Posts Tagged ‘Peter Senge’

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

Teacher Observations, Teacher Evaluation, and Shame

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Shame … is like an exposed nerve on a wisdom tooth, something to be avoided at all costs.

The shadow of shame kills art.

Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly

Getting a clear picture of reality is an essential part of professional growth. When teachers look at video of their lessons or review their students’ work, they can identify professional learning goals and plans that can have a real, positive impact on students’ learning experiences. And clearly understanding current reality, as Robert Fritz and Peter Senge have explained, is a critical part of the creative tension that stands at the heart of growth. Senge writes:

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.

Teacher observation, therefore, should be a good thing — a way to set up the creative tension Senge describes. Unfortunately this is not always the case. When teacher observations are used solely to show what teachers have done wrong and point out their deficiencies, observations can actually make things much worse, rather than better.

I saw this first-hand in a large US school district where I was invited to lead a workshop on effective teaching. I was asked to present to an entire faculty in a middle school that was at the heart of a high-poverty urban community.

Before I gave my presentation, an important person from the central office stopped in to address the group. “I have looked at the scores for your school,” he said. “They’re not bad scores. Do you know what they are? They are shameful scores. You should be ashamed of these scores. We’re not going to fire you,” he said. “There are worse things than firing.”

And then, I suppose, to ensure that the group would listen to my presentation, he said, “Now here is Jim Knight to tell you what you need to do.”

That was my introduction.

How enthusiastic do you think the teachers were about embracing the ideas in my presentation? The truth is they were so overcome with emotion, they probably didn’t hear much of anything I said. But what they did hear, they hated. Yes, they might implement the practices to comply and keep their jobs, but they didn’t implement the practices out of love. They did so out of fear and shame, and no doubt their students felt that same fear and shame in their classrooms when their teachers did what they felt they had to do.

There are at least two ways of looking at teacher observations. One way is to try and motivate teachers, as this administrator tried to do, by shaming people to act. In The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin explains how shame can be a soul killer, and destroy the creative imagination at the heart of any artist:

When those in power use shame to bully the weak into compliance, they are stealing from us. They tell us that they will expose our secrets (not good enough, not hardworking enough, not from the right family, made a huge mistake once) and will use the truth to exile us from our tribe.

This shame, the shame that lives within each of us, is used as a threat. And when those in power use it, they take away part of our humanity.

An alternative to shaming teachers is to start with the assumption that most people actually do want to do what is best and learn. No doubt, teachers who have experienced years of soul-crushing evaluations and compulsory, top-down professional learning will struggle to trust others when those others start to treat them as partners in their own development. But, my experience has shown, when teachers are authentically respected, they embrace real learning opportunities.

If teachers are offered meaningful choices, if their knowledge and expertise are acknowledged, if teachers have a voice in what they do, and if they are partners in developing their professional learning, they will blow you away with what they can do. (I have written about a partnership approach to professional learning in Unmistakable Impact.)

Shame might get teachers to comply, but shame doesn’t inspire teachers to passionately and imaginatively strive to do their best for students.

This, then, is the question: What kind of teachers do we want for our children? Do we want teachers who use every ounce of their creative imagination to reach their students, or do we want teachers who are shamed into complying with decisions they had no part in?

We know what we want. How we use teacher observation data and teacher evaluation has a huge impact on what we get.

Becoming More Human Through One to One Conversations

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

I wasn’t a very good student when I was in high school.  Rightly or wrongly, I saw many school rules as unnecessary power trips, only in place to keep me in place. I did my best to fight those rules at every turn.

But I did worse things than fight the rules. One of the worst was treating teachers cruelly, especially when I was part of a group.   Cruelty is easier when you do it with others.

One teacher I treated very poorly was Miss Stumpf, a newly minted English teacher.  In Miss Stumpf’s class I took every opportunity to communicate that I didn’t care. I went into her class an alienated teenager, looking for ways to sabotage whatever learning experience she had planned.

One day I was walking home tired after a tough football practice (we always had tough practices after we lost, and we always lost) and Miss Stumpf drove by, stopped, and asked me if I wanted a ride. (This was back in the early 70s when teachers still felt safe making such simple offers.)  I was very happy to not have to walk, and I accepted the ride.

Something amazing happened when we talked. I found myself speaking with her in the same way I would talk to my friends or family.  In a matter of seconds, literally, my understanding of her was transformed. In the midst of our friendly interaction I realized that she really cared about my success.  I realized too, that the teacher that I had treated so terribly was just as real a person as I was and certainly a lot nicer.

From that day forward I had a different relationship with Miss Stumpf. The reason why was simple: I now saw her as a real person.

My experience with Miss Stumpf exemplifies something Martin Buber talks about in I and Thou.  When we see others as objects, we can do terrible things to them simply because we don’t recognize that they are real.  Of course we know that they literally are just as human as we are, but we don’t see them having the same feelings as we do.  When we see people as real, however, as subjects, we see them as fellow human beings. Seeing through empathetic eyes rather than cold dehumanizing eyes transforms our relationships with others.

One of the simplest ways to move from being an object to a subject is to do what Miss Stumpf did, to have one to one conversations.  I’ve written about one to one conversations as an important part of instructional coaching, but I see them as important relationship-builders in all settings, and especially in the classroom.

We can (and I think should) make one to one conversations a ritual of our classrooms. They can be scheduled through out the school year. They might be scheduled informally outside of class, or formally, in class while all other students are engaged in an activity that doesn’t require teacher direction.

One to one conversations could focus on student progress, but they can also focus on our progress. We can ask children for feedback on what is and isn’t working for their learning. What matters in these simple exchanges is that we try to connect with our students and reveal ourselves as real.

Organizational theorist Peter Senge has written a comment that I love: “the way forward is about becoming more human, not just more clever.” Senge’s words are just as meaningful in the classroom as they are in the boardroom.  And one way we can become more human is through more one-to-one conversations.

Why Radical? Why Learner?

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Look up radical at, and you will see that when used as an adjective the word refers to “going to the root,” “fundamental,” or “thorough or extreme especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms.” Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary describes radical as “going to the root or origin, touching or acting upon what is essential and fundamental … especially radical change.”

According to, as a noun radical can refer to “a person who holds or follows strong convictions or extreme principles,” or “a person who advocates fundamental … reforms by direct and often uncompromising methods.” These definitions, especially root and reform, help us understand the concept of a radical learner.

Root: So what then is the root, the origin, the fundamentals of a radical learner?  The root is learning.  The root is an uncompromising desire to create opportunities for students to learn.  The root is a deep recognition that learning is not just something we do as a means to an end; it is as central to living a healthy life as breathing, eating, and drinking. Learning is not what we do; learning is who we are.

More than two decades ago Peter Senge, talking about learning organizations, wrote the following:

Deep down, we are all learners. No one has to teach an infant how to learn.  In fact, no one has to teach infants anything. They are intrinsically inquisitive, masterful learners who learn to walk, speak and pretty much run their households all on their own … not only is it our nature to learn but we love to learn.

Radical learners know at their core that not only do their students’ lives depend on them becoming vibrant, growing learners, but their own lives depend on them being vibrant, growing learners. To learn each day is to live each day; it is as simple as that!

Reform: What then is the fundamental reform referred to in the definition of radical?  In this context, the reform is to transform our students’ learning experiences into ones where students are inspired to learn and not coerced into simply passing tests. The reform is to respect and excite students with possibilities rather than controlling and enforcing them so we stay in control.  The reform is to celebrate creativity, joy, and fun, not to enforce behaviors such as handing things in on time, being obedient in class, and following instructions.

But reform, too, means standing up for learning – fighting the dominant culture if it is against learning. More than anything else, to be a radical learner means to fight for learning by being learners ourselves.  By showing the power of learning through our own actions, we can inspire our students, our peers, and our leaders to realize how great our schools can be.  Are you a radical learner? If so, this site is for you.

You represent the potential every school holds to become an authentic home for learning. As such, you are the person who can help your school realize that potential.