Category: Mental Models


It’s a year later….

The homework policy went into practice. Immediately issues kicked up. Did they consider the individual needs of students? Could they cookie cutter a set time for every student per grade? How could they monitor the assignment of homework? Who would supervise the policy?

Over time, the principal and her Shared Decision Making Team made some adjustments and in the end what the team could be sure of was that homework was in fact assigned more regularly than it had been in the past.

However the Team was shocked when the principal asked the “Is the Emperor wearing his clothes?” question:

“Can we somehow connect the perceived increase in homework to improved student learning?” she asked.

One thing the team could do together was squirm and squirm they did.

Then Bob said, “You mean that we have to evaluate whether the policy worked?”.

The principal wanted to say “Duh.” but restrained herself. Instead she said, “We went through a lot of trouble and a lot of fine tuning to get some sort of homework practice in place. Don’t we owe it to ourselves and to the children to find ways to decide whether what we did was worth it?”

Bob put his other foot in his mouth by saying “Well it’s not like the School Improvement Police will come after us if our plan didn’t work. Where does it say that we get raises if we succeed or pay cuts if we don’t?”

….

Hmm, Bob’s remarks are both fortunate and unfortunate.

They’re unfortunate in that he said them in the first place.

But they’re fortunate on a couple of counts. One is that this is a kind of mini case study and hopefully not a true story. That a professional or a member of any school improvement effort would be so callous about whether there were positive or negative results from their collective planning and decision making is frightening although I daresay that members of school improvement groups near and far might sometimes think like this.

The other fortunate development is that we can now parse this kind of thinking in terms of what this dysfunction, Inattention to Results, may suggest.

It can be argued that school leaders are sociologists who also happen to be educators. We are after all spending so much of our time dealing with groups of people in various combinations to create the self sustaining, proactive, learning organization. When the groups go sour, perhaps out of the mental model shown above, or out of any number of other group process failings, the organization, and by extension certainly, the children it serves, suffers.

Search your memory and try to recall what happens when an educational initiative, or choice, from textbook selection, to policy making, and everything in between, falters or fails, how often has someone asked “Why?” “What have we learned from this?” worst, “WHO is responsible for this?”

The subliminal message albeit the cries near and far of “accountability in schools” is that we aren’t really held that accountable for our results, and in doing so we can continue to muddle on through to perpetuate what “mostly” works for “most” students.

It occurs to me that in so many ways, Inattention to Results is the most perfidious of the five dysfunctions. To ignore, blow off, make excuses for what we do or don’t do is really unconscionable in systems thinking where the correct model has always been PDSA, Plan, Do, Study, Act.

PDSA speaks to a kind of research and set of activities that needs further exploration in our mutual exploration of Systems Thinking and that is the idea of action research. That will be the subject two blog entries from now but for now it involves the obligation of the school organization’s leadership to build in mental models and inquiry skills to establish dialogues and analyses about our school’s practices, the great ones, the good ones, and the not so good ones.

As we end this segment of systems thinking blogs about Team Learning aka, Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, let’s remind ourselves about Benjamin Franklin and his co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, one could wonder where we would be right now if these dysfunctions dominated their thinking before they signed it!

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Those of us still willing to call ourselves trekkies remember with a grin and with fondness Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s famous “Make it so” command. By that he meant “I as Captain am giving you as subordinates authority to carry out my direction.” And thankfully THAT dialogue never made it to the television script!

But the sum is the same. Jean-Luc empowered his crew to carry out the mission.

Now suppose an outtake on the script was something like this:

NAVIGATOR: Sir, what do you mean by “Make it so.”?

PICARD: What do you mean by what do I mean?!!! I have told you to set course for the Romulan Empire!

NAVIGATOR: Sir. I do not know how to set course for Romulus anymore than set course for Earth.

Hmmm. Thankfully that dialogue never made it to the series either.

And the message is that the great leader – systems ensure that all participants have been trained to carry out their roles and need only minimum direction to take the appropriate initiative.

The question then becomes “To what extent do systemically unhealthy school organizations actually know HOW to make it so?”

And in this case, our Tale of Two Cities, to what extent do the LEADERS know HOW to make it so?!

And speaking of so, do school leaders of various stripes and types know HOW to first of all develop an effective strategic or operational plan even if they know what they want to have happen?

Going back to previous posts, we saw how an administrative team’s collective mental model could be transformed. All well and good. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. To get where you really you want to go, you need to know how to plan all details and issues properly.

So speaking of so, let’s consider what a plan should look like in this and succeeding posts.

The first step is obvious, for heaven’s sake, have a goal. As Jim Collins said “a big hairy one”, something first of all worth shooting for, and something that has been a result of heavy duty root cause analyses by all stakeholders and that has been accepted by all stakeholders.

So speaking of so, be sure that you recognize the goal’s complexity and that most likely this target will require in many cases, a multi-year plan as opposed to the usual thumb in the dike short term solutions to surface leaks we often expediently grab.

Once you have honed, shaped, smelted, and purified your long term goal then you need to be very clear on deciding how this goal will be assessed, formatively and summatively along the journey towards achieving it.

And that will be the next post.

It may be one thing to “turn and twist a mental model from positive to negative or its counterpart. It is another thing to, as Kurt Lewin said, “refreeze” that mental model in a new place.

So it may be all fine and good to have empowered the citizens of my new city to use that right brain muscle too often neglected in a world of Mr. Spock Thinkers but it is another to transform the “I-thinks” to “I-cans”.

This is reminiscent of the High Involvement Model best described by Dr. Priscilla Wohlstetter and her colleagues at the USC Center for Educational Governance. I also describe it in my own research and can be found at http://www.activelearningconsult.com.

Basically Wohlstetter showed that high involvement, and by extension, effective input and contribution by a cross section of stakeholders is only guaranteed when seven variables are operating. These are Power, Knowledge, Information, Leadership, Goals, Resources, and Rewards.

In the case of this “City” the High Involvement variable of Knowledge was sorely lacking. Knowledge in this case, speaks to the How to and can be associated with Senge’s Disciplines of both Personal Mastery and Team Learning.

In English, this means that while the group had generated many significant and potentially effective ideas to not only right their own Mental Models, but also to realign their own energies towards systemic health, they really didn’t know how to do this.

And so, under the “Teach a man to fish” point of view, that is, when the group knows HOW then no one leader needs to be so indispensable to the group’s successful continuance some schoolin’ was necessary.

So I taught them, however quickly, how to strategically action plan their ideas.

Here I claim no magic wand or secret formula about action plan design. Indeed I’d venture that most leaders, in education or otherwise are taught somewhere along the line, how to strategically plan. My website shows a couple of examples.

But the big HOWEVER is that learning such a skill as with learning most skills in a vacuum, has little or no translation unless or until the premise is embedded in a purpose.

Here my new City-dwellers indeed had purpose. That is they recognized that their ideas, as worthy as they were, needed to be translated to action. And that these actions couldn’t be willy-nilly throws of the dice. Instead, they had to sequence their ideas into actionable strategies. They needed to know who would be responsible, what they needed, how to overcome obstacles they could anticipate, and above all, how to measure their progress both formatively and summatively. Isn’t that what the quarterback does in the huddle?

And that will be the next Tale of This City.

The Root Cause term has garnered some attention these past few years of economic upset. When the market tanked in 2008 commentator after commentator pontificated on the root cause(s) for this systemic failure.

There are ways to more nearly isolate what “lies beneath” and how or to what extent groups and individuals can do this, first on a micro level and then at its counterpart. This is a skill and a mindset that needs more structured attention than what I intend to do in this blog series.

This blog series instead is meant to showcase how leaders “teach a man to fish” systemically. In this instance that idea appears to speak most nearly to Senge’s Personal Mastery and to Team Learning Disciplines but I would argue that neither has much traction without a reversal of prevailing Mental Models.

The Mental Model in this City appeared to be a dangerous mix of Futility, Powerlessness, Resentment, Frustration.

But I couldn’t tell them that. I needed them to figure that out and that was the challenge! I needed to teach them to fish.

I do not claim major victory here. I do claim that I distilled their feelings about the issues noted above by flat out telling them. “You feel Futile.” “You feel Powerless.” You feel Resentment”. and “You feel Frustration.”

They were almost surprised that I had “diagnosed” their concerns. And then came the key point.

To borrow a page from the late Steven Covey, I asked, “So there’s nothing you can do about any of the issues you lament?”

I guess it’s better put that I used a “reverse” Steven Covey. He among many practices, speaks to identifying what power or influence an individual or in this case, a group may actually have and to seek to use those competencies or abilities to work at solutions.

At first there was nothing. No answers or ideas. I waited the famous 6 seconds “wait time” strategy hoping that someone would offer up an idea.

Then I got, “Well, maybe the community has lost sight of what they want us to do. Maybe we should either reassert our vision or invite stakeholders to review it with us.”

Then I got, “I’m not sure we are communicating about the many wonderful projects and programs our districts offer.”

Then I got, X and then I got Y. And then I got Z.

And then, and then.

The ideas flowed! The Mental Model had been punctured.

What was necessary next was to take the bundle of ideas and show them how to make them happen.

You take a class on a field trip. You return from the trip and NEVER allude to it at all. NEVER ask questions about the students’ perceptions, NEVER try to gauge what they learned from the experience! This would amount to a teaching mortal sin!

Experiential activities can only be at best half-effective if the themes and issues are not peeled off and examined.

This is called debriefing.

My wife insists that the kitchen sink sponge always be placed in its little holder until it is needed. As the sponge dries it becomes what I call “scuzzy”. Every now and then, klutz that I am, I have been known to spill a glass or two of orange juice in the morning. So I take the dried up scuzzy sponge from its holder, immerse it in the orange juice, soak it up, and then squeeze the now swollen sponge’s contents into the sink.

That is the metaphor for debriefing of an experiential activity. The juice on the counter was the actual activity. The squeezing of the sponge’s contents into the sink tells the “squeezer” how much was soaked up.

The debriefing segment to effective supervision is the post observation! For a supervisor to have had a meaningful pre observation with a teacher, then to have done the actual observation as described in previous posts, but THEN to have not had an effective post observation leaves the juice on the counter. A supervisor’s mortal sin.

This post is not intended to offer a primer on effective post observation strategies as such although I do have two important points to make below. The sum of all these posts is to emphasize the need for healthy and effective macro systems, sub systems, and their behaviors and practices so that school organizations can do their level best for their students’ needs to be effective twenty first century citizens.

A good post observation best reflects the systems disciplines of mental models, personal mastery, and team learning. Let’s concentrate on mental models.

Ah mental models, as in ‘tudes, as in paradigms, as in DIALOGUE. Two perspectives deserve exploration.The first is the attitude part. The second, and more important is the DIALOGUE part.

Hopefully, the attitude part will have been taken care of long before a post observation. More specifically I am talking about the mindset between the teacher and her supervisor, or for that matter, her peer coach, where the point of view each shares is that the commingling of teacher and supervisor exceeds the sum of their parts to create their shared belief that the process they’ve engaged will in fact result in improved instruction and thereby improved learning.

And if this is NOT the shared mental model, both supervisor and teacher must engage in what Senge calls Dialogue. Senge points out that the Greek roots of this word combine to mean two-talk. My many experiences lead me to sadly generalize that far too much of what we do in schooling is not really dialogue. Rather it is, to term it politely, yapping and I-thinks. In other words, we spend far too much time talking and talking and talking some more re things educational without using techniques to bring closure and / or agreement about an issue or concern. This is in contrast to dialogue where the participants use techniques to actively listen to another’s point and to find ways to generate agreement about the issue under review.

Covey would call this “Seek first to understand before being understood.”

My own website, http://www.activelearningconsult.com, speaks to creating groups with High Involvement factors. One of these is the knowledge component, as described by Wohlstetter, which of itself has two sub-components, the ability to analyze data, and the ability to function well as a group. I’d recommend that you’d check that out for more information about dialogue and about effective group functions. Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Group” is also well worth looking at.

The point is a post observation must be driven by strong dialoguing skills between the two participants for the purpose of solidifying the effectiveness of the sub system we call instructional excellence.

No, I didn’t forget the two specifics I’d like to offer for worthwhile post observations. The first is of goal setting. The second is of using evidence.

Every lesson post observation should end with an agreement about what the goal(s) might be for the next lesson observation. Doing so ensures that observations build on their own process to continue to improve lesson quality. I think Lee Iaccoca said “When you stop trying to get better, you stop being good!”

The other point to reiterate, is to assure agreement and to acculturate the dialogue towards exemplary instructional practices, promote a spirit of inquiry by both using and agreeing to what evidence and artifacts you will use to assess the extent to which the goals for the observation have been met.