative context;

• Build a safe and supportive learning culture by being a model, encouraging team teaching, and engaging the use of coaches; and

• Reflect on changes openly and often, celebrating successes and encouraging revisions to advance further.

I encourage principals and teacher leaders to “work smart” – that is, to apply their energy to a small number of areas or activities in which they are likely to make the largest difference for students and the school community. From your experience, what are those few areas/activities in which school leaders would have the biggest impact on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning?

Hirsh: For principals, I consider the following to be high-leverage areas for focus if their goal is to create a learning-focused culture in their schools:

• Align all professional learning decisions to Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning. This stance positions you to explain the decisions you are making and the outcomes you intend to achieve.

• Make sure every educator in the school is a member of at least one high-functioning learning community, including yourself. Be a model learner; find, and if necessary, create your own learning community that will give you honest feedback and hold you accountable for achieving your goals

• Be an advocate for continuous improvement with stakeholders in the district office and the community. Be prepared to explain professional learning’s critical role in your theory of action and tell others how you will assess its quality and ongoing impact.

For teacher leaders, I suggest these high-leverage activities:

• Be an expert in your field. Invest in your own learning to ensure your students get what they need. It is difficult to advocate for change when you aren’t continually – and visibly – improving your own practice.

• Find or build a great learning community, just as I urge principals to do. Surround yourself with people who you respect and who will learn with you, and meet with them regularly for feedback and support

• Set a compelling vision for your future and outline your path for getting there.

Likewise, I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work.

Hirsh: I believe my highest-leverage work is similar to what I suggest for principals and teacher leaders.

It is important to me to clarify my values and vision regularly and to articulate it within my sphere of responsibility.

I immerse myself in the field of professional learning to be a content expert.

I also stress the importance of continual learning, seeking opportunities for my growth, asking for feedback, and providing opportunities for my staff to do the same.


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