If you’re sitting in on a learning session for campus leaders at The Holdsworth Center, you’ll hear people talking a lot about their “PoP.”
You might find yourself wondering, “What is a PoP? And why is it important?”
PoP stands for Problem of Practice, and it’s a significant component of Holdsworth’s 2-year, team-based Campus Leadership Program. Teams consist of the principal plus two or three other leaders which could include assistant principals, instructional coaches, and teachers.
Early in the program, teams identify an area connected to student learning and anchored in data where their campus has an opportunity to get better. Perhaps attendance is not where it should be, or a group of students are not performing on grade level in a certain subject area.
Every campus leader wants to deliver the best possible education to all students
“Every campus leader wants to deliver the best possible education to all students,” said Marina Lin, Holdsworth’s director of campus programs. “But when it comes to improvement areas, they’ve often tried everything and have hit a brick wall. When new solutions fail year after year, teachers and students become exhausted and dejected.”
Holdsworth’s goal is to give campus leaders the knowledge and tools they need to get the results they want for students – but do it in a thoughtful, methodical way that makes teachers and students feel empowered and hopeful.
In the beginning, expert faculty encourage leaders to “think big but act small,” a concept popularized by Jason Jennings in his book about how America’s best-performing companies keep the start-up spirit alive.
The idea is to run a series of small pilots, gathering data, monitoring progress and making tweaks as needed.
At least initially, that means choosing a manageable, well-defined problem – something leaders can move on quickly and adjust nimbly if their proposed solution isn’t getting the desired results.
The first pilots may start with only a handful of students. If the idea shows promise, it will likely be scaled up to larger groups – entire grade levels or even the whole school.
This approach of starting so small can seem counterintuitive. It’s certainly different than how change is often introduced in schools and districts where programs, curricula, and other interventions are adopted and rolled out across the entire school. Some campus leaders wonder, if this new idea could benefit the entire school, why not just go campus-wide?
Here’s why: even with a strategy that’s backed by solid evidence (and the pilots are evidence-based or informed by leaders’ expertise and experience), implementation matters. A lot.
Starting small allows leaders to see early on what’s not working, ask why, and make corrections before scaling. Maybe teachers need more clarity or training, or a small tweak is uncovered that makes a big difference.
This helps protect teachers from initiative overload. By the time a strategy gets to the scaling stage, leaders have a lot more confidence about how to support teachers to get consistent results.
To teach the Problem of Practice process, expert faculty at Holdsworth draw on continuous improvement methods – popular in the business world – and adapt them to an educational setting.
Campus teams start by uncovering root causes of the problem, then incorporating the expertise of those on the front lines — mostly teachers — to craft solutions, which can be quickly tested and refined before scaling.
While common in other sectors, continuous improvement methods are often foreign to educators, says Dr. Liz City, a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Along with her Harvard colleague Dr. Irvin Scott, City serves as the Campus Leadership Program’s expert faculty guide around the Problem of Practice.
“It’s very common for people outside of schools to point fingers and say, ‘You have a problem,’ or for leaders to demand teachers implement outside solutions without ever consulting them,” City said. “It’s much less common for people inside schools to name these problems themselves, engage in a process of understanding what’s contributing to the problem and explore their role in fixing it.”
Bringing others along
Learning to use a cycle of rapid and continuous improvement – plan, do, study and act – helps hedge against the possibility that initiatives will crash and burn in a way that embitters staff and erodes trust.
Data from initial small tests can help to shift teachers’ mindsets and bring them on board, which ultimately leads to better results for students.
Michelle Nedd is a 2021 graduate of the Campus Leadership Program from Arlington ISD. When Nedd and her team began working on their Problem of Practice, only 31 percent of Black and Hispanic students in grades 1-3 were reading on grade level. By the end, that percentage had nearly doubled to 58 percent.
“All of these small pieces started to come together, almost likes grapes on a vine. As other teachers saw the data growing in first grade, it was so much easier to say, ‘Let’s look at that for your grade level now,’” Nedd said. “When we had that motivation and excitement, we were able to bring people along on the journey.”
Often, leaders are itching to get right to solutions, glossing over the messy complexities that may be lurking beneath.
But getting to the root of thorny issues takes time and requires leaders to seek out the perspectives of key stakeholders. At a school, that means hearing from teachers and students.
“It’s easy to make decisions with a handful of people and just turn on a dime,” said Holly Mohler, a principal in Grand Prairie ISD. “Holdsworth made us slow down and reflect and bring everyone to the table, including our students. That was a key turning point for us. The little voices at the table had a lot to say.”
Teachers usually have a lot to say too, Lin said. And too often, they are not consulted.
“You have to involve the people who are closest to the problem,” Lin said. “Without their input on what’s working or not working, or what ideas they have to make school better, you are missing out on critical insights.”
Real results come from working through the mess, not around it.
In many cases, teachers must not only be included in the conversation; they must be invited into the work. After all, they will wind up implementing whatever solutions float to the top.
“Although the process is messy and it’s difficult, it’s absolutely necessary,” Mohler said. “You can’t make it efficient at the expense of making it effective. Real results come from working through the mess, not around it.”
Learning by doing
Working on a real-life, important issue through the Problem of Practice also gives leaders the opportunity to put all the different skills they’re learning throughout Campus Leadership Program into use, including personal reflection, reconnecting to purpose, listening, collaborating, communicating effectively, building dynamic teams, empowering and growing others, and leading change.
Learning sessions can be powerful, but 70 percent of a leader’s development happens through job-embedded experiences.
“You have to build in time to practice those different ways of thinking, behaving and operating,” said Lin.
At the end of two years, most teams will reach the goal they’ve set for themselves – or come close. Even with the challenge of a global pandemic, this year’s graduating class of 31 campuses saw 25 either reach their goal or make substantial progress toward it.
Whether or not they hit their goal, the hope is that all graduates will walk away with the tools and confidence to strengthen student learning and outcomes whenever the opportunity arises.
“The whole system is like gears in a watch, with all the pieces working together,” said Arlington ISD’s Nedd. “It doesn’t matter what it is you’re trying to change, if you work through it over time and don’t give up, it’s going to work for you.”