Posts Tagged ‘Learning Forward’

Learning Forward Keynote: Autonomy, Accountability, and Professional Learning

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Given the opportunity to speak at the Learning Forward Summer Conference, I asked myself, what would be the message I would consider most important to share with a large audience of educational leaders?  I decided that I should make my case that autonomy and accountability are both an important part of professional learning.

In my opinion, professional development that “holds teachers accountable” but doesn’t respect teachers as professionals and recognize their need for autonomy will not succeed. At the same time, professional development that honors teacher professionalism and autonomy but is not accountable will not succeed.  Effective professional development requires autonomy and accountability. To understand what this means, we need to answer two simple questions.

What is Autonomy?

For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to answer this question.  For me, when we respect teacher autonomy, we see teachers as full partners in their learning.  I’ve written about partnership principles that describe what such a partnership might look like.

You can download a research article about the partnership approach here

You can read more about the partnership principles and how they apply to presenting here

You can read an Ed Leadership article about partnership and coaching here

Voice:  If leaders and professional developers are going to honor teachers as professionals, then that begins with the simple notion that educators should have a say in what they do. Professional development that ignores the voices of teachers is dehumanizing.  However, when we seek out the truth and encourage others to speak, we engage in mutually humanizing professional learning.  Mr. Rogers is a great example of a person who truly wants other people to speak up and share their voice.

When professional development ignores teachers’ voices, it treats them like cogs in a machine, not people with knowledge, minds, and hearts.  Also, when leaders do not encourage teachers to speak up, they cut themselves off from the very people who spend most of their time with students, who in most cases know the most about students.

Equality:  The principle of equality is foundational to democracy, perhaps most clearly articulated in Martin Luther King’s magnificent I Have a Dream Speech, when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

Equality is about more than equal access and equity, though these are certainly important. Equality is about seeing others as of equal value to ourselves, seeing that others count as much as we do, and not seeing ourselves as better than others.

This is critical for leading change.  Edgar Schein in Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, argues that people are always judging whether or not they get the status they deserve, and when they don’t, people resist help. Schein writes:

All human relationships are about status positioning and what sociologists call “situational proprieties.”  It is human to want to be granted the status and position that we feel we deserve, no matter how high or low it might be, and we want to do what is situationally appropriate. We are either trying to get ahead or stay even, and we measure all interactions by how much we have lost or gained.

During interactions, Schein explains, leaders can take on the role of being a parent and put other adults in the role of being a child, or they can see interactions as an adult to adult conversation.  If leaders see themselves as parents, to the professionals in their school or system, they usually engender resistance.

Choice: If I see teachers as equals, then I don’t make choices for them. But choice is a nuanced principle for many reasons.

First, telling someone they must do something (and ignoring their autonomy) almost always engenders resistance. As Timothy Gallwey has written in The Inner Game of Work: Focus, Learning, Pleasure, and Mobility in the Workplace, “when you insist, I will resist.” Ignoring a teacher’s professionalism and giving them no choice will often lead to resistance.

Second, choice does not mean that there are no non-negotiables.  In any organization dedicated to public service, there are going to be some things that have to happen.  The challenge is to respect teacher autonomy and clarify non-negotiables.

Third, as  Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar have explained, too many choices is no better than no choice. Sheena Iyengar gave a famous Ted Talk where she explains her research on the topic:

Reflection: Choice is essential for reflection, of course because if I just have to do what I’m told, I don’t get to do much thinking. Reflection is largely about thinking about how I will do something.  Thomas Davenport in his book Thinking For a Living provides a second important reason for encouraging reflection.  Davenport used surveys and interviews to study knowledge workers, people like teachers, who think for a living.  He found that the defining characteristic of knowledge workers is a need for autonomy.  Knowledge workers are paid to reflect, and when someone else does the thinking for them, knowledge workers resist. Davenport writes

Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

Dialogue:  Dialogue is the natural mode of discourse for partners.  During dialogue, I want to hear what you have to say, I want to engage in a mutually humanizing conversation in which we use words to think together.

I’ve written about Paulo Freire’s conditions for dialogue in other posts on this blog. They include humility, faith, hope, love .

What is Accountability?

For me, accountability means only conducting professional learning that makes meaningful, significant improvements.  When educators are accountable, their professional learning has an unmistakable impact on student learning.  In this way, educators are accountable to the process and especially accountable to children, parents, other stakeholders, and the profession of teaching.  Furthermore, at the individual or school level, accountability is a genuine commitment to learning and growth on the part of every educator, a recognition that to have learning students, we need learning teachers, coaches, and administrators who are also learning.

Robert Fritz has explained in The Path of Least Resistance about growth coming from a creative tension between a clear picture of current reality and a goal. Peter Senge nicely summarized Fritz’s ideas in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline

The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call creative tension: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution.  The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.

Current Reality: Getting a clear picture of reality is not that easy.  We misunderstand our personal reality because of habituation, confirmation bias, our inherent desire to feel competent, and other reasons.  (One study, for example, found that 93% of US drivers judge themselves above average).   For these reasons, real change begins with getting a clear picture of reality.  This can be done in many ways.

Video recording your class:  Learning Forward members can read an article about video and professional learning here

Gathering data:  I’ve written on this blog about gathering data on positive interactions, questions, learning time and student engagement. Many other data points could be gathered as well.

Looking at student work: Rigorously analyzing student work can also provide a clear picture of reality.

Setting a Goal: Effective goals are objective (that is you’ll be certain you have hit the goal when you hit it), measurable, and based on student learning (e.g. results on formative assessments), behavior (e.g. number of disruptions), or attitude (number of students who write about reading in their journals). A good book summarizing the power of goals is Heath & Heath’s Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Instructional Coaching: One way to combine autonomy and accountability is through instructional coaching.

You can read a column about goal setting and instructional coaching here

You can download a study of the impact of instructional coaching here

You can download an article describing what instructional coaches do here

Creating An Impact School:  Another way to combine autonomy and accountability is to create an impact school.

You can download a presentation on the creating an impact school from Learning Forward 2012 here:

The book describing the impact process is Unmistakable Impact.

To sum up, teachers want to make a difference, and when their autonomy is respected and they are given the tools to make a difference, they will.  Teachers like Michael Covarrubias recognize that they are the ones that can ultimately have a profound impact on students:

You can see my full conversation with Michael on The Teaching Channel

Six Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaching

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Dennis Sparks is one of our generation’s most influential educational leaders. His guidance of the National Staff Development Council, now Learning Forward, established it as the world’s leading organization for professional development. His books especially Leading for Results and Leadership 180: Daily Meditations for School Leaders, are packed with wise, practical advice, concisely articulated. His blog pushes, inspires, and educates me, and I highly recommend it.

For all these reasons, I was honored when Dennis asked my to write a guest post for his blog. My column, “Six Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaching,” begins as follows:

Instructional coaching has the potential to dramatically improve teaching practice and consequently student learning. But in most cases, a coach’s success is directly connected to how effectively she or he is supported (or not supported) by his or her principal. After working with hundreds of schools where coaches have succeeded and struggled, I’ve found that there are six actions principals can do that will make or break instructional coaching success.

You can read the rest of the column or subscribe to Dennis’s blog here

Steve Jobs, Radical Learner: How Teachers Can Think Different

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

For Steve Jobs, Think Different was more than just an incredibly successful marketing campaign. According to Carmine Gallo, “think different” was an essential part of Jobs’ creativity.

Many radical learners embrace the “think different” goal, so it should not be surprising to hear it was the fictional radical learner, John Keating–played by Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society–that inspired Rob Siltanen when he wrote the original copy of the Think Different campaign. In a fascinating column for Forbes magazine, Siltanen explains how Dead Poet Society influenced his initial copy.

The emotion and the context of the movie [Dead Poet Society] very much related to what I wanted to capture for Apple. Below are some key passages from “Dead Poets” that resonated with me and ultimately served as inspiration for the Apple script.
“We must constantly look at things in a different way. Just when you think you know something, you must look at it in a different way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try. Dare to strike out and find new ground.”
“Despite what anyone might tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Poetry, beauty, love, romance. These are what we stay alive for. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

How, then, can teachers “think different”? Steve Jobs, as described by Carmine Gallo in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, offers some advice:

Explore: To see things differently, we need to see more things. Jobs consciously put himself in different experiences, traveling to exotic locations, learning about topics that had very little to do with his work, and surrounding himself with creative people from a wide-range of fields: artists, musicians, architects, and poets.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, cited in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, explains why exploring is vitally important:

Breakthroughs come from a perceptual system that is confronted with something that it doesn’t know how to interpret. Unfamiliarity forces the brain to discard its usual categories of perception and create new ones.

Exploration doesn’t require a passport. We can see differently by exploring all kinds of new experiences–going to opera if we’ve never listened to classical music, going to the Grand Ole’ Opry if we listen to Mozart more than we listen to Merle. We can explore new books, new fields of endeavor, new magazines or communities of learners.

Experiment: “Successful innovators,” Gallo writes, “engage in ‘active’ experimentation, whether it’s intellectual exploration, physical tinkering, or seeking new surroundings.”

The classroom is a perfect place to “think different” because each new day, new semester, new year is an opportunity to be better. To trot out the same lessons year after year is a recipe for personal boredom. We need to be learners if we want our students to be learners, and some of the most exciting new ideas in education today, (like the Flipped Classroom or Kahn Academy) are the result of innovative thinkers experimenting to find better ways for children to learn.

Network: Gallo writes, “Steve Jobs does not attend many conferences, but he connects with others outside of technology to widen his perspective.” Part of Jobs’ ability to think different came from his pursuit of people outside his field.

Educators can also learn from networks. They can participate in conferences (such as Learning Forward), nings (such as The Big Four Ning), or other online groups (such as the educoach virtual learning community) and learn from their colleagues in their school or district.

Like Jobs, they can also look outside traditional networks. They can contact the thinkers who most interest them and see if they’ll agree to interviews. They can also learn a lot by talking with the professionals and accomplished workers in their community. The local orthodontist or hair stylist could teach us a lot about learning if we listen for what they have to offer.

Observe: “Innovators,” Gallo writes, “watch people carefully.” Certainly these observations can occur in schools, and an enormous amount can be learned by watching other teachers in the classrooms or online on sites like the Teaching Channel. We can also learn a great deal by watching our own teaching by video recording the class and watching our own lessons.

Some observations can also take place outside the school. The world is full of learning opportunities. Just in the past week I watched someone get coaching at the Apple Store, watched my Mom learn how to use an iPad, and I tried to master Evernote watching Youtube videos. Learning surrounds us everyday, and by watching we can learn a lot about how to increase our students’ learning.

One thing remains constant at the heart of Jobs’ creative work and the creative work of teaching: The restlessness of the curious mind. Innovation may involve some secrets, but more than anything else it is the desire to know and do more. For teachers, this creative work makes our work so much more interesting, and it can mean the world for students.

Teachers as Leaders of Classroom Teams

Monday, January 10th, 2011

This is a guest column by Dennis Sparks Emeritus Executive Director of the National Staff Development Council, now known as Learning Forward and author of many publications about education, including his outstanding book Leading for Results: Transforming Teaching, Learning, and Relationships in Schools.

In every highly-effective classroom we study, we find a teacher who, like any great leader rallies team members (in this case, students and their families) around an ambitious vision of success.  . . . Without exception, these teachers define their role as doing whatever it takes to ensure their students’ success.

Steven Farr, December 2010/January 2011 EL

Sometimes it is the simple acts that are the most radical. That’s because their successful execution requires the most radical kind of learning — the development of new paradigms that affect how individuals view the world and the acquisition of understandings and skills that guide their actions in implementing the new paradigm. In this case, I’m thinking of teachers adopting a conceptual frame in which they view themselves as leaders of teams of students and their families and developing the knowledge and skills required to be successful team leaders.

In this new paradigm, teachers see themselves as leaders of cooperative student teams rather than as instructors of individual students who compete with one another for grades and their teacher’s attention. In such classrooms, all students and their families feel responsible for the success of every student and do everything in their power to ensure it. Teachers design meaningful, engaging academic work for student teams and explicitly teach their students essential interpersonal skills, including those of peer mediation and other group-based processes to settle disputes and address classroom discipline issues.

This radically different view of teaching requires that school leaders interact with teachers in new ways. Teacher performance evaluation would be less about a teacher’s “moves” and more about the quality of the academic work that teachers design for student teams and the strength of the teamwork displayed within their classrooms. Leaders would have frequent conversations with teachers about the features of meaningful, engaging academic work and the attributes of high-functioning teams. Formal professional learning would also address the understandings and skills required to design such student work and to lead classroom and family teams, among other topics.

In addition, if teachers are to be successful leaders of classroom teams, it is essential, I believe, that they themselves are active participants in strong, school-based collegial teams that have as their purpose the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Through their own experiences with team-based learning teachers will better understand the challenges and benefits of meaningful teamwork and be motivated to ensure that those benefits are available to all members of the school community.

Viewing teachers as leaders responsible for the development of high-functioning classroom teams will in many schools be a radical departure from the traditional “sage on the stage” paradigm. It will require extensive learning by doing and sustained, substantive professional conversations within teacher teams and between teachers and their leaders. Such an approach—deeply embedded within the culture of schools—is in my view an example of “radical learning” at its best.