THE INTERSECTION OF FIDELITY AND INNOVATION

I recently attended a conference where keynote speakers and session presenters shared their definitions of good educational practices. I heard many wonderful things, but the shared information reminded me of the glaring contradiction educators are facing: administrators and teachers alike tout the importance of innovation within classrooms while at the same time stressing the importance of following pacing guides and keeping “fidelity” with all adopted curriculum and programs.

So how can both students and teachers be innovative while at the same time traveling lockstep through the school year?

That’s the million dollar question (literally). In trying to discuss it, we can easily get lost within a maze of opinions. Talking about what we think is the correct response works out OK at first, but talk too much, and eventually even the most knowledgeable people reach a point where they throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know.” (Try writing about how innovation and fidelity go together–it’s hard.) The resulting cognitive dissonance is extremely frustrating.

I’ve been thinking about this the last couple days, and as the thoughts have been marinating, the books I’ve recently read have mixed with what I witnessed at the conference. Skin in the Game is one of the best books I’ve read over the last couple years, and in it author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains the importance of the Latin phrase via negativiaVia negativia is the practice of describing something by stating what it is not. Taleb illuminates this idea by comparing the Golden Rule and the Silver Rule.

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Silver Rule: Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you.

Taleb writes that we know with much more clarity what is bad than what is good. The Golden Rule is nebulous because we aren’t always sure how we want people to “do unto us.” On the other hand, the Silver Rule is crystal clear because we definitely know the ways we don’t want people to treat us. In other words, it’s easier to say what we don’t like than what we do like.

In Skin in the Game’s Glossary, Taleb writes via negativia is “a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do–subtraction, not addition, works better in domains with multiplicative and unpredictable side effects.” This addition through subtraction can go a long way–especially in the complex system of a school or district standing at the intersection of innovation and fidelity.

Instead of saying what we should do when grappling with the cognitive dissonance of a pacing guide and innovative lesson plan, we should be stating what we shouldn’t do (à la via negativia style).

  • We shouldn’t disengage our students from their learning through ineffective lesson design.
  • We shouldn’t teach concepts that aren’t connected to the students’ lives.
  • We shouldn’t plan lessons in isolation.
  • We shouldn’t assess just to assess.
  • We shouldn’t be afraid to learn new things we can incorporate into the classroom.
  • We shouldn’t neglect to stay up-to-date on the latest effective educational practices.

Does this provide the reader with a clear guideline of how to rectify innovation and fidelity? NO. If I could do that, I’d be a millionaire. But I think the idea of via negativia can help guide educators as they teach in this messy 21st Century.

BANDING TOGETHER FOR PURPOSE

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). All feedback is welcome!]

“Being a mature being means living with a purpose, your own purpose: it’s about welcoming responsibility as the nourishment a big life needs; it’s about behaving as a good citizen – finding ways to add value to the community in which you live; it’s about wrestling with your weaknesses and developing heart, mind, and spirit.” — John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction

It’s important to begin our journey rising and converging by focusing on why we do what we do. This is because we all need a purpose in order to do great work, and it’s of course helpful to receive assurance that we’re making a difference in the universe and participating in something important. The majority of people enter the field of education because they want to make children’s lives better, and it’s this purpose that provides meaning to their lives. Because of this, people need a cause in which they believe in order to buy into change.

When a new strategy, protocol, or program is implemented, leaders must understand the importance of focusing on how it fits into fulfilling the team’s purpose. To go through the motions doing something in which there’s no buy-in because it doesn’t connect to one’s purpose makes a person feel hollow inside. People require a cause in which they believe in order to have a purpose. This is why some teachers end up being miserable: they don’t see a connection between why they became an educator and what’s being implemented at their school sites.

Sebastian Junger, author of the excellent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, writes how oftentimes people are happier during war than peacetime. He cites the Blitz during World War II when the Germans bombed England in 1940 and 1941. These mass air attacks targeted not just British industrial targets, but also towns and cities. This was a frightening time for England, and no one in his or her right mind would want this devastation to happen anywhere. Even so, Britons came together and displayed a level of heroism that’s truly inspiring. Later, there would be accounts of people who lived through the Blitz who looked back at that time of their lives fondly Why is this? Because they banded together and had a purpose.

The Britons definitely had a reason for existence; it was to stay alive and help others stay alive. This laser like focus was something everyone could buy into, and in hindsight the people of England remembered this purpose, and the solidarity it formed, with a sense of nostalgia.

When you have a reason for living, there are tasks you want to accomplish in order to support what you love.

So why don’t many teachers and administrators look back at the past decade (or two decades, or three decades) of their work and feel the same solidarity and fulfillment of purpose when it comes to their school or district? It isn’t simply because they’ve experienced conflict over the course of their careers. As we read earlier, there will always be conflict and chaos at school sites. In fact, you can have a significant amount of conflict within an organization, and it can continue thriving.

In the incredible book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl writes, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” There is always a web of tension in every situation. Sometimes the web is barely perceptible, and other times it’s as if Metallica is rocking out in the room. Teachers who are unhappy at work don’t hate their jobs simply because there’s tension; the problem is they didn’t believe the focus and decisions of their leaders were right for the students.

Britons clearly understood the focus: survive! Likewise, educational leaders must have a strong and simple focus on what’s important at school sites, and then this focused message must be communicated in both actions and words on a daily basis to students, staff, and all stakeholders. The purpose must be communicated 24/7–there is no downtime in the 21st Century.

PURPOSE OVER PASSION

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). All feedback is welcome!]

When I tell people I’m not very passionate, it’s often met with derision. “Passion,” they say, “is the most important trait you can possess when working with kids.” I have to respectfully disagree, and I think Eleanor Roosevelt can back me up:

“Early on in her ascendant political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘passionate interest’ in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. ‘Yes,’ she did support the cause, she said. ‘But I hardly think the word passionate applies to me.’ As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.”–Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

As Ryan Holiday writes, Roosevelt was above passion–she had purpose. Purpose is what sustained the Britons through the Blitz. It’s what propels all people through trials and tribulations that besiege us.

Passion doesn’t cut it when everything is on the line. Passion usually doesn’t even suffice when it’s 5:30 A.M., and you have to get up for work. What gets you out of bed? It may be a sense of responsibility, but I’m certain for most people within the field of education, there’s a large sense of purpose (not passion) willing your body from under the warm covers.

Purpose is also what gets a teacher through a minimum day before a holiday. Purpose is what strengthens a teacher’s resolve when the test scores come back low even though he or she has worked extremely hard. Purpose is what keeps a PLC team together when egos are clashing. Purpose is what motivates a principal who feels alone and isolated.

“Great passions are maladies without hope.”–Goethe

Oftentimes we speak of passion and purpose synonymously, but they’re not the same. Passion is fleeting. Passion can get the job done, but it can’t get all the jobs done. Purpose is the trait that pushes through the frustrating, impossible, or plain mundane and follows through with initiatives. It’s easy to implement a program, but you’ll need more than passion in order to make sure the program functions properly for years to come. Everyone wants to start new cool things at schools and within districts because the beginning of all implementations are fun. A leader has to have sustainable purpose in order to support effective initiatives that get the job done.

So what are some ways to help strengthen a culture centered on purpose?

  • Avoid using the word “passion.”
  • Continually reflect upon the most important things that must be accomplished for students to learn.
  • Have staff members and students post their purposes on the walls of every classroom.
  • Systems over goals. (More on this later.)
  • Read books.
  • Avoid “shiny objects.” (More in just a bit.)

So what should your purpose be? That’s the million dollar question, and everyone is going to have a different answer. Some people say, “Well, it’s surely not to test kids to death,” while others will say, “Assessing students and knowing what they know is the most important part of my job as an educator.”

In my opinion, most people aren’t born with an articulated vision of their life’s purpose. It requires experience, relationships, reading, and possibly even the beginning of one’s career in order to figure out why we do what we do. I wasn’t able to articulate my purpose until I had already worked approximately eight years as a teacher. I remember sitting in the waiting room of a car dealership as my Honda Accord was being serviced. While I waited for my sensible and economical car to be ready, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning in which he writes, “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.”

I won’t say at that moment a light shone down from heaven and angels started singing, but I do remember feeling a sense of relief as I thought to myself, “OK, so that’s what I need to do.” There was nothing passionate about this realization–passion wasn’t necessary. All I needed was my personal and professional experiences up to that point, coupled with the wise words of Frankl. Soon after I was able to articulate my sustaining purpose:

Even though every situation supplies non-stop conflict, I will strive to help others find meaning in their lives.

This purpose dovetailed nicely with my professional life, and it’s what drives me to do my best–even when I feel zero passion.

I’ve also come to realize that clearly defining both your own personal purpose and the organization’s purpose is an excellent way to narrow your focus. Too often teachers and administrators make grandiose and passionate goals, only to fail miserably as the school year slogs on. Honestly, failure could be attributed to too much passion and not enough purpose, but it also could be a result of doing too much in general. An interesting corollary to finding purpose is the importance of striving for simplicity.

(The next section in the book is entitled “Simplicity.”)

YOU SHOULD DO SOMETHING

I recently saw this video clip on Twitter of a young Steve Jobs talking to a room full of people.

Here’s an excerpt from the video:

How many of you are from manufacturing companies? Oh, excellent… Where are the rest of you from?

How many from consulting? Oh, that’s bad. You should do something.

No seriously, I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil in consulting. I think that… I think that without owning something over an extended period of time, like a few years, where one has a chance to take responsibility for one’s recommendations… where one has to see one’s recommendations through all action stages and accumulate scar tissue for the mistakes and pick oneself up off the ground and dust oneself off… one learns a fraction of what one can… coming in and making recommendations and not owning the results, not owning the implementation, I think is… is a fraction of the value and a fraction of the opportunity to learn and get better.

I love what Jobs says about taking responsibility for one’s recommendations and seeing a process through all the way to the end. It’s definitely apropos within the field of education. Consultants are helpful when they enter a school or district, share their point-of-view, explain how to make their recommendation work within the organization, and then stay until their implementation succeeds. Effective consultants sweat and bleed with administrators and teachers. They own what they preach.

Consultants who arrive, share a bit of what they know, and then leave aren’t inherently evil (as Jobs says), but they have no skin in the game when it comes to your organization. A consultant who becomes your partner and suffers the same scars as you is a sister or brother in the quest for improving student learning. And both of you learn an incredible amount of information together.

As always, it’s all about skin in the game.

INTRODUCTION

[Below is the introduction to a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

I’ve been a teacher, technology specialist, curriculum specialist, and district-level coordinator for a combined total of fifteen years. Along the way I’ve seen leaders retire, 1:1 devices deployed, curriculum adoptions both discarded and implemented, a large number of initiatives come and go, and state standards vanish while Common Core reigns supreme. Within this ever churning sea of opinions and attempts to positively impact student learning, I offer this book. My attempt is to navigate through the cacophony of traditions, policies, and protocols within the field of education and provide a guiding signal through the noise. As you’ll probably agree, this is easier said than done. I’ve gone through a number of manuscripts and discarded thousands of words in order to present a simple mental operating system that I believe can help all educational leaders become better at what they do.

I will not inundate you with website links and QR codes. I believe a book should be a self-contained collection of thoughts, and I don’t want to overwhelm you with a large number of online resources. If something was important to mention, I put it in this book. I’m not going to send you on a mad goose chase looking for videos or blog posts throughout the internet. It’s the job of the writer to curate the best information he or she has and provide it in the book. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here for you.

It’s probably also important to note that I’ve purposefully written this book in a casual, non-academic voice. If you’re an educational leader (i.e. lead learner) who reads many academic books and journals, you may be bristling at my lack of formality and academic prose. If that’s the case, I understand if you discard this book or give it back to the person who lent it to you. In my defense, there are three main reasons why I wanted to write an easily accessible book about how we can make the field of education better. First, because I’m a teacher at heart, I strongly believe in the value of taking complex ideas and breaking them down into their most simple components. Second, and closely related to my first point, the books I enjoy reading provide “handles” for the reader to grasp. In other words, the author gives the reader ways to access and remember the book’s ideas. Third, when you’re an educational leader at a school site, you’re constantly consumed by your work. When there’s finally a spare minute to read, your emotional labor may already be greatly depleted. I want to provide educators with the best information possible in the most easily digestible format so they’ll want to actually finish reading what I’ve written.

The title of this book is Rise and Converge, which was inspired by a story written by Flannery O’Connor entitled “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” From what I’ve read, O’Connor’s title refers to the work of French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who stated: “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

It’s important to take these words into account within the context of a school district. As educators we must never cease rising toward greater heights of skill and wisdom, while at the same time converging upon not just best practices, but also the best ways to conduct ourselves in a complex world. So how can we, both as individuals and organizations, rise and converge so all students grow up in schools where learning occurs and their emotional and physical needs are sufficiently met?

ANTIFRAGILITY AND COHERENCE

A good place to begin exploring is the organization. Whether you’re an educational leader in a huge district or working in a one-school district, it’s important to construct a mental framework of how organizations thrive–and how they fail. Too often we are so focused on implementations and ad hoc policies, we become unaware of what is making us fragile.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb greatly influenced my understanding of how organizations not only can survive but also flourish. In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, he explains the difference between three different states: fragility, robustness, and “antifragility” (a word coined by Taleb). His book is a must read, but I’ll provide a simple explanation of this important concept.

Let’s start with fragility. Imagine you’re cooking a Denver omelette and accidentally drop an egg on the floor of your kitchen. What happens to the egg? Of course, it cracks open and makes a mess. That’s an example of fragility–introduce a little instability or chaos, and destruction follows. Fragility should be avoided at all costs: fragile systems, fragile investments, fragile jobs… the list goes on.

Now picture you’re once again standing in your kitchen. A friend is visiting, and you decide to show off your brand new bowling ball. As you’re retrieving the heavy ball out of its bag, it slips out and strikes the tile floor. What happens to the bowling ball upon impact? Probably not much, but unfortunately it cracked a tile or two. This is an example of robustness. Introduce instability or chaos, and the object, person, or organization isn’t affected. Obviously this is more ideal than fragility, and therefore we should strive for robust systems, investments, jobs, etc.

But we aren’t going to stop there! Now think of the ancient mythical creature Hydra. When Hercules cut off the beast’s head, two more grew back in its place. As the demigod continued slashing necks, the heads continue multiplying and Hydra became stronger. That’s antifragility–introduce instability or chaos, and the object, person, or organization becomes stronger.

When you begin to explore what’s fragile in education, you’ll notice that complexity strips an organization of robustness. As we’ll discuss in a bit, schools and school districts can avoid fragility and seek out robustness by striving for simplicity. Of course, antifragility–the ability to gain strength from disorder–is the ideal. In the previous example, the bowling ball wasn’t damaged by striking the tile kitchen floor, but it also didn’t gain any strength from the contact. Imagine if it did! Anything that gains from disorder and chaos is positioned extremely well in today’s world. Because of this, school and district leaders must make decisions that result in robustness with the potential of antifragile gain.

Think of your role within the field of education. Would your organization be able to withstand a large amount of chaos without breaking? Would you be robust in the face of budget cuts, no wifi, conflict arising from a newly deployed initiative, or any other event outside your team’s control? More interestingly, is there a way you can become stronger in the face of chaos?

These are questions this book attempts to answer. Fragility, robustness, and antifragility will be touchstones throughout our exploration of how schools and districts can rise and converge to enhance student learning.

In addition to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s invaluable insight, Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn are two authors who have greatly influenced my understanding of an organization’s efficacy. Their excellent book Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems not only turned the word “coherence” into an overused buzzword on the conference circuit for a while, but the book itself truly is a masterwork of finding a signal within the noisy world of education. Within this helpful text, Fullan and Quinn introduce four “right drivers” that school leaders should focus upon in order to strengthen their organizations. Those correct drivers are:

  • Focusing direction
  • Cultivating collaborative cultures
  • Deepening learning
  • Securing accountability

If you run a school or district, the first thing you should do is foster the four right drivers. You can begin by focusing direction, which means becoming good at a small number of things and aligning your initiatives and resources toward that end. Second, you must cultivate collaborative cultures; this is when professional learning communities (PLCs) are supported, as well as the components that create effective PLC time (i.e. an emphasis on common formative assessments, using a simple protocol to analyze data, and [most importantly] building trust). Third, deep learning occurs when a team strives for and develops shared skills and a common vocabulary. Fourth, you must apply external accountability while at the same time fostering internal accountability–which is accomplished via skin in the game (more on this toward the end of the book).

An organization can be made robust, and possibly even antifragile, by incorporating the four right drivers. Conversely, an organization can be made fragile when the four “wrong” drivers are deployed. According to Fullan and Quinn, these are punitive accountability, individualist strategies, technology, and ad hoc policies. I recommend reading Coherence for a greater understanding regarding how these four wrong drivers can harm an organization, but what jumps out at me when thinking about the wrong drivers is the word “individualist.” Usually, punitive accountability is done to an individual. Of course, individualist strategies are not conducted by the whole team. Technology is oftentimes devoid of any connection to standards, curriculum, or even instruction. And ad hoc policies are individual implementations with no concern for the symbiotic relationship that’s inherent within a school and district.

In short, organizations are robbed of robustness and made fragile when leaders don’t understand the connective tissue binding every program they implement. On the other hand, the right drivers can make districts robust–and possibly antifragile. If an organization has focused direction, it doesn’t matter which shiny objects are offered; the organization isn’t going to bite. If collaborative cultures are strong, people will be unified, which helps focus direction. If educators delve deeper into their learning, they’ll be more likely to share, which cultivates collaborative cultures and focuses direction. And if internal and external accountability are secured, then learning will be deepened, people will collaborate, and the focus will truly be on what’s important. Thus, robust coherence.

A robust organization practicing coherence will be strong. New curriculum adoption? No matter, we’ll learn it and incorporate it within our already established operation. New digital grade book? Who cares–we’ll learn it and use it in a simple way to provide feedback to students and parents. New principal? Fine. He or she will step into a well oiled machine that operates independently of charismatic (or uncharismatic) leaders.

That’s robust culture. But what about Taleb’s idea of antifragility? Remember, antifragility is like Hydra–this means the organization doesn’t just absorb the blow, it becomes stronger because of it. The antifragile district thrives within chaos. And, let’s be honest, chaos is going to be ever-present within schools and districts. The system is too large, and there are too many variables (i.e. staff, students, parents, budget, policy, etc.) in order for chaos not to feed off the day-to-day activities. Because of this, we need a common mental framework that has the antifragile philosophy and four right drivers woven into its fabric. Just like breathing, members of the team must know when and how to avoid decisions that will introduce fragility. People need to be able to focus, collaborate effectively with others, learn deeply, and act responsibly with skin in the game.

Because of this, the rest of this book will be broken into the following sections:

  • Focus
  • Collaborate
  • Learn
  • Responsibility

The fifth section is entitled “Future,” and it will provide a context for how we need to think as educators in this complex world. (Also, I changed “accountability” to “responsibility” for the fourth section. I believe the words are synonymous.)

RISE AND CONVERGE

Successful educational organizations have many forces constantly introducing complexity into their systems. What happens all too often is we allow these forces to dictate what needs to be done. We add one thing, then we add another, then we add another. Soon, we have a monstrosity of our own making that’s so big and so complex, it’s nearly impossible to effect change or do things well.

In addition to complexity, we work within a field where people tend to be lone rangers. The culture of public education fosters individuals who “do their own thing” because they believe it’s “best for the students.” If everyone is doing his or her own thing, and everyone’s “thing” is different, then there’s either thousands of different best ways to reach kids, or we’re failing at working collaboratively to increase student learning.

The main goal of this book is to help raise our skill level as educational leaders while bringing together an understanding of what our most important best practices should be. Hence, rise and converge.

Let’s get started.

MACRO FROM THE MICRO

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

Oftentimes in education, for both student learning and professional development, our primary concern is to comprehensively learn (i.e. memorize) all steps or pieces within a domain. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, learning everything possible about a subject is extremely time consuming and difficult.

In Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans, he explains a principle used by chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin called “learning the macro from the micro.” This approach avoids the common way of learning by focusing on a single component (the micro) in order to learn and understand the whole (macro). Ferriss explains how Waitzkin once taught him chess:

“For instance, when Josh gave me a beginner’s tutorial on chess, he didn’t start with opening moves. Memorizing openings is natural, and nearly everyone does it, but Josh likens it to stealing the test answers from a teacher. You’re not learning principles or strategies, — you’re merely learning a few tricks that will help you beat your novice friends. Instead, Josh took me in reverse… The board was empty, except for three pieces in an endgame scenario: king and pawn against king. Through the micro, position of reduced complexity, he was able to focus me on the macro: principles like the power of empty space, opposition, and setting an opponent up for zugzwang (a situation where any move he makes will destroy his position.”

This is a much more elegant way of learning a new domain. If, as a lead learner, you can break a new teaching strategy into its most basic components, determine the portion that’s the fulcrum, and then learn and practice that specific skill, you’re on your way to learning the whole. Let’s look at some examples:

  • There are different types of direct instruction. One is called Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), which my district adheres to. There are various components to creating a lesson plan, one of which is structured practice. If the teacher can just focus on this portion of the lesson and become a master at providing structured practice, then she’ll eventually learn how to provide better input (instruction) and guided practice, which both respectively precede and follow structured practice.
  • Learning how to formatively assess while teaching helps an educator in many other domains. For example, if a teacher begins using in-the-moment data to guide instruction, then the teacher is learning a new way to lesson plan. (Detailed planning can’t be done ahead of time anymore because planning is simply guessing.) The teacher is forced to learn how to teach the same topic multiple ways during the same lesson–which means differentiation is learned and incorporated on the fly as well.
  • Focusing on one app within Google Suite will teach the user how to use all the G Suite apps. If a teacher tells herself, “I’m going to just focus on learning Google Docs this month–nothing more,” then that person will become not just proficient at using Docs in the classroom, but she’ll also learn transferable skills such as sharing a file within the Google ecosystem, saving files within Google Drive, effective collaboration via cloud-based products with students and adults, and a better understanding of how technology–in general–can be blended with instruction. In order to use technology successfully, one must begin with the micro; this is what has the power to accelerate pedagogy.
  • Breaking up one’s own learning helps break up learning for students. The practice of getting really good at the micro in our own personal and professional learning will help us as we not only chunk lessons for students, but also choose what we’ll teach students. Developing a comprehensive lesson on the American Revolution is great. Do you know what might be better? Focusing on a founding father or mother’s life as that person experiences 1776. Becoming an expert on Alexander Hamilton or Abigail Adams gives students something they can master while at the same time providing handles to better understand the macro in which that historical figure lived.

What’s the “fulcrum” in each of the above examples? Learning structured practice (fulcrum) makes one better at direct instruction. Formatively assessing students “on the fly” (fulcrum) revolutionizes lesson planning because you may never be able to create a detailed lesson plan far in advance ever again. Mastering Google Docs (fulcrum) will help you understand how 1:1 devices can be effectively blended within instruction. Breaking up your own learning by focusing on the micro (fulcrum) will help you identify opportunities to introduce the micro to students.

RESPONSIBILITY AND SKIN IN THE GAME

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

As a lead learner, how do you hold other people accountable to high standards of performance every day for student learning to flourish? More importantly, how do you hold yourself to a high standard?

Experts have stated over the years that motivating one’s staff, and oneself, can be done in a myriad of ways. Buzzwords are generously thrown around in administrator courses and within leadership books: autonomy, candor, culture… all good words with wonderful intentions. The problem is these terms are effects of something else. In other words, you can’t have a campus where autonomy, candor, and a positive culture flourish without a main cause.

Speakers and writers who make their livings discussing how to build accountability within schools and districts are missing this cause, and I must admit I was blind to it as well. It took the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb to help me locate this blindspot and give it a name. As often happens, thoughts and beliefs are constructed by the vocabulary one possesses. Just as Taleb provided us with the word “antifragile,” he’s also provided insight regarding a term that shines a light on every place of learning and exposes the level of accountability members hold themselves to.

Skin in the game.

Let’s back up a bit. I was listening to Michael Fullan speak about two years ago, and he discussed how one of the correct drivers of student learning is “securing accountability.” Having read his book Coherence before attending his talk, I was familiar with this driver and didn’t expect to learn much more when it came to this idea. I was wrong. Not long into his explanation of securing accountability, he provided a synonym for the word accountable: responsible.

In an instant I saw this driver in a different light. Accountability and responsibility are of course similar, but responsibility speaks much more powerfully to me. We all have a responsibility to help students learn and mature into flourishing citizens who can in turn help others. We are all responsible for the state of the world in which we find ourselves, and it’s the great women and men who have taken a stand (when it’s difficult to do so) that creates positive change. These people saw it as their responsibility to live in a way where they would suffer consequences for their actions–mostly for the unfortunate reason that oftentimes doing what’s right is not popular.

In the field of education, administrators are taught they must create “buy-in” within their organization. Fullan divides the “securing accountability” driver into two sub-categories: external and internal accountability. (From here on out I’ll refer to “accountability” as “responsibility”). External responsibility is the process by which an administrator influences others to do what he or she wants, and it’s accomplished by means of directives, evaluations, and systems constructed to provide a specific result. This form of leadership can definitely be effective, but it’s extremely fragile because it depends on one person making sure everyone else is doing something. Once that administrator leaves, whatever is being managed will disappear because the staff didn’t hold it dear to their hearts.

Internal responsibility is more robust because, as the name suggests, people internalize the change and make it part of their practice. In some instances, external responsibility may come first, but the hope is that it morphs into an internal responsibility system for each members of the organization. This is when culture becomes positive, and a school site or district pulls in one direction toward its purpose.

This all sounds well and good, but the important question is: how do you create a sense of internal responsibility within a person? Earlier I wrote that great women and men in the past have changed the status quo by taking a stand for or against something by making themselves vulnerable because of it. A nice way of putting it is they take risks for their opinions rather than protecting themselves from the consequences of their actions.

External responsibility is easy: mandate, evaluate, implement, threaten (just kidding); you can always try to make someone do something. The goal, however, is to foster internal responsibility, and the most effective way–in fact, possibly the only way–to promote internal responsibility is by having skin in the game.

It’s common knowledge students will behave well in the classroom of a teacher they respect. They’ll even work harder for teachers whom they know care about them. The same goes for adults; teachers will work extremely hard for a principal they like. The million dollar question, however, is how does a principal garner the respect of his or her staff? It’s not by giving them whatever they ask for. It’s not by sending them to fun conferences. It’s not by being nice or strict or firm.

It’s by having skin in the game.

I go back to the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as I often do, because he speaks and writes truth. In his new book Skin in the Game, he cogently explains the importance of taking risks for one’s actions and opinions. For example, he writes, “If you give an opinion, and someone follows it, you are morally obligated to be, yourself, exposed to its consequences.” Someone with skin in the game is more than willing to pay a price for having exposure to the real world. When they tell others to do something, they don’t hide behind another strong leader or the mantra “that’s just the way it is.” They don’t hide behind anything, which is unfortunately rare–especially within large organizations. As Taleb writes, “Bureaucracy is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.” Skin in the game as a leader is basically a broader way of referring to extreme ownership.

Ineffective leaders hide amidst fuzzy bureaucratic obstacles. They do what they have to do, and then insulate themselves from the effects of their nebulous decisions. When these people apply external accountability measures, staff balks. The leaders find no one listens to them, no matter how many administrative books containing buy-in strategies they’ve read and implemented. And if external measures don’t work, it’s crystal clear internal responsibility isn’t fostered.

People want leaders with skin in the game. Whenever I’ve visited a school where kids are learning, teachers are working in harmony, and (a chosen few) effective strategies are being implemented well, you’ll find a principal walking around the campus who doesn’t protect herself from her actions. Even if they don’t know it, most people crave for a lead learner such as this to take command of their campus. This is the type of leader who gets results from external responsibility. More importantly, this is a leader who has developed internal responsibility within herself and her staff. She’s taken risks for her opinion, and she’s received both accolades and grief because she was tied to her decisions and actions.

Let’s examine what a lead learner with skin in the game does not look like.

(My book will hopefully be published this year!)