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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Margaret Wheatley, a brilliant thinker and organizer, writes: "I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again: simple, honest, human conversation, and not mediation, negotiation, problem solving, debate, or public meetings. Truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well."

Wheatley's book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, is essential to my work; I rarely recommend books, but this is one that everyone should have on their shelves. Wheatley's prose pulls me into places of the mind, heart, and spirit that most education-related texts never venture. And more than anything, she offers tremendous hope. (Her 2009 book, Perseverance, is another gem; I carry it with me every day.)

Listening to each other is not that easy, I'm sure we all know. Wheatley acknowledges that it takes courage to have conversations with each other, conversations when we're really listening without judgment, listening with curiosity; and conversations take time, of which we're always in short supply.

But Wheatley writes, "If we don't start talking to one another, nothing will change. Conversation is the way we discover how to transform our world, together." Her book is full of examples of people who have begun conversations with each other and changed the world. It also offers practical advice on how to begin the process, conversation prompts, and much more.

Several teachers approached me last week. They'd read my recent blog post on the ethics of posting student data and appreciated that I'd voiced an objection. "I feel like I can't say what you do," said Ms. W. "Our school prides itself on our test scores. I have to post the data. I'm afraid of what would happen if I objected."

"Have you ever spoken with your principal about your concerns?" I asked. I know the principal; I know that she has reservations about this practice.

"I don't think she'd listen," said Ms. W. "I don't know what I'd say." Ms. W (who is African American) then spoke for ten minutes about her experience growing up in the 1980s, in a predominantly white community where students' grades and test scores were virtually known by all. Although she was academically successful, her two younger brothers were not. By mid-elementary school the boys' self-esteem was destroyed, they rejected tutors, and they struggled in many ways, for many years. "It kills me," said Ms. W, "to see these posters with test score data displayed publically, to see the bottom band (the lowest performing) full of the names of black boys. It's eating me away."

"Talk to your principal," I urged. "Share your experiences, share your feelings. I know it's scary, but this is what it means to be a leader, to speak up for those boys."

We spent some time that afternoon planning a conversation. Ms. W talked through her ideas for engaging her principal in this dialogue; she also brainstormed non-judgmental questions to ask her principal in order to understand her thinking more. It all begins with conversations, I thought as I left Ms. W's room.

"Change doesn't happen from a leader announcing the plan," writes Margaret Wheatley. "Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or respond to a dream of what's possible. We just have to find a few others who care about the same thing. Together we will figure out what our first step is, then the next, then the next. Gradually, we become large and powerful. We don't have to start with power, only with passion."

What kind of changes in education would you like to see? Who would you like to engage in conversation with about change?

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger

A book I'd like to add, to whatever Elena will suggest, is called Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide to Achieving Equity in Schools by Glenn Singleton. You may also find some useful tools here, for helping with starting conversations at your school site.

Best,

Rebecca

[quote]Dear Ms. Aguilar,

I read a great many blogs for my work, but rarely am I inspired to comment. I would like to appreciate you for your writing and for making me think about my role in a different way. As the principal of a large urban high school, I recognize that I rarely stop and listen. It always feels as if I just do not have the time; there is always something more urgent. Today I had three very meaningful conversations with staff members. I listened and spoke very little. They did not take that long and the poeple I spoke with felt very touched. I know how important it is to do this, but I forget. Your blog made me remember.

I would like to ask for advice. In my school we desperately need to have some conversation about race and class issues. I don't know how to go about this or what resources there are. I am also uncomfortable doing this. And I also know that it has to happen. I am ashamed to admit to my colleagues that I can't lead this. It is something I have avoided for years. But I know that these are the conversations that needs to happen. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you for your writing. I rarely feel as inspired and motivated to take action from what I read in blogs. Please continue to share these ideas.[/quote]

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger

Dear M. Hernandez,

First, thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to comment on my blog. Thank you also for sharing your successful conversations today!

Rebecca's recommendation, Courageous Conversations about Race, is my top suggestion! Also, you might look at the work done by the National Equity Project (http://nationalequityproject.org). They do fantastic work in this area and provide tremendous support to leaders. The books by Randall Lindsey, et al, on Cultural Proficiency could also be very useful to you.

Perhaps I'll take up this question for a later blog post. It's definitely got me thinking. And let us know how your conversations continue.

Elena

I would like to ask for advice. In my school we desperately need to have some conversation about race and class issues. I don't know how to go about this or what resources there are. I am also uncomfortable doing this. And I also know that it has to happen. I am ashamed to admit to my colleagues that I can't lead this. It is something I have avoided for years. But I know that these are the conversations that needs to happen. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you for your writing. I rarely feel as inspired and motivated to take action from what I read in blogs. Please continue to share these ideas.[/quote]

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger

Thank you all for such thoughtful comments! As I read them, I felt such privilege and joy in being able to listen to you. I'm reminded of the power that such a digital platform can offer in facilitating communication. Thank you to all those who read, and to those who read and write.

Shannon Carey's picture

Oh, Elena, this is lovely. This has been the theme to my work year, too. I scribbled "Listening is our main job" on a scrap of paper, and it has been hanging above my desk since September.

Something needs to be said, though, about how oddly EXHAUSTING deep listening can be. In a good way, yes, but still. Exhausting. How do we recharge after deep listening?

I'm buying those books as soon as I recover from this day of relentless listening. :)

Andrea's picture

I greatly appreciate your article, Educational Change Starts with Listening! I am most definitely sold on your suggestions to purchase Margaret Wheately's books. What a simple step we could take to make a true difference, just by listening to one another and talking to solve concerns rather than create more through backstabbing gossip or succombing to negative idealology. I especially appreciated reading your quote from Wheatley's writing saying that "conversation is the way we discover how to transform our world, together". I am becoming more keenly aware of the neccessity of collaborating with groups of other educators in efforts to build efficacy and personal learning communities. I am quickly learning that reaching out is not only a means of communicating and learning through fellow educators, but that purposeful communication is essential for survival in the field of education. Thank you again for your article!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger

Oh, Shannon - What an important point you raise - listening is/can be totally exhausting! I think we can build a listening-muscle, but regardless of our strength, after a while we'll get tired. We-who-listen-almost full time need to be strategic about replenishing ourselves after long-listening and about buffering our reserves before going into the activity. More to think about for me on this question - thank you for raising it!

[quote]Something needs to be said, though, about how oddly EXHAUSTING deep listening can be. In a good way, yes, but still. Exhausting. How do we recharge after deep listening? )[/quote]

Sarah Todd's picture

I agree that educational change begins with, and actually requires listening. As the busy, task-filled day of a teacher unfolds, I think it is easy to forget this valuable aspect. We sure do talk a lot, but the listening sometimes suffers. Listening can be powerful in making a meaningful difference in the lives of our students. It does, however, take time...which is also a precious commodity. WELL worth it though! I will take this one to heart, and would love to read Margaret Wheatley's books.

Ryan's picture

Isn't this the plain and simple truth. I always stress being good listeners to my children but never really think that they are listening. Until that one student who I dont think is ever listening ratttles off all the answers to my question and I am left shocked and surprised.

Listening occurs in so many contexts and I am reminded again after reading this article that people will listen if you open up discussions and listen yourself. Along with many others, I have had some great discussions with adminstration even though I wasnt sure if they would listen. So many times we are listeners to them and I think they appreciate hearing our voices. Take that back to the classroom and I think you could find a similar relationship. In my own classroom I need to remember that and invite those conversations that students may be nervous to bring up or talk about. Listening needs to work both ways.

Cdettlaff's picture
Cdettlaff
Reading and math specialist

I really enjoyed your blog on Educational Change Starts with Listening! I agree that listening to one another is not always easy to do. I always try to teach my students to listen and be respectful to others and their ideas. I also let my students know, that everyone will not always have the same ideas or concerns as you do but to be open to their ideas and not be judgmental. As adults we struggle with this as well. In order to collaborate with others and do what is best for our students we need to be good active listeners and respect others ideas. I am definitely interested in Wheatley's book "If we don't start talking to one another, nothing will change." Communication is a huge key when helping our students today.

syndrella sebastian's picture

hi Elena,

"Educational changes starts with listening" is exactly!!!!!!!!.The topic you mentioned here is fully informative and very useful for me. Anyway thanks a lot

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