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The Tuning Protocol: A Framework for Personalized Professional Development

School 21

Grades pre-K to 13 | London, U.K.

Jess Hughes

English Teacher and Coach at School 21, East London, UK
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Jess Hughes gesturing with hands, speaking with another teacher

Editor's note: You'll notice British standard spelling throughout this post. It was authored by a U.K.-based educator as part of our Schools That Work coverage of School 21.

What Is the Tuning Protocol?

The tuning protocol is a flexible critique tool used to gather focused feedback to aid in planning. Our tuning protocol is an adaptation of protocols from High Tech High and Innovation Unit. At School 21, a London-based public school, we have used it to gather feedback in the development of a new preschool, a schoolwide professional development model, department mid-term plans, and even lesson plans.

We often use the six-step tuning protocol outlined below to help us develop our PBL project ideas. There are generally three phases (or "tunings"). The first is an ideas tuning -- I present an early, nascent form, getting feedback on initial ideas and overall design. Later tunings are on the detailed plan and are used to interrogate practicalities, iron out concerns, and ensure academic rigour. As we go through the process, every single person in the tuning is contributing to my professional development and investing in my thought processes

To get started, here are tips on setting up your tuning protocol norms, as well as the six-step outline for the tuning stages.

Set Up Your Tuning Protocol Norms

When you set tuning protocol norms, your group is forming a verbal contract on how to act during that period of time and giving each other permission and a checklist by which they can hold group members accountable. You're creating a set of expectations to ensure the tuning is as useful as possible. The resulting quality of conversation is far more balanced, purposeful, and sharp.

Skipping this step would be easy, partly because of the slightly awkward nature of setting rules for a conversation between adults, but when set thoughtfully and held to, the impact is significant. In highly effective tunings (and other meetings), you will hear team members check speakers against these norms if they are broken. A quick, "Soft on people, Jess," is enough of a reminder to maintain a positive flow and to challenge the content and not the person. Or, "Make that feedback specific, Jess," may turn a generalised comment into something genuinely informative. (See the first and second norms, below.)

Here are some of our commonly used norms:

Be hard on content, soft on people. This is an invitation to be critical, even brutal on others’ ideas, asking challenging questions and picking at possible issues or questionable decisions. But it’s important to frame such comments without being personal. For example, someone may say, "There is a danger that this project will repeat the skills students learned last term rather than challenging them to develop new ones, as the product appears very similar. Is this something you have considered?" I love this norm because setting it means that I’m asking other participants to really challenge me, and I'm telling them this is OK. It removes false harmony, but also reminds people to challenge my work, and not me.

Be kind, specific, and helpful. Ron Berger’s critique norms are brilliantly useful within a tuning for both staff and students. We must remember that the aim of a tuning is to improve one's work, and therefore, everything we say needs to work toward this goal. Ensuring that our comments are specific and helpful -- and framed in a kind way -- achieves this. I think this helps us stay solutions-focused, too. For example,"This CPD [continuing professional development] model is too narrow," would be a generic criticism. A specific, solutions-focused suggestion would be, "There need to be more opportunities for staff to develop their leadership skills. Is there scope for some modules developing this or chances to explore other schools?"

Step up, step back. This "golden rule" norm reminds us to aim for a balance of voices within the critique, something that I see as vital to a well-run tuning. It reminds us all to take responsibility for balancing our own contributions, bringing ourselves and others into the conversation, and being careful not to dominate.

The 6-Step Tuning Protocol

The tuning will be chaired by one person in the group who also keeps time for each stage (it can be anyone), ensuring that the group is on track within the allotted timeframe, and that participants are adhering to protocols and norms. This is vital to the quality of the conversation, and it's easy for people to want to cut out -- don’t let this happen!

The protocol can be as long or short as you need. Length will depend on what is being tuned, its stage of development, and how many people are involved. Below, I have outlined the stages for a 25-minute tuning protocol, but this can be easily lengthened or shortened, as needed.

1. Project Overview (4 minutes): As mentioned above, the tuning protocol can be used to organise meaningful feedback on any initiative. In this first step, the presenter gives an overview of his or her work, project, or idea and shares some thinking about key design principles, such as why a project has been structured in a certain way, or why an assessment or accountability measure has been included. The presenter then frames a dilemma question to guide the discussion. For example, in a recent tuning for our CPD model, the dilemma question was, "How can we encourage staff to feel enabled and skilled up to design and deliver their own CPD modules?" In an early phase of planning a project, meanwhile, a dilemma question may be, "Where would the most useful critique points in this project be?" Participants -- those listening to the presenter -- are silent during this time.

2. Clarifying Questions (2 minutes): Participants ask clarifying questions of the presenter, like, "How are you planning to assess the writing skills?" or "How many meetings would each coaching team have per term?" Clarifying questions have brief, factual answers.

3. Probing Questions (3 minutes): Participants ask probing questions of the presenter, such as:

  • What made you decide to select that grounding text for this project?
  • Does it meet the literacy needs of your students?
  • How does your project design sit with Willingham’s thinking on memory and retention?
  • How will you hold staff accountable when they are conducting independent research as their CPD?

Probing questions help the presenter expand his or her thinking about the dilemma. Avoid questions which are advice in disguise, such as, "Why don’t you think about swapping that text for something more challenging?"

4. Discussion (10 minutes): Participants discuss the work that has been presented and explore solutions to the presenter’s dilemma question. Participants should direct their comments to each other, not the presenter. During this time, the presenter physically removes him- or herself from the group, is silent, and takes notes. This encourages the participants to speak openly and engage in authentic conversation about the work and dilemmas; it also forces the presenter to listen without responding and influencing the direction of the discussion.

For the participants, it is helpful to begin with what went well ("WWW"), such as, "I like the flexibility this model offers," or "I love this product. It feels like a real progression for these students and clearly builds on the work they did last term on non-fiction writing."

Participants can then take a more critical analysis of the work and focus on the dilemma question. This often means people airing their concerns, such as, "I feel we need more opportunities to develop our leadership, as well as classroom teaching, and at present, this model doesn’t offer this. I’d like to see several modules offered looking at leading teams, models of leadership, etc." or "I think there is real opportunity to find out what a brilliant exhibition could look like from an authentic audience. For example, surveying them about what they would or would not want to see."

5. Reflection (3 minutes): Participants are silent during reflection, and the presenter has the opportunity to respond to the discussion. The presenter then feeds back briefly what he or she heard from the discussion and describes what the next steps will be. This is a brief summary, such as, "What I heard was that you really liked the authenticity of this mid-term plan, and the fact that students are writing for a real purpose. You were worried about how I have balanced the reading exam requirements within this plan. I need to work with the mark schemes [grading] to ensure I’m clear on what the exam wants and then make sure this plan reflects that."

6. Debrief (3 minutes): The group debriefs the process, reflecting on how successfully they adhered to the discussion norms.

Whether the work being tuned is a schoolwide policy, a subject’s new curriculum, or a PBL design for a class, the benefits are identical. If you have used the tuning protocol, what have you noticed, and what tips can you share?

This post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from School 21.

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