Archive for the 'Professional learning' Category

Why good policy is necessary but insufficient to improve schools

Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. And, when it comes to improving schools, doing things well is pretty much the whole ball game. —Frederick Hess

Policies that serve an organization’s most important goals are essential sources of institutional resilience.

Having said that, I believe that there are limits to how far good policy can take us in the direction of creating quality teaching for all students in every school.

One of the best things that can be said about good policy, I think, is that it drives out the kind of irresponsible and sometimes mean-spirited policies that harm students, dismay teachers, and destroys public education.

But while good policy can move the education system in the right direction, it cannot ensure the quality of day-to-day improvement efforts in schools.

For that, skillful administrative and teacher leadership is essential.

Frederick Hess writes: “Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.”

Hess adds: “Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. That’s why I’m a school reformer. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

“School reform isn’t about having good ideas—it’s about how those ideas actually work for students and educators. This can be hard for those gripped by a burning desire to make the world a better place in a hurry….

“Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied.”

For example, policy may mandate:

• Evidence-based forms of professional development for all teachers and administrators (a good idea), but not the quality of professional learning that ensues from it and whether that learning leads to sustained improvements in teaching.

• Mentors or instructional coaches for new teachers (good ideas), but not the quality of the mentoring or coaching experience for all new teachers.

• That instructional teams or professional learning communities exist in schools (good ideas), but not the quality of their deliberations nor the results of that work on teaching and learning.

Ultimately, the effective implementation of such policies requires motivated, skillful leadership by administrators and teacher leaders. Such leadership can be set in motion by good policy, but it can be sustained only by enabling forces within school systems.

At the core of leaders’ work is the creation of school cultures of continuous improvement and teamwork, which, even under the best of circumstances, is a demanding responsibility.

While good policies are necessary, they are insufficient.

Policymakers may legislate, but ultimately it is the skillful, tedious, and often overwhelming day-to-day work of administrators and teachers that will determine the quality of teaching and learning for all students.

What is your experience with the effectiveness of local, state, and federal policies in improving teaching and learning for all students?

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?

5 “truths” about teaching as a career

Resilient teachers understand that:

1.Those who can simultaneously do many complex tasks, teach; those who can’t go elsewhere (or at least we hope that they do). Teaching is intellectually, emotionally, and physically demanding. When done well, is a career-long marathon, not a sprint.

2. It is better to teach as part of a high-functioning team than alone. Having respected and trusted colleagues, preferably as teammates, makes the intellectual, emotional, and physical requirements of teaching  sustainable across decades.

3. Continuously changing circumstances (student characteristics, curriculum, and so on) require new understandings, beliefs, and skills.

4. Therefore, teachers have a professional obligation throughout their careers to improve their knowledge and skills through deliberate practice and feedback from students and colleagues.

5. All of the above require skillful leadership on the part of both teachers and administrators, particularly in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

What have I missed?

“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?

Do you believe in epiphanies?

epiphany/[ih-pif-uh-nee] 

noun: a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you

Do you believe in epiphanies?

I do.

I’ve had them while doing things as diverse as walking or driving, reading or staring out the window, having a conversation, or even while listening to keynote speakers at conferences.

Sometimes someone said just the right thing to me at the right time.

But epiphanies are not a change strategy that I would count on for me, for others, or for organizations.

Few epiphanies alter what we think and how we behave on a daily basis.

While guidance and inspiration can be drawn from epiphanies, they are seldom sufficient to produce meaningful and lasting changes in beliefs, understandings, and behavior.

Such changes almost always require sustained learning about complex subjects that includes deep and often courageous conversations within a strong team or other community about the implications of the new ideas and practices and how to solve the inevitable problems that arise in their implementation.

Anything less is simply insufficient.

Nothing I am saying here is new. In fact, it is decades or even centuries old.

But, inexplicably, it is far from common knowledge, yet alone common practice, except, perhaps, by resilient people.

Two questions:

What epiphanies, if any, have made a lasting difference in what you think and do?

In your experience, what structures (like teams or learning communities and dedicated time for them to meet) enable epiphanies to become standard practice?

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a wonderful 2018….

What is your story?

For many years I had the privilege of interviewing leading educators regarding their views on various aspects of professional learning for articles that were published in NSDC’s (now Learning Forward) JSD (now The Learning Professional).

They were educators whose ideas have proved resilient over the intervening decades (Michael Fullan and Peter Senge, for example), and the stories they shared, sometimes couched in technical terms, about how individuals learn and organizations change demonstrated the link between resilience, influence, and storytelling.

The stories these “influencers” told often revealed the people, experiences, and values that animated both their personal and professional lives.

Here is such a story from my life:

Early in my teaching career I attended an inspiring and practical 3-day workshop on what was then called “mastery teaching.” My big “take away” was that virtually all students could learn virtually everything I wanted them to know given sufficient time and “correctives,” and that their improved grades would reflect that learning.

Soon after I returned to my school, however, I realized that to implement what I had learned I had to overcome a significant barrier in the form of my principal who believed that good teachers should distribute grades more or less on a normal-distribution curve slightly skewed to the high side to show that we were making a positive difference.

His strongly-held belief posed a problem – how would I give grades that he would accept that would also reflect the higher-levels of learning I anticipated in my classroom?

We met, and he decided to allow an experiment with one of my classes if I brought all student work to him for review for the remainder of the school year. (The experiment concluded at the end of the school year when I moved on to another assignment.)

Over the years I told that story many times to illustrate:

• The power of beliefs to shape professional practice.

• That unless professional development addressed the existing beliefs of teachers and administrators the innovations would flounder and likely fail.

Stories can shape attitudes (often unconsciously), bond groups, teach important lessons, and provide guidance and motivation.

They can be used in:

• classrooms

• faculty meetings

• family gatherings

• with friends

What stories have you used or might you use to teach, guide, or motivate?

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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