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Askwith Forum: Principally Speaking

By Lewis I. Rice on November 2, 2006 1:31 PM

For Roland Barth, it was the ultimate teachable moment. In front of a room filled with principals and other educators, he asked audience members to close their eyes and think back to what inspired their most profound learning experiences.

In response, participants told stories about the conditions under which they learned best. Those stories unlock the key to learning that is in the hands of every principal, said Barth.

"The educational leader," he said, "is the person who introduces these conditions into the culture of the school."

The founder of The Principals' Center at HGSE, Barth gave an interactive presentation titled "Promoting Learning: Lessons Learned, Lessons to be Learned" at the Askwith Forum in early November. The former public school teacher, principal, and recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, has written several books, including Learning by Heart and Improving Schools from Within. His talk coincided with the 25th anniversary of the center dedicated to the professional development of school leaders.

Barth said the center began after he asked a group of principals what would draw them to a Harvard program. They responded that they wanted to converse with peers from different backgrounds, including urban, suburban, rural, and parochial schools.

The group that attended The Principals' Center's 25th Anniversary Institute, which examined the future of the principalship, represented that diversity, as Barth discovered when he polled the audience. He ensured that they did indeed converse when he asked people to find a partner from a different background and share their stories of learning.

"Truth dressed as story is easier to embrace," he said, and added that "learning, as we all know, is a social activity."

After the social buzz faded, a few shared their tales. One principal took over a school in disarray, which offered an opportunity for growth. Another became principal at the high school from which he graduated less than 15 years before; he would supervise people who had been his teachers. It was a stressful situation, one that forced him to learn how to be a leader.

"People learn most when they're taking a risk and when there's a safety strap to protect them," said Barth.

Some people learn in their own idiosyncratic ways, he said. But certain conditions provide a more universal impetus for learning, like passion, challenge, opportunity to problem solve, risk, and necessity. Barth asked the principals in the audience to think about whether they provide these conditions for the teachers in their schools. He asked them to think about if their teachers provide them for their students.

But first, he said, the most important question to ask is: Do I provide these conditions for myself?
"You can't lead," said Barth, "where you won't go."