Last week I worked in School X and also in School Y.

And in both, where I am helping them prepare school improvement plans for state agencies, again, system issues kicked up both positively and otherwise.

What also emerged were at least two observations I had of my own role(s) as catalyst – facilitator for their efforts.

Watching these groups evolve into a lean mean improvement machine is always a fascinating process for me and while there are common elements of their development there certainly is no cookie cutter to my expectations.

Here are two examples.

One school team, both actually, have gotten their fingernails dirty in considering mountains of data and documents as evidence of the extent to which the schools meet certain indicators. These indicators are: Data usage; Teaching and Learning; School Leadership; Infrastructure; Professional Development; and Resources.

Teams reviewed the documentation and made tentative conclusions about the extent to which the schools met these indicators, particularly in light of the reason(s) for which they had been cited. Both buildings are cited for students with disabilities. X is also cited for performance by their African American population. Y is cited for performance by their  English Language Learners population.

After they reviewed and assessed the paperwork they did walk-throughs of a cross sample of classes to focus on the teaching and learning indicator.

They also interviewed their colleagues and key administrators, and some community members to gather more information for the most valid conclusions possible.

The next step was to generate recommendations to the school and to the district about strengthening strengths and reducing deficits.

This is when it got interesting.

First of all both groups generated many, many, excellent recommendations both school based and also district based. My role was what I call PPIN, as in Pleasant Pain in the Neck so that I would coax, coach, cajole them to look at issues from many perspectives and from their own experiences and knowledge. In other words I was seeking creativity, not for creativity’s sake but to empower them to “think out of the box” ( I hate that phrase but it is apt here).

And creative they were. Yet as they began to generate they began to frighten some of the participants. They did NOT make this recommendation but I will use it as an archetype of what almost derailed the quality of their efforts:

They recommended that every student have an iPad. They were able to offer many sound reasons for it and even able to show how they will evaluate the success of such a innovative approach for their students. As this idea went “up on the board” some began to complain. “They will never allow this!” “We don’t have the money for this!” yada yada

I am rarely a didactic person but in this case, as Facilitator (another word I don’t like) I could not permit this!

I couldn’t permit this because putting a cork on the creative flow of ideas will invariably cork up any other creative ideas that may have been a bornin’. This is Rule One, Line One, Paragraph One, of idea generating (aka brainstorming): “Thou shalt not discourage ideas no matter how outlandish they may seem in an idea generating mode!”

Sure, they probably can’t afford iPads for every student but it isn’t necessarily the specifics of an idea we are percolating. Rather it is the possibility that we might be able to adapt the original idea to one that may actually be affordable. And while I can’t tell you how the group did come up with an amazing adaptation of the original premise I can guarantee you THAT idea would not have been born if I had corked up the creativity.

Now for sure, there is a time to come to closure. That is is in the Solution – Finding phase I will describe in a much later blog when we consider all the dimensions of Team Learning a la Senge’s Five Discipline.

The other example is about Mental Models. One school team had particularly strong views about the leadership’s contributions, positively and negatively to their school. They very much wanted me to interview the individual. So I did. Well, and I am pretty good at hearing the “message behind the music”, I came away with a fairly positive assessment of the individual’s points of view. I reported same to the group and at first they didn’t accept my assessment. It took some time for me enable them to as Covey puts it, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” In the end their mental model changed because they realized that their feelings may have overwhelmed the facts.

So the lesson(s) in this post? I suppose that if you are training or facilitating a school improvement group it is important to use Team Learning devices to ensure that they have both the knowledge competencies and the creativity competencies essential to promote a free flow of ideas. And it is important to not only understand one’s own Mental Model but also to work hard to generate dialogue techniques to promote empathetic respect for others’ Mental Models.