[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:
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.