Sunday, November 17, 2019

Great Leaders Embrace Multiple Styles

We have all heard the saying don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It represents a sound piece of advice for any leader, especially in the field of education.  The reason being is that a person in a position of power or influence should not concentrate all efforts in one area since initiating and sustaining change requires a dynamic mashup of strategies. The bottom line here is that if all of your resources and energy focus on just one thing, the chances of empowering the masses to embrace new ways of thinking or initiatives will be severely hampered.

As styles go, they are numerous, and in many cases, we, or others, often place us in one or another. This can be both good or bad, depending on perspective. Different people respond to different styles. What works for one might not for another and vice versa. Hence the imperative not to conform to one specific style. This is not to say that a leader can’t or shouldn’t excel in a particular style. However, a convergence of styles separates generalists from specialists when it comes to leadership. In terms of the successful implementation of innovative ideas, those who embrace a more general mindset get better results. Consider this perspective from Ideas for Leaders:
The core reason that generalists inspire and create greater innovation is their courage to make mistakes; this courage, in turn, is explained by the knowledge that they have skills that can be applied elsewhere. This is a major advantage for generalists. Innovation is risky. An additional factor contributing to the innovation success of generalists is that they have a perspective that allows them to look beyond assumptions and ‘think outside the box.’ As a result, the innovation they push is original and impactful.



Below are some common styles prevalent in leadership today.

Managerial

Whether we like it or not, management plays a pivotal role in leadership. Mark Miller provides this insight:
Great leaders ultimately must rely on a holistic approach to leadership—they must be both a visionary and a manager. They must know the strategy and the big-picture and know how to put it to work and ensure it gets done. They must inspire and connect to people individually. Great leaders are managers because they understand the specific ways that work needs to get done to be efficient and effective. Great managers are leaders because they take the tasks that need to get done and know how their talents fit and, more importantly, how to bring out the talents of others to gain even greater results.
Managing might not be flashy, but it certainly helps achieve results. Important aspects include establishing rules, meeting goals, having efficient operations, improving performance, setting priorities, and executing the strategic plan.  The truth is the best leaders and managers are interchangeable. Too often, however, people are one or the other. These leaders will miss vital tasks that ultimately drive team success.

Instructional

Successful schools and districts have leaders who prioritize instructional strategies that lead to improved learning outcomes. They possess keen insight and knowledge on both traditional and innovative pedagogical techniques that empower learners to think critically, construct new knowledge, and apply what has been learned in a variety of ways.  Instructional leaders roll up their sleeves and make the time to get into the trenches. Getting in classrooms and providing timely feedback to teachers is prioritized. Additionally, they engage in ongoing learning conversations with fellow administrators while seeking out the best professional development opportunities for staff.

Inspirational

Virtually everyone either wants or likes to work with a leader who inspires. These people not only help to establish a shared vision and plan for action but more importantly, they create an environment that motivates and empowers people to be their best.  Inspiring leaders take this a step further by demonstrating passion and commitment to the implementation of all aspects of the vision and resulting strategic plan for improvement. He or she talks the talk, walks the walk, and motivates everyone else to do the same. Eric Garton provides this take:
Inspiring leaders are those who use their unique combination of strengths to motivate individuals and teams to take on bold missions – and hold them accountable for results. And they unlock higher performance through empowerment, not command and control. Leaders who both inspire people and generate results find ways to constructively disrupt established behaviors to help employees break out of culture-weakening routines.
In the end, it is actions that ultimately inspire, not pie in the sky, and fluffy talk.

Transformational

Transformational leadership is based on a theory where a leader works with teams of educators to identify needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through innovative ideas, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of a school, district, or organization. It is a collaborative responsibility for taking action to reach future-oriented goals while meeting the intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of each student. Transformational leaders consistently make observations, listen intently, leverage a growth mindset, and, most importantly, take action to improve the organization.


Great leaders don’t pigeonhole themselves into one specific style. They openly embrace the benefits and rewards of being a generalist through convergence. In the end, leadership is not about telling people what to do but instead taking them where they need to be. It is challenging to accomplish this goal if all of the eggs are placed in the same basket.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

How to Improve Checks for Understanding

A great deal of time is spent developing and providing feedback on lessons with the goal being student learning. Regardless of the terminology that is used, virtually every plan follows a format to help achieve this outcome. As I have discussed previously, the anticipatory set at the beginning and closure at the end are critical strategies that can assist any teacher or administrator in determining the efficacy of a lesson. More importantly, both serve the needs of learners in terms of overreaching purpose. As much as these elements are critical to effective instructional design, what’s more vital are continuous checks to determine if students understand.



Checking for understanding consists of specific points during the lesson or task when the teacher checks to see if the students understand the concept or steps and how to enact them to achieve the target. It clarifies the purpose of the learning, can be leveraged as a mechanism for feedback and can provide valuable information that can be used to modify the lesson. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey offer the following thoughts on why this strategy is pivotal to lesson success:
Checking for understanding is an important step in the teaching and learning process. The background knowledge that students bring into the classroom influences how they understand the material you share and the lessons or learning opportunities you provide. Unless you check for understanding, it is difficult to know exactly what students are getting out of the lesson. In fact, checking for understanding is part of a formative assessment system in which teachers identify learning goals, provide students feedback, and then plan instruction based on students' errors and misconceptions. Hattie and Timperley (2007) identified these phases as feed-up, feedback, and feed-forward. Note that checking for understanding is an important link between feed-up and the feedback students receive as well as the future lessons teachers plan.
Why does checking for understanding matter so much? Consider this from Dylan William:
"Does the teacher find out whether students have understood something when they [students] are still in the class, when there is time to do something about it?" 
Now let's talk about some sound strategies. Formative assessment at the end of the lesson is a no-brainer. This can be incorporated as a part of a closure, monitoring during cooperative learning or individual work, independent practice (worksheet questions, problem-set, writing task), or through the use of technology. One of my favorite edtech tools to accomplish this, where higher levels of thinking can be measured, is Formative. While all of these are great options to determine whether or not learning has occurred by the end of a class, I want to focus on some simple and easy to implement ideas that can help check for understanding throughout a lesson.

Questions, questions, and more questions are a rule of thumb. Asking, working with, and answering questions is at the heart of facilitating learning. Learning must be an active process. Asking a question is an action. In my role as I coach, I almost always see teachers asking questions. The key here, though, is to make sure that they are focused not just on the recall of knowledge and facts, but whether kids genuinely understand the concept being addressed. 


Posing verbal questions to students throughout a lesson goes without saying and should be done consistently. Some students will raise their hands while others will be randomly called upon. In other cases, a few might be selected to go to the board and solve problems while the others watch. However, how does one know if all the kids actually understand? Below are three easy to implement strategies to improve checks for understanding in ways that ensure all kids have the opportunity to respond to verbal questions:

  • Provide each student with access to an individual dry-erase whiteboard to respond.
  • Purchase desks or tables that have a dry-erase surface
  • Use available technology. Some of my favorite tools include Pear Deck, Nearpod, and Padlet, where the teacher can see each individual student's response. They also cater to the answering or open-ended questions.  Then there are game-based options such as Kahoot, Quizizz, QuizWhizzer, and Gimkit. Other tools such as Menitmeter and AnswerGarden, allow for whole-class participation in a more informal manner. If there is not equitable access to technology, then Plickers is your best bet.  

The above strategies represent three practical options to improve checks for understanding that involve all learners. Therein lies the key point of this post. All means all. 

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Insecure Leaders Point Blame Everywhere but Themselves

There are many opinions as to what constitutes effective leadership, something that I have written about extensively over the years. However, my perspective is just from one lens. I often pose a question on what is it that great leaders do in the workshops I facilitate, and many consistent characteristics emerge. Some of the top responses where there is consensus include communicate, listen, innovate, have a vision, risk-taking, and focus on relationships. It is tough to argue that any of these are not necessary when it comes to successfully implementing change. Success, however, lies in a leader's confidence and execution to move people where they need to be through empowerment.

Great leaders who empower those they work with are confident. Poor ones are insecure. Lolly Daskal wrote a fascinating article highlighting the characteristics that embody the insecure leader. She identified the following seven characteristics:
  • Shying away from challenges
  • Positioning yourself to look good
  • Aversion to helping others grow
  • Disrespect for others
  • Being a know-it-all
  • Staying behind a closed door
  • Refusing to handle conflicts


After reading the article, I reflected on a story that an educator recently shared with me. The gist of it was about a statement that was made by his principal, where a shot was taken at the predecessor. During a meeting with the staff to open up the new school year a statement was made something to this effect (disclosure – I am not using the real name), "I am not going to throw many things up against the wall like Mr. Smith did and see what sticks." Not a very motivational way to open up the school year, in my opinion. What was more troubling was how the statement made the educator and his colleagues feel as the consensus was that the statement portrayed the principal's lack of ability to implement his own agenda. Comments like this that either place blame or undermine previous administrators bring to light leadership insecurities.

A confident leader would not have made a statement like that. The story above falls into the know-it-all and disrespect category. Here are som of Daskal's thoughts.
Insecure leaders are petrified of coming across as insignificant or incompetent, so they overcompensate by pretending they know it all. They rarely ask questions--and when they do, they almost never wait for the answer.

When you're insecure, you work hard to gain respect for yourself--sometimes even by belittling others to put yourself ahead. If you feel inadequate, disrespecting others can help elevate your own status. 
The bottom line here is that insecure leaders point blame everywhere but themselves. If change doesn't stick or is not embraced by staff, the insecure leader then passes the blame to others both internally and externally.  Needless to say, this is not healthy for school culture. How a leader deals with a lack of confidence speaks volumes about his or her ability to inspire, motivate, and empower staff as well as to lead sustainable change. There are practical ways to build confidence. The Vantage Consulting blog highlights the following dispositions that leaders should practice to accomplish a confidence boost:

  • Courage
  • Humility
  • Teachableness
  • Clarity
  • Engaging conflict
  • Being a facilitator of others' success 


When it is all said and done, the buck stops with the leader. Confident leaders help to build the confidence of the staff. When times get tough, it's easy to point the blame elsewhere. Real leaders own their culture, for better or for worse. If it is the latter, then they take the needed actions to get the ship right.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Don't Forget Closure

There are many pedagogical techniques that run the gambit when it comes to instruction and learning. In a previous post, I discussed the importance of opening lessons with a bang, using an anticipatory set. Whether you call it a set, hook, or bell ringer is not the issue. What is, though, is the value the strategy has as part of a comprehensive lesson. Here’s why:
The anticipatory set is used to prepare learners for the lesson or task by setting their minds for instruction or learning. This is achieved by asking a question, adding a relevant context, or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, and initiate the learning process. A good do-now activity can accomplish this.
While the opening moments with students are crucial, so are the final minutes. Think about this for a second. What’s the point of an objective or learning target, whether stated, on the board, or students have the opportunity to later discover for themselves, if there is no opportunity at the end to determine if it was met or reflected upon? Closure matters, yet virtually every lesson I observe in schools across the country are missing the crucial component. Here’s why. Learning increases when lessons are concluded in a manner that helps students organize and remember the point of the lesson. Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant aspects of the lesson, allows students to practice what is learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback, review, and reflective thinking.



Kathy Ganske provides this take.
As in a puzzle, an effective lesson has many pieces that must fit together. We typically give considerable thought to how we initiate lessons: activate or build background knowledge, teach essential vocabulary, engage learners, and set a purpose for the lesson. And we carefully select tasks or activities and texts for use during the lesson. But closure is often given short shrift or omitted entirely. We need to be sure we plan time to cycle back to the what, why, and how of students’ learning to help them actively synthesize the parts into a whole. Lesson closure provides space for students to digest and assimilate their learning and to realize why it all matters. Closure is a component of planning and teaching that we can't afford to leave out.
A Google search will turn up a slew of ideas on how to close lessons. I prefer to keep it simple. First, make sure it is planned for and that at least three to five minutes are set-aside at the end of every period or block. Second, consider the following questions that students should answer or reflect upon in relation to the objective or learning target.

  • What exactly did I learn?
  • Why did we learn this?
  • How will I use what was learned today outside of school, and how does it connect to the real world?

Whether exit tickets, journals, whiteboards, or technology are used doesn’t really matter. What does is that closure is prioritized.