Archive for the 'Leaders’ Clarity' Category

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?

The attributes of resilient people

Resilience is something we learn through adversity. We apply those beliefs and skills, in turn, when we face new adversity.

Here is my list of attributes, from March 2017, that support resilient people during difficult times.

“6 Cs of Resilience”

I offer the “6 Cs of resilience” to stimulate your thinking and perhaps guide your actions: 

Clarity about values, ideas, goals, and strategies to accomplish those goals. Such clarity will come in and out of focus and require fresh thinking when circumstances change within and around us.

Commitment to persist through difficult times. Resilience sometimes requires doing the thing we don’t want to do but that we know is important.

Communication that seeks first to understand and that is both respectful and assertive. Such communication is particularly challenging when people vigorously disagree with us by asserting values and positions that we believe are irrational and even immoral. 

Community to gain clarity, support, guidance, inspiration, and the power of collective action when we are addressing powerful social and economic forces. Dialogue created in community can also help us find and maintain clarity.

Courage to do what is uncomfortable and even frightening. Courage is not the absence of fear, but instead acting in its presence. As someone once said, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” 

Care, beginning with self-care. Self-care means making our physical, emotional, and spiritual health a priority because if we don’t care for ourselves the other Cs will be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Care also includes, of course, respect for others, particularly those with whom we most strongly disagree.

No matter our starting place, the “6Cs” enable us to take well-considered stands about things that are significant to us and to join with others to achieve what we cannot accomplish alone.

Which of the Cs is most important for you at this particular moment in time? What would you add to this list?

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?

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….

Eliminating mindless professional development 

It’s essential that teachers’ professional development resemble in its learning processes the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

I made that point in a February 2013 post, and it is worth repeating here.

Mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching

The notes of the lecturer are passed to the notes of the listener – without going through the minds of either. – Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler succinctly describes the mindless learning that follows mindless teaching.

Visualize a continuum with that form of teaching and learning at one end. At the other end place the kind of teaching that produces high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills. (A good share of the teaching students experience each day falls between those two extremes.)

The professional learning of teachers and administrators can be placed along a similar continuum.

To update Adler’s description, at one end of the continuum the PowerPoint slides of the presenter are passed to the tweets of the students without going through the minds of either. 

At the other end is professional learning with qualities that closely resemble those described above for students—high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills.

In my experience, the kinds of teaching/learning processes used in professional development have a profound effect on the teaching/learning processes used in the vast majority of classrooms. Put another way, mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching. And vice versa.

The remedy is simple, but not easy: It’s essential that teachers’ professional learning resemble as closely as possible the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

That means that teachers will:

• spend much of their time in small, interdependent groups collaboratively solving important instructional problems;

• gain a deep understanding of important educational issues and their significance through intellectually-demanding learning processes—the close reading of professional materials, writing that extends learning, and dialogue;

• acquire and regularly apply complex cognitive skills in identifying and solving meaningful problems; and

• experience firsthand the value of the methods they are expected to use with their students.

Through mind-full experiences like those, teachers will continuously improve their practice for the benefit of all students.

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.

“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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