Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

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Four Activities To Help You Become a Better Teacher and Leader…

Elliott Seif is an educational consultant, author, member of the Understanding by Design cadre and the ASCD faculty, and a contributor to Educational Leadership. You can find this blog and others, along with numerous resources and weblinks that promote a forward looking, 21st century educational approach, at:  www.era3learning.org


Jim Collins is one of the best organizational development/leadership gurus, frequently writing about what makes organizations great.  His well-researched books about what it takes to become good and great organizations have a wealth of tips and strategies to help make all organizations great.

All educators – superintendents, principals, teachers, even Board members-- can learn a lot from his most recent book Great By Choice[i]. Collins and his writing partner, Morten T. Hansen, compared seven businesses that are very successful with seven failed businesses in the same fields, in order to discover the reasons for success or failure. These included the Southwest Airlines (successful) and PSA (unsuccessful); bio-engineering companies Amgen (successful) and Genentech (unsuccessful); and insurance companies Progressive (successful) and Safeco (unsuccessful). This is a book well worth reading – here I will just summarize some of the major points, suggest how they might apply to schools and teachers, and also suggest four activities that educators might do to move teaching, schools, districts towards greatness over time.

Surprisingly, Collins and Hansen did not find that successful businesses and their leaders are more creative, visionary, charismatic, ambitious, blessed by luck, risk seeking, heroic, or prone to making big, bold moves (p. 18). What they did find is the following:

Great businesses have “level 5 ambition”  coupled with fanatic discipline.

 The leaders and people in the highly successful businesses translate their high ambitions, egos, self-images, and intensity into creating “something larger and more enduring than themselves” (p. 31). Translated into educational terms, great educational leaders,  teachers, and organizations have lofty aims – to educate all children for success in a 21st century world, to make sure that every child can read well by the end of the year (first grade teacher), to prepare every child for citizenship in a democratic society (social studies department, district), and so on. But what helps to translate this high, “level 5” ambition into reality, what distinguishes successful from unsuccessful companies, is not their goals but their fanatic devotion to the implementation of their SMaC (Specific, Methodical, and Consistent) recipe –a set of “durable operating practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula” for implementing their goals. SMaC is the “operating code for turning strategic concepts into reality, a set of practices more enduring than mere tactics” (p. 128). In simple terms, the SMaC recipe are the key organizational “ingredients” that will get them to their goals. They also include “not to do” practices. Once established and understood, they are pursued with consistent, fanatic intensity and devotion over time. Changes to the recipe occur only when it is clear that the specific ingredient does not help lead to the implementation of goals. In the book, the authors include a number of examples of SMaC recipes from successful companies, well worth examining as models and samples.

 Unfortunately, very few schools, districts and teachers develop clear, explicit outcomes and SMaC recipe ingredients that they consistently, day in and day out, devote their energies to implementing. One that does is High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, California. The school has developed a clear set of goals and a SMaC recipe that it implements it with fanatic discipline built around four design principles – personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer. As the school says on its website: “The design principles permeate every aspect of life at High Tech High…”.  

 Another school with lofty goals and a SMaC recipe for success is Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The school adheres to five core values – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, reflection, and a set of specific ingredients to help get there, such as flexible schedules, the use of “Understanding by Design” as a planning tool, project and performance based learning in all classes, continuous professional development, authentic connections to outside resources and organizations, and a graduation capstone project focused around the five core values and a strong interest of the student.

 My own thinking about a vision and a SMaC recipe for a 21st century world education focuses on three broad outcomes – preparation for lifelong, continuous learning; citizenship; and the development of each student’s interests and talents. The specific recipe for implementing these includes the development of a rigorous, meaningful curricula in all subjects, devotion to teaching five core skill sets; a focus on student work as a key assessment tool; continually assessing student growth and progress; teaching using interactive, project and problem based learning; customizing learning through many learning choices and options within and after school; creating service learning opportunities;  and applying learning to real life situations and contexts. I would also include: don’t pay much attention to standardized test results – they don’t really help you improve your school![ii]

Activity #1: becoming a level 5 ambition - SMaC recipe educator! What are you devoted to? What are the your key, enduring goals and learning outcomes that will make a significant difference in your students’ lives? What are the characteristics, qualities, and “ingredients” of your classroom, school, district that will help you to implement your goals?

Together with others in your school or teaching teammates, create a set of high, far reaching goals and an SMaC recipe for yourself! If you lead a school, bring people together to create clear, explicit goals and ten specific qualities-features-characteristics that will promote excellence. If you are a teacher, bring together your co-teachers to develop a set of clear and explicit student learning outcomes and a SMaC recipe based on those outcomes. Commit to working on making these happen and improving how these occur in your school, district, or classroom over time.

Great, highly successful businesses implement a “20 mile march” approach to success.

 Successful companies discipline themselves to pursue their goals and core values-recipes for the long haul. Through good times and bad, they worked to make sure that their goals and recipes for success stayed in place, got better, improved. The focus on these goals and recipes were long term, and often stressed the discipline not only of learning how to deal with difficulties and downturns, but also of making sure that there was a gradual movement towards improvement. For example, these businesses did not “sprint” towards the finish line, but marched a mile at a time towards improvement and success.

 Collins and Hansen use two attempts to be the first to reach the South Pole to illustrate the 20-mile march approach to success.. Both Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott began their trek to the South Pole at about the same time.  Amundsen adhered to a regimen of traveling 15-20 miles a day, in both good and bad weather. (sometimes not traveling if the weather was particularly bad). In other words, even on really good days, his team only went 17 miles in order to avoid exhaustion, and on bad days, they still tried to travel 15-20 miles unless the weather was extremely bad and made travel impossible. Scott, by contrast, would drive his team as far as they could go on good days, and complain about the weather on bad days. “According to Roland Huntford’s account in The Last Pace on Earth, Scott faced 6 days of gale-force winds and traveled on none, whereas Amundsen faced 15 and traveled on 8. Amundsen clocked in at the South Pole right on pace, having averaged 15.5 miles per day” (p. 82). It took Scott a month longer to reach the South Pole than Amundsen!

 In educational terms, the 20-mile march analogy to highly successful schools and classrooms means that they don’t suddenly become great.  They work to get there slowly and gradually-- one step, one mile at a time. Sometimes they may be forced to move back one step, or to move forward more slowly, but then they resume their gradual march towards the finish line 20 miles down the road. The deeper the crisis, the more gradual they must move towards success.  They also don’t rush to get there fast, knowing that the mile sprint is a recipe for disaster.

 For example, some years ago, a comprehensive inner city high school in Philadelphia, known for its chaotic school culture and climate, got a new principal. Over a period of several years, this principal gradually changed the culture of the school, creating a more positive and much less violent culture. The next step was to use this positive culture to improve learning and achievement among its students. Unfortunately, the district administrators did not understand the need for gradual improvements and the 20-mile march in order to reach achievement goals. They replaced the principal because the school wasn’t moving fast enough towards higher test scores! Needless to say, this considerably set back the school and its march towards success.

 The KIPP (knowledge is Power Program) charter schools primarily operate in urban cities across the nation. KIPP has five pillars that are their “core set of operating principles”: high expectations, choice and commitment, more time, power to lead, and focus on results (their SMaC recipe). What KIPP seems to also have is a commitment to the 20-mile march. KIPP schools are constantly working to improve what they do. They have annual conferences to share successful programs and approaches. In Philadelphia, where I live, the KIPP data are “transparent”, so as to allow everyone to see their results and to understand the challenges they are facing. One of the reasons KIPP has grown so large and successful is their 20-mile march approach to success.

Activity#2: Become a 20-mile march educator! Is your school-district-classroom on a 20-mile march towards improvement? Or does it operate with “sprints” towards the finish line? Do you constantly think about ways to get better results, and make small changes to help you get there? Or do you introduce big new ideas and approaches every year? Do you struggle to implement better teaching and learning through collaboration and sharing of good ideas, or each year introduce big staff development programs with whole new ways of teaching and learning? Is the curriculum improved through systematic curriculum renewal processes that regularly refine and improve the curriculum?

 How can you plan for a 20-mile march towards your goals and learning outcomes? What steps can you take to make gradual, cumulative improvements? How can you learn more about what steps are appropriate over time? And how can you avoid getting sidetracked, giving in to the distractions that take you away from moving towards your goals.  

Great businesses are empirically creative, first firing bullets, then cannonballs.

 Another difference between businesses that failed and those that succeeded was that failed businesses tended to latch onto new ideas and immediately put them into practice without gaining evidence as to their promise or considering how to implement them with precision and accuracy. They often grew too quickly. They were too ambitious! For example, they often tried to implement too many new ideas at one time, or to implement an idea without taking into account the necessary organizational changes to make it work. They often took on too much debt by buying businesses that ultimately failed; put a new innovation on the market too quickly; expanded into other markets without the expertise to make it work. On the other hand, successful businesses, when they learned of a new idea, tended to pilot it; try it out in a number of settings to determine if it was workable, hold back until there was some data to support its promise, develop the internal organization to put it on the market successfully and with high quality. Successful businesses tended to try out (fire bullets) in a number of directions before deciding on one or more to “go big with” (fire cannonballs). They reduced the risk of implementing new ideas and made it more likely that they would be successful.

 Unfortunately, educators often fire cannonballs without first firing bullets. “This year’s new thing” is often a common cry among teachers, and “this too shall pass” a common refrain. Instead of piloting a number of different programs and options, determining which seem to be successful in a particular setting, taking the time to implement it over a period of years until it’s done right, sticking with an innovation long enough to determine if it works or not, districts and schools often latch on to “This Year’s New Thing”, asking everyone to use it, even if it doesn’t fit into a teacher’s approach or even if a teacher has an already successful program, expecting its successful implementation in a short period of time, and then moving on to the next “This Year’s New Thing”.

Activity#3: Become a “firing bullets, then cannonball” innovator! Given your goals as a district, school, or teacher, what practical approaches are working for you? What results are you getting from your program? What’s out there that MIGHT improve student learning with the context of what you already do? (bullets to try). What are others doing that seems to be working? What might you (and others) pilot? How will you know if your pilot improves learning? What evidence would help you decide?

 After pilots and trials, the collection of empirical data, what should you choose to “run with” (the cannonballs) and work on for a long period of time that you think will truly make a difference in outcomes?

Great Businesses have “productive paranoia”.

Imagine that you go to the beach on a beautiful, warm, sunny day. But, while you are enjoying lying in the sun, here’s what you are thinking: What if it gets cold? What if thunderstorms appear on the horizon? How will you handle these possibilities? Are you prepared?

 Great businesses think this way. They have what Collins and Hansen call “productive paranoia”. They are always considering the negative possibilities, the risks and challenges that might occur, even in good times. They tend to keep more dollars in reserve, take fewer risks (at least risks that don’t have some empirical evidence to support the risk), prepare for down markets, consider all the negative things that might happen along the way, and take these into account as they attempt to move forward. They avoid moving in a direction that has too many possible negative outcomes, puts too much on the line, unless they are prepared for a negative result.

 Similarly, great schools and teachers also worry about negative possibilities: what to do if some students are not learning using traditional methods; how to make sure students learn the really important skills; how to handle the negative effects of implementing a new and expensive innovation; what to do if the community decides not to support higher tax assessments; how to reduce the budget in good as well as bad times; how to make sure that schools, teachers, and students get what they need to improve learning. They don’t spend a lot of money on expensive ideas unless there is considerable evidence that they will pay off. They consider as many negative factors as they can when faced with a possible opportunity that seems too good to be true!

Activity#4: Become productively paranoic! What can go wrong? How can you prepare for it? Think about the things that can go wrong as an educator. How can you prepare to make sure that, if these things occur, they will minimally disrupt your school or classroom program?


According to Collins and Hansen, what does it take to build a great, enduring organization? The answers are surprising. It takes a clear vision, clarity on the ingredients that will operationalize the vision, the discipline of a consistent march towards implementing the ingredients, trying out and testing many new ideas before implementing a few, and always looking over your shoulder at what might go wrong in order to be prepared for negative consequences and outcomes. It takes a slow and gradual accumulation of many successful actions, inputs, and activities to create successful organizations, schools, districts, and classrooms.

 The four activities described above should help schools, districts and individual teachers and leaders take stock of their goals, daily operations, innovative approaches, and strategies for improvement that should help all to improve on what they do over time. Read the book Great by Choice and the other books by Jim Collins to find out even more ways to be better at what you do.


[i] Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen (2011), Great By choice. New York, NY: Harper Collins publishers.

[ii]  For more information about these goals and recipe ingredients, go to:  www.era3learning.org

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