Dr. Marzano is a renowned researcher, trainer, speaker, and author of more than 30 books and 150 articles on education topics such as instruction, assessment writing and implementation of standards, cognition, effective leadership, and school intervention. His books include The Art and Science of Teaching and Effective Supervision. His research in education theory and contemporary classroom strategies is internationally known and widely practiced by both teachers and administrators. This interview has been edited for clarity and format.
This is the continuation of a conversation with Dr. Robert Marzano, who was a guest on the Cognia podcast Leader Chat with Dr. Jeff Rose. (Read the first part here)
Leadership: people and content
Rose: As we’ve talked about, Cognia has a model where we’re supporting leaders by creating this connective tissue so that they can help one another. For this enormous shift from a traditional system to one that’s competency based, what are some of those key levers that you see from a leadership perspective to help transition a system? What have you learned and what have you witnessed from watching leaders?
Marzano: There are two areas of leadership. Now this comes from someone who’s never been a superintendent. You couldn’t pay me enough money to be a superintendent. What a job—really, really difficult!
There’s the people component for sure. You know, you have to take care of the people within the system. By “take care,” what I mean is acknowledge their needs. I’m an old Maslowian. I really am. I think that was one of the most significant pieces of psychological research ever.
And Maslow created his hierarchy in 1943, three months before I was born. It is amazing that it still is relevant today. Effective leaders, whether or not they know to think in terms of those levels, meet those needs.
If you remember, the first level is physiological—comfort and physical safety—all businesses do that. All schools do that in the United States.
Next, it’s a sense of belonging. A good leader is making sure that everybody has a sense of belonging. They feel like this community welcomes them.
Next is the sense of esteem within that community. Good leaders give people ways to be recognized for what they do.
Next is self-actualization that as they do their work in the school or district, they feel like they’re becoming better—that they’re actually growing as people, which means they’re learning new skills and they’re learning new content.
The highest level is connection to something greater than self. Maslow called that transcendence and he actually added that level years later. People have to feel like they’re doing something that’s bigger than just them, you know? And maybe even bigger than just their school.
So that’s the people part that a good leader attends to.
Then there’s the content part. With anything as comprehensive as competency-based or standards-based education, you have to really know the content, forecast problems, and have answers to questions—even before day one. Of course, the actual answers you propose might be different from the ones you thought were going to be the answers in the beginning.
This means you have to really dig into what we know about competency- and standards-based education, predict the questions that’ll come up in your team and your community—like grading—so that you have at least an initial answer to that. You have to do that homework ahead of time. You know, 10 years ago our approach was kind of like, well, let’s give it a try! Well, you’re going to hit a buzz saw with that approach.
Rose: Yeah, I can show you some scars! I guess that as leaders, you would hope that we’re humble enough and focused enough to learn from mistakes and missteps along the way. When I went into leadership, I wanted all my classrooms to be great, and I wanted all my schools to be great. And pockets of excellence would always pop up—which was inspirational on one hand and frustrating on the other, because I wanted consistent greatness.
I had a mentor once settle me down and say, listen, rather than being frustrated, use those pockets of greatness as learning opportunities to help the other schools. If you take one of those pockets and focus on how they do it and help spread that, as opposed to being angry that the others aren’t catching on, you’ll be a more effective leader.
Change expectations to move forward
Rose: So, what are some of the cardinal missteps or mistakes that are made from a leadership perspective, whether that’s a district level or a school level? I mean, they’re all systems; it’s just different size and structures and complexity, but what mistake or misstep do you notice that seems to get made over and over, that we could learn from and correct?
Marzano: A good question. As I already mentioned, the first one is grades. You’ve got to really think through that. A common mistake is to just use scoring like 1, 2, 3, 4, and say, these aren’t overall grades.
Grades are so ingrained in our society that you can’t just jettison them as one of the hallmarks of your system. The good news is we know a lot of different ways of introducing the approach slowly and thoughtfully. There are some really great systems that don’t have letter grades.
Another challenge is, how do you have students working at different levels of content at the same age or grade? A big mistake is just to assume that the classroom teacher will do that. It’s the system, not the teacher, that has to do that. So, to say, okay, we’re going to be competency based and you, fifth-grade teacher, Bob Marzano, you’re going to have students who are anywhere from third- to sixth-grade levels of math and deal with them all—you can’t; they can’t do it.
The system has to be set up such that when a student is ready to move to another level, they actually go to another teacher. That’s a really big shift away from having one teacher for students the entire year. But again, there are a lot of ways to do that.
Rose: My first year in teaching was a fourth- and fifth-grade blended class. This was just outside of Portland, Oregon. And, fortunately, there was a team of teachers and I was the eighth to the team, teaching the blended class.
They had already done the work over years of aligning the units of study so that we were assessing students along the way, and then mixing and matching instruction constantly based upon their needs. They had a system and a structure, and they introduced me to it. And I said, thank you very much, but I’m not interested.
I was a new teacher. I was excited and competitive and believed that I could navigate this new math curriculum with these students my first year, and I would be fine. Well, about six weeks in, I was struggling, struggling mightily, and the rest of the team was probably appreciating watching me struggle.
And eventually I had to come to them and humble myself and say, I was definitely wrong. I need to be part of this structure, because what you all are doing in comparison to what I’m able to do is night and day. And it was my first introduction to working in a system that was created by a group of educators that allowed us to focus on individual students’ needs.
It was just so odd that I was unwilling to dive in, but that was the first of my many mistakes as an educator. I’m fortunate to be very, very flawed because I learn a lot from my mistakes!
So, my question is, what are you learning from all the pockets of excellence happening? I mean, I know that you coach and support schools and leaders, you must witness some incredible work happening out there. What do you learn from amazing leaders and educators that maybe other people aren’t exposed to?
Marzano: Well, like yourself, I had a chance to meet incredible people. I mean, just powerful, not only bright, but dedicated, with massive amounts of capital-E Energy. Regardless of the circumstances, these people are going to make things work really well. But actually, one of the biggest conclusions I’ve come to is that the system itself has built in constraints that make it very difficult. Some people will make it work and produce incredible results, and you do need to measure those. But what we need to do is actually change the system, so that not everyone has to be great to have really good results with students. And I know that sounds kind of contradictory or a little nuts.
But just think about it. It’s kind of an unrealistic expectation, that every teacher, even in their first year, can handle all of the diversity within a single classroom all by themselves. Teaching requires so much confidence in so many different areas. In fact, it’s generally accepted that there are three types of lessons that will occur in a classroom.
First is introductory lesson, usually involving direct instruction on a new topic. Second is when students need to practice or deepen their knowledge. And then in the third type of lesson, students need to apply their knowledge in some way. Those are very different types of lessons. And the first one, the introductory kind of direct instruction, is the hardest to do.
Those first few lessons when you’re introducing the concepts, giving the big scheme of the topic, are really critical. You have to really know the content and be a master at putting it together. Why do we expect a first-year teacher—or even a fifth-year teacher—to be excellent at that when across the hall there might be a journeyman two-decade teacher who really is an expert at that? So, for me, part of the solution is creating a system that would break down that ridiculous requirement that teachers from day one can do all this stuff. You know, why not parse that out a little bit?
Why not have those teachers who are best at introducing new content do the introducing? It’s been done. There was a model, maybe 30 or 40 years ago in Florida, where they had differentiated instruction and one of the primary tasks was to handle large groups.
All the students would come into the auditorium and those teachers would give the incredibly well-crafted lecture.
Now we have technology to do that. A few months ago, I heard former secretary of education [Arne] Duncan interviewed, and he was recommending just that. He said, why does every teacher have to introduce fifth-grade mathematics topics?
I’m not sure if that was his exact example, but he said, why don’t we get the 1,000 best teachers who are doing that in this country and have them introduce it virtually? We could make that available to all teachers. What have we got, three point something million teachers in the country?
These are things that will get the expectations down to be more reasonable. Then, as teachers begin their careers, they don’t walk into a windstorm of all this stuff that they have to do and be great at all of it. For me, the biggest realization is that constraints are built into the system. So, we’re unwittingly and I think unknowingly making it really, really difficult to achieve excellence in all classrooms. But if we change the system a bit, that could be facilitated.
Take that notion of this is my fifth-grade math class; leave me alone for 180 days. It takes a village! Why can’t we take a village of math teachers to teach fifth-grade math? Why not?
Rose: Well, in our leadership circle, we say circles are better than rows. We mean that the sit-and-get method doesn’t work as it relates to teaching and learning, especially with adults, and we know it’s not great for kids either. Why do we do it for leaders?
Rose: As we wrap up, Bob, let’s say we’re actually at a big round table, surrounded by system leaders, whether they’re superintendents or instructional leaders, or even someone on the operational side of the house for a system. So, my last question for you is, what would be your brass tacks, pragmatic advice for them right now, based upon the discussion we’re having? What would you like to leave us with?
Marzano: Well, I think I already said it, and that is, know your people and be a master at supporting, motivating, and inspiring them; and know your system. And identify the changes that you want to make in that system and really, really do your homework there.
I guess a third one would be to stay at the same job, as much as possible. The turnover at the superintendency level creates a lot of havoc, and that hurts quite a bit. Although as I said, you couldn’t pay me enough money to be a superintendent! I think it’s probably one of the toughest jobs in the world.
But I think it really hurts when there’s not consistency, particularly when a new leader comes in, sometimes under a mandate to change things or get the budget in order. I really do understand that.
Rose: And unfortunately, that churn of leadership at the top is, these days, starting to slip down to the school level.
We’re seeing a higher level of churn and turnover of school principals, which makes me worry as well. Once again, to your point, we need to have a system and a structure that are caring and sensitive to the needs of both teachers and leaders.
Finally, I just want to say thank you. You make my job so wonderful—to be able to talk to people like you, Bob Marzano. I wouldn’t have dreamed years ago that I would have a discussion with somebody who—I know I will embarrass you—is a legend and a staple in this world of teaching and learning. And just know that I and many others appreciate you so much.
Marzano: Thanks. That was very kind. That means a lot to me, Jeff. Thanks.
Rose: Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marzano. You’ve probably heard him speak a number of times because he has that kind of a draw. You’ve probably read his materials or discussed competency-based standards based on a variety of his frameworks.
What a pleasure that we were able to chat with him. Educators, thank you for all that you do as leaders. This is noble work, and we appreciate the impact that you are having on students and communities.
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