Archive for the 'Changing Habits' Category

8 “trim tabs” to significantly improve performance

Dennis Sparks

Some things leaders do matter a lot more than others. However, exactly what those activities are may vary from setting to setting.

Determining the best mix of high-impact activities comes from:

  • reflecting on experiences,
  • conversations with colleagues,
  • and professional reading, among other sources.

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, introduced me to the metaphor of the “trim tab.” Senge wrote:

“[S]mall, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they’re in the right place. System thinkers refer to this principle as ‘leverage.’ Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, a place which – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement.”

Here are my suggestions for administrators and teacher leaders regarding areas of particularly high impact. (Please note that none require additional financial resources.)

1. Having integrity, in particular consistently keeping promises and telling one’s truth.

2. Having crucial, often difficult conversations (closely linked to #1). Whenever possible, those conversations will be based on evidence.

3. Participating in high-functioning teams (or PLCs or “communities of practice”) rather than working in isolation. Teamwork is not only important for all teachers but for administrators and teacher leaders as well.

4. Consistently applying “next action thinking.” Always know the specific next action that you will take at the conclusion of a meeting or learning experience.

5. Developing and consistently applying high levels of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy (seeking first to understand, which has committed listening at its core).

6. Having a growth mindset that underscores the importance of effort and persistence as well as “intelligence.”

7. Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t.

8. Practicing new skills in public settings so that others appreciate and understand the challenges and risks that typically accompany important professional learning. There are few things more influential than leaders doing what they ask others to do.

What high-leverage activities would you add to this list?

Do the best that you can…

Dennis Sparks

“Do the best you can with what you have where you are right now,” a large poster in a high school science teacher’s classroom said.

Whenever a teacher-dependent student required it, the teacher would point to the sign as a reminder to consult the student’s notes, text materials, and/or other students as initial steps in finding an answer to his or her question.

I have often cited this poster as a succinct but powerful philosophy of life, a reminder that we already possess the knowledge and resources to live a richer life.

But as I have thought more about this “philosophy” over the intervening decades, I have realized that there are times when it is important to change what we have (for instance, our belief system or professional understanding), the relationships with which we surround ourselves, and/or where we are (for instance, the job we have) to improve the quality of our lives.

Put another way, we need not be resigned to “what is” when seeking solutions to important problems or in achieving significant goals.

We can learn new ways of thinking and acting, we can form supportive relationships, and we can change the path upon which we are walking.

So, in this moment do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now.

But if this is not creating in the long term the work or life you want, you need not be resigned to the status quo. All of us have options….

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

Dennis Sparks

“There’s an ego looking for a place to inflate,” my table mate at a Washington, DC meeting of high-level officials whispered to me as a prominent member of the education establishment entered the room, a prophecy that unfortunately soon proved itself to be true.

I was reminded of that meeting when Jean, a patient I was visiting in my role as a hospice volunteer, shared with me a simple but profound poem she had recently written:

“The long, dark corridor of life narrows at the end./ And those whose ego grew too tall will have to learn to bend.”

While Jean was describing the “long, dark corridor” of her own life as it narrowed in her 90s, her warning regarding egos that grow too tall without learning to bend also obviously applies to education leaders.

Signs that a leader’s ego has grown too tall include:

• Enjoying hearing himself or herself talk, usually at great length, rather than listening to others.

• Believing that he or she generally knows more than others, including being the only one with the wisdom to understand problems and how to solve them.

Ways in which leaders can learn to bend:

• Maintaining a “learner’s mind.” Leaders with such mindsets assume that they may not know what they don’t know.

• Recognizing that the perspectives of others are essential in identifying and solving problems.

That means that they seek first to understand by spending far more time listening than speaking.

• Remembering that while leaders have unique roles and responsibilities, those who are successful cultivate a community of equals rather than one of  privilege and hierarchy.

What have I missed?

Say yes “to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing”

Dennis Sparks

“The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” —David Brooks

Distraction is widely viewed as a significant problem in society and in schools. It dissipates energy at work and in our personal lives, and it is truly dangerous when we are behind the wheel of a car.

But perhaps the problem is not distraction, but rather the absence of a compelling purpose—a “…subject that arouses a terrifying longing”—as David Brooks describes it.

Cal Newport thinks about it this way:

“Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you can cannot be ignored?”

What useful thing are you striving to do that cannot be ignored?

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?

A year without “presentations”

Dennis Sparks

The start of a school year offers a blank slate for the development of new habits.

In recognition of the value of a fresh start I propose the elimination of the list-heavy PowerPoint type of “presentations” that dominate many meetings and far too much “professional development.”

Presenting” is not synonymous with “teaching.” Teaching, in my mind, is a complex cognitive and behavioral process in which teachers, and often their students, choose learning outcomes, select the instructional methods that are most likely to produce those outcomes, determine whether the learning has been acquired, and provide additional learning opportunities for students who have not achieved mastery.

Presenting, on the other hand, may include some or all of those steps, but in practice seldom does.

While “presenters” may intentionally engage learners through various activities, more often than not they speak to mostly passive “audiences,” which is why professional development is often derisively known as “sit and get.”

As they are commonly used, presentations are not intended nor designed to give more than lip service to higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, assessment, the critical analysis of research, and the development of professional judgment, among other complex instructional knowledge and skills.

Therefore, I recommend:

That “presentations” be used sparingly and only when the explicit goal is “communicating” a modest amount of information for relatively low-level purposes. Such presentations are not to be confused with the type of learning experiences required to deepen understanding of complicated subjects or to develop complex skills.

That leaders be ruthlessly honest with themselves and others to determine if the “presentations” they are considering are really a good use of teachers’ time and good will.

That the term “teaching,” not “presentation,” be used to describe the methods required for the development of the kinds of knowledge and skills mentioned above.

We honor teachers and teaching when we use the verb “teach” to describe the processes by which important and complex understandings and skills are developed, whether the students are young people or professional adults.

In another post I wrote, “… with few exceptions, presentations—because of their typically brief and superficial nature—do not change beliefs, create deep understanding, or cultivate new habits of mind or behavior because they are seldom truly intended to achieve those ends. And if those are the expressed purposes of a “presentation,” let’s then call it what it is—teaching.”

I urge administrators and teacher leaders to consciously justify the absolute necessity of every “presentation.” I am confident that few presentations will meet the standard of being “a good use of teachers’ time and goodwill,” which hopefully means their rapid demise.

All of the above require that leaders be more intentional about the kinds of learning experiences required for educators to expand and deepen the sophisticated and nuanced skills and understandings of their profession.

What do you think—do “presentations” have a place, and, if so, what purposes do they best serve?

[A year without presentations will also likely require a year without PowerPoint, which will be subject of my next post.]

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.]

 


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