Anticipating The Future: Imagination And The Long View

“One of the things nearing extinction is the art of longing. As in wanting something you cannon immediately have. If anything positive is to come from the situation the world finds itself in, it is my great hope that speed, instant gratification, and over stimulation are swapped out for longing, imagination and relational connection. For a child or teenager to sit thoughtfully and ponder what is to come, to hope for or envision something amazing, to dream of a place or a future.” -Brian Transeau via A Stitch in Time? Realizing the Value of Futures and Foresight

In today’s world, education and educators are going to need to do a much better and more proficient job of articulating a future that students can begin to envision and anticipate…

Take a minute and let that settle in and percolate.

We live in a world where that has become increasingly important to achieve and even more difficult to provide. We’ve entered a time when the rising tides of ambiguity and uncertainty have made the “future” a much more opaque and unknown proposition. Much like a broken down and ‘out of order’ escalator, our linear and known processes and structures of the past and present are no longer working efficiently, effectively, or find themselves to be viable for the future that is currently moving towards us, often in a turbulent and volatile manner

Which is adds to the importance of what UNESCO shares from their work on Futures Literacy. “Without images of the future that inspire hope and foster collaboration there is a high risk of despair and war.” For which UNESCO continues, “The malaise of poverty-of-the-imagination must be overcome.” Poverty of the imagination. A concept or lack thereof that we are going to need to consider deeply moving forward if our individuals and organizations are going to be able to bring their full selves and thinking to the process of creating more inclusive and better futures.

UNESCO proposes that, “Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’ A potent transformation in what people are able to know, imagine and do.”

Unfortunately, in many ways we have replaced our proactive sense of curiosity, wonder, imagination, and amazement with world that is now inundated with a passive acceptance of instant gratification based in Google searches, personalized algorithms, artificial intelligence, in an on-demand environment. We have to come to realization on how we begin to close the imagination gap that keeps us from the realization of more inclusive and better futures and leaves us mired in outdated mental models and maps. Or as futurist Peter Scoblic shares, “One of the conclusions that I’ve come to in my research is that imagination is a woefully undervalued strategic resource; and what organizations can benefit from tremendously is the institutionalization of imagination.”

In many ways, not only is it getting more and more difficult to envision the future, it is getting harder and harder to anticipate it…

It is no longer enough, as individuals and organizations, to just ask what we want to be? Anticipation requires of us that we have to be willing to ask of ourselves and our organizations where we want to go? We have to be willing to release from the short-termism in thinking that pervades the majority of our current contexts’ in order that our individuals and organizations can begin to proactively engage a long view for the future.

As Laszlo Zsolnai puts forth, “Decision-makers who strongly discount things in space and time are interested neither in the solution of long range ecological and human problems, nor in the global impacts of their activities on the natural environment and human communities. Discounting the future impacts of present generations is ethically indefensible because it renders extremely low weight to the interest of future generations.” In other words, an unwillingness to proactively consider the future and how the decisions and actions of our current circumstances has weight and bearing upon that future, is effectively showing an unwillingness to consider our future generations and the world that they will be inhabiting from us and what kind of world we have chosen to make for them. We cannot and must not release our responsibility in the present for creating a better future for those that will come after us.

We cannot choose to defer that future to our future generations…

And yet, we cannot choose to fully define that future for next generations through linear thinking, considerations of certainty, and singular narratives. Rather, we are going to have to be willing to open ourselves and our organizations to the emergence of a variety of futures and a diversity of narratives as we consider taking a long view towards the future.

Or as RSA shares in their paper A Stitch in Time? “A crucial challenge to strategic foresight relates to the idea of legitimate futures. It asks the questions whose future is it? and who has the power to decide about that future?”

It is not enough that we are engaging a long-view for the future, but a long-view that is more inclusive. Or as RSA adds, “By centering goals in our formulations of the future, we are “colonizing the future with today’s idea of tomorrow.” We see organizational vision or mission statements setting our this future in today’s corporate language, but it can only ever be shaped by today’s context and thinking. It is this challenge that anticipating emergence seeks to address. To make sense of, and engage with, emerging complexity we need a different mindset and approach.”

And as Roman Krznaric describes in RSA’s A Stitch in Time? “We have colonized the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please. The tragedy is that the unborn generations of tomorrow can do nothing about this colonialist pillaging of their future.”

Creating more inclusive futures will not only necessitate a diversity of voices and narratives, but engaging the voices and narratives of those that have been long marginalized and often remain at the edges of these considerations and conversations. If the goal is to create better futures, it will not be founded in a command and control stance. For the goal is to create, not conquer the future that our future generations will inhabit. For it is position of creation, not a control and a conquering attitude and stance, that will then allow for emergence, and openness and acceptance of that emergence, in the forming and considerations of those futures.

Or as RSA puts forth, regarding emergence, “If we anticipate emergence, we seek instead to make sense of, and change, the present. We remain open to the emergence inherent in complex systems and, rather than trying to control them, work with them to make sense of the present. As a result, we do not try to structure the future because we are no longer constrained by probability and desirability.”

There is no one future, rather there are futures. Futures that are constantly evolving and emerging. Futures that are often difficult to see, making it even more difficult to anticipate. However, no matter how non-obvious the future is that we are marching towards, we have to create the narratives that not only take a long view towards those futures, but engage an environment that allows both individuals and our organizations to take a more anticipatory stance towards those futures.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” -Noam Chomsky


Paradigm Shifts: Seeing Systems Leverage Points

“Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. it creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” -Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer

No matter how hard we try to put our systems in a neat and tidy box, they always seem to spill out. Like a bad dam on a downhill stream, the water will find a new path, a new way around. Often in ways that we can’t predict or plan for, which we are learning firsthand and constantly in our current context. As Donella Meadows shares above, “the universe is messy, it is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic.” So, no matter how many constraints, controls, or parameters we put upon those systems to keep them neat and orderly, their complexity and nonlinear behaviors have a tendency to continually ooze out, surprising us, while upending our assurances, assumptions and predictions. Or as Donella Meadows reminds us, “We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review adds in their article Changing Systems? Welcome to the Slow Movement that, “System work is not about solutions; it’s about discovering and steering local pathways for change at a pace appropriate for our ability to learn and for what local communities can enact and absorb.” Much like that ineffective dam trying stop the flow of the downhill stream, we have to approach our systems with a new lens, reframing towards new perspectives. Moving from a sense of control, to one of flows. Seeing our systems as fluid and dynamic, rather than stagnant and stationary. We have to move our lens from the dam, and a focus on control, too seeing beyond the flow, and determining how to create the conditions to guide that flow. Especially under the circumstances and context that we currently find ourselves amidst and the possible paradigm shifts we face. The organizations that will remain relevant in moving forward are shifting their mindset to be more adaptive and agile, to moving from a sense of control to supporting flows. For which Margaret Wheatley adds, “The stream has an impressive ability to adapt, to change the configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures.” 

The stream will find a way…

Or as Wheatley puts forth, “Water answers to gravity, to downhill, to the call of the ocean. The forms change, but the mission remains clear. Streams have more than one response…” Which means that today’s systems leaders need to determine how they are going to guide that stream? How they are going to determine the leverage points to guide and improve our systems, even in the midst of the complexity and chaos that we are currently facing? As Meadows shares, “A small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Which means that we have to become much more aware of what shifts, of what leverage points, can best guide our systems in moving forward, as we determine the possible futures we are determining to create.

Donella Meadows refers to these as “leverage points” or places to intervene in a complex system. Meadows, in her article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System shares twelve places to intervene in a system, which she provides in increasing order of effectiveness:

12. Constants, parameters, numbers.

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows.

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

6. The structure of information flows.

5. The rules of the system.

4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.

3. The goals of the system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters – arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

In education, as we begin to look deeper into our systems, especially as we consider such frameworks as continuous improvement, it behooves us to take a deeper view of at least a few of these “leverage points” and how they might be used not only for systems improvement, but in helping our systems become more agile and adaptable to a world that is shifting in some rather dynamic and exponential ways. Let’s review a few and begin to work our way up the “leverage” scale…

6. The Structure of Information Flows: we live in a time where networks are not only beneficial for information flow, they are beneficial for idea flows, and connecting our individuals and organizations both internally and externally. Which brings us into the work of Douglas Engelbart and the ABC model for continuous improvement through networks, of: Level A which “represents the knowledge acquired by front-line workers as they engage in their practice”; Level B which is when “learning occurs across individuals within a workplace”; and Level C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.” Unfortunately, most improvement models work only on the  A and B dimension level and struggle to move into the C level. For which Alex Pentland adds from his book Social Physics, “It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse.”

5. The Rules of the System: as Meadows shares, “As we try to imagine restructured rules and what our behavior would be under them, we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power.” Which is why that the idea of transformation is much easier than the real reckoning of what it takes to bring about any type of authentic transformation. Which gets to the overcoming of the formidable statement of “this is how we do things here.” It is also part of why the transformation rhetoric that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic has slowly arc’d back slowly over time towards more status quo thinking.

4. The Power to Add, Change, Evolve, or Self-Organize System Structure: as Meadows shares, “The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself.” All of which are an incredible heavy lift and struggle for educational institutions that have relied less on nonlinearity, adaptability, agility, and emergence, and much more on linearity, predictability, and certainty for the last hundred years. While this is a high-leverage point for system resilience, it is high-effort lift and will remain in the high-effort quadrant for some time as education looks to transform itself in the coming years.

3. The Goals of the System: as Meadows shares, “Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving.” And unfortunately, too often in education we believe that the moral purpose of education is enough for everyone to be clear about the systems goals that are determined to drive the organization forward, and it is not enough. Goals need to be articulated, they need to have meaning, they need to be continuously repeated, and they need to be worth standing up for, if they are to create any type of “leverage point” for the system.

2. The Mindset or Paradigm Out of Which the System – its Goals, Structure, Rules, Delays, Parameters – Arises: as Meadows puts forth, “Paradigms are the the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, comes systems goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems.” Meadows also shares that “paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system.” Which we are currently experiencing. A crisis does not necessarily equate into a paradigm shift, and the longer the arc of that crisis, the harder it becomes over time to make any type of consequential shift. What we often fail to realize is the deep resiliency of individual and organizational status quo and how deeply it is truly entrenched in most systems.

1. The Power to Transcend Paradigms: Meadows puts forth that, “There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is true, that everyone, including the one that shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.” Too often, and not just in education, we find ourselves tied to one paradigm, one framework, be that individually or organizationally. We are systems thinkers. We are design thinkers. We find ourselves in “vs” mindsets over “and” thinking. We tend to isolate rather than braid our thinking to begin to take us beyond the current thinking towards better strategies, concepts, frameworks, and even paradigms. Today’s individuals and organizations need to be in a constant reflective stance, rethinking and reframing, with an openness and willingness to disrupt current mindsets when new thinking creates the circumstances for and need to allow new thinking to invade those cognitive spaces. We can no longer afford to entrench our thinking in the known.

As educators look to improve systems and systems thinking in moving forward, awareness of Donella Meadows “leverage points” provides a starting point to determine how to begin reframing from a sense of trying to control our systems, to one that brings us towards being more open to guiding our systems forward in much more relevant and even transformative manner. It is in this stance, that emergence opens up new possibilities, and ultimately shifts our paradigms.

“The scarcest resource is not oil, metals, clean air, capital, labour, or technology. It is our willingness to listen to each other and learn from each other and to seek the truth rather than see to be right.” -Donella Meadows

Pulling Threads: Unraveling Foundations

“The faster the car, the further the headlights must go.” -Gaston Berger

It is difficult to put into words the amount of pain, suffering, disruption and damage this pandemic has wreaked across society. It cannot be understated, ignored or denied. And yet, on other fronts, it has acted as catalyst for rapid, sweeping change. Riding alongside this pandemic has been plethora of panruption. We’ve watched business transformed from mortar to mobile. Education has moved from the schoolhouse to the homestead. Every facet of society has experienced or continues to experience some form of change or transformation, often in an ultra-accelerated manner. And for that reason…

Adaptability, agility and learnability through volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity under continuously shifting context and circumstances has become our current environment under which we are required to survive and thrive. 

It is the environment we planned for, but never truly expected to experience or ever arrive. But no matter, as it has become our current context, the one we currently reside within, both as individuals and as organizations. And for that reason, we are learning that our legacy mannerisms are limiting factors that tend to pigeon hole us and our organizations in past practices that have or are currently losing any semblance of relevance for the future. We can no longer define ourselves by where we’ve been or what we’ve achieved previously, as it has become imperative that we are able to adapt and reinvent our systems continuously in moving forward. It is the loop that we find ourselves and our organizations in. And we are finding it to be an incredibly heavy lift.

It is a learning challenge. 

It is an adaptive challenge.

And it is an everyone challenge…

If we are going to engage the action and language of real transformation.

And it will require pulling threads, no longer just out of curiosity, but now out of necessity and need. Everywhere we look there are threads hanging, waiting to be pulled. But we know, once those threads are pulled, there is no going back once the unraveling begins. And that can be deeply unsettling, not only in the unknowns that lie behind those hanging threads, but the paradigm shifts that accompany them.

Pulling threads takes us into and opens up spaces that we’ve tended to avoid or even failed to acknowledge. We can no longer choose to neatly cut off these threads and move on. We have to prepare ourselves for the unraveling. We have to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what these unravelings will provoke, the reflection they will require, the learning they will necessitate, and the action that they will eventually initiate.

And at an even deeper level, it is also in realizing that the pulling of these threads will unravel the mental models and maps that we’ve all built up as individuals and as organizations.

Pulling threads also opens up new possibilities and moves us towards a variety of emerging futures, which will necessitate much more exploring of new learnings, new strategies and new thinking. For, if we are going to get to a point of truly doing different, we will have to learn to think different.

Here are just a few concepts, frameworks, tools and strategies to explore and threads to begin to pull…

  • Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Strategic Foresight
  • Sensemaking
  • Scenarios and Scenario Planning
  • Experiential Futures
  • Horizon or Environmental Scanning 
  • Strategic and/or Future Narratives
  • Emergence / Emergent Complexity
  • Identifying and Mapping Change Drivers
  • Axes of Uncertainty
  • Trend Analysis
  • Backcasting
  • Networks
  • Forecasting

We live in a time where no one concept, framework, tool or strategy will be enough to move us forward into these emerging futures effectively. Rather, it will require the braiding of these in ways that best supports individual and current circumstances and the context in which they reside. It will necessitate moving past either/or to and thinking, as well as understanding that we have to create broad agency within each individual as well as an anticipatory stance towards creating and moving from what we see as plausible to much more possible futures.

“It is important that the future be seen as a number of possible alternatives. Futures, not future.” -Eleonara Masini


The Two Types…

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”  –Abraham Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress

There is something about that quote that I just love, it stirs something inside.  It is also incredibly fitting for our current circumstances in education.  Especially, in regards to “we must think anew, and act anew.”  And most importantly, we must “disenthrall ourselves.”  It is really an outstanding quote for the 21st century mindset.  However, most of you will be less familiar with this quote as it extends from Abraham Lincoln, than from Sir Ken Robinson’s famed TED-talk, “Bring on the Learning Revolution.”  If you haven’t watched “Bring on the Learning Revolution,” it is truly worth taking the time.

Besides his moving use of Lincoln’s Message to Congress, Ken Robinson references Jeremy Bentham, an English utilitarian philosopher and social reformer.  And to quote, “It was Jeremy Bentham, I believe who said there are two types of people in this world, those who divide the world into two types and those who don’t.”  For which he replies, “Well, these days I do.”

Though I have watched this TED-talk a number of times and referenced bits and clips for a variety of presentations, I never really gave that comment much thought.  Until now.

And actually I believe he is right, in its simplest of forms, reflecting on the educational landscape, as a teacher, a principal, or a district level administrator, there basically are two types

As educators, we have a tendency, for all intents and purposes to fall into two camps or two types (for which I have taken the liberty of naming)

1. The Twistovators


2. The Blockstacles

Over my twenty years as an educator, in its rawest and simplest form, through every meeting and training, always seems to boil down to us falling into one or the other of these two camps whenever any new initiative, program, policy, or procedure is unveiled.

To get a clearer picture, let’s define the two types.

First, let’s look at the Blockstacles, which are those educators who immediately hit the stop button at the first sign of any new idea, initiative, or change effort.  They are so named for their ability to quickly block any change effort and immediately begin erecting a myriad of obstacles to throw in front of the process.  They have an uncanny ability to provide an endless tirade of reasons why something can’t or won’t work.

The second group I will refer to as the Twistovators, which tend to be a rather quiet group.  In contrast to the Blockstacles, they usually have little to say because their minds are racing in an entirely different direction.  Before the initiative is entirely rolled out they have already internalized the concept and are now running with it.  They have taken the idea, added their own twist to the initiative, and are now considering a multitude of ways to innovate the idea (beyond what you may have considered) to fit their circumstances and needs.

As instructional leaders, our focus should not be caught up on whether one type or camp is better or worse than the other, or even how frustrating they can be rather, it is to utilize understanding of both camps to increase our leadership capacity and influence.  Acknowledging the two types exist requires deeper preparation for moving any change effort or initiative forward.  For example, knowing that the Blockstacles will be ready for you demands clarity from your leadership to the ‘why’ and not merely the ‘what’ and ‘how‘  for the initiative.  Without true clarity to the ‘why’ the Blockstacles will undoubtedly plow over the initiative before it ever has a chance to gain traction.  And they will most likely do it in a public manner.

Knowing that the Twistovators exist requires you to determine the loose/tight (autonomy) approach you are willing to take with the change effort or initiative.  You begin with the end in mind and directly attend to expectations at the beginning of the effort.  Whether that be tight alignment or full autonomy to run with the idea.  Either way, clarity will save a lot of wasted time and backtracking for all involved.

So rather than being frustrated with the two types, use this knowledge to build and strengthen your leadership capacity.  Determining the ‘why’ of any initiative and/or change effort and being prepared for the two types not only strengthens your understanding of the initiative, but requires you to reflect deeply on whether the initiative is in alignment with the goals and core values of your organization.  And even more importantly, allows you to determine whether the timing is right to move forward.  Remember, very seldom are there do-overs, you get one chance to make the impact and impression.  Be prepared.

And as Lincoln stated to Congress in 1862, “we must think and act anew.”

Aligning for Momentum

“We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanged principles.” – J. Carter

As educators, we spend an inordinate amount of time creating or recreating momentum and flow within our system. From the district office down to the individual classroom, we have a tendency to approach education in a year to year, compartmentalized manner. Unfortunately, that same approach, viewed through the societal lens, may be a warning sign that our current system has run its course for a providing an appropriate 21st century education. Furthermore, the focus and magnification from that same societal lens will require us as educators to reflect deeply on current practices to determine if we are even adequately meeting the growing academic and emotional needs of our students. We may have to concede that rapid advances in technology and major shifts in our global economy have left our current approaches to education viewed as either deeply flawed or outdated for our current circumstances.

In an effort to advance our profession, reflection of and on current practices will be an important aspect of the process if our educational leaders are to better serve our students in the 21st century. Engaging in reflective thought, discourse and collaboration will be the catalyst for those same leaders to ask critical questions…questions that initiate new learnings that build capacity and spur forward action that motivates and moves us forward in our efforts to improve our current practice. Leaders who are willing to ‘mine for conflict’ through probing questions, who are willing to face the brutal truth of their current situation and circumstances, who seek collaboration and team-building, who appreciate and request honest feedback, will be the same leaders who bridge the divide from their current situation to an elevated level of learning for those they lead and the students they serve.

Educators must thoroughly appreciate that our world has changed and the work we do is of crucial importance to providing our students the necessary skills and ability to lead a full and abundant life.  We must also recognize that often our unwillingness to stay ahead of the curve hurts our children and decreases their opportunities for the future.  We must begin to analyze and root out those practices that inhibit flow and momentum in our classrooms, schools and districts from year to year. Acknowledging current successful practices, along with incorporating new and innovative strategies and structures should not be just a good start, it should be a requirement.

However, we must understand that this is no easy proposition and will require educators and educational leaders to relentlessly seek out new and innovative ideas and incorporate out of the box thinking.  Innovation of this magnitude will require courageous leaders who are willing to umbrella the possible fall out and shoulder the inherent risks faced from increased sanctions coupled with a growing public scrutiny aligned to high-stakes assessments.

Successful educational leaders will be those who invest the necessary time and effort into building a deeper understanding of systems thinking and will ultimately find themselves better prepared to vertically align programs and initiatives within their school or district.  When we have strong alignment within the system, students have a better opportunity to build momentum with their learning as each progressive year builds on the concepts and learning from the previous year.

When a school or district lacks the ability or willingness to create alignment within the system, we not only hinder flow and momentum for student learning, we actually provide our students with a disjointed and vision-less educational career. When each year is compartmentalized by stagnant, non-negotiable and often inflexible structures such as school calendars, the school day, master schedules, grading and/or homework policies, students begin to see each year as a separate entity in which they have to ‘get through’ to ‘get the grade.’  For many students it becomes a tedious and disjointed process till graduation, if they stay that long.  For most of our students, this compartmentalized, industrial mode of ‘doing’ education has outrun its effectiveness.

Finally, we need to look towards placing those non-negotiables on the table, we have to determine to do different, to work different, to think different, to be different if we are to offer our current students a real vision for their K-12 educational career. While there is no reliable and/or available data, I don’t believe that many of our current high school students can look over their school career and be able to reflect and articulate any type of vision for their many years in the K-12 educational setting. We have the opportunity to change that reality.

Can We Overcome Our Innovation Gap?

Our educational system is facing a multitude of “tipping points” in today’s landscape.  You might say it is both a very exciting and rather difficult and concerning time to be working in public education.

Our world has opened up and been condensed through the relentless advance of technology.  And with that technology, a plethora of research, strategies and ideas has been placed at our fingertips for us to utilize and implement for the benefit of our students.

Yet, even in the 21st century, we still struggle with large pockets of complacency and avoidance to the research and best practices. Often decisions are made in spite of knowledge to current research that not only hinders the progress and growth of the profession, but the very students who rely on us to prepare them for an unknown and quickly changing future.

In 2000, Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton released their seminal work dedicated to improving the ability of organizations to turn knowledge into action, known as “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” While touted as a business leadership book, their work speaks volumes to the various tipping points we are facing in moving our educational system forward into the 21st century. Let’s look at how their work with business organizations can shed light on factors that may be impeding ‘next steps’ to progress…

“Fear helps create knowing-doing gaps because acting on one’s knowledge requires that a person believe he or she will not be punished for doing so – that taking risks based on new information and insight will be rewarded, not punished.  When people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”  –The Knowing-Doing Gap by Pfeiffer and Sutton

A gathering of the world’s highest performing educational systems met in New York to discuss and determine how to best prepare teachers and school leaders for the 21st century. This International Summit focused on how to best improve the teaching profession and methods needed to develop and increase the ability of our school leaders and teachers to prepare our students with the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a 21st century global economy.

While discussions took on varied topics at the summit, a main theme that ran throughout was a focus on strong leadership and the key role that instructional leaders must play in creating and sustaining high performing education systems. Creating these high performing systems would require our instructional leaders to possess the necessary tools and ability to support, develop and evaluate teachers towards increased quality and effectiveness. Alongside leadership and teacher quality, themes such as equity, accountability and building a results-focused culture of commitment were central talking points at the summit. However, it appears that instructional leadership and teacher quality took center stage  in these discussions.

If this is true and leadership does play a central role in the success of our public educational system in preparing our students to thrive in the 21st century, then it is vital that our actions and initiatives match the rhetoric behind this monumental task.

As with any great system or organization, building a culture of commitment requires a foundation built upon and based on trust if it is to be both effective and sustained. If you want those in the system to be committed and results-focused, then it is the responsibility of leadership to create a culture where those themes can flourish. Otherwise, best case scenario, when leadership is lacking, you end up with a culture of compliance that seeps into your organization or system. And for these reasons, we have to determine if the culture we have constructed in education supports what teachers are being asked to accomplish.

What we are asking teachers to do is to be more innovative, integrate technology, equip our students with the skills necessary for them to be successful in a changing and growing global economy. To have a 21st century skill-set.

And in the same breath, we are sending our teachers an incongruent message by incorporating “new evaluation systems” aimed at eliminating ineffective teachers and implementing value-added initiatives that spotlight individual teacher progress for student achievement on high-stakes standardized tests.

So what is the message that is being heard by teachers?

Be innovative at your own risk.  There is no room for failure and/or learning from mistakes. Innovation and building new skill-sets is great, as long as your scores on high-stakes tests continue to increase each year.

While our rhetoric may focus on the importance of integrating technology and preparing our students with those necessary 21st century skills, our initiatives send what our teachers hear as the ‘real’ message. If your students don’t perform well on high-stakes standardized tests then you risk being labeled as ineffective, with the possibility of being terminated from your position.

Do not misread the message here, I am in no way against the use of assessments and assessment data to determine and monitor the progress and achievement of our students. Assessment and assessment data are incredibly valuable tools for determining the effectiveness of our instruction and the level of student learning achieved from that instruction.

Formative assessment is one of the best interventions available to teachers in the classroom for determining progress and next steps. However, as with all good tools, how you use them determines their overall effectiveness.

As instructional leaders, should we be the least bit surprised when we use assessment and assessment data as a hammer and/or evaluative tool and in the same breath demand teachers to be more innovative and wonder why change is limited or often non-existent?

Pfeffer and Sutton accurately point out in the opening quote’ “when people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”

If we continue to send the message that high-stakes standardized tests are the pinnacle of determining your effectiveness as a teacher, we will continue to see our classrooms shielded from new and innovative ways of teaching. The risk of job loss and being labeled as an ineffective instructor will keep teachers focused on “scoring high” and inhibit, rather than increase innovative methods of instruction and learning that prepare our students for the 21st century.

Beyond leadership and teacher evaluation, the summit engaged itself around methods to transform our classrooms and focused on;

  • complex ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and learning
  • complex ways of working – communication and collaboration
  • tools for working – information and communication technologies.

Once again, necessary skill sets for students heading out into a fierce and competitive global marketplace.

However, if we are going to transform education for the 21st century, it is the responsibility of our instructional leaders to incorporate and model those necessary skills in our educational system.

More creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration will be necessary if we are going to exact positive change for student success. We have to increase our understanding of change and change theory and processes if we are going to be more effective within the educational system. Comprehending that fear is a strong deterrent to change and change efforts is a great first place to start.

As Pfeffer and Sutton soundly express in The Knowing-Doing Gap, “it is easier to encourage questioning behavior, to have people take on new assignments they have never done before, and to create dramatic breaks with the past, in an atmosphere of trust and safety.  Conversely, fear is an enemy of the ability to question the past or break free from precedent.”

If our students are to reap the benefits of graduating both college and career ready and appropriately equipped to thrive in a competitive global marketplace, the decision-making prowess of our instructional leaders must remain focused on developing and sustaining the conditions and cultures that will support and allow forward-thinking and innovative ideas and methods to grow and flourish in the system.

Evaluation: Differentiation vs. Show Me

In these days of constricting budgets and intense internal and external accountability, our school instructional leaders are required to wear a variety of administrative hats out of necessity. Their leadership efforts and decisions drive the culture and collaborative efforts of those who work within and attend their school. They play the role of both leader and manager and must do both equally well. A ten to twelve hour work day is not out of the norm for many of our school leaders.

Daily responsibilities include creating a safe and secure campus for all students, appropriate use of general and categorical funds, determining which instructional programs and strategies to implement, and what methods will best support students and their learning through appropriate progress monitoring, differentiation of instruction and necessary and timely interventions. While this may sound like a lot, it is just a glimpse, this does not include a variety of staff, team, intervention and IEP meetings, parent concerns, lunch duty, after school sporting and academic events, etc. For school leaders, no day is the same and the unexpected is often the norm.

However, like many other professions and organizations, the area of evaluation remains an elusive target to pin down and implement effectively. For school leaders, the overwhelming amount of responsibilities can impede on the evaluation process and the urgent often supercedes the necessary. Evaluation often becomes an obligatory process in which the evaluator and evaluatee meet between two to four times a year and usually after a perfunctory classroom observation. The process can lack the meaningful dialogue and support that is necessary to drive its overall purpose, improving professional practice and student learning.

Evaluation often ends up another example in the educational setting of what is best practice for student learning is not best practice for adults and their learning. In the classroom we utilize a variety of strategies to engage students in their learning, yet we utilize few if any of those strategies in our own meetings and wonder at the lack of engagement by our own colleagues. The same rings true with the evaluation process…in the classroom we determine how we are going to monitor the progress of the learner, in what ways we will need to differentiate for equity within the process, issuing timely feedback to support growth and next steps, and what interventions are necessary to support and scaffold the learning for the student. The question is why are these best practices not implemented in the evaluation process?

Evaluation is an excellent opportunity for school instructional leaders to infuse and increase adult learning throughout the campus. Rather, it is often a process of choosing a few obligatory standards for focus and scheduling few dates during the year for the evaluatee to “show me” your progress. We must look for opportunities to differentiate and engage teachers in the process, invoking collegial discussions, feedback, and providing targeted professional development in real time. It is both the duty and the opportunity of the school’s instructional leader to provide supportive assistance that increases capacity, rather than the utilizing evaluation as a “gotcha.”

Differentiating the evaluation process will include an instructional leader’s abilities to engage teachers in new learnings, build capacity, foster a collaborative and innovative culture, provide effective and strategic feedback, and build relationships based on trust. Evaluation can be an exciting process depending on how it is approached and implemented in your school. Look for ways to differentiate and engage people in the process, rather than the “tried and true” standardized model that is so prevalent in most organizations.

In closing, make sure that those you lead know that you are for them and their success, it will increase commitment and build trust into the process. And remember, leaders have the privilege of going first, it is up to you to make sure the evaluation process hits its intended target, increasing professional practice in order to support student learning. If we are to create students who are lifelong learners, then we must model that love of learning for those we teach in our practice and in our work.