Coaching Letter #172
Hello, I hope you’re well. Forgive me, but first of all a bit of advertising:
We run several networks that you can read about here, and right now we are soliciting districts to join our Acceleration virtual CoP: 4 sessions, first one December 7, learn more here.
We facilitate a Coaching Institute every September that regularly sells out; this year, encouraged by our friends in Torrington, we are hosting an additional summer institute, solely for school and district leaders, July 25-27 in Litchfield. Please join us if you can, and register soon, it will fill up. (They also have rooms if you want to stay over; email Bridget if you want to know more.)
We think there is a lot that teachers, coaches, principals and superintendents can do to make coaching more effective, and so we wrote a book about it: Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools will be published by Teachers College Press next April. You can pre-order here. Please buy one for everyone you know!
Another book we’ve been promoting a lot recently is Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics by Peter Liljedahl. I’m delighted that we’re bringing Professor Liljedahl to Connecticut at the beginning of April. Details have yet to be worked out, but we have a mailing list so you can be the first to know. This is going to be enormously popular, so add your name.
This Coaching Letter is, more or less, a continuation of the last Coaching Letter, #171, about mindsets. So I’m just going to start by repeating Alia Crum’s definition I gave last week, from an episode of The Hidden Brain:
We view mindsets as core assumptions that we make about the nature of ourselves or things in the world. They're beliefs, really. They're a type of belief, but it's a very powerful type of belief, right? So we have mindsets about our own abilities or our intelligence, but we also have mindsets about other things. Mindsets about the nature of stress, mindsets about the capabilities or limitations of our own bodies, mindsets about the enoughness of the foods that we're eating or the exercise we're doing. They're perspectives, they're lenses or frameworks, they're just assumptions about the meaning or the nature of those things… But to go back a step before that is to realize that we have mindsets. So often we think that our beliefs, our experiences are a direct reflection of the world as it objectively is. And what you come to realize is that is just not the case. Our perceptions, our beliefs, our experiences are always an interpretation. They're always filtered through the lenses, the mindsets, that we have.
As I mentioned in the last CL when I talked about the bright spots mindset, I’ve had reason to think about mindset a lot lately. For example, my friend Tosh has pushed me to read books I might not otherwise have looked at. So I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading books about, or by, David Goggins, the former Navy SEAL who competes in Ironmans and ultra-marathons, and once held the world record for highest number of pull-ups in 24 hours. He does things that are amazing and beyond reckless to prove that our minds place limits on us that are artificial, in the sense that you can always do more than you think you can. (This is true in a technical sense; as I have learned from Lisa Feldman Barrett, your brain’s function is to manage your body’s resources, so in order to do that it has to make predictions about both needs and resources. So it tells us to slow down before we run out of energy, rather than when we run out of energy, so that we don’t run out of energy.) Goggins takes this to ridiculous extremes, running not only through thirst and discomfort, but also through pain from actual broken bones and torn skin. He should come with a health advisory.
So beyond the lunacy of pushing yourself so hard that you cause yourself real harm, it is clear that Goggins’ mindset is completely different from mine. He says things like “if it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it,” and “I like to sit back and enjoy the pain. I earned it.” His view of the world is that we allow ourselves to be constrained by our minds (that try to keep us safe and warm and well fed and watered), that we don’t have to accept these limits, and that there is a world of challenge, growth and success beyond what we believe ourselves capable of. That’s not me. I recognize how much of my life is about patience, prudence, risk-management, and thinking. I do “get” challenge and hard work, but I am more likely to win a Nobel Prize than to jump into a frozen lake.
So, what mindsets do I hold? Because it’s clearly more than one.
I subscribe to the improvement mindset described by Mike Rother in Toyota Kata: an approach to goals and problems characterized by:
Acknowledging that your theory is possibly wrong and definitely incomplete;
Assuming that answers will be found by testing;
Knowing that the difference between prediction and result is a source of learning and not a failure.
This is a mindset I’ve been trying to grow and spread, and if you haven’t read Toyota Kata it’s a really great book, but I recommend starting with Bringing Scientific Thinking to Life, which is particularly articulate about the cultivation of an improvement mindset. The author, Sylvain Landry, makes lots of really great points about the temptation to see the work of improvement as a collection of tools—this was brought home to me the other day when my very clever colleague Andrew pointed out that the visual we have been using to represent the improvement process (Slide 1 in this deck) amplifies the importance of the tools we use; whereas we have, until now, relegated the coaching questions to the outside (Slide 2). So we’re working on re-doing that. Because it’s not the tools that matter, it’s the thinking that matters.
Landry spends a lot of time explaining this in his book. And, obviously, I have fallen prey to this myself—in fact, now that I think about it, it’s a mistake that I have made multiple times: conflating the tools with the thinking, and assuming that the two are correlated; whereas, in fact, both are a manifestation of the underlying mindset.
I’ve also been thinking about the connection between mindset and dispositions, and I’ve come to the conclusion that dispositions are meta-skills: the observable behaviors that are a manifestation of the mindset. In the Ed Leadership article, “Linking Continuous Improvement and Adaptive Leadership” by Mehta, Yurkofsky and Frumin, they refer to dispositions such as “a commitment to disciplined, reflective inquiry, drawing on multiple sources of data and evidence.” The Health Foundation doesn’t use the language of dispositions in The Habits of an Improver—and doesn’t appear to make a fine distinction between mindsets and dispositions—but talks about the habits of learning, influencing, resilience, creativity and systems thinking. Biag & Sherer, “Getting Better at Getting Better: Improvement Dispositions in Education”, talk about dispositions as having three elements: inclinations, sensitivities, and abilities, and they identify the following six “improvement dispositions”:
Engaging in disciplined inquiry: A desire to build evidence to test initial theories;
Adopting a learning stance: The ability to be open to learning, to make mistakes, and to see early ideas and initial trials as opportunities to advance understanding;
Taking a systems perspective: Seeing problems holistically and as a result of the design and structure of a system;
Possessing an orientation toward action: The inclination to attempt small system changes even if ideas are imperfect;
Seeking the perspective of others: The desire to gain the perspective and learn from the experience of others in the system;
Persisting beyond initial improvement attempts: Having the confidence that improvement is possible, and the willingness to devote adequate time to solving complex problems.
I’m reminded of the work on Red Teams—see, for example, the book Red Team by Micah Zenko, and the Red Team Handbook, which is now in Version 9.0. The Red Team Handbook is a particularly useful case in point. It certainly has a very long section called “Red Teaming Tools, Techniques, & Practices”, but the first six chapters are all about mindset and dispositions.
I also aspire to have a coaching mindset, which actually overlaps considerably with the improvement mindset. I would describe it as having a fundamental belief that people are doing their best and want to feel confident and competent; that we live most of the time in what Stanovich and West call System 1 (smooth, automatic, easy, built on our mental models which are mostly good but also imperfect representations of reality) and need to be compelled to stay in System 2 (slow, ponderous, judicious, thoughtful, analytical, tiring) for any length of time; that people welcome support from a thought partner who they believe has integrity, is competent, and has their back; that process leads to outcome in non-linear ways; that relationships are built actively and with intention (rather than passively and randomly); and the only way to fail is not to try.
I think there’s a whole other section I could/should write here, about coaching dispositions based on a coaching mindset, but I’m going to hold off on that. Too late in the day, literally, to start thinking through another big idea. But I am very interested in the implications for coaches and leaders.
I’ve learned a lot on this topic in the last few weeks. In the last newsletter I talked about how the notion of mindset has been dominated by the work of Carol Dweck, but I realize now that what I should have said is that my mental model of mindset has been dominated by the work of Carol Dweck, and that many others have been thinking and writing about mindset as a larger construct right under my nose, so to speak. I also hadn’t really thought through the similarities and intersections among the constructs of mindset, disposition, habit, and skill, but now I realize that it’s not only important to be able to distinguish them, but also to understand the cause and effect relationships. I am also struck, as I alluded to earlier, how much I thought of improvement science/continuous improvement as a suite of tools and processes and managed to under-think the mindset component, even though I’ve read Toyota Kata several times.
I leave you with some of the quotations that Professor Landry includes in the back of Bringing Scientific Thinking to Life:
The meaning of things likes not in the things themselves, but in our attitude towards them. Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Focus on the people, and the numbers will come. Focus on the numbers and the people will go. Brandon Brown.
A problem is to reality what an atom is to a table. People experience tables, not atoms. Russell Ackoff.
People don’t come to Toyota to work; they come to think. Taiichi Ono.
Thank you for subscribing to The Coaching Letter, I am grateful to commune with so many great readers and thinkers. And lastly, a nod to Tosh, for making me read these books and for listening to me think through the ideas behind a coaching mindset. Sometimes life is like a movie.
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, forthcoming