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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Working Smarter Together

Leading collaborative change in schools means helping staffs become more productive without substantially depleting their resources.

In What's Worth Fighting For? Michael Fullan and Andrew Hargreaves compellingly argue that working collectively in schools is the best way to improve them (1991). Yet throughout the book they weave cautions about the hazards of collective action. Faculties can develop groupthink. They can balkanize. They can stop at “contrived collegiality” and never arrive at true collaboration. Threatened principals can undermine efforts at working together.
The transition from traditional patterns of faculty problem solving and decision making to more collaborative ones is fraught with difficulties. As Fullan and Hargreaves note, “Building collaborative cultures involves a long developmental journey; there are no shortcuts.” For the principal bent on supporting this type of restructuring, the challenge is to lead a faculty that may not wholly support, understand, or have the energy and time to navigate this fundamental change. Teachers and principals commonly compare their restructuring efforts to “rebuilding a 747 while it's in the air.”
Principals, teachers, and other staff have responded to the criticisms of their schools by working longer and harder. They have added new programs and spent hours planning change. These efforts are well intentioned, but we are beginning to realize how little they are changing what teachers do daily, and thus what students learn (Toch 1991, Sizer 1992).

Working Smarter, Not Longer

Simply working longer and harder will not significantly change our performance; we must learn to work smarter. Peter Vaill persuasively argues that “working smarter” requires shifting our habits of work “collectively, reflectively, and spiritually” (1989). What does working smarter collectively look like in schools?
At first glance, it's easier to see what working smarter collectively should not be. It should not involve every teacher in more meetings that identify problems without showing promise of resolving some. It should not add more responsibilities onto teachers' already heavy workloads. It should not expect educators to instantly function as a team without the group skills to do so.
Working smarter means monitoring the efficiency of faculty work from two standpoints: (1) how productive it was in reaching desired student outcomes, and (2) how much it depleted important resources, including the human ones. The goal of working smarter is to be more productive without substantially depleting resources. That means devoting time and energy, both individually and together, to activities that demonstrate true benefit to children and that do not threaten, over the short or long haul, to exhaust teachers, principals, children, parents, or physical resources.
Instrumental to “working smarter” is developing the ability to monitor what we do. We can only know if our efforts are wisely directed if we can step back and see what they produce and what they deplete. Every school staff must learn to reflect on its daily work in the light of student outcomes and its bank of resources. What came from that three-day unit on tropical rain forests? What time, energy, talents, and materials went into it? Was it worth it? What came from those workshops on cooperative learning? What went into them? Were they worth it?

Where We Are? Where We Are Going?

To help school staffs judge their new efforts and whether they are paying off, Figure 1 provides a five-stage model of the cycle of progress. Each stage is characterized by both “possibility” and “danger.” The possibility is for potential growth and positive outcomes; the danger describes what can happen to the faculty if its new efforts come close to depleting its store of resources. Schools attempting to improve pass through these stages. Whether they emerge with gainful change depends on the staff's collective success at maximizing the possibilities while minimizing the dangers.

Figure 1. A School's Cycle of Progress: Five Stages of Possibility and Danger

Stage 1: Criticism. Externally or internally expressed dissatisfaction with the school's performance launches a period of criticism. From every substantial criticism, the school staff can learn what may not be functioning well. The “possibility” is for staff to use the criticism to identify ways to improve performance. The “danger” is that the faculty will feel overwhelmed and unappreciated. For staff whose resources are nearly depleted, defensiveness can spread rapidly; blaming others both externally and internally seals off the criticism, the facts underlying it, and often the critics as well.
Stage 2: Self-examination. If criticism is faced and defensiveness held to a minimum, staff can objectively examine the student outcomes in question and how its own practices affect them. Teachers can collect and use evidence to pinpoint what is working and what is not.
The danger in this stage is discord. The source of the problem could be identified as “the math department” or “the cross-age grouping team,” and other staff members may disassociate themselves from those sources. This is particularly dangerous for a staff whose resources are “running on empty” already and who is consequently wary of sharing responsibility for all students.
Stage 3: Goal Setting. Once a staff succeeds at objectively appraising outcomes and practices without feeling overcome by discord, collective goal setting can occur. The data from Stage 2 can help identify specific goals, and the absence of discord enables everyone to support the proposed goals. Stage 2 data will also reveal staff successes that can be celebrated.
That goals will be too grandiose or numerous to be achieved is this stage's danger. In this case, defeatism among the staff is practically inevitable. Working smarter in this stage means choosing goals that can be attained in a reasonable time frame with the resources available.
Stage 4: New Efforts. The school staff that emerges from Stage 3 with achievable goals will enter into planning and implementing new efforts without wondering, “oh, what's the use?” or feeling “here we go again!” To realize the possibilities of the new practice, however, requires that collective energies be focused on specifying that practice, the people responsible for it, the training they need, and the time required to plan and assess implementation. Most important, the entire staff needs to commit itself to helping it work, as any new practice will draw down resources and energy from the whole system's “bank.”
The danger in this effort is that staff commitment will wane, leaving only a small group to effect the change; the collective effort will disintegrate. The effects of disintegration can be devastating as the staff divides itself between “true believers” and “foot draggers.” Staff members take sides, and innovations become the target of arguments over resources.
Stage 5: Consolidation. New efforts backed by an “integrated” faculty and based on careful goal setting and honest assessment are most likely to succeed. With effective monitoring, the success or failure of the new practice becomes plain to all. Adjustments can be made, and its consolidation into the school's patterns realized. The entire staff needs to be privy to this monitoring, celebrating the successes and solving the difficulties that will accompany consolidation.
If some staff members are excluded, the school flirts with the danger of disenchantment. The collective “resource meter” begins reading “not worth the effort.” Staff members dwell on the problems they or their colleagues experience, lose sight of the goals of the new practice, and grow impatient with the costs, disorder, and slow pace of change. Conversations in corridors and parking lots grow cynical, and staff members mutter about “what new idea we'll be forced to try next.”
A staff that works smarter together can use this five-stage model to ask, “Where are we in this cycle now? Are we realizing the possibilities? Or are the dangers taking over?” The group needs to share evidence of positive developments to create the affirmative spirit needed to sustain progress. On the other hand, if the human resources are being depleted more rapidly than the possibilities promise to bring benefits, the staff will wisely heed the danger signals.
A school faculty that continuously monitors its own progress through collective reflection becomes self-aware, permitting course corrections before the five dangers or “Killer Ds” take over. Even if that course correction means abandoning a major effort, the faculty can make that decision with full recognition of the imbalance that exists between the potential for gain and the depletion of resources. This awareness keeps a school staff from feeling it's spinning its wheels or falling into the “we-tried-that-once-and-it-didn't-work” syndrome. In contrast, a staff beset by the “Killer Ds” is stuck in a cycle of hopelessness and routine work. Theirs is not a cycle of progress but an endless revolving around halfhearted attempts at change.
Staffs that are working smarter can adjust their plans, activities, and even their ambitions to see that progress occurs. As they live through the cycles of renewed effort, each cycle builds on the previous one, and a spiral of collective progress is born.

Redefining Staff and Leadership

Principals and teacher leaders play important roles in the development of faculties that work smarter together. They act very different, however, from the “strong leaders” of the Effective Schools era. A strong leader who is in control, who must direct traffic at all the crossroads of decisions, has no place in a school where all adults share responsibility in these areas (National LEADership Network 1991).
School staffs that seek creative solutions, that feel stewardship for the institution, and that shoulder a share of the toughest decisions facing the school will constantly chafe under the limits of leaders who must control, direct, and ultimately decide. Such leaders, however well intentioned, will soon be driven beyond their own human limits by their desire to support and monitor their staffs. Eventually they will sanction only those activities that will not deplete their personal and professional resources (Donaldson 1991).
This pattern is all too familiar in our schools. At first, such leaders work longer and harder to keep up with all the initiatives spawned by eager attempts at improvement. As they discover the incredible size and variety of activities and people, they learn to work “tougher”—denying their own personal needs and sometimes those of their colleagues as they drive for excellence, asking more and more from themselves and from others. Such leaders—and there are many that seem caught between paradigms—are finding that they eventually deplete their own resources and come dangerously close to depleting those of the faculty. Many retreat behind governing councils, behind office doors, to the central office, or unfortunately, out of the profession altogether. When the dangers outweigh the possibilities for the leader, the staff has little chance of working smarter collectively.
The cycle of progress requires that a school staff redefines itself as a community responsible for setting and reaching its own goals and capable of managing its own resources. Such redefinition means nothing less than establishing new working relationships among all players. As the formal leader of this group, the principal must not control, monitor, and direct, but must treat this group as a responsible community of adults. Staffs and principals who have historically divided responsibility for decisions unequally, reserved “final say” for the principal, and expected the principal to ride herd on “quality control” cannot overnight share responsibility as a community. They must start by setting in place together the groundwork on which future collective action can occur.
  1. Responsibility and authority go hand in hand;
  2. Children and adults learn best in trusting communities in which every person is both a learner and a resource for learning; and
  3. All adult members of the school staff care for the institution and community as a whole as well as for their primary roles in it.
These principles make good intuitive sense, and decades of experience in schools and other group settings support them (Rost 1991, Sergiovanni 1992). As a staff considers taking responsibility for all five phases of its own progress, leaders must first help it assess each member's understanding of and commitment to these principles. Are we willing to be responsible for the actions and decisions we will have the authority to make? Are we willing to confront our own blind spots and see our colleagues, students, and their parents as important resources for our learning? Are we willing to set aside what might be best for me or for “my” students to build something better for the entire school?

Leaders Who Work Smarter

If principals and teacher leaders are to help staff make these significant shifts, they, too, face personal and professional challenges. They must ask: Am I willing to cede both authority and responsibility to others? Am I willing to reveal my blind spots, to appear unknowledgeable and vulnerable? Am I able to trust the group to accept responsibility and to exercise power? Am I capable of sharing information about the many aspects of the school that the staff needs to know in order to understand and make effective decisions?
Until these questions are answered in the affirmative and acted upon by the leaders, working smarter together cannot succeed. Not only must leaders facilitate public commitment to these principles initially, but they must also find ways to revisit them as the group moves along. Commitment to the ideal of working together requires constant attention and discussion. How the principal and teacher leaders respond to each phase of the cycle of progress can spell the difference between success and failure for the whole staff.
  • Faces criticism: The leader listens and asks for evidence in the face of criticism, placing responsibility on the critic for specifying problems and helping to resolve them. Defensiveness and blaming are avoided, and trust grows.
  • Welcomes self-examination: The leader involves the responsible players in examining teacher practices and student outcomes. Stewardship for the institution grows, and discord is minimized.
  • Sets achievable goals: The leader helps the staff to meet the challenges of self-improvement by celebrating strengths and setting achievable goals. Assuring a proper balance between seeking improvement and depleting available resources fends off defeatism.
  • Nurtures new efforts: The leader involves the entire staff in implementing a change or monitoring its progress, building collective stewardship, and minimizing disintegration at this crucial point when new efforts require changes in everyone's work patterns and resource distribution.
  • Monitors and celebrates: The leader celebrates staff and student successes and acknowledges the many adjustments necessary in school improvement. The leader enables the staff as a group to acknowledge what works and what needs to be tackled next. The disenchantment with change that schools often experience is offset by a sense of collective efficacy.

Figure 2. The Leader's Role in the Cycle of Progress

Working Smarter Together - table

Phase of Cycle

Working "Longer and Tougher"

Working Smarter

CriticismAccept blame and move rapidly to fix the problem.Listen and ask for evidence.
Self-ExaminationShoulder the responsibility; target the culprits.Assemble those responsible and ask them to identify the successes and the problems.
Goal SettingCover all fronts; assign “task forces” to repair the problem.Identify goals that can be achieved by those available to achieve them.
New EffortsLead the charge (all of them!). Set deadlines and “drive” the teams.Facilitate frequent and open monitoring and adjustment (do not usurp authority or responsibility).
ConsolidationConvince the rest to adopt the change; hope it lasts.Celebrate; continously monitor, and when appropriate, ask: What will we tackle next?
Leaders play essential roles in developing collaborative cultures that “lie within the control of those who participate in them, [where] teachers and members together make their own schools” (Nias, quoted in Fullan and Hargreaves 1991). In a culture where all staff members work smarter together, each leader—including the principal—must ask: What is the balance between my productivity and the depletion of my own resources?
In the mid-1990s, the dangers of depleted resources will not diminish for school staffs and leaders. Physical and human resources will continue in short supply; good will and optimism, worn down by a decade of diverse reforms, may be hard to come by. If school staffs are to build on the progress they have begun, working smarter together will be more important than ever. They will need to know where their efforts are paying off and whether their resources will permit them to sustain those efforts. Most school staffs have the capacity for such collective reflection and action. Leaders in both administrative and teacher ranks must redefine their purposes and relationships to tap and build on this capacity.

Donaldson, G. (1991). Learning to Lead; The Dynamics of the High School Principalship. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Fullan, M., and A. Hargreaves. (1991). What's Worth Fighting For? Working Together for Your School. Andover, Mass.: Regional Laboratory of the Northeast and Islands.

National LEADership Network. (1991). Developing Leaders for Restructuring Schools: New Habits of Mind and Heart. Washington D.C.: OERI, U.S. Department of Education.

Rost, Joseph. (1991). Leadership for the 21st Century. New York: Praeger.

Sergiovanni, Thomas. (1992). Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sizer, Theodore. (1992). Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Toch, Thomas. (1991). In the Name of Excellence: The Struggle to Reform the Nation's Schools, Why It's Failing, and What Should Be Done. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vaill, Peter. (1989). Managing As a Performing Art: New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gordon A. Donaldson, Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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