Recent Interview

I was recently interviewed by a student in an Executive Education program on Organizational Strategy and Learning (via Columbia University). Though the program wasn’t about school leadership, I thought we had a pretty interesting conversation about learning in general.

What is the role of learning in your organization? What defines your organization’s orientation to learning?  

Learning is the lifeblood and purpose of my organization, since my organization is a school.  Each day, teachers try to ensure that students are learning as much as they possibly can.  At the same time, administrators try to ensure that the teachers in the building learn as fast as they need to in order to meet the evolving needs of 21st century learners.

Our orientation to learning is that we believe that the learner should do most of the “heavy lifting” in terms of his/her learning.  Once upon a time in schools, teachers thought they had to deliver instruction (via lecture). These days, a good school tries to make learning as active as possible, and tries to shift agency to the learner himself or herself.

Additionally, my school believes that all teachers should be lifelong learners.  As such, we are willing to spend institutional time (about 10 full days a year) training teachers and helping them to learn what they need to learn to stay on top of their teaching game.

In your organization, what is the relationship between strategy and learning integration initiatives? How do you work to support these initiatives? How would you like that to change/develop/grow?

When we dramatically shift a program — for example, when we extended the teaching block or decided to give a laptop to every student — we have to be very strategic, thinking through every aspect of implementation.  We support such implementation by offering summer workshops, visiting other institutions with similar programs, and sharing best practices internally.

Otherwise, our learning integration initiatives are handled in a more tactical way.  Teams of school leaders meet before in-service and choose a film to watch, for example, and then discuss possible pitfalls and the best way to structure effective debriefs.

We try to collect feedback around all learning integration initiatives because teachers, by nature, are good at providing feedback and at assessing their own needs.

What are the challenges you’ve faced in working to coordinate with stakeholders, both internal and external?

The trouble with learning for the most important constituent in schools (i.e., students) is that it gets mixed up with grades.  It’s tough for learning to be as pure as it needs to be when the student knows he or she is receiving a grade for a paper, test, or project.

The trouble with learning for the other large constituent in schools (i.e., parents) is that it gets mixed up with outcomes like college admissions. Many parents know, instinctively, that the best way to learn is to stumble or even fail outright . . . but few, if any, parents want their children to fail in such a way that they negatively impact their college admission prospects.

The trouble with learning for another large constituent in schools (i.e., teachers) is that they are actually quite conservative by nature — and also time starved.  Many teachers believe that what worked in the past will work again, and few teachers have the chance to radically re-envision their approach from class to class or even year to year.

The overall challenge for learning in schools, I’d say, is that some of the most common socially ingrained markers of success in school — getting good grades as a student, being well liked as a teacher, or getting into a good college as a student — do not necessarily indicate that true and lasting learning has occurred.

How do you think about measurement, assessment, and reassessment of strategy and learning initiatives?

As a school leader, I think about these things all the time.  My school’s tuition is over 35K per year, and I often have to explain why the education we provide is worth such a vast sum of money.  Sometimes I do that by telling stories, and sometimes I reach for more objective measures.

As for assessment, it is a critical part of all that we do in schools.  Many teachers think that the only kind of assessment is summative.  It’s part of my job to introduce more formative assessment practices into the curriculum, because such assessment practices allow students to receive feedback, and make adjustments, before they take a high stakes test / assessment.

As for reassessment, I’m proud to say that my school’s Professional Growth Process is geared toward helping teachers to process feedback (via discussions with their peers and supervisors) and then make adjustments.  So, we are trying to build a culture where teachers are constantly assessing and reassessing their teaching practices — and then making adjustments.

If you were going to start mentoring a less experienced learning executive, what’s one piece of advice you’d share?

Find ways to share your own learning with those you seek to lead.  If people see you leading a life — and, note, I didn’t just say career — devoted to learning, they will be more likely to learn in your presence.  It’s even better if they see that your learning process is authentic, in that it contains stumbles, setbacks, adjustments, resilience, etc.

Also, when leading others, try to separate growth conversations from evaluation conversations. True growth can’t be faked; false growth is easy to fake.  If you combine growth and evaluation in the same conversation (or the same process), you’re going to promote a lot of faked growth, i.e., “I served on this committee” or “I attended this workshop,” or “I completed this project.”  Honestly, I’d rather hear that someone climbed a mountain or took tango lessons with his wife.

I’d also advise the new executive to find either a good mentor or a good coach.  A good mentor is someone who constantly challenges you to think about how you do your work.  And a good coach guides you towards an objective assessment of your practice. You–literally–have to find ways to keep it real.

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