School Leadership: Practice Begets Preparedness

March 22, 2021

By Mary Pat Fralick

According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

Stated more simply, critical thinking is the opposite of the regular, moment to moment thinking that we do all day. If we stopped to think critically about every decision we make, we would not get very much done. Conversely, if we make important decisions without pausing to think critically, outcomes could be catastrophic. It is therefore important to learn how to actively recognize when we should not let our automatic mental processes govern important decisions.

Once we realize that a decision requires critical thinking, we must gather information from observing the situation, reflecting upon our own experiences, and communicating and reasoning with others.  Only after we have gathered information from those sources we can then begin to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate alternatives.  

Simulations can create a real environment for the purposes of both learning and practicing. What is the difference between a learning-based and a practice-based simulation?  A learning-based simulation teaches participants to complete a task or tasks with the goal of specific outcomes, i.e., learn how to do a behavior to meet a defined objective.  A practice-based simulation affords participants an opportunity to test their knowledge and competence by applying judgment and make decisions. The goal of a practice-based simulation is not necessarily to make the right decisions nor to get to the best outcome, but rather to have the experience.

Practice-based simulations are therefore the perfect modality to learn when to think critically versus act mindlessly and how to think critically quickly when time is of the essence.  Because effective simulations mimic real life, participants are required to deal with issues as they arise (one after another) and must decide which problems to handle first while balancing the often-conflicting expectations of various stakeholders. Because simulations allow for the acceleration of time, spending too much time on a less important issue allows time for a manageable issue to develop into an unmanageable one. Experiencing the consequences of decisions within the simulation confirms the importance of thinking through and evaluating possible outcomes before making decisions. And because simulations can be played synchronously with a group or asynchronously by individuals, they can be designed so that the participant is the leader of an organization who is faced with a complex challenge or designed so that the resolution of the situation requires the cooperation of a team. Simulations literally and figuratively can prepare you for anything.

SchoolSims Leadership Simulations provide current and aspiring leaders the opportunity to experience complex, high stakes situations before they happen in real life. As practice-based simulations, each simulation is set in a unique context, for example: the size, location and culture of the school, the school’s level of diversity, your position and tenure at the school, etc. varies.  This allows participants to learn that context matters and see that choices that are right in one context may be wrong in another.

Since SchoolSims simulations cover authentic topics, participants can practice and gain experience in handling a wide range of scenarios with options that are carefully mapped to professional standards to improve student achievement. Like the PSEL standards, SchoolSims simulations “…are designed to ensure that educational leaders are ready to meet effectively the challenges and opportunities of the job today and in the future as education, schools and society continue to transform.” (National Policy Board for Educational Administration (2015). Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015. Reston, VA: Author)

It is commonly believed that to become good at something – really good at something – you need to practice. This is clearly obvious in sports; you need a lot of repetitions to master a skill. For example, becoming a better free throw shooter requires hours in the gym and when those shooters step up to the line in game situations, their “muscle memory” takes over.  We call those shooters “automatic”. When a high percentage shooter misses a critical free throw at the end of a close game, the miss is often attributed to “over thinking it”, i.e., they let their nerves interfere with their muscle memory.   

Making critical decisions within a simulation allows for the development of the muscle memory leaders need to lead successfully. Those simulated repetitions or “at bats” add to a current or aspiring leader’s portfolio of experiences and gives them the confidence to stay calm and make the best decisions.

Clearly, there is a lot more at stake than the outcome of a basketball game when school leaders find themselves on the line. SchoolSims practice-based, leadership simulations are an authentic way to develop and prepare school leaders so that when faced with challenges, they are quick to consider the context, gather the appropriate facts, consult the right resources, and refer to their past experiences (real and simulated) before a course of action is chosen. Those are the leaders you want on your team.