Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Differentiating Collaboration Outside Our Comfort "Circles"

Mirror Post ASCDEdge

As I’ve become more engaged in the PLNs I’ve developed on Twitter, ASCDEdge, Facebook, 21st Century Teacher, and more recently Google+, I have allowed myself to enjoy an inflated notion of intellectual communion and concordance. I suppose it’s been very easy to find like-minded educators who agree that social media has a place in the learning environment; that mobile devices can transform a class; that coaching is the improved mode of teaching; that project-based or experience based learning is more engaging and enriching than teacher-centered, lecture-based (“traditional” instruction); and that blended learning is a now-not later, us-not them experience for the majority of students. In essence, it has been very easy to find people who agree with me...but I guess that isn’t really the point of leadership.

When I posted “Let There be Facebook” a couple weeks ago, I was able to see the clear divide between my PLNs online and on-site. The comments and feedback from my blog through ASCDEdge and its Facebook page, and the other networks through which it was shared, were positive and supportive. Contrarily, when I shared it on our faculty FB wall, I watched as comment upon comment was posted reflecting the polar view point. It was excellent feedback as it allowed me a genuine and very necessary moment of reflection. Was I frustrated? Yes. However, in moments of frustration, we grow and hopefully stretch ourselves to see the other perspectives and hopefully learn to compromise or to at least assuage anxieties over changes imposed upon others; after all, we cannot always agree--or even ever perhaps!

I had a similar experience this weekend as a thread developed on a teacher listserv to which I subscribe on “technology in the classroom”. What began as a discussion/debate of online AP testing quickly turned acrimonious as contributors camped out in opposing corners proclaiming the value of various forms of technology or denouncing it completely as a menacing adversary to everything we hold sacred. I don’t think I need to state which camp I was in, and I did contribute and become incredibly frustrated as message after message was taken out of context and misconstrued, but towards the end, I really had to step back and send a note of gratitude for the rich and wonderfully diverse community of spirited and knowledgeable educators who shared their perspectives. It also made me realize that these communities of teachers who don’t all agree with me, in fact those in which I represent the minority, are exactly those I must engage in to maintain the balance of viewpoints and to fulfill my responsibility as a leader.    

Recently, a friend of mine said jokingly “Wouldn’t it be easy if you could work with everyone who ‘gets it’?” Naturally I said “yes!” but in reality, that isn’t what I want. I’m very grateful for my PLNs for the never-ending, enriching stream of resources they provide as well as the comfort they offer in times of doubt. However, as a leader, I realize that even if in some moments I get to be  “right” (to borrow from a recent ASCDEdge post by Walter Mackenzie), it will take a differentiated approach to working with others in order to effect positive change. In the same post, Walter challenges us with this sentiment, “Ask yourself this: what is a good working definition of what is ‘right’? While there’s comfort in consensus, isn’t the determinant in what is right and true found in outcomes?”  This took me back to a recent conversation I had with another educator who suggested that all educational leaders must learn to differentiate their collaboration with others in the same way we expect teachers to do so with students, so that while the focus is on the shared outcome, the approach and path varies.

Of course, the question of outcome is not always easy to define, or to put it another way, it is often lost among the cacophony of competing agendas. In its simplest form, it should be to foster a multifaceted growth of our students. As often as I denounce lecturing, I can think back to my favorite teacher from high school who did little else but still managed to spark an intense curiosity in us and always left us hungry for more. I can concede that there are people whose talent in reaching an audience and conveying a point exceeds normal constraints on attention (Sir Ken Robinson is most certainly one). I don’t think I could argue against this form of instruction if every time I walked by a classroom, the students were engaged, listening, and participating in a follow-up discussion with enthusiasm and relevance. However, when this is not the case, and students are left checked-out on the fringe of learning because we refuse to bend our wills to captivate their interest, then I cannot concede that lecturing or any other form of one-way, two-dimensional instruction is acceptable.

What is truly the most frustrating is to see several people simply opt out of the transformational conversations taking place, and this will be my focus outside my comfort “circles”...to simply engage people in the conversations, to challenge others and myself to discuss the issues, and to help set a differentiated path to our shared goal. 

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