The Power of Conversation
Written by Ashley Hams, a Master Teacher from Newtown State School, QLD Australia
The Power of Conversation: The lightbulb moment
While writing this post, I could sense my wife’s eyes rolling and head shaking. The reason? How on Earth do you manage to reference golf when writing a blog about Learning Sprints? Many people, my wife being one, would think it is a bit of a stretch but stick with me because our school’s sprint journey started when I was given a mulligan.
If you are not familiar with the term, a mulligan is where you get a second chance to perform an action, usually after the first chance went wrong through bad luck, a blunder or just a lack of skill. Its best-known meaning is in golf, where a player is allowed to play another stroke if they have had a slip-up. Although it is more of an unofficial rule for the weekend hacker in golf, the notion of getting a second chance when something has gone astray is something beneficial, not only in golf, but in everyday life. We all have moments where mulligans would have been handy. For me my first kiss, described as a mule eating an apple could have possibly saved some embarrassment. If I could have only had a mulligan when I wanted to get my picture close up with a moose while holidaying in Canada, I could have again saved embarrassment and screaming. The mulligan that shaped this post came in the form of a second chance for a conversation with a staff member.
As a Master Teacher, conversations with teachers around student learning and improving practice is a daily occurrence. But there is one particular conversation that sticks with me. A teacher was sharing concerns with the implementation of our school spelling program in her class and simply didn’t think it was working. As a teacher with many years’ experience in the classroom, but a novice in implementing change, I did what I thought was right. I was going to save this teacher and save her spelling groups! This involved changing many activities and routines that had been established in the room. These changes took me into the classroom for many weeks, working with the teacher and groups of students to establish the new expectations and activities. To be honest, I thought I did a great job. The teacher seemed happier (this may have been because she had another teacher in the room for spelling groups), I was feeling fulfilled because I was being very helpful and it seemed like the kids were doing better. How effective was it at the end? After the amount of effort put in, I don’t think I would have liked the answer.
Now the ultimate idea of a mulligan is that you use the second chance to actually do something better, something different. In the golfing world you don’t want to take one of your precious mulligans and hit the ball into the water again! The “something different” came from the Annual Master Teacher Conference where I had the opportunity to listen to Dr Simon Breakspear. Although it was only a session, it immediately transformed the way I thought about professional conversations. He spoke of informed conversations based on data, identifying students who needed to be targeted and their specific needs. About how a small change in a small amount of time can make a big difference and finally, having evidence that what you did made a difference.
They say lightening never hits the same place twice, but it did for me. Not long after the conference, the same teacher came to me with the same dilemma about spelling. This time the conversation sounded very different. Rather than jumping straight into the deep end and trying to change the world, we looked at the data together, actually finding out that spelling in her room was essentially working very well in her room for a large majority of her students. This itself changed the mood and direction of the conversation right away. We were no longer dealing with 26 students with an impossible problem. We were dealing with one group, eight students. Taking the next step of digging a little deeper helped us identify that we were not even dealing with eight students, four of them were doing great. So we were down to four students with a common problem. They needed help with identifying long and short vowel sounds. Many activities depended on it, so when they were unsure they would become distracted and take time away from the teacher when she was trying to do intensive work with other class members. It was easy to see why it felt like spelling wasn’t going well. We managed to identify the sand, collaborated to find a way forward and a means to monitor student learning to see if what we changed worked.
Now, it was far from a rehearsed improvement sprint conversation. It was a little clumsy and I am sure had its fair share of mistakes, but one thing was for sure, we had found something that was going to change the way we looked at professional conversations and improving student learning. The idea that such a small change with little effort could make such an impact compared to the first attempt to “fix” spelling sounds too easy, but this was the start of collaborative conversations which had the effective rigor we had not used before.