Posts Tagged 'Dennis Sparks'

Why it’s important to value “inward participation” in learning

Dennis Sparks

I tell my students that much as I value dialogue, I affirm their right not to participate overtly in the conversation – as long as I have the sense, and occasional verbal reassurance, that they are participating inwardly. This permission not to speak seems to evoke speech from people who are normally silent… – Parker Palmer

It makes sense that teachers of students of all ages value the outward, verbal participation of learners in class discussions.

Unfortunately, inward participation, which often occurs in the “spaces” during which learners are encouraged to slow down and to think more deeply about the subject at hand, is often less valued.

Fast-moving conversations often leave some participants (particularly introverts) far behind as they continue to ponder points that were made several minutes before.

Inward participation in learning is the difference between “raw opinion,” which is often evoked in “instant polls,” and “considered judgment,” when individuals are given an opportunity for extended deliberation regarding the meaning and implications of various courses of action.

Unfortunately, opportunities for considered judgment are rare in many classrooms and professional development activities. (I write more here about using “white spaces” to improve learning and relationships.)

Everyone benefits when participants in professional conversations or learning activities are provided with opportunities to formulate a point of view on the subject at hand, particularly if it is something to which they previously had not given much thought.

When leaders validate and provide generous amounts of time for inward participation, the more deliberative, thoughtful, and sometimes reticent individuals in a group are more likely to share their unique and often significant contributions.

When it is important for individuals and groups to explore a topic in depth—which is often the case in significant matters of teaching, learning, and leadership—everyone benefits from “think time” which enables the inward participation in learning that Parker Palmer recommends.

What types of participation in learning are most helpful to you as a learner, and how do you encourage, support, and demonstrate to your students—of whatever age—a respect for their inward participation in learning?

The creation of a collaborative culture requires skillful leadership

Dennis Sparks

Teacher isolation is so deeply ingrained in the traditional fabric of schools that leaders cannot simply invite teachers to create a collaborative culture. They must identify and implement specific, strategic interventions that help teachers work together rather than alone. —Richard DuFour

If the goal is quality teaching in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then it is essential that principals and teacher leaders create a high-performance culture which has professional learning and meaningful teamwork at its core.

The creation and maintenance of such a culture against the forces of entropy require intentional, skillful leadership. It does not happen by accident.

Successful principals and teacher leaders are clear about the attributes of such cultures and take daily actions to promote them.

They understand, for instance, the importance of:

  • and promise keeping (we understand that continuous progress requires making and keeping our promises to one another).

In your experience, what specific, strategic interventions help teachers work together rather than alone?

Just do it…

Dennis Sparks

School communities, like all organizations and individuals, sometimes have difficulty generating and sustaining energy to maintain a collective course of action over many months and years.

For the most part, a school community’s energy and momentum is determined by the energy and momentum of its leaders.

Compelling goals that touch the head and heart are essential to sustaining energy, as is strong, interdependent teamwork that generates a stream of continuous actions to achieve those goals.

Well-targeted and well-executed actions, in turn, generate more energy. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions,” someone once observed. That’s particularly true when those actions are followed by an analysis of their effectiveness and appropriate adjustments are made.

Because initiating action is a major challenge for many individuals and groups, Skip Prichard in a blog post offers a number of tips for individuals who are challenged by getting started, among the most important of which is:

Stop, get up, and do it. Turn yourself into a doer. A doer is someone who has an idea and moves forward with it immediately. Have you ever said to anyone, “It is a great day to go to the beach,” and then sat around and watched TV? Next time stop, get up, and go do it. Do you want to begin exercising or present a new idea at work? Do it today. When we pause and wait, we lose the will to move forward and allow doubt to creep into our minds.”

Pritchard concludes: “The simple truth is that one average idea put into action is far more valuable than 20 genius ideas that are being saved for some other day or the right time. When you have an idea or make a decision, get into the habit of taking action.”

What methods do you use to initiate and sustain goal-directed action over time?

Overcoming professional isolation

Dennis Sparks

Instead of inviting teachers to watch one another teach, to debate best classroom practices, and to pool resources, the school culture walls them off and parcels out their time. It actually promotes professional distance. —Mary Ann Smith

Meaningful collaboration will not occur unless administrators and teacher leaders address common structural barriers such as lack of:

• time,

• meeting space conducive to extended conversation,

• data and other forms of evidence to use in making decisions and assessing progress toward goals, and

• skillful facilitation of team meetings.

Common cultural barriers to successful collaboration include:

• confusion about important goals and methods of achieving them,

• a lack of focus and motivation regarding those goals and methods,

• the absence of shared beliefs regarding students’ ability and the school’s capacity to achieve those goals, and

• low levels of interpersonal trust among educators.

What structures and attributes of school culture have proven essential in overcoming professional isolation in your setting?

Why professional reading is necessary, but not sufficient

Dennis Sparks

In some school systems a particular book takes hold for several months and everyone seems to be reading and talking about it. The following school year it is another book, and so on.

The ideas and practices recommended in those books are seldom deeply understood, and seldom implemented, no matter how substantial and important they may be.

While I value the intellectual stimulation professional reading provides, I am aware that it can be a distraction from the sustained and challenging daily work of meaningful change.

Just as leaders sometimes confuse activity with accomplishment, it is easy to confuse reading with the disciplined, sustained actions that are necessary to achieve important goals.

Put another way, while reading can be an important source of professional learning and a stimulus for change, it is far from sufficient.

Professional reading can, however, be an essential first step in a series of steps to produce meaningful change when leaders engage the school community in identifying within its reading the most powerful, compelling, and actionable ideas that are closely linked to the system or school’s most important goals.

To that end, leaders:

• with others, determine among the many ideas and practices they acquire through reading those most worthy of further exploration,

deepen the conversation in the system or school about those ideas and practices so that they are thoroughly understood and their merits carefully considered, and

patiently and persistently engage in the demanding and never-ending work of changing habits of mind and practice so that teaching and learning continuously improve for the benefit of all students.

In what ways can professional reading be integrated into the process of continuous improvement?

Shaping a culture of continuous improvement

Dennis Sparks

Building an improved professional culture is possible by developing teachers’ capacities to work with teacher teams on shared beliefs, academic focus, and productive relationships. — Jon Saphier, Matt King, & John D’Auria

Jon Saphier and colleagues have condensed a great deal of meaning into one sentence.

  • Administrators and teacher leaders have a fundamental responsibility to create a professional culture that continuously improves teaching and learning for the benefit of all students and ensures that all members of the school community — students, parents, teachers, and administrators — are surrounded by supportive relationships.  Culture building is a challenging and never-ending task that cannot be delegated nor ignored.
  • Leadership and teaching practices are shaped and sometimes determined by shared beliefs about students’ capacity for learning and teachers’ ability to successfully teach them.
  • The primary means of continuous improvement is strong teamwork founded on trusting, productive relationships. Those relationships require constant tending to avoid the decline that is inevitable if they are ignored.

What, If anything, did Saphier and his colleagues overlook?

The essential ingredients of a wonderful job…

Dennis Sparks

Some educators feel like they have the best jobs in the world. Others find that their work drains rather than sustains them.

In my experience, “best jobs” have several essential ingredients:

• A compelling, stretching purpose that demands the best of us and our colleagues each day,

• Talents that are well used and continuously developed,

• Clear expectations for performance,

• Open and honest communication with colleagues and supervisors within trusting relationships, and

• Colleagues who support and challenge us as they encourage us to bring our best selves to work each day.

What have I missed?


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