Peeling Back the Layers

One of the most challenging tasks for a school leader is to have a positive impact on overall student learning without necessarily being a classroom teacher (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013).

Whether a school leader is a department head, coordinator or principal, he or she must influence the organization’s capacity to nurture, challenge and bring about successful learning.

Leading learning is an open-ended task of great magnitude and significance for an entire community.

For instance, right now a group of colleagues in my school are inquiring into the question, How do we impact the learning of students who are having difficulties learning?

The group is investigating the structures, resources, and practices of inclusive teaching and learning on the way to enacting inclusion in the school’s learning ecosystem. The outcomes of this work impact the lives and futures of our diverse students.

If you build the city, will culture flourish?

One of the first responses to an organizational problem might be to organize the work itself. Given that our school is organized around the standards and practices of a philosophy necessary to co-create a guaranteed, coherent and viable program for students, what we want is easily visible in our mission, vision, stated beliefs and written curriculum to glean data surrounding necessary actions captured in the statements of standards and practices. It is harder to actually go beyond stating what we want and actually do it in ways that maintain and sustain the integrity of these statements.

We have to do in order to be who we say we are.

We are presented with the challenge of making visible the organization’s learning process toward enactment. How does an organization move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom (Powell and Kusuma Powell, 2013)? Given the set of results of an inquiry, consisting of “accurate notes, observations or statistics” (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013), how do we organize that data into information that is accessible to pattern making; create ways through analysis, synthesis and evaluation to create knowledge and shape that knowledge into organizational wisdom, what Barth (2002) calls “the way we do things around here?”

Collaborative reflection on school culture yielding practice is a more daunting task than putting structures in place. One can put structures in place, and have lip service to the philosophy behind it; and in the continuum of implementation there is a long, hard and lonely road to enactment.

A strong hunch is to peel back the layers of our work and find what’s beneath our statements of identity as an organization.

The work of an organization in approaching wisdom is multi-layered. It’s complex work that needs guidance and clarity. When pondering the open-ended task of leading learning, I look to the concepts and constructs of a few mentors.

Raise resourcefulness in individuals

Each person has capacity in five states of mind (consciousness, craftsmanship, efficacy, flexibility, interdependence) unmasked through Cognitive CoachingSM. Through skilful Cognitive CoachingSM, a coach can support the thinking of a colleague so that he or she gains clarity in thinking while planning, reflecting, problem resolving, or examining data. Through coaching, an individual can reach resourcefulness and leave a conversation feeling more able to tackle the decision making of the complex task of leading learning.

Raise resourcefulness in teams

Collaboration is a set of skills that humans need to learn, and we cannot create effective collaboration without learning the skills of how to work together so that what we create improves upon what each one of us could do alone (Bartlett, personal conversation 2017).

Working on the norms of collaboration (Garmston and Wellman, 2016) as we inquire into our collective work raises our team’s capacity to address some of education’s most wicked problems, those ones that keep coming back and need managing. Collaboration also helps us to create ways of connecting thinking so that we are better able to move through the data to wisdom continuum (Powell and Kusuma Powell, 2013) with collective intellectual surplus. Collaborative work allows ideas to collide, to be massaged into better ideas. It allows innovation and creativity with the networked energy of many minds.

Build culture through collaboration

Margaret Wheatley, a scientist who illuminates connections between complex scientific systems thinking into organization behavior, posits that groups who enact effective collaborative practices to find patterns surfaces group values and principles of functioning (in Powell and Kusuma Powell, 2013). Paying attention to the ways we interact supports the growth and development of our groups. When we truly listen to one another, honoring perspectives and valuing individuals’ contributions to dialog, for instance, we build relational trust.

Build trust

Educational research on trust demonstrates its value in high-performing schools (Bryk and Schneider, 2002 ; Tschannen-Moran, 2004) as an energy source that fuels the work toward impacting student learning. In times of transformation, organizations like schools need trust in order for individuals and groups to take risks, to iterate designs of how learning happens, to embrace ambiguity as we inquire into who we are and who we want to become.

Our work in schools rests on the belief of shared responsibility. If we do not peel back the layers of organizational practices, we leave this responsibility to chance and endanger the learning of our students.

The leader of learning is on a journey of what seem intangibles. Internal resourcefulness, collaborative capacity, and relational trust are all invisible in the organizational chart of any organization.

Our work is the delicate and sensitive task of peeling the layers to take an honest look within, deeper than data and information. Our work is the uncertain embrace of ambiguity as we search for patterns to find our organizational identity and perhaps discover the hidden wisdom at its core.


Building capacity: reading

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Bryk A. S. & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in Schools; A core resource for improvement. NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
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Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2016). Cognitive coaching; Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
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Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
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Powell, W. & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence. Melton Woodbridge: John Catt.
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Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters; Leadership for successful schools, 2nd Ed. SF: Jossey-Bass.
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Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the new science; Discovering order in a chaotic world. SF: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Photo credit: Blue Green Spiral Design by © Madartists. Used with permission.









Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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