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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:

  1. The presenter tells the story of their success (3 minutes)
  2. The listening group members ask clarifying questions of the presenter (5 minutes)
  3. The listening group members discuss why the presenter was successful (5 minutes)
  4. The presenter reflects verbally on what they heard in step 3 (3 minutes)
  5. 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.

I signed up for a Toughmudder.  11 miles, 28 obstacles, and a predicted finishing time of 3 hours.  This will also be my first organized run longer than a 5k.  I can currently run about 5 miles.  I’ve got nine weeks to double my mileage.  I’m confident that I can do it, but talk about stepping out of my comfort zone.  Oh, and my team is full of personal trainers from my gym so I’m definitely feeling pressure to be highly prepared.  (Read: strong and fast.)

I haven’t done anything like this in a very long time – challenged myself to this extent.  I generally think I do a respectable job pushing myself to be my best whether it’s as a teacher, an athlete, or a human being.  Rarely, however, do I really give myself a big target that is multiple steps away from my current ability level.

My feelings about the Toughmudder made me think about my students because I immediately filled my head with doubts: “Can I run that far? Will I keep up? What did I get myself into?”

These questions and doubts are similar to what students face in school.  “Can I read that whole book?  Can I write a whole essay?  Will I pass the test?”  I get to choose my challenges while our students have to respond to the tasks we set for them.

When we stay within our comfort zones we get complacent, and I’ve been relatively complacent lately.  I can’t just wait nine weeks and then go complete this event.  I will need to use what I’ve learned about strength training for the obstacles and find new training methods for the distance running component.  This is the nature of true challenge.  What I’ve done in the past will not be sufficient so I have to learn new skills.

The educational concept of scaffolding is not new.  Nearly every training, meeting, or discussion I’ve had about struggling students at some points comes back to scaffolding.  (For the non-educators scaffolding is the idea that with proper support students can reach to things they would be otherwise unable to do.  Like how a scaffold lets you scale the side of a building.)  Scaffolding is everywhere in education, but students are still failing.  How does this relate to the Toughmudder?

For scaffolding to be meaningful students need to be challenged, and at some point the scaffold needs to be removed.  One of the common discussions around scaffolding that is all too common is the idea that “if this scaffold helps some students, then give it to everyone and help all students.”  This is problematic.  If we scaffold something that is not truly challenging we’ve done nothing but lower the standard.  The best measure of my success as a teacher would be whether my students are able to succeed at the skills I taught, once they leave my classroom, when there are no scaffolds in place.  Instead of scaffolding, we need training.

I fully acknowledge that students start in different places.  They have different reading levels, different writing ability, and unequal reasoning skills.  What is challenging for one student may be exceptionally easy for another.  However if we want our students to improve we need to provide challenge.  We need to take all of our students outside their comfort zones.

When students have a difficult task to complete (reading, writing, presentation, exam) they have to add new skills to their repertoire in order to be successful.  It is then our responsibility as teachers to teach the skills and content necessary to complete that task.  Before we put a scaffold in place we should identify whether a student has really put in their best effort.  Just because my first try to get over an obstacle isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean I need a ladder.  Perhaps I just need to take a different approach.  If we always provide a scaffold we are never really holding students to the standard we set out to achieve.

If we have standards for excellence and criteria for mastery that are based on what students need to know or be able to do, we should stick to our standards.  Those criteria were (hopefully) created with intentionality and hold some value beyond the classroom.  It is unreasonable to lower those criteria just because some students are unsuccessful.

I will do my absolute best to prepare myself for the Toughmudder in 9 weeks.  I signed up for a challenge and I will do what is necessary in order to be successful.  This attitude is precisely what is needed for students who want to be academically successful.  It takes just as much mental effort to log out of Facebook to go for a run as it does to log out of Facebook and write an essay.  Challenges are only overcome through hard work.  If it didn’t take hard work it wasn’t a challenge.

I encourage all teachers to try something difficult.  Step out of your comfort zones.  Learn new teaching methods.  Teach new classes.  Take risks in your personal life.  Whatever it is challenge yourself.  We are constantly asking our students to learn new ideas, try things they don’t like, and take on tasks that seem impossible.  How can we claim to understand our students if we never challenge ourselves and feel the difficulty, and satisfaction, of doing what you previously through to be impossible?

PS:  I started a second blog where I’m doing reviews of pop culture from the perspective of teachability.  Check it out.