Conversations for learning


Some of our most important learning occurs in conversations. And because learning is a prerequisite to sound decision making, good decisions are often preceded by good conversations.

Conversations for learning matter so much that virtually all meetings and even one-to-one discussions with colleagues, parents, and students within the school community should be designed to maximize learning.

Unfortunately, some leaders believe that effective leaders make decisions independently. Such decision making, they think, is a sign of decisiveness and strength.

For these leaders the purpose of meetings is to tell others about their decisions.

Their subordinates are so accustomed to a passive role in which they simply receive what their bosses tell them to think, say, and do that it may be hard for them to even imagine participating in conversations for learning and decision making.

But not all conversations are created equal.

Conversations for learning require: 

• Intentionality;

• Deeply-attentive listening;

• A willingness to go beneath the surface of conventional assumptions and understandings;

• Slowness that provides space for thinking and elaboration (think “wait time”);

• An openness to learning based on a deep respect for the experiences and perspectives of others; and

• A belief that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute….

How is it in your setting— are conversations for learning an essential part of professional learning and decision making, or are “conversations” more often monologues that communicate what has already been decided?

6 Responses to “Conversations for learning”

  1. 1 Laura MacDonald January 13, 2016 at 9:42 am

    I know that during conversations, I process my thoughts. Whatever I was pondering prior to a discussion usually seems clearer. I value and look forward to my time with faculty, the advisory board, and the Parent Club both formally and informally. I try to facilitate all these meetings in an informal way, so that participants feel comfortable to contribute. Even if I come to a meeting with a well thought out plan, I hope that their feedback will offer insight.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks January 13, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      I appreciate your comment, Laura! A big challenge, at least for me, is to bring whatever clarity I possess about the subject at hand to others in a spirit of openness that allows for mutual influence. Together we are finding a perspective and a way forward that is more complete than any of us would have had without the others.

  2. 3 Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) January 14, 2016 at 2:07 am

    Thank you for sharing this powerful reflection—I am convinced that nearly every time we go wrong as instructional leaders, it’s due to a lack of listening to the people we most need to hear from to make good decisions.

    Lately I’ve been framing instructional leadership itself as chiefly a decision-making issue—and of course, there’s no better way to make well-informed decisions than to have good conversations.

    Thanks again. Always a treat to read your updates.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks January 14, 2016 at 7:50 am

      I appreciate your kind words, Justin. Perhaps at its most fundamental level skillful leadership is about high-quality communication – respectful, clear, sustained, deep, and open to mutual influence. Just a thought…

  3. 5 Kent Peterson April 12, 2017 at 10:31 am

    Important set of ideas. Without deeper and more sustained conversations the culture will remain weak and thin.

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