Prove or Improve?

July 9, 2009 3 Comments

Last week I had the privilege of co-delivering a workshop on collaboration and effective teams to this year’s crop of New Leaders for New Schools Residents as part of their Summer Foundations experience.  These principals-to-be truly give one hope for the future of education in this country.

Prior to our two days of delivery, I heard Jeff Howard of the Efficacy Institute deliver a presentation to the Residents on the difference between what he called a “performance orientation” and a “learning orientation.”  Howard’s claim is that schools often fail when they overemphasize student and staff performance at the expense of learning, and his message to the future school leaders was that they needed to think hard about what is most important as a long-term goal for the people in their building.

Among other things, shifting from a performance to a learning orientation means shifting from:

  • a focus on the outcome to a focus on the process to an outcome;
  • the belief that error indicates failure and limitation to seeing it as a valuable feedback mechanism for improvement;
  • seeing uncertainty as threatening to welcoming it as a challenge;
  • seeing the role of authority as that of judge to seeing it as one of being a guide.

Howard also suggests that a performance orientation can often be accompanied by the unfortunate tendency to see talent as given rather than ultimately developed.

I would dare say that it is not only our schools that suffer from an overemphasis on performance.  Many organizations seem to fall victim (in practice) to the belief that leaders are born, success is purely predicated upon outcomes, and that tight control is the best way of operating.  Not so surprising if this is the way we are being educated.  What happens to learning and innovation under these conditions? If we are busy trying to prove ourselves, does this ultimately come at the expense of improving our communities and world?


  • Gibran says:

    This is great Curtis and it really does capture so much of this paradigm shift that we’ve been talking about – how are these ideas to be integrated into the way we live our lives? I think about this a lot, it seems like the emergent paradigm is ever more clear about its demands, but we have not quite found the way to shift and to help others shift into it (even when we understand it cognitively)

  • I really enjoyed reading all of this item, it really is awesome. I might have a suggestion though, but don’t want to cause an argument :p Keep up the nice work, and see you!

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