4C the Success of Your Next Professional Learning Initiative

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Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/ch6kp3
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/ch6kp3

I began meeting with strategic planning groups last week, in anticipation of the summer and the year ahead. I’m excited to be working with a handful of schools I’ve never had experience with before, as these first conversations are always filled with possibility. There’s always a bit of a honeymoon period before the real work begins, and I enjoy it. I’ve learned that it’s typically fleeting, though.

I spend less time leading single day sessions or quick events and far more time facilitating sustained professional learning initiatives now. This road is never smooth or predictable, and this makes it difficult to plan for success. Frameworks help a great deal.

Years ago, I began deepening my understanding of systems thinking, thanks to my friends at Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change. Their ARCS Framework is without question the most elegant and powerful systems thinking tool in my strategic planning kit. Embracing ARCS transformed the way I think and work and lead inside of the organizations that I serve. Particularly at the outset.

In the beginning, when I am just coming to know an organization’s vision, strengths, needs, and plans, there are four specific and influential drivers that I typically consider. I call them the 4Cs, and anytime something fails inside of a system that I serve, leaders can often attribute the failure to one of these elements. It makes sense then, to attend to them with intention as we plan.

4C the Success of Your Next Professional Learning Initiative

1. Capacity

It’s wonderful to have ideals and to know the implications of research-based best practices. It’s quite another to know the capacity of the system that is expected to rise to those expectations.

Often, when learning fails to produce results, it’s because the system was not ready to rise. No amount of judgment, frustration, finger pointing, or clinging to our ideals will change that reality, either. Courageous planning that is sensitive to capacity can, though–particularly if facilitators aren’t invested in looking like rock stars right out of the gate.

Here’s an example that reveals the tough truth of the matter: some systems are ready to design their own curricula. Others are not. Savvy leaders are cognizant of this and work with others to plan accordingly. Facilitators who allow the curse of expertise and confirmation bias to blind them to the very real needs of the system create disaster. Expecting people to have expertise that they clearly don’t, providing people little time to build it, and venting about what people “should” know and be able to do rather than building capacity is unproductive.

Scaffolding is critical, and sometimes, this requires us to move very slowly and choose less than ideal pathways at first.

When I consider capacity, I ask myself questions like these:

a. What degree of expertise do the leaders of this work possess, relevant to the outcomes? What is the expertise of my audience? What expertise do the students inside of the system possess? How can I leverage expertise to foster learning? Where might expertise actually compromise learning?

b. What capacity does the system have to launch and sustain a successful learning initiative? Are the titled leaders truly the leaders inside of the system? If not, who are the real leaders and why? How well do people connect, make decisions, and gather and respond to feedback? Where will communication break down? How will I insure that those who are furthest away from this work are included in powerful ways? How will I insure that competing initiatives do not derail our efforts?

c. Are those in the system aware of and sensitive to cognitive bias? To what degree are people capable of questioning their values, beliefs, and expertise? How capable am I, in this context?

Are those in the system aware of and sensitive to cognitive bias? To what degree are people capable of questioning their values, beliefs, and expertise? How capable am I, in this context?

2. Commitment

Sustained learning and significant change require an investment of time, talent, energy, and resources. At the outset of any initiative, it’s important to determine what the organization’s level of commitment is. Some leaders seem to possess a get ‘er done mindset rather than a growth mindset. Some teachers are married to a particular collection of resources or practices. Some audiences begin their work with me on the heels of unsuccessful initiatives that eroded their trust and produced little more than exhaustion. These are the realities that facilitators face.

When I consider commitment, I ask myself questions like these:

a. How has trust been established or eroded? How should the answer to that question influence the decisions I make?

b. How much time will we need to launch, deepen, and sustain learning and improvement? Is the system able to commit to this? If not, what can I do beyond the system to insure that those within it get the lasting support they need?

c. What resources will be needed? Is the system ready to provide them? If not, does it make sense to begin?

3. Culture

Defined by Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change, culture is comprised of six key values, attitudes, and behaviors. These are the Dispositions of Practice: courage, seeking understanding, reflection, perseverance, shared expertise, and collegiality. As a facilitator, my greatest goal is to foster the development of these traits, not the stuff of staff development.

When I consider culture, I ask myself questions like these:

a. How will my initiative inspire the development of these traits and improve the system’s culture? Where am I or where could the initiative itself unintentionally impede this?

b. How will I know when growth is happening? When it isn’t? How will I intervene?

c. Who serves as a model for one or more of the Dispositions? How could this person be positioned within the work in ways that inspire others?

4. Consequences

Facilitators like me plan their work with the best of intentions, and yet, things still go off the rails. This may be due to forces well beyond our control, but often, bad things happen because we fail to consider the unintended consequences of our thoughtful choices, our best laid plans, and well-intentioned actions.

Good things can happen too though, and sometimes, the results are simply not what was expected.

According to sociologist Robert Merton, unintended consequences fall into three categories: unexpected drawbacks, unexpected benefits, and perverse results (otherwise known as backfiring). When facilitators are aware of this, they use these categories as lenses through which they try to foresee the success of their initiatives.

When I consider unintended consequences, I ask myself questions like these:

1. Given what I know about the system’s capacity, commitment, and culture, what are some potential unexpected drawbacks or benefits to this work?

2. Who needs to be asking themselves question 1 above, and how can I invite them to?

3. What do we need to know more about? How can we improve our analysis? Where is fear or the rush for results compromising our decision making? Where are we creating problems that do not exist?

Capacity, commitment, culture, and consequences: these are the levers I typically work with as I plan to launch and sustain a successful professional learning initiative.

I’m wondering how this framework lives beside, within, or in contrast to your own. How do you plan for successful, sustained professional learning? Talk with me about that in the comment section below.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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