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Asking is Hard, but Necessary

Last week's post on this blog encouraged asking a critical and essential question: Are We Relevant? We need the honest response to this inquiry to assure that what we are doing, both within schools and virtually all other entities, is serving the needs and interests of our constituents. I acknowledge that it may be easier to avoid this conversation all together. What if the response is not what we're prepared to hear? What if we hear something that we're not ready to address? What if it feels like a personal attack? I get it. One can go ahead and not ask. One might continue to operate based on their assumptions and beliefs. But, they must be prepared to loose ground within the context of a rapidly changing society. They must be prepared to face students who are not engaged because they fail to see the purpose of the task at hand. They must be ready to continue to hear "why are we doing this?" and "this is boring." To not ask the question comes at a substantial risk, one that simply is unacceptable.

I have tremendous respect for educators who display both the professional commitment and the courage to ask their students this question: Is what we are doing relevant to you, does it resonate with your interests and address your curiosity? These educators actively seek to understand the impact of the instructional cycle relative to the needs of their students. During my administrative career, I have known scores of teachers who bravely ask their students for feedback and actively strive to utilize this feedback in designing their instruction. These teachers understand that by asking the question, some of the feedback they receive may read as negative. Rather that taking it personally, or responding defensively, they appreciate that kids will be honest when given the opportunity to respond.

It is this same recognition, a fear of honest feedback, input that might place them in a poor light, that insecure teachers (or dare I say, ineffective ones) might decide to avoid the question altogether. Unfortunately, the number of educators that I have known during my career, opting for the safety of avoiding feedback from their students, is a number that is indefensibly large. For these teachers, this "ignorance is bliss" approach allows them to blindly plow forward with an agenda that is uniquely their own while maintaining their status as the expert who knows what is best. It is a decision that permits the predictable "this is the way I do things." That decision is an opportunity missed.

Are we relevant? Ask.

The risks associated with failing to seek the input of students are easily mitigated within a shared culture of respect and trust. Like so many components of an effective instructional experience is the essential existence of meaningful relationships. Students must believe that the request for their feedback is sincere, and that they will not face negative repercussions in exchange for their honesty. They must feel valued. They must feel safe in this important contribution regarding the manner and substance of their experience. They must believe that they will be heard, and that the opportunity is not a shallow exercise in lip service. Is what we are doing relevant to you, does it resonate with your interests and address your curiosity? Within a culture of trust and respect, students will provide their honest and true assessment. It is the obligation of the inquiring adults to listen. To process. To act.

How is it best to ask for this feedback? First, I would encourage reluctant educators to seek the advise of their colleagues who successfully incorporate frequent student input into their instructional practice. Increasingly, effective teaching is a collaborative process. There is no better, or safer, place to acquire effective strategies than from the counsel of a trusted peer. To those more reluctant teachers, I offer here something pretty straightforward to try as a places to start. What I am offering may also prove to be an effective addition to the strategy arsenal of teachers who regularly seek student feedback. To both audiences, I offer what I call the "So Much" protocol.

This simple and accessible protocol consists of three questions. They are easily adaptable to the interests of any organization or enterprise. Specific to education, these three questions could be used as a writing prompt (or a series of three shorter prompts), or a full group brainstorming session. They also could be utilized in a peer (student to student) interview activity. The possibilities are virtually endless due to the simplicity of the task. However, the byproduct of this exercise is incredibly valuable as a resource to "peek under the tent flap" of the interests of our constituents. Here are the three questions of my "So Much" protocol.

1) What do you like "so much" about . . .? (Fill in the blank: what we're studying, the way you will be assessed and evaluated, our customer service model . . . you get the idea.) This question is designed to uncover how the current utilized practices successfully address and satisfy the interests and aspirations of our constituents.

2) What don't you like "so much" about . . .? What would you change or eliminate, if you could? This question attempts to identify areas of dissatisfaction or disappointment. It is designed to define where the current effort or activity may be falling short.

3) What do you wish "so much" about . . .? What would make it (whatever the "it" of the question may be) perfect? What should we consider adding or modifying to come closer to satisfying your expectation, your needs or your interests?

"Be careful what you ask for. It might come to pass." The mining of this data, through these three questions, will produce volumes of meaningful, and useful, insight if they are asked within a culture of trust and reciprocal respect. Recipients must be thoughtful in the compilation and analysis of this information. They must look for themes, common threads that will (should) influence any decisions regarding the forward movement of the activity or enterprise. Pay attention. If done well, you will have been offered a pot of gold - for free.

At the same time, this data must be acknowledged. Those offering it must know that they have been heard. These voluntary insights, based in trust to inform this mysterious enterprise called "teaching for learning," must not be ignored. Denying or overlooking the validity of these insights will immediately destroy any aspirations of an ongoing relationship that is valued and rooted in trust.

What I'm advocating is a tricky and risky thing. Depending on the questioner's degree of confidence, there may be considerable apprehension in engaging in a task that could expose a degree of vulnerability. Yet, a committed professional must ask:

"How can I possibly proceed without knowing?"

"What do I need to know?

"How do I ask?"

"What will they say?"

"What do I do with this information?"

Asking these questions may be hard. Hearing the responses may be even more challenging. However, this process of asking, hearing and responding is absolutely necessary. It's essential if we hope to assure that a student's educational experience is meaningful, that it resonates with them - that it is relevant.

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