Posts Tagged 'Dennis Sparks'

Can teachers give away what they don’t have?

Dennis Sparks

• Is it possible for teachers to create classroom cultures of high-cognitive engagement if their own meetings and professional development require little intellectual engagement?

• Is it possible for teachers in a school with incoherent, fragmented improvement efforts to create coherent, focused instruction in their classrooms?

• Is it possible for teachers who work in professional isolation to create classrooms with high-levels of student cooperation?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But, it’s a qualified yes.

Within every school—not matter how problematic its culture and structures may be—there are teachers who rise above the circumstances of their environment.

But if the goal is quality teaching and learning in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then the bar for intellectual engagement and meaningful collaboration in faculty meetings, school culture, and professional development is set much higher.

Put another way, a school faculty cannot give away what it doesn’t experience on a regular basis in the professional culture of the school.

Do you agree? 

“Every encounter matters”: An interview with Chris Kennedy

Dennis Sparks

When I am asked to name a school system leader who is an exemplar in the use of blogging and Twitter to further educational purposes, Chris Kennedy is the first person that comes to mind.

Chris is superintendent of schools in the West Vancouver School District in British Columbia. Chris’  blog, the “Culture of Yes” and tweets (@chrkennedy) are a model of of how school leaders can use social/learning media to teach, encourage, celebrate, and link educators within and beyond West Vancouver. As a result, Chris’ influence is felt not only in British Columbia but throughout North America and around the world.

So I was particularly eager to see Chris’ responses to these questions.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity.  They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control.  This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people that encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students – how will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves.  They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often get distracted.  That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller.  I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents, and the community.

Sometimes teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger.  As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.

 

A professional responsibility to continuously improve teaching

Dennis Sparks

My previous post highlighted the problem of “either/or thinking” when it’s applied to professional development.

Such thinking is also a problem when educators discuss their responsibility for improving student learning in the face of poverty and other challenging economic and social conditions.

Some say that poverty is too strong a force for schools to overcome. Others believe that there is ample evidence that schools can teach all students to high levels no matter what their socio-economic status may be.

For me it is not either/or, but both/and.

I am fully convinced the poverty affects student learning and the overall quality of children’s lives. That seems irrefutable.

Poverty has a profoundly negative effect on the quality of life for young people and their families. I hope that educators join with others to do everything in their power to blunt its impact if not eliminate it.

And:

We know a great deal about the kind of teaching that engages all students in meaningful learning, no matter their socio-economic status. And we know a great deal about the kinds of structures (professional learning communities, for instance) and the attributes of school cultures that enable such teaching.

As a result, educators have a professional responsibility to continuously improve the quality of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students, particularly those facing daunting life challenges.

Do you agree or disagree? What are the individual and collective responsibilities of educators in the face of serious social problems?

 

Finding the “third way” of professional development

Dennis Sparks

It is common to simplify complex things by thinking of them in binary ways—yes/no, black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure, and so on.

As a result, we often don’t see shades of gray or “third ways” to solve problems.

Many conversations about improving the quality of professional learning are framed in binary ways, particularly the emotionally-laden issue of who controls it—administrators or teachers.

In these conversations administrator-driven professional development is typically viewed as top-down, out of touch, and often demeaning. It is characterized by “sit and get,” irrelevance, and boredom.

Teacher-driven professional development, on the other hand, is described as motivating, relevant, and immediately useful.

I can say that from my decades of experience in a variety of settings that teacher planned and implemented professional development can be just as ineffective (or effective) as that planned by administrators. There are wonderful examples of long-standing teacher-directed professional development that demonstrably improves teaching and learning. And there are some that make little or no difference.

Fortunately, there is a third way in which professional development is “directed” by stretching, clearly-defined goals for student learning.

The “third way” has as its overarching purpose the continuous improvement of the quality of teaching and learning for all students in all classrooms in all schools. There are undoubtedly many other valuable purposes for professional development, but if that purpose is not fulfilled, in my mind, professional development has failed, no matter what other benefits it may provide.

The third way involves finding the appropriate blend of team-based learning/collaboration within the school in which all teachers participate and individualized approaches, including the use of social/learning media, for improving the knowledge and skills of teachers to provide tailored solutions for their unique challenges.

Such a blending of team-based and individualized methods requires skillful leadership that acknowledges the value of both non-negotiable team-based learning for the benefit of all students and individualized teacher learning goals and methods.

That means that when professional development is effectively lead and well designed it is both/and, not either/or.

 

Why it’s essential for school board members to be intentional learners

Dennis Sparks

First among many superb ideas to be found in A School Board Guide to Leading Successful Schools: Focusing on Learning by Stephanie Hirsh and Anne Foster is this one:

“Exemplary school boards are made up of members who come to the board for the right reason–to provide quality public schools for the children of their school system.… They are committed to serving and learning, and their example can become a model for the entire school system and community.…

“Each person on the school board brings a unique set of experiences and knowledge that can be valuable to the group as a whole. But regardless of the knowledge and viewpoint that each member brings, the entire board is on a continuous learning curve. Board members can grow together in their knowledge of public school issues, school system business, and their role as board members. How they go about learning and continually upgrading their knowledge will determine to a large degree how successfully they will work together and lead the school system. How deeply they are willing to learn about important issues will determine the quality of their decision making, their attempts to reach consensus, and their ability to support the superintendent and staff. (bold mine)

In my experience, a system of learning schools requires a school board and superintendent who are intentional and public learners.

There are no exceptions to this requirement if the goal is high-quality teaching for all students in all classrooms in all schools.

Do you agree?

If so, I encourage you to read and pass on Hirsh and Foster’s book to a school board member who seeks to better understand the importance of Board learning and teamwork. Better yet, if you are in a position to do so, provide copies for the entire Board and ask members to devote as many sessions as possible to its study.

 

Kent Peterson suggests ways to support “wary and weary” teachers

Dennis SparksKent Peterson was one of the first educational thought leaders to recognize the power of school culture in shaping teaching and learning, an influence he explored with co-author Terrence Deal in Shaping School Culture.

So I was particularly eager to see how he would respond to the questions I put to him.

Kent is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spoken to school leaders across the U.S. and internationally about shaping positive and transforming toxic school cultures. He may be contacted at
kpeterson@education.wisc.edu.

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from observing and studying it?

Over the past decade I have visited hundreds of schools and talked with thousands of school principals and teacher leaders, and in all cases there are several important things that they school leaders do.

First, they work to make school culture and environment a positive one, where all are respected, there is a sense of purpose in the school that is clear and focused on students, and the contributions of everyone are celebrated.

Second, they build trusting relationships by being consistent, following through, and caring about the learning of teachers and students.

Third, work in the classroom is supported and celebrated—the administrative side of the school is well organized and dependable.

They also say that school leaders connect with all staff and community—food service workers, secretaries, custodians, parents, and teachers—fostering energy and commitment.

In short they make the school an enjoyable place to work with positive relationships and a clear, shared direction.

What would you say to a principal in his or her first year on the job?

When a new principal enters the building many expectations, issues, and demands confront them—some positive, some quite difficult; some obvious and some hidden. While the regular administrative issues need to be addressed, it is key to learn about the culture of the school.

Every school has a culture—that set of norms and values, traditions and ceremonies—that shape everything that occurs.

Early on, a new principal needs to do several things right away.  First, learn about the current culture.  Find out what are the ways teachers interact, work together (or not), and share ideas.  Ask about the important traditions of the school and the ceremonies and celebrations that give the school life from August to June.

Second, delve into the history of the school and find out what shaped the culture.  Who were the prior principals and what were they like?  What were the ways previous principals interacted with teachers, students and parents? Ask yourself how you are different from these prior leaders.  Consider the history of change in the school—was it a positive experience or a grueling trudge?

Finally, talk to teachers about what they like best about the school, aspects that really make them proud and happy to work there.  Consider nurturing and celebrating these in the early months in the school year.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

School leaders who both enjoy their work and who are successful at helping teachers and students learn seem to exhibit several characteristics.  They have:

• A clear set of values focused on students.

• The ability to build positive relationships with staff and between staff.

• An understanding of the administrative side of schools, with a strong sense of the how to foster a positive school culture.

• A clear knowledge of how to enhance the learning of staff.

• The ability to do complex problem solving.

• A healthy balance in their own lives that fosters positive relations within and outside school.

• A sense of humor.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

There are many ways to build skills and knowledge about leading and about oneself.  Leaders have told me that they have developed deeper understandings and knowledge through:

• Great professional development that engages their minds and hearts.

• Good colleagues who ask tough questions, offer interesting or complex ideas, and who deeply understand school leadership.

• A personal approach to gaining insights, sometimes called experiential learning.  This involves analysis of one’s actions and the reactions or consequences followed by building new insights about what happened, and then experimenting with a new approach based on these insights.

• Reading.  And not only educational or leadership sources but novels, short stories, blogs, plays, and personal reflections on life.  These can push and expand understanding of schools, people, and oneself.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

Paradoxically, leaders in all organizations need to find a balance of change and stability.  Pacing a change means that movement forward does not unbalance the boat.

But if the needs of children are not being addressed, a red light should come on and leaders need to develop a sense of urgency and commitment to the changes needed to serve children.

Change is never easy and in schools, with so many years of changes, some staff may be reluctant to jump into new curricula or teaching approaches.  While some of these changes were perhaps “bandwagons” and disappeared, others are useful trains to jump aboard (such as job-embedded staff development and the use of data for decision making, to name two).

But teachers have become both wary and weary at times, resistant to trying new approaches. Here are some suggestions from teacher leaders, principals, and those who study schools.

•  Connect the change to existing values and purposes.  Most new techniques exist to accomplish existing goals—but one needs to be clear how they do.

•  Provide the needed resources, support, and time to make the implementation of new ideas smooth and (relatively) easy.  Most classroom or school level changes have to be fit into existing routines—it takes time, professional learning, and materials to do this.  Leaving one of these out can crash any new initiative.

•  Understand and acknowledge the concerns of teachers.  The history of change for seasoned staff is not always a positive one.  Some of the concerns and resistance come from the reality of other failed reforms.  Acknowledge these past efforts that raise concerns and show how the new efforts will be different.

•  Fullan talks about seeking small successes; I agree.  Identify the small successes along the way but also celebrate the larger victories months if not years into the implementation.

In what ways do you recommend principals spend their time, energy, and resources to improve schools?

I would suggest that principals think about their time as an investment in school improvement. As we know, principals engage in hundreds of different activities in a day, work on a large set of problems and issues, and have interactions with dozens if not hundreds of different people.

Principals should see each of these activities as an investment of their time and energy, an opportunity to make the school better.  Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school.  Here are some things to consider:

•  Each activity communicates a message about the values and the mission of the school.  These foster a clearer focus on what’s important. What messages are you sending?

•  Every problem that is solved—from working with a disheartened teacher to insuring that buses are available for a field trip—increase the successes of the school.  Which problems are you choosing to address?

•  Every positive interaction—with a student, staff member, or community member—is a way to shape the school culture, to enhance motivation, and to build commitment.  Are you aware of every interaction?  Or do you slide through the day unaware that this one interaction may be important to the other person?

Using time wisely, focused on the right activities, problems, and interactions fosters school improvement.  All of these—small and large, are investments in success.

5 ways to create energy for continuous improvement

Dennis Sparks A perennial challenge of school leadership is creating and sustaining energy for the demanding work of the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Fortunately, we know a great deal about creating and sustaining energy. Here are a few suggestions:

Have compelling purposes that stretch the school community outside of its comfort zones. Fortunately, because education is at its heart a moral endeavor, teachers, administrators, and parents have such purposes built into their daily responsibilities.

View the solving of important problems as a creative process (inventing solutions appropriate to your context) rather than a technical one (following a formula or script). People are energized when they create solutions—drawing on research and the best thinking of others—to the meaningful challenges they face.

Make professional learning and intellectual stimulation an integral part of each day. Such learning, of course, not only occurs on “PD days,” but is embedded in teachers’ work as a regular feature of faculty and team meetings.

Create strong teams infused with trust and interpersonal accountability that are charged with the responsibility of achieving stretching student learning goals. People are motivated by relationships that matter.

• Cultivate physical, emotional, and spiritual health within the school community. Leaders’ emotional health is particularly infectious.

What have I missed?

How to manage inevitable dips in relationships

Dennis Sparks

There’s never been a relationship that didn’t start off strongly and that didn’t then run off the rails at some stage. This is actually not the problem. This is just life. Success for you lies in managing these dips when they occur… It’s about laying foundations for resilient relationships from the very start. – Michael Bungay Stanier

In “Building Resilient Relationships,” a chapter in Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, Michael Bungay Stanier recommends “social contracting” as a means for managing these inevitable relationship dips.

Stanier is describing a problem that is common and vexing for school-based teams or Professional Learning Communities. Things start out strong, with everyone seemingly committed and energized, only to have that commitment and energy fall off over time.

“At the heart of social contracting,” Stanier says, “is spending time upfront talking about the How – the relationship and how we’ll work together – rather than being seduced by the What, the excitement and urgency of the content…. Just understanding that you should talk about the How will immediately make a difference in your working relationships.”

Stanier proposes five fundamental questions that such teams should ask and answer:

1. What do you want? (Here’s what I want.) “This is a question that almost always stops people in their tracks,” Stanier writes. “It’s deceptively difficult to answer and incredibly powerful when you can clearly define what exactly it is you want from this relationship.”

2. Where might you need help? (Here’s where I’ll need help.) “This turns the ‘What do you want?’ question over and comes out it from a different angle,” Stanier says.

3. When you had a really good working relationship in the past, what happened? (Here’s what happened for me.) “Tell a story,” Stanier recommends, “of a time when you were in a working relationship similar to this one, and it was good, really good. What did they do? What did you do? What else happened?”

4. When things go wrong, what does that look like on your end? How do you behave? (Here’s how I behave.) Stanier again recommends telling a story, “this time of when a working relationship like this one failed to soar.”

He also recommends articulating missed opportunities, unilateral actions you are likely to take when things start going wrong, and your own “hot buttons” that get you going.

5. When things go wrong – as they inevitably will – how shall we manage that? “Things will go wrong,” Stanier says. “Honeymoons end. Promises get broken, expectations don’t get met. By putting that on the table, you’re able now to discuss what the plan will be when it goes wrong.”

Stanier  concludes: ”[B]y asking these questions you now have permission to acknowledge the situation between you both when things get off track (as they inevitably will…). If you’re just beginning a new working relationship, then you’re in the perfect place to build and resilience through social contracting right now.”

About relationships that have already begun, Stanier says, “… you’re also in the perfect place to build in resilience. Step back for a moment from the What you’re absorbed with, and invite them to have a conversation with you about the How.”

What has been your experience in addressing early in the life of a team the common relationship issues that are likely to arise? And what challenges have you faced in making explicit those understandings by establishing “meeting agreements” or other processes that establish group norms?

 

4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy

Dennis Sparks

Generous amounts of close purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy. These are simple activities are the foundation for a trained, powerful mind. . . .” —Mike Schmoker

Many years ago in an interview for a NSDC (now Learning Forward) publication Phil Schlechty told me, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.”

For my own purposes I amended his adage to read, “If you don’t make time to read, write, speak, and listen in ways that promote professional learning, you don’t have time to lead.” 

Just as we desire to cultivate literacy among K-12 students, it is essential that education leaders take the time—even just a few minutes a day—to cultivate their own  professional literacy and that of others for the benefit of all their students.

Professional literacy means the development of intellectual depth and fluency regarding values, beliefs, ideas, and practices that guide day-to-day decision making. Its acquisition requires cognitively-demanding processes, in contrast to the minimal engagement of the “sit and get” sessions that continue to dominate too large a share of “professional development.”

While professional literacy can be acquired through various means, my experience has taught me that four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, and writing—are the fundamental practices for cultivating leaders’ professional literacy.

Speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker. But leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words—a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others.

Committed, attentive listening by leaders deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the  perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes leaders’ learning when they not only take in information but respond actively to it by making comparisons with what they already understand and believe and by raising new questions for exploration. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals who they may never meet.

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling leaders to refine their ideas, examine their logical consistency, and determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to actively engage with the perspectives of readers who offer their comments.

Taken together, these four learning processes are fundamental, interconnected means for cultivating’ professional literacy.

What would you add to this list?

Lois Easton describes how to deepen professional conversations

 Dennis SparksIn my experience, too many conversations in professional meetings, including professional development, involve “talking about” complex subjects rather than moving progressively deeper into the substance of ideas and practices. Such conversations are often random, superficial, unproductive, and, for all of those reasons, unsatisfying.

To better understand how this problem might be addressed I asked Lois Brown Easton to offer her perspective and to describe how protocols and other strategies could be used to deepen professional conversations.

I have known and respected Lois’ work since I visited Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Colorado in 1997, at which she was then the Director of Professional Development. These days Lois is a writer, coach, and consultant.  (Additional information about Lois’ books and professional contributions are provided at the end of this essay.)

Here’s what Lois Easton has to say:

Sometimes the best-intentioned professional discussions seem to go nowhere.  Polite to the last word, people leave them unsatisfied and uncommitted to making any changes in their daily practice.

Or, perhaps they ARE satisfied.  After all, a discussion that has no repercussions, requires no one to do much of anything, may be a lot easier than a discussion that goes somewhere.

And, perhaps they ARE committed, even if only subconsciously, to stay the same.  After all, what has worked for X years (you put in the number, including the years simply being a K-14 student), will certainly go on working, won’t it?

At the best, such discussions may yield only the most cynical of statements, “Well, another one done.  Back to work.”

Why do such discussions go nowhere? It seems to me that there are three reasons for “Nowhere Land” in terms of professional discussions:

1. The discussion is predictable.  It is not exploratory; there are no surprises.  These people will argue for Point A; these people will argue against Point A and offer Point B.  These people will go along with either one.  These people don’t really care.  One of the solutions will “win,” Point A or B.  Some people will take action accordingly; some people won’t.  Next week (month/year), there will be other discussions and other decisions, and they’ll go the same way.  It’s all politics and power… not new ideas, innovative solutions, or out-of-the box thinking.  Ho-hum!

One solution to predictable discussion is dialogue, real dialogue.  Dialogue is different because people slow down the pace of talking rather than race towards a conclusion or decision.  They consider each idea that is presented, building on ideas through comments and sincere questions, until they reach understanding.  The uncover assumptions, explore ramifications, project possibilities.  The language of dialogue is iterative and probing, as in, “Here is what I think you’re saying: ______.  I’m wondering about the assumptions that you have about that idea.”

Dialogue is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, consciously.  Dialogue works for any topic that needs creative thinking, innovative solutions, and choices among surprising possibilities.  Effective leaders know that juicy dialogue can be sufficient unto itself or lead to productive discussion and awesome (in the original sense of the word) decisions.

2. The discussion lacks prompts or protocols that take people deeper into the subject.

Especially when people in a discussion are speeding down the highway of decision, discussion tends to be shallow.  Discussants deal with the basics in order to make the decision.

Prompts or protocols can take people deeper into discussion and, usually, into dialogue that lets them probe ideas.  One protocol that seems to work well for deepening discussion is the “Peeling the Onion Protocol.”

In one version of this protocol, a presenter (anyone who can present the issue) describes what a group will study.  The presenter also presents one or two key questions, such as “On what basis will we be able to make decisions about this issue? What should be our guidelines?

Everyone writes freely on the issue and the key question(s)—partly to get focused on the issue and partly to have something to contribute in the next steps.

Then there are three rounds, during which the presenter is silent and taking notes that reflect what the other participants have said.

In round one, the focus is on clarifying the issue.  Participants may say things such as, “What I heard the presenter say is . . . ” or “I’m wondering how we would describe this issue to [someone else]” or “I’m not sure I understand what we mean by [X].”

In round two, the focus is on probing the issue.  Participants may say, “One assumption that we seem to be making is…,” or “A question this raises for me is …,” or “I understand this issue as….” Others listen carefully to understand what others say and rephrase, comment, or ask questions before moving on to another probing statement.

In round three, the focus is on deepening the probing process through “What if” questions:  “What would happen if we…?” or “How would it work if we…?” or “What’s the worst/best that would happen if….?” As in round two, others listen carefully to understand before moving on to another probing question.

After the third round, the group is silent while the presenter reflects aloud (consulting notes taken during the rounds), further deepening the dialogue.  The presenter might say something such as, “I heard you say X, and that made me think further about this issue.”

Finally, the whole group debriefs both the content and the process.  At this point, the group has deeply explored the issue and may be ready for making a decision that all understand, approve, and can be accountable for.

3. The discussion does not lead to social accountability.

Decisions that come out of shallow discussions may result in accountability in the sense that someone is going to do something.  Others, especially when they feel the decision is preordained—already decided in some way by those with power—may feel no sense of accountability for the decision.  Since they have not really participated, probed, and pushed deeper into ideas to determine which solutions are really the best, they may feel no ownership of the issue and, likewise, unaccountable for the results.

In “Fist to Five” (with people holding up fingers on one hand to signal their commitment to an idea or decision; a fist representing no commitment and five fingers full commitment and active participation in carrying out the decision), people might show two fingers, meaning they’ll not interfere with the decision, but they will not work actively towards carrying it out.

Peer or social accountability occurs when people deeply understand an issue and its ramifications, and how they can be addressed.  They have had an active role in dissecting the issue and choosing the best solution. They have “owned” the issue and feel accountable for what happens as a result of the dialogue in which they have participated.  When the outcome really matters, people are willing to go deeper and stand behind the results.

Peer or social accountability means that people hold each other accountable for acting upon a decision. People expect others to take action and, therefore, will take action themselves. Peer or social accountability is critical when decisions are being made about whole-school (or whole-organization) change.

So, in a circular way, in order for people to feel accountable for substantial and lasting change—such as improving learning conditions for students or adults—they must engage in deeper discussions, such as dialogue, using protocols to guide those discussions, and making decisions as a result of them that hold each one of the participants accountable.

Lois Easton is the author of Powerful Designs for Professional Learning (which is being published in 2014 in its 3rd edition), Professional Learning Communities By Design: Putting the Learning Back Into PLCs (2011), and Protocols for Professional Learning (2009).  She writes a regular online column for Phi Delta Kappan, providing professional learning activities for articles in each edition.


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