Posts Tagged 'school leadership'

When questions are a barrier to inquiry

Dennis

One reason we ask questions is because we want information.

Another reason is to promote deeper exploration of a subject.

Some kinds of questions promote such exploration while others do not.

“Honest, open questions,” to borrow a phrase from Parker Palmer, invite inquiry. For example: “What are some things you might do to solve the problem you are having with your friend?”

Questions that clearly have “right answers” or are really disguised statements often thwart inquiry (“closed, directive questions”). For example: “Don’t you think you should call your friend to find out why he said that?”

Many of us have not had the opportunity to learn how to phrase honest, open questions – that is, questions that cause further inquiry and deepen relationships.

We may ask questions to steer the direction of the conversation rather than to truly seek to understand the views of others or to extend their thinking.

We may ask questions that narrow the focus of thinking rather than expand it.

Closed, directive questions often cause people to feel they are being manipulated, which breeds distrust and cynicism.

In addition, people whose habit it is to ask closed, directive questions often perceive honest, open questions through the lens of manipulation, suspecting ulterior motives and becoming defensive.

Good questions stimulate thinking on the part of both the person who asks and the person who answers. They deepen understanding and open up previously unexplored areas for conversation.

Individuals involved in such conversations feel like they have learned something about themselves, each other, and the subject at hand. In addition, they feel respected and understood.

Examine your questions. Do they promote honest inquiry or directly or indirectly tell people what to think and do?

In your experience, what types of questions deepen inquiry and improve relationships?

“I had Madeline Hunter”

Dennis

In the 1980s when Madeline Hunter was a prominent “presenter” of effective teaching workshops I heard so many people say “I had Madeline Hunter” that I used to joke that I felt obligated to call her husband.

It remains common for participants in workshops to say that they “had” whatever the presenter or content happened to be.

But they would say far less often what they had learned from that person or content and how it changed what they did.

Unfortunately, too many leaders continue to believe that the core learning process of teaching and professional development is the “delivery” of information, and that once the information has been transmitted, the teaching or the professional development is complete.

Those leaders are likely to believe that their professional development responsibilities are discharged when they have provided an activity — that is, provided a speaker or offered a workshop.

Professional development, in their view, is simply a box to be checked, a responsibility to be discharged.

At a minimum participants in any learning event should be able to say:

• I had (or did)…

• From that I learned…

• Because of that learning I changed the habit of…

• Because I changed that habit I saw the following results…

However, just as teaching is not complete until student learning has occurred, professional learning has not occurred until educators have deepened their understanding, honed their professional judgment, and/or altered their practice in ways that benefit students.

Administrators and teacher leaders play a major role in eliminating bad professional development by ensuring professional learning that truly benefits students.

But they are not alone in that responsibility.

Therefore, I propose that consultants or presenters or speakers “JUST SAY NO” when invited to do things they know will not make a difference.

One way to address this problem, from the perspective of both school leaders and consultants, is to pay consultants based on results, not time. 

What would be the benefits?

• Conversations preceding consultants’ work would be deeper and more concrete.

• Absolute clarity would be required about measurable outcomes on the part of consultants and school leaders, which is seldom the case now.

• Vague statements of purpose such as “inspire teachers” or “motivate participants to try new things” or “introduce participants to new ideas” would no longer be acceptable. (If such purposes are deemed essential because of the local context, I recommend that no more than 5% of professional development time be given to such activities.)

Once clear outcomes were agreed upon school leaders and consultants would have to determine if the learning processes they intended to use were sufficiently robust to achieve those outcomes.

Vague or modest goals and weak learning methods would alert school leaders and consultants that their plans were flawed and that precious professional development resources were being squandered. 

What do you think about paying consultants for results? Is it an idea whose time has come?

Skillful leadership

Dennis

Early in my professional development career I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching. I enjoyed those conversations except when…

Teachers were angry, cynical, or otherwise emotionally unsuited to have such conversations. Without exception, those teachers were…

Poorly led. They were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three. Over time that led me to…

Focus my work on leaders, particularly principals and teacher leaders because their skillful leadership was essential to meaningful teacher professional learning, particularly the kind of professional learning that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

• The emotional tone of a school.

• Whether the school’s culture focuses on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning for all students or on maintaining the status quo.

• Whether teachers primarily work in isolation or benefit from strong, effective teamwork.

What is your experience? Is it possible to have continuous improvements in teaching and learning for all students without skillful leadership?

High-quality professional development matters

Dennis

The bad news is that professional development for most teachers has never been very good. The same is true for administrators, which may explain the low-quality of teacher professional development.

The good news is that professional development can get a lot better quite quickly.

All that’s required is that administrators and teacher leaders commit themselves to high-quality professional learning and engage the school community in an extended study (but not too long) of the professional development literature that includes generous amounts of honest conversation about current reality and meaningful next steps.

Here are a few important and still relevant posts from recent years on professional development:

“The biggest problem in professional development is…”

“The biggest problem in professional development is that administrators and teachers significantly underestimate the amount of effort and time required to create the new habits of mind and behavior that are necessary to provide high-quality teaching and learning for all students.”

“Finding the third way…”

“The third way involves finding the appropriate blend of team-based learning/collaboration within the school in which all teachers participate and individualized approaches, including the use of social/learning media, for improving the knowledge and skills of teachers to provide tailored solutions for their unique challenges.”

“Mindless professional learning…”

“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.”

“Why the distinction between professional learning and professional development is important”

“Professional development in schools refers to the processes used in promoting professional learning and the context and other resources that support it.

Professional learning refers to the outcomes – what is learned, how deeply it is learned, and how well it is applied in classrooms. It is about changes in what teachers and leaders think, say, and do on a consistent basis.”

“Why professional development without substantial follow up is malpractice”

“‘[H]ead learning’ abstracted from practice without abundant opportunities for supportive on-the-job feedback and trouble shooting wastes the organization’s resources and squanders teachers’ good will. Such malpractice is not only an ethical lapse, but is immoral when students’ learning and well being are negatively affected.”

“6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development”

“Powerful professional development has as its primary and overarching purpose the creation of professional learning that affects what teachers believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis for the benefit of all students.”

“Why doesn’t professional development improve?”

“Some schools are exemplars of high-quality professional learning and teamwork, but they remain the exceptions rather than the rule. While barriers such as lack of time and other resources are often cited as problems, I think there are four deeper, more fundamental explanations for why professional development has not fulfilled its essential role in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.”

Practice the habit of self-reflection

Dennis Sparks

[A]s leaders, we all have an obligation to engage in self-reflection lest we lead unconsciously or mindlessly. . . . Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Now that I am old enough to amend Socrates instead of merely quoting him, I want to add one thing, for the record: if you decide to live an unexamined life, please do not take a job that involves other people. —Parker Palmer

School leaders do not have the luxury of living unexamined lives, as Parker Palmer points out.

The creation of schools in which both young people and adults thrive requires that leaders frequently reflect on their most important purposes and the methods they use to reach those goals.

Leaders and the schools they lead benefit when leaders examine, preferably in writing, the alignment of their broader purposes and values with the daily activities of both their personal and professional lives.

Leaders who think deeply about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and the effects their actions have on others not only improve their effectiveness but model for the school community the value of such reflection.

Because of the cyclical nature of schooling, each new school year offers the possibility of a new beginning. That means that the summer months provide an extended opportunity for many educators to engage in deep reflection on their values, goals, and methods.

Take a moment today to reflect on the congruence between your values and actions. Consider making it a daily habit, if it is not one already, and use whatever opportunities the summer provides for extended reflection.

Why doesn’t professional development improve?

Dennis Sparks

During the four decades that I have been involved in the field of professional development my aspiration was that every teacher and principal in every school would learn every day from their colleagues, students, and supervisors.

I wasn’t thinking of the kind of professional development in which an “expert” speaks to teachers, although that might have been a small part of it, but the kind of rich professional learning that arises from the close observation of students, meaningful collaboration with colleagues, and deep, sustained evidence-based conversations about important subjects.

Unfortunately, as I have listened to successive generations of teachers and administrators complain about the poor quality of their “inservice” experiences it is clear that we remain a long way from achieving that goal.

For 40 years I have attended dozens of local, state, and national meetings in which solutions to this problem were sought. But in spite of those good intentions the quality of professional development remains at an unacceptably low level as it is implemented in the vast majority of schools and school systems.

There are exceptions, of course. Some schools are exemplars of high-quality professional learning and teamwork, but they remain the exceptions rather than the rule.

While barriers such as lack of time and other resources are often cited as problems, I think there are four deeper, more fundamental explanations for why professional development has not fulfilled its essential role in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning:

1. Some leaders’ have antiquated “mental models” regarding learning and change that impede progress.

• Some leaders, for example, believe that teaching is “telling” and that leading is “directing.” Therefore, “good” professional development, they believe, only requires a “speaker” who tells teachers what to do.

• Or, some leaders believe that the best way to improve teaching is through a combination of fear and incentives.  As a result, they use various carrots and sticks to “motivate” teachers. “Inservice” provided by motivational speakers often appeals to these leaders.

2. Some leaders don’t have a sufficiently deep understanding of the attributes of high-quality professional learning nor a carefully crafted “theory of action.”

• Administrators and teacher leaders often replicate the past because it is difficult for them to create what they’ve never experienced.

• Some leaders have not done the deep analysis required to create a “theory of action” that explains the steps that will be taken to achieve important goals and the assumptions behind those actions that lead leaders to believe they will produce the desired outcome. Without such an analysis continuous improvement efforts typically fail.

3. Some leaders are resigned to the status quo.

• Some leaders believe that they have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning in their schools.

• Some leaders believe that teachers’ engagement in meaningful professional development is someone else’s responsibility and that nothing can be done until those people assume their responsibility.

4. Some leaders lack the will and/or skill to engage in the challenging conversations that are almost always required to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Leaders are often reluctant to engage in such conversations because they:

• fear conflict,

• have a strong desire to be liked by others, and/or

• lack skill and experience in engaging in such conversations.

Do you agree that professional development for most teachers continues to be of low quality? 

If so, do you agree that these are the primary leadership barriers to significant improvement, or do you have others to suggest?

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

Dennis Sparks

“There’s an ego looking for a place to inflate,” my table mate at a Washington, DC meeting of high-level officials whispered to me as a prominent member of the education establishment entered the room, a prophecy that unfortunately soon proved itself to be true.

I was reminded of that meeting when Jean, a patient I was visiting in my role as a hospice volunteer, shared with me a simple but profound poem she had recently written:

“The long, dark corridor of life narrows at the end./ And those whose ego grew too tall will have to learn to bend.”

While Jean was describing the “long, dark corridor” of her own life as it narrowed in her 90s, her warning regarding egos that grow too tall without learning to bend also obviously applies to education leaders.

Signs that a leader’s ego has grown too tall include:

• Enjoying hearing himself or herself talk, usually at great length, rather than listening to others.

• Believing that he or she generally knows more than others, including being the only one with the wisdom to understand problems and how to solve them.

Ways in which leaders can learn to bend:

• Maintaining a “learner’s mind.” Leaders with such mindsets assume that they may not know what they don’t know.

• Recognizing that the perspectives of others are essential in identifying and solving problems.

That means that they seek first to understand by spending far more time listening than speaking.

• Remembering that while leaders have unique roles and responsibilities, those who are successful cultivate a community of equals rather than one of  privilege and hierarchy.

What have I missed?


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