Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Power of the Counter Intuitive--Part One--Less IS More

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 41
Milan, IL

October 16, 2014

Counter-Intuitive: Counter to what intuition would lead one to expect: The direction we had to follow was counter-intuitive—we had to go north first before we went south. (From

Most of the time our intuition is probably dead-on and more often than not we should probably heed it.  For example, if you’re not feeling quite yourself and you think a visit to the doctor might be in order, you should probably go.  Intuition is, after all, a form of good sense.  However, there is a reason that the term “counter-intuitive” exists.   There are those times when we need to go against what our intuition or common sense tells us to do in order to get the results or the outcomes we want. 

I’ve considered this a lot as I’ve thought about all of the changes we are making in education right now as a means of “fixing what’s broken”—we have to “engage” our students further; we have to “empower” our students; we have to teach them how to develop “grit”; we need to adopt “standards-based grading” and “standards-based reporting”; we have to implement to Common Core State Standards (or whatever name your particular state has decided to give them); we have to figure out how to make student growth a part of educator evaluation and we’ve had to change educator evaluation itself to match the requirements of PERA; we need to add The Leader in Me to our arsenal of tools; let’s add “Genius Hour”; the list goes on and on.  And while your list may vary, it is an undeniable statement of fact that we are doing more and more and adding more and more in an attempt to “fix” a system that too many argue is “broken”.  As a somewhat regular participant in various Twitter chats, I know how much and how many things you are all doing.  Here’s the problem from my view.  The more we add to the menu of “fixes” and the more “fixes” we adopt all at once, the farther away we get from getting to the root of the problems we face and solving the very real issues that need solving. 

How many of you are working in a school district that has adopted all or most of the above-named initiatives and are working to implement them with both fidelity and integrity?  How are they working?  Are you doing better or has your performance fallen relative to other school districts?  If your performance has fallen, I would suggest that you consider the first counter-intuitive option that I posit for improving your school or district:

Counter Intuitive Option 1: Less is More

Take a close look at what your outcomes are.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they are on the academic or affective side of things.  Just take a look at something.  If you are not performing where you want to be, engage in a close analysis of the function of your situation, why it is that you are where you are.  From there, determine upon one or two courses of action that you really believe will make a difference and get you started down the path of where you want to be.  Notice I said “started”.  The problems we face are real and require more than quick fixes.  In many cases they require deep changes in existing practice but for those deep changes to really stick, you can only really focus on one or two at a time.  By doing too many things at once, you will be giving lip service to change because no real change is going to take place, there’s simply too much for you to focus on. 

At my school, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, the staff and I engaged in a conversation at the beginning of the school year about what we do well and what we need to do differently to improve our outcomes.  We determined upon two things:

1) We need to build upon and improve our relationships, both within our school and with our external community. 
2) We need to build upon and continue to develop efficacy in our use of Professional Learning Communities.  

This is not to say that we are not working on many of the other things that I listed at the beginning of this post.  It simply means that the two things that we have identified for our school community have become our priorities; they get the lion’s share of our time and attention because they are foundational.  We will monitor the outcome measures that we have identified and if the emphasis on our two top priorities bears fruit, we will continue to keep them at the top of the heap.  If not, we’ll start looking elsewhere.  And I do not suggest that you adopt what we have.  What we have adopted makes sense for us.  It may not for you and your unique situation.

One thing we know for sure, if we always do what we’ve always done (i.e. latch on to every improvement strategy that comes down the pike), we’ll always get what we’ve always got (i.e. lagging outcomes).  That’s why we’ve embraced Counter-Intuitive Option One: Less is More. 

This has been my first post in a long time.  Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read it.  I really appreciate it.  If you have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them.  Please let me know what you think!  Thank you for all you do for kids and families every day!  You are my heroes!  

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