The Answer is in the Room (by: Alan Blankstein)

Premise of this Book: We must improve our practice to ensure success for all students.  However, the answer is not in a new program or external professional development.  The answer lies in asking all members of our community, “What matters most about what we do?” Once that question is answered, Blankstein offers a 6 part framework (C.R.E.A.T.E.) for guiding us on a journey of self discovery and scaling student achievement.

Chapter 1: Why We Can’t Wait to Scale Student Success

“The moral and economic imperative for change is now.” (pg 9)

There are numerous reasons and rationale for these imperatives.  None of the data presented in this chapter is new, but it helps set the stage for the rest of the book by anchoring us in a compelling case for putting off the needed reforms no longer.

Two Aims of this Book (pg 4):

  1. Help educators become aware of and support the fact that the answer is in the room.
  2. Assist educators to advance their ability to scale student successes already at work in the school.

Positive Deviants – The book is predicated on this concept (the Heath Brothers refer to this idea as “Bright Spots” in their book on change called “Switch“. Click for book summary.) and it refers to the fact that whatever the problem might be, there are people in the organization that have already solved, either in part or in whole, the issue the rest are stuck on. The C.R.E.A.T.E. process looks to replicate, or “scale up”, these positive deviants successes.

A major aspect of chapter one is the need to observe positive deviants and then create a common language and diagnostic of the success. We must figure out “How to get everyone else to know what they (the positive deviants) know, and act on it.” (pg 11)

Guiding Premise of the Book: “The community must make the discover itself.” (pg 11)

Big Question: What will it take for our community to use a process that can scale up what is already working?

Chapter 2: A Process to C.R.E.A.T.E. Sustained Student Success

People don’t have a language to talk about teaching and learning.” Richard Elmore

He who has a strong enough ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how’” Nietzsche

This chapter begins with a summary of Blankstein’s previous book “Failure is Not an Option“. The 6 principles laid out in that book are listed below:

      1. Common mission, vision, values, and goals
      2. Achievement for all students through prevention and intervention systems
      3. Collaborative teams focused on teaching for learning
      4. Data-based decisions for continuous improvement
      5. Active family and community engagement
      6. Building sustainable leadership capacity

Blankstein then lays out what he refers to as the C.R.E.A.T.E. process or framework which is the outline of the subsequent 6 chapters of the book. It should be noted that this process is predicated on a school having embraced the aforementioned 6 principles from “Failure is Not an Option“.  However, it should also be noted that those 6 principles are essentially aligned perfectly with the priorities and principles of the Professional Learning Communities work as researched and presented by the Dufour’s and Robert Eaker.

The C.R.E.A.T.E. Framework (pg 15):

      1. Commitment – commitment made by leadership to a new vision & process for change and made clear to the community.
      2. Resources – resources are committed to the team(s) formed to tackle the problem and improve outcomes.  These are not “financial” commitments.
      3. Excellence – excellence as defined by the team along with a common language and action framework.
      4. Action Planning – action planning to collect and share what is already working is collectively agreed upon.
      5. Transference – transference of knowledge with the larger school community around the agreed upon essential work deepens and broadens the learning, relationships and commitments.
      6. Embedding – embedding new learning in the school culture through routines, rituals and alignment is the foundation for sustainability.

The rest of chapter 2 contains two case studies of schools engaged in the framework as well as a comparison of the traditional process with the framework proposed.

Big Question: What compelling problem or challenge does our community face that could be a catalyst for undergoing a focused, concerted process such as this?

Chapter 3: The Courage to Commit to the Work

Courage in the mother of all virtues because without it, you cannot consistently perform all the others.” Aristotle

5 Axioms for Courage (pg 27):

      1. Begin with your core
      2. Create organizational meaning
      3. Maintain consistency and clarity of purpose
      4. Confront the data and your fears
      5. Build sustainable relationships

Courage Defined: “Overcoming the fear to act in concert with one’s deeply held values on behalf of another person or greater good.” (pg 27)

“Scaling positive deviance is a different approach that will require courage. A different approach will required different type of leadership and learnership than has been the norm.” (pg 29)

Core Defined: “The intersection of ones purpose, values and intention.

Questions for Developing My Core:

      • What do I value most?
      • What behaviors can I not tolerate?
      • What do my past life patterns, strong interests, and passions tell me about my purpose in life?
      • How does my purpose overlap with what I am doing here in my current role?
      • What are the intentions relative to the work I am doing now?

“Authentic leaders build practice inward from their core commitments rather than outward from management texts.” (pg 30)

3 Commitments a Courageous Leader Must Make:

      1. Commit to the Internal: leaders must commit to him/her self
      2. Commit to the Vision: leaders bring community-created vision into focus
      3. Commit to the Reality: leaders must commit to making the visions reality

7 Tips for Building Community Wide Commitment:

      1. Ask questions to build connections to the vision and those creating it
      2. Create context for more “aha” moments
      3. Assure short-term victories
      4. Leverage early adopters
      5. See-Do-Believe yourself into codifying new behaviors
      6. Create context for success
      7. When necessary circumvent the system

Qualities of Courageous Leaders:

      • Learn how to win battle before beginning it
      • Just do it
      • Let the sun shine
      • Take powerful action through stillness
      • Maintain control by letting go
      • Practice full engagement and detachment
      • Maintain constancy and clarity of purpose
      • Develop sustainable relationships

Big Question: What core commitment is your community prepared to make.

Chapter 4: The Resources are in the Room

The resources are, 1) Focused commitment over time, 2) patience & urgency, 3) a steering committee.

Commitment: Obstacles to effective and consistent leveraging of the resources:

      • Educational experts abound
      • We suffer from an acute case of “program-itus”
      • False mapping that leads to dead ends
      • Leader dependent initiative and turn over
      • Shifting foundation

The first & most essential resource is the consistent commitment to the process over time.

Urgency: “Urgency comes with immediately doing everything possible to move the community forward within the process.”

Patience: “Patience comes with honoring the process.” (pg 45)

Steering Committee “A steering committee is formed to align internal activities and to guide and interface with external experts in the process.”  This committee must commit to meet regularly and invest deeply.

Big Question: What would it take for our school community to commit to the three major resources above?

Chapter 5: Taking Stock of the Excellence in the Room

The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution.” Albert Einstein

“The development of high-performing teams and their common language for, and ability to identify excellent practice is the next step prior to scaling that practice.” (pg 50)

“The question is the answer and the process is actually the strategy… Begin with asking smart questions, convening groups to answer questions, and using the C.R.E.A.T.E process to facilitate community commitment to acting on those answers.” (pg 51)

Answering the “what” is easy, answering the “how” is hard.

Developing Community to Answer the “How”:

      1. Using a Common Language
      2. Developing A Common Purpose
      3. Defining the Team Meeting Norms

“If we only develop proficient test takers, we will have failed our children. Their joy in learning must be exponentially enhanced by their school experience, not doused by their ability to demonstrate recall on a test.” (pg 55)

Improving Instructional Practice: “Change the methods and you will change the outcome.”

There are 5 inputs to every system:

      1. People
      2. Environment
      3. Method
      4. Machines
      5. Materials

The only one of these 5 inputs that we can fully control is “method“. The people and the environment are not controlled by us.  The machines and materials are dependent on the winds of economic stability.  The method is the only input that is 100% in our control at all times.

“There are very few, if any, bad people in education.  Generally, there are good people using bad methods.” (pg 57)

“Deprivatizing practice has been a challenge in most schools for decades.” Blankstein suggests the use of “learning walks” within the C.R.E.A.T.E. framework to pull down the isolationist barriers. In learning walks “it is the teachers who who first define what they are looking for in good instruction, and then they become curious and motivated to find it!” (pg 58)

Big Question: what is the process, common language and framework for action that you use across your learning community to connect the dots and bring cohesion to the many initiatives underway?

Chapter 6: An Action Plan for Engaging the Entire Learning Community

First you must develop a common language for the action plan.

Address challenges in the action plan. These challenges may include; transparency, community engagement, SMART goal development, trust building, among others.

Develop SMART Goals as the basis of the action plan:

  • S – Specific
  • M – Measurable
  • A – Achievable
  • R – Realistic & Results Oriented
  • T – Time Bound

This chapter concludes with a section with advice for identifying and assessing excellence through the learning walks process.  This is an essential aspect of setting the stage for scaling up student success.

Big Question: What tools and processes do your action plans consistently use to assure engagement of and rigorous analysis by the entire learning community.

Chapter 7: Transference of Knowledge and Skills Throughout the Learning Community

Deep and enduring learning for adults has come as a result of the relationships that have been built in the process.” Deborah Childs-Bowen

Transferring Knowledge and Skills within the School:

      • Collaborative identification of the problem
      • Learning walks
      • Search for positive deviants
      • Sharing what is discovered
      • Agreement to change methods

Is chapter contained a fascinating case study that emphasized the process above and highlighted the need to spend as much PD time as possible on developing and embedding processes to facilitate transference of knowledge and skill.

Blankstein postulates that after learning walks, collaborative lesson planning is one of the best way to scale up student success.

Blankstein dedicates a portion of this chapter to ideas and strategies for scaling up student success across districts and entire networks of schools.

The chapter concludes with a list of strategies for refining our practice through the use of a “Tuning Protocol“.

Tuning Protocol Defined: “A tuning protocol is a staff development process that is embedded in what a teacher does in the classroom or what an educator does in school. A group of colleagues come together to examine each other’s work, honor the good things found in that work, and fine-tune it through a formal process of presentation and reflection.” (pg 80)

Benefits of a Tuning Protocol:

      • Accountability beyond test scores
      • Provides information useful in the classroom
      • Builds a learning community
      • It works

Big Question: What methods do we have in place (or need to put in place) that will guarantee improved instruction in the classroom and lead to improved learning by students?

Chapter 8: Embedding the New Learning in the Culture of Sustainability

Ultimately a school’s cultural far more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal can ever have.” Roland Barth

The C.R.E.A.T.E. process “leads to courageous instructional leaders at all levels who design, implement, monitor, and improve classroom instruction. (pg 85)

“Shaping the culture is one of the most critical jobs for the school and district leader.”

“Structural demands can never rival the power of cultural expectations, motivations and values.” (Culture trumps structure every time!)

Use artifacts to embed professional learning through out the school, classrooms and meeting places.

“Our research and experience… Indicates that focus on developing leadership capacity to in turn build the kind of community suggested… connected to a robust learning network of schools offers the best hope for sustaining success.” (pg 87)

Three Pillars of Embedding The Process in School Culture:

      1. Reinforcing – use repetition and routine to continually reinforce the process
      2. Relationships – relationships built on trust are the life blood of a healthy school
      3. Renewal – optimize energy levels and build internal feedback loops that include qualitative and quantitative data

The Power of Story: leverage the power of story to demystify the data.  Stories will sell the vision and help the community understand and embrace the impact of their work.

Big Question: What matters most to you?

Appendices: The book ends with seven appendices that offer charts and tools for leveraging and improving the C.R.E.A.T.E. process.

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