Smarter Together: Daniel Pink on Education Leadership, Innovation, and Distance Learning

By: | 09/11/2020
Categories: Distance Learning, Leadership

This summer, Rob Waldron, Curriculum Associates’ CEO, and I had the opportunity to lead a virtual discussion about education leadership during distance learning. This discussion, "Smarter Together: Leadership, Innovation, and the Science of Motivation,” featured New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink and four district superintendents who (like countless other education leaders) had to navigate a sudden transition from classroom to remote learning in spring 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

In part one of the webinar, Pink discussed his research about leadership, innovation, and motivation and how his findings can help educators during times of upheaval and uncertainty. In part two, we brought our panel of superintendents, who serve districts ranging from 7,000 to 155,000 students, into the conversation.The panelists included Dr. Michael Hinojosa of Dallas Independent School District, Dr. Lora de la Cruz from Lake Oswego School District, Dr. Darin Brawley of Compton Unified School District, and Dr. Thomas Ahart from Des Moines School District. All four educators used Pink’s main points to examine their own experiences and the importance of transparency and flexibility in the new school year.

Transparency Builds Trust

Pink has written six books that explore business, leadership, and human behavior—among other topics. In light of the global pandemic, Pink advised educational leaders to practice transparency and psychological safety.

In Pink’s opinion, leaders practicing transparent communications has become more important since remote learning began. Due to the fact that everyone is communicating virtually, making sure everyone is on the same page is vital. If transparency is lost, trust is lost, and Pink warned that schools and districts as a whole will falter as a result.

Pink also stated that both teachers and students need to experience psychological safety in order to work effectively. Psychological safety, a term coined by Amy Edmonson at Harvard Business School, is the belief that in order to succeed, people need to feel supported by those around them. COVID-19 has pushed the world into uncharted territory, meaning people now more than ever need to feel they have permission to make mistakes.

As superintendents, Hinojosa, De la Cruz, Brawley, and Ahart have the difficult task of juggling multiple schools. They all agreed that Pink’s idea of psychological safety is extremely important in building strong districtwide relationships that will ultimately allow schools to operate. De la Cruz, the first superintendent in the country to shut down their school district in light of the pandemic, emphasized the importance of leading as a positive model, saying, “I believe that great leaders take care of their people, first and foremost.”.

Innovation Allows for Flexibility in a Situation That Is Constantly Changing

Pink also discussed the importance of innovation for schools as they try to adapt to a distance-learning format. He recommended that education leaders start to “Combine small wins with big questions” in order to inspire change that can help them adapt. At this moment, the country finds itself in a position where a lot of big questions are being raised, not only about the pandemic but also about social issues. Pink said, “those questions inevitably end up affecting educators,” and therefore school and district leaders must be prepared to take on the challenge of improving upon the concerns of their constituents.

Brawley, Los Angeles County’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year, emphasized the importance of innovation when it comes to creating equity across the education system. He shared that equity has been a large part of the Compton Unified School District’s mission over the last few months. When distance learning began, the district was able to benefit from relationships with tech giants like Apple and Verizon that provided devices to 94 percent of students. Brawley expressed his gratitude for these partnerships as they allowed the district to“pivot very quickly” and address the needs of students by connecting them to their teachers and classmates. The Compton School District is taking advantage of their access to technology by continuing online learning throughout the summer in order to prevent as much learning loss as they can.

Inspiring Motivation in a Remote-Learning Environment

Finally, Pink referenced his book Drive to stress the importance of encouraging motivation during distance learning. He explained that research shows the most effective way to motivate people is to not only pay them fairly, but to also give them access to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink therefore argued that great teachers will be the most motivated if they feel they have the ability to teach the way they want. Furthermore, students will be most motivated if they have both a desire to learn and an understanding of why learning is so important to society. Once trust has been created between a leader and a constituent, Pink said, they can then move on to establishing these other motivators.

Ahart, who spent 11 years as a high school teacher, recounted the impressive increase in motivation that he witnessed amongst the educators in his district, and the conversations this new learning environment sparked. He explained that the move to distance learning made educators ask themselves, “What exactly do our students need?”

In some cases, the answer was that students needed to continue to have access to meals and mental health resources even with classrooms closed. However, Ahart said, this led to criticism from parents who felt that the district wasn’t making their children’s education its priority. Ahart explained that this situation has sparked some extremely raw yet important discussions surrounding equity, many of which “should have happened a couple of decades ago.”

Looking Ahead

The job of education leaders has never been more difficult. Pink referred to school officials as the “hidden heroes” because the extremely difficult work they do, he said, is often overlooked. However, Pink expressed optimism that schools could come out of the pandemic stronger if educators made measured responses to problems as they arose. “I think there’s a nice mix day to day between toggling those small wins and the big issues,” he said. “Small wins get you to the next day. The big issues will give you a North Star.”

This webinar is a part of Curriculum Associates’ “Smarter Together” series. These events were created to give education leaders a platform to share their thoughts surrounding distance learning and the process of reopening schools for the upcoming year.

A recording of “Smarter Together: Leadership, Innovation, and the Science of Motivation” is available online for those who want to listen to the complete discussion.

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Shenique Mens-Smith

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