Education Opinion

The Paradox of Leading for Deeper Learning

By Jal Mehta — December 20, 2018 9 min read
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In the past few months, I have been talking with a number of district leaders who are trying to move their districts toward deeper learning for all. This, in itself, is a heartening development. The problem is that it is not easy to discern exactly what such a strategy might look like.

At the heart of the problem is a paradox: Most of the people who would need to implement such a strategy—namely teachers, administrators, and students—have little experience with deeper learning. But, if the strategy is to work, those are precisely the people who would need to develop and own the strategy. This is a problem of reform, more generally, as David Cohen has pointed out. But it is particularly acute in the case of deeper learning, because the kind of learning that is sought is so ambitious, and the kind of system that would support it is so different from most district systems.

How have leaders sought to tackle this problem? Some leaders remember that when they were teachers or principals, they were innovators, entrepreneurs, people who felt constrained by district bureaucracy. When they improbably found themselves the head of such districts, they tried to create room for teachers and schools to innovate, creating innovation funds or otherwise directing resources to support entrepreneurial activity. This represents a welcome shift from the command and control ethos of the past—it signals respect for those who want to develop new ideas on the ground and signals a desire to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to reform.

The problem is scale or spread. Such an approach can nurture pockets of innovation across a district, but it does not do enough to dislodge the existing practices of the majority of teachers. As one frustrated superintendent said, “There is available money to do innovative things. Why isn’t anyone taking me up on it? I would have taken me up on it when I was a teacher!” The other problem with this “coalition of the willing” strategy is that it potentially can increase inequity—teachers who are already inclined in this direction learn progressively more, but teachers who are not do not.

At the same time, strategies that seek to address the scale problem by creating things that everyone must do can engender significant resistance. For example, New York City had an inquiry-oriented process known as SAM (the scaffolded apprenticeship model), which was a process that helped schools look at their data, reflect upon it, and then make instructional decisions in light of the results. Such a process is already inquiry-oriented, and thus, in theory, can work in different contexts. Work by Joan Talbert, a professor emeritus at Stanford, suggested that SAM worked well in its pilot phase. But when it was then rolled out across the city as a whole, it was seen as a mandate: The teachers hadn’t asked for it and didn’t see why they would want it, and a fairly well-designed process became something that was resented by some as yet another requirement.

So, what can be done? I think it starts with a recognition about the scale of the shift that we are asking people to undertake. Viewed historically, there are many forces that are organized in opposition to deeper learning. These include an industrial-era system that continues to feature batch processing and sorting of students, teaching as telling, breadth over depth, systems of accountability that replicate assembly line quality-control measures and significantly lower expectations for high poverty students, students of color, and low track students. This model assumes that students are essentially passive people whose desires, aspirations, ideas, and agency only get in the way of efficiently inculcating the expected content. Given that most teachers grew up and developed their identities within this paradigm, if the goal is to move to something different, it will require significant and ongoing leadership.

Roughly speaking, leaders have two complementary strategies they can use to address this paradox. The first strategy is teaching, in the broadest possible sense of the term. If people cannot create what they haven’t experienced, then it is on the leadership of districts to create the kinds of experiences that would help people see what they are trying to create, a principle that I and others have called symmetry. Teaching is a complicated and fragile thing, because it means stoking an interest in the learner that s/he may not have known was there. And it is particularly complicated when the learners are adults, much of whose professional identity is tied to their existing practices. But leaders can stoke demand by hosting a communitywide conversation about the nature of the learning that is needed for students and their futures, potentially using the Ed Leader 21’s “Portrait of a Graduate” tool. And then once the goal is there and is broadly owned, there is no shortage of ways to support new modes of teaching—specific coaching and support by strong external providers, communities of practice within and across schools that include people of varying levels of expertise—which can help people gradually shift their practices. Some district and school leaders have also had luck by changing some larger structural elements—particularly scheduling and the use of time—which is its own mechanism of creating demand, because longer blocks disrupt existing teaching styles, necessitating a search for new teaching practices.

A second strategy is what Margaret Wheatley and others have labeled “emergence.” The core idea here is that there is already a lot of potential in any given system, and the role of the leader is to name, connect, nurture, and grow this promising work. Emergence offers a third way between top-down and bottom-up; it is a way of seeing where there is energy and interest in the system and then finding ways to grow that by connecting people with one another and creating opportunities for sharing and growth. Part of it is a recognition that expertise is not concentrated at the top of hierarchies but is rather distributed throughout the system, and thus the job of the leader is to unleash it. Rather than thinking the answer to every problem is to build a new unit of the central office to address it, this perspective would recognize that sometimes a lighter touch is a more effective touch, because it can enable more of the work to stay where it belongs, in the field. For example, recently a superintendent was wondering how to staff an office of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the central district. As we brainstormed together, we realized that there were already many varied stakeholders in the community who wanted to lead this work and possessed the knowledge to do so; a better approach might be for the district to hire a point person to play the role of convener and facilitator, which would allow the funds of knowledge that already existed within the districts to come to the fore.

In an emergence strategy, there continues to be a significant role for leadership. Districts can help by recognizing what is going well, which legitimates the work of innovators. Districts can also create platforms for mutual sharing—they can replace painful central-office-led PD days with days where teachers can share their practice with one another, they can buy time for teachers to work with each other, and they can build virtual platforms that enable lateral exchange. As David Albury has emphasized, a big part of the leadership is to find ways to create opportunities for those who are outside the initial circle of interest to join; the key is for this middle group to feel like the vanguard is welcoming rather than excluding them.

A small example can help illustrate. Someone I know, let’s call her Jean, was working in a school and had the idea of creating a share fair—a time where teachers could share with each other one thing they knew from their practice. But at the beginning, only a few teachers were interested, and she knew if she required it, it would fail like so many initiatives before it. So she made it optional, but she found a few teachers who were on the fence, and she talked to them, and helped them see they did have something worth sharing. (In Albury’s language, she not only welcomed the early adopters, she cultivated the middle group.) And then the event happened, and people enjoyed sharing their practice and learning from their colleagues, and then people who listened but did not present wanted to become presenters the next time, thus spreading the circle even further. Today it’s a proud feature of the school—something that is entirely run by the teachers—they now own the process, and Jean is nowhere to be found.

The challenge is that this sort of leadership is a fairly significant departure from the ways in which most districts have traditionally operated. District leaders have traditionally emphasized compliance and top-down direction; even more modern superintendents continue to talk in terms of what should be tight and what should be loose, assuming that fundamentally management by data and objectives should still be their mandate. The kind of leadership described here is more like gardening than engineering; it requires relationships, deep listening, profound respect for those who work on the ground, and then thinking carefully about how that ecosystem might be nurtured to move in productive directions. It requires agility, humanity, and respectful relationships, all characteristics that districts have not traditionally been known for.

We have much to learn about exactly what such leadership would look like and how it would be cultivated. In the past year, myself and my colleague John Watkins have started something called the Deeper Learning Dozen, which brings together 12 districts across North America that are interested in exploring these questions together into a community of practice. We have organized our work around three principles—symmetry, equity, and emergence—and have written an initial paper that outlines a hypothesis about what districts of the future might look like if they embodied these characteristics. We have also curated a set of readings on organizational change, equity, race, and emergence that we think might be of interest to others who are seeking to make similar shifts. We would welcome any thoughts or responses to our thinking.

Twentieth-century management paradigms are not sufficient to tackle 21st-century challenges. What appears as a paradox when viewed at one point in time—how can people who haven’t experienced deep learning own a system full of deep learning—looks more tractable when considered as a question of adult learning that unfolds over time. We can build 21st-century districts; it will just require a lot of learning on all of our parts.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.