When leading learning and teaching improvement (think ‘change’), leaders can set their sights on a desired outcome and lose sight of a process they will need to achieve it. A consequence of this oversight is that the outcome gets evaluated but the process used to achieve (or not achieve) the result doesn’t. How the outcome was or was not reached remains unclear. This lack of clarity and certainty can result in a highly successful process not being used to address other learning and teaching problems. As well, blame for not achieving the desired outcome can result in false attributions and explanations for why not.
Knowing if the process was effective (or not)
If the process is not evaluated there’s a high risk that lack of success could be attributed to other variables. For example, low teacher commitment; an external expert was unavailable; the amount of time was insufficient; too many external distractions; the professional learning plan was too broad; and so on.
Leading improvement requires an evaluation of two critical aspects. First, if a new teaching practice is enhancing student learning. Second, if the process to support and embed the new practice was effective.
Process is moving people
In Boston a few years while walking through the Boston Public Garden my wife and I were enchanted by the wonderful bronze statue of Mrs Mallard and her eight ducklings, ‘Make Way for Ducklings’. More recently, at our home in springtime we delighted in watching a mother duck daily organise and move her several ducklings in the late afternoon from a nearby stream to a safer bush area for the night, and back to the stream early next morning. Leading improvement can be like a mother duck getting her ducklings in a row! Just like her, a school leader needs to have a well thought out process to move students and teachers efficiently and effectively from a current ‘place’ to a better ‘place’, and not lose anyone during the move!
What's a good process?
Deciding on a right process means that it should be efficient (it doesn’t waste learning and teaching time), effective (evidence-based experience and research findings validate the process), and aligned (fit-for-purpose for the intended outcome). This involves a deliberate slowing down to carefully plan how a goal or target will be achieved to ensure the right process is chosen, and it’s explained, described and illustrated to all involved in the improvement initiative. As well, there’s a plan for when and how the process will be evaluated for its efficiency, effectiveness and alignment.
Critical inquiry is usually concerned with whether a teaching practice is having a positive high-impact on student learning or not. Critical inquiry should also evaluate the quality of the process used to implement the practice. In this sense ‘getting one’s ducks in a row’ involves identifying, deciding, sharing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating the process to achieve the intended learning and teaching outcome.
Processes for leading learning and teaching
I’ll explain and illustrate what I mean by leading improvement ‘processes’ with two examples. The first is a process to respond to a complex learning and teaching problem. The second is a process to determine the professional learning required to support a new teaching practice.
Example 1: A Problem Solving Process
Problem solving is central to leading learning and teaching. However, experience and research findings suggest that when school leaders are faced with a complex learning and teaching problem they often leap to prematurely decide the solution. A quick fix solution decision has a high risk of low or negative impact because the nature of the problem and its causes has not been sufficiently understood or carefully analysed. A leader is better to use a slow, deliberate and collaborative process to reach a high-impact solution that everyone involved understands and is committed to ensure its success.
The process could be like this and in this sequence:
Get agreement that the problem you want to work on is a shared priority. Make explicit why it’s a priority and how it’s linked to wider important goals and values.
Ask individuals to think carefully about the problem and craft a statement describing the problem. Then get together to discuss their statements and build consensus for selecting the best statement(s).
Openly discuss and identify the factors that contribute to the problem, without being captured by any one of them. Factors could include beliefs, requirements, resources, and school practices.
Collaboratively decide what the implied solution might be for each key factor. Each implied solution should be validated by evidence from proven experience and research findings, to ensure it has a high-impact on student learning.
Combine the implied solutions, of which there could be five or six, into an integrative solution. This means there’s not a single solution to the problem but a multi-faceted one which satisfies all of the relevant factors.
Complex problem-solving is a collaborative process which promotes the interdependence of knowledge, skills and dispositions by involving others in creative thinking, thus greatly increasing the size and scope of the knowledge base. This helps a leader to overcome the limitation of relying on biased assumptions and a preferred solution to a complex problem.
Example 2: A Professional Learning Process
Again, experience and research findings suggest that school leaders often don’t have a good
process to identify and decide priority professional learning needs. For example, the school’s annual professional learning plan might be determined by ad hoc factors such as personal preferences, the ‘squeaky wheel’, unilateral decisions by the principal, external provision, latest innovations, and so on. Professional learning decisions based on these types of adult preferences are unlikely to have a positive high-impact on student learning.
A better approach is a collaborative process of leaders working with teachers to identify and decide annual professional learning priorities, how these will be planned, implemented and evaluated.
The process could be like this and in this sequence:
Collaboratively identify from the school’s annual plan the high priority goal(s) and target(s) with the most potential to positively impact on student learning. Strong preference is given to teacher and leader professional learning explicitly aligned to supporting the attainment of a priority goal and target.
Identify from evidence-based experience and research findings the specific teaching and leadership practices that should be the focus of professional learning. Check and test that those practices are the most likely ones to positively affect the student learning stated in a priority goal and target.
Get explicit about what the identified practices entail, so that professional learning is tightly aligned to the specifics of those practices. From experience and research findings, identify the requisite knowledge, skills and dispositions of each practice.
Develop an itemised self-assessment questionnaire of the knowledge, skills and dispositions of the identified practices for each teacher and leader to respond to. In effect, this is an audit to identify the current capability and predicted shortfall of teacher and leader practice in relation to the practice(s).
From the audit, identify the priority learning needs of individual and groups of teachers and leaders, as well as for the whole staff. The professional learning plan should respond to these diverse learning needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
The professional learning activities for teachers and leaders to support enhanced performance and student learning can now be decided. The sequence of activities is shown in the annual professional learning plan, with resource requirements (time, money, and human) for each activity.
The professional learning plan should include how and when the activities will be evaluated for effectiveness and impact on teacher performance and student learning.
The annual professional learning plan for teachers and leaders is clearly communicated. As well, that an additional professional learning activity is unlikely to be approved, unless its added value to a priority goal and target to improve student learning can be convincingly demonstrated.
The process to identify and plan annual professional learning is slow, deliberate and collaborative. Activities are intentionally not decided until the sixth step (above), to ensure the tight and explicit alignment of each activity to the improvement of teacher performance and student learning. As well, the alignment of leader and teacher professional learning is critical because leaders have the highest impact on teaching and learning when they both provide and participate in professional learning activities with their teachers.
Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: identifying what works and why. Wellington: New Zealand Ministry of Education.
Robinson, V., & Lai, M. (2006). Practitioner research for educators: A guide to improving classrooms and schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.