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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Synergy or Consensus: Which One Do You Build?

By Peter DeWitt — July 19, 2016 5 min read
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Compliant learning. Our students do it because they go year after year consuming information rather than curating it. There have been many leaders, including George Couros, who suggest that students take time to develop questions, instead of time just developing answers.

Compliant learning. Our teachers engage in it by attending professional development that they think is being done to them, rather than having the opportunities to engage in professional development that inspires them to have a stronger focus on learning. They sit...and they get. Would they attend PD if they didn’t have to?

Compliant learning. Some leaders engage in it by having faculty meetings that focus on a list that could have been sent out in an e-mail rather than wasting the time of staff over an hour at the end of a busy school day. They don’t flip their faculty meetings or co-construct goals with staff that will turn faculty meetings into authentic learning experiences. They don’t always inspire dialogue.

Why do we do it?

Many of us are control freaks. Janet Clinton, out of the University of Melbourne (Australia) has developed the Visible Classroom which shows that teachers, on average, ask 200 questions per day while students ask 2 questions per student per week. We should be spending more time on encouraging students to ask questions, but we are too busy trying to control the environment. In a strange way we believe that if we are doing the talking, then students are doing the learning.

We should be synergizing instead of building consensus.

Change in Mindset
Over the last two years I have had the opportunity to facilitate a lot of professional development in North America, England and Australia. One of the things that I noticed is that teachers and leaders come to PD sessions ready to sit in the same seat all day, and engage in...sit and get.

Too often, when we all get together as a faculty it’s to build consensus around an idea. What we should be doing is building synergy among a group so that they can question their practices and engage in collaborative dialogue with colleagues. Sure, it can focus on a district/division initiative but we can all come together to figure out the best ways to approach it.

In Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September 2016. Corwin Press) there are 6 influences based on the work of John Hattie (I work with Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer, and John wrote the foreword for the book) that I believe schools could gain a lot of traction if they used. But one of the things that prevent us all from moving on when we are working with adults or children, is that we meet them where we think they are, rather than where they really may be.

I know that sounds strange, but I’d like to offer an example that you may have heard. “Oh Billy will be just like his dad. I had his dad as a student and he was lazy. Actually, I went to school with his grandfather and he was the same way.” And just like that Billy was enabled instead of empowered, and he was met where the teacher thought he may be as opposed to where Billy might really be.

Meet, Model & Motivate
Synergy happens when we trust people to bring their best selves forward, and don’t judge them based on who we think they are. Consensus building often happens when we think we have the best answer already, and want people to come with us, at the same time we already think we know who they are.

Parents have been on the receiving end of this as well. We make huge assumptions that parents who don’t attend every event we put on in school do not care about their children, when the reality may be that they work 2 or 3 jobs or don’t have a car. We meet them at a place where we assume they don’t care, rather than hearing their story and meeting them where they really are.

We do the same thing with new colleagues. We judge them on where they taught before (Catholic, private, charter) or on how much experience they have in the classroom. If we see a teacher who has been teaching for 3 years when we have been teaching for 20, we meet them in place where we think they may not know as much as we do. And the opposite can happen as well. Teachers who have been teaching for 30 years may be looked at as dinosaurs by teachers with 5 years of experience, when those teachers with 30 years of experience may approach every new situation as a learning opportunity.

It happens when we talk about change as well. Teachers and leaders are sometimes accused of not wanting to change, when the reality is that they are changing but perhaps not in the way that someone wants them too. We need to synergize by meeting, modeling and motivating staff. We need to be able to meet, model and motivate staff, students and parents, and ourselves.

Meet: We need to take time to engage in dialogue and allow staff, students or parents to ask questions, so we can gain an understanding of where they truly are before we move on. Not judge them on where they think they are. Dialogue and questions can inspire synergy rather than compliance. Better ideas come out of focused dialogue.

Model: Together, through dialogue, practical applications, and sharing of best practices, we can model what we would like our classrooms and schools to look like. When it comes to student learning, those students can model the way they learn so we can work around it, and improve their learning environments. We can model what student questioning, dialogue and feedback would look like so we can inspire self-directed learning.

Motivate: Through that dialogue, sharing best practices and questioning, we can motivate people to synergize with each other around an idea we create and co-constructed together. Consensus building is usually directed by one person where they try to get others on board, but synergy is when a group gets together and creates a plan together through authentic learning experiences.

Start with these questions:

  • What does a great school look like?
  • What does a self-directed learner look like? What do they do that other students don’t do?
  • If you could paint a picture of student engagement, what would it look like?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.