I recently returned from a site visit to the United Arab Emirates, where I spent a week with a practitioner cohort from seven schools in the GEMS Education network through the Creating Communities of Innovation research initiative at Project Zero. Started in 2016, Creating Communities of Innovation (CCI) is a multi-year study that considers how research-based tools might support teachers and educational leaders to create scalable innovations within individual schools, and how a cross-school network could help develop and sustain those innovations. The “innovation projects” developed by cohort members stemmed from needs and opportunities they saw around them, and ranged from creating new tools to support blended learning, to starting a student-run “thinking routine squad,” to implementing an ambitious parent engagement initiative to reach more than 5,000 school parents.
As you’ll see, Out of Eden Learn’s Dialogue Toolkit became a useful resource in this work.
Framing the Challenges of Peer Feedback
Since the start of this initiative, cohort members have been asked to give feedback to each other about their developing projects via an online platform. This platform created opportunities for cohort participants to view and comment on each others’ project documentation and online reflections. Cohort schools also presented their work to each other and to members of the public through exhibitions that showcased documentation of their school innovation projects and articulated key learnings, questions, and puzzles they encountered in that work.
In asking our cohort members to be candid about their experiences and put still-developing ideas in front of online and face-to-face audiences, we in essence asked them to take risks and make themselves susceptible to critique. Cohort members shared personally-important, student-centered work that they had developed over the course of many months. When presenting their innovation projects, cohort members spoke with passion and used carefully crafted language that revealed great insight and deep reflection.
But when we asked these same extremely thoughtful educators to give feedback to cohort peers about their innovation projects, the comments they gave often did not live up to the depth and substance of which we knew they were capable. Following a project exhibition, one cohort member told us, “we receive a lot of pats on the back, but no real feedback.” We saw similar dynamics when we asked cohort members to engage in dialogue on our online platform, where much of the cross-school discourse around innovation projects stayed on the surface level of “good job” or “I like what you’re doing.”
These votes of confidence of course came from a well-meaning and supportive place. But receiving the casual “like” on this work did not give our teachers’ contributions their due, especially given the vulnerability they faced by inviting critique on their projects. Our research team began to wonder: Why might it be challenging to give deeper, more meaningful feedback to peers? This question was especially important to our research focus on cultivating networked inquiry communities across schools working to push themselves outside the comfort zone of existing practice. Prompted by the suggestion of CCI Co-Director and Out of Eden Learn Principal Investigator Liz Dawes Duraisingh, our research team decided to try using elements of the Out of Eden Learn Dialogue Toolkit to encourage more meaningful cross-cohort dialogue.
The Dialogue Toolkit: A Scaffold for Deeper Exchange
Building on these ideas, the research team challenged the CCI practitioner cohort to try out a subset of the Dialogue Toolkit in both online dialogues and face-to-face exhibitions of their work. We honed in on the kit’s “tools” of Appreciate, Probe, Connect, and Extend:
- Appreciate: Share what you like, appreciate or value in the ideas you heard. Be specific.
- Probe: Probe for more details. Ask questions that will help give you a better sense of another person’s perspective.
- Connect: Make a connection between something in the ideas you heard and your own experiences, feelings, or interests.
- Extend: Describe how the ideas you heard extended your thoughts in new directions or gave you a new perspective.
What We’ve Learned So Far
At Project Zero we talk about dispositions, or “ways of being in the world” as being comprised of three elements: inclination, capacity, and sensitivity. We knew right from the beginning of our work that our teacher collaborators had a disposition toward meaningful dialogue. When we met up in person, we saw that they were eager to talk to each other about practice during informal social gatherings and in professional development settings, showing an inclination toward dialogue. The depth of the commentary we were able to solicit in small-group conversations and one-on-one interviews also demonstrated a strong capacity toward expressing powerful feedback and reflections. And we had set up online forums and exhibitions to help them be sensitive to opportunities to give each other feedback and engage in substantial dialogue. With the disposition already in place, we needed to routinize the practice of using the Dialogue Toolkit. So how has it worked? Since we started asking our educator cohort to use these tools, we’ve noticed a few things:
The Dialogue Toolkit in Online Communities: From Comments to Conversations
Every couple of months, CCI study groups create video updates on our online platform to share how their innovation projects are progressing and to request feedback from a partner cohort school. Before the introduction of the Dialogue Toolkit, we saw the type of online commentary that will be familiar to most who use social media platforms—one-off comments, “thumbs-up” shows of support, or critiques that could have gone much further in specificity or depth. The Dialogue Toolkit prompts have helped cohort members move from comments to conversations, as shown by a greater number of follow-up conversations and more in-depth dialogues that go beyond a single exchange from one school to the other. In this way, both the quantity and quality of the dialogue has increased. One cohort school has even adapted the Dialogue Toolkit prompts into student-friendly language to support deeper online dialogue among learners.
In-Person Interactions: Breaking the Ice in Peer Feedback
When using the Dialogue Toolkit in face-to-face communications, we’ve seen our cohort members make more explicit invitations for dialogue and critique around their work. At a recent exhibition, one school articulated their questions for feedback on a piece of chart paper, asking audience members to focus their comments on those questions. In this way, the school was able to walk away with specific feedback that was targeted toward helping them move forward. The Dialogue Toolkit prompts also helped educators notice recurrences of similar audience questions, and to move beyond conversations about the practicalities of implementation toward deeper discussions about the merits of their work.
Can I have more meaningful dialogue in this setting? Yes, and…
Once we started to use the Dialogue Toolkit, it became embedded as a persistent mental Post-It note to remind our research team: say something meaningful. The Toolkit prompts do not necessitate essay-length responses—a few simple connections to other ideas or a deeply-considered probing question can do the job of helping to advance someone else’s thinking (and perhaps your own thinking as well!) and spur further conversation and purposeful examination of an idea. More meaningful dialogue might take place within a work setting, around the family dinner table, in an exchange with a stranger on the street, or in your own inner monologue. All it takes is being present to times when you want or need more (quantity, quality, or both!) in terms of dialogue or feedback, and times where you can give more to others as well.
Taking responsibility for deeper, more sustained dialogue can be a significant challenge within the competing demands for our time and cognitive energies. But our research team, and the practitioner cohort with which we work, has found great value in committing to this responsibility and in routinizing practices for more meaningful conversations. We continue to learn how the Dialogue Toolkit will work as the Creating Communities of Innovation research work and our cohort schools’ innovation projects progress. For now, we are excited to ponder the possibilities, and we look forward to hearing how you are using this work as well.