Power Listening: Making Better Decisions

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This is my second post related to the book, Power Listening by Bernard Ferrari (2012).

According to Ferrari, listening is the front end of decision making; it is the most efficient route to informing the judgments that need to be made (p. 13).

Rather than immediately suggest a solution, Ferrari counsels us to approach a conversation as an opportunity to learn. Furthermore, he believes that everybody is a case study with an N of one!

Some clarifying questions when engaged in a conversation in which a decision is needed or an opinion is being asked:

  • So are you telling me we should do this?
  • Does this mean you think we move in this direction?
  • You don’t quite agree with me on this one, do you? Why is that?
  • Am I missing something here?
  • Are we on the same page with this?
  • I hear you, but I’m just not prepared to agree yet. Maybe I could hear a little more at a later date?

One nugget I took away from the book was “Will my comment or question cause my conversation partner (CP) to say more? Not more in terms of just words, but more in terms of analysis, information, insights?” (p. 44).

While this is still very much a work in progress for me, in the past 6 months or so, I have been able to employ this approach to good effect. Whereas in the past, I may have left a meeting or a conversation having assumed a course of action, I now try to challenge that assumption to bring greater clarity…and hopefully better decision making!

Live Wires: Reflections on Brain Research and its Implications for Parenting/Education

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Live Wires: Neuro-Parenting to Ignite Your Teen’s Brain by Judith Widener Muir 

“Neuro-parenting: Parenting strategies based on neuroscience research which conforms that the brain wires what it experiences – for good or bad”

On Friday at my school’s in service program, Judy Muir presented on brain research and its relevance for education. It was a wonderfully engaging and inspiring 90 minutes, at the end of which she gave us all a copy of her book. Having devoured the Lives Wires over the weekend, I am left pondering the following: 

  • If learning can only happen in meaningful relationships, then how can we, as educators, provide a learning environment in which these relationships are fostered and not denied?
  • In the current climate of high stakes testing, the college admissions arms race, and increasing student stress levels, how can schools facilitate wellness – a holistic approach to healthy thoughts, habits, and behaviors?
  • Our children’s brains are not buckets to be filled – a metaphor I have never particularly liked. Rather, the brain reconfigures itself throughout life experience. We “use it or lose it” in regards to the connections we make when we undertake new experiences. How do we build curricula that enables students to increase their neuroplasticity whilst maintaining some notion of the “school” model?
  • Are our students getting enough sleep? Teens are supposed to get 9 hours per night; many high school students get between 4 and 6.
  • How do we embrace the “gamer” generation, many of whom will log 10,000 hours of screen time by the time they graduate from high school?
  • Truly, what is the “right” college for a student? How do we get away from the idea that there are only 50 or so (of the 3,000) institutions of higher learning that are valuable?

Power Listening – It’s a Skill

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As part of a book study group, I recently read Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All by Bernard T. Ferrari (2012).

What I liked about this book was Ferrari’s insistence on listening being a skill that “demands conscious attention and constant practice” (p. xi). Despite the importance of listening – it’s the only way to find out what you don’t know – there is a gap in the market of how to learn how to do it well. For example, Ferrari highlights that “of the nearly 300 communications courses offered by the American Management Association, only two deal directly with listening skills” (p. 3). This book seeks to fill that gap.

According to Ferrari, good listening doesn’t take time, it buys time because nothing wastes more time than bad decisions. It is with this call to active listening with our conversation partners that he highlights 6 different types of listeners:

  1. The Opinionator – this person only listens to others to confirm their own ideas and opinions.
  2. The Grouch – this person is certain your ideas are wrong and has contempt for other people’s ideas.
  3. The Preambler – this person has windy lead-ins and questions, which are really stealth speeches often designed to box in the conversation partner.
  4. The Perseverator – this person talks too much. His goal is not to sharpen the focus of the discussion, but to speak in order to sharpen his own point, or to shoehorn his conversation partner’s thoughts into supporting his prejudices and biases.
  5. The Answer Man – this person starts offering solutions before there is even agreement about what the challenge might be. His impatience is often his undoing.
  6. The Pretender – this person is not really interested in what his conversation partner might have to say, and so he will listen but never act on what he hears.

Ferrari believes that we might be all of the above in different contexts. As I read about the different types of people, I resolved not to be some of these people!

South Carolina During Reconstruction

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I recently saw a post on Facebook about the tragic church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina that happened a few months ago. It reminded me of a book review I wrote some years ago.

Francis B. Simkins and Robert H. Woody: South Carolina During Reconstruction (1932). 

Four years on from South Carolina’s ill-fated secession from the Union, the state’s time-honored social, political, and economic traditions stood on the brink of destruction. Originally published in 1932, South Carolina During Reconstruction details the state’s road to “redemption” from “Yankee” and “Negro” rule in the twelve-year period following the Civil War. Outnumbered and outgunned, “The vanquished were perfectly willing to admit defeat at arms, but they would not or could not accept the doctrines of political and social democracy by what they considered arrogant politicians and mistaken philanthropists” (vii). Because the institution of slavery “was the driving force of the state’s industrial and social life…[and] the principal reason why the white manhood of the state had fought so desperately,” Simkins and Woody reveal that Reconstruction was doomed to failure because the white man could never accept the black man as his equal (12). Advocating the conventional wisdom of their day, the authors maintain that the freedmen were incapable of exercising the highest functions of citizenship, and that they “never got over [the] habit of following white leadership” (87, 74). Therefore, it was no surprise that once the threat of the federal bayonet was lifted and the state’s “outside forces” could be removed without reprisal, the newly emancipated African-Americans’ traditional position of inferiority would be restored, despite his outnumbering the white man by a significant margin. According to the authors, “That South Carolina would consent to being ruled by alien whites and native blacks was unthinkable” (112).

Throughout their substantial study, Simkins and Woody characterize the Reconstruction period as an aberration in the annals of South Carolina’s long and illustrious history. They explain this historical hiccup by providing evidence of northern opportunists—carpetbaggers—local traitors—scalawags—and the might of the federal government interfering with the state’s culture, and taking advantage of the easily led, intellectually-impaired freedmen. As was the norm for the day, innumerable negative racial stereotypes are attributed to African Americans, such as their innate “content[ment] to remain socially and economically inferior to the white man,” the “fact” that lighter-complected black men are superior to darker-complected black men,[1] their instinctive promiscuity, inability to adequately house themselves, and their “disrespect for law and moral conventions” (73, 130, 329-333). Despite their writings being littered with the types of ethnic descriptions and phrases which today would be considered quite racist, the authors faithfully convey their understanding of Reconstruction with a candor that spares neither “native son” nor “outsider invader” from the critical eye of the professional historian. The authors’ observation on the State’s Supreme Court during Reconstruction is particularly instructive and is illustrative of their scholarship regarding the historical record: “In spite of the fact the Supreme Court was composed of a scalawag, a carpetbagger, and a Negro, its administration was fair and its decisions equitable” (144).

Even though they complain about the dearth of reliable information—the untrustworthiness of the newspapers, diaries, letters etc.—Simkins and Woody employ a variety of the available sources to offer an understanding of the time period, commensurate with early 20th century sensibilities (viii-ix). Of course, modern scholarship now incorporates the “centrality of the black experience,” in its analysis of Reconstruction; African Americans constituted a majority of the state’s population. Few people in the 1930s, however, would have accepted the idea that “blacks were active agents in the making of Reconstruction,” and that their “quest for individual and community autonomy did much to establish the era’s political and economic agenda.”[2] Consequently, as a product of its time, space, and place, Simkins and Woody’s work, while certainly not definitive, is instructive for telling about their attitudes and those current among the White South’s advocates in 1932 than they were about the actual Reconstruction.

Forced to accept military defeat owing to the victor’s superior numbers and war matériel, the state’s “redeemers” would never allow New England liberalism, which they saw as a personal attack on their heritage, to destroy South Carolina’s “civilization” (27). From their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the 1868 Constitutional Convention to the reorganization of the Democratic Party seven years later to the brutal implementation of the “Mississippi Plan” in the years following 1877, South Carolina’s “white manhood” proved that they would never accept equality with the black man, and that they would secure that birthright by any means necessary. Notwithstanding its limitations,[3] South Carolina During Reconstruction is an invaluable conduit through which the modern historian gains insight into this tragic episode in American history because, no doubt, the same mindset that “redeemed” the state from “radical” rule in 1877 gave birth to the culture in which Simkins and Woody lived, wrote, and published.

[1] Referring to South Carolina’s first African American lieutenant governor, Alonzo J. Ransier, the authors contend that “In the state Senate he was a good presiding officer; his dignity and cleverness were traced to the fact that he was nearly white” (130).

[2] Quoted in Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction: 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1990) xv.

[3] This author grants that such limitations are of course anachronistic, but, as a product of his own time, space, and place, he views them as valid criticisms of the time period in which Simkins and Woody lived, not necessarily as criticisms of the historians themselves.

The Cult of Efficiency Part 2

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Should our schools be understood as factories or gardens?

“The school is a factory. The child is the raw material. The finished product is the child who graduates” (p. 176).

Conceptualizing schools as factories would fit well with the business thinking that seems to prevail in education today. As many people may not know, though, the popularization of this approach can be traced back to the early 20th century. According to Callahan, by the end of WWI, “the transition of the Superintendent of schools from educator to business manager was extensive.” Furthermore, school boards began to be dominated by business folk and educators started having to “demonstrate” their efficiency through records. The most important thing for administrators to do was to “cut waste.” They also produced annual reports to “justify expenditures and to educate the public in case additional funds were needed.” Their duty was to “give the city returns for [its] investment.” The increasing amount of records and book-keeping activities indicates the extent of the distrust of teachers and principals.

Callahan argues that there is no question that by 1918 administrators had followed the authoritarian role of the manager in industry and had applied it in their school systems. In essence, they were following a factory plan with school personnel executing similar functions to factory workers and managers.

“The 1920s,” wrote eminent sociologist Robert Lynd, “were years of educational ‘efficiency’ in American public education and of yardstick making by which to measure this efficiency.” However, despite the fact that school administrators had adopted many business and industrial values and practices and had assumed the posture of a general manager and executive, their basic problems remained—they continued to be insecure in their jobs and they continued to be plagued with financial problems. Now they were left with a platform of economy and were forced to be preoccupied with per-pupil costs, which they did, in part, by lowering or freezing pay scales, or by increasing teacher loads and class sizes. The identification of the total community with the business community was so common among administrators that one gets the impression that they thought the two communities were synonymous. The exaggerated idea of schools as service stations has been responsible for educators relinquishing responsibility for providing educational leadership and became mere technicians who produced the product according to specifications.

“You educators must understand that teaching is a business. You are salesmen. Your commodity is education. You must satisfy your customers, the taxpayers” (p. 231).

So, again, are schools factories? Are administrators managers? Are teachers sales(wo)men?

What are the implications for education if the answers to these questions are yes?

The Cult of Efficiency in Education

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This post and the next one will explore Raymond Callahan’s 1962 work, “Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public school” and attempt to make connections to contemporary events and add to current educational discourse.

In his book, Callahan outlines how widespread public schools emerged in the 20th century as a product of the industrial age. The dominant values of the era were “modern business methods” and “efficiency,” both of which were informed by maximizing production while minimizing costs.

He identifies the high priest of this movement as Frederick Winslow Taylor, a man who popularized the notion that there was always one best method for doing a particular job and that this method could be found through scientific study. Thus, the judgment of the workman was to be replaced by the laws, rules, principles, etc., of the science of the job which was developed by management. Despite Taylor warning against the tendency to accept his system as panacea for all problems everywhere, he could not stem the enthusiasm with which people from all walks of life took up his ideas.

Because Taylor’s ideas could be applied by anyone with common sense, these ideas were introduced into a variety of different endeavors, public and private. It wasn’t long before they were introduced into education. At the beginning of the 20th century public schools increasingly came under the eyeglass. Immigration-boosted-population increases necessitated more classrooms and teachers, but with the cost of living having already increased by 30%, people were suspicious of increasing school budgets. Efficiencies were called for in the areas of teacher rating and for administrators at first, but soon spread to many other areas of school life.

Increasingly, the public was calling for a more “factual basis” for education, which manifested itself in the use of standardized tests, school surveys, and other procedures, such as efficiency ratings, score cards for buildings, and elaborate systems of records and reports. Of course, the question of which studies were of greatest value socially and individually arose e.g. Latin vs. machine shop. Thus, scientific determinations of educational value actually turned out to be determinations of dollar value.

Standards were being called for as far back as the early 1900s to demonstrate “value for money.” Early administrators’ work had to take on the appearance of scientific respectability, but it also leant itself to an overemphasis upon the financial aspects of education. The tragedy was that educators were forced to assume too soon the role of experts, which turned their attention either to cost accounting or to the simple mechanical problems. Administrators, therefore, either studied the advice of the “experts” and applied the efficiency procedures themselves or if the situation was critical they called in the efficiency expert to them save their jobs.

The notion that schools were, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life was predominant and was expounded and reinforced by educational administration leaders. The purpose of the new scientific movement was, as the Dean of Stanford’s School of Education stated, to create standards, so that the efficiency of the work of the schools could be determined, demonstrated, and communicated to the public in a language that the community could understand. Two central questions emerged from this environment: What return is the community getting from its investment in the schools; and how can the investment be made to yield greater returns?

Too few people spoke out against the dominant force of society and fewer still could do anything to prevent it from taking over the schools.

Voices such as the the American Teacher (a mouthpiece for the American Federation of Teachers) were few and far between: “education must measure its efficiency not in terms of so many promotions per dollars of expenditure, nor even in terms of so many student-hours per dollar of salary; it must measure its efficiency in terms of increased humanism, increased power to do, increased capacity to appreciate.”

Book Review of The Trust Factor: Strategies for School Leaders

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The Trust Factor: Strategies for School Leaders
Julie Peterson Combs, Stacey Edmonson, and Sandra Harris
Eye on Education
2013

Trust is difficult to define. It is a relationship between individuals. It is an environment. It is like an essential element in the air that allows individuals and their organizations to breathe. However, it often goes unnoticed in high trust organizations, and, in low trust organizations, the absence of trust may only be recognized when asphyxia takes hold and it’s too late.

Weaving together research, experience, and plain common sense, Combs, Edmonson, and Harris make the case that trust matters in schools. The case is well made. According to a 2002 study by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, there appears to be compelling evidence that the level of trust in schools is a stronger predictor of student achievement than socioeconomic status. On this basis alone, The Trust Factor should be required reading in all principal preparation programs.

Although this book is designed for school leaders, many of the concepts are useful for teachers, too. For example, the authors identify the 4 Cs of trust as:

  1. Competence
  2. Care
  3. Character
  4. Communication

Each of the 4 Cs are characteristics to which all educators should aspire; however, it never hurts to be reminded of where we should aim. In the final analysis, without trust, there will not be much effective teaching or learning taking place in or out of school.

The Trust Factor is organized into three main parts, each of which is then subdivided into 10-15 short (2-4 pages), easy-to-read chapters that contain quotes, resources, advice, and questions for reflection. At the end of each section, there is an assessment. The titles of the sections are as follows:

  1. Trust Busters
  2. Trust Builders
  3. Trust Boosters

The chapters are designed to be stand alone, and, as such, can be read in any order. Both of the first two sections open with an attitude or behavior that either busts or builds trust in an organization. The authors then discuss the behavior, offering perspectives from research literature or personal experience. Following is a series of questions entitled “For Further Reflection,” which asks the reader to consider his or her practice. Finally, there is a very brief section called “Remember” at the end of each chapter, which sums up the “takeaway” for readers. For example, Trust Buster #8 is entitled “It’s Not My Fault” and the takeaway is

“Learning to accept being wrong or making a mistake is an important step in building trust. Accepting responsibility gives you the chance the show that you are human and that you can accept and learn from mistakes, even when they are not your own” (p.27).

The final section, Trust Boosters, is designed to help readers expand on the first two parts of the book. Really, it attempts to synthesize the concepts from previous sections in a positive, applicable manner. If the first section is the most important to stop doing, the lessons of this last one are possibly the most significant for leaders to start/continue to do.

Although school leaders and teachers will be familiar with many, if not all, of the concepts presented in the book, The Trust Factor is an excellent resource for a number of reasons. I could see merit in an administrator browsing through it at the end of the summer because it touches on a number of issues of which a school leader should be mindful going into a new school year. It could also be useful for a school building’s leadership team to read and work through together as a professional development exercise. Alternately, this book could be an important resource to consult in times of crisis, or simply before a meeting of some sort.

All in all, The Trust Factor is an informative, practical resource for educators that sheds light on an important, but often overlooked area of school life. Trust me 🙂