Design, Learning, and Data, Oh my! … (or how not to make people be defensive)

Readings this week:

Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Harvard Business Review, (May-June).
City, E., Elmore, R., Fiarman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009). Chapters 4-6. In Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning (pp. 83-131). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.
Lieberman, A. (2000). Networks as Learning Communities: Shaping the Future of Teacher Development. Journal of Teacher Education, 221-227.

Design projects and data are not familiar language to educators, even though (hopefully most) teachers are literally engaged in design every day as they modify the local learning environment to fit the needs of their students. We rarely see it as such, though, as the emphasis is on students and their work in relation to the teacher’s design, not the reflection on our own thinking. This mirrors Argyris’ single-loop vs. double-loop learning. As Argyris notes, he was working with people who were “well-educated, high-powered, high commitment professionals,” which I think would describe a lot of graduate students in education. Argyris (1991) writes, “People can be taught how to recognize the reasoning they use when they design and implement their actions.” When faced with a design project that tests our thinking, where the likelihood of failure is high, fear creeps in.

It is through the very act of design, feedback, and failure that requires us to bypass our own interpretations because we’ve literally put our thinking outside of our heads. This act of dissociation of our emotional, judgmental selves from our practice is exactly what City et al. (2009) refer to as separating the practice from the person. Likewise feedback systems, whether they be user testing in design or observational notes in the classrooms, are what bring in the feedback, or data, on our design. When we can use the feedback to redesign, rather than defend, we can learn.

As we have heard in many readings this semester and again this week, professional community stems from “conversations about their work” (Lieberman, 2000), but clearly these conversations need data about practice, not about teachers, and the people conversing need guidance in using the data. City et al. (2009) refer to the “culture of nice” as an improvement-impeding norm, because it clouds the distinction between practice from person. People are unwilling to offer feedback for fear that it will be taken as criticism and elicit defensiveness, so they just avoid the conversation all together. The Instructional Rounds protocols offer such guidance for school leaders on how they help teachers in “learning to see, unlearning to judge” and offer clear expectations for how to discuss practice in a way that pushes people to think rather than defend.

On a more practical note, for the field work we are just beginning for the DRP class and on personalization in practice, I found many things helpful in the Instructional Rounds piece. At least for me, it will help me orient myself to conducting an observation: keeping it descriptive rather than evaluative, asking open questions to kids, not discussing with fellow researchers in the hallways but waiting for a time to debrief, and examining my own assumptions or biases about what good teaching and learning looks like.

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