Facilitating Conversations: Empowering Teams

Conversations among teachers are critical to real change occurring in classrooms. Instructional coaches and teacher leaders are often tasked with facilitating team or PLC conversations that lead to actions to  increase student success.

Margaret Wheatley states on her website:

“One of the things we need to learn is that very great change starts from very small conversations, held among people who care. But talking about what really matters – the issues that really concern you – requires courage. Forget about the politics or the staff person who is driving you crazy. What are the things you really have deep, abiding concern for? What is it you really have some passion for? If you go into that question for yourself, you will find the energy to go forward. The conversation should not be based on complaint, but should be based on both passion and a sense of hope.”

I like that thought. “Conversations should be based on passion and hope.” The more time that PLC learning is driven by passion (the sense of urgency that exists in driving what members want to make happen for students) and hope (as a team of educators we can learn how to make this happen), the more energy members will invest.

Here is a diagram I use for illustrating facilitation.

The facilitator has two key roles:

The first is to spark the conversation among members. I see this step as often being part of the planning work done by the facilitator. Knowing the agenda or goal of the group you are facilitating, what might spark (connect with passion or urgency)?  The spark might come from an article, video clip, student work or data, observations from walk -throughs or classroom visits.

An ongoing role of the facilitator is to keep the group moving toward action. Teachers don’t want to spend time in meetings that “go nowhere.” Taking action doesn’t need to mean that the team has a solution to implement. Action can mean researching, gathering information from other teachers, or experimenting with an idea.  I suggest to PLC facilitators that 20 minutes is a good guideline of the time to begin moving a conversation toward “homework”. What actions will members take between this meeting and the next to further the conversations and progress? Sometimes a question for reflection that will be shared at the beginning of the next meeting is the action.

To facilitate means “to make easy.” The group facilitator’s job is to make it easier for the group to do its work. By providing non-directive leadership, the facilitator helps the group arrive at the understandings and decisions that are its task. In a consensus group the facilitator’s focus is on the group and its work. The role is one of assistance and guidance, not of control.

Michel Avery, Brian Auvine, Barbara Streibel, Lonnie Weiss
Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making

I often use questions as my “non- directive” leadership/facilitator role to guide groups to taking action on their goals. I recommend using the Questions for Life process to plan questions.

Download a copy of Questions for Life Cue words.

Here is a set of questions I designed to facilitate a conversation around increasing differentiation. Questions are presented one at a time and teacher responses and questions can alter direction.  PLC members agreed to bring a class set of student work to their meeting.

  • Select an example of above standard, on standard, and below standard levels of performance. (analysis)
  • In each of the examples, describe the depth of student understanding… illustrating the differences. (analysis) (same/different)
  • Which students in your class might be capable of handling a more rigorous assignment? (analysis) Why do you think so? (evaluation)
  • Which students in the class may need more support (scaffolding) to handle this assignment? (analysis) Why? (evaluation)
  • Working with a partner, develop ideas for increased differentiation in the next assignment? (ideas) Ideas are then shared with the PLC.

Too often, PLCs begin their work with the last question. The facilitator’s planning of the lead-up questions can “make the work easier” and progress greater.

Here is a second model focused on student engagement. Teachers are asked to bring the last three days of instructional plans to the PLC session.

  • Where did you have the highest level of student engagement? (analysis)
  • What did you see/hear observing these students? (perception)
  • Where did you have the lowest level of student engagement? (analysis)
  • What did you see/hear observing those students? (perception)
  • During the high engagement activity which students didn’t engage? (analysis)
  • What is common about unengaged students? (induction)
  • What action did you take when you noticed the unengaged students? What impact did your actions have? (analysis)
  • What elements of your content tend to engage students more? Less? (analysis)
  • In your opinion what instructional strategies tend to gain the highest engagement? (evaluation)
  • Working with a partner, identify an idea for increasing engagement in an upcoming lesson. (idea) Ideas are shared with the PLC.

Planning time on the part of the facilitator preparing the questions can very positively impact the quality of PLC conversation and actions.

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2 Responses to “ Facilitating Conversations: Empowering Teams ”

  1. Michael Chirichello Says:

    Thanks for the application of the Questions for Life in two different models. They are applicable to the consulting work I do in the pre- and post- observation conversations that school leaders have during the performance assessment process.

  2. Janice Bradley Says:

    Much appreciation, Steve, for sharing information about facilitating conversations with specificity and examples.
    The information is timely and needed at this time of the school year. I especially like the diagram, Questions for Life cue cards, and the two examples of frequent topics of conversations that occur during PLCs. You are correct – PLC conversations typically start with ideas rather than analysis. Thanks, ~Janice

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Steve Barkley

For the past 35 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…