Maybe it’s not that simple

I encourage you to explore the following website:

http://selfiecity.net

You’ll find some of the coolest, dynamic, interactive data representations representing… of all things… selfies. And the characteristic differences that reveal themselves when you look at more than 650,000 Instagram photos from major cities on 4 continents.  As you can imagine, there were some fairly predictable conclusions. For starters, given that the median estimated age was between 20 and 30 in every city for both males and females, it seems that as selfie frequency in adults decreases with age. But some conclusions were, perhaps, less predictable (at least to me). For example, only 4% of the randomly-selected Instragram photos were selfies. The other 96% were of other things. I encourage you to explore the incredible amount of really, really cool stuff the researchers discovered.

Of course, this served as a reminder to me that even the most seemingly simple expressions are often quite complex and can have some very important reasons guiding them.

As a teacher, I’d often get frustrated with why I couldn’t seem to change fairly easy-to-understand problems like students not wanting to study for tests or students failing to complete homework assignments. These seem easy to explain (or so I thought). The kids didn’t have enough time to study. The assignments weren’t worth enough points. The kids didn’t care.

But, like the selfie, those simple observations are much, much more complex that it would appear at first. And my attempts to solve those problems with correspondingly simple fixes revealed that there was more going on than I originally thought.

That assignment was worth 25 points and they STILL didn’t do their homework? (Because your homework assignment is designed completely wrong and they didn’t know how to do it. Make it work 1,000 points. That won’t change the assignment.)

I gave them a week’s notice and they STILL didn’t study for their test? (Because you never explicitly stated your learning goals, so they flipped aimlessly through their textbook. Give them a month. That won’t fix the fact that they don’t know what they are going to be tested on.)

I let them work in groups and they STILL are disengaged? (Because your assignment presented barriers to the 35% of your students who read below grade level and another 45% who didn’t do the homework last night. You have to lower the entry point so that every student can AT LEAST get started.)

Go ahead and explore the selfie data and remind yourself that most things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.

The effective leader has all the right… questions.

effective leader

There’s plenty that’s been said about effective school leadership. (Here, I’ll save you a couple of key strokes.) I don’t think that I am going to share anything revolutionary here.

But I want to share an anecdote that I heard recently from a trusted colleague that I thought spoke very clearly to the power of an effective leader. As he reflected aloud on his first couple of years teaching, he made a couple of statements that I found to be very powerful. (I’m using quotes, but this is certainly paraphrased.)

“I was blessed to have a principal that asked a lot of questions. It wasn’t that I was doing wrong things or bad things, but it showed me that I was doing a lot of things without having a very good reason.”

It was an outstanding summary of the role of mentoring a new teacher. Teacher prep programs in most universities fall short of their goals. It isn’t necessarily their fault. The teaching profession largely sets new teachers up to be steamrolled and as the model currently exists (a ton of content courses, a few professional prep courses, a short internship and go forth and prosper), it would be pert-near impossible for any new teacher to enter fully prepared.

So, most teachers fall back on what “teachers do.” But why? And if you don’t know why, then (at the very least) leaders need to make sure they can get that far. It might be that talking at the board is the right move for that young math teacher. It could also being fully blended with instructional technology would be better. But the teacher needs to know why. What goals will that meet? What content will that work best for? How are you making sure it’s effective in meeting its goals?

We should all be blessed to have leaders that ask a lot of questions. I don’t think it’s enough to have everyone doing the right things. It’s good. But people who do the right things without knowing why can’t reflect on their effectiveness, they can’t be flexible within the systems, they can’t roll with the punches when the results don’t appear as perfectly as they should.

There are a lot of excellent teachers making a lot of excellent innovations and building a lot of excellent systems in their classrooms and in their school communities. What makes them excellent is that they know what problem they are trying to address and they have the means to verify whether or not the innovation is solving the problem. It’s effective because they know the why.

And rather than instructional skills or techniques, perhaps it’s more important that leaders lead their people to be able to think about their classrooms like that.

And reminding myself that teachers are the leader of their classrooms, if instilling this thought process is so powerful for young, developing teachers, what would it look like for teachers to instill this in young, developing students?