Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don't be a Control Freak

Here's a great quote from Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.
The old organization was built on control, but the world has changed. The world is moving at such a pace that control has become a limitation. It slows you down. You’ve got to balance freedom with some control, but you’ve got to have more freedom than you ever dreamed of.
This is another one of those tensions that we need to manage. Daniel Pink makes the case for autonomy, purpose, and mastery as our prime motivators in knowledge work. When we try to control people, we will not get the creativity and innovation that will drive our organizations to better performance. On the other hand, we also need to measure the impact of our work. Freedom needs to be maintained within a structure of mutual accountability and measured results.

Hat tip to Matt Perman

Sunday, January 23, 2011

You need to be Positively Deviant... and Here's How

Atul Guwande in his book Better gives several examples of Positive Deviants. These are people and organizations who outperform the norm. His examples come from the medical profession ranging from hospitals who have dramatically decreased their rate of infections through hand washing to the highest performing clinics for the treatment of Cystic Fibrosis. He has some practical advise for those of us who would aspire to be positive deviants in our line of work. Here are his five actions that would enable you and I to achieve improved performance.

  1. Ask an unscripted Question
  2. Don't complain
  3. Count something
  4. Write something
  5. Change

I've been working on #2 lately, though it is no easy task. Complaining can be such an addiction. Many supervisors get trapped into looking for areas for improvement and become focused on what's not working instead of what is working.

What are some things that you do to increase your ability to perform at the highest levels?

Being Positive about Positive Deviants

There exists a system where data on performance was not collected regularly. Then, one fine day, a group of practitioners got the go ahead to allow data collection on their performance so long as they remained anonymous. To the surprise of the professionals working in this field, not every entity was a high performing enclave. In fact, the performance of all of these centers rather followed the traditional Bell Curve with a few very poor performers, a whole lot of performers in the median range, and a small band of high performers leading the field. Does this sound like your school district, your grade levels, your group of teachers? In fact, this data was collected on the centers for treatment of Cystic Fibrosis and you can learn all about it in Atul Gawande's excellent book Better.

We come to find out that the medical profession has much in common with the education profession. Sharing data on performance is not as enthusiastically embraced as one might think for a field of scientists. Likewise, getting medical teams to rethink their performance by comparing to those who are getting better results is not so common, and hardly the norm. Gawande says, "What we're not used to doing is comparing our records of success and failure with those of our peers".

Imagine for a minute your child has cystic fibrosis and you learn that the children being treated at your child's center lived on an average just over 30 years. Then you find that the children at the most successful centers were living on average to 46. Where would you want your child to be treated?

The good news in Gawande's research is that the center that he highlighted did indeed seek out the highest performing center to observe and learn what strategies, attitudes, and practices they had in place to get such stellar results for their patients. Of course, the journey from mediocre to highly successful is not as easy as making some simple observations, tweaking a few practices and rejoicing at your new found success. There are so many intangibles that are difficult to replicate, much like the art and science of teaching!

So how can we in education take advantage of the Positive Deviants in our field in a way that is respectful of our teachers, yet insistent on learning from those teachers, schools, and districts who are outperforming the rest? Here are a few thoughts from my experience.

1. Be crystal clear about the reason for sharing data. Having landed on a few land mines of my own, I know that the purpose of data comparisons must be made clear and repeated often. It's about the learning.

2. Allow teachers to have input on what data should be compared. You can make a case for a lot of data to be compared that might give a distorted view of end results. Were the classes evenly created at the start of the year? Are there formative data that would contribute to positive end results? Discussion and debate about what data matters is healthy and will lead to a more enthusiastic response to the numbers.

3. Celebrate those who are humbly taking risks to learn from colleagues. Those who are willing to seek out learning from their colleagues need lots of encouragement and praise for their efforts. They are learners who are proving that they are open to any ideas that will help their children learn at higher levels.

If you are interested in seeing the data reports on the Cystic Fibrosis centers across the country they can be found here: *requires free registration I encourage you to compare your local center with the center at Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Top 100 School Administrator Blogs

Alexis Brett has put together a collection of the Top 100 School Administrator Blogs. It's a great place to find some new (and not so new) voices on educational topics far and wide. Take a look.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Managing Tensions

Listening to a leadership podcast from Andy Stanley recently, he mentioned the difference between problems to solve and tensions to manage. I see this played out in schools all the time.

Phonics versus comprehension

Improving our current practices versus adding something new

Direct instruction versus inquiry

Academic focus versus whole child

Stanley says the key is not to allow one side to win the argument. Eliminating that tension would lead to an imbalance. He has taught his leadership team to use the language: "That's not a problem to solve, it's a tension to manage". I think schools would do well to adopt this approach to issues such as this. Finding that right balance will unleash creativity and improe effectiveness in every area of our work.

Photo Credit: JLMPhoto

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Antecedents of Excellence

In Doug Reeves' excellent book The Daily Disciplines of Leadership, he explains that schools that regularly perform at the highest levels are attuned to the antecedents of excellence - those habits and practices that are the foundation that allows students and adults to learn and thrive. The task of school teams is to determine what the antecedents of excellence are and measure their progress in implementing those factors into every day life. Here's my stab at some elements of school life that I believe support learning for everyone.

  1. Literacy is valued by every member of the school community.
  2. Growth and progress are celebrated frequently.
  3. Hard work is valued over intelligence.
  4. Assessment of student progress and subsequent feedback is constant, integrated into instruction, and contributes to increased motivation to learn for students.
  5. Reasoning and analysis are evident from school staff, students, and parents
  6. Content is integrated across disciplines.
  7. Technology is used to allow students to create content and interact with the world outside the school walls.
  8. Character is valued equally with academic achievement.
  9. Clear expectations for behavior are articulated and reinforced.
  10. Exceptional character is celebrated and honored.
  11. Disciplinary problems are handled fairly and firmly. These incidents are used as teaching opportunities.
  12. Failure is considered a necessary prerequisite of learning.
  13. Grace and Gentleness are evident in all relationships.
  14. Teachers and administrators share an equal role in leading instructional and school improvement.
  15. Parents are partners in their children's learning through two way communication and mutual respect.
  16. Structured social interactions enhance all learning objectives.
  17. Physical education and the Arts demand the same preparation and rigor as Language Arts and Math.
  18. Students should be spending the majority of the school day reading and writing authentic texts.
  19. Non-fiction should be included in 50% of the school day.

All of these antecedents and any that you can come up with should be submitted to the Reeves test of discovery:

It is the hard work of discovery, precisely the same work we expect of our students as they learn to read, explain a proof, or balance a chemical equation... The effective leader recreates those moments regularly, not through instant wisdom and profound judgment but through questions, errors, admission of ignorance, persistent investigation, and eventual discovery.

So, what do you think? What do you believe are some important antecedents of excellence for schools?