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Leading Effectively: Recovering from Mistakes, Closing Communication Loops & De-Escalation

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Mar 10, 2016

Preventing and recovering from mistakes will form a huge component of successful NGSS STEM integration. It is necessary to revamp the idea of failure from minor or even major setbacks. These are not failures. Failure, rather, occurs when we walk away, or when we discover there is absolutely no chance for success. As educators, we are truly unlikely to encounter the latter, and we have a choice in the former. Let’s move away from fear of failure and start moving forward from mistakes wherever and however possible. 

Expectations and Opinions

A mistake is an opportunity to learn. It is an occurrence in which someone was naive and/or a circumstance was not accounted for by the people involved. While this is unfortunate, it’s crucial not to get mired in mistakes. Instead, we need to move forward, learn from them and do our best to prevent them from reoccurring. Let's just take a quick look at this.

Stakeholder-groups-expectations.pngThere are multiple stakeholders in education: the teachers themselves, the students who learn in their classrooms, and people who play supporting roles, such as principals, administrators and parents.

Everyone has his or her own values, ideas and opinions to account for. The three stakeholder groups in the image all bring different expectations to the table. First and foremost, there are the teachers, the ones who actually interface with students, or learners. Then there are the students, who need to be engaged in the STEM classroom. Lastly, there are the supporters: administrators, parents and community program participants.

These people, while not usually in the classroom during the day, all play a role in supporting teaching and learning. Each of these groups has its own unique expectations and opinions, and it's important that we synchronize them and create synergies.

Imagine an after-school program borrowing the language of Next Generation Science Standards, the practices and the processes and mirroring the modes of instruction in the classroom. We might think of this as a wraparound program. Think how much this could increase learning simply by synchronizing with the values and language taking place in the classroom.

For instance, teachers might expect that the curriculum be straightforward to teach and that it will align with other curriculum they use in the classroom. Students might expect that the curriculum be something they can grasp, challenging them without frustrating them. And other stakeholders might expect that the curriculum not be so challenging that they have to spend all their time helping students in the evening (parents) or are unable to offer supplemental help (after-school leaders) to students.

To tackle all of these expectations, it’s important to be able to speak the language of each type of stakeholder group, guiding them toward understanding as to them why this initiative is important, and giving guidance in how to teach and support it. Otherwise you may see the fracturing of values, modes of instruction and details of execution, where each group takes its own approach. It is by managing these expectations and getting them to align with one another that we can effectively bring STEM into our schools without a loss of focus or buy-in. This is where closed-loop communication comes into play.

Closed-Loop Communication

closed-loop.pngConnections exist between all three stakeholder groups, or at least they should.

When these groups all communicate with one another, we have the greatest chance of alignment and STEM success. Closed-loop communication is important. We can best understand this by looking at what happens when we have open-loop communication. This is where you break one of the connections you see in the image above.

When that happens, say, when a student hears a different message from the teacher and from the leader of the after-school program, that creates tension between the teacher and program leader and doesn’t serve the student well. When a broken connection exists, it appears as though one group wants one thing and one wants another. Neither group is taking the time to understand the impact on students, and that’s not good.

Where possible, we want to avoid open loops by ensuring everyone is on the same page and communication is consistent.

This kind of thing will happen, though. Loops will get broken, and mistakes will be made. When shifts occur, such as bringing new standards into the classroom, various stakeholders will find that their expectations haven’t been met. At that point, it’s important to de-escalate by searching for the roots in the process, or trying to find the common ground that can link various stakeholder groups around values.

Search for Roots in the Process

Your first opportunity to de-escalate is to go back to the values, asking questions like: What is it that we value? What is our mode of instruction? How are we executing it? De-escalating is first and foremost a kind of triage. It’s a series of questions designed to get folks back on track, focusing on what really matters. This is a learning process, so we’re going to model it here.

The crux of this de-escalation process is to get to the root of the issue in three areas: processes, practices and understandings. Let’s say, for instance, that you implement a new curriculum and everyone responds by saying, “There are no worksheets in this, or there's not enough content." Now is when you start asking questions.

In any situation that seems to be escalating, these key questions will help you get to the root of the issue in all three areas. Begin by asking yourself what it is people are really taking issue with.

  • What do they mean by content, specifically?
  • What do they believe will solve that issue?
  • Is it that we need more pages to read?
  • Is it that there's not enough for the teacher to explain, and because they're used to talking a lot they're taking issue with the fact that there isn’t as much to lecture on as they’re used to?
  • What is the source of their understanding?
  • Is it their past experience, being in a traditional mode of instruction?
  • Is it coming from a district where traditional instruction is really the only instruction?
  • Could it be that their understanding of the standards is out of date?
  • Could it be that their understanding of the standards came from looking at test items?

Many people, unfortunately, are working backwards, trying to understand the standards through the standardized assessments. It's a backwards way of understanding, instead of appealing to the standards documentation itself and then trying to unpack the standards from there.

After triage and questions, it’s time to address practices.

This has to with the flow that stems from values to modes of instruction to details of execution. Is the problem with the operations themselves and consistency among them? Is it a case where the details of execution need to be refined? That's an easy one to solve. Or is it an issue where the mode of instruction is the result of an alignment problem, because something is misaligned with the educational values of your school?

Examples of this might include a teacher who is upset with a colleague for using worksheets, or a parent coming to you because there's not enough textbook reading assigned. Then you have to take the time and look at the problem to determine whether that colleague or that parent is out of alignment with the values and modes of instruction you’re trying to nurture. This leads to understanding.

Understanding Is Crucial

If stakeholders lack understanding, they will have a hard time buying into the new model of instruction. This is an opportunity to correct individuals and have important discussions, and also to reinforce the core of what and why and how we do what we do.


This picture demonstrates students working as scientists and engineers in an environment that is structured around them using crucial skills, absorbing content and crosscutting concepts, and deepening their understanding of how systems work.

This is why we do what we do. But it’s not just about their understanding, about whether or not you can get that other person to come around to your way of thinking. It’s also about your understanding of stakeholder expectations what tribe this individual or these individuals subscribe to. In other words, what language are they speaking? Are they speaking the “my life stinks” language? “I'm better than they are”? “We're great, they're not?” “There's this huge problem and I need to fix it,” or “this is impossible, life is just terrible?” Understanding that language is key.

However, you must also be able to speak to them in that language so that they can hear you, which makes it crucial that you always be able to identify what tribe they represent. If, for example, a parent comes to you upset that there aren’t enough textbooks, you need to understand that this thinking is coming from a place of concern for their child's future and possibly a Stage 3 place of self-perceived expertise because this is what they think it takes to be “smarter than the other guy.”

To meet this concern, you must speak from your own place of assurance and expertise. That doesn’t mean trying to trump the parent, but rather de-escalating by communicating what we as a group, as educators, are teaching students with inquiry, and how we're accomplishing the same goals of that textbook, but at a much higher level. We need to help improve that parent’s understanding by proving expertise and meeting expectations on their level.

Focusing on closed-loop communication not only de-escalates, but it sets the stage of community support for next generation inquiry environments where students learn as scientists and engineers.

Topics: classroom challenges, Closed-Loop Communication

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