Category: Preferable futures


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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The scene in July 1776 Philadelphia was heavy with drama and import for sure. The delegates at the Second Continental Congress had finally reached consensus about seeking the thirteen colonies’ separation from England. It hadn’t been easy to reach agreement and it had to be difficult to sign Jefferson’s newly composed Declaration of Independence for doing so marked oneself for capture and punishment by the British who certainly had no intention to let their colonies go gently into the night.

The story goes that when it came time for Benjamin Franklin to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence he said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The message behind Franklin’s assertion was clear: If any of us  (the colonies) show weakness, or reluctance, let alone either a measure of discontent or a lack of total support for the collective decision, the entire move toward the colonies’ freedom from Great Britain would suffer and likely collapse.

….

Now fast forward to the nearest faculty room. It’s the morning after a Shared Decision Making Team meeting. Joe the Math teacher fills his coffee cup prior to his class. He looks over at Bob, a new math teacher who has been “drafted’ to be a member of the school’s Shared Decision Making slash School Improvement team.

It might be surprising that Joe would even know that the Shared Decision Making team in that school had met. But the new principal in contrast to the old one under whom Joe had worked for years, placed a great deal of emphasis on collaborative leadership and shared decision making practices. These were highlighted at faculty meetings and some of their initiatives had actually become the “law of the land”.

So to be polite, he said to Bob. “How did yesterday’s Shared Decision Making meeting go? Anything interesting?”

Bob, the rookie had joined the Shared Decision Making team because he felt he had to. He didn’t particularly understand its purpose. But it was a way to show professional service to the school and its activities helped him understand how the school functioned on the students’ behalf.

Yesterday’s meeting had been a particularly animated. The principal had presented data about students’ performance that showed a downward trend in a number of academic skills and content areas. The team used root cause analysis strategies to drill down to what they thought might be driving these trends.  Several causes were assessed .

Several member teachers noted that the school day had become plagued by many interruptions. More so, it was difficult to have all the students in the class present at the same time because so many students were being pulled for remedial, gifted, and music instruction during the day.

As the members used Five Why techniques to distill what this issue actually reflected. The group agreed that a root cause need was to increase instructional time on task.

Various ideas were considered. Some were good but financial restrictions and teacher contract language made them difficult if not impossible to adopt.

Then, Mary the English teacher suggested that the group consider a homework policy where a minimum expectation of time spent on homework would be required and ratcheted up per grade. The basic premise behind this, Mary said, would be to afford students time on task that they may be missing during the actual day.

For sure, the group didn’t immediately rally round this suggestion. YES-BUTS bounced among stakeholders but in the end the group began to center on this as a viable initiative. Sam, the group’s facilitator looked at the several members. He searched their faces for doubt and or buy -in. He noted Bob’s puzzled expression.

“Bob, you recognize how this idea is meant to increase students’ time on task in order to get deeper into their content and skills mastery?”

“Sure I see the need to do this Sam. But I also see how making a policy could be ineffective if we try to cookie cutter a uniform expectation of time commitment.”

Mary responded. “Well Bob, I think we will have to pay attention to the concerns you raised. But I wouldn’t want the baby thrown out with the bath water by dropping the whole proposal. We can put the policy in place on a pilot basis and iron out kinks as they present themselves.”

The rest of the group nodded in approval at Mary’s suggestion. Sam then asked the entire group if there was consensus to pilot a homework policy.

Each stakeholder raised their hands. Bob, did too, but only after what seemed like a minute of deeper thought.

Sam turned to the principal. ” Ms. Smith, could you take steps to formulate a pilot policy with some implementation guidelines for us at the next meeting?”

Ms. Smith said “Certainly, perhaps you could appoint a sub group of the whole to offer specific input to do this and I will also seek some more input from staff members as I develop a roll out process”

The meeting had adjourned at that point. Bob left too. But he hadn’t left his doubts at the door. He had “voted” on the consensus but he certainly was no rabid die hard supporter of the proposal.

So here is how he answered, ” I have to tell you, the meeting went on and on. As usual Mary was trying to dominate the conversation with her grand ideas. We started to talk about a mandatory minimum amount of time to do homework that would go up for each grade level. I understood what they were trying to solve but I was uncomfortable with the idea since there were too many variables that they hadn’t thought about it. I gave my opinion but on one really listened to the new guy on the block and I could also tell that Ms. Smith was in support of  it. So, I voted for it even though I don’t particularly like it.”

“Aha”, thought Joe the Math Teacher, “Bob the rookie doesn’t particularly like the team’s decision and I certainly don’t either.”

And herein lies Lencioni’s next dysfunction of a team: Lack of Commitment, and we can fairly validly conclude that we can all be glad that Bob the Rookie did not sign the Declaration of Independence.

How can team be cohesive let alone effective if its members are varying degrees of lukewarm in supporting a point of view or action that they must eventually move out of their deliberations and out, in front of, and for its constituents? How can that “action” or decision be enacted effectively if those who purportedly supported it?

I suppose that there are a variety of potential root causes that might explain why this negative behavior exists in a team. Was Bob the rookie a villain, or a victim in that his membership of this committee may have been more coercive than voluntary? Did the facilitator fail to ensure that the group knew their own ground rules re consensus? Did the facilitator fail to ensure that the group truly committed to a shared vision? Did the group members fail to listen to each other and honor a dialogue that would have more nearly ensured that all yes-buts and doubts had their fair chance for exploration and consideration?

The bottom line is that as onerous and as time consuming true dialogue may require, cutting short a potential dissenting point of view, etc., may likely result in Bob the Rookie going along to get along. And in so doing defeat the effectiveness of any such idea or action that the group thought they had genuinely generated for the good of the whole.

If you’re looking for a textbook or want to read a book re Leadership. Check out book just published where I am co-editor and a co-author, “Leadership for a Global Economy”.

Available through Amazon and North American Business Press.

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.

Should I apologize for fancying myself a school-improvement nerd? I am that for sure. And while nerd usually has some unpleasant connotations in this world I guess it is still fair to say that I am one.

That is why it is a bit difficult for me to bring closure to the process I have been describing. One reason for that is that I don’t think there is closure to school reform / improvement efforts especially in schools with persistent needs.  For this reason, whilst the review process is largely done and now we are in the stage of finalizing the recommendations, there are plenty of lessons for those school leaders who also engage this process.

One I will allude to now and speak to mightily up the road is my wonder whether how, if, or ever, “support” from a state, regional, or federal agency has any positive, sustainable, results. What research I have begun to do thus far has not yielded much positive on this count. IF my continuous research efforts in this regard continue to be a dry hole then the obvious question is why?

We all deserve to have answers to this. NCLB, now RTTT and who knows what initials yet to be spawned continue to require that government agencies of some sort or another will invest themselves on one level supportively and perhaps on another level punitively (or so perceived by the schools or district under such lenses), into helping schools designated in need to improve their achievement.

But it simply isn’t as simple as their formulas would have you believe. In one of the schools where we are finishing up, on data analysis, we found that their African American population which in aggregate had not made the standard, was practically all also classified as Students with Disabilities. In addition, while the school was not cited for the performance of students with low economic wealth, 90% of these same students were also classified as such.

So were these children disabled? Were they underperforming because they were poor? Is poverty the ultimate root cause?

Covey speaks about one’s “sphere of influence”. Is it within any school’s power to overcome the consequences of poverty? Perhaps this is true in many instances, but can it be true, especially in the vile political rhetoric we are suffering nowadays, buoyed by terrible economic times that schools, of their own, with what resources they have, can universally make it all happen?

Some of you will cherry pick schools and school leaders who appear to have overcome the anchors of poverty for their school’s children. Some will point to dysfunctional public school systems and argue for charter schools or vouchers. By the way the research about their success isn’t too glowing either. And I even confess to some more than passing interest in their potential to be more successful than public school systems.

But now I come back to the school I describe above. They recognize many of their deficits. One solution they had put in place was to increase their school periods from eight to nine so that another period in the day would give them scheduling flexibility to provide more support services and to encourage more professional development among staff.

Then le Deluge kicked in, state aid monies were drastically reduced. Administrative and teaching staff  were slashed to the bone. And guess what, the ninth period? That’s right. It has been eliminated.

What is the message? If you say “Do more with less.” after I scream, I’ll say what “you’re” saying is that our governing and societal value system talks out of both sides of its mouth.

I did not intend for this post to go in this direction. I will point to other dynamics and creativity and mind sets and systems adjustments in the next post(s), but this is one mental model, poverty’s impact, that is an elephant in this room today .

Or maybe it’s about what we really think has importance.

At this point I am pretty sure I know what educational  future I want for today’s and yet – born children.

I want a schooling system, formal and informal, that will enable all of our children to not only survive uncertain futures but thrive in them.

 I want a formal and informal schooling system that will power wash off the  collective crusts of stultifying mental models and of self serving interests that do little more than perpetuate mediocrity.

I want a schooling system, formal and informal, that will repudiate organizational structures that only mostly work for middle class white children and that acknowledges all children deserve all chances to be all of what they can be.

I want innovation and creativity to rule all forms of instruction, formal and informal. I want rote, Baltimore Catechism (most of you will have to look that up!), spit back learning to be BANNED at best or at least permitted as a minimum quota of instructional time.

I want technology used, NOT for technology’s sake but embedded in innovative and creative instructional strategies that will in the end create what I want most of all:

I want schooling, formal and informal, to create what the future, whatever it may be most nearly, most certainly, will demand, to create people who can think for themselves rather than to accept the Flavor of the Day or to mindlessly accept their lot life.

What did Paul Simon once sing?

When I think about the crap I learned in high school it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

File this as basic vocabulary that will thread through every post:

When it comes to the future think of the the three P’s

What is Possible.

What is Probable.

What is Preferable.

When you think of it most anything may be possible. For example it’s possible that top-down management will produce effective schools.

Ah but it may NOT be probable, given what the research seems to suggest about top-down management. See Diane Ravitch if you need more convincing.

And in the end, it’s about about what one PREFERS that should be the basis for our actions, provided that we know what we prefer.

Come to think of it, the conversation above reminds me of Wiggins’ Understanding by Design,http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&ProductId=406&gclid=CNunzqfZ16sCFcjc4AodCi_XQA or if you know anything about Steven Covey his “Begin with and end in mind” habit. (You should check these out) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Covey.

And now we go back to the first post. What is it that we want from our schools for our the children we know we must educate?