Friday, December 18, 2015

The Loyal Opposition

One of my LinkedIn connections, Jeff DeGraff, is an innovation professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He recently developed an infograph, that while geared toward the business world, might have some applicability to education. One item in particular leapt out at me: Jeff's reference to enlisting "the loyal opposition" -- those people who don't think like you do.

Jeff's use of the "loyal opposition" also conjured up my political science classes, so I did a little digging. I found a great explanation in a law review article with the same title, by Heather K. Gerken, (J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale):
Loyal opposition is one of democracy’s grandest terms. Once used to shield the party out of power from accusations of treason, it now describes the institutionalization of opposition, most famously Great Britain’s elevation of the minority party leadership to a shadow cabinet. Termed the “greatest contribution of the nineteenth century to the art of government,” it is a stand-in for some of the best practices in democracy: making space for dissent, knitting outsiders into democracy’s fabric, attending to the institutional dimensions of integration. It perfectly captures one of the basic aims of democracy: maintaining an opposition that is loyal.
That may be all fine and well for governments, but how might that aid us in education?

First, it helps us avoid "groupthink," where everyone in the room is a like-minded thinker (or afraid to speak up if they disagree). As demonstrated in this clip from the Daily Show, the room essentially becomes an echo chamber, and not only does the group not consider alternatives, but it may in fact become more entrenched in its thinking.

Second, productive conflict drives innovation. Education needs discourse that examines diverse perspectives. Consider the example of Dr. Alice Stewart, who in the 1950s offered what she believed was compelling evidence that x-raying pregnant women significantly increased the rate of childhood cancer. It was not until she actively sought disconfirmation that the medical community accepted her findings many years later:


Margaret Heffernan's TED talk, "Dare to Disagree," demonstrates the importance of the loyal opposition. Dr. Stewart engaged a statistics expert to be her thinking partner, and his entire job was to create conflict around her theories. As Heffernan explains, only by not being able to prove Dr. Stewart was wrong, did he provide confidence that she was right.

It takes a safe space and collaborative mindsets to productively use conflict as thinking. You have to be prepared to think and be prepared to change your mind. It also takes purposefully creating a workplace that hires, cultivates, and encourages diversity in attitudes and mindsets. The upside is that building this authentic workplace will also drive innovation.

One protocol or method in which this productive conflict might be used with educational organizations or collaborative teams is structured debate. The premise is simply: members are randomly assigned to argue opposite points of view on a current topic. The conflict is not personal, but rather, provides a space where group members may explore all aspects of an issue. In this framework, both sides may be functioning as the loyal opposition to the other.

Another protocol might be pause, paraphrase, "and" from Adaptive Schools. When interacting with a colleague, I first listen to understand her perspective. When she is finished speaking, I pause, paraphrase her thoughts, and assuming she gives me a cue that my paraphrase is accurate, I offer my thinking beginning with "and I think" or "and I wonder." And is the key. I do not want to use the word "but" or "however" because both are dismissive and set up one side of the equation to be superior. With first seeking to understand her position, and then adding my thinking or wondering to her thoughts, we move the dialogue along. In the ideal situation, my colleague would use the same protocol when I spoke, and ultimately we arrive at a co-constructed understanding.

The protocol must be tight in order to protect the people involved, and that is where the word loyal is so important. Normally we avoid conflict like the plague because it taps into so many emotions and vulnerabilities. Using productive conflict with a loyal opposition -- one that has its eye on a win-win result -- creates more productive teams and nurtures innovation.

Join the Conversation...
How might we foster more loyal opposition in our organization?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Intersections and Disruptions

Every Friday he would come to his class dressed to represent a different occupation. The lesson that day was constructed and deconstructed through the lens of that occupation. For example: In what ways does a house painter use measurement? Why might a doctor need to know fractions? Why is probability important to astronauts?...Needless to say, student engagement and achievement were enhanced simultaneously. Students' attitudes changed as they now saw math as relevant to their life experiences and could appreciate firsthand and articulate "why they were learning it." [Sharratt & Harild, 2015, p. 32]
This excerpt from the book Good to Great to Innovate is one example of the concept of "intersections." If you think of each of our students on his or her own unique educational journey, intersections occur where there are connections between what we believe students need to know and be able to do and application of instruction to real life experiences:

Image result for intersection

Of course, the journey is likely not black and white nor linear, so it may end up looking more like this:

Merely dressing like a house painter to teach is not what the intersection is about. It is about the disruption of the stable patterns of "the core of educational practice." Richard Elmore (1996, p. 2) describes the core as
how teachers understand the nature of knowledge and the student's role in learning, and how these ideas about knowledge and learning are manifested in teaching and classwork. The "core" also includes structural arrangements of schools, such as the physical layout of classrooms, student grouping practices, teachers' responsibilities for groups of students, and relations among teachers in their work with students, as well as processes for assessing student learning and communicating it to students, teachers, parents, administrators, and other interested parties.
Elmore asserts that innovations in education rarely are aimed at the core, and therefore, rarely change the fundamental relationships between student, teacher, and knowledge:
[C]hanges are often not explicitly connected to fundamental changes in the way knowledge is constructed, nor to the division of responsibility between teacher and student, the way students and teachers interact with each other around knowledge, or any of a variety of other stable conditions in the core. Hence, changes in scheduling seldom translate into changes in the fundamental conditions of teaching and learning for students and teachers. Schools, then, might be "changing" all the time -- adopting this or that new structure or schedule or textbook series or tracking system -- and never change in any fundamental way what teachers and students actually do when they are together in classrooms. [Elmore, 1996, p. 3]
In other words, not all "innovative changes" are created equal.

One way in which Forest Hills is currently engaging in change to the core and constructing real-world intersections is the continued implementation of Robert Marzano's instructional framework. The design questions and elements of Domain 1 provide an infrastructure to disrupt the traditional core and provide intersections of relevance and practical application with students:

In year three of our implementation, we continue to grow our individual and collective capacities to be intentional, collaborative, and reflective.

Of course, as we start thinking differently about schools and schooling, it means we also have to rethink ourselves and our roles. Similar to a student's unique educational journey, our growth as educators is not linear; it is complex and time-consuming:
[T]eachers are more likely to learn from direct observation of practice and trial and error in their own classrooms than they are from abstract descriptions of new teaching; changing teacher practice even for committed teachers, takes a long time, and several cycles of trial and error; teachers have to feel that there is some compelling reason for them to practice differently, with the best direct evidence being that students learn better; and teachers need feedback from sources they trust about whether students are actually learning what they are taught. [Elmore, 1996, p. 24]
This emphasis on job-embedded, collaborative professional learning is also a focus for Forest Hills. It is it embodied within each school's learning communities and teams that target increasing educator effectiveness and results for all students. Each principal, in collaboration with his or her teacher-leaders, creates a comprehensive professional learning plan specific to the school's yearly improvement plan, with the ultimate goal of enhancing student learning. As a district we also implement a detailed learning plan for administrators, as well as a number of cross-school teacher teams.

However, the limited amount of government funding for professional learning continues to be challenging. We are extremely fortunate to enjoy community support through  our Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation, especially in grants from Destination: Innovation. But let's put funding aside for a moment. The bigger question is how do we cultivate more meaningful disruptions to the core that will increase the number of intersections for teachers and students to co-create teaching and learning? How do we fundamentally change what teachers and students actually do when they are together in learning environments?

Join the conversation...
How might you be rethinking schools and schooling? Yourself and your role? If you could make one fundamental change to the core, what might it be, and why?