Effective collaboration means embracing dissent

As professionals, we give ourselves and each other a lot of credit for being good collaborators.

We do this because there is a notion that collaboration is what professionals do. It’s the Law of Detachment, right? If we are professionals, then we collaborate. We are professionals. Therefore, we collaborate.

Except that, as with most things, it isn’t that simple. For starters, basic professionalism requires that people play nice with each other which is related to, but different than from effective collaboration. Second, collaboration is a skill. It must be practiced. There’s explicit expectations. It’s more than just sharing space while working.

Finally, and most important, collaboration is going to require people to be faced with dissent — or at least be willing to do so.

And not simply because it’s polite to do so, but because the dissent makes your final product better. And the goal of collaboration is to allow multiple people to create a product that is better. By better, I mean a product that will have be more effective, efficient, more smoothly implemented and long-term sustainable.

And the stakes are rising. These last six months here in the US have ramped up a lot of frustration among educators of all kinds. The election and related sound bites matched with different changes at the state levels (here is Michigan, we’ve got state-level assessment changes, new science standards, new student literacy laws… just for starters) are generating many, many, many opportunities for meaningful collaboration.

The tricky part is that when we are frustrated and stressed (and many of us are), we don’t want dissent. It FEELS a heck of a lot more productive to knock out a plan amidst conversation where everyone is (more-or-less) on the same page to begin with.

But, in so doing, we lose the chance for the dissent (which shows up in the form of “yeah, but”). And the dissent is how the thoughts go from ideas to effective solutions.

Put another way, Michael Fullan says:

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another one of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

Groups of like-minded people are often biased. They often have blind spots built around their common appreciation of the issue in question. They often have a hard time empathizing with people who either disagree or are agnostic to the issue in question. This is generally true regardless of the group or their nature of their agreement.

Put specifically, folks problem-solving around inquiry and PBL need explicit instruction advocates on their team to create effective solutions. Standards-based grading folks need to keep their traditional-grading colleagues at an arm’s reach. You want to do a better job of supporting those unrepresented students, your problem-solving group better include some folks who think those kinds of supports shouldn’t exist. You want to create that maker space, go find the person who thinks makerspaces are a waste of time and resources. Progressives and conservatives need each other to navigate these modern issues (that extends beyond the realm of education, by the way).

It’s not the most comfortable, particularly when the issues are charged with emotion. It may not even be productive at first. We need to learn to frame these conversations differently.

Statements like “we want to create a makerspace” might need to become “We want to create a more effective use of the media center. Here are some ideas we have.”

There will be misunderstandings, some of those will be ongoing, and possibly loud. But in the end, it opens the door for a better solution. A solution with more roadblocks anticipated and prepared for. A solution with a broader embrace of the realities of the implementation. A solution that wider appreciation for the struggles of a diverse group of people who will be operating within the solution.

In short, a better solution.

And it begins with embracing each other for the value we bring to the solution, particularly the folks who say and think things we disagree with because you want those folks to show us all of the ways our plan is ineffective. Expose our bias. Reveal our blind spots. We all have them. And if they don’t get exposed during the planning process, chances are when the solutions are rolled out, they will be exposed then. And your window for that solution might close with the problem still the problem.

And once we’ve made the decision that our chief goal is creating meaningful, lasting solutions we’ll need to learn to identify those who disagree with you not as folks to be avoided, but rather folks who are essential to the problem-solving process.

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Guiding student voice

Every parent that I know goes through this see-saw moment with their babies. There is such excitement, anticipation, and drive to get that baby to start talking with real words.

Then inevitably, there comes a time (somewhat quickly after) when the parent wishes that the child would learn to not talk so much. This usually occurs sometime during stretch of hearing the word “Mama” loudly… and on repeat… for minutes at a time.

It’s common. It’s real. And it prepares us well for this new era that we’ve embarked upon where capturing student voice is becoming a goal that is gaining popularity as a way to make the learning experience for students more personalized and relevant. I’ve seen this work well. I’ve seen students who otherwise were detached reengage because they were given a chance to more authentically speak, think, and create. (It also did wonders for my ability to effectively teach proofs in Geometry.)

But, just like literally everything else in education, it only works when it’s done right. This is true of instructional tech, explicit instruction and inquiry instruction, standardized assessments, etc. The better the execution, the better the results regardless of how well-meaning we might be.

Capturing student voice to personalize the educational experience and give students more ownership is not different in this respect. If you want your students to realize the full benefit of this, you’re going to want to figure out how to do it right.

Case-in-point: Let’s travel to Barrington High in Rhode Island where a few dozen students gathered on a fall Friday to lend their voice to a decision that the district was considering to delay start times at the secondary level to better align their schools to research that suggests quite strongly that starting school at 7:30 AM is a bad idea for adolescent learners. (stuff like this and this and… there’s more.)

Read the article, of course. But, in short: a district committee had made a motion to move secondary start times back a half-hour to support student achievement. This group of students organized a rally to voice their dissent in hopes of influencing the decision.

According the article “[The junior class president and lead organizer of the rally] and others said that pushing back the start of the school day would be far more disruptive to their lives, noting that it would cause all sorts of scheduling problems for extracurricular activities, including sports.”

So, here we go. We are capturing student voice. We have an authentic audience. The article was written in The Providence Journal which is a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

But now we are forced to show our students the authentic response to individual voice. Capturing student voice in authentic ways is only part of the story. Once the voice is captured and shared, the response is authentically assigned as well. And, like we all have learned, when you speak, sometimes your voice gets honored. Sometimes ignored. Sometimes corrected.

This is for lots of reasons. Sometimes your voice isn’t loud enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s too loud. Sometimes your voice isn’t well-informed enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes your voice doesn’t doesn’t reflect a perspective that decision-makers find valuable. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does, but you have to convince people of that.

And often, you don’t have control of those factors unless you are a decision-maker. So it goes. And that’s okay.

And the student group has chosen to chime in on quite an essential question for us as educators: If later start times for our secondary students produce higher levels of academic success while at the same time putting strain on our extra-curriculars (Montgomery County (Md.) reported a 30% drop in after-school activity participation the year it rolled back start times), is that something that school leaders see as a reasonable trade off? Will their communities agree with them?

It’s not cut and dry. Schools don’t exist to create sports teams, but sports teams are good for kids. Many schools have struggled to create viable robotics and maker-space curriculum pieces, so many places have those as extra-curricular pieces.

And the short article juxtaposes two conflicting perspectives. From the end of the article:

“School Principal Joseph Hurley said the students were asked to stay on the sidewalk — not school property — and to not disrupt the flow of traffic as students arrived for school.

“They’re exercising their rights,” he said. “They are being so respectful.”

“It’s not fair,” said junior Kannetha Brown. “They should have come to the people this issue affects the most. They still haven’t listened to us.”

There’s all sorts of interested nooks to explore about this situation. Including the statement by Brown, “They should have to come to the people this issue affects the most.” There is plenty to explore about that statement alone. Also, a student who is having a statement printed in a newspaper feeling like she’s not being listened to.

But regardless of the outcome or the level of satisfaction, isn’t this what student voice, authenticity and personalized learning is all about? To get these situations out of the textbook and in the hearts and minds of the students? Are these students fully engaged in their school community? Are they organizing? Leading? Collaborating with each other?

Absolutely. And what should their reward be for their efforts? Not a guarantee of success in their endeavor. And as this situation drags on, (the article cites an agreement to delay implementation of a time change) the students will learn perhaps the most valuable of lessons moving forward.

Not working this time doesn’t mean not working forever. If it doesn’t work this time, analyze why not. Make an update. And try again. That’s the heart of maker thinking, the NextGen Science, the Common Core SMPs, and more I’m sure. Students, if this doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, then remember to fail forward.

And should that disappointment come, let’s just hope the school has adults who are ready to guide these young people in turning their frustration into productive reflection. For in that is the essence of turning immature voices into productive ones.