Friends, I hope this finds you well. I feel like I am stealing a few moments between the end of HQI Live in Milford yesterday and the Strategy Workshop at Connecticut College next week—an intense couple of weeks! But I wanted to write about the similarities between the two, partly for my own benefit as I think through some of these ideas, and partly because I think these are ideas that you can make use of. And, in case you need a little background on these events, here is the Coaching Letter that describes HQI Live, and here is an article from the Milford Mirror that doesn’t get all the terminology exactly right, but nevertheless is a terrific piece. If you want to see more photographs, there are plenty on Twitter. You can either follow me at @IsobelTX or the hashtag #HQILive.
First is the idea that a district should have a shared understanding of high quality instruction. A very high level theory of action for that might be: if we have a shared understanding of high quality instruction, then we can a) move closer to guaranteeing that all students will develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions that we believe it is important for them to have (because they are receiving instruction explicitly designed to foster those traits), b) provide more and better support for the development of high quality instruction (we cannot support every teacher if every teacher is trying to improve something different), c) figure out how to improve our strategy by paying attention to the variation in the implementation of high quality instruction across classrooms and to whether our version of high quality instruction really does lead to improvement in outcomes for ALL students.
The Strategy Workshop asks participants to design strategy based, in part, on that theory of action. And HQI Live is one component of a strategy centered on that theory of action.
Second is the idea of continuous improvement. We as a profession (and I consider myself as guilty as any) have talked a good game about continuous improvement without having much idea of how to really implement that in meaningful ways. In particular, we have treated it as an annual event during the creation of school improvement plans—or we have not attended to it at all. School improvement/ district strategic plans frequently include benchmarks—which are sometimes no more than the difference in lagging indicators that we want to see, divided by grading period. I am embarrassed that it took me years to figure out that that makes absolutely no sense. When my article on strategy was published in the Kappan, the article that was suggested as further reading was this one, on continuous improvement. Which is not wrong, but I don’t think gets it completely right, either. We need more focus on the process that we think is going to get us the outcomes we want, and more small experiments that will help us learn how to get better, and smarter routines for bringing educators together to pool their learning and learn from each other so that they know what to try next. Life is an action research project.
At the end of HQI Live, we asked participants to commit to try something, and to do that in partnership with one or more colleagues. At the Strategy Workshop, we will go into more detail on organizational routines that can support continuous improvement and that should be a feature of their strategy.
One other big idea, and that is the importance of normalizing when things don’t work out the way you thought they would. OK, don’t think this is weird, but I think a lot about failing. I think there are concepts that people get confused. In particular, I think that there is a distinct difference between not getting the result you expected and failing.
Making a mistake is doing something wrong. In the literature on making mistakes (because you know there is one), there is a taxonomy of mistakes, like errors and slips, and explanations for why we make them. For example, the last time I drove to Boston, I turned left on route 44, which is the way I go to work every day. That’s called strong habit intrusion. It’s one kind of mistake, and there are many others. Not getting the result you want is not necessarily a mistake and it certainly is not necessarily failure.
Failure is not as connected to mistakes or to lack of desired results as we generally think. It is possible to make mistakes and not fail; mistakes that lead to learning culminate in success and not failure. Success and failure are outcomes generated by some combination of the right steps, mistakes, persistence, luck, effort, and planning. And success and failure are themselves highly context dependent. The result of a battle is a success for the winners and a failure for the losers.
If we think that not getting the result we want is failure, and if the prospect of failure causes us consternation, we do not try for fear of what might happen, and that is a mistake. We should be acting on our hypotheses all the time, and whether what we try worked or not, it is a success if we learned something from it, and a failure if we didn’t. And we are much more likely to learn from what didn’t work, because it disconfirms a hypothesis, and that is extremely useful information. Failure is a rehearsal for success—I got that from Mission Impossible.
One of the best things that came out of HQI Live was the realization by the students—and from them to the participants—that mistakes and unexpected results are powerful when they lead to learning. Somehow, we have to completely demolish classroom cultures that define being a good student as always having the right answer. More on that another time.
Finally, a big shout out to the people who made HQI Live in Milford such an overwhelming success—because of all the learning that happened, not because the live teaching was treated as performance art—the superintendent and her team, the staff at Foran, the guest teachers and facilitators, and the participants themselves. Check out the Twitter feed if you can, it will give you an idea of the impact it had on everyone. It’s very hard for me to stop writing about it, actually, especially where we want to go from here, but now I have a whole other workshop to get ready for…
If you have questions about all this, I would love to hear from you, although I can’t promise I’ll respond before the end of next week J. It is all such very exciting work, and I am grateful to be a part of it. Yours, Isobel