Archive for the 'Changing Habits' Category

Ch. 10: Euphoria fades as reality sets in

re·al·i·ty noun
/rēˈalədē/
the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them

In August 1972 the Board of Education in Livonia, Michigan approved a small, experimental alternative high school that a team of 3 teachers and a counselor, myself included, had spent the summer designing. 

Our excitement about creating a school of which we were proud, at least on paper, was immediately tempered by the start-up problems we were now facing in September.

Two of us, an English teacher and me, a social studies teacher, would staff the school in its first year.

An opening date of October 1 had been selected which gave us a month to find a location for the school, to equip it with furniture and other necessities, and to select books that “disaffected” students would find so compelling they would not be able to put them down, the start-up task I most enjoyed.

Most important of all, we selected our first 40 students, 20 of whom in the first month of school were already in trouble with the school system’s new, more stringent attendance policy (as I recall, a school could drop students from classes after 7 unexcused absences), and 20 who had not run afoul of the policy but were attracted to the school’s design and opportunities. 

The approach we chose to use regarding various behavioral issues that would arise with students throughout the school year was based on William Glasser’s book, Reality Therapy.

While we didn’t see our school as “therapeutic,” we did agree with Glasser’s view that many problems in life were caused by “irresponsibility,” and that the solution required focusing on specific plans for future responsible behavior for which students would be held accountable rather than extended discussions during which students sought to excuse their misbehavior.

As a result, there was no “blaming and shaming” regarding rule or agreement violations, but instead a repetition of the question, “What is your goal and your plan?” Which meant that because many of our students had well-established habits of irresponsibility, it was a process that we applied until students (and sometimes their parents) understood that it was easier to be responsible than to repeatedly meet with their teachers to make new plans.

“Reality” was always the agreements students made with staff members and the unwavering expectation that they would keep their promises, that is, to behave responsibly.

This approach was applied to a wide range of problems and behaviors, beginning with attendance.

Prior to enrollment we met individually with students and their parents to explain the program’s features and our attendance policy—there would be no unexcused absences without consequence, a surprising policy to many students and parents given student problems with absenteeism in their home high schools.

We asked students and parents to sign an agreement stipulating that they understood the policy and would abide by its terms.

In the event of an unexcused absence students were required to meet with teachers, and perhaps their parents as well, to determine ways to address the problem and to create a new plan.

Our view was that because students were given a great deal of flexibility about when and how they learned, they could not unilaterally forfeit on the promises they made regarding their academic goals and daily participation in a tightly-focused two-hour skill development “workshop” designed to create a cohesive and mutually-supportive community of learners. 

For us, the attendance policy was a means to teach students about responsibility and integrity—that is, to consistently do what they said they would do.

But those were only our initial challenges, with new ones arising from unexpected sources, problems for which we as staff members proved to be ill prepared.

What methods did you or do you find most effective in addressing chronic behavior problems?

(In 1978, Mike Abbott joined the ALPHA staff where he taught until his retirement in 1994. Our decades-long friendship began then and has grown over the decades as we continue to meet on Saturday mornings for long walks and breakfast.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Addressing the “final 2%”

Learning produces physical change in the brain. —James Zull

I once read a critique of strategic planning that said it too often failed in its “final 2%,” that is, the part of the plan during which new ideas and practices are implemented by the people who do the frontline work of the organization.

That critique seemed equally valid for large-scale efforts to improve professional learning in schools.

Here’s a metaphor that may be helpful:

Imagine the United States investing trillions of dollars on a new and massive interstate highway system. 

Imagine all the time and energy and resources required to create legislation to authorize and fund the project and to pay engineers to design it and surveyors to lay out its course. Land would have to be purchased, contractors selected, and the roadway constructed.

Now imagine after years of planning and construction, the highway is complete, east to west and north to south in every state in the land.

But only one thing is missing—the off-ramps into the tens of thousands of towns it bypasses. It is essentially a highway to nowhere.

Those off-ramps are the final 2% of the highway project, the part that if not successfully executed negates the value of all that preceded it.

Like the first 98% of the illustrative highway system, schools and schools systems do a great many things in the name of professional development that may be important and even essential but in and of themselves do not affect learning and relationships in schools. 

Among these activities are establishing policies, forming planning committees, creating new positions, hiring individuals to fill those positions, and adapting union contracts to promote professional learning.

Unfortunately, leaders are often so exhausted by these activities that little energy remains for the most demanding work of all—implementing the new ideas and practices that are the final 2%.

In addition, leaders may underestimate the demands of designing and conducting the cluster of sufficiently robust learning activities that, as Zull points out, literally change the brains of teachers and administrators for the purpose of continuously improving teaching and learning.

These activities engage teachers and school leaders in solving challenging problems within the unique context of their schools and deepening their understanding of new practices.

The final 2% also includes the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation. These activities address the interpersonal challenges of leadership—the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden experiences that have a significant effect on human performance and relationships.

Four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, writing, and having critical conversations—are fundamental in both promoting professional learning and in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

While speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker, teachers and school leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words (a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for confusion, unexamined assumptions, and logical inconsistencies) and the effects those words have on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by educators deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes educators’ learning as they make comparisons with what they already understand and believe, raise new questions for exploration, and thoughtfully consider implementation challenges. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling teachers and school leaders to refine and examine the logical consistency of their ideas and to determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to open their minds to the perspectives of readers who offer their views in response.

Critical conversations are the means by which respect and civility are practiced, trust is established, diverse perspectives are shared, and cultures shifted. Without them, it is impossible to initiate and sustain continuous improvement efforts.

The goal of these learning activities is to produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and leaders, to enhance professional judgment, and to create school cultures that enable quality teaching for the benefit of all students.

In your experience, what activities produce lasting and meaningful change in the brains of educators and in their professional relationships?

Thoughts on how we can make a “worthy difference”

There are some things that people do that matter far more than others. In this post from March 2013 surgeon Atul Gawande offers his thoughts on what those things are.

8 ways you can become a positive deviant

In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, physician Atul Gawande describes a talk he gave to medical students addressing the topic, “How do I really matter?” He decided to offer “five suggestions for how one might make a worthy difference, for how one might become, in other words, a positive deviant.”

(In another post I defined positive deviants as individuals who with the same resources available to their peers achieved more favorable outcomes. They do so through identifiable behaviors that distinguish their performance from that of others.)

In his talk Gawande suggested: 

Ask an unscripted question. “You don’t have to come up with a deeper important question, just one that lets you make a human connection,” he wrote.

Don’t complain. “[N]othing in medicine is more dispiriting than hearing doctors complain.”

Count something. “It doesn’t really matter what you count… The only requirement is that whatever you count should be interesting to you.”

Write something.

Change. “[M]ake yourself an early adopter,” Gawande recommended. “Look for the opportunity to change…. Be willing to recognize the inadequacies in what you do and to seek out solutions. As successful as medicine is, it remains replete with uncertainties and failure.”

Gawande’s suggestions lead me to think more deeply about the behaviors of school leaders whom I have viewed as Positive Deviants. 

 I concluded that they possessed one or more of the following habits:

1. Writing to gain clarity and to communicate;

2. “Counting” things to improve their performance (most things that count can be measured, even if only in rudimentary ways);

3. Reading widely in search of new ideas, perspectives, and inspiration;

4. Continuously seeking more effective and efficient ways to do things; 

5. Engaging the support of others when challenged by stretching goals or demanding circumstances;

6. Persisting over many months and even years to achieve important goals because the values represented by those goals were so important;

7. Seeing things in unique ways that were in opposition to accepted wisdom or common practice; and

8. Assuming that important problems can be solved, and that working alone or in collaboration with others they would contribute to their solutions.

What behaviors would you add to this list?

Expanding the boundaries of our best selves

Occasionally I find myself in uncomfortable situations over which I seemingly have little control. 

“Do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now” is an idea I draw on to improve both how I am feeling in that moment and the situation itself.

“Do the best that you can…” is an empowering thought that enables our resourcefulness by reminding us of the options available to us to change things for the better, as this April 2017 post reminds us.

Do the best that you can…

Do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now. — a poster in a high school science teacher’s classroom

That’s wonderful advice for all of us that applies in many situations. 

And it’s an approach to life used by many resilient people.

But because resilient people are resourceful, consider these additions to it:

Do the best that you can by expanding what you know and can do through lifelong learning

With what you have, and with what you can acquire through learning and by using your resourcefulness to provide additional tools to more effectively accomplish your goals

Where you are right now, and, when appropriate, by changing your environment or your mental perspective about the place where you are.

What do you do to continuously expand the boundaries of your best self?

Meaningful change begins with ourselves

A theme that has run through many of my posts for the past 8 years is the importance of administrators and teacher leaders changing themselves before trying to change others.

This post from February 2013 makes a succinct case for that point of view. Next week’s post will talk more specifically about what those changes might be.

Change yourself first 

One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change. Personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment. Empowered leaders are the only ones who can induce real change. —Robert Quinn

Important, lasting improvements in teaching, learning, and relationships in schools occur when leaders adopt new beliefs, deepen their understanding of important issues, and consistently speak and act in new ways. It is a common human tendency to see others’ shortcomings before noticing our own complicity in maintaining the status quo. It’s also human for leaders to believe that the primary barriers to change reside outside themselves. Leaders who understand these dynamics begin the change process by making significant and deep changes in themselves. 

Today I will reflect on an important school goal to determine a belief I want to modify, an understanding I want to deepen, a skill I would like to acquire, or a habit I want to develop.

[This “meditation” is the first of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership.]

 

6 important contradictions in life and work

Most of us find it difficult to simultaneously hold in our minds two or more contradictory beliefs. 

Nonetheless, sometimes one idea and its opposite are both true.

Here are several examples:

1. Plan carefully and persist in doing what’s important to you and to others, but be prepared to improvise because of unanticipated events. Plan, but hold those plans loosely.

2. Recognize the value of expertise and research, but also understand their limitations. Be open to new learning while simultaneously inquiring about the evidence upon which recommendations are being made.

3. Trust yourself, but ask respected colleagues and friends to offer their perspectives on your experiences and point of view.

4. Know that one person or a small group can change the trajectory of an organization, but don’t underestimate the power of systems and processes to affect what we think and do each day.

5. Conventional wisdom may offer guidance, but don’t unconditionally follow its dictates. In fact, make it a habit to surface and thoroughly examine the often unexamined assumptions that guide our lives.

6. Aim big. There are situations that require large, seemingly impossible goals to stretch us out of our comfort zones, but remember that such stretch goals are achieved and celebrated in incremental steps.

What contradictions would you add to this list?

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem”

I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things. — Malcolm Gladwell

I like ideas that cause me to question conventional wisdom, to think more deeply about my own often unexamined cultural assumptions.

Malcolm Gladwell’s perspective is just such an idea, one that I am willing to grapple with because of the respect I have for his work even though I don’t immediately agree with the idea.

Gladwell recognizes the influence of environment and of systems and structures, powerful forces that are often invisible to those who are profoundly affected  by them.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath extend that line of thought in this essay I first published in May 2010. 

“Shape the path” to influence change

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” — Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain the change process this way in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “For individual behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds.” To explain their ideas they offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider, with the intellect represented by the rider and emotions by the elephant. 

The rider plans and directs; the elephant provides the energy. They extend the metaphor by including “the path,” the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. Leaders’ work, then, is to guide the change effort through clarity of purpose and direction, motivate the elephant by engaging people’s emotions, and “shape the path” to enable the desired performance. Previous essays described ways to affect “the rider” and “the elephant.”

To help us understand the power of the path, the Heath brothers ask readers to note how many times a day someone has tweaked their environment to shape their behavior (examples include lane markers on roads, the location of displays in groceries stores, and ATM machines that made it difficult for you to leave your card or cash).

The Heaths stress the power of culture and habits to shape behavior. “People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture…,” they write. “Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious…. To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits….” 

Noting that even small environmental changes can make a difference, they suggest “action triggers” in which you create a mental plan that includes a time and place in which you’ll engage in a particular action. “Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness,” the Heaths note.

Chip and Dan Heath also suggest the development of habits and routines as ways to shape the environment because they create a kind of “behavioral autopilot.” In addition, they encourage the use of checklists to remind people of important behaviors that might otherwise be overlooked.

The Heaths use the phrase “rally the herd” to describe ways in which organizational culture and peer influence can be used to promote the desired behavior, citing efforts to promote “designated drivers” in the 1980s as an example of cultivating cultural influence to shape behavior. Meeting agreements and group protocols are examples of ways leaders shape habits and routines and cultivate high-performance cultures.

Ways school leaders might shape the path:

Meeting agreements: Establish meeting agreements (some people call them “norms”) that establish group expectations regarding meeting behavior (for instance, arrive on time and stay until the meeting’s conclusion, be fully engaged, and do not say anything outside the meeting you have not said in it).

Protocols: Use protocols to shape meeting behavior, whether the meeting is for the primary purpose of professional learning, problem solving, or decision making.

Action triggers: To establish new behaviors/habits, imagine yourself in a future situation doing a desired behavior. Trigger the behavior through a notation in your calendar, to-do list, or post-it on your bathroom mirror.

Take a moment now to…

• select one of the methods above to “shape the path” regarding improvements in your own leadership practice or for a significant change effort in the school community.


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