Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power of the Counterintuitive, Part Two: Hush Up

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 41
Milan, IL

October 25, 2014

Counterintuitive: Counter to what intuition would lead one to expect: The direction we had to follow was counterintuitive--we had to go north first before we went south. (From

Scripture tells us that God gave us two ears and one mouth, presumably so we listen twice as much as we talk.  Pretty good advice.  How are we doing on following that advice? 

The value and power of discussion as a learning tool is undeniable.  And it is self-evident that discussion is a two-way exchange of ideas.  We need to listen as much as we talk, probably more.  But are we really doing that?  In leadership and in the classroom, who dominates the conversation?  In your administrative meetings are those "in charge" dominating the conversation or is everyone given an equal chance to participate? In staff meetings, do the teachers and paraprofessionals have as much time to talk and share ideas and opinions as the principal?  In your classroom, do you, the teacher, talk far more than the students?  

I've taken a look at this recently and I've found that what we might erroneously call discussion would more properly be called a one way sharing of information.  I took a quick pulse recently of the ratio of teacher to student discussion in several classrooms.  I have discovered that even in so-called book study groups, book chats and guided reading groups, places where students are supposed to have a large voice, the teacher still dominates the conversation 72% of the time!  Yet I hear all of the time in various conversations with teachers and on Twitter chats about the "power of student voice".  I would challenge all of the teachers who may be reading this to ask yourselves, how much voice are you really giving your students?  When you are planning your lessons ask, how can I give my students a bigger voice in this lesson?  As you know, I participate in a number of Twitter chats and we expound on the value of the exchange of ideas and opinions all of the time.  Every time I participate in a chat, many participants make the comment that they "learn so much talking to their colleagues."  I believe it to be an axiom that the same must be true for students.  But are we truly giving them that time?  If you are, kudos to you!  If you're not, it might be time for some self-reflection and figure out how to hush up and give your students more time in your class to talk and share ideas. 

Administrators, how are you doing on this?  Do you dominate the conversations in your meetings or do you TRULY give your principals or teachers a chance to talk and share ideas?  Time for a mea culpa on this one.  I believe I may be guilty of talking too much.  I don't know for sure but I'm going to find out.  In my next whole group PLC meeting, I'm going to have one of my teachers track and record the amount of time I talk compared to that of the teachers. If that time is "out of whack", as I suspect it may be, time for some self-reflection and perhaps changing up how we're doing things.  I'm also going to video record the meeting so I can see for myself how I'm doing. I need to model what I expect of my teachers.  

One more word about listening.  In a conversation, just because we are quiet does not mean that we are listening.  Are you actively taking in what the speaker has to say, or is your mind spinning, trying to figure out what to refute before the speaker has even finished?  Again, a mea culpa on my part here; guilty as charged.  I was definitely guilty of this in a recent discussion with my staff on the benefits or lack thereof of a particular reading program.  I'm fortunate that I have a teacher who has the ability to gently point me in the right direction when he sees that I may be starting to dig my heels in and argue for a particular point.  He brings me back to a more neutral center.  What this shows me, though, is that I need to do a better job of listening actively and disposing of my preconceived notions so that I can truly hear what's being said.  I'm going to work on this.  

Regardless of our current roles in education, we are teachers.  We teach (It's the most noble professional title I've ever possessed.  I'm a principal today but when asked, I'm still proud to call myself a teacher).    In today's vernacular, being a teacher means to facilitate learning.  But to facilitate learning, we need to listen as much or more than we talk so that we can guide our students, principals or whoever is in our audience to come to their own conclusions because that is the foundational principle of true learning.  So the next time you're up in front of a group, or preparing to be up in front of the group, and taking the role of "sage on the stage" seems right, think of Counterintuitive Principle Two: Hush Up.  You may well get more for the effort.  

As always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I truly appreciate it.  I would appreciate any comments or suggestions.  I promise I'll hush up and listen!  Have a great week!  You are my heroes!  

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