Administration & Leadership

Keeping the Focus on What’s Important

Fads in education come and go, but a relentless focus on the things proven to increase learning leads to success.

June 18, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

In HBO’s Hard Knocks, NFL players are followed with cameras as they prepare for their upcoming season. The wide receivers work on their catching techniques, quarterbacks work on precision throwing, and linemen work on subtle adjustments to the placement of their bodies and hands to protect or rush quarterbacks. The bulk of this show illustrates relentless consistency to tried-and-true practices that make a difference.

Many writers have shared a similar sentiment in education, arguing that the more time students spend on reading, writing, and talking in the classroom, the more they appear to improve in those tasks. While this seems completely obvious, the number of novelties that permeate schools can often take teachers and leaders away from the bedrock elements of core learning.

Chasing Fads

For instance, take the emergence of flexible seating, vertical whiteboards, artificial intelligence (AI), and discover-based learning that can often draw teachers and leaders to engage in what best-selling authors Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao call “fad surfing,” or investing time and resources in new ideas without ensuring that the core elements of their business are successful. In my previous role as a school administrator and my consulting work with systems around the world, I can attest to the pull of fad surfing, as it’s a tangible symbol of progress to those around us, but alas, it’s a mirage of lasting impact.

Just as new football jerseys, stadiums, and music are all exciting symbols of progress, they don’t cause teams to improve performance like daily practice of the basics. As a school leader, I worked very hard to support teams in separating ideas that correlate to learning from those ideas that actually cause learning. Fad surfing, at its best, is correlated to learning. Educational leaders are in the business of causing impact for every student and staff member. We have to stay small and stay focused on this idea every day.

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be time for a bit of exploration, but it is saying that the impact on student learning is in the hard work of the core business of a school. That hard work is associated with actionable practices.

In my previous administrative experience, I would ask teams if a practice was “setting the stage” for impact or causing impact. Putting students in groups or providing them with new tech tools is “setting the stage” for impact, but those ideas don’t cause learning. I’m interested in what we do once students are in groups. Are we expecting students to compare and contrast ideas across multiple texts? Are we expecting students to employ comparing and contrasting connectives when they write claims and counterclaims in an essay? Those questions lead to impact.

How do schools resist the urge to “fad surf” and focus primarily on relentless consistency of reading, writing, and talking? Leaders should consider the following.

3 Ways to Keep the Focus on the Basics

1. Graft small adjustments in current practices with new practices. Rather than viewing innovative methods or approaches as a complete decoupling from current practice, leaders should work with teachers to find small adjustments or spaces within their current work that allow for “tiny creations” rather than wholesale innovation.

To what extent can we incorporate generative AI into the way students use feedback in their writing? Programs like Sherpa have provided teachers with innovative and efficient ways to conduct their current work in reading and writing while leveraging AI. How can we embed inquiry-based methods into a direct-instructional framework? One study found that when teachers rotate active learning with direct instructions in short intervals, students perform better. Small shifts is the name of the game.

2. Praise quick wins of established practice. When teachers execute routine work such as the use of checking for understanding, sustaining guided practice, or illustrating an excellent lesson—relating challenging content to student experiences by using a powerful metaphor—leaders need to celebrate that execution and then search for evidence to determine noticeable gains for students.

Administrators should take time with teachers to discuss bits of evidence that illustrate subtle but powerful differences in student learning. As a systems leader, I tied team meetings with times for reviewing evidence of student learning and then backward mapping to specific practices that made the impact on learning.

3. Designate time for teachers and leaders to focus on improved practice. When teachers meet, they should have a set time to review their performance via film or role-play that allows them to break practices down and determine how they could improve or sustain practice.

In addition, teachers should discuss what-if approaches related to scenario planning, how different students may or may not react, and how they would engage in those scenarios. I used to separate evidence meetings with building-new-practice meetings so that teachers were clear on the parameters of the meeting. This ensured that meetings were focused. Lastly, teachers should observe each other in the weeks following these meetings to provide both support and soft accountability of executing the work.

If we dropped a camera into your grade-level and department meetings, would we see the same relentless commitment to small and doable practices? Would we see teachers use evidence of their impact on student learning to determine next steps along a menu of research-based practices? Would we embrace the idea of precision in our moves and student actions? The role of the leader is to guide this type of work, day in and day out. Over time, everyone will begin to see improvement.

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