It’s awkward to write about leadership as a leader. I write this to share not my accomplishments but my strategy of the last 20 months leading my school, the success of which remains to be seen and is for others to evaluate.
Soon I will be presenting, along with two Head of School colleagues and Ken Kay, founder and longtime President of the Partnership for 21st century skills and now of EdLeader21, on the topic of 21st Century Learning at NAIS Schools: Leading and Networking for Progress.
As part of this session, each of us will speak of our vision of leadership for progress; in preparation, this preview.
Leadership is, more than anything else, a project of managing change. We are living in a time of accelerating societal, technological, and global change, but our schools, many of them, are struggling to adapt to these changing times in order to provide our students an education that will be compelling, meaningful, enriching and preparatory. Leadership is required across the educational sector to lead our schools through this transformative era.
A suggested Seven Steps for Leading in 21st century learning.
1. Develop the Vision (and Keep Developing it). We can’t lead if we don’t have a sense of the direction we are headed; we can’t influence change if we don’t have clarity about what that change should be. These visions should be grounded in research and knowledge about educational practices and the unique qualities of independent institutions. Our vision must be wise, bold, and inspiring to ourselves and others: it ought to give us and our constituents purpose and passion for the challenge of educating students in the 21st century.
In this fast-changing era, our visions must be dynamic, adapting themselves to new tools and techniques, new information and understandings. Leaders must be learners: as I have written before, school-leaders must be learners-in-chief. Hence, an educational visionary (or any kind of visionary) in our age must practice and exemplify a Dweckian “growth mindset,” vigorously open-minded to new ideas, ready to re-think assumptions and preconceptions, and never believing either that something new is too hard to learn. Networking too, in person and online, is another great tool by which we as leaders can learn and model learning.
Holding idealist and informed visions and readily adapting them to new understanding also enables us as school-leaders to model a 21st century mindset and greatly strengthens our ability to manage change in our schools.
2. Articulate the vision. I like very much the book, Leading Quietly by Badaracco, and it has long influenced me and my leadership. But as wise as that book is, I think there is a critical need for leaders to be louder in articulating visions for our schools. School-leaders ought to be bold in declaring their vision and in advocating fiercely for it. At Open Houses and in Hiring we should be emphatic about the difference our schools provide and the future we are progressing toward. In faculty, board, and parent meetings and communications we can seek to convey our vision and reiterate it again and again, understanding the importance of repetition and thematic consistency. Online now, via social media never before available, we can communicate our visions, using narrative, image, and video to inform, illuminate, and advocate for the change we seek.
3. Clarify and spotlight the learning outcomes, some externally measurable. The vision, as above, will likely be idealistic and sometimes a bit abstract: that is OK– it needs to be inspiring and supple. But inevitably it will be then vulnerable to the criticism that it is problematically vague, perhaps a sound and fury amounting to nothing.
So balance the vision by offering the specific: what does the vision mean when actualized in the learning environment? As I have written often, I think use of Pat Basset’s “demonstrations of learning” is a great technique for this actualization, one we have yet to implement. Another is to be more forthright in the skills, mindsets, and habits of mind we are committed to developing in our students, and to do more to embed them into the school program via report cards, conferencing and student goal setting, which we are doing at St. Gregory with our “Essential Goals for Gregorians.”
We are also taking to the next level our clarifying, spotlighting, and measuring intended learning outcomes by our emphasis on the College Work Readiness Assessment, which gives us hard and compelling data on how well our students are doing accomplishing essential higher order thinking skills. By way of the High School Survey of Student Engagement, we also collect data on how our students perceive their learning: is it challenging and technologically savvy, does it promote their creativity, and critical thinking?
4. Put the tools in place. In an era of dramatically diminished resources, getting the learning tools necessary to support the vision and empower the student learning we are seeking is no easy task. Within realm of influence you have as a school-leader, strive to allocate those precious resources you are able to identify to put the tools in place as best can be done. We went to 1:1 this year, providing students netbooks and upgrading our campus wifi; we did so in the most economically efficient way we could, and it is a strain, but these are the learning tools our students require and so we pushed to make it happen.
5. Promote Teaching Techniques Aligned with the Vision. 21st century learning demands we rethink pedagogy, and strengthen our practice in the teaching and learning techniques which will be best suited to our 21st century learners and their 21st century future. School-leaders have a responsibility to lead in this area too, promoting among our faculties opportunities to learn more about these techniques, via assigned summer reading, prioritized professional development funding, and highlighted examples of these practices inside and outside our schools. I think it ideal to do this by encouraging and sponsoring those teachers in our midst who are most practiced in these techniques to share and model them to their colleagues.
Many would write here that it is our responsibility as school-leaders to “train” our teachers in these techniques, but I hope readers will note that I chose not to use that word or concept. “Training” smacks far too much for me of a leadership mode with which I am not comfortable: our educators are extraordinary professionals and it is not my role to “train” them to do as I direct.
6. Provide the Time for Professional Learning, Collaborative Planning, and Reflective Practice. We can’t begin to manage change for our schools if we don’t provide our professional educators the time they require for growth, planning, and collaboration.
This needs to be structured, sheltered and shared time; at our school we took this kind of time from an hour a month to two hours a week, with a guideline for ourselves it not be used for administrative meetings or for individual teach work-time. Two hours a week, better than before, still isn’t enough– research shows from educationally high achieving nations that teachers there have more professional time for these purposes, and I have seen myself at schools like High Tech High and New Tech Network that they prioritize so strongly this kind of time. We must not stop trying to provide better time for our educators.
7. Celebrate Success; Showcase What’s Working. We should always be proud of our schools and excited about our school’s successes. Accentuate the positive and celebrate every event which exemplifies the learning we seek for our students. In school-leader communications, (and blogs), we should do more than articulate the vision but showcase the examples of the vision in action. I’ve been doing some of this (the trebuchet videos come quickly to mind), but I am eager to do this more and better.
Before concluding, some self-evaluation: How well do my leadership steps accord themselves with Dan Pink’s Drive, which articulates brilliantly a vision of leadership in the new era. In it, he says that effective management is that which promotes and affirms among employees and students three cardinal values: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
Purpose: As above, we should put a priority on vision, and our vision ought be idealistic; schooling full of purpose, engaging meaningfully our students, building a strong learning community for all, and providing our students what they need to be successful in making the world a better place. If our vision is lofty and we work effectively to share it, purpose will be the least of our worries.
Mastery: For successful motivation and management, we ought strive for environments which affirm the growth mindset and the opportunity to grow, learn, take risks, make mistakes, and engage in a never-ending quest for improvement. This leadership approach as articulated explicitly adopts the growth mindset as paramount, and by the provision of resources for improved techniques and the time to learn, reflect, and collaborate, seeks to promote environments where the quest for mastery is celebrated.
Autonomy: Pink is beautifully idealistic and compelling in his advocacy of the value of autonomy in the workplace, and I am inspired by his idealism. Autonomy is the area which is likely to be most fraught with complexity for any organizational leader and and school-leader. I am asserting, in my leadership, a vision for the future of our educational practice which I am asking all to align themselves with, and I am choosing what we will measure and what techniques we will emphasize, and I am structuring to a large extent the way time will be used, and in doing so, I recognize and fear I am trespassing against absolute standards of autonomy.
To date, I have taken care not to direct how teaching must change in our classrooms. I advocate vigorously for PBL, Performance Task Assessment, and the use of technology to enhance learning, but I have not ever told our fine teachers they must change how they teach.
The time piece is tricky. In advocating to parents at our school for the late-start time for our teachers, I feel I made a promise of sorts that we would be very conscientious in how we use this time. I schedule this time in ways which delegate authority for the time use: department meetings are largely (not entirely) left to the discretion of department chairs, and twice monthly Critical Friends Groups are entirely under the direction of CFG leaders (and their groups as they plan together). Only a few times have I left “open” a late-start hour, for complete autonomy, because of my commitment to parents that we will use these precious hours in high-value ways, but in reflecting on Pink, I do need to appreciate how high value such an autonomous time can provide and put more of this time-use into place. What will still be important to me is some accountability for the time use: in many of Pink’s examples, the companies which provide open-time insist on some some sharing thereafter of how the time was used, and I think this is a defensible way to reconcile greater autonomy with continuing accountability.
Leadership, they say all too often, is lonely, and perhaps that is so, but effective leadership in a fast-changing era will be greatly enhanced by collaboration and networking among school-leaders. Steven Johnson, among many others, makes the case compellingly that innovation and improvement is a social product, not the result of genius in isolation, and so too we school-leaders should pro-actively seek to improve our networks.
I’m greatly looking forward to learning more about leadership strategies this week at NAIS in general, and in our session particularly, both from my fellow panelists and from those in the audience. Together, I hope ,we can inform and support each other in this essential work, and build from this session a stronger network of school-leaders who share this passion and project.