Archive for the 'Dialogue' Category

Pay attention to the fundamentals of professional learning

Sometimes the “bells and whistles” of new things can distract us from the fundamentals, the things that make the biggest difference and form the basis of all that follows.

In classrooms, those fundamentals include close reading, clear and compelling writing, and thoughtful conversations informed by attentive listening.

Those same fundamentals apply to professional development, as this post from February 2014 underscores.

4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy

Generous amounts of close purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy. These simple activities are the foundation for a trained, powerful mind.…” —Mike Schmoker

Many years ago in an interview for a NSDC (now Learning Forward) publication Phil Schlechty told me, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.” 

For my own purposes I amended his adage to read, “If you don’t make time to read, write, speak, and listen in ways that promote professional learning, you don’t have time to lead.” 

Just as we desire to cultivate literacy among K-12 students, it is essential that education leaders take the time—even just a few minutes a day—to cultivate their own  professional literacy and that of others for the benefit of all their students. 

Professional literacy means the development of intellectual depth and fluency regarding values, beliefs, ideas, and practices that guide day-to-day decision making. Its acquisition requires cognitively-demanding processes, in contrast to the minimal engagement of the “sit and get” sessions that continue to dominate too large a share of “professional development.”

While professional literacy can be acquired through various means, my experience has taught me that four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, and writing—are the fundamental practices for cultivating leaders’ professional literacy. 

Speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker. But 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 unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by leaders 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 leaders’ learning when they not only take in information but respond actively to it by making comparisons with what they already understand and believe and by raising new questions for exploration. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals who they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling leaders to refine their ideas, examine their logical consistency, and 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 actively engage with the perspectives of readers who offer their comments.

Taken together, these four learning processes are fundamental, interconnected means for cultivating’ professional literacy.

What would you add to this list?

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?

The challenge of shaping school culture

The power of school culture in shaping continuous improvement and the challenges leaders face in creating and sustaining such a culture is a subject of perennial interest to readers of this blog.

Here is a post on that subject from August 2015 with links to frequently-read essays on that topic.

School culture matters 

School culture is an incredibly powerful but often invisible force that shapes a school community’s work. It is more powerful than new ideas and innovative practices.

Administrators and teacher leaders who ignore school culture or underestimate its influence will almost certainly fail in improving teaching and learning for all students.

While school culture may be largely invisible, some of its qualities can be discerned by observers who are attuned to them. 

In an earlier post I suggest 9 symptoms of a problematic school culture.

Among the most common of those symptoms are that: 

• the most honest conversations happen in parking lots rather than meeting rooms, 

• in just a few years new teachers begin to sound and act like veterans who are resigned to the status quo and deeply entrenched in their ways, and 

• educators feel more professionally connected to followers on social media they have never personally met than to grade-level, department, or PLC colleagues with whom they share students and common purposes.

In another post that focused on desirable cultural shifts I wrote:

“[N]ew cultures [cannot] be created by leaders acting alone. Indeed, a primary characteristic of high-performing cultures is that leadership is distributed throughout the school community. That means that new, more effective cultures are co-created by leaders and community members, especially teachers.

In that post I identified several shifts that occur when school cultures move in a positive direction:

confusion and incoherence regarding important goals, ideas, and practices to clarity and coherence;

leadership centered on a single individual to leadership developed and distributed throughout the school community;

resignation and powerlessness to hopefulness and collective sense of efficacy;

low levels of trust to high levels of trust;

• a focus on deficits, negativity, and complaint to strengths, positivity, and appreciation;

professional isolation and dependence on outside authority to results-oriented experimentation founded in teamwork and community;

accountability to external authorities to accountability to one another for achieving important goals; and

episodic, superficial professional development to team-based learning embedded in the planning, assessment, and continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

I encourage you to read and study these essays and to have candid conversations with colleagues about the culture of your school or school system and to determine what can be done with urgency to strengthen it.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a wonderful 2019….

Influential leaders think, speak, and write with clarity

Clarity is a fundamental leadership skill. 

One of the best ways to achieve and maintain clarity is by formulating through writing and dialogue “teachable points of view” about topics of importance to the school community.

This post from February 2010 describes the benefits of this process.

Gain clarity by developing “teachable points of view”

I need to become a well-educated person, as opposed to a well-trained person. This means reflecting upon and deepening my own ideas, and giving greater value to my own  thinking…. We each have our own theories and models about the world and what it means to be human. We need to deepen our understanding of what we believe. —Peter Block

Leaders increase their influence when they express their ideas in simple, accessible language and share those ideas with others in the spirit of openness to learning and mutual influence. 

The result is a shared understanding of important ideas and practices throughout the school community, the development of leadership in others, and improved relationships.

My thinking in this area was influenced by Noel Tichy’s book, The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win.

Tichy recommends that leaders create “teaching organizations” formed around Virtuous Teaching Cycles in which “… a leader commits to teaching, creates the conditions for being taught him or herself, and helps the students have the self confidence to engage and teach as well.”

Leaders begin Virtuous Teaching Cycles, Tichy says, when they craft a “teachable point of view,” which is “… a cohesive set of ideas and concepts that a person is able to articulate clearly to others.” 

A TPOV reveals clarity of thought regarding ideas and values and is a tool that enables leaders to communicate those ideas and values to others, Tichy says.

Some possible topics for leaders’ TPOVs include their aspirations for students, the nature of human learning and the type of teaching that promotes it, the meaning and value of professional learning communities, how assessment can contribute to student learning, and the role of parents and other community members in improving teaching and learning.

“The very act of creating a Teachable Point of View makes people better leaders…,” Tichy writes. “[L]eaders come to understand their underlying assumptions about themselves, their organization and business in general. When implicit knowledge becomes explicit, it can then be questioned, refined and honed, which benefits both the leaders and the organizations.”

But developing a Teachable Point of View “requires first doing the intellectual work of figuring out what our point of view is, and then the creative work of putting it into a form that makes it accessible and interesting to others,” Tichy observes. 

He strongly recommends writing as a tool to achieve clarity. “The process of articulating one’s Teachable Point of View is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing, iterative and interactive process,” Tichy writes.

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• describing a time when you were clear about your views related to a particular educational issue and how your clarity affected the thinking and actions of others,

• identifying a topic of importance to you and/or your school community and setting aside time to clarify your views on this subject in writing, perhaps redrafting your view several times to gain clarity.

True, but incomplete

Some things are true, but by themselves incomplete. 

For example, it is true that planning is important. But planning is insufficient without careful implementation of the plans.

Here are other examples from a September 2013 post on:

5 contradictions that reveal essential principles of teaching, learning, and relationships

1. While hope is essential, it is not a strategy. Hope must be supported by stretching goals, robust plans, professional learning, and strong teamwork.

2. While goals cannot be accomplished without activity, it is easy to confuse activity with accomplishment.

3. While the quality of teaching determines the quality of learning, it is the quality of leadership that determines the quality of teaching across the school and the school system.

4. While professional learning can occur by attending lectures, reading books, participating in social/learning networks, and other individual activities, it is ultimately the quality of school-focused learning and teamwork among teachers with common responsibilities that will determine the quality of teaching and learning across the school.

5. While teachers’ content knowledge and instructional skills are important, another essential but often overlooked attribute of good teaching is the quality of relationships teachers have with their students, particularly those who most require the best teaching to be successful in life.

Giving others the gift of their genius

I’ve had conversations with people in which they sought to display how smart they were. Some tell you directly that they are geniuses. Others try to convince you by talking at great length about obscure subjects using big words.

I’ve also had conversational partners who helped me experience my own resourcefulness and wisdom.

In their presence I felt deeply heard and appreciated, and through my interaction with them I found greater purpose, clarity, and direction.

With such individuals we think thoughts we did not know we were capable of thinking and see opportunities that previously eluded us.

I encourage you to offer others the gift of their genius one conversation at a time.

It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give one another.

What conversations today will lend themselves to giving such a gift?

What is your preferred style of conversation?

Most of us have one or two favorite styles of conversation.

1. Some people prefer fast-paced, serial monologues during which what each person says may or may not be linked with what the previous speaker said.

2. Other people like to recount the facts of their days.

3. Still others tell stories.

4. Some people prefer to ask questions.

5. Less common, in my experience, are people who prefer conversations in which they and others disclose important but often invisible things about themselves.

6. Even less common is a conversational approach in which speakers offer a point of view in the spirit of dialogue, not to convince others but to stimulate their thinking and to better understand their points of view. In short, to be influenced as well as to influence.

Style 1 seems ego based. Style 3 offers speakers a way to share experiences through compelling (hopefully) narratives that move beyond recitations of facts, while style 4 is driven by curiosity.

I personally find styles 5 and 6 the most engaging because they enable participants to move beneath surface appearances and understandings.

While resilient people are often skillful in blending styles (for instance, telling a story, asking an open and honest question, and seeking a deeper understanding through dialogue), most of us rely on one or two approaches.

Which style or styles of conversation do you prefer?


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