Sunday, August 14, 2016

Against the Flow Leadership

Change is uncomfortable for virtually everyone. I am the first person who will say that the process is not easy or absent of difficult challenges. The challenge of change becomes even more difficult when the main adversary is always right in front of us – our mindset.  Our complex brains often work against our best intentions at times. This is Maslow’s hierarchy at play in a nutshell.  Instead of taking risks, we revert back to playing it safe. As fear takes hold we forget everything and run.  The fail-safe that we are made to think is protecting in nature actually holds us back from following through on implementing innovative ideas that can improve professional practice.

Human nature compels us in many cases to take the easiest possible path to success. In fact, structures are often put in place so that it is difficult to deviate from a prescribed path. It is easy to go with the flow if success has been defined for us. In my opinion that is the case in education. Educators and stakeholders alike have been brainwashed into thinking that a successful school or district is one who achieves through quantitative measures. Institutional practices that have historically been implemented and sustained for the sole purpose of preserving the status quo have become a detriment. Past practice might be the single most negative factor perpetuated by fixed mindsets. We can do better. We need to do better.

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We must reflect on past practice in order to improve current practice. As a leader, going against the flow is about using fear as a catalyst to face everything and rise. Instead of enabling the status quo to dictate the learning culture of a school, critical reflection is employed to disrupt professional practice in order to grow and improve. This requires asking some difficult questions that will pave the way for change that is desperately needed in some schools. Asking these questions can provide a clear case for disruptive change that can lead to the embracement of innovative ideas and a fundamental shift in learning. 

Leaders who choose to go against the flow ask these critical questions about their school culture:

  • How well are we meeting the needs of today’s learner?  This question is a start, however, it doesn’t really matter much what we think. The question should be asked of our students in the form of how well are we meeting their needs.
  • Are we more concerned about learning or traditional grading practices? 
  • Does homework improve learner outcomes?
  • How does the current process of observation and evaluation of staff ensure accountability while improving instruction and leadership?
  • How does this particular policy positively impact student learning? If it doesn’t, then why is precious time spent on developing and enforcing it?
  • How do we know that our investments in educational technology are actually improving student learning and achievement? What supporting evidence do we have?
  • Do we hold ourselves accountable for implementing ideas and strategies learned through professional development?

These are tough questions that not only enable us to reflect but to also be honest about what isn’t working in education. There are broken aspects of school culture that cannot be ignored any longer such as grading, homework, professional development, ineffective technology integration, outdated policies, observation/evaluation, and a culture that is not adequately preparing students for their future. As a principal, the questions above were used to implement needed changes that led to results

This is not the case in all schools, as great progress has been made across the globe to provide more relevant ways to empower learners and educators alike. However, the questions above force us to reflect more holistically to begin the process of meaningful change. We must resist the temptation as leaders to go down the path of least resistance. It is time to go against the flow and usher in new ideas for the betterment of students and us. 

What questions above most resonate with you and why? What driving questions would you add?


  1. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the great post. Very timely as we are about to embark on another school year. For me, the 2 last questions resignate the most. We've come to realize that out tech integration is moving along very well, however we don't really have success measuring processes in place. We will be focussing on this throughout the year. For PD, we are finally starting to see changes in how it's delivered and experienced, however I find that the follow up & long-term implementation support is not there. We also need to work on this.

    Thanks again for the great reflection !

  2. I have a rock on my desk from Normandy Beach to remind me that in the face of fear going forward is the best option.

  3. Are you ready for some serious self-reflection?
    Get to Know You

  4. Our communities (especially parents and students) often want us to go against the flow - to rethink our approaches. But we too often get stuck in the same old routine of traditional measures of success. If you're attempting to go against the flow, your community might want to go along for the ride.

  5. If a school district decides to be unconventional, there are consequences. For example, while most forward thinking education leaders agree that grading (traditional gatekeeping) do little inspire a love of learning; college and university admissions still want GPA's and other traditional measures of academic achievement. The conversation, therefore, must be elevated to our policy makers to force higher education to rethink the path to admission. Many of our students & parents have been conditioned to also want traditional rules because they have learned how to master them. "Tell me what I need to know, how you want me to show it, and what rubric criteria will yield an "A"..." for that reason, getting students to own their own learning is challenging. As you write, it is easier for the district/school to revert back to what has always been. Good post. Great conversation starter for leaders looking to change.

  6. Great reflection on taking an alternative path. We test, test and test and do we ever consider the effects on the students? There are 5 year olds who feel that they are 'dumb' when they are simply not ready for formal learning. Our children need the gift of time.