Thursday, July 12, 2018

Getting to "Yes"

I remember when students would approach me with a request, my initial response was "no." Before they even finished the question. The "no" almost always came with a smile, but I figured it was easier to start at "no" and move to "yes." I used that approach in my work place, too, and soon my team knew that my initial answer would be "no" so they'd better have their thinking in place to get me to "yes."

I thought a lot about my own approach to getting to yes for both students and teachers as I reflected on Dr. Pam Moran's 9 leadership lessons.

Like my students, my team members knew that I'd ask a lot of questions, such as "Why is that important to you?" and "How will it matter and why?". One of the first leadership lesson for getting to yes is to ask good questions. The key word is "good" because all questions come from a  perspective, informed by known and unknown biases as well as preferences. Were my students trying to get out of doing something or were they trying to find a better, more relevant, more authentic way? So when I asked questions, I wasn't only trying to be devil's advocate, though assuredly that was one of my roles. Mostly, though, I was trying to see the "why" of their request from their perspective so I had to be able to understand their thinking.

Institute of Personalized Learning
That leads to leadership lesson #3: learner choice. The example in the article might seem extreme to some teachers because students are given choice of what learning to pursue when they want. No reading block, no math block, etc. Go forth and learn. I'm sure there is more to it including some oversight or facilitation by the teachers, but a lot of teachers in a lot of districts would never have that degree of freedom. Even so, teachers could give students some choice within their math block, their reading block, etc. It's my perception that districts insist on blocks because they need to make sure teachers provide sufficient time for students for certain elements of learning. Most of the teachers in that constraint complain about how jagged and disruptive it makes learning and how kids are often forced to stop something in which they are engaged because it's time for a bathroom break or time for specials or time for whatever. They'd LOVE to have the choice to make adjustments to their daily and weekly schedules based on the needs of the students. I know. That's crazy talk. But if we want teachers to give students choice in their learning, we need to trust teachers to make good choices to facilitate student learning. So I'd modify leadership lesson #3 to read: Give teacher's choice over the daily and weekly schedules to amplify opportunities for student choice.

Leadership lesson #4: spaces that support learning options. Sure, if that's feasible. We've all been in schools where space is at a premium. Teachers can only fit so many options in a room depending on what other stuff they have to have in the room and how many students they have. Teachers who are working in mobile units can have varied options as well, and sometimes fewer. I've seen teachers do some really creative things in limited spaces. I've also talked with teachers who said they spent a great deal of their summer cleaning out everything from their classrooms and determining what they really needed and wanted to have in that space so they could figure out their options for learning spaces. Plenty of teachers have not only space constraints but funding constraints as well as health and safety issues to consider.

Leadership lesson #5 and #6 work together to me: active and authentic learning and connected learning. In my opinion, these two are an extension of learner choice. When students have choice, they can choose ways of learning that make sense to them and the resources that make sense for their chosen way of learning. Maybe that's connected or maybe not, or maybe that's connected in a particular way for that chosen way of learning and a different way for another learning experience. What students don't realize is how much they are learning when they make a choice about how to research or do or present and learn what does and doesn't work for that particular learning experience. Those skills are incredibly important.

Live Happier
Leadership lesson #7: don’t let a plan get in the way of a good idea. Love this. Some plans need to be tossed pretty quickly when the reality of whatever is happening becomes clear. Too often people try to keep pursuing a plan regardless of reality and circumstances, and find they waste a lot of time trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole.
When it comes to pilot projects, Pam suggests, “Aim small. Miss small.” She favors an iterative approach to innovation.
When administrators and teachers model this iterative way of thinking and doing, students see that learning and doing is often an iterative process. Instead of sitting back and whining "It doesn't work," students might be more encouraged to figure out why it doesn't work and determine if there is a different way of approaching the problem or task.

Knoster's Change Model
Leadership lesson #8: make innovation systemic. What does she mean by that? Well, change isn't optional and, as Moran notes, "you can't change the system without changing the system." Though there are a few things going on here, I think what she's trying to get to is that within a school and within a district, leaders need to encourage a culture of change.

I've talked with a lot of educators about having a culture of change and we've talked about change with a purpose, not just change for the sake of change. Many things have to be in place including a plan. Having a culture of change means each school has a big picture plan for the kinds of change to be implemented and each school's change are often aligned with overall district goals. It's not a small process but it doesn't have to be complex. However, it does take time to think through what really makes sense; how the plan supports the vision; and how the skills, resources, and incentives of everyone contributes to being able to execute the plan in ways that support the vision. And that means being sufficiently flexible to change the plan when needed (please see leadership lesson #7).

With a culture of change, systemic innovation is a natural outcome. With a culture of change in place, folks are likely to assume that any great ideas that build on the plan or continue to support the vision will automatically get "yes." And this, I think, is where things can get muddy. Because sometimes people come up with ideas that are change for the sake of change because there is pressure, or perceived pressure, that change must be constant.

This brings me to leadership lesson #9, develop talent. One of the things I love about Knoster's Change Model is its reference to skills and resources. Administrators need to be aware of the skills and resources required for any initiative and also be aware of the skills of their staff and the resources already available. I've told teachers this model works for them as well: what skills and resources do they need to teach a particular lesson? what skills and resources do their students need to learn a particular lesson? Where is there intersection? Where are the gaps?

As leaders contemplate their culture of change and how it contributes to, maybe even extends or expands the vision and plan for change, they need to be thinking about the skills and resources of their staff. Who has been stepping up? Who has shown something unexpected? Who has the capability but might need more encouragement? It goes on and on. Giving folks the opportunity to grow and develop, even in ways they didn't expect, ensures that there are others who can fill the gaps or help find and prepare those who can fill the gaps.

This is true for teachers as well. Whenever teachers give their students opportunities to try or do something different, they learn something about their students: their willingness to take risks, their aptitude or curiosity about something, and so on. Each time they learn something new about their students--and their students learn something new about themselves--teachers help students develop their talent as learners.

And now, let's get to yes: leadership lesson #2. I put it at the end because it seems to me there is a lot contributing to how anyone gets to yes. The more I knew about my students and the more I knew about my team, the fewer questions I had to ask to get to yes. Not just because I trained them to bring a strong supporting argument to me, although that helped, but I also had a better idea of if or how they were trying to push themselves, or if or how they were trying to innovate or improve a process.

Now you should go ahead and watch Dr. Moran's TEDx talk. You may roll your eyes a few times; you may find lots of reasons to think that what happened in her district could not or would not ever in a zillion years happen in yours. And that's okay. What I want you to hear, though, is that she learned how to get from "Yes, but. . . " to "Why not?" But she also learned that she had to trust people to make good decisions about safety and about how the activities were contributing to student learning opportunities.

Most of the district lawyers I know would have a coronary if they learned middle schoolers were using power tools to build rolling treehouses in the cafeteria (seriously; watch at least the first few minutes of Dr. Moran's TEDx talk). Watchful teachers and experts or not. Liability issues would send them right over the edge. So maybe not that in your school. But maybe students finding an empty space and asking to make into a studio for podcasts and making green screen broadcasts. Or maybe students asking for some different kinds of tools or resources in their makerspaces.

At the end of her TEDx talk, Dr. Moran asks people to prepare themselves for someone who comes to them with their own version of the cafeteria treehouses and encourages them to be ready just to say "yes." I suspect that won't work with just about everyone. People will be thinking about budgets and timelines and permissions and other administrivia. Maybe "Why not?" feels too irresponsible and too cavalier.

So my suggestion is this. Rather than just saying "no" or asking a whole bunch of questions, invite that individual or individuals who have gathered their courage to come to you--teacher, student, staff member, community member, etc.--to sit down and tell you about that idea and why it's so important to them. Invite them to tell you the story of their vision. And when that happens, maybe, just maybe, you'll be able to get to "yes," or at least closer to it.

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