Why focusing on adult learning creates a school culture where students thrive
“How do you create the kind of challenge that people don’t feel comfortable with, but constantly identify new edges of growth that challenge their basic assumptions?” Helsing asked.
Working right at that edge, where core beliefs and mindsets surface and can be examined, is how adults progress in their learning, Helsing said. This theory of change recognizes that these beliefs may have served the person well for most of their career, but have now become a barrier to growth. Having time and space to examine these values in the context of their work can help people see this and move forward.
And for a culture of growth to truly take hold and be sustained, the system must have structures in place that support this work as part of the day-to-day operation of the school or district. Pushing the limits of growth must become an integral part of how work is done for this to become a cultural shift.
These three areas, what Helsing calls “home, edge and groove”, are crucial to a culture of growth in any workplace, including schools. But schools aren’t businesses and don’t operate the same way as for-profit businesses. To test whether this model could help a district change its adult learning culture, Pivot Learning worked with the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District to gather data on and improve the current culture.
“The bottom line is how do we make sure this is tied to the mission-critical work that schools are already doing? It can’t be additional,” said Robert Curtis, vice president of education programs at Pivot Learning. .
Curtis understands that teachers and schools already have too many time constraints. For a culture of growth to take hold and truly change the way adult learning happens in the district, it can’t be extra work. Instead, Curtis and others encouraged the four schools and one district department that volunteered to participate in the study to see it as a way to move forward on issues that are already central to them.
“We’re trying to build internal capacity for them to learn together and create a safe space for leaders to try things out,” Curtis said.
Pivot Learning chose Monterey for this study because its Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh completed Harvard leadership training and already believes in the power of growth culture. He was looking for ways to better support his staff on their learning journey, convinced by research that shows greater teacher satisfaction, retention and success when a school has a strong culture of adult learning.
Monte Vista Elementary School
One of the first things Pivot Learning did was survey district staff on how they view the adult learning culture in the district. The survey asked about how safe people felt trying new things or being vulnerable with co-workers; whether there were internal processes to escalate feedback to management; Are there clear processes to improve everyone’s work?
Of the district’s 1,100 employees, 770 responded to the survey, which showed that Monterey was like many other places — there was room for improvement. Next, district management and Pivot sought out teams interested in working to improve their crops, ultimately recruiting four schools and the human resources department to participate in the study.
Monte Vista Elementary was a clear outlier in the district based on survey responses. It was clear that Principal Joe Ashby had already worked to create a strong school culture, which was reflected in his staff’s survey responses. His school was also improving faster than schools with lower cultural scores.
“Give your teachers experiences that create special places,” Ashby said. “When you come together as staff, ground them in purpose, make connections, and create a space of vulnerability.”
When Ashby became manager five years ago, he did his own survey of his staff. He discovered that they were hungry for professional development directly related to what they were doing in the classroom. Ashby came with a clear vision for using student data, instructional cycles, and lead teachers to improve student achievement. He then worked with teacher leaders to align professional development with these goals. He conducted one-on-one interviews with staff and helped grade-level teams set goals.
“Everything I was emitting wasn’t just coming from me,” Ashby said. “It was coming from their fellow teachers.”
Ashby’s leadership style naturally aligned with many principles of a culture of growth, one of the reasons staff responses at her school have been more positive than in other parts of the district. But he still wanted to improve, so he volunteered to participate in Pivot Learning trainings around growth culture with key members of his leadership team.
Strategies for building a culture of growth
Once a month, participating schools and the human resources department met to learn together and try culture-building strategies. They shared how the activities went with their school site staff and got ideas from each other.
“We tried to anchor that in what we want for students,” Curtis said. Pivot Learning shared tools and strategies to create space for staff vulnerability and feedback and helped leaders articulate how individual goals connect to larger shared goals.
They used the Youth Truth survey to incorporate student feedback into their conversations about improvement. This survey revealed that a majority of students did not feel known by their teachers or felt that teachers had low expectations of them. This data has got school leaders thinking about how to help their staff build relationships with students.
A practice that Curtis encouraged at every professional development session was a check-in – a chance for each person to say what was on their mind and what they needed to let go of in their personal life in order to focus on the work ahead. accomplish. It is a protocol that recognizes that every professional also has a personal life. Principals decided to take this protocol back to their schools to try out with teachers at staff meetings. If it was successful there, they hoped teachers would then do something similar with students.
In another activity that school leaders tested as part of Pivot Learning’s professional development, each person had to create a user manual to work with them. Curtis encouraged managers to think about how they like to communicate, what their values are, how others can help or support them, and what people generally misunderstand about them. Practicing the activity together allowed the principals and the human resources manager to give back the activity to their employees.
Along the way, leaders were confronted with their own mindsets and how they could get in the way of the work. For example, leaders often thought they were clearly communicating a message to their staff, only to find out through survey responses that staff disagreed.
“There were a lot of assumptions, that they thought they were vulnerable, but then they responded to the survey and were surprised that most staff didn’t think they were open to feedback” , Curtis said.
This was often difficult for managers like Ashby to hear, but forced them to reevaluate how they communicated their own professional goals to staff. It wasn’t clear enough that they really wanted feedback to achieve those goals. They had to rethink how to open the lines of communication and actively work to make staff feel more comfortable giving them honest feedback.
Such achievements are central to the growth culture theory of change. It is only when working on the edge of the unknown that these types of mindsets surface. And only when they clearly run counter to the goals of a leader or teacher will they be addressed.
“If you dedicate resources and time and don’t tackle the underlying beliefs and culture, I don’t think a lot of these things will succeed,” Curtis said of the community-improvement efforts. ‘school.
After spending a year with leadership teams working on strategies to build a culture of growth and encouraging those leaders to use those strategies with staff, Pivot Learning gave Monterey Unified staff another survey to see if they had improved. All participating sites showed some improvement from the post-survey survey and the district as a whole showed slight improvement.
“The directors are still meeting and continuing to work on this,” Curtis said. “There’s tremendous value in networking and having allies across the district that you can connect with.”
One of the biggest unexpected wins for managers can be in the transformation of the human resources department. As a central office department, human resources staff normally did not have the opportunity to participate in professional development of this type. But the members of this department have experienced one of the greatest improvements in creating a culture of growth among all the pilot sites. Perhaps more importantly, they were in the same room as principals and teachers as they made themselves vulnerable. They heard reports from leaders every week about which strategies were working well and which weren’t. All of this collaborative work has given HR professionals a much better idea of who to look for when the district is hiring.
“Learning is really the driving force here and it’s hard,” said Deb Hesling, the Harvard professor whose work, along with her colleagues, inspired this approach to professional development. “You step out to the edge of what you know, and test new ideas, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.”