by Camille Mortimore, Ph.D., Foundry Chief Learning Officer
The ancient oak that dominates our woods is dying: leaves pale, bark peeling, its enormous biomass bending to its more than 400 years. My three grandkids and I tried to measure it, encircling it with hands hooked and arms outstretched. We could not. And yet, the true measure of the oak’s legacy is in the vibrant activity and growth that abounds: squirrel-planted acorns sprout new oaks, chipmunks burrow and multiply, migrating birds mix with local nesters, and a relentlessly hooting owl oversees it all. The moribund oak seems to dominate the picture, but on close observation, it is clear that the ecosystem in its fullness is the bustling force of life and productivity.
As fall comes upon the school ecosystem, we bustle with the activity of new schedules, new projects, new programs, new kids. And each year is planted with new hope. “This year, we will…” (You fill in the hope.) Whatever the hope, it almost always has to do with transforming something: what we do, who we are, how we learn, what will result, who will lead. I am struck by how the forest ecosystem offers a window into our hopes for transformation, our plans for change, and the leadership required to make it happen.
Leadership theory has long proposed the model of the dominant, charismatic leader at the center – the mighty oak – building the future, guiding the team, deciding what will work and how to do it, and—voila!—Transformation! But in reality, charismatic leaders may come and go, or for that matter, never appear. And yet, the mission and the needs persist. Sometimes, it seems we can’t see the forest for the tree. The school ecosystem, much like the woods, has many parts that contribute to the whole, providing many paths to meet the needs and fulfill the mission. If we believe in the nature of ecosystems, it seems that a broadly distributed model of leadership, using the many skills and talents across the school community, is more in harmony with the nature of real community and real people. Let’s explore that.
Distributed Leadership. According to Dr. Alma Harris, individual, independent action has long been the practice of school leaders. However, distributed leadership is characterized by collaborative, interdependent interaction. Specifically, distributed leadership harnesses the power of talent and energy across the entire school community: board, superintendent, principals, teachers, staff, partners, parents, students. Everyone. It rests on a belief that the knowledge, skills, and perspectives of each person within the community are uniquely suited to building what is necessary for transformation. Individual voice and perspective joined with that of others, creates a collective influence that generates improved performance and organizational success.
So, what does distributed leadership look like in a school ecosystem?
Picture it: the people, the groups, the relationships, the culture, the norms.
Individual Accountability – each member knows their purpose, commits to the mission, has space and time to hone their skills, and iterates toward delivering on their commitments.
Collaborative Teams – members join together purposefully to use their skills to find and solve complex problems, moving beyond cooperation into focused work teams with distinct purposes designed to create solutions together.
Interdependent Work – Collaborative teams distribute leadership across the ecosystem to solve problems that are interrelated parts of the system; each part affecting the other parts. Focusing attention on interrelatedness leads to the interdependence that engenders a powerful collective influence.
Practice with Reflection – Highly accountable individuals and interdependent collaborative teams practice the action-reflection cycle that leads to honed skills, quality practices, powerful mentoring, team learning, and accelerated results.
Distributed leadership requires a commitment to individual growth and accountability as well as purposeful and focused collaboration. And since collaboration is a skill that is acquired and practiced in specific real-world contexts, let’s consider an example of distributed leadership that produced extraordinary results.
Personalized learning meets professional development.
Teachers drive their own professional learning. Individual teachers and teams decide, What is needed in their teaching and learning environment right now? What does each of their students need to grow? How will they guide their students to be more collaborative, reflective, persistent, engaged? At Kettle Moraine School District in southeastern Wisconsin, leadership for professional learning is distributed to teachers. Teachers engage in “just-in-time” embedded professional learning, focused on needed topics, methods, programs, students. Teachers generate evidence of their own growth and that of their students in their own learning environments. The district has organized professional learning around micro-credentials that support teacher choice, pace, and learning preference. A district team member explained, “Micro-credentials are about embedding design thinking and research into the professional lives of teachers. But it doesn’t stop with just knowing. The important step is implementing it within the classroom.” Professional learning budgets focus on teacher completion of micro-credentials that demonstrate evidence of growth as teachers learn, share with one another, and their students. Micro-credentials have resulted in powerful new practices that have changed both teacher and student learning at Kettle Moraine. Examples include: significantly improved reading in high school science and social studies content areas; high school teachers learning in each other’s classrooms; flexible grouping blended math learning across the high school. Freeing teachers to learn and grow has led to other powerful outcomes, including teacher-led initiatives that have generated three high-performing charter schools within the high school. Learn about their process and success with micro-credentials. https://www.competencyworks.org/case-study/practicing-what-they-preach-micro-credentialing-at-kettle-moraine/. Check out Digital Promise to explore micro-credentials to guide professional learning paths for teachers in your school. https://digitalpromise.org/initiative/educator-micro-credentials/
Leadership, at its heart, is a form of influence. At its best, that influence flows from mutual respect across the school ecosystem, recognition of interdependent relationships, deep competence built on learning and practice, and thoughtful communication supporting collaboration. Enabling networks of distributed leadership across the school ecosystem reveals the forest and the tree. It begets collective influence… and bustling life and productivity.
Questions for building distributed leadership in your ecosystem:
What are the active centers of leadership and productivity already present in your school ecosystem?
In what ways can all learners – students and adults – be freed and encouraged to influence their own learning, their learning spaces, their peers and teachers, their school, district, and community?
How is intentional growth in skills leading to competence, confidence, and the choice to actively lead across members of your school community?
What are the possible points of synergy for currently unconnected leaders in your ecosystem? How could they be connected and the power of the synergy released?
How does choosing to lead help community members better understand their particular gifts and responsibilities to the whole and themselves?
How does your community share and celebrate the skills growth and leadership contributions of its members?
And finally, in what ways can these opportunities to grow and lead build a collective influence to transform your school ecosystem?
For resources to guide you in the transformation of your ecosystem:
For a deeper dive into transformation, leadership, and collaboration, listen to my webinar on Deeper Learning with my transformation partner, Adam Bilsky. https://www.projectfoundry.com/webinars