Why schools are in trouble when the most honest conversations occur in parking lots

Dennis Sparks

Parking lot conversations usually mean that people are not saying what they really think in meetings, which means the school community is deprived of their perspectives and experience.

Parking lot meetings usually mean that important problems remain unsolved and the school community is deprived of an important source of professional learning.

Parking lot meetings usually mean that there is a low level of trust in the school community.

Parking lot conversations also undermine trust.

What can be done to address this problem?

1. Name the elephant in the room. Begin a crucial conversation about this important subject, a conversation that will likely be the first of many. Ignoring or minimizing the problem only feeds the elephant.

2. Establish meeting agreements in which participants agree to have important conversations within meeting rooms. The agreement also specifies what will be done if it is violated.

3. Use protocols to engage everyone in the conversation to ensure productive meetings.

4. Include professional learning as an agenda item in most meetings, if even for a few minutes. Ideally, such professional learning will be closely linked to the meeting’s primary purposes.

What processes do you use or have you experienced to address the problem of parking lot meetings?

The challenge of developing your point of view

Dennis Sparks

The most difficult work many professionals do… is getting someone else to agree with their point of view and take action. The second most difficult work professionals do is developing a point of view in the first place. – Seth Godin

In my experience, Seth Godin has it exactly right. It is common sense: Without clarity regarding one’s point of view it is virtually impossible to get others to agree with it. If we don’t know what we think and cannot express it clearly, it is very difficult to influence others.

Many leaders do not know and therefore cannot clearly express what they think about many important educational issues because:

  • they devote more time and attention to developing the clarity of others than they do to their own clarity;
  • developing clarity requires time and attention, both of which are in short supply in the daily lives of leaders, and
  • developing clarity is an intellectually demanding task that is easy to postpone.

It is essential that leaders sufficiently value clarity to make it a daily priority. To that end they:

  • clarify their thinking through writing, often in multiple drafts, before sharing their thinking with others, and
  • further refine their views by explaining them to others with an openness to having their views refined and even altered in those conversations.

What processes do you use to develop your clarity, and in what ways do you interact with others that you find most influential?

Meetings add energy or deplete it…

Dennis Sparks

Meetings add energy to the school community or they deplete it. They seldom have a neutral effect.

Meetings that energize:

• Have clearly stated purposes that community members care about, with agenda items and outcomes matched to those purposes,

• Produce learning that is likely to alter participants’ beliefs, understandings, and behavior for the benefit of those purposes,

• Engage all participants in intellectually-stimulating conversations that spiral deeper into important issues,

• Conclude with clear “next actions” — everyone knows exactly what will be done, by whom, and by when, and

• Have high levels of interpersonal accountability to ensure that tasks are completed on time in the agreed upon way.

Meetings that deplete energy:

•  Lack one or more of the above,

• Focus on administrivia, and/or

• Consist of serial speechmaking, often dominated by meeting leaders, during which predictable views are expressed and remain firmly held. As a result, nothing of consequence changes during or after the meetings.

What would you add to these lists?

Believing is seeing

Dennis Sparks

Most of view ourselves as rational, so it makes sense to believe that we and others make or should make decisions based on logic and evidence.

In reality, though, beliefs and feelings play a large role in our decisions, often without our conscious awareness. Our beliefs and feelings, in fact, often determine the “facts” we see.

So, instead of “seeing is believing,” in many circumstances “believing is seeing.”

That’s why  logical, fact-laden attempts at persuasion are less effective than direct experiences, stories, and images.

That doesn’t mean that research, evidence, and logic have no purpose in faculty meetings and other venues where important professional learning occurs and decisions are made.

But it does mean that while these methods may be necessary to persuade others to commit to a new course of action and to sustain their commitment, they are seldom sufficient.

Can you think of times when decisions (either good ones or not) were more influenced by anecdotes or experiences than by evidence and logic?

Aren’t leaders supposed to know all the answers?

Dennis Sparks

Here’s something that’s counterintuitive for many leaders: Admitting that you don’t know something (which is usually obvious anyway) helps others become more skillful in identifying and solving problems.

Leaders who pretend to know everything disempower others. As a result, problem-solving abilities atrophy rather than grow.

Ellen Langer explains it this way in her book Mindfulness:

“Of all the qualities in a manager conducive to innovation and initiative, a degree of uncertainty may be the most powerful. If a manager is confident but uncertain—confident that the job will get done but without being certain of exactly the best way of doing it—employees are likely to have more room to be creative, alert, and self-starting.”

If my goal as a leader was to deplete energy in the school community, I would:

• Tell people what the problem is,

• Tell them the solution,

• Tell them it was their job to implement my solution, and

• To make certain that I was 100% successful in discouraging them, I would label as “unprofessional” those who disagree with me.

In what ways have you seen leaders meaningful engage others in the school community in finding and solving important problems so that their problem-solving skills grow rather than decline.

A year without PowerPoint

Dennis Sparks

Like many readers of this blog, I sometimes attend meetings that feature one or more PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes those are “training meetings,” which means that the explicit purpose is that participants learn something of value.

It is not uncommon for the meeting’s convener or “trainer” to conclude the “presentation” by saying something like, “Now that we have covered…” or “Now that you understand….”

Giving people lists of rapidly-paced information with the assumption that they have learned something is bad teaching—no matter the age of the learners—unless the goal is to create a near-death experience for the participants.

I think of the presentation of lists as the “PowerPoint Syndrome,” although it is not always done with PowerPoint.

Here is a recent example from an organization with whom I volunteer that requires periodic online “inservice.” For about 45 minutes I listened and watched as a speaker read factual information from a list of slides that I was able to view on my computer screen. (I could have read the slides much more rapidly than the speaker spoke them.)

At the conclusion I was given a multiple-choice test of 10 questions seemingly randomly selected from the dozens if not hundreds of points that have been made during the presentation.

Because I am a good test taker, I passed the test with a perfect score. Did I understand the subject matters well enough to explain it to someone else? No. Did I acquire any skill useful in my volunteer work? No. Could I even remember most of the content a few hours later? No.

PowerPoint presentations are a part of a broader problem of teaching and learning that equates teaching with telling and performing.

I am not opposed to all PowerPoint presentations. Occasionally they are the most efficient means of providing a relatively quick overview of a topic or important information.

While presenting learners with information is sometimes appropriate, my objection is to the mindless overuse of long and endless lists of low-level information that cannot possibly be absorbed, yet alone understood.

To promote the mindful use of PowerPoint, I propose a year in which PowerPoint will only be used in meeting agendas or lesson plans when they can be fully justified as essential to the purposes of the meeting or lesson and they have no ill-effects (such as near-death experiences).

Just as the admonition “first do no harm” requires doctors to consider the possible negative effects of medical treatment on patients, so, too, must administrators and teacher leaders consider the ill effects of mindless PowerPoint presentations on teaching, professional development, and meetings.

What do you think—what is the appropriate role of PowerPoint in meetings and learning environments for young people and adults alike?

A year without “presentations”

Dennis Sparks

The start of a school year offers a blank slate for the development of new habits.

In recognition of the value of a fresh start I propose the elimination of the list-heavy PowerPoint type of “presentations” that dominate many meetings and far too much “professional development.”

Presenting” is not synonymous with “teaching.” Teaching, in my mind, is a complex cognitive and behavioral process in which teachers, and often their students, choose learning outcomes, select the instructional methods that are most likely to produce those outcomes, determine whether the learning has been acquired, and provide additional learning opportunities for students who have not achieved mastery.

Presenting, on the other hand, may include some or all of those steps, but in practice seldom does.

While “presenters” may intentionally engage learners through various activities, more often than not they speak to mostly passive “audiences,” which is why professional development is often derisively known as “sit and get.”

As they are commonly used, presentations are not intended nor designed to give more than lip service to higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, assessment, the critical analysis of research, and the development of professional judgment, among other complex instructional knowledge and skills.

Therefore, I recommend:

That “presentations” be used sparingly and only when the explicit goal is “communicating” a modest amount of information for relatively low-level purposes. Such presentations are not to be confused with the type of learning experiences required to deepen understanding of complicated subjects or to develop complex skills.

That leaders be ruthlessly honest with themselves and others to determine if the “presentations” they are considering are really a good use of teachers’ time and good will.

That the term “teaching,” not “presentation,” be used to describe the methods required for the development of the kinds of knowledge and skills mentioned above.

We honor teachers and teaching when we use the verb “teach” to describe the processes by which important and complex understandings and skills are developed, whether the students are young people or professional adults.

In another post I wrote, “… with few exceptions, presentations—because of their typically brief and superficial nature—do not change beliefs, create deep understanding, or cultivate new habits of mind or behavior because they are seldom truly intended to achieve those ends. And if those are the expressed purposes of a “presentation,” let’s then call it what it is—teaching.”

I urge administrators and teacher leaders to consciously justify the absolute necessity of every “presentation.” I am confident that few presentations will meet the standard of being “a good use of teachers’ time and goodwill,” which hopefully means their rapid demise.

All of the above require that leaders be more intentional about the kinds of learning experiences required for educators to expand and deepen the sophisticated and nuanced skills and understandings of their profession.

What do you think—do “presentations” have a place, and, if so, what purposes do they best serve?

[A year without presentations will also likely require a year without PowerPoint, which will be subject of my next post.]


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