Why I Refused to Flip My Classroom

Why I Refused to Flip My ClassroomA handful of years ago I was teaching fourth grade when the whole idea of the flipped classroom entered my radar. The Educause definition of the topic states:

The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions.

In short, get the direct instruction out of the way so class time can be dedicated to problem solving.

The Problem

Front-loading direct instruction goes against everything that I believe in as an educator, and therefore, so does the way in which most classrooms are flipped.

For example, let’s take a look at adding fractions with common denominators. For homework, students can watch a clunky Khan Academy video, or something comparable, and be force-fed the proper formula (add numerators, denominators stay the same). Then, at later points in time, these students can complete numerous problems that are identical to what was shown in the video (with just the digits changed, of course).

Students may be able to get all of the problems correct, but does it really mean anything?

In what has been called parrot math, “this approach suggests that children mimic mindlessly what teachers [or videos] model with the hope that somehow the mimicry will lead to learning. Do parrots understand?”

Furthermore, will the ensuing exercises, projects, or discussion (on which the majority of class is spent) actually matter to students when they already have the “right” answers?

The Solution

According to John Van de Walle, “It is important to understand that mathematics is to be taught through problem solving.”

To clarify…There is a considerable difference between students learning as a result of problem solving vs. word problems that are thrown at students after they’ve already memorized the basics.

Let’s examine another approach to teaching fractions with common denominators. When I taught this concept my students interacted with several pairs of electronic fraction bars through a paint program, and each pair of bars was already divided up for them into equal parts (to signify common denominators). Students were able to manipulate or electronically fill in parts of the bars in order to come up with equations (e.g. 1/5 + 2/5 = 3/5, 4/10 + 3/10 = 7/10, etc.). After generating several equations, the students looked for patterns, and based on these patterns they were able to “uncover” the proper formula for adding fractions with common denominators while also being able to explain why it “worked.” After, students practiced using the formula by applying it to basic problems.

Although a decent amount of time was allocated to students uncovering the formula, it was time well spent as they developed a conceptual understanding of the content. Less time then had to be devoted to “drill and kill.”

As Van de Walle declared:

Then, by allowing students to interact with and struggle with the mathematics using their ideas and their strategies – a student-centered approach – the mathematics they learn will be integrated with their ideas; it will make sense to them, be understood, and be enjoyed.

In the End

First, I cannot recommend enough the books of John Van de Walle, as his work explains in the most concrete way possible what it means to facilitate inquiry-based mathematics. In my previous district, when we made the Common Core shift, every teacher across all seven elementary schools was provided one of his books.

Second, although there is definitely more than one way to flip a classroom, this post reflects the one method that I have most commonly seen and experienced throughout my career. Also, while I have used math as an example, I do believe that the same overall ideas apply to all subject areas.

Finally, no matter what the approach, I cannot help but think that flipping a classroom is developmentally inappropriate, especially for students at the elementary level. If we want our students to engage in productive struggle, inquiry, and the uncovering of formulas, I have a hard time believing that these objectives can be fulfilled by watching of videos in isolation (no matter what the videos contain).

Nonetheless, I realize that these beliefs reflect my teaching style and my experiences, and I would be willing to be bet that there are educators who have flipped their classrooms in ways that benefit their students. So, if you are one of these educators, please feel free to contact me/leave a comment with your approach, as I would love to include your work in a follow-up post.

What are your thoughts on the flipped classroom? How have you seen it implemented effectively? Was it just a passing fad that’s already had its day?

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How to Transform Educational Books into Professional Development

How to Transform Educational Books into Professional DevelopmentIn the last post we explored three ways in which educational books can be used (or misused) during professional development to impede our progress. One of these points touches upon making professional development more focused by (1) starting with the end in mind (or with what enduring understandings you want participants to walk away), and then (2) focusing only on the parts of the book that pertain to these understandings.

In Instructional Coaching, Jim Knight talks about the “art form” of instructional coaches being able to take a book and present/teach its contents in a simplistic fashion. He explains that ideas “will catch on much quicker if they are (a) powerful and (b) easy to use.” As implementers of professional development, I believe that we must own the process of making our resources and books as absorbable as possible (and not be so quick to blame teachers who may not “get it” the first time around). As Knight declares, “Teachers do not resist change so much as they resist poorly designed change initiatives.”

With my thoughts and Knight’s research in mind, here are the steps that I generally follow in order to “transform” a book into professional development: 

  1. Determine your enduring understandings, keeping in mind that the majority of the time less is more when it comes to professional development. Understandings should be based on an ongoing assessment of “where you are” and then deciding “where you want to be.” An emphasis should also be placed on practices that possess significant effect sizes related to student achievement.
  2. Select the book that addresses your understandings in the most practical way possible. As mentioned in the last post, ideally, the book should be (1) 200 pages or less, and (2) based on actionable research, which is a combination of “how to” and “here’s why.” A few months ago I wrote an article for Education Week that examines the importance of being able to effectively navigate Amazon in order to find these types of resources.
  3. Read the book and highlight any useful information that you may end up using for professional development at any point in the future (saves you the time of having to reread the entire book if/when educator learning shifts to different enduring understandings). Pay special attention to visuals – photographs, charts, graphs, etc. – that will help you to better tell your story. One option to save time is to only read/highlight the chapters that relate to your current focus.
  4. “Extract” the highlights that pertain to the enduring understandings on which you are currently focusing, while having the discipline to ignore everything that does not directly relate to your present efforts. This is the step where the planning (and therefore, learning) can easily start to go downhill through the inclusion of research/information/ideas that may appear to be useful, but only serve to dilute your message by promoting mile wide, inch deep learning. Think laser focus, less is more, depth over breadth, etc. Typically when I extract my highlights I simply go through the book, front to back, and type the relevant information into a word processing document.
  5. While reviewing your extracted highlights, start to plan what the professional development will actually look like. While there is no precise “formula” that will get you to where you need to be, the one rule to always keep in mind is that professional development should model best practice. For example, if you are focusing on differentiated instruction, your professional development better be differentiated. Not only will participants experience firsthand how learners can benefit from the approach, but they will walk away with multiple explicit strategies to use in their classrooms.
  6. As you wrap your head around what the professional development will look like, convert your extracted highlights to slides. When I first started presenting I used to simply copy and paste the key highlights/quotes on to my slides and call it a day. While I do think that some quotes can be effective, over the past few years I have transitioned to delivering these messages through the use of visuals (photographs, drawings, videos) and hands-on activities. (Disclaimer: The majority of the time I rely on a slide deck when facilitating professional development. However, I never hesitate to ditch the deck if I think there is a better option given the content that is being presented.)
  7. Towards the beginning of your slides, rationalize why the current topic has been chosen as the focus while being careful not to disrespect the past and current work of your participants. Or, take a risk by planning to have the participants “uncover” why certain needs exist. For example, for a future session on writing workshop we are going to have teachers discuss our existing structure/resources for writing instruction, and then (hopefully) arrive at the consensus that more is needed. Around this time might also be when you would show/explain where the present professional development falls within the context of past and future learning.
  8. Transition from examining needs to revealing the essential question that encompasses everything that is going to be learned. Essential questions do not necessarily have to be answered, but they should lead to some form of inquiry. For a session on encouraging more student opportunities to respond, I first quoted Total Participation Techniques:

Think about the typical question-and-answer session in most classrooms. We call it “the beach ball scenario” because it reminds us of a scene in which a teacher is holding a beach ball. She tosses it to a student, who quickly catches the ball and tosses it back. She then tosses it to another student…

This quote transitioned into our essential question, which was, “How can I create more beach balls.” Everything we explored that day connected to this question in one way or another, and the question was revisited towards the end of the learning.

  1. Incorporate the learning targets, which should directly correspond with the enduring understandings. For a previous session on Common Core Mathematics, the targets were (1) “I am somewhat familiar with the Practice Standards,” and (2) “I am starting to think about teaching with rigor.” The statements not only touch upon content, but each one also clarifies what the educators’ depth of understanding should be by the conclusion of the period. Present these targets in the order in which they will be investigated, which helps in creating a mental roadmap of the professional development in the minds of participants. Revisit the learning targets towards the end of the instruction.
  2. Think about how you are going to provide follow up once the session is complete. I always try to ensure that the learning/reflecting/progress is ongoing, rather than relegated to a handful of select days throughout the year. In general, perception is reality. If educators do not feel like they are being supported, something different needs to be done. Part of the ongoing assistance also involves an assessment of the initial professional development, which includes more than just surveying teachers to see if they enjoyed it.
  3. Upload all of your resources to a folder in the cloud (e.g. Google Drive), so participants can access them during, after, and possibly before the actual professional development. These resources should include the slide deck that is created, along with any accompanying handouts, and the link to everything can be distributed to participants as soon as possible. Take a less is more approach with handouts. Too many can be overwhelming, while including only a few one pagers sends the message, “These are important!” After all, anything with a staple in it doesn’t get read.

These ten steps represent a simplification (but not an oversimplification) of the process that I generally follow to transform books into professional development. More or less, the first five steps involve isolating the appropriate information, while the second five involve framing said information in the clearest, most absorbable, and most “educator-provoking” way possible.

For more on professional development, I encourage you to read 5 Non-Negotiables of Professional Development and then Revisiting the 5 Non-Negotiables of Professional Development.

What are your thoughts on “transforming books” into professional development? Do any of my steps stand out? Are there any that I may have missed?

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Do Educational Books Impede Our Progress?

Do Educational Books Impede Our Progress?A few months ago I was consulting with a principal who was planning to roll out differentiated instruction professional development in her school. A great deal of this planning time was dedicated to researching/deciding what book should serve as the basis for the learning.

After some conversation we started to ask ourselves if it was truly necessary to distribute a book to the teachers.

The Problems and The Solutions

When promoting change, we want to avoid or eliminate as many obstacles as possible, but often times we are creating yet another obstacle when we place a book in the hands of our coworkers.

Here are three ways in which books can impede our progress, along with a solution or two for each potential problem:

  1. Most “teacher books” are not based on actions, but research and theory. Research and theory generally help to promote interesting discussion and reflection, which can lead to some change. However, if we are talking “bang for your buck,” this is not the most straightforward and efficient way to influence classroom instruction. From what I have experienced, books that are based on “actionable research” (a combination of “how to” and “here’s why”) are the most impactful: The Daily 5, Strategies That Work, Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics, etc. In order for a book to be popular and have a lasting impact, Hal Elrod explains that the most important factor is that its content is actionable and centered around changing behavior. At the same time, he declares that when books are based on promoting thought, they have short-term value because most readers’ “newfound thought patterns are interrupted or diluted and forgotten as soon as they go to the next book,” and a month later 90% of the content is forgotten and “you probably didn’t implement any of it.”
  2. The book actually has to be read. This takes time, usually a lot of it. As we all know, time is a precious commodity for teachers. To counteract this dilemma, I customarily stick to 200 pages or less when selecting a book for professional development purposes, unless it is a book that can also serve as a reference and be utilized year after year. I love the idea of placing a book in the hands of teachers and announcing something like, “This is the only book related to [insert topic/subject here] that you will be getting within the next two (or three, of four) years!” Under these circumstances, any reasonable number of pages is fair game, as an emphasis is placed on depth and not breadth. (For more on the importance of depth over breadth, see #3.)
  3. Books can promote coverage-focused teaching, which is one of the “twin sins” of instructional design according to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design. With this mile wide, inch deep approach there is so much to “cover” (mile wide), that there is no depth to the teaching/learning (inch deep). In a previous post I talked about the importance of making professional development more focused by breaking down topics by multiple enduring understandings. For example, go from, “We’re learning about standards-based grading,” to, “We’re studying why percentage grades are unacceptable, how to revamp our grade books, etc.” Now, think about the usual disproportion between how many enduring understandings exist within any given “teacher book” vs. the amount of professional development hours dedicated to that book. Cramming too many objectives into too little time results in learning that barely scratches the surface and sustainable change is less likely to occur. In general, I would recommend starting with the end in mind and not “the book in mind.” Ask yourself, “With what enduring understanding do I want teachers to walk away at the conclusion of the professional development?” Then, only focus on the parts of the book that pertain to these understandings.

In the End

Professional development based on books (and traditional book studies) generally force educators out of their comfort zones by provoking, inspiring, and encouraging us to think more deeply about our practice. At the same, we need to proactively avoid some barriers in order to maximize the potential impact that the learning has on classroom instruction and our students. Otherwise, we will be working harder (not necessarily smarter), spending an awful lot of hours with our noses in books, and the time and energy that we invest will be far from proportionate to the results that are experienced. This is when books can impede our progress.

What are your thoughts on using books for professional development? What barriers and/or successful models have you experienced?

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The Problem with “Formative Assessment Tools” (part 2 of 2)

The Problem with %22Formative Assessment Tools%22 (part 2 of 2)In the previous post (part 1 of 2), we explored the fact that student response apps (Socrative, Kahoot!, Plickers, etc.) are often mislabeled as “formative assessment tools.” What makes them formative depends on the context in which they are used. Formative assessment is a process, and in order for a tool to play a part in this process the results/data it produces must be leveraged to differentiate instruction or learning.

The Problem

Now, let’s explore a second problem with these apps, which is the belief that they are not generally associated with higher-order thinking.

From what I have experienced, we are largely stuck in this rut when it comes to using student response tools, and there are two main reasons why:

  • For the most part, old school “student clickers” included only multiple-choice questions (and maybe a little something else), which is a format that tends to result in lower level questioning. It has been easy to copy and paste these inadequate practices (or questions) on to our newer technologies, even though these apps are capable of a whole lot more.
  • When it comes to classroom instruction, I also think it is easy to view student response tools as an all or nothing decision. Either the entire lesson is centered around their use, or they are not used at all. From what I have experienced (and have been guilty of as well), if these tools are the focal point of a class, chances are the students are simply answering one multiple-choice question after another (which aligns with the education world’s current fascination with hard, quantitative data). This means more lower level questions that travel in only one direction, from teacher to students. There is no encouragement of dialogue, collaboration, inquiry, etc. Everything is black and white, when we all know that higher-order thinking and inquiry-based learning are all about shades of grey.

The Solution

I do feel that multiple-choice and lower level questions have their place in the classroom, as higher-order thinking and inquiry are built on top of solid foundations and basic understandings. After all, you can’t think critically about nothing.

At the same time, I firmly believe that the majority of the questions asked in school, at the very least, should promote thought, curiosity and some level of exploration.

Here are two ideas as to how to encourage higher-order thinking with student response tools:

  • Flipped Clickers: Tony Wagner defines critical thinking as “the ability to ask the right question, ask really good questions.” In Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, the Distinguished level for Domain 3b (Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques) says, “Students formulate many questions, initiate topics, challenge one another’s thinking…” So, let’s flip the way student response tools our used by having students ask the questions. Overall, this shift can be accomplished by (1) the teacher promoting activities in which students have to respond with questions that they formulate (questions that can then be used creatively by the teacher to extend these activities), and/or (2) providing students with both student and teacher/administrative rights for as many tools as possible (for example, think small group literature circles in which students take turns leading the discussion). Just when you think you have all the answers, the students ask the questions.
  • Fewer Questions for a Deeper Understanding: One of the components of Danielson’s Domain 3b reads, “When teachers ask questions of high quality, they ask only a few of them and provide students with sufficient time to think about their responses, to reflect on the comments of their classmates, and to deepen their understanding.” This quote addresses head-on what needs to be done in order to promote cultures of thinking in our classrooms. Many lower level questions (such as those that accompany stories in basal readers), should be converted to only a few higher-order questions (with the help of something like Webb’s Depth of Knowledge), and around these questions thinking routines should be formed (in which student response tools do not serve as the focal point, but are used to assist in facilitating discussion and increase opportunities to respond). Additionally, teachers need explicit professional development on how to shift from lower level questions to rigorous thinking routines, rather than just focusing on converting questions from lower level to higher-order. A bunch of higher-order questions asked in the same exact way (with or without technology) as an equal number of lower level questions will do very little to deepen students’ understanding of what they are learning.

For both options, it is not an either/or decision regarding whether or not the response tools are used, but rather finding the appropriate level of technology integration to enhance or redefine student learning experiences.

In the End 

Once again, we need to emphasize pedagogy over technology by starting with the end in mind – higher-order questions and thinking routines – and then leveraging the tools that we have available to us in order for our students to arrive at the appropriate destination.

At the same time, we should keep in mind that although all educators are at different points on the learning curve when it comes to effectively integrating technology, the last thing we want is for instruction to be consistently inferior because technology just has to be included. Don’t try to cram a square peg into a round hole.

What are your thoughts on these apps? What are some unique ways in which you have seen them used to promote high-order thinking? Do you think there is a place for “flipped clickers” in the classroom?

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The Problem with “Formative Assessment Tools” (part 1 of 2)

The Problem with %22Formative Assessment Tools%22 (part 1 of 2)The Problem

It started with generally clunky and overpriced “student clickers” by such brands as SMART Technologies and Einstruction, and over the past few years it has transitioned into slick apps like Socrative, Kahoot!, and Plickers. Time and time again we have seen these apps demoed during professional development sessions and written about on websites and blogs. Nevertheless, we need to be careful that we do not prioritize technology over pedagogy by referring to these apps as “formative assessment tools” when they are anything but.

When James Popham defines formative assessment, he states:

Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.

In other words, if teachers or students are not leveraging results/data (from Socrative, Kahoot!, Plickers, etc.) to then differentiate instruction or learning, the app inspired dog and pony show does not qualify as a formative assessment.

Formative assessment is a process…not an event, questions on a piece of paper, or even an app. What makes an assessment formative depends on the context in which it is used.

The Solution

I do feel that professional development that includes these apps can start with the apps themselves, as “cool tools” are an easy way to grab an audience’s attention, but they should be presented within the context of formative assessment or something like Total Participation Techniques. In other words, “Why are we learning what we’re learning, and how can it benefit our students?”

Since what takes place after the apps are used – the differentiated instruction – is what matters most, the majority of professional development time should then be dedicated to this stage of instruction and learning. In other words, “We have our results/data, now what do we do with it?”

Here are some ideas as to what this could look like:

  • The presenter issues to teachers authentic student results from when one of the apps was used in her classroom. Some context is provided, and then the teachers are asked, “How would you modify your planning based on what you now know?” (In this instance, I would be particularly interested in any teacher questions that may arise to possibly gain additional context.)
  • The presenter issues to teachers authentic student results from when one of the apps was used in her classroom. Some context is provided, and then the teachers are asked, “Based on the questions and answers, how would you revise the questions to learn more about what the students know/don’t know?” (This activity can go hand in hand with the first bullet point. In Part 2 of this post we will dive deeper into quality questioning.)
  • The presenter uses an app to pre-assess teacher knowledge of a specific topic (possibly formative assessment). The results are immediately shared out and the teachers are asked, “Where should the professional development go from here?”

The idea is that the increased emphasis on “the after” during professional development will correlate with teachers thinking more deeply about “the after” during classroom instruction.

In the End

In the end, there is obviously nothing wrong with the tools themselves, but what matters most is the context in which they are presented during professional development, and ultimately the differentiated instruction that follows their classroom use.

None of these tools are that complicated, and any teacher can learn how to use them. However, what is complicated (and often times, messy) is what to do after the students’ results show up on our device. This is where our focus needs to be.

In Part 2, we will look at leveraging these apps to promote higher-order questioning and thinking.

What are your thoughts on these apps? What are some unique ways in which you have seen them used in the classroom and/or during professional development? How do you think they relate to the formative assessment process?

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Blog “Rebranding” with a Narrower Focus

Blog %22Rebranding%22 with a Narrower FocusFrom Broad to Narrow

This blog started as a digital portfolio that I created as one of the requirements for earning my K-12 Principal Certification. Up until now, pretty much all of the content has dealt with education, but the topics of the blog posts have been a bit scattered. For any given post, I have more or less “thrown a dart at a dartboard” and written about whatever has come to mind. To reflect this broad approach, the site title and tagline have read “Ross Cooper: thoughts from a k-12 curriculum supervisor.”

Now it is time to narrow my focus.

A few days ago I changed the title and tagline to “Cooper on Curriculum: curriculum & unit design. inquiry-based learning. assessment & grading. professional development.” In regards to the title – Cooper on Curriculum – it reflects my passion for curriculum (which I have had since I taught fourth grade), and a major focus on curriculum is now a part of my official job as a K-12 curriculum supervisor. (In fact, I have often wondered how educators could not be passionate about curriculum, since it is what we deal with each and every day.)

Concerning the four topics in the tagline, these are the curriculum-related areas about which I believe I am most enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I came up with these four off the top of my head, and to make sure I was not missing anything I spent some time browsing through my education books and previous blog posts and articles. I tried with all of my might to narrow it down to three, but it just wasn’t happening.

Why Narrow?

Since I have entered into education I have grappled with whether I should (1) spend the majority of my time improving upon areas in which I am not particularly strong or (2) dedicate myself to getting the most out of my areas of strength.

While I have come to believe it is important to be knowledgeable across a variety of education-related areas, it is not reasonable to expect an educator to be well read or the “go to” person across several of them.

Also, in Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the significance of focusing on areas in which you are passionate about and excel, and Tom Rath mimics these same sentiments in Strength Finder 2.0. Both Collins and Rath (as well a plethora of other researchers/research) emphasize that successful people and companies tend to take this less is more approach. (Also, isn’t this the same approach we want teachers to take with their instruction, as opposed to curriculum that is mile wide, inch deep?)

After “casting the net wide” for quite some time, it is now obvious to me that (1) there are specific curriculum-related topics that for me stand out above the rest, and (2) by focusing on these topics I can ultimately make more of an impact on our students. So, in the end, I look forward to approaching my writing with more of a focus, and diving deeper into topics about which I (1) am passionate, (2) have had experience, and (3) believe I can speak intelligently. Finally, there is no doubt in my mind that I will continue to learn in these areas by writing posts that incorporate research, force me out of my comfort zone, and stretch my thinking.

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5 Ways Your Consensus Could Be Railroaded

5 Ways Your Consensus Could Be Railroaded 3What is Consensus?

Consider the following continuum, and select the point at which you feel you have reached agreement on a proposal in your own school:

We have arrived at a consensus in our school when:

  1. All of us can embrace the proposal.
  2. All of us can endorse the proposal.
  3. All of us can live with the proposal.
  4. All of us can agree not to sabotage the proposal.
  5. We have a majority – at least 51 percent – in support of the proposal.

If you have not done so already, pause for a brief minute and think about where your definition of consensus falls on the continuum.

The above survey is taken directly from Learning by Doing, by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Thomas Many. When they have disseminated the survey to staff, the most common outcome has been “a staff distributed all along the continuum because members do not have consensus on the definition of consensus” (p. 227).

The authors go on to explain that a group has arrived at consensus when:

  1. All points of view have not been merely heard, but actively solicited.
  2. The will of the group is evident even to those who most oppose it. (p. 228)

The Importance of Consensus

When making significant decisions within a school or district, the importance of obtaining consensus cannot be overstated. Actions without consensus can result in (1) initiatives falling flat on their face and leaders wondering what the heck happened, and (2) teachers (and possibly administrators) being responsible for what the heck happened, while at the same time building resentment for those in control.

As stated by Kerry Patterson, Josh Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler in Crucial Accountability, “A solution that is tactically inferior, but has the full commitment of those who implement it, may be more effective that one that is tactically superior but is resisted by those who have to make it work” (p. 147).

No matter the case, when attempting to move a school or district forward, the idea of consensus must be broached in one way or another. The change agent can:

  1. Actively seek consensus: In general, the preferred approach and what will most likely lead to sustainable change.
  2. Disregard obtaining consensus: In general, typical of top-down initiatives.
  3. Railroad consensus: Provides the illusion one is obtaining consensus while only being interested in getting her way.

5 Ways Your Consensus Could be Railroaded

For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on #3, railroading consensus. In my opinion, this is the option that tends to regularly fly under the radar, as it can take place without those involved even knowing it.

Five ways to railroad consensus are:

  1. Offering your ideas from a position of power, and then giving others a chance to disagree: According to Crucial Accountability, this approach does not work because (1) the person in power cuts off new thinking by first filling others’ heads with her ideas, and (2) is making it known what she desires, so others are unlikely to disagree. Once the one-sided discussion is finished (if a discussion happens at all), the leader falsely cries “Consensus!”

If you were part of an organization where conformity is encouraged (and dissension is frowned upon), how quick would you be to offer dissenting/alternative ideas?

  1. You pretend to involve others because it “looks good,” but ultimately you manipulate people/the situation to think as you do: In Crucial Accountability, the authors state, “The problem comes when this person attempts to pass off his or her opinions as an involvement opportunity…Involve others in solving ability blocks only if you’re willing to listen to their suggestions” (p. 151). In a way, it is a guessing game as to what the leader wants, with accurate guesses magically transforming into consensus.

One sneakier approach is when the leader allows for everyone to have their say and then announces the direction that she wishes to take. Unbeknownst to everyone else, this is where they were going to end up no matter what was brought to the table.

  1. You are generating a false sense of urgency: In instances such as these, an issue arises during a particular meeting and for some reason it has to be solved right then and there (either because a general feeling of impatience is present and/or because some type of false timeline has been concocted). Coincidentally, the person who brings up the problem in the first place – the leader – already has an answer in her back pocket. So, a path is chosen without real time to: investigate what is really going on, research best practice, involve more stakeholders, etc.

The leader can make it appear as if she is doing everyone a favor by removing a problem from their plates, when in reality it is all about getting her way. Often times, the stakeholders who are present do not end up realizing the ramifications of what has taken place until it is too late.

  1. You rule with an iron first: There are in fact leaders with histories of attempting to embarrass and/or lash out vindictively at any of their dissenters. Generally, dissension is interpreted (or misinterpreted) as disrespect or non-compliance.

Worst-case scenario is when such a leader has miraculously risen to the top (or near the top) of an organization, and is therefore able to hide behind her job title. In occurrences such as these, it is not even worth attempting to weigh in with your own opinions. So, the leader explains what she wants and everyone (eventually) conforms because (1) it is just not worth the trouble and (2) it is a “fight” that cannot be won because decisions are made based on job title, not by what is best for students.

  1. You lie and/or manipulate facts/research: With this approach, the leader is clearly talking over her head, is digging herself deeper and deeper, but those who are not well versed on the current topic might not recognize what is happening. Crucial Accountability mentions how newly appointed leaders are more likely to fall into this trap because they are trying to prove their worth and might take things too far.

I should also point out the potential danger of leaders talking with a convincing tone on topics about which they are far from knowledgeable. About a month ago, an educator from another district and I had an in-depth conversation in regards to how damaging this type of communication (or miscommunication) can be to an organization.

In the End

When it comes to establishing consensus, there is a colossal difference between not disagreeing and agreeing.

As an administrator, If I constantly find myself going around announcing something to the effect of, “This is what we agreed on,” I should ask myself what we really means. Did I genuinely seek consensus with everyone contributing as equals, or did I simply begin with my end in mind and then assist others in arriving at my destination.

What are your thoughts on the idea of railroading consensus? Am I completely off the mark, or is this something to which you can relate? Or does reality fall somewhere in between?

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