Did you ever have a great idea, a direction in which you wanted to go, and then needed to lead others to join you? The natural approach is to make your list of reasons, lay out a timeline of actions, and share that with others. That’s what I call a “transaction” — I have information or skills that I pass on to you.

The problem with transactions is that they do not necessarily generate “buy-in” and passion for the goal, and, at best, you obtain compliance. The problem with compliance is that, once the pressure is off or the leader moves on to another idea or initiative, that first one loses steam, as it is no longer seen as a priority. This is true of the teaching and learning process as well: Transactions do not lend themselves to long-term retention of learning.

If you plan to leave a legacy, whether as a leader of teachers or a leader of students, you need to ensure that the work will continue on with passion and innovation even when you’re no longer involved. That requires shifting people’s belief systems.

Transactions seek to change people’s behaviors (words and actions) with the expectation of achieving new results. But all behaviors and results actually stem from deeply held beliefs.

For example, if a teacher does not believe that it is his or her job to figure out how to ensure each student learns at high levels and only believes that students who come to class willing and able will benefit from instruction . . . you can offer all the PD you want on differentiation; it will not produce the results you want. You need to shift the underlying beliefs, and that requires a transformation in thinking . . . a paradigm shift.

In our book, Students Taking Charge Implementation Guide for Leaders, Tanya, Julie, and I share 10 mindsets for leading innovation. The first is “From Transactional to Transformational.”

Transformations occur in our lives all the time, often related to the wisdom we gain from experience. Leaders must create the conditions for transformations to occur. Years ago, when rubrics were just being introduced on a wide scale to schools, we were advocating for using rubrics to drive student learning and action in the classroom. A principal shared with me an idea he used at a faculty meeting and I adopted and adapted it for our own professional development offerings at IDE Corp. Here is a summary from a workshop I conducted with teachers on the importance of rubrics:

I divided the group into smaller groups of four. I gave each group a bag of gumdrops and a box of toothpicks and told them to design their dream house, sharing that after 15 minutes I would ask them to share their creation with the rest of the workshop participants. Teachers got to work and developed the most creative and interesting dream houses. Unbeknownst to them, I was using this as an assessment (as opposed to instruction) and had a grading rubric. The rubric included criteria such as including at least five geometric shapes and ensuring each group member played a part in the presentation. Both are criteria that, in all of my career using this activity, no one ever thinks of including.

At the end of the time, each group shared their dream house. The teachers applauded one another; everyone was smiling and laughing along the way. Then I thanked them and said, “Okay, here are your grades.” I told the first group, “You received a 26.” One person asked, “Out of how many points?” “One hundred,” I said. They looked shocked. This continued around the room, with me saving the highest score for last. “And the last group received a 56 percent.” That group began cheering and offering high-fives all around.

Soon the room turned angry, with teachers asking me why I didn’t give them the rubric up front and exclaiming that if they had the rubric up front, they could have gotten an A! I allowed the group to continue in their anger until one person said, “Ohhhhhh, I think I get it. We do this to our students all the time, don’t we?” The room got quiet and I said, “Exactly!” This led to a discussion on how teachers have an idea of what they are looking for in an assignment, but they don’t always let students know in advance. I asked them how they felt about their dream house projects, and they shared that they felt deflated, awful, and like they never wanted to do anything for me again! They got the point that this is how our students feel when they can’t read our minds. I then drew their attention to the fact that the last group was cheering over receiving an F, just because it was the highest F in the room. Do we set students up to have lower expectations by making it impossible for them to succeed in meeting our higher expectations? Teachers leaving this workshop shared that they would never again teach without a rubric.

What was so powerful about that experience was that the teachers had an emotional reaction; they were able to feel what it was like to be a student. And it shifted their beliefs about the value of rubrics and the dangers of not using them. It produced a transformation.

Had I simply offered a lesson defining rubrics and their value, along with the steps to create them, I would have had teachers designing rubrics. They would have left with rubrics they could use. And maybe they’d even try one! From there, maybe some would become dedicated to using rubrics. If I stopped working in the district and returned five years later, though, I wonder how many would still be using them. Essentially, I would have been a transactional leader. The gumdrop dream house activity is the work of a transformational leader.

The same applies to classrooms. When teachers offer lessons, they are creating transactions. When teachers offer experiences that change the way students think about a topic, they are creating transformations.

Transformations are generally brought about by using:

  • – Experiences that elicit emotions
  • – Metaphors that allow the brain to apply known beliefs to a new, parallel situation
  • – “Aha” moments in which people experience an incongruity between what they believe and reality

For more, read our book Students Taking Charge Implementation Guide for Leaders, join a Virtual Learning Community on the “10 Mindsets for Transformational Leadership,” or contact us for information on leadership retreats and coaching at solutions@idecorp.com.