Learning from the Energy of Our Differences

Several years ago, I was invited to work with a school in Georgia to help the administration address very serious problems relating to student motivation and engagement, teacher burnout, and what they described to me as “quickly deteriorating atmosphere of resentment and disengagement among our staff.” I was asked to offer a series of teacher development workshops on 21st-century skills and student engagement. The principal sent me a rather comprehensive letter outlining their teacher development needs and painted a grim picture of the school, using language that I found honest and direct, but generally unsupported by any specific examples or detailed information about the school, its students, and the teaching staff. I read and reread the letter carefully and, still interested in learning more about the school and its challenges, asked to spend two days at the school before facilitating my workshops. I wanted to get a more complete sense of the place.

On Day 1, at lunchtime, after meeting a number of teachers and visiting a few classrooms, I found a comfortable armchair in the staffroom, placed my laptop on the table in front of me, and prentended to work while I focused on listening to about three or four conversations taking place around me.

Soon, one conversation really grabbed my attention. Three female teachers were talking about Natasha and a group of her friends and classmates. I learned that there was a high rate of teenage pregnancy in the neighbourhood served by the school, that many of the students dropped out to become teenage moms, that it was not uncommon for both boys and girls to be swept into the gang culture and drop out, and — perhaps most importantly — that the teachers felt powerless to effect change, to motivate the students and help them see opportunities that come along with staying in school.

On Day 2, also at lunchtime, the conversation continued, this time with a few more teachers adding their thoughts and experiences. I listened intently, and the more I learned about the students, the neighbourhood, the challenges, the school culture, the more I realized that the workshops I had prepared for my visit needed to be seriously reworked.

I had prepared the workshops based on information received from the principal, information that did not include any of the facts I had learned in two days in the staffroom and from many informal conversations with the teachers. I could not deliver these workshops knowing that they had only a very faint connection to the daily lives and challenges faced by the school’s teachers. At the end of lunch on Day 2 I knew that I needed a completely different strategy — one built upon the realities I had learned about and witnessed, and on the power of dialogue.

My “True Voice”

As I was listening to many negative and discouraging comments about a certain group of grade 12 girls, three of whom had gotten pregnant, were spending too much time with the wrong crowd, or started dressing inappropriately for school, one name continued to pop up — Natasha’s. Of course, I had no idea who Natasha was, but the conversation I was listening to, in the school’s staffroom and as a complete outsider, was gradually painting a picture of someone who was a fairly good student, resposible daughter and sister (often taking care of two younger siblings), good athlete (“girls’ basketball wouldn’t exist here if it wasn’t for her”), and who was also “absolutely gorgeous and likely to end up pregnant, too, like all her friends.” This last statement was acknowledged by a few teachers, some of whom added their own comments, while others nodded, dejected.

The conversation then continued for a few minutes, but that statement about Natasha being destined to end up pregnant “soon” really got to me. Finally, in response to yet another comment about Natasha, I couldn’t resist jumping in and blurted out, “Maybe, instead of accepting the seeming inevitability of her pregnancy or some other mistake she’s likely to make soon, someone here should tell Natasha how proud you all are that she’s not pregnant, that she’s not in a gang, that she’s not going out with some low-life, and that she’s keeping up good grades and being a great daughter and athlete.”

Silence. Oh, I’m sure you can imagine the silence.

Surprisingly enough, I did not make enemies that day. I started a fantastic conversation that provided a valuable and practical building block for the workshops I facilitated the next day. Looking back, I know that this perhaps reckless act, in a still unknown context and in front of teachers I hardly knew, was the sharing of my own genuine voice. What those teachers heard was not some “expert” invited to facilitate workshops at the school, not an official guest invited by school administration, but a human being and a teacher who cares about teaching and learning.

The teachers responded to that voice. The ensuing conversation before the end of the lunch period and after school became the foundation of my workshop the next day. It all worked out precisely because I engaged in the act of speaking my “true voice”, one of the four key practices of what William Isaacs calls Dialogic Leadership.

Dialogic Leadership

Isaacs, a lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, believes that

In the new knowledge-based, networked economy, the ability to talk and think together well is a vital source of competitive advantage and organizational effectiveness. This is because human beings create, refine, and share knowledge through conversation. In a world where technology has led to the erosion of traditional hierarchical boundaries … the glue that holds things together is no longer “telling” but “conversing” (Isaacs, 1999). 

Of course, the school where I was invited to facilitate workshops subscribed to the traditional model of “telling.” All of the school’s professional development events involved an “expert” who told the teachers what to do in their classrooms. Needless to say, the teachers resented that approach and, faced with a number of serious challenges that the invited “experts” merely glossed over, felt unsupported and disempowered. The professional development strategy implemented to help effect change and improve morale had the opposite result.

It’s important to point out that this approach to teacher development is alive and well around the world. In fact, teacher professional development has traditionally been something done to teachers, not something that we engage in with our colleagues and use to build knowledge. To this day, teacher development often reduces teachers to handout technicians and implementers of other people’s ideas and strategies, many of which are conceived far from the classroom and with no understanding of the specific context where the teachers work every day.

William Isaacs’ organizational leadership work suggests a much different approach: The school’s teachers can play an integral role in helping, supporting, engaging, and motivating Natasha and her friends — they can develop the strategies and solutions the school needs; the only way they can be successful is through what Isaacs calls “conversing”; and the process that can help them achieve their goals and address challenges they face is what he calls Dialogic Leadership.

And so, the next day, having completely abandoned the workshops I had been asked to deliver, I restructured my approach to build on Isaacs’ concept of dialogue, which he defines as a tool that “surfaces ideas, perceptions, and understanding that people don’t already have.” It’s the basis of Dialogic Leadership, “a way of leading that consistently uncovers, through conversation, the hidden creative potential in any situation” (Isaacs, 1999).

It worked. We spent a full day together talking about being a teacher in that specific context, about the students and their problems, about the curriculum, about testing, and a myriad of other challenges and — also — opportunities. Solutions and suggestions emerged from dialogue. There were no “experts” in that room; no one had all the answers, but everyone had questions, and it was through these questions that a way forward emerged. We built valuable professional knowledge together. Even my statement, blurted out a day earlier in the staff room, was subjected to serious scrutiny. Many other “true voice” statements were made, and they led to a sense of openness, unity, and possibility. They were treated with respect and as building blocks to help move towards meaning and practical solutions.

We spent many wonderfully productive and inspiring hours together. The dialogue helped us explore “the uncertainties and questions that no one ha[d] answers to.” We began to “think together — not simply report out old thoughts. In dialogue people learn to use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom” (Isaacs, 1999).

Unfortunately, it’s this sense of collective wisdom that’s often missing from teacher development initiatives. We need more of it, much more. We need to ensure that, as teachers, we always have the time to engage in dialogue and learn with and from each other. The way we learn as professionals must be based on questioning our practice, learning from it, and engaging in dialogue with colleagues. Administrators, education leaders, and classroom teachers must learn to listen and create environments that make dialogue possible, that encourage it and build on it.

The work of William Isaacs gave me a solid foundation to implement professional development that builds on multiple voices and helps access collective wisdom. I believe it deserves wider adoption.


Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogic leadership. The Systems Thinker, 10(1), 1-5.

Article 26

Take a close look at the photograph above. What do you see? School courtyard? Teachers? Children?

Let me tell you a little about what I see when I look at this photograph. This is East Africa. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, at an elementary school in a small town. I was standing inside the school's staffroom, looking out the window at the school's playground.

At first glance, there's probably nothing extraordinary about this photograph: it looks like it's recess and the children are enjoying their time away from their desks and textbooks. There are two teachers interacting with the students.

But look closely. Look at the teachers' faces.

This story begins with those faces because they are not happy faces of teachers interacting with their pupils at recess. Both faces are serious. The teacher on the left seems lost in thought. She seems sad.

Let me tell you why.

Only 10 or 15 minutes before I took this photograph, these students were in class. Many of their classmates remained in class. But these students, the ones you see in this photograph, were asked to assemble in the courtyard. If you look closely you will see that the teacher on the right seems to be checking something, perhaps a clipboard or some notes. What she is holding in her hand is a list of students who have been asked to leave their classrooms and assemble here. The reason they had been instructed to leave class and meet the teacher here in the courtyard is because their parents have not paid their school fees. These students are being sent home.

Why am I telling you this? I wanted to share this story because today is Human Rights Day. As a teacher, whenever I think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whenever I think of Human Rights, and whenever Human Rights Day comes along, I think of Article 26:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

And that's exactly what I kept thinking about on that cloudy morning in East Africa, standing in front of that window, looking at a group of elementary school children pulled out of class to be told that they were being sent home. I wanted to help, and I knew I couldn't really do much. I was angry. I was devastated.

All of this took place in a country that had abolished school fees several years prior to this morning assembly that I recorded with my camera. Yet, this was not an isolated incident, and later on the teachers explained to me that this happens throughout their country and many others in their part of the world. Yes, the tuition fees have been abolished, they said, but parents are still asked to pay for meals and for uniforms. In some cases, they have to pay to help cover maintenance fees. In many areas, parents chip in to cover the teachers' salaries. So, yes, it's true, the teachers said to me, the tuition fees don't exist anymore, but education still costs money.

I live in a country where Article 26 is taken for granted. It is taken for granted by teachers, parents, children, teenagers. I also know of many other places around the world where Article 26 is taken for granted. But, I also know of and have visited places around the world where Article 26 and many, many other articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fundamental human rights only on paper and where, for many different reasons - some of them very complex - human rights, including the right to education, are not respected.

As someone who cares deeply about education, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do and what my colleagues - teachers around the world - can do to ensure that education is not taken for granted and that access to education is respected around the world as a fundamental human right. I believe that it is our responsibility as teachers - the largest professional group in the world that currently includes almost 60 million of us - to teach, every day, about Article 26 and the other, equally important articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Whenever I raise this issue, I am often asked to recommend organizations that accept donations to help improve access to education around the world. I am not going to do that here. In fact, I want to challenge you today not to donate money. Instead, I hope that you will do what you do best: teach.

Make sure that the students in your own classroom know about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that they know that education is a fundamental human right (most of them don't, believe me), and that they also know and are deeply troubled by the fact that there are children around the world who do not attend school and who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot attend school. In doing this, you will be helping to build an army of human rights advocates, of young people who will grow up valuing their education and committed to human rights and global peace. That alone, that focus on human rights in your classroom, will do much more to advance human rights than your cash.

Think also about your own professional development. Teacher professional development needs to be more than attending conferences, reading professional journals, and engaging in online communities to exchange lesson ideas or links to valuable resources. Teacher professional development includes a responsibility to raise awareness about issues that affect teachers, classrooms, and students around the world. If our colleagues working in states run by dictatorships or rebels, in places plagued by conflict or poverty, or in places affected by natural disasters, cannot count on their fellow teachers around the world to make their stories heard and work towards global peace, who can they count on?

The photograph I shared with you at the beginning of this post does not depict an isolated incident. You and I know that access to education is being curtailed around the world. According to estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 68 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2008. The reasons are varied, but this fact remains the same: millions of children around the world do not have access to education, to a fundamental human right.

Take a look at that photograph again and imagine being one of the teachers in that courtyard who have been told to interrupt their class, stop doing what they so passionately love, assemble a group of students, check off their names on the roster, and send them home.

Then, imagine walking back into your classroom to face their classmates, those fortunate enough to be allowed to stay, and to learn.

There's a lot of work ahead of us, but I am hopeful that we'll manage. After all, there's almost 60 million of us.

Thoughts on Assessment

My presentation at EduCon 2.1 helped me conceptualize some of my thoughts and research efforts on assessment in the 21st-century classroom. My interest in assessment emerged out of my research on blogging communities and adolescent literacy. The student participants in my study engaged in writing and reading through a variety of complex and rich interactions. They posted their own work on their blogs, commented on the work of their peers, linked to each other’s work, and initiated numerous conversations in the class blogosphere. My biggest challenge as a teacher-researcher was to figure out what kind of role I should play in the community. The traditional role of the teacher seemed inadequate. I knew that, as active bloggers and communicators, the students would not respond well to a teacher who enters the class blogosphere only to assign work or to evaluate their writing. Then another issue arose quite quickly - assessment. Once I started responding to student work in a readerly fashion and participating as a contributor, reader, and not just an evaluator, I realized that it would be unfair to the students to reduce all their rich interactions and complex online presence to a B+ or a 13/15. I realized that I needed to develop an assessment strategy that would take into account the complexity of student interactions online and recognize the process as much as the final product.

The students themselves helped me arrive at this realization. Only two days after I asked the students to compose a written response to the work we had covered, they began to use their blogs not only to brainstorm but also to request feedback from their peers and engage them in discussions about the work they were doing for this assignment. The assignment itself gave my students a lot of freedom - they could compose a personal reflection, an essay, a narrative account of their engagement with the material, or even a creative response in the form of a short story or a collection of poems. Two days after we discussed this task in class, I noticed that they turned to the class community for help. What follows is a list of individual blog entry titles that I found in the class community two days after the task was assigned:

Here's my plan - could you comment?

Work in progress. Please comment everyone.

Rough draft. Comments would be greatly appreciated.

My essay unfolds ... any thoughts?

Thesis improved (again). Tell me what you think.

Essay ... it's coming along. Pls post ideas and suggestions.

Improved introduction (after some comments and suggestions)

New and much improved planning post - expecting comments. Thanks.

I was very impressed - the students had turned to the community of their peers to request feedback. Then, I realized that none of the children asked me for feedback. It didn’t take long to realize that, a) they didn’t see me as a contributor in the community, and b) they associated me with corrections and grades. At this stage, they were not ready for corrections yet - they were simply interested in having conversations about their ideas. They needed somebody to talk to and, as their teacher, I was not at the top of their list.

Hardly surprising, I know. But this experience helped me realize that we don’t spend enough time providing feedback for our students and that most of what teachers consider teaching and assessment consists of marking and correcting student work. This kind of practice does not engage our students in those rich interactive processes of talking about their work and their ideas.

Initially, my role as a teacher was limited to first presenting the material (and engaging the students by initiating conversations) and then marking their work. I was absent from that rich part that happened in the middle where the students continued our classroom conversations online by brainstorming on their blogs, requesting and providing feedback, and engaging in conversations about some of the key ideas in the course. Instead of engaging with them, I just waited for them to submit their work.

Teacher and a class blogosphere

As my research continued, however, I realized that I needed to spend more time with them in the community that we had created together. I needed to not only give them the freedom to interact online but also support them as they engaged in virtual conversations about their work and posted planning/brainstorming entries. That complex and interactive process of knowledge building (represented by the middle square in the diagram above) required more of my involvement. It offered a great opportunity to support student learning and to learn more about the students as learners and individuals.

Unfortunately, teachers often don't know how to participate in that process and tend to focus on assessing the finished product. They tend to concentrate on the two areas in the diagram above where their roles are clearly defined. They focus on presenting content and then evaluating the quality of student responses to assigned tasks. These roles represent familiar territory, but they fail to take into account that teaching, learning, and assessment are interrelated. The problem with limiting ourselves to teaching and evaluating is that these roles alone ignore the potential to initiate and sustain rich interactions with knowledge. They ignore the opportunity to support our students as learners.

These traditional roles of provider and evaluator also reinforce the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student. However, a teacher who enters a community of independent learners/writers/researchers to support and encourage student learning removes that hierarchical structure and encourages students to become more involved in the assessment process. Assessment in this situation can become more collaborative because the teacher and the student have opportunities to discuss/co-construct the task itself, the criteria, the process of learning.