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The importance of common, shared understandings

The importance of common, shared understandings

I had the chance recently to work with an awesome teacher-led school here in Colorado. Because the school already is pretty amazing, we spent most of our day and a half together fine tuning a few aspects of its work.
One of the core values of this school – stated front and center in its mission statement – is its commitment to guiding students to become self-directed learners. However, although the school had been working on this front for several years, there was still a lack of agreement across faculty about what that really meant. There were some great student projects occurring, but there weren’t common understandings across classrooms and grade levels. So we spent a significant amount of time in a structured process that allowed them to pin down a definition that they could all agree on (woo hoo! success!). Now in this school, if they’re going to call a student experience ‘rock star quality student self-directed learning,’ it’s going to have most of the following 7 elements (each of which they defined in detail) most of the time for most students:
student choice
student voice
student as director of own learning
student engagement
student risk-taking
student reflection
teacher as facilitator
If the student experience doesn’t have any of these elements, it won’t be considered ‘self-directed learning.’ And if the experience only has some of these elements, it will be considered one that is ‘working toward’ the end goal of ‘more student self-directed learning, more often.’
What was important about this process was not the variety of different facilitation techniques that we used or the ‘correctness’ of the end result. You might define ‘rock star quality student self-directed learning’ differently, for example. What was important was the productive, goal-oriented dialogue and that the school faculty was able to come to agreement about what will work for them so that they then could identify concrete ‘look-fors’ and action items. In other words, common, shared understandings are prerequisites for common, shared commitments.
I love doing this kind of facilitation work with educators. Too often in our schools we use big, important ideas or terms – critical thinking! technology integration! student inquiry! academic rigor! social justice! – that mean widely different things to different people. Because we never take the time to really pin down and define common, shared understandings (or, worse, we try to impose our understandings on others), we see significant variability as educators attempt to implement those ideas in their day-to-day practice. If we want to get an entire system to extraordinary, we have to get everyone in agreement about what that means…
As a school leader, when was the last time that you engaged in a structured dialogue that allowed you to see if your staff really agrees on what some big ideas mean in your school and what they look like in practice? Are you just assuming or hoping that everyone has common, shared understandings? 

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