The Contradictions of Learning Together
Moving your board and staff toward a culture in which probing questions are encouraged and not seen as personal attacks
/School Administrator, April 2020

Mary Herrmann, a clinical associate professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes superintendents must encourage professional learning alongside their school board members.

Learning is essential to innovating our organizations, yet not central to the way we govern our school districts. As a superintendent of 12 years across three districts, I frequently experienced this misalignment.

For instance, while completing a comprehensive curricular overhaul in mathematics, the board of education would question teachers and administrators as an ongoing part of their meeting agenda. Although I understood their inquiry as thoughtful and improvement-focused, our staff often viewed the probing questions as personal attacks. I knew they were not.

The seven board members in that Midwestern school system were genuinely interested in better understanding our work. They asked questions that challenged deeply held assumptions and practices, which unwittingly caused tension and discomfort. As the process played out in public, staff members misinterpreted that questioning as a lack of appreciation for their expertise.

All of us at the time were experiencing the discomfort of trying to learn and improve together in a political context that is not conducive to learning and innovation. Uncertainty, exploration and experimentation do not coincide with the perceived expectations, regulations and responsibilities of board governance. There is a significant disconnect between the personal and collective learning required for meaningful improvement and the structural and regulatory process for governing improvement efforts.

Beyond Status Quo

This disconnect makes the role of superintendent particularly challenging and full of contradictions. To effectively lead an organization, the superintendent must embrace an openness that fosters learning and experimentation, while at the same time publicly exude a sense of certainty in assuring positive outcomes. While failure from trial and error is critical to organizational learning, it is rarely acceptable within a public context that values answers over questions and knowing over learning.

The superintendent must support and stretch staff members to move beyond status quo thinking, all the while managing the expectations and tension of moving too fast or too slow.

Board members experience similar contradictions. They publicly advocate for meaningful change but are pressured to shy away from too much disruption. They preach excellence and equity for all students but often are reticent to invest the political capital to ensure a more socially just community. Board members frequently come to meetings armed with positions they intend to defend, rather than with minds open to new learning.

Discomfort of Learning

In addition to the structural governance issues and expectations that make learning and innovating together difficult, real learning itself is challenging. Learning at a deeper level is often inefficient and requires a significant investment in time, energy and attention. It can be uncomfortable, disruptive and even frightening at times. Learning can shake our confidence and sense of identity as we be-come vulnerable to new discoveries about ourselves and our organizations.

Many of us discovered early on in our executive roles that regardless of how curious and adventurous we might be, playing the role of learner feels inconsistent with what we perceive others expect from us; that is, the expectation that we always act with authority and present our positions with certainty. We find ourselves feeling more confident presenting to the board a polished, finished product then engaging with them in bold, unscripted conversations.
Board members also prefer to react with somewhat fixed and politically consistent responses.

Making learning core to the leadership of the district, therefore, requires courage and humility on the part of the superintendent and board. It necessitates a new way of framing and engaging in our collective work.

Tom Chi, an entrepreneur involved in developing Google Glass and Google’s self-driving cars, asserts that to adapt and innovate, we need to operate more in a learning mode than a knowing one. When you are in a knowing mode, he argues, your brain shuts down the possibility of forming new learning memories and connections and you hold tight to your current sphere of knowledge. When you are in a learning mode, however, you seek to expand your sphere with new data and possibilities.


Exploratory Mindsets

In our mathematics curriculum experience, staff members in the district operated in a knowing mode. In rigorously defending their knowledge, they struggled with being open to the new learning and perspectives being shared by school board members. This further perpetuated discomfort and frustration, resulting in many missed opportunities to learn and create together.

So how do we move toward a culture that values learning over knowing? How do we create what researchers Linda Hill and George Davis describe in “The Board’s New Innovation Imperative,” appearing in the November-December 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, as “creative abrasion”? This is the state where board members and the superintendent share a mindset that encourages exploration and understands failure as a part of learning.

In creative abrasion, mutual partnerships encourage openly challenging one another’s views. Diverse ideas are developed collectively through rigorous discourse and debate, and the discomfort and messiness of learning is accepted as healthy and productive.

Thought Partners

Superintendents and boards must be intentional about making learning central to their work. It is easy to become bogged down with the constraints of board practices that make creative abrasion difficult, but these challenges do not need to define the collective work of leaders.

Courageous superintendents and boards can transform districts and communities by forging a trusting relationship as thought partners who respect the uniqueness of each role and together foster the conditions for learning by:

»Widely endorsing language that promotes learning as a collective endeavor over knowing and expertise.

Instead of “presenting” to the board and community, we should work toward “engaging” with them. Encourage everyone to approach board meetings not with their opinions and positions fixed, but with questions. What else could I still learn about this?

»Promoting the concept of “a work in progress ” as a way of doing business

Meticulously prepared plans and proposals presented to boards (at least initially) send the message that what is being stated is a done deal and that input is not valued. Superintendents ought to ensure ample opportunities exist for alternative ideas to emerge.

»Fostering transparency around failure.

Failure is a natural part of learning. When leaders ensure that struggles are brought into the open so everyone can learn from them, they essentially destigmatize failure. They nurture a culture for exploration and learning where the perceived risk of failing to try becomes greater than the perceived risk of taking action and failing

A Learning Goal
There are no simple answers to the challenges of transforming educational communities to better serve all students. However, if we commit to making learning central to our leadership and governance, we can create conditions that unleash the critical and creative talent in all of us and collectively forge a better path forward. 

MARY B. HERRMANN, a former superintendent, is clinical associate professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her latest book is Learn to Lead, Lead to Learn: Leadership as a Work in Progress (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). Twitter: @marybherrmann