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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

It’s Important to Lead With Coherence

By Peter DeWitt — January 03, 2016 4 min read
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“Collaboration as an end in itself is a waste of time. Groups are powerful, which means they can be powerfully wrong”—Michael Fullan & Joanne Quinn

It is said, “We only get one chance to make a first impression.” Although we know that we can try our best to make up for an awkward introduction ... or one that is an epic fail, it’s much harder to move forward in a positive direction. If you have been paying attention to the last few years in education, you have seen initiatives that started out awkwardly or were epic fails. Their first impression was not so positive, and sometimes we were to blame.

But what about the positive initiatives? What about the ones that stakeholders wanted ... or at least, didn’t fight too hard against after they spent time getting to know why they were important? What made those initiatives more successful than the others that didn’t go so well?

Was it due to ...

  • Communication between leaders, staff, and the community at large?
  • A shared understanding of how it can contribute to the growth and learning of our students?
  • A desire to step outside of our comfort zones and try something that research supports?

What makes an initiative successful is not just the quality of it, but also how it has been researched, communicated, and piloted before it ever was implemented. Sometimes leaders don’t listen to the warning signs along the way because they chalk them up to “adults not wanting to change.

Damaging implementations have been well-documented over the last few years. Whether it’s the common core in some states or technology in others, we have seen initiatives that come fast and furious and then burn out quickly .. .or not quickly enough. What makes it even more complicated is the idea that at the district level, and many times at the state level, initiatives have been driven through, what Michael Fullan refers to as, the wrong drivers.

Fullan has well-documented the wrong drivers. Those Drivers are:

  • Accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs. capacity building;
  • Individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs. group solutions;
  • Technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry the day vs. instruction;
  • Fragmented strategies vs. integrated or systemic strategies.

What is missing many times when initiatives are introduced in school communities is what Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn refer to as “coherence.” In their new book (Corwin, 2015) Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems, Fullan and Quinn focus on what is needed in system-wide change.

In the book, which I included here in 16 books that educators should read in 2016, Fullan and Quinn define coherence as the “[s]hared depth of understanding about the purpose and nature of the work.” Both authors agree that coherence is not about structure, alignment, and strategy. It’s about taking your school’s shared aspiration, and making it deeper. Fullan and Quinn offer a fourfold interactive framework to guide coherence making: focusing direction, cultivating collaborative cultures, deepening learning, and securing accountability.

This all sounds easy, but we have to remember that we are all working with the human element of change. And in education, we are trying to work through whether we are making people feel that the way they taught for decades before is wrong, or whether the changes, whatever they are, will help us all grow as professionals and help our students grow as learners.

Fullan and Quinn write, “There is only one way to achieve greater coherence, and that is through purposeful action and interaction, working on capacity, clarity, precision of practice, transparency, monitoring of progress, and continuous correction.”

But as Fullan and Quinn write in the book, “Coherence is so difficult to accomplish under conditions of overload, fragmentation and policy churn.” We need to get away from the issues that come up through following the wrong drivers. Instead, growing as learners and professionals, which should be at the heart of any initiative takes Symplexity. According to Fullan and Quinn Symplexity means,

Take a difficult problem and identify a small number of key factors (about four to six)," and they refer to this as "the simple part." What makes it complex when leaders "make these factors gel under the reality of action with its pressures, politics, and personalities in the situation."

Usually in order to “gel under the reality of action,” leaders initiate collaboration. Fullan and Quinn suggest that collaboration, although important, is not enough. In Coherence, the authors write, “Collaboration as an end in itself is a waste of time. Groups are powerful, which means they can be powerfully wrong. Getting deeper without the discipline and specificity of collective deliberation can be a grand waste of time.”

What schools need are true collaborative cultures.

In the End
Coming from a building perspective as a principal, it was easier for me to bring a message to staff. What made it more complicated was the strength of the initiative, the communication I carried out, and the feelings of the staff, parents and students.

As a consultant bringing frameworks to school stakeholders, it has been eye-opening to see that there are often staff who have no idea why they are sitting in the room, and leaders who show up for a small amount of time and then walk out ... if they ever show up at all. There have only been a handful of times where leaders actively participated in the workshops, and talked about how to communicate changes to students and parents.

Coherence sounds like common sense, but it is often missing in how schools move forward, and if anyone on the planet is an expert on how to do it, Michael Fullan is, and the book he wrote with Joanne Quinn is well worth the time it takes to read it, take notes, and read it again.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Geralt.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.