The Strategy of the Crown

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

The most integral component of collaborative work is that a team believes it can make a positive difference. In other words, stories are told to one another stating collective effort matters and will increase student learning. As John Hattie’s research shows, teacher collective efficacy is the way through which teachers can help quadruple the amount of learning a student can accomplish. This is a belief system, which Robert Greene call the Strategy of the Crown in his book 48 Laws of Power:

“The Strategy of the Crown is based on a simple chain of cause and effect: If we believe we are destined for great things, our belief will radiate outward, just as a crown creates an aura around a king.”

Educators must believe they can positively affect student learning. In this era of data, we expect information to be sufficient to change people’s minds. This may be true in some cases, but in many other cases data fails at changing behavior. Why do people continue smoking when there’s ample evidence proving what it does to your body? Why do people still drink and drive in a world with Lyft and Uber? Why do some people not work out or eat healthy food? Why don’t people read more books, start side businesses, or stay off social media when more and more studies prove the negative effects of Facebook and Instagram? It’s because data oftentimes doesn’t matter–what people need is a story.

As a leader within an organization, it’s your job to provide that story. Sure, information is extremely helpful, but rather than start a staff meeting with graphs and tables showing the growth or decline of the school in various areas and sub-areas, it’s more important to tell specific stories of how students are thriving at your school. Write up a story about how an EL student was reclassified. Share how a student in GATE class created a project that was honored by a local energy company due to its technical skill. Tell a story about the students who were able to go on that field trip because they all scored proficiently on a formative assessment.

As Yuval Noah Harari states, humans are transitioning from an era of “humanism” to an era of “dataism.” Data is not going anywhere. In fact, it’s just going to become more prevalent when making decisions regarding what to buy, where to live, what to do as an occupation, who to marry, etc. There’s nothing wrong with using data–data is extremely important–but Homo sapiens have had the same brain for 70,000 years. Just because data and information have crept into our professional practice doesn’t mean telling each other stories is a dead practice. We will need stories for many more generations, and practices such as The Strategy of the Crown help blend data with the stories we tell ourselves concerning not only the power we have within, but the collective power we possess when striving for high student achievement.

ARISTOTLE PROJECT

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

Years ago, Google became determined to create the perfect team. Executives believed building the best team meant putting the best people together. In 2012, they launched the Aristotle Project, which was an attempt to study teams in order to determine the ingredients for the perfect group. When all was said and done, they examined 180 teams within the company.

At first, there were no patterns to distinguish a high performing team from a lower performing team. Soon, the importance of established “group norms” came into view. This NYT article explains it well:

“Project Aristotle’s researchers began searching through the data they had collected, looking for norms. They looked for instances when team members described a particular behavior as an ‘unwritten rule’ or when they explained certain things as part of the ‘team’s culture.’ Some groups said that teammates interrupted one another constantly and that team leaders reinforced that behavior by interrupting others themselves. On other teams, leaders enforced conversational order, and when someone cut off a teammate, group members would politely ask everyone to wait his or her turn. Some teams celebrated birthdays and began each meeting with informal chitchat about weekend plans. Other groups got right to business and discouraged gossip. There were teams that contained outsize personalities who hewed to their group’s sedate norms, and others in which introverts came out of their shells as soon as meetings began.”

The researchers soon found good teams had two traits: talking was evenly distributed among everyone, and members were sensitive to how teammates were feeling. In other words, they had empathy for one another.

The researchers found it didn’t matter how smart or average the people were–if you had a group full of brilliant people who didn’t have norms in which everyone spoke and empathy was established, they were consistently outshined by a group of average workers who did have these components established. This more cohesive group felt “psychologically safe” because members believed they could share their feelings, have difficult conversations in a productive manner, and participate in any number of emotional conversations.

In a nutshell, the best teams listen to each other and tend to each other’s emotional needs.

We’ve been talking about norms for years within the field of education. Oftentimes, norms conjure the memory of sitting in a group, trying to think of as many ways as possible to be nice to each other during PLC time–and then revisiting this list before each meeting. By thinking of norms in this perfunctory way, we lose sight of the importance of norms that occur naturally–as if they were like breathing. Many consultants harp on organizations to make lists of norms because in reality it’s easier to codify norms on paper and then read them before each meeting than the alternative, which is having each member take stock of his or her own ability to listen and possess empathy.

Think of the most dysfunctional group you’ve ever seen. They’re nasty to each other. They talk behind each other’s backs. They don’t meet unless they have to, and then when they do meet it’s a cold war between all members. Writing down norms before a meeting will accomplish nothing to help this team. In fact, the practice will just exacerbate the problem because members will mock the idea of norms altogether.

In this situation, it’s better to travel the more difficult route, which is working on listening and empathy skills. Of course, there are many books written on both of these topics, and you can search online for “increasing empathy” and “improving listening skills” to find helpful articles and videos. In my personal experience of being a part of teams and visiting scores of school sites, there are strategies that can help the dysfunctional team.

  • Spend time with teams that possess empathy and good listening skills.
  • Read a helpful article together and use the EAA model to both analyze the text and produce actionable steps for becoming better as a team.
  • Set up a few “one-foot bars” that can be easily cleared as a team. This will create Dave Ramsey’s “snowball effect,” which will make the team eager to accomplish more. Stay far, far away from seven-foot bars. Expecting a team to successfully accomplish a difficult objective will make matters much worse. We differentiate and scaffold for children–the same has to be done for dysfunctional groups. You can’t expect a team of four teachers who hate each other to garner the same results as four teachers who work well together because they’re BFFs.
  • The leader of the organization must regularly sit in during the team’s meetings. The leader should praise the group for growth as a team, and he or she should also point out areas that can be improved. It would be helpful for the leader to go through the EAA process with them every time they meet.
  • WORST CASE SCENARIO: The team needs to be split up. It’s the job of a leader to assemble a team whose members can exemplify the positive traits found by researchers of the Aristotle Project. People may have to be moved to different grade levels so teams can thrive and students can learn.

EVIDENCE-ANALYSIS-ACTION… AND SIMPLICITY

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

Jocko Willink spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy and commanded SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser. He’s famous for saying “Discipline equals freedom.” What does this mean? I believe, and Tim Ferriss interprets this similarly in his book Tools of Titans, that constraints are a positive force in one’s work.

Even though many educators say they want complete freedom when working collaboratively, I’m positive it’s not what’s best for longterm productivity. The Paradox of Choice causes paralysis (e.g., What should we do now? What should we do next week? What’s expected of us?). Having an extremely simple pre-scheduled strategy provides a better sense of agency and freedom. The biggest caveat is you need the right strategy or protocol for this to truly work. Otherwise the discipline of keeping it simple will vanish.

So here’s a strategy that will work in every collaborative situation.

Evidence
Analysis
Action

Or, simply put, EAA.

That’s it! That’s all you and your teachers need to remember. EAA. Evidence. Analysis. Action. This handy little acronym will serve you and your staff well. Everything you do collaboratively on a campus can be encapsulated in EAA. Before we get to how you can use it, here are some reasons why I personally like it so much.

  • EAA eliminates choice. The Paradox of Choice will not torment a team.
  • EAA does away with the overwhelming reality that there are so many protocols out there. So many! Why not make it easy on yourself and just pick one.
  • EAA is easy to remember. You need something that teachers and administrators can instantly remember. We all know the motto for Nike. We know the motto for McDonalds. We know what a Coca-Cola bottle looks like. We know the main Disney characters by name. These are marketing tools that are ingrained in our minds so we can easily recall them, have a positive emotion, and spend our money. Likewise, you need a strategy with a rememberable name that everyone can use to conduct business. EAA fits the bill.
  • EAA is simple… especially after a long (and potentially emotionally draining) day of teaching. To provide lengthy and complicated strategies and protocols at the end of the day for teachers to navigate after they’ve already taught, planned, organized, disciplined, (and a lot more) is asking for failure. I can’t tell you how frustrated I am when I’m in a meeting full of administrators and they discuss how teachers need to use this protocol and that protocol for students to succeed. I try explaining that the best path is to give teachers an easy strategy they can use in many different situations. In this way, they don’t have to search through binders or their Google Drives for various protocols. They don’t have to make multiple decisions at the end of an already draining day. Instead, they can simply sketch out EAA on a doc or a piece of binder paper and go to town.

I like the following example Chip Heath and Dan Heath give in their book Switch. They discuss the U.S. government’s Food Pyramid. I’ll let them explain one of the reasons why it was such a terrible idea:

“Let’s start with the pyramid shape. A pyramid signifies hierarchy, yet no hierarchy is evident in the Food Pyramid. The first version of it displayed rows of food, one row on top of the next, with grains at the bottom and oils at the top. Some people interpreted this arrangement to mean that oils were the most important food group. (Whoops.) The revised version… abandoned that construct for vertical-ish streaks of color intended to eliminate any implied ranking. What this means is that the pyramid structure itself has no meaning whatsoever. The Food Pyramid might as well be a Food Rhombus or a Food Rooster.”

There were a lot of problems with the Food Pyramid, and it’s easy to see how confusing it was to use the image for anything constructive. The Food Pyramid didn’t bring anything concrete to mind. On the other hand, the Nike swoosh makes you think “Just do it.” The Golden Arches (notice I didn’t even need to say the “M” for McDonald’s) makes you think about “lovin it.”

In addition, the Food Pyramid was just plain hard to use. As stated before, it’s confusing, which means people had a lot of questions and were never sure if they were using it correctly. In addition, it was hard to remember, and people need something that sticks with them if they’re going to internalize it and use it consistently.

EAA brings a clear, concrete idea to mind of how to use it. Not only is it easy to use, it’s easy to remember. Once you memorize the letters “EAA,” you’re not going to forget what they stand for.

EAA is research based. I first read about EAA in Leading Impact Teams, and I highly recommend checking out that book for a deeper look at what EAA entails. For our purposes right now, it’s important to know that very smart people have combed through John Hattie’s research and decided upon the effectiveness of EAA. If you’re using Hattie’s effect sizes in your school or district to make more educated choices as to what you will or will not incorporate within you practice, EAA is right up your alley.

So, here’s my pitch regarding collaboration at school sites: Eliminate choice. Use one strategy that’s easy to remember. Keep it simple. Use something that’s research based.

EAA fits the bill.

So how can you use EAA? Let’s review some possible scenarios describing how it can be used:

  • It’s the end of the day, and a group of teachers just sat down to look at the results of a short 10 question formative assessment they gave and quickly graded. They’re going to use EAA to view the evidence (students’ answers), analyze the evidence (hmmm, why did the students score this way?), and make a plan for what to do next. (“We need to teach linking verbs again if we want Johnny to understand what a compound sentence is.”) By using EAA, they now have a quick and easy framework through which to share a uniform method of analysis.
  • The principal pays for substitutes so a group of teachers can embark on instructional rounds. The teachers move through various classroom, taking notes and looking for solutions to their problem of practice. They ask themselves, “Where is the evidence of good strategies being used to mediate problem X?” The teachers meet together after the rounds and create a Google Doc with EAA across the top. The teachers then type all the evidence they witnessed concerning their POP. They analyze the evidence, providing responses to questions such as: What were the students doing? How was this working? How could strategy X help us attain our goals? When this is complete, teachers can determine which ACTION steps they’ll take next. This list will be the tangible things they can immediately begin in their classrooms.
  • A school is implementing PBIS and needs a way for a group of teachers or administrators to systematically determine the needs of students who are misbehaving during school hours. First, they take a look at the EVIDENCE (i.e. the elementary school student is chronically late to school.). Second, they ANALYZE why this is happening (i.e. The parent always drops the student off after the bell rings.) Third, they take ACTION (i.e. contact the parent; explain how this is affecting the student’s learning, provide incentives for the child arriving early, or discuss the possibility of the student walking to the school bus stop.)

It’s so simple, and yet it’s so simple to mess up–and I’ll tell you why: it’s easy to complicate it. Heck, you–dear reader–may already be thinking of ways to complicate it. If you’re an educator, especially an administrator, you’ve come up in a system that doesn’t like simplicity. What the system accepts is individuals who create complicated programs and systems. Why is this?

A complicated system is in need of someone to explain it. Creating complicated protocols ensures job security. More simply though, people believe doing more is better. Maybe this is because being busy makes them feel productive? Maybe being busy looks good to others? It’s time we stop, place everything on the cutting board, and trim the fat.

I think we should be just as proud of the things we aren’t doing in the field of education as the things we are doing. Simplicity is important because it prevents fragility. The more rules, protocols, and strategies you adopt, the more that can go wrong. Too many initiatives, too much confusion, and you can’t get good at anything. If you’re a teacher or administrator, aren’t you tired of doing stuff half-assed? Wouldn’t you rather feel like you’re knocking it out of the park? You could, but it means you need to let go of stuff. In reality, you need less than you think.

Collaboration is both a journey and a process that never ends, so we better get as comfortable as possible and enjoy the ride. We shouldn’t just be interested in the results–this defeats the purpose. To a certain extent, the process is the purpose. This is why a simple tool like EAA is so critical. Difficult steps to remember and various protocols for different circumstances will destroy a team’s morale. If you don’t keep the process simple, then no one will like it. If no one likes it, then no one will dive into the deep collaborative work that’s necessary to develop teacher collective efficacy.

So throw out all your unnecissarily complicated collaboration protocols and adopt EAA.

SNOWBALL EDUCATION

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

Warren Buffett famously said, “I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars; I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over.” Unfortunately, within the field of education, we ignore 1-foot bars and instead seek 7-foot bars and try to jump over them right away. “We’ve got to do it,” we say, “FOR THE KIDDOS!” Then we (possibly) don’t clear the bar, and we’re back to square one next school year.

I’m equating 1-foot bars with simpler, or smaller, task size. If you break up tasks that are easy to accomplish, then you’re setting the organization up for bigger successes in the future. It reminds me of radio-host Dave Ramsey’s strategy for getting out of debt. He suggests that people differentiate their various forms of debt, and then place them in order from the smallest amount (e.g. $1,000 on a credit card, perhaps) to the largest amount (car or house payment). The person then starts paying down the smallest amount first because it’s easiest to accomplish and get out of the way. Once that’s finished, the person goes on to the next biggest amount and pays that off. Then the next one. Then the next one, until he or she is debt free. Ramsey calls this the “Snowball” method.

The same idea is explained In the book Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath as they expand upon Buffett’s thought:

“A business cliche commands us to ‘raise the bar.’ But that’s exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant. You need to lower the bar. Picture taking a high-jump bar and lowering it so far that it can be stepped over (page 129).”

It would behoove leaders to follow Buffett, Ramsey, and the Heath brothers’ leads. Give your people 1-foot bars to step over. Once they begin clearing those easily on a regular basis, then you can lift the bar higher, à la the Snowball method.

Let’s say you set up a 1-foot bar and soon discover it’s actually a 7-foot bar that staff members can’t clear. As quickly as possible, decide whether you want to train teachers to clear that high bar or cut your losses and abandon the practice. There’s no shame in stating, “This is not for us–at least right now.” Remember, saying a thousand no’s is better than saying a thousand yes’s. The best teacher teams I’ve seen are able to take the tools and strategies at their disposal and synthesize them in a way that’s not overwhelming.

OCCAM’S RAZOR

In order to have true focus within an organization, we need clarity of strategy. One practical way to attain this is by understanding Occam’s Razor.

William of Occam once said, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.” There’s a lot that can be said about Occam’s Razor, but the theory basically boils down to this: whenever you’re faced with two decisions, pick the simpler choice.

That’s it. We don’t need to come up with intricate responses to issues. We don’t need to construct monoliths when simple frameworks can get the job done. Just because we have the ability to sound intelligent by providing a complicated response to a problem doesn’t mean we’ve discovered an effective panacea.

Wouldn’t it be great if we always picked the simpler of two choices? Whether dealing with a Problem of Practice regarding student learning or an organizational issue during a staff meeting, surveying the options and making a habit of choosing the simplest one can reap huge rewards. Over time, these simple choices will result in a less cluttered and fragile organization–especially when compared to organizations that are trying to do too much.

Here are some simple options you may be able to incorporate within your organization:

  • Maybe it’s easier to only use EAA as your PLC protocol
  • Maybe you can just use the publisher’s scope & sequence and pacing guide
  • Maybe you don’t need to give an assessment that won’t guide your teaching
  • Maybe an email message is all that’s needed–not a full-blown meeting
  • Maybe focusing more on core instruction and less on intervention will make for a more manageable and effective learning day
  • Maybe you can film the lesson once and then show that video over and over for instructional purposes
  • Maybe you don’t need to pay for that program anymore
  • Maybe you don’t need as many grades in the grade book
  • Maybe you just need to say no

Incorporating Occam’s Razor into your thought process can save valuable time and resources while lifting morale and maintaining a strong focus on goals that impact.

WE’RE ALL NEWBIES

In the book The Inevitable, author Kevin Kelly writes, “So I now see upgrading as a type of hygiene: You do it regularly to keep your tech healthy.” We all have to upgrade our operating systems. Whether it’s a phone, tablet, laptop, television, wearable device, or some other contraption you own, operating systems need to be updated. Why? Because it helps fend off viruses. Because it fixes problems in previous operating systems. Because it allows for new functionality. Because the hardware will work better (at least most of the time). Because if you put off updating, your device will eventually stop working.

As educators, we need to continually update our operating systems, which means developing skills, acquiring new knowledge (or at least where to find it), and expanding our professional experience so we know the current practices of great teachers and administrators. This constant state of change is uncomfortable, but for better or worse, there’s no other choice than to be uncomfortable right now.

Kelly also writes,”No matter how long you have been using a tool, endless upgrades make you into a newbie—the new user often seen as clueless. In this era of ‘becoming,’ everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will be newbies forever. That should keep us humble.”

We should be humble at all times, and fortunately for us (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), we have to be humble because we’re all “Endless Newbies.” There’s no way around it. Here’s a test: Do you feel completely comfortable going to work every day? If so, you’re not learning enough. Nassim Nicholas Taleb says we should be physically or mentally lost at least once every day. Why? Because this keeps us humble and sharp. I bet there are teachers and administrators who haven’t been physically or mentally lost for decades. This is a shame because it means they don’t clearly remember what it’s like to learn, which is bad for students who are supposed to be learning every day. Also, it explains why some people get irritated so quickly when change rears its head at a school where the status quo has reigned supreme. They haven’t been lost recently, and they don’t understand that in 2018 there’s no escaping the inevitability of being an Endless Newbie.

FIVER FRIDAY

Fiver Friday is a list of five things I’ve found useful or informational each week regarding education (or somehow related to education). Sign up here to receive the message in your inbox every Friday. Here’s the archive:

2017

Fiver Friday 79, published December 22, 2017

Fiver Friday 78, published December 15, 2017

Fiver Friday 77, published December 8, 2017

Fiver Friday 76, published December 1, 2017

Fiver Friday 75, published November 24, 2017

Fiver Friday 74, published November 17, 2017

Fiver Friday 73, published November 10, 2017

Fiver Friday 72, published November 3, 2017

Fiver Friday 71, published October 27, 2017

Fiver Friday 70, published October 20, 2017

Fiver Friday 69, published October 13, 2017

Fiver Friday 68, published October 6, 2017

Fiver Friday 67, published September 29, 2017

Fiver Friday 66, published September 22, 2017

Fiver Friday 65, published September 15, 2017

Fiver Friday 64, published September 8, 2017

Fiver Friday 63, published September 1, 2017

Fiver Friday 62, published August 25, 2017

Fiver Friday 61, published August 18, 2017

Fiver Friday 60, published June 22, 2017

Fiver Friday 59, published June 2, 2017

Fiver Friday 58, published May 26, 2017

Fiver Friday 57, published May 19, 2017

Fiver Friday 56, published May 12, 2017

Fiver Friday 55, published May 5, 2017

Fiver Friday 54, published April 28, 2017

Fiver Friday 53, published April 21, 2017

Fiver Friday 52, published April 7, 2017

Fiver Friday 51, published March 31, 2017

Fiver Friday 50, published March 24, 2017

Fiver Friday 49, published March 17, 2017

Fiver Friday 48, published March 10, 2017

Fiver Friday 47, published March 3, 2017

Fiver Friday 46, published February 24, 2017

Fiver Friday 45, published February 17, 2017

Fiver Friday 44, published February 10, 2017

Fiver Friday 43, published February 3, 2017

Fiver Friday 42, published January 27, 2017

Fiver Friday 41, published January 20, 2017

Fiver Friday 40, published January 13, 2017

2016

Fiver Friday 39, published December 23, 2016

Fiver Friday 38, published December 16, 2016

Fiver Friday 37, published December 9, 2016

Fiver Friday 36, published December 2, 2016

Fiver Friday 35, published November 18, 2016

Fiver Friday 34, published November 11, 2016

Fiver Friday 33, published November 4, 2016

Fiver Friday 32, published October 28, 2016

Fiver Friday 31, published October 21, 2016

Fiver Friday 30, published October 14, 2016

Fiver Friday 29, published October 8, 2016

Fiver Friday 28, published September 30, 2016

Fiver Friday 27, published September 23, 2016

Fiver Friday 26, published September 16, 2016

Fiver Friday 25, published September 9, 2016

Fiver Friday 24, published September 2, 2016

Fiver Friday 23, published August 26, 2016

Fiver Friday 22, published August 19, 2016

Fiver Friday 21, published August 12, 2016

Fiver Friday 20, published August 5, 2016

Fiver Friday 19, published July 29, 2016

Fiver Friday 18, published June 3, 2016

Fiver Friday 17, published May 27, 2016

Fiver Friday 16, published May 20, 2016

Fiver Friday 15, published May 13, 2016

Fiver Friday 14, published May 6, 2016

Fiver Friday 13, published April 29, 2016

Fiver Friday 12, published April 22, 2016

Fiver Friday 11, published April 15, 2016

Fiver Friday 10, published April 8, 2016

Fiver Friday 9, published April 1, 2016

Fiver Friday 8, published March 25, 2016

Fiver Friday 7, published March 18, 2016

Fiver Friday 6, published March 11, 2016

Fiver Friday 5, published March 4, 2016

Fiver Friday 4, published February 26, 2016

Fiver Friday 3, published February 19, 2016

Fiver Friday 2, published February 12, 2016

Fiver Friday 1, published February 5, 2016