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Author: Susie Morice

Susie Morice, Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership

In the Ferguson-Florissant School District in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, more than a dozen schools are engaging in the processes of action research. The Santa Fe Center for TransformationalSchool Leadership is partnering with Washington
University to support the district as they tackle challenges in the aftermath of the tragic death ofMichael Brown that shook this community’s culture to its bones. This is a strong and geographically large district with 23 schools working for 11,000 children. Much is at stake, and multiple goals are at play. Action research teams, supported by coaches from the district’s new Transformation Project, are learning to use Systems Thinking and Design Thinking tools to examine ways of effecting positive change. Not only do these educators hope to see school cultures shift, they are also embracing a new way of examining problems with an action researcher’s eye.

Typically, a problem bubbles up, and we hustle to put a cap on the symptoms. Picture a bottle of Pepsi. If we drop the bottle, let roll across the garage floor, and immediately try to open it, we get a face full of carbonated spray. Even when we successfully recap or try bottle-tapping tricks, the soda goes flat, and it doesn’t really satisfy the thirsty drinker. So goes the problem that too quickly falls prey to the fast fix. With action research, we alter that pattern.

Using a Plan/Act/Reflect cycle, educators can figure out ways to re-see and rethink trouble spots. With the shaken Pepsi, if you wait two minutes, the soda won’t be flat. The pressure difference between the headspace and soda will over time cause the CO2 to re-dissolve until the pressure is equalized. Warmer soda means less CO2 can be dissolved. Educators, too, may get more lasting, positive results when part of the solving process is stepping back a bit.

With action research, dedicated administrators and teachers in the district are joining hands and minds to approach problems with a mindful researcher’s toolbox. Instead of attaching ourselves immediately to a possible outcome, we open ourselves to other solutions, ones we often cannot see when we work in isolation or in a state of impatience.

The action researchers at Commons Lane Elementary School, a dedicated group of a dozen educators, are digging into the ways they might generate positive behavioral changes among their students. Noticing that there is an up-tick of students demonstrating hands-on negative actions such a pushing, shoving, fighting, these action researchers are looking for answers. An important part of their current energy is looking to what other professionals have to say. Action research avoids jumping to solutions without mining the field for two things nested throughout the culture in the school:

  •   underlying issues that exist and
  •   patterns and connections that are emerging.

For example, if a student is acting up in one spot, why is it that the same student does not act up in another? What are the adults in the building doing that show connections to various behaviors? Are those things affecting students and how? The team begins to pose many questions related to the problem, recognizing that underlying issues almost always affect what is visible on the surface.

Action research is a powerful way to acknowledge the current realities in the building. When we peer beneath the surface to examine peripheral factors, we see a more complex picture of how connected all our actions are. The Commons Lane goal is an inspiration to bring students to a place of peaceful interactions among all people in the school. Action research is helping these educators find avenues

to making a sustainable, positive change in the behaviors of students and adults alike.

At McCluer North High School, an action research team comes together to examine the culture and the potential ways that the existing culture might become more resilient, compassionate, and empathetic. Through this year-long endeavor the team is using Systems Thinking and Design Thinking to enrich their own toolboxes for making a difference. Basically, Systems Thinking pushes the team to recognize the connections within the school. When any decision is made, it has an effect on not only the target issue, but also on issues around the corner that might otherwise be unrecognized. Designing ways to solve problems means the team is building skills in acknowledging the patterns and connections within multiple layers of the school culture.

A grade level principal at McCluer North, David Arledge, for example, points out the need to continually examine data and make adjustments as more information is brought to the table. A student might have an attendance problem, and the more data that is examined, the closer he can get to building effective solutions with that student. “We examine the data, go back and make adjustments, and try to figure out what is working and what isn’t,” Arledge notes. Collecting data, whether it be interviews with students or photos taken in class or the halls, helps inform the plan. Acting before we have data information of various sorts, almost guarantees that our solutions will fall flat.

Digesting professional literature on important issues affecting students and teachers is a key piece of action research. While it might be easy to preach, “Be nice!”, building a safe culture that supports resilience, compassion, and empathy requires teasing out a lot of underlying issues. Joe Harter, social studies teacher at McCluer North, after some professional reading points out that “toxic stress leads to physiological and neurological problems, affecting working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.” Erin King, math teacher in the school, adds, “Stress is the major contributor to students being able to regulate their own emotions. When considering intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, ONLY intrinsic really works in changing behaviors over the long haul. While I was reading this, I felt like the writer was in McCluer North… this so reflected what I’m seeing…stressed kids are a very real issue here.”

At Commons Lane, the action researchers, with the guidance of their coach Lee Ann Lyons, take time to read and deconstruct professional readings on empathy, a powerful pathway to positive culturebuilding. Third grade teacher, Tanya Parson notes, “’Two types of empathy, cognitive and affective, develop at different times for boys and girls, boys being a couple years behind girls.’ What is troubling is that we, as a society, have a tendency to tell boys to be tough and not show their emotions,” thus we shut down these boys’ need to practice and develop empathy in a world that needs just that.

As action researchers expand their own learning and share that experience with their team, new understandings, possibilities, and varied solutions can emerge. The capacity to build a stronger school — a transformed school — becomes more than an aspiration; it can become a reality.

Transformational leaders eschew the “fix it” focus of reform. Transformational leaders are NOT “turn-around teams.” Instead, transformational leaders seek to dig deep into the culture of a school or district and bring about positive change through systemic shifts that allow students to engage more fully in learning. Historically, American educators have relied on an industrial model: cranking out a skilled work force. Sadly, too many schools simply want rewards for students with top grades and high test scores. And we’ve crafted curricula around attaining that. Students get labeled college-bound, gifted, advanced, and remedial, often based on numbers alone. Numbers tell a narrow tale of who a student is or what that student might become. State education teams continue to look for a silver bullet but use ancient testing drills to raise student scores on standardized tests. These same bureaucrats seem utterly uninterested in a broader and deeper view, perhaps a portfolio view, of a student’s learning life. Nor do they note what a student gives to the surrounding world, as opposed to what he or she takes or scores. This is nowhere in the narrative of school reform.

Schools today should keep pace with the post-industrial world we live in. This world requires creativity, open inquiry, and engagement in meaningful discourse, with people capable of seeing multiple solutions to real problems, and of anticipating the future. Meaningful change in schools happens when leaders, teachers (sometimes one in the same), and communities come together with a vision of how things could be.

Transformational schools…

  • abide by shared beliefs about learning,
  • nurture collective aspirations to learn and think out loud,
  • embed structures for collaboration, and
  • carefully sustain a deep learning culture for all the stakeholders.

Three Emerging Patterns + Highly Skilled Teachers = Transformed Culture

In my work with transformational schools, I’ve witnessed three patterns unfold. One pattern is the attention to real world problem-solving, especially in the arena of social justice. A second pattern is the intentionally creative and inquiry-driven learning environment, as opposed to rote drills and worksheets and curricula that merely address standardized testing or tip their hats at the classical canon. The third pattern is a school-wide commitment to learning. School isn’t just about students learning: it is also about adults seeing themselves as learners who change the way they look at students and learning. In a transformational school everyone is a learner through active inquiry in every corner of the culture.

Each of these patterns emerges with the nurturing guidance of highly skilled, innovative educators who are aware they are shaping a learning culture. Their passion is palpable. Transforming is a messy process. No one school embraces three patterns and attains Nirvana. Transformation is an active process with a mission to address real problems with multiple possible solutions. Transforming schools run on the fuel of a collective aspiration to examine, study, and rethink, making shifts in practice based on new learning.

In one school in the City of St. Louis, City Garden Montessori, students and teachers alike embrace the mission of the school that aims to address the racism and bias in the culture of their community. In a city rife with racial discord, the students and leaders of this school are eroding racial barriers by nurturing the interdependence among school and community. The leadership team works with both the school and the community to ensure racial equity and anti-bias commitments: the active core of their charter and mission. For example, students sit on committees–counterparts to adult committees–and add their perspectives to the discourse on gender and racial equity. Promoting active social learning means students and teachers address real issues in the neighborhood, from cultivating a community garden to understanding the properties of water and how easily a community can foul its clean water resources. It is not unusual in this Pre-K through 8th grade school to find ten-year-olds working with seven-year-olds to sort out a problem. The school has removed some of the traditional boundaries that insist students at a particular grade level be chained to a constricting set of skills. Instead, students are urged to explore beyond the state testing topics in pursuit of plausible solutions to real problems in the community around them. The adults trust that a student who engages in meaningful discourse about real problems will, in turn, be able to apply those insights in broader arenas. And their scores on high-stakes tests bear this out: CGM children performed better in 2015 than 70.6% of the elementary children in the state, and the school itself has an excellent rating on the state accreditation system, despite a 43% rate of poverty.

Another transforming school, Opal School in Portland, Oregon, now fifteen years in existence, uses real-world problems and opens a world of inquiry and creativity. In this school of Pre-K through 5th graders, young learners engage in sophisticated discourse, for example, about various ways to explore mathematics that can yield a variety of pathways to a solution. “Playful inquiry” is a phrase used everywhere in the school as students develop stories and write narratives in a workshop atmosphere that nurtures creativity and clarity. “Can you add an example of what you mean when you say…?” a teacher asks a kindergartner crafting a story while the little one uses construction paper shapes that represent characters in her tale.

Teachers in these two schools are highly skilled in posing questions that push students to explain and describe their thinking and reasoning. Rather than questions at the basic low level on Bloom’s Taxonomy, both students and teachers are exploring why and how, as they synthesize, analyze, and create new ideas.   Similar in these two schools, is the buzz of student discourse focused on engrossing explorations of topics that are typically generated by the students themselves. “How is this like…?” “I wonder what would happen if…?” “If this were the case, then the next might be…” Students are urged to seek patterns and explain them, creating a bona fide love of figuring things out.

In both schools, the focus on tapping into the real world around the school is central. At Opal School, which is integrated into the Portland Children’s Museum, the museum staff and the Center for Learning staff are blended. These adults nurture a culture of inquiry that allows students to pursue their questions about the world. “Why does this gizmo work this way?” “What might cause three people looking at the same artifact to come up with three totally different descriptions?” Discourse is rich. Students create projects that fit in the museum structure and can be tested in the Portland area. Real world is central to everything the students do. They use what they create.

As a particular example, Hannah Chandler, a teacher working with 3rd grade students, taps into students’ interest in designing a new playground for the school. Rooting their inquiry in understanding the work of design and how designers do their work, the students visit several bike designers around Portland, a major biking city, interviewing them about their work and process. Chandler shares that it “helped students better understand the process of finding inspiration in the world around them, growing and revising a small idea into something wonderful, and thinking and researching to figure out how to make something just right.” She then asks students where they could get inspiration for designing the playground and pushes students to look beyond merely other playgrounds. Subsequently, “we visited open areas, swampy areas, and enclosed wooded areas,” each time analyzing the space for inspirational qualities. Through writing about these observations, the students begin to understand that researching something as seemingly simple as play can yield deeper understandings of design and what inspires different types of experiences. This use of community in real-world research to create something purposeful speaks clearly to what Opal seeks to nurture in children.

At City Garden Montessori, the workshop approaches that teachers use encourage writing that addresses real audiences, discourse and problem solving about real world dilemmas, and even the management of a school store. Acknowledging the importance of talking through the racial implications of the recent Ferguson police action in the suburb of Ferguson, for example, is part of the school’s mission to break down barriers. Social justice is central to much of the content students explore.

The third significant pattern in transformational schools is that teachers exercise a shared aspiration to learn, moving away from “sage on the stage” to being students themselves. Teachers and all the adults at Opal School are learners doing action research about how their students are learning what they are learning. It’s a metacognitive bonanza. The teachers examine student responses, take copious notes on student learning behaviors, and consistently adjust their questioning and teaching strategies to better address each student’s learning capacity. Every adult in the building is trying to determine how students are absorbing and displaying their understandings. For example, a kindergarten teacher working with narrative development in a small group scooted over to me and whispered enthusiastically, “Did you see that? Did you see that? That was Jessie’s first time to ask a peer for an added character perspective! She is recognizing that her story can expand in new directions. This is new for her!” Quickly, the teacher jotted notes in her journal, as the two students continued discussing characters. Everyone is observing and documenting kids. Everyone is open to discovery and rethinking.

The leadership in that school provides structures that bring these adults together routinely with educators from the region and often from well outside the region to explore what they are learning about learning. The school is set up for fluid movement of staff in and out of classrooms, no small feat for the leadership of the school. And the students operate in this flow like an easy pour of cream that sweetens the learning landscape.

As I’ve shifted from focusing on schools that give lip service to change, but which hang on dearly to that industrial model, to schools that are transforming the culture, I’ve changed, too. Instead of looking at the mess of what is failing or struggling, I’m exploring what is working. More than just looking for high scoring schools–although sometimes that is a key signal–my inquiry takes me into schools that are transforming the educational landscape. After so many years of professional development work in struggling schools, I am excited to observe, question, interview, observe some more, question some more, and finally analyze and synthesize all the data so that I can make sense of why some schools really are transforming the scene. Had I merely waltzed into these schools, measuring them against the status quo, I might have seen a lot of interesting behaviors going on, but I would not have seen patterns emerge. In the same way that it takes time to create a sustainable culture, it also takes time and a careful analysis to recognize that something complex and systemic has happened in these schools. The very culture of these schools sets them apart. A transformational school nurtures a culture that runs deep and takes time to percolate into a brew that consistently yields students and adults who learn passionately and purposefully in a world that needs just that.

Susie Morice
Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership