Tuesday, October 20, 2015

We Are The District

Peter Drucker is often credited with the phrase "culture eats strategy for breakfast." Ken Williams, who is coming in February 2016 to speak in Forest Hills, writes in his new book (Starting a Movement: Building Culture from Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities) that "culture eats structure for lunch." Regardless of the speaker (or the meal), the culture of an organization does have tremendous power, and change is not always easy.

One of the reasons it is difficult is that change is only one part rational; the rest is relational. Rationally speaking, if an expert with uncontroverted research-based evidence tells us why and how to engage in change, common sense dictates that each and everyone one of us will do it with fidelity, and lasting change will occur (Daly, 2010). Reality is quite different, because relationships matter. What our trusted colleagues think about the change matters to us.What we see and hear in the office, the copy room, the hallway, the staff meeting, or the lounge matters to us. We are the district.

So, how do we make a shift to an innovative culture that encourages and supports new ideas and creativity? I could give you piles of research that support such a shift, but that alone is not enough. Our capacity for change in shifting our culture depends just as much on our people (relational) as it does on the research (rational). For example, who do you think of as innovative, or even more importantly, as influential? Your answer to those questions will have as much or more of an impact on the success of a culture shift than any objective argument I could make. That is why a change in culture has to be both top-down and bottom-up. As Ken Williams so succinctly states: "Leaders strike the match for schoolwide culture change; staff fan the flames."

The difficulty in navigating culture shifts, especially toward innovation, exists in all organizations. Businesses deal with the same rational versus relational balance. In fact, Mauro Porcini, Pepsico's Chief Design Officer recently gave an interview to the Harvard Business Review about this very process. Porcini identified two must-haves before any shift can begin: first, the person or people at the top of the organization are willing to protect the new culture from outright rejection, and second, there must be some sort of external validation that it is the right direction to move toward.

Once those two pieces are in place, Porcini describes the actual cultural shift as an evolutionary process that has five overlapping phases:

  1. Denial: the organization as a whole sees no need for a new approach or new culture, but someone with influence and power understands the need and hires a leader who tries to introduce a new culture.
  2. Hidden Rejection: people at the top of the organization embrace the new approach but the full organization is not there yet. The leaders move forward and think things are working well but in reality they may not be. This is the phase where the culture change may die out.
  3. Occasional Leap of Faith: the leaders find some co-conspirators within the organization who understand the value of the change, even if it is not a deep understanding. The co-conspirators decide to work with the leaders, and build understanding about the value of the new culture.
  4. Quest for Confidence: the organization understands there is value in this new culture and tries to integrate it. There are bumps in the road, but confidence in the organization is being built.
  5. Holistic Awareness: everyone understands that the new culture makes sense for the organization. It is universal, and everyone modifies their approach to their work to embrace it.

As you can see, so much of the core cultural change is relational.

Through our professional learning communities (PLCs) in each school, we continue to build the relationships that serve as the foundation of change.As we consider our capacity for complex organizational change, it is those small groups upon whom change depends. Indeed, a  study by Moolenaar and Sleegers (2010) demonstrated that "teacher teams characterized by a common exchange of work-related information and discourse are the cornerstones of organizational climates in which teachers not only trust each other, but also have a 'can-do' attitude toward change and innovation, are willing to try new ideas and collectively develop new knowledge, and are continuously working to improve their instructional practice." We are the district.

We have an enormous talent pool in our teachers and other staff. There is no lack of creative, new ideas. Rather, as part of a successful culture change, our challenge may lie in creating a process that accurately evaluates ideas in order to decide which ones to pursue. Minimally, we would want ideas to align to our priorities, and also solve a problem or fulfill a real need. We also need to build a structure that ensures that everyone has access to the resources and expertise needed to actually implement innovative ideas.

Join the conversation...
Where might we be on the five-phase journey of change toward an innovative culture? What or where do you see opportunities for us to grow? What type of processes and systems do we need to cultivate and support the innovator in each one of us?

Monday, October 5, 2015

True Confessions

Part of my work as the Chief Innovation Officer is to research innovation strategies and structures that we might find useful in our district. One piece I recently read is an article by Erika Kessenger of Thought Ensemble, entitled Four Steps to a Creative, Innovative Culture. One of the steps she suggests is to detail what the organization's desired future state looks like and sounds like.  As I was giving that some thought, my eyes wandered to a Learning Forward graphic that I have on the wall:

The first phase in the iterative cycle is standards-based professional learning, as research shows it has a greater potential to change what educators know, are able to do, and believe.

Michigan adopted the Standards for Professional Learning in 2012:

Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students... 

  • occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment
  • requires skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning
  • requires prioritizing, monitoring, and coordinating resources for educator learning
  • uses a variety of sources and types of student, educator, and system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning
  • integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes
  • applies research on change and sustains support for implementation of professional learning for long-term change
  • aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards
These seven Standards have four things in common: a commitment to learning that benefits all students, a commitment to fully engage in learning, a commitment to collaborative inquiry, and a commitment to differentiated learning.

Even though standards-based professional learning is the first phase in the graphic, the arrows show that the cycle often works in reverse too. This is where some of my classroom experiences live, but in reflection, my students probably suffered from my lack of standards-based professional learning. Sure, I had evidence of student learning that demonstrated a deficiency, and I identified a change I wished to make. I also figured out what new skills I probably needed, and sought out training to acquire them. The problem for me, as you may have noticed in this example, is that it is full of "I" not "we"; I did not seek out a learning community, and I did not fully appreciate the difference job-embedded, standards-based professional learning could make. Without it, I did not focus on knowledge and beliefs; I sought out quick, skill-based training that was easy. Upon reflection, some of the changes I made that I thought lived deep in my professional practice were likely more superficial. Sometimes I did not live the cardinal rule I preached to my students: true learning is hard work and it takes time and practice.

Fortunately, I've come to appreciate Rick DuFour's advice to avoid the "seductive shortcuts," and strive toward this:

Due to the generosity of our community, we can now provide time and support for teachers to let things grow. Thanks to Destination: Innovation, teachers who are not achieving the student outcomes they want and have researched a desired change in practice may apply for a grant to obtain standards-based professional learning and practice assistance. All grant recipients now receive implementation support through myself and others in the Instruction Office. 

Even without a grant, "growing time" may be available. In 2014, all principals and one teacher representative from each school attended a three-day workshop on professional learning communities and their capacity to make change in teacher practice for student results. Since that time, the Instruction Office has continued to provide support to principals and their teacher professional learning communities, and in many of our schools principals are allotting time and resources for the lengthy and hard work.

Just how weighty is it? As Rick DuFour and Doug Reeves pointed out just a few days ago in an Education Week article:
While providing time for educators to collaborate in meaningful teams is a necessary condition for effective PLCs, it is far from sufficient. A professional learning community is not simply a meeting: It is an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recursive cycles of collective inquiry and action research in order to achieve better results for the students they serve.
This encapsulates the Learning Forward graphic I shared in the beginning of this post, and within it the Standards for Professional Learning. It is also incredibly similar to our 2015-16 District Professional Learning Goal, based in the Instructional Framework: We will use a cycle of collaborative intentional planning and reflective practice to increase our instructional expertise and deepen student learning.

My "wonder" now is how we move forward to grow an effective PLC for every teacher in our district. So, please join the conversation...
  • Might you be willing to throw open the doors of your PLC as a growth experience for other teachers? We would love to make an in-house video and use it as part of standards-based professional learning.
  • What professional learning might your PLC need to move forward in its goal of increasing student outcomes? 
  • How might we as a district create and sustain a culture committed to creativity and reflection to effect results for all students?