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Developing an Ethic of Excellence in Our Schools

Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business is one of our recommended resources for transformational school leaders this month. Lencioni defines a healthy organization as one “that is whole, consistent, and complete—that is when management, operations, strategy and culture fit together and make sense.” [1]

This sense of wholeness of our work is critical, as well, to transformational schools. Too many educational leaders, however, faced with the mandates and demands that are part of running a school, move attention to the culture of their organizations far down on their lists. Recently I heard one assistant superintendent describe it this way, “Yes, yes, I know all that culture stuff is important, but if we receive less than full accreditation, we are all toast. I’ll get to culture when I’m sure about accreditation.”

I understand what he is saying and the real pressure he faces. The problem with this perspective is that you just can’t wait on culture. As Deal and Peterson explain in their book, Shaping School Cultureculture is simply, “the way we do things around here.” [2] By design or default, your organization will have a culture. And whether you purposefully consider its effect or not, your behavior as a leader will influence that culture. The question is: Is your school’s culture helping you to succeed, or is it dragging your effectiveness down?

Both culture and the school’s program must receive a leader’s full attention in order to maximize school effectiveness. The work with culture, however, is far more complicated than many school leaders realize. Contrary to what Michael Fullan says, we can’t re-culture a school.[3] You can reupholster a chair and redo your hair color, but a school culture is a rich and complex social organization made up of human beings, relationships, history, patterns of behavior, and ways of thinking. It takes time and a leader’s clear attention for the culture to become deeply changed; and it happens incrementally. Our role as leaders is to influence the culture of our schools by putting important new ideas, expectations, and ways of doing into the field of consciousness of all those involved in the work of the school.

Equally important, we may need to end some of the practices that are currently occurring in an organization and are counter to the vision–and explain why they are ending. Attending to culture, then, is not about making sure everyone feels good. Sometimes our focus on culture may make some people feel bad because we are changing the way we, as individuals, are now behaving together and how we, collectively, will do the work of schooling.

There will be people who think the current culture is just fine no matter how toxic and ineffective it is for the students we serve. That is, unfortunately, because many school cultures are not influenced by students’ needs very much at all. It is not uncommon to find school cultures centering almost exclusively on adult needs and wants. For those schools, transformational work is especially difficult…because transformational schools begin with the commitment to children and the way they learn.

For those of us affiliated with the Santa Fe Center, an effective culture grows from seven deliberate and persistent patterns of behavior that we have mined from the research on organizational culture and change and our own experiences. Transformational leaders attend to the following as important foci of their work:

  • Develop an ethic of excellence
  • Involve students, teachers, and the broader community as co-creators of the school
  • Create an aspirational vision that places the school and its students as active participants in a broader community and the world
  • Build respectful, healthy relationships that support personal and group efficacy
  • Nurture broad and deep leadership of “what we are creating together”
  • Design an environment that inspires and nurtures collaboration and inquiry
  • Institutionalize organizational practices that promote both cohesion and elasticity

Taken together, these seven patterns impact a school culture in ways that generate high levels of teacher and student success and satisfaction. In today’s blog post I am going to explore just one of them: developing an ethic of excellence. We’ll dig into others in upcoming posts.

Developing an Ethic of Excellence
Few things are more important than helping all of those in our organization expect the best from themselves, from their peers, and from their school. Yet I am fascinated by how extraordinarily difficult this is to do today. As I visit schools all across the country, I am overwhelmed by the rush for quick wins and improved numbers. An ethic of excellence can be developed only if we put an end to the overwhelming national desire to fix schools, fix children, and fix teachers. A focus on excellent work can only come when we deliberately give time to genuine and important work and end the addictive and destructive race to an imaginary top.

Instead of worksheets designed to teach a single strategy so children can score an additional point on an upcoming test, we offer rich and real learning work that requires them to stay with ideas over a longer period of time, apply multiple strategies, rethink their first ideas, struggle, ask for help, get frustrated, and feel the incredible pleasure of doing something really well. Instead of asking teachers to develop quick solutions to insure students don’t miss small bits and pieces identified on manufactured tests, we ask them to develop units of instruction built around big ideas and intriguing questions that give students time to explore, tease out their misconceptions, and change their thinking.

It is in this context that an ethic of excellence can take root and grow. There are many ways for a leader to begin to build a focus on excellence into the culture—all take time and attention, and again, the recognition that no single action will reshape a school. Remember, we are putting important ideas and ways of doing into the cultural field of the school…and over time, the culture shifts. As Ron Berger reminds us so well, Thinking that projects or critique or portfolios are a magic solution is as silly as thinking high-stakes testing will turn schools around.  Only as part of a strong classroom culture or school culture are those tools valuable.  Culture matters.”[4]

We can, however, amplify our journey toward excellence when specific practices are nested throughout the organization, contributing to the sense of coherence, and most importantly creating a strong sense that “just getting by doesn’t to fly in our school.” We will explore five such strategies here: multiple iterations, peer critique, after action reviews, midcourse correction, and models of excellence.

Growing an ethic of excellence in a school means consciously nesting these and other similar practices in all levels of the organization—from children in the earliest grades to board members, revising and rethinking should become part of “the way we do things around here.”

Multiple Iterations
Our best thinking seldom happens in a single setting. Instead, most of us need to revisit and reexamine our work with a bit of distance between the visits. Yet few schools support iterative thinking. Curriculum work is on five-year cycles in many schools—and five years is far too long to wait for the inevitable revision that should come with implementation. The Japanese work with lesson study suggests what successful iteration looks like for teachers—deliberate, shared examination of teaching practices built into the schedule as part of the teaching experience. Lesson study offers a much difference stance toward teaching than the current frenetic work being done in most American schools.

Children, too, are often rushed through work so that they begin to see nothing they do as very important. Thoughtful revisiting builds understandings in ways that a harried rush through assignments can never do. Portfolios are now easy to maintain in a simple form with technology, and giving students consistent time to revisit favorite pieces of work to revise and improve offers a simple way of supporting iteration. Students can learn a great deal from time spent walking through the iterative process, particularly if it is scaffolded with specific positive feedback from their teacher and peers.

Board members benefit from iteration, as well. Revisiting important policies and board practices almost always results in better work. Because board members frequently feel as though they move quickly from one important decision to another, regular retreats to revisit and rethink their work builds confidence in decision-making and a sense of shared ownership for their work.

Peer Critique
Closely related to multiple iterations, the practice of peer critique is fundamental to a transformational culture. Peer critique strengthens group cohesion and effectiveness. Even young children can participate in helping circles when provided with simple protocols for interaction about each other’s work. As students mature, they learn how to deliver specific feedback that helps their peers view their learning work in new light. This practice of looking at work from multiple perspectives offers a sophisticated strategy that will shape their approach to learning.

Teachers, too, find peer critique an extraordinarily useful tool in beginning to break down the isolation plaguing many schools. Unit and lesson critique can transform teaching and curriculum design work. Peer observation in classrooms with clear and focused look-fors and follow-up conversations build shared responsibility for the work of the school as a whole.

One of the tools that I have found particularly useful for administrators in terms of peer critique is the step-back consulting process. I’ve posted a copy of it in the resources section of our website. This simple process supports administrators in accessing the wisdom of colleagues. A single leader describes an issue she is facing and her current thinking on resolution. Then her colleagues step in, assume the problem as theirs, and discuss their approaches and rationales as the presenter steps back, listens, and takes notes. My experience is that this opportunity to seek multiple perspectives is extraordinarily useful to leaders who often feel they have little time to deliberate and explore alternative solutions.

I have also seen board members who were practicing the norms of collaboration use peer critique to improve their practice. Watching videos of conversations carried out in workshop settings help them see ways to improve their skill level on a safe playing field. When they are having honest conversations with one another about the way they are doing the work, not just the work itself, improvement is almost inevitable.

After Action Reviews
The army developed after action reviews to support them in reviewing a military action. Army leaders felt these were an essential part of practice—lives were at stake if they made poor decisions. Schools who take the time to follow a similar process don’t find themselves repeating mistakes. They learn from reflection on practice. These reviews follow a simple format involving three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What did we learn? The questions, answered systematically by all those involved, support continuous learning and can transform a difficult situation into one that moves the team forward.

Children can learn to use this process to get clear about a playground incident, why a group project floundered, or what happened when the substitute teacher didn’t seem to be on top of things. After Action Review helps people own their behavior in situations and develop specific ways to improve both individual and group actions.

Perhaps one of the most useful roles of AAR is to influence the culture by creating the expectation that we learn and improve by reflection on practice. The notes from an AAR should be kept in a Google document that is accessible to those who participated in the analysis. This helps create a useful artifact that can be revisited when necessary. In this way, our collected wisdom about how we can be most powerful in our work isn’t lost after the conversation.

Midcourse Correction
Schools make plans…copious plans. What schools really are not very good at is deviating from the plans. This rigid, linear thinking (often fostered by state and federal demands) too often results in failure of an idea that could have been tremendously successful if only modified a bit. Arie de Gues, who headed up Royal Dutch Shell’s strategic planning department for many years, commented in a conference on strategic planning, “We plan not to implement our plan but to sharpen our mental models.”[5] De Gues, fully expected to make midcourse corrections. So did the crew members of the Apollo spacecraft who spent almost 60% of their time in space off course. Only midcourse corrections got them to the moon!

Midcourse correction, when embedded in a school culture as a way of doing, opens schools to taking on bigger thinking and greater risks. No one is expected to get it exactly right from the first conception of an idea. In this environment, revisiting and revising thinking as we monitor the project means we are open to possibilities, thoughtful in our assessment strategies, and able to make quick, elegant changes when we see the need. Project managers, are not derided for lack of forethought—they are applauded for careful examination of their data and changing course based on what they have learned.

The old saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” applies here. Seldom do school people give themselves the freedom in the middle of the year to stop doing something that isn’t working. Instead they drag themselves and students through a bad experience because bureaucratic processes prohibit them from putting an end to it and reassembling a design team to create something better. Transformational schools don’t lumber; they dance.

Models of Excellence
We, as educators, recognize the value of powerful models to inform work at all levels of school, but seldom do we take full advantage of this strategy to reap the full leverage it can provide. When I enter a school, I can sense quickly if models of excellence are part of the way of learning here. At Maplewood Richmond Heights, for example, a wall in one long hallway of the high school was developed as an academic wall of fame. Each quarter teachers selected the best pieces of work from the courses they taught and posted them on the wall, along with rubrics to describe how the assignments were assessed. Pictures of the students who created the work were often added, as well. In hallways throughout the schools, bulletin boards were devoted to showing how excellent work evolved, with multiple drafts and student and teacher annotation.

At the beginning of the year, students didn’t walk into schools devoid of quality work; instead it was posted everywhere, showing students what the expectations for them were as they began their year.

High quality units that were developed that summer were displayed on bulletin boards in teachers’ lounges and annotated by the principal and teacher designer. This focus on creating models for success extended to the buildings and grounds crew, who regularly developed and shared among their department, models of what excellent work looked like. Two that I especially liked include a wonderful poster created by the janitors with pictures and captions that illustrated what a well-organized and effective janitor’s closet looked like. The second was a small booklet developed by the grounds crew to show how the best flowerbeds on the campus were designed and maintained.

Being a part of creating and sharing a model of excellence develops a strong group norm around this behavior. Eventually excellent work is the only kind that anyone wants to produce!

An ethic of excellence doesn’t appear overnight; nor is it simply mandated into existence. Instead consistent focus on specific ways of doing and being shapes the culture. As leaders, our jobs are to invest in these, notice them, celebrate them and keep them at the forefront. Imagine walking into a classroom and asking, “Who has an excellent piece of work they would like to share with me today,” and then sitting beside the student as he outlines his thinking on his project. Our behavior shapes culture every single day we are at work. Model excellence.




[1] Lencioni, Patrick. The Advantage. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass, 2012.[2] Deal, Terrence E. Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.[3] Fullan, Michael, Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 04.[4] Berger, Ron. An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003.

[5] de Gues, Arie,The Living Company,Boston: 1997 Pegasus Conference .

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