Thursday, December 18, 2014

Leadership: half a year of reading, thinking, and sharing ideas

The final few blog posts I’m writing this year are reflecting on the “big thinking” I’ve done throughout 2014. My first "looking back" post was about coaching and my second post was about trends in the world that are likely to impact education. This is my third post and it’s about leadership.

This year I moved into a leadership position when I became Director of Educational Technology. Leadership is something that has fascinated me for a number of years, and when I first arrived at ASB I considered doing a Masters in Educational Leadership. Time and money (lack of both) eventually made me decide against this, but for the past 18 months or so a cohort of teachers at ASB has been going through this degree programme and this month they graduated. It has been interesting to listen to their observations about this programme.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m much more of a “Lonely Planet” type of learner than a “Club Med” package type. I like to pick and choose what I want to learn, and to get recommendations from others along the way. I like all the diversions and exploring things for their own sake, simply because they are interesting.  While I didn’t go through the Master’s programme, there were definitely some modules that seemed worthwhile to me. Luckily ASB gave me the opportunity to be involved in a PLC at school on leadership.

At our first meeting of our Leadership PLC we discussed the factors that influence a school going from good to great. We all agreed that it is important to find and nurture the right people (recruitment and retention) which brought us to a discussion about professional development. We also talked about how important it is to create opportunities for growth within a school - as great leadership most often comes from within. Another factor we considered was what makes us unique at ASB. Quite possibly it is our focus on personalized learning and the way our eyes are focused firmly on the future of education and how we can best prepare ourselves and our students for what is coming. Interestingly enough we have also started to talk about what we really need to stop doing - as well as what we need to start doing. This is hard in an education system that is very resistant to change.

Our next Leadership PLC meeting was about employing the right people who will build excellence for its own sake - those that are dynamic and adaptable - and the importance of a Level 5 leader that will provide the environment where great people will thrive. The idea behind this is that having a great vision, but not having the right people and the right leaders will get you nowhere. It’s also important for leaders to build other leaders so that there is a strong team of equal partners.

Another aspect of leadership is that of change. For a leader to be leading people somewhere, the implication is that things are going to change. I’ve been reading about that too, and how sometimes it is important to focus on changing behaviour, rather than trying to change beliefs. Reflecting on something new that you have done can be a powerful way of learning about what works.  My readings have shown that there are a lot of overlaps between Michael Fullan's work and that of Jim Collins.  Collins refers to Level 5 Leaders as having an unwavering resolve to do what needs to be done, Fullan calls this "resolute leadership" - focusing on a small number of key priorities and staying the course.  Fullan also argues that you also need to have "impressive empathy". There needs to be ownership of change on the part of the people who work in schools, and where there are deep divisions purpose and empathy must be combined to bring about true and lasting change.

Fullan writes that to be a successful change leader it's important to be able to motivate people.  The thing that most motivates people is experiencing success/improvement. Fullan argues that motivation doesn't come first followed by better implementation - it is the accomplishment that comes first that then causes motivation to increase. Fullan writes about something called "motion leadership" for change. In situations of change, motion leaders need first to establish the conditions where people become intrinsically motivated and collectively take ownership of the initiative so that they are committed to keeping it going. 

Our Leadership PLC then moved on to discuss the hedgehog concept. This comes from Jim Collins' book Good to Great where he writes about a hedgehog knowing one big thing, in contrast to a fox that knows many things and pursues many ends at the same time in a scattered or diffused way without a unifying vision. Central to the hedgehog concept is a deep understanding of 3 circles:
  • What you can be best in the world at
  • What drives your economic engine
  • What you are passionate about
While you need all 3 circles to be great, our challenging as a Leadership PLN was to add a 4th circle: what the world needs.  We talked about empathy, tolerance, understanding and compassion and that an education that develops these values, that promotes international mindedness, is what the world needs.

At our final Leadership PLC of 2015 we moved on from our previous discussion about Jim Collins' "hedgehog concept" and started to think about other writers and how their ideas connect to his. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers he writes about the 10,000 hours of practice that is needed to become an expert, about opportunities based on when and where you were born, what your parents did and the circumstances of your upbringing and educational experiences, and something he calls legacy which is a mixture of religion, culture, tradition and attitude. We then also talked about Daniel Pink's book Drive which describes the most important factors of motivation being autonomy, mastery and purpose. I tried to combine these ideas together in the following graphic:

We talked about what 10,000 hours looks like in teaching. For a subject teacher (let's say history) this devotion to one subject will give a very different sort of mastery than being an elementary teacher who teaches lots of different subjects. At what stage could we say a teacher has "completed" 10,000 hours of "practice". What about if the practice they were doing was "wrong" and teachers are simply practicing "bad" hours/habits? Who or what is making these 10,000 hours of practice valuable for the teachers?  As I began to dig a bit deeper after our meeting I discovered that Anders Ericsson, the psychologist at Florida State University who came up with the 10,000 hours theory, actually stated that you only get benefits by "adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal." Clearly it's the feedback that matters, not simply the hours of practice - and this brings me back to teaching again. Let's throw in the observations of another expert, Daniel Goleman, who states "The secret to smart practice boils down to focus on the particular feedback from a seasoned coach." You can imagine how pleased I was to read the work coach there, since coaching was on of the other big things I’ve focused on in 2014.

Photo Credit: subzi73 via Compfight cc

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