In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve looks at the benefits of rethinking goals as hypotheses.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:17 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:44 Rethinking goals as hypotheses. I have long been an advocate for using goals to drive our work as educators. Recently I’ve been using the phrase when working with PLCs, “goals before norms.” If my PLC has goals that are important to me, I then have a reason to commit to the norms about how we’re going to work together. Those goals should be driven by our visions of a desired outcome. I have frequently observed PLCs that are struggling to work together and what I ended up discovering is that there is not a passion for the goal that they are currently addressing. I’ve often found working with school leadership teams that what is being identified as a goal is actually an activity. It might sound like this: students will take part in four PLC units during the year or all staff will complete professional development on standards based learning. Or, we will hold four parent workshops explaining our new learning standards.
Steve: 02:14 These activities should have been chosen because they have a desired outcome either initially in student behavior and eventually in student learning. We need to be able to measure those changes in student behavior and the changes in student learning outcomes in order to gather feedback on our choice of an activity or an action. If we’re unclear on what the learning outcomes are for PBL units as an example, then we can’t collect data that’s needed as feedback for our learning. In those cases, the activity being completed is considered a success. So if the four PBL activities were held, if the professional development and standards based learning was conducted, if we held the four parent workshop nights, we end up calling our goals having been met when it’s possible that having carried out the activities, didn’t move us closer to the learning outcomes we want and therefore we didn’t really learn anything from the process.
Steve: 03:42 While planning a workshop for teacher leaders who are going to be supporting their colleagues and setting individual professional growth goals, I was introduced to an article by Jeanne Ross. It was published in the Sloan management review from MIT and her article was called “Why Hypotheses Beat Goals.” She suggest that leaders replace the question, “what is your goal?” with the question “what is your hypothesis?” Let me quote from the opening of her article: “Not long ago, it became fashionable to embrace failure as a sign of a company’s willingness to take risk. This trend lost favor as executives recognized that what they wanted was learning, not necessarily failure. Every failure can be attributed to a raft of mishaps and many failures did not automatically contribute to future success. Certainly if companies want to aggressively pursue learning, they must accept that failures will happen. But the practice of simply setting goals and then being nonchalant if they fail is inadequate. Instead, companies should focus organizational energy on hypothesis generation and testing. Hypotheses can force individuals to articulate in advance why they believe a given course of action will succeed. A failure than exposes an incorrect hypothesis which can more readily convert into organizational learning.”
Steve: 05:43 Her words really connected for me in looking at working with PLCs. I’ve been defining the difference between PLCs with what I’ve been calling PWCs. PWCs are professional working communities. They are teachers collaborating in order to get work done. A good important thing to do in a PWC, we know what it is we have to do and so we set out to do it. In a PLC, a professional learning community, we have to produce new learning because we don’t know what to do. In other words, if we knew how to get better student achievement than the results we’re currently getting, we would have done it. So I use the phrase that professional learning communities should be driven by the question, “what do our students need us to learn? What do our students need us to learn?” That question leads us to develop a hypothesis. In other words, our hypothesis is that if we change these behaviors as teachers, it would cause this change in student behavior, which will lead to students gaining the learning outcomes that we wish. So planning backwards, we form our hypothesis by saying, here’s the area of student achievement we want to gain. Here’s what we think students need to do in order to gain that and here’s what we will implement as teachers in order to generate those student behaviors. We can now carry out that experiment. We can take action on that hypothesis and if it doesn’t work, if we change our behavior and it doesn’t change the student behavior, that’s a new piece of learning. We stepped back and redesign based on what we’ve learned.
Steve: 07:56 Ross stated in her article, “companies must experiment to learn both what is possible and what customers want. Most companies are relying on empowered agile teams to conduct these experiments. That’s because teams can rapidly hypothesize, test and learn.” Doesn’t that sound to you like exactly what our PLCs should be? Empowered teams, agile teams that conduct experiments, they hypothesize, they test and they learn rapidly. I’ve frequently said that as an administrator, one of the ways I know my PLCs are successful is they’re causing problems for me as an administrator. And what I mean by that is they’re continually coming up with ideas to modify or change some existing practice in order to get us closer to those student outcomes we desire. And those changes frequently require some extra work on the part of the administrator to create the possibility or the “permission.” When school wide teams or PLC’s identify the gap that exists between where we are now in student outcomes and where we want to be, that gap — the identification of that gap should lead us to the formation of a hypothesis. These questions might assist in moving some of your teams in that direction. What vision does the team share regarding goals for student learning? What changes might need to take place in student experiences in learning and teacher’s roles in designing that could move us closer to those desired outcomes.
Steve: 10:22 What desired outcomes can we achieve from improvement? What desired outcomes role require innovation? Consider the definitions here. Improve — make or become better. Do what we’re doing more, better or more effective. Innovate — make changes in something established. Especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products. Do things that we are not doing now, which frequently requires us to stop doing some of the things we are doing.
Steve: 11:08 Innovation requires the formation of a hypothesis. Ross shared a great example from the 7/11 organization in Japan, which for years was one of the most profitable retailers in Japan. It achieved that status by empowering their sales clerks, many of whom were part time, but they were responsible for maximizing turnover for one part of the store’s inventory. And they received detailed reports so that they could monitor their own performance. Each week, the sales clerks were contacted by 7/11 Japan counselors who asked them these three questions: “What did you hypothesize for this week? How did you do, in other words, what result did you get? And how will you do better next week?”
Steve: 12:24 By asking these questions and checking the data for results, the counselors helped people throughout the company hypothesize, test and learn. The results were consistently strong inventory turnover and profitability. As I read that, that’s my leadership role in working with PLCs. How do we go back to PLCs and our check-in point with PLCs is what’s the hypothesis that the PLC has developed? What is the data telling them? And real important here, for me — it’s not waiting for the data that’s longer term, which means we see that change in student improvement — we need to get there, but what’s the data, first of all that says, we as staff have changed what we’re doing, that our changes are generating changes in student behavior. If those pieces aren’t happening that means we’ve got to get back to the drawing board to get — if those changes haven’t happened than the long term change isn’t going to happen. Think of those questions again. What did you hypothesize? How did it go? And how will you do better next? Great questions for a PLC.
Steve: 13:51 We know that accepting failing is part of innovation. Breakthroughs and learning to happen require that at times we’re going to fail. If I hypothesize and carry out an experiment that doesn’t work, I stop and ask, “what did I learn?” As the great quote from Thomas Edison fits in: “I have not failed, I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” We need empowered teachers as individuals and teams to hypothesize, learn and teach their students to do the same.
Steve: 14:43 What’s your hypothesis on how you can make that happen? Thanks for listening, folks. I’ll be sure to attach the link to Ross’s article in the written intro to this podcast. Have a great day.
Steve [Outro]: 15:04 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.