Why I believe in high stakes testing… in the right context

Teachers are exceptionally good at creating strong relationships with classes of children and young adults. As knowledgeable, fascinating figures who beam out a sense of ‘I know you can do it’, they are able to use their positive relationships to challenge students to push through difficult and troublesome learning, achieving more than they thought was possible and exploring skills and understanding that they’d have never had access to before.

Learning isn’t always a comfortable process, and wise teachers know that they need to fine-tune the level of difficulty to hover around the edge of students’ comfort zones. Occasionally they need to consolidate and build confidence, sometimes they need to push and take a leap. Sometimes they will pursue a student’s own fascination with a topic and help them achieve amazing things. In other cases they will carefully and lovingly push them in an uncomfortable direction, nurturing a resilience and drive for future life to take on tough challenges with gusto, while enabling students to experience and learn things they’d have never got access to on their own accord.

Learning that isn’t challenging can become dull and uninteresting. As a species, humans love puzzles, challenges and a bit of challenge. We revel in having the hard task of ‘climbing the mountain’ rewarded when we have an opportunity to look at how high we’ve climbed and admire the view. We feel pride and joy as we grow and develop.

There are many ways to create this challenge, of course, so what role do tests play? A solid body research tells us, perhaps surprisingly, that an entirely low-stakes test can be enormously beneficial to the learning process itself. The latest science about how learning occurs in the brain demonstrates that the challenge of remembering and recalling knowledge builds long term memory.

However, not all tests are low stakes. Some test, like public examinations and national assessments may be a little more daunting. Done well, schools can engender a feeling of excitement and challenge in students. Here is a bar for you to leap over, a way to demonstrate how far you’ve climbed, an opportunity to feel proud and gain a recognition of your progress that no-one can ever take away. Done badly, these can make students feel demotivated and scared, leading to a lifetime of bad memories.

Professor Marc Jones studies the different ways that a challenge can affect us physiologically, in different organisations and teams. He notes that stressful situations can be both good for us or bad for us, depending on context.

“The belief in our ability to perform well is clearly a crucial element in being able to perform under pressure. A high level of confidence is important for a challenge state. Second is a feeling of control. Believing you have control over factors that may affect performance and how you perform under pressure is important for a challenge state. Going into pressure situations focusing on factors that cannot be controlled, such as a footballer worrying about match officials, is associated with a threat state. Finally, being focused on what can be achieved – an approach focus is important. Individuals who are challenged are focused on what can be achieved while those that are threatened are focused on what might go wrong.”

So, we can help students associate future challenge with excitement, rather than terror, by carefully building them up for well-calibrated, high-stakes tests such that they feel confident, in-control and focused on the positive. We can support this through a shared ethos of positivity, of belonging and support. It’s the thrill of the high-jump, the heart-pounding excitement of not quite knowing if you’ll make it, followed by the pay-off of practice and dedication – the glow of success.

There is, of course, a constant and very human temptation to avoid challenging students. After all, even if 9 out of 10 students benefit, we may leave 1 out of 10 with a sense of failure. Given how highly attuned we are to their feelings, this can lead to very well-meaning temptation to reduce challenge and ensure that students never feel any stress. The unhappy corollary is that lower challenge can often mean less learning and fewer opportunities for pride and success. hard work with occasional stress followed by success is so much better for young people than a lifetime of well-meaning low bars and low expectations.

The balance to be struck is to keep the challenge high enough that there is some risk, or else the challenge becomes too low. However, we also need to quickly pick students up after a fall, dust them off and engineer another challenge where they can succeed, learn to be resilient, and get their pride back. It’s something that we naturally do with children as they learn to ride their bikes, and teachers are immensely skilled at doing this in the classroom.

Another startling finding is that tests can actually help the most vulnerable students to succeed. Studies have shown that humans are not very good at making objective judgements and will often by fooled by stereotypes. Entirely inadvertently teachers (like all human beings) have often been found to make more negative judgements compared to test scores, for example, with girls in maths, boys in English, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds in all subjects. This is not due to any ill intent, it is merely a limitation of the way our brains work. When we acknowledge and recognise this natural limitation, a well-designed test can help the profession and the school system to overcome these entirely human and inevitable biases and even out entrenched inequality. And that, of course, is what we want for all young people.

Great tests can also be part of the suite of powerful tools to help teachers to learn more about students’ needs. Where teachers use formative assessment in their own professional development, we know that it helps them grow and improve more effectively and ensure they can help future generations achieve even more. A mix of professional judgement and skilfully designed tests helps us grow and become ever better at supporting young people’s learning. Not only that, both low, medium and high-stakes assessments can give us rich and powerful insights into our learners thinking, with pointers to how we can plan future lessons and tasks to help them most effectively and personally.

In so many classrooms, students will do so much for the teachers they respect – they want to please them, feel proud, and do well. However, we live in in a world of high-stakes inspections, performance related pay, performance management and league tables. If teachers are made to feel not only stressed and anxious about students achieving, but if they also lack confidence and support, then this will inevitably be picked up by the students as well. This could, of course, negate many positives from high challenge tests. Not only that , badly designed tests in a low-trust culture leads to a toxic environment, gaming and teacher burn-out. It leads to superficial teaching to try and desperately ‘drill’ the learning into students heads, no matter how short term, out of survival desperation. This is the very antithesis of what we aspire for our students – I do understand why there is so much anger around and why it’s so tempting to aim this fury at tests themselves.

For high stake assessment to work, therefore, we not only need to focus on the conditions for students but also to focus on the conditions for the teachers.

We need every teacher to feel confident, in control, well supported and focused on the positive. This requires accountability systems that are paired with support and warmth, where success is shared and the right level challenge remains positive and keeps us excitingly hovering around the edge of our own comfort zones. It requires school leaders who have positive, trusted relationships with teachers and, by extension, who have similar relationships with those who hold them to account as well. It requires a faith that, if a high bar is not jumped, there will be support and encouragement from peers and leaders to pick schools and teachers back up and help them try again. Everyone deserves more than one shot, especially when an increasing number of teachers and heads are considering whether they even want to stay in this great profession.

Testing is no panacea, and tests are too often accompanied by crude carrots and painful sticks in a low trust, punitive approach that tries to get performance through fear. It is right to reject such a system that causes bad stress and propagates too much fear and provides too little support. However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Great testing is one of the most powerful implements in a teacher’s toolbox. Let’s fix the system, provide the right support, and use this tool to provide powerful learning, memorable success and a deep well of pride for every student that provides a solid foundation for a happy, fulfilled and successful life.

Article image from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ATC_Admission_Exam.JPG

How learning science might inform dance: A cognitive psychologist responds

Dr Yana Weinstein (@DoctorWhy) responds to my speculative post about cognitive science and ballroom/latin dance.

I’ve been a professional cognitive psychologist for 10 years and an amateur Latin dancer for 2, so I couldn’t not get over-excited when I saw this post. Unfortunately, none of the cognitive psychology research has been carried out with dancers (at least, to our knowledge), and I’m currently suppressing a very impractical urge to go in this direction! (I’ve already gotten myself in trouble with a project on music memorization – you have no idea how hard it is to branch out beyond generic cognitive tasks to this kind of applied work).

So all we have are the rather well-informed speculations discussed here. Let me speculate further.

1. Chunking – I wonder if it’s not an accident that my teacher always breaks up new choreography into 15-30 second chunks for us. I’m sure she’s not aware that this is the duration of working memory, but maybe she naturally defaulted to this duration.

For this part of the suggestion – “dancing with a partner or being aware of others watching you may be factors that overwhelm or impede learning” – there is also some relevant research. For example, it has been suggested that certain types of test anxiety may lead to off-task thoughts that take up part of working memory resources.

2. Interleaved vs. Massed practice – so much to say here. First of all, don’t confuse spacing with interleaving (it is extremely easy to confuse the two, and honestly, I still do myself sometimes even though I co-wrote a chapter with a large section on each one ). For example, in the main point, “you’ll end up with stronger memory of routines if you interleave dances” is about interleaving, but in the suggestion, “it has been shown that by giving ourselves a bit of time to forget an idea then […] the long-term strengthening of memory of this approach is much greater” is about spacing.

Spacing is more about how you would distribute practice over a period of time. If your performance is in a week, should you practice for an hour every day, or 7 hours the day before? I think we all know the answer.

Interleaving has been most commonly studied with math problems: should you do 10 of the same type of problem, or mix it up? What’s tricky and confusing about the two is that interleaving naturally adds in spacing, so it is hard to have a pure measure of the effectiveness of interleaving without also implicating spacing. However, this paper  attempts to hold spacing constant and still finds a long-term benefit of interleaving.

I don’t know if this has been explicitly specified, but my strong suspicion is that the reason interleaving is helpful is that it enables you to practice doing a problem “cold” (i.e., without the carry-over effect of having just done a similar problem). It’s important, though, to consider what your goal is. If you tend to go to dances where you’re expected to dance salsa and then bachata, interleaved (as I do), then yes – practice them interleaved. But if the two dances tend to be danced in separate parties (e.g., salsa and tango), then I’m not sure interleaving is going to be as necessary, because you will always get to warm up and then after that you’re in a massed testing situation. The grain size of what you are interleaving also matters. You could take this to the absurd: do you need to interleave practicing one rumba dance with doing one yoga pose? Probably not.

Also, I suspect that level of familiarity with the material is also a factor, and some massing is necessary before interleaving can be useful. Have you noticed how a teacher will always introduce a small chunk (cf., chunking), and then you will mass-practice it until it feels comfortable, and only then practice it with whatever comes before and after? It seems obvious now that I think about it, but clearly what this is doing is getting the information from working memory into long-term memory! Think about how the first few times you run through a new chunk, you’re really just copying the teacher in the moment, so you’re not really using your long-term memory. So maybe the ideal practice protocol includes some massing to transfer information to LTM, and then lots of interleaving. But does this mean you should scramble the order of chunks within a choreography and practice them in different orders? This is the same as the rumba vs. yoga pose question, and I’m honestly not sure.

3. Transfer – the suggestions are great, but the main point is more about context than transfer. When we talk about transfer, we usually mean to a new problem (rather than the same problem in a different environment). For example, if you know salsa, how well will you dance bachata? Probably pretty badly until you get taught at least the basic step and some basic moves – and then you’ll probably pick it up faster than a novice dancer, showing some transfer. A more subtle example of transfer might be: say you were taught musicality with a particular song (e.g., here’s a good part of the song to do a dip). An example of transfer would be noticing those moments in a different song.

4. Still images and attentional focus – the point about learning from still images better surprises me, but I must not know the research on moving vs. still images. I just can’t imagine that any better way of demonstrating a dance move could involve still images, but I’m willing to consider the possibility. I suspect, though, that some research (that I either do not know, or cannot recognize from the description) is being misapplied because the learning outcome (what we call “criterion test”) of the study was not mimicry of a physical movement. The idea of attentional focus during learning is also fairly unfamiliar to me, although it definitely makes sense, and perhaps could be addressed by having the dancer wear bright red shoes or bright red gloves depending on whether they were demonstrating feet or arms??

5. Self-explanation – this seems reasonable, and on a totally personal level, I have to say my instructor doesn’t really let us ask questions. I mean, of course she clarifies specific points, but I tend to ask a lot of questions, and she has more or less shut me down on some occasions because it was slowing down the class. Now, as a teacher I completely appreciate the frustration of tangential, time-consuming questions, but I like to think (probably erroneously!) that my questions are relevant. It just feels as though she has a certain amount of material to get through each class, and any elaborative interrogation (and it’s really not that elaborative – I’m usually just trying to figure out exactly how something fits together) cuts into that time. Perhaps a discussion session after class would be valuable.

6. I don’t know the research on putting two concrete examples side-by-side, but I feel that this point also addresses the value of feedback. To which point, maybe it’s useful to mention that the jury is still out on whether immediate or delayed feedback is best for learning.

Overall, though, here’s my take on learning dance: I feel like we are generally pretty well aligned with the cognitive principles. Most importantly, I think – and David didn’t mention this in his post, possibly because it’s too obvious – we make constant use of the testing effect. We learn by doing the dance, over and over, from memory. We don’t sit for an hour listening to our dance teacher describe the moves and taking notes; we don’t practice by watching the teacher’s performance video over and over again (though we do consult it in between attempts to get it right); and the teacher doesn’t just call on one student at a time to do one small part of the routine while others watch passively. Why, then, is the same not true in a typical school classroom? Why aren’t our kids repeatedly practicing retrieval of the information the teacher is trying to teach?

And here is a dress rehearsal of my latest routine with Leah’s Chicas! 🙂

6 ways learning science might improve Ballroom & Latin practice & lessons

Today I found a great way to bring my not-so-secret past as a competitive latin dancer* together with my enthusiasm for research into teaching and learning. As those who know me through the mainstream education world will know, I’m fascinated by how students learn and how we help teachers learn how to teacher better.

I met up with teacher-to-the-champions Mr Graham Oswick, who along with some wonderful other teachers** did his best, many years ago, to inject some form of technique and style into my remarkably resistant body.

We had a chat about what teachers, students and competitors might learn from the most up to date research about how the brain learns***. Stemming from that discussion, here are 6 ideas from my reading of some cognitive science literature*** that I think might plausibly transfer into more effective teaching and learning in ballroom and latin.

I should note – I’ve not tested these and I’d love to hear if anyone has conducted some high quality research. Also, if any cognitive scientists would like to correct any mistake from my inevitably non-expert interpretation then I’d really welcome your input!

  1. When learning something new we have a limited working memory that can reliable hold about 3 to 5 ‘chunks’ of information at any one time before we feel overwhelmed and overloaded. For novice dancers each ‘chunk’ may be small movements, single steps, movement of one muscle. However, expert dancers have learned to combine multiple ideas into more complex mental schema which can be accessed as a single chunk, allowing experts to build up more complex ideas that would overwhelm beginners.
    • Suggestion: limit the amount of new steps and ideas you focus on at any one time when learning something new to avoid being overwhelmed by an impossible learning task. For new ideas, steps or technique, playing music, dancing with a partner or being aware of others watching you may be factors that overwhelm or impede learning as they all take part of your attention and therefore working memory.
  2. It’s tempting to try and learn and practice dances in chunks. This is known as massed practice. e.g. where you focus on all of the Samba for 20 minutes before moving to Rumba for another 20 minutes. However, cognitive science shows us that long-term memory of dances is stronger if we interleave practice. Oddly, it has been shown that by giving ourselves a bit of time to forget an idea then, even though the next time we try to remember it will be harder, the long-term strengthening of memory of this approach is much greater than repeating the same ideas back-to-back.
    • Suggestion: even though it feels harder, you’ll end up with stronger memory of routines is you interleave dances rather than doing massed practice of repeating one dance several times before moving to the next.
  3. One of the most frustrating problems in dancing is where you remember a routine and technique in the studio but where it goes out of your head in an exam or on the competition floor. One element of the problem is clearly related to stress but another issue could be related to the idea of transfer. This is where the learning of an idea is strongly associated in your memory with a particular location, environment, music, and so on. Learning science suggests that we can help overcome this by mixing up our practice and learning in all sorts of different ways, to ensure that the only common factor is the actual core idea that we’re focused on, rather than letting it get bound up with other factors.
    • Suggestion: mix up practice in as many ways as possible to strengthen your learning and adaptability. Try different music, different tempos, different locations facing different directions. Start at different points of the routine. Wear a variety of practice wear – heavier and lighter.
  4. A common way to teach ideas in dancing is for the instructor or teacher to demonstrate an idea by dancing it themselves while the student watches. However, learning science shows that novices are very likely to have attention focused on some of the wrong aspects of the demonstration. Another issue is that the act of processing the moving image also takes up valuable working memory which takes attention away from the key aspects being demonstrated. Research has shown that students often learn new ideas better from a series of still images where the key aspects are simply and clearly highlighted and where details that are not important to the key idea are de-emphasised.
    • Suggestion: work hard to focus attention on the key aspects being communicated. During teaching demonstrations you could perhaps attach something brightly coloured to the area of focus. Another idea is to use a series of still images (or, even better, simple line drawings) and talk through them using a highlighter to show the key areas of focus.
  5. Research suggests that the most successful students are constantly engaged in self-talk – internally re-explaining what they are seeing and experiencing to make sense of it. Less successful students do less of this. This mental process helps to create the links between practice and theory – i.e. between the what and the how and why. In more successful practice and teaching, students are encouraged and helped to engage in self-explanation, e.g. by pausing frequently in demonstrations or by being given worked examples with gaps to fill in.
    • Suggestion: during lessons and practice, make time to verbalise both the sequence of steps and the logic of why actions are taking place. Repeated demonstrations are less effective than switching back and forwards between instructor-narrated demonstrations and student-narrated practice, or even student-narrated demonstrations.
  6. One of the more effective ways of learning is to see two concrete examples of an idea or practice side by side and then work with a teacher to identify key differences. It is significantly more effective to be able to see ideas side-by-side than it is to watch one example and then another, especially when key aspects can be put right next to each other and highlighted.
    • Suggestion: use video to capture the teacher and the students dancing the same moves to the same music, then play back side-by-side, pausing and slowing to emphasise key aspects of difference. Stills from both might be used on-screen with a digital highlighter to emphasise key differences in shaping, or slow-motion used to show differences in rhythm or size/volume of movement.

To re-iterate, these ideas are taken from general literature on cognitive science, not from any specific literature on learning or practising dance. However, they do seem to be generally applicable in a wide variety of settings and learning so I hope they might start a useful discussion among ballroom and latin dance teachers, students and competitors about improving the way that steps, techniques and routines are taught and learned.

Anyone fancy exploring this further?


 

*In case of scepticism, here’s a video of me dancing with the lovely Leah Rolfe back in 2007 – should be noted Leah has gone on to much greater things since finding a significantly better partner in the amazing Adelmo. I also danced with other amazing partners such as Sharon Withers, Sarah Farrell, Laura John, Georgina Weeds , to name just a few.

**Other amazing teachers included Bruce Richardson, Vicky Cunniffe, Lorraine Kuznik, Neil Dewar, Ian Waite, Karen Hardy, Luca Sartori and Goran Nordin, Margaret Redmond and several others. I’m ridiculously grateful to them all, even if I’m no longer dancing.

colvin clark ev based training*** These ideas are all taken from Ruth Colvin Clark – Evidence-based training methods where you can also see references for all of the research quoted.

Note: the image used as a header for this blog is cropped from an original by Ailura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org
/licenses/by-sa/3.0
) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/3.0
)], via Wikimedia Commons – from https://commons.wikimedia.org/ wiki/File AJive_Langella_Moshenska_1107.JPG

The science of learning (part 2)

Following on from “Learning that works (part 1)” which was about what happens in our brains regarding paying attention, this post looks at how we assimilate and associate ideas and form memories. It’s a bit oversimplified, but gives a sense of what’s going on, I hope.

Slide1 Slide2 Slide3 Slide4 Slide5 Slide6 Slide7 Slide8 Slide9

PS As the lovely @Nick_J_Rose has pointed out, I’ve simplified things and somewhat conflated the ideas of ‘chunking’ and ‘schema’ – the former being about working memory and the latter being about long term memory. I’m grateful as ever for his feedback and I’ll try and unpick this in the next blog. You can read more about chunking, schemas and prototypes here.

DISCLAIMER: I’m neither a qualified psychologist nor neuroscientist so please let me know if I’ve made any errors here. I’d be really interested in any feedback that you have – please comment below!

The disagreement dissolver: a check-list for stamping out misunderstanding at work

Updated 13:30 17th January with another checklist!

So many conversations leave leave people with more misunderstanding than they started. Workplaces are rife with suspicion about hidden agendas, lack of trust, and brewing resentments because the quality of discussion is so poor that we read (and often mis-read) between the lines to figure out what is really happening.

discussing the undiscussableI’ve recently been reading around the work of communication guru Chris Argyris and came across a brilliant book, Discussing the undiscussable by William R. Noonan. In it, Noonan discusses one of Argyris’ key ideas, the Ladder of Inference. Essentially it’s a way of analysing the way you’ve reached a conclusion and helping to ‘re-trace your steps’ so that you can check out where you might be creating a misunderstanding at the root of a disagreement. I’ve already found it so incredibly useful and exciting that I wanted to blog. It won’t solve every disagreement but I think it’s a really helpful way to break down some of the defensiveness and resentment and reframe the discussion.

The Ladder of Inference

Argyris suggests we consider our reasoning as a 3-part process.

  1. We select our facts or data
  • We filter the things that we see, hear, or remember and select or highly-weight useful items (generally ones that confirm existing thinking or assumptions). This process is partly conscious (e.g. filtering out or minimising items that we deem boring/ridiculous/irrelevant, or where we believe the source is unreliable/biased/foolish/annoying)  or unconscious (we’ll notice words or pictures of people/things we have a stronger emotion about – e.g fear/excitement).
  • We bring a particular lens to the filtering process – e.g. we may be typically more sensitive to positive emotions, or perhaps we’re more cynical and look for the worst.
  • Our emotions us can restrict our ability to ‘cast the net wide’ – we ‘amp up’ some facts and ‘drown out’ others while our nerves are jangling. [See more in this blog about emotional blindness]
  • We aren’t aware of what we aren’t aware of – we don’t know what data are out there, what events have occurred, that we aren’t aware of. We can only begin to reason from the small subset of information we read, hear, or see – missing out enormous amounts that others have read, heard or seen.

2. We interpret the facts

  • We ascribe our own meaning to items of evidence based on our mood, our previous experience, culture (organisational, personal, national, etc) and understanding. It is inevitable that elements of nuance (or even major aspects) or meaning that were intended by the author/speaker are missed, and that we superimpose feelings and ideas that were also not intended.
  • Words have associations to us that they may not have to others – each word or idea is tainted with different positives and negatives to us than it is to another person.

3. We draw conclusions

  • We summarise our filtered, re-interpreted data and select a concluding thought
  • We unconsciously connect an emotion to it through our own interpretation – again based on where it came from, our current situation, our past, our mood, our feelings about the other person or people involved.
  • We focus on the conclusion and tend to allow the data and interpretation process to fade from memory.

We’re prone to reach conclusions that conform to our existing views, filtering and interpreting the data to help us achieve this. Challenging views which may lead to us feeling embarrassed or angry tend to result in us drawing a conclusion that the other person is hostile, unreliable, untrustworthy, etc.

On the other hand, if we like someone then we cast even unreasonable data in a more favourable light, reaching less negative conclusions. We may choose to minimise or water-down any conclusion, and pussy-foot around its presentation to avoid presenting data that we believe could harm our relationship. [See more about communication issues and techniques here]

Argyris noted that, once we reach a conclusion, we tend to cling to it. However, most people reach conclusions while missing a significant number of other views, interpretations and facts.

The check-list

To dramatically reduce miscommunication, Argyris and Noonan suggest that we carefully check our assumptions and those of others, systematically checking facts, observations and inferences.

Key ideas:

  • Interrupt the action:
    As soon as you realise that you’re engaged in debate that is mainly abstract conclusions and misunderstandings, interrupt your thought pattern and emotional response to take a step back.
  • Engage your curiosity:
    Rather than focusing on ‘being right’ and trying to persuade, focus on trying to fully understand the other person or people’s position. What may be obvious to one of you may not be obvious to the others.
  • Shine a light on your differences:
    Publicly note that you’ve spotted a misunderstanding and different point of view. Tentatively paraphrase what you’ve understood of the other position(s) – both final conclusions and observations – inviting clarifications and additions to clear up what you’ve missed.
  • Pursue a line of enquiry
    Importantly, these authors state that you must begin with a brutally honest reflection on your own conclusions or opinions, interrupting any impulsive or emotional reaction to check your facts. This needs to happen before you approach someone else to challenge their own beliefs or conclusions. You can then follow a respectful enquiry approach with the other person, as follows.
  1. What facts or observations have you and I selected to make our cases?
  2. Is there anything that I’ve deliberately chosen to ignore, reject or minimise? Is it worth re-checking its value? What about the other person?
  3. What might we have missed? Is there something that one person has observed that the other is unaware of? How might we find out?
  4. Are these facts or observations truly objective or have we layered on our own interpretations about meaning? What would they look like in a purely objective way with no interpretation?
  5. Is it possible to reasonably come to a different conclusion?
  6. What extra information will we need to seek in order to check our conclusions?

Use this checklist to, as Argyris and Noonan would put it, “climb down your ladder of inference” to check for misunderstanding. This may be needed quite rapidly, in a meeting or conversation. Social media arguments may seem fast-paced but their brevity makes them particularly prone to a self-reinforcing cycle of misunderstanding on both sides. Emails can very often appear colder and more aggressive than the sender intended – hence it is important to check your reading of what is ‘between the lines’ and the intended tone.

The same techniques can be used both to check your understanding of someone else’s assertions or opinions. Work back carefully, asking questions to understand what led the other person to a conclusion, and the underlying observations or facts. This can help gain an insight into the person’s real meaning, or uncover a relatively easy-to-resolve misunderstanding at the heart of a disagreement.

You can also use this approach to present your own ideas and conclusions more effectively. By carefully layering up from selected data, adding your interpretations then presenting your idea, you have time to check for understanding and missing data/facts along the way and present a cogent case with less chance of misinterpretation and more chance to learn and improve the conclusions along the way. You also present ideas in an open way, able to be both clear and authoritative while also showing a trust-inducing openness and ability to listen.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg of Argyris and Noonan’s work and I’ll try and blog more of the approaches in future.

What are your reactions to this? Have you used these techniques? Am I missing other ideas or approaches that would help? Is there a flaw in this that I haven’t spotted? Please do help me explore this.

 

The art of being level-headed, not emotionally blinded

Imagine it: your face flushes red, your shoulders tense, your skin prickles and your stomach sinks. Stress, anxiety, anger – it’s your body’s fight or flight response.

When we’re young these emotions are all-consuming and lead to regular emotional breakdown. As we get older, we gain an increasing ability to separate ourselves from the emotion – to see that it is temporary, to slightly detach from it and explore it with some curiosity.

Both as a teacher and an organisation leader, this ability has been completely critical. When I’ve allowed emotions to go unchecked then I’ve compromised my abilities to control classes and dealt badly with meetings. Stress reactions spiral out of control, they are exhausting and destructive.

When we are stressed a number of effects occur:

  • We zoom in on the stress – our attention is drawn closely to the stimulus that is causing us anxiety or anger. This might be the person who is being threatening or the particular thought going around our head that is worrying us. Other things around us and other thoughts recede into the background. We lose sight of the bigger picture, losing perspective and becoming, quite literally, narrow minded. Conversely, but also harmfully, we are also much more easily distracted, finding it harder to filter stimuli and thoughts that are irrelevant to our goal. This is a particular problem if the source of stress is not the thing we’re supposed to be focusing on – e.g. trying to engage in a calm, thoughtful conversation after an emotionally stressful event.
  • We are more likely to be aggressive (the fight response) and competitive or alternative we may feel compelled to withdraw – physically or emotionally. We are less likely to think things through calmly and logically. Our decision-making is more haphazard and more likely to be sub-optimal.
  • Due to paying attention much more selectively, we are likely to form narrower memories from the event which focus on the emotional content and the stressful stimulus – we will remember different things differently to someone who was calm. We are much less effective at tasks that require integrating different inputs or ideas – processes and tasks requiring divided attention or focus is impaired. More generally, our working memory is impaired. Not only makes this harder to think about the current situation, this also impairs retrieval of past events
  • Our risk-taking behaviour is modified. On average, we all tend to be more keen to pursue reward with less avoidance of possible negative outcomes. However, stress also amplifies gender differences. On average, men’s risk-taking is ramped up much more strongly than women’s.
  • We are less likely to take a team perspective in groups, leading to lower performance as a team more generally.

All of this is pretty disastrous if you are trying to remain calm in the face of a class that needs calm authority, or a stressful meeting which requires strategic decision-making and careful person-management.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexlomas/4069289432

So, what’s to be done? I personally use a few key principles. Apologies if they sound a little fluffy or odd, but they seem to work for me!

  1. Practice noticing your own emotions. Get used to spotting the first flush of adrenaline and making a note that you are getting an emotional reaction. Check your mental state and the tension in your muscles at regular intervals to see how tense or stressed you are feeling. This is the vital first step in dealing with the emotion and detaching yourself from it.
  2. Allow the emotion to subside and pass. Take a moment to pause. Drop your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Slow your rate of speaking.
  3. Also notice the emotional state of others. Spot when they go red, look for tension in their faces, particularly around the eyes. Remember that it is temporary. Recognise that it may cause an empathy reaction in you and look for this.
  4. Most importantly, zoom out and see this is as a small and possibly even helpful emotional blip in a successful extended process. Emotion can lead to opening up, and to learning. Think of the big picture and the long game. Use the words curiosity and design to trigger calmer, more logical thoughts, more detached, giving yourself space to see wider solutions.

Outside of the stressful episodes you need to try and encourage yourself to be better at coping. Practice noticing your emotional state regularly. Ensure you get enough sleep. Even one late night can have knock on effects for the rest of the week. Sleep deprivation makes you emotionally less resilient, less able to detach, more liable to stress. Give yourself space to unwind and relax. I personally find mindfulness techniques help me both with the noticing of my emotional state as well as helping to put aside nagging or stressful thoughts, though I don’t have the patience to practice at all regularly.

What works for you? Am I missing some techniques or ideas? I’m keen to learn from you, please do leave a comment.

9 ways for leaders to be better at communication

Poor communication sucks the life out of organisations. Many teams are full of uncomfortable issues, awkward misunderstandings and confusing meetings where everyone leaves with a different idea of what is going on. This leads to frustration, reduced trust, reduced respect and reduced sense of each other’s competency. It leads to suspicion about whether real intentions match stated intentions and it generated lots of unnecessary stress.

I’ve enjoyed reading through some great blogs and books on leadership and communication. In the spirit of sharing and to help my own learning, I’d like to suggest an initial 9 ideas for leaders that you can use to transform communication. Do you agree or disagree with these? Can you improve on them? Please do comment and share.  I’d love to hear your ideas, challenges and reflections. I’ve included links to some of my reading at the bottom of this blog.

1. Approach with a spirit of respect, curiosity and enquiry
Your mental state at the start of the conversation is vital. Note and acknowledge your own emotional state while focusing on your curiosity about what the final solution might look like. Be prepared to learn something about (and potentially to change) the assumptions you’re bringing, and to learn more about the other person and their context. Avoid bringing a laundry list of ideas to impose. Imagine a blank space in which you will create a way forward, where the other person will also bring some building blocks and some ideas.

2. Don’t fluff, don’t pussy-foot, don’t ease-in
Good leaders build and maintain trusting relationships, but this doesn’t stop them getting to the heart of an issue. Fear of causing stress can make us spontaneously water down or ‘fluff’ the discussion of challenging facts, or spend far too long ‘easing in’ or ‘pussy-footing around’ a challenging conversation so that the point gets lost. Even though the intention was to maintain the relationship the other person will probably realise you’re not saying what you really think and this leads to suspicion and lack of trust and, ultimately, does more harm than good. Prioritising short-term emotional comfort over long-term goals and genuine, trusting relationships is damaging, and can lead to watering down expectations/challenge which, ultimately, harms everyone in the organisation. However, the flip side is that systematically creating insecurity and reducing trust will also lead to organisation breakdown! Great conversations aim to maintain and build relationships while addressing challenges and moving things forwards.

3. Check your assumptions, bring your view as just one possibility
The relationship with the other person is very important too! Respect and understanding can be built together when you check your assumptions about the situation. Simply starting by saying “I’ve made some assumptions here and I would like to check them with you” invites the other person to contribute and shows you are open to listening. Maintain your alertness to your assumptions throughout the conversation and try and discuss them openly.

4. Restate and summarise
Every element of a conversation is being interpreted and heard differently by each party. We bring our own feelings and understanding and we’re constantly reinterpreting what we hear to fit our own mental models of the world. To avoid the worst of this, use phrases such as ‘I’d like to pause and double check I’ve understood what you mean’ or ‘Can I summarise what you’ve said as’. Follow this with a question like ‘Have I captured the key points you were making or is there anything I’ve missed or misrepresented?’ Invite the other person to summarise too, e.g. ‘I don’t know how clear I’m being – please could you play back what I’ve just said to make sure we’re on the same page and help me ensure I’m not being confusing?’

5. Be alert to your emotional cues
Every time you get a little burst of adrenaline you feel it in your stomach, you may feel yourself going red, and you may feel your muscles tense. This typically happens when you get an emotional ‘fight or flight’ reaction within the conversation. Use these as clues to unspoken assumptions or issues you’re bringing to the table. When you notice this reaction then you also need to work twice as hard to check assumptions, listen openly and check for understanding as the adrenaline will be working against your ability to think logically and openly. This commonly happens when the other person says something that threatens our own feelings of competency, our safety or our social standing. If necessary, pause the conversation. ‘I had an emotional reaction to that last question/idea which makes me realise that I am worried about X’ or ‘I’ve realised I got a bit tense, can we resume [in a few minutes]/[later today] so that I can make sure I’m listening openly?’ or ‘When you said that it made me feel tense – I’m reflecting on why and I think I’m worried that…’

6. Check their assumptions too
Not only are you bringing assumptions to the conversation, the other person is too. Questions that the other person asks may not always be the ones that are addressing the real issue, only tangential issues. They may also be forming assumptions behind what you’re saying that may not be true. This is a real test of your leadership qualities as some of their assumptions may be questioning your competency or character – be very careful aware of your emotional reactions and be open to exploring and learning about yourself. Use questions like ‘so that I can answer your question better, could you explain why you’re asking it?’ and ‘do you think there’s an important or difficult issue here that we’re not talking about? I’m really open to hearing your thinking even if it’s critical of me’. By showing you listen and making yourself a little vulnerable you can learn a lot and build trust. It can also raise your standing as a genuinely respected leader rather than having to rely on ‘hard’ power and risk reducing trust.

7. Make space – don’t fill all the conversations space, ask questions and wait
When you’re anxious or stressed you tend to talk more and listen less. As a leader you have more ‘presence’ and ‘weight’ in the conversation than you often realise. Leave silences at the end of the other person’s contributions. This allows you to be more thoughtful, and allows the other person to add other points they may have forgotten. Follow questions with longer pauses than normal. Imagine that each question creates a space between the two of you – don’t shut down this space by pushing your own answers in. Open body language, e.g. relaxed stance and palms up, can help create this conversational space. Sometimes you can explicitly acknowledge the space – e.g. ‘in this space here between us we’re going to create the solution to this – what does it look like?’

8. Be careful with suggestions, label their ‘power’
Your inherent power as a leader can overwhelm the other person’s ideas and suggestions. Every time you say ‘what about ….’ then it can come across as ‘I want us to do this and I will be annoyed if I don’t get my way’. You need to preface and caveat every suggestion with clarity about whether it is a firm idea that should be accepted, or merely a contribution that can be ignored or changed. Use phrase such as ‘This is just a tentative suggestion to build on – feel free to reject it’. Be extremely sparing about your own contributions. Ideally you want to seed the conversation with sufficient space and challenge that colleagues can start generating their own solutions.

9. Integrity builds trust
Make sure your deeds match your words. If you say you are open to listening, you need to make sure you don’t punish the other person for speaking, suggesting or criticising. If you say you are open to their contributions and ideas, you need to follow through and not end up systematically rejecting them all. If you say you are making the other person responsible for the next step, recognise that stepping in or taking back control will undermine both them and you. If you say you will follow up with an action, failing to do so makes you look untrustworthy.

No amount of great dialogue can overcome the damage done by lack of integrity – indeed, failure to follow through or match deeds to your words makes it orders of magnitude harder to communicate effectively later. Where trust is low, aim for smaller, quicker wins to show that you will follow through.


These are all really tough, and it’s through making (many) mistakes with pretty much all of the above points that I’ve been learning to develop my own leadership. I’m going to try and blog more frequently and share some of the interesting ideas I’ve been reading. In my next blog I want to explore how to raise the level of challenge and expectation while improving buy-in and avoiding becoming top-down.

Pages 171-199 of the Best Evidence Synthesis: School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa, and Claire Lloyd, The University of Auckland

Open-to-learning conversations – a presentation by Viviane Robinson

Chris Argyris – Teaching Smart People How To Learn, Harvard Business Review

PS In a spectacular mathematics teacher fail, my original post was called “8 ways…” when in fact there are 9. Oops!