Posts Tagged 'Dennis Sparks'

Eliminate clutter that depletes energy and anchors the status quo…

Dennis Sparks

Mental clutter interferes with the clarity of our thought and depletes our energy.

The clutter of too many items on our “to-do lists” and appointments on our calendars interferes with our focus and efficiency.

Ron Sherman takes this idea to another level in a blog post by describing the challenges caused when clutter clogs a school:

”…a building that couldn’t breathe under the weight of all the stuff in it.  And at a deeper level, I understood that it was a school that couldn’t develop it’s own culture and identity, it couldn’t move forward into it’s own future, because in many ways it served as a museum, and repository for others’ long-forgotten materials.”

Just as our minds can be museums of outdated ideas, our offices, classrooms, and schools can be repositories of objects that anchor the status quo.

What clutters your mind, office, classroom, or school, and what steps can you take today to reduce it?

[Belated Canada Day best wishes to my Canadian readers, and Happy 4th of July to everyone in the United States. I will be taking a mini-sabbatical for the next few weeks. My August posts will tie together some of  the themes and issues raised in essays during the past year.]

 

Seeing what is invisible to others…

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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”?

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?

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?

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?

Lois Easton describes how “Design Teams” can lead to productive meetings

Dennis Sparks

Too often the meetings that educators attend feel purposeless and unproductive.

With that perennial problem in mind, I asked Lois Easton to suggest a remedy, which she did in the form of a “Design Team.”

Here’s what Lois had to say:

Done with meetings that are torturous in the first place and lead to nothing? Disappointed in professional learning that robs resources (time, energy, and usually, money) and lead to no substantive change?

These gatherings of educational professionals may seem purposeless—and may, indeed, be purposeless in the sense that purposes are unspecified or unclear. Or, these gatherings may be minimally motivating.

In either case, there’s no action, and there are no results and, once again—reflecting onwasted resources—educators become cynical about meetings and professional learning.

Even if they are motivating, meetings and professional learning may lead to little or no action simply because no one has seriously thought about the support and accountability required to making change. It’s almost as if no one really expects that these processes will lead to action which leads to results.

One solution to this dilemma is the Design Team.

You can call it anything you want, but this team of people inside the group labors before,during, and after the meeting or professional learning to consider purposes, desired action, support, and accountability. These are people who, themselves, are engaged in making the changes—in their classrooms, schools, and districts.

The philosophy is that those affected by—and effecting—the change should have some say in how the change is made, how to support it, and how to be sure that the change is making a difference for student learning.

The Design Team: 

Meets before the meeting or professional learning to determine the need for a meeting or professional learning. Though they may work with a facilitator from within or outside the organization, the Design Team has a huge say in what happens.

Collects and analyzes data before they begin planning, using the question, “What leads us to want a meeting or professional learning?”

Circulates the results of their data discussions with their colleagues: “Here are the dataresults. Are these data important? For instance: Is it okay for 20% of our students not to graduate? Is it okay for 4th graders to dislike reading? Is it okay for girls to steer clear of math? Should we do something about these data? What do you recommend?”

Requests feedback and use responses to modify their work. They continue to use this feedback cycle throughout the work (ideally throughout a school year or more).

Drafts outcomes—what people will know and be able to do as a result of the meeting or professional learning—as well as overall purposes. They request feedback, even if only thumbs-up or down on the outcomes.

Continues to request and get feedback—and adjust accordingly—on everything else they do before the meeting or professional learning.

Considers the support that educators will need to make changes as a result of the meeting or professional learning. The Design Team advocates for appropriate resources for the work. It also identifies indicators for change at all levels. The team thinks about how the whole organization will know that the outcomes have been achieved.

Who serves on the Design Team?

1. The role should be voluntary. Anyone impacted by the contemplated change should have a chance to participate on the Design Team. Although it’s tempting to invite representatives from grade levels or subject areas to participate, don’t. Representatives tend to do what they are asked to do—that is, represent their factions. They may not see the “whole school” or the “whole district” as they deliberate. Invite everyone to participate.

2. To achieve continuity, ask members to serve a minimum time period (perhaps 3 months). Allow new members any time, as long as they will serve the requisite number of months.

3. Acknowledge that each time a new member joins the Design Team, the team is a new team and new members need orientation. This is not all bad; new members help continuing members deepen their understanding of the work. As they explain it, continuing members become clearer about what they are doing—or not. If not,new members give the Design Team a chance to repurpose or re-plan what they are doing.

4. Keep the team as large as it is, naturally—if it is too bulky, have meetings for all team members so they can all keep the “big picture” in mind, and then smaller action team meetings to get the work done.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Even if there is no doubt about an strategy or outcomes, run it by the whole group (everyone else in the school, for example). Keep things transparent.

6. Consider providing released time for Design Team members so they can meet.

During the meeting or professional learning, the Design Team provides a way for afacilitator or convener to keep tabs on what’s working and what’s not and to make adjustments.

After the meeting or professional learning (that is, if we can consider professional learning “over”), the Design Team monitors the indicators of change and the outcomes, reporting to everyone how the change is proceeding.

Design Teams—when well designed themselves—ensure that meetings and professional learning are carefully considered and consequential.

This post is adapted from Lois Easton’s book, Professional learning communities by design: Putting the learning back into PLCs, published by Corwin Press andLearning Forward.

What Mother Teresa can teach school leaders

Dennis Sparks Knowing my interest in leadership, a friend gave me Mother Teresa, CEO, whose authors, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, extract eight principles from Mother Teresa’s work:

1. Dream it simple, say it strong.

“Mother Teresa is one of those humans who had a simple dream that profoundly changed our world. Her dream was helping the poorest of the poor. She began with that vision, then developed a clear plan for making it come true. Everything Mother Theresa did in her life stemmed from defining her vision and aligning and rallying all of her resources and supporters to her goal….

“‘Saying it strong speaks to the constant need for a leader to consistently speak with passion and conviction about her vision for her organization. She also must act in ways aligned with that vision.”

2. To get to the angels, deal with the devil.

“Leaders need to know where to draw their lines. Sometimes you have to compromise. You need to have the courage to decide which compromises are acceptable and which are not. You will not always make the right choices and you will get criticized for them. Mother Teresa was criticized about many of her choices. Her response was to stand by her beliefs and focus on getting her job done.” 

3. Wait! Then pick your moment. 

 “A balance between action and reflection is critical to keep focused during the emotional ups and downs of leadership. When reflecting, ask yourself if you’re moving toward your vision, laying the groundwork to ensure you are ready once the time is right.” 

4. Embrace the power of doubt.

“Doubt isn’t necessarily a crisis of faith. Obstacles are a daily part of life. You can have faith that something good is going to happen, but doubt how you were ever going to get there. When we embark on journeys into the unknown, it is important to acknowledge and process our feelings of doubt. Unprocessed doubt can lead to paralyzing fear, but using doubt to question yourself can strengthen your beliefs and free you from that fear.”

 5. Discover the joy of discipline.

“In leadership, as in life, discipline is about doing…. Discipline is about the long-term benefit. There is no shortcut or miracle pill. It takes effort and willpower to succeed at business and in life. Procrastination is the enemy of discipline. Mother Teresa believed that if you took care of your small responsibilities, life would reward you with bigger responsibilities.”

6. Communicate in a language people understand.

 “Many people approach communication as a matter of consistency, clarity, and presentation style.… Mother Teresa took the opposite approach. To her, communication was often more about listening and observing than about speaking.… She used this information to adapt her language, naturally but intentionally, to that of other people, while paying close attention to their responses. Did they understand what she was really saying? Were they open to her words and intentions? Did she need to stop and listen some more?”

7. Pay attention to the janitor.

 “One reason Mother Teresa touched people so deeply was that she made them feel heard and valued. She understood that at the most basic level, we all want to feel valued in what we do, whether by our families, our friends, or our colleagues….

“How do you make people feel valued? Pay attention to them! Acknowledge who they are. Ask them questions. Know their names.” 

8. Use the power of silence.

“For a leader, applying the power of silence means clearing your mind and listening to your inner voice. Silence of the mind – stopping your mind – is critical.…

“To silence your mind, begin by eliminating all distractions. If you are in your office, close the door and turn off all devices that would be distracting, such as your cell phone.… 

“If you take time to silence your mind regularly, your mind will find the answers you need for every aspect of your life.”

“You don’t have to be a saint to benefit from Mother Teresa’s leadership principles…,” Bose and Faust conclude. “Start today by picking one principle that resonates with you. Implement it and begin to change how you lead your life or your organization. It will make a difference.”

Which of these principles most resonates with you? 

 

When professional learning is a barrier to continuous improvement…

 

Dennis SparksIn my experience most of us already know enough to make a much larger difference. 

While additional knowledge and skills may be helpful, a significant barrier to continuous improvement is the “default setting” of many educators to learn more before acting.

I value learning. I have always enjoyed learning how to do my work more effectively and efficiently. I enjoy learning about a diverse range of subjects that interest me. And I appreciate learning about things that I didn’t know interested me, like when my eye travels from shelf to shelf in a library or bookstore or when I follow a series of hyperlinks wherever they may take me.

But the endless pursuit of new professional learning can also be a barrier, and even a form of procrastination or avoidance, to diligently applying what we already know to improve leadership and teaching for the students who are in our classrooms today.

Sometimes the search for “perfect” knowledge prevents us from acting on the “good enough” knowledge that will benefit students now.

How do you distinguish between “I already know enough” and “New learning is essential?”

 


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