Hello, I hope you’re well. We are between the two big spring break weeks in Connecticut—almost everyone is on break either last week or next—so if that includes you I hope you get some rest and some sunshine. Remember to register for our Coaching In-Depth on May 18 and the Coaching Institute in September; not just for coaches—I am on a permanent campaign to convince leaders that they would be better leaders if they had coaching skills (which is different from saying that I want leaders to be coaches).
Another big announcement: we (current and former colleagues Richard, Sarah and Bob and I) had another article on coaching published. This one is in the April issue of The Learning Professional, and is about creating the conditions for effective leadership coaching—by which we mean coaching of educational leaders. A big theme in my coaching work is that educators tend to talk about improving coaching by focusing on the coaches, but tend to neglect the enormous potential for improving coaching afforded by improving the context in which coaching occurs; this article is about creating that context. Here is the link on the Learning Forward website, but if you don’t have a subscription, email me and I’ll send you a PDF.
I like being able to write Coaching Letters that connect across two or more spheres of interest. So this one started off as being about critical thinking in three domains that I work in: strategic planning and continuous improvement for one; high quality instruction and portrait of a graduate for another; and coaching for a third. But when it crossed the 2,000 word threshold I decided to split it into three. So this Coaching Letter is just about strategic thinking and continuous improvement, and the plan is for the next two to be about critical thinking in those two other areas. Which has the additional benefit of giving me the chance to solicit input for the CL about critical thinking in the curriculum—do you have resources that you think others could use?
1. Strategic Thinking and Continuous Improvement. I’ve been doing a lot of work in strategic planning and continuous improvement over the last year. This is a continuation of years’ worth of work to get educators to abandon their old mental models of what a strategic plan is and pay more attention to work that matters more: An Improvement Plan is Not Enough; Coaching Letter #94; The Strategy Playbook; Improvement Routines; Coaching Letter #159; Coaching Letter #160. I can think of lots of problems with the way that we currently create and attempt to execute strategic plans, but the one that I’m going to focus on here is our tendency to assume that we know more than we do, or that we can predict more than we can, or that we are entitled to more confidence in our solutions than is actually the case.
The first thing I’d like to suggest is that you listen to the episode of Hidden Brain (one of my favorite podcasts) called Putting our Assumptions to the Test. (That link is to the episode page on the Hidden Brain website, but you can also listen on any podcast app, or you can read the transcript, which is more efficient but less fun—the link to the transcript is below the references on the episode page.) This episode is mostly an interview of Abhijit Banerjee, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. He talks about taking a pragmatic approach to economics; in other words, instead of theorizing about what works, test. (I know that sounds really dry, but trust me: the conversation is charming and mostly anecdotal.)
The question “How do you know that’s true?” is the touchstone—the query that pushes on our assumptions at several places in a chain of cause and effect: what we think is happening, what we think is the cause, and what we predict will fix it. This question is the theme that runs through this Coaching Letter, others on critical thinking, but also many other CLs on many topics. (I was going to give you a list of CLs to read, but there are too many and, frankly, many of them have a limited shelf-life. But if you want to search the back issues, you can do that easily by searching The Coaching Letter archive on our website.)
Our mental models provide easy explanations for us that we have too much confidence in, and so we think we know what the problem is, we think we know what causes it, we think we know what would fix it, we think we know why, and if it doesn’t work we have explanations for that too. In other words, instead of assuming that we’re right most of the time, we should probably assume the opposite. Much of my facilitation is asking questions that are some variation of “How do you know that’s true?”; encouraging people to conduct empathy interviews that might give them some insight into how other people closer to the problem conceptualize it; and challenging them to think of small changes they could try that would shine a light on possible improvements.
When it comes to using improvement science to ask and answer evidence-focused questions, one of the biggest struggles is to take a technology that has many principles, protocols, and buzzwords, and package it in a way that makes the constructs accessible to the people who would benefit from them (you) without your feeling like you need another graduate degree to be able to do the work. I feel like we have done a good job of doing that when we have the opportunity to work with people directly—I think especially the work we have done with the NIC, Bridgeport, The Derby Group, and huge thanks to David, Andrew and Rydell for their terrific partnership on these projects—because we can give them hands-on experiences that afford engagement with the concepts and tools without being overwhelmed with visuals and explanations. Specifically, we have done case studies, simulations, tons of different planning activities, story-telling, role plays, coaching fishbowls, and empathy interviews. We work hard to avoid a tidal wave of theory, tools, and explication—as a little exercise, I went through my voluminous slide deck on strategic thinking and continuous improvement and tried to get it down to the slides I just couldn’t live without when talking about these ideas, and here’s what I came up with:
- Toothpaste heuristic;
- Improvement process map—if you think of continuous improvement/improvement science as simply PDSA cycles, they are only a small part;
- Effort-impact analysis;
- Implementation matrix from Learning to Improve;
- Quotations from “Your Strategy Should Be a Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust”, from HBR;
- A more purposeful way of thinking about data – the only way we should think about data.
I don’t know if those slides will be any use to you or not, so reach out if you have questions. What I really want is for more districts – or coalitions of districts – to ask us to push their thinking on the shift from old-school strategic planning to continuous improvement, which is definitely easier to do in person.
In terms of giving people techniques to help them with their strategic thinking when they are NOT in a workshop with us, we have not been so successful at that—yet. It’s really challenging to give people tools/protocols/instructions to follow without their becoming exercises in compliance—just another form to fill out, another template to complete. What really matters is the thinking, and it’s challenging enough to construct experiences that center the thinking when you have people in the room with you, and if there is a secret to doing it when they are not, I don’t know it.
In case I haven’t been explicit enough, critical thinking is actually terrifically hard (and even harder to teach—more on that in the next CL). Here is a short list of books you should read to get a handle on why critical thinking is difficult, aimed particularly at leaders leading strategic planning and continuous improvement, but it’s still a good list if we’re talking about teaching critical thinking, or coaching:
- Thinking in Bets, by Annie Duke: using the language of poker to assess our confidence in our decisions. I talk about “resulting” to coaching clients all the time: separating the quality of the decision from the result of the decision. Talk at Google. Profile in the New Yorker.
- The Fearless Organization, by Amy Edmondson: as a leader, you should do everything you can to ensure that the decisions you make are based on good information—how do you get hold of that? AND, to be a good critical thinker you have to have helpful mental models of failure. TED Talk.
- Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman: you have the capacity to make snap judgments that could save your life, but because they don’t take much actual thinking, they are replete with biases, stereotypes, assumptions and errors; you also have the capacity to interrogate your decision-making process, which is slower and more difficult and more effortful. Talk at Google. People I Mostly Admire podcast. Freakonomics podcast. Stay Tuned podcast. (Also well worth reading is The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, about the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).
- The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver: the pros and cons of hedgehogs v. foxes, and you really need to know about Bayesian reasoning.
- The Person and the Situation, by Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett: we have a systematic tendency to over-value the role of the individual in any given event or outcome, and under-value the contribution of the situation they are in. We do this ALL THE TIME with kids in schools. (Also other books by Nisbett: Thinking; Mindware; Intelligence and How to Get It.)
- Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler: a history of the relatively new field of behavioral economics told in a memoir format. Human thinking is plagued with cognitive biases—here’s a helpful visual. Think you don’t have any?—that’s the point.
- Calling Bullshit, by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West: title explains everything.
- Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? by Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic. We over-value confidence when it comes to leadership, and confidence is actually the LAST thing you want when it comes to good decision-making, because decision-making requires critical thinking, which requires massive amounts of humility. TED Talk.
- Streetlights and Shadows, by Gary Klein. This is a whole other take on answering the question “How do you know that’s true?” that deserves its own Coaching Letter. I’m including it here because Gary Klein originated the pre-mortem: the best tool I know for testing the logic of a plan. Short article in HBR.
Couple of other resources that are not books:
- Tyler Cowen on the Knowledge Project podcast. He, unfortunately, does come across a little preachy. But he is very clear on the importance of assuming that you are wrong a lot of the time. He also uses the phrase “epistemic modesty”, which is my new favorite piece of terminology.
- Daniel Gilbert’s TED Talk on making bad decisions. Then watch all the other Dan Gilbert talks, just because he’s really good.
Holding yourself accountable to be always asking yourself “how do I actually know that for sure?” is a discipline—what Mehta et al refer to as a disposition in this Ed Leadership article – which is the third time I’ve referenced it in as many CLs. Critical thinking is as much a stance as a collection of thinking skills, and not easy to do when our mental models are always telling us, “yes, of course you know what the problem is and what will fix it!” But if you can’t do it, you can’t expect others to do it—which throws into question data teams, PLCs, coaching, and any other practice that requires educators to use data to examine their work dispassionately. Let me know if you need any help. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
If someone forwarded you this email, click here to subscribe to The Coaching Letter
Please follow me on Twitter: @IsobelTX
Author with Jennie Weiner of
The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices