May 18, 2013 by Bill Zima
At what point did leading a school through a continuous improvement process become so confusing? In my educational leadership classes, I spent a great deal of time focusing on what leadership is and developing a philosophy that would guide me. I thought I had it all figured out. I learned the difference between first order and second order change. I was told to have a vision, communicate it regularly, and work to make it a reality. I also needed to remember that I would be leading people and not machines. They will no longer respond to top-down dictates. If you want to make lasting change to improve education, you must include people in the conversation so they can weigh-in before they buy-in. Okay. Simple. I earned an ‘A’, completed my master’s degree, and felt ready to change the world!
Then I became a building leader, and suddenly someone had put a giant slab of granite in front of me, and I could not see a path forward. I shared my vision, but people pushed back. No matter how hard I tried to communicate, they became more confused, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Even those initially excited about the reforms became skeptical of their possibilities. I was at a loss.
I began to read more and more from leaders and business consultants on how to become a better leader. The words of Bob Sutton, Dan Heath, Lee Cockerell, and John Wooden, amongst others, allowed me to begin forming theories of how I could lead my colleagues. A big breakthrough came when my district chose to partner with the Reinventing Schools Coalition who entered with the “tools” to drive change. Now I had the why, the how, and the tools to do it. (more…)
March 8, 2013 by Bill Zima
Those who have had the experience of living or working in a large city know the rush of seeing your subway train in the station and believing you can make the dash to the door before they close. Moving and dodging past passengers, you begin to feel great. “I am going to make it,” you think. The crowd begins to cheer. You can already feel the celebration. Will you spike your briefcase or simply do a quick shuffle dance. Then out of nowhere, you smash into something. Your nose is throbbing. After a moment you realize the doors have closed. You can see the driver looking at you with a smile on her face. Not in a mocking way but in an apologetic, “Sorry, the trains must stay on schedule” way. As the passengers glance up, you can sense the sympathy in their eyes. They know that feeling of being on the outside looking in.
The same crushing defeat in our Superbowl of ordinary, time-based challenges could be said for air travel, elevators and rides at Disney World. But it should not be felt by our students in our schools.
February 4, 2013 by Bill Zima
1970′s ZOOM from website
When talking with people who are not educators, I often think of Fannee Doollee, a character from the Zoom television series, which ran on PBS in the late seventies, who has a fascination with double letters. Fannee Doollee loves one thing but hates something very similar. For example, she loves swEEts but hates candy (notice the double EE in sweets). Similarly, in my conversation with parents and community leaders, I am always amazed at how they can advocate for one thing while mocking a possible solution.
For example, last week I found myself at a round table with eight influential community members. Then it happened. One of the leaders begins talking about her granddaughter in Virginia and how the school gives students a chance to “do over” an assignment until they get it right. She looked at me and pleaded, “Bill, tell me your school does not do that.” All heads nodded in support, and then slowly turned toward me. Enter the image of Fannee Doollee; “They love having students prePPed, but hate giving them time to learn.” (more…)
December 3, 2012 by Bill Zima
Oh the lure of the quick fix. Humans are fascinated with them. Without this attraction, con artists and snake oil salesmen would not be viable professions. We see the desire to solve something quickly in the hero who simply needs to make a single correct decision, and the world is saved.
I recently watched a special commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris. The host suggested the amazing play led to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dominance in the 1970s. I am pretty sure, however, that the catch did not cause a giant shift in the cosmos allowing for the Steelers to win four Superbowls. In fact, it was a team effort. After all, they did have a defensive line referred to collectively as the Iron Curtain.
It does make for a good story though.
In education, we too are susceptible to the hunt for the one right answer. “This program will raise test scores; all you need to do is have students write more; we need Singapore math; STEM is the key.” While all of these are legitimate arguments for how we can improve instruction, they are only a piece in how we improve learning. Educators need to stop seeking the “Silver Bullet.” It does not exist.
Instead, we need to do the slow and sometimes painful work of developing and effectively executing a strategy. Competency-based education, or Customized Learning, is not an “it” that comes in an easy to install program packet. It requires a shift away from the status quo. What worked for us in my school and district was this:
A process of facilitated conversations amongst all stakeholders that led to the establishment of a philosophical lens through which all decisions pass.
Those that pass are implemented; those that do not are dismissed or adjusted. I will break the statement down into sections to better clarify:
- Process: The strategy should include well scripted actions that help to move your school or district closer to your vision.
- Facilitated Conversations: It is important– almost critical– to use individuals from outside the district who have expertise in leading change. My district has been partnering with the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) for the past four years.
- All Stakeholders: All people who have an investment in the school need to have their voices heard and offer input into the direction of the system. The decisions should not be driven by people who lack expertise to make the informed choices, but they all should have an input into the bigger picture.
- Philosophical Lens: By gathering the input from the stakeholders, a shared vision of what the perfect school or system looks and sounds like should be created.
- Decisions are passed: When we make a decision for how we will proceed to overcome an identified challenge, we must pass the decision through our lens. If it does not make it through, we seek another solution. Only those things that line with our beliefs are implemented. (more…)
November 7, 2012 by Bill Zima
I met with a group of teachers yesterday for our monthly check in. The group is made up of individuals that willingly volunteered to try some of the processes and procedures of a customized classroom. They are omnivorous learners. They are the energetic group that is willing to jump in, give it a try, reflect, and then adjust. They are not concerned about building the airplane while it is flying. They have absolute confidence they can hit the exhaust vent and blow up the Death Star. . .most likely finding Obi-Wan Kenobi’s constant reminders as irritating; Yea, yea I got it. The Force. But, even with their voracious appetite and willingness to find the path through the ambiguity, they can sometimes talk themselves astray.
The issue this month: the role of direct instruction. Somehow, somewhere, someway, the idea that a teacher should talk directly with students has become part of the “old way.” The idea that students need to “learn on their own” is the new way. We want learners who can figure this stuff out. They need to struggle, ask questions, and seek those answers using their own reasoning. “Direct instruction is so old school. I need to get out of their way.”
This was not the first time I had heard that customized learning meant stepping out of students’ way. I was just surprised that it was being mentioned by my colleagues. I had worked hard to not allow that idea to sink in. I firmly believe that the direct instruction of material from the expert (the teacher) to the novice (the learner) is a legitimate and effective means of the transfer of information, data, facts, and skills. While teachers should refrain from giving out answers and allow students the opportunity to struggle, they need to be in the middle, monitoring, prompting, and guiding during all steps of the learning process, especially as the students begin to construct relevance from classroom lessons. It’s what I like to call the “input” step of the learning process. (more…)