How to Climb the Right Mountain…


Mountain Screen Shot 2017-03-28

Chugach Mountains Aleska

Note: This is developing into a series of “how to” posts. These will roughly follow Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on leadership, focusing on the three big steps in the development of followership. In earlier posts I’ve shared thinking and experiences about the components of followership.  I won’t thrash them into insignificance here; however, a concept that I  mentioned in the earlier pieces bears a bit of attention… beginning with WHY. Sinek points out that, while it is tempting to jump right in with what we should do and how we should do it, the clearer the sense of purpose is and the closer this can be integrated into the activities and practices of an organization, the greater the likelihood of high engagement. Thus, this series begins with some focus on that need. It continues, though, with a greater focus on “how” and “what”.

In my most recent post, I shared the analysis of the unintended consequences the “all in” approach to the standards/assessment reform agenda of the past several decades. What was new to this discussion was the opportunity to share the thoughts of Bernard Chan whose firsthand experience with the results of this direction in Asia provide us with a pretty interesting glimpse into the future of the current direction. As I noted, the picture isn’t a rosy one. As the Singapore experience demonstrates, there is a significant gap between the value of the learning demonstrated by the high performers in Asia and the needs of their society and that of the globalized and interconnected world.

My continued takeaway from this is that, even should we experience greater success with our current direction than we have to date, we still will not be preparing our students for the college and career readiness goals that we have defined as necessary for entry into a world which continues to experience huge shifts in the definition of readiness.

Almost 15 years ago (after my second failed attempt at retirement) when I began my new career as an educational consultant, I had the opportunity to focus on school improvement initiatives. In visiting schools and classrooms around the country and coaching for Rigor, Relevance and Relationships (the 3 R’s of the International Center for Leadership in Education with whom I worked), I frequently found myself suggesting that the teachers seemed to be working hard teaching students who were no longer in their classrooms. As my experiences grew, I began to notice that not only were we teaching kids who were significantly different than we were as students, we were teaching them things that were not preparing them for the world they were entering, regardless whether that was higher education or the workforce.

As the standards and assessment strategy continued to evolve during that time, we responded to continued disappointment with the failure of student achievement to grow at expected rates and, in response to that disappointment, we doubled down on these strategies. To this mix of ever more rigorous standards and ever more complex high stakes assessments, we added teacher ineffectiveness (and accompanying blame), new systems for rating both students, teachers, and schools, as well as a growing number of voices that heretically suggested that we had chosen not only the wrong approaches but, perhaps, even the wrong mountain. Sure we paid lip service to advances in learning theory which contested the wisdom of continued reliance on test and punish strategies. We even paid some attention to the impact of things like poverty, challenges faced by English language learners, etc. But, by and large, we continued and continue to this day to rely on strategies that have been demonstrated to be ineffective.

As the voices of dissent grew in volume and searched for alternatives, we saw opt out numbers grow, as did home schooling, on-line learning opportunities and unschooling options. This search continues, as do discussions about options, now complicated by growing acceptance of ideologically driven agendas, aimed not at improving public schools but in equating public schools with government and opening the door to “market driven solutions”.

So where the heck is this going?

While a superintendent, I was sometimes asked by employees a question that went something like, “What do I have to do to get this promotion?” After some years of being one of the “deciders” about such job promotions, I realized that there were cases in which I would be asking myself “why should I promote this person?” And there were other cases where the question was quite different, “How can I NOT promote this person?”

We are increasingly aware of parents asking a variation on that kind of question about our schools and the answer is the same. As school leaders, the only acceptable question for our parents to ask is, “How Can I NOT send my child to that school.” Any other question is a lose! As school leaders, we have a critical choice moving forward… what can we do in our schools so parents have only that one question, “How can I NOT send my child to that school?”

Addressing the “how” question…

And so to the questions at hand? How do I do create a culture of learning in my school in a way that never encourages parents to ask, “Why should I send my child to that school?” How do I help my school climb the right mountain?

Identifying the right mountain… The first part of this one is surprisingly easy. It’s easy because 90+% of the staff in your school know the answer. Ask them one question. “What do we wish for our kids? Specifically, what do we want our kids to know, to be able to do, and to be as a result of their time with us? I’ve done it enough to know the answers. I’m sure there will be a couple of “all of the important characters in Shakespeare’s plays” or “the seven causes of WWII” or “How do I solve a quadratic equation?”. But what I’m equally sure of is that there will be a strong consensus and high degree of frequency for things like kind, considerate, able to work with others, independent learners, flexible, organized, tolerant, problem solvers, etc.

Note: I prefer to do this as a part of a day devoted to this “compass work”. I’m a fan of public discussion about things with this level of importance. I like the idea of being able coach based on group determined goals and plans.

It’s the second part that is less easy and, often, embarrassing. It involves the development of belief statements and principles upon which we base our work. This is, by no means, a walk in the park. It involves deep and, not infrequently, heated discussions that surface the conflicts about what we (both as educators and as former students) have internalized about schooling, learning, and learners and what research (think Dewey, ) has been telling us.

One of the best summaries about the beliefs that have guided the development of our schools and the experiences of children within them is offered by Sir Ken Robinson in his now famous TED Talk, Changing Education Paradigms.

Robinson offers that our schools and schooling are organized around the following beliefs:

  • Schools serve both economic and cultural functions – education achievement is important to the health of the economy and education is the means by which cultural norms are transmitted.
  • Traditional belief that the path to a good life is work hard in school, do well, go to college and get a good job
  • Intelligence is both related to deductive reasoning and to ability to do well academically
  • Not all students are capable of doing intellectual/academic work – i.e., there are smart people and not-smart people
  • Arts compete with academic and intellectual goals of the school
  • Learning takes place best when
    • It is organized into separate subjects into discrete subjects
    • It is separated by ringing bells and when
    • Students work in isolation within groups organized by age
    • Students learn at the same rate and pace
    • Conformity, standardization, compliance and are high priorities

While these beliefs can be more or less dominant from school to school, in 10+ years of visiting and observing schools around the country I can offer with confidence, it is a rare school community that has re-visited their beliefs and how they affect what happens within the school and, most importantly, how they affect learning and learners.

Contrast this reality with the following quote from “10 Principles for Schools of Modern Learning: The Urgent Need Case for Reimagining Today’s Schools” recently published by Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon.

In the modern world, being a self-directed and self-determined learner is the most important skill to develop. School communities without clearly articulated beliefs around learning create wild inconsistencies for students as they travel between classrooms and take part in extracurricular experiences. Without a collaboratively created belief system that is lived each day through classroom norms for learning and a common language, schools cannot develop each child to his or her potential as a learner.

So where to next?

For you?

Can you consider completing two actions with a small group of folks that you’ve already identified as folks you’d to have with you in a life boat?

  1. The first task is the easy one. Together compile a “what we want our kids to know, be able to do, to be like” list. Start by asking for at least 10 and then rank them.
  2. With the same group, look at Robinson’s summary list (above) and edit it. Add examples of actions that are connected to specific statements. Add new beliefs and/or eliminate ones that aren’t reflected in your school. Hint: Challenge the removal of items from the list and ask for examples of actions consistent with new additions.

For me

Post #2 in the series – How to bridge the belief/action gap. Bringing intentionality to actualizing our beliefs.

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