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How to create deeper professional conversations

It is true, I think, that “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” when superficial knowledge is allowed to substitute for the deep understanding that is required to make sound decisions and solve important problems.

That’s why I think this guest post by Lois Easton from February 2014 on deepening professional conversations is so important.

Lois Easton describes how to deepen professional conversations

In 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.  They 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).  

Principles of leadership from Mother Teresa

This post about Mother Teresa from May 2014 could hardly draw a starker contrast to last week’s post on maintaining sanity in the face of daily barrages of lying and deception from the highest levels of the American government.

What Mother Teresa can teach school leaders

Knowing my interest in leadership, a friend gave me Mother Teresa, CEO, whose authors, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, extract 8 principles from Mother Teresa’s work:

1. Dream it simple, say it strong.

“Mother Teresa is one of those humans who had a simple dream that profoundly changed our world. Her dream was helping the poorest of the poor. She began with that vision, then developed a clear plan for making it come true. Everything Mother Teresa did in her life stemmed from defining her vision and aligning and rallying all of her resources and supporters to her goal….

“‘Saying it strong speaks to the constant need for a leader to consistently speak with passion and conviction about her vision for her organization. She also must act in ways aligned with that vision.”

2. To get to the angels, deal with the devil.

“Leaders need to know where to draw their lines. Sometimes you have to compromise. You need to have the courage to decide which compromises are acceptable and which are not. You will not always make the right choices and you will get criticized for them. Mother Teresa was criticized about many of her choices. Her response was to stand by her beliefs and focus on getting her job done.”

3. Wait! Then pick your moment. 

“A balance between action and reflection is critical to keep focused during the emotional ups and downs of leadership. When reflecting, ask yourself if you’re moving toward your vision, laying the groundwork to ensure you are ready once the time is right.”

4. Embrace the power of doubt.

“Doubt isn’t necessarily a crisis of faith. Obstacles are a daily part of life. You can have faith that something good is going to happen, but doubt how you were ever going to get there. When we embark on journeys into the unknown, it is important to acknowledge and process our feelings of doubt. Unprocessed doubt can lead to paralyzing fear, but using doubt to question yourself can strengthen your beliefs and free you from that fear.”

5. Discover the joy of discipline.

“In leadership, as in life, discipline is about doing…. Discipline is about the long-term benefit. There is no shortcut or miracle pill. It takes effort and willpower to succeed at business and in life. Procrastination is the enemy of discipline. Mother Teresa believed that if you took care of your small responsibilities, life would reward you with bigger responsibilities.”

6. Communicate in a language people understand.

“Many people approach communication as a matter of consistency, clarity, and presentation style.… Mother Teresa took the opposite approach. To her, communication was often more about listening and observing than about speaking.… She used this information to adapt her language, naturally but intentionally, to that of other people, while paying close attention to their responses. Did they understand what she was really saying? Were they open to her words and intentions? Did she need to stop and listen some more?”

7. Pay attention to the janitor.

“One reason Mother Teresa touched people so deeply was that she made them feel heard and valued. She understood that at the most basic level, we all want to feel valued in what we do, whether by our families, our friends, or our colleagues….

“How do you make people feel valued? Pay attention to them! Acknowledge who they are. Ask them questions. Know their names.”

8. Use the power of silence.

“For a leader, applying the power of silence means clearing your mind and listening to your inner voice. Silence of the mind – stopping your mind – is critical.…

“To silence your mind, begin by eliminating all distractions. If you are in your office, close the door and turn off all devices that would be distracting, such as your cell phone.…

“If you take time to silence your mind regularly, your mind will find the answers you need for every aspect of your life.”

“You don’t have to be a saint to benefit from Mother Teresa’s leadership principles…,” Bose and Faust conclude. “Start today by picking one principle that resonates with you. Implement it and begin to change how you lead your life or your organization. It will make a difference.”

Which of these principles resonates most with you? 

Maintaining your sanity in the face of relentless lying

“The political lie has achieved a kind of unholy immunity, such that when liars are caught they no longer complain that they have been misunderstood,” Louis Menand wrote in the December 10, 2018 issue of the New Yorker. “They ‘double down’ on the lie as shamelessly as possible. An accepted way to respond to someone who accuses you of lying is to accuse that person of lying, an invitation for people to choose the falsehoods that suit them, since it’s all fake anyway.”

While I am hopeful that truth telling and reasoned debate will again prevail in our civic life, at the moment I am putting more of my faith in the rule of law and a robust free press.

In the meantime, the suggestions I offered in this post in February 2017 are as relevant today as they were then.

When you think you’re going crazy…

[I]t’s always possible that Trump himself is simply unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, or can’t be bothered to try. But the darker possibility is that the conflation is deliberate, not with the intention of deceiving, of substituting false for true, but of disrupting our ability to tell the two apart, or indeed, by advertising how vast is his own unconcern for the distinction, to lead us in time to be as indifferent, if only out of fatigue. —Andrew Coyne

lie: intransitive verb: to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive 

There are few greater tests to one’s resilience than to be in the presence of sustained lying.

A steady drip of lies, like water on rock, can gradually shape the contours of reality and even our sanity.

Here are three contemporary forms of lying that are shaping our political reality and sanity:

1. gas·lighting/verb, gerund, or present participle: manipulate someone by lying or other psychological means into questioning their own sanity

The repetition of a lie in the face of contrary evidence, including what we can see with our own eyes, can cause recipients of the lie to question their sense of reality.

I remember a story from decades ago, which may or may not be true, about a professional baseball player who asked his manager what he should have done when his wife caught him in bed with another woman. “Say you weren’t with the woman,” the manager said. “But she saw me,” the player repeated. “Tell her you don’t know what she’s talking about,” the manager replied. “And keep saying it.”

Big lie: noun: a false statement of outrageous magnitude employed in the belief that a lesser falsehood would not be credible, especially when used as a propaganda device by a politician or official body.

A leading contemporary example is the “birther” big lie employed by our current president in an effort to discredit and undermine the presidency of his predecessor, which also served the purpose of attracting to him many of his core followers.

“Alternative facts”: a form of mind control and dominance used by demagogues in which information unsupported by objective reality is declared to be true (you can learn more about the history of this term here)

Examples: “You say 2 + 2 = 4. I say 2 + 2 = 5. Who’s to say which is right. Certainly not the lying media.”

You say “Climate change has widespread support in the scientific community. I say that it’s just a theory and that China thought it up. My theory is just as good as your theory.”

Taken together, the unrelenting landscape of falsehoods makes it understandable that Americans may be feeling a bit crazy these days and why 1984 has become a bestseller in recent weeks.

Why do leaders lie?

• because lies can be used to manipulate public policy, intimidate enemies, and exaggerate accomplishments 

• because lies can be used as loyalty tests to see who repeats them, which is especially important for authoritarian leaders who value loyalty beyond all other things.

What can we do in the face of such lying and manipulation?

1. First, call lying what it is. Don’t minimize it by calling it a “fabrication” or a “falsehood” or “alternative facts.”

2. Recognize that you are not crazy and that you are not alone.

3. If in doubt, do a reality check. Talk with others you respect to maintain your confidence in “reality.” 

Stay in those conversations as long as necessary to restore your sanity and to give yourself courage to label the lying for what it is and to confront it at every opportunity.

Given that such leaders prevail when we become overwhelmed by and resigned to their lying, what are you doing to maintain your sanity and motivation for challenging the lies?

What to do when relationships “run off the rails”

Relationships ebb and flow over time. 

The quality of the work that is accomplished within a team or an organization if often determined by how relationships are managed, an issue I addressed in February 2014.

How to manage the inevitable dips in relationships

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 at 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 in 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?

“Change the way you think…”

Some beliefs are enabling—they support us in fulfilling important life purposes. Others can disempower and otherwise undermine the realization of those goals. Fortunately, we can choose our beliefs.

 This post from January 2014 examines 11 disabling beliefs.

11 dysfunctional beliefs that profoundly undermine leadership, teaching, and learning 

Change the way you think, and you are halfway to changing the world. —Theodore Zeldin

You may call them beliefs, assumptions, conceptual frames, mental models, or world views.

While for the most part they may be invisible to us, they are likely to have a profound effect on leadership and teaching.

And, as a result, when left unexamined, some of our beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are 11 such disabling beliefs that provide an often unspoken subtext in countless professional conversations:

1. Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

2. Teaching is a non-intellectual, low-skilled, primarily nurturing activity.

3. Good teachers and leaders are born, not made.

4. Teaching is “telling” and performing.

5. Content is “delivered”; learning is demonstrated by repeating what one has been “told.”

6.. Leadership of change means giving directions. Teachers who do not do as they are directed are “resistant.”

7. For the most part teachers know what to do and how to do it; they just have to be motivated to do it.

6. Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

9. Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

10. Therefore, the primary means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

11. It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Are there any dysfunctional beliefs that you would add to or subtract from this list?

Designing productive and energizing meetings

For many educators meetings are an unwelcome but inevitable part of their workdays. 

When skillfully facilitated, however, meetings are an essential means of accomplishing important goals and creating strong, collaborative relationships. 

This post from February 2013 offers suggestions for faculty meetings that are also applicable to many other types of meetings.

Four essential ingredients of successful faculty meetings

Successful faculty meetings contribute to the momentum of the continuous improvement of teaching, learning, and relationships within the school community.

They add value by deepening understanding, spreading effective practices, and building relationships.

On the other hand, poorly planned and facilitated meetings deplete energy and can bring innovation to a standstill.

In my experience, successful meetings have four essential ingredients:

1. Celebration of one another and of accomplishments within the school community. While it is certainly appropriate to note student accomplishments, it’s also important to draw attention to the accomplishments and strengths of the adult members of the school community. To that end faculty meetings can routinely begin with a few minutes of recognition and celebration. Such rituals can deepen relationships and energize the school community.

2. Professional learning focused on the school’s most important goals. The kind of professional learning I have in mind would occur as staff members analyze various types of evidence regarding student learning, explore professional literature, and share effective practices. It would seldom include what we think of as training or presentations.

3. Thoughtful deliberation regarding significant challenges and decisions that the school community faces. Because these conversations would be structured through the use of protocols or other small and large group activities, they would be focused and deep.

4. “Next action thinking.” Momentum would be maintained because meetings would always conclude with clarity about individual and collective responsibilities. As a result, there would be no confusion about who will do what, by when, and to what standard.

Administrivia, of course, would be eliminated or minimized. Administrative items would be distributed through email with clear explanations about what is expected from staff members.

Question: In your experience what are the ingredients of productive and energizing faculty meetings? What things have I missed?

Robust professional development for the benefit of all students

It is time in this series of reprised posts to review the essentials of “robust professional development” that I published in November 2013.

The 6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development

Powerful professional development has as its primary and overarching purpose the creation of professional learning that affects what teachers believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis for the benefit of all students. (To better understand the distinction between professional development and professional learning, please read this.)

To that end, such professional development:

Deepens teachers’ knowledge of the content they teach, including pedagogical content knowledge. It also expands teachers’ repertoire of research-based instructional skills to teach that content and provides classroom management skills appropriate to their settings. For the most part, such development will be individualized or occur in small-groups based on self assessment, teacher evaluation, standardized test scores, student work, and other sources of information.

Provides teachers with the classroom assessment skills—what experts call “assessment for learning.” Such skills allow teachers to diagnose student learning problems and to monitor in real time gains in student learning resulting from newly-acquired classroom practices.

• Is embedded in teachers’ daily work. Job embedded does not mean having workshops occur in schools rather than district meeting rooms. Instead, it requires that the learning be closely linked to school and classroom-specific student learning problems with frequent opportunities for problem solving and hands-on assistance from colleagues and coaches.

Provides sustained classroom assistance in implementing new instructional skills. Teachers regularly receive individualized feedback and meaningful support from skillful coaches and others within their professional communities.

Has at its core a small team of teachers who meet regularly as part of their work day to plan lessons, critique student work, and assist in problem solving.

Is surrounded by a culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, and continuous improvement. The creation of such cultures is a fundamental responsibility of principals and teacher leaders.

These attributes are synergistic, with each enriching the others. 

And the absence of any one of these six attributes can seriously diminish the likelihood that the overall effort will significant improve the quality of teaching in every classroom and the learning of all students. 

What have I missed?


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