Archive for the 'Change' Category

Being nudged out of our comfort zones


My first principal told me that he thought his job was to “fine tune” the teachers on his staff. At the time I wasn’t particularly eager to be “tuned,” but I have since come to think about it differently.

Depending on where we are at a given point in time, all of us, I think, can benefit from being nudged out of our comfort zones in one direction or another:

Nudged toward sociability or toward solitude and quiet.

Nudged toward routine or toward the non-routine.

Nudged toward new learning or toward the consolidation of what we’ve already learned.

Nudged toward trying new things or toward increased appreciation for what we already have.

The implications are endless.

We may be nudged by the example of others. We may be nudged by an invitation or a demand.

Whatever the source, our lives will be enriched when we pay close attention to and even welcome the occasional nudges that inevitably come our way. And when our lives are enriched, we enrich the lives of others.

Why doesn’t professional development improve?

Dennis Sparks

During the four decades that I have been involved in the field of professional development my aspiration was that every teacher and principal in every school would learn every day from their colleagues, students, and supervisors.

I wasn’t thinking of the kind of professional development in which an “expert” speaks to teachers, although that might have been a small part of it, but the kind of rich professional learning that arises from the close observation of students, meaningful collaboration with colleagues, and deep, sustained evidence-based conversations about important subjects.

Unfortunately, as I have listened to successive generations of teachers and administrators complain about the poor quality of their “inservice” experiences it is clear that we remain a long way from achieving that goal.

For 40 years I have attended dozens of local, state, and national meetings in which solutions to this problem were sought. But in spite of those good intentions the quality of professional development remains at an unacceptably low level as it is implemented in the vast majority of schools and school systems.

There are exceptions, of course. Some schools are exemplars of high-quality professional learning and teamwork, but they remain the exceptions rather than the rule.

While barriers such as lack of time and other resources are often cited as problems, I think there are four deeper, more fundamental explanations for why professional development has not fulfilled its essential role in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning:

1. Some leaders’ have antiquated “mental models” regarding learning and change that impede progress.

• Some leaders, for example, believe that teaching is “telling” and that leading is “directing.” Therefore, “good” professional development, they believe, only requires a “speaker” who tells teachers what to do.

• Or, some leaders believe that the best way to improve teaching is through a combination of fear and incentives.  As a result, they use various carrots and sticks to “motivate” teachers. “Inservice” provided by motivational speakers often appeals to these leaders.

2. Some leaders don’t have a sufficiently deep understanding of the attributes of high-quality professional learning nor a carefully crafted “theory of action.”

• Administrators and teacher leaders often replicate the past because it is difficult for them to create what they’ve never experienced.

• Some leaders have not done the deep analysis required to create a “theory of action” that explains the steps that will be taken to achieve important goals and the assumptions behind those actions that lead leaders to believe they will produce the desired outcome. Without such an analysis continuous improvement efforts typically fail.

3. Some leaders are resigned to the status quo.

• Some leaders believe that they have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning in their schools.

• Some leaders believe that teachers’ engagement in meaningful professional development is someone else’s responsibility and that nothing can be done until those people assume their responsibility.

4. Some leaders lack the will and/or skill to engage in the challenging conversations that are almost always required to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Leaders are often reluctant to engage in such conversations because they:

• fear conflict,

• have a strong desire to be liked by others, and/or

• lack skill and experience in engaging in such conversations.

Do you agree that professional development for most teachers continues to be of low quality? 

If so, do you agree that these are the primary leadership barriers to significant improvement, or do you have others to suggest?

Almost everyone has the same two problems…


In the view of many observers, teachers’ dissatisfaction is … closer to passive resignation than to active indignation, closer to dejection that deflates energy than to anger that inspires action…. There is much research to confirm the importance of a sense of efficacy—the sense of making a meaningful difference…—in teachers’ motivation and performance. —Robert Evans (my emphasis added in bold)

Almost everyone has the same two problems.

The first problem is whatever problem we are experiencing at the moment – a technical problem related to teaching or leadership, a relationship problem, a health problem, or whatever it may be.

The second problem, which is often as or more significant than the first problem, is the way we think about the first problem.

How we define a problem and what we believe about it often determines whether we think it can be solved and whether we have the ability to solve it.

Resignation—that is, not believing there is anything we can do to improve the situation—is the most common of those energy-destroying mental barriers. 

Believing that a problem is unsolvable is, after all, the first step in ensuring that it won’t be solved.

In Leading for Results I wrote: “Resignation is an intellectual and emotional state in which educators come to believe that their individual and collective actions cannot improve teaching and learning, particularly given the large and serious problems that affect the lives of many students and their families…. A profound consequence of this belief is that teachers and administrators act as if they have a very small, or perhaps even nonexistent, circle of influence related to student learning.”

Do you agree that resignation is a powerful, often unrecognized barrier to solving the challenging problems of teaching, learning, and leadership? 

Believing is seeing

Dennis Sparks

Most of view ourselves as rational, so it makes sense to believe that we and others make or should make decisions based on logic and evidence.

In reality, though, beliefs and feelings play a large role in our decisions, often without our conscious awareness. Our beliefs and feelings, in fact, often determine the “facts” we see.

So, instead of “seeing is believing,” in many circumstances “believing is seeing.”

That’s why  logical, fact-laden attempts at persuasion are less effective than direct experiences, stories, and images.

That doesn’t mean that research, evidence, and logic have no purpose in faculty meetings and other venues where important professional learning occurs and decisions are made.

But it does mean that while these methods may be necessary to persuade others to commit to a new course of action and to sustain their commitment, they are seldom sufficient.

Can you think of times when decisions (either good ones or not) were more influenced by anecdotes or experiences than by evidence and logic?

Educators’ attention and energy linked to leaders’ emotional intelligence

Dennis Sparks

“Big Idea”: Continuous improvement requires that leaders effectively manage their attention and energy and the attention and energy of the school community. 

A key to the successful management of attention and energy is leaders’ emotional and social intelligence.

A leader’s emotional intelligence determines to a large extent where the school community directs its attention and energy.

Attention can be dissipated or have a laser-like focus on a small number of essential priorities.

Leaders’ emotional intelligence also creates or destroys energy within the school community, energy that is essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Here are some popular posts from the past year that more fully explain this idea:

“Cultivating the problem-solving ability of others”

“Creating energy for continuous improvement”

“Ways to avoid unproductive, dispiriting meetings”

You can find additional posts on emotional intelligence here.


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.]


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?

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