Hello, I hope you’re well, and before I forget I need to advertise that there are a few slots left for our coaching workshops—Coaching In-Depth on May 18 and the Coaching Institute in September, both in Madison, CT, facilitated by me and my BFF Kerry Lord. Don’t wait, they will sell out.
My colleague Rydell and I spent the last few days at the Carnegie Summit in San Diego. The summit is an annual event hosted by the Carnegie Foundation for people from educational organizations all over the country (districts, non-profits, NICs and other partnerships) to learn from experts and each other about many different aspects of improvement science—honestly I did not know that there were so many aspects of improvement science. We went for many reasons: Partners for Educational Leadership runs a NIC, and we are on a quest to make that ever more perfect; we are increasingly trying to incorporate improvement science into other areas of our work, such as coaching and equity and some of our district partnerships (as Rydell said at one point, if you are an equity-driven leader, you have been looking for improvement science without knowing it); we wanted to take advantage of the presence of experts who have helped us with the NIC (shout out to David Eddy-Spicer, Andrew Volkert and Tinkhani White); and we think we have ideas to contribute, especially in the intersections of coaching, equity and improvement science.
I learned a ton—I have more pages of notes from a three-day conference than I typically have from a month of work—so here are the highlights that I picked from my notes on the plane home. They are just in the order that I wrote them.
- We still have a fairly constrained mental model of when it’s appropriate to employ continuous improvement. We think it applies in data teams and PLCs, but not to strategic plans, school improvement plans, equity, or coaching. We further under-utilize it because we see it as a set of tools to be deployed rather than as a stance we could take all the time. For example, Rydell was in a session with Tinkhani, and to get everyone’s attention when the time for turn-and-talk was over, she counted down from 3. That didn’t really work well, so the next time she tried counting down from 4—people were still talking when she got to zero and didn’t stop talking even though she was ready to move on. So then she tried 5, then 6, then 7, and it turned out that counting down from 7 meant that people were able to wrap up their conversations at the same time that she was ready to keep going—a simple and elegant demonstration of what it means to run a PDSA cycle several times in the space of a few minutes. (For more on the importance of stance, or dispositions, see this article by Jal Mehta, Max Yurkofsky and Kim Frumin that I wrote about in CL #160).
- I talk about psychological safety all the time, but one of the simulations in a session on coaching and continuous improvement made me realize that I had been thinking about it as a condition created by the ranking member of a group, whether that person is principal, teacher leader, etc. But actually, in the same way that we say that you didn’t teach it if the students didn’t learn it, you didn’t create psychological safety if the members of the group don’t feel safe. Psychological safety, like so many things, is less about intent than impact. This also means that there is going to be variation within the group, and just like any variation in the system, you should be working to understand why it exists and work to reduce it. For more on psychological safety, see CL #158, and definitely get on Tom Geraghty’s mailing list.
- We went to a session on High-Reliability Organizations; high-reliability is failure-free performance over time. HROs include aircraft carriers (there is a classic article about the cultivating safety on flight decks by Weick and Roberts – one of my favorite articles), nuclear power plants, and the airline industry (I talked about that, tangentially, in CL #29). High school graduation, however, is not high-reliability. We were taken through a procedure for calculating reliability by identifying all the steps in a process (could be any process: providing students for reading intervention, for example, entails identifying the students who need support with literacy, matching them with the right program, scheduling them for appropriate time, focus and intensity, and so on. Imperfections at any given step compound, and pretty soon the intervention is weakened to the point of uselessness. I loved this exercise – it took our usual assumptions about what it means to improve anything to a whole new level of specificity. I can’t wait for an opportunity to try it out…
- Another organization that I’ve gotten a lot out of working with is CPRL at Columbia University. The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents asked them to work with some Connecticut districts on a system-level change that they are implementing, and I’ve attended several of their meetings—because the CPRL team are really smart and think strategically and I get a lot out of the conversations. Anyway, they have created a Leading Learning Playbook, and I attended the launch at the conference. The playbook is web-based, and will be available online this summer—if you want to be notified about the launch, you can get on the mailing list here. One of the things they talked about was having a theory of leadership—that learning leaders ask the educators they work with to engage in continuous improvement practices because they have a theory that these practices, focused on meaningful problems of practice and sustained over time, will lead to improvement in student learning and experience. One of the things that the Learning Leader Playbook recommends is making that theory of leadership explicit by writing it down and sharing it, and testing it using the tools of improvement science in the same way that you might test any other theory of action. I never really thought deeply about leadership as a theory of action, so I’m excited to play with that idea.
- Those of you who know me from coaching won’t be surprised to hear that I found myself in several coaching conversations over the course of the conference. Partly it was a bit of a set-up—some of my afore-mentioned colleagues did some excessive bragging about me—but nevertheless, I had a couple of really deep conversations with people I’d never met before and who knew very little about me. Being able to establish a coaching relationship, therefore, is not something that takes a long time to develop—rather, signaling that you are willing to attend to the concerns and passions of another person and give them the space and support (what Donald Winnicott called a holding environment) to think through something that is on their mind, and do that in a very short period of time, is an important coaching skill.
I talk about continuous improvement and improvement science interchangeably, but that’s not entirely accurate—I think that our use of the term continuous improvement is under-specified and insufficiently technical. So by using the two terms as synonyms, although it’s probably more accurate to refer to improvement science as a subset of continuous improvement, I am trying to convey that we should take a more technical approach—but that doesn’t mean you have to get bogged down in elaborate processes, as Tinkhani demonstrated in the example of her facilitation.
I was planning on giving you more resources on improvement science, but that’s easy enough to Google, and I really need to get some sleep. Instead, please learn a bit about Doug Engelbart in CL #124. And if you want to register for next year’s summit, sign up here to get on the mailing list. Speaking of conferences, another event where I have learned a lot about strategic thinking and continuous improvement is the UCEA conference—registration for 2022 in Seattle is now open, please come hang out with us!
I came back from the conference really fired up about how we could bring improvement science more into our practice, and already today I’ve been using what I’ve learned. In particular, I’ve been using David’s line: what can you get done by next Tuesday? And Andrew: just because it’s a big change doesn’t mean that you can’t find a small test—collect just enough data to learn about how the change is working and inform the next cycle.
Oh, and Secretary Cardona, with whom I worked when he was in Meriden, was one of the speakers. It was pretty cool when he told people that I was his coach back then—I did enjoy that moment. Here’s a picture of us.
I could write more but I really do need to catch up on some sleep. And as always, if there is anything I can do for you, or if you just want to connect, please get in touch. And there are a bunch of new subscribers, so just a reminder that this is a free newsletter that you can distribute as you wish, and please do give us credit if you use any of it as a resource. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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Author with Jennie Weiner of
The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices