Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Are You are Tapper? Keys to Effective Communication for Educational Leaders

If you have not read Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, this is must to add to your Christmas Holiday reading (or any reading time for that matter--but it seems that as educators, we have stacks of books waiting for our consumption during the holiday season, since Flashforward, all the CSIs, and V are in hiatus, and Lost, 24, and American Idol have yet to premiere).

The basic premise behind the book is that some ideas survive and others die. But what makes an idea stick? What gives it its lasting impression? The Brothers Heath offer a very simple acronym to get ideas to stick: SUCCESs (Are ideas simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, storied?) How do leaders get vision, mission, core values, programs, initiatives, processes to stick? How do leaders communicate leadership philosophy, district or school mission, vision, and values, expectations to raise achievement and close gaps, the power of 21st century tooling to engage teachers and students in the learning process, the opportunities afforded students with North Carolina Virtual Public School and Learn and Earn Online (NCVPS/LEO), recent board policies that will impact the way districts and schools do business, the necessity of changing a culture, the implications of specific data points, accountability and quality assurance?

The Brothers Heath recount the psychological research of Dr. Elizabeth Newton from Stanford University. In her 1990 research, she created two groups (two roles): Tappers and Listeners and then placed participants within each group. The Tappers received a list of 25 popular songs (“Happy Birthday, “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Jingle Bells,” etc.). Tappers then chose a song, tapped the rhythm on a table to the Listeners who were charged to then identify the tune based on the tapped rhythm (if you don’t think this is challenging, try it at home with a loved one). The results of the study? 120 songs tapped, 2.5% of the songs were guessed correctly (that is, 3 out of 120).

What made it even more interesting was that before the Listeners guessed the song, the Tappers were asked to predict the odds that the Listeners would guess correctly, predicting that the odds would be 50%. So, the Tappers predicted that the listeners would guess correctly one in every two attempts, but instead got their message across one time in forty attempts. It is obvious that a huge gap existed between expectations and reality. Why were these results astounding? As the Tapper tapped the rhythm, she only heard the tune in her ahead, but what the Listener heard was only disconnected tapping sounds; furthermore, Tappers were even astonished that the Listeners couldn’t guess accurately and had such difficulty making the guess. The authors suggest “enormous information imbalances” as the reason this gap exists.

In every learning system, we have potential Tappers and Listeners; those who are communicating and those who need the communication, the Haves (of knowledge) and the need to Haves (of knowledge). For instance, follow this analogy with me: at the district level, the superintendent could be a Tapper and the principals, Listeners; or at the school level, the principals could be Tappers and the Distance Learning Advisors, Listeners; even still, in the classroom, the teacher could be a Tapper, while the students, Listeners. In our organization, North Carolina Virtual Public School/Learn and Earn Online, Dr. Bryan Setser, our CEO, could be a Tapper, and the chiefs, the Listeners, and so forth it goes in our organization and any other system level.

Tappers Blur Communication

Communication from leadership is key. The barrier though is that oftentimes, we know what must be communicated and then proceed to communicate, but what gets communicated is a series of disconnected tapping sounds. This is absolutely not to say that the above leaders in the aforementioned analogy are poor communicators, or relish in their Tapping role; just the opposite, leaders need to be vigilant that they don’t become a Tapper, for that will only frustrate those who are listening and railroad direction, purpose, accomplishment, and outcomes of the organization. Leaders need a clearly defined communication strategy and follow-up process to ensure quality, reliability, and credibility. We all rely on ongoing communication, but like the Tappers and Listeners we suffer from information imbalances.

When leaders talk about strategic planning, operational versus strategic processes, systems thinking, stakeholder satisfaction, deployment planning, instructional technology integration, blended learning, e-learning goals and expectations, the virtual advantage, assessment for learning (all continuous improvement and e-learning buzzwords), the language gets muddied and mired down in educationese. In so doing, they must not assume that expectations, roles, and responsibilities are communicated clearly and specifically.

The purpose of this Blog post is to speak to the leaders who have students plugged into the virtual advantage with NCVPS/LEO or who desire to get students engaged and active in the 21st century learning options our organization offers (even though the target audience is quite specific, there is still value-add to all leaders in the words preceding and those that follow). To guarantee that stakeholders are coached, and supported it goes without saying that a district and school communication flow exist between the following key players: superintendent, the county level distance learning advisor, tech director, associate superintendent for secondary education, principals, school level distance learning advisors, lab facilitators, counselors.

What needs communicating? Communicate how 21st century learning is embedded in district and school improvement plans, what the specific e-learning goals are, how NCVPS/LEO aligns to that, what NCVPS/LEO offers, the strategies in place to market and promote e-leaning and blended opportunities through NCVPS/LEO, expectations of e-learnings teams, school support plans to monitor and engage virtual students, and what the performance and completion rates suggestions and the strategies to decrease those gaps, how to lead and model 21st century learning, and how Race to the Top funding and the funding formula will positive impact innovation in the district (this is not an exhaustive list, but an essential one).

A communication strategy that cascades down and flows up will decrease information imbalances, and oftentimes, gaps exists between knowing and doing because Listeners only hear disconnected noises from the Tappers. Let’s eat this barrier for breakfast. At NCVPS/LEO we model what an effective communication flow looks like. Our weekly staff meetings create expectations and deliverables and report outs from the respective divisions (which are aligned to SBOE 21st century goals) which then inform divisional e-learning communities throughout the week and our entire staff e-LCs on Wednesdays and Fridays; from the weekly staff meeting, communication flows to LEAs in the form of video casts, e-letters to superintendents, principals, Blog post to, e-lerts to Distance Learning Advisors, letter documents posted for our teachers, and bi-monthly e-LCs with leaders from leading edge districts.

When I was in a brick-and-mortar school, in my email signature line, I included the following statement: “Every decision, every conversation, every action is student centered.” Our core competencies include world class teaching and learning, world class professional development, and world class school support. Every decision, every conversation, and every action focuses on these competencies and we specifically and frequently communicate that message. This is what we are “tight” on, a word Rick DuFour uses to describe the non-negotiables.

District and school teams need a structure to specifically and frequently communicate their message, what they are tight on. What strategies are in place to effectively communicate specificity and alignment of values, core competencies, expectations, and processes? Twitter, Facebook, Ning, a Blog, a district or school wiki, Google Apps., e-mail, instant messaging using Pronto, WebEx, or Google, archived discussions and trainings, e-learning communities via Wimba, Vyew, or GoToMeeting. These tools are simply a means to end, but the focus needs to be on the “end”--a communication structure led and model by the systems leader to connect core business, expectations and learning.

Finally, there is one point that needs emphasis and it comes from John Maxwell’s new book coming in March 2010 entitled, Everyone Communicates, but Few Connect. He quotes John Beckly from The Power of Little Words:“The emphasis in education is rarely placed on communicating ideas simply and clearly. Instead, we’re encouraged to use more complicated words and sentence structures to show off our learning and literacy. . . . Instead of teaching us how to communicate as clearly

as possible, our schooling in English teaches us how to fog things up. It even implants a fear that if we don’t make our writing complicated enough, we'll be considered uneducated."

In chapter 7, Maxwell follows-up, "Bu as lleaders and communicators, our job is to bring clarity to a subject, not complexity. It doesn’t take nearly as much skill to identify a problem as it does to find a good solution. The measure of a great teacher isn’t what he knows; it’s what his students know. Making things simple is a skill, and it’s a necessary one if you want to connect with people when you communicate.”

When we communicate, we must connect people to our message and to our expectations; when we communicate effectively, we connect people to our excitement about the virtual options available for the students of North Carolina; when we communicate clearly and specifically, we connect people to solutions rather than barriers; Therefore, we need to ensure that our listeners hear by not tapping garbled, disconnected, unrelated information but voicing specifics and clarity with purpose and meaning. Tap, tap . . . tap-tap-tap . . . tap . . .tap . . .tap-ta-tap-ta-tap. Now, does that make sense?

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