I would normally say that I don’t believe in protocols for structuring discussion. Oh they work. But I don’t need them. They work for other people. I know how to participate in and lead discussion. I don’t need the strict structure. In fact, the strict method of a protocol just gets in the way of quality conversation. My mind got changed last week.
As part of a series of professional learning my district has the fortune of working with Mark Church from the Harvard Project Zero and Visible Thinking. The first part of his work is rooted in the power of protocols for structuring conversation around difficult topics. In our first session Church had participants practice a protocol for sharing aspects of our practice (in this case a success). It works in groups of at least three participants as follows:
- The presenter tells the story of their success (3 minutes)
- The listening group members ask clarifying questions of the presenter (5 minutes)
- The listening group members discuss why the presenter was successful (5 minutes)
- The presenter reflects verbally on what they heard in step 3 (3 minutes)
- Repeat steps 1-4 for the remaining group members
I entered into the protocol with minimal faith in it’s effectiveness, however, being a good student, my group committed to following the protocol with fidelity. I was very happy to have my initial cynicism proven wrong. In both the listener and presenter role I learned a great deal about myself and my colleagues and found the protocol to be extremely effective.
When I was in the listener role I discovered how one of my colleagues defines success. For her success is a partnership. When she collaborates, or when she can find teamwork she is successful as a mentor. She is successful when the whole group succeeds. As she was describing her success in step one I immediately found myself relating her story back to my interactions with her and many puzzle pieces began to slide into place. This process helped me understand how central collaboration is to her, and this should help me work more effectively with her in the future because I understand her values more completely.
The listener role also helped me definite my own success to share when I took the presenter role. Initially I was unable to come up with a success that I though was worthy of discussion. When my colleague shared her success, and defined her process for helping her teacher, I was able to apply that to my own practice and redefine what I thought of as “good enough.”
The presenter role was much more difficult than the listener role for me. I found that in order to share a legitimate success I had to be extremely vulnerable and trust my teammates. This is where the protocol proved its worth. Since I knew that I had time to explain my story (3 minutes) and that there was built in time for clarifying questions (5 minutes), I was confident that my colleagues would not get the wrong impression, and if there was a miscommunication it could be rectified. This knowledge helped me relax into the process and allowed me to share more authentically. Additionally I found the time when the 2 listening members of the group to be incredibly empowering as my colleagues found more aspects of success in my story than I had initially identified.
The result of the entire process was that I was able to understand my own success more completely and I was better able to see the value in my colleagues’ work. This is an enormous gain for very minimal output. I am confident that if Church had said “share about your successes” we would have had a much less productive conversation. The protocol forced me out of my comfort zone by forcing me to listen without responding, and by forcing me to share about my successes, and I am better for it.