Sunday, July 31, 2022

Learner Paths are Rarely the Same

At times I find myself claiming that I am a visual learner. Hence, I try to have an original image to go along with most blog posts I write. While text adds needed details and depth, the accompanying visuals provide more context. They also do a great job capturing the attention of prospective readers. I am not alone in my affinity for pictures. Researchers at MIT found that the brain can process images as quickly as 13 milliseconds. Now that is fast! 

While my preference as a learner might be through visuals, I know there are other pathways as well. Herein lies the foundational tenant of personalized learning, something I shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms

Personalization is ALL kids getting what they need when and where they need it to learn.

I have written extensively on the many ways to personalize learning, but like most things, there are always different lenses and strategies that can be used. During my coaching work with educators, I always try to make the concept as simple as possible by showing the unique pathways to help kids learn. Enter the Relevant Thinking Framework. The premise is as simple as it is powerful. Learning occurs when students are challenged to think and apply their thinking in relevant ways.  

This framework is a tool to examine curriculum, instruction, and assessment along the two dimensions of increasing cognition and student outcomes. It can be used in the development of personalized pedagogical techniques in alignment with virtually any strategy. In addition, teachers can use it to monitor their own progress in adding higher-level thinking and relevance while selecting appropriate strategies for differentiation and facilitation of learning goals. In a previous post, I discussed getting kids into the learning pit, which moves them naturally through the various quad but in no specific order. The movement is dictated by where they currently are and how they eventually get to where they need to be, a hallmark of personalization. 

The journey to quad D is never linear. It will also look different for every learner, so don’t get fixated on where I put the dots on the image above. Another critical aspect is that you don’t need technology to personalize. Authenticity, deeper meaning, academy programs, and different ways to show learning are just as powerful in providing kids with what they need to succeed. As students work to answer scaffolded questions while grappling with solving real-world problems, their process will look different. Hence, there will be many learning paths towards and eventually into Quad D. 

Learning is a personal process, not an event.  

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Get Students into the Learning Pit

In life, I would wager that the majority of us prefer the path of least resistance. After all, this is human nature. While we avoid challenges for many reasons, our mindset often keeps us from pushing ourselves if we are comfortable where we are at or we see a more straightforward path forward. Through an inherent fear of failure, mental blocks materialize to keep us in a safe place – free from dealing with potential adversity. Now, this isn’t always the case, but we have all been here at some point. The way we think is often the byproduct resulting from years of conditioning, not being pushed, or a lack of good feedback.

As you process my thoughts above, think about your experience as a student. Were you consistently empowered to think critically and apply what you had learned in authentic ways to solve real-world problems? For me, it was relatively hit or miss. While I can rely on YouTube now to help me solve problems around the house, I still lack the confidence to tackle more significant issues and often rely on friends and family for help. Now think about the conditions where students today learn and live. The world is becoming increasingly disruptive, making it hard to predict with any sense of accuracy what the future holds. Hence the need to create the conditions in all classrooms to prepare our learners with the competencies required for success in a bold new world.

Some people might say this is easier said than done. However, if we take a critical lens to standard practices such as questions, tasks, and assessments, we increase our ability to make some shifts that could have a profound impact. In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I included the image below of the learning pit to develop disruptive thinking, which I define as:

The ability to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems.

Take a look at the embedded responses that illustrate the journey a learner takes when empowered to think disruptively. If a student can jump over the pit, then we can deduce that there is little challenge and relevant application. What this ultimately equates to are questions, tasks, and assessments that don’t challenge kids to think and apply what they are learning across multiple disciplines or to solve either real-world predictable to unpredictable problems. When all of these elements are part of a lesson or educational experience, the result is the development of cognitive flexibility in students.  

Life is hard. Living and thriving in a disruptive world can be even more challenging without the ability to think disruptively. There is no better way to teach this life-long lesson than getting kids into the learning pit for productive struggle. Preparing students for this struggle and being explicit about learning expectations in that questions, tasks, and assessments are designed to result in struggle is intentional. Being upfront with kids is vital. Otherwise, they will think the teacher is being hard on them. In the end, it is for their benefit. 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Leading When You Don't Have the Answers

There is no shortage of advice on how to lead effectively. The simple fact, though, is that the process is rarely easy. Decisions must always be made, and sometimes delegation and consensus—both powerful elements in building a positive culture—are not suitable courses of action. The bottom line is that the buck stops with the one who has the title or is in a position of authority, whether we like it or not. When it comes to leadership, the person making the final decision is often second-guessed if there is a lack of communication or things don’t go as planned. I shared the following in a blog post back in 2017:

It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges they will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made. There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught. It’s challenging work knowing that difficult decisions sometimes will have to be made. Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction but rather the collective efforts of all. The premise of every decision and action has to be geared toward the “We” instead of “I .” It’s our experiences that help all of us to develop into better leaders, coupled with the support we get from colleagues. From experience, we learn that trying to be right all the time only makes the job exponentially harder.  

One of the most uncomfortable situations a leader can confront is when people are looking for answers on the spot and the leader doesn’t have any. This was all too common during the pandemic and will continue to persist as disruptive forces change the landscape of life and work. Throw in other societal pressures impacting education and you have one big hot mess on your hands. Let me be clear: No one has all the answers, no matter how many books they have written, keynotes delivered, or years of experience under their belt. Here are some ideas on how to lead when you don’t have the answers: 

Embrace candidness

When it comes to effective leadership, honesty and vulnerability are invaluable assets. Trust and respect are developed when a leader is candid about not having an immediate response or knowing what to do at the moment. Unless there is an emergency, be candid; it will pay off greatly down the road. 

Take time to find out

While being candid is a great start, there must be a commitment to following up with a tentative date to provide an answer. The nature of the question or problem posed will determine how much time is needed to gather the right information or develop a plan for action. Telling someone you will get back to them and then either forgetting or disregarding the challenge only points to a lack of leadership that could have negative consequences down the road. 

Develop the right questions 

While questions are more important than answers, people look to a leader to have them. However, these can be a means to an end in this case. Using inquiry can help a leader dive deeply into complex issues. These can be used for reflection or asked to the person posing the question to glean more clarity. 

Leverage what you know 

Experience might very well be your greatest asset, equipping you to solve problems or placing you on the right path to obtaining the required information. If you are unsure, admitting that you don’t have an answer at this time provides you with an opportunity to sift through accumulated knowledge and experiences. It may also allow you to provide a partial answer. 

Ask a colleague

Support networks are invaluable, and every effective leader has one readily available. There is no possible way that anyone can have enough experience to be able to answer every challenging question or solve each complex problem that comes along. Reaching out to colleagues to glean their expertise and advice will always be a sound decision. 

Lean on your PLN

While looking to colleagues for advice is great, utilizing a Personal Learning Network (PLN) provides access to countless other leaders who can provide priceless guidance when you don’t have an immediate answer. Social media tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook allow you to ask any question and receive responses from all over the globe. Be sure to add hashtags (#) to get even more eyes on your request for help from people you aren’t even directly connected with. If you don’t have a PLN, consider creating one today. For tips and best practices, check out this post. 

All of us need to be ok with not knowing. As a leader, admitting you don’t know is a sign of strength, not weakness. While it might be easy to ignore or attempt to come up with a response on the fly when you don’t have an answer, the risk you are taking can erode the confidence others have in you. Put time and effort into not only finding the best answer but developing relationships with those you serve. 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Transitioning to a Transformational Mindset

The concept of how one’s mindset plays a crucial role in growth and change is nothing new. However, there are different ways to look beyond just fixed vs. growth. I shared the following in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

A mindset is an attitude, disposition, or mood with which a person approaches a situation. In short, it’s a belief that determines the decisions we make, actions that are undertaken, and how situations are handled. How we think and act can help us identify opportunities for improve­ment. Mindsets can also function as a roadblock to progress. Our nat­ural apprehension and fear associated with change inhibits our ability to pursue new ideas and implement them with fidelity. For sustainable change to take root and flourish, there must be a belief that our actions can significantly improve outcomes. The best ideas come from those who constantly push their thinking as well as the thinking of others.

In essence, it is a broad concept that can help algin to virtually any means to grow and improve. As disruption moves at a frenetic pace in our world today, it is vital to transform how we do things. The right mindset can make or break this journey. Here are some thoughts on transitioning to a transformational mindset.

Reflect daily 

Your mindset can change regularly, and this is a good thing. One of the most powerful tools any person has is the ability to reflect on not only what doesn’t go right but also everything that goes well in relation to professional practice. People who possess a transformational mindset don’t find the time to reflect; they make the time. Consistency is key.

Develop routines

While daily reflection can become one routine, it is also critical to incorporate others into the fold. Herein lies the “secret sauce” when it comes to changing behaviors that might have an adverse impact on progress. As a principal, I ensured email was checked first thing in the morning and before leaving for the day. I also made sure to draft my daily communication to staff and have this pushed out prior to first period. Since my calendar was originally my nemesis, I made it an asset where time was blocked off after every observation to immediately write it up so the post-conference could be held the next day. These and many other routines played a considerable role in developing a transformational mindset as more time was available to focus on the bigger picture.

Be future-focused

Dwelling on the past and constantly putting our eggs in the same basket over and over has the potential to hold us and others back. Focusing too much on the present can cloud our ability to prepare for the unknown. In a disruptive world where exponential change is and will always be the norm, we must have an eye on the future. A transformational mindset embraces a thought process about the future, anticipates potential obstacles, and assists with developing a tentative plan.

Go beyond your comfort zone

Comfort is the enemy of progress. Here are some thoughts I shared in the book:

An aspect of human nature is that when we are in a state of comfort, there is no real urgency to do something differently or better. These mental habits lead to the creation of comfort zones that we rarely step outside of. Why should we if everything is great, right? Or so our mind has us believe in a false dichotomy. The result is that we often then reside in a zone that is most comfortable, resulting in risk-averse behavior that impedes personal and professional progress. What typically morphs are fallbacks on some of the most dangerous phrases in any profession such as that’s the way we have always done it, or it’s always worked this way. 

A transformational mindset pushes each of us to be honest about where we are in order to get to where we need to be to move needed change forward.

Acknowledge impediments

While this might seem a bit obvious, a fixed mindset prevents us from openly acknowledging what might set us back from achieving bold goals. Our fear of failure in the face of challenges can stymie growth even more than being comfortable. Impediments will always be there and that’s a fact. The only way to move past or conquer them is to be honest about their existence.

Embrace the sparks

Motivation and inspiration come in many forms. No matter how they materialize, the result can be sparks that serve as needed catalysts for transformational change. While the “yeah buts” can invoke fear or a sense of comfort that inhibit growth a shift in focus on the “what ifs” can serve as the fuel transforming a spark into something extraordinary. Never discount even the smallest of wins, as these often have the most significant impact in the long run.

Don’t fixate on what you can’t control. Instead, put your energy and time into making tweaks to your thought process to unlock your potential and eventually those you serve or support.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

3 Strategies for Impactful Communication

 “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” - George Bernard Shaw

It is hard to deny how important communication is for any leader, no matter their profession.  In many cases, it will make or break their success.  All too often, we have seen headlines where leaders have come under fire for hiccups or missteps in their area, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  I shared the following in Digital Leadership:

You won’t find an effective leader who isn’t an effective communicator.    Leaders who effectively communicate:  listen intently, facilitate dialogue (hear, respond, add thoughts), ask questions, get to the point clearly and concisely, create an open environment for discussion, and employ a multifaceted approach.  The best communicators focus on being present, consistent, and engaged in getting the right people the right information at the right time.

When it comes to crafting a strategy, it is always critical to think about the following prior to preparing any message or interaction:

  • Why is this important to get across, and when?
  • How will I convey the information?
  • What will tell me if I have been successful?

The above questions provide an excellent foundation for effective communications.  Below are the strategies that can harness these to ensure how you communicate has an impact. 

Get the Message Across

While the above subheader might sound simple to implement in theory, the reality is that it can be a challenge at times.  While developing the message is extremely important, so is the way that it is delivered or facilitated.  By leveraging a situational approach, a leader can determine the best strategy to use that will have the most impact.  Sometimes this might be a memo or email, while other times, it can be a phone call, handwritten note, or social media post that includes text, images, videos, or links. Different situations might call for active listening or the use of non-verbal keys. The bottom line is that getting the message across requires flexibility and an openness to various means at your disposal.

Knowing your audience is also about accepting the fact that you might not be the best person to communicate the message.  Former Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski shared the following:

“Recognize that yours is not the only voice that your team wants or needs to hear, and be unselfish with your leadership.    By allowing others to lead and by using their voices, you show that you are a stronger leader.    Their voices can help you increase your team’s attention-span window and can often convey a message that resonates in a way that could never have come from the leader.”

Understand Your Audience

Just because you prefer a specific means of communication or technique doesn’t infer that your stakeholders do as well.  The same can be true about the information that you feel is valuable to convey.  I shared the following in Digital Leadership:

Just as teachers differentiate for a variety of learning styles in the classroom, it is important for schools to differentiate their communication efforts if we want true stakeholder partnerships between home, school, and the greater community.    For school leaders, communication and community relations have been identified as one of the nine most important skills to master (Hoyle, English, & Steffy, 1998).

Your audience is comprised of different demographics and age groups.  In the digital age, a multifaceted approach that meets stakeholders where they are at while engaging them in two-way communication is actively embraced.  Popular tools such as Snapchat and Tik Tok are just as valuable, if not more so than Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  While social media should play a massive role in engaging your audience and getting the message across, leveraging a brandED mindset and empathetic lens is invaluable as it helps you create powerful relationships through communication pathways.  You can rarely go wrong with stories that pull at different emotions.  Tech is and never will be the end all be all. 

Connect to Learning and School Culture 

Whether it is getting information out, providing feedback, or educating your stakeholders, there needs to be a compelling why, clear how, and definitive what that leads to the message resonating with your audience.  Effective leaders not only address concerns but also proudly share all that is being done to help learners succeed.  While exceptions exist, you can rarely go wrong when you frame communications around learning and a vibrant school culture. 

Impactful communication is a catalyst for meaningful change.  In the words of Dr. Michelle Mazur, “When you start communicating to change people, you leave a lasting legacy.  You profit from your impact, not in spite of it.”