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by Lois Brown Easton
Table of Contents
The following protocols in this chapter are particularly helpful for addressing issues and problems:
A few of the protocols already described in this book, such as the Tuning, Rounds, Consultancy, and Triad protocols, can also be used.
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)
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)
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)
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.
Steps (suggested times based on a 60-minute session):
Step 1: Introducing the Protocol (first time only; 5 minutes)
Step 2: Framing the Issue or Problem (10 minutes)
Step 3: Group A Discussion (15 minutes)
Step 4: Group B Discussion (15 minutes)
Step 5: Group A Reflection (10 minutes)
Step 6: Group B Reflection (10 minutes)
Step 7: Reaching Consensus (10 minutes)
Step 8: Open Discussion (10 minutes). The facilitator should begin the open discussion with any of these questions:
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."
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)
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)
Here are some prompts for use during this step:
Step 6: Presenter Reflection (10 minutes)
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.
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
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)
Step 3: Clarifying Questions (5 minutes)
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)
The facilitator may want to share the following definitions with participants:
Participants may discover that what they suggest for one category has a bearing on other categories.
Step 6: Presenter Reflection (15 minutes)
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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