A “Culture of Thinking”: Disagreement, Clarification and Emotion

I recently ran my first, official, “Time, Space, Education” workshop at Mt. Scopus Memorial College and have come away with plenty to think about. This will be the first of several posts in which I reflect on my experiences there, what I gained from running a workshop and what I gained from the feedback received from participants. This first posting is based on Edna Sackson’s posting called Communities of practice in which she refers to a “culture of thinking”.

Disagreement

Bill and Ochan Powell recently said:

“You can tell a huge amount about a school within the first ten minutes just by watching how adults relate to each other.”

I was struck, very quickly, at Mt. Scopus, by a willingness amongst the staff to have disagreements. People would regularly challenge each other openly, and remain friends. This is quite different to the culture I have found in international schools. Something about them frequently seems to prevent people from having disagreements, perhaps out of fear of “rocking the boat”, “wasting time”, “causing conflict” or worrying about being tainted as “difficult”. International school teachers frequently hold in their disagreements or challenges and can sometimes let them fester into negative emotions like resentment or isolation. I am wondering why this is and I definitely think we have a lot to learn from schools like Mt. Scopus.

Another key ingredient to a culture of thinking , in my opinion, is that people have the confidence to clarify their thinking if someone is misinterpreting them – or even simply not listening properly to them. Many times, as I observed or took part in conversations over the two days, I witnessed people saying things like “no… what I am saying is” or “hang on, that’s not what I mean” or “wait a minute, you’re not really listening”. I really loved this, simply because whenever someone does that it inevitably leads to a more powerful conversation for all the people involved, and everyone walks away feeling that they have been understood. Again, this is not always the way things are in international schools.

On several occasions, and particularly when challenged to really bash out ideas to try and reach consensus on what units of inquiry are actually about, the staff at Mt. Scopus displayed genuine, heartfelt emotions. People’s emotions about what and how they teach can often be interpreted as a negative thing. Perhaps they are upset because they put that unit together or because they really like that unit themselves or because they are resistant to change. When things became emotional at Mt. Scopus, however, it was very clear that the emotions were connected to a real sense of how important some units are to the students’ lives. These emotions are positive and are a very clear, outward indicator that you are working with people who care about their job and who take learning seriously. When we respond to something with emotion and then take the time (and are given the chance) to explain our feelings and thoughts, it leads to greater focus, creativity, innovation and ultimately improves student learning. When we hide, suppress or stigmatize emotional reactions to professional conversations, we forget why we are teachers in the first place.

These three things are essential if we are to continue to develop as teachers, and as communities of teachers. It was very exciting to be immersed in that kind of culture for a few days.

Advertisements

13 comments

  1. whatedsaid

    Hi Sam

    We loved having you. It’s always great to hear a fresh perspective, especially one that’s as insightful as yours. We are already weaving your ideas and into our planning and hearing your voice in our heads, whether in relation to the units of inquiry or the way we use our time!

    I love this post. This kind of dialogue is part of our culture and something we take for granted. Now that you point it out, I realise how special it is. I’m trying to remember if it was always this way (I’ve been at this school a long time!). I think the introduction of the PYP was an influential factor in promoting this kind of conversation. It gave us a common language and a common purpose, as a context within which to disagree 🙂 But then that doesn’t explain why international IB schools wouldn’t be the same…

    I’ve sent your post on to the staff who participated in your workshops. Hopefully there will be further responses!

    • Desiree Finestone

      Sam, I like how you observed how we challenge each each other and yet still remain friends no matter how ‘hot under the collar we get’. I agree with you, in that this is about how strongly we feel about how important the learning is to our students’ thinking, learning and lives. You gave us a great deal to think about. Today, whilst planning a new unit, Edna actually quoted your thinking a few times and it was quite tangible at that moment, that she would have liked to have shared our ‘hot topic’ with you. Together with my colleagues,I look forward to reflecting on, and implementing some of your amazing philosophies. Teachers and students as learners will surely benefit! You were a joy and an inspiration! Thank you for sharing with us.

      • Mr. Sam

        Thanks Desiree. You’re right, it does make me hot under the collar too! Sometimes, those conversations, debates, disagreements really do cause a physical reaction in us… how lucky to care so much about our profession. It gives me immense pride to hear that I had an impact on the way such a professional and competent bunch of teachers work.

    • Mr. Sam

      Thanks Edna.

      You’re right, the PYP does drive these conversations because it expects teachers to “create” the curriculum, in a way, through the POI. I have experienced a similar thinking culture at the International School Dhaka… we would often have very passionate debates about teaching and learning at that school. Other international schools I have worked in, however, have not quite managed to replicate that – for a variety of reasons.

      I can see why you smiley-faced your phrase “a context within which to disagree”… it’s a great line, I may have to steal it!

    • Rubi

      I totally agree with you that we can confidently agree to disagree with each other. Sam, I have learnt such a lot from you about clarifying my thoughts. We have talked about how you made us think – within the teaching community as well as with my students when I am comfused about a concept. This wonderful culture of thinking at our school makes it really interesting to teach and it provides us with constant challenges.Thanks to Edna who is always there when I ask for help.

      • Mr. Sam

        Hi Rubi… I like the fact that you enjoy the “constant challenges”. As teachers, we need those challenges so that we don’t stagnate, so that our teaching is constantly evolving and so that we are excited by our jobs. This doesn’t mean we should always take on more and more work… it means that we are always thinking of ways to improve the way we work.

  2. lsacker

    HI Sam, Sometimes you don’t really know what you have until you get a new perspective. i guess we take so much of what we do for granted. Today we planned a unit using your suggestions for finding the heartbeat of that unit. It was wonderful. We, as usual, had tension and the good part was when people started to monitor their own thinking and retreat down paths that were not really in the big idea. We all so enjoyed our time thinking and talking and felt a real rush. Yes .. you are right it is important for us all. Wow.. I have to say I did not think about it .
    Come again and hold up a mirror to our learning communi

    • Mr. Sam

      I love that… “the heartbeat of the unit”. I may have to steal that one too!

      You are also spot on when you say that we often don’t know what we have until we get a new perspective. Likewise, we can also forget what we don’t have until we get a new perspective, and that’s why I leave your school feeling rather envious!

  3. Dave Secomb

    “I was struck, very quickly, at Mt. Scopus, by a willingness amongst the staff to have disagreements. People would regularly challenge each other openly, and remain friends. This is quite different to the culture I have found in international schools. Something about them frequently seems to prevent people from having disagreements, perhaps out of fear of “rocking the boat”, “wasting time”, “causing conflict” or worrying about being tainted as “difficult”. International school teachers frequently hold in their disagreements or challenges and can sometimes let them fester into negative emotions like resentment or isolation. I am wondering why this is and I definitely think we have a lot to learn from schools like Mt. Scopus.”

    This is interesting to me too. Perhaps the relatively high staff turnover in Intl. schools contributes to this? How many times have you come across an attitude of ‘this person will be gone in a few years and I’ll still be here so I don’t have to agree with them’ or ‘this person has been here for years and I’ll be gone soon so I don’t have to worry about working well with them’? It’s all about the way that each person thinks and approaches their work. Even if you really will only have a one or two year working relationship with someone I think you still need to approach it with the mind-set that you’ll be working with them for your entire career and you should use appropriate collaborative behaviours throughout this time. Of course, there are many Intl. schools that collaborate in the same way that you say Mt. Scopus does, as you mentioned in your comment, so it’s not only about staff turnover. Congrats on the successful workshop!

    • Mr. Sam

      Thanks Dave.

      You may be right about the turnover factor. Perhaps something about the contract renewal system also makes people stay quiet, try to “fit in” and not get a reputation as a troublemaker!!!

  4. Dale Cope

    That is an extremely insightful observation and one that I think is important. I have found often that disagreements of ideas, especially when aired in front of “others” are taken personally when it is the idea and not the person proposing the idea that is being raised. Disagreements on ideas are what drive innovation, by looking at something and wondering, “Why do we do this?” or “Is there a better way?”. I have also found that disagreeing seems to make people assume you think you are better than those who follow the “traditional” ways.

    I think we can all learn a lot from each other if we are willing to not become emotionally attached to our own ideas and ways of doing things enough to discuss them.

    • Mr. Sam

      Yes, it is often the emotional attachment to our own ideas that causes the problem. I guess we need to have those emotions because, as I referred to in the posting, those emotions are often indicators that we really do care about our jobs and about our students’ learning. However, if we are emotionally attached to our ideas, approaches, techniques then we will inevitably take it personally when those are challenged. If they’re not challenged, as you say, we will never move forward!!!

  5. Pingback: Lesson 12.038: Reflection 08/07/2012 : To Cope with Spitballs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s