Last week was intense—partly because it was packed, and partly because several of the events packing it seemed very high stakes. So I’m going to talk about two of them and try to cleverly tie together big ideas about strategy, feedback, and failure as a rehearsal for success.
I spent Thursday with the leadership team in Derby. These are wonderful people, many of whom I have worked with before on other projects—that’s not what made it high stakes. This was the first time a district asked me to come work with them on the strength of the article that was published in the Kappan—that’s what made it high stakes. The thesis of the article is that there is a difference between having a plan and having a strategy; we tend to treat the creation of a plan as a compliance activity, and therefore we should not be surprised when colleagues whose work ought to be driven by the plan do not see it as relevant to their professional lives. Instead of spending time completing a template, we should be investing time in thinking through what we think will actually make a difference for students; creating shared understanding of the work; figuring out what capacity needs to be built and how to build it; ensuring that our systems are aligned with our improvement strategy; figuring out leading indicators as well as lagging; figuring out feedback loops; and whose job it is to make all these things happen.
I have done this work with many groups, and I frequently feel like I haven’t got it right. I geek out over the technicalities of strategy and people’s eyes glaze over; or I get people too quickly into the work without any context and they don’t know why they’re doing it; or I manage to fall into the obvious yet attractive trap of simply replacing one kind of compliance activity with another. Thank you to the colleagues who have pointed these problems out to me. Anyway, I lost a lot of sleep prepping for Derby, but I think I got it right this time—or at least better than heretofore. The superintendent used the word “magic” on the phone with me on Friday—I’m not sure he was attributing that to me, exactly, but I choose to take some credit. I have, in other words, failed forward—used feedback intentionally and systematically from not-so-great efforts to improve steadily, and I have built up a lot of knowledge and experience along the way.
My article is not the only one you should read on strategy. As I have mentioned before, you get several free HBR articles a month to read if you register on their website, and here’s how I think you should spend your quota this month:
Your Strategy Should Be a Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust (which connects to The Fearless Organization—I hope you are reading it!
Many Strategies Fail Because They’re Not Actually Strategies
Your Strategic Plans Probably Aren’t Strategic, or Even Plans (the second half of this is specific to the business world, but the first part has great language)
And then Friday was an Alliance Symposium focused on Portrait of the Graduate—with an emphasis on a mantra that I repeat all the time: your PoG is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning (with due credit to Churchill). Once you have your PoG you still have to do the hard work of designing and implementing a strategy that you believe (based on hard evidence) will create students who embody the PoG. Further, that strategy must be anchored in a district shared understanding of high quality teaching and learning, and that was the emphasis of Friday’s breakout sessions.
I had some responsibility for the event itself, and I was also facilitating a breakout session on formative assessment and feedback (because of their very high effect sizes when done well), so I lost a lot of sleep on this too. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to try to fit in both formative assessment and feedback—the session was only 90 minutes and I feel like I could talk for a week straight on either topic. But the good thing was that I had new resources to rely on, especially the recent iteration of the Visible Learning books, this one called Visible Learning: Feedback. I typed up a 2 page excerpt to use on Friday that is included in this Google folder with resources on formative assessment and feedback that I drew from for my session. So, for the first time, I feel like there is really good language on linking the different types of feedback (task, process, self-regulation) to a student’s or adult’s stage of learning. When you are learning something new, you need task-level feedback. When you are more proficient, that kind of feedback isn’t so helpful any more. We should train feedback-givers—teachers or supervisors—on the nuances of feedback such that they know what kind of feedback to give.
So the clever thing I did on Friday was to link classroom formative assessment (i.e. working with students) to feedback with adults (i.e. supervising a teacher) because every single professional I have ever met has experience with receiving feedback that was not helpful to them because it didn’t match their stage of learning. In other words, they received task-level feedback when what they needed was process- or self-regulation-level—or vice versa. I don’t have data to substantiate this claim, but I think I did a better job at getting this point across than I have in the past. Asking good questions in order to determine what kind of feedback a person needs is something that I tried to convey in What a Question Can Accomplish; and this idea was actually written about 15 years ago in Hackman & Wageman, A Theory of Team Coaching—the idea that teams would need different kinds of coaching depending on the stage of development of the team.
OK, sorry, I know this is long already but just one more thing. A lot of people have been added to the Coaching Letter mailing list in the last few weeks, so this is just your reminder that this service is free—it is one of the ways in which we tell you about all the magical things the Center does and why you should hire us. I encourage you to encourage others to sign up (email firstname.lastname@example.org); forward it to others who might be interested; and copy for use in meetings or workshops (but please keep the attribution intact). Past Coaching Letters can be found on our website , and all my contact information is below. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you and please, keep the feedback coming. Best, Isobel