Assessment Opinion

Consensus in Action: I Understand. I Can Agree. I Will Support.

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 12, 2015 3 min read
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“We’ll just have to agree to disagree” a statement rife with dissent. Considered a way to stand our own ground, it allows the conversation to stop, the wall between us to stand, and progress to be stifled. Anyone can take the lead in creating consensus as the mode of decision-making in an organization but the one with the true responsibility for making it a common practice is certainly the leader. What is consensus, truly? Three statements must be able to be spoken out loud, by each member of the group.

I understand.
I can agree.
I will support.

No organization can be more successful than the people who work within it. And schools, certainly communities for learning, are totally dependent on the quality of the interactions of those working within them. The way people are treated is central to the success of all businesses/communities. Schools are the microcosm in which each generation experiences the social aspects of living on this planet. Beyond the family, in which each household has different ways of communicating, different sets of values, religion, socio-economic status, etc. schools are the places where we learn, in a more diverse group, how to interact with others in society.

What will children learn in a school where a leader practices behaviors that indicate, “If you don’t agree with me, you can teach somewhere else!” or “We will have to agree to disagree.” Or what if a board gets so comfortable with split votes or unanimous votes, that the patterns can’t be broken? Behaviors and statements like these are lasting and harmful and send piercing arrows directly into the classrooms where the children are at work to learn. They also starve the pipeline of those young adults who will become the leaders of a democratic nation decades from now. They will not have seen discourse and dissent modeled.

Coming to consensus is a useful process, not for all decisions but for some. It requires deep listening, good communication, and respect. Consensus becomes the scythe that clears the path forward. It is the work, in advance of the journey down a path that reduces resistance, increases a common understanding, and holds people to the values that support the work. It creates fertile ground for trust to take root.

About now we imagine some reading this are thinking, but, the Common Core...or but, the standardized tests... Return to the mission statement and values of the school and district. If the mission and values of the school and district were made using a consensus process, the cycle used to meet a challenge or decision becomes clear.

The common standards and standardized testing are but examples of expectations that exist in all facets of life and business. The frame of mind with which we meet these expectations will make the difference. Yes, we are required to meet these standards and to administer these tests, but the way these two requirements are met and how they affect the children is in our hands. These are two highly charged issues that have no place in the world in which our children are living and learning. We cannot afford to “agree to disagree” with their implementation because it affects the children, fractures the organization, and creates boundaries within and between schools and communities.

If however, the mission and values statements have come from somewhere outside or beyond the school or district, before attempting to meet a challenge, an opportunity to “gather the troops” and create consensus about the established mission and values exists. No matter whether all were part of the initial decision making process about the mission and values or not, this opportunity can allow the first steps toward establishing a community where consensus becomes an alternative practice. The order of the cycle changes, but the welcoming and facilitation of consensus remains the foundation of the process.

Time is no excuse. The time and energy being poured into the debate about the Common Core Standards and the standardized tests is better spent in discovering consensus about how and where in our organizations these current requirements can create opportunities and how to implemented them in the service of what is good for children. Important and positive energy is best spent in the beginning. Who we are as an organization and what we value provides the fuel that moves organizations forward. There are requirements that exist in schools and in life with which many may disagree. But we seem to have four options: civil disobedience, seething frustration, simple compliance or making them ours in service of our purpose.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.