Hello, I hope you are well. I was in Columbus, Ohio, last week, for the annual conference of the University Council for Educational Administration, which is a consortium of college of educations’ departments of educational leadership. I went because Jennie and I were presenting on the conceptual framework underlying our book on strategy: equity, logic, capacity and coherence. But even if I hadn’t been presenting, I would have tried to go, because it’s a small conference and I get to talk to people who are working in areas of interest to me—strategic planning, coaching, equity, and improvement science. Very cool. (In case you still need a copy of the book, here’s a link for 20% off).
Another useful thing about conferences is listening to myself talk. Not as weird as it sounds—I’m paying attention to the ideas I find myself wanting to discuss. This time, these included discussions about connecting school equity teams to instructional leadership teams; what I’ve already written about regarding attribution theory (c.f. The Person and the Situation and multiple recent CLs); and figuring out what really matters in achieving results.
While I’m still not done thinking and writing about attribution theory, I worry that you’re done reading about it, so instead this Coaching Letter is about what really matters. Let me illustrate first of all with a couple of stories from my dim and distant past as an employee of a school district with duties involving presenting to the school board.
There was the time when a board member noted that the charter schools in the district had higher test scores, on average, than the non-charter schools [which was technically true, but not by much, and more importantly the non-charter schools’ growth scores knocked the socks off the charters’, and indeed the surrounding districts’ also], and that the charter schools required students to wear uniforms. Why, he asked, didn’t we therefore require uniforms in all district schools? Ah yes, I thought, it’s the white cotton shirts that makes kids read better, I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. I wonder if test scores would be even higher if we ensured that all the collars were starched? I didn’t say that, of course. Instead I stumbled through an explanation that growth scores were much more important to pay attention to, but I don’t think I changed his mind.
And there was the time when a different board member asked me about Singapore Math. Test scores in Singapore were so much higher than they were in the US [true, on average, but if anyone ever disaggregated the PISA scores, they would find that there is enormous variation among the performance of US states, and while some states would look even worse in comparison to Singapore, some would fare rather better]. I struggled even more with this one. There are several million ways in which the US is different from Singapore, so the idea that simply swapping out one math program for another is going to fix anything is rather naïve (for example, what kind of preparation to teachers in Singapore receive to teach math? How much time does math get over the course of a school year? How many students receive tutoring outside the regular school day?). I think I just gave in and said I’d look into it.
The point, of course, is not only that correlation does not mean causation, but that a variable has to have some sort of explanatory power—it has to, in other words, explain the relationship in terms of what causes a result and how it causes it. I bring this up because I found a really nice metaphor to simplify thinking about this, having to do with toothpaste. Here it is:
One might describe toothpaste in terms of the form in which it is packaged. Most toothpaste comes in a tube, but sometimes you can find it in a container with a pump for one-handed operation, and I’ve even seen it in a tin. One might describe toothpaste in terms of its characteristics. Most toothpaste is minty, but there are variations on that flavor, and I have had cinnamon-flavored toothpaste. Sometimes it feels smooth and sometimes a little gritty. It may be white, green, blue, or striped.
And then there is the mechanism by which toothpaste actually improves the health of your teeth. I looked that up: fluoride is the most important ingredient: it strengthens the enamel on your teeth and helps them resist cavities; toothpaste contains detergents such as sodium laurel sulphate; and abrasives to scrub your teeth without damaging the enamel. And despite the focus of advertisements, the form and characteristics are merely supports for the mechanism: you are more likely to clean your teeth if it is easy and pleasant to use.
Frequently, when we are talking about characteristics of effective programs and practices, we refer to format and characteristics, and simply do not pay enough attention to the mechanism that actually makes the program or practice effective. And just like toothpaste, form and characteristics are important only to the extent that they enable the mechanism to function effectively. For example:
- I came across the toothpaste metaphor on Peps Mccrea’s Twitter feed; he was summarizing a new report on professional learning: Characteristics of Effective Teacher Professional Development from the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK. I’m quoting directly from his thread: “Until recently, PD effectiveness has mostly been thought about in terms of either ‘forms’ or ‘characteristics’… However, a recent analysis by @DrSamSims & @HFletcherWood (2019) proposed a third way. In addition to thinking about forms and characteristics, they hypothesized that thinking about PD in terms of ‘mechanisms’ might add even more power and nuance to our perspective. Mechanisms are processes that directly change knowledge, skills or behavior—approaches typically grounded in evidence from cognitive and behavioral sciences… Crucially, mechanisms isolate the causes of effective PD better than characteristics or forms.” And that’s when he explains the toothpaste analogy. This made me go back to Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning, which include forms, characteristics, and mechanisms, but don’t break them out in terms of what is in support of what. And clearly, it gives leaders of all stripes a framework for designing high quality professional learning.
- When we ask participants in our coaching workshops about effective feedback, they are likely to use adjectives such as timely, personalized, actionable, respectful, and specific (characteristics), and that in person is preferable to in writing (form). The research on feedback, however, focuses on the mechanism: the feedback must provide information to the receiver that the receiver can make sense of in order to improve their performance. Rick Stiggins summed up what feedback must do in order to be useful: the receiver must be able to say to herself: 1. I know what this means; 2. I know what to do next; 3. I am OK; 4. I will keep trying. In other words, it’s not just the information that matters, because those other features exist to support the learner in making use of the information; but without information that matches what the learner needs, other features don’t have any impact.
- When we ask educators to describe effective instruction, they might talk about all sorts of things, including how students are seated (in groups, in rows, etc.), the classroom environment (respectful, supportive, etc.), whether students have voice and choice or agency, and so on. I’m not suggesting that these aren’t important, but these are form and characteristics, and to get to effective instruction the work that students are being asked to do in order to learn has to be the right work—that’s why task is at the center of the instructional core. That task is the mechanism, and it is what really matters.
- We’ve been working on effective task a lot recently (see CL #150). And here again, it’s possible to see a lot of focus on form (make a poster, write an essay, give a speech, create a website) and characteristics (neat, creative, 12 point font, illustrated, using at least 3 sources), without paying enough attention to the actual thinking that students are being asked to do—which is the mechanism. I like the list of types of thinking from Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. John Wiley & Sons: 1. Observing closely and describing what’s there; 2. Building explanations and interpretations; 3. Reasoning with evidence; 4. Making connections; 5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives; 6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions; 7. Wondering and asking questions; 8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things. You can find more resources here: Harvard Project Zero Thinking Routines Toolbox. Whatever taxonomy you choose to use to think about thinking, thinking and related activities are the mechanism by which we learn, so we should probably be paying more attention to those.
- Strategic plans and school improvement plans—something I’m very interested in—are frequently all about form; they are required to include: vision, mission, how many goals, the format of the goals (SMART, usually), how the goals are going to be measured, who is responsible, and so on. But these formatting requirements have little and possibly no bearing on the mechanism. They can actually have a negative impact if they take an inordinate amount of time to complete, or if they draw attention away from the real work, which we frequently see happen. Form and characteristics are useful if they draw attention towards what a district or school should be working on (equity, for example). But my experience with various forms of plans is that they are not often focused on what exactly is going to make a difference in improving student achievement. That’s why Jennie and I wrote The Strategy Playbook in the first place.
The toothpaste metaphor has been very helpful to me—now that I’ve started using it as a wee heuristic, I see applications everywhere. If you end up using it to guide your thinking, I would love to hear about it, please do let me know. And if there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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Author with Jennie Weiner of
The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices