Monday, April 25, 2016

Both Leadership and Followership

            I suspect that at some point just about every American child has been urged, “Be a leader, not a follower.” Schools promise to produce leaders; some even have incorporated it as part of their missions. Current leadership espouses distributed leadership. The idea is that everyone can be a leader in some form or fashion. How it manifests itself depends on context.
            I embrace such thinking for several reasons. It chips away at traditional notions of leadership, many of which emphasize particular personality traits and hierarchy over other qualities. It’s more respectful of diverse individualism and nurtures greater motivation and commitment. Progress can come faster as more people paddle together. So I fully agree that we should be helping people learn how to lead better. My concern is with what we incorrectly put at the other end of the spectrum.
            Follower is a pejorative. I understand why, given the way we often use it and the subsequent connotation. Certainly we don’t want someone to be simply a follower. However, I have a simply contention, albeit one that may initially seem counter intuitive. Just as we strive to teach leadership, we should be teaching wise followership. Who and how one follows factors heavily into one’s leadership, both as it initially forms and its evolution.
            I’ve pondered this notion for a long time, and I’ve touched upon it briefly in various posts. Always present in my thinking to some degree, it’s come to the forefront recently as I’ve read a preview copy of Stephen Valentine and Reshan Richard’s book coming this July, Blending Leadership: Six Simple Beliefs for Leading Online and Off. (It’s a wonderful book with excellent insights about leadership in general, and I recommend people purchase a copy as soon as it comes out.)Two passages rekindled my thoughts on this topic. They write, “Our beliefs emerged from many places: from our own practice and observation; from the Ahmads who entered our lives with curiosity and playfulness, pushing us to turn over our perspectives; from our own leading and teaching, from our own leadership anthropology; from continual conversations with each other and with people at conferences and with authors we have only read. As we have tried things or tried them on and looked around or listened or succeeded or failed, belief statements cohered” (27). Shortly after, they point out that school leaders “not only follow thought leaders, but also engage actively with them, building off their work, their thinking, as if it were a platform” (36).
            In so many ways, we become who we follow, consciously and unconsciously. It can be as large as adopting philosophies and practices to imitating physical mannerisms and verbal tics. It’s how we learn, beginning the moment we become aware of ourselves and others as unique beings, becoming stronger as we develop a sense of the person we wish to become. The danger comes when we lost that sense of self and begin to follow blindly, unthinkingly. Instead, it must be reflective, critical, challenging. It must hoist one out of any echo chamber.*
            Essentially, it’s about learning. About oneself and about others and about the endless interactions between all those pieces.  About possibilities. And the greatest possibilities are realized when we both lead and follow well.

*There are, of course, many ways one can practice good followership. Ideally, I would share some here. However, I think that would become too long a tangent from the principal arc of the post. Perhaps the next post…

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What Do We Mean By Learning?

What do we mean by learning? I should be more specific. I’ll add a qualifier to the question. What should we mean by learning? I’m not referring to just any learning, particularly not the kind which is really little more than data processing, which is what rote study measured by recall is. I mean learning which is deep and lasting. Nutritious, if you will.
In thinking about this, I came up with a long list of qualities. Reflecting on them, primarily in an effort to synthesize, I kept coming back to the idea of process. I’ve reduced it to three stages:

·         Real learning begins with a question. Pointed or open-ended, incisive or roundabout, spontaneous or reflective, the guiding question signals the hunger. This is particularly true when it’s of a personal nature, the relevance packed in the person’s wonder.
·         Real learning is open to possibilities. The question leads to a variety of answers. They may be random and eclectic. They may affirm or challenge norms and preconceptions. They may prompt new connections.
·         Real learning enchants. As if cast under a spell, someone becomes lost in deep exploration, enthralled while creating meaning. The magic of wonder sparks even more questions.

          I hesitated in trying to capture real learning in stages because it can lead to a dangerous misconception: that is linear. While it is to a degree, notice that the final sentence in the third bullet item loops right back to the first. In a way it’s a virtuous cycle. But I also think the structure is more complex than that. Perhaps an atom would be a better metaphor. Think about all the interdependent pieces whizzing around…and all the energy contained within, waiting to be harnessed.
           That’s what we should mean by real learning. I think deep down we do. Plenty of people articulate such thoughts.
            So in some ways, my opening question, particularly with the qualifier, may not be that tough. So here’s a tougher, or at least less pleasant one. Do our actions match our words?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Headship, Leadership--Then and Now

            For some reason, the other day I found myself searching for my copy of John McPhee’s The Headmaster, which recounts Frank Boyden’s remarkable sixty-six year tenure as head of Deerfield Academy. Under his leadership Deerfield grew from near-extinction to its status as one of America’s leading boarding schools. The book is one many school leaders cite as being particularly influential and inspiring; I recall a few heads saying it spurred their decision to lead a school.
            I’m not sure at all what prompted me to look for the book. I haven’t read it in over twenty years, and I don’t recall the last time I even saw it other than on the shelves of used bookstores. Perhaps I was inspired by seeing another title; after all, often my mind makes sudden associations I can’t explain. I wasn’t seeking any particular guidance. Maybe I sense some connection to one of the multiple thoughts that bounce around my brain until they cohere into some pattern.
            I couldn’t find it. I also discovered that the Dallas Public Library doesn’t have it. Then the pattern emerged. The “missing” book became a symbol, albeit one born of coincidence.
            While I recall none of the particulars, the blurb on Amazon confirmed my general memory: “McPhee portrays a remarkable man ‘at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who...created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with their own personalities.’" Yes, the headmaster, with all the connotations of syllables I underlined. Some quick research found various articles that all created the picture of a man who controlled every aspect of school life as much as he could. He was Deerfield; Deerfield was him. And he was widely admired and loved. All in line with my hazy recollection of the book and representative of the era.
            I wonder about how the Boyden-style of school leadership would work in 2016. I don’t say that with any disrespect or belittlement.  His accomplishments and legacy speak for themselves. Instead, it’s a commentary on how independent school headship and current thinking on leadership in general has changed.
            One of the pieces I skimmed about Boyden used an example of his total involvement how he planned all the details of school dances. Given how school heads now have to direct their time and energy, I can’t imagine any of us thinking up playlists. We’re much more CEO that lead teacher (the origin of the term headmaster), focused more on the business aspects of running the institution than anything else. For example, this year I’ve been heavily immersed in governance and marketing issues. When it comes to curriculum and pedagogy, I strive to clarify a philosophy and approach and vision. I don’t get into the nuts and bolts of curriculum or specific lessons except when necessary. One truth I’ve come to accept is that the further up the ladder one climbs, the less direct control one has.
            This axiom ties to the ways leadership theory has changed. For so long, perhaps even before the industrial revolution, institutions have been set up per hierarchies, pyramids, org charts, matrices, departments…anything that makes it clear how the power flowed in a command-and-control system. It’s very evident in most schools. Now we hear about flattening the organization, distributed leadership, servant leadership, managing up, busting siloes. Evaluation programs are about finding strengths and promoting growth so everyone has a chance to lead in their own fashion. All this fits with current research about real motivation coming when people feel mastery, autonomy, and purpose. It’s part of the reason, beyond gender issues, most of us prefer the term head of school over headmaster or headmistress.
            While I have my preferences, rather than deem one way better or worse, I’m reminded how much of leadership is contextual. The best leaders are those with certain qualities, to be sure. Just as crucial to their success is being the right person in the right place at the right time for the right purpose. I don’t think I could—or would want—to lead a school the way Boydon did. But it was what was expected, and it obviously worked. I don’t think it would now. I wonder what Boydon would think. With my limited knowledge, I don’t know if he could adapt. I suspect he certainly would try, for he possessed two of the most essential leadership qualities that transcend time and place: he cared about his people and was driven by a larger purpose.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Artificial Intelligence of Education

                Although the reactions were a bit more muted, recent reports of a computer beating the world Go champion prompted some of the same thoughts as when Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1997. There were some apocalyptic doom cries, pronunciations of a paradigm shift and/or a giant leap towards the singularity, and plenty of predictions about what this means for the future of schools and work.
                Perhaps its future shock fatigue. Maybe it’s because as much as things seem to change, they seem to stay the same in many ways. I’m not saying this is not a significant event in the development of technology and perhaps our relationship with it. Or perhaps not.  After all, is this really that surprising? It’s been nearly 20 years since that famous chess match, and computing power and artificial intelligence has increased tremendously since then.  Like chess, Go is a game of logic, albeit an incredibly complex one. Thus, it makes perfect sense that a machine can outperform a human when it comes to processing a series of if-then statements and making the best choice.
                That’s where my frustration begins to simmer. I don’t doubt this is a powerful form of artificial intelligence. But it’s a very limited view of intelligence, especially in terms of human potential. It neglects that which sets human apart. It’s one that we often reject. Consider how we react to those who are purely logical. The robotic, Spock-ian pointy-heads make us uncomfortable. As usual, emotions flood our system and drown the rational. We call that a human response.
                Even though we know this, when asked to explain intelligence, we tend to fall back on those typical left-side-of-the-brain processes. Especially in education. Think about what most schools measure, stress, develop, et cetera. Even when we know better. We’ve read our Gardner and our Goleman and our Costa and our Dweck.  Let’s take the topic of growth mindset and effort. It has gained traction and we know they are vital to deep, long-lasting learning. We can sense it in different ways. Now there is a debate raging about whether or not we can measure it. If we can’t, many say and others imply, we should neglect this.
                Ironically, it’s fear rather than logic that for so long has kept educators from fully embracing the possibilities of technology. Not just the overly simply fear of change. It’s fear of all the ramifications of having to dismantle philosophical and practical hierarchies that have shaped schools for decades. That’s why so much educational technology is merely a fancy repacking of old practices, i.e. worksheets gone digital. A very rational, black-and-white system with clear right-and-wrong responses.  The more powerful technology becomes, the more it threatens that model.
                What if we shift the thinking and re-frame the question? It’s a logical step—one that can also flip the emotions. Technology is not a threat. As educators—those who should be about the potential of human—we need to ask, “What can technology allow us to do? What can it allow us to become?”
                Then we may realize that the most artificial thing about intelligence in education has been the limited ways we’ve thought about it.