Category Archives: Leadership

Honoring Controversy – The Series

School Administrators working on controversyOne of the truly challenging parts of leading large-scale school change is how upset some people can be about the change (School Change Truth 2 reminds us that people seem to abhor change). Large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. 

The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

But this is one instance where ignoring the situation will not make it go away and will likely make it worse. What to do?

The Series:

How well your initiative deals with controversy and critics will depend on how calm you remain, how productively you listen to your critics, and how good you get at determining when to simply acknowledge a critique and when to do something about it.

How We Listen Matters

Adding the “barking dogs who bite” parent, mentioned in the previous post, to the design team taught us something else about dealing with controversy. The way critical community members deliver their message, especially when they are forceful or angry, can keep us from listening productively to their message

For example, we certainly intended to use iPad apps to reinforce letter formation and spelling. The way angry parents were telling us we shouldn’t use tablets to teach young learners had us dismissing them (and their message) as extremist. 

But then a small statement in an otherwise enflamed tirade made me realize that they thought we were going to teach students to handwrite only using the devices! 

It had never occurred to us that we should be directly stating that the correct way (the only way) to properly teach handwriting was with pencil and paper. Once we made that statement, they cooled quite a bit. We were debating the benefits of using apps to reinforce letter formation when what no one had said (and needed to be said) was that handwriting needed to be taught with pencil and paper. It was so obvious to us, we never thought to say it. 

But listening productively to the critics (even when it’s hard) told us the message we should be sharing.

Similarly, when working with a middle school to implement interdisciplinary, project-based learning, our group talked a lot about problem-solving, connecting learning to the students’ world, and active learning. Critics were angry because they saw us throwing out the curriculum and dismissing Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. It was a lesson in how listening productively to your critics can also tell you when you’re using the wrong words or wording.

Of course we were teaching Math, English, Science, and Social Studies! 

But in our excitement about the learning power of connecting subjects and using projects and active learning, we had said nothing about the content students would be learning. Our critics quieted and were less frequent when we started talking about how we could make Math more meaningful by using it to address issues in Science and Social Studies, and how applying reading and writing to solving real world problems makes learning the reading and writing skills more meaningful to students, and how active, hands on learning strategies, help students better learn Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. 

Our critics helped us know what we were not saying that would be helpful and what terms we were using that were generating less buy-in, than other terms that helped promote buy-in.

Barking Dogs and Barking Dogs Who Bite

Thinking of school change from the framework of being intentional and rational about moves and counter moves, as mentioned in the previous post, can be helpful. Remember, a confrontational and forceful community member perceives their job as saying whatever it takes to have you NOT make the school change you are in the process of making.

Part of thinking through moves and counter-moves is knowing when you can and should ignore the issue, or take no action, and when you must do something, perhaps quickly. You have to be able to distinguish between “barking dogs” and “barking dogs that bite.” Many of the critics of the primary grade iPad initiative in Auburn said their piece, then went away. But we had one parent who kept returning to the school committee and to other community groups to blast the initiative. Her arguments were starting to gain traction, even though to those of us implementing the initiative none of them had any credence or basis in fact. She had become a barking dog that bites.

My superintendent was surprised by my solution. I put the parent on our design team. My superintendent wasn’t so sure about the move but trusted that I knew what I was doing. I’m not so sure that I knew what I was doing at the time (and frankly, part of it was the old “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”), but my instinct proved correct. The parent saw how decisions were made and saw that “what was good for children” was at the heart of what we were doing.

She also had a voice in our decisions (as did every design team member) and was now in the position of not being able to pontificate at a board meeting about what she thought we should or shouldn’t do, but now had to work with the team to convince us to do what she thought was right. When her ideas were what one might call extreme or crazy, she was only one voice and her ideas didn’t go far. When her ideas were on point, we collaborated on finding the right way to address the idea. She made quality contributions to the design and implementation of the initiative and even became a cautious supporter, advocating for continued funding for the project at budget time!

Dealing with Controversy Requires the Right Mindset and Temperment

As discussed in the previous post, large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

But this is one instance where ignoring the situation will not make it go away and will likely make it worse. What to do?

The first step is, to the greatest extent you can, to not take it personally. If you care deeply about your initiative, which is often the case when you play a strong role in designing or implementing an initiative, it’s hard not to take the criticisms and concerns personally, especially the ones that seem unrealistic and crazy or when the community member is so angry or forceful in their convictions. It’s almost impossible to avoid taking it personally when they make it personal about you (I once had a parent at a school committee meeting attack me by name and try to shame me for supporting our work).

It’s critical to remain calm. This is not simply an issue between you and the angry community member. There are others watching. Some will agree with the community member. Some will think that the community member is being unreasonable and will sympathize with you (perhaps feeling bad that you have to sit through this onslaught!). In many cases, you can simply thank them for sharing their perspective and let their comments (and how they were delivered) stand on their own.

If you respond too strongly, sharply, or angrily, no matter how justified you may be to feel these things, you are the one whose argument loses every time. It doesn’t matter that the community member thinks they are correct and is being angry or forceful, when you lose it, you lose your supporters. It is for them and for you that you remain calm, no matter what.

If possible, provide a counter example. When Maine decided to be the first 1-to-1 laptop initiative in the country (The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, MLTI) by providing all 7th and 8th grade teachers and students laptops, WiFi, and training (probably the largest middle school initiative in the country!), teachers, principals, and tech directors were highly anxious. At the time (2001), no other state was doing this. Few schools across the country were doing this. Then-Governor King got calls saying that if he wanted to improve Maine’s economy, he should give every middle school student a chainsaw, not a laptop. He even got death threats!

Even caring educators’ imaginations were rife with worries about all the bad things that might happen: students going to inappropriate sites, students being distracted from focusing on learning activities, equipment not working properly when needed, laptops going missing. As a new initiative, it’s hard to counteract supposition because there may be no counter-examples to point to. Fighting supposition with supposition is difficult (”My belief it won’t happen should be stronger than your belief it will happen!”).

But he had the advantage of having one middle school, Piscataquis Community Middle School in Guilford, Maine, who had initiated 1-to-1 laptops with their eighth grade earlier that year.

When a critic shared their worst fears about what would happen when every seventh and eighth grade teacher and student had an internet-connected laptop, Governor King could publicly turn to the Guilford teachers and say, “I see this person’s concern. Has this been an issue with your program?” The teachers could then state that it has not been, or if it had, what the scope of the problem had been and what their solution was. It also helped that the response came from someone other than the governor. It wasn’t just the program advocate’s response, but a response from someone who is already doing the work. Bottom line, those teachers, in this instance, had more credibility with the critics than the governor did.

Keep in mind, too, that your critics aren’t trying to ruin your day. Initiatives are “initiatives” because they are new. They haven’t been done much (if at all) before. They aren’t “tried and true.” And they are unlikely to be what your stakeholders and learning community have experienced in school. As I pointed out previously, all they have to work from is supposition and their imagination, both of which are charged by emotion. And without real counter-examples, you are fighting an uphill battle. Trying to debate an emotional worry without real counter-examples is simply a debate of opinions and in the end will simply give credence to the critic’s concern. I’m reminded of a Facebook meme: “That is a very well laid out rational point, but I will still hold to my emotional opinion based on no facts or evidence.” 

In such a situation, remaining outwardly calm and simply thanking them for sharing and letting their comments stand on their own is the only practical path forward for you.

That can be quite discouraging, feeling like you have no way to parry what you perceive to be an irrational assault on your initiative. Maybe this will help. I was working with a small group creating a career academy for challenging and at-risk students in a mid-sized city. It became quite a political hot potato, and, as the superintendent’s project, a pawn in battles between the superintendent and other groups (having little to do with the school itself). My colleague had friends–who were not connected to the school project–over socially one evening and was telling them about our challenges in that district. One of the friends was a veteran combat pilot now working as a commercial airline pilot. He told my colleague, “You know, they only shoot at you when you’re over the target.” It became a metaphor that has energized me through this and other initiatives since!

I also find it helpful to think of implementing an initiative in the midst of controversy a bit like chess, as a complex game of moves and counter-moves to win the game. I don’t so much want you to start thinking of implementing your initiative as a game or to turn this into another situation where someone wins and someone loses. But the framework of being intentional and rational about moves and counter moves is a helpful one. Remember, a confrontational and forceful community member perceives their job as saying whatever it takes to have you NOT make the school change you are in the process of making.

In the next post, we’ll explore sizing up the individuals expressing concern about your initiative.

School Change Generates Controversy

One of the truly challenging parts of leading large-scale school change is how upset some people can be about the change (School Change Truth 2 reminds us that people seem to abhor change). Some parents worry their children won’t do as well as they do now. Some teachers worry about the work and adjustments they’ll have to make with the change, or fear they’ll fail at the initiative or that it’s another initiative they’re expected to implement well without adequate training or support. Some just think that the initiative doesn’t look “like school,” so you’re clearly doing it wrong! 

Parents will resist and fight back against the change. Teachers will resist and fight back against the change. Community members will resist and fight back against the change. Some directly: telling you –or your superintendent or the school committee–exactly what they don’t like about the initiative or what their worries and concerns are. Others are less direct, telling you what they think will make you stop or change your mind, rather than telling what they really fear, or that they don’t want to put the effort into the change. And if your initiative is the kind that few others have implemented to date, and you have no examples to point to, then your stakeholder group has only their imagination, good and bad. And some of those stakeholders will rail against the worst their imaginations can come up with! Without counter-examples, you have no proof they are wrong.

When Auburn Schools ventured to be the first district to have a district-wide 1-to-1 kindergarten iPad initiative, there were no other kindergarten iPad initiatives to point to. We had educators and partners who were excited about the opportunity. Our imaginations told us about all the good that was possible from such an effort. But we also had some angry community members who came to testify at school committee meetings about all the worst things their imaginations could conjure:

  • We would reduce the number of teachers and just teach students through online learning
  • Students would spend all their time on the tablets and would no longer play outside, draw with crayons, sculpt with clay, sing songs, or sift through sand
  • Predators would get to the children through the cameras on the devices
  • The kindergarteners would spend all their time playing games they downloaded or going through Facebook instead of doing the learning activities
  • Students eyes would go bad using the tablet screens, and they would all need glasses
  • The children would never learn to write with pencil and paper 

Many years later, none of these predictions came to fruition. But that didn’t stop them from being hot topics in the beginning. (In fact, back then I blogged, “Rumor of our Locking Students in Closets with iPads Are Greatly Exaggerated!“)

Large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

This series will help address how to deal with the controversy your initiative generates.

Not All At Once: Breaking Your Initiative Into Phases

Leading large-scale school change is a challenge. These kinds of initiatives are often complex and include numerous parts and components. Further, the initiative often includes practices educators, the folks responsible for implementing the initiative, have never experienced themselves as learners. Such initiatives often seem overwhelming to teachers!

While I was with Auburn schools, one lesson we learned from working with other districts further along implementing Customized Learning (proficiency-based learning) than we were was “not all at once!” Although there are many components to this school reform effort, following a certain sequence seemed to lead to successful implementation more often than other processes or approaches.

We teased out those lessons about sequence into phases for implementing Customized Learning and started applying them to plans for training and supporting teachers, as well as plans for implementing a statewide requirement for a proficiency-based diploma.

Seeing the practical benefits of breaking our proficiency-based learning work into phases led us to also consider our work around learning through technology within a 1to1 environment, and we created phases for implementing technology for learning, as well.

Although there is flexibility in how districts implement each phase, or even in how they might break an implementation into phases, there seems to be real, practical advantages to thinking of a complex initiative in phases. Each phase focuses on building the capacity of teachers to implement the key components of a complex initiative, but by making the transition manageable by breaking it down into doable steps.

The Power of Breaking an Initiative into Phases (as viewed from the example of Proficiency-Based Learning)

The Phases – Customized Learning

The Phases – Technology for Learning

Are We Talking Technology or Are We Talking Learning

More and more, educators are recognizing that the true value of technology isn’t learning how to use the tools and devices, but rather using the tools and devices to learn (see here, here, and here).

Even a recent meta analysis of the research on 1to1 learning environments shows that when the studies focused simply on the presence of technology, there was no real improvement in learning. Yet, when a study focused on how the devices were used, certain types of use (those focused on effective instructional practices), there was a real improvement in learning.

We will never be successful having our technology help improve student learning if we continue to primarily discuss the technology.  Our technology conversations must focus on the kinds of learning we want for students. After all, if the goal of our technology initiative is simply to make sure that students have technology, when we are successful, all we have are students with devices (and perhaps distracted students at that!).

The good news is that Maine’s statewide BrightBytes data on technology and learning show that students and teachers feel they are encouraged to use their technology for learning:

Teachers and students encouraged to use tech for learning

But those data also show that, although we’ve done a pretty good job of teaching teachers and students how to use the devices and tools, we have a ways to go for implementing those tools and devices for learning:

Knowing skills and using for learning

So, our state data reinforce the need for our push for “More Verbs, Fewer Nouns” – our need to talk less about the devices and tools and more about the way we want to use them.

How can you tell if you are talking about Tech or talking about Learning?

You are talking about tech when you talk about the following:

  • Cost of devices
  • How easy it is (or isn’t) to manage
  • Wanting same device/platform K-12
  • Teaching skills or about the tools (out of context)
  • Tips and Tricks PD
  • Latest Gimmick/Gadget PD

And you are talking about learning when you talk about the following:

  • Specific academic content focus
  • Used meaningfully for learning task
  • Beyond facts to deeper understanding, to creativity and complex reasoning
  • Student engagement
  • Teaching tech skills as foundation to completing learning activity
  • PD on good instruction (with tech)

There is no doubt that we need “noun people” as part of ensuring technology is used purposefully for learning. We still need a technology infrastructure to support the learning activities for which we want to use technology. In the Maine Learning Technology Framework, they refer to that as Learning-Focused Access.

In Taking Classroom Tech Use to the Next Level: Specific Traits to Look For, the author points out that Alan November recommends six questions to determine if technology adds any value to the learning:

  1. Did the assignment create capacity for critical thinking on the Web?
  2. Did the assignment reach new areas of teaching students to develop new lines of inquiry?
  3. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  4. Is there an opportunity for students to publish (across various media) with an opportunity for continuous feedback?
  5. Is there an option for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  6. Were students introduced to the best example in the world of the content or skill?

OoAnd the author points out, “Three of the most important traits they look at when evaluating a lesson are whether it is discipline specific, promotes critical thinking and whether technology is used in transformative ways.”

One approach to making sure that your education technology conversations are well grounded in learning is to create a shared vision for learning with a diverse group of stakeholders (at least including educators, students, parents, and community members). That shared vision isn’t a vision for the school or a vision for education technology, but rather a vision for the kids of learning experiences the school community want for its students.

Here are two easy-to-implement strategies for creating a shared vision for learning. Neither takes a lot of time to implement. One asks participants to think about a preferred future for children they care about and then the kinds of learning that they would need to be doing now to achieve that perfected future. The other asks participants to think about a good learning experience and then about the characteristics of that experience.