Discordant Metronomes & Connected Educators

Learning in order to lead learning again, this time by exploring a really freaky phenomenon.

I recently ran across a fascinating video (aptly tagged in the category This Is Awesome) of 32 discordant metronomes achieving synchrony in just under 4 minutes. Check it out:

Is that not incredible? My favorite part is the one hold-out on the bottom right, most visible around the 2:07 mark. Eventually, even that single outlier comes into phase with the rest of the group.

The key to this transformation (as highlighted in the referenced article) is the surface on which the metronomes rest. The board as a foundation appears quite rigid and static- though if that were the case, the metronomes would remain out of phase with each other. A closer look reveals that the board in this example is flexible, free to move with the rhythm of the system. As each metronome swings from side to side, the board acts as an “energetic intermediary” that facilitates transfer across the system. It is only because of the flexible surface of connection that this alignment of individuals can occur.

What Is It That Brings Us Together?

Most of the posts containing this video have explored the science behind it. While EXTREMELY tempting, that’s already been done, so I’ll refrain. (For those curious, check out this video by physicist Adam Micolich, this post from CBS News, and this article by professor Jim Panteleone of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.)

I was drawn instead to the role of interconnectedness in bringing about organizational change. Watching this video makes me wonder, what are the various ways that groups of individuals are connected such that they can reinforce each others’ patterns of behavior? For school leaders: if these metronomes represent our teachers, what are the “energetic intermediaries” that help them move together as one?

So far, I’ve come up with three that stand out to me:

Mission: Educators are first and foremost passionate about helping kids learn. All nuance aside, developing quality learning experiences for all students is the common bond that connects us all within the profession. When we as individuals allow ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our practices through the mirror of this core belief, those practices that do not align with this mission become more apparent (and are more likely to change). Those acting in isolation of this mission could swing on indefinitely without a reconnection to this common purpose.

Social Networks: Educators are also human, which means that we are social creatures. As we connect with others through a variety of social networks, we are more likely to align to those around us. These networks (whether built through online social media tools like twitter and Pinterest or via in-person connections across a hallway or building) allow individuals to engage in the cyclic process of sharing their own practices and learning from others. By staying connected, we become more aligned, and behave more like one system.

Leadership: This phenomenon encapsulates how I view the role of school leader as being first and foremost a connector. The school leader connects the individuals within a team, school, or district in support of their efforts, much like the floor in this video example both supports and connects these individual pendulums. Some takeaways for me:

  • The system began as a discordant group of individuals, as disconnected parts of a system often do.
  • A rigid, unresponsive figurehead allows individuals to continue in chaotic discordance, much like the static table would have done for the pendulums. This inflexibility limits the power of the leader’s connection.
  • In contrast, a leader who listens to the individuals within the system, reflects shared elements of those individuals’ practices and behaviors, and moves in reinforcing harmony in accordance with those practices can be the true connector that to help otherwise isolated individuals to learn from each other.
  • This kind of responsive connection slowly but surely brings about system-wide alignment, so long as we have the patience, flexibility, and perseverance to allow it to emerge.

This video ultimately reminds me of NBA coach Phil Jackson and his view of leadership (from his fantastic book, Sacred Hoops):

The wise leader is of service: receptive, yielding, following. The group member’s vibration dominates and leads, while the leader follows. But soon it is the member’s consciousness which is transformed. It is the job of the leader to be aware of the group member’s process; it is the need of the group member to be received and paid attention to. Both get what they need, if the leader has the wisdom to serve and follow.

School leaders: Where do you see yourself in this example? Where do you see your school or district? In what ways do you transfer energy from individual to individual throughout the system, and in what ways do you prevent that transfer? What does it looks like when your group members’ vibrations dominate and lead while you follow, and how might that process lead to successful alignment?

Please share your successes and challenges in the comments. We just happen to be on the verge of Connected Educators Month, a time that the US Department of Education has identified for us to celebrate “online communities of practice and networks in education.” Your story might just be that one nudge of reinforcing energy that will help those of us connected together through the “energetic intermediary” of the blogosphere to grow together as more successful leaders in the future.

Blogs of Faith and Devotion

During the MSNBC Teacher Town Hall on September 25, 2010, Van Meter superintendent of schools and #edchat enthusiast John Carver (@johnccarver) had the idea of asking, “What’s Working?” on Twitter. ACPS teacher Paula White (@paulawhite) suggested that we all go write a blog about what’s working in education, and share our stories with the hashtag #educationnation.

See below for these blogs of hope (more will be added as they are posted under the hashtag #educationnation):

In Made to Stick, Chip & Dan Heath write that stories have the power to get people to act.  Some stories help us know how to act in a situation, while others inspire us with energy to act.  What are your stories?  Please share them over the hashtag #educationnation, as these stories will help all of us, our colleagues, and our communities take the steps we need to take right now.

Dan Pink’s take on “merit pay” in education

A few months ago, I read Drive – Dan Pink’s latest book about “the surprising truth about what truly motivates us” – and instantly found myself reading it through my educational lens, through the lens of the profession where it is the love of learning more than anything that draws me in (along with so many of my colleagues).  

On March 20th, a small group of central Virginians were able to discuss this latest book with Pink as he visited Charlottesville as a speaker during the Virginia Festival of the Book.  An intimate 40+ person crowd collected in Charlottesville’s CitySpace on the first warm day of the year, engaging in a discussion about the concept of “merit pay” in education as it relates to the central theme of Pink’s book.  During that conversation, Pink asserted, “What teachers, principals, and school superintendents do- to work so hard, for so little pay, in a profoundly screwed-up system- is heroic.”

The contents of that powerful discussion found their way into my e-mail inbox yesterday afternoon in the form of Dan Pink’s latest e-newsletter, sent out for all subscribers to enjoy. Many thanks to Dan Pink (@danielpink on twitter) for adding his perspective to this continuing conversation:

UPDATE: Since the publication of this blog, Dan Pink has posted “Eight Points about Merit Pay for Teachers” on his own website. Pretty high-quality post, highly recommended reading.

Q: Dan, there’s been a lot of talk lately about “merit pay” for schoolteachers – that is, tying teacher salaries to student performance, especially on standardized tests. What do you think of this approach?

A: A few years ago, I thought this was a great idea. Incentivize teachers and the pay the outstanding one more? What coud be wrong with that?  It’s logical, straightforward, and fair.

However, after looking at 50 years of research on human motivation for DRIVE, I’ve changed my mind. I think that this approach, despite is surface appeal, has more flaws than strengths – and that there’s a simpler, more effective alternative. 

Here’s my reasoning:

For starters, most proposals for “merit pay” (sorry, I can’t use the term without quotation marks) tie teacher compensation to student scores on standardized tests. That’s a disaster. It focuses teachers almost single-mindedly on training their students to pencil in correct answers on multiple choice tests – and turns classrooms into test prep academies. (What’s more, it can encourage cheating, as Georgia’s experience shows.) So let’s knock out this approach to merit pay.

A second option is for school principals to decide who gets performance bonuses.  Again, there’s a certain theoretical appeal to this method. But I’ve yet to meet a teacher who considers it fair, let alone motivating.  Teachers worry that principals don’t have sufficient information to make such decisions and that “merit pay” would be based too heavily on who’s best at playing politics and currying favor.  So let’s kibosh this method, too.

A third approach is to use a variety metrics to determine who gets a bonus. You could measure teacher performance using: standardized scores for that teacher’s students; evaluations of the teacher’s peers, students, parents, and principal; a teacher’s contribution to overall school performance; time devoted to professional development; how much the teachers’ students improved over the previous year; and so on. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But it has a huge downside: It would force resource-strapped schools to spend enormous amounts of time, talent, and brainpower measuring teachers rather than educating students.  Schools have enough to do already. And the costs of establishing and maintaining elaborate measurement systems would likely outweigh the benefits.

In short, I can’t see a way to construct a merit pay scheme that is both simple and fair. What’s more, it strikes me as slightly delusional to think that people who’ve intentionally chosen to pursue a career for public-spirited, rather than economic, reasons will suddenly work harder because they’re offered a few hundred extra dollars.  Truth be told, most teachers work pretty damn hard already.

Fortunately, I think there’s an easier and more elegant solution – one that’s also supported by the science of human motivation. 

First, we should raise the base pay of teachers. Too many talented people opt out of this career because they’re concerned about supporting their families. For prospective teachers, raising base salaries would remove an obstacle to entering the profession.  For existing teachers, it’s a way to recognize the importance of their jobs without resorting to behavior-distorting carrots and sticks. The science reveals a paradox about money and motivation: In most cases, the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Raising base salaries would help take the issue of money off the table. Instead fretting about paying their bills on an insufficient salary or scheming to get a small bonus, teachers could focus on the work they love.

At the same time, we have to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. Teaching, like any profession, has its share of duds. Showing these folks the door, which now is quite difficult, is the right thing to do.  It’s better for students, of course. But it’s also better for the teachers who remain. Just as it’s very motivating to have great colleagues, it’s incredibly de-motivating to have lazy or incompetent ones.

So . . . if I could wave a magic wand, I’d dispense with elaborate and complicated “merit pay” schemes for teachers. Instead, I’d raise teachers’ base pay and make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.  That solution is simpler, fairer, and much more consistent with what truly motivates high performance.

Thanks again for reading.


Dan Pink

P.S.  Hope you’ll also check out the Pink Blog if you get a moment.  Our two most popular posts last month explored whether purpose is really an effective motivator and examined the differences between failure and mediocrity

DanPink.com is my website on business, motivation and creativity.  You can also follow me on Twitter @danielpink.

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Striving for the Wisdom to Know the Difference

Each week (on Tuesdays around 7pm), I look forward to tuning into #edchat on Twitter, where educators around the world get together to “put their thoughts out there” on a common topic.  Tonight’s #edchat topic: “Where should we place our efforts for educational reform? What is most/least important?”  As much as I look forward to sharing my thoughts, I feel most interested in the opportunity to learn from what I hear – my intention is usually to take these tweeters’ disparate 140-character snippets and listen for the trends that emerge so as to help me learn.

Unfortunately, I left tonight’s #edchat feeling angry and frustrated, my back and shoulders tied in knots.  I had spent 2+ hours considering a myriad of posts that all addressed a different aspect of ed reform, most often focused on blaming ‘those responsible’ for propagating such a system.  Meanwhile, I spent my time with responses that kept a pretty common theme (edited to remove names & abbreviations in cases other than re-tweets):

  • I took poetic license to make an I-statement RT @spedteacher: If students don’t pay attention, I must stop blaming them & start looking at what I’m doing
  • It’s the only place to start- the only thing I have the power to change is me. 😉
  • We are ‘them.’ We are a part of the system. If I wish the system to change, how will I change?…In other words, what will I do tomorrow as a response to what I’ve learned today?
  • RT @pvil One big change is a teacher’s change- from shepherd to browser, from area specialist to education specialist
  • It makes me think- “if not everyone spends time changing and adjusting from what they learn, and I feel as if it is a problem that they do not make this a habit, then what will I do differently tomorrow?”
  • I agree, and note that changing how we view ourselves is not just the quickest way to reform, it’s the only way…as we are all members of the ed system. All each of us can change is our own response to our surroundings…with the hope that each change we undergo evokes an opportunity for a different response by those around us.

Exasperated at the discrepancy I felt between my own philosophy and that which I was hearing, I finally put down TweetDeck and took a moment to reflect in my now infamous Moleskine (my 4th since starting this job last June), writing a short narrative that in retrospect reminds me in concept of the Serenity Prayer: 

“I cannot change others.  I can only change my response to my environment.  If I don’t see the environment I wish to see, I must ask, ‘What in my response am I willing to change, and how do I think that change might affect my environment?’ If I decide that I am not willing to make that change in my own response, how do I let go?”

The irony of my frustration hit me like a ton of bricks, and simultaneously released the tension in my shoulders and back: I had to let go of my frustration in trying to change others’ thinking, shut down the computer for the night, and decide on a new response tomorrow.  

Sometimes, maybe we should all apply our own advice to others to our own practice…I bet we would get some interesting ideas for next steps.