Archive for the 'Changing Habits' Category

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.]

 

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”?

 

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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