Hello, I hope you’re doing well. This Coaching Letter is about my day today. But it’s not a diary entry—honest. There are big ideas, including strategy, meaning-making, mental models, and even metaphysics. But it will probably be Thursday by the time you read it…
I started writing this Coaching Letter while watching Dr. Miguel Cardona being questioned by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. It is a strange and inspiring experience to watch someone I know being questioned on national TV for a job on the President’s cabinet, leading the US Department of Education. He has many strengths, and it was wonderful to see them on display during the hearing. I should have been doing other things, but I just wanted to see his opening statement, and then I couldn’t look away. I’m not going to analyze the hearing, but I will say that my favorite line actually came from Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who said at one point, “Education is the closest thing we have to magic.” Amen.
Today was also the second half of the webinar we ran on strategic planning. I facilitated the first session last week, and my colleague Richard did today’s. The problem with doing so much strategic planning work over so many years—not to mention writing a book on strategy—is that we have so much to say. I find it extremely challenging to sift through all the possible resources we could provide, and all the possible ideas we could talk about, and all the possible advice we could give, and create a facilitation plan for a two-hour session that includes time for teams to think together. It feels like trying to teach an AP Psychology course in four hours. Oh, and don’t get me started on putting together the slides to go with it—that took me a whole weekend, even though I had to create very few slides from scratch. Plus it’s very hard to be funny over Zoom. The whole thing stresses me out. And then Richard makes it look like a walk in the park. It’s very annoying.
If you want to think about a specific strategy for addressing the consequences of loss of learning time during the pandemic, then you should definitely consider signing up for version 2 of the Acceleration Workshop, which we ran for the first time late last summer. I recorded a video to try and provide some clarity about what we mean by acceleration (NOT going faster, and NOT pressuring students to do more). And then, again today, I found this article in The Seattle Times about Highline Public Schools in Burien, Washington (on Puget Sound, southern end of the Seattle metro area, immediately west of Sea-Tac). The article does a better job than the video of painting a picture of what it might be like to actually implement an acceleration strategy, just so you know. Here is the flyer with the details of the workshop, and here is the registration link. But even if you are not considering signing up for the workshop, please read the article. It contains important points about how to think about schooling moving forward. Just to hammer home a point that I seem to be making a lot lately, the way you see the problem is the problem; the way we conceptualize the lack of in-person schooling will change the way we plan, and that has serious and significant implications for students.
Also today, I started Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again, which just came out. Professor Grant is an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (Donald Trump’s alma mater), and is one of the superstar professors who manage to churn out their own research, be stellar teachers, and also write popular books and appear in TED talks. If you want to watch Professor Grant, here is his TED talk on The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers, and here is Are You a Giver or a Taker?. The latter is one of my favorites, because it falls in the nexus of leadership and coaching that I care about so much. But the best Adam Grant vehicle is his podcast, WorkLife—I don’t mean to sound like a groupie, but it is really excellent. If you only listen to one, make it the first episode of the first season—it’s called How to Love Criticism and the links I’ve given you are to the website but you can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, etc.
I didn’t get very far with the book. It begins with a description of the Mann Gulch disaster, which is well-known in organizational psychology. Norman Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It, wrote a non-fiction book called Young Men and Fire about Mann Gulch. Karl Weick, an organizational psychologist whom I last wrote about in Coaching Letter #113, gave a lecture about sense-making using Maclean’s study of Mann Gulch as a case study: The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.
If educators know who Karl Weick is, it is usually because of an article he wrote about loose coupling in educational organizations. But he wrote about a lot of other big ideas, including mindfulness in organizations, and sensemaking. Several of the examples he used to illustrate these ideas are tragedies, because it is often easier to see a phenomenon when it is subject to failure—failure, in casting light on what is not working, also draws attention to the connections among parts of a system and how they are supposed to work. It’s like learning about bread the first time the dough fails to rise, or learning about bicycles the first time you get a flat tire—I am, obviously, speaking from my own experience here.
To return to the Mann Gulch Disaster: a team of smokejumpers parachuted into the Mann Gulch area of Montana (about 140 miles east of Missoula) on August 5, 1949, to fight a fire that had started the day before. The fire danger was rated ‘explosive potential’, and they were quickly in a race for their lives, running uphill trying to stay ahead of 30ft flames. The crew leader “yelled at the crew to drop their tools and then, to everyone’s astonishment, he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned. No one did…” The rest of the crew ran for the ridge. Only two made it. The crew leader survived by lying down in the ashes of the fire he had made—because there was no fuel in that area, the fire went around him. The other 13 men died in the fire.
Weick uses the Mann Gulch Disaster to analyze sensemaking, and borrows the term “cosmology” from metaphysics. He calls it “the ultimate macro perspective.” Our cosmology is our sense of how the world works on a very grand scale—believers in the same religion share a similar cosmology, including an origin story, a mechanism to explain why things happen the way they do, purpose and meaning, principles to live by, a sense of right and wrong, and so on.
Weick says, “People, including those who are smokejumpers, act as if events cohere in time and space and that change unfolds in an orderly manner. These everyday cosmologies are subject to disruption. And when they are severely disrupted, I call this a cosmology episode. A cosmology episode occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together.”
This line comes back to me when I read about members of tight-knit religious groups and families who have lost friends and family to covid-19 in cities under lockdown and who are, therefore, not able to gather to mourn. The virus deprived them not only of loved ones but also of the traditions and rituals that help them make sense of the loss. It gives us a deeper appreciation, and therefore empathy, for how extremely distressing and disorienting this must be.
Anyway, Grant uses the Mann Gulch story, as told by Norman Maclean, for his own purposes—to talk about how difficult it is for people to drop their existing mental models and to promote more flexible thinking. But he doesn’t cite Karl Weick even though I would bet a year’s salary that he has read Weick’s lecture—I would bet almost as much that he’s read everything that Weick has ever published. And I was so annoyed at the lack of credit that I didn’t make it past the Prologue of Grant’s book. Maybe I’m just too easily annoyed. But Weick is a giant in organizational psychology, and I think everyone in a leadership position should read his Sensemaking in Organizations. Grant does quote him, but it’s for another article. I don’t know why he doesn’t mention that Weick too wrote about Mann Gulch. When I’m less annoyed I’ll get back to Think Again. I’ll keep you posted.

Let me know if I can do anything else for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Author of The Coaching Letter

Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge