Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Holidays from the Sycamores!!

On behalf of the Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University, we send to you our well-wishes for the happiest and safest of holiday seasons, with much time for family, friends, and personal & professional rejuvenation.  We thank you for the support of our Blog in 2011 and look forward to many meaningful conversations in 2012 and beyond.  Please consider offering commentary on our postings in the New Year, as your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our posts are most-welcome, indeed.  We will be offering our next post, for your information and review, after the New Year.  Happy Holidays and Best Wishes in the New Year from ISU!  Go Trees!!!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Assessing Common Sense: An Overview of Intelligent Opinions

Assessing Common Sense: An Overview of Intelligent Opinions
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor & Departmental Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Blogmaster’s Note: Educational practitioners speak at times of the notion of COMMON SENSE.  Yet, what is “common sense,” really?  How is it defined?  Doctoral students from Evansville, Indiana, recently offered Associate Professor & Departmental Chairperson Dr. Steve Gruenert, at his suggestion, their thoughts and opinions on this oft-quoted concept.  Dr. Gruenert has compiled their definitions, streamlining for readership interest and scholarly learning.  Some are quotes students have cited, thus apologies to those original authors for not citing as such. Many of you are enjoying a reprieve from your professional building responsibilities this week and can, thus, take a bit more time for a “deeper read.”  Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

“…if you have ever purchased a self-help book on making common sense decisions, you lack common sense.”  -- Evansville Doctoral Student

Considerations for Common Sense Assessment via Continuum
Assessment is a term that determines a current position in relation to a desired position. Whereas the term evaluation simply gives something a value, assessment tells us how far we are from where we hope to be. To assess common sense, there needs to be an ideal established, and from that point all other possible positions need to be identified. We shall assume the ideal to be theoretical, that is, not truly to exist within any one person. Given this approach, no real definition of common sense is necessary as we simply find a way to measure the distance between where we are and where we hope to be. We’ll try to avoid defining the phrase, because of its lack of precision.
To assess common sense, we also need someone to do something. A type of observable action – which implies a decision was made to inform that action – will serve as that which is measured.  It cannot be a thought, a preference, an opinion, an idea, or emotion. While these concepts may influence a decision, we are assessing actual decisions, not the factors that impact those decisions, despite the belief that emotions plus logic create common sense.  Common sense guides the individual to use reason, driven by reason, regardless of the emotion that may be attempting to drive intuition. 
Here is one way to assess common sense: By comparing the initial reaction to the reaction you would have had, had you been given time to think things through, then determining the relationship between the two reactions.  We can assess the “distance” between what we did and (in retrospect) what we should have done. Perhaps we could devise a scale or continuum upon which to plot this distance, ultimately providing a sense of how much is necessary to maintain status within the window of common sense.

Uncommon(ineffective)                      Common                                            Uncommon(effective)
-5            -4           -3          -2          -1         0          1          2           3          4           5

As found in the above figure, we might be able to create a window of common sense, perhaps most might situate this window between -1 and +1.

There is strong argument for the notion that common sense is not defined by the user but by the consumer of the actions of the common sense. Thus, this distance should be assessed by an observer, not the actor -- which puts us in the dilemma of one person accusing another of not having “enough common sense to come in out of the rain,” while another may respond life is about taking opportunities to “dance in the rain.”

This forces us to recognize common sense not as a tangible entity held by a person; it seems to be an attribute that members of a community project on one another; a collection of traditions that a community has developed; a way of behaving which is reinforced through a recurring pattern of reactions to statements and events -- in essence, to act in ways that make sense to the relevant community. A person’s common sense standard is related to the area in which the person uses the common sense. Thus, a bit of knowledge in that area may be necessary.
The areas that may inform common sense could include, but not be limited to: (a) safety, (b) courtesy, (c) logistics, (d) behavior, (e) discipline, (f) communication, (g) social skills, (h) personnel management, (i) leadership, (j) finance, (k) relationships, (l) situational awareness, (m) optimizing, and (o)flexibility.  Additional notions include thinking sensibly while (p) remaining calm; the (q) ability to survey the social and professional scene and carefully decide on next steps that preserve important relationships but insure that important actions are taken.  Each area might be scored on the same continuum.

Uncommon(ineffective)                      Common                                            Uncommon(effective)
-5            -4           -3          -2          -1         0          1          2           3          4           5
                              (a)   (l)(g)  (c)   (i) (n) (m) (p) (q) (b)(d)     (f)       (e)     (h)(j)  (k)   (g)  (o)

The overall pattern or predominance of indicators could provide a means to determine whether a preponderance of common sense exists, or not. In the above figure, scoring indicates 8 out of 18 criteria in the common sense range. This is 44%. Most might find this person to be lacking common sense. It is important to state that this process does not assess effectiveness.
Once this process has been refined, we might be able to develop a hierarchy of performers. Those possessing the most common sense would be studied further to determine their secrets to success while the rest of us aspire to their abilities. Anyone with uncommon amounts of common sense would be granted special status. They could help us further define common sense as their actions in the future would be regarding as exemplary (see Animal Farm). This may be viewed as an attempt to project one’s own beliefs on the population at-large. A handbook on common sense could be created. Yet how much sense would it make to those who needed it? Perhaps those who do not show adequate yearly progress toward increasing their common sense could experience an intervention from the state?
To digress, many believe common sense is not measurable. To some, common sense is considered the “mean” of the shared culture, which everyone seems to know--yet to which no one can assign a value. Common sense is in the eye of the beholder; therefore, depending upon who is measuring, one might or might not display common sense. 
Yet, others find it measurable by determining when it is not present. The negative space, or lack of data, still tells us something. Lacking common sense can be an action that is assumed to be in opposition to popular opinion, and thus, that action leads to a less than desirable result. If others in the culture respond by labeling those individuals as lacking common sense, then perhaps a predominant score located to the left of common sense (on the continuum) can be defended.
Common Sense as Prelude to Effectiveness
A person has never had to be highly effective in academic performance if they were able to apply common sense. Common sense absolutely comes from learning from our mistakes and those of others.  Experience and common sense can keep you from doing stupid things. Common sense is using practical knowledge with limited, specialized knowledge.  Therefore, we might surmise a correlation between the two concepts, but not causality.
The more common the sense is, the more successful the administrator will be in the eyes of the community. It is literally knowing what to do and when to do it, and that all depends on whom the players are in the arena.  If the goal of a leader is to maintain an acceptable reputation for having common sense, he/she must be in tune to the expectations of the community. The community defines common sense.
Common sense also relies heavily on the experiences of an individual.  Experiences or background knowledge, not necessarily formal education, enables leaders to predict consequences more accurately. The mistakes leaders make when faced with new cultures are often attributed to lacking common sense.  “What were they thinking?” is a frequently asked question. Yet, to improve common sense, one should experience more surprises in life so that those can be used in the future as common sense lessons.
If we don’t think and react as the status quo of “regular-minded” people, then we are lacking common sense.  Some amount of experience is required for common sense.  Therefore, new professionals may make several mistakes and live with the consequences (unless they are pilots) before learning what not to repeat. The bridge between common sense and effectiveness is fun to imagine. Becoming effective could be perceived as a matter of cataloging mistakes – knowing what was outside of the common sense range, yet knowing which of those were okay. Common sense is something to be learned and hopefully increased over the course of on-the-job experiences and extensive human interaction.
If you can keep the common sense label, and therefore your job, you cannot move forward without bringing the understanding of the community with you, a very slow boat. While common sense is not very effective in strategic decision making, it seems to provide a comfort among folks needing to make tough decisions. In the end, the choice to balance common sense with science is made, and the process continues.  Loss aversion and status quo bias serve as two reasons why we can’t rely on common sense. Difficulty can be anticipated when what makes the most sense may not be the “common” sense.  Having experience in knowing the expected decision may be the essence of common sense.
Life Implications

The common sense verdict of the majority of ordinary people throughout history is much more likely to be accurate than the latest fashionably brilliant insight of the ruling elite. Reliance on our past experience alone can lead to predictability and prevent us from exploring new ways of thinking. Common sense is usually the default, but it can be a trap.
As you continue your trek toward the Ph.D., someone wrote: One who becomes more intelligent will begin to display less common sense.  Perhaps the best measure is having enough common sense to know when to keep your mouth shut. Intelligence is teaching others with your mouth shut…well, at least it should not be open as much as the learner.
Dr. Steve Gruenert encourages your thoughts, comments, and reactions, as well as your contributions to these notions of Common Sense, and can be reached at

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Will I Lose Touch?

Will I Lose Touch?

By Dr. Ryan A. Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            Healthy reservations were expressed to me in a question asked recently by a future Principal:  “Will I lose touch with students when I move from the classroom to school leadership? I don’t want to lose the one-on-one connections I have.”

        Natural apprehensions are to be expected in this transfer of professional responsibilities; after all, no prescribed class rosters or officially scheduled students will fill a leader’s playbook each day through which to foster and maintain positive relationships.  Plus, the fact that one’s locus of responsibility expands from 30 to 150 students all the way to 300 or 3000, as well as dealing with faculty and staff issues, is enough to get anyone’s attention.
        Well, I can say, without hesitation, that “all is good.”  I have found through many years of building leadership that a principalship was even more satisfying than a position as classroom teacher to forge one-on-one relationships with students and to make a positive difference.  This has to do with three variables:  (1) A principal’s paternal/maternal identification as a leader, (2) Autonomy for targeted/assisted intervention, and (3) Authority through which to make life-changing decisions.
          First, as principal, students often identify with you either paternally or maternally, influenced in part by the “in-loco parentis” factors of school cultural symbolism, those that occur visibly through a leader’s participation in school-day presentations, greetings, events, rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations of school life and identity.  As principal, you not only become the living logo of the building, through which school mission and vision are embodied, you also become a father or mother, a “dad” or “mom,” to students. 
Your role is such as the building’s premiere parent, and because of such, students will do what they typically do to maximize their desires for parental “permissions.”  They’ll attempt to please you, of course, and even look up to you at times, yet they’ll predictably also play “parent versus older siblings” and seek YOUR help in trumping what another in authority has demanded of them.  What this amounts to is much traffic to your office, as well as many attempts to get your ear, from all in the school community. 
To say that these experiences with you are anything less than impressionable for students would be an understatement.  Through your interactions, students hang on your every word, carrying your messages to others willingly, serving up the knowledge gleaned as most worthy of family (school family) discussion.  Your presence and symbolism have great power and impact; please realize this humbly and responsibly.
            Second, as principal, despite all that confronts you from “without” – such as the increasing responsibilities in dealing with the market forces of school competition, standardized testing pressures, classroom observation logistics, data analysis responsibilities, and curricular mandates -- the lion’s share of your time each day is spent interacting one-on-one, or in groups, “with people.”  You spend much time communicating with those who work each and every day to help your school reach its goals, thus allowing you opportunities to build, what Sergiovanni (2009) would call, relational trust with your followers.  I would suggest that with this in mind, much of your time, energy, and focus is rightfully placed upon the needs of students.
Powerful to note is that as principal, for the most part you are not required by assignment to attend to specific tasks during externally prescribed periods of time.  You set your own schedule to the degree that emergency circumstances and your Superintendent will allow. In such, you decide upon whom or what to focus.   Imagine the opportunity to focus on children each morning in the manner in which you choose -- to foster relationships with students, as each and every day provides the need for positive adult-to-child intervention. 
Before school begins each day, as Principal you can watch closely and identify those kids who are coming to school in need of most help and attention.  You then have the opportunity for a kind word, some unencumbered moments of your time, an invitation to your office, and even some personal effort to make things a bit better for them.  Imagine from the standpoint of a struggling student, the meaningfulness and memorability of a school leader’s taking the time to provide a helping hand … just because the principal cares enough to do so. I would argue that there is not a better anvil and hammer to forge relationships than your ability as a principal to “care.”   
Tough (2008) noted the importance of an educator’s caring, stating:
It was the X factor, the magic ingredient that could outweigh all the careful calculations behind [a school’s] strategy for success … what made a difference in many students’ lives was a personal connection that was impossible to measure and difficult to replicate.  If the kids didn’t get that, all the tutoring in the world might not help them. (p. 186)
Educators’ demonstrating “care” in the most arduous of circumstances was Tough’s (2008) example, through which heroes made a positive difference.  So can you.
To those who believe that school guidance counselors have this as part of their job descriptions – Absolutely; they most certainly do, as schools are not limited in the number of heroes they employ. Yet, there’s no substitute for a principal’s taking time as well to individualize and act on behalf of students, within the framework of his/her expertise, authority, interest, and compassion.  There’s enough “need” to go around in today’s schools, as children come to us more broken all of the time, in need of heroes.
            Finally, as Principal, you have the greatest authority within your building to use your panoramic perspective to “do what’s right” and make a positive difference.  You see the entire picture and can act upon it. Students and staff will seek you out for redress of  “wrongs.” Even in times in which you try your best to act discreetly and confidentially, news will spread regarding your actions. This can be used to your advantage; after all, you have the power to act when others do not. People will know more about you than you realize; they will identify closely with “the you” that your office, your beliefs, and your deeds represent.  You will create bonds with others simply because they respect and admire what you have accomplished.  You are a living logo with visible authority to wield great power on behalf of the underdog.
Thinking back to one of my most meaningful experiences as a K-12 leader, I was tending to paperwork in my office in the half hour or so after I announced to students in a school-wide meeting my retirement-of-sorts from the K-12 public schools.  As most students and staff were back in class, a small group of students filed in and sat with me, some with smiles and well-wishes; others in tears.  What surprised me the most was the fact that a few of the students who were crying were not those whom I was even aware of close feelings on their part.  Humbling. The authority through which principals make life-changing decisions brings us closer to students than we may ever realize.

            Our relationship with students, upon taking a position as a building leader, may not be exactly the same as it was while a faculty or staff member, yet it will most certainly be “as close” and “as powerful,” if not more so.  We don’t lose touch.  All is good!  Yet, I caution that with this realization of potential for strong connections, we also understand that a direct result of factors (1), (2), and  (3) above, can be as much negative as positive, if we are not acting with virtue, mission-mindfulness, and student-centeredness.  Amidst the challenges that school leadership brings to those of us willing to accept the invitation come the greatest possible rewards through relationships with students and stakeholders lasting a lifetime.


Sergiovanni, T. (2009). The principalship: A reflective practice perspective (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Tough, P. (2008). Whatever it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.

Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at Indiana State University at or at (812) 237-8624.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Is Your Investment Strategy?

What Is Your Investment Strategy?

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

During challenging financial times, school leaders must be careful, indeed, in how investments are made in Human Capital.  Most discretionary spending is gone.  Cuts are being made across the board. Times are tight.
Some have reacted by pulling in the reins on professional development funding, curtailing trips to conferences and redlining fees for in-house trainings.  Others have narrowed the focus to “needs,” not “wants, “ oft-times defining needs as training in only those content areas that will help in securing the biggest bang for the school achievement buck.  Understandable, it seems, with finite resources.
Again, these are tough times.
Although we in ISU’s Bayh College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership have sound knowledge of school finance, we can’t – and wouldn’t – tell you how to spend your money.  You are best positioned to make those decisions with knowledge of your local circumstances. 
We can, however, offer some food for thought on how to think about a new “Investment Strategy” in your greatest asset – “your people” – the star performers who make a difference on behalf of children and community each and every day.  Please let us know if this advice is helpful.
First, only invest in Human Capital that will result in Social Capital.  The days of sending teachers to trainings, only to have them return to the buildings to shut their doors and teach in isolation, are over.  Unless you will reap five-fold the investment with those involved in professional development opportunities, spend elsewhere.  Social Capital involves not only teachers within buildings networking to share their newfound expertise; it also involves those with new skills seeking community partnerships that can augment the in-class experiences for students.  As a possible rule of thumb -- “two inside partners and at least one outside partner” should be secured for each professional development opportunity leadership provides to staff.  That responsibility for securing the partnerships is the person’s attending the training.
Second, invest selectively in staff opportunity when it comes to attendance at soft-skills trainings (as I differentiate those from content-area or academic skills trainings).  Soft skills trainings, as I define these experiences, are those that help staff more effectively “reach” students through socio-emotional channels. Study the content of such to ensure that the dividends will  positively affect student “self-efficacy.”  None can argue the benefits of students’ feeling good about themselves, but I would argue that an unintentional byproduct of an overemphasis on self-esteem, as opposed to self-efficacy, in students has been the fostering of an unintentional, yet overindulgent hyper-consumerism, as opposed to an increase of individual responsibility. Staff members have a point if they say, “If kids feel awful, they can’t learn.” I agree. However, I would also pose that the path toward feeling good about oneself is through success borne of hard work and personal effort, as well as the first-hand knowledge that one is empowered to make a positive difference in his/her life as a student and as a person.  We must empower students, not enable them. Professional development should train educators to do just that.
Finally, at Indiana State University, we offer graduate students ongoing relationships and lifelong learning & professional development, not simply in-class experiences.  Consultants and trainers should do the same.  While opening your school’s checkbook -- pay heed only to outside consultants who are going to offer ongoing relationships, as opposed to one-shot drive by’s.  Some of the very good ones do this by offering ongoing coaching to organizations at reasonable prices or instructional materials for reasonable purchase after events; others do it by maintaining an active, vibrant, and professionally enriching on-line presence, one through which clients can continue learning after trainings are complete.  Still others allow for continued communication through Blogs, Twitter, Skype, and other Professional Learning Community portals.  Whatever medium exists … make sure it is one that will allow continued “learning” after the day of training is complete, in whatever form that works best for your staff.  Time and money are too precious to expect otherwise.
What is your investment strategy?  Have you examined it recently?


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at and can be found with his own on-line personality on Twitter at