I was introduced to the term Intellectual Humility listening to a Daniel Pink podcast. He defines it as being less certain about one’s views and more intellectually humble about what one knows and understands. It is a willingness to recognize that what you think and what you believe might be wrong. Pink suggests it not an easy thing to do. He recommends some questions from the work of Warren Berger, author of “The Book of Beautiful Questions”.
As I considered Pink’s comments, they struck me as having an application to coaching and to learning in a PLC. I’ll share my thoughts connected with four questions from Warren Berger that Pink targeted:
Question #1 – “Do I think more like a soldier or a scout?”
Soldiers defend a position while Scouts explore new territory. That creates a great image of coaching for me. Scouting for possibilities, for opportunities, scouting for unidentified problems. John Hattie states that 80% of what’s happening in the classroom is unobserved by the teacher. It is definitely valuable to have a scout around. I found a definition for scouting that said, “To go and look in various places for something you want.” That’s the verb scouting. As a teacher, I’m constantly looking for what it is I want that generates student learning and how I might use a coach in my classroom to assist me in finding it. In my pre-conferences as a coach, I’m often asking the teacher, “What are the learning production behaviors you want? What do you want students to do that will cause the learning?”
The coach is scouting to see when that is happening and when and where it isn’t. In post conferencing with the teacher, the scouting report is shared and opportunities to get more of the desired student learning behaviors are explored.
In PLCs, we’re exploring student work and assessments (scouting). Looking for patterns that might provide a new understanding for us. Rather than defending the instructional process that we used, the PLC is on the lookout for new opportunities, perhaps a new learning pathway that goes faster, deeper, further, maybe finding a view that we have been missing.
Question #2 – “Would I rather be right or would I rather understand?”
I can see exploring with a coach or as a PLC, what is it that as a teacher I’m currently not understanding; what is it that I should be questioning? My favorite PLC question when looking at student learning outcomes is – what do our students need us to learn? Whenever we desire a different learning outcome than the one we’ve just received from our students, it means that we have to engage in learning as educators to get our students closer to the desired outcome.
As COVID-19 moved teaching and learning into a virtual process, it created challenges to some of our long-held understandings. Teachers were surprised by some students who showed independence and responsibility as learners. How will we use that new understanding? As educators were forced to change their usual instructional practices, they engaged in experiences that frequently challenged what they thought they knew. We now need to engage in reflection on the insights that are emerging and make decisions about how we move ahead. How we use new understandings about teaching and learning?
Question #3 – “Do I solicit and seek out opposing points of view?”
That’s powerful; how do I seek out opposing points of view? When I’m coaching in a post-conference and a teacher identifies a new plan or strategy or idea that she’s considering implementing, I like to encourage her to predict the positive and possible negative outcomes that could occur from moving ahead. In examining what I sometimes call, “worst case scenario,” the teacher is often encouraged to proceed with an action because she’s identified that the worst case really isn’t much of a risk, or she has modified the idea to counter the worst thing happening and therefore has confidence to plow ahead with her idea. Making the choice to go ahead with implementation or to modify the strategy often creates “look fors” that the teacher may engage a coach to collect. Assisting her in finding information that is reinforcing or questioning her current thinking.
Opposing views are important in a PLC. Zachary Herman, in “Cooperate and Collaborate,” differentiates cooperative teams from collaborative teams. “Cooperative teams are those that aim to achieve goals more efficiently and effectively while collaborative teams explore and solve problems that individuals alone cannot.” Herman shares that while cooperating, teachers are sharing resources that may benefit their work, they are not likely to delve deep enough into issues of difficult learning experiences. Thus, not getting to deal with the students with whom teachers are struggling the most or figuring out how to build stronger relationships with students. These issues require deeper inquiry and more extensive problem solving. Collaborative teams value conflict. Differences fuel the team’s collaborative efforts. Solving complex problems requires learning and we stand to learn the most from those who are different than us, seeking opposing points of view.
Being wrong isn’t a failure; being wrong is a success. You have just learned something new. This concept of a mistake being a pleasant surprise is illustrated in an MIT Sloan article by Jean Ross, Why Hypotheses Beat Goals. Ross suggests that companies should focus organizational energy on hypothesis generation and testing. A failure then exposes an incorrect hypothesis, which we can more reliably convert into organizational learning. Doesn’t that seem exactly where we should be in our PLCs? Forming a hypothesis about student learning production behaviors and the actions we as teachers are going to engage in to make that happen. Then we use our Scouts — instructional coaches and members of our PLC — to gather evidence that assists us in learning whether or not our hypothesis is well founded. When it’s not, when we find out we’re wrong, it has actually increased our understanding.
Consider meeting with your leadership team to explore this concept of intellectual humility. Here are questions that you might use to start the conversation and then decide how to expand the conversation to the whole school staff.
- As a leadership team when should we be more scout-like in our approach? What would that sound like and look like?
- Are there times that we, as leaders are too focused on being right and not focused enough on understanding?
- How and when should we be soliciting opposing views on the topics we’re discussing?
- When we discover that we have been mistaken, how do we respond?