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Sale Book (May 2009)

Protocols for Professional Learning

by Lois Brown Easton

Table of Contents

Chapter 5. Protocols for Addressing Issues and Problems

The following protocols in this chapter are particularly helpful for addressing issues and problems:

  • Probing Protocol
  • Inside/Outside Protocol (Fishbowl)
  • Peeling the Onion Protocol
  • SWOT Protocol

A few of the protocols already described in this book, such as the Tuning, Rounds, Consultancy, and Triad protocols, can also be used.

1 Probing Protocol

Source: JoAnne Dowd and John D'Anieri of Poland High School, Poland, Maine; the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF)

Overview: The main differences between this protocol and others are its purpose and the type of questions that it features. As the NSRF maintains, probing questions "are tricky questions as people tend to ask more detailed clarifying questions or questions that pertain to what the speaker wishes to say or know, rather than questions clearly for the benefit of the presenter" ("Probing Questions Exercise," n.d., p. 1).

Other Uses: Probing questions can be used in other protocols when the group determines that they are needed. They can help educators look at student work, professional practice, and text.

Number of Participants: Ideally 6–10 participants, a presenter, and a facilitator. If the group is any larger, each member may not get to share a problem or issue or contribute questions to the protocol.

Time Required: 30–60 minutes

Steps (suggested times based on a 50-minute session):

Step 1: Introduction (first time only; 10 minutes)

  • The facilitator introduces the concept of probing questions and invites participants to introduce themselves if necessary.
  • This definition from the NSRF is helpful: "Probing Questions are meant to help the presenter think more deeply, challenge his or her assumptions or consider ways to rethink some aspect of their practice. Probing Questions are for the presenter, not the one asking the question. They should be genuine questions, not judgments or advice, though sometimes ideas to consider are either implicit or explicit in the question" ("Pocket Guide to Probing Questions," n.d., p. 3).
  • The facilitator may want to share the list of possible questions at the end of this protocol.

Step 2: Writing Dilemmas (5 minutes). The facilitator asks everyone to describe in writing a dilemma that is real for them. This dilemma can be schoolwide or limited to the classroom; it can be about curriculum, instruction, or assessment; or it can be about a specific student, as long as he or she is kept anonymous.

Step 3: Sharing the First Dilemma (12 minutes)

  • The facilitator asks for a volunteer to read his or her problem or issue.
  • Anyone in the group asks a clarifying question, and the presenter answers. As the NSRF notes, "This is to help [establish] the difference between clarifying and probing questions" ("Probing Questions Exercise," n.d., p. 5).
  • Anyone in the group asks a probing question. The presenter writes it down, but does not respond. The others in the group also ask a probing question and the presenter writes each question down without yet responding to any of them.
  • The presenter considers each probing question and decides which one was most on target in terms of deepening his or her thinking about the dilemma. The presenter may take a couple of minutes to reflect aloud on the meaning of the question in relation to the dilemma.
  • The group may want to take a minute or two to determine why the selected question was particularly effective. The group may also want to begin a list of qualities of effective probing questions.

Step 4: Sharing Additional Dilemmas (time will vary). Step 3 can be repeated using dilemmas for as many participants as possible, for as long as there is time.

Step 5: Debriefing (5 minutes). The group discusses what everyone now understands about probing questions. If the group considered the qualities of effective probing questions in Step 3, these can be reviewed at this stage.

Critical Elements: The most important aspect of this protocol is the formulation of probing questions that will help the presenter. This is a real art, an intellectual feat requiring plenty of empathy, and a valuable skill to learn.

Tips for the Facilitator: The facilitator needs to be sure that the difference between clarifying questions and probing questions is clear and may want to practice creating probing questions or turning a clarifying question into a probing question.

Here are some tips about probing questions from the NSRF:

Probing questions are intended to help the presenter think more deeply about the issue at hand. If a probing question doesn't have that effect, it is either a clarifying question or a recommendation with an upward inflection at the end. If you find yourself saying "Don't you think you should … ?" you've gone beyond probing questions. The presenter often doesn't have a ready answer to a genuine probing question. Since probing questions are the hardest to create productively, we offer the following suggestions:
  • Check to see if you have a "right" answer in mind. If so, delete the judgment from the question, or don't ask it.
  • Refer to the presenter's original question/focus point. What did s/he ask for your help with? Check your probing questions for relevance.
  • Check to see if you are asserting your own agenda. If so, return to the presenter's agenda.
  • Sometimes a simple "why … ?" asked as an advocate for the presenter's success can be very effective, as can several why questions asked in a row.
  • Try using verbs: What do you fear? Want? Get? Assume? Expect?
  • Think about the concentric circles of comfort, risk and danger. Use these as a barometer. Don't avoid risk, but don't push the presenter into the "danger zone."
  • Think of probing questions as being on a continuum, from recommendation to most effective probing question:
    • Could you have students use the rubric to assess their own papers? (recommendation restated as a question)
    • What would happen if students used the rubric to assess their own work? (recommendation restated as a probing question)
    • What do the students think is an interesting math problem? (good probing question)
    • What would have to change for students to work more for themselves and less for you? (better probing question)
  • In summary, good probing questions
    • Are general and widely useful.
    • Don't place blame on anyone.
    • Allow for multiple responses.
    • Help create a paradigm shift.
    • Empower the person with the dilemma to solve his or her own problem (rather than deferring to someone with greater or different expertise).
    • Avoid yes/no responses.
    • Are usually brief.
    • Elicit a slow response.
    • Move thinking from reaction to reflection.
    • Encourage taking another party's perspective. ("Pocket Guide to Probing Questions," n.d., p. 3)

2 Inside/Outside Protocol (Fishbowl)

Source: This protocol works much the way a fishbowl does. It also resembles the California Protocol, developed for the California Center for School Restructuring (CCSR) in 1996 by Steve Jubb and Joel Shawn.

Overview: This protocol involves groups that share the same problem or need to address the same issue. The groups take turns playing an analysis role and a reflector role, deepening the discussion each time they switch. Participants sit, fishbowl-style, in two concentric circles, both facing inward. There is no single presenter because everyone knows the problem or issue; there may, however, be a facilitator for each group.

The purpose of the protocol is not to solve the problem or resolve the issue, but rather to simply illuminate it so that people have greater understanding and can move toward solutions or resolutions.

Other Uses: This protocol can be used to deepen discussion on student work or professional practice, as long as all participants understand and have a stake in what is being presented. This protocol can also be modified so that groups can present plans, gain feedback from each other, and reflect on feedback before switching places and repeating.

Number of Participants: The number of participants can vary from 8 (two groups of 4) to about 30 (two groups of 15). If there are more than 30 participants, the amount of airtime for each is reduced.

Time Required: 30–60 minutes

Steps (suggested times based on a 60-minute session):

Step 1: Introducing the Protocol (first time only; 5 minutes)

  • The facilitator welcomes the entire group and explains the steps of the protocol.
  • The facilitator reminds the participants that the purpose of the protocol is not to solve the problem or resolve the issue, but rather to dig deeply into the issue or problem for better understanding that can lead to solution or resolution.

Step 2: Framing the Issue or Problem (10 minutes)

  • The facilitator states the problem or issue as succinctly as possible (or asks a participant to do so).
  • The facilitator restates the problem or issue as a key question for the group (or asks a participant to do so).
  • Though the group may not entirely agree on the problem or issue or on the key question, the protocol needs to proceed, as it is likely that the problem or issue or key question will be clarified. If absolutely necessary, the facilitator may invite clarification from participants before starting the dialogue, but the group should trust that the protocol itself will help them achieve clarification and be willing to proceed.
  • The facilitator should have the group divide into two relatively equal groups, A and B. These groups should be constructed randomly (e.g., through numbering off) unless group similarity or diversity is desired, whereupon the whole group should decide the makeup of the two groups (e.g., "Let's have all the elective teachers in group A and all the core teachers in group B to discuss a new schedule."). Group A forms the inner circle, and group B forms the outer circle.

Step 3: Group A Discussion (15 minutes)

  • Group A discusses the problem or issue and the key question while Group B listens and takes notes.
  • At the end of the specified time, Groups A and B switch seats with each other.

Step 4: Group B Discussion (15 minutes)

  • Group B discusses the problem or issue and the key question while Group A listens and takes notes.
  • Members of Group B may want to build on what Group A has said, bring up their own topics, or do both.
  • At the end of the specified time, Groups A and B return to their original places.

Step 5: Group A Reflection (10 minutes)

  • Group A reflects aloud on what Group B said in step 4, and may also reflect on their own discussion in step 3.
  • If someone from Group B wishes to enter the inner circle to contribute or ask a question, he or she may but must return to the outer circle after having done so.
  • It is also possible for someone from Group B to "tap out" a fellow Group B member from the inner circle if he or she has stayed there too long or if someone else from Group B wants to follow up with a question or comment.
  • At the end of the specified time, Groups A and B switch places.

Step 6: Group B Reflection (10 minutes)

  • Group B reflects aloud on what Group A has said so far, and may also reflect on their own discussion in step 4.
  • Members of Group A may comment on the reflection in the same way that members of Group B may in step 5.

Step 7: Reaching Consensus (10 minutes)

  • Group B (inside circle) turns to face Group A (outside circle). Participants talk to each other, trying to determine the points on which the two groups have reached some kind of consensus.
  • The facilitator should begin round-robin reporting, during which each pair contributes a point of consensus. If possible, these points should be recorded on chart paper, perhaps by the facilitator or a volunteer from either group.
  • Each time a point is repeated, a checkmark should be made next to that item on the chart paper, to show that more than one person felt it was a point of consensus.

Step 8: Open Discussion (10 minutes). The facilitator should begin the open discussion with any of these questions:

  • Have we properly defined the issue or problem?
  • On what points have we reached consensus?
  • What is left for us to do regarding this issue or problem?

Step 9: Debriefing (5 minutes). The facilitator should prompt the participants to debrief the process: What went well? What could have gone better? What did we learn? What do we know? What do we still want to know?

Critical Elements: One critical element for this protocol is the grouping of participants. They should be grouped so that they feel they can both listen to each other and have a chance to say something. Sometimes this works best if grouping is entirely random; at other times, grouping should be purposeful, related to the issue or problem. The group as a whole needs to make the determination, prompted perhaps by the facilitator.

Another critical element is reaching clarity about the problem or issue. If groups delay reaching step 3 before reaching absolute clarity, they might never begin. So, they have to trust the process to bring them closer to clarity and to reveal some points about a solution or resolution for which there is a consensus.

Finally, a group may not reach consensus about many items, and that's OK. Solving the problem or resolving the issue can begin with whatever points everyone can agree on.

Tips for the Facilitator: The facilitator plays a relatively major role in this protocol, especially in steps 7–9. The facilitator may find it helpful to take notes during the group discussions and reflections, searching for consensus points. Then, to illustrate the possibility of consensus in step 7, the facilitator might say something like, "I was listening to what you were talking about in steps 3–6. I heard X frequently and think it might represent some kind of consensus."

3 Peeling the Onion Protocol

Source: This protocol originated with the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF). I have modified it here.

Overview: This protocol is good to use when someone has an issue that needs to be addressed. The presenter does not necessarily need to be the one who is dealing with the issue directly, but merely someone who wants to engage in the discussion. He or she should prepare to share as much as possible about the issue with others— history, context, impact, and so forth—and come up with one or two key questions that focus the issue. A pair or group of people may function as the presenter. The presentation and the focusing question(s) become the "text" of the protocol.

Number of Participants: 6–10, plus a presenter and facilitator

Time Required: About 55 minutes (not counting the initial introduction and orientation)

Steps (suggested times based on a 55-minute session):

Step 1: Introductions and Orientation (first time only; 5 minutes). If the participants don't know each other, be sure they introduce themselves. Make a copy of this protocol and share it with participants, going through the steps and noting the times for each.

Step 2: Describing the Issue (10 minutes)

  • The presenter describes the issue as fully as possible while participants are silent and take notes.
  • The presenter distributes any written materials related to the problem or issue.
  • The presenter asks one or two key questions, which the participants write down.

Step 3: Writing (3 minutes). The participants and presenter free-write on the issue and the key question(s). The presenter then withdraws from the group to listen and take notes as the participants discuss the issue, making it their own and wrestling with it.

Step 4: Discussion (10 minutes)

  • The facilitator (or a participant; it's up to the group) selects one of the discussion prompts below.
  • Participants respond to the prompt, but not in round-robin style; instead, they thoroughly discuss each response to the prompt before moving on to the next response. They may concur, differ, offer comments, ask questions, suggest examples, or provide details.
  • The presenter remains silent and takes notes.
  • This step is then repeated using other prompts for as long as there is time.

Here are some prompts for use during this step:

  • What I heard [the presenters say] is …
  • One assumption that seems to be part of the problem is …
  • One thing I assume to be true about this problem is …
  • A question this raises for me is …
  • Further questions this raises for me are …
  • What if … ?
  • Have we thought about … ?
  • I wonder … ?

Step 6: Presenter Reflection (10 minutes)

  • The presenter reflects aloud on the discussion, not defensively but thoughtfully, trying to build on the ideas that were generated.
  • Participants are silent and take notes.

Step 7: Debriefing (5 minutes). The whole group debriefs both on the content and the process of the protocol, and continues open discussion.

Critical Elements: Each of the prompts in step 4 is like a layer of an onion; the more the layers are peeled, the deeper the participants get into the issue. The first prompt listed in step 4 is the most likely to come first in the discussion, as it asks the participants to reframe what they heard so far before continuing.

This protocol is not about solving the problem or resolving an issue. It is, like the other protocols in this section, oriented toward deeper understanding of the problem or issue, which can itself lead to good solutions and resolutions.

Tips for the Facilitator: The facilitator does not need to choose the prompts; they can be chosen by the participants. However, very little time should be spent choosing them, so as to reserve plenty of time for the ensuing dialogue. Participants will naturally want to jump to solutions or resolutions, which is something the facilitator should prevent by reminding them that clarity and insight, not solutions or resolutions, are the intended outcomes of the protocol.

4 SWOT Protocol

Source: I have developed this protocol from Albert Humphrey's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) concept, which he originated at Stanford University in the 1960s and 1970s using data from Fortune 500 companies.

Overview: SWOT is a strategic planning method that can be used to evaluate an organization's objectives or to analyze its problems. The four dimensions of SWOT enable a group to understand internal and external factors that are favorable or unfavorable. The process is very similar to that of the Tuning protocol.

Other Uses: This protocol can also be used to analyze a plan.

Number of Participants: The number of participants can range from 6 to 60, plus a presenter or presenting team and a facilitator. In large groups, the presenter or presenting team presents to the whole group, which then breaks into smaller groups of 8–10 to discuss the problem or issue.

Time Required: 30 minutes or more

Steps (suggested times based on a 60-minute session):

Step 1: Introduction (first time only; 5 minutes). If participants don't usually work together, they should briefly introduce themselves. The facilitator should also distribute copies of this protocol and give participants time to study it.

Step 2: Presentation (15 minutes)

  • The presenter describes and sets the context for the problem or issue while the participants quietly take notes.
  • The presenter shares materials related to the practice being described, including student work, and allows participants time to examine it.
  • The presenter then poses one or two key questions to be answered about the problem or issue.

Step 3: Clarifying Questions (5 minutes)

  • Participants ask nonevaluative questions about the presentation (e.g., "What happened before X?" "What did you do next?" "What did Y say?"). The presenter answers with facts.
  • The facilitator should guard against questions that approach evaluation (e.g., "Why didn't you try X?"); if someone asks an evaluative question, the facilitator may invite him or her to rephrase the question as clarifying or save it for step 5.
  • Even if all the participants' questions aren't answered at this stage, there will be enough information for the protocol to continue.

Step 4: Individual Writing (5 minutes). This part of the protocol helps each participant focus and have something to say during the participant discussion. Everyone, including the presenter, addresses the key question(s) from the presentation in writing.

Step 5: Participant Discussion (15 minutes)

  • During this step, the participants "own" the problem or issue; they discuss strengths and weaknesses (internal factors) and opportunities or threats (external factors) related to it.
  • The presenter is completely silent during this step, taking notes, perhaps turned away from the group to avoid eye contact.
  • The facilitator or a recorder records what the participants discuss on a piece of chart paper that looks like this:

The facilitator may want to share the following definitions with participants:

  • Strengths: Characteristics within the organization that might help it solve problems or address issues.
  • Weaknesses: Characteristics within the organization that might hinder solution of the problem or resolution of the issue.
  • Opportunities: External conditions that might help the organization solve problems or address issues.
  • Threats: External conditions that might hinder solution of the problem or resolution of the issue.

Participants may discover that what they suggest for one category has a bearing on other categories.

Step 6: Presenter Reflection (15 minutes)

  • The presenter reflects aloud on the participants' discussion, using the SWOT analysis to deepen understanding and reflecting on implications of the analysis on possible solution of the problem or resolution of the issue.
  • The presenter can also project future actions, questions, dilemmas, and so forth.
  • If the presenter wishes, he or she may correct any misunderstanding the participants may have at this stage.
  • While the presenter reflects, participants take notes silently.

Step 7: Debriefing (5 minutes). The presenter discusses how well the protocol worked and thanks the participants. Then, the participants discuss how well they think the protocol worked and thank the presenter. The presenter and participants then engage in more general discussion of the content of the protocol as well as the process itself.

Critical Elements: The SWOT categories should not limit the discussion. If the participants can't agree on where on the chart a comment should go, they should "park" it on another piece of chart paper so it won't be lost.

Tips for the Facilitator: It needs to be clear in this protocol that the topic is not the presenter, but rather the problem or issue that the presenter has brought. If necessary, the facilitator should remind participants of this. The function of warm feedback in this protocol is taken care of through the S and the O parts of SWOT, and cool feedback taken care of through the W and T parts.

The key question is not as essential in this protocol as it is in others; it simply indicates what the presenter feels is significant about the issue or problem.


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