Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Art and Science of Leadership

Leadership is far from a science. Many would even argue that it is more of a form of art. Since effective leadership means different things to different people, I wanted to dive a little deeper into this debate to glean a better understanding as to what great leaders do. It consists of a convergence of art and science. Tanveer Nasser shares this perspective:
Unlike science, art allows for a more subjective interpretation of ideas or concepts; that there’s no need for a singular, fixed answer or definition to understand it. As many artists say about their work, it’s not so much what they wanted you to see as it is what you choose to perceive within their construct. 
There are also many scientific disciplines that have helped us to gain insights into what makes one individual a more effective leader than others. Thanks to discoveries in the fields of organizational psychology and neuroscience, we can gain a better understanding of what human traits or behaviors are best suited for leadership, and why they are of benefit to the organizations and teams these individuals lead. While science might not provide us with a clear definition of what leadership is, it has proved to be vital to not only improving how we perceive this function but also how those who lead serve others through these roles.

Whether you are more on the side of art or leadership is beside the point.  Effective leaders consider not only specific requirements of the position and research, but also many unique components such as culture, environment, and the community. It is hard to say definitively that there is one style or technique that works best when all the variables are taken into consideration. Case in point. You could be a great leader in one position but be horrible in another if the same strategies are employed in different conditions. 

By employing strategies that intersect between art and science, leaders can excel in their position regardless of title.  Below are five main focus areas. 


It is the people who drive change, not one person.  They are the most critical resource in any organization. Great leaders don’t tell others what to do, but instead, take them to where they need to be.  It is about making the time to empower others to be great even if they think they’re not.  The best leaders take the time to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of those who they serve to build a culture of success. Take care of your people and they, in turn, will take care of you. 


Leadership can seem like a juggling act with all of the mandates, directives, and goals at play.  Great leaders understand the importance of the long game and ensure that the day to day work is always aligned with the bigger picture.  They understand that putting an enormous amount of energy into short-term goals that might not positively impact culture is not a prudent way to achieve lofty goals.  Always remember that implementing and sustaining change is more of a marathon than a race.


Success in organizations is never the result of one person.  Great leaders celebrate the accomplishments of others above their own.  They are always quick to build others up as a way to share how their efforts have led to better outcomes.  As the old cliché goes, there is no “I” in team. Great leaders understand that they have to get the majority of their people moving in the same direction not because they have to, but because they want to. A focus on the collective can help to achieve this.


For the most part, there are no handouts in life.  Just because someone has a title, position, or power does not mean they are a leader or deserve your respect.  Leadership is about action, empathy, modeling, and selflessness.  One of the best ways to earn respect is not to ask others to do what you are not willing to do or have not done yourself.  You don’t have to be likable to earn this. 


There might not be a more critical focus than this one.  A person who possesses this quality is viewed as honest, moral, honorable, righteous, fair, and trustworthy.  In a recent article, Marcel Schwantes said this about integrity, “It holds intelligence and energy together, or everything crumbles.” He continues to go on by explaining that integrity is what makes it hard to question a person's decisions. His or her actions are open for everyone to see and you can rest assured that he or she will use good judgment. Integrity is the essence of great leadership. 

When it comes to effective leadership, and the qualities leaders possess, you don’t have to be on one side of the fence.  The key is to embrace both the artistic and scientific aspects while growing into the best leader for your respective organization, school, or district. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Meaningful Learning Begins and Ends with the Opportunities We Create

Learning hasn’t really changed, but the conditions that impact and influence it has. In Learning Transformed my co-author Tom Murray and I detailed eight keys backed by research and evidence that can facilitate a transformation of practice that will result in improved outcomes and better experiences for kids.  For change to occur, it is essential to continually evaluate where we are at in the process to eventually get to where we want to be, and our learners need us to be.  Ownership and empowerment result when meaningful opportunities are created for kids to explore, interact, design, and create in real-world contexts. How well are we developing critical competencies in our learners as depicted below?

Our beliefs, values, and experiences all work to shape our respective practice. When it comes to learning the emphasis has to be on what the kids do, not the adult. Therein lies the significant distinction between teaching and learning. It’s not that the former is bad per se, but ultimately kids should be actively engaged in the thinking and the work.  As we work to create powerful learning opportunities, it is important to reflect upon and update our belief system as needed. 

I recently shared what I believed in. Don Bartolo, in his book Closing the Teacher Gap, shares a list of beliefs that should be considered when creating learning opportunities for kids. I have merged his list (italicized), which I slightly tweaked, with some of mine, as there was overlap. Bartolo suggests engaging in the following exercise where you pick 3 of the items below that most resonate with you. 
  • Knowledge must be organized around key concepts and not learned in isolation as this promotes understanding. Relevant application to construct new knowledge matters.
  • Learners must receive feedback from more knowledgeable others as well as peers. It must be timely and specific.
  • Learners must be given the opportunity to connect current knowledge with new learning to build on what they know and can do.
  • Learners need to be working for a purpose and not ritual compliance. Real engagement means students are involved and invested in their work.
  • To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.
  • Young learners need to be immersed in all kinds of texts, fiction, and nonfiction.
  • Learners need time and opportunity to practice, use, and apply what they have learned. Mistakes and approximations are a part of learning.
  • Learner perceptions must be addressed directly. Understand what students are thinking, especially when beginning a new topic or unit.
  • Spaces and environments should be more reflective of the real world.
  • Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it still does.
  • Technology can be a game-changer with a solid pedagogical foundation.
  • All kids can learn.
  • Chase growth, no perfection.
So which of the above did you choose in your quest to transform learning? The key going forward is to reflect upon what you feel can help to create meaningful learning opportunities for students and decide what actions need to be taken on your part. It is important to note that we must also work to create powerful learning opportunities for ourselves. 

For more questions that can help guide you in the process of improving student and professional learning check out the free Learning Transformed Study Guide from ASCD. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Are Your Beliefs?

What do you believe in professionally? We all possess a particular set of beliefs that are shaped by our respective value system.  

These impact our work and ultimately determine whether we are successful or not. Mark Lenz provides this great perspective:
Beliefs. We all have them. They came from somewhere. They probably started forming in us as young children and have been strengthened through time. Or maybe they’ve changed over the years. Changing a belief or a belief system is a big deal because our minds are wired to think that our beliefs are the correct ones. It’s been said we are creatures of habit. That’s because we believe the way we do things, the way we think, is right.
I would wager that many of our beliefs in education stem from how we were taught at some point. It is also fair to say that others developed based on how we were led or what others modeled for us.  In either case, once beliefs are in place, people have a hard time changing them when challenged as Lenz alluded to above.  The fact of the matter is what we believe in, can and should evolve. In a world influenced by disruptive change and where information is readily accessible it only makes sense that we are open to adapting what we currently believe in or even developing a whole new set of beliefs.

Having a set of beliefs that align with professional values can be a tremendous asset when it comes to creating a vibrant learning culture primed for success. Mine have certainly changed over the years in large part to first moving from a fixed to growth mindset and my experiences as a teacher and administrator.  They continue to evolve now based on my work in schools, current research, and evidence as to what actually works in what seems like an ocean of never-ending opinions on what educators should be doing.  

Here is what anchors my current belief system.

All kids can learn.

Regardless of zip code or label, every single student who walks into a school is capable of learning. We must be cognizant of the fact that each child is unique and as such he or she learns differently. For this fact alone, we must be open to differentiated and personalized pedagogical strategies. All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it.

Purpose in learning must be a priority.

School should unleash student passions and creativity, not stifle them. If there are relevance and meaning, kids will be able to tell you why they are learning something, how they will use it outside of school, and what they actually learned. Curriculum and standards are essential, but so are the interests of students as well as the opportunity to authentically apply new knowledge. 

Technology can be a game-changer with a solid pedagogical foundation.

Tools of the digital world provide the means to support and enhance learning like never before.  When adopting a pedagogy first, technology second, and with an appropriate mindset, purposeful use can innovate assessment, increase collaboration, improve feedback, transform time frames (where, when), and empower kids to own their learning like never before. 

Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it still does.

The past teaches us not to repeat the same mistakes. The information age has taught us to take a critical lens to practice to improve. We now know that certain homework and grading practices are not effective. If we employ the same type of thinking, then we will get the same old results, or they might be less than what we want. Take the time to reflect on past practice to improve current practice. 

Look through an empathetic lens.

It is impossible to know what is going on in the minds of kids.  Sometimes things can be so bad that they either act out or shut down.  In the words of Jackie Gerstein, “All kids have worth. Some, though, want to prove to us that they have none. Our job as caring educators is to prove them wrong.” When times get tough with kids, try to put yourself in their shoes.

Spaces and environments should be more reflective of the real world.

Ask yourself if you would want to learn in the same spaces and under the same conditions as all of the kids in your school.  If the answer is no, then it is time to embrace a new belief.  Research has shown that classroom design (furniture, layout, temperature, color, acoustics, lighting) impact learning. Elements such as comfort, flexibility, and choice provide the needed elements for blended learning that can meet the needs of more kids.

A push for efficacy benefits all.

I will sound like a broken record here as I have written so much on this topic over the years. Evidence, research, and accountability all matter if we are serious about scaling change. A focus on each of these areas brings more credibility to ideas and strengthens collective calls for innovative change. Efficacy matters plain and simple. 

Chase growth, not perfection.

In education, there is no perfect lesson, teacher, administrator, school, or district.  There is always room for improvement. It took me a while to adopt this belief but has probably impacted me the most as of late.  Striving to be a better iteration of ourselves each day can help us be the best for those we serve.

What do you believe in? Please share in the comments section below. 

Beliefs and values help to not only guide but also influence our work. As everything around us evolves, so should our thinking.  Being open to this shift will go a long way to growing professionally and creating schools that work better for kids. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Build a Door for Opportunity to Knock On

If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.” – Milton Berle

I love the quote above. It did not resonate with me early in my career as a school administrator, but later became sort of a personal mantra.  For years I always looked at the world through a “glass half empty” lens.  Challenges morphed into excuses, and in the end, nothing changed.  In a sense, I wasn’t pushed to be innovative or bring about substantive changes that genuinely impact school culture in powerful ways. The same old thinking typically leads to the same old results. However, in disruptive times a traditionalist mindset can lead our schools and us further down a path of obscurity.  

Opportunity presents itself in many ways and is defined as a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.  I love this definition, as there are so many apparent connections to a growth mindset, entrepreneurship, and innovation.  However, we must understand that opportunities will not just drop in our laps if a culture of possibility is not developed.  You can always wish for something, and if you are lucky, it might come true. Unfortunately, this is not realistic or practical.  On the other hand, you can act to create a different and better culture defined by actual outcomes aligned with improvement. 

David Brit provides some excellent context on discovering opportunity.
"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly." 
Look for the new opportunity. 
It might be hidden; it might be obvious, but it is there. You now have an altered perspective because of what happened. Use this perception creatively to seek out the direction which will empower you in a way unlike ever before. 
Ask yourself what extraordinary thing it is that you now will be, do or have because of this? That is because "X" happened, I now will have "Y," and would never have had "Y" if "X" never happened. Therefore, "X" serves as the catalyst to put you into the advantageous position of the journey toward, and ultimately, being, doing or having "Y."
Don’t just discover opportunity, but also build doors to welcome it in.  Herein lies the lesson I learned during my journey. The Pillars of Digital Leadership provided the circumstances and conditions to create the door for opportunity to knock on. The interconnectivity and symbiotic nature of each pillar led my school and me down a path that allowed us to reap the fruits of our labor.  As you will see in the image below, each pillar lends itself to the next. Think of it as a way to build a better foundation and then scaffold from there. Here is a simple three-step approach to put this process into perspective:

  1. Improve the work (Pillars 1 - 3)
  2. Share the work (Pillars 4 – 6)
  3. Follow-up on opportunities that arise (Pillar 7)

The work is learning for our kids. It requires taking a critical lens to our practice to build pedagogical capacity that will allow innovative ideas to thrive.  After a better and stronger foundation is in place, the next step requires an evolution of the spaces and environments that influence the conditions impacting student learning. Finally, one cannot forget a commitment amongst all educators to pursue professional growth opportunities that lead to innovative changes practice.

Once efforts have been undertaken to improve the work the next step seems simple. In reality, it should be, but a focus on communications and public relations using a multi-faceted approach to meet stakeholders where they are at requires a certain level of consistency. By getting information out there and telling your story, a brand presence organically forms. It is here where opportunity arises. 

Case in point. Once we committed to improving the learning culture at my former school, we shared evidence of success, including achievement. The dynamic combination of innovation and efficacy resulted in the New York City media visiting our school 14 times in 5 years to share our story with millions of people. Our use of social media only amplified this even more. National outlets such as USA Today, Education Week, and Scholastic Administrator soon jumped on the bandwagon. Unprecedented media coverage was only one unintended consequence. During this time frame, we also received hundreds of thousands of dollars of technology, professional development, and off-site learning experiences for our students.  

There are endless opportunities available if you create the conditions for them to materialize.