Give ’em “L” #2: 7Cs of Learning Cultures

New Rule: Give ‘em “L” #2: 7Cs of Learning Cultures

Want to close the GAP?  Want to help create a culture focused more on learning and less on power? Want to enjoy coming to work more often?  LEADERSHIP.  If the leaders aren’t modeling learning, sharing leadership with staff and students where possible, the struggle continues.  Of course leaders have a responsibility for safety, budgets and staffing. However, nothing burns out staff members faster than working their tails off and not seeing results.  Learned Helplessness sets in and status quo wins.

How about creating a culture that will maximize the probability of learning for our students?  Creating the conditions for staff to share repertoire is a way to scale up individual pockets of excellence. As Drago-Severson (2016) points out in her book, Tell Me So I Can Hear You, leadership can focus on helping professionals move to a self-transforming level where the whole system benefits. Keep the intellectual talent curious and provide momentum for solving tough problems.

The following are some current frameworks I have developed over the years. Many of the skills below overlap and can be used in multiple situations. Knowledge is important AND insufficient.  Our goal is to close the GAP between sound theory and effective practice, or as Pfeffer and Sutton say, The Knowing-Doing Gap.  That will help close the achievement gap for students, staff, and leaders.

I assume if you are reading this, you want to add ways of increasing learning. This requires the courage to address issues honestly, the humility to learn from multiple sources, and the willingness to follow through.  I call this the 7Cs of Learning Cultures. Get the culture right before working directly on the 3Cs of Learning (the next Give ‘em “L” post).

  1. Communication – This is key for all leaders and stakeholders, both internal (within the school & district) and external (parents and community). How the message is delivered is as important as the content of the message? How do you communicate the weekly announcements and newsletters?

Some of the things I have tried or have seen done with weekly announcements is adding to the list of meetings.  I call mine the ‘Rational Inquirer.’ I add a quote for reflection, a story for the heart, and some humor.  Staff have told me it has changed some of the conversations in the lounge.

I also write parent newsletters including current book summaries, tips for parents, and highlight teachers and classrooms that are doing creative things. I have had parents ask for additional information based on the short summaries I provide.  I also host parent workshops on topics like the Goldilocks theory of parenting, conflict management strategies, brain research, etc.  Attendance builds as people talk about these sessions.

  1. Collaboration – Leaders work with multiple groups (grade level, departments, site councils, student leadership, etc.) Facilitation skills are necessary to get the most out of the time invested. Getting good ideas from talented and committed knowledge workers accelerates organizational learning. Bringing groups together with common purpose is essential to be laser focused on learning.

Do you lead effective meetings that do not waste time?  Does staff look for ways to avoid coming to meetings or count the ceiling tiles during the meeting?  Run a good meeting and people will come. Are staff meetings learning events or a series of information that could easily be done via email? What do people talk about at staff meetings?  Learning and teaching I hope.  There will never be enough time or money to do everything we would like.

When a group forms, I use an activity by Stan Slap (2010) on values and how did they get those values. Beginning this way helps people make connections that are strong and meaningful.  Adaptive Schools by Garmston and Wellman (2016) have many great activities for building group interactions. The Trainer’s Companion by Olsen and   Sommers has stories   that can tee up learning activities. One of the best ways I’ve seen for sharing and collaboration is by Richard Sheridan (2013) called “Hey Menlo.” People   quickly share what they are working on, what they are learning, and where they could use some help. Amazing the results and the transfer of knowledge, skills, and application.

  1. Coaching – Leaders must have a skill set including a continuum of conversational strategies from open reflection, coaching for excellence, and evaluating and, while not used very often, moving ineffective people out of the organization. A variety of protocols helps to have the right conversation at the right time. What are your best conversational skills?

One source I recommend (self-promotion) is 9 Professional Conversations to Change Schools: A Dashboard of Options. See the graphic below. These strategies are collected from education and business models.

The dashboard starts with open reflection, then to other models which include more data-driven, and finally (although rarely used) more directive.  All of these have their place to increase development. See Drago-Severson’s work for a teacher development organizer.  She has growth edge questions in her book that are powerful in helping educators continue to grow and learn.

It is extremely important that leaders have a repertoire to meet the varied stages of adult teacher development.  Coaching focuses on development not deficit.  Supervisors can always move to deficit and power if needed. (I used to start there, I was wrong).  Just like in the classroom, we try to change the behavior before enforcing more   restrictive measures.

  1. Conflict – Working with kids, colleagues, and community often results in conflict. Duh! Leaders who are at the building level deal with conflict from direct reports and those the leader reports to in the organization. Having smart people who don’t necessarily agree with one another can be the best learning situation or, the worst nightmare

I have collected over 25 conflict management strategies for individual and group situations which provide a repertoire of responses depending on the issues. A friend of mine asked me why I have 25.  My response was, ‘I had 24 and none of them worked.’ I suggest acquiring as many conflict management strategies as possible. I am currently looking for number 26.

What strategies have been most effective for you?  Which ones have not worked? Which ones are the most effective in what kind of situation? How are you acquiring more conflict management strategies? We may not like conflict AND as a leader, you will have to deal with it.  Make it a positive if possible rather than wasting emotional energy. If you really do not want to deal with conflict, I suggest you find another occupation other than a school leader.

  1. Change – “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Eric Shinseki. Having skills to manage change reduces the anxiety for leaders and those who depend on leadership.  Managing change effectively reduces the energy spent on the unknown and helps keep the focus on learning.

Anyone who thinks things will go back to the good old days is not paying attention or lives in a different universe.  Charters, online, and governmental decisions continue to affect our schools and funding. Globalization, technology and speed will continue to drive change for the foreseeable future. How are you managing change?  What processes do you use when helping others through change while keeping the focus on learning?

Three strategies I use most of the time are:

  • Richard Beckhard’s model – D x V x F > R = C. Dissatisfaction (times) Vision of what you want (times) First Steps must be greater than Resistance to equal Change.
  • Mary Lippitt has a model of Managing Complex Change that I think is very powerful and can foreshadow problems. Using this as a quick check may save your lots of time by making sure all the elements are present before starting a new initiative.
  • Suzanne Bailey taught me her model called the Gameboard of Change. A great process for walking through the multiple stages of change. Know the barriers and creating solutions ahead of the change can be very productive and save time while including more people.
  1. Creativity – Einstein said it best, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The best organizations keep thinking creatively about what works, what doesn’t, and what to try next.  Creativity is the lifeblood of a system and helps the growing diversity of learners be more successful. Change will require creativity. Change = Learning, Learning = Change.

Bob Garmston told me years ago, “The people with the most flexibility will have the greatest influence” on positive outcomes. How much flexibility do you have when dealing with the everyday problems?  What I have learned in forty years being a teacher and principal, “if it isn’t working, try something else.”  It is that easy and that hard.

One of my favorites for being more creative is ‘changing perspectives.’ When I can get ideas from someone outside education, someone from a different position inside education (students included), or someone with diverse opinions, my thoughts are more inclusive.  Edward O. Wilson said, “diversity strengthens.”  All living systems, whether plant or animal, benefit from diversity. Diversity can provide stability. I have found diversity usually generates alternatives and provides options that may not be readily apparent without seeking feedback from others.

  1. Courage – Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Speaking truth to power, managing up, having strong values, making timely and tough decisions are at the heart of leadership. Choosing the “Right Fight” is critical in developing people and systems.

There are courageous leaders out there.  Dr. Dennis Peterson, superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools was asked, “how do you decide who to hire as a principal?”  Dr. Peterson responded, “if they cannot have the hard conversation, they can’t work for me.” Do you have strategies to do “hard things?”

Develop the skills of stating your opinion without the emotional load is important. Emotions are strong motivators, positive and negative. People can react to the style rather than substance.  So, pick the right issue.

I don’t mean to imply that everything is a fight. Not that standing up for something or trying to please everyone is not always a good strategy. Joni & Beyer (2010) wrote a book called The Right Fight. The Six Right Fight principles: (use issue rather than a fight)

  • Make it worth fighting about: make it material. Make the stakes big enough to motivate people
  • Focus on creating the future. Right fights are not about the past
  • Pursuing noble purpose. Go beyond self-interest
  • Make it sport, not war. There should be rules and rule shouldn’t change during the conflict
  • Structure right fights, and work informally with people you have relationships with. Bob Chadwick has a very good consensus model. See 9 Professional Conversations for the specific strategy.
  • Turn pain into gain. When there is an issue , and it is a right one, leaders manage them right, the struggle will energize people. Everyone who participates benefits from the outcome, even the losers

Courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”   Jim Hightower

Courage is also listening to opposite points of view.  As I said in Give ‘em “L” #1, John Gardner has a quote, “pity the poor leader that has unfriendly critics and uncritical friends.” I think it is imperative that leaders find people who they trust and who don’t necessarily agree with them.  Ask them for their opinion.  If you go ahead, even though professionals might disagree, at least you have thought through possible adverse consequences.  More diversity of opinions helps make better decisions because we consider more points of view.


Drago-Severson, Eleanor. (2016). Tell Me So I Can Hear You.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (2016). Adaptive Schools: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Joni, S. & Beyer, D. (2010). The Right Fight.  New York: HarperCollins

Lippitt, Mary. Managing Complex Change

Olsen, W. & Sommers, W. (2013). The Trainer’s Companion:  Stories To Stimulate Reflection, Conversation and Action. Baytown, TX: AhaProcess, Inc.

Sheridan, Richard. (2013).  Joy, Inc.  New York:  Penguin

Slap, Stan. (2010).  Bury My Heart at Conference Room B.  New York:  Penguin.

Sommers, W. & Zimmerman, D. (2018). 9 Professional Conversations to Change Schools: A Dashboard of Options.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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