30,000 feet and from the sideline

Finding the Winning Edge is a book written by coaching legend Bill Walsh that’s impossible to find–unless you’re willing to pay $300 on Amazon or Ebay. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

This ESPN article does a good job summing up the book’s importance to many coaches. I really like the following excerpt from the post:

Some of the wisdom (from Finding the Winning Edge) is painfully obvious. “A quarterback should lead by example.” But McDermott understood why Belichick calls it a bible. In a secretive profession, it shows how a legend thinks. It teaches a coach to view the game from 30,000 feet and from the sideline. It provides the tiny details that add up to a philosophy for building a team, winning games and running a franchise. Mostly, it can lure a coach into the illusion that if all the steps are followed, perfection can be attained.

My favorite takeaway from above is a coach must view the game from 30,000 feet and from the sideline. Let’s examine this in regard to all leadership positions. Some leaders feel comfortable remaining at a 30,000 foot elevation (i.e. avoiding the details). Then there are leaders who insist on remaining at the sideline. In other words, they’re tromping through the weeds and don’t possess a higher perspective. Both approaches are beneficial–sometimes you need to cruise at 30,000 feet and other times you need to attack the weeds. The challenge is knowing at which elevation to cruise. A leader has to travel from 30,000 feet to the weeds and everywhere in between (continually).

In football, a coach must have knowledge concerning all positions while sitting in the skybox or standing on the sideline. The same goes for leadership in education. Leaders require a school-level perspective while at the same time drilling into curriculum and lesson planning. It’s not an easy job, and the more I learn, the more I realize how difficult it is to be an effective leader–especially in education.

I recently read Michael Fullan’s Indelible Leadership, which helped me gain a better perspective concerning what makes a great leader. Fullan provides six “tensions” within his Leadership Model:

  1. Combine moral imperative and uplifting leadership
  2. Master content and process
  3. Lead and Learn in equal measure
  4. See students as change agents
  5. Feed and be fed by the system
  6. Be essential and dispensable

These six tensions must be deployed simultaneously, which of course is not easy. In fact, Fullan writes in his book:

I warn the reader that it is hard (especially at the beginning) to become as good as you will need to be (at being a leader), so expect to invest time and persist… it won’t seem like hard work once you and others are immersed in it because the focused energy that is generated is irresistible.

Being a good leader at 30,000 feet, in the weeds, and everywhere in between takes hard work. To be more precise, it requires “deep work.” Fullan refers to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work* and quotes the following by Newport:

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn . . . is an act of deep work. If you are comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you. (p. 37)

Effective student learning requires adult leaders to master 21st Century skills and an understanding of complex systems in order to master all six tensions of the Leadership Model. It is in this way that teachers and administrators can grow, which in turn will encourage the skills needed to effectively circulate professional capital throughout schools and districts.

Deep work is the helicopter that will help us view student learning and effective practices from many different elevations.

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*I haven’t read Deep Work yet, but I have read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, and I found it to be a very helpful and engaging read.

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Thirty universes

You’re an astronomer whose job it is to observe celestial bodies, galaxies, black holes–in short, everything that can be perceived in the universe. It goes without saying this is a complicated task. There’s so much to study, and there’s so much we don’t know. A scientist could spend his or her lifetime observing the universe and not even begin to exhaust its complexities.

Imagine if there were thirty universes with completely different laws. 

You’re a physician who deals with various bodily afflictions. Of course, every person’s health is different, but fortunately you have a strong understanding of the human body: bones, veins, blood, lungs… the body is complicated, but it’s measurable and possible to study.

Imagine if there were thirty alien bodies with completely different physical structures. 

You’re a top athlete who’s mastered how to play basketball. You’re a pro at dunks, assists, three-pointers, and free throws. You just helped your team beat an opponent.

Imagine tomorrow night you have to play with a different sized ball every thirty seconds. Would this affect your shooting and ball handling? 

Teachers deal with approximately thirty students. That’s thirty different universes. Thirty different bodies. Thirty different basketballs. Each one different. Each one with his or her own learning modality.

What does schooling do? It treats each universe the same. It says that these standards are good enough for everyone. It says that this test is sufficient for assessing mastery. It says that bell schedules, five-day weeks, grades, and compliance are one-size-fits-all constructions. Educators do the best they can to teach children who have:

  1. Different backgrounds

  2. Different experiences

  3. Different cognitive developments

  4. Different values

  5. Different interests

  6. Different learning modalities

  7. Different desires

  8. Different emotions

  9. Different abilities

  10. Different ways they started the day

Thirty universes whose complexities are impossible to comprehend, let alone study sufficiently. It’s impossible to learn how each student best learns in 9.5 months. As soon as a teacher gets an inkling of how individual students can learn successfully, the kids have summer break before staring over with new teachers.

Imagine the skin in the game if teachers had students for multiple years. What would happen if we understood the thirty intricate universes just a little better? 

It’s safe to say that Dumbing Us Down has me thinking.