Posts Tagged ‘Performance’

Are you developing the social intelligence of your leaders and teachers as an access to improving school performance?

In Part I we indicated that our focus this year is on providing the practicalities of creating an empowering narrative for learning and leadership within your school. In this article we explore some of Daniel Goleman’s research behind emotional and social intelligence and what it indicates about shifting the narrative.


Always Learning

I love learning. Last September I had the opportunity to attend one day of the ACEL Educational Leadership Conference in Melbourne. Originally it was purely to support my colleague (Cathryn Stephens) in her presentation on the day but it turned out to be a fabulous insightful learning experience for me. The keynote talks I saw by Daniel Goleman on Focus and Emotional Intelligence in Education and Ben Walden on Inspirational Leadership: Lessons from Henry V were stunning. One for the insights it gave me on a topic I have been building my interest and understanding in and the other for the sheer brilliance and quality of the presenter. Click on the links to experience part of the presentations for yourself.


Emotional Hijack

In his talk Daniel began by highlighting the importance of managing both the cognitive culture AND the emotional culture within a school. A lot of attention is paid to the cognitive culture with a variety of structures and measures but very little to the emotional culture. He points out that managing the emotional culture – motivation, communication, inspiration, etc – can have extraordinary rewards in how well teachers can teach and students can learn.

The brain has not had an upgrade in over 100,000 years and it is designed for survival. Whilst our cognitive – rational – learning aspects stem from our pre-frontal cortex the brain is design (via the amygdala) so that emotional elements can hijack the pre-frontal cortex (which developed much later as we evolved). Some examples in schools which trigger emotional hijacks and “fixate our attention on what we perceive is threatening us” include:

  • Budget cuts to the school
  • Misbehaving or disengaged students in class
  • Lack of control over decisions
  • Overwhelm

The amygdala has a hair trigger response (“better safe than sorry”) and results in an over-emotional response that often you regret later.

Optimal Cognitive Efficiency(c) Daniel Goleman

This feature of the brain is not all bad news. Daniel pointed out though that there is a sweet spot where individuals can operate at the maximum cognitive efficiency.

The more apathy and boredom or conversely angst and anxiousness we feel the worse we do cognitively. When challenges pique our interest our motivation increases and our attention focuses. Peak performance occurs when our belief about our ability matches the task’s difficulty and the demand on us. This is a great insight for teachers and students. The best teachers get their students to be in this optimal state as do the best leaders with their staff.


Leadership and Social Intelligence

How leaders lead and create the pre-dominant narrative and learning and leadership in the school matters to achieving optimal performance. Daniel shared that the human brain is peppered with mirror neurons which pick up what another is doing, feeling, etc. This feature of the brain allows emotions to flow between people instantly and allows for rapport (non-verbal synchronicity or a flow state) between people. We are still essentially social creatures. Daniel pointed out that leaders are senders of emotion and can direct transmissions to others.

Daniel defined a model of the four crucial competencies required be effective as leaders in managing the emotional state. You can read more about it here or see more on this video. What interested me most with Daniel’s argument was what he indicated about the impact of leadership style on the climate within a school.

A leader who is visionary and creates a climate of coaching and development has an enormously positive impact on the climate within a school and will lead to the higher performance. In fact, Daniel pointed out that leaders who exhibit 4 or more of the above styles have schools who produce outstanding results. If leaders only exhibit 1 or 2 then students don’t perform.



If the goal is to create an empowering narrative for learning and leadership then schools need to go to work on changing the “inner algorithms” by which people operate and also the global system (culture) within which they operate. Addressing the global culture is important because our brains can have system blindness. Our perceptions and beliefs are – be default – tuned to the very localized and micro systems (thus the rise of opinions over evidence).

At the level of individuals distinguishing the current leadership styles (or “inner algorithms” for leadership) being used within the school is the first step. The next step is to align the thinking, planning and actions of school leaders (and then teachers) so they exhibit the four most positive leadership styles. Whilst the development of individuals is occurring it is important to explore how the systems and processes within the school are limiting leadership and optimal cognitive performance.

This is the heart of our middle leadership program that we have been offering to schools. We not only distinguish the current perceptions about leadership but lead participants through a process of strategic visionary thinking and planning that sets up a developmental structure for leaders and teachers.


Some Questions for you to think about

  • What leadership style(s) would each member of the senior and middle leadership team identify they use?
  • What about the teachers in their classrooms and with each other?
  • How could you go about developing the structures and systems so that a visionary and coaching leadership style is the pre-dominant approach used in your school?

“You cannot have performance breakthroughs without cognitive dissonance … in other words … challenging what you think you really know and believe is the truth.”

The more that I work with schools, the more I realise how important it is to coach teachers and school leaders in having personal performance breakthroughs as part of the journey to creating a high performance learning culture in a school. What I have been finding is that it is the unconscious limitations a person imposes on themselves and/or the individual’s ingrained habits and practices that can limit or slow down the building of an authentic learning culture.

In my coaching one of the first tools I use I gleaned from Steve Zaffron and David Logan’s book called “The Three Laws of Performance”.  The Three Laws are:

  1. How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them
  2. How a situation occurs arises in language
  3. Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people

So what influences how situations occur to people?Being Development

Let me delve a little into the neuroscience here. In the simplest description, our brains are pattern making machines that, through trial and error of experience and learning, create a template or mental model of how the world is so the individual can successfully interact with the world around it. As a short cut to operating in an increasingly complex environment, the brain creates unconscious habits and practices for those actions that are ritualised. For example, most of us don’t have to think about walking. We just walk. We put one step in front of the other not consciously recognising the extraordinary coordination required of our brain and body to have this happen. For those of us who drive to work, many of us drive home from our normal place of work mostly unconscious because our brain “knows” where it is going.

As we grow up there are there spans where we undergo large physiological and neurological changes. These include the period from being a baby / toddler to a child (gaining of language), a child to a teenager (puberty), a teenager to an adult (pre-frontal cortex and executive decision making). These neurological developmental changes are critical periods in our lives as it is at these times that we lay down certain foundational or fundamental ways of being (mental models or templates). Based on these templates we build our interpretation and reaction to the world around us.

My experience in coaching people over the past 15 years is that in areas where individuals lack performance they have not overcome the programming that originated when they were children. Have you ever experienced an adult who still throws tantrums like they were 6? Have you noticed that some people can’t seem to organise themselves and still act like they are teenagers in managing themselves and their time? Have you noticed the emotions and feelings that come up when you are confronted by conflict in the workplace (most teachers avoid constructive conflict like the plague)!

In those areas where you experience being challenged to develop yourself or you lack performance, your actions are logical and consistent with a childhood perspective or viewpoint of that situation. How a situation occurs to us is correlated to our fundamental way of being or mental model that originated when we were quite young.

Conversely, in those areas you do perform, at some point in your life you challenged your childhood mental model and “grew up” in that area. You went through a period of cognitive dissonance and challenged and re-circuited your hardwired habits and practices in that area.

Let me give you an example. I come from an Italian family and my viewpoint of my father when I was young was that he was not very communicative, he didn’t really show his love for me like my mother did, and that when I did something wrong (which being the middle boy of three boys we always got up to some mischief) he yelled at us and we occasionally got smacked. So I decided at quite a young age that I would “never be enough”. When you look at my behaviour over a long period of time it is not surprising that I am always out to prove myself and succeed in whatever I do. I have three degrees including a Ph.D. I taught Aerospace Engineering (including … yes … rocket science). I came second A LOT, in sport as well as academically, and it frustrated me no end. I know myself as someone who, no matter what I am given, will figure it out and become successful at it. Within this fundamental way of being I have developed particular habits and practices that enable me to learn and develop myself. It isn’t surprising that education is one of my fields of interest.

The problem with the Fundamental Way of Being is that until I became become conscious to how it was driving me in everything, and the cost it had to my well-being and just being able to be in relationship with people, I had no power to choose to behave in a different way. I was very hard on myself and overanalysed everything. My brain was always whirring and busy so I found that I was constantly exhausted to make up for NEVER being enough. I was quite often surrounded by “fools and idiots” and became frustrated with people when they didn’t understand me. I lacked empathy for others.

The Fundamental Way of Being is not a bad thing as it has you gain a certain success in life. But like any ritual habit it drives you to behave in particular ways in circumstances that other ways of behaving are more appropriate. You cannot begin to change a habit until you have become present to how it is driving you. Until then you are the passenger in the car that is your behaviour.

When I coach teachers and people in leadership positions I give them two pieces of homework involving reflective journaling.

  1. At least 2-3 times per week spend 5-10 minutes reflecting on their day and write down experiences from the day that they felt driven by their fundamental way of being. It will feel uncomfortable at times. The intention of the first piece of homework is to have them become self-aware of when their machinery, that is their ritual behavioural pattern, is operating.
  2. The second piece of homework is to write down, what they would do differently next time in each situation that arose that day. They could also acknowledge any victories where they took a different action from the one normally given by their mental model. The intention of this part of the homework is to start challenging the ingrained behavioural patterns so that they can create new patterns. In some ways this is about growing up to be an adult!

What I have found is that, over time, people start to produce remarkable results and shift their behaviour in those areas where they felt stuck or unable to develop and grow.

I have been in a range of conversations with teachers and school leadership teams lately discussing the forthcoming Australian Teacher Performance Standards / Frameworks. I think that one of the things that the Australian Federal and State Governments (and any government worldwide) have to get clear is the context for implementing staff performance frameworks in schools. I am unclear whether or not they are clear about how to empower performance and productivity in schools.
To give you a sense of my thinking here is an analogy about supporting performance in schools (which is further thought development on my ASCD Edge blog)
In many team sports not everyone is in the position to score goals / points. In Soccer it is more often than not the strikers who are paid to be the goal scorers. In American football you have specific individuals paid a lot of money for their ability to score touchdowns. In Netball you have two specific positions (GA, GS) who are the only ones who can score. In Australian Rules Football, much like soccer, it is the forwards who are paid for their ability to score. Each member of the team, however, has a position to play and their job is to make it as easy as possible for their scorers to score. The team is considered to be a good / exceptional team if they are able to create the circumstances such that the scorers are put in the position to score more often and in an easier fashion.
In an educational environment, the only player who can score is the student. The game that is being played is learning, but the only individual who can kick the goal, score the touchdown,  ensure they learn what they need to learn …. is the student. You can’t kick the goal for them. Only they can learn. The students are critical members of a team put together to support them kicking the goals (learning). What you can’t measure a team on is the ability of the team to kick goals. What you can measure a team on is its ability to set the goal scorer up in such a way that it is easy for them to kick a goal. Many factors can affect the ability of a student to learn (score). One of those aspects is the ability of team they are playing with to put them into a scoring position. However, the following factors also count – If they had a bad day. If they live in poverty. If they have an illness. If they have a poor attitude. If they have a disability or are injured. You can list lots of factors here.
When you look at the essence of John Hattie’s meta-analysis on what impacts learning you will see the breadth of factors that can affect the performance of a student in his/her ability to score (learn). Yet there are only a certain range of things a teacher / school can control or have impact on. No matter what any one says – it is only the students who can score.
Using this context then, you cannot measure a teacher’s performance on whether a student scores or not. What you can measure is the ability of the teacher and, equally, the school to set up the environment such that the students can score. That is how performance frameworks should be set up. What you will find is that in schools where students DO perform – the habits, rituals, practices, pedagogy of the school, and school structures are set up to give the greatest opportunity for the students to score. Thus, while students scoring is an important measure for the entire team (the school and its staff), it is an incomplete measure for measuring the value and ability of individual team members (teachers).
In middle to high socio-economic circumstances there are many factors that allow for a student to score (learn), just as the richer sporting teams have a greater ability to perform.
Given all of this – what could be structures, habits, pedagogy, etc  that teachers and schools can implement to improve the ability of their students (the ones they have come to their school – not some imaginary perfect bunch of kids) to score?
What is your experience and thoughts?
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