School & District Management Opinion

The Leader As Learner

By Roland S. Barth — March 05, 1997 13 min read
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The most important responsibility of every educator is to provide the conditions under which people’s learning curves go off the chart. Whether one is called a principal, a teacher, a professor, a foundation official, or a parent, our most vital work is promoting human learning. That’s what it means to be an educator. Learning on the part of younger people called students, of older people called teachers, and, above all, our own learning. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, “In schools, learning isn’t everything; learning is the only thing.”

Many roadblocks stand between educators and their own steep learning curves. One, of course, is “I don’t have time,” a lament that rings particularly true for principals. When I talk further with principals about time constraints, I also hear: “There is no downside for me not spending time on my own learning; there is a dramatic downside if I don’t attend to these hundred other things.” Yet our task is to lead others toward learning, and we can’t lead where we won’t go.

A second impediment to school leaders’ attending to their own learning has to do with the past. Most have been the object of somebody’s attempt to “staff develop” them, whether it was the university, the central office, the state department of education, or someone else. And those I talk to often report that this staff development hasn’t been very good. Educators don’t like to be educated badly. So any fresh invitation to take part as a learner encounters heavy baggage from the past. We have learned all too well that more of the same is unlikely to help us become better at our work in schools.

A third impediment is one I used to believe was a New England, Calvinist affliction. But I’ve found it to be more widespread. This is a belief that somehow it is sinful or immoral for an adult to take part as a learner, to snatch bread from the mouths of babies in order to vest precious time and resources on him or herself. The business of the educator is to serve the learning of others, not to be served. Wrong again.

There is yet another impediment. To the extent that a teacher or a principal takes part in a serious learning activity and actually learns something, what is the reward? More work. The reward for the labor of successful professional development is additional labor. Having learned a new method of evaluating teachers, one must go back to the school and announce to the faculty that you have learned something promising and want to move in a new and “exciting” direction. Enthusiastically announcing new learning violates a taboo of most school cultures. Few will share your excitement. More will display apprehension. Others envy, anger, or annoyance.

A final impediment is that by engaging visibly and publicly as a learner, one admits “I don’t know it all.” To be a learner is to admit imperfection. Principals as well as teachers suffer from a burden of ascribed omniscience. The world thinks you know how to do it all--math, science, social studies, gym, special education. Indeed, many fall into the trap of pretending to. But who inspires more confidence, who is the better leader? The principal who is learn-ed and wise or the principal who is a lifelong, insatiable learner?

Any one of these impediments is formidable. Taken collectively, they have an especially chilling effect on the capacity of the school principal to be a leading learner. Consequently, few school leaders enjoy a good reputation as learners. “It’s no use,” said one staff developer, “principals aren’t educable.”

When I was a principal, I used to believe that I was educable. Many teachers and parents had their doubts, as did some at the central office. I thought I was educable--if the conditions were right. Just what are the conditions which, if in place, make it likely that a principal will become “educable”?

Some answers, I believe, can be drawn from the experiences of 100 New Jersey principals who, over the last four years, took part in a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation program designed to promote leadership and learning among public school principals in that state. Most of these principals experienced an unusual level of real learning during their participation. I was a consultant to the project and “debriefed” them. Here is what I--and they--learned are among the conditions that enable school leaders to surmount the considerable roadblocks to their own learning:

  • Recognition. Few public school leaders hear from the PTA, the teachers’ union, or the central office an affirmation of their critically important work. The first word that jumps out at me about the Dodge program is “recognition,” an underlying belief that “we know you principals are out there, we know that you are doing valuable, often heroic work. We value that work. You are important.”

Simply being selected for such a program was powerful motivation to make the most of the learning opportunities it afforded. But with recognition came responsibility, so the participants were further encouraged to plan their course of study and to write about it. The message was that “what you have to say, your craft knowledge, is significant, and needs to be shouted from the mountaintops.”

  • Principal-centered. Participants chose what they wanted to know or to learn more about, based on what they cared most passionately about. No one at the foundation had a lesson plan mandating that everyone learn 14 things. Learning was principal-centered, not prescribed by others. Some selected unusual--even wild--things that those in universities, state departments of education, or central offices wonder about. Imagine using grant funds to purchase a rototiller to cultivate the school’s garden ... and foster a new curriculum on growing plants. This was one principal’s selection. They all reflected upon themselves as leaders and determined just what it was, at this stage in their careers, that they wanted to explore in depth and allocate precious resources to. This made a huge difference to their learning.
  • A culture of playfulness. I found in the activities devised by and for these principals a refreshing spontaneity. During a final day spent “celebrating learning,” for example, groups were given an hour to create together a Thomas Hart Benton mural, an Alexander Calder stabile, a Pablo Picasso collage, or place settings for Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party.

There is something in our soul that desperately cries out for playful experiences--for fun. And there is something in most school cultures and within school systems that is toxic to playfulness, particularly in the life of a school administrator. One academic study discovered that 5-year-old children smile or laugh approximately 450 times each day. Grown-ups, about 30 or 40 times a day. When the playful me shows up, I am ready to be a serious learner. We learned in this experience that a culture of playfulness is closely related to the capacity to learn.

  • Risk-taking. Another quality evident in the work of principals in this program was a willingness to take risks--frequently great risks. An interesting literature suggests that learning curves are steepest when we are out on a limb, taking a risk--and when a belaying line protects us from real harm. Each participant took a risk by identifying him or herself publicly to a school community not as the learn-ed one but as a learn-er. Every bit as risky as a bungee jump.

Participants also took a risk by standing before two dozen peers and saying, “Here’s who I really am; here’s what I learned over the course of a year.” The culture of support developed within the group provided a belaying line that both modeled and enabled risk-taking, for some perhaps beyond what they had ever experienced.

Failure is less debilitating than fear of failure. There is no learning in fear of failure. Zero. There can be tremendous learning in risking, even in failing. How much staff development for educators is characterized by risk-taking--and safety straps?

  • Learning as the priority. That one is learning, for an educator, may be every bit as important as what one is learning. For, as Emerson said, “What we do speaks so loudly no one can hear what we say.” In our schools, we are so preoccupied with “what” youngsters are or are not learning--the planets, or fractions, or parts of speech--or with what principals are learning--budgeting, teacher evaluation, plant management--that we’re oblivious to their being alive--or not--as learners. Yet, as we all know, a precondition for anyone’s learning anything is that they first be ignited by learning itself. Then and only then can they successfully bring themselves to a host of new subjects or questions as inquirers.

It’s been estimated that 50 years ago high school students graduated knowing perhaps 75 percent of what they would need to know in the workplace. Today the estimate is that graduates of our schools leave knowing perhaps 2 percent of what they will need to know. Ninety-eight percent is yet to come. Clearly, the most basic graduation requirement is that our students leave school imbued with the qualities and the capacities of insatiable, lifelong learners, capable of framing questions, marshaling resources, and pursuing learning with dedication, independence, skill, imagination, and courage.

  • Constructing one’s own knowledge. This is a phrase current in our educational discourse. As Ann Brown, a researcher at the University of California, puts it, “People learn best when actively constructing knowledge, rather than passively absorbing another person’s expertise.” It was apparent from their stories that these principals had assembled over the several months, brick by brick, piece by piece, their own hard-won insights about computers and technology, about gardening, about multiple intelligences, about a hundred fields of inquiry. Rather than merely being taught, rather than placing the burden on another to teach them, they took responsibility for constructing their own knowledge about whatever it was they had set about to learn. Consequently, what each built continues to have special meaning and import.
  • Stress on the liberal arts. Another quality of this program hospitable to learning was that the culture created transformed the often technocratic, sterile field of education into one of the liberal arts. Put another way, the program expanded the concept of education to include the liberal arts. No longer disjointed (as represented in universities by a school of education and a college of the liberal arts), these two worlds became integrated. We talked about and engaged in dance, poetry, literature, history, philosophy.
  • Inventive irreverence. We saw this quality in many of the principals’ learning projects. They made choices and pursued learning unimpeded by convention. For instance, conventional wisdom tells principals to run their schools to maximize order, minimize dissonance--and thereby to minimize the number of problems that land on the superintendent’s desk.
Working in schools is depleting. Working alone in schools is even more depleting. Working and learning together in schools can be replenishing.

As one courageous pair of principals working together toward a goal of interracial understanding found, great learning is often accompanied by great pain--and great dissonance, and even by many phone calls to the central office. They and others discovered that challenging authority, pushing limits, breaking the frame, and “being yourself” in inventive, responsible ways, often accompanied by considerable risk, contributed to profound learning, if not order and comfort, for everyone.

  • A sense of wonder. Schools can become quite arid, unimaginative, and routinized organizations that provide youngsters and grown-ups alike an uninspired and uninspiring diet. Each of us entered the world with a magical, even spiritual sense of wonder. Wonder about the universe, about ourselves, about those around us. We were blessed with the poetry of life. Over the years, for many, that precious sense of wonder is neglected, abused, devalued, or extinguished within the family, the neighborhood, the school, or the workplace.

Fortunately, the embers of wonder continue to burn beneath the surface for all of us. Just as a sense of wonder can provoke learning, so too can learning fan these coals and restore our sense of wonder.

  • Collegiality. My experience working in schools suggests that the nature and quality of adult relationships within a school or a school system have more to do with the schools’ quality and accomplishments than any other factor. In the school world, relationships tend to be independent, isolated, and fearful, or adversarial, competitive, distrustful. So it is for all too many principals.

Participants in this program found--and created--something different. “Contagious energy” one called it. Most came to realize that isolation and competition are inhospitable to learning. That talking about practice, observing one another engaged in practice, sharing craft knowledge with one another, and helping others become better at what they want to become better at all serve to push learning to new heights. Working in schools is depleting. Working alone in schools is even more depleting. Working and learning together in schools can be replenishing.

  • Reflection. Many of the principals were struck by a metaphor: the school as a ballroom floor, with the principal dancing enthusiastically in the midst of it all. But they also recognized the crucial need to find moments to ascend to the ballroom’s balcony and observe and reflect upon what is happening below. These principals were able to reflect on their practice--to ascend to the balcony--by talking with one another, telling stories, writing, walking, “paddling in the pines,” and by allowing themselves to be consumed by a sense of wonder.

The reflective practitioner is, above all, a learning practitioner. Consequently, determining what conditions seem to allow and promote reflection, on practice and within practice, and how to provide these conditions for oneself, became a consequential issue for all of us.

  • Merging personal and professional. As learners, we need not be lobotomized into two neat hemispheres, one called professional development, one personal development. Learning is holistic. Each of us comes in one package--me. Until we acknowledge and honor a large element of personal growth in our learning activities, there won’t be much professional growth. This is precisely why so many professional-development activities are so forgettable.

How different was the experience in this program. As one participant described it: “My own learning has ‘gone off the curve’ because of the personal nature of the experiences offered us. You treat each of us as a unique individual. You always have a positive and personal comment for each of us.” This leader had discovered a truth many others verified: Profound learning is a wondrous experience that occurs at the intersection of the personal and the professional.

If these are the conditions under which humankind best learns, then we have to ask ourselves to what extent we are providing them in our schools--for students, for teachers, and for parents. There is probably no more important, no more severe screen through which to examine the work of the leader in our schools.

For many years, Princeton, N.J., where many of these intensive learning experiences for principals took place, was the home of Albert Einstein. The great scientist was once asked, “What is it like, Professor Einstein, to know all there is to know about math and science?” To which he replied, “I don’t know all there is to know. In fact, I have been learning all of my life--except for the interval I spent in school.”

If we can create and provide others with the same conditions devised by participants in this program, then future reflections by students, teachers, and parents upon their learning will include that “interval spent in school.”

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This excerpt is adapted from The Principal Learner: A Work in Progress, which is available for $5, postpaid, from the International Network of Principals’ Centers, 336 Gutman Library, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass.
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1997 edition of Education Week

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