In educational settings, leaders are often confronted and caught by interpersonal dilemmas when on a journey of educational improvement and organisational change. When faced with such challenges, leaders are often compromised by their need to progress improvement, while also needing to maintain and protect relationships within the organisation. Challenging conversations with colleagues about improvement can be uncomfortable and can often lead to minimal or no positive change in practice or process.
What often leads to these confronting and challenging conversations are the assumptions and inferences that we make about a situation, and the conclusions we draw as a result. This puts us in a bind as to how we approach difficult conversations about improvement. The concept of open-to-learning conversations, researched and presented by Professor Viviane Robinson (Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland, and Academic Director UACEL), is a model for helping people to prepare for and have difficult conversations.
Open-to-learning conversations can help leaders to become more attuned to their perceptions of situations. They can tell us how our perceptions influence our assessment of a situation and the way we approach difficult conversations about improvement. Most importantly, practicing open-to-learning conversations can help build a culture and environment of professional and relational trust in educational settings, and as a result it can lead to the improvement of teaching and learning and to students' social and academic progress - our core business.
At the heart of this model is the value of openness to learning from one another. It is about an openness to learning about the quality of the thinking and information that we use when making judgments about what is happening, why it is happening and what to do about it.
The guiding values of an open-to-learning conversation are:
- Increase the validity of information (whether the information be thoughts, opinions, reasoning, inferences and feelings)
Disclosing your reasoning that leads to your views, giving examples and illustrations of your views; challenging assumptions of self and others; treating your views as hypotheses rather than taken for granted truths; seeking feedback.
- Increase respect for self and others
Listening deeply especially when views differ from yours; expecting high standards and constantly checking how you are helping others to reach them; sharing control of the conversation.
- Increase commitment to decisions
Sharing the problems and the problem-solving process; requiring accountability for collective decisions; fostering public monitoring and review of decisions.
There are no rules about how you might have an open-to-learning conversation, as it is entirely dependent on context. However, some practical steps in putting these values in to practice could be:
- Describe your concern as your point of view
- Describe what your concern is based on
- Invite the other's point of view
- Paraphrase their point of view and check
- Detect and check important assumptions
- Establish common ground
- Make a plan to get what you both want to achieve.
A positive result of an open-to-learning conversation is that the teacher or staff member feels a sense of challenge but respect from the conversation.
As an educational leader, adopting these values and strategies when having conversations with colleagues can support the development of relational trust within your educational setting, and as a result it can significantly improve teaching and learning and student progress.