Archive for the 'Leaders’ Clarity' Category

How checklists can improve teaching and leadership

Even under the best of circumstances good teaching is an incredibly complex task which can appear almost effortless to the casual observer.

The intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and even physical demands of teaching cannot, however, be underestimated.

Therefore, a “fundamental” of leadership is that teachers and principals use whatever tools are at hand to manage those demands. 

Checklists are just such a tool that when effectively used enable teachers to focus their cognitive abilities on the unexpected moment-to-moment changes in the classroom that make teaching an improvisational art.

That is why I’m bringing back an essay from April 2013 on the subject of checklists that also happens to be my most-viewed post.

The power and uses of checklists for teachers and administrators

Checklists are a simple but powerful way to improve individual and group performance. They are declarations of standards that ensure that important tasks are completed.

By routinizing certain procedures, checklists ensure that higher-order mental processes are available for complex, non-routine events, which is why they are regularly used by surgeons and airplane pilots, as well as by those engaged in other demanding occupations.

Physician Atul Gawande makes the case for checklists in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. (An earlier post elaborates on the educational implications of this book and others by Gawande.)

While good checklists are precise, Gawande notes, “They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”

Checklists, Gawande adds, “… can help experts remember how to manage a complex process… They can make priorities clear and prompt people to function better as a team.” 

To illustrate the ways in which checklists can improve group functioning, Gawande explains how they can level hierarchy and distribute power in ways that can save patients’ lives when they require surgical team members to introduce themselves before surgery and to state their roles and unique perspectives regarding the procedure. 

Checklists have a number of important applications in school settings:

• Checklists could be used by teachers in preparing lessons, like this checklist for project-based learning.

• Checklists could be used by principals and teacher leaders in preparing for faculty or team meetings based on the ingredients of successful faculty meetings that I offered in this post.

• Checklists could be used to increase influence using the elements contained in the SUCCESS acronym as a guide (see my previous post).

• Checklists could be used in developing both long-range and short-term professional learning plans for schools and school systems. Here are a few things that might be included on such checklists:

___ Focuses on priority areas of student learning based on various sources of evidence, including but not limited to standardized tests;

___ Addresses core tasks of teaching such as the development of engaging student work and using assessments to promote learning;

___ Engages all teachers in learning, not just volunteers;

___ Occurs virtually every day as a routine part of teachers’ collaborative work on high-functioning teams—PLCs, grade level, department, or other structures;

___ Assesses effects of professional learning based on changes in instructional practices and improvements in student learning. 

The acronym CREATE could be used to help planners remember those ingredients: Core tasks of teaching, Results for students, Every day, All teachers, Team-based learning, Evidence-based decision making. 

What additional uses do you see for checklists in educational settings?

Our last good day

A hospice patient very near the end of her life after an extended illness told me that she regretted not having been aware of her last good day until it was well behind her.

That day went unnoticed because it was likely the same as many other days that also went unnoticed.

What she was sorting out for herself, I think, was that like most of us she had not really appreciated what she had until it was gone.

That conversation encouraged me to develop the habit of reflecting each day on the things for which I am grateful, a very simple exercise that draws my attention to the presence of many things I would otherwise take for granted.

Living in the moment with an awareness of appreciation requires vigilance and discipline.

Fortunately, when we drift away from the moment, as we inevitably do, each new moment is an opportunity to reclaim that awareness and gratitude.

What do you do, or might you do, to notice and appreciate the moments of your days?

The link between “deep thought” and solitude

Depth of thought matters in classrooms, in meetings for decision making, and in meaningful professional learning.

While depth requires time, a lack of time is not a sufficient excuse. There is always time to do what matters, and depth always trumps superficiality.

Depth requires:

Intentionality;

Habits of mind and behavior that value slowness over speed, focus over multi-tasking, nuanced understanding over superficiality, and problem-solving over complaining;

Protocols that keep participants focused on paying attention to both the accomplishment of tasks and the quality of relationships; and

• Solitude.

Most of all, solitude.

Cal Newport offers 2 “lessons” about solitude:

“Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.

“When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of what’s going on around you.

“Lesson #2: Regular doses of solitude are crucial for the effective and resilient functioning of your brain.

“Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”

What are the conditions in your personal and professional lives that enable depth of thought?

“Everyone can relate to a story”

“[O]ne of the best ways to relate to somebody is not to lecture them, but to tell them a story….” —Mitch Albom

“The reason that I never fear when they say journalism or print journalism is dead is that the world has always told stories, and it will always have to tell stories. The first thing I would say to leaders of any kind is everyone can relate to a story, and if you learn how to tell a story, whether that is your vision for a company, or just a way to be empathetic toward your customers or a way to just understand the world, if you put it in a storytelling form, as opposed to a didactic, factual PowerPoint presentation, everyone will be able to relate to it.” —Mitch Albom

A village was having a celebration on the banks of a river when someone noticed that a child was being swept past the picnic grounds in a torrent of water. A line of citizens was quickly formed, and the child was pulled to safety.

Moments later someone observed that several more children were being swept past in the river. Again a line was formed, and the children were rescued.

But soon more children filled the fast-moving river, so many in the fact that the villagers no longer had the strength to pull them out.

In their exhaustion a citizen of the village pointed out that aerobic and strength training should be offered in the village hall so that should this happen again they would be stronger and better prepared. Someone else said that a CPR class should also be scheduled.

A final voice was heard with the suggestion that the village should quickly make its way upstream to find out who or what was throwing the children into the river.

This story, which I heard told many years ago, illustrates at least two points:

  • “System problems,” that is problems that have their source in interacting variables larger than the current circumstance, cannot be solved by training alone.
  • The power of a story to make an important point about a complex idea. People tend to “lean into” stories and away from fact-laden lectures.

What is your experience in using stories to make important points?

How would you answer these questions?

“Farrington has distilled this voluminous mind-set research into four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere in the classroom:

1. I belong in this academic community.

2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

3. I can succeed at this.

4. This work has value for me.”

How Kids Learn Resilience

These four questions, I believe, are equally applicable for teachers and administrators.

In my experience, resilient educators: 

• feel a sense of connection to like-minded colleagues,

• believe that they can improve student learning by continuously improving the quality of their work,

• are optimistic that they can and will make a difference, and

• know that the work they do each day has significance because it is aligned with their most important purposes and values.

How would you answer these questions from the perspective of your professional community?

Create life stories that empower resilience

The realest things in our lives are the stories we invent. We live with these stories, we remind ourselves of them, we perfect them. And, happily, if you don’t like the story you’re telling yourself, you can change it. – Seth Godin

Although our life story is based on actual events, it is also highly personal and subjective. The same life could be narrated many ways…. “Creating any kind of a story is a construction. It’s not just finding something that’s out there,” says Northwestern professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology. “Selves create stories, which in turn create selves.” —Kira Newman

Human beings use stories to make sense of and explain the world to themselves and others.

Most powerful among those stories are the ones we tell ourselves about our childhoods and significant life experiences.

At best, the stories we tell about the past are a partial truth. (If you are convinced that your truth is “the truth,” share your memories with others at a family event to see if they agree.)

Because we are active creators of our life stories, we can shape those stories in ways that empower or disempower us.

Resilient people create life stories which are both true and that are sources of hope, positive energy, and compassion for themselves and others.

Kira Newman explains it this way:

“Not only do stories tell us who we are, but they can also become resources we draw upon in times of difficulty: Recalling stories of strength or resilience helps us confront new challenges, reminding us of how we solved problems in the past. Telling stories can connect us with others, creating intimacy and strengthening relationships. The best stories provide meaning and purpose by linking seemingly random events and experiences into a progressive journey.”

Such stories, as Kira Newman points out, remind us of our strengths, our capacity to persevere in the face of adversity, and of the connections to others that have sustained us in difficult times.

Most of all, we can create and share stories that remind us of the overarching purpose and meaning of our lives.

Resilient people understand that when their stories no longer serve them, they can create new, kinder, and more empowering narratives to improve the quality of their lives and the lives of others.

While we cannot change the past, we can describe it in ways that help create a better world.

What do you think—can we shape our stories in authentic ways to better serves ourselves and others?

The challenge of changing ourselves and influencing others

A quality shared by most resilient people is the ability to see the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

As a result, they understand that:

• Changing ourselves is hard, even when our health and lives may depend on it.

• Changing others is harder.

• Changing organizational culture and practices is even harder because it combines the difficulties of changing ourselves and others with the challenge of overcoming institutional inertia and active resistance.

In addition, most of us significantly underestimate what’s required to alter long-standing habits of mind and behavior in ourselves and others and to create organizational cultures of continuous improvement.

And, at the same time, we significantly overestimate the extent to which humans are rational and motivated to change because of evidence and logic.

That’s why reading a book, listening to an inspiring speaker, or attending a “research-based” workshop are almost always insufficient to produce long-term, meaningful change.

The essential elements of change

The most compelling explanations of what’s required to produce significant change are offered  by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life and by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Deutschman explains that people make significant and lasting changes by “relating,” “repeating,” and “reframing.”

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships with individuals and groups to inspire hope and provide support.

Repeat involves learning, practicing, and mastering new skills until they become habits.

And reframe means finding others ways to think 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.

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 offer a sense of hopefulness that problems can be solved through a genuine sense of community that enables the acquisition of new habits.

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain that our behavior is shaped by three forces—our intellect, our emotions, and the situations in which we find ourselves.

To explain their ideas the Heaths offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider:

The rider is our intellect. Although modest in size compared to the elephant, it plans and directs.

The elephant is emotion. It provides the energy that creates and sustains movement.

The path is the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. that either supports improved performance or hinders it. (For example, strong teamwork requires a “path” that includes regularly-scheduled meeting time, relevant data to make decisions and assess progress, and training in group skills.)

We promote change, the Heaths say, when we:

• create clarity of purpose and direction (influence the rider),

• engage people’s emotions (motivate the elephant), and

• create environments (shape the path) that enable rather than hinder the desired performance.

What, in your experience, are the essential elements of change in individuals and organizations?

I will be taking a sabbatical during the next few months to refresh and renew. Best wishes for an enjoyable summer (or winter if you happen to be Down Under).


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