1. Read The Right to Learn
  2. Take a Learning Style Self-Assessment
  3. Focus on Visible and Invisible Fields of Influence
  4. Make Clarity (of Purpose and Roles) Your Constant Goal
  5. Trust the Process (and Track Your Progress)

1. Read The Right to Learn

As the United States transitions into a new century — and a more interconnected, interdependent world — our schools must also make a transition. Never before has the success (perhaps even the survival) of nations and people been so tightly tied to their ability to learn. “Consequently,” writes Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, “our future depends now, as never before, on our ability to teach.

“Over the last decade,” Darling-Hammond explains, “reformers have created and redesigned thousands of schools that are now educating rich and poor, black, brown, and white students alike to levels of success traditionally thought impossible to achieve. Yet these schools remain at the margins, rarely embraced or supported by the systems in which they struggle to exist and generally unexamined for what they can teach the education enterprise. This book asks how we can reinvent the system of U.S. public education so that it ensures a right to learn for all of its students, who will enter a world in which a failure to learn is fast becoming an insurmountable defeat.”

To learn more about The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work, click here.

2. Take a Learning Style Self-Assessment

Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT system, a synthesis of numerous researchers’ work, identifies four archetypal learning styles: Imaginative, Analytic, Common Sense, and Dynamic. The characteristics of each are derived largely from the intersection of two continua. The first is how we perceive information, and where we fall along the continuum of experiencing/feeling/thinking. The second is how we process the information we have taken in, and the pace at which we move from reflective to active processing.

To find out your personal learning style and how it shapes your approach to leadership, click here.

For more information about 4MAT, click here to visit About Learning’s web site.

3. Focus on Visible and Invisible Fields of Influence

C. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT and an expert in organizational learning, grew up on a farm in Germany, where his father taught him to see the fields they tilled with a wider lens. “Each field, he explained to me, has two aspects: the visible, what we see above the surface, and the invisible, or what is below the surface. The quality of the yield — the visible result — is a function of the quality of the soil, of those elements of the field that are mostly invisible to the eye.”

Scharmer believes we should see “social fields” the same way. “Social fields are the grounding condition, the living soil from which grows that which only later becomes visible to the eye. And just as every good farmer focuses attention on sustaining and enhancing the quality of the soil, every good organizational leader focuses attention on sustaining and enhancing the quality of the social field — the ‘farm’ in which every responsible leader works day in and day out.”

The most “visible” aspects of a school culture, of course, are the things parents, educators and students do, say and see. Trophy cases. Test scores. Uniforms. Policies. Because these cultural indicators are visible, they end up receiving the bulk of our attention.

By contrast, the “invisible” parts of a social field are far more elusive – and essential – to the cultivation of a healthy learning community. These are the inner conditions from which parents, educators and students operate with each other. Our hopes and fears. Our emotions. The quality of our relationships with each other. The issues we have informally agreed never to discuss. These are the true determinants of a school’s success (or failure) at creating a high-functioning school. Yet precisely because they are invisible, they tend not to factor into most school improvement plans.

Where is the leverage point in such a situation? According to Scharmer, it’s “at the interface and connection between the visible and invisible dimensions of the social field. An organization’s fertile ‘topsoil’ exists where these two worlds meet, connect and intertwine.”

The central challenge in any organizational culture is to help people become more aware of the inner place from which they operate. “We need to learn to attend to both dimensions simultaneously,” says Scharmer. “What we say, see, and do (our visible realm), and the inner place from which we operate (the invisible realm, in which our sources of attention reside and from which they operate).”

Attending to both dimensions — and striking the right balance between individual and group needs — is an essential goal for any organization. When a school develops this capacity, it encourages all people to discover the power and uniqueness of their own voices. It helps young people chart a navigable path on their ongoing journeys of personal development. And it helps members of the school community foster more meaningful, trusting relationships with each other.

4. Make Clarity (of Purpose and Roles) Your Constant Goal

Often, the best-intentioned school change initiatives get derailed by some combination of the following shortcomings:

  • a lack of clarity over what needs to be changed;
  • a lack of understanding about the skills people will need in order to see the changes through;
  • a lack of consideration for the pace at which the changes should occur.

Absent this clarity, teachers may be asked to adopt a new teaching style before they fully understand why they should do so. Schools in search of more parent participation may fail to explicitly consider what it will take to motivate greater numbers of adults to get involved. And students may be invited to play a more active role in school governance before they’ve been equipped with the skills they need to do so effectively and responsibly.

To guard against these pitfalls, it may be helpful to use the following questions as a checklist that helps create clarity and commitment:

What — What is it specifically you want to change?
Why — Why does it matter?
How — How will the proposed process get you there?
Who — Who will be responsible for the different roles and responsibilities going forward? Who has been a part of the decision-making process thus far? Who else needs to know about what is being planned?
When — When (and how) will you know you’ve been successful?

5. Trust the Process (and Track Your Progress)

If you’ve been attentive to the natural evolution of the change process – and to the Five Freedoms Project’s five-part framework for leadership – your community will be sure to take several steps to prepare itself for a successful change initiative. Use this chart as a checklist of sorts to ensure that you’ve taken appropriate steps along the way:

Preparing the Soil for School Improvement

Reflect (Seeing the need)

  • Create space for people to reflect on what is meaningful to them as human beings
  • Inquire together about the meaning of work and the needs of young people
  • Discuss the connection between healthy schools and the responsible use of democratic skills
  • Learn to identify your organization’s explicit and implicit goals
  • Look for patterns over time, not just “snapshot” data points
  • Determine how existing culture influences behavior through recognitions, rewards, etc.
  • Confront old behaviors and ways of seeing
  • Decide together what is meaningful and what behaviors need to change
  • Map archetypal behaviors of the old and the desired behaviors of the new culture

Connect (Cultivating the skills)

  • Identify what’s working, what isn’t, and what people want to change
  • Explore individual and group fears
  • Identify together the words and language that can articulate the new vision
  • Create rubrics that clarify what new behaviors should look like
  • Ensure that professional development training is aligned with the skills people will need to see through the changes
  • Eliminate organizational roadblocks to learning
  • Provide opportunities for people to talk about the new shared purpose and the meaning of change
  • Provide opportunities for people to practice and reinforce the new behaviors
  • Encourage the direct discussion of losses and concerns
  • Celebrate early successes

Create (Sustaining the vision)

  • Use scorecards to track changes over time
  • Create open channels for feedback and questioning
  • Invite, and then invite again, anyone who has not felt included in the process
  • Compare “then” and “now” to track how far the organization has come
  • Continually explore gaps between the present reality and the shared goals
  • Realign rewards and recognition to support new values, beliefs and behaviors
  • Keep asking, “What behaviors are we rewarding?”
  • Follow the meaning that emerges; resist a blind adherence to “the plan”
  • Raise expectations
  • Provide balanced feedback
  • Give people ongoing opportunities to exercise their voices and revisit the vision if necessary
  • Emphasize and share scorecarding results