CCSS SMP3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Within any community, it can be tricky to maintain a sense of respect and congeniality when there is a need to challenge beliefs. I know I have not mastered the art of polished, passionate debate without being emotionally affected. But the heart of a productive professional learning community (PLC) is the ability to dissect ideas and explore the best of the best for our students while maintaining a supportive teaching environment.
Why Teachers Need to Grow
Square one in professional growth is buying into the idea that we all have the potential to grow in ways that are worthwhile. Somewhere along the line, my students started changing. What really made me aware of the need to adjust to them was when I started doc classes and got called out for tweeting when I should have been paying more attention. That incident helped me to realize that what can easily be thought of as laziness or lack of ambition can be explained by misaligned priorities. I have since made it a point to not judge my students when they seem less ambitious than I would like for them to be. Rather I focus on what I can do to make their learning more powerful and efficient. I know I have some strengths, but I also have many areas that are weak and am committed to work toward improvement because improving is fun, and it is the right thing to do as a professional educator. It’s not about measuring ourselves against a colleague, rather envisioning forward momentum both together and within ourselves.
Why Teachers Need to Question
I have reasons for doing what I do, and my colleagues have theirs. My growth depends largely upon their willingness to share their thought processes and help me understand their valuable takeaways with respect to my own. Complex ideas are not always readily understood. There may be many pros and cons and unintended side-effects. Critiquing one’s reasoning can be confused with criticizing and making others feel the process is rigged to make them feel deficient: a wall shoots up and shuts down the discussion. Hard feelings can develop. But being able to question a colleague who also asks questions, who is committed to doing their best, and who is open to mutual growth is priceless.
Commitment to Safety in Questioning
Safety and humility are essential for free-flowing discussion. We all have different knowledge bases and experiences. If there is a sense of arrogance in knowing something first or embarrassment for not knowing something earlier, it can be difficult to trust others with our thoughts. Intentional humility can help remove those obstacles. Consistent (not sporadic) affirmation and support are crucial. There should be a sense of joy in learning something new and a deep appreciation for the source. Joyful growth comes with safety and safety is something we deliberately construct and reinforce. I have been blessed with many colleagues I can trust with explorative discussions and am always looking for more. I have learned to cherish those who will take the time to articulate their thoughts and allow me to question until I can understand why their ideas might be better than my own.
Ideas for Ground Rules
These are some personal ground rules I have set for myself and try to build in my students aligning to SMP3:
#1 My colleagues’ feelings are more important than any point I’m trying to make. (This goes for student discussions as well.)
#2 Loyalty and trust are foundational to any worthwhile relationship.
#3 My objective for a discussion is to learn something, rather than win something.
#4 I will not triangulate a discussion to a third party if others in the discussion would not approve.
#5 I will not judge another’s reasoning for not wanting to reason and will stay within boundaries as they become known.
#6 I will assume others’ best intentions and ask, “What do you mean by that?” if there is suspicion or doubt.
#7 I will do my best to be tactfully direct, rather than expect others to read my hints.
#8 I will check myself against having hidden scripts or expectations for others, e.g. “They should have ____________.”
#9 Retaliation is not in my toolbox.
Slow Chat as an Accessible Option
Robust discourse is often perceived as threatening, particularly for one who needs time to process and formulate responses. But thoughtful discussions are not necessarily shot from the hip. I recently discovered the practice of slow chat whereby people tweet or blog a discussion that can extend over days, even weeks and months. In a classroom discussion, wait time can be extended by having students bounce things off their seatmates before opening comments to the class. Those who are intimidated into silence when there is rapid-fire communication often have some of the best ideas. Slow chats offer the opportunity to for everyone to be able to process the points. How much better it would be if important discussions were prolonged with, “I need to think more about that. I’ll get back with you,” rather than shut down with awkwardness.
When Loyalty Conflicts with Progress
In some Southern communities, it is considered an act of disloyalty to openly disagree. Even in business meetings, it is not uncommon to leave believing everyone is in support of an idea when the opposite is true. Great ideas are dismissed as they are poorly understood, undefended, and untested because to challenge may appear rude. Other cultures are known for discussion norms that outsiders can mistake for a heated argument. So if we are going help our students fine-tune their ability to think critically and critique others’ reasoning in a diverse classroom, then it makes sense to grow our own skills, cross-culturally. Given the extremes of perceived vagueness and bluntness, a likely starting point is to recognize and appreciate diversity, pursuing trust and unity. That goes back to assuming the best in others.
Triangulation and Mediation
There is one exception to my “no triangulation” rule. I feel handicapped in that I do not have a strong, natural intuition for what people are thinking. My husband has more woman’s intuition than I, and if someone does not directly tell me how they are feeling and interpreting our communication, I struggle to develop an awareness. If there is a third party who can confidentially help me understand, support, and relate to a colleague, I will seek that advice in a quest to better understand, communicate, and build stronger bonds of trust. That triangulation is polar opposite of attempting to build one’s case against the other and can burn the whole house down with a candle. We all have sensitivities and blind spots. If I suspect my colleague has a blind spot, I will try to help them see rather than let them run them into a wall. I am thankful for the people in my life who help me see and sense things I am unable to detect on my own.
In the process of questioning, there is always a risk of misunderstanding and emotions can flare. I do not believe in unilaterally seeking mediation because that breaches the trust. If one colleague asks a third person to mediate (unbeknownst to the other colleague), that act is likely to appear hostile, seriously damaging the relationship for the long-term. In that situation both the seeker and the accused lose credibility. Others in the same environment can be drawn into choosing sides creating an atmosphere of dissension. This can affect the entire PLC (or classroom). If disagreements become unresolvable, it would be far better to mutually agree to arrange mediation. In that way, the issue is pragmatically and amicably addressed by soliciting an unbiased party who can help the two see a bigger picture. Even the presidential candidates have a moderator, so there is no shame in that.
No doubt there is an art to critiquing and examining others’ reasoning. Square one is understanding the mission as one of growth, not faultfinding. Probing questions can be risky. They may take time to process. But that time is well spent and the risk well taken if the result is better decisions for teaching and learning.