Influencing Transformative Learning for Leaders

Superintendents are uniquely positioned to cultivate workplace conditions that stimulate on-the-job learning by Stephen H. Davis

All of us learn on the job, and most would agree that with some structured guidance and reflective effort most people could do a better job of leveraging their workplace tasks and activities into more powerful learning experiences. Unfortunately, as a forum for the professional development of school leaders the workplace is underappreciated and underused. And on-the-job learning is rarely part of a concerted professional development strategy, especially for veteran administrators.

Superintendents are uniquely positioned to establish workplace conditions where on-the-job learning can flourish. But given the myriad duties and responsibilities that consume superintendents’ typical workday, how can they devote the time and resources necessary to stimulate powerful on-the-job learning experiences for school leaders? By powerful learning, I mean the kind that transforms deeply held beliefs, values, mental models or assumptions about students and teachers and the educational system that serves them.

Transformative learning is significant to anyone who supervises the professional development of adults. It is a theory of learning that involves the acquisition (or manipulation) of knowledge that disrupts prior learning and stimulates the reflective reshaping of deeply ingrained knowledge and belief structures.

Much attention has been given recently to the development of reform-minded school leaders who can directly influence the quality of teaching and learning in their schools and school districts, who can close achievement gaps and who can shepherd their organizations through thoughtful, ongoing and strategic change efforts. Such leaders are in short supply.

Part of the problem rests with weak administrative training programs that fail to produce practice-ready or highly self-reflective school leaders. Another factor is the decreasing numbers of teachers willing to pursue careers in educational administration. As a result, superintendents are pressured to take more direct and assertive roles in the professional development of school administrators.

Advance or Retreat
A couple of weeks before I became superintendent of a small Northern California school district, my friend and mentor Jake Abbott offered me some words of wisdom. At the time, Abbott was superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District and was approaching the end of a long and distinguished administrative career. He told me, “Steve, in today’s competitive environment, complex organizations like schools do one of two things: they either move forward or they fall behind. There is no such thing as status quo anymore because as soon as an organization thinks it has a lock on success, some other organization comes along and does things better.”

Abbott’s words not only proved prophetic, but became central to my conceptions of effective leadership. Innovation is the name of the game today. Widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo in education has cultivated alternative ways of thinking about schooling and leadership development (e.g., the charter school movement, voucher plans, large-school redesign efforts and third-party players in the administrative preparation arena such as New Leaders for New Schools).

Leadership today is about moving an organization away from the status quo and toward a new order, to envision life as it might be versus life as it could be. Mark and Barbara Stefik, co-authors of Breakthrough: Stories and Strategies of Radical Innovation, contend that nothing that school leaders do is more important than “fostering creativity and individuation in the next generation so that it will not only master the lessons already learned, but also so it will be ready for the challenges that are ahead.”

New Tricks
A critical challenge for superintendents is cultivating a work environment where creativity and innovation can flourish and where administrators can learn about their jobs from their jobs. However, the day-to-day rhythms of administrative life can be so turbulent and unpredictable that school leaders have precious little time to devote to prolonged periods of deep and critical self-reflection. As a result, they rely more frequently on mental shortcuts or heuristics to manage complex organizational problems than on highly analytical decision processes.

Heuristics are essentially rules of thumb that allow decision makers to draw quickly upon past decisions and their outcomes to create a repertoire of “ready made” solutions to potential problems. Heuristics also may be mental models that match potential problem scenarios with solutions that satisfy a minimum standard of acceptability.

We rely upon heuristics throughout the day. Imagine the implications if every move we made or contemplated making when driving to work required deep and prolonged analytical thinking and step-by-step decision making. Instead, we move reflexively and make quick and frugal assumptions about road conditions, speed and traffic movements. We don’t need deep deliberations to help us decide what to do throughout the day either. As we become increasingly adept in our work and daily activities we use heuristic thinking more and rely on deep analytical reasoning less.

Because heuristic thinking allows leaders to manage the complexity and volume of problems without resorting to ponderous and time-consuming analysis, it is an indispensable decision-making tool for leaders of complex organizations. Although heuristic decisions may lack precision, without heuristics decision making in schools would grind to a standstill.

Ultimately, the quality of heuristic decision making depends on our ability to learn new skills, unlearn obsolete habits, reframe problems through multiple perspectives and points of view, and engage our imaginations in the construction of robust and novel mental models of the future. Unfortunately, as we age we become victims of our pasts. This complicates heuristic decision making, innovative thinking and learning on and from the job.

Our past experiences and perceptions, biases and prejudices, and values and morals become deeply embedded in our psyches. Our world view often becomes increasingly sclerotic, our willingness to stretch ourselves and take calculated risks diminishes, and our behaviors and thought processes frequently default into old familiar patterns and routines. Our repertoire of heuristic behaviors becomes increasingly susceptible to wicked learning structures (e.g., information or knowledge that is outmoded, inaccurate or obsolete). Indeed, we continue to learn on the job, but more often than not we see problems as obstacles that must be overcome or avoided rather than opportunities for transformative learning.

All too often the school leader’s immediate focus is on practical, short-term objectives and on acquiring the skills needed to perform important job tasks. Such factors can divert a leader’s attention away from opportunities to experience deeply reflective transformative learning. The old saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” may not be exactly right, but without the right kind of stimulation a lot of old dogs will remain content to snooze on the porch.

Promoting Transformation
Jack Mezirow, adult education expert and emeritus professor of adult and continuing education at Teachers College, Columbia University, explains that transformative learning involves critical self-reflection of one’s deeply held assumptions and validation of one’s beliefs through the experiences and perceptions of others. It also entails the ability to “interpret past experiences from a new set of expectations about the future, thus giving new meaning perspectives to those experiences.”

Mezirow maintains in his book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning that transformative learning requires a form of education quite different from that commonly associated with children. New information is only a resource in the adult learning process. To become meaningful, learning requires that new information be incorporated into already well-developed symbolic frames of reference. These are subsequently reshaped through critical reflection and discourse and then used to guide future action and behavior. The process can be uncomfortable. Disruptive influences create a sense of disequilibrium that jolts the learner into seeing the world with fresh eyes.

Transformative learning can be hard work for school leaders. When an angry parent is banging his shoe on the superintendent’s desk, there’s precious little time to ponder the opportunity for a meaningful transformative experience. Neither is there time to consider the deeper meaning of the experience once the parent and his shoe have departed as several more angry parents likely have arrived to follow suit.

So how can superintendents promote transformative learning for school leaders? Mezirow and other experts on adult learning offer several useful suggestions.

No. 1: Superintendents can help school leaders become aware and critical of their own and others’ assumptions and biases and develop new learning that takes into consideration their current personal problems, concerns and levels of understanding.

For example, I had a vice principal who adhered to a rigid set of moral principles. His personal standards were set so high that any student whose behavior deviated from them was automatically labeled as an “undesirable.” It was this man’s professional mission to rid the school of undesirable kids. His disciplinary practices were driven by his deeply held assumptions about “good kids” and “bad kids” that quite frankly didn’t match up particularly well with reality. Needless to say, he did a lot of damage during his career, and in hindsight I wish I had been a more effective mentor to him.

No. 2: Superintendents can help school leaders recognize how viewing problems and opportunities through different frames of reference expands their perspectives, choice options and criteria for judgment or evaluation.

In Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership, Lee Bolman and Terry Deal describe how four critical frames of reference (structural, human resource, political, symbolic) can reshape leaders’ thinking about their organizations and the strategic leadership behaviors available to them. Effective leaders do this by figuratively stepping into different sets of shoes and considering a problem or an idea as it might be understood through the experiences and perceptions of others.

Reframing can reveal weaknesses in one’s own assumptions or practices and illuminate useful connections between competing or divergent ideas. It’s important for school leaders to teach others how to do this when grappling with difficult decisions, dilemmas or creative activities. An inability or unwillingness to reframe problems leads to tunnel vision, and tunnel vision blinds people to unforeseen opportunities.

No. 3: Superintendents can help school leaders understand how to use learning resources — especially the experience of others — and how to engage in reciprocal learning relationships. This might involve ongoing mentoring relationships, 360-degree performance feedback processes or strategic teaming structures in which individuals with different yet equally important skills plan, evaluate or problem solve together.

No. 4: Superintendents must help school leaders define their own learning needs, both in terms of immediate awareness and understanding the cultural and psychological assumptions influencing their perceptions of their learning needs.

Take, for example, a principal who routinely groups minority students into peer support teams at the start of the school year in order to encourage feelings of cultural identity and promote the implementation of targeted literacy development strategies. The principal’s intentions may be honorable, but the grouping strategy is based on the faulty assumption that all minority students need social adjustment and specialized literacy instruction.

In this case, the superintendent has a prime opportunity to help the principal recognize how subtle cultural biases can adversely affect the quality of executive decisions. The superintendent also can help the principal develop appropriate strategies for professional growth that will improve his or her understanding of how to address the unique learning needs of culturally diverse students.

No. 5: Superintendents must reinforce the leader’s self-concept as a learner and doer by promoting the progressive mastery of essential job skills, providing a supportive climate with feedback to encourage efforts to change and to take risks, avoiding competitive judgments of performance and using mutual support groups. Moreover, failure while pursuing legitimate goals and as a consequence of honest effort presents an opportunity for growth rather than a rationale for maintaining the status quo. As the old saying goes, “no pain, no gain.”

No. 6: Superintendents must help school leaders assume increasing responsibility for defining personal learning objectives, planning learning activities and evaluating progress. The idea is to decrease the administrator’s dependency on the superintendent while developing autonomous, self-actualized learning practices and more sophisticated and vibrant mental models.

Perhaps most important, however, is the ability to stimulate unconventional and imaginative thinking on both the individual and collective levels. The roles of imagination, intuition, play and fantasy in the development of self-knowledge have been well documented. Although they remain comparatively little-studied aspects of transformative learning, the intellectual dimensions of learning are shaped by a rich set of mental images, dreams, fantasies, stories, rituals and myths that give meaning and texture to cognitive efforts. The transformative learner must make room for the passions of love, fear and sorrow; for the urgencies of one’s ambitions, dreams and desires and for the inherent human drive to create and recreate.

Organizational imagination and creativity develop through a combination of individual and group efforts. The savvy school leader learns how to work both angles simultaneously and understands that creativity must be purposeful, not frivolous, divisive or harmful. Collective creativity may, in some schools, represent a coherent group effort in pursuit of a common goal. In other schools, it may represent somewhat diverse and even fragmented efforts to improve professional practice and organizational performance.

Metaphorically, it’s a good idea to color outside the lines, but not so far as to obscure the essence of the picture. At some point, playfulness and wild ideas must be made practical and aligned with the goals, mission and capacities of the school. Creativity and innovative ideas can’t be mandated, but they can be cultivated by leaders who are astute enough to accurately assess the creative profiles of their school districts and schools and respond with strategic actions designed — in the words of author Thomas Wolfe — to “push the edge of the envelope.”

Against the Grain
Although at one time or another we all fall victim to our past experiences, we don’t have to become entrapped by them. As a leader of leaders, superintendents have an obligation to stimulate and support the professional growth of everyone within the organization.

But dealing with adult learners can be tricky. It often requires as much unlearning as it does new learning. In fact, for deep levels of transformative learning to occur, superintendents must help others learn how to question, reshape and sometimes relinquish their perceptions about past learning and experience. So in the end it comes down to one’s ability to constructively and persuasively disrupt the ingrained patterns of thinking and behaviors of others that impede the sparks of imagination, creativity and innovation.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The unreasonable person is one who rejects unquestioned orthodoxy, who understands that the task of becoming a self-actualized learner is a lifelong process and not a destination and who is courageous and self-confident enough to embrace professional disequilibria not as malignant phenomena that must be extinguished but as promising opportunities for growth and transformative learning.

I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from Drama Is a Choice, a short vignette by author Alan Cohen that exemplifies Shaw’s view of the unreasonable man. The story contrasts one man who was transfixed by his orthodoxy with a second man whose transformative imagination led him to seize a valuable opportunity. Cohen writes: “Around the turn of the 20th century, a shoe manufacturer sent a salesman to Africa to try to expand their market. After a few weeks in the foreign land, the salesman dispatched a telegram to his home office warning: ‘Disaster! Disaster! These people don’t wear shoes. Cancel production immediately!’ Later that year, a salesman from another shoe manufacturer traveled to the same region, also hoping to increase his company’s client base. Soon he sent a telegram to his home office too. But this one read: ‘Opportunity, Opportunity! These people don’t wear shoes. Triple production immediately!’”

Stephen Davis, a former superintendent, is an associate professor in the Stanford University School of Education, CERAS 429, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail: shdavis@stanford.edu