Empowering Conversations | Questions for Life | Steve Barkley

Empowering Conversations

I am currently providing one-to-one coaching with a district’s central office and building principals staff around the design of their individual professional growth plans. The goal is to generate plans that are focused on their professional learning that will promote learning throughout the system with maximum payoff in student learning. We use a backwards approach to work from a desired outcome they want to achieve (student success) to what leadership actions can generate the necessary changes.

This statement from Margaret Wheatley describes our initial conversations:

“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.” It’s very important that time invested in professional growth plans not be spent confined to forms and deliverable dates, where the structure only serves to limit the possibilities. The same issue is vital to have professional learning communities (PLCs) where educator learning generates increased student success. 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. Collective efficacy.

Facilitating Graphic

Facilitating empowering PLC conversations, requires generating a spark and moving toward action. The spark ignites 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.

The facilitator supports 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.

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

Questions for Learning Graphic

Here is a link to a copy you can print.


I designed these questions to facilitate a PLC conversation around increasing differentiation. Questions are presented one at a time and teacher responses and questions can alter the 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. When a facilitator designs questions to engage the members in gathering and working with information before problem solving, increased commitment and stronger options are likely to emerge.

Here is a second model focused on teachers exploring student engagement. Teachers were asked to bring the last three days of instructional plans to the 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 group.

Administrators, coaches, and teacher leaders can greatly enhance educator learning from PD, coaching, and PLCs by investing time in designing questions to engage passion and hope.

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One Response to “ Empowering Conversations ”

  1. Christina Sweeney Says:

    I really like the questions that help PLCs work with the information before jumping into problem solving. As you say, too often we skip those vital conversations. And, so important to note – if we are functioning as true PLCs we can’t show up empty handed.

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