Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Let's talk about leadership styles

All of the fuss about reinventing schools with 21st Century/Web 2.0 tools is really about engaging students in a learning dialogue - every student, every time. I am fairly certain that the single most powerful force opposing this dialogue is the suspicion - or certainty - of teachers that students will not learn through a student-centered and student-driven process. For the most part, this comes honestly by way of experiences did not play out as expected.

I can come at this many ways. For now, I want to look at one framework for thinking about collaborative projects that has crept into my awareness over the last few months.

It begins with my own observation that many students also don't believe that they can learn this way. In an informal year-end discussion with three under-performing, highly able girls, I asked them what I could have done to engage them in the last project (it was the choice, collaboration project discussed in previous posts here - they were in the same group). The girls chorused, "More structure." When I asked them what this meant, they were totally unable to tell me. I got the vague impression that they were saying that they could not work without a box and lines to fill in. That seemed to be the learning structure expected of a "school" project, as opposed to the open exploration and casual learning connected to a "personal" project. These girls wanted responsibilities, steps and outcomes more clearly spelled out. I thought that I had taught them about self-structuring, but I had missed the boat, or at least I had approached the student journey incorrectly.

On the other hand, another student hugged me largely and publicly at the Promotion ceremony, saying, "Your final project changed my life! I know now that I am going to be a journalist!" She had worked with a group investigating self-abuse. She had been stunned by her success at online investigation and also by the reports she was reading - she could DO that! That was her great learning. It fell to others in the group to successfully design an action strategy that could be accomplished by 8th graders. As a collaboration - so-so. As a learning project for this one girl - revelatory.

So - two different styles of independent learning. Teachers creating 21st century learning projects often presume that all students fall into one or the other category (in need of teacher-created structures OR able to self-structure successfully), and plan the project accordingly. My project assumed that students, who had been practicing all year, still needed both structure/timeline and room for self-direction. I didn't get it right. It is not that my planning and structures were wrong; it is not that students were not ready for more room. The actual project implementation was wrong. This is a teacher-side responsibility.

The next time I take on something like The Smartest Generation Project, I will play my teacher card a little differently.

What I will do differently is pay attention to the leadership - not the learning - styles of the students in each group. No matter how the a group is constructed (I favor choice), its successful functioning relies upon the ability of each member of the group to take on her best possible role and understand her style of approaching or attacking the challenges. This means that each student must know her leadership style and that students must have practice with not just the process steps in the project, but with "dialogue of leaders" that makes a collaboration successful.

You can see traditional group structure concretely working out- at a high level - in a new digital space created by my friend Nick Stoneman, Headmaster of Shadduck-St. Mary's school - WeCreate. This open space makes it possible for a global team of students - each with self-identified talents - to collaborate on a product. One student, however, remains in charge, generally the student who initiated the project (say, the student who wrote the script that needed music, background imaging, graphic design, etc.). The same is true for the very exciting weSolve section of Nick's site, where global teams, with mentoring specialists, can collaborate to solve an issue identified by any user (student, teacher, corporation...). This is, as I said to Nick yesterday, "scientific collaboration applied to the humanities." Very exciting. But it still requires that an organized, persevering decision-maker initiate an action and take charge of a final product.

Or - and this is really exciting - a leadership can be by a team of participants , each of whom brings a different leadership strength to the problem-solving table. That is what leadership style analysis is so important. No one student, or group member, can be that leader; it takes a team. And learning styles and performance strengths are not going to be the determining factor in the team's success.

Note the presumptions in this framework:
  • All students can and should do the individual tasks required to complete the larger learning task or goal
  • All students can and should be equal leaders in the group - contributions to success are different but equal
  • Learning is a result of dialogue throughout the project process - the product demonstrates the depth of this dialogue
This is significantly different from group structures based upon leaders & followers, which are often based upon learning style preferences (a tactile or visual learner will be relegated to "creative product" tasks or sent off to "look at something"). In this latter model, tasks are chunked, placing the emphasis firmly on task, rather than on discussion of task and information gathered. Learning is limited by this - and generally the quality and depth of the product is adversely affected.

I think that any collaborative group includes leaders from at least 3 of the leadership styles listed below. (I thank our science department for providing me with the following very sensible framework.) You can download a lesson plan based upon this framework here; it makes for a lively and informative faculty meeting. It makes for an invaluable introductory lesson for any class or group undertaking collaborative learning.
  • North - Decision-maker, likes challenge, urges others on, tends to be black-and-white, likes to be in control
  • South - Emotive, likes consensus, values-driven, team-player, relationships within group all-important
  • East - Big-picture, can be impatient with process, likes to explore ideas and mutiple possibilities, questioner of ideas
  • West - Process person, practical, step-by-step analysis of tasks & data/information, can get hung-up on details, questioner of facts
Notice that this is NOT about types of information, types of activity, or levels of understanding. It is about how each member contributes leadership to a group task. Designing a collaborative learning project/challenge with this framework in mind makes the teacher more of a group coach than an academic coach. It becomes the job of the student group to make sure that the timeframe, process steps, and specific learning outcomes (project choice) are sensible and doable (that is where the learning styles come in).

Of course, teachers have leadership styles also. Designing a project with this in mind is essential from the teacher-side. An East teacher might, for example, have to spend extra time thinking about and identifying the process steps required. She will be eager to step in once the strategy or process has been identified and dialogued within the student group. Pulling back from too much involvement in ideas might be difficult. The reverse might be true of a West leaning teacher.

It is essential that the teacher become a participating member of the group - not an expert or an idea-machine. The teacher then models by involvement in group dialogue about learning. That is the desired paradigm shift.

What becomes important from the Teacher side is the identification of the Essential Question for the learning, of the Essential Standards being addressed (if you are required to think this way, as I am), and specifically how mastery of those standards can be/will be measured. What is possible from the Teacher side is a loosening of the boundaries controlling types and sources of information accessed by students (the more knowledgeable and confident students are as researchers, the more reliable and curious they are). What is essential from the teacher side are discrete lessons in student identification of learning style (lesson given above) before the project is begun.

I am so convinced that this is the framework for collaboration that I am redesigning my teaching of English/Language Arts next year to build in my students the ability to collaborate as leaders. That will be the topic of my next post.

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