Sunday, September 25, 2016

Communicate the message with simplicity and power

John C. Maxwell is a leadership guru. He has written many books, led many leadership training programs and been a leadership trainer for virtually his entire life. His book, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundations for Successful Leadership, is the latest that I have picked up. One section of a chapter spurred my thinking this morning: "Communicate the message with simplicity and power."

He says that leaders need to "communicate the vision for change" with "reasons for it" (p. 239). Leaders are constantly being confronted with a need for change. If is it a growing or shrinking work force, a new product challenge, market shifts or, as in education, a new school year with new students and regulations, standards and laws. Do our leaders- principals and superintendents- clearly and effectively communicate the vision? At its most basic, the mission of most schools is to raise or maintain test scores so that the powers at be will be happy. That incorporates improving instruction, meeting students physical and health needs, providing a safe learning environment with adequate resources and much more. At our most basic level though, it seems the driving force is test scores. Therein is a problem. If test scores are what the community at large is using as the yard stick, then that is our goal- whether we acknowledge it or not. If school leaders want a different goal, they need to communicate it as simply as possible. Skip the fancy language of politicians and bureaucrats, we need to the core and share it so that everyone understands and is on board with it.

Last year my department spent a couple of faculty meetings on refining and unpacking our mission and vision. We went from a three line of text vision statement to a three bullet point statement. The mere fact that it needed two faculty meetings to unpack the message should have been a clue that we were not looking at the vision and mission from the appropriate altitude. I was trying to find the reference to something I read years ago about mission statements: for many years the mission of Coke was "beat Pepsi." Two words encapsulated the entire movement of the organization. There was plenty of movement around how to do that- create the best, consistent product; develop markets in new areas; increase sales in current markets,... Everyone in the company knew and could provide the mission. I am not sure that my boss, who has the mission on every one of her emails in the signature line could state verbatim the mission. I know the rest of my team cannot. This is not unusual. The mission statement at my children's schools is full of wordy nonsense that cannot be restated and thus cannot be achieved by the team. That is danger of the complex mission- it cannot be the focus of the team. We need a "simple clear message" (p. 239) if we want our message to be consistently demonstrated in our ranks. If you ask me, our department's mission is "to help school districts meet the needs of their students." Words like professionalism and teamwork are the means to the end. Why cloud the mission with the mechanism for achieving it?

We also see this the classroom level. The fancier and more complicated we make our language, the less likely our students are to understand it. We use statements like, "Stop" or "walk" when we see a problem developing because that simple word gets attention. Too many words become the Charlie Brown adult, "wha, wha, wha, wha..." I have had teachers tell me everything they say is important and kids should learn it all. Very rarely is this the case. Let's drill down, find the essential elements of the instruction- that is what everyone needs- you can provide more for the more motivated and higher achieving, but know that everyone does not need to know it.

Simplicity of directions is essential. I have read some ridiculous directions over the years. If what the kids need to do is select the right choice- that is all the directions need to include. If there are many steps, break them down to bullets or a sequence and help kids to accomplish each part. You could and should teach them to do this, but it must me taught not expected. We have more power if we communicate simply than if we complicate it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How to raise a genius

Scientific America's article by Tom Clynes, "How to Raise a Genuis: Lessons from a 45-year Study of Supersmart Children," has a somewhat misleading title. This article is not a recipe for turning your child into a genius. Rather it summarizes a study that originated out of Johns Hopkins University. A professor started with a superbright young child who was able to run circles around his undergraduate math colleagues, progressed to a small study of bright middle school students who took the SAT and emerged as a huge undertaking spanning both the country and the world. Hopkins runs the Center for Talented Youth, a program that takes exceptional young people- in the top 1% of their class- and allows them to take college classes in three week periods over the summer. [Disclaimer- my daughter has attended this program for three years- NO this is not bragging any more than saying my son had a resource room for two years is. It has been the one place where she has encountered challenge.] Holding the program has given researchers access to a unique subgroup. The researchers have followed these students beyond school and assessed their impact on society compared with the "average" American.

The results are not especially surprising to me. These students have doctorates, STEM doctorates, research journal publications, patens, and income in the 95 percentile at sometimes double the rate of the general population. This group truly represents the movers and shakers of society.

It is not enough to merely label these kids. They need the education and support to back them up. When my daughter sits in her accelerated classes, playing games on her graphing calculator because she is bored- we are not appropriately educating her. We are occupying her time. When I hear that these kids would learn in a blank room with a stick for an instructor, I agree that for some, they would, but that is not an education. For students with special needs, the law of the land decrees that they have access to a free appropriate public education. Unfortunately our gifted kids are not entitled to the same. For students with special needs, we provide additional teachers and aides. Our gifted kids sometimes have access to a teacher but it is district dependent- mine only has one for the entire five building program. For students with special needs, we modify curriculum. We need to fight for modifications for our gifted children- acceleration, the most cost effective modification available is a black sheep because it takes kids away from their age peers. For students with special needs, we have a federal testing protocol that allows for some students to be tested with alternative tests. Our gifted kids must take the same tests as their age mates- schools are greatful for the proficient scores they bring. We are not meeting the needs of our kids, we are using the cries of eliteism and fiscal stress to detract from their needs.

If we want to raise genius kids to help our society to innovate and succeed, we need to figure out who is gifted, provide enriching and challenging material, and emotional support to handle the differences they face as they move on. China, India and Singapor are doing this. We will be left behind if we neglect our great opportunities- our gifted children.