I received the following email recently about the difficulty of dealing with resistant or challenging people in workshops:

I serve schools as a math and data coach throughout the State.  I am writing you looking for some ideas. I generally work with low-achieving schools and often a staple of the school culture in these schools is that the adults have a victim-like mentality.  I hear some of the same negative statements over and over again that are personally frustrating and disappointing for me to hear as a person and a fellow educator.

I am writing you looking some guidance on how you would respond to some or all of the following statements that I’m sure you have heard before, some examples:

  • “The teachers here are great, we just need better students”
  • “The state uses voodoo math to determine which schools are struggling, our school is fine; it’s the state that needs to make changes”

These are just a few examples, I’m sure you hear the same 5 to 10 statements from educational holdouts that uses these excuses as a reason not to change their educational practices. Is there anything you might say to these educators that could perhaps cause a shift in their thinking?

Here was my response, expanded for this post:

Yes, such fatalistic attitudes are all too common. In fact, it is not just struggling schools: No matter where you go – good school or bad, public or private, urban or rural – you hear these kinds of comments over and over again.

Let’s assume for the moment that the schools are in need of change, and that some staff members are simply not facing up to issues at hand. (In some cases, there isn’t credible and compelling case that such change is needed; it’s just the new administration’s urge to make a mark). What, then, can be done by outsiders – if anything – to help the insiders face the challenges?

First, I would posit the following as an informal theory of change:

1. The case for change cannot be made in words merely by either consultants or insiders. The case for change has to be made by credible prima facie evidence, such as student work and behavior, that is simply not acceptable to teachers, given their goals. Data is insufficient, too, because it is typically too indirect – and in the case of current tests and VAM, arcane and lacking in some credibility. Change occurs, therefore when there are clear ‘owned’ goals as well as credible evidence that reveals gaps between the desired and the actual as viewed by staff.

2. Without credible models of “our kids” doing great things, research/data always leaves teachers unimpressed. So, there has to be a collection of video and print exemplars that show local kids doing things that teachers claim kids can’t or won’t do. (Indeed, such video should be a priority in schools, in parallel with curriculum writing.)

3. No one changes habits easily, even if they are ready to do so. There needs to be a pressing personally-felt urge and a support system for making the effort. Thus, appealing incentives need to be in place to motivate and nudge people, and some lightening of the load or freeing up of time must be provided.

4. The skeptic is very different from the cynic. The skeptic is your friend. The skeptic is typically an older, somewhat conservative teacher, who has seen many initiatives come and go while doing his or her best to maintain standards or at least dignity. The cynic, by contrast, is an idea- and hope-killer – always finding a reason to blame others, be a fatalist, and taking no responsibility for anything in need of change. The skeptic should be brought into the reform work. Indeed, if you cannot convince the skeptic, then you are failing to make a strong case for reform. The cynic, on the other hand, is to marginalized, rendered less and less likely to poison the air and have influence.

5. Successful reform requires finding ways for highly motivated and competent teachers to gain more authority. The great organizational weakness of most schools is their flatness. There are few ways to advance as a teacher (except by leaving teaching and becoming an admin.) So, it is vital that leaders establish ad hoc roles, opportunities, committees, positions that enable the best teachers to gain some authority (even if it is only moral authority). “Get the right people on the bus and in the right seats,” as Collins put it.

Here are some tips for making discourse and action research more positive and productive:

1. Establish norms and gentle rules for discussion with participants in all workshops, trainings, or meetings; get them to share any “accountable talk” routines they might use in their classes. Keep encouraging all talk to only be about “what we can control” and can act on with current resources. (See the previous blog entry and the many fine suggestions in the comments on how to do so.)

2. Get complete ownership by staff of a long-term goal or two (e.g. critical thinking, asking higher-order questions, transfer of learning independently, etc.) Then, keep returning, over and over, to the goal as the focus. “What evidence do we have of student ability or inability? How might we improve this ability? What has worked for you? Etc.

Do not allow fatalistic answers or blaming concerning the discussion of such deficits. It is an evidence-based inquiry into what does and doesn’t work. Keep poking at causes that might be in our control, such as textbook-driven lessons, low-level test questions, etc. (More on finding root causes, below).

3. Find any data about outcomes that staff thinks is credible, e.g. their own graded work or a specific test result. Ask people to look at student samples and draw inferences as to what the problem is and how it might be addressed, based on that credible work.

4. When they say ‘our school is fine,’ agree; but then ask them to consider: yes but how can it be better? What deficits or results bug us most? Remind them of athletic and drama coaches who are never satisfied. Indeed, if possible, get some of the coaches to describe how they deal with this issue of “good” teams and players always needing to improve, even when a team is currently winning.

5. Do not start by purveying research. Start by doing exercises that cause staff to identify the characteristics of exemplary practice or performance. For example, we use the following two exercises to get staff to establish the criteria of good design for understanding:

  • What is the difference between “understanding” and merely knowing a lot. Fill in a T-Chart using the stems: Someone who really understands can use the content to…  vs. Someone who knows is limited to… Then, ask staff to commit to the most compelling answers, by looking next at assignments and instruction to see to what extent they are in sync with the answers they generated. (The gaps are usually very obvious).
  • What was the best-designed learning situation you were ever in? What made it so? After sharing the stories, generalize: what is true, then, of the best-designed learning? Let’s then work to honor these design standards.

Note that it is very difficult for the resisters/cynics to wiggle out of such answers because they were staff generated and they are common sense answers. From such exercises we thus ask staff to make formal or informal commitments. Behavior is not changed by appeals or “the research” in other words. It is changed – if it is changed – by seeing alternative realities, models, and cool things that prove to them beyond a shadow of a doubt that better results are possible.

 

My colleague Margo Guillot has successfully use the following process in the face of serious resistance to working together on challenges that face them:

This process works in very difficult situations, but it requires flexibility on the part of the facilitator and it demands sufficient time (1/2 day).  I like to use a large wall with butcher paper taped to the wall sprayed with dry mount and stacks of half pages and markers.

  1. Begin with those things we are “proud about”.  What are we really proud about at this school, in this department, etc.?  (Every participant has strips of paper and markers.  Ask them to write large enough that everyone can read their sheet from the back of the room.  Everyone writes one proud about per strip.  Then each person prioritizes (1-2-3-4…) his/her proud abouts.  Each person sticks their number one on one side of the wall labeled proud about.  We read them all and collapse duplicates.  We read all out loud and we celebrate…
  2. Do a historical review.  What happened first, second…?  Where was there a significant change?  (star those as a point of reference)
  3. What was our contribution to making all that happen?  (It wasn’t fate.)  Elicit as much response as possible.  This is a facilitated discussion.
  4. Then have a focus question.  What would we like to see our students doing in 5 years?  We list verb phrases.  Using strips again, each person lists one phrase per strip.  Then everyone prioritizes his/her stack and we stick everyone’s number one on the wall.  We look for duplicates.  We collapse duplicates.  We leave the verb phrases on the wall.  Which ones are within our control?  Which ones require time or money?  We eliminate those that cannot be done under current conditions.  That narrows the list.
  5. We use the pared down list to ask what is stopping us.  We ask one more time if any can be eliminated because they require time or money or are not within our control.  Again, everyone lists one reason per strip of what is stopping us.  They prioritize and stick their number one under what’s stopping us.
  6. Then, I give everyone 3 little sticky circles and ask them to vote for the 3 that each one believes are the main stoppers.  Rule:  only one sticky circle per item per person.  After everyone votes, we look where the energy went in the room and we work with the one that has the most votes.   However, we do not discard the others.  At a different time, we will come back to numbers 2 and 3.
  7. If the one that got the most votes was that “there is no collaboration in the building”, we look for the root cause by asking 5 whys (facilitated discussion).  For example:

Why is there no collaboration in the building?                                                  Teachers are afraid to share their work

 Why are teachers afraid to share their work?

Teachers are afraid because they feel they will be judged as inadequate

Why do teachers feel they will judged as inadequate?

Teachers are aware that they do not have all the skills they need.

Why don’t teachers have the skills they need?

Teachers have not had helpful staff development.

Why haven’t teachers had helpful staff development?

**Staff development has not been linked to what actually happens in their classrooms.

We then use the root cause to formulate an action plan that they develop.  The action plan has to have a short-term revisit time built in and an opportunity to celebrate small successes and what’s next, given where we are now.

Every time I have used this process, I have had excellent results, often in very difficult circumstances.  I had to do a 5-day School to Work training I had developed with the faculty of a correctional institution.  When I walked in and found the principal reading the paper and teachers with their arms crossed or working crossword puzzles or reading the paper, I put the workshop on hold and began with this process. By doing this, I completely changed the dynamics in the room and they ALL became receptive and engaged, willing to listen to what we had to offer. It was incredibly successful because I tied everything we were doing to what they had identified.

The process motivates folks because they feel validated, heard, and a part of the change agenda.

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