Changing mindsets = unlearning

I was in a meeting recently where we were discussing some procedural changes that needed to be made across the district regarding behavioral supports for students. These changes would also need an accompanying change in mindset on the part of classroom teachers, which was acknowledged during the meeting by several attendees.  And then someone asked this question:

“How can we change their mindset?”

In my experience, there’s two ways organizations such as schools usually go about that:

  1. Convince, convince, convince.  And then try and convince some more.
  2. Force everyone to change their practices in hopes that people will “see the light” after they’ve been implementing the new practices.

I think you’ll get a little change with either of those tactics; I’ve seen both work in various circumstances.  However, I read an HBR article that adds another dimension to changing mindsets/practices:  Unlearning.

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.

Most of the changes schools seek to implement these days, it seems to me, are ones that require unlearning: standards-based grading, flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, student-led learning & classrooms, true student choice and voice, genius hour, etc.  No wonder these changes are so hard to take root in schools; it requires a choice to unlearn what has been drilled into us through our own schooling and teacher prep programs, to accept the loss of what we used to do and to embrace the hard work of doing something different for the simple reason that’s it’s better for students rather than easier for us.

But we have to remember that accepting a new mental model and working towards it is not a linear process.  Unlearning is a messy, nonlinear affair, just like learning is.

So as you begin unlearning, be patient with yourself — it’s not a linear process. Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In this time of transformative change, we need to be conscious of our mental models and ambidextrous in our thinking.

We cannot help improve student learning through the lens of traditional approaches in education.  It can only come through adopting new mental models, and supporting teachers through the messy unlearning and learning that has to happen for change to occur – changes in student learning along with changes in mindset.


G+ Communities for Professional Growth


Our district recently set up Google+ Communities for our staff.  Currently we have two communities set up, one for our PreK through 5th grade staff, and another for our 6th grade through high school staff.

Why did we do this?  Well, for a lot of reasons:

  1. Creating a district culture. There are four buildings in our district – one for PreK-2, one for 3-5, one for 6-8, and one for 9-12.  Even though the buildings are all geographically close (two of them are even connected), ideologically, culturally, and pedagogically, they are sometimes worlds apart.  Creating online communities that combine buildings is an attempt to bring those worlds a little closer together, with staff interacting in an asynchronously so there is no need to carve out time during the school day for that interaction to happen.
  2. Magnifying the positive.  One of my goals is to take the positive that is already there and magnify it, letting it run rampant and causing good wherever it goes.  What better way to do that than creating a space where teachers can share all the good stuff they do in their own classrooms?
  3. Making professional growth the norm.  Along with all that sharing of goodness, Google+ communities within an educational G Suite domain are a private space where teachers can have conversations about what they do in their classrooms and why they do it, providing and/or sparking ideas among all staff.  While developing a PLN of educators around the world is always a fantastic idea, sometimes the best ideas for helping a teacher grow in their practice are locate right next door to their own classroom.
  4. Building relationships in an online space. These G+ Communities allow teachers, principals, and district administrators to engage in dialogue that normally might not happen.  I know I always have every intention of getting out and about into classrooms, but then end up getting pulled back into my office because of some situation that arises.  However, if I’m in front of my computer, I can interact with teachers and other administrators that are posting at any time.  I’m not saying this is a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but I feel it can offer another avenue to build relationships when time is always in short supply.
  5. Modeling technology expectations. Everyone is responsible for growing, and I believe it’s a responsibility of administration to model how to do that.  That means participating in these G+ Communities is a chance for administrators to model what growth in this day and age looks like, posting and discussing and growing out in the digital open.

While the expectation is that all teachers join one of our two communities, there is no expectation to post.  If some feel comfortable posting, fantastic.  If others just want to lurk and get good ideas from their colleagues, that’s great too.  Whatever use they get out of it will be a good one, as long as everyone is growing together.

Because that’s how good district become great – they never ever settle, and never stop growing.

No such thing as dysfunctional organizations

I’ve been reading The Practice of Adaptive Leadership lately, and it’s full of useful nuggets that have been helpful in understanding the dynamics of my still newish-to-me district. Jeff Lawrence is quoted in the book under the section, “The Illusion of the Broken System:”



This statement really made me ask some questions of myself:

  1. What are the actual results we are currently getting?
  2. Are they in line with our purpose as a school, which is to educate children in such a way as to prepare them for the world into which they will graduate?
  3. Do the results we are currently getting benefit students or are the majority of those results benefitting adults only?

It also made me stop looking for dysfunction and start looking for what outcomes we’re really valuing and rewarding…a better direction to lead change, I think.

We’re All Learners

I think most everyone has seen this graphic before:


Photo credit: oklanica via Flickr

I have been far outside of my comfort zone for the past two days.  This former high school teacher has been attending a local conference concerning Eureka Math, which we have been implementing K-5 for the past 2 years.  I thought it best to attend this three-day mathstravaganza since I am asking teachers to implement this curriculum in their classrooms…and I am the Curriculum Director, after all; I should be here.

The first day I attended a 5th grade module study (did I mention I taught high school science for 18 years??).  I spent the day doing 5th grade math, which, in Eureka, looks a lot like this:

I was introduced to the world of place value and all its chip diagrams, vertical number lines, bundling and unbundling, pictoral representations and standard algorithms.  I was completely out of my depth (after all, we high school teachers expect our students to be pre-loaded with this information when they get to us), an imposter among the real 5th-grade teaching experts in the room.  The teachers around me took pity on me after I confessed I was a Curriculum Director with a high school background, whispering definitions of things like “decimal fractions” and “number sentences” and explaining the basics of a Eureka lesson while the wonderful facilitator in the front of the room demonstrated problems and answered questions.

Boy, did I feel stupid.  But I sure did learn a lot.  I learned that this curriculum has a levels of focus and coherence that mirror that of the CCSS math standards, with concepts and skills building and spiraling, containing absolutely no fluff.  I learned that, even though this is a pre-packaged curriculum, you must still prioritize concepts and activities to maximize the time you have with students.  I learned that the main intent of Eureka math is to have students understand the math using the mathematical practices rather than the usual emphasis on finding right answers as fast as you can.  I also learned that people who don’t look at the big picture of how Eureka math is set up often focus on one piece of it that they don’t like and use that to vilify it (hence all those posts on the internet ranging at the “ridiculous” ways students are told to “do” math problems these days).

I truly believe that administrators are learners too.  Sometimes people feel that administrators should have all the answers and know everything…but how can that be possible?  No one has all the answers.  No one knows everything. And, just like the shift Eureka takes with it’s focus on student understanding rather than correctness, I think administrators have to cultivate an emphasis on growth and improvement rather than “rightness.”  And it means making ourselves uncomfortable at times, being willing to learn along with our teachers.

When we realize that we’re all learners, that administrators and teachers should be learning together because we’re all in this business of improving student learning together…that’s when the magic happens.