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COMMENT: Edwin Bridges, School of Education, (415) 723-4536; e-mail:

Future school principals learn under fire in Stanford program

STANFORD -- Rick, the vice principal, never knows who'll show up in his office.

Yesterday he faced Steve Davis, a normally well-behaved kid who was referred by the physical education teacher for causing a commotion in class. Rick questioned Steve about the incident and let him go with a stern warning.


Natalie Rollhaus, assistant to the superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District, responds to tough questioning by a "reporter" during a media training session for principals-in-training at the School of Education.

Today, Rick faces Vicki Berger, her lips pursed as he talks, her posture frozen ramrod straight. A local businesswoman and friend of the school board president, Mrs. Berger threatens to see a lawyer. It was her son that Steve punched yesterday, but it wasn't until she showed up in his office today that Rick learned the school nurse sent the Berger boy to the hospital and a doctor used five stitches to close the wound on his face.

In the place where Rick works, nobody gets all the information they need to do their jobs well unless they ask for it, by dictum of the boss, Professor Edwin Bridges. Rick won't find out, for example, about programs the local police run for dealing with gangs or that the classes of just 15 percent of the teachers generate 85 percent of the disciplinary problems ­ unless he asks for the information. "That's the way the world works, and we are trying to recreate it as closely as possible," said Bridges.

Welcome to the afternoon practicum for principals in training at the Stanford School of Education. It's a place where people "don't talk about what we would do in certain situations ­ we do it," said Bridges, the soft-spoken developer of something called problem-based learning.

Rick and other highly regarded teachers who aspire to become principals take the practicum for three summer terms. In this simulated workplace, they get to practice school leadership after taking more traditional education courses in the morning. On the sets of their Cubberley Building classrooms, with coached actors playing the roles of teachers, parents, students and even newspaper reporters, most discover rather quickly that the emperor has few clothes.

"It's a shock for most of them," said Mike Copland, a former Bellingham, Wash., school principal, who is one of six eavesdroppers in Rick's office when Mrs. Berger pays her visit. Working alone in their classrooms, many teachers have little idea of what a principal's day is like, said Copland, who, as a doctoral student, is helping Bridges and Kenneth Hill, a lecturer and former superintendent of Redwood City schools, organize the practicum. They base it on incidents that have occurred in real schools.

Teachers have little exposure, for instance, to the number of spontaneous interruptions principals and vice principals face, Copland said. To familiarize them quickly, first-year students in the Stanford training program go through a two-hour simulation in which each has to try to act on a stack of routine items in an in-basket, with interruptions every few minutes by visitors or callers demanding immediate attention. The practicum causes many to temporarily lose their self-assurance and to doubt whether they are cut out for the job. Mrs. Berger, played convincingly by Vicki Oldberg, the associate dean of administration at the School of Education, is one such "interruption."

"I personally guarantee your son's safety," Rick says confidently, leaning forward toward Mrs. Berger. She shifts in her chair, glares back and fires a litany of the school's disciplinary problems, which she read about in local newspapers the previous year.

After Mrs. Berger stomps out of Rick's office, slamming the door behind her, Rick's body sinks into his chair, he shakes his head slightly and comments to no one in particular, "Nothing would please that woman."

The eavesdroppers take over, helping Rick sort out what he's just been through.

Gail Donovan, a former principal, begins by reminding him he was at a disadvantage because the day before, he had not obtained the information about the injury that resulted from the classroom fight. "She had you from the beginning," Donovan says of Mrs. Berger.

Rick's fellow students are more sympathetic, commenting on what he did well. They phrase their criticism as questions. "I wonder if she would have been more satisfied if you had let her tell you why she was there first," one asks.

Bridges offers more detailed suggestions, being careful to convey that there is no magic formula, no one right way. He tells Rick and his two student teammates, who are observers for this lesson, that in another student team, the student serving as vice principal chose to suspend Steve for three days. He then had to face Steve's angry mother, instead of Mrs. Berger. Bridges hands the students a videotape so their team can later watch what they might have faced had they chosen a different action.

These de-briefings are a key component of the problem-based learning method that Bridges pioneered, based on grand rounds in medical education.

In grand rounds, medical students who already have taken many courses practice making clinical diagnoses under the watchful eye of more experienced doctors.

"I read some material on medical education and I wondered how I could create a model to adapt it to leadership education," Bridges said. "In medical school, there is not much emphasis on issues of leadership or meeting management, which are critical [skills] to principals. They have a great emphasis on . . . the underlying mechanisms of disease or clinical reasoning. I wanted to emphasize the underlying mechanisms of group problem-solving processes and the use of problems as a stimulus for further learning."

Bridges' curricular materials and methods have found influence in at least a half dozen countries and other disciplines. He is running a teleconference this month for California-based university professors who have read one of his books and want to discuss applying the methods to teaching their coursework in other disciplines or professional training programs. He introduced problem-based learning to all departments and disciplines at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last winter and his materials are used in some U.S. universities and in school districts as part of their in-service training.

For his Chinese students, the methods were even more shocking than for American students, Bridges said. "There isn't even any discussion in Chinese classes. It is straight lecture." The Chinese students appeared to appreciate it though, showing up early and staying late for class, which was not their normal practice. In their evaluations, Bridges said, many said they learned a great deal from watching others perform under pressure.

In the Stanford program, students write essays in which they frequently express deep feelings about what they learned. "I am continually amazed at what I do not know," one participant wrote this year in an essay on her practicum experiences dealing with how to "mainstream" disabled students. The student spent a day without using her right hand in order to simulate a disability and discovered that forming letters with her left hand took so much concentration that she lost track of the class discussion. "It will change the way I teach forever," she wrote.

Donovan earned her doctorate at Stanford in 1980 when training was limited to more conventional lectures, discussion and testing. At that time she believed that a principal needed to acquire "deep knowledge in discrete fields," such as curriculum, testing, political science and media studies, she said. Now, she believes it requires "developing a structure for systematic analysis and action on problems." In her training, she said, the frustrations that principals face were analyzed in education classes, but she didn't really feel frustration until her first job as director of a child care center.

"A principal can't do anything without building a consensus, and people perceive you differently than you think. I learned how I was perceived on the job, which was sometimes very painful," Donovan said. Bridges' students are learning instead to "grapple with uncertainty. I had increased knowledge after my program. They have more deep changes that will affect their actions."

Donovan now heads the professional continuing education programs for members of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Many principals, she said, complain about the in-service training courses that they are required to take periodically. Mostly, these are modeled after corporate training programs and offer a prominent lecturer on a subject of concern, such as school discipline. The lectures are sometimes followed by small group discussions in which principals talk about how they would handle a problem. Donovan hopes to introduce some of Bridges' techniques but said she doesn't expect all principals to embrace it immediately. "Lectures are less threatening. In the practicum, your thinking and assumptions are accessible to critique by your peers."

Last October, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, working with nine professional organizations for educators, announced new standards for the training of school administrators. The standards emphasize the role of the principal as a team leader, rather than as boss, and introduced a protocol that would require accredited training programs to offer in-school internships to bridge the gap between theory learned in the classroom and practice in the schools.

Internships provide experience, Donovan said, but she thinks a practicum is needed more. At least one state, Mississippi, recently mandated problem-based learning for its school leadership training programs in addition to internships.

"Internships for school leaders, like many other internships and service-learning experiences for undergraduates, are not well directed," Donovan said. "You act in the heat of the moment and there is no reflective feedback component."

Bridges agrees: "In internships, students generally don't get feedback, and if they make a mistake, the consequences are negative. The environment becomes hostile, whereas a mistake in our practicum is a learning opportunity."



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