Friends, I hope this finds you well. I am working to get ready for two workshops in March—Acceleration and Coaching for Equity—so I wanted to publish a Coaching Letter before March starts, because I’m not sure I will have time to write much during the next few weeks. I am both excited and daunted—hundreds of people are signed up for the Acceleration Workshop, which is an audience we would never have if it wasn’t for Zoom. I still don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not.
First, I made a couple of mistakes in the last Coaching Letter. I listed session three of the Acceleration Workshop as March 23, not March 16, which is the right date. So if you came to the Acceleration Workshop the first time around and want to join just for the additional session this time, you should still email Bridget, but please know that I gave you the wrong date. Second, the link I gave to the new list of resources on re-opening was restricted, so I’m sorry to all the people who had to request access. Here is the corrected link. Third, I failed to provide the link for the Coaching In-Depth in May. Here is the link to the flyer. Here is the link to register (which you can also get to from the flyer). And just so you know, the links to whatever events we are currently registering for are always on our Institutes page.
As many of you know, the Center facilitates communities of practice for superintendents—and has done so for a long time. I presented to one cohort a few days ago on Acceleration, and a lot of the conversation was about the mental models educators carry about learning loss, remediation, and what students are capable of. It made me think that this is a good time to revisit the idea of mental models, especially since this blog post by Ed Batista that I learned about recently from the Farnam Street newsletter: Corn Mazes and Mental Models. I love the metaphor of the corn maze, so if you don’t have a whole lot of time, abandon this Coaching Letter and read that instead. (Farnam Street has its own take on mental models that is a little different from the way I see them, but worth reading. And of course there is chapter 10 of Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Doubleday.)
Also something that I tried to emphasize in the presentation to superintendents is the idea of shared cognition as the basis of coherence. Coherence has become a bit of a buzzword in education (there are already so many…), especially with the publication of Johnson, S. M., Marietta, G., Higgins, M. C., Mapp, K. L., & Grossman, A. S. (2014) Achieving coherence in district improvement: Managing the relationship between the central office and schools Harvard Education Press and Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2015) Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems Corwin Press.
Actually, Michael Fullan got a pre-publication copy of The Strategy Playbook, and wrote me a really thoughtful email about the difference between coherence and alignment. He called coherence “The shared depth of understanding of the nature of the work” and said “We would say that alignment is rational, coherence is emotional” which was just a really clear and simple distinction that was both really helpful and really annoying—because I wished that we had thought to put it that clearly (one of the very, very many times that this has happened to me recently.) And he used the “how can we?” question that lives in the nexus of leading, coaching, and strategy: “How can we create shared depth of understanding of the nature of the work?”
Whether you want to call it shared understanding or shared cognition or shared mental models, we have evidence from research on high performing organizations that the act of creating shared understanding—a lot of conversation, a lot of questioning, a lot of probing mental models—is what really matters; not the outcome or product of these conversations. From one of the most-cited research articles on the subject:
The research poses that shared strategic cognition is the outcome of group processes that occur during the development of strategy. Shared cognition in top management teams (TMTs) is the extent to which those mental models about strategy are shared. A theoretical frame is developed that links shared strategic cognition to group process and new venture performance. The results indicate that the group processes leading to the development of shared strategic cognition are more important than the outcome of shared strategic cognition in terms of predicting organizational performance. Ensley & Pearce (2001).
In other words, you cannot transmit shared understanding. It’s not like a blood transfusion. Meaning-making doesn’t work like that. If you want people to work towards a common goal, then “getting buy-in” is not your goal—you will be forever disappointed. Rather, you should be working to develop a shared understanding of what the target (or vision, or goal) is, and what good performance looks like in order to reach the target. This takes a lot of work over time, but if a strategy like Acceleration, that depends on a particular stance towards the nature of the work and what students are capable of, is going to reach its potential, then it’s a commitment you have to be willing to make.
And a couple of other tidbits. I wrote about Adam Grant’s new book a few weeks ago (my “Grant rant”, as one of my correspondents called it). The rest of the book is pretty good, though, so I’m sure I’ll be writing about that some other time. In the meantime, the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article by Grant taken from the book: Persuading the unpersuadable. Here is an article from the New York Times about baseball and Thinking Fast and Slow that should entice to read both that book and Moneyball (or watch the movie—almost as good). And for those of you who have heard me go on and on about the perils of advice, here are some cartoons from the New Yorker: This Is What Your Unsolicited Advice Sounds Like. Oh, and I was supposed to send someone resources on motivation but I forgot who, so if it’s you please email me.
Please let me know if there is anything I can do 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