Sunday, November 28, 2021

What it Means to Be an Equitable Leader

So, what is the secret sauce when it comes to effective leadership? This is a tricky question to answer as there is no definitive right way to lead and no shortage of advice available that you can weed through.  Just go on a trip to your local bookstore or visit Amazon, and you can quickly be immersed in a wealth of knowledge and perspective on the topic.  While the ideas and strategies might seem valuable on the surface, it is critical to align each with the context in which you lead to determine practicality. Just because it sounds good doesn’t imply it will work for you. In many cases, you must find the style that works best for you while also being flexible that this might fluctuate based on the needs of those you serve or the initiative you are trying to move to scale.  

I shared the following in Digital Leadership

Leadership isn’t telling people what to do but instead taking them where they need to be.

The phrase above is what I feel epitomizes the equitable leader.  There isn’t one blanket approach that has the magical ability to empower staff. Instead, it is all about a diversified strategy that works to meet both collective and individual needs.  Minal Bopaiah and Jessica Zucal shared what people truly want from a leader:

They want an equitable leader. Someone who sees the system. Someone who is not tolerant of difference but rather so comfortable with it that they are willing to embrace it and make it a feature, not a bug of the workplace. They want someone who understands that great organizations encourage everyone to play to their strengths instead of insecurely asking everyone to fit into a mold of the “ideal” employee.

Equitable leaders:

  1. Justify decisions using research and evidence
  2. Look through the lens of staff to better understand their point of view, overcome personal bias, and develop a more inclusive perspective
  3. Seek consensus whenever possible by involving others in the decision-making process to increase embracement
  4. Clearly communicate why, how, and what when it comes to change
  5. Show openness to other pathways, ideas, and strategies
  6. Offer unwavering support that is differentiated in areas such as time, resources, and professional learning
  7. Model expectations to illustrate a commitment to the change process
  8. Exhibit vulnerability by admitting mistakes or when they don’t know something

Equitable leadership is all about understanding the needs of those you serve in order to accomplish collective goals. It hinges on providing people with what they need, when and where they need it, to ensure success. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Experience Can Be the Best Teacher

The earliest known version of the proverb that serves as the title for this post is attributed to Julius Caesar.  You might have noticed that I tweaked it a little bit by replacing “is” with “can” to prove a point in a little bit. While knowledge is undoubtedly essential, the act of using it effectively to implement shared and individual goals is what truly matters.  Through experience, we hone our craft and grow. At least, this is what the end goal should be if we are to learn from it to continually get better. 

I vividly remember an experience a few years back that radically changed my trajectory as a facilitator of learning. During a breakout session at a large national conference, I had a packed room, which is something most presenters yearn for, and I was no different.  Since I was relatively new in this space, I reverted to what I was comfortable with and talked at them for seventy minutes. Quite frankly, my thinking was that this is what they actually wanted at a conference.  In my mind, I was doing exceptionally well as only a few people left during the session.  When it was all over, I felt pretty good.

Later that evening, I pulled up Twitter to see if there was any chatter about my session. At the time, I wish I hadn’t, as I got skewered by numerous attendees. In a nutshell, I was told that I talked at them the entire time, provided no opportunities for discourse, and didn’t allow for needed reflection on the concepts presented.  As much as the critical feedback stung, it became a catalyst for my growth in the professional learning space. I had veered away from the strategies that I had championed as a principal with my staff and needed to make concerted efforts to increase agency across any type of session I facilitated.  In this case, experience was the best teacher, but only because I acted on feedback in order to grow. 

Experience can be the best teacher when it leads to:

  • Construction of new knowledge
  • Reflection to improve 
  • Openness to and acting on feedback 
  • Seeking out different perspectives
  • Regularly engaging in opportunities to improve 
  • Knowing that growth is a never-ending journey

As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. This isn’t necessarily true, although it can be if the outcomes listed above are embraced.  It is critical that we reflect on our experience and continually grow. Doing something the same way for twenty years doesn’t mean someone is effective. If our practice doesn’t change or improve, then experience doesn’t mean very much.  

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Curiosity: The Ultimate Learning Trigger

When I reflect on my childhood, there were numerous profound experiences that impacted my trajectory. I still vividly remember spending my summers in Ocean City, NJ, where one set of my grandparents resided.  To this day, there is just something magical about the beach.  My grandfather Robert Lewis had many hobbies that intrigued my brothers and me.  One of them was making jewelry. While could craft any stone into something beautiful, he often chose amethyst as purple was my grandmother’s favorite color.  He was also fond of using opals, which my mom really loved.  It was so interesting that we asked for a rock polishing machine so that we could attempt to make our own jewelry. Though not as successful as him, we did create some interesting pieces. 

There was another hobby of his that captured my attention even more and that was surf fishing.  I really didn’t care if he even caught anything as long as I was able to venture with him to the beach and look for shells or sea creatures. On successful days I would bring back live sea stars and hermit crabs in a bucket. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I discovered this wasn’t the best of ideas. When my grandfather did catch fish, he would put them in either a bucket or a small gully for us to watch.  Even though his intended target was flounder, he always seemed more successful hooking either sand sharks or blue-clawed crabs. Nonetheless, I got my parents to buy a field guide so I could learn more about local marine life. While my time with him was much too short, his influence on me was and still is strong. I eventually pursued and received a degree in marine biology.

Each example above shows the power of curiosity as a trigger for learning. Whether it was the hobbies of my grandfather or just being on the beach, each experience entailed observations and questions, which led to further exploration fueled by intrinsic motivation. Brain research validates how critical curiosity can be when it comes to learning. Here is an excerpt from a 2014 article in Scientific American by Daisy Yuhas:

“Researchers asked 19 participants to review more than 100 questions, rating each in terms of how curious they were about the answer. Next, each subject revisited 112 of the questions—half of which strongly intrigued them whereas the rest they found uninteresting—while the researchers scanned their brain activity. During the scanning session participants would view a question then wait 14 seconds and view a photograph of a face totally unrelated to the trivia before seeing the answer. Afterward the researchers tested participants to see how well they could recall and retain both the trivia answers and the faces they had seen. 

They discovered that greater interest in a question would predict not only better memory for the answer but also for the unrelated face that had preceded it. A follow-up test one day later found the same results—people could better remember a face if it had been preceded by an intriguing question. Somehow curiosity could prepare the brain for learning and long-term memory more broadly. This, it can be concluded that Curiosity boosts people's ability to learn and retain new information, thanks to key reward and memory centers in the brain. ... For questions that they were curious about, participants remembered answers better than for questions in which they were less interested.”

Here are some ways to seamlessly infuse curiosity across the curriculum:

 In the words of Ken Robinson, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.”

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Upgrading the KWL Chart

There are many strategies at the disposal of a teacher to help students learn.  The anticipatory set functions as a hook at the beginning of the lesson for motivation, while closure ties everything together. Routine checks for understanding provide valuable feedback as to whether or not instruction is hitting the mark. Turn and talk allows for needed discourse.  While all of these are pedagogically sound, they don’t matter much if kids are unsure of where the lesson is going.  Learning targets provide valuable clarity on expectations.

  1. Why did we learn this and what will I be able to do when I’ve finished this lesson?
  2. What idea, topic, or subject is important for me to learn and understand so that I can do this?
  3. How will I show that I can do this, and how well will I have to do it to demonstrate that I have learned something new?

Here is something I shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

Developing learning targets does not go far enough, though. Learners need to understand the point of a lesson just as much as a teacher or administrator. Imparting relevance through a specific context and appli¬cation helps achieve this. However, everything must be tied together from the learner’s point of view. This is why closure and reflection at the end of the lesson are crucial. Either or both of these elements can be tied to the use of a KWL chart. 

There are variations of this resource, but for the most part, it is commonly structured in the following way:

K – What I know.

W – What I want to know or what I wonder.

L – What I learned.

There is always an opportunity to build upon existing resources to make them more effective and meaningful.  Hence the evolution of the KWL to KWHLAQ. Below, you will see what this chart looks like as presented in the book and the various question stems to spark and cultivate disruptive thinking. While I have developed some question stems for each category, educators can expand on them to align with local curriculum. 

From a pedagogical standpoint, it is essential to build reflection into daily learning activities to bring the learning process full circle. Bottom line: everyone—especially our students—should understand the point of a lesson. The KWHLAQ chart not only connects to prior learning and interests but also provides the means to showcase learning.