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Leading with research in mind

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Voice of the Educator

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Much and more has been written about student learning. And it well should be, as the learning of all students — whether young or old — is how we help our society, and the people who make it up, to be the best possible. Lately, happily, even more of that writing has been researched-based. Consider, for instance, the column written regularly by Sarah Sparks for Education Week that focuses on how we learn and what the research says about that. Or, an increasing reliance on research connected to the Next Generation Science Standards in all of the National Science Teachers Association’s peer-reviewed journals.

We don’t necessarily see quite as much of this research-based focus on work tied to leadership, at least I don’t. Thousands of great books on leadership exist, and columns and journals supporting the growth of leaders can be found everywhere. Often, these texts use the valuable experience of the authors as their grounding, because, truthfully, a tremendous part of learning to lead effectively stems from experiences that helps us continue to grow.

However, in my role, the experiences of someone else are not enough. In working with teachers and leaders on furthering their own growth (and the growth of others), proven research can go a long way to helping make sure an initiative becomes a “way of life,” as opposed to simply a “this too shall pass.”

So, it was with great pleasure that I recently read “Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning,” a research-based practitioner’s text put forward by McREL, in partnership with ASCD. What this text does, that many others don’t, is rely more on research and meta-analyses than anecdotes and experiences (not that there is anything wrong with that). This is helpful for me as I want to be able to see the quantifiable along with the qualitative when doing my work.

The authors point out 21 leadership strategies that research has shown positively impact student achievement, and while written primarily for building leaders, the roles, strategies and visuals provided and explored can be used for both leading students and leading adults.

A much longer post than this one would be necessary to capitalize on the main findings of this text. Instead, I want to talk about three interesting ideas I took away from reflecting on the text as a whole.

You can never ask “why” too many times. What we can often lack in leadership is a focus that provides solutions to the right problems. Based on research McREL conducted in 2005, two key factors help schools make change happen and take initiatives through to fruition. One is a focus on mission and vision. The other is an articulation of high standards for all, and a belief that everyone can succeed. One way that leaders who have been most successful have been able to do this is by making sure the solutions they are looking to implement actually address the problems they are looking to solve. As explained by J.A. Gross from work done in 2014 (and leading all the way back to initiatives first employed by the Toyota Motor Corporation in the 1930s), a strategy, known as the “5 Whys,” is one way to do that, and one method that all leaders should use more frequently. The premise is simple. Like a toddler, leaders, and their decision-making teams, need to drill down past initial questions to get a sense of what is really going on. So for instance, a set of declining ELA scores at the fifth-grade level may have little to do with the strategies or programs being used by the fifth-grade teachers, and may not actually have much to do with instruction at all. By asking “Why” five times, it allows us to dig deeper and deeper, until we can get to the root of what we hope to change. Here’ s a sample “5 Whys” protocol.

Just because we’re focused on the right change for our schools and buildings, doesn’t mean we’re employing the right behaviors to make that change. This makes sense, and yet, I personally don’t always think about it. We often attempt to focus on making sure that our initiatives match the problems we’re facing, but we aren’t always as discerning about the leadership behaviors we use to make those initiatives a reality. Being directive or empowering needs to be decided carefully, and depending on the situation, some leadership behaviors like fostering culture, communication and seeking input, can actually delay and hurt the change process (that actually made me think quite a bit). Research cited (in this case, work done by Bronson and Merryman in 2013) speaks to how leadership behaviors that are meant to help can sometimes lead to fear, and we all know that fear rarely leads to sustained change.

Trust isn’t just about being between leader and learner. We often think about the power of trust in building relationships between the leader and the learner. Whether it is the trust that exists (or doesn’t) between teacher and students, or that between an assistant superintendent and building principals, that respect and deep-seated “counting on” other people makes a tremendous difference. Interestingly, as discussed in the text, research done by Payne in the Chicago Public Schools showed that the trust factor that learners have for each other proved to be a key factor in how schools performed. So, it isn’t enough to have trusting relationships between different roles. Within the same role, trust and respect may be even more important. When we lead, we can’t just worry about the relationships we have with others. We have to cultivate the relationship development between others too.

For me, one of the best parts about any research-based work is that it doesn’t just help me reflect on my learning and leadership, but it also helps reaffirm, with documented evidence, the strategies that I am putting into practice, or need to. More than any anecdote or experience can provide, research into how we learn (and how we lead) lets us bring about change, and bring people on board, by making sure that the information we share doesn’t just apply to us, but to everybody.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia and ASCD EDge.  His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD.

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Bronson, P., and Merryman, A. (2013). Top dog: The science of winning and losing. New York: Twelve.

Goodwin, B., Cameron, G., and Hein, H. (2015). Balanced leadership for powerful learning. Denver: McREL International.

Gross, J. A. (2014). 5 whys folklore: The truth behind a monumental mystery.

IMS International. Guidance notes: 5 whys technique.

Payne, C. M. (2008). So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.