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Leading by Default

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What is a default option and why would you use it to lead? The default option is what is left when no active choice has been made between a set of possibilities. Well-designed defaults can be quite powerful in nature as they essentially simplify decision making effectively guiding desirable behaviour. Leading by default may seem like it lacks strategy and is potentially an ineffective route, but what if your default is a culture of high expectations built around collaborative professional learning communities that focus on cycles of continues improvement. Sounds more appealing doesn’t it? A well designed learning culture across your school lays the platform for an effective default. The question remains then, why would you want a default if you had such an effective learning culture prominent across the school? The answer I believe is that it allows your staff the freedom to experiment, to trial and to explore knowing that there is a high level fall-back position if they are not successful. A default position carefully designed to be the mainstay of your school’s operation is a safety net for successful student outcomes.

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A well designed learning culture across your school lays the platform for an effective default.

The challenge is to establish the default, which can be a complex and time consuming journey. An initial default is continuing the way things have always been, raising the bar can be difficult especially when many schools are doing an exceptional job to begin with. But the very notion of continuous improvement is based on the ideology that we can always get better. I often talk to my staff about what makes a champion. The champion never strives to be number one, they strive to beat number one to continue to do better by refining, refocusing and evaluating their performance. In the words of Dylan Wiliam “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better”. We are fortunate to be in a period of education when we are supported by The Australian Professional Standards that identify the benchmarks for performance. In NSW Public Education we have the support of a system that encourages individual responsibility for self-improvement through performance and development plans. These tools provide a perfect springboard for raising the bar and establishing a high quality default position.

In the book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outlined the idea of choice architecture. They suggest that we have the ability to design our environments in order to influence behaviour. Just as an architect will design a building to meet a specific purpose, we too can design our default model to meet the specific requirements of our context. The default will be comprised of a variety of components which individually will have a significant impact on the overall operation of a school. As leaders we need to identify these components and understand their role in establishing the default setting we are seeking. Through a combination of high quality professional learning, collegiality, mentoring, coaching and knowing our students the default model can be framed within the context of our individual settings.

In an era where we are swamped by research articles and social media feeds us professional learning opportunities 24/7 we have the ability to source and develop high quality professional learning that can be adapted to our individual contexts. An effective professional learning model to develop a default position must have sound procedures in place that have a single schoolwide focus. This focus needs to be supported by evidence, what is the data telling us, and be classroom based with an emphasis on improving teaching strategies. The model is not about improving the teacher it’s about ensuring that high quality strategies form the basis of practice across the school. Be it instructional rounds, lesson study or PDP observations it has to have time for reflection, feedback and discussion of next steps. It must be based on the premise that teachers have a commitment to improve and an openness to be critiqued by their colleagues. I have found the use of technology has been invaluable in enabling staff to capture lessons, strategies and student responses and reflect on them in collaborative debriefing sessions at the conclusion of the lesson. This timely immediate feedback is extremely powerful in developing the default position acting as a social contagion spreading its influence. Just like athletes reviewing game day footage and identifying strengths and areas for development so to this technology affords our staff the same opportunity.

In business the default option is carefully designed to ensure that there is a benefit to the designer for not choosing another option. The default in most instances is carefully orchestrated to favour the design architect leading to increased profits. As leaders in schools wouldn’t it make sense that we design our default to ensure that it makes students the beneficiaries? Establishing norms, which shape expectations about how we learn together as professionals forms the foundation of the learning culture and can become the default. Social psychology research clearly demonstrates that when faced with any change processes people tend to resist until they feel comfortable. As change happens and it will, as you try to establish teacher buy in to a new strategy having a high quality default position to fall back on will place your students in a win win situation.  So whilst leading by default may sound like a lack of strategy becoming the design architect of the new normal certainly has its benefits.


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